Many in Ossett have memories of Mr Klat. You may recall his shop that stood on the corner of Church Street and Dale Street.
Zbigniew Franciszek Klatkiewicz was born in Oporów, Poland on March 28 1922. He had dreamed of being a pilot ever since he was a child. But, as his dreams began to come true, World War II broke out and his family lost sight of him for over half a century.
Zbigniew Klatkiewicz’s war had begun whilst he was still a cadet at Szkola Podoficerow Lotnictwa dla Maloletnich (SPLdM), the Polish Air Force Non Commissioned Officer’s School for Minors. Prospective candidates were between the ages of 16 and 17 years and had to attend two days of rigorous examinations, be physically fit and possess the recognised aptitude required by the Polish Air Force (PAF). Zbigniew’s first year would likely have consisted of drill, physical training and formal learning of military regulations. By the end of the year the authorities would have selected those who would go forward for pilot training.
Due to the pressure to train more pilots a satellite airfield was opened at the end of July 1939 and this is where Zbigniew Klatkiewicz was on September 1 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. At 6am almost thirty German airplanes attacked the school. It is reported that over 60 aircraft out of the 200 on the ground were destroyed and many others damaged. The bombs fell into the anti aircraft ditch, where the students had taken cover. The airfield was not prepared for defense – the only bomb shelter was badly disguised and the anti aircraft ditch was clearly visible from above. Thirty two were killed and many more were wounded. As a result of the attack, the Polish Air Force encouraged the students and their instructors to escape to England or France. The decision to evacuate was based on the notion that after the fall of Poland, its navy, soldiers and airmen would be needed in the defence of France and Britain.
On September 5 1939 SPLdM cadets, including 18 year old Zbigniew, set off from Moderówka to Warsaw, but on the way they were directed to Łuck (Lutsk) and from there to Sniatyn (both now located in the Ukraine) where there was a pre-war Polish border with Romania. In September 1941, Sniatyn came under German administration, but had previously been briefly under Romanian, and then Hungarian, control. Between September and December, hundreds of the town’s 3,000 Jews were murdered in death pits in the nearby forest. In April 1942 deportations began from the ghetto at Sniatyn to the death camp at Belzec. By September almost the entire Jewish population had been transported there and murdered.
On September 17 Zbigniew and the other cadets crossed the border and were interned. Almost all those interned in transit camps in Hungary and Romania escaped between the autumn of 1939 and the summer of 1940. The Hungarian and Romanian governments became anti-Polish while the people remained largely supportive and assisted in escapes. Conditions in the camps were very poor and medical support at best totally inadequate. The cadets managed to escape the camp, either by bribery or due to the lack of supervision by the guards. Many headed for the Polish Embassy in Bucharest where their photographs were taken, passports were made and forged visas under assumed names were issued.
Zbigniew became ill with dysentery and so his escape from the camp was delayed. Once his health improved sufficiently, he secured for himself the necessary forged documents and eventually arrived, via Syria, in France.
Zbigniew was one of thousands of Polish servicemen who made their way to France. He said: “After six weeks they (the French) moved the Poles to Lyon, where they waited for further piloting instructions. However, it all went slowly and the French sent the Poles to the front as infantry with rifles from the Napoleonic era and with ten cartridges”. It was only later that Zbigniew won “a decent rifle after some German was killed”.
They retreated all the time in the direction of Toulouse, where he threw away everything he had. He was left with only a rifle, a haversack and a pouch. He walked from Lyon to Toulouse – a distance of over 400km. From Toulouse the Polish were driven to the Mediterranean. They had hoped that they would find a ship to take them onward, but they failed, making it necessary to move back through the Pyrenees to the Atlantic, where Zbigniew said he “managed to get on the penultimate ship from France to Africa“. The Germans tried to intercept the ship but failed and, after 10 days of sailing, Zbigniew reached Africa.
The first Polish pilots arrived in Britain on December 8 1939 and by the end of July 1940 the total of Polish airmen on British soil had reached 8,384. The Polish named Britain “Wyspa Ostatniej Nadziei” – “The Island of the Last Hope“.
The British, like the French before them, were doubtful about the flying skills of the Polish pilots but the fact that the British airmen were exhausted and the air force undermanned eventually overcame any reservations. It soon became clear to the British that the Polish were extremely skilled pilots and they quickly gained a reputation for being fearless to the point of recklessness.
Zbigniew Klatkiewicz arrived in England in 1941 and in May 1942 he graduated from RAF Henlow, Bedfordshire. During the war years, RAF Henlow became one of the largest RAF Maintenance Units in the country and was used to assemble the Hawker Hurricanes which had been built at the Hurricane factory in Ontario, Canada. After test flying in Fort William, they were disassembled and sent to Henlow in shipping containers and reassembled.
On May 25 1943 Zbigniew began combat training at RAF Finningley, Doncaster and graduated in August that same year. He was then incorporated into the 300th Squadron, a bomber squadron which was formed at Bramcote, Warwickshire on July 1 1940. During WW2 the RAF base was best known as the front line bomber command base and as a centre of excellence for training pilots and air crew. Robin Hood Airport now sits on the former site of RAF Finningley.
Zbigniew said: “I was very lucky. I made a lot of flights, until at the end of January 1944, my machine was shot badly, two engines fell on bombardment at one of the first airports, the machine fell apart. The whole crew went out, though no one was injured. Only I was crushed. I broke my left collarbone and a pair of ribs”. On March 20 1944 Zbigniew was sent to rest after combat flights at an air base in Blackpool.
Blackpool became the RAF’s largest training area during WW2. The Tower was requisitioned and had 10 feet removed to enable the fitting of a Radar Aerial. Another requisition was Burton’s, a Restaurant come Ballroom. This was used for testing Wireless Operator’s on their Morse Code – hence the phrase ‘gone for a Burton’.
Stanley Park Municipal Airport, which is now Blackpool Zoo, opened in 1931. The airport was commandeered in 1939 by the Royal Air Force as No3 Technical Training School; Wellington Bombers were also assembled there. RAF Squire Gate, now Blackpool International Airport, was used as a fighter squadron base; it was also a training base. Hurricanes and Defiants were flown from here by British and Polish squadrons.
After a month of recuperation Zbigniew travelled to Scotland to RAF Evanton where he served as a staff pilot, tirelessly flying navigators into the air to train over the featureless mountains and lakes. The airfield was by the seashore of the Cormarty of Firth, 16 miles north of Inverness.
From Scotland Zbigniew found himself assigned as staff pilot, instructor and test pilot to RAF Manby, Lincolnshire. RAF Manby was built as an Armament Training School and was responsible for training armament officers, bomb aimers, air gunners and armourers, using a variety of aircraft ranging from Hawker Hinds to Wellingtons.
After the war fewer than 3,000 Poles returned to their homeland; 2,800 emigrated from the UK to other countries of residence, and 500, mostly flying personnel, joined the RAF.
Zbigniew’s parents, Marta and Marcin, didn’t know what had become of their son. He had simply vanished. They had spent many years looking for him with the aid of the Polish Red Cross (Polski Czerwony Krzyż – PCK). Not until 1947 did the family learn that Zbigniew had survived the war and had settled in England.
After a courtship which lasted at least two years, on Christmas Eve 1946 Zbigniew Klatkiewicz proposed to Marjorie Iseton. They were married in the Spring of 1947 in Sedgewick, Durham. Marjorie, born on July 29 1922, was the oldest of two daughters and before her marriage she had been a typist. Her parents, Thomas and Ethel née Dyke ran a draper’s shop, selling children’s clothing. Her younger sister Constance (born December 3 1923) worked in the shop with them.
In January 1947, Zbigniew finally managed to establish contact with his family in Poland. After all of his previous letters had been “returned to sender”, he almost gave up hope of ever finding them. He said he was overjoyed to finally be in touch with everyone and to know that everyone was “all right and healthy.” Zbigniew’s parents were still alive then. His father Marcin died in 1950 and his mother Marta in 1961.
In August 1948, Sergeant Pilot Zbigniew Klatkiewicz transferred to the Polish Aerospace Adaptive Corps (PRC) at RAF Hednesford, Staffordshire. He left military service in February 1949. Zbigniew Klatkiewicz was awarded the Polish Order of the Virtuti Militari which recognises and rewards outstanding military valor above and beyond the call of duty. It is one of the oldest decorations for valor in the world and is equivalent to the US Medal of Honour and the British Victoria Cross. He was also awarded the Polish Cross of Valour (Krzyż Walecznych) which is awarded to one who has demonstrated deeds of valor and courage on the field of battle. He also received: the Air Crew Europe Star, a medal awarded to Commonwealth aircrew who participated in operational flights over Europe from UK bases, between September 3 1939 to June 5 1944 (outbreak of war until the start of the D-Day Normandy Invasion), the 1939-1945 Star and the Defence and War medals.
Also in 1949 Zbigniew and Marjorie had their first son, Bernard who was born in Newcastle. By the summer of 1950 the family had moved to Wakefield where Zbigniew took a job in a bakery. They lived at 19 Duke of York Street, just off Jacob’s Well Lane. Their second son Paul was born in Wakefield in 1954. They then moved to Ossett where they opened a grocery shop at the junction of Dale Street and Church Street. “Klat’s”.
Zbigniew did plan to visit his family in Poland, but he was discouraged by the political situation. It’s certainly no coincidence that he waited until September 1991 to visit his sister in Poznań, with Marjorie and his granddaughter; 1991 saw the first parliamentary elections since the fall of communism and Soviet troops started to leave Poland.
All the remaining family were awaiting his arrival in Ostroróg and, as he greeted his sister Jadwiga, Zbigniew who was 69 years old, was overcome with emotion. He hadn’t seen her since he was 17. There was a huge celebration at the Mercure Hotel, after which he then travelled on to the home of his nephew where he greeted his relatives whom he had not seen for over 50 years. He had been there only two hours when he was taken ill and a doctor had to be called. Dr Tadeusz Tanalski diagnosed a heart attack.
An ambulance took Zbigniew to hospital where he stayed for almost three weeks. However, his broken heart could not be cured and Zbigniew Klatkiewicz died on September 21 1991 in the Szamotuły hospital.
Marjorie flew his Zbigniew’s coffin back to England where he was buried at the cemetery in Newark on Trent, Nottinghamshire with other Polish airmen from 300 Squadron. Sadly, the Polish Air Force’s 300 Squadron suffered the highest number of deaths of any Bomber Command unit.
The family in Poland cherish the memory of their uncle and they tell their children about Zbigniew Klatkiewicz, who left his home in Oporów in 1938. And how, in 1991 when Poland was a free state, he returned to his homeland to die among his own people.
Much of this research had been translated into English from Polish. My grateful thanks to Michael Klatkiewicz, the grandson of Zbigniew Klatkiewicz, for pointing me in the right direction.
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