- Subject: Kazik Szrajer Article - The Ottawa Citizen The following full-page article appeared in the Ottawa Citizen today (Sunday - page C5): KazimierzMessage 1 of 1 , Feb 29, 2004View SourceSubject: Kazik Szrajer Article - The Ottawa CitizenThe following full-page article appeared in the Ottawa Citizen today (Sunday - page C5):
Kazimierz Szrajer's marvellous mission
How a young Polish flyer spirited away top-secret rocket parts from the Nazis
The Ottawa Citizen
Sunday, February 29, 2004
The missions of decorated Second World War pilot Kazimierz Szrajer and other Polish flyers are included in a new book that looks at their heroism and at their mistreatment by Britain. CREDIT: Chris Mikula, The Ottawa Citizen
As a boy in Poland, Kazimierz Szrajer fell in love with flying machines. He was flying gliders at 16 until his parents put a stop to it when his brother, a navigator, was killed in a flying accident. But Hitler's invasion of Poland in September, 1939, changed everything.
Like thousands of his countrymen, Szrajer fled the Nazis, eventually making his way to England. Now he was more determined than ever to become a pilot and drive the invaders from his homeland.
A Question of Honor (Knopf, $39.95), a remarkable book by Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud, tells the story of the Polish pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain and took part in virtually every other RAF air operation in Britain and the continent. Szrajer was attached to Squadron 303, whose exploits are the book's focus, before becoming a bomber pilot. After the Battle of Britain, the Polish airmen became media darlings and were fawned over by smitten women.
Yet at the end of the war, they were barred from the victory parade because the new Labour government wanted to appease Stalin, who had taken over Poland. Only Churchill and a few RAF leaders expressed dismay at this shameful turn of events. Many of these airmen eventually came to Canada and had careers at Air Canada, Pratt & Whitney and Canadair.
Here, Szrajer, now 84 and living in Barry's Bay, recreates his most significant mission -- a dash behind enemy lines to retrieve parts of a secret V-2 rocket, the weapon Hitler believed would win the war for Germany.
As dusk fell on July 25, 1944, Pilot Officer Kazimierz Szrajer was in the co-pilot's seat of a Dakota transport aircraft as it crossed the coast of Yugoslavia en route to a landing strip in occupied Poland.
Szrajer, a Polish national, was a decorated pilot in the Royal Air Force. He had flown dozens of "special operations," dropping agents and supplies behind enemy lines. But this mission, codenamed "Third Bridge," was extraordinary by any measure.
Their orders were to touch down at an airstrip near the city of Tarnow in southern Poland and retrieve plans and parts of a crashed V-2 rocket that had been captured by the Polish resistance. The Allies were eager to get their hands on the gyroscopic guidance system of the V-2, the "wonder weapon" being fired at London, Antwerp and other cities after the Normandy Invasion in June. The "V" stood for vengeance, and Hitler believed the rocket would be Germany's salvation. There was no defence against the V-2, forerunner of the intercontinental ballistic missile. Unlike the V-1 "doodlebug," it could not be shot down from the air. The V-2 was the ultimate terrorist weapon.
The Dakota, an unarmed twin-engined aircraft, had taken off from Brindisi in southern Italy. Szrajer had earned the Distinguished Flying Cross piloting Wellington and Halifax aircraft on bombing runs to take out industrial targets deep inside Germany. But his training on the Dakota amounted to five minutes before takeoff, when the crew leader, New Zealand pilot Stanley George Culliford, had acquainted him with the instruments, the fuel system and the workings of the undercarriage.
Szrajer was also assigned to be interpreter on the mission, co-ordinating communications between the flight crew and the partisans awaiting their signal near the airstrip.
There were several cases of equipment and four passengers aboard the Dakota, none of whom were known to the flight crew for security reasons. (Szrajer would learn much later that one of them was Jan Nowak, a noted Polish resistance fighter.)
At the arranged time, the Dakota was over the airstrip which had been abandoned recently by the Germans. But earlier that night, two German Storch reconnaissance planes had landed there, taking off shortly afterward.
The Dakota's twin searchlights were turned on and in response, lights at the corners of the airstrip lit up. After this exchange of recognition signals, Culliford landed the Dakota on the second approach.
As the passengers slipped away into the night with the offloaded equipment, five westbound passengers climbed aboard. Top priority was given to Jerzy Chmielewski, an underground member who was entrusted to carry the bag of V-2 parts. He had also memorized a report on many technical aspects of the recovered rocket. After Chmielewski came Jozef Retinger, a special emissary from Churchill and the Polish government. Retinger, who was 56, had parachuted into Poland three months earlier.
Within 15 minutes, the Dakota was ready for takeoff. The engines roared, the aircraft vibrated and moved forward slightly. Then it stopped. It had rained over the past few days, and the field was soft. The Dakota was stuck in the mud.
Szrajer's mind raced as he and the pilot scrambled out to check the undercarriage. "At this moment I realized the situation I was in. Not only had I flown to and landed in my homeland and was on Polish soil, but I could remain here, become a soldier in the Home Army, and in a few days even meet with my family and those closest to me.
"There was no time for contemplation ... The airstrip officer was asking me many questions about his comrades from the regiment, about Polish units in the West, about London. All this was happening at lightning speed -- as at the same time we were trying to free our Dakota by all means possible."
Szrajer had been in tight spots before. Almost two years earlier, he had flown a Halifax bomber on a mission to destroy Gestapo headquarters in Warsaw. When a full moon thwarted that operation, the bombs were dropped on the Warsaw airport. Returning home, Szrajer's plane was attacked over Denmark by a German fighter. The damaged Halifax was ditched in the North Sea. The crew launched a dinghy -- then found it had a bullet hole in it. Amazingly, they got a second dinghy afloat and were picked up by a rescue launch after two hours, a little worse for wear but very much alive.
Now Szrajer ordered all passengers and baggage to be taken off the aircraft to decrease its load. Shallow trenches were dug in front of the wheels and filled with straw.
With passengers and gear back on board, the pilot gunned the engines, but the Dakota would not budge. Szrajer knew the crew had orders to burn the aircraft if they could not get it into the air. One final attempt would be made, this time using boards under the wheels instead of straw. About an hour had passed since the Dakota landed. Dawn would soon arrive.
This time, the Dakota pulled itself free and as it juddered along the airstrip, Polish soldiers ran alongside, cheering and waving their caps in the air.
Once airborne, there was another problem -- raising the undercarriage. Before takeoff, believing the brakes had jammed, they had cut the brake cables, draining the hydraulic fluid. That, in turn, made it impossible to raise the landing gear.
This slowed the aircraft, and increased fuel consumption. The crew faced the prospect of running out of fuel.
"We partially filled up the hydraulic reservoir with whatever was at hand, tea from the thermos flasks and water."
It worked. "The undercarriage was raised as the Dakota was flying over the Tatra mountains."
Three hours later the Dakota would land safely in Brindisi -- without brakes.
"Behind us we had left a group of people living in constant danger, fighting for almost five years against the invader in our homeland. Our departure with the parts of the V-2 was for them the culmination of success."
On July 28, Jerzy Chmielewski landed in London carrying the bag containing six rocket parts.
Even now, Szrajer is indebted to England for the chance to join the fight against the Nazis invaders and free his beloved homeland.
He was 19 when he fled Poland after the German invasion in 1939. Like thousands of his countrymen, he made the exhausting journey to freedom through Hungary and Yugoslavia, finally arriving in England from France. At 21, he become a pilot in the Royal Air Force, joining more than 10,000 Polish Air Force pilots and ground crewmen determined to fight on.
"England gave us the opportunity to fight the Nazis. We were very grateful," he says.
Their heroic story is told in A Question of Honor. The book centres on the experience of five pilots in RAF Squadron 303, known as the Kosciuzko Squadron. The Polish airmen fought ferociously in the Battle of Britain, and their 303 Squadron was the most successful of all RAF units in shooting down German aircraft.
While waiting to attend flying school, Szrajer worked as an instrument mechanic with 303 Squadron, maintaining and repairing Spitfires and Hurricanes.
"I knew all the pilots," he says. "They were very high-spirited. In a way, there are many good memories despite the war."
Olson and Cloud write that, as pilots, the Poles seemingly copied the tactics of the famed Polish cavalry.
"British pilots were taught to fly and fight with caution. They were instructed not to get in too close, to open fire on the enemy at a distance of not less than 150 yards. The Poles, by contrast, had been trained at home to be aggressive, to use their planes the way a cavalryman uses his charger, to crowd and intimidate the enemy, to make him flinch and then bring him down. After firing a brief opening burst at a range of 150 to 200 yards, just to get on the enemy's nerves, the Poles would close to almost point-blank range."
Despite their heroism in the air, the Poles quickly became unwanted guests in England when the war ended. Unlike military units from France, the Netherlands and Norway, the Polish military men and women, including 12,000 pilots and ground crew, could not return home in triumph. Poland had been taken over by Russia and Stalin hated the Poles. Far from a welcome, returning troops faced internment or death under the communist regime.
On July 5, 1945, Britain and the United States -- in the name of "Allied unity" -- withdrew formal recognition from the Polish government-in-exile and bestowed it on the communists in Warsaw. A government report prepared for new British prime minister Clement Atlee in 1946 noted that the continuing presence of so many foreigners -- competing with Britons for scarce jobs and housing -- was bound to cause friction. In March, 1946, Polish armed forces under British command were advised of imminent demobilization and that it was their duty to return to their home country "without further delay" to help in its reconstruction. Those who stayed were told to expect government assistance only "as far as our resources permit." And there was no guarantee they would be allowed to settled in Britain, or any other part of the British empire.
The RAF sprang to the Polish flyers' defence. An Air Ministry report declared that the Poles are "part and parcel of the RAF, they have fought with us during the whole of the war, they were with us in the Battle of Britain, and with us from D-Day onwards to 'the kill' in Germany."
A few months later, on June 8, 1946, Britain held its grand Victory Parade. To its shame, the British government invited communist Poland to take part while barring the thousands of Polish pilots and other Polish airforce personnel who had fought under British command.
In the end, the government heeded a protest by the RAF and grudgingly invited a few Polish flyers to march. But the aviators declined the invitation to protest the exclusion of their army and navy compatriots.
In the House of Commons, Winston Churchill said he profoundly regretted the exclusion of the Poles. "They will be in our hearts on that day."
After the Japanese surrender in 1945, Szrajer made several flights from the Far East, ferrying home survivors from Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. He left the RAF in 1948, but his flying career would span more than 40 years. He came to Canada with his family in 1955. After amassing 25,100 hours of flying time over his career, he retired in 1981 as a senior captain for Nordair. Szrajer held no grudge against Britain, then or now.
"It was all high politics between Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill," he says.
Years after the war, Szrajer returned to Poland and visited the little airstrip where the Dakota had bogged down that fateful night. On the airfield there is a large stone monument with a plaque that describes Szrajer's mission.
"I met a German there, an army sergeant who told me he was nearby that night with troops. He said they knew something was happening but couldn't do anything because the Russians were so close by.
"It would have been a massacre."
Bruce Ward writes for the Weekly.
© The Ottawa Citizen 2004