LAC Bronislaw Szczepan Roguski (4 August 1913 – 22 November 1993) Service Number: 783218
Bronislaw Szczepan Roguski, my Father – and “Bron” to my Mother, was born on 4 August 1913 in Wiazowna, Warsaw District, and was one of nine children. They lived in Radyzmin, some 30 kilometres North East of Warsaw, in a farming community. My Father was one of the most reticent, unassuming yet confident men I ever knew, and like so many other servicemen from both World Wars, didn’t speak much about it either. Given this, and then having to piece the story together when he left us, has been something of a journey of discovery. It has been made all the more tantalising when we inherited his collection of photographs when my Mother died, some nineteen years after he died in 1993. There were so many photos that challenged us as to where they were taken and when, and of whom.
Bron had a few narrow escapes in his life, and starting as a child – he was with his own father, also called Bronislaw, out somewhere in the town, when a troop of what I now believe must have been Russian cavalry, galloped through the town, during what was probably the battle of Radzymin in 1920, but very possibly in 1918 at the time of the Russian Revolution and the First World War – I seem to recall that Father told us he was about four at the time. The two of them backed up against a tree when one of the cavalrymen drew up short and threatened them with a sabre. When he was just about to slash out, my Grandfather caught his eye, and this must have made the man think twice about killing two unarmed civilians, and he must have taken pity on them. He sheathed his sabre and galloped off. Later, my Grandfather, also called Bronislaw Roguski, was to be part of a fund raising committee which built a chapel at a cemetery West of Radzymin, devoted to the fallen Polish soldiers in the battle of Radzymin in 1920. (Source: Jan Wnuk, 1999, Radzymin na drodze Ojca Swietego, 75 pp., Towarzystwo Przyjaciol Radzymina).
Father had a superb Balda camera, German-made, with Zeiss lenses, which he managed to hold onto during all his travels to England in 1939-40, and took photos along the way and also later on once he was in comparative safety. I still have it. Once established in the RAF, in ground crew, he took the opportunity to capture something of life among them, and focusing on them - relatively unusually – rather than the pilots. Unfortunately, with Father being so taciturn, he told us little about squadron life, other than that once he was unfortunate enough to witness some poor soul walk into a spinning propeller.
Father escaped, walking some considerable distance with rags and paper round his feet, as the prisoners’ shoes had been confiscated to make escape an unpalatable prospect. He recounted the situation where on the daily roll call parade, the servicemen would answer for one name, then sneak behind the group, resurface and answer for another name, to cover for the escapees. The guards were furious when they discovered the ruse. Conditions in the camp were bad, and the rats in the camp were a problem, and the prisoners hung their food on string from the ceiling so that rats couldn’t get to it. Father got frostbite in his feet and ears - I presume it must have been then, after he escaped. Looking at the map, his journey from the Polish border to Constanta in Romania was about 700 miles.
From here he made it to Constanta, a port where the Poles bought their way out on transport in merchant vessels - to Marseille in his case. His landing card, headed up “Organe D’Acceuil Franco-Polonais”, and describing him as an air force corporal, gives him disembarking on 16 February 1940 from the steamship “Theophile Gauthier” (which itself had a very chequered future, eventually being torpedoed and sunk by a British submarine – see footnote). His Polish Service Record indicates that on 12 (possibly incorrect date) February 1940 he was assigned to the Air Force Pool Station Septfonds-Algiers.
The next document issued on 25 April 1940, is an identity card entitled on the front cover: “Ministere de l'air Atelier de Reparations du materiel aerien d'Alger Maison-Blanche” (very roughly translated as: Department of Air Repairs Workshop of Aerial Equipment – Algiers Maison Blanche). So at this point, he was now officially part of both the PAF (Polish Air Force) and the French armed forces. The aerodrome was Maison Blanche, about 15 kilometres from Algiers, and is now called Houari Boumediene Airport. His photograph shows him looking happy and confident, and this reinforced by the only civilian photo we have, of him at the time, with three other servicemen and a civilian couple, with palm trees behind. His next move was to Casablanca by sea on 26 June 1940, according the reverse of the photo, where he is with a large group of very happy airmen, and he adds that they stayed on deck because of the intense heat.
From Casablanca, on 2nd July, he is off again, this time on the comparatively tiny 3,500 tonne English tramp ship “Cydonia” to Liverpool via Gibraltar. A photo later on in the journey this time comments on the Greek ships in the background, making up a convoy of twenty-three ships on their way. It also comments that on 13 July they were attacked by German bombers, with three bombs near-missing the ship. This ship also had a somewhat interesting later career (see footnote). The convoy is thought to have lost three ships en route. We next see him on 23 July, in barracks this time in Gloucester, in a group photo with other airmen playing cards, and awaiting their assignment to the British armed forces and the Polish squadrons in exile.
Such was military life and possibly indecision as to what to do with Polish servicemen arriving, that it seems that many of them were then transferred back to Blackpool to await re-assignment – 22 September 1940 sees him in a photo in front of a boarding house or small hotel in Blackpool - see photo below - although by now he has been officially enlisted in the RAF on 5 August 1940, thus now simultaneously officially being part of the armed forces of three countries.
Father’s story illustrates the efforts that Poles made in getting to Britain to fight – many others trekked across Europe, arriving via Italy, Spain, North Africa, Scandinavia, North America, and even Russia. In his case, his travels “only” took him some ten months from fleeing from Poland to getting enlisted in Great Britain.
On 9 May 1945, with the cessation of hostilities, Father was discharged from the French forces, and from the Polish forces, the PAF on 1 March 1946. On 17 December 1946, Father was posted to the Polish Resettlement Unit, and was discharged from the RAF on 7 May 1947, with the highest possible commendation rating (literally "VG") and directly into the employment of Carl Dolmetsch in Haslemere – at that time a renowned musical instrument maker specialising in the manufacture of recorders and harpsichords.
Bron met my Mother, Sheila Gardner, around 1942, through a British family “inviting a Pole (serviceman) for Christmas”, and marrying in 1944, and in the process assuming Polish nationality and becoming a “Registered Alien” with a registration card requiring her to report to the local police station whenever she moved home. She had a life-long career as a teacher, and they went on to have a happy family of five children. Father went on to work for himself as a harpsichord maker and restorer, settling in Harrow, Middlesex, just four miles away from Northolt aerodrome, where he was based for much of his service life. He excelled in his profession, becoming in his own quiet way one of the leading master craftsmen in his field, carrying out complex restoration work for the Victoria & Albert Museum and the BBC, as well as other private clients – in particular Wanda Landowska, the famous Polish harpsichord player. He went on to live a happy retirement, enjoying family life and his eleven grandchildren, eventually leaving us at the age of eighty.
In loving memory, son Marek T Roguski February 2015.
Below some of the photographs taken by Bronislaw Roguski during his service with the Polish Air Force; all courtesy of Marek Roguski. Note that the PK Designation indicates the aircraft is from 315 Squadron.
©Bronislaw Szczepan Roguski via Marek T Roguski