Saturday, 9 August 2014


Aleksander Iluchin was born in Bialystock, North east Poland, on 24th January 1921; he had a twin sister and two older siblings.  The family were middle class, his father being a railway engineer and they were not wealthy but led a comfortable life in a decent home and with plenty of food on the table.  When he was very young, the family moved to a house that his father built in the town of Staroscielce, a suburb of Bialystok.

He began school at the age of seven and led a normal life, passing the entrance exams to the Higher school (known as the gymnasium, at the age of 14.  In 1935 he enrolled on a four year engineering course in the city of Bialystok.  He spent three happy years there and was enjoying a visit to a summer camp, provided by his father’s employers, on the River Niemen which flows from Wilno (now Vilnius, Lithuania) just 20 miles from the Russian border.  At the end of this time, he visited Gdynia where he witnessed Polish anti-aircraft fire against two German planes flying overhead.  The war had begun.

Just a few days later, the Germans bombed Bialystok and the surrounding railway network.  His father survived the bombing and made his way home on foot, but was never the same again.  His employers sent him to the camp where Aleksander had been – as a holding measure until the work force could be re-organised.

At this point Aleksander was still away and, with two of his friends, decided to travel east, away from the invading German forces.  Their plan was to escape via Hungary but they were told that the Germans were being pushed back and so his friends returned to Posnan and he joined his father at the summer camp.

He arrived there early in the morning of 17th September 1939, just as the Russians invaded from the east.  He saw many Russian tanks and said that some were broken down because of their inferior quality.  With Poland now being occupied by German and Russian forces, he decided to go home to his mother.  This was a difficult task to accomplish because of the damage to the railway network and the bridges.

Once the invasion was accomplished, the schools re-opened and he was ready to complete his final year.  Before too long the NKVD (forerunner of the KGB) started rounding up people they thought likely to plan or assist in a rebellion – many simply disappeared.
n mid-November 1939, he was taken for questioning by NKVD officers and was put in an army truck and driven to the Russian Headquarters at Lomza.  He was kept for four days in the cellars, being fed only bread and water.  At the end of that time he was taken to Lomza prison where he was put in a cell in the women’s section.  In the morning he was given bread and tea and, in the afternoon a thin soup made of barley or some other grain.  That was to be his lot until April 1940.
Lomza Prison - bombed and shelled and mostly demolished in 1944
He was regularly questioned by the NKVD who accused him of being an enemy of the state because he was a Scout Master and the Scouts in Poland were all against the Russian regime.  He does not describe his treatment as brutal but does mention an incident where a female officer gave him a cigarette and lit it for him then slapped him hard, burning his face.

In mid-April, he was brought from his cell in the middle of the night and told he had been sentenced to 8 years hard labour in Siberia.  He was then taken to the men’s section of the prison, where he spent the next four months.  During his time there he received some parcels of food and tobacco from his family and he was allowed to write to them, but only in Russian.

He lived in very poor unsanitary conditions with no washing facilities, only primitive toilet facilities and no way to avoid lice and fleas.  The food was also very poor and in very small portions.

In July 1940, the prison guard informed him that he was being moved; he thought (correctly) that he was being taken to Siberia.  They were taken through the streets to the railway sidings and that was the first time in ten months that he had seen daylight.

Those condemned to Siberia were put in windowless, poorly ventilated railway trucks (forty men per truck) and the train set off heading slowly East.

They travelled for many days through Moscow and on to Archangelsk, stopping twice daily so they could relieve themselves by the track.  They were given only hard, dry black bread and water to sustain themselves.  On reaching Archangelsk, they were held in barracks for almost three weeks during which time he became ill and was given an unknown powder with water twice a day to calm his fever.  His travelling companions were set to work loading and unloading ships.

Eventually they embarked on two coal carrying vessels; 1,200 prisoners on each ship and moved out into the Arctic Sea.  The weather was bad and everyone was seasick but after three days they arrived at the estuary of the Pechora River, probably somewhere near Naryanmar but not in the town as he describes only a few huts for the Russian soldiers.  Here they learned that the other ship had been lost in the storm.

They waited there for about ten days until two barges, hauled by a single tug, arrived to take them on to their destination, further up the Pechora River.  There were mostly Russians, Koreans and Czechoslovaks and a relatively small number of Poles in the party.  The barges took on sacks of salted fish and hard black bread – their entire diet until they arrived at the camp.

Travelling was only possible by day and great problems arose because of their diet, which was inadequate but made worse by the fact that the salted fish made them need more of the dirty river water.  Dysentery was rife and many died; more and more became ill but there was no medical help and the guards stayed on the upper deck to avoid infection.

After nine days, the barges became ice bound and they were stranded 120 kilometres (about 75 miles) from the nearest camp.  Everyone was either dead or very weak and Aleksander passed out from illness and exhaustion.  They were found by a party of hunters who took them ashore and tried to look after them.  They sent for tents, firewood and food and tried to revive those who were still alive.

When they were recovered they spent many days removing the bodies from the barges and burying them in the snow; in their weakened state it took 3 or 4 of them to move a body.  When this was done they set off overland, stopping overnight at villages along the way where they were fed by the villagers who shared what little they had and gave them warm places to sleep inside their huts.  Still more died along the way and were buried in the snow as they had no tools to dig through the permafrost.

They finally arrived at the Vorkuta Gulag field hospital where they had to strip naked, in spite of the intense cold, and climb into barrels of hot water to scrub off the lice.  For three weeks he stayed in the hospital suffering from a high fever and he received special treatment from the hospital assistant who was another prisoner from Bialystok.
Eventually Aleksander was put to work as a hospital assistant until he was fit to go to work in the Gulag.  Eventually he was placed in the supply depot where the food was better and the work was not too hard.
Alek (left) and his friend Janek Martins
(right) at Camp 17, Vorkuta Gulag

In June 1941, Germany invaded Russia without warning (Operation Barbarossa) and Stalin ordered all Poles and non-Russians to be taken away under close guard.  He was returned to Camp 17, where he started and his real hardship was about to begin.

This camp was the base for prisoners who were building roads and railways by sheer hard labour.  At first he was lucky, a Russian prisoner of the same name had answered the roll call to do the work intended for him.  He stayed behind and carried out chores for a Russian Officer’s wife – chopping logs and carrying coal, but he was soon found out and had to work with the rest from then on.

Every morning they were called early and started off the day at 6am by marching one kilometre to their place of work.  They worked at least a  ten hour day with a pick and shovel to clear a way through the permafrost for the roads and railway lines.  They had one break for lunch which was soup (mostly fish soup), kasha (a sort of porridge made from whatever cereals were available) and tea.  In the intense cold, the soup and tea had to be consumed quickly before they went cold.  They were given the same meal at night.  This same inadequate food for weeks on end caused outbreaks of scurvy and night blindness.
Slave labour building the roads and railways at Vorkuta
Gulag.        Picture from the Russian news agency Tass

The Russian doctor, also a prisoner, was kind to him and certified him unfit for work when he had an accident with an ice pick.  During this time he resumed his chores for the Officer’s wife and she gave him bread, sugar and tobacco. 

By the autumn of 1941, Camp 17’s road quota was built and they were due to march 150 miles north east to the main Vorkuta Camp.  Early one morning the men were medically checked to see if they could make it and the Russian doctor advised him to make up a cup of hot water with a pinch of tobacco in it and drink it half an hour before his medical.  This gave him a high fever and the doctor convinced the others that he was too ill to make the trip.

He resumed his chores and the Officer’s wife gave him bread and cheese and bread and sugar and even played music for him when he was working.  One day she warned him that there was a band of female labourers coming to be lodged overnight and that he should keep out of their sight.  There was only one other man in the camp and he was sick and elderly and by the morning he was dead, having been brutally raped by the women.

Soon afterwards he spent 10 days in the field hospital after eating some of the rancid salted fish and when he returned to Camp 17, he was given the news that he was to be released to fight the Germans.  He was given the choice of joining the Red Army or the British Army under General Anders – he chose the latter and was sent to the recruiting area the next day with a loaf of bread and some cheese but no money for the journey.

He walked to the Pechora River and was taken across, by boat, to the Pechora railway station where he waited for three days before being put into boxcars destined for Tashkent in Uzbekistan.  The train was low priority and was forced to stop frequently and they were soon out of food so they resorted to stealing animals along the way, this included sheep, donkeys and cows.  The animals were killed and cooked and they were never caught as they were out of urban areas.  The train travelled south, skirting Moscow, and gradually into warmer areas where they were able to supplement their diet with water melons and sometimes vegetables.

At Tashkent they detrained and assembled in the city square, where they were given soup and then boarded several large trucks which took them to the Polish assembly point.  They were not allowed into the camp because of a typhus outbreak and the officers did not want these relatively healthy men to contract the disease.  They were issued British uniforms and taken to an encampment in a nearby field where they were to spend the night.

Next day they were taken back to Tashkent to the River Amudaria from where they embarked on barges to take them the 120 miles to Kazakhstan.  On arrival they were billeted with the local population until they could be properly processed.

Conditions were poor in Kazakhstan but the local people shared what they had.  They caught a dog and killed it and made a stew but, hungry as he was, Aleksander could not bring himself to eat it.  When he and his two friends saw their hosts’ 5 year old son in rags they made him a pair of trousers from a winter coat, which was no longer needed; his grateful parents gave them some of the local tortilla style bread which was made by placing the dough on the outside of a stove.  When it was fully baked, it fell off the stove and was ready to eat.

Noticing the lack of hygienic bathing conditions Aleksander and his two friends built a bath house in the local school and demonstrated its use to the locals who had never seen anything like it.  They were leaving shortly afterwards and the grateful villagers threw a party for them; they slaughtered a sheep and produced Russian vodka, which Aleksander had never tasted before.

They faced a three day journey westward by camel and they were saddle sore by the time they got back to Tashkent.  At this point their clothes were once again infested by lice and they were forced to take a long sauna whilst their clothes were burnt.  They were issued with new uniform which included boots to help protect them against the snakes, scorpions and tarantulas.  It was also significantly better than the shoes they had in Siberia (made from old truck tyres) tied on with rope and using old rags as socks.  Only the guards and trustees had boots made of walanki (camel hair) which were good against the frost but were not waterproof.  That first night, they slept in tents on army camp beds and thoroughly enjoyed the luxury.

Next morning they were given an English breakfast before being taken to Krasnovodsk, a port on the Caspian Sea, where they were crammed on board an old coal carrier for the 10 hour journey to Pahlevi in Persia (now Iran) where they were taken to their new quarters, fed and given one pound Sterling each.  He bought boiled eggs (too many, and suffered diarrhoea!), bananas and pomegranates (which he had never seen before) but loved.  After two weeks rest there they were taken by jeep across Iran and Iraq to Palestine (now Israel).
Cramped conditions - standing room only - and no food
or water on the 10 hour journey across the Caspian Sea

Crossing Iran was relatively quick and easy but Iraq, and particularly the reckless Iraqi drivers, was a nightmare of bad roads and speeding drivers – one jeep in their convoy left a mountainous road and plunged down into the valley, killing all the occupants.  After a few days they arrived in Rehovot, a small town about 20 miles from Tel Aviv where there was an army encampment.  In the fields around this area they did some basic training on hand guns, machine guns and how to use them.

He applied for a transfer to the Polish Air Force in England; he lied about his age and educational qualifications and was one of about 200 accepted.  He was sent via Basra in Iraq and Karachi in Pakistan to Bombay, India from where they sailed on the French liner Ile de France to Durban, South Africa.  They were aware of Japanese submarines in the area but rough seas enabled them to avoid a torpedo attack and they made it safely to their destination.

A week later they sailed on the Empress of Canada but only as far as Cape Town where they picked up hundreds of Italian POWs.  On the third night at sea, just before midnight, they were struck by a torpedo from an Italian submarine, the Leonardo da Vinci, and it was quickly obvious that the ship was sinking.  In Aleksander’s own words: 

“The decks were lit by a pink light, an international signal for surrender, so we knew we had lost the ship. Under international law the ship was allowed 40 minutes to disembark. We just had time enough, but the ship was tilted so much to the port side (left) that the life boats had filled with water and were of no use. I looked around the deck and eventually found a rubber life belt which I believe ultimately saved my life. Fifty-two years later, I still have that life belt. The crew started lowering the life boats on the other side. “Women first, women first” – the Polish, British and Canadian girls were given first chance and then we were instructed to look for anything that would float and to throw them overboard, so we threw rafts, etc. Many people were still on deck trying to get out. I decided that I must get off the ship so I let go and felt myself slide until I hit the water. When I came up my eyes were almost closed because of the oil from the ship. I tried to get away as far as possible, but the oil was everywhere.”

He was eventually picked up by one of the lifeboats which was already full with about 80 people on board.  They were circled by huge sharks and other sources say there were also many Barracuda present.  He was lucky, but many were not and a large number of those who died, bled to death after attacks by these savage creatures; many of the bodies recovered were missing lower limbs.

Later they were spotted by a Catalina Flying Boat, most likely from 270 Squadron based at Jui in The Gambia.  This aircraft signalled to them that they would be picked up the following day and Aleksander says that he was picked up by a naval corvette, which could only have been the Flower Class HMS Petunia.  All the survivors were taken to Freetown Sierra Leone.   Whilst still on board the rescue vessel, he was provided with hot water and the means to remove the oil from his eyes, hair and skin.  They were among the last to disembark in Freetown and there was no accommodation for them so they were taken to an empty army camp where they could rest in relative comfort.

After two weeks, they sailed for England via the Canary Islands and the Bay of Biscay to Liverpool, dodging German U-boats this time.  Once there, he was sent to the Polish Depot at RAF Squires Gate, Blackpool.  After having had an incredible war, so far, he was about to embark on a second phase in the Air Force.

Whilst they waited for their training regime, they undertook English language training and familiarisation with the Kings Regulations.  He was posted to a training establishment, almost certainly RAF Halton near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire and later to 6 OTU in Silloth, Cumberland (now Cumbria) where the crews worked and trained together to form a cohesive fighting unit.  He was then posted to 304 Squadron at RAF Benbecula (Outer Hebrides) on 14th February 1945 and RAF St Eval (Cornwall) on 5th March 1945 where he was a member of the regular crew of F/O Jaroslaw Radon and flew anti-submarine and convoy protection missions over the Bay of Biscay and the Irish Sea.  The other members of his regular crew were F/Sgt Marian Ziemkiewicz, Sgt Feliks Zdziech, Sgt Mieczyslaw Popko and Sgt Zbigniew Dobrowolski.  
304 Squadron, 1945, Probably taken at RAF St Eval
Aleksander is 4th from the right in the middle row
After hostilities ceased there was little employment for aircrew and on 9th July 1945 he was transferred to No 17 Aircrew Holding Unit at RAF Snaith near Goole in East Yorkshire.  This was the day that the squadron moved to RAF North Weald near Epping in Essex; the retained airmen and ground crew were moving there but they all left Newquay Railway station together and about 200 of them were being moved elsewhere. 

The retained crew were to join Transport Command ferrying materials to bases in Europe and the Middle East and bringing released Prisoners of War home.  Following his time there he did two years service in the Polish Resettlement Corps at RAF Dunholme Lodge, finally leaving the Air Force in May 1948.

At the end of the War, in May 1945, he received a letter from his mother; it was a joy to receive but gave him the tragic news that his father and his sister Janina had been killed by the Germans.  They took the family’s two houses and turned the larger one into a store for war materials.  When the Russians made their big push, in 1944, the Germans were forced out but the Russians told her that the big house must be made habitable again or they would commandeer it to help alleviate the housing shortage.  She found a suitable family to live there and she had two rooms refurbished to house them.  This was very difficult as there were no materials and little money available to do it.
n 1948 he married Ruth, an English girl, and although it was a struggle, they made up a package to send to his mother.  She later reported that she had made enough money from one pair of nylon stockings (on the black market) to pay for a wooden floor in one room.  Subsequent parcels helped her to completely refit the house.

In his last year, in the Polish Resettlement Corps at RAF Dunholme Lodge, he decided to accept the British Government offer of free passage to Tasmania.  However, he had met Ruth and they decided to marry and stay in Britain and he embarked on a training course in repair work on office equipment.  He trained for a year and a half and Ruth worked too, so he had a trade and they had a little money.  A friend who he had met in Palestine asked them to go to the USA, so they scraped the money together and did just that; they had very little money, but it was as much as the British Government would allow them to take out of the country at the time.

So they sailed on the SS United States, arriving in New York City on 4th March 1954.  They had to find work quickly and Aleksander found work with IBM just four days after they arrived; Ruth did the same becoming a legal secretary.  They saved hard and bought a 1945 Cadillac and, two years later, sold it and bought a new De Soto and headed off to California.  In time, they settled in the Los Angeles area and he brought his mother and twin sister Maria over from Poland.  They had a good life and raised three children.  He became a US citizen in 1959 and anglicised his name to Alek Alexander.

Eventually, the family left on an extended tour to New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, back to England and then on to Poland.  Finally they returned to the USA and settled in Florida where they retired until Aleksander’s death on 14th November 2006 at their home in Ormond Beach, Florida.
Aleksander's medals including the Cross of Valour
During the course of his military service he was awarded the Cross of Valour, the Polish Air Force medal, the 1939-1945 Star, the Air Crew Europe Star, the Africa Star, the Defence Medal and the 1939-1945 War Medal.
With special thanks to Ruth Alexander and her daughter Robin Vinay for giving me access to all the family papers without which I could not have written this story.  Copyright on most of the photographs belongs to the Alexander family

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