Wednesday, 21 March 2012

True grit

It always helps to try and put things in perspective when you’re not feeling 100% with the world. Sometimes this can be achieved when you chat with others who have experienced extraordinary events. On Wednesday, I had the immense pleasure and privilege to interview a Polish/Brazilian Second World War veteran and his story (like all the veterans I have spoken with) was inspiring. He was a third-generation Polish Brazilian, studying agri-economy when the war broke out. In 1941, an English friend of his was presented with call-up papers. This spurred the interviewee and his brother to join up as well. They left Brazil in secrecy going via Uruguay and then Argentina and, from there, on to the UK. In Britain, both he and his brother did basic training in what became the Polish 1st Armoured Division. However, both were soon accepted for the Polish air force. Short of tail gunners, the chap I interviewed was trained for this position straight away, while his brother went on to become a Mosquito aircraft pilot. For those who don’t know, the tailgunner’s location was possibly the worst on a bomber. On his own, he was in a position that the enemy would frequently target first. He had to keep his eyes peeled all of the time and remain fully alert throughout the mission, which could sometimes last 8 hours or more. The interviewee told me of occasions when they would fly through the flak and he would here the rattle of shrapnel against the airframe. Larger chunks would tear through the panels, a frequent and potentially lethal hazard. He engaged enemy aircraft on a number of occasions and told me about how they would approach and fill up the gun target. He did 32 missions (two were rejected missions) and was then stood down to teach gunnery, which was standard air force practice. After this, he was trained to be a pilot; he proved so adept that he was sent on an instructors’ course and finished the war teaching others how to fly. Sadly, his brother died in a take-off accident in 1944. I often think about the ages of these men when they faced such fearsome pressures – they were mostly in their late teens and early 20s. It’s truly inspirational. I should add that he also told me about the moments of fun they had. While he was a tailgunner he made friends with some Canadian chaps serving in a neighbouring squadron. They would go to the local pub and play a game called ‘Chug-a-lug’. This involves drinking a double whiskey with a pint as a chaser – all down in one, with no pausing. If you paused you had to buy everyone a round. Naturally, this was a game that ended up with everyone roaringly drunk!

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