|31 Oct 2019
|Archives & History
In September Mike du Toit (F1966) and I visited the Rakowicki Military Cemetery in Kraków where there are the graves of 40 members of the South African Air Force who died when dropping supplies of arms, food and medical supplies to the members of the Polish Home Army that in August 1944 were involved in the Warsaw Uprising. We had the honour of laying wreaths on the graves of two OD’s - Eric Impey and Ralph Lawson.
In August 1944 on the Western front the Allies were breaking out after the Normandy landings. On the eastern front the Red Army had reached the eastern bank of the Vistula River opposite Warsaw. On 1 August, on the instruction of the Polish government in exile in London, the underground Polish Home Army (AK) rose up against the occupying Germans in the hope of taking the city before the Russians could do so - as already there was the fear that they would deny Poland their independence after the war.
After five days they had taken about 70% of the city - but the hoped-for crossing of the Vistula by the Russian army did not materialise and the full weight of the German counter-attack gradually retook most of the city, leaving the A K completely isolated. The government in exile appealed to Churchill for assistance but he, on the advice of his Air Ministry, felt that it would be too hazardous for the RAF to fly the relief missions over occupied Europe from the UK. He instead passed the task onto 205 Group in Italy.
Their commanding officer, a South African Major-General Jimmy Durrant, thought it was equally hazardous for them to fly the 3200 km round trip from the bases at Foggia and Brindisi, far south on the east coast of Italy - especially as the Russians would not allow them to land in Russian occupied territory to refuel. This would involve an 11-hour flight at the limit of their Liberator’s range, with a significant portion of it in daylight over occupied territory, exposed to anti-aircraft fire and fighters. In addition, in order to reduce the risk of damage to the dropped containers, they would have to fly over Warsaw at rooftop level at stalling speed. Despite the high risk and the fact that the task would achieve very little militarily, Churchill insisted that it go ahead.
205 group consisted of two SAAF squadrons (31 and 34), two RAF squadrons (148 and 178) and a squadron each from the United States and Poland. Of the 80 aircraft (25 SAAF) involved, 31 (9 SAAF) were shot down. Due to the weather and the difficulty of identifying where the Polish Home Army was situated, only a very small percentage of the containers reached its intended recipients - most of them fell into German hands and on 2 October the Home Army surrendered.
Hitler, as an example to any other cities that might attempt an uprising, then ordered Warsaw to be flattened. When they ran out of explosives, they just utilised flamethrowers inside the still standing buildings. A visit to Warsaw today reveals what a magnificent reconstruction has occurred.
Lt Eric Ben Horton Impey (1934 to 36) had excelled in the high jump – in 1936 he won the College high jump, clearing 5’11” (1.8 metres) and beating Sandy Bell’s 11 year- old record by 2” (5 cms). He also won the Triangular and was later South African high jump champion. He also was the winner of the 120 yards hurdles and the 1 length swimming sprint (17.1 secs) and represented Gray House in rugby and shooting. He enlisted in the Cape Corps but was serving as an observer in 31 Squadron SAAF when, on the night of the 16-17 August 1944, his Liberator, having delivered its supplies to Warsaw and turned for home, appeared to have developed engine trouble and he was not seen again. He was aged 25
Eric Impey winning the high jump in 1936 – clearing 5 foot 11 inches (1.8 M)
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