The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 6 No 2 - December 1983

The Warsaw Airlift

by Major J.L. van Eyssen, DFC

This lecture was given to the Military History Society on 9 June 1983

During the deliberations at Versailles in 1919, Field Marshal Smuts prophetically warned that the establishment of the 'Polish Corridor' (which gave Poland access to the Baltic port of Danzig) might not necessarily be the reason for, but could certainly provide an excuse for, future hostile action against Poland. Smuts' foresight proved to be accurate when, in 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, having signed a pact, attacked Poland simultaneously from west and east respectively. After fierce fighting Poland was subjugated and partitioned, not for the first time in her history, according to the wishes of Hitler and Stalin.

It was immediately after this humiliation that the AK (Armia Krajowa, meaning Home Army) was started in Poland. This organization was recognized as having full combat status by a joint decision of the British and American governments in 1944. The AK was in constant touch with the Polish government-in-exile in London and was able to provide the Allies with vital, often priceless, intellegence. It was the AK, for example, that gave information of Hitler's resolve to attack the Soviet Union long before he did so. It was the AK also which told the allies of the massacre at Katyn in which 15 000 Polish officers and intellectuals were bayonetted to death and buried in shallow graves. Russia's plans for Poland were revealed by this incident; experience had taught Russia that educated leaders would resist communism and influence their compatriots to do likewise; their elimination was, therefore, necessary.

When German troops came upon Katyn in 1941 and made known to the world the methods of their erstwhile ally and now their enemy, the British and Americans played down the news, not wishing to offend Stalin. Having acquired Russia as an ally, Britain and America could not afford to have Stalin make a unilateral peace settlement with Hitler.

The AK continued to harrass the Germans wherever it could, but it was inside Warsaw, the headquarters and 'nerve centre' of the AK, that plans were laid in 1944, for a concerted effort to prove to its enemies, itself and the free world that Poland's spirit had not been destroyed. The Soviet Marshal Rokossovsky, with a vast advantage in troop numbers and a 'hardware' advantage of four to one over the Germans, was driving fast westwards towards the Vistula and Warsaw. For some time the Russian radio had been broadcasting taunts to the Poles and their western allies about their lack of action, claiming that it was the Russians who were doing all the fighting. The Russians urged the Poles in Warsaw to rise and promised them immediate help.

General T. Bor-Komorosky was in command of the AK inside Warsaw. He was in daily touch with his government in London which eventually gave him carte blanche to organize a rising when he felt the time was right. Although the AK consisted of almost 400 000 attested soldiers, there were only some 50 000 inside Warsaw, most of whom were under twenty years of age and some of whom had little or no training. They had only 44 000 hand grenades, and firearms to arm only one man in six. But the resource of the Polish was not to be underestimated, for, in secret workshops, they were manufacturing small arms based on the famous Sten gun design as well as other ordnance.

Komorosky was on the springboard awaiting the proper moment to take the plunge. The moment arrived. The date was 30 July 1944.

The Situation in Italy

The curtain had been rung down in the Middle East and the stage had shifted to Italy. After the landings and the bloody battle for Monte Cassino, the Allies pushed the enemy steadily northwards towards the Po valley, the line where a situation of 'stalemate' was to exist for many months to come.

Airfields were hastily constructed, with PSP (perforated steel plates) being laid to form the runways. In addition to numerous fighter and medium bomber squadrons, 205 Group R.A.F. was established at Foggia under command of Major General J.T. Durrant. The Group consisted of four Wings, three Wings of which were from the R.A.F. and were equipped with the well proven Vickers Wellington bombers, affectionately known as the 'Wimpy'. The fourth was No.2 Wing S.A.A.F., made up of 31 and 34 Squadrons, which was equipped with Consolidated B24 Liberators. Each of the eight squadrons in the Group could make about ten aircraft available at a time. There were also in Italy at the time, about 200 B17 Flying Fortresses of U.S.A.A.F.

The role of 205 Group was essentially one of strategic, long-range, night bombing and it employed the technique of 'saturation' developed by Bomber Command in Britain in which the maximum number of serviceable aircraft took part. After a target, such as a railway marshalling yard or an oil refinery, had been decided upon, the optimum bombing time, known as 'blitz', had to be determined. All planning for a raid hinged on 'blitz' and took into account factors such as heavily defended areas which had to be avoided en route and distances involved. As no fighter protection was provided, the bombers had to rely on the darkness and the benefit of their numbers to nullify the effect of enemy air defences. It was necessary that flying and navigation were very accurate.

The Blind Illuminators of the Pathfinder force flew six minutes ahead of the Main Bomber Force. Three minutes behind them came the Target Marker Bombers which were followed from three to five minutes later by the main force carrying 500 pound (227 kg) and 1 000 pound (454 kg) bombs. Aircraft carrying 2 000 pound (908 kg) bombs known as 'cookies' followed a minute behind the main force, and, finally, a minute behind them came the incendiary bombers.
The task of the Blind Illuminators was to arrive over the target at 'blitz' minus six minutes and drop parachute flares so as to light up the ground for the Target Marker Bombers whose task it was to identify the target and mark it at 'blitz' minus three. 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 and confuse the bombers by lighting flares in open fields).
The Bombing Leader had to assess the position quickly so as to advise the Main Bomber Force over the radio where it should aim relative to the marker using the clock code. Aircraft of the main force were guided individually by their bomb-aimers and bombed the target from 'blitz' to 'blitz' plus two. At 'blitz' plus three the 'cookies' were unloaded and, finally, at 'blitz' plus four, the incendiaries were dropped to set as much as possible on fire.

The same flying discipline had to be observed off the target and all the way back to base if the maximum benefit was to be derived from 'saturation'. On the morning after the raid it was possible to determine how well each aircraft had done by using a clever technique. A camera was mounted in the tail of each aircraft which photographed its bombs bursting on the spot. As the bomb-aimer pressed his button, the bomb train fell away and with it went a flash flare. At the same time the camera's shutter opened. The flash flare hung in a small parachute with its fuse mechanism set at the aircraft's exact bombing height so as to explode with a bright flash above the aircraft's bombs bursting below.
What has been described was the conventional use of the heavy bomber. The Group is not remembered for its many successes against targets using the conventional method but it certainly is for its unconventional work with 'heavies'. The Americans were firmly of the opinion that the heavy bomber should seldom operate below 20 000 feet (6 096 m) and certainly never below 10 000 feet (3 048 m). The S.A.A.F. and the R.A.F., in contrast, regarded heavy bombers as far more versatile machines and flew them as low as 30 feet (9 m) above the Danube and the canals of Venice and not much higher above the streets of Warsaw.

The Airlift

At 17h00 on 1 August 1944, General Bor-Komorosky ordered the AK to rise against the oppressors and the die was cast. Fierce fighting erupted in most parts of Warsaw. The element of surprise aided the AK which, after five days had seventy percent of the city under its control. There was, however, no sign of the promised Russian intervention. The well-armed Germans received reinforcements and gradually stemmed, then turned, the tide, but not without heavy losses. The Poles were running low on food and ammunition, but still no assistance from the Soviets was forthcoming. The Russians, indeed, did not so much as reply to the Poles' call for help. The Polish government in London appealed to the Russians for help or simply co-operation, but Stalin flatly refused even to grant permission for aircraft based in Britain to land behind Russian lines.

Warsaw is about 910 miles (1 464 km) from Britain on the 'Great Circle Course', but in order to avoid German air defences in the Reich, a detour had to be taken which made the journey closer to 1100 miles (1 770 km). The return journey of 2 200 miles (3 540 km) was, of course, out of the question. Churchill then ordered that relief be flown to Warsaw from Italy which is a little closer, some 815 miles (1 311 km) on the Great Circle. This route also involved flying over heavily defended points. The task was allocated to 205 Group of which I was a member.

General Durrant went to see Air Marshal Slessor and was surprised to be admitted to the presence of Winston Churchill himself who was in an adjoining office. General Durrant pointed out to Churchill that an airlift of 1 000 miles (1 609 km), most of it over enemy occupied territory, could hold no hope of military success and that the loss of airmen and aircraft would be tremendous. Although Churchill agreed with him, he nevertheless insisted that the operation be proceeded with, if only for reasons of propaganda and morale.

It is perhaps appropriate at this point to provide a brief technical description of the Consolidated B24 Liberator in which the Group's crews were to undertake the Warsaw Airlift. For the job on hand it was the best of the big allied bombers. (The enormous Boeing B29 Superfortress had not yet made its appearance.) The Avro Lancaster was fast and had a large payload but its range was shorter than that of the Liberator and, furthermore, there were none of them in Italy. The Handley Page Halifax had a smaller payload and shorter range than the Liberator although they were used in the Warsaw Airlift by the R.A.F. and the Poles. The legendary but overrated Boeing B17 Flying Fortress had neither the speed nor the payload capacity of the Liberator.
In addition to ammunition, oil and crew, the Liberator could carry a further disposable load of 2 600 pounds (1180 kg) which was made up of petrol and payload. Her maximum permitted take-off weight was 33 tons (33 530 kg). She was powered by four Pratt and Whitney double bank radial engines of the same design as those fitted to the Douglas DC3 Dakota. However, while the latter aircraft has only the engine-driven supercharger and develops 1 100 horse power (820 KW), the Liberator had an additional turbo super- charger which raised the horse-power to 1 400 (1 044 KW). Shortened engine life was, of course, of little consequence in wartime and engine performance enjoyed priority. The indicated airspeed of the Liberator was 180 m.p.h. (290 k.p.h.) which increased to 190 m.p.h. (306 k.p.h.) when the aircraft was adjusted for altitude and temperature. On return from a target, the bombs having been dropped and much of the fuel having been used up, cruising speed rose to about 210 m.p.h. (338 k.p.h.). In emergencies, on full power, the Liberator was capable of a lot more. Her defensive armament against fighter and ground attack consisted of six 0,50 inch calibre heavy machine guns. Because our aircraft operated mainly at night, the two forward firing guns and the ball turret underneath were removed.

The Liberators were fitted with, what was for those times, the most modern electronic equipment, including the GEE box and the radio altimeter. They were equipped with the Air Ministry bombsight which was, with respect to our Allies from across the Atlantic, superior to their Norden bombsight.
When it was known that we had to fly 2 000 miles (3 218 km) non stop, we had to take a new look at the question of payload versus fuel load. On conventional bombing raids we loaded sufficient fuel for the distance to be covered plus an additional twenty five percent in case of emergency. The balance was bomb load. For this operation the maximum fuel load of 2 300 gallons (13 639 t) would have to see us to the target and back with barely ten percent excess. As we had to carry the maximum payload, we exceeded the permitted take-off weight by one ton (1 016 kg).
Each aircraft carried twelve canisters in its bomb racks. The canisters were crammed with light machine guns, ammunition, hand-grenades, radio equipment, food and medical supplies and had parachutes attached to them to slow their rate of fall.
When planning commenced, two chilling prospects arose. The first was that, 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. The second was that we did not have sufficient aircraft to 'saturate' enemy defences in the form of searchlights, ground-to-air fire and fighters. We had to take a 'zig-zag' course in order to miss G.C.I. (ground controlled interception) areas.

Our Liberators had to take a long run to take-off and all rose sturdily into the air without any having to resort to the emergency boost override. As the aircraft climbed, course was set across the Adriatic. The enemy coast was soon reached in summer sunshine and, although we felt too exposed for comfort, we drew consolation from the fact that fighters could not surprise us as easily as they could in the darkness. The pilot and his gunners formed a very closely knit team, particularly when the aircraft was attacked by fighters. The pilots seldom accorded the fighters the courtesy of flying straight and level and turned violently up or down at the last second to spoil their aim and at the same time to give their gunners the advantage with their heavy machine guns.
Darkness had set in and soon the Danube came into view as a thin blue ribbon. To the north lay the Carpathian mountains - and bad weather. We were tossed about in the clouds and frequently 'lit up' by lightning. At times our propeller discs created blue circles and blue flames trailed from wing tips and other projections. This frightening although harmless phenomenon is also seen on the masts of ships at night. Sailors call it St Elmo's fires.

North of the Carpathians the weather cleared and we altered course away from Cracow which we knew to be a night fighter training centre for the Luftwaffe. A further course alteration led towards Warsaw. Before long we picked up jazz music from Radio Warsaw which was just what we wanted as it meant that 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 horison. We started to lose height and, as we drew closer to the city, were shocked by what we saw, in spite of having been told what to expect at the briefing. Rows upon rows of buildings were on fire sending clouds of smoke thousands of feet into the air. The smoke was, in turn, illuminated from below by the fires. It was obvious that a life or death struggle was taking place before us.
According to our briefing we were to fly north along the Vistula dropping to 200 feet (61 m) and then to turn left about a cathedral in the north of the city. We were then to turn south keeping the river on our left, to open bomb doors and to drop lower still to about 150 feet (45 m). By using optimum flap we could keep our large aircraft under control at only 130 m.p.h. (209 k.p.h.). A greater speed could have snapped the shroud lines on the canister parachutes. We had to continue until we saw the letter of the night flashed in morse from the ground. When we saw it we had to drop all of our canisters together and get away as fast as possible.
An aircraft is most vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire at a height of 3 000 feet (914 m) to 5 000 feet (1 524 m). Over Warsaw, our aircraft attracted fire from hand-held machine guns, rifles and even pistols! Poor visibility due to smoke was also a serious hazard.

From 4 August until early September 1944, 196 sorties took off for Warsaw of which eighty-five reached the target area and thirty-nine aircraft were lost.

The Airlift could not save the gallant Polish Army. While the Polish army was being destroyed, the Russians sat idly by a bare 20 miles (32 km) away. Stalin realized 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 that it was too late. He granted permission for American aircraft based in Britain which were flying supplies to Warsaw to refuel behind Russian lines. On 21 September 1944, 107 U.S.A.A.F. 'planes dropped supplies from so great a height that less than twenty percent of the supplies reached Polish hands.

The Russians later, for 'window dressing' purposes. did drop supplies to the AK but made sure that these would be of little use. The Russian canisters were dropped without parachutes so that much of the contents was damaged. The firearms which the Russians supplied were so inferior as to have seemed to have been factory rejects while the cartridges which they provided were of a calibre which would not fit any of the Polish arms.

The Warsaw Rising failed and General Bor-Komorosky surrendered on 2 October 1944. The spirit of the Poles that died then seems to have been inherited by the following generation which has only recently clearly demonstrated that it does not intend to accept communist domination. Some day the Poles must again be free.

The Warsaw Airlift occasioned acts of individual heroism which should not be forgotten. Second Lieutenant 'Bob' Burgess became the youngest recipient of the DSO (Distinguished Service Order) after he, as second pilot, took command of a crippled Liberator and flew it eastwards to safety. The pilot had, without a word to his crew, stepped out into the night, as it were, by parachute. Burgess, who had never before landed a Liberator did so skilfully at first light.

Major 'Bill' Senn was awarded the DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) for bringing back a badly damaged Liberator all the way from Warsaw to Foggia in spite of the fact that he had been wounded.

The Late Nick Groenewald found himself falling through the night sky, after his Liberator had blown up over Warsaw, with his parachute pack in his hand like a briefcase. He clipped it on to his harness and opened it, fortunately, in time. He did however suffer facial burns. Polish doctors performed skin grafts on his burns after which he volunteered to fight with the AK to the end.

My aircraft was also shot down. The survivors of my crew and I eventually arrived in Moscow where an amusing incident occurred. A Royal Navy admiral attached to the British Military Mission in Moscow sent a car to take me to the Kremlin. I was given to understand that I was to attend a conference and that the agenda touched upon our mining of the Danube. The admiral led me into a room where about twenty senior naval officers were already seated, all of whom were Russians. The Royal Navy admiral took the only remaining seat and I had to stand. I soon realised that this was not to be a conference at all but, rather, an interrogation. The senior Russian officer, who appeared to be an admiral of extremely high rank, sat at the head of the table and put 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 was the general performance of the Liberator like. He then warmed to his point and asked me where, when, from what height and at what speed I had dropped the mines and how many I had dropped. I answered all of these questions. Then came the question to which he had been building up and that was how the mines worked. My answer was simple. I did not know. When this answer was translated for my interrogator he flew into a frenzy while all the others glared at me as if I were the devil himself.
The interpreter's task was a difficult one indeed. Before he had translated the first of the ravings, more were added at a higher pitch and volume. The message that came through to me was that we were Allies and the Russians had borne the brunt of the war against the worst tyrant in history and there was I purposely denying them vital information. When eventually I 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 Royal Navy armourers and the bomb-doors shut. I ended by telling them that my orders were to carry the mines and drop them, not to design, build or maintain them. At that juncture the Royal Navy admiral and I were dismissed. Once we had arrived back at the admiral's office I asked him what the interrogation had been all about. He told me that the Russians had overrun quite a stretch of the Danube and that our mines, still being active, were blowing up Russian shipping. When I exclaimed that that news was the best that I had heard in months, the admiral agreed with me but added that I should not quote him.

The Airlift failed in its purpose 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. But there is further evidence, and in this lies a wonderful story. A letter from the Director of Information Services of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, tells of a selfless and public-spirited Pole, one Bronislaw Kowalski, who has, on his own initiative, and over a period of years, erected a shrine in the woods near the village of Michalin, some thirty kilometres south-east of Warsaw. The shrine marks the exact spot where a S.A.A.F. 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 Kowalski built another shrine in which a light burns day and night and has done so over a number of years.
The remains of the three airmen had long before been moved to the military cemetery near Cracow where they are buried together with the other S.A.A.F., R.A.F. and Polish Air Force casualties in perfectly tended graves.

I should like to acknowledge, with thanks, the many details of information supplied by Col P.M. McGregor of the S.A.A.F. 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 amongst the few survivors.

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