Every year in September an emotional ceremony is held at the Katyn Monument in the James and Ethel Gray Park in Johannesburg to commemorate the anniversary of the historic South African Airforce relief flights over Warsaw. 2019 was the 75th Anniversary of this massive air transport effort. The annual ceremony is one in which the South African Polish community specifically honours the airmen of the South African Airforce’s 31 and 34 Squadrons who came to their countrymen’s aid during the Polish uprising in 1944.
The story of the Warsaw Airlift is astounding. When Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939 Britain declared war on Germany. By 1940 the Germans had occupied Warsaw and Warsaw’s Home Army, Amia Krajowa, began plotting to recover their country. In 1944 the tide of the war was turning against Germany and it was believed that the time was right to begin the fight to take back Warsaw.
1 August 1944 saw the start of the Polish uprising against the German occupation. The intention was to hold Warsaw for only a few days until the Russian army would arrive. However, politics being what they are, Stalin had his own agenda for Poland and stopped his men at the Vistula River. The badly betrayed Amia Krajowa troops held out for 63 days while the Nazis systematically destroyed Warsaw.
The situation was desperate, and the Polish partisans called for urgent help from the Allies. British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, decided to send assistance. Major- General Jimmy (James) Durrant was a South African pilot who was Director-General of the South African Air Force and in addition, commanded RAF bomber groups. He was ordered by Churchill to start extensive relief flights to Warsaw, despite the extremely dangerous circumstances. Brigadier Durrant was able to meet with Churchill personally and expressed his extreme misgivings that an airlift of this nature, over enemy territory, could hold any hope of military success. He also cautioned that the losses would be huge. Churchill’s response was terse, “From a military point of view you are right, but from a political point of view you must carry on. Good morning.” And so Durrant and his volunteer aircrews from the RAF’s, Polish squadron and the two South African squadrons, knowing the risks, made 196 flights to Warsaw. They flew for eleven hours over the Carpathian Mountains and then at rooftop height over Warsaw to bring relief to the citizens of Warsaw by dropping cannisters of arms, ammunition and food supplies into the beleaguered city. Of the 80 aircraft that participated, 31 were lost.
The long flights, which took place from September to October 1944, were almost suicidal. SAAF Squadrons 31 and 34 were at that time stationed in Italy and they flew at night from Foggia in southern Italy, mainly over enemy territory to Warsaw and back, a round trip of 1,900 miles or 3,520 kms.
Liberator B24 heavy bombers were used, the only aircraft with sufficient fuel capacity to get to Warsaw and back in one night. These heavily loaded, lumbering giants each had to carry almost two and a half thousand gallons of fuel for the ten to eleven hours of flying time. The flight path over the Carpathians to Warsaw was lit by flashing beacons to signal their approach. And then it was along the Vistula River into Warsaw. One can imagine the numbed terror of flying into the city on those nights. Major Selwyn Urry, second in command of 31 Squadron, told of his experience in a radio interview afterwards. From 50 miles outside Warsaw the city could be seen as a red glow on the horizon, lit by the flames reflected in the smoke, and the planes made their way towards that. Enemy fighters above them dropped flares in order to spot them. Once over the city, the planes descended to roof height and flew between walls of flames leaping up from hundreds of burning buildings. They had to navigate through the huge beams of searchlights and a hail of anti-aircraft fire. Major Urry described the incendiaries streaking through the air and the screeching of rockets. Shells exploded above and below them and the bombers rocked from side to side in the hail of steel. He said, “…every German gun in the world seemed to be blazing away at us”.
Once the target was in sight, the planes throttled back to 140 miles per hour which felt like hanging stationary in the sky. But this frightening speed and altitude was necessary to enable the containers of rifles, machine-guns, ammunition and other supplies to be dropped accurately on the targets so that the Warsaw patriots could collect them immediately.
Most of the aircrews were only allowed to fly one sortie over Warsaw because of the extreme danger of the mission. And tragically, despite the valour and the resolve of the airmen, the mission proved to be ineffective and could not provide sufficient supplies to sustain the Polish resistance, which was overrun by German forces on 2 October 1944.
A poignant story was told to me by Christel de Wit, historian- researcher for the Warsaw flights, whose father was Chief Armourer for 31 Squadron. He used to tell her that as each crew boarded their aircraft, he and his men would shake the hands of each airman because they didn’t know whether they would see them again. And then he and his men would sit around braziers on the airfield drinking coffee until dawn, waiting for their planes to come staggering in. Only then could they count their losses.
And so back to the 75th anniversary memorial ceremony. The commemoration is convened annually by Martin Urry, Chairman of the Warsaw Flights Commemoration Committee, whose uncle, Major Selway Urry, was a pilot in the Warsaw relief flights. Martin Urry’s wife Jean is Secretary of the Warsaw Commemoration Committee and organises and co-hosts the reception afterwards at the Saxonwold Military Museum.
In the peace of the park, to the background sounds of birdsong, the beautiful and moving 75th Commemoration service was held, officiated by Polish priest, Father Radoslaw and Pastor Robin Peterson, son of one of the airmen.
The commemoration was of special significance to me and my family as my late father, Lieutenant Mark Lawrence, of 34 Squadron, flew his sortie into Warsaw on 10 September 1944. He was a radio operator/ navigator and also an air gunner. He had told me the stories, only omitting the extreme danger involved and the bravery of the South African airmen. One of my sons and I were asked to lay the wreath for those men of 34 Squadron who were lost, an emotional and very special moment for us. The aircraft in which my father flew his sortie didn’t return from a Warsaw flight a week later. He was one of the lucky ones and he seldom travelled by air after the war, saying all his chances had been used up. He was particularly suspicious of aircraft without propellers.
This was a military commemoration and full military protocol was observed, including a guard of honour. VIPs from the South African Airforce, Royal Air Force and Italian Airforce were present, as were representatives from the Federal Republic of Germany and presidents and chairmen of the various Airforce associations, veterans’ federations, officers’ clubs, Polish Heritage Foundations and the councillor of the City of Johannesburg. Col. Dariusz Siekiera, the Defence Attaché for the Republic of Poland, gave an address of gratitude to the South African Air Force and remembered the fallen. A few hundred people attended, many of whom were relatives of the men who flew this mission together with members of the Polish community in Johannesburg. And there were rows upon rows of medals upon proud chests!
A perfectly timed fly-past of Harvards flew a Missing Man formation, in memory of fallen airmen, followed by a solo Harvard aerobatic display. Afterwards a bugle played the Last Post and Reveille. The plaintive notes echoing through the park brought a tear to the eye. Finally, there was the laying of wreaths with family of the airmen and heads of military organisations participating.
The piles of wreaths by the end of the ceremony were an indication of the acknowledgement and gratitude to the servicemen. After the service, a reception was held at the Military Museum, a delicious lunch was prepared by the ladies of the Polish community, followed by a splendidly colourful display of Polish dancing in national costumes.
In conclusion, the Warsaw Airlift is a story of extreme bravery. The mission took place towards the end of the war and a few of the South African airmen, like my father, had already fought for the full duration and were battle-weary and worn out. And yet they found it within themselves to help a besieged nation in dire need, risking (and many losing) their lives with honour. To me, the wonder of the story is that 75 years later, the Polish community of South Africa is still expressing its fervent gratitude every year to the South African airmen of 31 and 34 Squadrons by way of this commemoration ceremony. I remember that this meant a great deal to my father and he became quite emotional when he told me about it. The South African Polish community has never forgotten.
Acknowledgement and thanks to:
Jean Urry, secretary of the Warsaw Commemoration Committee for material, information and guidance.
Martin Urry, chairman of the Warsaw Commemoration Committee for his uncle’s story. Major Selwyn Urry was one of the pilots and 2nd in command of 31 squadron.
Darryl Jones, for his father’s story John Durrant for his father, Major- General James Durrant’s, story.
Christel de Wit, Historian-Researcher, 31 & 34 Squadrons SAAF, for finding the records to confirm my father’s log book entries.