The discovery of a torn document in my attic led me to uncover a remarkable escape story during the fall of France, 75 years ago this weekend.
My father was a Polish Cavalry Officer who was working in Paris when Germany invaded Poland. He joined the 10th Polish Mechanised Cavalry Brigade in France and when France was invaded in 1940 his Brigade was ordered to protect the French Sixth Army near Dijon. It successfully attacked German forces in Montbard on June 16th when the French gave up the fight and fled. Out of fuel and ammunition and surrounded on all sides General Maczek ordered his troops to escape to Britain any way they could.
The document I discovered was a 'Ordre de Requisition" dated 20th June for a motorbike to get him to Bordeaux before the Panzers.
Unfortunately before he got there he ran out of petrol. Whilst deliberating what to do, a Rolls Royce appeared. In it was an old friend of my father's. "What are you doing here Stefan?" he exclaimed. My father told him that he was trying to get back to Britain to carry on the fight. His friend, the son of the Polish Ambassador to the Argentine, said "we have a boat ready to take us to Buenos Aries - come with us and we can see out the war together from there". My father politely declined so his friend arranged for his chauffeur to syphon petrol into his motorbike enabling my father to make it on the last boat to Britain.
My father's escape was at the tail-end of Operation Ariel, the evacuation of Bordeaux which is unknown compared to Dunkirk where over 300,000 allied troops evacuated. Ariel saved over 200,000, including 24,000 Poles, the Polish Government-in-Exile and many Polish airmen who played such a crucial role in the Battle of Britain (their 303 Squadron shot down more German aircraft than any other).
The number of Poles fighting under British Command swelled to 250,000 who would not have rallied to the UK without those evacuated at Bordeaux, so I contend Arial was more substantial than Dunkirk. As was the French surrender of 3,300,000 troops on 21st June, dwarfing the 33,000 French troops who surrendered at Waterloo.
My father was sent to protect the Scottish coast from invasion. Bored of sentry duty he got transferred to London as ADC to the Polish War Minister. There he was asked to undertake a secret mission by Churchill, as a fellow Catholic, to persuade the Irish to be less actively neutral, as the U-boat threat in the Western approaches was threatening to cripple Britain.
On May 31st 1941 the Irish General Staff hosted a leaving party for him, which was the night the Dublin docks were bombed.
When my father debriefed Churchill he recounted that half the Irish Generals came up to him and said "that'll be the damned Germans" whilst the rest said "that'll be the dastardly English". On hearing this Churchill rolled his eyes up to the ceiling, realising we would never get the Irish to help us.
My father fought throughout the war, playing a key role in the battle of Falaise Gap which trapped German Army Group B, ending the Normandy campaign. He went on to liberate a prisoner of war camp, Oberlangen, which contained female Polish fighters from the Warsaw Uprising. I met their leader a few years ago and when she heard my name gave me a huge bear hug as tears streamed down her cheeks.
At the end of the war he returned to England unable to return to Poland as most of his family had been shot by the Russians or sent to Siberia.
The reason I know about all this is that my mother met the man in the Rolls at a ball in the Ritz in the 1950's and when I asked about the document in the attic she told me the story . He did indeed see out the rest of the war and his family was one of the few Polish aristocratic families to retain its wealth.
My father's family lost their estate and everything they owned. He sought refuge in Britain penniless, and despite two law degrees, was only able to secure the most junior of admin jobs. He worked tirelessly, married my mother in 1953 and raised three children before his premature death in 1970 due to a bad heart, having never lived to see Poland free.
He was one of the 250,000 Poles who were not allowed to march in the great London Victory Parade in 1946 for fear of offending Stalin, when 134 allied countries took part.
When I heard about from my mother how upset my father had been over this I wrote to Tony Blair to get the first official British Government apology for what the historian John Keegan called "the most shameful act of the Cold War".
When I took my family a few years ago to Crakow to visit where he is buried, my 5 year old daughter placed a flower on his grave and told me that he had died of a broken heart.
I am so proud of the decision he took 75 years ago on that road to Bordeaux, which for him was a question of honour. The Poles' motto in the war was "for your freedom and ours". Poland lost 20% of its population in the war, more than any other nation.
We should never forget their sacrifice.