The Warsaw Concerto
The invasion of Poland by German Force in September 1939, forced a large number of Polish fighters to become partisans and operate underground until 1944. 1944 saw the Polish uprising in Warsaw — later to become the epic battle which forged strong bonds between South Africans and Polish communities that has lasted to this day.
By July 1944, the Russian Army had advanced to within a few miles of Warsaw. The partisans felt it time to rise, expecting help from Russian allies. Despite a severe shortage of weapons and ammunition, thousand of Poles attacked the Germans in Warsaw and gained control of the south-eastern sector of the city. Fearing later political problems from the Poles the Russians chose rather to sit back and watch as the German forces turned their full fury on the hapless partisans.
Call after call for supplies to be flown in by the Russians went unanswered. Frequent appeals made by Churchill were ignored by the Russians. Allied aircraft could reach Warsaw, but the range was to great for them to return to base. The Russians refused to allow Allied aircraft to land in Russians occupied-territory, refuel and return. The Russian betrayal of the Allies placed Churchill in a terrible dilemma. He had given pledge to support the Polish partisans. The only air force units who could help were those based in Italy and specifically the heavy bombers of 2nd Bomber Wing at Foggia which were under South African control.
Churchill, realising these proposed Warsaw raids would be almost suicidal for the aircrews, could not order such missions, but he asked for volunteers. Without doubt, the Polish aircrews of 205 Bomber Group all volunteered, and they were not alone. The crews of two South African squadrons volunteered. And so did crews in Royal Air Force squadrons.
Night after night, on twelve-hour round trips, the B24 Liberator bombers took off and flew the 2720 km from Italy through some of the most heavily-defended German night-fighter hotspots, to reach the battered Polish capital. There they descended to rooftop height to escape the probing searchlights and the heavy flak, and to drop the precious supplies they carried.
Between 8 August and 22 September 1944, British and Polish air squadrons, alongside 31 and 34 Squadrons of SAAF, dropped supplies to beleaguered Polish partisans fighting againstoverhelming odds in the city of Warsaw. A total of 181 sorties were attempted, with the loss of 31 B24 Liberator bomber aircraft. The loss rate of 40% (almost one man in evry two) was phenomenal. It has been debated that the sheer heroism shown by the aircrews in attempting to complete thier missions, was beyond equal. It was one of the most tragic and heroic opeartions in the SAAF history, yet it stands out among the many shining deeds in history of our Air Force.
Despite the bravery of the 2nd Bomber Wing, the uprising of the Polish partisans failed. In a matter of week they were defeated by the Germans against overhelming odds.
Why are we here today? Each has a reason. Some remember the event. Perhaps more deaply than others. Some are too young. Some were told or ordered to be here. Some were dragged here. Some are here for the beer, or even the food. We share today a sense of closeness, a sense of companionship, a camaraderie with those who gave their lives for this cause. Yet we gather today to share amongst each other camaraderie, a spirit of comradeship. Humans need to gather: in tribes, in teams, in organisations, in nations, in associations (a gaggle). We feel an experience, a need to share. This is why we maintain and foster friendship and camaraderie amongst veterans. This is why we maintain and foster friendship and camaraderie among veterans. This is why we have a Polish Combatants Group, a RAF Association, and a SAAF Association. Military veterans gather to remember friends past and present, to remember and share the good and the bad, and to give support to comrades fallen on hard times. We must never forget our promise to perpetuate the memory of and commemorate those who have given their lives in service of their countries.
We must keep our associations alive with the memory of the past, the present and the future. That is why today is important, that is why we commemorate the Warsaw Concerto. It is our heritage!
Brig. Gen. D.E. Page