Jan was born in Lida (now Belarus) on 4 August 1920, but claimed to have been born in Bialystok, possibly to protect his family at home. All of his military documentation reflects this small deception. It was to prove convenient later, during the Cold War period when he was still a serving member of the Royal Air Force.
He was born to Jan and Apolonia Walentowicz; one of three brothers and was the only one not forced into exile in the depths of Siberia because he was already away in the Air Force. On the night of 9th/10th February 1940, a Polish Jew who was a Communist sympathiser, lead the Russian troops to the family home, where they arrested his mother and his brothers Jozef and Jerzy. His father was away working but the Red Army soldiers waited for him and arrested him on his return.
The family were taken away and crammed into railway freight cars with other deportees - with little food, water, heat or hygiene facilities. This journey persisted for six weeks with frequent stops to change the locomotive or to replace the military guards but with little relief for the deportees - many of whom died in transit. They were bound for Shypunovo Camp in the Susun District near Novosibirsk.
Once they reached their destination, they spent their lives working a 14 hour day tapping sap from the trees in the vast forest around the area. This was accomplished with very little food or heating and with minimal comfort. It persisted until Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa – an unprovoked attack on his former allies. At this time Jan’s two brothers and his father made their way to join Anders’ Army in the Middle East. His mother stayed behind but was allowed to return to Poland in 1946.
On 1st November 1937 he joined the Polish Air Force to complete his compulsory National Service; he was trained as a meteorological observer and was posted to 151 Fighter Eskadra Mysliwska at Porubanek Air Force Base near Wilno (now Vilnius, Lithuania) on 1st May 1938.
Badge of 151 Eskadra
He should have finished his period of conscription in April 1939, but due to the political tensions between Poland and Germany, the Polish Government would not release him from service. On 24th August 1939 the squadron was moved to a secret airfield at the village of Biel, near Malkinia, close to the East Prussian border. By 28th August, they had readied the secret airfield and the squadron’s aircraft arrived the next night; they were successfully parked and concealed under the trees at the fringe of the new airfield.
On 1st September 1939 Germany invaded Poland and Russia attacked from the east on 17th of that month. On that first fateful morning at about 5am he heard many dull. distant explosions as Germany launched its bombers against Poland. At around noon, he witnessed about 60 German bombers attacking two railway bridges over the River Bug. This attack was less than successful but set the small provincial town of Malkinia ablaze. Over the next four days, their aircraft were in action against German observation balloons and on reconnaissance missions; not all of the aircraft and personnel returned. His unit had started out with 10 obsolete PZL P7a single seat fighters, some of which were lost during the fighting.
They were attached to the Independent Operational Group Narew which was part of the Polish Army – their original function was to defend the area around Wilno. On the night of 6th September, they were ordered to abandon the airfield and prepared to move on. Unfortunately, they were mistaken for a German column and attacked by Polish bombers; some of their vehicles were destroyed and there were also human casualties. Through that night the squadron travelled to Cyzyzew and their aircraft were flown to Ceranow. The following night they moved on to Wola Suchozerbska but two days later they were ordered to Brzesc-Litewski (Brest-Litovsk). On 11th September they moved again to Liliatyn where they stayed until 17th September and received the news that the Russians had invaded from the east.
Colonel Pawlikowski, their Commanding Officer, ordered the last two remaining aircraft to fly to Czerniowce in Romania. The following day, orders were received for all personnel to cross into Romania, where they were disarmed and interned, the surviving aircraft being used as trainers by the Romanian Air Force.
Jan and his colleagues were sent to Tulcea, a tented internment camp in the Danube delta near Baghtbadak in the Province of Dobruja where the swamp land was extremely unhealthy and infested with malarial mosquitos. Conditions were so bad that the International Red Cross asked the Romanian authorities to move them out of the Delta and they were moved into another camp in the foothills of the Transylvanian Alps near Campulung; this was an empty army camp where living conditions were better and it was free from mosquitos.
However, the damage had been done and Jan fell sick with dysentery and malaria whilst at this new camp. Once he had recovered from the initial debilitating effects of his illness, he and a friend, hatched a plan to escape from Romania and rejoin the Polish forces. The Polish government did their utmost to help these exiles and they easily acquired new passports, fake identities, civilian clothes, travel instructions and money to help them on their way.
This done, the two men simply walked out of the gates of the camp on 15th November 1939 and took a train to Balcik (now Bulgaria), a small port on the Black Sea. There they took lodgings with a friendly Bulgarian family and stayed happily with them until 19th December when they received instructions to take passage on a rusty old Greek ship that had entered the harbour. Jan had to bribe an immigration official to look the other way, whilst they boarded this vessel and sailed for Lebanon.
They sailed soon afterwards and, on 22nd December 1939, arrived in Beirut, where they spent Christmas in a tent in the French Foreign Legion base. The warm, dry climate was of great benefit and he was quick to recover from his illness. Early in the New Year of 1940, he sailed from Beirut on a French troopship bound for Marseilles, arriving there on 22nd January 1940. From there he took a train to Lyons and a bus to the Polish Air Force holding unit at Lyons-Bron. With about 800 other Poles, he was given accommodation at the Camp de Judes at Septfonds on 28th January.
L'Armee de l'Air demobilisation and
L'Armee de l'Air ID Card
This was an appalling place with few concessions to sanitation such as clean water and toilet facilities. It was a First World War transit camp for French soldiers and had been turned into a camp for Communist refugees from the Spanish Civil War. It was rife with rats, lice and other parasites and later became a concentration camp for Jews. However, there was little employment available and, in frustration, he joined the Polish army as a driver and was assigned to an anti-tank platoon in the 10th Mechanised Cavalry Regiment based at Arpagon on 31st May 1940.
This was a short-lived enterprise and his platoon was embroiled in the chaos caused by the capitulation of the French Government, in June 1940. He was captured by the invading German Army and was held prisoner for three days until the night of 17th June, when he escaped.
Travelling on foot, and only moving at night, he encountered a body of British and Polish troops near the city of Tours; their plan was to head for Spain, crossing the Pyrenees into neutral territory. During the journey, whilst resting in a Pine forest near Bordeaux, they were told by radio to head for the small fishing port of Le Verdon sur Mer near the mouth of the Gironde Estuary. When they arrived there, they saw three large ships lying offshore. These were probably the Clan Ferguson, the Royal Scotsman and the Delius.
This was all part of Operation Ariel, which ultimately rescued over 190,000 troops. A rescue mission that is far less recognised than the Dunkirk evacuation a short time earlier – but just as dramatic.
Using every means possible to get out to the ships and being constantly harassed by the Luftwaffe, the whole group were rescued and the ships sailed for Liverpool on the night of 22nd/23rd June 1940 and were escorted most of the way by the destroyer HMS Vanquisher – which did not have sufficient fuel to accompany them to Liverpool. All this was done in the face of harassment by U-boats, freshly laid mines and Luftwaffe fighters and bombers.
He arrived in Liverpool on the night of 25th June 1940 and disembarked the following morning. With the rest of his unit, he was put on a train to Glasgow where he was billeted in the City Greyhound Track – sleeping in the open air. Four days later, he left the army and rejoined the Air Force at a temporary camp at RAF Hawarden in Flintshire, Wales.
On 2nd July 1940 he was Posted to RAF Kirkham in Lancashire and whilst there, he had brief detachments for training to RAF Staverton in Gloucestershire, RAF Hereford and RAF Blackpool. Reluctantly, he retrained as an airframe fitter and was posted to 307 (Polish) night fighter Squadron at RAF Kirton-in-Lindsey, Lincolnshire. The Squadron moved on to RAF Jurby on the Isle of Man on 7th November 1940, RAF Squires Gate, Blackpool on 23rd January 1941, RAF Colerne, Bristol on 26th March 1941 and RAF Exeter, Devon on 26th April 1941. During this time he worked on Boulton Paul Defiants and later, Bristol Beaufighters.
He applied to become a pilot but unfortunately he suffered constant recurrences of his malaria and was unable to carry out the training. But persistence pays and, in 1942, he was accepted for pilot training. On 12th November 1942 he moved to No 25 (P) Elementary Flying Training School at RAF Hucknall in Nottinghamshire. Here, he learned the basics before moving on to (P) Initial Training Wing at RAF Brighton on course no 117 on 17th January 1943. Five months later, on 26th June 1943, he returned to RAF Hucknall for day and night flying experience.
On 26th August 1943 he moved to 16 Service Flying Training School at RAF Newton in Nottinghamshire before moving on to No 8 Air Gunnery School at RAF Evanton, Inverness, Scotland on 23rd February 1944. He was then posted to No 3 School of General Reconnaissance at RAF Squires Gate, Blackpool on 31st July 1944. His final pre-combat training was at 6 (C) Operational Training Unit at Silloth in Cumberland (now Cumbria).
16 (P) SFTS Course members - RAF Newton, 1943
8 Air Gunnery School - RAF Evanton, Scotland - July 1943
Jan (right) wearing RAF Wings on a French uniform
On 31st January 1945 he was posted to 304 Squadron, Coastal Command at RAF Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides. His duties there were very long, mostly low altitude, flights far out over the Atlantic Ocean. The mainstay of this work was anti-submarine warfare interspersed with harassment of enemy shipping and convoy protection.
Jan's regular crew during his time in 304 Squadron
On 5th March 1945 the Squadron moved to RAF St Eval in Cornwall – no change in their duties but the operational area moved to the Bay of Biscay and the approaches to the English Channel. On 9th July 1945, the Squadron moved to RAF North Weald in Epping Forest, Essex but Jan did not go with them. He was one of the party who left Newquay railway station for 17 Air Crew Holding Unit at RAF Snaith near Goole in East Yorkshire. He spent the next15 months there and at other ACHUs at RAF Full Sutton and RAF Pocklington (both Yorkshire) and RAF Hucknall (Nottinghamshire). Thus ended his WW2 involvement in hostilities and a transition to peacetime flying, but it was a very long way from the end of his service as an active airman.
A Tragic Family History
As a footnote to Jan’s story, I have included the following background material which shows the true extent and devastating effects that war can have on a family – it also shows the sacrifices made by this family and many others in the fight for freedom.
Jan’s father, also Jan Walentowicz, was born in Sieniawka near Niezwiez on 23rd October 1888 and was a forester by trade. During the Great War and the Bolshevik War of 1918-1920, he served in the Polish Cavalry.
On release from the Russian Gulags, after Operation Barbarossa in 1941, he took advantage of the amnesty and left Siberia to join Anders’ Army in Persia (now Iran). In order to join up, he had to lie about his age and alter his birth certificate to “prove” that he was not too old to fight.
He was killed in the fighting at Massafra near Taranto and is buried in the Casamassima Military Cemetery near Bari in Southern Italy. Following the end of hostilities, Jan applied for compassionate leave to visit his father’s grave but received a letter dated 8th July 1946 from the Air Ministry denying his request.
Jan’s rejection letter from the Air Ministry
Jan’s uncles, Jozef and Wladyslaw, were conscripted into the Russian Navy and were lost in action without trace – their bodies were never found.
Jan’s mother, Apolonia, remained in the Gulag at Shypunovo, near Novosibirsk, and was allowed to return to Poland in 1946 – but only after writing a letter to Jozef Stalin, thanking him for his hospitality.
Jan’s sister, Maria was living in Warsaw and was not taken to Siberia but her husband, Jerzy Tomaszewski was taken away for interrogation by the Gestapo and executed (murdered) on trumped up charges on 27th November 1939. He has no known grave.
Maria was active in the Armia Krajowa throughout the war and survived the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 but was taken by the Germans and was sent to the notorious Mauthausen-Gusen camp complex at Wiener Neustadt in Austria. At that stage of the war, life expectancy there was three months but she survived until the camps were liberated at the end of the war. She returned to Poland, remarried and tried to rebuild her shattered life but her spirit was broken and she died in 1982.
Jan’s elder brother, Jozef was a soldier in the 4th Cavalry Regiment in Wilno (now Vilnius) both before and during the Second World War. He was captured by the Germans in 1939 and sent to a POW camp but he escaped and made it back home into the Russian occupied zone. He was hiding in his parents cellar, but was betrayed by a Polish Jew wearing a Red Star armband and was taken by the Russians and sent to a Gulag in Shypunovo near Novosibirk.
After the amnesty following Operation Barbarossa, he was released and made his way to Persia (now Iran) where he joined Anders’ Army. After the War, he married an English girl and settled in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. Later they emigrated to the USA where he lived until his death in 1991 in Clifton, New Jersey.
Jan’s younger brother, Jerzy was away at boarding school when war broke out but returned home to live with his parents. He too was taken to Siberia and left with his elder brother after the amnesty. He joined Anders Army and served in a mortar platoon in North Africa and in the Italian campaign leading to Monte Cassino and beyond.
After the War, he married, had three children and spent his life living and working in Nottingham until his death in 1988.
All photographs and documents from the Walentowicz family archives. Special thanks to Peter and Paul Walentowicz for permission to use them.