Saturday, 20 March 2010


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.     

An unprovoked attack by the Germans left Poland reeling; the stab in the back assault by Russia, sealed its fate and the armed forces began their escape.

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.

Clearly, he was prepared for all eventualities, having made requests for visas to England, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Jugoslavia, Bulgaria and France.  On 28th October 1939, events forced him to leave Bucarest and he crossed into Hungary, arriving in Budapest two days later.  He had to wait there until November 4th before he received a transit visa for Jugoslavia and four days later a one time use transit visa to cross Italy and enter France.  He left immediately and crossed into Jugoslavia at Kotariba.  It took four days for the group to cross Jugoslavia and they entered Italy at Ponte on 12th November.

Benito Mussolini’s Italy was an ally of Germany and must have been hostile to Poles who had so recently been fighting the Germans.  The six days it took to drive through the country must have been a tense time; a time to keep their activities low profile.  Finally, on 18th November, they crossed into France at Menton in the Alpes Maritime Department. 

His first step would be to contact the Polish Government in exile in Paris, from where he was sent to the Base Aerienne Polonaise, otherwise known as the Polish Depot, at Lyon-Bron.  The food and living conditions there were notoriously bad, but he coped and by January 1940, he was flying combat missions in Morane-Saulnier fighters of the French Armee de l’Air.  He would be in French Air Force Uniform with a Pologne shoulder flash to identify his nationality.

In April 1940, with no help from the French authorities, all his efforts paid off and Zofia and Wojciech Piotr joined him in France.  But it was a short lived triumph as the French capitulated in June and Italy joined the war on the German side and the Polish contingent were back to square one with nowhere to go but England.

After this, the French ordered the evacuation of the air base and the family drove south for three or four days.  Even the French military became hostile to the Poles and some of the French wanted to intern the Poles on behalf of the Germans.  They drove to Perpignan on the Mediterranean coast, close to the Spanish border.  The plan was to drive through Spain and cross to Morocco and he even got the visas, but Zygmunt located a ship leaving the nearby Porte Vendre for Oran in Algeria.  Whilst he was arranging for the car to be taken on board he was attacked by a hostile French crowd and had to draw his gun to keep them at bay.

It took them two days to sail to Oran and, on arrival, they immediately took a train to Casablanca in Morocco to avoid conflict with their former allies there.  The journey lasted two or three nights and they travelled in the car on a flatbed trailer as it offered more comfort than the cramped conditions in the packed train compartments.  Zofia and Wojciech Piotr slept in the car and Zygmunt slept outside on the flatbed.

Soon after arriving in Casablanca, they heard of an old Polish vessel which was laid up in Rabat.  It was in dire need of repairs and some of the Polish sailors and engineers set about making it seaworthy for the journey to England.

ORP Wilia (Wilja) Berthed in Gdansk, Poland, prior to WW2.  Photo © Wikipedia

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.

After training exercises in the Mediterranean and repeated mechanical breakdowns, she was laid up in Rabat, Morocco with a skeleton crew of three for maintenance purposes.  With cadets from the other training ship, the sailing vessel Iskra, and experienced Polish sailors who were trying to escape to Britain, they put to sea and sailed to Gibraltar.  Once there, they settled down to wait until they could join a convoy to England.  They did not have to wait long, and sailed with the very next convoy in early July 1940.

After a day or so at sea, the Wilia fell prey to yet more mechanical problems and the vessel had to slow down for further repairs.  It was barely making headway.  The convoy and its destroyer escorts had no choice but to leave them behind.  The German U-boat menace was too great to put the whole convoy at risk for one old tramp steamer, albeit crammed with military refugees.

The Poles had not come this far to turn around and limp into Lisbon in Portugal and meekly surrender to internment.  Portugal was a neutral country and England’s oldest ally, but the Government of the day was undeniably pro-German.  They unanimously decided to press on for England and maintained a speed of five knots, very little more than a brisk walking pace and only half its designed capability.  The sailors and engineers on board performed miracles and perpetually patched up the stricken vessel to keep it under way.

They must have had a guardian Angel as the Atlantic weather remained calm and they never knowingly encountered a U-boat.  In his account of the journey, Zygmunt’s son commented that they wouldn’t waste a torpedo on the Wilia but he was wrong because the human cargo was intrinsically of immense value to the war effort.  Besides which, there were many newly commissioned U-boat Captains who were desperate for a first kill – and there is no doubt that they had no qualms about attacking defenceless vessels and passenger ships.  It took them two weeks to make the relatively short journey to Liverpool.

When they entered St George’s Channel (the approach to the Irish Sea) they were spotted by a British Short Sunderland flying boat which first identified them and then advised them to stop immediately as they had entered a minefield intended for German naval shipping.  They had a long, anxious wait for a British tug to see them safely through the minefield.  They finally docked in Liverpool on 18th July 1940.  They had escaped and were free but the real danger had just begun as they were about to go into active combat.

As a footnote, the Wilia was turned over to the Polish mercantile marine and served faithfully until 6th June 1944 – D Day, when it was taken out of service and two days later it was sunk, with other old vessels, off the French coast, near Arromanches.  They were to form a breakwater to protect Mulberry, a huge concrete harbour that was floated across the English Channel then sunk and filled with concrete to act as a landing point for men and munitions after the Normandy landings.  Years later the old vessel was refloated and cut up for scrap.

On 12th August 1942, the Polish 304 Squadron Wellington bomber HX384 (NZ-L) crashed into the sea off the coast of Wales.  On 21st September 1991, divers from the Llantrisant Sub-aqua Club found it and recovered artefacts from it.  A machine gun and a propeller were restored and are now in the Military Museum in Warsaw.  They were handed over on board the sailing vessel Iskra – the same one that originally accompanied the Wilia – when it docked in Newcastle upon Tyne (my home town!) during the Tall Ships Race, on 15th July 1993.

A remarkable end to a remarkable story.

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