When I first retired from the Army and moved to Fairfield in 2011 I stumbled, during one of my walks, across a lone military grave – that of Sierzant (Sergeant) Antoni Gajewski, Service Number P/780790, Polish Air Force (PAF). The grave is situated in what the Commonwealth and War Graves Commission (CWGC) records as Stotfold (Three Counties Hospital) Cemetery and my military background (28 years in the Army) inspired me to research further. The following account has been put together from numerous sources as a result of my findings.
Sierzant Gajewski was born on 27 February 1900 in Zagórze (Sosnowiec), Southern Poland, which is approximately one hour away from Kraków by road. Judging by his rank at the time of death (there is no direct entry into this rank), he joined the Polish Air Force prior to the outbreak of war in 1939.
Royal Air Force numbers were bolstered by the contribution of Polish Airmen and Ground Crew (and indeed by other non-UK contributers such as Czechoslovak Airmen) during the Second World War. After the German invasion of Poland in 1939 a large number of PAF pilots and ground technicians escaped to France via Romania and Hungary in order to assist in the defence of France and Britain. There are four recorded methods of escape and going by dates available I would hazard a guess that Sierzant Gajewski was in the first or second category:
• Mass movement of volunteers, which lasted from October to the end of December 1939.
• Small groups, organized by the Underground Movement during the first few months of war.
• Individual escapes, assisted by the Underground Movement throughout the war.
• Mass evacuation for re-enlistment.
Subsequently, it is anticipated that between late 1939 and early 1940 circa 8500 PAF escaped France by various routes and made their way to England.
Records suggest Sierzant Gajewski was initially part of 308 Squadron (Polish), Polish Ground Training Centre, Blackpool, Lancashire, which makes perfect sense as this was the holding depot for Polish aircrew prior to being despatched to stations or depots across the UK for training or operations. Information on his role and service history thereafter, and on how he came to this area, is scarce. The RAF and Commonwealth Air Forces Roll of Honour has no detail of his Unit but does record his trade as ‘Mustang III FB374’, an American built aircraft which was also in service with the RAF.
Oddly, Sierzant Gajewski is listed in the Causalities Section of the CWGC Register for Mustang III FB374 as an ‘Aircraft Accident/Loss’ entry which is in contradiction to his discharge from the forces on medical grounds. Listed alongside him in the same register is Kapral (Corporal) Antoni Bardeckim of 316 ‘City of Warsaw’ Polish Fighter Squadron. This Squadron engaged in defensive duties over South-West England. Kapral Bardeckim is buried in Cambridge City Cemetery with cause of death recorded as ‘Lost in Aircraft’ although this was not until 1944. As the same aircraft is mentioned in each entry, and their records align, I concluded it was a strong possibility that Sierzant Gajewski served in the same Squadron as Kapral Bardeckim (although it was not formally established until February 1941 so perhaps a preceding Unit), which would potentially explain how he came to this area.
With invaluable assistance from fellow Fairfield resident Amanda Marioni Hunt I then obtained further information that confirmed he served with RAF Maintenance Command, stationed at RAF Henlow.
Many I have spoken to have assumed that as Sierzant Gajewski was PAF, he must have been a pilot. However, the information about the Unit he served with backed up what I had suspected from the outset. Despite the mention of Mustang III FB374 in his war records I remained sceptical that Sierzant Gajewski was a pilot at this point in his service. It was the younger men who were selected to undertake the role of pilot with the RAF, and Sierzant Gajewski would have been 39 or 40 years old by this time. The record I received confirmed his trade as ‘Aircraft Hand General Duties’.
Sadly, his time with the RAF was short: he is recorded as being discharged on medical grounds (deemed physically unfit) on 15 July 1940. There is no detail on the nature of his illness, and nothing to suggest that he was suffering from any mental illness. The term ‘physically unfit’ is pertinent, his discharge is not recorded as ‘mentally unfit’. At that time parts of the Three Counties Hospital were in use as a military hospital so it may well have been a physical illness that brought him here.
The escape from Poland was a dangerous one, the first winter of the war was harsh, hunger and appalling conditions had to be overcome in order to survive. Perhaps this journey had irreversibly impacted on his health. Sierzant Gajewski died at the Three Counties Hospital and was laid to rest in the grounds. The grave records the date of his death as 10 February 1941, although Polish War records disagree on the month, stating ‘Died in hospital 10 January 1941’.
The contribution Polish Forces made to the war effort should never be underestimated. Sierzant Gajewski was part of the significant and integral role the Polish Forces played in World War 2 and it is fitting that he has been laid to rest in a recognised War Grave. It is a lonely, secluded spot, separated from the other civilian graves by virtue of its status as a War Grave. Although Sierzant Gajewski sadly never made it back to his homeland, he is now at rest in Fairfield and there is an everlasting memorial here to the service he gave. I visit him every Remembrance Day to pay my respects to him and to remind him he is not a forgotten Airman buried in a foreign land. If ever you pass, do take a moment to pay your respect for the sacrifice he made.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.
Stephen McKenna MBE