By Dennis Ellam and Adam Lee Potter
Told for the first time the incredible story of Witold Glinski's escape from the Russians across the Gobi desert and through the Himalayas to freedom in India.. a journey that took him 11 months.
It was an epic feat of courage and strength. A triumph of human spirit over tyranny.
Witold Glinski is the last survivor of World War Two’s greatest escape.
As he lovingly crafts another willow basket in the shed at his seaside bungalow in Cornwall, it’s hard to believe that this modest man walked 4,000 miles to freedom… all the way from a Siberian prison camp to India.
He trekked through frozen forests, over mountains and across deserts on a journey that took 11 months.
Seven men were in the break-out, in February 1941. Only four reached safety, at a British base over the Indian border, the following January. And Witold, 84, has now emerged to recall their astonishing story. “It’s time to tell the truth,” he says. “It’s time people knew.”
Witold has waited more than 50 years for this moment. In 1956, a book called The Long Walk claimed to tell how seven prisoners escaped from a labour camp in Siberia… and walked to India.
It was every bit Witold’s story and became an international bestseller, but the man who claimed to have made the epic journey was Slavomir Rawicz, a former Polish officer.
After Rawicz died in 2006, a BBC radio documentary uncovered proof that he was a fake – military records showed that he was serving in Persia (now Iran) at the time of the escape.
The likeliest explanation is that Rawicz read Witold’s genuine account of the escape, in official papers that he found in the Polish Embassy in London during the war.
Witold knew his story had been stolen. But he never protested because he wanted to forget the war and concentrate on his new life.
Then, by chance, writer John Dyson heard of Witold, a former construction worker who had retired to a Cornish bungalow, and persuaded him to revisit his past.
Even Joyce, his wife of 59 years, had never heard the whole account. But gradually he retraced the Long Walk, in harrowing detail…
How he endured the deep freeze of a Siberian winter, the thin air of the Himalayas and the stifling heat of the Gobi desert, learned to live off the land, battled against disease and avoided hostile tribes of nomads in China and Mongolia, to reach sanctuary.
Witold was a teenager living in the Polish border town of Glabokia when he was arrested with his family by the invading Russians – at the time, in 1939, allies of Hitler.
Separated from his parents, he was taken to Moscow’s notorious Lubianka Prison and, aged just 17, condemned to 25 years hard labour, one among a million-and-a-half Poles sent to Siberia. It might as well have been a death sentence. So, he could either wait to die, or try to get away. Witold began plotting his escape as soon as he arrived, shackled in chains.
He volunteered to work as a lumberjack, and secretly carved signs on the trees, pointing the way to the south, and the free world.
Then he was befriended by the camp commandant’s wife. “She asked me to fix her radio,” he remembers. “She rewarded me with sweet tea and a slice of bread. But the best thing was that, above a desk, there was a map of Asia.”
Already a daring plan was forming as he tried desperately to memorize the details.
But commandant’s wife Maria Uszakof – even after all these years he remembers her name – read his mind. “She told me, ‘You’ll need good clothes and sensible shoes.’ She gave me a parcel of dried meat, new shoes, hand-knitted socks and long underwear.”
At midnight, with a savage blizzard howling around the camp, carrying a haversack that was a blanket tied at the corners, he tunnelled under the wire.
But when he made it through he turned to find six men had silently followed him.
“They were coming out of nowhere, like cockroaches in a bakery,” Witold says.
“I told them, we’ll walk for 20 hours a day, is that agreed? If they didn’t like it, they could sit down and wait for the Russians.
“The weather was too bad for patrols to operate, no animal or human would stick a nose out of the door, so this was our only chance. Our immediate aim was to get out of Russia. The border was 1,600 miles away. I pointed south – ‘That way!’”
The walkers set up a pattern. One man in front, forming a trail through the forest, two at the back sweeping over the footprints with pine branches.
He never discovered much about his comrades. They dared not trust one another. Their relationship was built on silent suspicion, not conversation.
Smith was a mysterious American who had been working as an engineer in Moscow when he was arrested.
Batko was Ukrainian, wanted for murder in his homeland, muscular and fiercely determined. Zaro was a café owner from Yugoslavia, and the others were Polish soldiers.
They would have to rely on one another as their struggle to survive got tougher. Witold took charge. Growing up in the country, he had learned which plants and fungi were edible and how to cook them, how to hunt fish and trap animals.
Once they found a deer trapped in a ravine. They feasted on it for days afterwards and used pieces of the hide to bind up their thick felt prison boots.
Days before they reached the border with China, they had an encounter which is still vivid in Witold’s memory.
On the path was 18-year-old Kristina Polansk, a terrified young Polish girl who had fled barefoot through the forest from the Russians, who had killed her family and tried to rape her.
“She was very lonely and distressed and when I inspected her foot I knew straight away she had gangrene,” Witold says. “I didn’t want to be saddled with a sick girl, but what could we do?
“I made moccasins for her with the rest of the deer skin, and we carried her on a stretcher of poles with dry grass.
“But every day she got worse. Her leg turned black and the skin swelled and burst, it was terrible to watch.”
They crossed the Trans-Siberian Railway line, pushed on into Mongolia, and there Kristina became ravaged by fever. She shook each of the men’s hands, then closed her eyes and died.
They buried her in a shallow trench and covered her body with stones. They wept, he remembered, but they didn’t say a prayer.
Gradually fields and forests gave way to sand dunes and bare rocks, and the marchers came to their toughest test, sweltering in temperatures of 40ºC in daytime, freezing at night, and ravaged by dust storms.
“We walked in the dark, and sheltered from the sun under our ragged clothes propped on sticks,” Witold says. “Wolves and jackals would circle around us.
“For water, we sucked frost from stones in the early morning, then turned them over and found moisture below. We got so thirsty we even sipped our own perspiration, and some drank their urine.
“We were desperate. Every activity all day was a hunt for things to eat. There were lots of snakes, up to a metre long – each of us had a walking stick, so we used them as prongs.
“You would stab the fork down to catch the snake, then cut off its head. It would continue to wriggle for hours. Then we cut a ring around the body and peeled off the skin, rubbing sand on our hands to get a better grip.
“Next, you had to take out the spinal cord, carefully because it’s poisonous, chop the body into pieces and boil it. We couldn’t bring ourselves to eat snake, until finally we had to.”
The first to die were two of the Polish soldiers. Witold watched them deteriorate and recognised the signs of scurvy.
“They walked more and more slowly, their legs swelled up and they could pull out teeth with their fingers,” he says. “They died on the same day. By the time we had buried the first, the second was almost gone.”
The two men had always walked side by side. Now they were laid side by side in graves.
As they moved through Tibet and the Himalayas, they helped out on farms in return for food and shelter. But in the climb, the next man perished – another of the Polish soldiers, who stood on a ledge that crumbled under him.
In the final two weeks of their march, Witold had become ill and weak, and he can remember only snatches of images.
Their shoes were still holding together, remarkably their tough prison trousers had survived, but the limping, bedraggled group were a strange sight.
Witold’s blond hair had grown long and flowing, so he tied it up in buns during the heat of the day, and wrapped it around himself like a scarf at night.
A local guide took them through the mountains, along paths so narrow they had to go sideways, to a pass that led down into the area that is now Bangladesh.
Witold can recall a steep, dusty track, a military vehicle approaching, and then men in uniform, armed with fearsome-looking knives. “I thought to myself, ‘This is the end!’ Then I realised these men were well dressed, well disciplined, definitely not Russians.”
In fact they were Gurkhas, waiting with a very British welcome – a jug of tea and a plate of cucumber sandwiches.
The Long Walk was over. The greatest escape was complete.
It wasn’t the end of Witold’s war, though. When he came to Britain, he enlisted with the Polish forces, served at D-Day and was injured by shrapnel.
Back in civilian life he met and married Joyce and became a construction worker, helping to build the M5 and M50 motorways.
Then he retired to his bungalow, keeping his memories to himself. Until now.
-Witold Glinski’s story, as told to John Dyson, appears in the May issue of Reader’s Digest, out now.
(Note: acclaimed film director Peter Weir is making a film inspired by Rawicz's story. It'll be interesting to see how he incorporates this recent story into the film, if at all.