‘Warsaw Return’ David Stiling (AGAvA)
Commission of a Halifax of 1586 Squadron based in Brindisi, Italy in August 1944.
No. 1586 (Polish Special Duties) Flight was first formed at RAF Derna, in Libya on 4 November 1943, equipped with a mix of Consolidated Liberator lll and Handley Page Halifax II/S special duties aircraft. After many months of flying support missions to Poland, first from Tunis in North Africa in December 1943, the Polish flight was transferred to Campo Casale near Brindisi, Italy. From there it flew operations over occupied Europe undertaking special duties including partisan supply drops and agent insertion.
When the Warsaw Uprising began on 1st August 1944, No:1586 Polish Flight had only 6 crews and 8 aircraft remaining. Most of the aircraft were battered and not suitable for long, dangerous missions and replacement Halifax’s ferried in by British crews from Algier were already in a bad shape. In addition, most of the crews were young and inexperienced, while the rest had almost completed their tour, sometimes even their second or third. Thus, when the time called for greatest effort to help the fighting in Warsaw, 1586 Flight was heavily depleted. The Battle of Warsaw would last 63 days and take a terrible toll of the Polish bomber crews.
Typical of future missions was the first mission in support of Warsaw when all of the available crews, seven in total, were tasked with a supply drop mission to Warsaw on the 4/5th August 1944. Taking off shortly before 20.00hrs on the 4th, a combined flight of three Liberators and eleven Halifax’s took off from Camp Casale near Brandisi. Seven of the aircraft were crewed by members of 1586 Special Duties Flight and as they headed for Warsaw, their orders were changed. Warsaw was extremely heavily defended by severe anti-aircraft artillery as well as an abundance of German night fighters. Therefore, orders were changed mid flight by Air Marshall John Slessor who ordered instead that their supplies be dropped to the Polish Home Army in Southern Poland 30km north of Krakow. However, four of the Polish crews decided to ignore the changed orders and continued to fly onto Warsaw. The need and desire to support Warsaw had tragic consequences with the loss of five Halifax’s shot down, another crash landing at Brandisi, all aircraft badly shot up and only three Polish bombers successfully dropping their loads.
As a result, Air Marshal Sir John Slessor suspended all the flights to Warsaw. Only after constant Polish protest did he change his decision before Polish crews recommenced supply mission to Warsaw.
Many of the flights had been ordered to carry out sortie’s regardless of weather conditions or the opposing enemy forces. Taking off at night, often in poor weather, flights took off and over the Yugoslav coast, fog would stretch from the ground to 6,000 feet. Without navigational aids and unable to get fixes from ground observation, navigation was often made by star ‘fixes’. In addition, heavy flak was often experienced over Yugoslavia and the Danube and especially after crossing the Carpathian mountains. Flying over Poland, enemy night fighters were a continual and lethal threat and accounted for many of the bombers. Those left would fly on, guided by the distant red glow over Warsaw where fires were blazing in every district of Warsaw, the only dark spots being areas occupied by the German forces. Descending, the bombers would make their approach at heights of 700ft. Everything would be smothered in smoke, through which the city flickered in ruddy, orange flames that lit up the night sky and illuminated the bombers. The enemy flak was so intense, the bombers would then descend as low as they could, often 70 or a 100 feet above ground, often having to dodge obstructions such as the Poniatowski Bridge in their desperation to avoid the flak. Losses were often catastrophic. Typical of these raids was one on the 20th August when a flight of Halifax’s attacked Warsaw at low level and only one returned with five others lost.
Those aircraft that got back to base were always more or less damaged by flak or fighters, and ground crews were greatly overworked. Taking off in the early evening, many of these flights lasted eleven hours and during the dramatic events supporting Warsaw, their efforts and those of the aircrew were nothing short of heroic with many ground crew working for 20 hours a day, struggling to keep as many a/c operational as possible. In August, there were 97 flights to Poland including 80 to Warsaw. Perhaps the biggest indicator of the sacrifice made by the Polish crews was the fact that few crews completed as many as three sorties over Warsaw and that only two crews survived the whole two months period.
My painting captures a moment when the clients Father, who was a Halifax wireless operator, met the sole surviving Halifax crew that returned from a mission to Poland as dawn broke. His Father spoke of greeting the crew as they stood on the runway at Brindisi as they described their harrowing experiences flying at low level avoiding the enemy night fighters and the constant, lethal flak on their long flight and the realisation that they had lost so many of their fellow crews.
No. 1586 (Polish Special Duties) Flight
No. 1586 (Polish Special Duties) Flight was first formed at RAF Derna, in Libya on 4 November 1943, equipped with Handley Page Halifax II special duties aircraft. The origin of the unit was the remnants of 301(Polish) Squadron after disbandment by the Polish HQ due to lack of staff and trained crews. The remaining crews and aircraft formed C Flight of 138 Squadron, which was temporarily renamed as 301 Squadron Special Duties Flight, RAF, before becoming 1586 Flight. That’s why initially all Halifaxes bore NF code markings, later changed to the GR of 301 (Polish) RAF Sqn.
Missions flown by the flight included partisan supply drops and agent insertion, but also missions over the capital city Warsaw during the uprising of August 1944, with supplies for those brave citizens, who had taken up arms against the occupation.
The flight was disbanded on 7 November 1944 at RAF Brindisi to resume operations as No. 301 (Polish) Squadron, RAF.
The second main aircraft type used by the unit was the Liberator. There were three aircraft, directly converted for supply missions from Mk IIIs (American B-24D), and altogether some fifteen Mk VI and GR Mk VIs (B-24J in USA). Conversion included nose turret removal and adaptation of the B-24D nose glazing, more suitable for the drop observer. The glazing was, however, taller as the fuselage floor part of the J-variant’s nose section was positioned lower than in the D. This, in profile, is the most distinguishing difference between 1586 Flight Mk III and Mk VI Liberators, and causes much confusion and mistakes in models.
Pilots of 1586 Special Duties Flight, based at Brindisi, experience moments of hope and weeks of despair
The Warsaw Rising broke out on 1 August 1944, between four and five in the afternoon. For us, listening to the loudspeakers, the only vital question was: Warsaw is fighting – when do we fly to help them? . . . The announcer was finding it difficult to keep his voice properly calm and impersonal . . . I looked round: every face was set and stern. . . . We were to take off at midnight. Stan, my tail gunner, rapped out a curse, banging the table with his fist and went out, slamming the door. Of course our flight was unimportant. Just as everything not taking place in Warsaw was unimportant.
20 August 1944
We had been ordered to carry out the sortie regardless of weather conditions. So, though the met. forecast was exceptionally despondent, we took off . . . Sure enough, right from the Yugoslav coast fog stretched from the ground to 6,000 feet. Fog was hardly the word for it – water vapour or steam would be more appropriate. We had no ground-based navigational aid; I tried map reading . . . but we finally flew on solely with star ‘fixes’.
We had similar weather all the way until over Poland we saw a Jerry fighter shoot down one of our Halifaxes. (There had been a lot of flak over Yugoslavia and the Danube.) We pushed on and got a decent ‘fix’ by the time we reached the Pilitsa River. After that we flew on guided by the distant glow . . .
We dropped to some 700 feet, got through a very dense barrage [near Sluzhev] over the Vistula. Fires were blazing in every district of Warsaw. The dark spots were places occupied by the Jerries. Everything was smothered in smoke through which ruddy-orange flames flickered. It was terrible and must have been hell for everybody down there.
The German flak was the hottest I have ever been through, so we got down to just 70 or 100 feet . . . The flicks in the Praga and Mokotov suburbs kept us constantly lit up – there was nothing we would do about it. We nearly hit the Poniatovski Bridge as we cracked along the Vistula: the pilot hopped over it by the skin of his teeth.
Our reception point was Krashinski Square. So, when we passed the [Kerbeds] iron-girder bridge, we turned sharp to port and made ready for the run-in. The whole southern side of the Square was blazing and wind was blowing the smoke south, much to our satisfaction. We dropped the containers and knew we had made a good job.
It was time to clear out. The pilot came down still lower, keeping an eye for steeples and high buildings. The cabin was full of smoke, which got into our eyes and made them smart. We could feel the heat . . . We ripped along the railway line leading west [to Prushkov and Skiernievitse]. Some flak from an anti-aircraft train tried to hit us, so we let go some bursts. We had a breathing space until flicks near Bohnia picked us up again, and the flak got uncomfortably close. We passed over the crashed bomber in the foothills, which was now burning itself out. (Five Halifaxes that had taken off with us never returned.) The Home Army people signaled that a supply was received on Krashinski Square at the time we noted in our logbook. So we knew that at least our flight had not been in vain.
2 October 1944
As we were climbing out of our bombers one day after an op., an aircraftman came up and told me [the news]. Stanley was just behind me. He’s what you’d call a Warsaw cockney with all a cockney’s affection for his city. He stopped short and dumped his ’chute on the ground. He just stood there, turning his head from side to side helplessly . . . He shuffled off without a word. Later, he came up to me in the Ops. Room as I was studying the maps. His eyes were sunken and lifeless. ‘Sir, what’s the use?’ he asked in a hoarse, unfamiliar voice. ‘What’s the use, sir?’ He pressed his face against the [window] and looked out through the panes where the drops of mist were trickling down like tears..
Navigator Alan McIntosh
‘For the RAF and SAAF squadrons of No. 205 Group operating from bases in the Foggian Plain, the call to assist the Balkan Air Force squadrons came out of the blue.’.
In the forenoon of 13 August, 205 Group air crews were told that a maximum effort was to be flown against an unknown target that night. 2,300 gallons of fuel were to be taken on by each aircraft, and would be topped up for extreme range at Brindisi where the operational briefing would take place. Normally the fuel load for a target in northern Austria used around 1,800 gallons.
The target only became known at Brindisi, when, on entering the briefing room, the aircrews sighted a wall covered with international modified polyconic maps, extending from floor to ceiling. A red line extended from Brindisi at the bottom to Warsaw at the top. A sobering revelation for those about to go out into the night.
The briefing officer was Lieutenant George Z. His briefing was a model: compelling, honest, accurate, comprehensive, in a situation in which the aircrews needed to know the political, military, and tactical situation of the Polish Home Army in Warsaw; the German army in Warsaw; the Red Army sitting on its hands across the Vistula at Praga; and the advance of the Red Front.
For accuracy, a low-level drop was essential: height not above 500 feet, speed not above 150 m.p.h. Target maps and photographs were available. Three aligning points (Mokotov in the south, the Old City in the centre, and the Citadel in the north) were given. Take-off time for 178 Squadron was 19:45; estimated time on target 01:30. The twilight was critical for returning aircraft, which would have little chance of survival in daylight over enemy territory extending from Albania to the Baltic Sea.
At the start of the operation in support of the Warsaw Uprising, RAF aircrews were issued with blood chits. They were silk with a Union Jack on the obverse and something along the lines of ‘This chap is a British officer. Return him in good shape and in working order and you will be rewarded’ – on the reverse side, the same in Russian. Since for the Warsaw operations we were briefed to give nothing other than number, rank, and name, if we fell into Russian hands (the same as if captured by the Germans) the blood chits were ominous rather than comforting. After difficult, protracted high-level negotiations, the Russians agreed to allow a free passage route over Russian-held territory; for specifically agreed missions.
Warsaw was burning: not in the manner of fire storms which British and Polish Bomber Command aircrews remember, but as a great city in which a land battle to destruction is going on. Approaching at low altitude in the darkness, it was as if the city was covered by an inverted fish-bowl inside which the night was a dull red. Individual fires and gun flashes showed up as bright sparks; flak streamed across the area or burst above the dome amidst the coning searchlight. Inside the red dome, aircraft were seen in silhouette against the fiery city as they made their low-level dropping run.
That night, 13/14 August, over Warsaw, my crew sighted a four-engined aircraft, lower than our own, silhouetted against the fires of the city. It was in a nose-down attitude as if coming in to land, very low, and engaged in a gun battle with a German light flak battery and a nearby searchlight. It could only be one of the Halifax aircraft of 1586 (Polish) Special Duties Flight flown from Brindisi five and a half hours earlier. Almost certainly the aircraft had already dropped its load of arms and ammunition and its crew was now joining the land battle while they still had something left to give. Such was the spirit of the Polish aviators who flew in support of the Warsaw Uprising.
On my crew’s last sortie to Warsaw (night of 10/11 September 1944) we were engaged by Russian AA fire and Russian night fighters along much of the two-and-a-half hour route. Disenchanted by this, our South African pilots and Australian navigator, at about 12,000 feet and outside gun-range from Lublin, rapidly decided that if we survived the drop on Warsaw and were fated to be shot down on the way home, it would be by the enemy and not by our Russian ‘friends’. On climbing away from Warsaw, therefore we followed the direct route through enemy territory, rather than putting our Russian blood chits to the test. Some crews of our force were not so lucky.
With the benefit of hindsight, one wonders what our masters knew (and how much they chose to tell) about our Russian ‘Allies’.
The USAAF provide a grand spectacle
On 18 September something extraordinary happened; a large American air flotilla, the first we had seen since the fighting started, appeared overhead. The Flying Fortresses, over 100 planes, were flying at a very high altitude and were thus out of reach of the intense anti-aircraft fire. The countless specks which appeared behind them turned out to be parachutes. Ignoring the danger, people were coming out of the cellars and climbing the heaps of rubble to get a better view of the spectacle in the sky. Their faces beaming with hope and joy, they were embracing one another and crying with relief. As the multicoloured parachutes came closer, somebody shouted, ‘Our commandoes are landing!’ – but unfortunately he was wrong, they were supplies. Having dropped their cargo, the planes landed on the other side of the River Vistula, on Soviet-controlled territory. Since by now only a small part of the city remained under our control, three-quarters of the eighty tons of supplies dropped from such a great height fell into German hands. Had the help come a few weeks earlier, the outcome of the Rising might have been very different. Now it was too late.
Our daily paper, the Warsaw Courier, wrote: ‘Stalin had planned the total destruction of Warsaw a long time ago. A vibrant city with a long democratic tradition would have been a source of constant irritation in his vast totalitarian empire. Only when he saw Warsaw almost razed to the ground did Stalin decide to throw a few sackfuls of food to the dying few, an empty gesture designed to deceive world opinion.’
In his memoirs, General Boor colourfully presents the progress of this drop:
We had awaited the American air expedition with growing impatience. It had been announced and then retracted so many times because of unfavourable atmospheric conditions. At last during the night of 17th and 18th September the BBC announced that the expedition was imminent. We waited tensely for the morning broadcast. If it ended with the song ‘Just Another Mazurka’, the expedition was going to take off. If ‘The March of the Infantrymen’ was played out, we would meet with delay yet again.
This time, however, ‘Just Another Mazurka’ ended the broadcast and a radio message arrived immediately afterwards, informing us that we should expect the expedition between 11 and midday.
It was a sunny day with good weather. A clear sky.
Of course, the inhabitants of Warsaw knew nothing of the imminent help, so the sight of American aircraft flying overhead, appearing unexpectedly over the city, provoked indescribable joy. The bombers flew extremely high, leaving behind them a trail of white specks. They were parachutes.
The Germans opened a barrage of anti-aircraft fire, which, however, did not reach the machines.
Warsaw lived through moments of indescribable enthusiasm. Everyone except the ill and the injured poured out of the cellars. They deserted their basements, and teemed into streets and courtyards. They assumed from the start that this was the arrival of the Parachute Brigade. A soldier standing not far from me observed the sky through binoculars. Suddenly he shouted loudly:
‘Oh my God, the Germans are shooting them all!’
One of the officers tried to calm him down, explaining that they were not parachutists, but only containers with arms and supplies.
‘But I can see their legs waving in the air clearly through the binoculars,’ the soldier insisted.
No doubt, the Germans were under the same erroneous impression, because they alerted their units.
A German sentry watches the same event
Today, in our command post, we were treated to a scene that most of us have only witnessed in the newsreels. Around 13.55 a fleet of American and British planes appear, at a height of around 1,000 metres, parading at first in twos and threes. There must be about fifty to sixty of them (I get to forty-four and then lose count). There is a mass of them up there, as when a huge flock of birds takes to the wing. Then we realize that something is falling from the planes, it seems directly above us. Parachutes are opening! The alarm is raised and a clatter of gunfire begins. Some claim to have seen men, limbs and hands. So, it’s a paratrooper landing at last, like the one in the west? Most unlikely here. The ’chutes descend, and I see black ones, green, yellow, and white . . . Oh, they are supply pods!
. . . Inside the others is German ammunition. Oh, how decent they are. The Americans are bringing the supplies that we left in our haste in the west, and they are delivering it to us in Warsaw, by plane!