Polish 2nd Corps & Polish Air Force in the UK
My grandfather and his six brothers and one sister bought land, a lot of land, and divided it. And we built a little village. There were seventeen houses because there was somebody else and we lived at a farm. I’ve been born on the farm. And we’ve been working on the farm. The life was wonderful. School was built, to got to school – we were very, very happy there.
And in September 1939. 1st of September. Suddenly the worries. You see, the communication wasn’t at that time like it is now. Internet, telephones, anything. We had a paper and some had a telephone. And not telephone only, radio which — a little one. The war started. Hitler attacked Poland and completely ruined our little town. And then, all our army moved from West to East because we had a pact with Russia that they would not invade us. And all the Polish Army went to the East.
I shall never forget — seventeen of September 1939, about three o’clock in the morning, we heard a lot of something noise. We woke up. Looked through the window and there was Russian tanks. Going on the road, because we lived very close to the main road there. And we found out that Soviets invaded Poland. Just made the pact with Germany. Invaded Poland. So. All our army was taken by Russia. By the Russian soldiers. And they were taken to prison, to Russia, Katyn and there was over twenty thousand Polish Army killed in mass grave in Russia.
On the 10th of February 1940, suddenly two o’clock at night, knock to the door, Russian soldiers come, and say, ‘You’ve got a half an hour to get ready and we are taking you somewhere that you have better life.’ And there was a sledge outside with the horses and we had to — The officer told us what we have to do and two young soldiers, not more than probably eighteen, nineteen, left in the house to ensure that we don’t escape, These two young men told us what to take with us. They knew better that where we’re going than we knew. There was five of us. I was the oldest at sixteen. My youngest brother was only seven or eight. My mother completely lost it. Think she didn’t know what to do, but father kept it together. So these two young men say, ‘Take the flour. Take some meat what we had preserved. Take blankets.’ Take, you know, everything like that. ‘Warm clothes because you’re going somewhere that’s cold.’ If it wasn’t because of them, I don’t know how we will pack. Anyhow, they took us to the station and put us in a wagon. A cattle wagon that was separated and eight people into one sort of platform and another one.
And we started — we left our station on the 13th of February and we travelled for about four or six weeks, North, to Russia and we came to Kotlas, River Vychegda, and there was Arkhangelsk. Right to the North Sea. And then when we get from the train, we get into the sledges driven by horses and for three days we were going through frozen river and so many people were left in some barrack on the riverside. It was a barrack built and we’d been left in the barrack. In those barracks then, twice as long as my home and my room here. And they had only about half a metre for each person. And there was built, like a platform, so much away from the ground. And we didn’t know why we’d been left so many in each place. But what happened. When they — April — spring came. All the side of the — there were plenty of woods. They’d been chopping wood and putting them down the river and they were going to a place where they cut them and make something of this wood, sort of — So what happened, when the winter came very quickly, some of those big pieces of wood, you know, old trunk, were frozen into the river, so we had to dig them out from the ice because if they move with the ice, they would do a lot of damage to the riverbank. So that’s what we work. We all had to work.
I was sixteen, already seventeen because I was born on the 18th of January 1923, so I was already seventeen and I had to work. And when we work, we got one Rouble and a pound, one kilogram of bread, who works. But only twenty grams when the people, they don’t work. So my father work and I work so that we could get some bread. And we get a little money to buy some soup. The soup usually be made with the dry fish, which you never know what it was. But it was very good, very salty and very tasty, so my mother could put more water to it so we could share for everybody else. And we just lived there. We didn’t know what’s happening in the world but we got sometimes some news from the boat that was travelling up and down the river. And of course I was young and flirt with everybody and see the boat and see somebody. We found some news. And then we got news that there are some Polish soldiers in Katowice, into one city. And then I was, well I was the oldest one and I had to do everything because my mother wouldn’t let my father to go in case he disappears or he lost his way, so I was — It doesn’t matter if something happened to me. So I went there, to one friend of mine, a young boy, my age, quite clever and we find out that war started between Germany and Russia and officers came a few days later to our barrack and say, ‘You are free. And you can go wherever you are.’ So going the other way, we had a convoy — We be looked after. But then we’d been left there on our own. You’re free. No money. Nothing. Not knowing that at all. We have to make our way.
We found out that in south of Russia, Uzbekistan, the Polish army is being formed by General Wladyslaw Anders, and we have to go there because there is a big camp for all the people who came from Siberia down to south. We’d been travelling wherever we could walk. That’s why I say some people on the television now, how we walk, how we got on to some train. How we had to sleep on the station. And you sell everything what we had. Or simply begging for some bread. But I must say that the Russian people themselves, just people on the street, they were very good. They were sympathetic with us. And we travelled thus. So we found out, then, when Hitler advanced on Russia, Stalin wasn’t prepared for it. So he asked Mr. Churchill to help. Our diplomats here in, in London, the diplomats who escaped from Poland when the war started, said to Mr. Churchill, ‘Tell Stalin to release all those Polish people from the prison camp and they’ll be the best fighter for Hitler.’ And Stalin went for it. That’s why we’d been released. Free to join the Polish Army so we can fight. Fight Hitler. Which Polish Army proved that they could be — That they fight. So we went all this to this, to this, travel. Some people got lost. One lady lost her arm trying to get onto the train. Fell. It was tragic. It was always like you see in the war story. But now it’s better organised, I think.
I managed to get to the Army because I was already nearly eighteen. So it was. My youngest brother went to little Cadets. And we got into British uniform, and we serve and Russia wanted that we fight from the East together with the Russian. But General Anders was — He was in a Russian prison camp. He knew exactly what the Russia is. So he insisted that we travel to the Middle East, join the British, and American, and we were in a British uniform, because Britain gave us uniform and food. So we travelled. So of course he managed to get us and we travelled to the Caspian Sea to Pahlavi , to Persia. Which is Iran now. And then from there we travelled to Tehran and there were camps and we prepare, all the drills and things like that to get into the war.
I can remember very well, we’d been approaching on the 1st of April, to Pahlavi, to Persia, and we’d been so happy singing all hymns and different patriotic song, that, that we are free now. That we’re out of Russia. Getting into the port, and somebody said, ‘Look. What are you singing for? This is the 1st of April. April’s Fool.’ And everybody went so quiet. We were frightened. And maybe it is April Fool. We don’t know where we were approaching. Where we were going. Maybe we were going to another prison or something. And then somebody started laughing, ‘No, no. We are going in the right place but it is April Fool.’ 1st of April 1942..
I joined the army in forty-two. And we train. All we do in the Middle East, we train to be prepared. There was different courses of everything and driving for the women and all sorts of special learning. English. Many languages. And in 1943, suddenly appeal came from Royal Air Force — Everywhere. If anybody would like to join air force because Battle of Britain, air force was damaged. So my cousin, who was there in Polish Army, advised me, ‘You go to Britain because there is quicker from England to Poland, than wherever we will be when the war finish.’ And I joined.
I came to England. Straight away I started to learn, language, and of course all advice. I must say this, this is a bit funny but I must say it. We learned that Britain is very intelligent, well-educated country. Industry. Everything like that. You know Britain was always on top of the world. And we’d been told that all the British ladies are slim, tall, sophisticated. Always hair done. And we came from Russia. We ate everything. We’d all been a little bit podgy, you know, so, ‘Don’t eat too much.’ All the time. And you know what? We even got a lipstick, free. In forces, we got a lipstick, so we must use lipstick because that is how English ladies look like and so we haven’t got to look any different. Ok. We just arrived in the port, into Liverpool. Liverpool. Five o’clock in the morning. So we all went ready. All lipstick. All saying, ‘How does English ladies look very, very sophisticated?’ And suddenly, you wouldn’t believe it, we saw the normal ladies, going in overalls, having the curlers in the hair and with a bucket and mop, because they were coming to clean the ship. And we laughed and laughed and laughed, because what we were told was completely different. But it wasn’t different. It was just like normal. We travelled to so many countries, we knew all people that were sophisticated, well-bred, in the yard there were working people. I mean for us, it was normal how the world is. Anyhow, that is by-the-way how it is.
And then we came from Liverpool to North Berwick near Edinburgh to be there before they allocate us. Naturally while we’d been staying here and there, always learn English or some typing or whatever. And then we were sending to Wilmslow near Manchester. There was a big camp. That we changed our khaki uniform to blue uniform. And, on some interview, somebody asked me, ‘Why did you want to change khaki uniform to blue uniform?’ And I say, ‘Because it’s nicest. Better thing.’ I didn’t mean only because I wanted to be in air force, I was just saying, as a woman that it’s nicer to wear blue than khaki. And that was a laugh and I got a lot of applause because that interview was with a lot of people. I think it was in Faldingworth.
I was allocated to 300 Bomber Squadron. That was a Polish Squadron. Ziemi Mazowieckiej. And I was there as the Clerk GD, Clerk General Duty. And I work on the flying control but not talking to the planes that they were going away. There was a lady who spoke, but my duty was to get information about weather, because on every aerodrome there was a caravan standing there and getting every hour, a weather. Because the planes, the Lancaster were there. The biggest plane. The nicest plane there is, Lancaster. And it was very important. Yes I forgot to mention. Yes. And then you see, because they had to know. Usually six or seven people in that plane. And I usually do General Duty there. Getting the information about the weather. When they came down, then it was take-over by me. ‘You go to dispersal.’ So and so. And what section was advised to go to their dispersal because after a plane landed, they usually, drivers were going, usually women doing this work. Going to dispersal. Got airmen into car, well it was a little sort of lorry, and took them to the Briefing Room and that was my duty. And I was there serving ‘till the end of the war.
Meanwhile I met a young man who I actually I knew from Poland, and he was trained to be a radio operator on Lancaster, my husband, Jan Gawel. He flew seventeen operational flights, bombing Germany and two, another — I don’t even know how to say the other place. Well he done nineteen flights altogether. He was — The Gawel family, they all had a heart problem, that is the Gawels got a heart problem. He is a Gawel, yes. And he died very young, just as I say. Not even aged sixty. We got married in Faldingworth in a chapel. The air force chapel. Faldingworth is in Lincolnshire and there is something going on and I will be there in Faldingworth on the 26th of this month. I’m going, I’ve got an invitation to be there. And, I’ve been several times to Faldingworth. That is my station.
We’d been demobbed and also we’d been left almost on our own. And there was no such a lot of organisations like it is now, they help. You can go somewhere. There’s a service centre here, here, here. Nothing. And we were left. So what are you going to do? Where are you going to live? English people were very, very good. When you walk in and say, ‘Have you got a room to Let?’ I remember my husband was still flying in Thirsk and we walked to one house and it was a council house. Mr and Mrs Heal and with a son, and we say, ’Have we got a room?’ I had already a little girl, Jadwiga. And she looked at us and you know, I cannot believe - they had a two bedroom and one room downstairs and a very big kitchen-diner and they let us to have a bedroom and a room downstairs and they, two of them with the son, lived in that kitchen and the son had put a small sort of, like a settee-bed, so he slept in this kitchen. I think now, how those people was helping us, I just can’t believe.
After the war, I worked in a clothing factory in Nottingham. After my husband died, I married again. I am a member of the Polish Air Force Association and have been awarded medals and honours for my involvement in Scouts, Girl Guides and social organisations.
The photo shows the wedding of Wanda (nee Świca) and Jan Gaweł, 300 Bomber Squadron, RAF Station, Faldingworth, Easter 1945.
Copyright: Gavel family