Shortly before being drafted to 306, we were stationed at Heston, near London, with No. 317 Polish Squadron. At Heston we started intensive training, preparing for D-Day. Everybody had to learn to drive but ground crew – mechanics, armourers and electricians – didn’t have much time to be trained as qualified drivers but we had to learn how to drive a vehicle in emergency, even if only in first or second gear.
But the other crew, who were only helpers to the mechanics, armourers and electricians, were trained fully to qualify as drivers of HGV vehicles. At the time we were issued with Thorneycroft lorries. We were mobile, all our tools, personal belongings and tents neatly stored in the lorries so that as soon as orders to move out we would be ready. We were longing for those orders, longing for the time when we could land in France or Belgium. Our orders came on 31 March 1944, to move out the next day.
We arrived in Coolham but without our pilots. They remained with their Spitfires and we were renamed 306 Squadron with Mustangs. As soon as the tents were up, and with all the squadron assembled, we were introduced to S/Ldr Lapka and the rest of the flying personnel. After a short speech by S/Ldr Lapka we started to get acquainted with the Mustang fighter/bombers. Each tradesman was allotted his own duties and mine were guns, bombs and ammunition.
There was problem as we were already experienced with guns and bombs in Poland and France and with the RAF Hurricanes and Spitfires. We even had knowledge of the 20 mm Hispano-Suiza cannon, so in a matter of hours we were familiar with the equipment. It took a bit longer with the bombs as we had to load them by hand, two 500 pounders to each aircraft. It took four men to lift a bomb up into bomb-rack, pushing up until we heard the click, then securing it with four adjustable screws.
My job was then to screw in the fuses with a split pin attached to a bomb-rack. When a pilot was flying and aiming at a target all he had to do was to press the button. Two bombs were released at the same time, the split pin was pulled out of the fuse and the bomb was ready to explode on impact.
We didn’t get much practice during our first three weeks at Coolham as it was raining non-stop. But the weather improved our pilots started “softening up” operations, attacking German positions in France, usually four time a day. As soon as it became light, just before sunrise, we were working on our aircraft making sure they were ready for action and signing Form 700. This meant the aircraft had been guaranteed by the mechanic, electrician, armourer and instrument maker, and pilot had to sign it as well confirming he had examined the plane and was satisfied. Very seldom I saw pilots doing this as they had a lot of confidence in ground crew, they trusted us implicitly. Of course, they had never experienced the failure of an engine or guns or bombs nor dropping off when on missions over France.
The sad thing was to wait for our pilots to return, then counting them in, with some occasionally failing to return having been killed in action. Some also crashed when taking off or landing. One pilot from 129 Squadron hit the trees shortly after take-off. We cycled over to see crash site and wreckage scattered in the woods. He was a young British chap (F/O Stanley Payne). All the pilots of the 129 were British or from Commonwealth countries but the ground crew were all Polish. Sgt Mackowski was in charge of the 129 armament. Incidentally, we had trained together on Hurricanes and Spitfires in early 1940.
Often, ground crews worked from early morning before sunrise till dark. But we had a rota, giving us two or three hours off about twice a week, so we took opportunity to explore the countryside. Some of the boys like to go dancing, and I liked a pint in a pub and a chance to meet British people the same time My favorite spot to have beer was at the Queen’s Head at West Chilington or sometimes at the Rising Sun at Nutbourne.
Easter came and we had an invasion of schoolboys who were very interested in our Mustang. I soon became friendly with Barry Lenhart, who was just 11 at the time. He use to some to the airfield very early in the morning before school. I shared my breakfast with him as we were getting more food than we could manage to eat. He was happy I let him watch me when I was busy working with bombs and guns. After a week or two I had a letter from Barry’s parents asking if I could come to tea one Sunday at their house in West Chilington. Our friendship developed from there and I used to spent my leave with the family right up until the end of my time in the RAF.
Our days at Coolham became very busy at the end of April, and May was even busier. In the middle of May the American Army held an exercise involving a mock attack on our airfield. Unfortunately, someone had made a mistake! About 30 Dakotas, each pulling a glider, with approximately 40 troops on board, approached Coolham airfield, but they released gliders a seconds too late and they landed in Shipley’s gardens and orchards, many of them breaking up against trees. We were ordered to go there as quickly as we could to help the injured. It was an ugly site, injured soldiers crying with pain. But the time we had managed to do what we could to help, our own aircraft were coming back from operations and we had to rush back to refuel and rearm them. We were drenched with sweat.
When the D-Day arrived we were in a state of euphoria, at last the time had come. Pilots coming back from action over France didn’t want to waste time, so they only got out of their Mustangs just to have a cup of tea or a small sandwich while aircraft were refueled, rearmed and engine checked, then they were off again.
Operation Overlord was in a full swing when we experienced the first surprise V1 rockets late in the evening. The alarm hooter sounded and then we saw the first flying bomb. We were expecting something like this, the secret weapon, long time before, but it was a strange feeling to see one flying just over the airfield. From that day on we saw many of them, and our pilots got to know them well shooting some of them down before they did get to London. The majority of us didn’t take notice of them knowing that when their engines were working, V1 would fly past, but as soon as their cut out we were quick to take cover. That was at the end of June, beginning of July, when our pilots and the anti aircraft defenses on the coast became so good at shooting down V1’s that hardly any got through. We suffered one casualty, an armourer, who suffered from shell shock and had been taken to a mental hospital. However, unfortunately for us, they were coming down anywhere and sometimes close to the airfield. That was the time when chap’s nerves couldn’t take it. We felt sorry for him, but he was taken away so the rest of the section would not be demoralized.
Once the Allied Forces were firmly established in France our Mustangs were fitted with spare petrol tanks instead of bombs and were escorting bombers deep into Germany over important targets. The ground crew were as usual anxiously waiting for our pilots to return, happy when we counted them all safely back in.
Soon, American Dakotas started landing at Coolham, bringing German prisoners of war who were put in a small compound in Shipley for a day or two and then moved to a larger camp further north.
It was soon after this that the squadron left Coolham for Homsley South in Hampshire, then Brenzett in Kent where our pilots were involved in shooting down V1s as they flew in three lines over our airfield every 15 minutes.
Eventually, after six month stay in hospital following an operation after I had a bad luck to get osteomyelitis in my left leg, I was transferred to No. 411 RSU on the continent.
The war came to an end and we, the Polish Air Force, had our most bitter disappointment. Poland was under communist control, and we had to think where to settle down. After postings in Germany with BAOR and RAF Kinloss in Scotland I was demobbed in November, 1947.
Michael Tanner-Grabarz, Cpl 7823214, married his Belgian wife Lucienne in October 1947. He returned with her to West Sussex where they settled down.
Excerpts (not in verbatim) from the “Coolham Airfield Remembered” by Paul Hamlin an Ann Davies, published by Paul Hamlin.