Twenty three year old Flight Sergeant Zenon Bartkowiak, a member of the famous Polish 303 'Kosciuszko' Squadron, could not have imagined how the flight he was about to take would change the whole of his life from then on. It was around 7 o'clock in the evening, or 19.00 hours in military terms, as he walked up to the aircraft he had been scheduled to ﬂy as part of an escort duty. He expected the operation to be similar to many he had ﬂown from this small grass airﬁeld where he had been based for but three weeks. Yes it was rather late in the day to fly some distance into France, but by that time of the year and with double British summer time in force, there would be ample time to return in daylight.
Nothing appeared different from what he had become accustomed to as he stood beside a borrowed rather tired grey and dark green camouﬂaged Spitﬁre. It sported the black serial number EN836 on both sides of the fuselage that partly covered the duck-egg blue band just forward of the tailplane.
This band was introduced on fighters some years before to show others they were RAF aircraft. A little forward of the band was the large Squadron letters again in duck-egg blue, RF one side of the RAF roundel with the individual aircraft code letter T on the other. Again these letters and the roundel were painted on both sides. The aircraft was a type LF Mark VB, LF for low level ﬁghter as it had clipped wings, that was said to allow the machine to ﬂy faster at low altitude. The B was for the type of wing that was fitted. Each wing contained one 20 mm cannon and two 0.303 machine-guns, so in total the aircraft carried twice this armament. The aircraft was considered tired because many later marks of Spitﬁre were now flying and the loss of paint at various well - used places confirmed its 3 years of age, old for a ﬁghter at that stage of the war. None-the-less, this was the equipment they and the other two squadrons on the airﬁeld were issued with to carry out the task in hand and they would all do so to the best of their ability as they had been trained to do. (To be very precise a few aircraft belonging to the Canadian 402 Squadron on the airﬁeld were ﬁtted with a ‘C’ wing, the only difference being a facility to be ﬁtted with two 20mm cannon plus two 0.303 machine-guns in each wing.)
After listening to the brieﬁng about the operation Zenon and his fellow pilots followed normal procedure by emptying their personal contents from all their pockets to prevent the enemy gaining any useful information from them should they be shot down. Little did Zenon realise how long it would be before he would be reunited with his bits and pieces as he handed them over to the Squadron Intelligence Ofﬁcer. When the time neared for take off, Zenon and the other Polish pilots had only a short distance to walk from their tents to the parked aircraft. Their machines were lined up alongside one of the two runways that consisted of steel mess laid over rolled grassland, previously part of a nearby farm. The tiny airﬁeld, classiﬁed as an Advanced Landing Ground known as RAF Horne, was situated about half way between London and the south coast of England. It nestled in the flat rural landscape within the southeast corner of the county of Surrey, England, about 4 miles east of today's London Gatwick Airport. Although spring was well underway with the hedgerows sprouting and the ﬂowering of the chestnut trees almost over, many of the surrounding oak trees had still shown little signs of changing colour. This may have been caused by the extremely cold nights and mornings recently experienced that sometimes required the removal of ice from the basic washing facilities before shaving. These aspects along with the crude overall living conditions on the airfield were expected to provide both ground and aircrews with what they were likely to meet when operating on French soil after the Allies had invaded. Obviously most pilots took advantage of its closeness to London when not flying, including Zenon who had recently returned from a few days enjoying the high life in the capital if for no other reason than to taste what normal living was like.
When he returned he did not think that he would be scheduled to ﬂy that Monday, but to his irritation he found that Sergeant Skrzydlo (shown right) had not returned from leave and he Zenon had been ordered to replace him and that implied using his aircraft EN836 instead of his own.
During the early part of the raid when the whole formation was to make its way towards the target, 24 Spitﬁres from 229 and 274 Squadrons were to make a sweep from Dunkerque-Cambrai - Valenciennes-Roubaix area over which the formation would be flying. Both were based at Detling in Kent and were to ensure there was no enemy air activity that would prevent the bombing raid to take place.
The overall raid was known as Ramrod 909. This was a code name given to a bombing raid with a ﬁghter escort planned specifically to destroy a speciﬁed target, along with its own number for the raid. 303 Squadron records show that it along with 402 Squadron from Home provided escort for a similar raid on the same target on 13 May under Ramrod 884. This suggests that perhaps insufficient damage was caused on that occasion to prevent the junction from handling trains, or it was rapidly repaired within the 9 days interval.
The plan also stated the precise route that should be followed to carry out the raid. The bombers were to rendezvous with the ﬁghters some 14km north of Dunkerque. From there the whole formation was to follow an almost direct line to Douai except for a small change of direction close to Bailleul, no doubt to miss known concentrations of ack-ack defences. immediately after the bombing raid the formation was to turn NE towards the Belgium border where they would turn almost due north to pass between Tournai and Lille untill close to Waregem, then NW close to Roeselare setting a direct course to North Foreland on the very SE tip of England. From there the bomber Squadrons would return to their airfields. Supposedly, ground control would release the fighter escort at some time after the bombing if no enemy aircraft were identiﬁed close to the return route. Often if the ﬁghters were released in this way, they would be free to attack ground targets at will.
Thirty six Spitﬁres powered by their Rolls Royce Merlin 45 engines took off from RAF Home that late spring evening, 11 Polish, 12 from 130 Squadron, consisting of mixed English, Australian, New Zealand and Canadian pilots and 13 from the all Canadian RCAF 402 ‘City of Winnipeg’ Squadron.
All 3 Squadrons were led by Wing Commander Johnny Checketts DSO DFC, a well-respected, well-liked New Zealander and proven leader of the 142 Wing at Home. As always, the aircraft took off in staggered pairs and quickly wheeled round so that the last to take off could rapidly form up into a Wing to meet the bombers north of Dunkerque.
From the rendezvous point the Wing took up their own defensive formation in sections of four aircraft known as a ‘Finger Four‘. This was not only for their own protection but also to give them the best chance of seeing an attacking aircraft early on. If any section of four Spitﬁres had to break formation to prevent an attack two would lead while the other two aircraft would protect their leaders’ tail. Like most of the escort duties the Wing had performed from RAF Horne, very few if any German fighters had been seen and none had so far attacked the bombers they were protecting. This was because most of the enemy's day ﬁghters had by that stage of the war been withdrawn nearer the Fatherland itself to protect Germany from the daily onslaught from the massive USAAF's four-engined bomber raids. Despite this, the Spitfire’s task was not without danger as the Germans were able to mount concentrated anti-aircraft ﬁre to protect its important sites and installations. The bombers task that evening was just such a site.
Because the bombers were much slower than the Spitfire Wing the sections of four ﬁghters had to weave and sometimes circle the respective location where the Wing Commander had placed them to protect the bomber formation. For example as the sun was lower in the sky at that time of the evening, some would be placed to the west to prevent a possible attack from out of the sun, while others would be above and ahead, a tactic the Kosciuszko Squadron had successfully developed from similar escort duties since 1941. Others would be stationed close to the rear where Zenon's section of four was circling. Even so, he could see the increasing number of black anti-aircraft smudges hanging in the air as the bombers proceeded towards the target.
The End of his Flight
The ack-ack intensiﬁed by the second as the whole formation neared the railway junction, something Zenon had experienced many times on these escort duties. Although his aircraft had been rocked and buffetted by exploding shells before, he had luckily only been hit by the occasional small piece of shrapnel and had returned to base in one piece. However his luck was about to run out as he almost reached the target. Just as his section was turning close to the rear of the bomber formation, bursts of ack-ack gunﬁre were exploding all around when suddenly the whole of his aircraft shuddered violently due to a very close burst under him. Someone immediately yelled out "Glycol" over the radio, but failed to mention which aircraft was streaming it or who was shouting the warning. Zenon quickly realised that it was his machine that had been hit for the oil temperature was already some 50°C above the permitted maximum. Most probably it was his aircraft that was streaming glycol from the large radiator under his starboard wing where normally the ﬂuid from the hot engine is passed and cooled by the airflow. lf hit it would stream a telltale white trail like smoke and the resultant loss of glycol would quickly lead to an overheated engine that would either seize up or catch fire. Zenon knew he had to act and act quickly!
To Crash Land or Jump?
He instinctively radioed his Squadron Leader Tadeusz Koc using his individual call sign 'Glenco 33' to inform him that he had been hit. He ordered Zenon to turn for home and head for the French coast. He also ordered two of the Squadron's pilots to escort him back. With that out of the way,
Zenon reduced the engine power to a minimum and attempted to glide his aircraft, but his fighter was not designed to do this, especially the VB with its clipped wings. Already he was down to 6000 from the 10,000 feet he was at when hit so no way would he make the French Coast. At that point two aircraft were seen on the horizon that looked distinctly like German FW 190 ﬁghters so off went his two escorts to investigate leaving Zenon like a dead duck descending rapidly. Luckily they turned out to be USAAF P47 Thunderbolts, their large radial engines being responsible for the wrong idenﬁﬁcaﬁon.
Life in the cockpit by that time was becoming extremely unpleasant. Smoke was beginning to belch from the engine and with every second more height was being lost. It was then that he realised the engine might burst into ﬂames any minute so a crash landing was out and that he should jump while he still had some height. With this decision made he immediately jettisoned the hood by pulling on the small rubber ball hanging from the cockpit roof in front of his head. This he soon found to be a most foolish move as the cockpit immediately became full of black smoke containing splashes of extremely hot engine oil that landed on his face with a searing impact. Also he had not removed his leather helmet with all the various leads and cables that attached him to the aircraft that could easily impede his exit. This he did in haste and pushed it under his seat with one hand and actioned the destruction of the ‘Pip Squeak' device with the other so that it would not fall into enemy hands. This was a device to inform allied ack-ack gunners that it was a friendly aircraft. Next he undid his safety straps by pulling out the central pin that held them together but then he had to decide what method to use in order to bale out.
Zenon’s thoughts went back to all those discussions he had taken part in with fellow pilots who had jumped, some several times. Warrant Officer Wladtstaw Snapka (shown left) for example had baled out three times using a different technique on each occasion. Zenon recalled him mentioning how lethal it was if you didn't avoid the stout radio mast just behind the cockpit. Also you could knock yourself out if you hit the tailplane or fin. While making up his mind he tried to scan his instruments and look out for the last time, noting that he was down to 3100 feet and repeated to himself that he must hurry. He recalled seeing a large coal tip that he thought he should not land on as no doubt he would break a leg or perhaps injure himself more drastically and would be easy prey to the Germans. At that point he crossed himself and immediately put into action Snapka's third idea. This implied giving the control column an almighty kick forward. With that the aircraft went into an immediate nose dive andZenon was shot out of his Spitfire like a rocket. Snapka‘s idea had worked!
Back to Earth
Once out of his aircraft he recalled an earlier tale he had read as a boy about a pilot in a similar situation who found it almost impossible to place his hand on the parachute handle due to the pressure of the air around him. So Zenon raised his hand with such force that he hit himself in the eye. Feeling rather foolish after the chute had opened jerking him as it checked his fall, he saw his Spitﬁre hit the ground with considerable impact and he realised that he had jumped only just in time.
Whatever would his colleague say whose aircraft he had borrowed, he quickly thought? As he floated down thinking how quiet and peaceful it all was and how well the parachute corporal had tightened his straps and whether he had had a premonition about the use of his parachute, he soon became aware that bullets were starting to whizz close by. Somewhere German soldiers were shooting at him and so far had missed him only because he was swinging like a giant pendulum so he tugged at the straps with new found energy to ensure this movement continued. Had they never heard of the Geneva Convention? Later on he was to hear that some 44 bullet holes were found in the canopy of his chute. He thought if only the wind would carry him to the wood he could see beyond the field below, it might give him some protection from the nearby German troops firing at him who would urgently seek his capture once he had landed. Except for a farmer ploughing the ﬁeld below, it looked to Zenon large and bare, as he was to say later as bare as a girl with no pants on!
For some unknown reason the ground appeared to rush towards him as he descended through those last few feet and he hit the ground with an almighty jolt, right in the middle of the field. He was down safely and all in one piece as far as he could tell and only a few hundred yards from where his aircraft had crashed. One of the first somewhat silly thoughts that passed through his head was the fact he had kept his tongue behind his teeth otherwise talking again might have been difficult. He sat for a very short while badly winded and aching from his very hard landing and what felt like burns on his face from the hot oil. Without moving he started to bundle his chute into his arms before it started to ﬁll with air and give his position away. Quite suddenly he became aware of a man standing beside him rather breathless holding the handlebars of a ladys' bicycle. He had no idea who he was, or where he had come from as there was no sign of him whatsoever during the last few feet of his fall.
Zenon immediately pulled out his identity disc from around his neck that read "781307 Charles Armiger", not Zenon Bartkowiak.
"Charly" had arrived on French soil, but he had no idea this was where his destiny lay for the rest of his life although it would take a year or so before he would realise it. Neither did he realise that he would henceforth always be known by that name in France.
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
In hiding - Zenon's lucky day