Oil painting on canvas board. RAF Mustang MK III.
Jakub Bargielowski was one of the last survivors of the Polish Air Force’s 42 fighter aces of the Second World War. The majority of Polish Air Force personnel who served alongside the RAF in the War had reached these shores in 1940. He was only to arrive in 1941 after surviving almost two years in a Soviet labour camp.
Bargielowski was born near Lublin in 1921. In 1937 he enlisted in the Polish Air Force Junior Cadet School in Bydgoszcz. Bargielowski would in later years recount with amusement that his doting mother advised him when she found out that he was training to be a pilot: “Remember son always fly low and slow and nothing will happen to you.”
The outbreak of war on September 1, 1939, found him at the Air Force Training Centre in Ulez undergoing a course for future fighter pilots. On that day the Polish Air Force was by no means caught napping on the ground on the ground by the Luftwaffe. The Poles had dispersed their serviceable aircraft to camouflaged airstrips at the end of August. Their vastly outnumbered obsolescent fighters exacted a considerable toll of the Germans. But the rapid advance of German land forces and the Soviet invasion from the east on September 17 finally put paid to resistance in the air.
Polish Air Force personnel were ordered to make for neutral Romania from where they would make to France, where Polish armed forces would reform under the command of General Sikorski. From there most reached Britain after France’s capitulation in June 1940.
Bargielowski was unfortunate. His detachment of retreating cadets was captured by advancing Soviet troops. The officers were separated to be later executed as were some 20,000 other captured Polish officers.
Bargielowski was initially sent to a labour camp quarrying near the Black sea and then to one on the Arctic Circle. Here the conditions for prisoners were terrible resulting in high mortality amongst the prisoners. Bargielowski fell ill through malnourishment, suffering from dysentery and temporary blindness.
His life was probably saved when in June 1941 Hitler turned on his erstwhile ally Stalin and the Soviet Union re-established diplomatic relations with the Polish Government in Exile in London. As the result of the Sikorski-Maisky Pact signed in London on July 30, 1941, some 100,000 surviving Poles captured in 1939 were evacuated to the Middle East eventually to form the bulk of Polish 2 Corps under General Anders which was to distinguish itself in the Italian Campaign in 1944-1945.
Bargielewski with other air force personnel was transferred to Archangel and from there by ship to Greenock. After a long period of convalescence he resumed flying training and in January 1943 was awarded his wings and promoted to sergeant. In January 1944 he was posted to 315 (City of Deblin) Squadron, based at Heston flying spitfires. In April the squadron was re-equipped with the Mustang 3.
In April 1944, 315 Squadron was moved to RAF Coolham in Sussex where it was to provide air support to forces liberating Europe following the invasion.
It was part of 133 Wing commanded by Stanislaw Skalski who had already downed 20 German planes. The Squadron was led by the charismatic Eugeniusz Horbaczewski, who had 12 German aircraft under his belt.
The wing was in constant action over France in June prior to D-Day and after the invasion. On June 12, during a reconnaissance over Northern France, it encountered seven Fw 109s and in a lightning attack led by Horbaczewski destroyed seven of them. Bargielewski accounted for two, his first combat victories.
In July the Squadron moved to RAF Brenzett near Romney Marsh. Combat missions were interspersed with patrols seeking out V1s of which Bargielewski was to down three.
On August 18, 315 Squadron’s 12 Mustangs encountered some 60 Fw 190s below them, near Beauvais. Dropping their auxiliary fuel tanks, they dived on the German fighters and in the ensuing melee the Luftwaffe lost 16 aircraft destroyed and had three damaged. Bargielewski notched up two further victories in this action. The Poles lost only one pilot, but it was their legendary Horbaczewski who in his last fight had destroyed three more German aircraft. It was not until March 3, 1947, that his plane was discovered deep in the ground and his body exhumed.
Command of 315 Squadron was now taken over by Squadron Leader Tadeusz Andersz. For the next two months Bargielowski flew sorties with the squadron escorting bombers over Holland and Germany and during Operation Market Garden providing cover for the Dakotas and glider-towing Halifaxes over Arnhem.
In late October 1944 the squadron was moved to Peterhead in Scotland, giving long range escort protection to Beaufighters and Mosquitoes attacking German shipping and targets along the Norwegian coast. These often involved the squadron in air contact with the enemy. On December 7 its Mustangs engaged a large formation of the Luftwaffe near Trondheim, shooting down four of the enemy planes for the loss of one of their own. Bargielowski sccore his fifth combat victory, qualifying as an ace. On April 3, 1945 he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal.
The Polish Air Force was disbanded by the end of January 1947. Most of its personnel, as was the case with the some 150,000 men and women of Poland’s army and navy who had served under overall British command chose to remain in exile rather than return to a now Soviet-dominated Poland.
Bargielowski emigrated to Australia in 1948. For a time he worked on the railways as an engine cleaner. After a year he with a friend bought a truck and began opal mining in South Australia. He later moved his digging to White Cliffs in northern New South Wales and continued mining there in the cooler months until the 1990s. In the warmer months he would return to his home in Sydney where he would cut and polish the stones.
In the late 1950s he was briefly married. There were no children. In 1960 he visited Poland, now under a softer communist regime, for the first time since 1939. He was proud of his war service and in White Cliffs was closely involved with organising the ANZAC Day commemorations. His last years were dogged by ill health and he moved to a nursing home in Sydney.
Besides his DFM, he had been awarded the Polish Virtuti Militari and the Cross of Valour.
Flight Sergeant Jakub Bargielowski, Polish fighter ace, was born on July 25, 1921. He died on February 21, 2010, aged 88