An honour long overdue
Observations on commemoration
The young air cadets lining the route looked cold, but they were doing a good job of standing straight with their flags, honouring those passing before them into the village church in Long Ashton, Somerset. The Royal British Legion, the Polish Ex-Combatants Association, military representatives and the people of the parish: the church could hardly hold them all. Later, there was a stillness in the graveyard as the crowd gathered around a modest plaque to pay tribute.
Roughly 60 years earlier, in November 1944, a mighty explosion had shaken this village, bringing the men from their cottages with their children running behind. Narrowly missing the church, a Halifax bomber had crashed in the next field. As flames swirled in the cockpit, two of the seven young airmen inside briefly tried to smash their way out. The men outside frantically sent for axes, but the intense heat drove them back.
The airmen were Poles, far from home. In this part of England at that time, where "home" still meant living out your life in the lanes where your father and grandfather had walked, no one understood what they were doing here. But the men of Long Ashton trusted the evidence of their eyes and they swore to remember those airmen. They were being more radical than they knew.
As thousands of veterans gather in London to mark National Commemoration Day on 10 July, the day chosen to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, one group will be there for the first time. Although nearly 250,000 Polish servicemen fought under British command, not one marched in the Victory Parade of June 1946. Not a soldier, though they'd won Monte Cassino; not a sailor, though they'd fought in the naval battle at Narvik in Norway; not a pilot, though historians generally agree that without the Polish airmen who flew in the Battle of Britain, it could not have been won. Polish combatants stood and watched as soldiers of other nations marched proudly by.
Then they found themselves with no home to go to. On 6 May 1945, King George VI had written to the president of the Polish Republic: "The gallant Polish soldiers, sailors and airmen have fought beside my forces in many parts of the world . . . In particular, we in this country remember with gratitude the part played by Polish airmen in the Battle of Britain." In February that same year, however, at the Allied conference in Yalta, Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt had given in to Stalin and allowed a thick black line to be drawn across Europe.
Poland was on the Soviet side, and it was soon clear that, for the men who had fought so hard, return would mean imprisonment or worse. The "gallant Polish soldiers" were beached by history, unable to go home, unheard by anyone much. As the decades passed and they became naturalised in Britain, they got used to it, but they held stubbornly to their story.
They were not wholly forgotten. Ordinary people continued to remember, albeit in a fragmentary and cryptic way. Ralph Ogbourne was a boy of seven the day the bomber crashed in Long Ashton. Years later, Polish people came looking for the graves, but they weren't there. "The bodies were put in the old vicarage, then moved to a cemetery in Newark," he explains. "But we wanted to remember them here. That's why we put up a memorial plaque."
It took a bit of doing. "We all thought it was a German plane at first," says his friend Ron Chorley, 71. "It was ten years before we realised they were Poles. Thirty years later, we had a great hoo-ha with the ecclesiastical authorities before they agreed to the plaque. Since then, we've been having the memorial services, and we've started an association of local Polish families with the church.
"We've always been led to believe that those airmen sacrificed their lives to save the village - I saw the plane circling on fire myself, and she just missed the church. They were our allies. We need to remember what they did."
The government has begun to catch up. With many veterans now elderly and frail, there will be no marching at the weekend. But besides the service at Westminster Abbey and lunch at Buckingham Palace, 240 Polish veterans will attend the ceremonies in Horse Guards Parade with full honour. Feelings will run deep.
"The Polish veterans have nursed a sense of betrayal for a long time," explains Graham White, co-ordinator of the Polish participation in the events. "Like all exiles, many of them still feel that home is somewhere else, though they also know that the home they remember stopped existing long ago. These VE Day commemoration events will heal the wound - up to a point . . . I know that Her Majesty wants it to be this way, and the Ministry of Defence has been working hard to get it right."