The Polish pilot

The Historical Eye

The Polish pilot

 

Polish fighter pilots, especially those that took part in the Battle of Britain, are rightly remembered for their élan, dash and bravery. Not so well known are the Polish bomber squadrons who, alongside Bomber Command’s units, faced lethal missions and frightful casualty rates. At the Pilsudski Institute in London a former Wellington bomber pilot, Mr Stachiewicz, sat down with me one day and, over a cup of tea and a couple of biscuits, told me his story.

 

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My time in the military started when I was 14 and went to a cadet school, which was rather like a secondary school with military training. I spent five years there and then joined the Polish armed forces as part of the 1937/38 intake, training as a military pilot through a programme that was difficult to get on because so many young men wanted to enrol. I decided to take an architectural course at Warsaw after qualifying and being placed in the reserve. I was at a technical university and had just completed the 38/39 academic year when my life was interrupted by war, which broke out at the start of September 1939. I had already been called up before the invasion started and my unit was stationed in the north Poland, where I was in the reserve pool.* We were ordered to evacuate on 4 September, with command putting us on a cattle train heading towards Warsaw. Unfortunately, the panzer columns had already cut the railway lines, which meant we had to finish the journey on foot, a 40-mile trek that took about a day and a night to complete. We were then sent east to look for another unit to which we’d be attached. Six cars picked us up but only my car reached its destination.

*i.e. Stachiewicz would have taken the place of a fallen, injured or lost pilot in any upcoming fighting. That he was unable to do so is a small illustration of the Polish Air Force's decimation in its battle against overwhelming numbers. It had soon lost most of its aircraft roster, which meant there were no machines for the reservists to fly.

 

Still in the reserve, we spent several days waiting until we were ordered to head southeast, towards Romania. On reaching the border region we were informed that the Russians had also invaded and that there was a general order for all Polish personnel to cross into Romania if they could make it. We managed to do this and I was subsequently interned in a camp near the Danube River. International law required the Romanians detain us because they were still neutral and we were military personnel from a country at war. However, we were keen to reach France and join the new Polish armed forces being built up there, and the Germans were well aware of this. They put great pressure on Romania to keep us under closer watch, which meant we were stuck. However, the rules could be bent for the right amount of money and our government-in-exile had already started organising clandestine ‘runs’ to get men out of Romania for transport to France. I joined a group taken to Bucharest where a local police chief put us in touch with Polish authorities based in the city. We stayed in the Romanian capital for about two weeks until receiving civilian papers and travel documents. I was later told that everything organised for us had been paid for with cash up front.

 

There was quite a group of us by the time we left Romania at the start of January 1940. We travelled through Yugoslavia and down into Greece, stopping in Athens and even managing to take in a couple sights like the Acropolis. A Polish boat called Warszawa then took us from Greece to Marseilles and our first destination in France was a camp near Toulouse. The conditions were poor because the barracks had no heating and the winter of 1940 was an extremely cold one. The camp wasn’t clean either and there was lots of mud that was ankle deep. Thankfully, this lasted just a couple of months and I was forwarded to the main Polish air force centre in Lyon. However, it proved to be a disappointment; the pilots lived in a huge concrete exhibition hall, sitting around all day doing absolutely nothing. There was no hope at all and we had no idea why our skills weren’t being used.* Our commander couldn’t answer our questions about what was happening or whether we’d be called on for active service. Somewhat strangely, those in authority labelled my pals and myself ‘the rebels’– all because we were keen to do our jobs and fight the enemy!

*See endnote 1.

 

In May 1940 the Germans attacked France. We were evacuated before they reached Lyon, with a train taking us to a port on the Mediterranean. We’d been told a British ship would pick us up but nothing was there to greet us. So we took another train and went to an old fishing port in the Bay of Biscay where we boarded a British liner that took us to Liverpool. From there we were stationed in two camps near Blackpool. I was later transferred into Blackpool, the town having been designated a centre for the Polish Air Force. In June 1941, I was sent to a flying school where our training involved having to start all over again on Tiger Moths and Oxfords. I was then sent to an Operational Training Unit, where the crews were formed and where we became familiar with Wellington bombers, our main aircraft.

 

Over the Reich

The Wellington was a superb machine. The first thing I noticed about it was the way its wings moved, almost as if it was flapping like some kind of bird. At the end of April 1942 my crew and I were ready to be transferred to a Polish bomber squadron, of which there were four: numbers 300, 301, 304 and 305. They assigned us to 301, which was stationed at RAF Hemswell, located about 12 miles north of Lincoln. We soon got into the swing of things, but I never liked the part where we dropped leaflets during our missions.* We'd be over the target and one of my crew would have to cut the string on each pack before opening the trap these things were dropped through. We soon got tired of this because it was so time consuming and, quite frankly, we all had more important things to do when flying over enemy territory. So I came up with what I thought was a brilliant plan: I cut the leaflet packets open and left them by the trap ready to be chucked out in one go. Unfortunately, the wind proved so strong that the loose leaflets were blown around the aircraft as soon as the trap was opened. It created a paper snow storm that covered everything and would have been funny had it not been so dangerous. Later on, after giving it some thought, we concluded it would have been better to simply throw the leaflets down as uncut packets. That way there might have been a chance of killing an enemy or two!

*Leaflets were universally disliked by crews as a waste of time and an unnecessary distraction in a situation where attention to detail could mean the difference between life and death. Arthur Harris, who would eventually head Bomber Command, derided the leaflets as ‘free toilet paper’ for the Germans earlier in the war.

 

Apart from bombing and leafleting, we’d also dropped sea mines. In the summer, when the nights were short and offered less operational time over enemy territory, we’d fly to the German North Sea coast and drop them, particularly at the mouths of the submarine ports. These missions were called ‘gardening’ operations and were much simpler. The real difficulties came when flying over urban areas, which had a far higher level of enemy flak and nightfighter cover. I always avoided flying in a straight line when approaching a target. We knew the Germans had radar and radio locators, and that they were busy trying to work out our aiming points. This done, they would guide their nightfighters in on us. But by changing tack every 30 seconds I knew that they’d find it harder to monitor my course properly. Defensively, we were hampered by the blind spot on our aircraft’s underbelly, which was a weakness the enemy exploited. In fact, there were times when our men only realised that a nightfighter had got them when his bullets starting hitting their aircraft. Thankfully, we were never attacked in this manner.

 

One of my early operations at the start of June 1942. It was a mission to Essen, which got everyone nervous as Essen was in the centre of the Ruhr valley, the heartland of Germany’s heavy industry. It was ironically named ‘Happy valley’ because of the heavy defences and the high casualty rates taken when attacking this region. At mission briefings they always told us the time we could expect to reach a target and the time at which we should be leaving. Our aircraft was in the lead that night but we had troubles almost as soon as we left the British coast because our Wellington was not pulling strongly. When we got over Essen everything was switched off and quiet.* Then the bomb aimer, having prepared us for the bomb run, said we had already passed over the target. So I told the crew we would have to turn around and go in again.+

*As was to be expected if Stachiewicz was the lead. Here it is also worth stressing that the pathfinders, flare guidance and wave attacks, albeit just around the corner, were still not present in early summer 1942.

+This would have put everyone’s teeth on edge because increased time over the target increased the risk of interception or, once the flak started to rise, being hit by AA. However, Stachiewicz's task that night was important because, at this stage in the war, the lead aircraft’s bomb strikes helped guide the others immediately behind onto the target.

 

It was still quiet on the re-approach. We had just dropped our bombs when a blue searchlight beam shot up from the ground and locked on to us. Other beams followed its example.* In two seconds we were coned by at least thirty searchlights and the anti-aircraft fire started to rise up to meet us. One of my crewmates acted as a second pilot. ‘Don’t get blinded!’ I shouted. ‘Concentrate on the instruments and direct me.’ So he issued instructions to me and, changing course all the time, I tried to shake off the searchlights and the flak. They stayed on us for 10-12 minutes until we left the defence zone and flew into the safety of darkness. Our aircraft had taken a lot of damage, but thankfully nothing important had been destroyed. We counted at least 40 holes in the fuselage after landing.

*See endnote 2

 

Of the four crews who joined the squadron at the same time, including ours, only two were left by the end of June. The third crew was lost after returning from an attack on Emden. They were in trouble after a nightfighter attack and it looked like they wouldn’t make it back. However, they at least managed to reach the sea into which they ditched. On landing back at base, I rushed to the squadron commander and got permission to fly back out to search for the downed crew. Knowing the rough location of where they’d gone in, we flew in squares, which is where you fly to a set point, turn 90 degrees, fly and turn 90 degrees and so on, but always increasing the size of the area being searched. Anyway, from the corner of my eye I suddenly spotted an orange dot floating on the ocean. We flew over to confirm it was a dingy and then flew up to 2,000ft to signal base that the crew had been found and that they should send out a rescue effort. There was the possibility that the Germans had heard our signal because we weren’t too far from the coast of Occupied Europe. Nonetheless, we continued flying over them for an hour and a half because I was afraid the rescuers wouldn’t find them if we left. So we guarded and watched over them until they were eventually rescued* and, happy with our success, we returned to base and organised a party. But our celebrations were cut short when we were told that the men we’d just helped weren’t from our squadron. They were Australians who never wrote a letter to thanks us, let alone send a bottle of wine.

*Rescued by a seaplane from No. 279 Squadron.

 

Battling on

I had my first crash in July. Not far out from taking off, one of our aircraft’s engines packed up and I had to turn back. Adding to our misfortune, the radio then packed up and the aircraft's lights went out. With no ground communication, and flying in total darkness, we prepared ourselves for a bail out. But then I spotted a flare path for an aerodrome. With our luck just about holding, I decided to land there and then. Coming in on the approach, at about 300ft, the lights on the ground were suddenly switched off. I had one engine running with the undercarriage and flaps already down, and it would have been impossible to fly any further. So I hazarded a landing and we arrived like a falling pancake. Fortunately, nobody was injured except for a few bruises. Two weeks later, I was officially informed that the crash landing was my fault and that I shouldn’t have attempted it. But really there was nothing else I could have done.

 

By the end of July 1942, 301 Squadron had suffered badly, losing 11 crews out of a working establishment of 12 crews.* We had also lost two commanding officers in one week, one killed straight after the other. It was very difficult to maintain our numbers with this kind of casualty rate because the Polish Air Force was so short of manpower. Still, we kept on and August involved lots of bombing and ‘gardening’. On one occasion, shortly after take-off, both my engines started overheating. I was afraid they might catch fire and so we turned back. I would have preferred to head out over sea first in order to ditch our bombs and make the landing safer, but the distance was simply too great. I found it hard to get the aircraft down properly on my landing approach and there was hardly any space left by the time I got us firmly on the runway. I should add that there was a bomb magazine at the end of the airfield and it now looked like a fully bombed-up aircraft would be colliding with it! Thankfully, I managed to turn rapidly with the one engine still running. The undercarriage collapsed and we ploughed to a halt. That was my second crash. This time nobody said a thing and there was no internal investigation

*Stachiewicz uses the squadron's working establishment as his ratio here. It does not mean that 11 aircraft were shot down sequentially to be replaced with new crews each time. In addition, a squadron's roster was always larger than its working ratio to cope with crews being lost and needing immediate replacement; crews on short-term leave; or for a myriad of other possibilities that forced a crew to stand down, such as a pilot having to take unexpected sick leave. But for all that, the figure quoted still makes for grim reading.

 

The next morning they sent a doctor along and he gave us permission for a week’s leave. We turned him down, so they insisted we take a break and ordered us to take a couple of days off. And that’s when they discovered that, technically-speaking, the crew had been flying without approval. For one reason or another, we’d all failed to have a proper medical since our arrival in Britain. Those in charge promptly suspended us and we were forced to wait until called by the medical authorities for an inspection in London. We weren’t even allowed to go near our aircraft while we were waiting and they labelled us ‘non-flying personnel’. Eventually, they examined us. The Medical Officer gave me the all clear and, for good measure, offered me four weeks holiday. I couldn’t believe it – I mean we were in the middle of a war and they were offering me a month off! I managed to haggle this down to two weeks. I had to find somewhere to spend my unexpected holiday and was recommended a place in Perthshire, Scotland, where Polish airmen could rest up. It was a small castle set on a rocky outcrop and it was like walking in to a completely different world. After my time off, I returned to the squadron and was re-joined by my crew, who’d also been given leave. We got back into the business of war.

 

In November, towards the end of our tour, we were informed that we would be transferred for an operation out of Tangmere, in southern England. The full briefing would happen there. Our aircraft was bombed up and we had just enough fuel to make this quick journey. On landing, they refuelled us and installed some auxiliary fuel tanks. We were then briefed that the target was Turin, Italy. This was shortly before the Allied landings in Sicily.* The Italians were really rather shaky by this stage of the war and I think the bombing of Turin, which is an industrial area, was to persuade them that the writing on the wall was getting larger. So we started from Tangmere, which had a nice, long concrete runway. I got off the ground at maximum speed and then noticed my starboard wing had started to move up and down and wasn’t responding to controls. After several seconds I got the problem under control and took the aircraft a bit higher. The wing started to play up again and it was impossible to continue under these conditions. Flying at about a 1,000ft, and near the coast, I decided to ditch our bombs in the ocean and return to base. There was a funny thing I noticed when doing this: the incendiary bombs started to burn underwater, creating a fire beneath the sea. I headed back, called mayday and landed.

*Stachiewicz is both wrong and right here; the landings, codenamed Operation Husky, occurred several months later, starting in July 1943. However, bomb strikes against Italy were irregularly undertaken during this period in the hope of weakening Italian resolve. It was not a popular run due to the length of time over enemy territory. However, the flak belts over Occupied France and Italy were notably lighter than German defences.

 

Naturally, I was asked what had happened. So I told them there was something wrong with the controls and the wing. The investigating officer called for some steps and got up onto the wing and discovered that a flap covering the filling point for one of the spare tanks hadn’t been properly secured. It was opening and closing in flight, changing the Wellington’s profile and tilting the aircraft, creating what was actually quite a dangerous situation. Well that was my 28th or 29th mission. They fixed up the aircraft and we returned to Hemswell the next morning. On arrival one of our colleagues met us. He approached me and said: ‘Your flying has finished. You've completed a tour and they are posting you on.’ I asked where I was being sent. ‘Oh, don’t you know? You’re going to university.’ I was simply amazed: I’d not even considered going to university, let alone asked anyone to apply for me! I soon discovered that a Polish architecture department had just been opened at Liverpool University. Someone, somewhere, had looked at my records and noted that I had studied architecture in Warsaw and it seemed the government wanted a living architect rather than another dead airman. So off I went.

 

Finished fighting

University life was almost a complete shock: the tension and pain of losing friends had gone. We all knew that the loss ratio was running at three-in-every-four crews. That was reflected in our case; we were the last crew of four that had arrived at the same time. Fortunately, an architect I knew from my days in Poland – who had also served a tour with the bombers – went with me. He was a good friend and a great moral support. We never got back to the frontline. During my time at university I met my wife, who was also studying at the architectural school. We were married on 13 April, 1944, during the Easter break. In those days there was a long waiting list for civil marriages, but no one was adventurous to try the 13th. We completed our studies a year later.

 

By the end of the war all of us Poles were left angered at the loss of our country to Stalin. Our fighter pilots had fought bravely during the Battle of Britain, making a name for us. And those of us in the bombers had also fought hard for a free Poland and an Allied victory. I remember the British Minister of Aviation even sent an open letter to Sikorski giving thanks and praise for the Polish bomber crews. At that time we were everyone’s friends: people would come up to us and pat us on the backs and thank us for all we were doing. By summer 1944, we were being called fascists to our faces. I was often called a fascist when I appeared in my Polish uniform. Everyone loved the Russians by then. I obtained my Polish architecture degree from Liverpool University shortly after the war’s end. Strangely, or not so strangely actually, I’d never been on a British construction site until this point because no one was building during the conflict. So I had to learn the practical side from then on. Fortunately, the country was now focussed on rebuilding and architects and engineers were in great demand. This meant I could begin my civil career almost straight away.

 

Back in Poland my family had suffered greatly. My father had died of tuberculosis back in 1934 but we had always got by. When the Germans took over, they decided to ‘Germanise’ the area of Warsaw my family lived in. The Gestapo also set up their headquarters nearby,* where they used to interrogate and torture people, including my cousin, who they killed. My family was soon forced to leave their home: they were given two hours to gather up whatever possessions they could to take with them. My brother eventually ended up in a concentration camp. Being a talented artist he painted portraits of camp guards and, thanks to that, survived. My mother survived the occupation and Warsaw Uprising in 1944. After the war, in order to visit my family in Poland, I had to take British citizenship. My wife and I have dual nationality and made our home in London.

*At Al. Szucha 25, Warsaw. The Gestapo headquarters housed interrogation rooms within its basements, a place of grotesque torture and murder. Today, this location houses a museum to explain the suffering that went on within its walls.

 

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Postscript: In 2007, a close friend of the Pilsudski Institute London informed the Australian embassy about Stachiewicz's part in the rescue of the Australian crew during the summer of 1942. At his 90th birthday celebration, a high-ranking RAAF officer surprised one and all by arriving in full dress uniform with a bottle of wine, the one Stachiewicz had waited so long to receive, and a message of thanks from the Australian people.

 

Endnote 1: The French government proved reluctant to form Polish-only units, while those Poles on active service had been parcelled out to squadrons almost on an as-and-when needed basis. A distrust of Polish flying skills underpinned this policy, based on the deeply-flawed assumption that Polish pilots had been outclassed by the enemy in September 1939. Little attention was paid to the fact that Poland’s aircraft, while excellent in the mid-1930s, were almost obsolete by the late 1930s and placed Polish pilots at a major disadvantage. The Poles would face a similar reticence and, on occasion, borderline prejudice from their British hosts after the fall of France in June 1940. However, they soon proved their mettle during the Battle of Britain, finally flying aircraft that allowed them to outperform their enemy, using tactics that made some of the RAF’s methods seem almost archaic. On average, Polish fighter pilots also achieved kill ratios much higher on a pilot-for-pilot basis than their less experienced British and Commonwealth counterparts.

 

Endnote 2: The dreaded blue beam as described by Stachiewicz was not a master searchlight that many crews believed it to be; it was a colouring effect that stemmed from being directly coned and the angle at which the light entered the cockpit. It created a blueish hue. German pilots during the ‘Big Blitz’ of London from 1940-1941 held the same erroneous belief in master searchlights. On the ground, German searchlights worked in teams. If an aircraft was coned, several lights tracked it for the nearest AA batteries. Others would continue searching for different quarry. But for Stachiewicz and his crew, the glare would have almost certainly felt like every searchlight for miles around was coning them. As the first in, they were doubly unlucky because their aircraft would have served as a useful indicator for the approach of the bomber stream and as a gauging measure on which the gunners should send up their flak.

 

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