Tuesday, 18 November 2014


Wearing the uniform of l'Armee de l'Air
( French Air Force)
He was born on 29th May 1909 at Radom and he was a career soldier, having been in military service since 20th August 1927 when he enrolled in the School of Infantry at Ostrow Mazowiecka in north eastern Poland.  The following year he enrolled in the School of Artillery at Torun and, in 1930, he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant and was then posted too the 23rd Light Artillery Regiment at Bedzin in the Silesian highlands of southern Poland.

In 1933 he joined a weapons course at the Aviation School in Deblin.  On completion of this course, on 2nd July 1934, he was posted to 2nd Artillery Division in Grodno as a Battery Officer.  In 1935, he was posted to 5GB in Lida as an observer.  In September 1939 he was commanding a platoon of reconnaissance troops in the Modlin Army under the overall command of Lt. Col Wladyslaw Rylko.

They fought through the September Campaign until 17th September 1939 when their group crossed into Romania and were immediately interned.  Under the, then, sympathetic regime he was able to "escape" and make his way across Europe, by car, through Jugoslavia and Italy, to France where he served with the Free French land forces.

When the French capitulated, he was able to make his way to England and was then sent to the Polish Depot at Blackpool pending disposal to an Air Force unit.  He started at RAF Kingstown at Carlisle in Cumberland (now Cumbria) where he did basic flying training on Miles Magister trainers.  He then moved on to RAF South Cerney near Cirencester, Gloucestershire for conversion to twin engined aircraft, training on Airspeed Oxfords.

On completion of this training, he was sent to 18 OTU at RAF Bramcote at Nuneaton, Warwickshire for familiarisation with Vickers Wellington bombers and for tactical training.  On 3rd January 1942 he was posted to 304 Squadron at RAF Lindholme near Doncaster, Yorkshire.  During his time there, he flew missions, in Bomber Command, to Wilhelmshaven (railway station), Bremen, Boulogne (docks), Dunkirk (docks), Cologne, Hamburg, Essen (Krupps works), Dortmund and Rostock (incendiary attacks on the old, largely wooden, city.

He then moved with the squadron, following heavy losses over Germany, to Coastal Command at RAF Tiree, the most westerly of the Inner Hebrides in Scotland.  This was an alleged rest for the crews but involved many long, low level flights over the featureless sea, which required skill and a greater degree of concentration.  The following month, they were moved to RAF Dale on the wild coast of Pembrokeshire in Wales.

It was here that life got a bit more interesting and dangerous!  On the night of 29th/30th July 1942 he attacked a U-boat with depth charges and anti-submarine bombs but the results were inconclusive with only a patch of oil seen after the attack; this could have meant damage inflicted but it could also have been oil released as a red herring to let the crew believe they had inflicted damage.  His report read as follows:

"On patrol 17.34 hours Bishop Rock.  On course 242 degs. (T) at 1,000 ft., in position 4745N.  1259W., 1940 hours, observer sighted U-boat ¾ to 1m. distant on port beam.  U-boat, which was on course 270 degs. (T) began to submerge immediately it was sighted.  Speed estimated at 6 kts.  U-boat was very large - considerably larger than "H" type British submarine.  Long, rather squat conning tower, therefore thought to be Italian.  Guns not observed.  Aircraft circled to port, losing height, and attacked from astern, and dead on track, of U-boat, which was still visible a few yards below surface when 6 depth charges were dropped from 50ft.  All were seen to explode, first in stick about 15 yards ahead of swirl and other five ahead and on track of U-boat.  After attack aircraft climbed to 200ft., circling to port, and about one minute after explosions saw circular dark brown oil patch about 70 yards in diameter at scene of attack.  Half a minute later another similar but smaller patch observed immediately ahead, which fused with first patch.  Observer, misinterpreting Captain's order to release sea marker also released two anti-submarine bombs.  Aircraft circled position for 30 minutes, but 10 minutes after attack low cloud right down to sea level made further investigation futile.  Off patrol Bishops Rock 22.18 hours."

Soon afterwards, at 11.40am on 2nd September 1942, he was to have a considerably more exciting experience when he came across a fully surfaced submarine at a distance of 5-7 miles and that was too good a target to miss.  Using a verbatim copy of the Squadron ORB best describes the attack:

"Sighted U-boat at 11.40 hours in position 44.30N 04.30W.  U-boat was fully surfaced 5 to 7 miles distant, two points on port  bow.  Aircraft dived to attack and U-boat altered course 20 degs. to starboard just before aircraft released 6 depth charges along track of U-boat,  depth charges which was still surfaced.  Explosion of 4th and 5th completely obliterated [sight of] U-Boat and exploded right alongside conning tower on port side.  Aircraft machine gunned U-boat on run up, and several of crew who were on deck were seen to collapse.  No return fire from U-boat was experienced, but two 5-star red cartridges were fired as aircraft ran up to attack.  Aircraft then circled and released anti-submarine bomb from 500 ft. at U-Boat, which had now stopped.  This overshot by 20 yards.  A second anti-submarine bomb was then released which undershot by 10 yards.  The U-boat had moved only 20-30 yards since the initial depth charge attack and left a large oil patch abaft the stern.  The aircraft next circled and made five machine-gun attacks, expending about 2,500 rounds.  Ten of the crew, in swimming costumes, dived into the sea.  The U-boat had a definite list to port and was down by the bows with part of her screw showing.  The aircraft continued to machine-gun the vessel, and three or four more of the crew were seen to collapse on the deck and fall into the sea.  When the aircraft left the scene of the attack after half an hour the U-boat was still down by the bows and the oil patch had grown to about 400ft. across.  Throughout the entire action the U-boat made no attempt to dive and the crew made no attempt to man the gun."

This "U-boat" was actually the large (Liuzzi Class, 1,166 tons) Italian submarine Reginaldo Giuliani which had recently sunk two British and one American cargo vessels and was becoming a nuisance.  The previous day it had been attacked by two or three Short Sunderland sea-planes from 10 Squadron but the damage had been minor.  The fact that so many of the crew were in swimming costumes negates any idea of urgency of repairs and the lack of return fire may possibly be because the gunner was hit in the initial attack.  The damage inflicted was so severe that the crew believed the submarine was sinking but they managed to limp into the neutral (?) port of Santander in Spain, where extensive repairs (lasting two months) were effected and the submarine had a Luftwaffe escort back to its base at Le Verdon (Bordeaux), France.  It was never again used as an attack submarine, being downgraded to a transport for mercury and other precious cargoes to and from Japan.

The damage inflicted was recorded, in English, on a Regia Marina website in an excellent article by Cristiano D'Adamo and this report is very close to the one above but has more detail of the damage inflicted:

"September 2nd, 1942

12:44  From an altitude of about 30 metres the aeroplane drops four depth charges which fall one on deck, aft of the tower and then rolls into the sea, the other three within a few metres of the hull forward to the left. The bombs explode under the hull and the boat, hit full on, undergoes a very violent shock first, and then a tremble.   I’m pushed upward and then fall on deck.  The boat is hit full on by columns of water which completely cover it; it is still and heavily listing port side.  The sea is covered in fuel which is copiously leaking out of the main tanks and the other tanks which still have any left. From the explosion, helmsman 3rd Class Andra Assali and gunner Francesco Perali are thrown into the sea.

2:50  The aeroplane comes back for another attack and opens fire with machine guns and launches another depth charge which falls 40 metres off the stern.   Gunner Pietro Capilli, who at the time was holding the port side gun, suffers a broken arm.  Double hull N. 3 port side has been completely removed. Even double hulls 2 and 4 port side must have also been seriously damaged.

13:40  The aeroplane, after having strafed the submarine,  goes away.  The inside of the submarine is devastated by explosions and there is no light.  The boat is slowly recovering from listing, but at the same time is sinking.  From double hull N. 2 sea side some fuel is leaking from holes caused by the machine gun fire. Gunner Mario Gentilini - shrapnel in the right thigh - and sailor Odilio Malatesta –loss of a finger and large wound on his right arm - are also wounded.  Helmsman, Andrea Assali, and gunner, Francesco Perali, are lost at sea.

The attack causes extremely serious damage which jeopardizes the boat’s sea worthiness such that the aeroplane crew considered the submarine lost.  Instead, on the morning of September 3rd , the Giuliani was able to reach the Spanish port of Santander.  The same port had previously provided safe harbor to the Torelli a few months earlier.  From here, after lengthy repairs lasting more than two months, on November 8th the Giuliani was able to leave with the acquiescence of the Spanish authorities and reach Le Verdon safely under the escort of the Luftwaffe the following day. This would be the last patrol for the Giuliani as an attack boat."

As a direct result of this successful attack, Marian Kucharski was awarded the British Distinguished Flying Cross.  On 15th September 1942, he was posted to 300 Squadron, with the rank of Flying Officer, and took over command of B Flight on 1st October of that year with promotion to Squadron Leader.  On 1st December 1942 he was posted to the Blackpool Depot and on to Coastal Command Headquarters at as Liaison Officer.

On 2nd May 1943 he was posted back to 300 Squadron with the rank of Wing Commander and was given command of the squadron for the next six months or so.  During his two spells with this squadron, he flew 18 sorties which included mine laying in the Friesian Islands, St Nazaire and Brest.  He also flew bombing missions to Krefeld, Osnabruck, Duisburg, Dortmund, Wuppertal, Aachen, Hamburg, Essen, Munchen Gladbach, Boulogne and Hannover.  He also won the Virtuti Militari for his actions.

On 18th November 1943 he was posted back to the Polish Depot at Blackpool and, on 18th February 1944, he was transferred to 45 Transport Group, where he took charge of the Polish airmen in Dorval, Quebec and Gander, Newfoundland, Canada.  The function of this group was ferrying new aircraft from the American manufacturers across the Atlantic to Great Britain - a task he performed until the end of the war.

During the course of his career, he was awarded medals by Poland (Virtuti Militari, Cross of Valour and three bars, Air Force Medal and two bars); France (Croix du Combattant, Medal for Voluntary Service with the Free French, 1939-1945 War Medal, Liberation of France Medal) and from Great Britain (Distinguished Flying Cross, 1939-1945 Star, Air Crew Europe Star, Defence Medal and 1939-1945 War Medal).

Medals from Poland, France and Great Britain
He was demobilised from the Air Force in 1946 and took British nationality with effect from 10th January 1950 and announced in the London Gazette on 14th February 1950.  At that time he was known as Michael Kucharski and lived in Stanmore, Middlesex, working as a radio mechanic.  At some point after that, he emigrated to Canada, where he married Lucy Cureton. 

He became deeply involved with Polish affairs in Canada and remained so until his death at the age of 59 on 27th January 1969 in Montreal.  He is buried in the Catholic cemetery at Pointe-Claire, Montreal.  A symbolic marker has also been placed on the family tomb in Radom, Poland.
Marian Kucharski's grave marker in Pointe-Claire Catholic Cemetery

Thursday, 23 October 2014


I have now had the dreaded Windows 8.1 removed from my computer and gone backwards - but very much forwards - to Windows 7 and I now hope to catch up on all the lost progress.
Over the next few weeks, I will be recovering all the "lost" information and I will be writing up stories as time permits.
So, if your story is missing, I will have it up and posted as soon as humanly possible.

Friday, 10 October 2014


In the aftermath of my purchase of a new computer with Windows 8, I have suffered a disastrous (and hopefully temporary) loss of information, which I am gradually recovering.  I am publishing stories as and when I can recover the information; but first I have to retype it all on my old Windows 7 computer because I do not want any of the problems I am having here, migrating to the old computer.

So, if I have started working on your story, please do not give up hope .... I will publish it as soon as I possibly can.

Sunday, 5 October 2014


He was born on 20th November 1912 at Wieruszow near Lodz in Poland, He was one of eleven children of Stanislaw and Eleanor, five of whom died in childhood or early youth, leaving him the second eldest of the surviving children.  His family were heavily involved in their religion and patriotic acts; his grandfather, Alexius, was hanged in the market square of Wieruszow, by the Russians, for patriotic actions which offended them.

In his youth, Szczepan was an altar boy and was destined to become a priest.  He attended the High School at Kepno, where he did well academically.  He was heavily involved with sports of all types, including water sports on the nearby River Prosna.  But his religion was his great love and he enrolled to train as a priest in the seminary at Krakow.  He studied philosophy and theology at the Jagiellonian  University and was ordained as a priest on 25th June 1939.  He officiated at his first Mass on Sunday 2nd July 1939 at the church in Wieruszow.
He was working on pastoral duties in the parish of Lututowie and was cycling home to see his family on the morning that war broke out.  He was stopped by a group of his school friends who told him not to go home because the Germans were probably already there.  He returned to Lututowie to protect the Sacrament and then he left the town and headed for Sieradza and Warsaw.  Eventually he was forced to cross into Romania and made his way through Jugoslavia to Italy.

When he heard that Mussolini had declared support for Hitler and Germany, he went to France (in December 1939) and joined the army as an ordinary soldier.  He did his training at Coetquidan at Guer in Brittany, graduating as a corporal, after which Bishop Jozef Gawlina appointed him military Chaplain.  He was prevented from fighting with the troops and was sent to a military depot in France – he was ready to embark for Norway with the Brigade Podhalanska but was taken off the ship.

Pilot Priest (note Gapa)
On 19th June 1940 he was sent to England and, in August, he was appointed to Chaplain of the Polish Air Force, first at RAF Bramcote, Warwickshire and later at RAF Newton, Nottinghamshire where he ministered to the needs of the Polish airmen and also trained as a pilot.  There is evidence that he flew missions over the Bay of Biscay but no concrete proof of this.  It may have been with 18 Operational Training Unit, where he trained, or with 304 Squadron, where he was posted – or both.  He is known to have served at RAF Davidstow Moor in Cornwall, during his time with 304 Squadron and was very popular with the men there.  

In uniform, in England - probably RAF Bramcote

Trafalgar Square, London

On 7th March 1949, he arrived in Argentina, being unsettled in England and unwilling to return to Poland – and he immediately set about looking after the spiritual welfare of the Polish community there.  On 27th April 1949, he received authority to work in Argentina with the Poles in Berazategui and Qulimes.  He created a church, an old people’s home, a boy scouts group, a Polish school and a Polish Catholic Association.  He was also heavily involved with the Association of Polish Airmen in Argentina.

Post-war ministry in Argentina

Sadly, on 8th June 1969, just before the celebrations for his twenty years of pastoral care for the Poles in Argentina, he was on his way to the church at Sarandi when he was killed in a road accident.  His funeral was very well attended by the Polish Community and memorial services were also held in Poland and Argentina on what would have been his 100th birthday on 20th November 2012.

Funeral of a much loved priest
Note the huge crowds (photo - top right)

Monday, 22 September 2014


 Wellington X9764 after the first crash
While over the Zuider Zee, returning from operations on the night of 12/13 August 1941, 75 Squadron Vickers Wellington X9764 (AA-V) was hit by a long burst of fire from a night fighter. The enemy aircraft did not repeat the attack but damage to the Wellington was extensive. By the time they returned to  RAF Feltwell, their fuel was nearly exhausted. The pilot ordered the other five crew members to bale out but he had no time to jump before the engines cut out. In the bright moonlight he saw that he was going to crash among the young conifers of Thetford forest but, skilfully, he managed to guide the aircraft into one of the wide firebreaks.

Wellingtons were tough and highly repairable and, despite the damage, X9764 was back in service a few months later, only to be lost with a Polish crew of No 304 Squadron in the Cologne raid of 5/6 April 1942
X9764 (NZ-X)    6th April 1942
Whilst on a bombing mission from RAF Lindholme in South Yorkshire to Cologne, this Mk 1c aircraft was shot down near Geetbetz, (Brabant), 28 kilometres ENE of Leuven, Belgium.  It was detected by radar on its return journey and intercepted  by a night fighter from Brusten airfield near Sint-Truiden.  This pursuit aircraft, a Messerschmidt Bf110, was crewed by Oberleutnant Heinrich Petersen and Feldwebel Ludwig Leidenbach of 6/NJG1.   
None of the crew survived and all were initially buried at Sint-Truiden (then known as Sint Trond).  Later, the bodies were exhumed and moved to the War Cemetery at Heverlee near Leuven, Belgium.  In 2009 a memorial was built near the crash site. 
P/O Assman had previously survived being shot down by flak in W5720 on 26th October 1941. 
Luftwaffe records show that it was shot down from a height of 16,000 feet by an attack at very close range (estimated at 30-40 metres); a burst of gunfire hit the port engine which immediately burst into flames.  According to Petersen, the plane flew level for another three minutes and then fell straight down and crashed at 02.28 am on Easter Monday.
The entire crew were killed; three bodies were found in the cockpit, the rear gunner was still in his turret, one airman lay beside the wreckage and the other crewman was found about a mile away; it is not clear whether he had baled out or had simply been thrown out of the doomed plane.  Inside the fuselage was a basket containing two pigeons.
The dead were: F/O Zygmunt Natkanski, P/O Ludwik Karol Assman, P/O Alfred Osadzinski, P/O Kazimierz  Ziemianski, Sgt Zdzislaw Babraj, Sgt Dominik Marian Grajnert.  
Oberleutnant Petersen was injured when his Messerschmidt Me110 was in a mid-air collision with a Short Stirling, R9314 (OJ-T) on the night of 5th June 1942.  The Stirling lost its rear turret but Oblt Petersen’s aircraft was a total loss and he baled out.  He survived the war and was credited with 2 kills.
With thanks to (New Zealand) 75 Squadron website for this additional information and the use of the photograph.

Saturday, 9 August 2014


Aleksander Iluchin was born in Bialystock, North east Poland, on 24th January 1921; he had a twin sister and two older siblings.  The family were middle class, his father being a railway engineer and they were not wealthy but led a comfortable life in a decent home and with plenty of food on the table.  When he was very young, the family moved to a house that his father built in the town of Staroscielce, a suburb of Bialystok.

He began school at the age of seven and led a normal life, passing the entrance exams to the Higher school (known as the gymnasium, at the age of 14.  In 1935 he enrolled on a four year engineering course in the city of Bialystok.  He spent three happy years there and was enjoying a visit to a summer camp, provided by his father’s employers, on the River Niemen which flows from Wilno (now Vilnius, Lithuania) just 20 miles from the Russian border.  At the end of this time, he visited Gdynia where he witnessed Polish anti-aircraft fire against two German planes flying overhead.  The war had begun.

Just a few days later, the Germans bombed Bialystok and the surrounding railway network.  His father survived the bombing and made his way home on foot, but was never the same again.  His employers sent him to the camp where Aleksander had been – as a holding measure until the work force could be re-organised.

At this point Aleksander was still away and, with two of his friends, decided to travel east, away from the invading German forces.  Their plan was to escape via Hungary but they were told that the Germans were being pushed back and so his friends returned to Posnan and he joined his father at the summer camp.

He arrived there early in the morning of 17th September 1939, just as the Russians invaded from the east.  He saw many Russian tanks and said that some were broken down because of their inferior quality.  With Poland now being occupied by German and Russian forces, he decided to go home to his mother.  This was a difficult task to accomplish because of the damage to the railway network and the bridges.

Once the invasion was accomplished, the schools re-opened and he was ready to complete his final year.  Before too long the NKVD (forerunner of the KGB) started rounding up people they thought likely to plan or assist in a rebellion – many simply disappeared.
n mid-November 1939, he was taken for questioning by NKVD officers and was put in an army truck and driven to the Russian Headquarters at Lomza.  He was kept for four days in the cellars, being fed only bread and water.  At the end of that time he was taken to Lomza prison where he was put in a cell in the women’s section.  In the morning he was given bread and tea and, in the afternoon a thin soup made of barley or some other grain.  That was to be his lot until April 1940.
Lomza Prison - bombed and shelled and mostly demolished in 1944
He was regularly questioned by the NKVD who accused him of being an enemy of the state because he was a Scout Master and the Scouts in Poland were all against the Russian regime.  He does not describe his treatment as brutal but does mention an incident where a female officer gave him a cigarette and lit it for him then slapped him hard, burning his face.

In mid-April, he was brought from his cell in the middle of the night and told he had been sentenced to 8 years hard labour in Siberia.  He was then taken to the men’s section of the prison, where he spent the next four months.  During his time there he received some parcels of food and tobacco from his family and he was allowed to write to them, but only in Russian.

He lived in very poor unsanitary conditions with no washing facilities, only primitive toilet facilities and no way to avoid lice and fleas.  The food was also very poor and in very small portions.

In July 1940, the prison guard informed him that he was being moved; he thought (correctly) that he was being taken to Siberia.  They were taken through the streets to the railway sidings and that was the first time in ten months that he had seen daylight.

Those condemned to Siberia were put in windowless, poorly ventilated railway trucks (forty men per truck) and the train set off heading slowly East.

They travelled for many days through Moscow and on to Archangelsk, stopping twice daily so they could relieve themselves by the track.  They were given only hard, dry black bread and water to sustain themselves.  On reaching Archangelsk, they were held in barracks for almost three weeks during which time he became ill and was given an unknown powder with water twice a day to calm his fever.  His travelling companions were set to work loading and unloading ships.

Eventually they embarked on two coal carrying vessels; 1,200 prisoners on each ship and moved out into the Arctic Sea.  The weather was bad and everyone was seasick but after three days they arrived at the estuary of the Pechora River, probably somewhere near Naryanmar but not in the town as he describes only a few huts for the Russian soldiers.  Here they learned that the other ship had been lost in the storm.

They waited there for about ten days until two barges, hauled by a single tug, arrived to take them on to their destination, further up the Pechora River.  There were mostly Russians, Koreans and Czechoslovaks and a relatively small number of Poles in the party.  The barges took on sacks of salted fish and hard black bread – their entire diet until they arrived at the camp.

Travelling was only possible by day and great problems arose because of their diet, which was inadequate but made worse by the fact that the salted fish made them need more of the dirty river water.  Dysentery was rife and many died; more and more became ill but there was no medical help and the guards stayed on the upper deck to avoid infection.

After nine days, the barges became ice bound and they were stranded 120 kilometres (about 75 miles) from the nearest camp.  Everyone was either dead or very weak and Aleksander passed out from illness and exhaustion.  They were found by a party of hunters who took them ashore and tried to look after them.  They sent for tents, firewood and food and tried to revive those who were still alive.

When they were recovered they spent many days removing the bodies from the barges and burying them in the snow; in their weakened state it took 3 or 4 of them to move a body.  When this was done they set off overland, stopping overnight at villages along the way where they were fed by the villagers who shared what little they had and gave them warm places to sleep inside their huts.  Still more died along the way and were buried in the snow as they had no tools to dig through the permafrost.

They finally arrived at the Vorkuta Gulag field hospital where they had to strip naked, in spite of the intense cold, and climb into barrels of hot water to scrub off the lice.  For three weeks he stayed in the hospital suffering from a high fever and he received special treatment from the hospital assistant who was another prisoner from Bialystok.
Eventually Aleksander was put to work as a hospital assistant until he was fit to go to work in the Gulag.  Eventually he was placed in the supply depot where the food was better and the work was not too hard.
Alek (left) and his friend Janek Martins
(right) at Camp 17, Vorkuta Gulag

In June 1941, Germany invaded Russia without warning (Operation Barbarossa) and Stalin ordered all Poles and non-Russians to be taken away under close guard.  He was returned to Camp 17, where he started and his real hardship was about to begin.

This camp was the base for prisoners who were building roads and railways by sheer hard labour.  At first he was lucky, a Russian prisoner of the same name had answered the roll call to do the work intended for him.  He stayed behind and carried out chores for a Russian Officer’s wife – chopping logs and carrying coal, but he was soon found out and had to work with the rest from then on.

Every morning they were called early and started off the day at 6am by marching one kilometre to their place of work.  They worked at least a  ten hour day with a pick and shovel to clear a way through the permafrost for the roads and railway lines.  They had one break for lunch which was soup (mostly fish soup), kasha (a sort of porridge made from whatever cereals were available) and tea.  In the intense cold, the soup and tea had to be consumed quickly before they went cold.  They were given the same meal at night.  This same inadequate food for weeks on end caused outbreaks of scurvy and night blindness.
Slave labour building the roads and railways at Vorkuta
Gulag.        Picture from the Russian news agency Tass

The Russian doctor, also a prisoner, was kind to him and certified him unfit for work when he had an accident with an ice pick.  During this time he resumed his chores for the Officer’s wife and she gave him bread, sugar and tobacco. 

By the autumn of 1941, Camp 17’s road quota was built and they were due to march 150 miles north east to the main Vorkuta Camp.  Early one morning the men were medically checked to see if they could make it and the Russian doctor advised him to make up a cup of hot water with a pinch of tobacco in it and drink it half an hour before his medical.  This gave him a high fever and the doctor convinced the others that he was too ill to make the trip.

He resumed his chores and the Officer’s wife gave him bread and cheese and bread and sugar and even played music for him when he was working.  One day she warned him that there was a band of female labourers coming to be lodged overnight and that he should keep out of their sight.  There was only one other man in the camp and he was sick and elderly and by the morning he was dead, having been brutally raped by the women.

Soon afterwards he spent 10 days in the field hospital after eating some of the rancid salted fish and when he returned to Camp 17, he was given the news that he was to be released to fight the Germans.  He was given the choice of joining the Red Army or the British Army under General Anders – he chose the latter and was sent to the recruiting area the next day with a loaf of bread and some cheese but no money for the journey.

He walked to the Pechora River and was taken across, by boat, to the Pechora railway station where he waited for three days before being put into boxcars destined for Tashkent in Uzbekistan.  The train was low priority and was forced to stop frequently and they were soon out of food so they resorted to stealing animals along the way, this included sheep, donkeys and cows.  The animals were killed and cooked and they were never caught as they were out of urban areas.  The train travelled south, skirting Moscow, and gradually into warmer areas where they were able to supplement their diet with water melons and sometimes vegetables.

At Tashkent they detrained and assembled in the city square, where they were given soup and then boarded several large trucks which took them to the Polish assembly point.  They were not allowed into the camp because of a typhus outbreak and the officers did not want these relatively healthy men to contract the disease.  They were issued British uniforms and taken to an encampment in a nearby field where they were to spend the night.

Next day they were taken back to Tashkent to the River Amudaria from where they embarked on barges to take them the 120 miles to Kazakhstan.  On arrival they were billeted with the local population until they could be properly processed.

Conditions were poor in Kazakhstan but the local people shared what they had.  They caught a dog and killed it and made a stew but, hungry as he was, Aleksander could not bring himself to eat it.  When he and his two friends saw their hosts’ 5 year old son in rags they made him a pair of trousers from a winter coat, which was no longer needed; his grateful parents gave them some of the local tortilla style bread which was made by placing the dough on the outside of a stove.  When it was fully baked, it fell off the stove and was ready to eat.

Noticing the lack of hygienic bathing conditions Aleksander and his two friends built a bath house in the local school and demonstrated its use to the locals who had never seen anything like it.  They were leaving shortly afterwards and the grateful villagers threw a party for them; they slaughtered a sheep and produced Russian vodka, which Aleksander had never tasted before.

They faced a three day journey westward by camel and they were saddle sore by the time they got back to Tashkent.  At this point their clothes were once again infested by lice and they were forced to take a long sauna whilst their clothes were burnt.  They were issued with new uniform which included boots to help protect them against the snakes, scorpions and tarantulas.  It was also significantly better than the shoes they had in Siberia (made from old truck tyres) tied on with rope and using old rags as socks.  Only the guards and trustees had boots made of walanki (camel hair) which were good against the frost but were not waterproof.  That first night, they slept in tents on army camp beds and thoroughly enjoyed the luxury.

Next morning they were given an English breakfast before being taken to Krasnovodsk, a port on the Caspian Sea, where they were crammed on board an old coal carrier for the 10 hour journey to Pahlevi in Persia (now Iran) where they were taken to their new quarters, fed and given one pound Sterling each.  He bought boiled eggs (too many, and suffered diarrhoea!), bananas and pomegranates (which he had never seen before) but loved.  After two weeks rest there they were taken by jeep across Iran and Iraq to Palestine (now Israel).
Cramped conditions - standing room only - and no food
or water on the 10 hour journey across the Caspian Sea

Crossing Iran was relatively quick and easy but Iraq, and particularly the reckless Iraqi drivers, was a nightmare of bad roads and speeding drivers – one jeep in their convoy left a mountainous road and plunged down into the valley, killing all the occupants.  After a few days they arrived in Rehovot, a small town about 20 miles from Tel Aviv where there was an army encampment.  In the fields around this area they did some basic training on hand guns, machine guns and how to use them.

He applied for a transfer to the Polish Air Force in England; he lied about his age and educational qualifications and was one of about 200 accepted.  He was sent via Basra in Iraq and Karachi in Pakistan to Bombay, India from where they sailed on the French liner Ile de France to Durban, South Africa.  They were aware of Japanese submarines in the area but rough seas enabled them to avoid a torpedo attack and they made it safely to their destination.

A week later they sailed on the Empress of Canada but only as far as Cape Town where they picked up hundreds of Italian POWs.  On the third night at sea, just before midnight, they were struck by a torpedo from an Italian submarine, the Leonardo da Vinci, and it was quickly obvious that the ship was sinking.  In Aleksander’s own words: 

“The decks were lit by a pink light, an international signal for surrender, so we knew we had lost the ship. Under international law the ship was allowed 40 minutes to disembark. We just had time enough, but the ship was tilted so much to the port side (left) that the life boats had filled with water and were of no use. I looked around the deck and eventually found a rubber life belt which I believe ultimately saved my life. Fifty-two years later, I still have that life belt. The crew started lowering the life boats on the other side. “Women first, women first” – the Polish, British and Canadian girls were given first chance and then we were instructed to look for anything that would float and to throw them overboard, so we threw rafts, etc. Many people were still on deck trying to get out. I decided that I must get off the ship so I let go and felt myself slide until I hit the water. When I came up my eyes were almost closed because of the oil from the ship. I tried to get away as far as possible, but the oil was everywhere.”

He was eventually picked up by one of the lifeboats which was already full with about 80 people on board.  They were circled by huge sharks and other sources say there were also many Barracuda present.  He was lucky, but many were not and a large number of those who died, bled to death after attacks by these savage creatures; many of the bodies recovered were missing lower limbs.

Later they were spotted by a Catalina Flying Boat, most likely from 270 Squadron based at Jui in The Gambia.  This aircraft signalled to them that they would be picked up the following day and Aleksander says that he was picked up by a naval corvette, which could only have been the Flower Class HMS Petunia.  All the survivors were taken to Freetown Sierra Leone.   Whilst still on board the rescue vessel, he was provided with hot water and the means to remove the oil from his eyes, hair and skin.  They were among the last to disembark in Freetown and there was no accommodation for them so they were taken to an empty army camp where they could rest in relative comfort.

After two weeks, they sailed for England via the Canary Islands and the Bay of Biscay to Liverpool, dodging German U-boats this time.  Once there, he was sent to the Polish Depot at RAF Squires Gate, Blackpool.  After having had an incredible war, so far, he was about to embark on a second phase in the Air Force.

Whilst they waited for their training regime, they undertook English language training and familiarisation with the Kings Regulations.  He was posted to a training establishment, almost certainly RAF Halton near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire and later to 6 OTU in Silloth, Cumberland (now Cumbria) where the crews worked and trained together to form a cohesive fighting unit.  He was then posted to 304 Squadron at RAF Benbecula (Outer Hebrides) on 14th February 1945 and RAF St Eval (Cornwall) on 5th March 1945 where he was a member of the regular crew of F/O Jaroslaw Radon and flew anti-submarine and convoy protection missions over the Bay of Biscay and the Irish Sea.  The other members of his regular crew were F/Sgt Marian Ziemkiewicz, Sgt Feliks Zdziech, Sgt Mieczyslaw Popko and Sgt Zbigniew Dobrowolski.  
304 Squadron, 1945, Probably taken at RAF St Eval
Aleksander is 4th from the right in the middle row
After hostilities ceased there was little employment for aircrew and on 9th July 1945 he was transferred to No 17 Aircrew Holding Unit at RAF Snaith near Goole in East Yorkshire.  This was the day that the squadron moved to RAF North Weald near Epping in Essex; the retained airmen and ground crew were moving there but they all left Newquay Railway station together and about 200 of them were being moved elsewhere. 

The retained crew were to join Transport Command ferrying materials to bases in Europe and the Middle East and bringing released Prisoners of War home.  Following his time there he did two years service in the Polish Resettlement Corps at RAF Dunholme Lodge, finally leaving the Air Force in May 1948.

At the end of the War, in May 1945, he received a letter from his mother; it was a joy to receive but gave him the tragic news that his father and his sister Janina had been killed by the Germans.  They took the family’s two houses and turned the larger one into a store for war materials.  When the Russians made their big push, in 1944, the Germans were forced out but the Russians told her that the big house must be made habitable again or they would commandeer it to help alleviate the housing shortage.  She found a suitable family to live there and she had two rooms refurbished to house them.  This was very difficult as there were no materials and little money available to do it.
n 1948 he married Ruth, an English girl, and although it was a struggle, they made up a package to send to his mother.  She later reported that she had made enough money from one pair of nylon stockings (on the black market) to pay for a wooden floor in one room.  Subsequent parcels helped her to completely refit the house.

In his last year, in the Polish Resettlement Corps at RAF Dunholme Lodge, he decided to accept the British Government offer of free passage to Tasmania.  However, he had met Ruth and they decided to marry and stay in Britain and he embarked on a training course in repair work on office equipment.  He trained for a year and a half and Ruth worked too, so he had a trade and they had a little money.  A friend who he had met in Palestine asked them to go to the USA, so they scraped the money together and did just that; they had very little money, but it was as much as the British Government would allow them to take out of the country at the time.

So they sailed on the SS United States, arriving in New York City on 4th March 1954.  They had to find work quickly and Aleksander found work with IBM just four days after they arrived; Ruth did the same becoming a legal secretary.  They saved hard and bought a 1945 Cadillac and, two years later, sold it and bought a new De Soto and headed off to California.  In time, they settled in the Los Angeles area and he brought his mother and twin sister Maria over from Poland.  They had a good life and raised three children.  He became a US citizen in 1959 and anglicised his name to Alek Alexander.

Eventually, the family left on an extended tour to New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, back to England and then on to Poland.  Finally they returned to the USA and settled in Florida where they retired until Aleksander’s death on 14th November 2006 at their home in Ormond Beach, Florida.
Aleksander's medals including the Cross of Valour
During the course of his military service he was awarded the Cross of Valour, the Polish Air Force medal, the 1939-1945 Star, the Air Crew Europe Star, the Africa Star, the Defence Medal and the 1939-1945 War Medal.
With special thanks to Ruth Alexander and her daughter Robin Vinay for giving me access to all the family papers without which I could not have written this story.  Copyright on most of the photographs belongs to the Alexander family

Saturday, 2 August 2014

JAN WALENTOWICZ - Part 1 - Up to 1945

Jan was born in Lida (now Belarus) on 4 August 1920, but claimed to have been born in Bialystok, possibly to protect his family at home.  All of his military documentation reflects this small deception.  It was to prove convenient later, during the Cold War period when he was still a serving member of the Royal Air Force.

He was born to Jan and Apolonia Walentowicz; one of three brothers and was the only one not forced into exile in the depths of Siberia because he was already away in the Air Force.  On the night of 9th/10th February 1940, a Polish Jew who was a Communist sympathiser, lead the Russian troops to the family home, where they arrested his mother and his brothers Jozef and Jerzy.  His father was away working but the Red Army soldiers waited for him and arrested him on his return.

The family were taken away and crammed into railway freight cars with other deportees - with little food, water, heat or hygiene facilities.  This journey persisted for six weeks with frequent stops to change the locomotive or to replace the military guards but with little relief for the deportees - many of whom died in transit.  They were bound for Shypunovo Camp in the Susun District near Novosibirsk. 

Once they reached their destination, they spent their lives working a 14 hour day tapping sap from the trees in the vast forest around the area.  This was accomplished with very little food or heating and with minimal comfort.  It persisted until Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa – an unprovoked attack on his former allies.  At this time Jan’s two brothers and his father made their way to join Anders’ Army in the Middle East.  His mother stayed behind but was allowed to return to Poland in 1946. 

On 1st November 1937 he joined the Polish Air Force to complete his compulsory National Service; he was trained as a meteorological observer and was posted to 151 Fighter Eskadra Mysliwska at Porubanek Air Force Base near Wilno (now Vilnius, Lithuania) on 1st May 1938.
Badge of 151 Eskadra

He should have finished his period of conscription in April 1939, but due to the political tensions between Poland and Germany, the Polish Government would not release him from service.  On 24th August 1939 the squadron was moved to a secret airfield  at the village of Biel, near Malkinia, close to the East Prussian border.  By 28th August, they had readied the secret airfield and the squadron’s aircraft arrived the next night; they were successfully parked and concealed under the trees at the fringe of the new airfield. 

On 1st September 1939 Germany invaded Poland and Russia attacked from the east on 17th of that month.  On that first fateful morning at about 5am he heard many dull. distant explosions as Germany launched its bombers against Poland.  At around noon, he witnessed about 60 German bombers attacking two railway bridges over the River Bug.  This attack was less than successful but set the small provincial town of Malkinia ablaze.  Over the next four days, their aircraft were in action against German observation balloons and on reconnaissance missions; not all of the aircraft and personnel returned.  His unit had started out with 10 obsolete PZL P7a single seat fighters, some of which were lost during the fighting. 

They were attached to the Independent Operational Group Narew which was part of the Polish Army – their original function was to defend the area around Wilno.  On the night of 6th September, they were ordered to abandon the airfield and prepared to move on.  Unfortunately, they were mistaken for a German column and attacked by Polish bombers; some of their vehicles were destroyed and there were also human casualties.  Through that night the squadron travelled to Cyzyzew and their aircraft were flown to Ceranow.  The following night they moved on to Wola Suchozerbska but two days later they were ordered to Brzesc-Litewski (Brest-Litovsk).  On 11th September they moved again to Liliatyn where they stayed until 17th September and received the news that the Russians had invaded from the east.

Colonel Pawlikowski, their Commanding Officer, ordered the last two remaining aircraft to fly to Czerniowce in Romania.  The following day, orders were received for all personnel to cross into Romania, where they were disarmed and interned, the surviving aircraft being used as trainers by the Romanian Air Force.

Jan and his colleagues were sent to Tulcea, a tented internment camp in the Danube delta near Baghtbadak in the Province of Dobruja where the swamp land was extremely unhealthy and infested with malarial mosquitos.  Conditions were so bad that the International Red Cross asked the Romanian authorities to move them out of the Delta and they were moved into another camp in the foothills of the Transylvanian Alps near Campulung; this was an empty army camp where living conditions were better and it was free from mosquitos.

However, the damage had been done and Jan fell sick with dysentery and malaria whilst at this new camp.  Once he had recovered from the initial debilitating effects of his illness, he and a friend, hatched a plan to escape from Romania and rejoin the Polish forces.  The Polish government did their utmost to help these exiles and they easily acquired new passports, fake identities, civilian clothes, travel instructions and money to help them on their way.

This done, the two men simply walked out of the gates of the camp on 15th November 1939 and took a train to Balcik (now Bulgaria), a small port on the Black Sea.  There they took lodgings with a friendly Bulgarian family and stayed happily with them until 19th December when they received instructions to take passage on a rusty old Greek ship that had entered the harbour.  Jan had to bribe an immigration official to look the other way, whilst they boarded this vessel and sailed for Lebanon.

They sailed soon afterwards and, on 22nd December 1939, arrived in Beirut, where they spent Christmas in a tent in the French Foreign Legion base.  The warm, dry climate was of great benefit and he was quick to recover from his illness.  Early in the New Year of 1940, he sailed from Beirut on a French troopship bound for Marseilles, arriving there on 22nd January 1940.  From there he took a train to Lyons and a bus to the Polish Air Force holding unit at Lyons-Bron.  With about 800 other Poles, he was given accommodation at the Camp de Judes at Septfonds on 28th January.
 L'Armee de l'Air demobilisation and
re-enlistment certificate

L'Armee de l'Air ID Card
This was an appalling place with few concessions to sanitation such as clean water and toilet facilities.  It was a First World War transit camp for French soldiers and had been turned into a camp for Communist refugees from the Spanish Civil War.  It was rife with rats, lice and other parasites and later became a concentration camp for Jews.  However, there was little employment available and, in frustration, he joined the Polish army as a driver and was assigned to an anti-tank platoon in the 10th Mechanised Cavalry Regiment based at Arpagon on 31st May 1940.

This was a short-lived enterprise and his platoon was embroiled in the chaos caused by the capitulation of the French Government, in June 1940.  He was captured by the invading German Army and was held prisoner for three days until the night of 17th June, when he escaped.

Travelling on foot, and only moving at night, he encountered a body of British and Polish troops near the city of Tours; their plan was to head for Spain, crossing the Pyrenees into neutral territory.  During the journey, whilst resting in a Pine forest near Bordeaux, they were told by radio to head for the small fishing port of Le Verdon sur Mer near the mouth of the Gironde Estuary.  When they arrived there, they saw three large ships lying offshore.  These were probably the Clan Ferguson, the Royal Scotsman and the Delius. 

This was all part of Operation Ariel, which ultimately rescued over 190,000 troops.  A rescue mission that is far less recognised than the Dunkirk  evacuation a short time earlier – but just as dramatic.

Using every means possible to get out to the ships and being constantly harassed by the Luftwaffe, the whole group were rescued and the ships sailed for Liverpool on the night of 22nd/23rd June 1940 and were escorted most of the way by the destroyer HMS Vanquisher – which did not have sufficient fuel to accompany them to Liverpool.  All this was done in the face of harassment by U-boats, freshly laid mines and Luftwaffe fighters and bombers.
He arrived in Liverpool on the night of 25th June 1940 and disembarked the following morning.  With the rest of his unit, he was put on a train to Glasgow where he was billeted in the City Greyhound Track – sleeping in the open air.  Four days later, he left the army and rejoined the Air Force at a temporary camp at RAF Hawarden in Flintshire, Wales.

On 2nd July 1940 he was Posted to RAF Kirkham in Lancashire and whilst there, he had brief detachments for training to RAF Staverton in Gloucestershire, RAF Hereford and RAF Blackpool.   Reluctantly, he retrained as an airframe fitter and was posted to 307 (Polish) night fighter Squadron at  RAF Kirton-in-Lindsey, Lincolnshire.  The Squadron moved on to RAF Jurby on the Isle of Man on 7th November 1940, RAF Squires Gate, Blackpool on 23rd January 1941, RAF Colerne, Bristol on 26th March 1941 and RAF Exeter, Devon on 26th April 1941.  During this time he worked on Boulton Paul Defiants and later, Bristol Beaufighters.

He applied to become a pilot but unfortunately he suffered constant recurrences of his malaria and was unable to carry out the training.  But persistence pays and, in 1942, he was accepted for pilot training.  On 12th November 1942 he moved to No 25 (P) Elementary Flying Training School at RAF Hucknall in Nottinghamshire.  Here, he learned the basics before moving on to (P) Initial Training Wing at RAF Brighton on course no 117 on 17th January 1943.  Five months later, on 26th June 1943, he returned to RAF Hucknall for day and night flying experience.

On 26th August 1943 he moved to 16 Service Flying Training School at RAF Newton in Nottinghamshire before moving on to No 8 Air Gunnery School at RAF Evanton, Inverness, Scotland on 23rd February 1944.  He was then posted to No 3 School of General Reconnaissance at RAF Squires Gate, Blackpool on 31st July 1944.  His final pre-combat training was at 6 (C) Operational Training Unit at Silloth in Cumberland (now Cumbria).
16 (P) SFTS Course members - RAF Newton, 1943
8 Air Gunnery School - RAF Evanton, Scotland - July 1943
Jan (right) wearing RAF Wings on a French uniform
On 31st January 1945 he was posted to 304 Squadron, Coastal Command at RAF Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides.  His duties there were very long, mostly low altitude, flights far out over the Atlantic Ocean.  The mainstay of this work was anti-submarine warfare interspersed with harassment of enemy shipping and convoy protection.
Jan's regular crew during his time in 304 Squadron
On 5th March 1945 the Squadron moved to RAF St Eval in Cornwall – no change in their duties but the operational area moved to the Bay of Biscay and the approaches to the English Channel.  On 6th June 1945, the Squadron moved to RAF North Weald in Epping Forest, Essex and, eight days later, transferred to Transport Command.  In November 1945 they moved again to RAF Chedburgh in Suffolk.  Thus ended his WW2 involvement in hostilities and a transition to peacetime flying, but it was a very long way from his service as an active airman.

A Tragic Family History
As a footnote to Jan’s story, I have included the following background material which shows the true extent and devastating effects that war can have on a family – it also shows the sacrifices made by this family and many others in the fight for freedom.

Jan’s father, also Jan Walentowicz, was born in Sieniawka near Niezwiez on 23rd October 1888 and was a forester by trade.  During the Great War and the Bolshevik War of 1918-1920, he served in the Polish Cavalry.
On release from the Russian Gulags, after Operation Barbarossa in 1941, he took advantage of the amnesty and left Siberia to join Anders’ Army in Persia (now Iran).  In order to join up, he had to lie about his age and alter his birth certificate to “prove” that he was not too old to fight.
He was killed in the fighting at Massafra near Taranto and is buried in the Casamassima Military Cemetery near Bari in Southern Italy.  Following the end of hostilities, Jan applied for compassionate leave to visit his father’s grave but received a letter dated 8th July 1946 from the Air Ministry denying his request.t.
Rejection letter from the Air Ministry, to visit his father's grave

Jan’s uncles, Jozef and Wladyslaw, were conscripted into the Russian Navy and were lost in action without trace – their bodies were never found.

Jan’s mother, Apolonia, remained in the Gulag at Shypunovo, near Novosibirsk, and was allowed to return to Poland in 1946 – but only after writing a letter to Jozef Stalin, thanking him for his hospitality.

Jan’s sister, Maria was living in Warsaw and was not taken to Siberia but her husband, Jerzy Tomaszewski was taken away for interrogation by the Gestapo and executed (murdered) on trumped up charges on 27th November 1939.  He has no known grave.

Maria was active in the Armia Krajowa throughout the war and survived the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 but was taken by the Germans and was sent to the notorious Mauthausen-Gusen camp complex at Wiener Neustadt in Austria.  At that stage of the war, life expectancy there was three months but she survived until the camps were liberated at the end of the war.  She returned to Poland, remarried and tried to rebuild her shattered life but her spirit was broken and she died in 1982.

Jan’s elder brother, Jozef was a soldier in the 4th Cavalry Regiment in Wilno (now Vilnius) both before and during the Second World War.  He was captured by the Germans in 1939 and sent to a POW camp but he escaped and made it back home into the Russian occupied zone.  He was hiding in his parents cellar, but was betrayed by a Polish Jew wearing a Red Star armband and was taken by the Russians and sent to a Gulag in Shypunovo near Novosibirk. 

After the amnesty following Operation Barbarossa, he was released and made his way to Persia (now Iran) where he joined Anders’ Army.  After the War, he married an English girl and settled in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.  Later they emigrated to the USA where he lived until his death in 1991 in Clifton, New Jersey.  

Jan’s younger brother, Jerzy was away at boarding school when war broke out but returned home to live with his parents.  He too was taken to Siberia and left with his elder brother after the amnesty.  He joined Anders Army and served in a mortar platoon in North Africa and in the Italian campaign leading to Monte Cassino and beyond.

After the War, he married, had three children and spent his life living and working in Nottingham until his death in 1988.

All photographs used are from the collections of the Walentowicz family and my thanks to Peter and Paul Walentowicz for permission to use them.