By the time the Bartkowiak family stepped ashore at Calais, Raymonde’s aunt Marguerite had made arrangements for them to have the house she shared with her husband Cyriaque in the rue de l’Egalité, Auchel, just a few metres from a cemetery a place that Charly had an affinity with in 1944. Ironically their neighbours were two brothers, Fernand and Emile Gravure, bachelors who had a small stonemason’s business.
To have a place of residence so soon after arriving in France was ideal. Zenon, who once again was known for the rest of his life in France as Charly, was able within a week to start work while Raymonde opened a hairdressers shop in the same street.
Charly cycled daily to work for Stephan Krawczyk’s whose shop was in Marles les Mines A huge Polish community had settled there and in other nearby towns like Calonne-Ricouart, Divion, Bruay-en-Artois (now Bruay-Labuissière), where there were many coal mines, with Auchel being at the end of the Pas-de-Calais deposit. As in England at that time, coal mining was one of the very few jobs open to ex Poles. Most of these workers lived in estates mainly built in the 1920s with streets named after French or Belgium towns such as rue de Lyon, Bordeaux, Bruxelles, Namur, Liège, etc.
Charly’s job was to deliver bread by van to many of the houses in Marles. Although he learned to drive and gained his licence when in England, he still had to attend a French driving school before gaining a French licence. As most of the houses were adjacent to one another in terraced lines he soon found the work comparatively easy and became so familiar with each street that he could name the people living in each house. Most important was that he came to know the exact quantity of bread that each customer required each day despite there being three shifts working in the mines.
He came to enjoy this job immensely as he could regularly converse with so many people in his own Polish language. Knowing that he met so many fellow Poles and had been stationed abroad, he was frequently asked if he had met, or knew where certain fellow countrymen were at that time. While he was not always able to help immediately he could at least suggest organisations to contact for help, say in London.
Charly soon became very popular with his clientele, more so as some said than the owner of the business or the local Polish priest. Besides having its own priest, the Polish community also had its own choir, athletics and football clubs. As Charly’s popularity grew so did his clientele. He was always an early starter and house wives soon began to appreciate his early deliveries. So did Stephan Krawczyk when he noticed the increase in his sales.
Within 3 years of arriving in France Charly was about to be given more responsibility when Marguerite, who was close to 63 years of age, decided to give up the café that she owned as her husband who was very ill had to enter hospital in Lille. Subsequently Raymonde and Charly were offered the café for a very small rental.
The Bartkowiak’s become Business Owners
In 1957 the family moved from rue de l’Egalité to the “Café de la Paix” in rue Roger Salengro where they were to work and live. Charly took over the café and Raymonde the hairdressers next door, both buildings being owned by Marguerite. The position of the café had a potential for tremendous business. It was next to the Post Office as well as St Martin’s Church and the Town Hall. The Eldorado dance hall was close by that opened every Saturday and Sunday and the Market being held every Tuesday on the Church Square nearby. Yearly fairs were also held all the way along rue Roger Salengro every Easter and in June. A garage traded alongside of the dance hall, initially dealing in Simca and later Fiat cars. Customers and staff from all these businesses used the café extensively. It opened at 5.30 am each weekday when postmen came for coffee before sorting mail and closed at 9 pm except weekends when it closed at 1 am. Raymonde also transferred all her clientele from her previous shop in the rue de l’Egalité
Not long after they took over the café it was decided to change its name to “Chez Charly”. This was the easy part but now Charly had to be able to learn and speak French in order to run the business. Up to this time Charly had conversed mainly in Polish when dealing with Stephan Krawczyk and most of his clientele and in English when speaking with Raymonde. Despite the fact that she tried her best to teach him French each evening he found it hard not to lapse back into English. Soon his friends, neighbours and even his customers endeavoured to help him and soon he had learned enough to converse sufficiently to be understood. On many an occasion all in the café would burst into laughter and say the owner was speaking patios. Sometimes this was purposely arranged just in jest.
After Charly’s father retired from his school job in England in 1960, he came to live in Auchel where he stayed for a year before he returned to where his family lived in Pleszew, Poland. It was then that he learned of the death of his wife who had been shot by the Germans soon after their invasion in 1939. He also learned that his other son met a similar death. His father died in Poland in 1963
Michel Salmon and his wife Geneviève came from Camblain Châtelain to live in Auchel around the same time as Charly moved. He also settled in the rue Roger Salengro but at the far end about a kilometre from the Café, and opened a hairdressers shop. At that distance away this offered little competition to Raymonde’s business. Geneviève who was a school teacher also joined those attempting to teach Charly French so with all this help he was at last taking his first steps into a French lifestyle.
Chez Charly becomes Established
In 1964 Charly was approached by the local association of WW1 and WW2 veterans with a request to hold their monthly meetings and reunions at the cafe. Charly heartily welcomed this arrangement and it was not too long before the President of the Association, M. Gaston Druon made Charly a “Carte du Combattant”. He was himself a WW1 soldier and a talented conductor, composer and pianist. However this could have signified that Charly be granted a war pension, but this was not to be because he had never worn the French uniform. Charly never understood this as his records clearly showed that he had fought the Germans in France both in the air and on the ground.
By this time after WW2 parents allowed their teenagers far more freedom and many attended Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon dances at the nearby Eldorado Hall. It became an extremely popular venue for entertainment for miles around and Chez Charly was a rendezvous point where young people met to drink a beer, soda or coffee before the dance or during it.
Right: Michel and Zenon
It was said that many parents were pleased that their children regularly used the café because the owner was a former Polish pilot with the RAF. Also his former work for Stephan Krawcyzk was known by so many people in the neighbourhood.
Similarly many who visited the market each Tuesday came to the café as did many of the shopkeepers in Auchel and soon he and the Café became well known. As his trade grew, so did friendships with both he and Raymonde and it was not long before many of his clientele wanted to know and hear about the escapades of “The Englishman” as he became known, who was in the RAF. He never complained about being called this and always remained proud to be Polish and having served with the Polish Air Force alongside the RAF.
When he spoke about flying Spitfires everyone listened intently. He enthralled them about how he escaped, how he was hidden with Raymonde’s and Michel’s help. The young ones were eager to learn about the technical details. How easy was it to fly, how much fuel did they carry, how many shells and cartridges did the guns have, how did the radio work, etc, etc. From this interest one youngster joined the French Air Force and became a Captain, another became a helicopter pilot and two obtained their private pilot’s license. Others took up model aircraft and it was clear that Charly had passed on his passion for flying from his talks. Often some of these pilots returned his interest by flying low over the Café at week ends.
An Idea comes to Fruition
Michel and Charly had long mulled over the idea of retrieving his Spitfire Vb EN836 that crashed at Camblain Châtelain on May 22nd 1944. Michel had heard that the farmer on whose land the aircraft had crashed was concerned about a circular area of the field where nothing would grow and from time to time oil came to the surface. This was obviously the site and in August of 1966 it was decided to make an attempt to unearth it.
Michel had a friend called Henri Poiteaux who owned a civil engineering company that had access to bulldozers, cranes and men who could undertaken this task, So early one bright Sunday morning in May at 7 am work commenced under the watchful eye of the local Gendarmerie to keep back onlookers all curious to see what was happening, as well as to prevent accidents. By 11 am a discovery was made that forced Michel to drive rapidly to Auchel in his navy blue NSU Prince to inform Charly that among the many items that had been unearthed they had found a bomb and that it was hissing. In the meantime all work had stopped and a cordon was thrown round the site.
Charly calmed Michel down by informing him that his Spitfire could not and did not carry any bombs. When Charly arrived at the site there was laughter all round as the hissing was coming from an oxygen bottle that had remained in the clay soil for some 22 years and was still in excellent condition. The same could be said for the Merlin engine that was unearthed later although somewhat battered. Also found was the piece of shrapnel that caused Charly to bale out and his leather helmet full of oil. Charly considered that he had accomplished another success by bringing his Spitfire, or the remains of it, to the surface again after 22 years which brought tears to his eyes.
Michel and Charly continued to commemorate the moment they first met on 22 May each year at 19:10 hrs with a glass or two of champagne as they never wanted to forget it. Charly said that he owed so much to Michel who risked his life every minute of the day for that guy who came from the sky before the Allies came to liberate that part of France. Michel was so special to Charly that he wrote to the RAF Escape Society requesting a decoration for his “Brother in Arms” which Michel received in Calais from a high ranking RAF officer in the presence of the HM Consul in Lille.
As a footnote to recovering Charly’s Spitfire, a M. Roland Potier contacted Jan, Charly’s son in July 2004, to recount his action as a witness to the crash when 16 years of age. Living close by he visited the crash site next day and from amongst the debris he picked up a yellow bag that he took home. It was of course the dinghy and from one side he found a box containing what he thought were sweets. Having taken some he couldn’t sleep for 3 days. They were pills intended to keep the pilot awake until rescued. Unfortunately Roland’s father ordered him to throw it away in fear of the Germans might come to search the house. His mother made a pair of gloves from parts of Charly’s parachute.
Charly’s interest in Football and 1966 in particular
Charly had followed the game of football very closely when in England, in fact he used to boast that he had visited most of the major club grounds when based in that country. He was a keen supporter of Ipswich Town and Norwich as well as Nottingham Forest when he worked in the textile factory in Spondon even though he lived at Derby. But later when his son was born at Derby, he also became a fan of the Rams, so when what was considered the local derby between Nottingham Forest and Derby County, Charly was in his element.
Charly had not been to Wembley, the site of the premier ground in England, since 1948 so when the final of the World Cup match was to be played there in 1966 he was determined to be there again. He organised, through friends in London, to acquire tickets for several colleagues in France to make the journey from Auchel to watch England beat Germany. Perhaps his reason for being in England in 1940 and then later in France had something to do with his excitement with the result
Changes in the 1970s
By the end of the 1960s, Raymonde gave up regular hairdressing as the constant use of the new hair products being introduced had started to affect her health, particularly her breathing. She and Charly decided to update the Café to make it more attractive to their clientele, especially to the new generation of teenagers. So it was closed for almost a month for a face lift.
Charly reopened it in style by inviting his friends and certain dignitaries including members of the Municipality Board, local Police authorities and Lady Amos, the British Consul in Lille. The friendship with Lady Amos had grown from the help that Charly had given to English tourists. Close to Auchel is Cauchy-á-la-Tour where there was a spot called “La Guillotine” on the main road from Calais to St Pol/Ternoise that was notorious for accidents particularly involving British tourists. The local Police frequently asked Charly to become an interpreter to give information and comfort to British citizens at the scene of accidents. Lady Amos heard about his good work and they became friends for many years.
The Marriage of their Son
It was planned that Jan would marry Vivianne Gavrel on 15 June 1974. The plan included inviting Charly’s sister Janina and her husband Franek with daughters Hania and Genia and son Dzislaw. However this was not to be. Only Janina and Hania were granted permission to leave Poland. At this stage of the cold war, the Polish authorities forbade a whole family for any reason to leave the country and furthermore, those leaving had to have the return journey prepaid for by the family in the country to be visited.
Even so, it was tremendous news for Charley as he was to see his sister for the first time in 35 years since he fled Poland in 1939. Despite having to make such plans well ahead, he did have to wait a very long time for official agreement to be received from the Polish Consulate in Lille via the Polish Embassy in Paris. As soon as he received this golden news he immediately phoned his sister in Pleszew. This took him some 7 hours to be connected. She in return was extremely pleased as she herself had not then known that such permission had been granted. The numerous letters that he sent to his sister took almost a month to reach her due to the Polish censor. Eventually he heard that his sister and niece had received their tickets for departure from Poznan in Poland to the French station at Aulnoye near Maubeuge due to arrive at 7:10 pm on Monday 10 June.
Charly informed Michel that he knew the directions from Auchel to Aulnoye and estimated it would take 1½ hours by road. However he had forgotten that he had arranged an afternoon business meeting that day with the manager of a brewery in Dunkirk that he couldn’t cancel. At 5 pm he realised that he had to travel some 150km in just over 2 hours. Up to that point he was renowned for his time keeping but low and behold some 10km from Aulnoye he took the wrong direction. As he said, “he flew all over France and Germany escorting bombers and never once lost his way, yet on this most important occasion he had.”
Jan and his fiancée Vivianne with Michel and Geneviève, plus two local journalists had already arrived waiting for Charly and Raymonde to do so. As they could wait no longer they walk on to the platform to find two lonely ladies sitting on a bench wondering whether they had arrived at the wrong station. One of the journalists immediately recognised the likeness of one with Charly who arrived with Raymonde some 10 minutes later.
After a quick drink in the station cafeteria they were all on their way to Cambrai for a meal then on to Auchel. For the rest of the week until the wedding day on Saturday brother and sister spoke endlessly about so many things. How his brother was shot, what life was like under the Germans and what Poland was like to live in now. Not all was sadness for there were great meals with Raymonde, Janina and Hania, Michel and his wife and with his future daughter-in-law’s parents.
The day of the wedding celebration arrived and in the tiny church at Calonne-Ricouart there were as many people outside as there were inside. The priest had never seen so many people at a wedding and the event took place on the eve of Father’s Day, a day all the family will remember. Hardly had the stroke of midnight sounded when Charly collapsed in the large restaurant room of l’ Escale in Lapugnoy. He became pale and breathless and a doctor in the hall advised that he had to be taken home at once. So with the help of Michel, Raymonde and the newly weds, he was quickly taken back to Auchel. The family doctor was called at once and after examining him said that it was his heart. In the early hours of June 16 he was taken to Arras General Hospital where he stayed for 40 days having avoided a severe heart attack. Events leading up to this time most likely contributed to his condition. The arrangements for his sister and niece to visit them, the sad news they brought with them, his mad dash from Dunkirk to Aulnoye, plus all the wedding activities, etc, must have stressed him severely.
Raymonde was left with her aunt Marguerite to run the Café with the two Polish ladies who could speak no French or English. Luckily Polish speaking friends of Charly’s came to the rescue who took them to their homes so they could understand how Charly was progressing and why they could not see him. In the meantime, only Raymonde was permitted to visit Charly and then for but a few minutes at a time until his health improved.
In mid July 1974 Janina and daughter returned home to Poland and all except Charly was on the platform at Aulnoye to kiss them farewell and make sure they boarded it during its one minute stop after arriving from Paris and then onward via Frankfurt and Berlin to Poznan. Their visit had been memorable in more than one sense.
In August that year Charly came out of hospital and was told to rest from his business for at least 8 months. He was placed on a strict diet that was somewhat difficult for a Pole to accept. There was to be no lifting of barrels in the cellar, no more long working hours, no more smoking (he used to smoke 2 packets of camels per day), etc. This was extremely hard to endure for 8 months, but as the French saying goes “he had to learn how to put water into his wine”. To help him he received many get well messages from his friends and customers and after that time was up he was back again in his business.
Life at the Café continued peacefully until on the eve of Charly’s birthday on 19 November 1980 his grandson Stéphane was born. Then on 17 November 3 years later his granddaughter Monique arrived. It was as he said as if God had offered him a gift so close to his birthday in those two years. However in 1986 life became a little more serious as he had to enter hospital for a triple bypass heart operation. All went well but it obviously affected his stature from then on and he had to be extra careful in what he did. However this didn’t stop his annual trip in May of each year with Raymonde to the meeting in Blackpool of the Polish Air Force Association where he met all his old friends and colleagues he knew during the war and since
In February 1989 Raymonde’s aunt Marguerite died and on 31 March that year Charly and Raymonde had their last evening in Chez Charly because they were about to retire. All their friends came to have a Last Drink with them. When they awoke next morning they realised they were both pensioners. They had sold it to a young couple from Hazebrouck
This meant a move and a house was built next to the Police station and the hospital, in front of the Fire station. So whenever friends from the UK asked where he lived when they wanted to pay him a visit, he replied “just ask for the Fire station. You will see a propeller over my garage door. Drop your luggage and ring the bell and I’ll appear.
Charly’s last formal duty was in Lille. He had been invited by the Polish Consul and representatives of the Polish Armed Forces to lay a wreath on the War Memorial in Place Rihour in tribute to the 8300 Polish soldiers killed in France during WW2. Later he was to say that this duty was the saddest he had to carry out as it brought back too many memories.
Charly and Raymonde continued to visit their old friends. For example, in June 1994 they visited the site of the old airfield at Coolham in Sussex where a commemorative stone was laid nearby. This was the home of 306 and 315 Polish Air Force Squadrons in 1944 and several of the wartime pilots known to Charly were present. Arrangements were also planned for Charly to meet with the author of the small book on Horne, the airfield from which Charly took off from on that fateful day, 22nd May 1944. Unfortunately during the two day activities they missed one another, but afterwards continued to correspond and much of the detail are based on long letters Charly wrote to Brian Buss.
In September of that year a stone was also erected with a plaque, on the site of the old airfield at Horne when a Polish pilot that flew with Charly’s 303 Squadron was present for the unveiling. Due to his earlier visit to the UK that year, Charly sadly could not attend, but he was remembered.
Sadly, Michel died in November 1996 and Charly lost his “War Brother”, and a close relationship that had lasted over 42 years.
The last and probably their most important trip especially to Charly, was to Poland at the end of the 1990s. They decided to drive to Pleszew to see his family, a not inconsiderable journey to take at his age but one he had to make to say he had returned. On arriving he could hardly believe what he saw. Every thing had of course changed since he left in 1938. He recalled their house was not completed when he left to attend the Military School. Now the house in Ul Batorego (Batorego St) was decorated fit to welcome a president. Janina had enthusiastically told all her neighbours that her brother was back after 60 years away.
Charly and Raymonde visited most of the Polish large cities, but he didn’t visit Krosno where he trained back in 1939 despite being in Krakow because of all the bad memories he said it would evoke. When back in France he said that misery and poverty was still much in evidence in Poland but change had taken place compared to that described by his sister back in 1974 when she visited Auchel, and from the frequent phone calls between them in the meantime.
The new Century
They continued to enjoy their retirement immensely. For Raymonde it was for 13 years but sadly she died on 8 January 2001, just two days before her 80th birthday. Charly had a further year and passed away on 7 February 2002 at 81 years of age. Both were buried on the same date, the 11th in Auchel in the cemetery off rue de L’Egalite, back to where their life together in France really began.
He led a full life and is worthy of being recognised by three countries. First, by his own country Poland by taking up arms and joining forces with those that he thought would free his homeland of the aggressor. Also by keeping such strong ties with other nationals outside of Poland. Second, by the UK who he helped to rid the world of Nazism. Thirdly, by France because he became one its community before and after he became a French national on 29 January 1959 and he continued to serve it with a passion for the remainder of his life.
Unfortunately his gravestone does not say all this, but for those who knew him they understand that the simple engraving covers it all;-
“Charly Pilot RAF”
The gravestone also shows a drawing of a North American Mustang, the last type of aircraft he flew.
The Final Tribute
On Sunday 5 September 2004 many official ceremonies took place on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of France. In Auchel, Charly’s son Jan was asked to receive from the Lord Mayor Richard Jarrett, a Medal of Honour from the City as a tribute to his father Charly (born Zenon Stephan Teofil) Bartkowiak.
LONG MAY HE REST IN PEACE
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