The first seventeen days in September 1939 were a tragedy for Poland and formed the nucleus of an Exodus of massive proportions. Well over eighty per cent of the Polish Air Force escaped to fight again; many with the help of organised groups and others independently. This is the story of one man, 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 both as fighting units in exile and as the Home Army (Armia Krajowa). They never gave up.
Zygmunt Janicki was a renowned airman in pre-war Poland, but he too realised that the only course he could take was to get to France and begin the fight back. He went willingly, but made a tremendous effort to get his wife Zofia (Zosia) and his son Piotr to join him.
As a senior Air Force Officer he was able to afford a car – a real luxury in pre-war Poland. He bought a Polski Fiat Junak 508 and this was to be the vehicle he used in his escape. 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. This was a time that was fraught with anxiety and the ever present risk of being interned by the Romanians to appease the Germans. But he was going nowhere without visas and had to sit and wait.
The O.R.P Wilia was originally built, as a freighter, by Flensburger Schiffbau Gesellschaft at the Flensburg shipyard in Germany. She was laid down in 1905 and was 108 metres in length and 14.8 metres wide; she displaced 8400 tonnes and was powered by an 1850 horse power steam engine which could produce 10 knots forward speed. She required a crew of 52 men. She went through a variety of names and owners before being sold to the Polish Navy and renamed Wilia (or Wilja) on 8th August 1925 at Le Havre, France.
She was variously used as a troop carrier, a transporter of war materials and a training ship for naval cadets and officer trainees. Until the outbreak of war, she was unarmed but then had armaments mounted. These consisted of two 75 millimetre guns, two 47 millimetre guns and two heavy machine guns. No match for the Scharnhorst, but enough to defend themselves against aircraft and smaller patrol boats.