He was born in Warsaw on 15th January 1915 and his father died when he was just four years old, leaving his mother to raise him and his sister alone. This was a time of hardship and privation and could not have been easy for him but he also remembered the good times - skating on the frozen river Vistula near his home.
In the mid 1930's he joined the army and was given training as an electrician. In these early days the Air Force was a branch of the Army and he was allocated to an air base near Warsaw.
Immediately prior to the outbreak of war he was attached to the ground crew of 3rd and 4th Air Regiments maintaining the 10 PZL P7s and the 43 updated versions - PZL P11s under constant pressure to keep them flying for as long as possible and all the while being under attack from the Luftwaffe bombers.
After six days they had lost 38 aircraft in combat and were ordered to Lublin as the situation was becoming hopeless. They had faced technically far superior German fighters with pilots battle hardened from the Spanish Civil War and they had performed superbly, being credited with 42 kills.
Just eleven days after they left for Lublin, the Russians invaded and the Poles were ordered to head for Romania. The few serviceable aircraft were flown there and the remainder were destroyed before the ground crew made the long trek via what is now south western Ukraine to the Romanian border where they were disarmed and interned.
Escaping the internment camp was easy, after contacting the local Polish "agent", Henryk was given false identity papers, travel documents and money. A small well placed bribe would ensure the guard looked the other way as he left the camp and he then simply made his way to Constanta, a port on the Black Sea which he reached in January 1940. Travelling on from there on whatever vessels were available, usually oilers, colliers and cargo vessels, he spent the next three months travelling via Piraeus (the port for Athens), Greece to Naples in Italy, Valletta in Malta and then on to Marseilles in France where he rejoined the Polish Forces.
Initially he was posted to Toulouse military base (now Toulouse Airport) but very soon afterwards he was sent to Blida in Algeria which was the training centre for Polish bomber crews. He was only there for a short time before the French capitulation and then he was evacuated by train to Casablanca in Morocco to move onwards to Gibraltar. This was necessary because both Algeria and Morocco were Vichy controlled, fascist and very pro-German. This was a total devaluation of the Free French fighting forces and the genuine Maquis resistance movement; this was truly a stain on the honour of France.
There is some doubt about the vessel used to transport the Polish military from Morocco but the most likely seems to be on board the ORP Wilja which was laid up at Port Lyautey (now Kenitra) about 84 miles along the coast from Casablanca. Henryk was one of a great many Poles trying to get out of Morocco under great pressure from the Vichy authorities and with as much haste as possible because of the imminent arrival of German forces. Allied vessels were not welcome there so the Poles went about a very quick restoration of the Orp Wilja and skilled men such as Henryk were badly needed for this purpose.
In very short order, the Poles got the vessel's engines working and 1,870 of them boarded her before they put to sea and managed to get her to Gibraltar to await a convoy to Britain. They were lucky to be allowed to join the first available convoy; the British gave them fuel and provisions for the journey and they left Gibraltar on 6th July 1940 as part of Convoy HG37.
Admiralty records show that this convoy was escorted by various British warships along the way but was escorted right to Liverpool by HMS Enchantress. However the 34 year old Wilja was not able to keep up and was left behind because of the convoy's need for speed to dodge German bombers and U-boats. She was advised to make for Vigo in Spain where she would be interned.
There was a general agreement among the Poles on board that, in spite of her failing engines and troublesome boilers, they would still try to get to Britain. Somehow they managed to keep her going at a pitifully slow speed and when they had reached the South coast of Ireland and were about to enter St George's Channel, they were approached by an RAF Short Sunderland flying boat. Having exchanged identity codes the pilot advised them to heave to and stay where they were until he could get a surface craft to guide them out of the minefield through which they were sailing!
Eventually they were extricated from the minefield and the rest of the journey passed uneventfully and they docked in Liverpool on 18th July 1940. Their initial destination was the Blackpool Polish Depot from where Henryk was sent to the No 7 School of Technical Training at RAF Innsworth near Gloucester. However, this was a very short lived posting and he was sent from there to RAF Bramcote near Nuneaton in Warwickshire where men were desperately needed for the formation of the Polish 304 Bomber Squadron on 23rd August 1940. He would have had his first taste of the war in the West on 26th September 1940 when the station was attacked by a Junkers Ju88 intruder which strafed the area and caused minor damage to one of the Fairey Battles - not really serious but a warning that ground crew were not immune to danger.
He was immediately put to work as the Squadron was allocated 16 Fairey Battle light bombers and these had to be brought to readiness. They were obsolete aircraft and everybody in the squadron must have been happy when they converted to Vickers Wellington bombers from 1st November 1940.
On 1st December 1940, the Squadron moved to its first operational base at RAF Syerston near Newark, Nottinghamshire. On 20th July 1941 they moved on to RAF Lindholme near Doncaster in Yorkshire and now the pressure began to mount as the squadron became more heavily involved in the fighting.
On 14th May 1942, the squadron moved again to RAF Tiree in the Inner Hebrides and began their tour of Atlantic anti-submarine patrols; this required long, low level flights over featureless ocean and meant that the ground crew had to make real efforts to ensure the aircraft were well maintained as there was no flat ground for emergency landings. On 13th June 1942 they moved again to RAF Dale in Pembrokeshire, Wales where the same rules applied.
During this time, Henryk was afflicted by a severe skin irritation caused by some of the materials he had to handle in the course of his work. He was so badly affected that he had to be taken to RAF Cosford near Wolverhampton and spent two months in the RAF hospital there.
In the eulogy at his funeral, it was claimed that he had spent several weeks in Lille and Cannes and gives a very positive date of D-Day + 9 (15th June 1944). The latter must have actually been Caen as there were no Allied forces in Cannes until 24th August 1944). This must mean that he moved to 2nd Tactical Air Force. Unfortunately this information is unreliable as it also claims he worked on Lancaster bombers at Farlingworth (Faldingworth?) but the dates given make this unlikely as there was only a time lapse of three months between the time the first Lancasters were received by 300 Squadron and the time he was in France and most of this time would have been spent in 2TAF.
It is not impossible for much of this to be true, but I have not been able to confirm it with any degree of certainty. Any solid information would be most welcome.
On 25th September 1943, he married Joyce Boot Neaum, a baker's daughter from Derby and they raised a family of three children. Times were very difficult after the war, especially for Poles who were not popular with the Trades Unions, but he managed to make a living working as a motor mechanic in the Derby area. His Certificate of Naturalisation was granted on 22nd September 1948 and he changed his name by Deed Poll to Neaum, his wife's maiden name.
He died in Derby on 12th July 1995, aged 80.
Photographs courtesy of the Neaum family