ZBYSZEK PRĘGOWSKI I JEGO BLOG
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ZBYSZEK PRĘGOWSKI I JEGO BLOG
ZBYSZEK PRĘGOWSKI I JEGO BLOG
Wolnym być - mimo wszystko
Robi się późno. Czas ruszać w drogę.
This text is dedicated to Pauline Lazoryk
– daughter of William George Yeo (Bill).
A while after the end of World War II, Władysław Wasilewski’s parents received two letters from the Red Cross with a notice that their son was killed and buried in grave number … Each of the letters provided a different grave number. It was only later that we realised that the second letter included a code for the abbreviated grave number. But his father - Stanisław Wasielewski (the son’s surname was Wasilewski, which is the outcome of an inaccurate translation of the birth certificate from Russian into Polish), wouldn’t accept the news and once he received the latter notice, he decided to travel to England and investigate the “obvious scam.” To this end, he went to the authorities to obtain a passport. The passport official told him that of course, he could travel, but only to the destination defined by the authorities rather than the one of his choice.
This was followed by long years of grief and remembrance. Pilots, mechanics, gunners, spotters arrived from England, Canada and the US, and claimed they knew Władek and knew how he died. They told a number of different stories, which we now know to be untrue. But the family believed. Władek’s parents died not knowing the truth of their son’s death.
When the Iron Curtain collapsed in mid-1990s, I decided to try and get to the bottom of this story. One of the people who offered to assist me was a journalist, Mira Prejsner - together we planned two episodes of a short film titled “Until the last witness is around.” Both episodes were broadcast on public TV in Poland. In the first episode I summarised all I knew about Władek’s death. I recounted the untrue stories shared by those who claimed to have known Władek, I showed a few photos and asked the public for all the reliable information that could help us determine the cause and whereabouts of this death. As far as I remember, the second episode was to be broadcast 2 months later. That’s when we were going to share the news obtained from the public after the first episode and, if possible, plan for the third episode. But nobody called nor wrote. Were the witnesses long dead? Didn’t people remember anything? Was there absolutely nothing to cling on to? Or maybe they didn’t see the broadcast?
… and that’s when something incredible happened. My mother, who happened to be Władek’s sister, called me to say she had just received a letter in English from a Pauline Lazoryk. She added that Pauline was probably a daughter of a member of the crew who died together with Władek. I asked her to forward the letter to me.
And this is when the situation developed rapidly. After I got the letter, I got in touch with Pauline Lazoryk. Those days saw the very beginnings of the Internet, and e-mail was rarely used and only among IT specialists. There was no Google back then – which you may find hard to imagine. So the only way I could contact Pauline was snail mail. Within the two months between the two episodes, Pauline managed to share lots of information, documents, maps, photos and other materials with me. I’d say that 50 - 60% of all I know about that event was the information I received from her. Thank you for this, Pauline.
Another person who contributed to solving the mystery behind this death was Krystian Zieliński – a cousin, who was readily involved in the explanation of other issues surrounding Władek’s death and was staggeringly effective in doing so. At some point I got to call him Detective. He didn’t take offence, though. Thank you, Krystian.
Władysław Wasilewski was one of many Polish pilots in England. One of many who put on RAF uniforms and sacrificed their lives in the fight for the freedom and democracy in Poland, although the fight took place out there, in the West. He’s also one of many whose death was, hopefully, explained and documented.
22nd August this year will be the 80th anniversary of his death. Władek, your memory still lives on among us, and so do you.
At 4 AM the soldier on duty woke him up by repeating in a loud voice: Get up, your flight’s at six. Władek got up, washed in cold water and used a “Soligen” razor to shave his face - he got the latter together with the strop from his father on his 18th birthday. He got dressed and ate his “dry provisions” he had collected from the canteen the day before and washed it down with the tea that was still hot. He didn’t make it for breakfast that day. The tea was English, obviously, but the taste and fragrance... a memory came onto him all of a sudden.
Władek Wasilewski was a pilot of the 41st Reconnaissance Squadron in Toruń. Later on, when the war started, he joined the Modlin Army. Then he made it to Romania and France, and on 12th July 1940 he finally found himself in England. As he said, flying was his thing. He liked it. He was born and grew up in Brześć Kujawski, a small town in the Kujawy region. His home address was Krakowska 58 (the house number was later changed). As a child, Władek had a passion for sport. He soon shared this passion with Czesiek, who was two years younger and went on to become an Olympic. Czesiek used to say that initially Władek paid him for every run, because he found it boring when he was running on his own. This story was retold in the family many times. The boys used to exercise together. They ran a lot. Not only did they run during their sports club practice, but also on their own, along their special route. They had one, which was 4.5 km long. They left their home and ran towards Rumaki, behind the brickyard they turned right and then continued along the forest edge to the Zgłowiączka river, then turned right once again and ran along the field path next to the river towards the streets of Rybaki, Głowackiego, Targowa and then back home. Each time the route was followed twice, which means the boys covered a distance of 9 km. And there were days when they ran along the trail twice.
In summer they swam a lot. They practised in the river. They started near the bridge on the road to Lubraniec and swam towards the sugar refinery – once they reached that point, they turned back and swam back to the bridge. After they got out of the water, they ran 600 metres home, barefoot and in the swimming trunks. Each time they swam a total of nearly 5 km – 2.5 km one way. Both boys were persistent. They spent all their free time on physical exercise: running, swimming or other activities.
They were not deterred by mud or snow. When there was deep snow, they tucked trouser cuffs inside their boots and secured them with special wraps to prevent the snow from falling in. People used to remember these races long after they ceased. In the whole town the boys were the only ones to do the running.
22nd August 1941 was Władek’s tenth day in 2AOS Millom. In fact, it was in Haverigg – a village near Millom, where 2 AOS was stationed. In January 1941 No. 2 Bombing and Gunnery School was opened here, which was later transformed into No. 2 Air Observer School. Władek used to fly a Blackburn Botha B26 plane, number L6416.
In the rankings of the worst planes of World War II, Blackburn B26 Botha always came in the shameful first five. In the article by Dejan Milivojevic titled “Flying Coffins! – The Top Ten Worst Aircraft of WWII”, it comes first, and therefore the worst. People used to say this plane was a deadly machine, but it was dangerous for the English rather than the Germans. Władek was perfectly familiar with all the drawbacks of this “flying coffin.”
Once he has eaten his allotted portion of food and drank the “English” tea, he got up, approached the wall with the calendar and tore off the sheet labelled 21st August 1941 to revel the next one, with 22nd August. He read aloud the information written on the sheet: “722 days since the war started. It will soon be over.” He had bought this calendar from a Pole who sold Polish calendars to earn a living in England. It was last year, when he was still in the RAF Bramcote military airbase near Nottingham. That’s when he thought Poles were good on their own, but not quite so in a team. If we could work as a team and refrain from vicious quarrels, maybe Poland would not have disappeared from the map of Europe for the second time in history? – he thought.
He put on his boots and a cap. He took the jacket and gloves, grabbed the knee pad with the flight map and schedule, and went over to complete the last formal requirements in the air traffic management office. On his way he met two nice English pilots. He guessed that since they were here, they are probably trainees from 2AOS and might be flying with him. He addressed them in broken English: - Hello. Are you going with me? If your name is Wasilewski, then we certainly are – replied one of them. That’s perfect. My name is Władek Wasilewski. I’m going to the air traffic management now. I’ll be back in a sec.
The two pilots, who later joined Władek on the flight, were training at 2AOS to become spotters. Their original skills and specialisations were less useful than that of a spotter. Would we refer to this function as a navigator today? The two soldiers had already completed the essential theoretical training, and they were now supposed to use the navigation devices received at the training centre to put the flight route on the map. They were also asked to include all the important details noticed during the flight in their notebooks. The pilot was the only one who knew the route. The more accurate the map was, the more details were included in the report, the better grade the trainees would get.
After Władek returned from the air traffic management, he approached the two men and told them: - We still have ten minutes. Then I’ll go to start the engines. Then you will have another 20 minutes to get ready, and afterwards you get on and we’ll be going – he explained. Since we’re about to fly together, we should get to know each other better – he added. My name is Władysław Wasilewski, but call me Władek. I’m Polish, I was born in a small town in Kujawy. Its name is Brześć Kujawski, but you won’t have heard about it. I used to fly with the 4th Air Force Regiment in Toruń, also in the Kujawy region. And then, when Krauts invaded us, I joined the Modlin Army and made it to Romania and France. Then I sailed over from France to England, because you had a shortage of pilots. Happy? - he finished with a rhetorical questions. Their smiles proved they appreciated the joke. I’ve been a pilot for almost 5 years, since 1936. I love it. I have a family in Poland: my parents, a younger brother, Czesiek, and the youngest sister Hela. I don’t know how they are doing now. I haven’t heard from them in a while. I believe they are still alive. And… I’m not married. If one of you happens to have an attractive sister... Well, just saying. The two soldiers burst out laughing.
How about you? – Władek addressed the tall, handsome trainee on his right. The man had dark hair and hazel eyes. My name is William George Yeo, but you can call me Billy. Nice to meet you – he added and shook Władek’s hand. As you can read from my badges, I’m an AC warrant officer. They sent me here and I agreed to train to be a spotter. I like it, so far, because it’s not so boring as my previous job. In my civilian life I’m an accountant. I’ll be 31 in December. And one more thing, which might be especially interesting for you, Władek. I have two younger brothers and... a younger sister. Ooooh! – exclaimed happily Władek. You know, you have a younger sister and so do I, so we could get them to meet – continues Billi - but... I’m already happily married. And I have a wonderful daughter, Pauline. She’s almost 4. I love my girls. God, how I love them.
How about you? – addressed the other soldier, the one with dark hair and dark eyes, and wearing a field-cap. My name’s Joe Vernon. I’m 29, 2 years younger than my friend here. Besides, we have a few things in common. I’m also an AC warrant officer. And I have a wife, too. Her name is Maris. Aaaaand….. she’s pregnant. I believe we’re going to have a son. My wife wants to call him Mike – if it’s a boy. And if we have a daughter, we will call he Alice, because it comes with nice diminutives: Ali, Alison, Allie, Ally, Lisha. I almost became a paratrooper instead of joining the spotters in Millom. There was an ad in my town – parachuting is safer than crossing the street. He paused and Władek instantly jumped in to ask – So why didn’t you? Because the recruitment office was across the street – replied Joe and all three of them started laughing. When they stopped all of a sudden, Władek said – I like your English sense of humour. Poles are different.
That’s when they were joined by another soldier. Judging by his uniform and badges, he's a Royal Artillery lieutenant. Władek knew there would be one more person flying with them, but so far he didn’t know who it was. The lieutenant approached them and said: – I’m Lionel Douglas Hall. If you’re the L6416 pilot, then I’m flying with you – he announced. He retrieved a piece of paper from his uniform pocket and handed it over to Władek, saying: – This is the permit from the commander of the centre, which proves I can join you as a passenger. I have never been on a plane before – he added. You’re late. You should have been here 10 minutes ago – said Władek. I know, but my roommate lost a 50 pound bill – explains the lieutenant. And? Did you help him look for it? – asked Bill. No, I was sitting on it – replied Lionel. And once again all men burst out laughing. Please tell us briefly something about yourself. We have already exchanged basic information – said Władek - I have to go and start the engines any minute now. I don’t have much to say – admitted Lionel. I’m 25, and I’m a Royal Artillery lieutenant. My parents are Frederick George and Dorothea Grace Mary, nee Allen. And now Hall, of course. And I might grow to like flying. It would be a new specialisation: a pilot-artilleryman. And you want to fly with me, of course? – asked Władek. Yes, of course – confirmed Lionel. Well, I wouldn’t fly with you, I must say – replied Władek. And why so? – asked Lionel, clearly worried. Because you’re not a pilot – joked Władek. All of them laughed once again. By now they all knew this Pole is a nice fellow. And quite English, one could say.
If I were to go by the book, I would have to brief you now, but since I can’t tell you the route or altitude, I will only tell you that smoking on a plane is forbidden – said Władek. As you can see, the weather is lousy, but if we got a permit to fly, it means it’s not that bad. If you feel like smoking, that’s the last minute. Once you board the plane, take a seat and fasten seat belts. The communication will be limited to the necessary minimum. What you should do is record all the details and findings on the map. That’s great. We’re leaving in about 20 minutes. I’ll be waiting for you to board in 15 minutes. I’ll start the engines.
Władek inspected the plane from the outside. He checked the wheels and the landing gear, wings, tail-planes, and then he entered the small cockpit, reached for the checklist and performed all the preparatory activities in the right order. Finally, he started both engines, one after the other. The engines roared evenly. All clear – he said aloud and stretched, keeping his elbows close to his body. There was not enough room for him to extend his arms.
Noise and smoke soon filled the air, as the two Botha B26 engines kept roaring. The propellers created a wind that lifted small blades of grass and tiny grains of sand and sent them flying in the air. There was lots of noise, smoke and dust all around. Since the three other men could not talk, they walked away for a while.
Why isn’t your watch fastened on the jacket sleeve, Joe? – asked Bill. You will have some trouble writing down the time if you have to roll up your sleeve every time. I didn’t have another strap – replied Joe. I don’t have one, either, but you know what? …. I have a shoelace. Give me the watch. Joe took off his watch and Bill put one end of the shoelace through the strap hole and the other through the buckle. Joe extended his hand and Bill placed the watch on the jacket cuff – both ends of the long shoelace were hanging low, reaching as far as Joe’s knees. Now you look a bit like a Russian soldat with a gun on a rope – said Lionel, although so far he mainly kept silent. All of them laughed and then Bill decided to adjust the shoelace. He grabbed Joe’s wrist, wrapped the shoelace around it and tied a knot. He stepped back, looked and said - well, now you look like an English soldier with a watch on a rope. This will do.
The engines were heating up, and in the meantime Władek was adjusting the flight plan to accommodate the wind speed and direction as per the information he received from the air traffic management office. He still found it easier to use the metric system. Feet, gallons, pounds – he had to focus to make all the necessary conversions. He always had this thought at the back of his mind that if he got the calculations wrong, he might run out of fuel, develop insufficient speed or altitude. But next minute he told himself that it’s the English who are a bit backwards. And he really believed in that, at least for a while. Sometimes he added they did it just to spite the Poles.
The three passengers soon boarded the plane. Władek checked their seat belts and returned to the tiny cockpit. Having exchanged the necessary information with the control tower, he first taxied on the runway. Oil temperature was already high enough – we’re good to go.
The airport had three concrete intersecting runways. Each of them was ca. 650 m long. Władek approached runway 2-9 and requested permission for take-off. Once he was cleared for take-off, he extended the flaps and shifted the thrust levers of both engines, braked the plane for a while and then released the brakes and pushed the levers forward - the machine first moved slowly and then gained speed and started rolling along the runway. After a lengthy take-off run and having gained a relatively low speed, it finally took off the ground. When they were 3 -4 km off the coast line of the Irish Sea, Władek moved the plane up and turned left. He continued climbing up, on a heading of 750 (all the measurements allow for the wind speed and direction: 14kt, 2850). At 6:27 sharp he told the control tower he’s already up in the air on a heading of 750. Two minutes later, at 6:29, they passed Haverigg on the left, with the airport and 2AOS buildings visible from above – Władek jotted the time on the map. Next moment they were above Millom. In about 9 minutes they would change the course near Sedbergh, less than 29 miles (54 km) away.
Every now and then Władek checked the route by comparing it to the map and marked specific points. He didn’t have to introduce any adjustments – his calculations were correct. But persistent thoughts kept pestering him during the flight. He thought about his parents, about his siblings, Czesiek and Hela, about his cousins – he was especially close to Janek. He hadn’t heard from them in almost two years – ever since the War started. How are they doing? Are they even alive? If so, is everybody all right? He heard lots of terrible things from people coming from Poland - how Germans and Russians treated Poles. He knew that Jews were being murdered. He heard about executions and deportations. About people disappearing without a trace. Soviets invaded Poland 17 days after the Germans and seized the east part of the country. The two invaders divided Poland between themselves. Russians were no better than the Nazis. Plus, they were pillaging the country. In the East Poles used to disappear without a trace, too. It was all so horrible and incredible. There were no courts or tribunals - matters of life and death were decided by individual German or Soviet soldiers. It was hard to believe, but on the other hand, everybody could not be telling lies.
That’s how he made it to Sedbergh – it was almost 6:38. After a while he passed the town on the left, he turned south-west on a heading of 1440 . It’s all right – he thought. We passed Sedbergh. Sedbergh is a small town in Cumbria, much smaller than Brześć. Every time Władek flew over this place, he compared it to his hometown for some reason.
In almost 9 minutes we’ll be reaching Skipton – the sheep-town. This one was larger than Brześć – it reminded Władek of Włocławek, a city in Poland. This part was largely uninhabited. From up above all you could see was a nice landscape. And nothing is going on. Władek knew the route. He had flown here many times before.
But the weather is getting worse. When they reach Skipton, fog is covering the ground. We can do it – thought Władek. I can fly with limited visibility. I practised it many times when I was still in Poland. Wind speed and direction remain constant, fortunately. Otherwise I’d have to introduce adjustments, he thought. As it is, I stick to the plan. Unless my compass, altimeter, speed indicator and clock break down, I’ll reach Millom with the accuracy of 100– 200 … oh, well maybe 500 metres, he thought optimistically. His thoughts now focused on the students – that’s how he called them. If the fog gets thicker and the ground is no longer visible – I wonder what they will put down in their notebooks. They can do it. And if not, we’ll organise another flight – Władek quickly found a solution.
Once they reached the return point above Skipton, he tilted the machine to the right, to try and see the characteristic intersection of five roads beneath. It’s there - he said aloud, checking the time. Everything is all right – he said to himself. He pressed the left rudder bar. The plane banked to the left. Then he used the ailerons to balance the plane and continued to reach a heading of 30 . 15 miles and we’re halfway through – he thought. But the fog kept getting thicker with every mile. It’s good the fog is close to the ground and I can still see the horizon. I can do it – he thought, but it’s hard on the “trainees.” Oh well, they can always jump on the next flight.
The last place he could see on the ground and compare it to the map was the River Cover. It’s four times smaller than the one in my hometown – he thought. And then there was fog. Milk – that’s how pilots used to describe this condition. Now Władek had to focus on steering the plane without seeing the ground. He could only rely on the devices: compass, altimeter, clock and the map, to define the position of the plane. It’s good I can still see the horizon – he thought once again.
Now he focused all his attention on analysing the route - he consulted the clock and marked the distance covered on the map. Eleven minutes from the turn in Skipton just flew by in a snap. He analysed the information once again, pressed the left rudder bar, used the ailerons to balance the machine and headed for 2520 – to reach the airport. 53 miles, 18 minutes and we’re home – he thought. He balanced the plane after the turn, and controlled the speed and altitude – almost there. Once we touch down, I’ll complete the formalities and in an hour I’ll be sipping this foul English tea once again.
Shit – he used the worst word his father ever spoke. The left engine was dead. He glanced at the clock – it was 7:01. He recalled that in such situations you have to keep your calm. He contained stress, closed the throttle of the left engine, cut off the fuel supply to his engine and revved the right one, before he managed to rebalance the flight. There are mountains ahead of us. We won’t make it through the mountains – he concluded. Behind us, on the right, there is an empty field, which looks rather flat. It’s our only chance in these circumstances. He made a decision – we’re turning back and landing on the empty meadow. But before he could complete this manoeuvre, he analysed his position against the ground once again. It’s 7:05 when he gently turns right and starts descending. When he turned the plane by 1800 , he took the route parallel to the previous one – heading of 720, and kept descending. It’s nearly 7:07 and the ground still can’t be seen – milk. He extended the flaps and the landing gear and started the fuel dumping procedure. After a while the plane dove in the fog. Damn milk, I can’t see a thing - muttered Władek under his breath. I’ve even lost sight of the horizon. But ok, I can still do it – he thought. But now I’ll have to focus more on maintaining the right position in the transverse and longitudinal axis. I can do it, I can do it – he kept urging his good fortune. Then the other engine coughed, sputtered and went dead. Now there’s no turning back - the fuel’s been dumped, I need to touch down – realised Władek.
Bloody English fog. But sooner or later I will see the ground. I hope to God there will be no buildings or holes. He glanced at the meters and thought – I’m going to touch down any time now. He checked the time – 7:12. He gently pulled the steering wheel …. And suddenly a powerful jerk thrust him on the windscreen together with his seat. His body hit against various objects in the cramped space of the cockpit. He fell on the ceiling. Above his head was now the place where the radio operator’s seat used to be.
George Bainbridge arrived at work on his motorbike. He was late, but there was nothing he could do about it – the fog was really thick and he knew his colleague from the previous shift would wait for him. As usual, he parked his bike in Summit Cottages and walked along the rails to the lineman’s booth on top of Stainmore. He glanced at his watch to see how late exactly he was. It was 7:10. Not so bad – he thought to himself. Next moment he heard the roar of a plane flying low above the ground to the south-east. He couldn’t see the machine in the thick fog, though. After a while it was quiet and then “I heard a sound as if it hit the soft top of the hill” – that’s what he would say later for the record. He found his colleague from the previous shift and together they went to look for the plane, but in the thick fog they couldn’t find a thing. They reached the cliff and turned back. Afterwards they called the railway police station in Darlington and reported the crash.
The officer from Darlington immediately got in touch with Kirkby Stephen. Sergeant Keddie took the call and reached out to the police station in Brough, where the report was taken by constable Joseph W. Cook. It was 07:40.
A search party soon formed: Joseph Cook from Brough, sergeant Keddie from Kirkby Stephen, and constables Bond and Richardson immediately went to the lineman’s booth on top of Stainmore and together with the two railway workers they set out to look for the plane. Unfortunately, the fog was so thick they couldn’t find anything. They decided to put off the search until later. They returned.
John Wearmouth (This story was recounted by Gordon, son of the late John Wearmouth. Mike Oram talked to Gordon and later repeated the story to me) was a shepherd. That day he did not take his sheep to the pasture because of the fog. Since he had nothing better to do, he went for a walk with his shepherd dog. They roamed around the moors for a while. Suddenly the dog started barking fiercely. John followed the animal and soon stumbled on a dead body. The body was clad in a flight jacket. John quickly realised what must have happened. He went straight to the railway booth and called the police. They told him they had already received report of the crash, but delayed the search because of the fog.
The fog did not disappear until 11:30. Only then could the search party resume their efforts. They first came across the plane wreck. It crashed on the sloping area known as Castle Moss (Castle Moss – it’s a common name and as such cannot be found on the maps). It was completely wrecked - the parts were scattered within 120 yards (ca. 110 m). The nose of the aircraft was immersed in the wet, boggy ground.
In the wreck they found the injured body of William George Yeo (Bill) – father of Pauline Lazoryk. He died immediately because of multi-organ injuries. In his civilian life he was an accountant from Wallasey, Cheshire. He was 31. He left behind his wife and 4-year old daughter Pauline. He was later buried at the Wallasey cemetery in the southern part of Cheshire.
The body of Humphrey Warine Joseph Henry Vernon – Mike Oram’s father – was found ca. 68 yards (62 m) from the plane. Humphrey was also an accountant. He was 29. He left behind a pregnant wife. He crawled away from the plane, probably wanting to look for help. He bled to death as a result of multi-organ injuries. He was buried at the cemetery near St. George the Martyr Church in Millom.
Lieutenant Lionel Douglas Hall, aged 25, died 120 yards (110 m) from the plane. He bled to death following multi-organ injuries. He was a RAF officer and a student from Oxted (Surrey). He was buried at the cemetery near St. Carantoc’s Church in Cornwall.
The pilot, sergeant Władysław Wasilewski, managed to crawl almost 125 yards (ca. 115 m) from the plane. He came from the town of Brześć Kujawski. He was 27. He bled to death as a result of multi-organ injuries. He was single. He was buried at the cemetery near St. George the Martyr Church in Millom. He is still sadly missed by his family.
These and more photos are here - https://pregowski.pl/photo/12-photo/71-kartka-z-kalendarza-a-day-in-the-history
Imagine the engine did not break down and there was no fog on that day. Imagine Władysław Wasilewski made it to the end of World War II. Together with thousands of other Polish pilots, mechanics, aircraft ground handling staff, Polish cryptographers, administrative employees and other Polish staff striving to defend England in times of war, he would have been faced with a choice: what to do now?
Władek has been living in the rented flat for a few days now. Before he leaves England he decided to do some sightseeing in London – the city that withstood German raids also thanks to Polish pilots like himself. That day, on 8th June 1946, he wanted to see two things. He wanted to try whether you could fly a plane under Vauxhall Bridge, just like he flew under a bridge in Toruń before the war. He also wished to see the Victory Celebrations, which proceeded without them – without Polish aircraft pilots. He thought he would stand near the entrance to the bridge, on the right bank of the Thames, and look at the bridge while standing on the boulevard and then watch the Victory Celebrations - a parade without the Poles. He wanted to see it, because after all, it was also his victory, and that of other Poles – this is what he believed and wanted to believe. When he arrived, it turned out that the route of the Parade was lined with crowds of spectators. On second thoughts, he decided to skip the bridge and forgo checking out whether he could fly underneath. All he wanted was to find a good vantage point. It wasn’t easy. But when he did, he looked to the left and saw a column of mechanised infantry. he instinctively looked at his watch – it was 10:40. The parade has been going on or an hour and forty minutes – he thought. People were cheering, clapping their hands, throwing flowers at the soldiers. Some were even crying with joy. It was a happy event, if crowded.
Suddenly Władek felt somebody was looking at him. He turned left and he saw a familiar figure. Just like himself, the man was wearing a pilot uniform without military distinctions. On his right arm there was a patch that read POLAND. It couldn’t be a mistake…. The man looked to the right and that’s when they knew. It was Władek’s friend from Toruń. He was also a fighter pilot. They looked at each other, shook hands and next moment they were hugging one another and crying. They cried like children seeking comfort in their mother’s arms. Then they sobbed quietly for a longer while and finally they were both silent.
He and Janek (I chose to include Jan Budziński in the story (RAF no. 780665) met a couple of times during the war. The first time they met was in Toruń. Janek was in 141. Fighter Squadron, while Władek was in 41. Reconnaissance Squadron. Then they met in Romania, in France and the last time they saw one another was when Władek was assigned to 2AOS in Millom - Janek had already been there for almost a week. Janek was shouting over the cheering and the roar of the engines – he said: I’m not in the least ashamed that the parade went on without Poles. It’s not us that should be ashamed. You know what? – let’s go. We’ll head for a café, have some coffee and talk without this noise. Excellent idea – agreed Władek and they started to walk away.
They found a small café with tiny tables. - This one looks good – said Janek. They went inside and picked a table in the corner. Nobody will disturb us here – concluded Władek. They sat down. They were soon approached by an attractive, nice and young waitress. - What can I get you? – she asked in beautiful Polish. They were both dumbfounded for a while. Władek was the first one to speak. He mustered the characteristic Polish chivalry, stood up and said: – Only by looking at your beauty, we should have guessed you’re Polish. My name is Władek, and this is Janek – he said, introducing his friend. Janek stood up and the waitress shook their hands. - My name is Hela. Helena. I work here.
- Nice to meet you – said Janek.
- Nice to meet you, too. Can I take your order? - she asked. Each of them ordered coffee and a cake.
When Hela left, they sat down and Jane said: – See, they didn’t go to the parade, either. And they’ve worked here since the war started. Nurses from Fiji are there. Police officers from Labuan are there. Workmen from the Seychelles are there, too. And Poles are not. How do you feel about it, Władek? – he asked. I feel like a piece of Polish newspaper used to wipe an English ass and flushed down in the loo. It hurts, but show must go on. And what is this... Labuan, which you mentioned? It’s an island off the coast of Borneo. This is when Hela gracefully reappeared and placed their coffee and cakes on the table. The order took up almost half of the table top. Thank you – said Janek and bowed slightly. They looked after Hela as she departed, walking smoothly. She’s beautiful - said Janek. She is – added Władek. - Because she’s Polish.
They put sugar in their coffee, stirred it and then Janek asked – what are you going to do now, Władek? I’m going to Poland. Well, actually, sail. I’m going to spend a few more days in London. On Wednesday I have to leave the flat I rent. So I’m going to leave London on Wednesday or Thursday at the latest. I come from a small town in the Kujawy, in Poland. It’s called Brześć Kujawski. It’s about 152 degrees and 50 kilometres away from Toruń. You must have flown by many times. I left my whole family there: my parents, my sister - her name’s Hela, too, my brother Czesiek and my cousin Janek. Since September 1939 I haven’t heard from them. I don’t even know if they made it through the war. I miss them a lot. It’s been almost 7 years. Time flies...
How about you? - Władek addressed his friend. I’m staying here. For the time being. I’ve no idea what to do next. But I’m definitely not going back to Poland. They’re building Communist regime there. The country is under Stalin’s rule. I’ll go back when the regime imposed by the Soviets is overthrown. I won’t take part in the creation of Communism. I’d much rather do my bit to destroy it. Besides, they say people keep disappearing without a trace in this ostensibly happy system. They are often found in prison, on death row. Myself, I’d like to live. Those who come back from the West are instantly viewed with suspicion, simply because they returned. I don’t need trouble like this. I’d much rather be humiliated by foreigners. It hurts less. And if they can’t appreciate a romantic Polish soul here, in London, in England, then I’ll leave for Canada. Yes, for Canada. See, how Hitler fucked up our lives – he pondered. They were both silent for a while. Deep in thought.
Maria Wasielewska wiped her freshly washed hands and looked out of the window. She saw a tall man with a bundle on his shoulder. He was strolling lightly, taking long strides.
- Stasiu – the woman called out to her husband - could it be our Władek? The man approached the window, looked out and said: – My dear Marynia, the posture does look similar, but so many are coming back nowadays…
- But this light stride…. – added Maria. The stranger soon disappeared behind the acacia tree by the road. Marynia focused on preparing the dinner, while her husband resumed reading the newspaper.
But next moment the mysterious figure passed by the kitchen window. Maria instantly noticed it and cried: – Stasiu, that’s our Władziu, our Władziu is back. It’s him. It must be.
They both jumped at the door, but before they reached the handle, the door opened and they saw him – their son, Władysław. Alive and kicking. And handsome, as always. They started hugging and kissing him. He hugged them back. Their joy knew no limits that day. They were soon joined by their daughter, Hela – she was already married and a few days before she had given birth to a baby boy.
- Hello, there, little sister – said Władek.
- My God, you’re alive! I knew it…. I knew it, I did. I always knew you made it and would be back one day – she said, sobbing and clinging to her brother. The greetings lasted for a while. And then Hela added, still sobbing: - Welcome home, big brother.
A while later Czesław, the other son, dropped by to visit his parents. He always did on his way home from work. The two brothers shared a warm greeting, and then Władek noticed his brother’s wedding ring.
- You got married, too? - he asked.
- Yes – replied Czesiek. - I have a wonderful wife, her name’s Reginka. And I also have... a daughter. We call her Lilka, but officially her first name is Bożena. She’s an adorable kid. She’s three. I’m so happy. Other than Lilka and Regina, we’re all here - said Władek.
- I was so worried about you. Next month it will have been seven years since I last heard from you. Seven. I asked whoever came there, but nobody knew anything about you. How about Janek Wasielewski? Is he all right? – asked Władek.
- Yes, he is. He also got married. They live in Krakowska street, too. And they have a baby boy. They call him Lechu. Last week he was one month old – added Czesiek. - He’s a mighty lad. So it’s all clear - you’re the last one to marry off now.
- But you would have to find me a nice girl first - said Władek. - She can’t be quarrelsome, because if she starts a fight with my sister and sister-in-law, we won’t be able to contain them ladies.
- Oh, she can be quarrelsome all right – protested Czesiek. - Our ladies will tame her.
In the meantime Maria served dinner without interrupting the hearty conversation. All of them simply couldn’t stop talking. Suddenly Władek said: – It’s been a while since I ate dinner like this. It’s humble, post-war food, but the taste …. you can’t compare it to the English meals.
Maria felt like fishing for compliments, so she asked: - Do you really like it better than English food?
- Mum – replied Władek. - I know you’re an excellent cook, the best in the world, but even if you weren’t, everything would be delicious after what we had to eat back there. Sometimes we had this nasty fish paste a few times a day. I can’t imagine anyone could like sandwiches with this paste. Or cooked cabbage – they thought they were making sauerkraut soup. Another thing was their cream - gluey, yellowish goo. Or tea with milk. And I didn’t like drizzle, fog and warm beer, either.
- Was there anything you liked? – asked his father.
- Yes – said Władek. - I liked flying, as always. And I liked English girls.
Everybody laughed. But next moment Władek added: – But in fact, they seemed to like us even more. They were clearly into Poles. Or maybe it wasn’t about us, but about the little patch that read POLAND?
- Well, this I don’t understand – said his father.
- You know, dad, when English, French or Czech pilots went out to party, they often put on a patch like this to attract more girls. This tiny badge made us, Poles, the heroes of this war. But seriously, the English appreciated all Polish pilots for their courage and valour. And this is also why English girls loved us more than the English boys. That’s true... This is the only thing I’m going to miss now – he concluded.
Later in the afternoon Hela’s husband, Józef, returned from work. He and Władek had known each other before the war.
- Aaaaaah, so now you’re my brother-in-law – Władek greeted him with a smile. Welcome to the family. Both men shared an affectionate hug. Then Józef had dinner and soon he joined the rest of the family. They kept talking and talking. They just couldn’t get enough. Czesiek was the first one to say goodbye – he was in a hurry to be reunited with his girls. Hela and Józef followed soon afterwards. Władek talked to his parents until 4 AM. There was still so much to say.
- My dear son – said Maria. - You’re here to stay. That’s good. But now we’ll be off to sleep. Come, I’ll make your old bed for you. Władek picked up the duffle bag he had tossed in the corner. His father seemed to have noticed the bag only now. He asked: – What’s so precious in there? You keep it close to you at all times.
- Dad - replied Władek. - This is my entire property. Everything I have amassed over the 33 years and 7 months of my life. I know every single bit of it. - Władek lifted the bag. - Military winter coat. Scottish sheepskin slippers. A spare shirt bought in Poland. Three lemonades. Four packets of English biscuits. Two cans of fish - also English. Three notebooks with content I learned at the trainings in France and England ….. and a night gown. That’s it.
- Plus, you have excellent memory - noticed his father. - You do remember every single bit of your property. But tell me one thing, why would you carry a heavy winter coat for thousands of kilometres if it’s summer? – asked his father with curiosity. Władek lowered his eyes, clearly ashamed. He replied bashfully: – Because, you know, day, as I was travelling here to Poland, I didn’t always have a place to sleep. And that’s when the coat came in handy.
Before he fell asleep that night, he thought: – Nowhere else in the world can you find such crisp, fresh bed linens as here at home.
Next morning he slept in. His parents had already got up. Józef was at work. Breakfast was waiting for him on the table. Once he had it, he said: – You know, mum, I’ll have a run along our old childhood route. I’ll check whether I’m still fit.
And he went for a run. Soon afterwards somebody knocked on the door. Maria thought it’s Władek again with some sort of a prank. She approached the door with a smile, but when she opened it, she saw a tall, heavy-set man in a leather coat and a hat. He was holding a briefcase.
- Is citizen Wasilewski staying here? - he asked.
- He does – confirmed Maria. Can I have a word with him? – continued the stranger.
- You can - replied Maria and asked: – And you are?
- I’m from the Security Service. Could you get him to come here?
- Ah, the authorities. That’s different – said Maria and added: – Do you have a name?
- I’m the one asking for names here. You’re supposed to follow the orders. Get citizen Wasilewski – said the stranger angrily. Maria realised this could spell trouble. She went to the living room and fetched her husband.
- At your service – said Stanisław.
- Citizen Wasilewski? – asked the man.
- Yes, my name is Wasielewski – replied Stanisław.
- But it’s not you who returned from England?
- No, not me – said Stanisław. He didn’t feel inclined to offer any more information than necessary.
- Who was it then? - continued the stranger.
- My son has returned from England – citizen Wasilewski.- His name is Władysław. I am Stanisław Wasielewski – Stanisław was already tired of the conversation.
- Can you get him to come here? – continued the stranger.
- I can’t. He went for a walk.
- When will he be back? – asks the man.
- I don’t know. He comes back when he’s meant to - said Stanisław. The stranger proceeded to the kitchen. He shifted the plates on the table, opened his briefcase, retrieved a piece of paper and an indelible pencil, which he put up to his lips every now and then, and started writing with a visible effort. When he was done, he handed over the piece of paper to Stanisław and said: – I’ll be waiting for your son in the office tomorrow at nine sharp. Here’s the address. To be sure, I also included the time. He’d better not be late.
Having said that, the stranger closed his briefcase, grabbed it by the handle and left, leaving all the doors open. A long while passed before Maria collected her wits and shouted: – Good bye. But the man didn’t hear it.
- Marynia - Stanisław addressed his wife. – The time has come when anybody can be crude. In fact, it’s difficult not to be. And keep your calm – we survived the tzar’s regime, we will survive Stalin, too.
Next day Władek washed, had breakfast and took the piece of paper with the address and time. Maria handed him over a freshly ironed, folded handkerchief and said: – Be wise, be reasonable and don’t do anything stupid. When he left, his parents followed him with their eyes until he disappeared behind the hill. Then Stanisław said to his wife:
– How come they knew right away that Władek was back?
He went to Włocławek. He got off the bus at the intersection and walked all the way to the office in Kopernika 3. It was a massive, tall building behind a solid fence. Władek immediately saw that the attic was occupied, too. On the fence there was a red signboard with red letters: DISTRICT SECURITY SERVICE in Włocławek. Next to the gate stood a guard.
- I have an appointment at 9 – said Władek.
- With whom? – asked the guard resolutely.
- I don’t know, the man didn’t give me his name – replied Władek.
- You might not be going home for the night – said the guard, half-heartedly. - What’s your name?
- Władysław Wasilewski – replied Władek. The guard went to his booth, picked up the phone and called. When he returned, he opened the gate and said: - Come in. Use the entrance and then go upstairs. You’ll see another guard, he will tell you where to go.
Władek did as told. The other guard had a gun on his back and a cap strapped under his chin. – What’s your name?
- Władysław Wasilewski – said Władek.
- Follow me – replied the guard and started along the corridor. He opened a door and pointed to a chair far away from the desk. – Sit down and wait. Somebody will be with you in a minute. And he left, leaving the door open.
After a while a man in a double-breasted navy suit entered the room. He was moderately tall and definitely overweight. He must be some 10, 12 years my senior – thought Władek. As the man was passing, Władek felt an unpleasant smell of undigested alcohol. A night booze up - he thought. The man sat behind the desk. As Władek looked at him, he thought – I feel I know the guy. Where have I met him? – he pondered.
- Your name and surname, date of birth, parents’ names and current address – asked the man. As he ticked off Władek’s responses, he immediately proceeded to the next question.
- Married? No, I’m single – replied Władek.
- Single? At this age?
- I haven’t had the time to think of it - said Władek and added: - Now that I’m back, I’m glad I didn’t rush it.
- And why so? – the anonymous man interrupted all too readily.
- Because … because … how shall I say - Władek stammered. - Now I can find a... worker-farmer wife. A peasant wife. Yes, it was a good idea to wait.
The interviewer accepted this reply as a matter of fact and continued:
- What did you do before the war? – he asked. Władek was speaking and the other man was taking down the answers with a visible effort. It was obvious that writing was not one his favourite activities.
- How about during the war? – he moved on to the next question. Władek recounted his experience with 41. Reconnaissance Squadron and with the Modlin Army. He said how he made it to Romania, France and finally to England. The other man kept jotting down his answers. Then more questions followed – when did you come back? Who helped you on the way? Where did you sleep? Any many others. The man kept writing.
- Now you see – he said, proceeding to the second part of their encounter. - We are now building a new order, a Communist state. A state of peasants and workmen. People’s Poland. But there are some forces that don’t like it – you see. Władek is listening intently and wondering – why is he telling me all this?
- I’ve been working in Bydgoszcz since 1st of August - continues the nameless man. - But I took the trouble to come here to talk to you. See, I didn’t want to make you come all the way to Bydgoszcz.
- Perfect. I can see you understand me. You are in touch with other former Polish pilots in England. You know them. We would like to get to know them, too. We want to know what they think. How they think. We will notify you when next pilots return to Poland. You will know their names and addresses, so that you can meet with them, reminisce, have a drink or two. And afterwards you report back to us.
- You want me to tell you what my friends think? My friends, who often saved my life? Or whose lives I saved? No, I couldn’t do that – replied firmly Władek. - I can’t – he emphasised.
- You don’t have to include your friends – continues the nameless man behind the desk. - To start with, report any cars with strange registration plates - foreign or diplomatic. Give us a hint of what your neighbours are saying about the new order and the authorities. You will be paid for each piece of information you offer - as a compensation for your time and effort. We can appreciate loyalty. Besides, work is hard to find these days and you will have to make a living. And then you will see that you can only make a humble living by reporting foreign cars and that’s when we will talk about your friends - fellow pilots. And we are always happy to read your reports. Come on, sign it. I have prepared a declaration on your behalf. Just put in your name and address, and add the date and signature underneath.
Władek took the piece of paper, read it and quickly returned it to the nameless man. - No, I refuse to do it. I won’t do it – he repeated.
The man reached for the phone and said: - Put me through to the head of the department. Then he added: – We have a man here who won’t engage with us. We need to persuade him.
After a while a slim, but muscular man in a warrant officer’s uniform entered the room. He had smooth, fair hair slicked back and a moustache. Hitler used to have a similar moustache, but darker – thought Władek. - The man must be 23, 25 years old.
The nameless man stood up and moved aside. The newcomer sat down and said: – My name is Tadeusz Roszkowski and I’m the head of the Security Service in Włocławek.
Władek shifted on his chair and replied: – I am Władysław Wasilewski.
- Listen, citizen Wasilewski, we are working hard here. No time for chit-chat. We don’t really care whether you want something or not. Let’s do it this way – you will sign the declaration and collaborate with us, and we will evaluate your contribution to the people’s republic. This is your first option. The other - and the last - one is that we have a number of prison cells here. Small rooms in the basement - without windows. We can keep you there until you realise what’s best for you. Until you understand that WE know what’s best for you. It’s up to you whether you spend a day or two there, or a fortnight. Afterwards, of course, you will be free to go, as you deserve to be. Or WILL deserve to be. Am I making myself clear?
Władek replied in a calm, but firm voice: – I won’t sign this paper.
- Shall I talk to him once again? No pressure? - offered the nameless man. - After all, he must be able to understand what’s best for him.
- Go on, talk to him and keep me posted - said Roszkowski, got up and left. The nameless man sat down behind the desk once again.
Good cop, bad cop - thought Władek, eyeing the nameless man. - I know you. Your name is Stefan Markowski. The man stared at Władek in disbelief and asked: – How do you know me?
- Before the war my friend told me about you when he saw you. He was killed during the war, early in September, but before he did, he told me how brave you were in the battle in 1936.
- Really? … in 1936? … and what exactly did he tell you? – asked Markowski.
- He said you were valiant and active in suppressing the workers’ strike in Włocławek, in 1936.
Markowski turned red in the face. He took a deep breath and then exhaled forcefully. Władek felt the nasty smell of undigested alcohol yet again. After a longer while the man said in a trembling voice.
- Listen, Wasilewski, I’m not your enemy, although Roszkowski definitely is. I don’t want to lock you up, even though I could. I will give you a pass, so that you can leave this building. You may not realise it yet, but it’s easier to enter our ranks than leave. But before I give you the permit to leave, I want you to forget that incident from 1936.
- This I can promise you, Mr Markowski – replied Władek.
- One more thing, Wasilewski – started Markowski. - If you’re summoned again to talk about this business, I want you to say I agreed to give you some time to consider the possible collaboration.
- I believe this is another thing I can promise – said Władek, clearly satisfied.
- Then take the permit and off you go – said Markowski and gave Władek a small piece of paper with a red stamp. Władek left the building and as he was at the gate, he addressed the guard:
- Your predictions are not always accurate, as you can see.
- Enjoy the collaboration – replied the guard.
Władek returned home to find the whole family waiting for him with anxiety: his parents, Hela, Czesiek and even his brother-in-law, Józef. The latter two even took some time off work.
- How was it? – asked his father with uncertainty in his voice. Over a cup of tea Władek told them all the details of the interrogation. The whole family were proud of him. His father concluded: – It’s good to be decent, although it doesn’t always pay. It does pay to be a swine, but it’s not good (paraphrased saying of the late Professor Władysław Bartoszewski).
All photos are here - https://pregowski.pl/photo/12-photo/71-kartka-z-kalendarza-a-day-in-the-history
Has the hometown of Władek Wasilewski - Brześć Kujawski changed over the years when he was here for the last time? Probably so. How much has it changed? Let's see what it looks like today.
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