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The History of the Memorial

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The initial idea to erect a monument in memory of Polish airmen killed in action was first mooted in 1943 by Polish airmen based at RAF Northolt. The suggestion was for a small tablet to be placed within the aerodrome boundary with the names of the 31 Polish Air Force fighter pilots, including the Czech pilot Josef František, killed during the Battle of Britain. However, as the war progressed with increasing casualties, this concept was abandoned in favour of exploring a suitable alternative to honour all Polish airmen killed in action while under the command of the Royal Air Force during the war.

 

Shortly after the war in Europe ended, some senior Polish Air Force officers formed a committee in the early summer of 1945 to co-ordinate the project to erect a Memorial. Chairman of this ‘Committee for the Erection of the Polish Air Force Memorial’ and the last Commander of the Polish Air Force in the West, was Air Vice Marshal Mateusz Iżycki. He was joined and supported by secretary Wing Commander Stefan Łaszkiewicz, treasurer Flight Lieutenant Włodzimierz Osiatyński and members Group Captain Jerzy Bajan and Group Captain Aleksander Gabszewicz. The Committee invited RAF Air Chief Marshal Sir Roderic Hill to become its Honorary Chairman and also co-opted RAF Northolt Station Commander Group Captain Richard Ford onto the Committee.

Coincidentally the famous Polish sculptor Mieczysław Lubelski was in London at the time, having recently been liberated from a German forced labour camp. Mieczysław Lubelski had previously created several monuments in Poland and was also active in Poland’s Home Army during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. The Committee engaged Mieczysław Lubelski to design and plan the Memorial, which was budgeted to cost around £3,000.

 

The Committee needed to raise funds and a public appeal was launched in July 1946 by the British newspaper publisher William Berry, 1st Viscount Camrose. This was supported by Marshals of the RAF 1st Viscount Portal of Hungerford and 1st Viscount Trenchard of Wolfeton. They wrote separate letters of support, published in the newspaper The DailyTelegraph, appealing to the British people to show their gratitude to the Polish airmen who flew in the Battle of Britain and the Battle of Europe.

 

The fund raising was a huge success and by the end of 1946 the Committee had collected over £8,172, which included contributions from Polish and RAF veterans. At the same time the Committee was faced with some unexpected issues. Northolt aerodrome was being redeveloped and transferring to civilian control and the original site for the Memorial on the airfield lost its importance. The Committee had difficulty finding an alternative site in London and eventually reverted to seeking a location close to Northolt aerodrome. Middlesex County Council came to the rescue and donated a site on a peppercorn rent for 999 years where the Memorial now stands.

The Ministry of Civil Aviation insisted the planned height of the Memorial be reduced by 4 feet. Also the Committee adopted a suggestion to include the names of the Polish airmen killed in action during the war under British command. Mieczysław Lubelski adapted his original simple design to accommodate the required reduction in height and the additional names, to be engraved on a stonewall directly behind the monument.

 

By the end of 1947 the Committee had received all the necessary approvals and permissions from Middlesex County Council, and the local Ruislip and Northwood Urban District Council generously agreed to take on the future care of the monument. The casting of Mieczysław Lubelski’s sculptured bronze eagle and all lettering on the Memorial, was assigned to Morris Singer Company Ltd, recognised as the oldest fine art foundry in the world. The Memorial foundations and the associated stonework were entrusted to the specialist horticultural, estate and garden contractor William Wood & Son Ltd. The supply of stone and construction of the main Obelisk was contracted to Bath and Portland Stone Firms Ltd.

Further unexpected issues arose, as the construction cost had considerably increased beyond the original estimate. To compensate for the rise it was agreed to substitute the Portland stone in the base of the Memorial with York stone. Also at the end of 1947 the Committee chairman Air Vice Marshal Mateusz Iżycki retired from active service and left the country. His role temporarily passed to Group Captain Jerzy Bajan, who a few months later had to relinquish the post for health reasons. The chairmanship was then taken on by Air Commodore Stanisław Karpiński in June 1948.

 

Construction of the Memorial started in May 1948 and the foundation stone was laid in the presence of the Committee and other former Polish Air Force dignitaries. It was blessed by the Polish Air Force Chaplain Reverend Rafał Gogoliński-Elston. He had originally suggested the inscription on the rear of the Memorial, while Group Captain Aleksander Gabszewicz suggested the prominent Polish and English inscriptions on the front.

 

Three and a half years after the war ended the Polish Air Force Memorial was unveiled on 2 November 1948, All Soul’s Day. The unveiling was performed by RAF Chief of the Air Staff Sir Arthur Tedder in the presence of Marshal of the RAF Lord Portal, the President of the Polish Republic in Exile August Zaleski and various dignitaries from the British Government and Polish, British and American Armed Forces and around 3,000 guests. The Polish Air Force Chaplain Reverend Rafał Gogoliński-Elston led the prayers after which wreaths were laid.

The Committee for the Erection of the Polish Air Force Memorial, having achieved its objective, was subsequently disbanded. The responsibility for the Memorial, and the organisation of the annual ceremony of homage to the fallen Polish airmen, passed to the Polish Air Force Association (Initially Samopomoc Lotnicza, later known as Stowarzyszenie Lotników Polskich).  The Polish Air Force Association was also formed in the summer of 1945, separate from the Memorial Erection Committee, primarily to look after the interests of the former Polish Air Force personnel in Exile.

 

The Polish Air Force Association worked closely with Ruislip and Northwood Urban District Council, who generously maintained the Memorial for the next 17 years. In 1965, after the reformation of local government in London, the ownership and care and maintenance of the Memorial transferred to the newly formed London Borough of Hillingdon, an amalgamation of local areas, which included the Ruislip and Northwood Urban District Council.

In the 1970s the Memorial faced an uncertain future, as plans emerged for it to be dismantled and rebuilt in an unspecified location. The area occupied by the Memorial was required as part of a major road improvement scheme at the junction of the A40 and A4180. Public meetings were held and local residents strongly objected to removing the Memorial. The protests were eventually successful and the junction improvement scheme was redesigned, leaving the Memorial intact and in its present format.

 

In 1994 the Polish Air Force Association formed a ‘Memorial Renovation Committee’ to oversee necessary repairs, improvements and the restoration of the Memorial under the chairmanship of Tadeusz Dziewulski. An appeal was made to the public to help fund the renovation. This included a drainage system, the replacement of crumbling sandstone walls with granite and the addition of the names of Polish airmen killed in non-operational flights, bringing the total to 1877. An inscription was also added on the outer wall with the names of the 23 Polish airmen killed during the French campaign of 1940.

 

The restored Memorial was rededicated on 6 September 1996 at the annual ceremony of homage to the fallen Polish airmen. This was in the presence of HRH the Duke of Gloucester and numerous British and Polish civilian and military dignitaries. These included Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Grandy, Air Chief Marshal Sir Frederick Rosier, who was Northolt Station Commander between September 1943 and March 1944, Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Air Force, Divisional General Kazimierz Dziok, Air Vice Marshal Alexander Meisner, the Polish Ambassador in London, Ryszard Stemplowski and the last President of Poland in Exile Ryszard Kaczorowski.

The Memorial was again refurbished in 2010 in time for the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain and the annual ceremony to commemorate the fallen Polish airmen. The Polish Air Force Association Charitable Trust was disbanded in 2010 having fulfilled its obligation to look after the interests of former Polish Air Force personnel in Exile. The London Borough of Hillingdon retained ownership of the Memorial, while the responsibility for arranging the annual September ceremony passed to the new Polish Air Force Memorial Committee, which was formed by the Polish Air Force Association Charitable Trust as its designated and sole successor in this and other key remaining functions.

In 2020 the London Borough of Hillingdon carried out further extensive refurbishment to the Memorial. This work included replacing the paved area around the ornamental pond with Yorkstone, major improvements to the drainage system and the restoration of many of the names of the fallen airmen engraved on the two granite walls. 

Also in 2020 Historic England amended and upgraded The Polish Air Force Memorial on the List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest from Grade II to Grade II* status. 

Photos and relevant extracts from the magazine Skrzydła (Wings) in the slide show below, can be viewed and enlarged by double clicking the image then the arrows. If anyone has photographs of the Memorial under construction or early ceremonies they would like to share and be included in the album, please contact the PAFMC via email on the Contacts page.

This post has been compiled from references to the two books Destiny Can Wait and The Polish Air Force At War - The Official History. The Polish Air Force Memorial Committee also acknowledges with thanks the considerable help of the London Borough of Hillingdon, Piotr Sikora, Wojtek Matusiak, Wojciech Zmyślony, Richard Kornicki, Nina Britton Boyle, RAF Northolt and Peter Devitt and Ewan Burnet at the RAF Museum, Hendon. Every effort has been made to ensure accuracy, but if anyone identifies any errors please advise the PAFMC via the email on the Contacts page.

The front of the Polish Air Force Memorial prior to its major renovation in 1996. (Piotr Sikora archive)

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Skrzydła (Wings) no 479 (1 Apr 1946) page 8.

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Group Captain Aleksander Gabszewicz’s son Stefan Gabszewicz laid the wreath for 316 Squadron at the 59th Ceremony of Homage to Fallen Polish Airmen on 5 September 2019. Crown copyright.

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The front of the Polish Air Force Memorial prior to its major renovation in 1996. (Piotr Sikora archive)

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