Crossing into Romania in the wake of the retreating Polish Government and the diplomatic corps came the newspaper correspondents. Among them was William Forrest, of the “News Chronicle”, who tells how, in the general panic, he and an American colleague were held on suspicion of espionage.
The scope and the accuracy of the German bombing in Poland said much for the work of the enemy spies. No wonder there was something approaching spy mania behind the Polish lines. Vigilance was greatest along the frontier. When I re-entered Poland at Snaityn along with an American colleague we came under the suspicious eye of a big plain clothed detective with a bushy brown beard. Mysterious visitors called to our hotel during the night, quizzed the landlord about our movements, and then disappeared. When we telephoned we were forbidden to speak in any language, but Polish. Three days passed in this fashion, what time we hunted in vain for ptetrol to carry us farther out. Then we decided to retun to Romania, hire a taxi and try our luck in the neighbouring frontier post of Zaleszczyki.
It was dark when our taxi, with lights out, crossed the bridge over the Dneister and came to a halt at the Zaleszczyki barrier. And there to our utter dismany, who should be waiting to receive us, but the bearded sleuth from Snaityn. “Aha,” he explained with stage-villianish glee, as he flashed his torch in our faces, “we meet again!” Then turning to a group of frontier guards, who had come up behind him, he coolly denounced us as spies.
Cowards die many times before their death. Call me a coward if you like, but if ever I felt dead and done for it was then. To be suspected as a spy was bad enough; to be denounced as one was infinitely worse.
There has been so many cases where the police shot first and inquired afterwards – if they troubled to inquire at all. They dragged us from the taxi stuck revolvers in our backs, shouted “hands up!” and marched us to the parapet of the bridge.
The Dniester sounded very far below.
A long drop.
The bearded man, who had vanished in the darkness, now reappeared with the chief of police, who began to shout at us in Polish:
“You speak German, don’t you?”
“Not a word,” we both lied. “Only English and French.”
A man who spoke English was brought along to interrogate us. After a few questions and answers he said to me, “If you are really English, why do you speak English so badly?”
Was it my Scottish accent or what? Alas, that a rolling “r” should be my undoing.
Turning to the police my critic expressed his double concerning me, I felt the revolver pressed against my back and said my last prayer.
The police chief, thin-lipped, grey-eyed, a man without pity, kept us waiting in an agony of suspense and then rapped out an order which we did not understand.
Our taxi drove up and still at the point of the revolver, we were pushed inside and driven to the police station. It took us four hours, during which our papers and effects were subjected to a microscopic examination. And in the end it was not our passports – which might have been forges – but some flattering references to ourselves clipped from a Warsaw newspaper that turned the scales in our favour.
Most of the “grilling” was done by candlelight, for the electricity suddenly failed and while our own fate was still in the balance we hard the police in the room next door beating up another prisoner.
But after our innocence was established how charming they all became. Profuse apologies; refreshments; and two beds for the night. Twenty four hours later the Russians were marching on Zaleszczyki and the man with the beard, the police chief, his men, and the detectives who examined us, were all fleeing across the bridge into Romania.