Warsaw Flights Committee remembers SAAF’s costliest operation

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The South African Air Force (SAAF), Polish community organisations, international military attaches and veterans groups paid tribute to the SAAF airmen who were lost in its most costly operation, the Warsaw Airlift, aimed at assisting the Polish Home Army in their struggle for independence in 1944.

The annual memorial service, held at the James and Ethel Grey Park in Johannesburg, has the world’s oldest memorial to the Katyn Massacre, in which 22 000 Polish prisoners-of-war were shot by the Soviet NKVD secret police. It is a stark monument, shaped like a cross but also a tombstone.

Present was Bryan Jones, the last survivor of the men who flew to Warsaw.

Chairman of the Warsaw Flights Commemoration Committee Andrzej Romanowicz opened the ceremony and after a minute of silence to remember those who had passed away, mentioned that 2016 was a year of friendship between Poland and Hungary and welcomed the Hungarians who were taking part for the first time.

Hungary was a member of the Axis, but it was not at war with Poland, so Hungarian troops refused to take part in crushing the uprising, saving thousands of Polish and Jewish lives.

Pastor Robin Petersen, who led the ecumenical service, listed the toll of the Uprising: 13 000 Jewish victims of the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943; 16 000 members of the Polish Home Army killed during the Warsaw Uprising and more than 200 000 civilians in the city who died, most executed by the Nazis. In a humane gesture, he pointed out that some 8 000 young German army conscripts also paid the ultimate price in this conflict.

Allied air forces, including the Royal Air Force (RAF), the Free Polish Air Force and eventually, the US Army Air Force, tried to assist the desperate Poles.

The SAAF’s 2 Wing, comprising 31 and 34 Heavy Bomber Squadrons, were based in Foggia in south-eastern Italy and had been bombing targets in northern Italy, the Mediterranean and Central Europe. Using B-24 Liberator aircraft, they had to make the 11-to-12-hour night flights covering 3 500 kilometres for the round trip to Warsaw.

This was because the Soviets did not allow them to land in areas occupied by their troops. Soviet leader Josef Stalin did not want a democratic government in Warsaw, referring to the Polish government-in-exile in Britain in a letter to Churchill as “a handful of evildoers”. Not surprisingly, assistance to the Allied effort was not forthcoming.

Once the planes had crossed the Adriatic Sea, Croatia, Hungary and Slovakia, braving local and German anti-aircraft fire and German night fighters, they had to climb over the Carpathian Mountains to reach Warsaw, then descend to a height of 500 feet and lower their speed to about 140 knots to drop the supply canisters, making them easy targets for German anti-aircraft guns.

Not surprisingly, losses were high. The British and Commonwealth forces launched some 191 sorties to Warsaw and lost 31 heavy bombers. The SAAF sent 41 sorties and lost 11 Liberators.

The South African variant of the Liberator had a crew of eight, unlike its US counterpart, with 10 crew members. Statistics show that the SAAF bombers were the most successful in delivering their aid to the resistance.

Polish Ambassador to South Africa Anna Raduchowska-Brochwicz said the Katyn monument is symbolic for all Poles. This occasion confirmed a very strong and deep friendship between the Polish and South African people.

The traditional fly-past, carried out at low altitude in remembrance of the flights, was traditionally done by a C-130BZ of 28 Squadron, but on this occasion a lone Harvard did the honours.

An interesting and little-known aspect of Polish-South African relations was revealed when keynote speaker Philip Weyers of the SAAF Association and Andrzej Romanowicz told the tragic story of 1.7 million Polish men, women and children who were deported to concentration camps in Siberia by the Soviets in 1939 and 1940 after their joint invasion of Poland with Nazi Germany.

Later, when Germany invaded the USSR, in terms of the Sikorski-Majski Agreement of 1941, these unfortunates would be sent as refugees to places including Iran, Lebanon, Palestine, India, Mexico, British East Africa, Northern Rhodesia and South Africa. Tragically, due to conditions in the cattle trucks and the Gulag camps, 700 000 had died by this time.

Five hundred Polish children were brought to Oudtshoorn by Prime Minister Jan Smuts. Mr Romanowicz, who had the opportunity of knowing a number of these children, shared a light-hearted anecdote: “They were coming from Siberia where there was almost nothing to eat, and they were not fat. So when they arrived in Oudtshoorn, they followed what they had been doing in Siberia. In other words, during the night they would go to steal all kinds of groceries and apples etcetera. Till eventually a delegation of South African farmers arrived and said: ‘How much do you children want? We will bring it. Don’t risk your lives climbing those fences!'”

The Warsaw Flights Memorial remembers a nearly-forgotten episode of South African skill and bravery and it is to be hoped that this sad but uplifting memorial service will receive more support from the SANDF and the public.