Zenon Stefan Teoﬁl Bartkowiak was born on 21 day of November 1921 in the town of Pleszew, about 30 km from the German border at that time. It was a small to medium size town with a long history. A large proportion of its surrounding land was arable although there were forests to both the southwestand northeast of the region.
His father was Jan Bartkowiak, born 6 July 1891 at Komorza, Jarocin, Poznan, Poland. He was a regular soldier in the Polish Army from 1919. When WW2 broke out he was believed to be a Warrant Officer in 70 Infantry Regiment who fought in the 1939 campaign in Poland. It is thought he might have been serving in eastern Poland when the Russian's invaded on 17 September 1939. Realising he would be shot if he was taken prisoner by the Soviets and found to be a Polish ofﬁcer, it is said that he managed to change his uniform for one worn by a dead Polish soldier. He was deported to Russia and probably imprisoned in one of the many gulags (slave labour camps) where Russia placed most Poles that resisted the Red Army's 1939 invasion.
He was thought to have remained in one of these camps until after the signing of the Sikorski-Maisky (Polish-Soviet) agreement of 30 July 1941 after which he was released with others to join the Polish Armed Forces. He re-enlisted in the Polish Army on 1 September 1941 and travelled via Iran and Iraq to Palestine where he arrived on 13 May 1942. He served in 2 Polish Corps in the last 3 countries plus Egypt between 1942 and 1944 after which he saw much action in Italy including the fighting at Monte Cassino and the Battle for Bologna until 2 May 1945. He was finally discharged from the Polish Resettlement Corps in the UK on 5 March 1949. It is said that he became a school caretaker at Worksop in Nottinghamshire during the 1950s. He died in ????
Zenon’s mother was named Malgorzata nee Kasprzak but little more is known of her background.
Zenon had one sister and one brother. It is said that his brother was caught by the Germans listening to an overseas programme on the radio that was an arrest-able offence. When his mother was allowed to visit him he requested she bring him food when she next came. This she did but found he had been sent to Poznan and it is said he was later shot. His mother was also shot perhaps as a result of this incident or the Germans found out that her husband was a Polish Ofﬁcer. His married sister was Janina Borkowska and it appears she also lived in Pleszew throughout the war, as her name and address is given in Zenon’s service record as his next of kin. Presumably this would never have been used during the war when Zenon went missing for fear of a German reprisal against his sister.
Zenon Joins the Military Flying Training School
Little is known about Zenon’s early life as presumably his father was away from home for much of the time. He obviously became proﬁcient at his studies in order to aim for a career that demanded certain qualiﬁcations.
Unfortunately it is not known why Zenon decided to take up ﬂying. Perhaps he was influenced by his father as a timeserving army officer, or he envied him being a military man and with the threat of Hitler wanting to spread Nazism into Poland, Zenon thought it was time for him to act to prevent this.
In 1938, at the age of 16 he took the entrance examinations to attend the SPLdM, the NCO's Aviation Training School for Minors at Swiecie, about 160 km north of his hometown. Prospective candidates to this School had to be between the ages of 16 and 17 years and have at least a 7 year primary school certiﬁcate. They had to attend two days of rigorous examinations, be physically ﬁt and possess the recognised aptitude required by the Polish Air Force.
The original School was opened in Bydgoscz in 1930, but the gathering storm clouds demanded an increase in the number of cadets and a new part of the School was opened in 1937 for first year cadets at Swiecie. The remainder of the School moved to a new location at Krosno in October 1938 that was situated in the south of the country.
His first year consisted of arduous military discipline including drill, better known as ‘Square Bashing‘, physical training and formal learning of military regulations. His standard of education was also upgraded during the year to an intermediate matriculation level. By the end of that year the authorities could select those who would go forward for pilot training. Obviously Zenon was selected as along with other pilot candidates he was posted in 1939 to the military gliding camp at Ustianowa some 60 km southeast of Krosno and only a few km from the famous Bezmiechowa gliding establishment. It is presumed that most who took this course would have soloed and had reachedtheir ‘C’ badge standard on completion. This type of initial training towards powered flight was of course cheaper and quicker. All were then posted to the main training School at Krosno, about 125 km southeast of Cracow and not far from the Czechoslovakia border.
The School at Swiecie was closed down in June 1939 due to its proximity to the German border and all sections of that School were transferred to Krosno. Due to the intense pressure to train more pilots and for safety reasons a satellite airﬁeld was opened at Moderowska (known as Krosno ill) at the end of July 1939 where Zenon is believed to have soloed before September, probably in a RWD 8 type aircraft. This airfield was about 20 km to the northwest of Krosno. During one of the summer camps in 1939 Zenon sustained an injury to his right elbow while taking part in an athletic event.
Exactly what happened isn’t known but it left him with a scar that obviously warranted a remark on his service papers when he joined the RAF in 1940.
The School had to Close
At the time Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939 Zenon was a 17 year old cadet under training. From day one the German Luftwaffe launched devastating attacks on undefended Polish cities, against which most of the out-of-date aircraft ﬂown by the Polish Air Force could do little to stop them despite their brave attempts to do so. This and the German blitzkrieg tactics adopted by its troops and armoured columns, led to a rapid advance into Poland. From the ﬁrst day of the German onslaught the School's airﬁelds were bombed not once but twice and it is reported that over 60 aircraft out of some 200 on the ground were destroyed and many others damaged. So the Polish Air Force had to quickly decide what action to take as it was obvious the School could do little to defend itself or help the cause by staying. Far better to save the knowledge and skill of its ﬂedgling pilots by encouraging them to escape to England or France that had supposedly to come to Poland's aid through a guarantee made on 31 March 1939 should it be attacked. These countries could do little or anything at that point in time so Poland was left to its own devices. If these cadets and their instructors could reach either of these two friendly countries then hopefully they could assist them to complete their training and eventually regain their land by fighting Germany on equal terms. The authorities decided to order them to do just this, but had little idea how it should be achieved and what might lie in their path before they reached them.
Zenon says Goodbye to his Poland
The exact date when the School closed is not known though it would appear to have been before the 17"‘ of that month as initially the cadets and instructors were told to proceed to the USSR, then almost 300 km to the east. When Russia decided to invade Poland on that day, the School then had to change direction and head for Romania. They travelled partly by coach and this means of transport was possibly lost when a German reconnaissance aircraft attacked the party, but luckily there were no serious casualties. During the attack Zenon's party tried to take cover in a potato field where he received a minor wound that he later said was from an anti-personnel bomb that failed to explode. It is said they had to march the remainder of the way. Unlike today, Poland and Romania had a common border at that time and Zenon found himself with his fellow cadets about to enter a country luckily not then under German control. It is interesting to note that with the existence of today's borders, this escape directly into Romania would not have been possible. It is believed they passed over the border at Kuty.
Few of the cadets could have had any idea of what lie before them and whether any would become future pilots and so help remove those who had invaded their country without reason.
Zenon's Escape to England
When the Cadets arrived at the Polish border, thought to be at Kuty, they were met by Romanian soldiers, any arms they were carrying were taken and all were automatically interned. They were placed onboard a train and transported to Slatina, about 140 km west of Bucharest where they were held in an artillery barracks that were reported to be rather run down and neglected. At this time, the Germans were not in control of Romania for the country tried to declare itself neutral however the facist influence was becoming obvious and open. For on Thursday 21 September the Romanian Prime Minister Calinescu was shot dead. Facist of the so called ‘Iron Guard‘ were captured and executed.
Some of Zenon's colleagues who were interned at Slatina spoke later of organisations in Romania that assisted Polish airmen, both there and at other locations where Polish military were interned.
This allowed the Cadets to gain money and civilian clothes besides acquiring help in how to leave Romania. Most managed to escape internment either by bribery or the lack of strict 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. From there, most made directly for the Black Sea port of Balcik presumably because someone in the Polish Embassy or a pro-Polish organisation knew that a ship would call there that could take them to France.
Zenon for unknown reasons was not aware of this method for leaving Romania and instead tried to escape the guards at Slatina and make his own way out of the country. Unfortunately he never recorded how. At his first attempt he was soon found by Romanian soldiers who were not averse to ﬁring a few shots at him. His recapture was probably helped by the fact that most of the Cadet airmen had shaven heads and looked more like convicts than Romanian civilians. He tried a second time to escape but this time he left with a colleague. With only the sun to guide them, as they had no compass, they managed to walk without food for some 24 hours until yet again they were apprehended by soldiers. The third attempt was more successful and was partly aided by, as Zenon later related it, to the illiteracy and naiveté of the guards. Perhaps he gave them the impression that he and others would be back where they were held and hence the guards didn't go searching for them, for few understood the Polish language.
Zenon with a few other colleagues quickly made their way towards the nearest railway line. Shortly after reaching it, a slow moving goods train came into sight heading in the direction of Bucharest and as it slowed even more to take a bend, they managed to board it quite easily. Knowing that the German SS was said to be already in the Romanian capital in some numbers they all wisely alighted before reaching the city. Shortly after, they came across a car that they commandeered and promptly sold it to buy food. The excess cash they hid in their shoes but next morning after sleeping under the large eaves of an overhanging roof, they found their shoes were missing. Undeterred they walked bare foot until they came to an inn where to their surprise they found it full of escaped internees. After eating once again they took a road to another railway line, found a passing train and gained a free lift as before.
Sometime later they came across a number of farmers talking beside the rail track so jumped off to determine where they were and where they should make for. After conversing in Belorussian they obtained a ride in a horse-drawn waggon and after a lengthy 5 days walking they arrived at the small port of Balcik near Varna on the Black Sea coast. During this time they fed as best they could by scavenging vegetables found in ﬁelds and taking fruit from orchards they passed by. Once again, they were taken aback at the port by the large number of escaped Polish prisoners they found around the harbour. Zenon imagined that he was once again in his homeland as there were so many conversing in the Polish language. He estimated there to be around 1600. The embarkation mainly took place at night by those with so called valid passports and exit visas. When aboard these documents were collected and sent ashore for use by those without them until all those waiting were eventually embarked on the Greek vessel SS "Patris" bound for France.
Left: The SS Patris.
It is still a mystery how Zenon and his group knew where to head for unless they had heard about this possibility when they stopped at the inn or perhaps had met other pilots or cadets on the way who had prior knowledge. Whatever was the case, it was either very good information or remarkable luck.
The Sea Trip
It is difﬁcult to imagine that some 1600 foreigners could be embarked aboard a modest vessel without raising suspicion. Surely the emigration ofﬁcials would have become wary of repeatedly seeing Poles with the same passports and visas that were obviously forged, all going aboard the same ship. The emigration authorities at the port as well as the Captain of the “Patris” must have turned a blind eye to what was going on, or say, the Polish/French/English authorities connived to bring this about. Whoever arranged this or allowed it to happen, created a lifeline to freedom for all these Poles who accepted it without question. It was said the ship was a coaler, however from a photo of the “Patris” by Kopanski it does not appear to be a vessel with this type of cargo.
From photos on deck during the journey, published in “Skrzydla" Nr141/627 by Franciszek Kornicki, the influx of all this additional human cargo had to ﬁnd its own accommodation wherever it could onboard. Most preferred to stay on deck when the weather was ﬁne during the ﬁrst few days of the journey but as Franciszek Kornicki wrote later about his first night trying to sleep, his mind was full of what he had seen during his last days in Poland. Thoughts that many others aboard must have been anguishing about. He said he had "visions of his family, smoke rising from burning villages and towns as far as the eye could see, smashed and burned up aeroplanes, smouldering lorries and carts, dead horses and that never-to-be-forgotten hospital in Lodz, full of wounded and dying men, laying everywhere on beds and on the floors, in rooms and in the corridor, some moaning in agony, others lying silently with their eyes closed, or wide open, waiting and hoping. Perhaps Zenon was lucky enough not to have witnessed so many dreadful scenes for he is not reported to have mentioned them, though others who had might possibly have told him about them.
After passing through the Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles a fierce storm raged for some 30 hours. Many could not stand the stench of whatever spot they had found below as most were violently seasick throughout the storm. Some went on deck, but while the air was fresh there it became a nightmare feat just to hold on to something to prevent going overboard. It was so incredible that rumour had it that the captain and crew were standing by to abandon ship. Gradually the storm subsided and the remainder of the journey towards Malta was across a warm and smooth Mediterranean. However the drinking water and food ran out some days before it reached the island and six died and around 60 became ill. One report said the stock of wine on board had to replace water, but for a price that the Greek crew demanded. One could imagine what a large number of escaping internees thought of that. A British ship must have known about the passage of the SS “Patris” and the predicament of its human cargo as it was reported that it supplied it with tins of bully beef and water before it reached Malta.
Most Poles disembarked at Malta while a few remained on board while the ship restocked before completing its journey to Marseilles. They did so because they wished to reach France at the earliest opportunity and continue the ﬁght. France had not of course at that time been invaded by Germany.
Zenon along with many others preferred to sail from Malta in the 42,000 ton ship the "Franconia" bound directly for England but in doing so in thick fog the ship collided with another of a similar class shortly after leaving. It returned to Malta for two weeks while repairs were completed. When it did sail, its destination was changed to stop first at Marseilles where Zenon disembarked and was taken by bus to Lyons-Bron airport arriving there on his 18"‘ birthday on 21 November 1939. At Lyon he was given a French uniform, presumably, because he was originally a military cadet under training and not yet a qualiﬁed pilot. As France was supposedly to come to the aid of Poland, the French authorities assumed he would become a member of the French Army, but this was not to be, although there is no report of what Zenon thought about this.
Introduction - Overview
Chapter 1 - Early years and escape from Poland
Chapter 2 - Zenon joins the RAF
Chapter 3 - A life changing flight
Chapter 4 - In hiding
Chapter 5 - Return to England and his squadron
Chapter 6 - Discharge and marriage
Chapter 7 - Life in France
Zenon joins the Royal Air Force