Jack van Eyssen: The Warsaw Airlift


The Warsaw Airlift


Wars are made up of series of events to which different people give different interpretations and attach greater or lesser importance depending which side they favoured or fought on, or where they happen to have been at the time. The Warsaw Rising coupled with the subsequent Airlift was no exception to this rule.

The Situation in Poland and Warsaw

Poland became an autonomous democratic Christian state as early as the year 966, but has known little durable peace over the centuries. She was partioned in the 18th centuary by Prussia, Russia and Austria and held in subjugation for over 100 years.

During the deliberations at Versailles in 1919 the one really astute delegate, General Smuts, warned that the imposition of the “Polish Coridor” would not necessarily be the reason, but could certainly be the excuse for hostile action against Poland in the future.

His warning became a reality in 1939 when history repeated itself. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, having signed a pact, attacked Poland simultaneously from both east and west. After fierce fighting she was subdued and again partitioned according to the wishes of Hitler and Stalin.

It was immediately after this humiliation that the AK movement started. AK is short for “Armia Krajowa” meaning “Home Army” and was granted full combat status in 1944 by a joint decision by Britain and America. The AK was in constant touch with the Polish government in exile in London and was able to supply its western allies with vital – often priceless – intelligence. It was the AK that told of Hitler’s resolve to attack the Soviet Union long before he did so. The AK also told the west about the butchery at Katyn, Where Russia’s planning for Poland started to unfold. Here 15.000 Polish officers and intellectuals were bayonetted to death and buried in shallow graves like sardines. Russia knew from experience that educated leaders would always resist communism and would influence others.

In 1941 German troops came upon Katyn and let the world know of the methods of their recent ally – now enemy. Like typical polititians the British and Americans played this news in “soft key” for they did not want to offend Stalin. Having acquired themight of Russia as an ally they dared not risk having Stalin make unilateral peace settlement with Hitler.

The AK continued to harass the Germans wherever they could, but it was inside Warsaw in 1944 that plans were laid for a concerted effort to prove to their enemies, to themselves and to the free world that Poland’s spirit had not been crushed. Warsaw was the headquarter and nerve centre of the AK.

Marshall Rokossovsky with vast numerical advantage and with a hardware advantage of 4 to 1 over the Germans was driving fast westwards towards the Vistula and Warsaw. For some time the Russian radio had been taunting the Poles and their other western allies for their inaction, while “they the Russians were doing all the fighting”. They urged the Poles in Warsaw to rise and promised immediate help.

General T. Bor-Komorowski was in command of the AK inside Warsaw. He was in daily touch with the government in London, who eventually gave him carte blanche to rise when he felt the right moment had arrived. While the entire AK consisted of nearly 400.000 of sworn soldiers, there was only some 50.000 inside the city, most of who were under 20 years of age and some with little or no training. They had only 44.000 hand grenades and just enough fire arms to arm one man in 6. But the resource of the Polish should not be underestimated, for in secret workshops they were manufacturing small arms based on the proven sten gun design, together with other ordnance.

The moment seemed to have arrived. Komorowski was on the springboard and it was in his discretion to take the plunge. The date was 30 July 1944.


The Situation in Italy

The curtain had gone down on the Middle East and the stage had shifted to Italy. After the landings and the bloodly battle for Monte Cassino the allies pushed the enemy steadily northwards to the Po valley which was to become a “stale mate” line for many months to come.

Airfields were quickly built using P.S.P. (perforated steel plates). In addition to numerous fighter and medium bomber squadrons, 205 Group RAF was established at Foggia under the command of Major General J.T. Durrant. The Group consisted of 4 wings, 3 of which were RAF using the good old proven Wellington bomber, known affectionately as the “Wimpy”. The fourth was No.2 Wing SAAF made up of 31 and 34 Squadrons both equipped with Liberators. Each of the 8 squadrons could make about 10 aircraftavailable at the time. There were also in Italy about 200 B17 Flying Fortesses of the USAAF.

205 was essentially a strategic long range night bomber group, and used the technique of “saturation” developed by Bomber Command in Britain. The maximum number of serviceable aircraft took part.

Having decided upon the target, such as a railway, marshalling yard or an oil refinery, the optimum bombing time – known as “blitz” – had to be determined. All planning for the raid hinged on blitz, the heavily defended areas on route to be avoided and the distance involved. As we had no fighter protection, benefit was to be derived from darkness and the saturation of enemy defences by our numbers. Very accurate flying and navigation were essential.

The blind illuminators of the pathfinder force ran 6 minutes ahead of the main bomber force. Three minutes behind them came the target marker bombers, while from 3 to 5 minutes back was the main force carrying 500 and 1000 pound bombs. A further minute behind came the planes carrying 2000 pound bombs known as “cookies”, and finally one minute behind then came the incendiary bombers.

The blind illuminators arrived over the target at blitz -6 minutes and dropped flares in parachutes to light up the ground for the target marker bombers, who had to identify the target and mark it at blitz -3 minutes. Their markers burned on the ground with a bright colour. (It became necessary to change the colour each night for the enemy was quick to try to confuse us by lighting flares of the same colour in open fields.) The bombing leader had to assess the position quickly so as to advice the main bomber force over the radio where to aim relative to the marker using the clock code. Aircraft of the main force guided individually by their bomb aimers, bombed the target from blitz to blitz +2 minutes. At blitz +3 minutes “cookies” were unloaded and finally at blitz +4 minutes down came the incendiaries to set as much as possible on fire.

The same flying discipline had to be observed off the target and right home if maximum benefit were to be derived from saturation. On the morning after we could find out how well we had fared individually. This was made possible by a clever technique. Using a camera mounted in the tail of each aircraft and pointing down we actually photographed our bomb bursting on the spot. As the bomb aimer pressed his button the shutter opened. The flash hung in a small parachute and its clockwork was set for our exact bombing height so as to explode with a bright flash from abovejust as our bombs burst below.

So much for the conventional use of the heavy bomber. We are not remembered for our many successes against targets using the conventional method. But we are really remembered for our unconventional work with “heavies”. Our allies from across the Atlantic were firmly of the opinion that the heavy bomber should seldom come below 20.000 feet and certainly never below 10.000. But we of the SAAF and the RAF regarded heavies as far versatile machines and used them to as low as 30 feet above the Danube and the canals of Venice and not much higher above the streets of Warsaw.

In retrospect our mining of the Danube in full moonlight proved to be the most effective operations of the war, for the flow of oil from the major source, Romania, up along the Danube was stopped completely.

The Airlift

At 17h00 on the 1 August 1944 General Bor-Komorowski ordered the AK to rise against their oppressors and the die was cast. Fierce fighting erupted in most parts of the city. The element of surprise aided the AK who after 5 days had captured 70% of Warsaw. But no sign of the promised Russian intervention. The well armed Germans received reinforcements and gradually stemmed and turned the tide, but not without heavy losses. Food and amunition ran low but still no Soviet appearance; not so much as a reply to the Poles’ call for help or simply co-operation from the Russians, but Stalin flatly refused landing permission to UK based planes behind Russian lines.

Warsaw is about 910 miles from the UK on the great circle course, but in order to avoid the defences of the Reich a detour would be near to 1100, and a return journey of 2200 miles was out of the question. Churchill then ordered that relief be flown to Warsaw from Italy which is a little closer, some 815 miles on the great circle. But here again this would have led right over heavily defended points. The most realistic compromise was a return journey of almost 2000 miles.

General Durrant went to see Air Marshall Slessor and was surprised to be admitted to the presence of Churchill himself in an adjoining office. He pointed out to Churchill that an airlift of 1000 miles, most of it over enemy territory, could hold no hope of military success, and that the loss of airmen and aircraft would be tremendous. While Churchill agreed with him, he nevertheless insisted that the operation should take place if only for reasons of propaganda and morale. It is perhaps appropriate at this stage to provide a brief technical description of the B24 Liberator in which our crews were to undertake the Warsaw airlift. For the job on hand it was the best of the big allied bombers. (The enormous B29 had not yet made its appearance.)

The Avro Lancaster was fast and had a big pay load, but its range was less then the Liberator’s, and there were none in Italy. The Hanley Page Halifax had a smaller pay load and range, although the RAF and Poles did use them on the Warsaw airlift. The legendary bu t overrated B17 Flying Fortess had neither the speed not the pay load of the Liberator. After adding the weight of the ammunition, the oil and that of the crew, the Liberator could carry a further disposable load of 26.000 pounds made up of petrol and pay load. Her maximum permitted take off weight was 33 tons. She was driven by 4 Pratt & Whitney double bank radial engines of the same design as fitted to the DC3 Dakota. However while the latter has only the engine driven supercharger and develops 1100 horse power those on the Liberator had the additional turbo supercharger which raised the horse power to 1400. That this shortened engine life was of little consequence in war time when engine performance enjoys priority.

The indicated airspeed of the Liberator was 180 m.p.h. which was actually 190 when adjusted for altitude and temperature. On return from a target, having dropped bombs and used much of the fuel, cruising speed was about 210. In emergencies on full power she was capable of a lot more. Defence from fighters and sometimes even ground attack consisted of sic 0,50 inch calibre heavy machine guns. Because we operated mainly by night the 2 forward firing guns and the ball turret underneath were removed.

We enjoyed the use of the most modern electronic equipment including the GEE box and the radio altimeter. We were equipped with the Air Ministry bomb sight which was, with respect to our allies from across the Atlantic, superior to their Norden.

When it was known that we had to fly 2000 miles non stop, we had to take a new look at pay load versus fuel load. On conventional bombing raids we loaded sufficient petrol for the distance plus 25% in addition for emergencies. The balance was bomb load. Now we had to take our maximum fuel load of 2300 gallons to see us there and back with barely 10% excess. As we had to carry the maximum pay load we exceeded the permitted take off weight by one ton.

There were 12 cannisters on our bomb racks. Each was crammed with light machine guns, ammunition, hand grenades, radio equipment,food and medical supplies. In addition each cannister was fitted out with a small parachute to break the fall and not to damage the contents.

When we started our planning two chilling prospects arose. Firstly, due to the long days in the northern hemisphere at the time, we would have to cross the enemy coast in sunlight both going and returning. Secondly, we were so few that we could in no way saturate enemy defences in the form of searchlights, ground to air fire, and fighters. Of course, we had to zig zag to miss G.C.I. (ground controlled interception) areas.

Our Liberators took a long run to take off but one and all rose sturdily into the air without having to resort to the emergency boost over ride. We at once set course across the Adriatic Climbing as we went. Soon we reached the enemy coast in summer sunshine and felt too exposed for comfort, but drew some consolation from the fact that fighters surprise us in the darkness. The pilot in command and his gunners form a very close knit team particularly when attacked by fighters. We never accorded them the courtesy of flying straight and level but turned violently up or down at the last second to spoil their aim and to give our heavy machine guns the advantage.

Soon darkness set in and the Danube appeared as a thin blue ribbon below. To the north lay the Carpathians and bad weather, where we were tossed about in the clouds and lit up too frequently by lightening. At times our propeller discs created blue circles and blue flames trailed from wing tips and other projections. This frightening yet harmless phenomenon is also seen on the masts of ships at night. Sailors call it St. Elmo’s fires.

North of the mountains the weather cleared and another alteration of course took us away from dreaded Krakow which was a night fighter centre for the Luftwaffe. Then a further course alteration led towards Warsaw. Before long we picked up jazz music from Radio Warsaw, which was just what we wanted for we were out of the range of GEE. Our radio compass needle led us directly to the city which first showed as a glow on the horizon. We started to lose height.

As we drew closer we were shocked by what we saw despite having been told what to expect at briefing. Rows upon rows of buildings were on fire and sent palls of smoke thousands of feet into the air. The smoke was in turn illumianted from below by the fires. Obviously a life or death struggle was taking place before us. According to briefing we were to run north along the Vistula losing height to 200 feet and then to turn left about a cathedralin the north of the city. We were then to head south keeping the river on our left, to open bomb doors and to come lower still to about 150 feet. By using optimum flap we could keep our large aircraft under control at only 130 m.p.h. A greater speed could have snapped the shroud lines of the cannister’s parachutes. We had to continue until we saw the letter of the night flashed in morse from the ground. There we had to drop all our cannisters in a bunch and get away as fast as possible following the same course back home.

An aircraft is most vulnerable to light flak between the heights of 3000 to 500 feet above the ground. Over the city we attracted fire from hand held machine guns, rifles and even pistols. Poor visibility due to smoke was also a serious hazard.

During our worst nights from 4 August to early September 1944, 196 sorties took off for Warsaw of which 85 reached the target area and 39 planes were lost.

The task was too great to save the gallant Polish army. It was destroyed while the Russians sat idly by barely 20 miles away.

Stalin realised that his western allies strongly disapproved of his handling of the Warsaw Rising and for the sake of “window dressing” he was seen to relent, but only when he knew it was too late. He granted permission for American aircraft based in the UK to fly supplies to Warsaw and land for fuel behind his lines. On 21 September 1944, 107 USAAF planes dropped supplies from such a great height that less then 20% reached Polish hands. Then still later and for further “window dressing” Russian planes actually dropped supplies to the AK but made sure they would be of little or no use. Their cannisters fell without parachutes damaging much of their contents. Their fire arms were so inferior as to have been factory rejects while the cartridges were of a calibre that fitted none of the Polish arms.

The Warsaw Rising failed and General Bor-Komorowski surrendered on 2 October 1944. The spirit of those that died has been handed down to the next generation of Poles, who recently clearly demonstrated that they will never accept communist domination. Some day they must again be free.

There were acts of individual heroism that should not be forgotten. Second Lieutenant Bob Burgess became the youngest recipient of the D.S.O. when he, as second pilot, took command of a crippled Liberator and flew it eastwards to safety. The pilot due to “lack of moral fibre” had without a word to his crew stepped out into the night by parachute. Bob who never before landed a Liberator did so skilfully at the first light of dawn. Major Bill Senn was awarded the D.F.C. for bringing a badly damaged Liberator back all the way from Warsaw to Foggia, he himself having been wounded.

The late Nick Groenewald found himself falling through the dark after his Liberator had blown up over Warsaw – his parachute pack in his hand like a briefcase. He clipped it onto his harness and opened it in time to land but suffered facial burns. Polish doctors performed skin graft operations after which he volunteered to fight with the AK to the end.

An amusing incident took place in Moscow where I had eventually arrived with the survivors of my crew after being shot down. A Royal Naval Admiral attached to the British Military Mission in Moscow sent a car to bring me to the Kremlin. I understood that I was to attend a conference and that agenda touched upon our mining of the Danube. He led me into a room where at least 20 senior naval officers were already seated. They were all Russians. My English friend took the last remaining seat and I had to stand.

It soon dawned on me that this was not a conference but an interrogation and that I was to be interrogated. The senior Russian, who must have held at least the rank of Admiral of the Fleet, sat at the head of the table and “called the shots”, by putting questions to me through an interpreter. At first the atmosphere was not unfriendly, and I answered all his “bread and butter” questions such as where had I come from, what was I doing, what had happened to me and aspects of the general performance of the Liberator. Then he warmed to his point by asking whether I had dropped mines into the Danube, where, when, from what height, at what speed and how many.

All of his questions I answered. Then came the question to which he had been building up – “how those mines work?” My answer was simple “I don’t know”. When this was translated back into Russian the chief at the head of the table flew into a frenzy and all the others glared at me if I was the Devil himself. The interpreter’s task was made difficult for when half way through translating the first of the ravings more was added at a higher pitch and volume.

The message which came through was that we were allies and the Russians had borne the brunt of this dreadful war against the worst tyrant in history and here I was purposely denying them vital information. When I eventually had the opportunity to speak I explained that the mines were top secret even in the Royal Navy, that our squadron armourers were not allowed to see them and that they were loaded into our bomb bays by naval armourersand the doors shut. I ended telling them that my orders were to carry and drop them, not to design, build or maintain them. On this note they dismissed my English friend and me.

Once in his office I asked “Good God Sir, what was that all about?” he replied “You see the Russians have overrun quite a stretch of the Danube and some of your jolly old mines are still active, but now they are blowing up the Russians’ ships”. I blurted “That’s the best news in months!” To which the worthy admiral responded “I agree with you old boy, but don’t quote me”.


The airlift failed but it served to cement a bond between Poles and South Africans based on mutual respect and sincere friendship. Evidence of this are the annual commemoration services arranged by our local Polish community. It is now more correct to refer to them as South Africans of Polish origin.

But there is further evidence and this is a wonderful story. It was recently brought to our attention in a letter from the Director of Information Services of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. A selfless and public spirited Pole by name Bronislaw Kowalski, has single handed and over a period of years erected a shrine in the woods near the village of Michalin, some 30 kilometres south east of Warsaw. The shrine marks the exact spot where a SAAF Liberator crashed in flames at midnight on 14-15 August 1944. It was erected to the memory of three airmen who died there that night, namely, Second Lieutenant R.G. “Bob” Hamilton and Sergeants Leslie Mayes and Herbert Hudson. In his garden he built a further shrine inside which a light burns day and night and has done so over a number of years.

The remains of those three had long before been moved to the military cemetery Rakowice in Krakow, Poland, where they rest together with the other South African, RAF and Polish Air Force casualties in most perfectly tended graves.

I should like to acknowledge with thaks the many details of information supplied by Colonel P.M. McGregor of the SAAF War Museum and by Mr. E.G. de Virion and Mr. A. Sinclair*Miedzianowski. Both the latter were members of the AK inside Warsaw during the rising and can be numbered the few survivors.

Jack L. van Eyssen

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