On 1st August 2009 I visited Warsaw to take part in the 65th anniversary commemorations. The occasion was organised by the ambitiously conceived Museum of the Warsaw Uprising which tells the story of this epic event. On 1st August 1944 soldiers of the Polish Home Army, supported by citizens of Warsaw, rose up against the German occupiers. After five years of occupation, “Operation Bagration” had brought the Red Army to the gates of the Polish capital.
After the substantial success of the insurgents in the initial weeks of the Uprising, the Germans reinforced and pushed back the Home Army in several parts of the city. A series of massacres followed where the Nazis inflicted terrible revenge on the defenceless civilian population.
From the first day of the battle, the Polish Government-in-Exile pleaded for help from the Allies but Stalin refused to provide any help as he had his own plans to control post-war Poland. What help there was came from the RAF and USAAF.
The RAF reluctantly agreed to send a number of British, Polish and South African squadrons with supplies to assist the Uprising. The USAAF joined them in September 1944. The Soviets didn’t allow the Allied crews to use their airfields behind their lines which were practically on Warsaw’s doorstep so the only available bases for the drops were Brindisi, Bari and Foggia aerodromes in southern Italy. As a result therefore the flights had to be carried out almost entirely over enemy territory. The losses were exceptionally high: 41 aircraft were shot down and 263 Allied airmen lost their lives during the missions.
While seated in the grounds of the Warsaw Uprising Museum I was tapped on the shoulder by an elderly gentleman who said: “You know, I was here 65 years ago”. I realised he was one of the RAF veterans who took part in the supply flights. We had a very pleasant chat, took a few pictures and parted as he and his colleagues were rushed away to take part in various official events. In the excitement I never thought to ask for his contact details, which I still regret today.
Some weeks later I was flicking through one of the British Official photo albums and I noticed a series of photographs of airmen of the No. 178 Squadron RAF after their return from Warsaw on 23rd August 1944. I realised that the photograph showed the same group of men I had had the privilege to meet in Warsaw only a few weeks earlier.
The man I spoke to appeared to be Flight Sergeant Kenneth Pearce of Pontypridd in South Wales, standing on the far right of the photograph below.
A dramatic account of the experience of those flights is given in the private papers of Sergeant H. Lloyd Lyne, another airman of No. 178 Squadron, whose private papers are held in our Documents and Sound Section. He described his fateful flight over Warsaw on 13/14th August 1944:
The whole wing looked to be on fire and the most amazing thing was that at this particular time the anti-aircraft shells were coming through the bottom of the aircraft and going out through the top. I likened them then and I still do to cricket balls that were on fire. They looked about the size of a cricket ball and they were glowing. The 20 mm stuff, I would have thought. I could virtually have put my hand out and caught them. (…)
Sergeant Lyne’s Consolidated Liberator was shot down. The sole survivor, he was badly burned but eventually recovered after months in German POW camps.
The images of No. 178 Squadron RAF are fully catalogued in IWM collections and are available for viewing in the IWM Photo Archive Visitor Room.