Sunday, 22 January 2012


He was born on 29th January 1915 on a farm at Cendrowice, about 20 miles south of Warsaw, to Michal Mentlak and Franciszka Mentlak nee Bianczyk. After his education was completed, he enlisted as a non-commissioned officer cadet – on 14th October 1932 – where he remained until 18th June 1935 when he was posted to 213 Squadron of 1st Air Regiment as a regular airman; from 1st April 1938 he served as a flight engineer. He stayed with them throughout the September Campaign from 1st to 17th September 1939.

On the orders of Wing Commander Jozef Werakso, he was evacuated to Romania as part of the four man crew of a PZL 37 Los (Moose) bomber, serial number 72c. This was a Polish designed and built twin engine medium bomber. The crew were interned immediately on arrival in Bucarest. Two days later, on 19th September 1939, he was admitted to a military hospital where he stayed until 30th September when he was informed that they were going to amputate one of his toes. He suffered problems with this foot for the rest of his life – but kept his toe!

He made his way to Constanta, a port on the Black Sea, and stayed there until 8th October 1939 when he attempted to cross the frontier en route for France. He was detained at the border and taken to an internment camp at Turnu Severin and held there until 21st October 1939. The following day he arrived at Balczyk (Balchic) near the Danube Estuary on the Black Sea where he remained for two weeks until 5th November 1939 when he boarded a ship for Malta. He remained in Malta until 16th November 1939, when he sailed for France with the intention of rejoining the Polish Air Force.

He arrived at Marseilles on 19th November 1939 and re-enlisted in the Polish Air Force under French command at the air base in Lyon-Bron. Like many other Poles, he was unhappy with the living conditions there and the inactivity and was among the first to leave for England – arriving there on 5th January 1940. He enlisted at RAF Eastchurch in Kent – this was before it became a front line fighter base and was under frequent attack from the Luftwaffe. He spent a few weeks here on the routine induction – learning English, learning RAF regulations etc.

Antoni Mentlak (right) with unknown PAF colleague

On 26th March 1940 he was transferred to RAF Hucknall on the outskirts of Nottingham, which was the Polish training centre for both flying crew and ground crew where he would complete his training and become familiar with British aircraft – which were inherently different from their Polish equivalents in that many of them had retractable undercarriage and totally different layout of controls. On completion of his training he was posted to RAF Bramcote near Nuneaton, Warwickshire, on 28th June 1940. Here he served as a fitter, flight mechanic before becoming an established member (flight engineer) of the aircrew in the fledgling Polish Air Force in exile as part of the newly established 300 Squadron.

Later he transferred to 301 Squadron and served with them until they were disbanded at which time (30th November 1942) he was posted to 138 Squadron, based at RAF Tempsford in Bedfordshire. This has been described as the RAF’s most secret air base in WW2 and 138 Squadron was the work horse for the clandestine missions of the Special Operations Executive. Speaking of RAF Tempsford, Adolf Hitler said: “....find this vipers nest and obliterate it!” – but they never did. Between 16th March and 9th June 1943 he was seconded to No 4 School of Technical Training at St Athan for unknown reasons except possibly to improve his skills as a flight engineer.

Whilst at RAF Tempsford, he took a short break from hostilities and married Hilda Benson on 14th April 1942.

Antoni Mentlak flew at least nineteen missions from this base; he flew twelve to France, one to Denmark and six to Poland. All of this was before he transferred to the newly forming 1586 Flight on 6th November 1943. On the evening of that day he flew from RAF Tempsford, via RAF Gibraltar, to RAF Sidi Amor in Tunisia; this flight counted as a combat mission because they had to fly over territory to reach their final destination – facing the twin menaces of anti-aircraft fire and night fighters. After a few weeks to acclimatise and maintain their equipment, they flew on to RAF Campo Casale near Brindisi in Southern Italy – this was to be their new operational base from which he flew at least sixteen missions. These were to Czechoslovakia (1), Greece (3), Italy (3), Jugoslavia (1) and Poland (8) The latter involved flying over enemy territory for almost the entire route and there was a disproportionate ratio of losses associated with these long and dangerous flights. The main purpose of them was to supply partisan forces with weapons and materials and to drop agents into enemy territory; I have positively identified at least four flights carrying agents.

Halifax Bomber JD319 (GR-A) in which Antoni flew several missions

During the rest of his flying career, he took part in a further five missions and accumulated a total of 310 hours and 55 minutes flying time and 41 combat sorties – well above the minimum requirement for a tour of duty with a Special Operations crew – and even above the limit for a normal bomber crew. In this time he accumulated considerable decorations – the Silver Cross of the Virtuti Militari (5th Class), the Cross of Valour and two bars and the Polish Air Force Medal and two bars as well as his Royal Air Force campaign medals.

From 6th May 1944 he was attached to the No 3 Base Personnel Depot at Naples and , eleven days later, on 17th May 1944, he arrived back at the Polish Depot in Blackpool. On 11th August 1944 he was reassigned to the No 4 School of Technical Training at St Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan, South Wales where he remained until his transfer to 304 Squadron on 19th September 1945, which was, by this time, part of Transport Command. His duties there were flying missions, mainly to Italy and Greece on unarmed Vickers Warwicks and Handley Page Halifaxes. On the outward journeys they were ferrying supplies and on the return journeys they usually ferried returning Prisoners of War and other passengers. Although the war was over, these were still dangerous missions as the aircraft were tired and war battered converted bombers.

He was honourably discharged from the Air Force on 7th January 1947 and, the next day, reported to the Polish Resettlement Corps (technically the Army) for a two year term during which he was re-trained as a plumber to help him integrate into civilian life. He was finally demobilised on 8th January 1949.

After the war, he settled in Leeds and worked as a plumber. He was actively involved with the local Polish community and the Polish Club. He married on a further two occasions and fathered a total of eight children. He always attended the Polish reunions in Blackpool each September but in the later years he came back depressed as the numbers attending steadily declined due to the deaths of his former comrades in arms. He returned to Poland only once, in the 1980s and died of a heart attack, at home, on 17th October 1987 aged 72. He was buried in Killingbeck Cemetery, Leeds.

Personal photos copyright Kristopher Mentlak
Halifax photo copyright holder unknown

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