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Page last updated at 12:47 GMT, Friday, 28 August 2009 13:47 UK
Resistance heroine remembers war
Nina Mierzwinska-Harper became a resistance fighter when Poland was occupied
Nina Mierzwinska-Harper became a resistance fighter

When the German army invaded Poland in 1939 it sparked the start of World War II and changed the life of 11-year-old Nina Mierzwinska-Harper forever.

Nina, now 81, currently lives in Southampton.

She grew up on a nobleman's estate in the Solski Forest of the Carpathian mountains in south eastern Poland.

"We had a very happy childhood until the Germans came and burnt our house. They were looking for my father who was an officer in the Polish cavalry," she recalled.

Despite being made homeless, because of growing up in the forests, she was able to help the dedicated band of Polish resistance fighters - the ZWZ - who were hauled up in the remote and wild woodland terrain for the next five years.

"I was a child of the forest - knowing the forest, every path, and how to survive in the forest I was very suitable to be in service of Polish underground," she explained.

Under the German occupation, much of the population was turned into a slave labour force, there was mass arrests and executions.

The brutal Nazi occupation meant Nina witnessed countless atrocities and faced the constant threat of death herself.

"There was a lot of action, the Germans were searching for us - lots of my friends and family died."

Nina (left) giving training in small arms use
Nina (left) giving training in small arms use

The Polish Home Army, for whom Nina acted as a courier/scout, had to live on the resources of the forest - surviving on mushrooms, fungus, berries.

There was no hot water, cooking or even smoking cigarettes for fear of giving away their location to German reconnaissance planes.

"We didn't have enough weapons. The British supplied us with guns, ammunition, radios and other equipment from plane drops," she said.

On one occasion a British Halifax plane, sent from Brindisi in Italy, was shot down over the forest.

Nina guided 30 Polish commandos through the woods to rescue the four crewmen who had bailed out before German soldiers reached them.

With German forces only 400 yards away, the British airmen were taken across a fast-flowing river to "Partisan Land", the secret base of the resistance fighters.

Nina provided covering fire for the escaping fighters, and in the process was injured in the leg and had to hide in undergrowth. She was operated on by Polish doctors in the forest, with bullet fragments removed from her leg using a sterilised bayonet.

Nina at the San River helping British airmen escape in 1944
Nina at the San River helping British airmen escape in 1944

The British airmen stayed with the Polish Home Army fighters for several months before the conditions, insect bites and lack of food took their toll on their health.

They were evacuated by air with the help of Russian partisans and eventually returned safely to Britain via the USSR.

Fifty eight years later, Nina was re-united with one of the airmen - Charles Keen. She was living in Southampton, having married a British officer, and he lived in Brighton. She recalls the meeting as being charged with emotion.

"There was a lot of tears to the melody of Vera Lynn's We'll Meet Again - and that was the end of the story. We were friends to the end of his life."

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