The Polish pilot
Polish fighter pilots, especially those that took part in the Battle of Britain, are rightly remembered for their dash and bravery. Not so well known are the Polish bomber squadrons who, with the rest of the bomber units, faced frightful casualty rates.
At the Pilsudski Institute, London, one former Wellington bomber pilot, Mr Stachiewicz, sat down with me and, over a cup of tea and a couple of biscuits, told me his story and what it was like to fight for Britain and Poland all those years ago. They were days filled with danger, tragedy and camaraderie.
My military ‘career’ began when I was 14 and went to cadet school – it was a secondary school plus military training. I spent five years there and then went on to do service in the forces in 1937/38. During this time I trained as a military pilot. It was voluntary move, although it was very difficult to get in to as so many young men wanted to be there. I completed my training and became a qualified military pilot. After my service, I enrolled in an architecture course at Warsaw 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.
Towards the end of August I was called up to join my unit in northwest Poland and was placed in the reserve pool of flying personnel. But on September 4, we were evacuated; we clambered on board a cattle train heading towards Warsaw but the German Panzer columns had unfortunately cut us off. So we were ordered out and had to make the rest of the 40-mile journey on foot. It took a day and a night to reach the capital. We were then sent east to look for another unit – six cars picked us up. Of the six cars only my car made it.
A few days later, we were ordered to head towards Romania, which we managed to do. On arriving at the border we discovered that the Russians had invaded Poland from the east. They now ordered us to cross into Romania, where we were subsequently interned in a camp near the Danube River. We were placed under guard because we were military personnel, which international law required the Romanians to do. There was also great pressure put on the Romanians from the Germans not to allow any Polish servicemen out of their country. They knew well enough that the Poles would head straight to France and join up with the Polish units forming there.
A second shot
But we weren't stuck because things could be done with the right amount of money and the government-in-exile had started to organise our shipment out of Romania bound for France. We were taken to Bucharest and met the Polish authorities there with the assistance of the local chief of police. We were in Bucharest for two weeks where we received civilian papers and travel documents. Everything had to be paid for up front with cash.
Eventually there was quite a group of us and we left Romania at the start of January 1940. We travelled through Yugoslavia and down to Greece, where we stopped at Athens and even managed to take in a couple sights like the Acropolis. From Greece a Polish boat called Warszawa took us to Marseilles. Our first destination in France was a camp near Toulouse. The conditions were bad, the barracks had no heating and the winter of 1940 was extremely cold. The camp wasn’t clean either and there was lots of mud, which in places was ankle deep.
After a few months, I went to the main Polish air force centre in Lyon, where we pilots spent a couple of months in a huge concrete exhibition hall 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 and when we would be used. Somewhat strangely, those in authority labelled my pals and I ‘rebels’– just because we were keen to do our jobs and fight the enemy.
In May 1940 the Germans attacked France. When they neared Lyon, a train evacuated us to a port on the Mediterranean, where we had been told a British ship was meant to pick us up. There was nothing there. So we got on 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 here we were stationed in two camps near Blackpool. Latter on, I was transferred to Blackpool itself, which had become the main centre for the Polish Air Force. From there, in June 1941, I was sent on to a flying school, where we started our training from the very beginning on Tiger Moths and Oxfords. I was then sent to an Operational Training Unit, where the crews were formed and where taining was conducted in Wellington bombers, our main aircraft.
Over the Reich
The winter 1941/42 offered good training regarding weather conditions or, in fact, how to disregard weather conditions! The Wellington was an excellent aircraft. The funny thing I first noticed about it was the way its wings moved, almost as if it was flapping: it really behaved like a kind of bird.
At the end of April 1942 my crew and I was ready to be transferred to a Polish bomber squadron. At that time there were four Polish bomber squadrons – 300, 301, 304 and 305. They assigned us to 301. We were stationed at RAF Hemswell, located about twelve miles north of Lincoln. During our bombing missions, we were also supposed to drop leaflets on the Germans. When over the target we’d have to cut the string on each pack before opening the chute to drop them down.
I soon got tired of this – it was so time consuming – so I cut all the packs open and left them by the entrance trap ready to be thrown out in one go. Unfortunately, when the trap was opened the wind proved so strong that the loose leaflets were blown around the aircraft, creating a paper snow storm that covered everything. It would have been funny if it had not been so dangerous. Giving it some thought, we then came to the conclusion that it might have been better to just throw the leaflets down as uncut packets: at least this way there could have been a chance of killing an enemy or two!
Now 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 would fly to the German North Sea coast to drop them, particularly at the mouths of the submarine ports. These particular missions were called ‘gardening’ operations.
Enemy flak and nightfighter cover often saturated the areas we operated in. Approaching the target I avoided flying in a straight line. We were well aware the Germans had radar and radio locators and were busy trying to work out aiming points to send their nightfighters to. By changing track every 30 seconds they would find it almost impossible to monitor my course properly. Defensively, we were hampered by the blind spot on our underside and we knew the nightfighters aimed attacks there; in fact there were times when our men only realised a nightfighter had got them when the enemy’s bullets hit their aircraft. Thankfully, we were never attacked in this manner.
One of my early operations in the beginning of June ‘42 was a mission to Essen. At the briefing when we heard it was Essen everybody got nervous. Essen was in the centre of the Ruhr valley – the ironically-named ‘Happy valley’ – the heart of Germany’s heavy industry and therefore heavily defended. At mission briefings we were always told the time we should be at a target and the time at which we should leave. Our aircraft was in the lead that night, but we had timing troubles almost as soon as we left the British coast – our Wellington was not pulling very strongly.
When we got over Essen everything was switched off and quiet. Then the bomb aimer, having prepared for the bomb run, told us we had passed over the target, so I told the crew we would have to turn around and go in again. On approach it was still quiet. 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 soon started to rise up to meet us. One of my crewmates acted as a second pilot. “Don’t get blinded! Concentrate on the instruments and direct me,” I ordered. So he issued instructions to me and, changing course all the time, I tried to shake off the searchlights and flak. They stayed on us for 10 to 12 minutes until we left the defence zone and flew into the safety of darkness. We had taken a lot of damage, but thankfully nothing important had been destroyed. After landing we counted at least 40 holes in the fuselage.
Of the four crews who joined the squadron at the same time, including ours, only two had survived by the end of June. We lost one of these crews after returning from an attack on Emden. They were in trouble after a fighter attack – they were flying low and looked like they wouldn’t make it to the English coast. Indeed, they soon went into the sea.
On landing back at base, we rushed to the squadron commander and got permission to fly back out to search for the downed crew. We raced back to the spot they went down and flew in squares – this is where we would fly to a set point then turn 90 degrees, fly and turn 90 degrees and so on, but always increasing the size of the area we were searching. Anyway, from the corner of my eye I suddenly saw a small orange spot floating on the ocean. We flew over to confirm it was a dingy and then flew up 2,000ft and sent a signal back to base that the crew had been found and for a rescue boat to be sent. Of course there was the possibility that the Germans had heard our signal (we were not that far from the coast of Occupied Europe) and may have acted upon it. But we continued flying over them for an hour and a half because I was afraid the rescuers would fail to find them if we left.
We guarded and watched over them until they were eventually rescued (click here for a rescue report by 279 Squadron). Happy with our success, we got back and organized a party. During the celebrations we were informed that the men they had picked up were not from our squadron. Our crew was lost. And do you know, the squadron whose men we had helped save – they were Australians we later found out – never wrote to us in thanks, let alone send us a bottle wine.
In July, I had my first crash. Not far out from taking off, one of aircraft’s engines packed up and I had to turn back. To add to my misfortune, the radio then gave in and the lights also went out. With no communication with the ground and flying in the darkness we were all prepared for baling out. Then I spotted a flare path for an aerodrom. With our luck running out I knew I had to land there and then. When we were about 300ft when the light on the ground faded out. I had one engine running with the undercarriage and flaps down; it would be impossible to fly any further. So I hazarded a landing and we arrived like a falling pancake. Fortunately nobody was injured, one of the crew was a little bruised, but that was all. Two weeks later I was officially informed that the crash landing was my fault and that it shouldn't have been attempted. But really there was nothing else I could have done.
By the end of July, 301 Squadron had lost 11 crews. The working establishment for the squadron was 12. We lost two commanding officers in one week, one after the other. It was very difficult to build up our numbers with this kind of casualty rate because the Polish Air Force was so short of manpower. Still, we kept on and in August there was lots of bombing and ‘gardening’ to be done. On one occasion, shortly after take off, both my engines started overheating. I was afraid they might catch fire so I turned back. The distance to the sea, to drop our bomb load, was simply too great, which meant I had to land with a full bomb load. On approaching the runway, I found I couldn’t get the aircraft down properly. There was very little space left by the time I got the Wellington firmly on the runway. I should also add that there was a store of bombs at the end of the airfield. So there we were: a fully laden bomber about to run into a pile of bombs! I managed to turn rapidly with one engine running when the undercarriage collapsed. Thankfully, the danger had passed and we ground to a halt. That was my second crash.
This time no one said a thing and there was no internal investigation. The next morning they sent a doctor along and he gave us permission for a week’s leave. We turned him down. They insisted we take a break and ordered us to take a couple of days. It was then discovered that the crew had been flying with, technically-speaking, no right to so. For one reason or another, we'd never had a medical since we started flying in Britain. The officials in charge promptly suspended us and we were forced to wait until called on by the medical authorities for an inspection in London. We weren’t even allowed to go near our aircraft while we were waiting – we became non-flying personnel.
Eventually, they examined us in London; 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! Well I managed to get him down to two weeks. With this unexpected holiday, I had to find somewhere to spend my spare time and was recommended a place in Perthshire, Scotland, where Polish airmen could rest up. It was a small castle set on rocks and it was like walking in to a completely different world. After my holiday, I went back to the squadron and was rejoined by my crew – who had also been given holiday time – and got back into the war again.
Back into battle
Towards the end of my tour in November, we were informed that we would be transferred for an operation out of Tangmere, in the south of England. We were told we would receive our full briefing there. Our aircraft was bombed up and had just enough fuel to get there. On landing, they refuelled us and installed 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 rather shaky by this stage of the war; I think the bombing of Turin, which is an industrial area, was to help ‘persuade’ them to give up sooner rather than later.
We started from Tangmere, which had a nice, long concrete runway. I got off the ground at maximum speed when I noticed my starboard wing had started to move up and down and wasn’t responding to the controls. After several seconds I got the problem under control and took the aircraft a bit higher. The wing started to play up again. It was impossible to continue under these conditions. Flying at about a 1,000ft and near the sea, I decided to ditch our bombs in the ocean and return to base. There was a funny thing I noticed: the incendiary bombs we dropped 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 officer investigating called for some steps and got up onto the wing and discovered that the flap covering the filling point for one of the spare tanks hadn't been 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 28 or 29th mission.
They fixed up the aircraft and the next morning we returned to Hemswell. On arrival one of our colleagues met us. He approached me and said: ‘Your flying has finished, they have accepted you have completed your tour and they are posting you.’ I asked where I was being sent. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘you are being posted to university.’ I was 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. Obviously somebody somewhere had looked at my records and noted that I had studied architecture in Warsaw. It seems they had decided it was better to have one living architect than another dead airman. So off I went.
University life was almost a complete shock: gone was the tension and the loss of friends. We knew well enough that in our squadron the ratio was running at three in every four crews lost. Indeed, in our case, of those four crews that had arrived at the same time only my team was left.
Fortunately, an architect I knew from my days in Poland, who had also served his tour, went with me. He was a good friend and a great moral support. We never got back to the frontline of the war. During my time at university I met my wife, who also studied at the architectural school. We were married on 13 April, 1944 during our 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.
Of course we Poles by the end of the war were angered at the loss of our country to Stalin. The Poles in the Battle of Britain had fought bravely and made a name for us, while we in the bombers had also fought hard for a free Poland and an Allied victory. I remember that 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. 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, I had never been on a British building site until this point because no one was building during the confilct. So I had to learn the practical side from the beginning. Fortunately, with the country returned to peace and centred on rebuilding, architects and engineers were in demand and I could finally begin my civil career.
Back in Poland, my family had suffered but survived. My father had died of TB back in 1934 and we had always got by. But when the Germans took over, they decide 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 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 German occupation of Warsaw and the Uprising in 1944. After the war, in order to visit my family in Poland, I had to take British citizenship. We now have dual nationality and have made our home in London and visit Poland regularly.
In 2007, a very close friend of the Pilsudski Institute informed the Australian embassy about Stachiewicz's part in the rescue of the Australian crew in the summer of 1942. At his 90th birthday celebration, a high-ranking RAAF officer surprised one and all by arriving with a bottle of wine - the one Stachiewicz had waited so long to receive - and a message of thanks from the Australian people.
RETURN TO INTRODUCTION
Dash and elan
Close-up of Stachiewicz standing by his Wellington. His experience stretched back to training and service in Poland before the outbreak of war.
Give it some Welly
An RAF Wellington. A firm favourite with crews, the Welly's design enabled it to soak up a lot of damage. Returning from one mission, Stachiewicz and his crew counted 40 holes of varying size in their machine.
Searchlights scanned the night skies over the targets, hoping to pick out a bomber for the flak guns to then focus on. On one mission, Stachiewicz was caught in the beams and only just managed to make it out of the maelstrom.
Where eagles dare
The emblem of 301 Sqn. Manpower for the unit was a perennial problem. With a survival rate of around one crew in four, this was far from unsurprising.
Polish high command and RAF brass hats inspect S for Sonia, which had crash-landed. Stachiewicz had the interesting experience of crash landing while, at the same time, trying to avoid colliding his fully-loaded Wellington with a bomb storage unit. He succeeded. Just.
In the news
General Sikorski is shown visiting the men of 304 and 305 Polish bomber squadrons at RAF Bramcote in 1942. Medals have been awarded for bravery. It's worth reflecting that many of the young men in this footage will soon be killed in action. A Wellington bomber can be seen at 1.18 minutes as part of a fly past.