He was born on 20th February 1912 at Kuznica near Lodz, Poland, the son of Tomasz and Miroslawa. His military service began on 19th September 1934, when he enrolled as an Officer Cadet attached to No 4 Infantry Regiment (possibly at Lodz or Torun?). Between 3rd January and 12th September 1935, he attended the Air Force Officer Cadets course (Deblin?), on completion of which he was posted to No 1 Air Regiment at Warsaw.
Gliding - just before take off - Poland, 1936
On 1st January 1937, after further training, he was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant and posted to 2 Air Regiment at Krakow and, between 22nd July and 31st August 1938, he undertook further training and large scale combined army/air force manoeuvres. This was clearly in anticipation of the future consequences of an attack by Hitler’s increasingly aggressive Third Reich. It may not have been so obvious that Russia would join the attack in the way that she ultimately did, but there was no love lost between her and Poland.
At the outbreak of war, he was in Yemen as a member of a Mission to reorganise the Yemeni Air Force, but was released from his contract on 8th September 1939 by the Yemeni King Yahya Muhammad Hamidaddin to allow him to return to Poland to rejoin his unit.
On the way from the Port of Aden via Suez and Cairo he received the news that Germany and Russia had occupied Poland and was advised, by the Polish Consulate in Cairo, that Polish forces were being assembled in France.
He made his way to Athens, Greece and, at his own expense, he set sail for Marseilles in France and arrived there on 16th October 1939, rejoining the Polish forces there. He was assigned to the Polish rallying point at Le Bourget, the airport for Paris, on 26th November 1939.
He was subsequently posted to the Polish Air Force in exile in Britain but, while he was awaiting transport, France capitulated and he escaped to North Africa. From there he made his way to Gibraltar from where he sailed to Glasgow, on a British vessel, arriving there in October 1940. As with most Polish airmen, he was sent to Blackpool, to the Polish Depot there.
After a short period of training at No 1 School of Army Co-operation at Old Sarum, Wiltshire, he was posted to No 4 Ferry Pilot Pool at RAF Prestwick, Ayrshire near Glasgow. From there he was posted to RAF Takoradi in the Gold Coast (now Ghana), West Africa, embarking on 18th November 1940 and arriving there on 18th December 1940 after a hazardous month at sea. He was immediately posted to the Polish Air Force detachment of Ferry Pilots based there under the control of RAF Middle East Command. His task was delivering aircraft that had been crated and sent there by sea before being re-assembled. His delivery point was probably RAF Heliopolis (Cairo) for onward shipment all around the Middle East and the Mediterranean, under the aegis of Middle East Command.
On 23rd July 1941 he was seriously hurt in a flying accident and was admitted to the British Military Hospital in Kaduna, Nigeria where he remained until his discharge on 1st November 1941. He had suffered a badly fractured leg and cuts and bruises.
The circumstances of this accident to Delivery Flight 162 were that he was delivering a Martin Maryland bomber and was making his approach to land at the Kaduna staging point when an engine cut out and he crashed. His crew members were Sgt EPP Eden, who was also badly injured and 755458 Sergeant Walter John Ronald Hammond, RAFVR, who was killed. Sgt Hammond is buried in Kaduna Civil Cemetery.
Two weeks later, he was transferred to RAF Torquay, Devon and then on to the Polish Depot at Blackpool on 25th January 1942 where he remained for about 8 months, presumably recuperating. On 27th September 1942 he was posted to No 16 Polish Secondary Flying Training School at RAF Newton, Nottinghamshire. His next move was on 10th December 1942 to No 6 Air Observer School, possibly at RAF Staverton (now Gloucestershire Airport), as a pilot and the Polish Liaison Officer to No 25 Training Group.
On 16th August 1943, he transferred to the No 3 School of General Reconnaissance at Squires Gate, Blackpool and on 18th October 1943 to the Polish Air Force Depot, also at Blackpool. He stayed there until 30th November 1943 when he was posted in to 304 Squadron at RAF Davidstow Moor, Cornwall during their time in Coastal Command. Two weeks later, the Squadron completed its move to RAF Predannack, also in Cornwall, and two days after that he was sent on a short familiarisation course on Wellington Bombers. He was a very experienced pilot but had not flown these aircraft before; the course was at 3 OTU at RAF Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, Wales. He was there from 15th December 1943 to 1st January 1944 and was one of the last to be trained by them as the Unit was disbanded three days after he completed his course.
Sq/Ldr Pilniak (3rd from right) and crew after returning from a mission in early 1944
During the course of his fighting career, he pursued the normal Polish course of action against the Luftwaffe and the Third Reich this is best described by a translation of the citation for his Virtuti Militari:
Captain Pilniak completed his tour of 43 combat operations as first pilot and co-pilot. He showed courage, determination, cool headed initiative, outstanding professional knowledge and a very high level of skill as a pilot. The captain has achieved many successes and has kept his crew and aircraft safely in the sky. He set a fine example, as a pilot and co-pilot, to his crew. He also demonstrated outstanding qualities whilst acting as Squadron Leader from 11th November 1944 until 9th March 1945.
On the night of 23rd/24th March 1944, whilst on patrol over the Bay of Biscay, his plane was shadowed by a night fighter for an hour and twenty minutes but he did not have the speed to outrun it. He and his crew ignoring the threat of possibly being shot down, they continued their patrol with full dedication to the service, returning to the base after being airborne for 10 hours 15 minutes.
On 14th July 1944 his crew were on patrol near the coast of France when they detected, and daringly attacked a U-boat with depth charges. Outstanding co-operation with a British naval escort group brought them to the scene of the action and they believed that the most likely result was the destruction of a U-boat.
On 21st May 1944 his crew performed a very dangerous special patrol in the English Channel and remained on station until the end of the patrol, despite the strong anti-aircraft defences of the French coastal batteries and the constant threat from night fighters.
On 27th January 1945 his crew detected two German U-boats equipped with the latest Snorkel devices. They were without bombs but immediately alerted a strike force of planes and British naval vessels. Understanding their duty, the crew gave devoted service and risked their own lives and safety by remaining over the scene, to the limits of their petrol, keeping watch until the British Navy and Air Force arrived.
On 11th October 1944, 29th November 1944, 20th December 1944, 26th December 1944 and 29th January 1945, despite the very severe atmospheric conditions, the crew remained on patrol until moment they received explicit instructions from Headquarters requiring an immediate return to base, fearing the loss of aircraft and crew in conditions so severe that they would be unable to guarantee to provide them with an airfield suitable for landing at the end of the routine patrol.
On 18th February 1945 the crew’s first official engine defect occurred but the crew placed their selves at risk by remaining on patrol. Despite the very severe weather conditions, they only abandoned the patrol on a direct order from Coastal Command Headquarters, returning to base and landing with a damaged engine.
Their actions, values and efforts during the whole operational tour show that Captain Pilniak, being a model soldier, pilot and co-pilot, fully deserves the award of the Silver Cross of the Military Order of the Virtuti Militari 5th Class.
RAF Chivenor, 25th April 1944 - General Izycki chats with a crew immediately before they take off on a mission. S/Ldr Pilniak is second from right in the picture
It was a sad day, for 304 Squadron, when S/Ldr Boguslaw Pilniak left them to join the Polish Air Force Head Quarters in London on 10th March 1945 and was posted to the Directorate of the Department of Air Officer Commander in Chief, in London, where he retained the rank of Acting Squadron Leader. He was mentioned as having been involved with gathering material concerning the death of General Sikorski and this may have been collecting evidence for the Polish Government in Exile for their own investigation, or it may have been for archival purposes.
1944 - Having just received the Cross of Valour and the Cross of Merit With Swords
During the course of his war, he was awarded the Silver Cross of the Military Order of Virtuti Militari – Class V, the Cross of Valour and bar, the Silver Cross of Merit with Swords, the Air Force Medal and three bars; all of these being Polish Gallantry Medals. He was also awarded the (British) Air Force Cross and the following British campaign medals: the 1939-1945 Star, the Africa Star, the Atlantic Star, the Defence Medal and the War Medal 1939-45.
1945 - At his desk in the Air Ministry, London
With the phased reduction of the Polish Forces under British operational command , he transferred to the Polish Resettlement Corps with effect from 16th April 1947 and relinquished his commission on 19th November 1948 and was honourably discharged into civilian life in Britain.
He brought the same enthusiasm to his civilian life after the war. He took British Nationality and changed his name by Deed Poll, from Boguslaw Piliniak to Bernard Pilniak and he married Jeane Mary Bell and became the Managing Director of their own successful engineering company. Even in retirement he could not settle and they ran a very successful Bed and Breakfast establishment in Lyme Regis, Dorset. Sadly, he developed cancer and died in the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital on 21st November 1979 at the relatively young age of 67.
I am grateful to Egbert and Jeane Hughes for access to their family archives and their private papers and photograph collection, without which this article would not have been possible. Jeane was the wife of Squadron Leader Pilniak until his death in 1979; she married Egbert in 1995.