He was born on 1st May 1900 in Dabrowa Gornicza, a coal mining town near Katowice in Silesia. His father was a miner and also had his own metal working shop. At that time the area was occupied by Austro-Hungary but they were less repressive than the Prussians and Russians who occupied the rest of Poland.
Towards the end of the First World War, when he was 17, he applied to join the army; he completed the course and graduated. In the 1920s he transferred to the Air Force and trained as a pilot, achieving the rank of second lieutenant. He was flying SPADs, designed by Louis Bechereau and built in France. His first posting was to the airbase at Torun where, in his early days, his flying skill enabled him to recover from a corkscrew dive that was fatal in many cases. During the early part of his career, in the Polish Russian war, he won the Cross of Valour; his many decorations are clearly visible in the photograph.
In the mid-1930s he was chosen to be Poland’s entry in an international competition held in Barcelona, Spain. It was an early medevac competition and involved flying a complex rescue mission. He and his trained crew won the competition for Poland as described in his son’s words:
“A bad storm flared up on the day it was scheduled. Some pilots refused to fly, some failed to complete the course, others lost points. Zygmunt took off, piloted the full assignment, and won the competition for Poland.”
By his mid-30s he had reached the rank of Major and in 1938 he was posted to the Senior Air Force Academy in Warsaw and a year later to Posnan – close to Germany.
After the first seventeen days in September Squadron Leader Zygmunt Janicki, who made one escape to France and then another to England and took his wife and child and his car with him. This was an unique adventure and typifies the courage and resilience of the Poles
In a convoy of up to four vehicles and a party of possibly twenty Air Force Officers, he crossed the border into Romania and made his way to Bucarest; they travelled as civilians and when he got his passport from the Polish Embassy, he was described as an upholsterer.
On 28th October 1939, events forced him to leave Bucarest and he crossed into Hungary, arriving in Budapest two days later. On 4th November 1939 he received a single use transit visa to cross Italy and enter France. He left immediately and entered Jugoslavia at Kotariba and four days later entered Italy at Ponte.
After a six day drive they reached France and made their way to Paris where Janicki joined up with the fledgling Polish armed forces in exile. He flew Morane-Saulnier fighters from Lyon-Bron Polish Depot . With many other Polish airmen, he expected to make a stand and take the war to Germany. But very soon, the French capitulated and he had nowhere to go but England. Fortunately his wife and son had joined him by this time – with no help from the French authorities.
The family drove south to Perpignan and were victims of French hostility on the way. Even the French military became hostile to the Poles and some of the French wanted to intern the Pole to Perpignan and were victims of French hostility. They planned to drive through Spain and cross to Morocco but they found a ship leaving from Port Vendre for Oran in Algeria. Whilst trying to embark they met more French hostility and he had to hold the crowd off at gunpoint.
From Oran they took a train to Casablanca in Morocco, sleeping in the car on its flatbed truck. Soon after arriving in Casablanca, they found an old, laid up Polish ship – the Wilia – and Polish sailors and engineers set about patching it up.
With cadets from the other training ship, the sailing vessel Iskra, and experienced Polish sailors who were trying to escape to Britain, they sailed to Gibraltar where they were lucky and joined the first convoy to England in early July 1940.
After a day or so at sea, the Wilia was barely making headway and was left behind but the Poles plodded on at half speed and under constant repair and they took three weeks for the short journey. They wandered into a British minefield and were challenged and halted by an RAF Short Sunderland flying boat and they had a nerve wracking wait until a tug arrived to guide them through it. They docked in Liverpool on 18th July 1940.
Typical of the man, he wasted no time in joining the Polish Air Force and was soon assigned to 304 Squadron in Coastal Command. He spent his time on very long flights over the sea hunting submarines, protecting Allied shipping and harassing Axis shipping. As a Squadron Leader he did just that – he led his men into battle as a fighting officer.
He was killed when Wellington HE576 crashed just after take off from RAF Davidstow Moor for an anti submarine patrol over the Bay of Biscay on 29th July 1943. The aircraft crashed at Tresmarrow Farm, Davidstow and he is buried at Newark upon Trent Cemetery. A sad end to an illustrious career