It was the height of WWII, and a young Polish airman by the name of Ladislas Markiewicz, climbed into the rear-gunner’s turret of a Wellington bomber. Having escaped Nazi occupation and persecution in Poland, he had fled to Britain and immediately enlisted as air crew, determined to aid Britain and her allies in the fight against fascism and for freedom.
As a rear-gunner – or tail-end Charlie as they were often known – Ladislas knew the risks facing him. Rear-gunners had a desperately short life expectancy; most could expect to be shot down and killed within two weeks. Protruding out from the very back of the plane, the rear-gunner’s turret must have been a very lonely, isolated place. Far from the rest of the crew, on his own at the end of the plane, Ladislas would spend up to eight hours in a tiny cramped space during night missions. With just a sheet of drafty perspex and metal between himself and the darkness, his job was to look out for enemy aircraft and to warn the pilot when to take evasive maneuvers. Hour after hour he would stare out into the black night, turning his turret back and forth, scanning for any shadow darker than the sky that could be an enemy aircraft. Of course, Ladislas knew that his position put him first in line for elimination by enemy aircraft, who tended to attack from the rear, knowing that if they could take out the rear gunner, the rest of the crew and the aircraft were there for the taking. By the end of WWII, more than 20,000 rear-gunners had lost their lives.
Ladislas knew of all the dangers and all the risks, but what he didn’t know was that the mission on which he was about to embark, would be his last. He never spoke about what happened, but this is what is known. Several hours into the mission, with the white cliffs of Dover in sight, the plane was attacked from the rear and from below. Ladislas was shot and the rear-gunner’s turret caught fire. Amazingly, the pilot managed to crash-land the plane and he and the rest of the crew somehow managed to get Ladislas out. He was badly burned and at first they thought it was too late. He was taken for emergency treatment and then taken to Liverpool, where they had specialist nurses to treat burns.
One of the nurses at Liverpool was my Auntie Gladys, then a young lady of course. She was assigned to care for Ladislas, whom she came to know as Laddie. Although scarred for life, with Gladys’ care, Laddie made a recovery. He and Gladys fell in love and at the end of the war, they married.
After all he had suffered, all he had given and sacrificed in order to stand shoulder to shoulder with Britain and her allies, how hurt both Laddie and Gladys must have been when, after the war, he suffered racist abuse and was told to “go back to where you came from” and “we don’t want you here”. How hurt Auntie Glad will be when I tell her that, as Britain solemnly remembers the sacrifices made 100 years ago at the onset of the Battle of the Somme, the images of poppy-filled fields is jarringly juxtaposed with the fact that once again, the Polish community is coming under racist attack.
During the build-up to the EU Referendum, the Leave campaigners waxed lyrical about “taking our country back”. Yet, after the brutal murder of Jo Cox MP by a man who, when asked to state his name in court said, “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”; when racist graffiti is daubed on the walls of Polish community centres; when a US citizen is told “go back to Africa” on a tram in Manchester; when all these events and so many more are making the headlines day after day, I think that Andy Burnham MP summed it up best when he said, “This is not taking our country back. This is taking Britain somewhere it has never been.”
To anyone reading this, especially anyone in the UK, I would like to ask a favour. No matter how you voted in the EU Referendum or whether or not you voted at all, the next time you are tempted to think of “them” and “us”, or the next time you hear someone say that “Britain is for the British” or “England is for the English”, or that those “bloody Poles come over here and take our jobs”, would you please kindly remind them that one of the reasons that they were allowed the pleasure of a referendum in the first place, was because of the freedoms won for them by men like my Uncle Laddie, men from Poland and all over the world, who stood shoulder to shoulder with Britain in her darkest hour, and who sacrificed everything in the hope that hatred would never win. We owe it to them to come together and ensure that their hopes, and their sacrifices, were not in vain.