Polish pilots from 315 Sq at Northolt airbase in October 1941, in front of "Spitfire" Mk Vb PK-T. On the wing from left: Czezowski, Cwynar. Standing from left: Sytefankiewicz, Lukaszewicz, Jaworski. Please note good visible Polish insygnia.
My flying adventure started in 1934 during elementary (eliminating) gliding course at Ustjanowa in the Carpathian mount.
For a young beginner, a gliding course was quite a dramatic experience. Never having been in the air before, you were catapuled from the top of the mountain with instructions to glide down into the valley, to land anywhere, meadows or cornfields, but at all costs to avoid electric cables and dwellings.
The glider construction, was basically similar to the craft pioneer Otto Lilientahl had flown almost two hundred years before. The glider's tail was anchored to the ground, the nose’s hook attached to two partly elasticated ropes with rings, four labourers to each rope ran down the hill pulling outwards, diagonally, from the direction of the glider's f1ightpath.
At certain point, the instructor released the tail's anchorqge and one was shot out into the air while the labourers, losing momentum, tumbled down the slopes. The experience is one never forgotten- complete silence with only a slight breeze against one's face, one was gliding like seagull. Gliding course was a most effective way to eliminate those who had no ability or zest for flying.
There were some fatalities.
In the Spring 1935, I went to Elementary Flying School at Sadkow-Radom. In the Autumn moved to No 1 Air Force Base at Okecie, Warsaw. In the training squadron, we were flying Potez XV, Potez XXV, Breguet XIX and reconnaisance aeroplane , the Lublin.R.XIII, adapted for blind flying.
In the Spring 1936, I went to the Advanced Flying School at Grudziadz, where we were segregated to become fighter, bobmber or reconnaisance pilots. We were flying dual fighter trainer P.W.S. 26, single seater, first world war fighters , "Moran Saulnier Spad 6l",o~cL wonderful biplane for aerobatics, the Avia, and finall, a Polish fighter, the P.7.
In the Autumn, back in Warsaw, 113 Fighter Squadron, Warsaw Fighter Brigade comprise of 111, 112, 113 and 114 squadrons. 1938. May to December - flying the PFL XIC, as a member of the select fighter unit comprising seven pilots and machines, to a landing ground at Sarny, on the Polish/Soviet border to guard the Polish eastern fortifications (being built). From the high life of Warsaw to the Godforsaken outback.
The Commanding Officer of the group was Wladyslaw Szczesniewski, who became the Commanding Officer of 315 squadron at RAF Northolt, England, in 1941. His deputy from 114 squadron was A. Gabszewicz, who again, later became Commanding Officer of 3~6 Squadron at Northolt.
1939. End of August. Four squadrons of Warsaw Fighter Brigade were dispersed to advance landing ground near the Polish capital.
September 1. I shot down one JU 87 Stuka on the west side of Warsaw. The Junkers 87 were dive bombing our permanent air base at Okecie.
September 4. I engaged a Messerschmitt 110 or rather was attacked by him, from the sun. Tracer bullets from his two cannons passed my starboard side. The way he pulled up, climbing to line up for a second attack, emphasised the frightening disparity of our comparative speeds. Instinctively I decided to stay put and defend myself using the agility of the PZL by turning into his diving path, under him.
As the Me110 began to dive and fire from too far away, again I turned under him and then, as he started to climb, turned, starting to fire at him. I was on the tail of my "gegner" (enemy).
Unfortunately, the increasing distance between us allowed him to pull up again to repeat the attack.
Emboldened that I had a chance, I flew at right angles to his dive and then, again under him and up giving long bursts of machine gun fire.
His port engine started to smoke and he went into a dive towards intermittent clouds in a northerly direction towards the East Prussian border. I started to dive after him, his port engine now belching smoke. Again the disaprity in speed between us was so great he pulled away between the clouds.
Years later, at Northolt, while studying the performance of German machines, I realised why I had survived that encounter and managed to get some hits. The Messerschmitt 110 had good fire power but very poor manoeuvrability. There was no comparison with the British Mosquito or the French Potez 63.
September 10-12. With a German Panzer Division advancing on Warsaw we flew to a landing ground near Mlynow in the south-east of Poland.
September 17. We left Poland and landed at Bucharest airport in Romania. I was interned at a place called Urziceni, north of Bucharest.
Those days everybody in Romania could be bribed and our internment barracks Romanian police chief received a present - a pair of first class riding boots.
With his tacit agreement, every morning about thirty of us internees left by local bus for Romania's capital. To avoid the risk of being discovered with firearms in my possession, shortly before the coach left I went into a nearby hayfield, slipped behind a haystack and pretending to satisfy my physiological needs, pushed an empty Polish pilot's revolver, the "VLS", deep in into the hay.
There was, however, one item I was not going to part with, whatever the risk, my Polish fighter pilot's insignia, wings - original "Knedler's" of Warsaw. A flying Eagle carrying a green wreath in his beak, a symbolic tribute to fallen colleagues.
Then it was back to Bucharest and the Polish Embassy. With false passports - mine as a civilian mechanic - we travelled by train to Romania's Black Sea port of Constancia.
We boarded an overcrowded Greek boat, the Patria, luckily had a calm sea crossing to what was then French Syria and Beirut (now the Lebanon). We were sent to an army barracks with Senegalese soldiers, deloused, and the next day were put on a French boat, the Strasbourg bound for Marseilles.
1939. December. Arrived at Armee de L'Air base at Bron, near Lyon.
1940. January - March. We converted to French fighters, the Caudron 714 C. and the Morane-Saulnier 406.
In April Polish fighters were posted to various French fighter groups in sections of three pilots. Our section - W Baranski, our C/O from 113 squadron Warsaw, his deputy J. Borowski and myself, were posted to 3/6 Grouppe de Chasse station at Le Luc, south of Dranguignan. The Grouppe were flying Morane Saulnier 406's.
Within one week of our arrival at Le Luc, all pilots of this Grouppe, thirty-six of us, were sent by train to Toulouse. At the south aerodrome nearby, hundreds of the latest French fighters, Devoitine 520's, were ready to be collected.
We took off singly and landed on the north side of Tou louse Armee de L'Air base). At the south aerodeome where the Devoitines has been assembled, "Concorde" was to be built three decades later in the Seventies.
The following day we flew back to Le Luc. Within a week or so I had done lots of flying in this wonderful aircraft.
What happened one day, only Kafka could have dreamed up, it was such a missed chances scenario.
3/6 Grouppe was a very friendly, democratic set up. All the pilots were billeted in private homes at Le Luc and our C/U had commandeered the town's best restaurant for our dining. With long, rectangualr tables, the C/O at the top and the pilots, officers and non- commissioned officers mixed around, we indulged in traditional French style two hour lunches and evening meals.
My section leader, Pierre, a reservist more interested in fishing the nearby river than warfare, and I were in "readiness" to take off in the event of an emergency to defend our airfield and the nearby naval base of Toulon.
When on "readiness" duty the section remained at the aerodrome whilst the others climbed into a lorry and travelled the five kilometres to Le Luc for lunch. On this particular occasion, section leader Pierre convinced out group's CO there was no point in him staying on dutry because one Warrant Officer from "A" eskadrille was at that time patrolling in a Devoitine near Toulon.
When reminded that there were over seventy aircraft scattered around the airfield (including the now de-commissioned Morans 406), Pierre shrugged his shoulders and said: "Ca va!" The Commanding Officer told him so.
Meanwhile at a restaurant in Le Luc, we sat around a table. Before the C/O had a chance to stand up and raise a toast to the "Republique" we heard the noise of aircraft, in fact an Italian Fiat CR42 biplane of twelve, lining up in echelon starboard to strafe our base. We ran out into the garden and stood watching in disbelief at what was happening.
There was no point scrambling into our truck to drive back to the base. It was too late.
However, French honour was, to a degree, preserved. As the Italians started the first round of straffing, our W/O Pierre, le Gloan "A”, made a timely return to the base. As he approached the last bi-plane in the Italian formation began to open fire. He came in so fast he almost overshot the Italian and had to "kick" left and right on the Devoitine's rudder to slow down and place himself behind, “line astern”.
Right on the Italian's tail, he first short burst of 20mm cannon and the small bi-plane, presumably mainly a wooden structure, blew up, the pilot bailing out.
One by one was attacked by our W/O P. le Gloan.
He had downed six before the other Italians realised what was happened and scattered, fleeing towards the Italian border.
Back at the restaurant we were agonising over what damage the Italians had managed to inflict on our brand new Devoitines.
But when we arrived at the airfield we were pleasantly surprised. All the Devoitines were intact. Only three de-commissioned Morans 406 had been slightly damaged.
In April, before we had left Lyons for Le Luc, having learned that I no longer had a guitar having lost one back in Poland, my section colleagues, Baranski and Borowski, helped financially to procure a new one. They bought a nice "Selmer", the same model used by my idol, Django Reinhardt.
Now we were told we were to fly the next day to Perpignan and then on to Algiers. I decided to fly my precious possession in the Devoitine's fuselage right across the Mediterranean.
Behind the pilot's seat space, I took off a side panel and carefully tied the guitar to the longitudinal spars on the upper fuselage with string. Absorbed in my taks it was a short time before I noticed my section leader Pierre, watching as he puffed away on his pipe. I shrugged my shoulders and with an innocent smile, asked: "Ca va?" Without saying a word he walked away.
He was soon back carrying a largish bundle wrapped in black cloth and asked if I could fit his fishing equipment in to his Devoitine's fuselage. Fishing in Algiers City? Maybe in the Casbah!
The following day, 3/6 Grouppe flew to Perpignan near the Franco- Spanish border at the foot of the Pyrennes.
It was a muddy landing ground, cluttered with French machines -Morrans, Blochs, Potez light bombers and many other types. Only the landing slip was clear and we came down in single file. The Grouppe Commander summoned all the pilots together and said:
"Michal! You are in charge and responsbile for turning all thirty six aircraft fuselage tanks 'on' (the one's behind the pilot's armoured plate) and supervising re-fuelling for tomorrow's long flight across the Mediterranean."
The other pilots left for Perpignan's bistros.
Why me? Ah Yes! Pierre must have told our CO about the flying guitar.
Back in 1933, at Bydgoczcz Flying School, I had met my guitar partner, Jan Musial. He was born only twelve kilometres from my native village; he was tall and handsome, of gypsy stock. In that region there were many Hungarian gypsies.
We were both influenced by their music, their zest for life that poured from their violins and guitars. Jan was the Polish incarnation of Django Reinhardt. At the end of three years we asked to be posted to the same Air Force base at Warsaw, Jasio with 112 Squadron and I with 113.
Mustang Mk III and pilots of 315th in spring of 1944. From left: Haczkiewicz, Cwynar, Schmidt (Stefankiewicz?), Sztramko, ? on wheel, Wunsche.
At night, glued to the radio with music sheets beside us to copy certain phrases, we listened to Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli's Quintet de France, on English radio broadcasting from Daventry, Peter Kreuder from Hamburg, Helmut Zacharias from Bremmen and Georges Boulanger from Bucharest.
We were completely taken, enthralled by the innovate improvisations of Django.
He once told an American visitor to Paris who tried to impress him with elaborate improvisation: "You are farting too many notes."
In Romania and France, Jasio and I lost touch. Later, in England at Northolt, when he was with 316 and I with 315, we resumed our musical partnership.
At the Sergeant's Mess dances we played with sergeant Reginald Dickson who was at the piano. (He later went on to thrill millions of visitors to Blackpool with his skilful mastery on the Tower Organ.
On the 13th of February, 1942, Jan was leading a section of three in a squadron of Spitfires climbing through the clouds to attain rendezvous height with a bomber formation. He was hit on the back of the head by his wingman's wing tip.
He, Jasio, must have remained conscious because his Spitfire was found in a field, neatly landed with the undercarriage "up". My dear friend was sitting in the cabin as if he was asleep.
In my flying album, I have a photograph with the caption: "Michael after the religious ceremony at Northolt's hangar, carrying Jasio's coffin on to the lorry's platform and then to Northwood Cemetery, GB, Grave No. H-21O"
The following day, Jasio's squadron commander A. Gabszewicz came to 315 dispersal and gave me my dear colleague's guitar…
At Perpignan the following morning we were briefed before flying to Algiers.
We had only one map of North Africa between us and it was in the possession of one of the Grouppe's pilots who had flown for a French civil airline between Marseilles and Algiers before the war.
We took off singly from the muddy airfield, Pierre one before last, and I following. He was in a left hahd circle but could not "lock" the Devoitine's undercarraige "up" because of mud on the wheels. He kept trying the undercarraige lever, "up and down11, "up and down", circling round Perpignan airfield.
I noticed that the rest of our Grouppe had flown away but I stuck with him.
Eventually Pierre managed to "clear" the mud and the Devoitine's undercarriage "locked up".
For a few minutes we flew along the Spanish coast then turned south towards the Balearic Island of Ibiza. As we approached at a height of about 1,500 metres, the Spaniards greeted us with artillery fire. We turned south on course 170~ on our estimated two hour flight to Algiers. We did not have any "MaeWests".
The Devoitine's engine, a 12Y Hispano-Suiza, purred nicely as we flew into the unknown. I was aware that it would be my last flight in this wonderful machine. It was comfortable and spacious inside, smooth in aerobatics and had first class armaments with a propeller synchronised 20 mm cannon and four 75 mm machine guns but we had no chance to take on the Germans. If only we had had a chance to fly Devoitine 's over Warsaw the previous September.
Weather conditions were very good with puffed cumulus clouds indicating high pressure in the region. After one and a half hours flying, we spotted dark land at "eleven o'clock" and changed course to about 1600 only to find it was a cloud, darkened by the reflection of a westerly sun.
We went back to 1700 and after two hours and fifteen minutes flying, we reached the North African coast. Pierre, rightly turned to starboard and soon, following the coast, we reached Algiers air base.
Once again there were so many aircraft on the airfield, there was hardly any space to land. After coming down singly, at the end of outrun, we had to year left then right, to avoid hitting parked aircraft.
I took out my small personal belongings, extracted my guitar, and stroked the Devoitine's fuselage, as if it were a living creature. To me-it was!
For most of our French colleagues, the war was over. My section leader went back to his beloved France to fish in the Garonne and Dordogne rivers near Bordeaux.
For we Poles, our tortuous quest to regain our country was to continue from the only free country left in Europe, Great Britain. Free French Forces were going to fight on against tyranny. Our brave and sagacious W/O Le Gloan, who had shot down six Italian Fiats CR42, along with another young officer, did not want to have anything to do with the Vichy Government. They refuelled their Devoitines and planned ostensibly to fly to Malta! It was a deliberate deception! French did not want us, Poles, to know theirs real intentions.
Our Polish Commanding Officer, W. Baranski, located us in hotels in the town. From there, with other fellow countrymen already in Algiers who had arrived by boat from Marseilles and Toulon, we organised our journey to Casablanca and from there on to Gibraltar.
In oppressively hot weather, it took two days by train through Oran and Fez to reach Casablanca.
There, in North Africa as a young man, I could not stand the hot, oppressive climate. That's why, now on Albion's soil, I have never complained about the British weather. As far as I am concerned, English and Scottish dampness suits me fine.
We spent the few days waiting on our boat for Gibraltar lounging in the room of our suburban Casablanca lodgings because of the heat. I shared the room with a colleague from Warsaw's 113 squadron, Kazik Sztramko.
One cool night we went into Casablanca, a modern town, and met our CO and his deputy in unexpected - or rather "expected" - places. We pretended not to notice each other.
Returning to our lodgings, Kazik, a harbinger of bad tidings, entered our room first and said: "Michael. I've got bad news for you. Your guitar has been stolen."
From Gibraltar, in a large convoy of merchant boats and a British Navy escort, we sailed wet into the Atlantic.
After nine days we landed at Liverpool. We boarded a train and sped off somewhere during the night. At dawn, we stopped at a large railway junction. It turned out to be Carlisle. We were travelling north, to Scotland.
We arrived in Glasgow and were accommodated in Kelvinhall church halls. There was a friendly gesture from the Lord Provost of Glasgow, Patrick Dollad. We Poles were allowed to travel free of charge on the City's tram network.
From Scotland we went south again to Blackpool's Polish depot, under British jurisdiction.
I was hoping to be posted to the South of England to take part in the Battle of Britain but, instead, after a number of weeks with many other experienced pilots, I went to N15FTS, Carlisle.
In town, I was accommodated with a charming, retired English couple, Mrs and Mrs McCubbing.
And with a bit of financial help from my flying colleagues, I bought a new guitar.
At 15FT5, our instructor was, to we Poles, a God-like figure, a Polish chief test pilot from PZL Warsaw, Kpt Orlinski. At the end of a short course, flying Fairey-Battles, I decided to try some aerobatics.
In the safest place, not to be seen by anyone including the Observor Corps, was way out west over the Solway Firth. To execute a straight slow roll on that ungainly light-bomber, one had to work very hard.
On the return flight to Carlisle, I crossed.to the Scottish side of the Firth flying along the Galloway Hills. Flying east I passed the majestic mountain, Criffel, on my left but hardly glanced at the town nestling farther north by the river's meandering estuary.
After four years of hostilities and 123 operational flights across the English Channel, it was in that town, Dumfries, which I had just perfunctorily looked on from above, I was to settle. Amongst the solid, pragmatic Scots, found personal happiness: "All this and heaven too!"
From Carlisle, I was posted to No 10 Bomber & Gunnery School RAF Unit at Heathhall, Dumfries. For a short time I was flying Fairey-Battle, two seater light bombers, towing drogues along the Solway coast.
The two hourly flights were monotonous so once the operator had retracted the drogue into' the aircraft~ fuselage, I indulged in some low flying - "cutting the grass" - to the south side of Criffell, skirting the trees and buzzing the train in the glen.
Soon after I was posted to the newly formed 315 Polish fighter squadron to RAF Speke. Later, South of England 11th Fighter Group "real" flying took place. I was to fly Hurricanes, Spitfires II, V and IX and Mustangs until the end of hostilities in Europe in 1945.
In 1945, while I was CO of 316 City of Warsaw Fighter Squadron flying Mustangs out of RAF Coltishall, one pilot told me that, when on antidiver patrol he ran out of ammunition. To bring down a flying bomb, he flew close to the VI and with his Mustang's wingtip, lifted - "tapped" -its wing upwards. The gyroscope, the main instrument that kept it flying, went haywire and the doodlebug dived into the ground.
Having some personal experience of "tapping" colleagues' wings while in formation aerobatics, I thought to touch a vibrating, jerky flying bomb was indeed a courageous thing to do....
In the early spring of 1938, while I was with 113 squadron, Warsaw Fighter Brigade, flying PZL X1/2's, news circulated amongst the pilots that a unit of seven aircraft was going to be sent for a period of at least six months to the Polish/Soviet border. Operating from a prepared landing ground, the unit's task would
be to guard the fortifications being built along the Soviet border. The unit would patrol along the northern side of the river Pripiec, near Pinsk, to the south of the ancient Polish Podole town of Krzemieniec Podolski.
From the high night-life of Warsaw, we were being sent to the God forsaken outback of the Polish eastern border. With trepidation we awaited our sentence.
Wladek Szczesniewski, CO of 113 squadron was to lead the unit; his deputy, from '114 squadron, Aleksander Gabszewicz; and the other pilots, Jan Borowski, Hieronim Dudwal, Mietek Kazmierczak, Kazik Sztramko and Michal Cwynar.
On the 6th of May we landed on s sandy strip in a clearing in a pine forest near the smalltown of Sarny.
During the following months, patrolling along the border in sections of two aircraft, we occasionally "strayed" into Soviet territory for ten to fifteen minutes, flying low, to have a look at the Soviet huge, expansive rectangular fields were under cultivation. Groups of men and women toiled away, never looking up, when we flew over. We saw tractors and cultivators, sometimes sitting in the middle of fields, covered in rust, seemingly abandoned after breaking down.
"Kulaks" - dispossessed Russian farmers now working on collective farms - seemed to have ploughed those huge fields in circles, ignoring the corners. Back in the Carpathian foothills where I came from, every stretch of field that a spade's blade could dig was tenderly cultivated. Flying over that waste I though of my second brother, Franek, a farmer who could make a few hectares of precious arable ground from just the four wasted corners in one field.
In that forgotten outback, apart from flying, there wasn't much else to do. Our CO Szczesniewski, a brilliant aerobatic pilot, decided we should regularly train in formation aerobatics. He alloted the six of us permanent (in an inverted "V" shape) positions. Mine was last on the port side or, to use the old football vernacular, outside left!
Upside down in zenith position, to counter-act the downward speed lag, one tended to overtake the colleague in front, trying to maintain close formation. On one occasion there was a hell of a bang. I had "tapped" my colleague's outer wing and his radio antenae mount had made a round hole in my wing!
I could see him in the PZL Xl's open cockpit angrily gesturing, his head left-right-left. He broke off formation; I followed; we both landed.
"It-was your fault." "Oh No. It was your fault.” CO Szczesniewski: "Both of you are to blame. Three days confinement to quarters. Both." It was only a token gesture, there was nowhere to go anyway!
Our sojourn on the eastern border was to end with the first snows in early December. On our return to civilisation, over our Warsaw base, we planned to demonstrate formation aerobatics, first with the most difficult manoeuvre, looping in line-abreast", then in a "V" shape, and third with an "arrow”.
On the 6th December, with the ground already covered by the first winter snow, we left Sarny. But for the past seven months during which there were many flying hours, our Bristol-Mercury VIS2 engines (built under licence in Poland) had not had a major service. They had had enough.
On the return flight, four pilots landed with engine failure. Only three of us landed at Okecie base in Warsaw.
This is what happened to the "Banished Seven".
Wladek Szczesniewski, the second commanding officer of 315 Polish fighter squadron, flying out of Northolt in late 1941, was shot down over northern France. He spent most of the wartime years in the notorious Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp along with the first and third 315 squadron commanders Pietraszkiewicz and Janus, and B Flight commander Mickiewicz. After the war Szczesniewski returned to Warsaw where he was arrested by the Communists. Later released, he bought a dilapidated lorry and scratched a living on the east bank of the Warsaw-Praga. He died in the late Seventies.
Aleksander Gabszewicz became commanding officer of 316 Polish fighter squadron at Northolt in 1942. Later he became a wing commander and station commander and settled in England where he died in the late Eighties. His wish to return to a free Poland came true. During the week the Polish Air Force Standards were returned to Warsaw from London, on 9th September, 1992, Aleksander's ashes were scattered over Poniatow, 113 and 114 squadron's landing ground during the first days of the 1939 September campaign. The Gabszewicz family and a Guard of Honour were on board the Polish Air Force Helicopter at the time.
Jan Borowski; mathematician; ballistics expert; our "intellectual" from Sarny, who, following orders from "on high", always led our "excursions" into Soviet territory, was in England in 1941 with 302 Polish fighter squadron as a flight commander. Returning from an operational mission over France, he hit London's balloon barrage in bad weather and was killed.
Hieronim Dudwal, 113 and 114 squadrons' most successful pilot during the September, 1939, campaign, shot down four German aircraft - an ME11O, He 111, JU 86 and an HES. 126. He was killed in action in the spring of 1940 while flying with a French Grouppe de Chase.
Mietek Kazmierczak, my "wing tapping" colleague, was killed in action during the 1939 September campaign. 113 and 114 squadrons were flying west to attack a German panzer unit near the town of Sochaczew, outside Warsaw, when we intercepted a large formation of JU 52 bombers. Kazmierczak dived under the formation attacking the leading bomber and shot it down in flames. He kept firing on other 30 52's and then, sudenly, dived into the ground himself. Later, he was found to be shot. Presumably by air gunners. He rests near Warsaw.
Kazik Sztramko, my dear friend, a flying colleague for so many years and at times the harbinger of bad news, taught me in Sarny how to drink 90% proof spirit, yet to avoid setting ones gullet on fire. In France, 1940, we were separated flyoing with different Grouppe. Both of us had flown across Mediteranean, and met again in Algiers-Casbah! In 1944, strafing airbase hangars near Hannover, I was “shot-up” and slightly wounded. Kazik escorted me “tenderly” back to safety od our base in Brenzett. With his charming Polish wife Wanda, settled in Hamilton, Ontario, and raised a family. Died ion December 1995.
Six of “Banished Seven” formation have flown to eternity. Outside-left (the seventh) is bracing himself up to cross the river Styx.
Special thanks to Wilhelm Ratuszynski for his direct contact with Mr Cwynar, photos and most generous support!
Please check also another story devoted to career of Micha³ Cwynar!
Spring 1944. Pilots of 315th are 'riding' on "Mustang"... ;-) Second from left Micha³ Cwynar.
2000.05.14, © WW II Ace Stories.