The memory of the Warsaw Uprising – an interview with the pilot of the 300 squadron “From Brindisi to burning Warsaw”
From Brindisi over burning Warsaw
Audio transcript of the conversation below.
Conversation with Włodzimierz Bernhardt
pilot of 300 squadron
ADOLF MYĆ (1) – The Warsaw Uprising of 1944 had many monographs and studies in our post-war history. Shrouded in the myth of heroism and legend, it will be deeply remembered not only by those who experienced it, but also by those who learn about this drama from the reading and direct accounts of the still living participants. Each attempt at reporting these events is received with great respect and curiosity, if only for the fact that not everything has been explained yet. My conversation with the Lord is a unique opportunity to bear witness to the heroism of the Polish airmen who flew over the fighting Warsaw to help those who defended the barricades. You gave your diaries to the late Melchior Wańkowicz, who wrote (2) about Mr. “Tracking the traces of air aid in Warsaw in Los Angelos I found an aviator with a fate three times interesting, flights over Warsaw, knocking down, fighting in the Home Army, taking over as a Canadian command over the transport of evacuated Allied prisoners. .. he offered me his a diary with which he authorized me to make whatever use I wish … It happened so, in the later published first volume of the American trilogy entitled Atlantyk – Pacific” Melchior Wańkowicz, on the basis of your diary, quotes the history of the air struggles with the Nazis at that time. As I know, these were only reports about you and your colleagues in our country, because you live in California.
On the other hand, I have the pleasure to talk to you today here in Warsaw, on the 42nd anniversary of the Uprising. Our conversation is accompanied by your great-uncle Maciej Bernhardt, whose fate, by a strange coincidence, crossed yours, although after September 1939 you did not meet until the end of the war.
Was the arrival to Poland from Belgium in 1938 associated with the necessity to perform military service?
Włodzimierz Bernhardt – My father spent many years with the whole family in Belgium, because as a professor he was a lecturer at the University of Liège. When I graduated from Leodian high school and obtained my high school diploma, I did come to the country to do military service and entered the infantry reserve cadet school, after which I was assigned to one of the line regiments. Time filled with continuous training flashes quickly. After all, he was on duty at a time when the black clouds of Nazi expansion gathered over Europe. After Austria and Czechoslovakia joined the Reich, it was Poland’s turn. The September campaign ended for me after the Battle of Kock, after which we received an order to demobilize. Since the capitulation agreement did not provide for release to the cadets’ homes, let alone senior officers, I decided not to go into captivity. I managed to reach a nearby village at night, where I received civilian clothes for uniforms, and after two days I returned to Warsaw. The regime of the occupation forced the people of the capital to organize their lives in a new way so as to ensure the existence of their family and relatives. In the second half of November, all embassies and consulates returned to Warsaw to complete the liquidation of their posts. The Germans granted a very short deadline for the evacuation of these facilities. I mention it because this fact had a random meaning for me. Well, one day a porter from the Belgian consulate came to my aunt’s house asking me to contact the consul as soon as possible. Without waiting a moment, I ran to the consulate and what turned out? Well, my father decided through the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to find me here in occupied Poland. Therefore, after a short conversation with the consul and checking the personal details, I received a Belgian passport and on the second or third day I set off for Brussels by international train. As it was not a direct connection, I was forced to stay in a hotel in Berlin on Unter den Linden and the next day I arrived in still neutral Belgium.
After my arrival, I decided to volunteer for the Polish army in France, which was organizing. With this intention, I reported to the Polish consulate in Brussels and in just a week I found myself in a group of Poles who, in an organized transport, were leaving for a long wandering around the world. The Belgians, who were cordial to us, organized a farewell ceremony. It was not without the speech of the mayor, who, to the sounds of the police orchestra playing the Polish national anthem, wished us victory and a free homeland. This pompous farewell provided a lot of emotions and emotions, both for those leaving and those who were saying goodbye. For me, it was a sign of participation in the second war campaign, if only happy, I thought.
The destination of our trip turned out to be the Coetguidan camp, where, to my surprise, no one hundred thousand army was stationed. I was given a 15551 registration number and assigned to the 3rd Regiment of the 1st Grenadier Division. Preparations to obtain readiness and combat efficiency have filled us in the coming weeks. Unfortunately, the defensive war of the French did not confirm our expectations, and the surrender of such a powerful army was also a big surprise for the officers and privates from the Seine. I, on the other hand, listened bitterly to the demobilization order for the second time. Willing privates, especially officers and non-commissioned officers, were ordered to go to designated ports, from where we were to evacuate to England. I managed to board the last freighter in the port of La Rochelle.
Stay in England
It meant for you the next, third stage in this war, but I am interested in how it happened that you turned from an infantry to an aviator?
In England, according to my training, I was assigned to infantry. However, with the moment. when I found out about the formation of Polish aviation, I decided to apply for admission to the aviation school. At least I did not make this decision under the influence of any emotions. For me, it meant the realization of my youthful dreams and interests – being a soldier – a pilot. After medical examinations and preliminary examinations, I was admitted to an aviation course, because that is what it should be called.
After one and a half years of learning, young pilots were directed to the so-called punching a hand. It was based on the fact that each of us had to fly about 300 hours, perfecting our skills. The next stage was the operational and combat training on twin-engine Wellingtons. The difficulty level of these flights was already very high. We flew both day and night, regardless of the weather, in difficult navigation conditions. These were long trips to the English Channel or the North Sea, during which we could encounter enemy fighters. Our group flights were also used to confuse the Germans and air defense. We just flew over the French coast and the Germans warned about the approaching bombers, organizing the defense, while an authentic expedition flew not far from us. At first these stratagems worked, but the Germans were not stupid and found out very quickly what was going on here. Our training ended with a grouping, during which we were “teaming up the crews”. It consisted in the fact that there were the same number of pilots, navigators, radiotelegraphists and on-board gunners, and we had to choose the crews among ourselves. It was quite important, because the idea was that the crews should be close together, without aversion or prejudice, and most importantly, that everyone could know what to expect from a colleague in difficult combat situations. I remember there was a radio operator with whom no crew wanted to fly after a few flights. Eventually he had to quit and became an instructor. Our training ended with the selection of the crews and we were directed to the squadrons.
The Polish squadrons were numbered from 300 to 325, reserved by the English. Was this opportunity used to the end?
Unfortunately not. The last and the youngest squadron was number 318; we simply couldn’t afford to organize new ones due to the lack of crews. If we are talking about it, it should be said that there was no 313 squadron at all. I was assigned to the oldest squadron, 300 squadron. The presence of Polish aviation in England was inaugurated with the first combat flight on July 1, 1940. It was in the 300 squadron. squadrons was hard and exhausting. Squadron 300 was designated only for night flights of a strategic nature. Our task was to bombard the enemy’s industrial districts. Each of the crews after 33 flights was exempt from flights for 6 months and we dealt with, for example, training of young crews. After this first round of flights, no one was forced to return to the squadron. It was a voluntary decision. You will probably ask why 33 and not 40? Well, according to military psychologists, it was the upper limit of nervous and mental endurance for bomber crews. Flights usually lasted from 7 to 8 hours. In their spare time, airmen stay in fairly normal conditions of everyday life, unlike, for example, line front units. Therefore, the flight over the territory of the enemy was always associated with a lot of nervous tension.
At the beginning, we flew Wellingtons, and then four-engine Lancasters, but it was already at the turn of 1943/44. It also almost never happened that our squadron fell to one squadron. I say – almost, because there was a period when the crews fell to one squadron and there were no reserve crews anymore. As our squadron enjoyed great respect among the English, it was decided to assign us a Canadian squadron, which flew in our colors, as a token of appreciation. All of this happened in the spring of 1944.
I remember how the tension at the pilots’ briefings grew over a period of time. There was no hiding it, we had been served very strict return rates over the English Channel. Entry to the British Isles was to take place through the so-called Gates; only crews with damaged machines could land at the nearest airports. We all got excited and knew that something serious was about to happen, but what, no one could guess. Meanwhile, life had its own rhythm: at night, flight into day, rest and flight.
We were returning from the trip, it seems, over Munich, keeping our altitude and speed as recommended. And suddenly, not believing our eyes, we saw hundreds of machines flying over the French coast. The heavy-flying transports and the gliders they towed were visible from afar. It was now clear that this was the beginning of the long-awaited Allied invasion.
After these joyful events for us, we flew at night as usual and bombed industrial facilities. Only once did we make three daytime flights to support Montgomery’s troops, near Calais, I think.
One day, we were unexpectedly called to the commander and we were told that we had to pack and that some of the crews were leaving the squadron. While we didn’t know what was going on before the invasion, but suspecting that something important had to happen, we simply lost our mind after this order. How is it possible, the invasion has begun, the lack of crews to full condition, we have to pack? No prompts or requests took effect, an order is an order. We were grouped at an airport that was used for special tasks and vaccinated. We learned through word of mouth that we were to leave England and go to Squadron 301, only that it was a reasoning without any sense, because there was complete peace. Perhaps these are preparations for a larger operation, I thought.
Soon we were all sent on a transport plane to Italy. We landed in Naples and by road we went to Brindisi, where 301 Squadron was stationed. In a few days we received assignments to individual squadrons and, apart from a few flights over Yugoslavia and northern Italy, we were stuck in anticipation of what would happen next.
On August 2, 1944, as usual, I came from remote quarters to the casino at the airport, except that the expressions of my colleagues were unusual, just not very cheerful. What is the pilot thinking about at such moments? About the fact that maybe one of my colleagues was shot down, or a survivor of the anti-aircraft artillery pogrom crashed right in front of his airport. So I ask, moved, what happened. One of my colleagues says that an uprising broke out in Warsaw. At first I thought I had misheard and could not believe it in any way, but the next announcements dispelled my doubts.
The Warsaw Uprising of 1944 was born out of an unwavering will to fight the invader, and its immediate goal was to liberate the capital. How did you and your colleagues assess the chances of an uprising?
There was no end to our discussions. It is typical of the military that they think without any emotions, coldly assessing the chances of success of each operation. Similarly in this case .. After all, the Eastern Front stopped on the Vistula River and it was clear to us that this was the end of the first stage of the Soviet offensive. If an uprising breaks out in the city through which the front line runs and there are a large number of elected German divisions, what are the chances of it? Moreover, we knew that Poland was not taken into account at all in the near future for the strategic goals of the second Allied front. After all, knowing these realities, we did not want to think that from a strategic point of view it could be a failure. We were all curious who could have given such an order. Some, speculating on various grounds, said that it happened because of the German sabotage, the aim of which was to destroy Warsaw as a symbol of the resistance movement. Our determination also stemmed from the fact that the Allied command made no secrets about the fact that it was unable to provide the combatants with significant combat support.
Regardless of our speculations, we realized that we are morally obliged to help Warsaw, the only question is – how? There was a special feeling of unity in the squadron like never before. After all, our Warsaw is fighting. Our dreams of flying over Warsaw, however, were dispelled by the order of the Mediterranean aviation commander, who banned such flights. I don’t know how it happened and with whose permission, at least in a few days we could start our first expeditions on completely crazy papers. Allied command in Italy pretended not to know anything about it, and we flew. We were only told that no pensions or compensation would be paid in the event of death or permanent disability. For us, these were small things at the time and no one thought about it, although in the end, as a result of the intervention of the London government on August 8 or 9, the RAF officially signed our flights.
The expeditions were long and exhausting. Several crews did not return from each flight. Suffice it to say that about 140 people from 20 crews died. Therefore, our expeditions were joined by other foreign crews from the stationed special squadrons. The South African pilots were most likely to do their job, and in fact ours. In order to take the drops, they approached the security border and this is what they captured us. The other crews were dropping a little too high, but it’s totally human and you can’t blame that. They were all brothers to us.
You have taken part in flights over Warsaw many times. It was rare for a colleague to fly three flights with impunity. The Lord had several of them, but there was a friend who flew the airdrops 9 times.
This is how I was a few times over the burning and smoking Warsaw and Kampinos. At that time, we were flying Wellingtons and Halifaxes. The latter were poorly armed and extremely maneuverable. We flew to Poland over Yugoslavia and Hungary. I made airdrops over Warsaw to Napoleon Square and Krasińskich Square, and over Kampinos, near the villages of Wiersze and Zaborów Leśny. Please imagine that on that night, when I was carrying out, together with other crews, over the Kampinos Forest, my cousin, who was present during our conversation, was taking them. A strange coincidence, me up, and he, seven years younger than me, as an insurgent from Żoliborz and Marymont, came with the unit for the necessary supplies of ammunition, grenade launchers and medicines.
My last flight over Warsaw was very strange from the very beginning. During the briefing, the squadron commander was assigning tasks and suddenly the phone rang. As it turned out, one of the members of Leszek Owsian’s team fell seriously ill. The commander asked a short question: who would be a substitute? Several colleagues jumped up, and anyway they were all volunteers. However, the choice fell on me. Just before take-off, the plane turned out that the crew had been assigned a new crew pilot and navigator for a familiarization flight, and I was beyond the capacity. There was no time to explain how it happened; we took off. The airport in Brindisi is behind us, then a deep turn and we fly over Yugoslavia, pass Hungary and enter Poland from the eastern side of Zakopane. We pass illuminated Zakopane, which at one moment plunges into darkness; The German perceptiveness and warning system had failed. For us, this is the news that we are the first crew to fly to Warsaw that night. Immediately after that, we descend on a mowing flight to an altitude of 400,500 feet, which is about 150 meters. At this altitude, we will fly to the very destination. This gives us a guarantee of escaping from anti-aircraft artillery. We took off from the airport at 19.30, so still during the day, while instead of the deep night the horizon seemed to brighten and the longer we fly, the more it changes its colors, until it becomes completely red, covered with dirty clouds. We have no doubts, Warsaw is on fire. It is already midnight, we pass the Vistula and cross to its left bank, taking the course straight on the target. About 200 kilometers to Warsaw, and the crew is already getting ready to perform the task. The tension is rising, the discharge must be precise. There, after all, the insurgents who are bleeding out are waiting for our help. We pass Warsaw sideways and fly straight over Kampinos. German artillery starts hitting us, we run away. We all strain our eyes, there must be a drop-off here somewhere. Finally, someone calls out from the crew that he is there, and the fires are lit. We descend so low that we can recognize tree leaves in the navigation lights. We give a visual recognition signal, make a turn to return right away and take a drop. Leszek Owsiany guides the machine very carefully, he comes to the target, the command is made, the hatches are released, the parcels are ejected by hand and the task is done, finally a relief. We turn off the lights and take a return course. Before Tarnow we gain altitude to cross the Tatra Mountains. I go deeper into the hull, sit down to have dinner in peace, oxygen masks will have to be put on in a moment. At the same minute, missiles pierce the interior of the plane. I see some commotion in the cabin, my colleagues are getting ready to jump. Accidents happen very quickly. I go to Leszek and ask what the situation is, the engines sound evenly and that gives me some hope. I sit at the controls of the co-pilot and try to help get the plane under control, nothing like that. I realized that we had broken rudders and all the plumbing. The situation was all too clear. I give Leszek the parachute and jump. Swaying on a parachute, I see our plane end its life in a deathly turn. This was my last flight over Warsaw on August 16-17.
Your further fate, as Melchior Wańkowicz wrote, was related to the partisan struggle.
Yes, I landed on a tree and while hanging there, I was wondering how to go downstairs. Finally, I managed to swing the belts and reach the trunk. I released my seat belts and scrambled to the ground. I sat down under a tree and tried to light a cigarette, but it was not easy. The hands, regardless of my will, made the wrong movements. It’s nerves. Finally I decided to move away from this place, but I heard shots around and light firecrackers began to hang on the horizon. It cooled my urges. After some time, I left the forest and onto a dirt road. I saw a man walking near the village buildings. We walked straight at each other, we passed each other, he looked after me and I followed him. I went over and explained my situation, I had no choice. The forests from which I came out were full of Germans and the morning was approaching. Meeting a stranger turned out to be salutary for me. He took me to a farm he knew and told me to wait. Soon the guerrillas came and took me away. This is how I ended up, avoiding captivity, to the squad of Meteor, a jumper, one of the cichociemni. Our unit was assigned to the 16th infantry regiment of the Home Army in Tarnów. I fought in this unit until mid-October 1944. I was slightly shot in one of the friendly farms. They were wonderful people, and their family of twelve was a real refuge for the partisans. The name of this host is Franciszek Kapusta “Ze Dwora” – as the local population calls him. Anyway, she wants to visit him now. (3) Immediately after I was shot down, an order was given from the RAF that the shot down crews should not fight in partisan units, but hide, waiting to be transferred to England. For me, it meant the end of guerrilla fights.
On this occasion, I would like to mention the fact that during my stay in the partisan unit I found a Krakow newspaper. Reading various advertisements, I noticed such “Maciej Bernhardt is looking for his father, mother and sister”. I had no doubts, it was my cousin. I went to the address indicated in Krakow, but the owners of the apartment denied that they had such a person and they did not know the man with that name. Neither did they accept the letter I wanted to leave. I went back to the woods and sent a liaison officer to leave the letter, but he failed too. It was only after the war that I found out that he was indeed there and made such an announcement. After the uprising, he found himself in a railway transport and, fearing that they would be taken to Oświęcim, he fled near the town of Słomniki, near Karków. He found temporary shelter with his friend’s parents. In such circumstances, our fate coincided twice during the war in a completely strange way, but we did not meet until the end of the war.
Allied commander of Krakow
It sounds strange, but you have such a nomination issued by the Soviet military authorities. How did it come about?
I was taken from Franciszek Kapusta’s house at the beginning of November, saying that a transfer to England was being prepared. I didn’t want to believe it. As an aviator, I knew it was impossible. The autumn rains made the ground one loamy slime and no plane from such ground would take off. But an order is an order. I was taken by a horse-drawn carriage to a designated place. It turned out to be a larger group of air crews and English refugees from POW camps. I lived in a mill at a farmer’s house, where the Germans often came to buy food and vodka. We had very good conditions. These people and their neighbors were proven friends of the partisans. At the beginning of December, severe frosts came and, as I remember, harsh winter began. This is how December and the first half of January passed. January 16, my name day, we were liberated by the Soviet army. Two or three days later, Krakow was liberated, we were free. We had a long consultation and decided to go to Krakow. We occasionally arrived in Soviet military trucks. In Kraków, I applied to the YMCA, an international youth organization.
I introduced myself and we were received very carefully. The next day, he was advised to report to the Soviet military commander of Krakow; so i did. It turned out to be a young, handsome officer who spoke Polish well. After consulting with his superiors, he officially appointed me the British commander of Krakow. To this day, I still keep this written appointment. All YMCA rooms were intended for Allied prisoners of war. As they arrived, the Polonia hotel was also made available to us. I felt uncomfortable in this position because I had never been a paperwork officer. I decided to appoint one of the British non-commissioned officers as the head of this group and at the same time to run the office. My idea turned out to be brilliant. I was exempted from these classes, but he was able to handle it very well with English patience.
The records of the surviving prisoners of war had to be carried out in an extremely scrupulous manner, as the Soviet troops sent these letters to the British military mission in Moscow to check the credibility of the data, so as to exclude any possibly substituted persons. Finally, a large transport was arranged and we drove towards Odessa. On the way in Lviv, we were joined by a similar transport from Duchy of Prussia, only that there were more of them. Since there were senior officers there, I gave them my command and all those for whom I was responsible. In Odessa, to the sounds of the military orchestra, we boarded the English freighters waiting for us. Before entering the gangway, all data was checked once again; it’s normal.
As an officer I was given a first class cabin, and on the second day of the voyage I saw fit to report to the two British officers in office. They had to be informed about all their observations, how the Germans treated prisoners in captivity, whether we witnessed crimes and similar facts. I entered, gave my name and my squadron identification number, and the officer calmly stood up and said: we know who you are and we are glad that you are safe and sound. This is how my visit ended. The next ones were much worse, but it was already in England. I was crammed once more in the British, and then the Polish two. When it was all over, I asked to return to the squadron. Pretty soon I even got an order to return to the 300 squadron, my home one. So at the end of February I returned to normal service and started flying over the still defending Germans as before. Fortunately, the war was coming to an end, so I managed to make two more combat flights. One day we took off with a dozen squadrons, and others from neighboring airports joined the air. We had, as I found out later, about 500 machines. We flew to Bavaria, on the way we came across a firewall near Berchtesgaden. Those who returned looked at their machines with admiration, most often they resembled a good sieve. But the most important thing was that we came back at all. It soon turned out that this was my last flight in this war.
Interviewed by Adolf Myć
[Reprint from Tygodnik Polski No. 32 (196) of August 10, 1986]
He copied from the newspaper text on August 24, 2003 Maciej Bernhardt
Supplement the rewriter
Włodek never wanted to boast about his decorations. I know that it has many: incl. Virtuti Militari, Cross of Valor, Croix de Guerre, British decorations and the Warsaw Uprising Cross, as well as many others (some of them several times), but I do not know their names and circumstances of granting.
Włodek married a liaison officer of the Home Army from the Warsaw Uprising released from a POW camp. They left for the USA and settled in California. Their son tragically died in his teens; daughter, after graduating from high school, came to Poland, graduated in biochemistry at the University of Warsaw, married a surgeon from the Children’s Memorial Health Institute (they have four successful children), obtained a doctorate and, after several years of work in her profession, works as an English translator of texts research in the field of biology, medicine and related fields.
(1) Journalist of Tygodnik Polski interviewing
(2) Melchior Wańkowicz “Scythe through Poland”. Tygodnik Kultura (Warsaw) part. I 20/09/1970, part II 27.09.1970
(3) the visit soon followed; I participated in them; the ceremony was touching