On the quiet towpath of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal near the settlement of Low Bradley, south of Skipton, there is a memorial marking the site where a Wellington aircraft HZ251, flying from Skipton-on-Swale near Thirsk to Silloth in Cumbria, lost a wing and crashed into the canal embankment on September 23rd 1943.
Seven Polish airmen were killed instantly. Five of them were the crew of another aircraft which had been grounded, stranding them away from their base.
The seven airmen were –
Flt Lt Jozef WOLNIK age 31 Navigator instructor
Flt Sgt Franciszek CIASTON age 27 pilot
Flt Sgt Wladyslaw OSTROWSKI age 27
Sgt Boleslaw Josef SWIECA age 28
Sgt Boleslaw RYCHEL age 21
Sgt Jan CZYZEWSKI age 23
Sgt Abram KAWENOCKI age 22
Five of them are buried at Fulford Cemetery, York. Flt Lt Wolnik rests at Layton Cemetery in Blackpool, and Sgt Kawenocki lies in Long Lane Jewish Cemetery, Liverpool.
Among the local people who rushed to the scene was Jack Lockwood, one of three young mechanics repairing tractors for the West Riding War Agricultural Executive Committee, or “War Agg”. He travelled past the site, near Winifred’s Café, every day by bus: he noted how quickly the gruesome wreck was cleared away, but thought about the dead airmen twice a day on his way to and from work until in due course he joined the armed services: https://www.cravenherald.co.uk/news/1341151.i-witnessed-polish-air-crews-death-plunge.
These Polish airmen’s stories have been meticulously researched. Jan Czyzewski had married in February 1943; his son was born four weeks before he was killed. Jozef Wolnik had been married only three weeks. Details of all seven airmen are recorded at https://www.yorkshire-aircraft.co.uk/aircraft/planes/dales/hz251.html.
A lifetime later, two local men, Peter Whitaker and Jim Hartley, successfully campaigned for the memorial to be built so this episode should not be forgotten. It was unveiled by Jozef Wolnik’s widow, Mrs Josephine Stebbing MBE, on April 22nd 2007.
Those of us who didn’t live through those times may be tempted to visualise wartime fatalities as the direct result of enemy action, but war spreads its evil further. These foreign airmen who had come to Britain to fight the Nazis lost their lives while routinely travelling back to base. Their lives were cut short, and their loved ones’ futures irreparably damaged.
They deserve to be remembered too.