Broken wings on Brandon

How five Polish airmen came to be buried in Belfast's Milltown Cemetery

Walking through Milltown Cemetery, west Belfast among the sprawling lines of graves, one may be surprised to see a row of five Polish graves, the dark headstones illustrating no gloss or glamour; their only adornment being the distinctive Polish eagle, a name and the words ‘304 Squadron’. How these five Polish airmen came to rest in the city is a story that stretches from Warsaw to Cornwall, and from Kerry to Belfast.

The German invasion of Poland in September 1939 was the spark that ignited the greatest conflict in the history of mankind, namely the second world war. The Poles, though gallant in their resistance, were no match for the modern, mechanised German war machine and their Blitzkrieg tactics.

Under equipped and sandwiched between Nazi Germany and Communist Russia, Poland was quickly swallowed up, the victim of a deceptive Nazi-Soviet pact. Hitler had always aimed to destroy Communist Russia but at this early stage he could not afford to fight against the French, British and Russians.

On September 17, 1939, Russia invaded the large areas of undefended eastern Poland assigned to it under the Nazi-Soviet pact. Stalin had no love for Poland and its anti-communist stance, and while Hitler set about turning Poland in to a reservoir of cheap labour for Nazi military requirement, Stalin murdered thousands of Polish officers in secret.

However, neither the Germans nor the Russians could defeat the human spirit that continued to flourish in Poland. While one division of Polish soldiers headed to the Middle East to join the British army, many thousands more joined up in Britain as the Free Polish Brigade within the British army. Others remained at home, building a secret army of resistance.

Many flyers also escaped to Britain, and while some found fame during the Battle of Britain, others formed a few squadrons within the RAF. One such man was Flight Sergeant Klemens Adamowitz, an experienced pilot who had trained at the Pilots Training School in Bydgoszez, northwest of Warsaw, and later became a pilot instructor in the Fourth Air Force Regiment at Torun, Poland.

In December 1943, Klemens Adamowicz was flying Wellington Bombers with the No 304 (Polish) Squadron of the RAF Coastal Command. At the ripe ‘old’ age of 32, Adamowicz was the eldest member of the crew of six. The other members of the crew were copilot Sergeant Stanislaw Czerniowski, wireless operator Sergeant Paeel Kowalewicz, and air-gunners Sergeant Wincenty Pietrzak and Sergeant Kazimierz Lugowski. Sergeant Hirsz Kuflik, the aircraft navigator, was Jewish and of German descent. Born in Cologne on January 4, 1923, he was brought up in Poland but fled to Britain upon invasion.

RAF Coastal Command was fighting the most crucial campaign of the second world war—battling against the U-boats and protecting the sea lanes through which convoys carried vital war supplies from the United States and the British Commonwealth to Britain.

In December 1943, 304 Squadron was based at Predannack in Cornwall. They shared the base with several detachments of Mosquito and Beaufighter squadrons, whose job it was to counter the increased German fighter activity over the Bay of Biscay.

The squadron was equipped with Wellington MK XII aircraft, which carried the Leigh Light enabling it to illuminate U-boats on the surface at night. The original trials for the light had been carried out at RAF Limavady in 1941. The searchlight was mounted in a swivel ring to allow it at least 20% downward or sideward movement. By the end of the war, Leigh Light fitted aircraft had made 218 attacks on U-boats and 206 attacks on ships, resulting in 27 U-boats being sunk.

The Wellington was a very versatile aircraft. It could take a lot of anti-aircraft flak and still manage to get back home. However, any aircraft is vulnerable where winter conditions and mountainous terrain are concerned. When Sergeant Adamowicz and his crew took off at dawn from their base at Predannack, it was a bitterly cold day. The aircraft would be involved in sweeps across the Bay of Biscay, a normal operation being carried out by aircraft of Coastal Command on a daily basis.

Later that afternoon, a request by Adamowicz to return to base was received by the Predannack operations room. This request for an early return was based on a malfunction of radio location equipment.

What happened after that no one seems to know, except that probably as a result of poor visibility the aircraft crashed into Arraglen on Mount Brandon, Co Kerry, killing all six on board.

Mount Brandon had witnessed two other crashes in previous months. In July a BOAC Sunderland crashed at Slieveglass, slightly west of where the Wellington impacted. One month later an RAF Sunderland of 201 Squadron from the Castle Archdale flying boat base, Co Fermanagh, crashed very close to where the Wellington had now gone down.

The alarm was raised by a local man Michael Brick, who contacted the army headquarters at Tralee. While officials were en route to the crash area, a local Gardai officer from Cloughan village at the foot of Brandon, together with a few members of the Local Defence Force, proceeded to the crash site. With them was a Red Cross party from Dingle. Working in extremely cold and dark conditions, the tangled wreckage of the aircraft and the bodies of its crew were located on the mountain.

The bodies of the six Poles were handed over to the British by an Irish guard of honour at Middletown on the Monaghan-Armagh border, where they proceeded to Belfast for burial. Five of the airmen were interred at Milltown, and Sergeant Hirsz Kuflik was laid to rest at the Jewish cemetery at Carnmoney on the outskirts of north Belfast.

Today at the crash site, a portion of geodetic framework lies lodged in a gully on the mountain, close to a turret ring. The crashes on Mount Brandon are now well embedded in local folklore, commemorated by a plaque at Cloughan.

For five Polish airmen, west Belfast may be a long way from home, but they have never been forgotten.

By John Quinn

John Quinn is an established author who has written numerous books and articles, including Down in the Free State—Wartime Air Crashes in Ireland.