Estate file: MOOC Vol. no. 6/9/12290 Ref. 1767 /45, dated 1945 in the Cape Province. Son of
Herbert Benjamin LEWIS (died 1957, Cape, Estate file: MOG Vol. no. 1 /1 /12 Ref. 226/57) and
Ellen J.D. LEWIS of Middleton, Cape. Husband of Beatrice J. LEWIS.
THE SAAF AND THE WARSAW FLIGHTS
Article by Anne Lehmkuhl, 24 September 2008
Earlier this month, I was blessed to attend a very special remembrance day - that for the brave young men of the South African Air Force who flew to the aid of Polish citizens in Warsaw during World War II. This article was written to help keep their memory alive. If you have further information on these men, please let me know and I will add it on.
For five years after Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939, Warsaw remained a Nazi-occupied city. Yet the underground Polish Home Army (AK) never stopped preparing for the day when it could rise against the Germans. This day arrived at 5pm on 1 August 1944 and for the next 63 days the men, women and children of the AK fought against the Germans. The AK believed the Russian Army would come to its aid, bit it didn't. Within the first five days, the AK had re-taken most of the city, but without reinforcements and more arms and ammunition, they could not hold out. The Polish government in exile in Britain appealed to Winston Churchlll for help.
The quickest way to help would be to drop supplies in, but the most direct route would take the Royal Air Force (RAF) over the most heavily defended parts of the Third Reich. Avoiding these areas would mean a round trip of 3520km. The only other alternative was over northern Italy but this too would involve avoiding most of the heavily defended German cities and a round trip of 3200km. Churchill was advised by his senior RAF officers that the task would achieve little militarily but cost high in life and equipment.
The 205 Group RAF at Foggia, Italy, was under the command of Major-General James (Jimmy) Thom DURRANT, a South African. The Group consisted of four Wings, three of which were RAF and the fourth was No. 2 Wing SAAF made up of 31 and 34 Squadrons equipped with Liberators.
On Sunday 13 August 1944, 10 crew of 31 Squadron were ordered to Brindisi for briefing and loading of special cargo. When they arrived in the Operations Room at Brindisi, they were greeted with a large wall map of Europe, marked with a thick black 3200 km route zig-zagging from Foggia to Warsaw. They were told that their mission was to fly at rooftop height over a heavily defended city and drop much-needed supplies. The flight route was long and zigzagged over a sea, high mountains and six enemy countries. Navigation aides were poor or nonexistent, and the weather was usually foul. The four-engined Liberators would be heavily laden. The supplies were packed in 12 canisters, each weighing 150 kg, on the bomb racks. Each canister was filled with light machine guns, ammunition, hand grenades, radio equipment, food and medical supplies. Each canister had a small parachute to break the fall. The first South African flight included Bob KLETTE (pilot), Lt. Alf FAUL (co-pilot), Lt. Bryan JONES (navigator), WO Eric WINCHESTER (radio operator), WO Herbert BROWN (air gunner), WO Henry UPTON (air gunner) and Smiler DAVIS.
There were 196 11-hour night flights from Brindisi and Foggia in Italy, to and from Warsaw from 4 August to early September. The aircraft crossed the Adriatic to occupied Yugoslavia before traversing Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the Carpathian mountains. The low altitudes flights dropped light machine guns, ammunition, medical supplies, radios and food. The pilots flew in almost every night. Along the way, anti-aircraft batteries and German night fighters made it difficult for the heavily-laden Liberators. The most dangerous part of the flight was when the bombers made the drops by flying at rooftop level and at near stalling speed. The aircraft and crew came from two South African Air Force (SAAF) squadrons, 31 and 34; two RAF squadrons, 148 and 178; US Air Force bombers; and the Polish Special Duties Flight 1586. The cost was high - 168 airmen are buried in the Allied Airmen's cemetery in Krakow, southern Poland, all killed in the six weeks of the airlift. Eighty of the graves are of South Africans. Of the 80 aircraft involved, 31 were shot down - 17 during the weekend of 13-16 August. Sixty-nine South Africans never returned. Twenty-five SAAF Liberators were shot down. Fifty percent of the aircraft were from the RAF, and 36% of the total force was South African. Squadron 31 had 28 Liberators in the Airlift, the largest component. Eight were lost, 25 reached Warsaw dropping 228 canisters - the highest number of any squadron involved. Squadron 34 had three aircraft involved, one of which was lost. Many aircraft were so damaged when they had to force-land. The price was high. Air Marshal Sir John Slessors, the Allied air commander in the Mediterranean, later put the losses at one bomber lost for every ton of supplies dropped.
The uprising was over by 2 October, when the remainder of the AK surrendered. Seventeen thousand members of the underground, 3500 Polish soldiers and 5000 civilians had been killed. Six months later, the war in Europe was over. A Soviet regime took over and the Warsaw Uprising disappeared from Polish history. Many AK leaders vanished into the gulag and prisons.
In 1992 the Polish ambassador in South Africa, Stanislaf Cieniuch, presented the Warsaw Insurrectionary Cross to the 61 South Africans who took part in the Airlift. The presentation was at a parade held at Voortrekkerhoogte. Descendants of 37 of these brave young men who died during the war or afterwards, received the medal on behalf of their family member. One hundred and twenty South African pilots and aircrew were part of the Airlift. In 1992, only 67 of them, of whom 28 were still alive, could be traced. The Polish government in exile, already in 1945, wanted to honour the South Africans and others who helped. The South African government turned down the honour in 1945 and again in 1953, as it did not recognise the Polish government.
In South Africa, there were a number of Poles who had fought for the Allies and were invalided to South Africa to be treated for tuberculosis at Baragwanath Hospital. They formed the founding group of what became the South African Polish Association. In 1947, the first annual flypast and commemoration service commemorating the Warsaw Airlift was held at the Johannesburg Cenotaph. The Polish community in South Africa commemorated the Uprising and the Airlift every year with a Mass at the cathedral In Johannesburg, laying a wreath at the Cenotaph and holding a reception at the Polish Club. In 1981 the Katyn Memorial was erected at the James and Ethel Gray Park in Melrose, Johannesburg, and the annual commemoration moved there. The Uprising and Airlift, as well as the massacre of thousands of Polish professionals, intelligentsia, academics and military in the Katyn Forest in the spring of 1940, are commemorated here each year and organised by the South African Warsaw Fllghts Commemoration Organising Committee.
It was only in the 1980s that Poland saw some commemoration of the Uprising, when the memorial in Krasinski Square was erected. The bronze tableau shows a charge by the AK, and fighters disappearing into the sewers. It stands in the square which was Lieutenant BURGESS' target drop zone on the night he won the DSO. A statue of a little boy in an oversized helmet with a carbine in his hands, pays tribute to the children who took part in defending their city. There is an Uprising Museum next door. In 1997 a plaque was unveiled at Okecie Airport in memory of the South Africans. A replica is in the SAAF Museum at Swartkop. There are seven memorials in Poland where Allied aircraft that took part in the Airlift were shot down.
Bronislaw Kowalski, on his own initiative and over a number of years, erected a shrine in the forest near the village of Michalin. The shrine marks the spot where a SAAF Liberator crashed on 14/15 August 1944. It honours the memory of Second Lieutenant R.G. (Bob) HAMILTON, and Sergeants Leslie MAYES and Herbert HUDSON. In his garden, Bronislaw built another shrine in which a light burns day and night and has done so for many years.
THE SAAF CREW
22) Lieutenant Herbert Henry LEWIS
31 Squadron, SAAF
Service no. 136470V
Died 17 Aug 1944, age 24
Buried at Krakow Rakowicki Cemetery
Estate file: MOOC Vol. no. 6/9/12290 Ref. 1767 /45, dated 1945 in the Cape Province. Son of Herbert Benjamin LEWIS (died 1957, Cape, Estate file: MOG Vol. no. 1 /1 /12 Ref. 226/57) and Ellen J.D. LEWIS of Middleton, Cape. Husband of Beatrice J. LEWIS.