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 men of 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.
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 into because so many young men wanted to enrol. I decided to take an architectural course at Warsaw after I qualified and was placed in the Polish Air Force reserves. 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 our 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 lost or injured 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 lost most of its aircraft roster within the first week, which meant there were no machines for the reservists to fly.
I remained in the air force reserve and spent several days waiting around until we were all ordered to head southeast, towards Romania. On reaching the border region we were informed 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.
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 close 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, and 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. But this proved to be a big 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 commanding officer couldn’t answer our questions about what was happening or whether we’d be called on for active service any time soon. Somewhat strangely, those in authority labelled my pals and myself ‘rebels’, simply because we were keen to do our jobs and fight the enemy.
*See endnote 1.
The Germans attacked France in mid-May 1940 and we were evacuated before they reached Lyon, with a train taking us to a port on the Mediterranean. A British ship was meant to have picked 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 sailed for Liverpool. We were stationed in two camps near Blackpool and I was later transferred there, the town having been designated a centre for the Polish Air Force. I was eventually sent to a flight school in June 1941 and I had to start my training over again, flying Tiger Moths and Oxfords until I was ready for the Operational Training Unit. This was where the crews were formed and where we became familiar with Wellington bombers, our main aircraft.
The Wellington was a superb machine and the first thing I noticed about it was the way its wings moved, almost as if it was flapping like some kind of bird. My crew and I were ready to be transferred to a Polish bomber squadron by the end of April 1942, of which there were four at this stage of the war: 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, although I never liked the part where we dropped leaflets during 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 through which these things were dropped, and we soon got tired of this. It was time consuming and, quite frankly, we all had more important things to be getting on with when flying over enemy territory.
*Leaflets were universally disliked by crews as a waste of time and an unnecessary distraction on missions 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.
In response, I came up with what we all thought was a rather brilliant plan: I’d cut the leaflet packets open and leave 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 immediately after the trap was opened. It created a paper snowstorm that covered everything and it might have been funny had the situation not been so dangerous. Later on, after giving it some thought, we concluded it would be better to simply throw the leaflets down as uncut packets. That way there might have been a chance of killing an enemy or two!
Apart from bombing and leafleting, we 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. The mouths of the submarine ports were a frequent target and these missions, called ‘gardening’ operations, were much simpler. The real difficulties came when flying over urban areas, which had a far higher level of enemy flak and nightfighter cover, and 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. They would guide their nightfighters onto us, but I knew that changing my course every 30 seconds would make it much harder for them to monitor us. 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 earliest operations was at the start of June 1942 and it was one of the scariest. It was a mission to Essen, which got everyone nervous because the city was in the centre of the Ruhr valley, the heartland of Germany’s heavy industry. The Ruhr was ironically named ‘Happy valley’ because of the heavy defences and the high casualty rates taken when attacking targets in this region. They always told us the time we could expect to reach a target at mission briefings and the time at which we should be leaving. Our aircraft was in the lead that night, but we had troubles soon after leaving the British coast because our Wellington was not pulling strongly. We discovered everything was switched off and quiet over Essen.* Then the bomb aimer, having prepared us for the run-in, suddenly announced that we’d already passed over the target, so I told the crew we would have to turn around and go in again.+
*To be expected if Stachiewicz was the lead. It is worth stressing that the pathfinders, flare guidance and massed wave attacks of, albeit just around the corner, were not yet present in early summer 1942. In addition, German defences had yet to reach the broad scale achieved the following year.
+This would have put everyone’s teeth on edge because extra time over the target increased the risk of interception or being hit by anti-aircraft fire (AA) once the flak started to rise. However, Stachiewicz’s task that night was important because the lead aircraft’s bomb strikes helped guide the other aircraft behind him.
It was still quiet on the re-approach and 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. We were coned by at least 30 searchlights within a matter of seconds and the flak 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, although they managed to ditch into the North Sea. Having noted the rough location of where they’d gone in, I rushed to the squadron commander on landing back at base and got permission to fly back out to search for the downed crew. We flew in squares, by which I mean you fly to a set point, turn 90 degrees, fly some distance, 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 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. We watched over them until they were hauled in and, happy with our success, we returned to base and organised a party.* But our celebrations were cut short when we were told the men we’d helped weren’t from our squadron: they were Australians and they never wrote a letter to thanks us, let alone send us a bottle of wine.+
* They were rescued by a seaplane from No. 279 Squadron, whose log confirms the presence of a Wellington bomber during the rescue mission.
+ See endnote 3
I had my first crash in July. One of our aircraft’s engines stalled shortly after taking off 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 got ourselves prepared for a bail-out. But then I spotted a flare path for an aerodrome and, 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. However, I was officially informed two weeks later 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.
Our squadron had suffered badly by the end of July 1942, 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, but we kept on and August involved lots of bombing and ‘gardening’. On one occasion, shortly after take-off, both my engines started overheating and I was afraid they might catch fire. I decided to turn back. It would have been best to ditch our bombs at sea, making our subsequent landing safer, but the distance to the ocean was simply too great. I found it hard to get the aircraft down on my approach and there was hardly any runway space by the time I got us firmly on the ground. There was a bomb magazine at the end of the airfield and it suddenly looked like a fully bombed-up aircraft was going to collide with it! Thankfully, I managed to turn rapidly with the one engine still running, and the force of this collapsed the undercarriage and we ploughed to a halt. This time nobody said a thing and there was no internal investigation.
*Stachiewicz does not mean there was only one crew left. A bomber squadron’s roster of flying personnel and aircraft was always larger than its working establishment as crews would need replacing for losses taken on operations or, more mundanely, because some of its crews were on leave, had reported someone sick, or were grounded for other reasons. Nonetheless, the figure quoted still makes for grim reading.
They sent a doctor along the next morning 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. Then it was 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 and those in charge promptly suspended us, forcing us to wait until called for an inspection by the medical authorities in London. We weren’t even allowed to go near our aircraft during this period and they labelled us ‘non-flying personnel’. Eventually, they examined us and the Medical Officer gave everyone the all clear. He even offered me certification for four weeks holiday and I couldn’t believe it: 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 and then had to find somewhere to take this unexpected break. There was a place in Perthshire where Polish airmen could rest up, a small castle set on a rocky outcrop and it was like walking in to a completely different world. I returned to the squadron after the holiday and re-joined by my crew who were also granted leave. We then got back to 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, southern England, with the full briefing to happen there. Our aircraft was bombed up and we had just enough fuel to make this quick journey. They refuelled our aircraft after we landed and installed some auxiliary fuel tanks. Meanwhile, we were informed that the target was Turin, Italy. This was shortly before the Allied landings in Sicily and the Italians were really rather shaky by this stage of the war;* I think the bombing of Turin, which is an industrial area, was an effort to persuade them that the writing was on the wall.
*Stachiewicz is both wrong and right here; the landings, codenamed Operation Husky, occurred several months later 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, although the flak belts and nightfighter presence over Occupied France and Italy were notably lighter than German defences.
So we started from Tangmere, which had a nice long concrete runway, and I got off the ground at maximum speed. I soon noticed my starboard wing had started to move up and down, and that it had stopped responding to the controls. I got the problem under control after several seconds and took the aircraft a bit higher. But 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.
Naturally, I was asked what had happened. So I told them there was something wrong with the controls and the wing. The investigating officer 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. One of our colleagues met us on arrival.
‘Your flying has finished,’ he said. ‘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 off to university.’
I was simply amazed at this response: 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 Polish government wanted a living architect rather than another dead airman. So off I went.
University life was almost a complete shock because 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 – attended the course with me. He was a good friend and a great moral support. We never got back to the frontline. I met my wife during my time at university and she was also studying at the architectural school. We got 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.
Almost all Poles were angry at the loss of our country to Stalin at the end of the war. 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 and people would come up to us and pat us on the backs and thank us for all we were doing. But we were being called fascists to our faces by summer 1944; I was often called a fascist when I appeared in my Polish uniform and 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, given the circumstances – I’d never been on a British construction site because nobody was building during the conflict. So I had to learn the practical side of things after the war ended. 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 in 1934 but we had always gotten 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,* which is where they interrogated and tortured people, including my cousin, who they killed. My family was soon forced to leave their home and they were given two hours to gather up whatever possessions they could to take with them. My brother was eventually sent to a concentration camp. Being a talented artist he painted portraits of camp guards and, thanks to that, survived. My mother endured 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 25 Szucha Avenue, Warsaw. The Gestapo headquarters housed interrogation rooms within its basements, a place of torture and murder. Today, this location houses a museum to explain the suffering that went on within its walls.
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 flawed assumption that Polish pilots had been outclassed by the enemy in September 1939. Little attention was paid to the fact Poland’s primary fighter aircraft, the PZL P.11, while good by mid-1930s standards, was almost obsolete by the late-1930s and had 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 and were finally able to fly aircraft that allowed them to outperform their enemy and use tactics that made some of the RAF’s methods seem almost retrograde. On average, Polish fighter pilots achieved higher kill ratios on a pilot-for-pilot basis than their British and Commonwealth counterparts.
Endnote 2: The dreaded blue beam as described by Stachiewicz was not a master searchlight as many crews believed; it was a colouring effect that stemmed from being directly coned and the angle at which light entered the cockpit, creating a blueish hue. Luftwaffe pilots during the ‘Big Blitz’ of London from September 1940 to May 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 as the others continued searching for different quarry. For Stachiewicz and his crew, the glare and the sense of danger would have certainly made it feel like every searchlight for miles around was directed solely on them. Worse still, and because they were the lead aircraft, their position would have served as a useful indicator for the approach of the bomber stream behind. Thus they became a gauging measure on which the AA gunners started sending up their flak.
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.