Commemoration ‘2008: Address by Bruce Harrison

Bruce Harrison — Guest Speaker Of The 2008 Commemorations


We have gathered today to commemorate events that took place 68 and 64 years ago — the Katyn Massacre, the Warsaw Uprising and the Warsaw Flights. As we look down the corridor of the years — longer indeed than many here today have yet lived, we have to acknowledge that time dims memories and we might well observe, as Wordsworth did in his “Ode to Immortality”:

“The things which I have seen, I now can see no more.
“Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
“Where is it now, the glory and the dream?”

It would not be surprising if time dimmed the memory of those events — but it has not — and the fact that we are here today in numbers is evidence of this. We are gathered to honour and keep alive the memory of brave men and women, and the bonds forged between the people of Poland and South Africa in the furnace of war. The celebration of these events also takes place internationally, in the many services held in Poland and by Polish communities such as this, around the world. Here in South Africa, there was a special commemoration on Carte Blanche last Sunday evening, as well as our service today.

Poland, although an old and historic country, was a young republic in 1939, after just 21 years of independence after the First World War. Earlier, it had been occupied (for 123 years) by Russia, Prussia and Austria. There had been 3 major uprisings against the Russians, in the East. Poland emerged in 1918 as a patriotic Republic similar to Ireland. That’s why there were almost no collaborators there and real fighting.

We remember, and commemorate, and honour:

— Those Poles murdered by their captors at Katyn in 1940
— Those who joined the Home Army, the AK, and after 5 bitter years of occupation rose against the occupier in 1944. Over 200 000 gave their lives in that brave act, during the 63 days of the rising.
— Those airmen of the Polish Special Flights, the RAF and the South African Air Force who volunteered to fly the near-impossible relief flights.

We also salute Major General, then Brigadier Durrant, who commanded 205 Wing RAF at the time, which comprised 31 and 32 Squadron’s SAAF and 148 and 178 Squadron RAF. As Air Officer Commanding he was concerned at the implications for his crews of the extreme range across occupied Europe, weather and tiny margins from an operational point of view. The first flights, with their heavy losses — 16 out of 25 aircraft, confirmed his concerns. He visited AVM John Slessor to tell him so, and was surprised to be ushered into the presence of Winston Churchill himself. When he pointed out that the proposed airlift would not promote military success, and that the loss of air crew and aircraft would be unacceptably high, Churchill’s reply was brief and to the point.

“From a military point of view you are right”, he said “but from a political point of view you must carry on. Good Morning.”

And so Jimmy Durrant and his volunteer aircrews did carry on, accepting all the known risks. They made 196 trips to Warsaw, 11 hours over the Carparthian Mountains, and then flying at rooftop height to drop canisters packed with guns, ammunition and food.


— We honour those who fell in the fight for freedom
— We recognise those who survived, and the few still with us today
— And we remind the generations to come of the price paid for their freedom

The scripture records that many years ago King David, the Shepherd King of Israel, was himself besieged by the Philistines and in desperate circumstances. He longed for a drink of water from the well at the gate of Bethlehem. Three of his mighty men broke through the encircling Philistine garrison and brought him a drink of water he craved so much.

But, David refused to drink it; instead he poured it out before the Lord as an offering saying:

“God forbid that I should do this! Should I drink the blood of these men who went at the risk of their lives?

It is appropriate that we should have the same sense of reverence as we commemorate those who fell.

Such were the men and women of the Home Army
Such were the men who flew to their assistance.

The Battle was lost and Warsaw reduced to ashes. But in those ashes there were diamonds — which shine brightly to this day. The diamonds of:

— Exceptional courage
— Incredible bravery
— Invincible determination
— The spirit of free men and women
— And, through all the tragedy, an indomitable sense of humour.

Polish Village

The story is told of the elderly mayor of a Polish village at the time the occupying Russians were demarcating the new borders. As it happened, the new line would pass right down the middle of the village street.

The mayor was given an option. Did he and his people want to fall into the Russian sector or remain in Poland? There was a short discussion and the mayor went back to the Russian authorities the next day with this answer:

“With respect, the village would prefer to remain in Poland, because they did not think they could stand another Russian winter!”

Nearly a hundred years before Warsaw, Abraham Lincoln was moved by similar bravery and sacrifice to write these words.

“We have come to remember and honour those who gave their lives that the nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”

But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow that ground. The brave men and women who struggled there have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did there…

It is for us the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us.

That from these honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that the nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Well, by the good Grace of God, and thanks to those who knew what it was “to fight and not to yield, to sacrifice and not to count the cost”, freedom has not perished from the earth, and we all today can celebrate their sacrifice as free men and women. The glory and the dream of those brave days is alive and well today. Let us in our generation be worthy of their sacrifice.

Rev. Brian Jones, himself a survivor of the relief flights, recollects that he shared a tent in Brindise with Ben Impey, who was killed over Warsaw on the night of 16 — 17 August 1944. In that tent, the night before he flew, Impey wrote the “Airman’s Prayer”, which I quote as we close.


My God, this night I have to fly,
And ere I leave the ground,
I come with reverence to Thy Throne
Where perfect peace is found.

I thank Thee for the life I’ve had,
For home and all its love,
I thank Thee for the faith I have
That cometh from above.

Come with me now into the air,
Be with me as I fly,
Guide Thou each move that I shall make
Way up there — in the sky.

Be with me at the target, Lord,
When danger’s at its height
Be with me as I drop my load
And on the homeward flight.

And should it be my time to die,
Be with me to the end,
Help me to die a Christian’s death,
On Thee, God, I depend.

Then as I leave this mortal frame
From human ties set free,
Receive my soul, O God of love,
I humbly come to Thee.


Democracy did not die in the flames of Warsaw. And now, once more, Poland is free.

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