In August 1944, during the Warsaw Uprising, Lieutenant Johannes Groenewald from South Africa was flying over the city with supply drops. His aircraft was shot down over the territory of occupied Poland and he spent six months among the insurgents.
The Liberator, heavy with drop containers, slowly wheeled along the runway at the Celone Airfield in Italy. The wheels were turning faster and faster as the aircraft accelerated. Finally, the machine took off the ground and the crew faced several restless hours in the air. The sky over occupied Poland was pure hell: you had to avoid air defense artillery fire, fight against enemy fighters, find the place of drop, and return to base as soon as possible after executing the task.
The crew of the Liberator EW248 P numbered eight airmen of the 31st Squadron of the South African Air Force (SAAF). The oldest of them, Maj Izak J.M. Odendaal, the aircraft’s commander, was 28 years old. He had already flown with supply drops to help the insurgents, so he knew exactly what to expect. His aircraft had returned from the previous mission safe and sound, but the squadron had suffered such significant losses that the command had been considering suspending all air drop flights. Odendaal then proposed that they let volunteers fly over Warsaw, and he volunteered first.
The youngest of the Liberator’s crew was the gunner, the 18-year-old WO John A.G. Steel. Other volunteers were co-pilot Lt Johannes J.C. Groenewald, navigator Lt Bernard T. Loxton, radio operator Lt Arthur J. Hastings, and onboard gunners: Lt Thomas T. Watson and WO Jacobus B. Erasmus, all South African nationals. The last member of the crew was a bomb-aimer, Sgt G.T. Robinson, co-opted from the Royal Air Force (RAF). When their aircraft took off, it was a few minutes after 7 p.m. on August 16, 1944.
Aircraft Under Fire
On this very day, another five crews of the 31st Squadron SAAF also flew to help occupied Poland. The route had already been marked out: the bombers had to fly across the Adriatic Sea, turn to the north over Yugoslavia, then across Hungary and Slovakia to Poland. In his memoirs, Capt Jacobus L. van Eyssen of the 31st Squadron SAAF, who in August 1944 flew with drops over Warsaw, draws a vivid picture of such a flight: “We saw the enemy bank still in the light of day, but, fortunately, we didn’t encounter any organized resistance, as we were flying individually, not in tight formation. We gladly welcomed the night that was falling while we flew deeper into the hostile territory, until at last, already in complete darkness, we saw the Danube, marked out below us in the form of a narrow, dark blue ribbon. The navigators strained their eyes to compare the river’s outline to the map, keeping in mind that the river was possibly the last fixed navigation point giving indications as to the territory we were over.”
The trouble began when the Liberators entered the skies over Poland. Witnesses’ accounts and documented reports on the fate of the EW248 P aircraft are not precise. According to some sources, Maj Odendaal’s machine was hit by anti-aircraft artillery, while Lt Percy A. Rautenbach, Odendaal’s friend who was flying another Liberator that night, recalled that the machine was shot down by German night fighters. We know what happened later from the accounts of Lt Groenewald, the only member of the ill-fated Liberator’s crew who survived the war. When his machine was hit and started burning, Maj Odendaal told the crew to put on parachutes and prepare to jump. Groenewald managed to reach for his, when suddenly the Liberator exploded and fell apart in the air. The force of the explosion pushed him away from the machine, which in fact helped him to survive, but all the other crew members were killed.
The aircraft crashed in the field between two villages – Ostrów and Klimontów, near Proszowice in the Little Poland region. Marian Smoliński, the aide of the local inspector of the units of the underground Wojskowa Służba Ochrony Powstania (Military Service for the Protection of the Uprising), later recalled the circumstances in which the wreck was found: “At 2300 hours we witnessed a dogfight over our territory. A few minutes later, we heard a deafening bang in the air and we saw a falling ball of fire. In the afternoon we went to the spot where the remains of the burned machine fell […], but seeing approaching Germans we withdrew across potato furrows, and then we stumbled across an unconscious man lying there. The color of his uniform and the burn marks on his body led us to think that he was one of the English aircraft’s crew.”
The injured man was tended to with utmost care. His wounds were dressed with bandages dipped in buttermilk, which was to ease the pain of the burned face and hands. After some time, the airman was taken in a farm cart to an estate in Nagórzany, which was the seat of 2nd Lt Bohdan “Beteha” Thugutt, the commander of the local 3rd Company of the 4th Battalion of the 120th Infantry Regiment of the Home Army. There, Groenewald was looked after by Beteha’s sister, Wanda “Ryś” Thugutt, a nurse. A doctor and a member of the underground, Stanisław Kuryło, was fetched from Kazimierza Wielka to help.
However, a new problem emerged. The airman had to be hidden. Luckily, the members of the underground network proved to be very effective: an agent planted at the office of land commissar Oskar Schmidt managed to arrange false documents for Groenewald.
According to Beteha, “Groenewald was a person liked dearly by everyone around him, including the members of the household: the owners, the residents, and the servants. On top of that, he was surrounded by an aura of authentic bravery and heroism. We respected this airman, all the more so since he was a volunteer flying to help Warsaw.” People living in the house called him “Jani” or “Jannie,” and this is also the name that can be found in several Polish sources. Groenewald wondered at the time if he should join the Polish resistance movement. “I convinced him not to go through with this plan, since he wouldn’t be useful in the organization without knowing any Polish, and the difficult weather conditions in which the forest units of the Home Army operated would be very hard to bear for a South African,” recalled Beteha.
The airman was entered into the register of allied soldiers staying undercover within the limits of the Regional Inspectorate of the Home Army in Miechów. Groenewald’s fate raised interest of the local underground structures’ command: he met with, i.a., 2nd Lt Bolesław “Tysiąc” Nieczuja-Ostrowski, the commander of the Regional Inspectorate of the Home Army. He was also visited several times by Lt Stanisław “Niebora” Padło, the commander of the 4th Battalion of the 120th Infantry Regiment of the Home Army, as well as Capt Walenty “Granit” Adamczyk, the Inspectorate’s propaganda officer.
After the war, Johannes Groenewald emphasized that during that time there was practically nothing he could complain about, although he did remember some inconveniences. In an interview given in September 1947 to The Star, a newspaper published in Johannesburg, he said: “Nights were the most difficult. In this part of Poland, it gets dark already at about 4 p.m.. Candles died out at about 8 p.m., so before we went to sleep, we had to sit in complete darkness. We had a radio, so there was always someone listening to the BBC news, which was later spread among the underground members. Two issues were very problematic: the first one was food – we ate mainly potatoes, as meat was practically unavailable. The second one was the fact that I managed to bathe only once within those two months. Later, I met a woman who taught English in Cracow. She gave me some English books which were a great comfort for me.”
When in January 1945 the Miechów district was seized by the Red Army, Groenewald was sent to Moscow. There, the British Military Mission took him over. The airman was then transferred through Odessa to Cairo, and later to South Africa. When he reached his final destination, he sent a letter to Bohdan Thugutt, informing him that he had returned to his family safe and sound. After the war, he worked as a Chemistry teacher at a high school. His fellows who died during the ill-fated flight, were buried at the place of the crash by members of the underground. Later, the remains of the airmen were exhumed and buried at the Military Cemetery in Cracow.
To Help the Poles
Flights with supply drops for the Polish resistance movement were executed, i.a., by South African airmen of the 31st (emblem on the right) and the 34th Bomber Squadron SAAF. Initially, the crews sent to fly over Warsaw came from the 31st Squadron, which suffered great losses – between August 13-17, 1944, eight out of 23 sent aircraft were destroyed. In September 1944, drops over Poland were performed by pilots of the 34th Squadron SAAF.
autor zdjęć: SAAF MUSEUM