Jan Walentowicz at the controls of his helicopter
Jan Walentowicz was a man of considerable achievement within the Polish Air Force and later, the Royal Air Force. On his death, he was honoured with obituaries in the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian newspapers. The following item is something a little more personal and poignant. It is an obituary written by Paul Walentowicz in honour of his father, Jan. It is reproduced here with Paul’s permission and the copyright remains his. Paul and his brother, Peter, have given me enormous help with my efforts to write a biography of Jan Walentowicz, which will appear here as soon as my research is complete.
Flight Lieutenant Jan (John) Walentowicz 1920-2011
My father Flight Lieutenant Jan (John) Walentowicz, who has died aged 90, was a pilot during the latter half of the Second World War flying air reconnaissance Wellingtons (304 Polish Bomber Squadron "Land of Silesia-Ks. Józefa Poniatowskiego"). He later became a distinguished and skilful helicopter pilot for the Royal Air Force during the 1950s and 1960s (155 and 22 Squadrons).
Jan was born in Lida (then in Poland, now in Belarus), not Bialystok as he claimed, on 4 August 1920. In 1937 he joined the Polish Air Force to do his national service, trained as a meteorological observer and was posted to 151 Fighter Squadron near Vilnius (then in Poland, now in Lithuania). His intention was to complete his national service and then resume his education in April 1939. But because of the threatening political and military situation the Polish government cancelled all releases of national servicemen.
On 1 September 1939 Nazi Germany attacked Poland. His unit lost aircraft and to avoid being captured by Soviet forces, which on 17 September had invaded Poland from the east, the remnants of his unit were ordered to cross the border into Romania. Once there, Jan and his compatriots were disarmed and sent to a district close to the estuary of the River Danube.
"The area was known to be most unhealthy and we were left in the open without food or shelter. Due to the appalling conditions the International Red Cross asked the Romanians to move the troops away from the swamps. Consequently we were transported to a camp in the foothills of the Transylvanian Alps", Jan recalled. In October - about six weeks after the invasion of Poland - Jan fell sick with both malaria and dysentery.
He and his comrades were planning to escape from the camp and from Romania. Once recovered and equipped with a false passport, travel instructions and a disguise, he and a friend simply walked out of the camp on 15 November 1939. They took a train to the small port of Balcik (then in Romania, now in Bulgaria) and found lodgings with a friendly Bulgarian family for about a month. Jan wrote that, "On 19 December 1939 a rusty ship arrived and we were told to embark. I had to bribe a Romanian emigration officer and towards the evening we sailed. We arrived in Beirut, Lebanon and spent Christmas Day in a tent at the French Foreign Legion base".
Jan's health improved greatly in the warm climate and he was fit to leave on a French troopship for Marseilles in early 1940. He was sent to a Polish Air Force holding unit at Lyons where he kicked his heels in frustration at its inactivity. He decided to join the Polish Army, which was short of drivers, and was attached to an anti-tank platoon. Following the invasion of France, Jan and his group were caught up in the chaos caused by collapse of the Allied defences. "I was caught by the Germans near Paris and spent three days in captivity, escaping on 17 June. Travelling by night and on foot, I came across a group of British and Polish troops near Tours. It was thought that to avoid capture they might have to get to Spain. But while resting in pine woods one day near Bordeaux we were told by radio that a rescue effort was to be attempted. An astonishing sight greeted us as we emerged from the woods; three large ships were moored some distance from the shore off the small fishing port of Le Verdon-Sur-Mer on the Gironde estuary". The troops were told to use any available craft to reach the ships, which could not come close inshore. Despite being harried by German aircraft, everyone got aboard by late afternoon and they sailed away bound for Liverpool. Four days after arriving in England, Jan was reunited with his comrades and rejoined the Polish Air Force.
Jan applied for pilot training but the malaria kept recurring. It was almost two years before he was fit enough to apply again. In the meantime he trained as an airframe fitter and was posted to 307 Polish Night Fighter Squadron based at Kirton in Lincolnshire. In the summer of 1941 Bristol Beaufighters replaced the ageing Boulton-Paul Defiants it had first been supplied with. In 1942 Jan was accepted for pilot training and passed out in early 1944. "Completing my conversion on Vickers Wellingtons, I was posted on 31 January 1945 to 304 Polish Reconnaissance Squadron at RAF Benbecula, Outer Hebrides. From there, we maintained long-range anti-U-Boat patrols across the north Atlantic. In March 1945 we moved to Cornwall and continued operations in the Bay of Biscay".
Between 1945 and early 1947, all the Polish Squadrons were disbanded. On 1 October 1946 Jan was demobbed from the Polish Air Force in the rank of Warrant Officer and on the same day offered and accepted a place in the No. 9 Polish Resettlement Unit at RAF Melton Mowbray. Poland had ended the war under Soviet occupation; the part of the country where Jan had grown up had been annexed by and incorporated into the USSR. Most Poles refused to return and remained in exile; only a small number went back to Poland. "We could not make any decision. Some tried to find local jobs. Some made plans to emigrate (Jan's eldest brother Jozef moved to the USA at this time). I decided to stay in England and in January 1948, I enlisted in the RAF as aircrew, pilot".
Shortly after joining the School of Air Traffic Control as a staff pilot at RAF Watchfield in Wiltshire, Jan applied for a commission. In July 1950 he passed out at RAF Kirton-in-Lindsey and was promoted to Pilot Officer. He spent the next 15 months as a training officer but then got back to flying, first with 62 Group Communication Flight at RAF Colerne, Avon then with 63 Group Communication Flight at RAF Hawarden, Flintshire. Jan found much of this work rather mundane, so in 1954 he volunteered to train as a helicopter pilot. Following instruction at Westland's factory in Yeovil, he was posted to the re-formed 155 Squadron at Kuala Lumpur. During his three years in Malaya, he flew 1000 jungle flying hours on Whirlwind HAR4s and safely participated in almost 200 operations. Len Raven, a member of Jan’s crew on five operations in May and June 1957, wrote after his death that “It was always a pleasure to crew for him as he was a very competent helicopter pilot and a real gentleman…It was a real pleasure to meet him again at one of the helicopter reunions”.
On returning to the UK in 1957, Jan joined 'A' flight of 22 Squadron at RAF St Mawgan, Cornwall flying Whirlwinds again but this time in the search and rescue (SAR) role with 24-hour instant readiness. Shortly afterwards, 'A' flight moved up the coast to RAF Chivenor where Jan became flight commander. During his time with 'A' flight, Jan completed 528 flying hours consisting of 62 operational hours and 50 incident 'scrambles'.
Jan's flying career ended for the time being in August 1960 - shortly after his 40th birthday - and he completed an Air Traffic Controller Course at RAF Shawbury, Shropshire and was subsequently posted to RAF Linton-On-Ouse to continue his "ground tour". In January 1964 Jan was posted overseas to RAF Khormaksar, Aden. This was the time of 'operations' in the Radfan, when the station was the busiest in the RAF with nine squadrons based there. He moved back to the UK in 1966 for helicopter refresher training. In April he was posted to 202 Squadron, RAF Leuchars as C Flight Commander. He was still flying Whirlwinds, but this time the HAR10 version. In 'C' flight Jan completed 360 flying hours consisting of 68 operational hours and 22 incident 'scrambles'.
On Boxing Day in 1966 Jan was ‘scrambled’ to fly a doctor to the Isle of Arran to treat a very sick woman. She was, incidentally, the daughter of Robert McLellan then a Scottish playwright and poet. It was eventually decided that she must be flown to the mainland for specialist help. By then the weather had worsened, a snowstorm was raging and visibility was extremely poor. Jan knew it was the only chance to save her life and took a calculated risk by flying at 100 ft above the waves to get her to hospital in Glasgow. A year later he searched for a RAF Lightning pilot who had ejected from his plane into the North Sea over 55 miles away. The pilot was eventually located in a dinghy almost at the last minute in near darkness, was rescued and taken back to base. Incidentally the fortunate pilot - Squadron Leader Blackburn - was a neighbour of Jan's at the time! Jan was by then - at 47 - the oldest pilot in the RAF. In May 1968 Jan commenced his last 'ground tour' at RAF Acklington in Northumberland but 18 months later it was all over. "On 1 October 1969, I said enough is enough and I retired after unbroken service of 32 years".
Together with his family Jan moved to Billericay in Essex where with his wife Wyn, they bought and successfully ran the Billericay Bookshop for 20 years. He continued with his antiquarian book business - which he had pursued as a profitable pastime for many years - and developed a picture framing service as a lucrative sideline. Naturally he taught himself how make and fit the frames.
Now aged almost 70 Jan and Wyn then had a blissful 20 years of retirement in the village of East Hanningfield outside Chelmsford. For many years, they used to stay in Florida, USA during the winter months in the charming resort of Dunedin. In 1998 he was invited together with Wyn by the government to a ceremony in Poland to honour the achievements of the Polish Air Force during the war. In 2010 they received a congratulatory card from the Queen to celebrate sixty years of marriage. Jan remained reasonably healthy past his 90th year. He was active almost until his death in the Royal Air Forces Association’s annual ‘Wings Appeal’. Jan is survived by his wife Winifred, me and his other children Tony, Jan (a girl!) and Peter and by five grandchildren Amy, Luke, Ava,Tom and young Matthew who is almost thirteen.
Paul Walentowicz28 November 2011