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Fl. Lt Maciej Drecki

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FOLLOWING IN MY UNCLE’S FOOTSTEPS

By Tom Drecki Written 1997- London

Many years ago, back in Poland, when I was still a young lad devouring every available aviation book, I once read, with great excitement Bohdan Arct’s work entitled-“Skalski’s Circus”.*1) I remember how proud and happy I felt, when amongst the pilots of the “Circus” I found my own surname, that of my uncle - F/Lt Wladyslaw Maciej Drecki. It upset me a bit that my Father never mentioned him to me before. In any case my overwhelming joy, however, did not last very long, as by the time I reached the end of the book I learned about my uncle’s tragic death in Sicily, 1943. I decided then to find out as much as possible about him, and since then I began collecting reports, copies of documents, photographs and every other memorabilia left over by him.

Forgotten victory

Out of necessity these activities had to be frequently put on hold, as there was always something more important to do. Also for quite a while now I had intended to identify conclusively all the planes flown by “Polish Fighting Team” as well as establish who flew what plane and how many victories were scored on each one.

About a year and a half ago I visited “Public Record Office” (lived at that time in London) to copy relevant pages from 145 sq. Operations Record Book.

“P.F.T”, as it is well known, belonged to that squadron during it’s stay in Africa. I thought then, might as well copy, just for a record, some pages of 152 sq. Op. Rec. Book from the period when my uncle was a “B” flight commander” there. While doing that, I found some mention about an aerial combat and shooting down, also involving him. However the text seemed a bit ambiguous and I only skipped through it, not being sure who was actually shot down. Subconsciously aware of the fact, that I knew the circumstances of all his recorded victories, I simply ignored it at the time. It was only at home that I read the text properly together with an opening sentence, which I missed earlier, stating clearly squadron’s two victories that day!.

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F/O M.Drecki and S/Ldr S.Skalski on holiday in Cairo, after the P.F.T. had been disbanded. Photo was probably taken by F/o E.Horbaczewski.

Here is the text of that report: “We saw the first enemy aircraft since Salerno invasion today, shot one down and damaged another. When patrolling the usual area at 12000 ft between 11.20 and 14.30, we saw two FW.190s. going very fast in the opposite direction. By the time we got round to give chase they had disappeared. During the evening show (16.50 to 19.10) however, we run into two ME.109s and while one was attacking a Lightning, F/l. W.Drecki got onto his tail and had the satisfaction of seeing the pilot bale out and land some 15 miles S.W. of MONTE CORVINO airfield. Later we learned that the Americans had picked up this pilot. While F/L Drecki was dealing with this e/a, F/O. R.E.J. MacDonald had a squirt at the second ME., damaging it before it eventually escaped.”

I was so excited as it was obvious that I had found my uncle’s fourth victory, completely missed out and forgotten by historians!. The burning curiosity was to find out more, also about his entire (very short - only less than four weeks) spell with 152 sq. But first I immediately informed Jerzy Cynk about my discovery.*2) He was initially a bit sceptical about it but having received the copies of the documents from me, he moved swiftly, to change the official statistics of the Polish victories. I, in turn, was racking my brains how to get in touch with somebody from that squadron, knowing full well that the association of it’s personnel did not exist.

First contact

One day I popped into the bookshop at the RAF museum, Hendon, as I do every few month. I immediately noticed a new (then) book by Dilip Sarkar- “Few of the many” and in it, chapter devoted to one of the pilots from 43 sq. He mentions S/Ldr E.Horbaczewski there of course, but my attention was drawn to the small picture of landing crafts taken at Salerno by somebody from 152 sq. ground crew, as the caption said. I thought if I managed to find him, perhaps he would be able to help, might even have contact with the others. By happy coincidence, book contained a telephone to the author, just in case the reader would have something to add. I also looked through “Aces High” by Christopher Shores and found, that Bruce Ingram- 152 sq. commander, scored couple of victories on the airplane marked with a letter “U”, just a few days after my uncle’s death. This caught my attention, because Ingram always flew his Spitfire VC ES112, and according to the squadron documents, that tragic afternoon on the 13-th of Sept. Maciek( my uncle was known under that name) for the first and a last time was given that plane for the flight which culminated with his death. I have always wanted to establish the individual markings of that airplane hoping to find it’s photograph one day. After the accident ES112 disappeared from the squadron register and Ingram began flying Spitfire VC LZ970. Those couple of victories he scored on just that plane, which out of simple conclusion, had an individual letter “U”. This made me think that perhaps the unfortunate predecessor- ES112 bore the same markings. For the moment at least I could not prove it yet.

 

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S/Ldr S.Skalski and F/O M.Drecki visiting Gurkhas. Picture taken probably in Sicily, after the war in Africa was over.

There was also another mystery. As the available documents stated, my uncle’s Spitfire collided with another Spit parked too near the runway. What was that plane and who did it belong to?. I noticed that the Spitfire IX MA412, most often flown by him, also earlier on that day, suddenly disappeared from the register. A dreadful thought went through my mind, that perhaps he crashed into the plane left by himself!. I could not find the answer to it and there were more questions like that cropping up. Having got back home I phoned Dilip Sarkar, who very kindly, immediately put me in touch with Ray Jonson- an armourer from 152 sq. It was his photograph that Sarkar used in his book. Ray has already begun forming kind of an unofficial squadron association some time ago and had contact with a lot of it’s former members. Although he himself could not remember my uncle, he gave me addresses of Norman Jones- the pilot of the “A” flight and Birt Strachan- “B” flight mechanic. Both were in the squadron at the same time as Maciek. Norman Jones was able to recall him immediately. When we met soon afterwards at his home, just outside London, Norman having looked at one of my uncle’s pictures taken in Africa, pointed at it and exclaimed with excitement- “ Mike looked exactly like this. Very pleasant guy. Handsome fellow I would say, easy going and very pleasant chap. That picture is typical. He had his hat on one side, cocky. That is him, hat one one side and big smile!” (I tried to record the conversations whenever possible to be able to quote them.)

Mike’s fire was very accurate

Turned out that Maciek came to 152 squadron on special request from New Zealander, Bruce Ingram, who only just took command of the squadron himself. Apparently the atmosphere there, was very rotten then. The previous commander- S/Ldr Lister was not particularly interested in fighting and used to spend a lot of time drinking whisky with his brother in the nearby artillery regiment. For quite a while squadron had been flying fighter-bomber missions and there was a common belief that it had been relegated to that role due to rather poor combat results. There had been several fatal accidents on the ground and in general it was regarded as rather unlucky unit, to such extent that one of the known to me commonwealth pilots turned down the flight commander’s post there. All that vastly contributed to a rapid decline in the squadron morale. The arrival of a pleasant and energetic New Zealander together with Maciek changed the situation radically and one did not have to wait long for the results. It was Maciek who had the honour to re-open squadron scores, on the 11-th of Sept. 43. Norman Jones was one of the pilots taking part in that memorable flight, and possibly the only one still alive. Here is how he recalls it today: “It was a second flight that day, this time Mike Drecki was leading the squadron. We were patrolling the invasion beaches between Salerno and Agripoli at 15000 feet, flying back and forth. The view from that height was breathtaking. Capri visible to the West and the sea below was crammed with vessels of all shapes and sizes, from landing crafts hard by the beaches, to battleships just a mile or so off shore. Our air force dominated the skies and the patrols were rather monotones so the view made up for it. The squadron was flying in three section, “finger four” stepped formation with our only four Spitfires IX on the very top. Mike was leading the lowest four in Spitfire V. Suddenly we saw American Lightnings weaving in line astern formation, flying below us in opposite direction, with two Me109s tacking on behind them. The Americans seemed unaware of the danger, and no doubt the Germans could not believe their luck finding a flight in such an idiotic formation!. Mike with his No.2, being closest, pulled hard around and attacked the unsuspecting anything 109s. Mike’s fire was very accurate and some rubbish immediately flew off the Messerschmitt and it’s engine caught fire. The German did not think twice, rolled his machine over and baled out. The other one, attacked by MacDonald realised what was going on and attempted to escape. He was hit, started to smoke but managed to dive away and escape. Later on the commander of that American formation thanked us for our help. It was a great day for the squadron, we celebrated long awaited victories in a nearby village Santa Lucia. When two days later Mike died tragically, his loss was felt hard by all. He was a very experienced, superb pilot, wonderful colleague and outstanding officer. We missed him very much.”

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Norman Jones (in the middle) with his mechanics next to his Spitfire IX MA526 UM-E. Picture taken with his camera leaving characteristic overexposed patches.

On that dusty airfield

Norman also had a note about that victory in his log book, just next to the one about Maciek’s death. Although he also took part in the flight, that tragic afternoon, he could not recall what exactly happened. As I will be returning yet to the circumstances of that accident I would like to quote a part of the report from the Op.Rec. Book dealing with it.- ”We did another uneventful patrol with the usual twelve aircraft between 14.20 and 16.40, and the squadron sustained a much-felt loss when F/Lt. W.Drecki, “A” Flight’s Polish Flight Commander (mistake- “B” Flight) was killed when his tyre burst on take-off and he swung into another Spitfire parked rather too near the runway. His 90-gallon tank exploded, and he was killed instantly. We buried him on the spot, he himself would have wished no better resting place. A very keen and efficient pilot and a most likeable personality, we couldn’t afford to lose him. There have been several similar accidents on this dusty aerodrome. Everyone will be glad to move on to some better site we hope in the near future.”  Similar information can be found in other documents in my possession, apart from one- the death certificate written of course by the doctor, who states the “pilots error of judgement” as the cause of the accident!. Norman Jones is absolutely convinced that it is unthinkable for Mike to allow the plane to leave the runway. He was far too experienced and must have been some other reason, i.e. burst tyre to cause the accident. Maciek as a senior Flight Commander was leading the squadron that afternoon (Ingram did not fly then) taking off in the first pair, on the left hand side, slightly forward of the other Spitfire. It is important to add here, that because of the huge torque from the engine, Spitfire required full right rudder and aileron for take off, to counteract a tendency to swing to the left. Left tyre is then under extreme load, so we concluded that  it must have been this one that blew up pulling the aircraft to the left. Additional long range tank suspended under the fuselage, being used at that time for lengthy patrols of Salerno area, completed the tragedy. Milazzo East- that was the name of the landing strip, turned out in general to be very unlucky place (as I mentioned earlier) to several squadrons, although they were there only for ten days- from the 6-th till the 16th of Sept. When asked about the exact location, Norman could not say, but he remembered that it was near Milazzo peninsula and the beach, with the North-South runway direction. The strip and dispersal points were cut out of the big vineyard. Runway itself was about 900 yard long with a slight slope towards the sea end. Other squadrons- i.e. 81,232, were based at the opposite end. It was very hot and the landing strip was notoriously dusty. Every take off would stir up huge clouds of dust rising up to 2000 feet, visible from quite a long distance. In these conditions, to get the squadron(s) up as quickly as possible, was quite a daunting task. Attempts were made to take off in fours abreast, however it turned out to be too dangerous, considering that the runway was about 50 yards wide, so the idea was soon abandoned. With rather poor ground control co-ordination, hopeless visibility due to the ever- present cloud of dust, one day two Spitfires from 81 sq. happened to be taking off from the northern end while at the same time a single Spit from 152 sq. began it’s take off run from the opposite direction. Before anybody realised what was going on, the planes missed each other in the middle of the field, unable to see each other till the last moment. The single Spitfire flew between two others!. The conditions where so bad that some pilots had to take off on instruments!.

Planning the trip to Sicily to see, amongst other things, that spot I wanted to know what that place looked like. Unfortunately I was only able to establish, that at the northern end of the runway there was a stone wall and a road . Although Norman did not have any pictures of my uncle, he did however have, the only so far photo of 152 sq. Spitfires Mk.IXs, UM-B MA509 and UM-M MA502, taking off just from Milazzo East. He also gave me addresses of two pilots living in Canada, which filled me with hope for more findings and other information.

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Unique picture taken at Milazzo East landing ground, showing Spitfires IX from the “A” Flight of 152 sq. F/Lt M.Drecki lost his life there on the 13th of September 1943. He was taking off in the Spitfire VC UM-U ES112, on the left hand side, slightly ahead of his No.2- just like pictured here UM-B MA509. Picture was probably taken before the 12th of Sept. when the surrendering Italian bomber damaged visible in the background seaplane Walrus, while landing,.

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The diary

The next phase was meeting with Birt Strachan- “B”Flight mechanic. I rung him and the phone answered his daughter-in-law. When she repeated my name to him, I could hear his voice in the background saying -”the only Drecki I knew is dead”!. He was very nicely surprised and though not fit and healthy, immediately arranged to meet me. When we got together soon afterwards, this time I was pleasantly surprised by his knowledge of Polish affairs. He himself mentioned Paderewski, capturing Monte Cassino stronghold, etc. being full of respect and admiration for Polish gallantry. He spoke with outrage about Churchill’s decision, remembering very well the Victory Parade and fly past to which Poles were not invited. Although he did not have much to do with Maciek but remembered him well, proof of which can be found in his diary for 1943. Birt recorded there an immediate change of atmosphere in the squadron brought about by the arrival of Ingram and Drecki. Under the date 11th Sept. 43 he mentions Maciek’s fourth victory, only to add two days later sad note about his death. That one is even repeated in the list of events which especially stand out in his mind. He did not witness my uncle’s death but nearly a year later, in Burma, he watched S/Ldr Ingram’s Spitfire come in to land, when the engine suddenly cut, due to fuel starvation. In the ensuing crash landing the pilot broke his nose on the gun site. Taken to hospital suffering from shock, exhaustion caused him to contract malaria and tetanus, and he died three weeks later. He was deeply missed too. Having copied the hole diary, I found under the date 19th of April .43 a very helpful note, about S/Ldr Lister, who when taking up his post, ordered to have a letter “U” painted on his Spitfire. It confirmed my assumptions, that Ingram “inherited” his plane, on which my uncle later lost his life. Proving that required another visit to P.R.O. and looking into Op.Rec.Book. That had to wait for another day off and in the meantime I had another “urge” to “dig” through some more books, but in a different bookshop this time.

He must have died with his first breath

For quite a while now, I had been having rather irrational feeling, as if somebody was guiding me and things were not happening by chance. From amongst hundreds of books on shelves I happened to “fish out”- “Blue Skies” by Canadian pilot, Bill Olmsted. Having skipped through the text I came across long passages about Lentini East- an airfield where my uncle joined 152 squadron. Hoping to find something about Milazzo East I impatiently turned the pages over and encountered the moment when Olmsted’s squadron- then 232, is just about to move to the dreaded Milazzo East airstrip!. I sensed that I was on to something!. I skipped the descriptions of that unfortunate landing strip, exactly as remembered by Norman Jones and Birt Stachan. Olmsted talks about a series of accidents caused by tyres blowing up on take off. The Spits would turn over, catch fire leaving trapped pilots to burn alive. My legs almost gave in when I read the following paragraph:

“One terrible accident in particular stays with me. After my second long trip of the day I was staggering from my Spitfire, trying to light a cigarette, when behind me I heard a curious popping noise. I turned in time to watch a Spit V do a perfect nose over tail cartwheel and land right side up, fifty feet from me, totally enveloped in fierce flames fired by 100 octane fuel. The pilot, a young decorated Czech(?) flight lieutenant, could not be seen because of the flames, but his left arm, hanging immobile out of the cockpit, had a long, deep cut which did not bleed. I ran to within a few yards, but it was obvious the pilot was already dead. Nothing could be done to help. Others gathered around while the heat and flames rapidly consumed the aircraft and exploding ammunition whistled through the air. In less than five minutes all that remained was a small part of the tail plane and the engine. Everything else, including the pilot, had been reduced to charcoal or globes of melted aluminium. His unusual accident was caused by his left wingtip striking the pointed spinner on a parked aircraft just before reaching takeoff speed in such a manner, and with exactly the right angle and force, to cause his aircraft to somersault completely. At the top of the somersault, the highly volatile fuel spilled onto hot engine parts. There was an explosion and fire, and the force of his landing broke the undercarriage and smashed what remained of the belly tank. He must have died with his first breath, never realising what had happened and certainly unable to control his destiny. Although we had many thrilling moments in the air over the beaches, our losses due to the enemy action were negligible when compared to the casualties we suffered at Milazzo East airfield”.

 

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Lentini East landing strip. In the foreground airplanes of 152 sq. Second from the right is Spitfire VC UM-N JL362 flown, amongst the others, by F/Lt M.Drecki.

Having read it I was simply in the state of shock. Basically, there could be no doubt in my mind, that I had found the eye-witness report of my uncles tragic death. To the Canadian, from another squadron, Czech or Pole would have been the same, and as far as I knew (I managed to confirm it later) there were no Czechs there. Other details also added up: his rank- Flight Lieutenant, airplane- Spitfire V with long range tank as well as unusual circumstances of another plane involved in the accident. Unfortunately, at that moment, it was impossible to confirm 100 percent that it was Maciek’s accident, as I learned that the author himself died tragically in 1989, just before the book was published!. Much later, however, through some intense searching I managed to trace one of Bill Olmsted’s colleagues, another Canadian pilot- “Pep” Peppler, who flew with him that day and stood next to him, when it happened!. His log book and the diary state clearly, amongst many accidents noted:”...then the F/Lt of 152 sq.(a Polish chap) had a blow out & the 90 gal tank exploded- he burned to death before we could extricate him”.

Which Spitfire?

In the meantime the question was bugging me, what was the identity of the Spitfire with which my uncle collided. I managed to obtain a contact with, normally inaccessible, Air Historical Branch, where aircraft accident cards are kept. A very helpful person working there immediately found the card referring to my uncle’s accident. Knowing the date and circumstances he was also able to locate equally quickly, (which I did not expect), the card of the plane my uncle ran into!. It turned out to be Spitfire P.R.XI MB778 from 683 sq. I got the copies of the documents, however it proved to be impossible to establish anything about a mysterious disappearance of Spit Mk.IX MA412, from the squadron register. All in all, encouraged by the success, I decided to try to establish who was the German pilot shot down by my uncle, on the 11th of Sept. In order to do that I contacted Christopher Shores, who after a short search through his notes, found that on that very day only Leutnant Rudolf Steffens from JG.53 did not returned. “Since he was captured, so perhaps he survived the war”, I thought. It would be interesting to find him sometime. For the moment I had other things to do and one of them was meeting with Ray Jonson- 152 sq. armourer. The visit resulted in finding a copy of a few pages from Op.Rec.Book, covering June 43. and there records of S/Ldr Lister regularly flying Spitfire VC ES112. It was a first confirmation of my assumptions, though not yet conclusive recognition of the airplane’s markings. Ray remembered that in “Aces High” he saw couple of victories credited to W/Cdr Colin Gray, at that time commanding 322 wing, achieved on “U”. It was on the memorable day- 25th of July when 152 squadron destroyed 13 enemy aircraft. When, in a spare moment I popped into P.R.O., from the documents available I was able to confirm that Colin Gray borrowed ES112 from Lister that day. Also, in the Shores’es book, given to me by the author at our next meeting, I indeed found “U” amongst Gray’s victorious aircraft. He then remembered that RAF Hendon museum, had S/Ldr Ingram’s log book. When I received a few pages copied from that book, I was finally able to prove that Maciek died on Spitfire VC UM-U ES112.

Where was Milazzo East?

At the same time I wrote to Canadians, Bill Lethbridge and Ron Bell. The first one was in “A” flight and the other in “B”- commanded by Maciek. Awaiting replies, I got in touch with our friend Jozek Solski(ex. glider aerobatic champion) living in South Africa. The idea was to find, through their Aircrew Association, four South African pilots who flew also in that squadron then. Not to sit idly, I was trying to think of another way to establish an exact location of Milazzo East strip. I found a book about all the RAF stations and airfields, showing on schematic maps their positions. As I hoped, the author had geographical co-ordinates of, among others, Milazzo and Lentini strips. Also, another idea was brought to my attention. Since my uncle was initially buried on the site of the landing ground, but about a year later exhumed and reburied at British War Cemetery in Catania, there must have been some documents referring to his first burial. Indeed I found them at Commonwealth War Grave Commission, together with co-ordinates and reference to a particular map. I got a copy of it from Imperial War Museum and the exact spot marked on it. It was all quite wonderful, but did not coincide with RAF co-ordinates while discrepancy was about a mile and a half. So who was right?. To have a closer look at the area I got myself 1:25000 map from 1967. Also, from Keele University I managed to obtain, the only in their possession, aerial photo of the region, taken by Spitfire from 682 sq. on the 30th of July .43, so about a month before the strip was built. The field indicated by C.W.G.C. is clearly visible, quite suited for a landing ground, as well as the edge of the other area, from a terrain configuration, not too good for runway building.

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Picture taken on the 30th of July 1943 by a photo rec. Spitfire from 682 sq. after bombing of Milazzo. Notice marked direction of the runway, built there about a month later, as well as suspected location of the crash site.

Mike had more victories than he claimed

After a long waiting, at last I got a letter from Bill Lethbridge in Canada. And there was also, would you believe, a small photo of my uncle, N.Jones, B.Ingram and MacDonald, having a bath(as God created them) in a dried out river near Lentini.

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Unique picture taken at Lentini East with N.Jones’es camera. From the left:  N.Jones, S/Ldr B.Ingram, M.Drecki and MacDonald.

I was overjoyed that at last my search had yielded some fruit. As I was only to find out, it was just the beginning!. Lethbridge has written also on behalf of R.Bell, who has a Parkinson disease, and the picture was from him. In his extremely pleasant letter he is saying: ”I wasn’t too close to your uncle for he was an officer and I was still an N.C.O., also he was “B” flight and I was “A” flight. But I do remember once talking to him with some others when he told us, in his own light-hearted way that his greatest embarrassment was once when he got shot down by a Stuka dive bomber. On squadron he was certainly well liked”. What a memory!. Indeed Maciek was wounded on the 4th of Sept. 1939 and crash landed his PZL P-11C. Bill also sent me copies from his log book containing notes about Maciek’s victory and collision with P.R.U. Spitfire, caused by blown tyre. Later I learned that the photo he sent was taken with N.Jones’es camera, which used to leave overexposed patches. On one of the log book pages I noticed under the date 12th of Sept., small note with exclamation mark, about surrendering Italian bomber- CANT 1007, which managed to land at Milazzo East.

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Bill Lethbridge (in the middle) with his mechanics.

I shall return to that a bit later on.

Again encouraged by this success, I decided to have a chat with Ron Bell, who took part in the flight, the afternoon accident happened. When I rang him, he straight away said: “I was his number two when it happened. We were taking off four abreast(?),like an echelon and he, as a leader was on the left hand side. There was a P.R.U. Spitfire parked on the left and that is what Mike hit. I could only see alot of flames, in the corner of my eye, and the controller told us to carry on. When we got back it was all cleared up. It was a shock to us! Mike was a good man. Always smiling always joking. He had more victories than he claimed(!). Ingram brought him because we needed somebody with more tactical experience... He was always laughing, everything was a joke to him. He was telling as about his family in occupied Poland. He never gave orders, always asked to do something”.

Ron also confirmed the general details on location of the airfield as best he could. Later, having exchanged few more letters with both Canadians, I received from Ron copies of his log book pages with my uncle’s signature, as “B” Flight Commander, at the end of August. In the telephone conversation Bell mentioned the third Canadian- John Bissett, still alive, living in Calgary and occasionally phoning him. Unfortunately he did not have his number, so he promised to give him mine at the next opportunity. That is how I left it for the moment.

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Spitfires of 152 sq. pictured in Italy in Oct. 43. In the foreground Spitfire IX MA454 UM-V which actually “witnessed” the death of F/Lt Drecki on the 13th of Sept. 1943. Ron Bell was taking off in it as his No.2. The Spitfires UM-Q, UM-Z and UM-I visible in a background, were not in the squadron at that time and these letters were worn by different Spitfires flown by M.Drecki.

Polish Fighting Team pennon  

After many weeks we suddenly got a phone call from extremely excited Jozek Solski in South Africa, with marvellous news, that he had found Harry Hoffe (other pilots were already dead). Jozek visited him a day before and Harry showed him a picture of my uncle buying grapes,

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F/Lt M.Drecki buying grapes in the village Santa Lucia, near Milazzo. Picture taken just a couple of days before his death.

taken just a few days before his death! The best news was, that he and his wife were going to visit England in three weeks time. What a coincidence! It was fantastic, considering that Hoffe flew the same airplanes as my uncle, on few ocasions, and among them Spit VC MA289. It was the plane on which my uncle scored his last victory. Markings of that machine were unknown to me and I was hoping his logbook would help me establish them. When few weeks later I visited the Hoffe family, in the house rented for a duration of their stay in England, I received quite emotional greeting. Harry apparently noticed some family resemblance and he also liked my uncle very much. He joined 152 sq. as an experienced pilot, more or less at the same time as Maciek, and after his death took over a command of “B” Flight, later becoming S/Leader.

Naturally he brought me the promised photograph, probably taken in the nearby village Santa Lucia, where, as he remembers, they celebrated Mike’s victory. This is how he recalls him: “I was very fond of him, he was a very good pilot. I was his number two, when I joined the squadron and I liked him very much... He was a very jovial character... but hated the Germans...I remember he was from a military family...The squadron went through a bad period before he joined it. A C.O. before B.Ingram apparently did not take much part in the activities and the fighting of the squadron. So the morale must have been pretty low...I was watching them take off

(we were taking off in pairs down this strip), we had only one strip cut through vineyards and orange orchards...There was a petrol bowzer(?) refuelling aircraft at the edge of the strip. It was very narrow, you know. His wing hit the petrol bowzer(?),

there was just one terrific explosion and fire. He was incinerated on the spot. After the fire the plane was still standing on it’s undercarriage(?). I climbed up on the wing and was horrified to see him still strapped in his seat. The heat from the burning petrol from the petrol tanker(?) was so intense, that the body remains would have been unrecognisable. There were no fingers remaining on his right hand, just a stump!. It was an inferno!”. In my opinion it seemed highly unlikely for the airplane to have been in such an intact condition, but I did not say anything.

Harry could not say whether the cause was a blown tyre or lack of visibility due to dust. We started talking about Harry’s career. When he told me he had brought me the negatives of the plane he flew most often I was convinced we were getting, once again, close to the another discovery. Truly enough, having looked at them I could not believe my eyes. I had in front of me three beautiful pictures of the Spitfire VC, UM-T MA289,

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on which my uncle shot down his last enemy!. I could not get over that for quite a while. Round about that time I had a reply to my appeal in “Fly Past”, from Norman Dear- the sixth 152 sq. pilot. His recollections of Maciek were very much like the others: “He was a particularly handsome devil... He had this air about him. One kind of thought he was possibly from Polish nobility. Lovely chap and superb pilot. He was the same to everybody, very polite with impeccable manners”. Norman was one of the people who ran to the rescue, when the accident happened, and remembered clearly the airplane lying on it’s belly, with a centre section completely burned out. His log book also bore a note of that event. I did not know, that there were more surprises in store for me!. In the meantime having heard nothing from Canadian, J.Bissett I decided to act on my own. I only knew that he lived in Calgary and the international telephone directory gave me number of the only Bissett in Calgary. It turned out to be him!.

Surprise was complete and a story he told me was astonishing. Quite a few years after the war, he completely accidentally “bumped” into his childhood friend -John Burnet, with whom he lost touch long time ago. They started chatting about the war times, who did what, and when Bissett mentioned flying Spitfires, other chap said: “That’s funny, so did I, but Photo Reconnaissance!”. That fatefull day, he flew over from Malta to carry out photo missions, temporarily based at Milazzo East, and parked his Spitfire P.R.XI MB778 too near the runway!. Mike had a bad luck to have ran into just that one!. Both Canadians did not know about each other, being at that place at the same time!. Unfortunately Burnet died in the 60-tieth.

That was not the end of surprises. Bissett, known for collecting things, out of the belongings left over after my uncle’s death, retained, as a souvenir, Polish flag Mike made to commemorate Polish Fighting Team!.

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P.F.T. pennon, made by F/Lt Drecki, who had it with him in Sicily. After his death, one of the pilots- John Bissett kept it as a souvenir and in 1996 gave it to me

And to think that he kept it in Canada all these years, only to hand it over to me, delighted that at last it found it’s rightful owner!. I was speechless again. I found an unofficial pennon of Polish Fighting Team, which is hanging now, in the prominent place at our flat.

My search goes on

Soon afterwards in September last year, as planned, my wife and me, we went to Sicily. Visited my uncle’s grave in Catania.

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and went to both sites, where Lentini and Milazzo East landing strips used to be. In spite huge changes we still managed to find and recognise the spot with the bridge, near Lentini, where the picture showing “naked bodies” washing in a river, was taken. We also talked to some local people who confirmed the location of ex-Milazzo East landing strip, were we expected it to be. Unfortunately here terrain changed even more as a small railway station was built in the middle of the old vineyard and one corner has been cut off by the new motorway.

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Present day aerial view of the Milazzo East landing strip area

Apart from 152 sq. personnel I have been in touch with many other pilots of different squadrons belonging to 322 wing, stationed at Milazzo. Their stories coincided with the ones I already heard, but unfortunately I have not, as yet, found a (living) eyewitness of my uncles accident.

Obviously they had their own interesting experiences. One of the pilots was Brian Young from 81 sq. who happened to be a duty officer at Milazzo on the 12-th of Sept. when, the earlier mentioned Italian bomber- Cant 1007, surrendering, attempted to land rather too far down the short runway. While doing so and waiving white flags it nearly decapitated Brian!. As a runway was narrow, the planes right wing “took out” the strut from between the wings of, nearby parked u/s Walrus. Walrus’es wings folded and a strut lodged itself in the bombers wingtip- still visible on the photo sent by Brian. Rather scared Italian aviators emerged from the bomber, still waiving white flags. Later the same day 81 sq. C.O. took few mechanics for a “jolly” in that bomber.

My search is still on. There are still a lot of unexplained mysteries and I have not yet managed to find a picture of the Spitfire my uncle died on.

What happened with his P.F.T. commemorative badge?

I still have not managed to substantiate the claim about his fifth victory(mentioned by R.Bell) and earlier made known to me by S.Skalski.

We shall see what happens. Unfortunately I am many years too late to be able to establish all the facts. And the time is running out, people are passing away. I intend to continue while there is still somebody to talk to.

TOMASZ DRECKI.

 F/Lt M.Drecki’s short biography

 

Kpt. pil. M.Drecki was born on the 19-th of May 1915 in Slupia, Kielce district of Poland. He finished a Grammar School in Kielce with the “A” level exams and on the 21-th of Sept. 1936 was admitted to the Officer Cadet School of Cavalry in Grudziadz. Although, from his younger years he had been interested in airplanes, the family, especially grand-mother, was strongly opposed to him joining the Air Force. It was only after her death, that Maciek (he was known under this name) transferred over, on the 30-th of Jan. 1937, to the Air Force Academy in Deblin, where he showed very good marksmanship skills. The Higher Aerobatics Course in Ulez lasting from April the 5-th Maciek finished on the 10-th of June, obtaining posting to the 111 Kosciuszko Flight of the 1-st Fighter Regiment, still as an officer cadet. Although he was promoted P/O with seniority 1-st of August, an order did not reach the Regiment until the 31-st of August, just before the outbreak of war. From the 1-st of Sept. 1939 he flew with The Pursuit Brigade and took part in fighting around Warsaw, carrying out 10 operational flights. On the 4-th of Sept. during an attack on JU 87, in the area of Kampinoski Forest, his airplane was hit. He himself wounded in the leg and arm, in the last effort managed to get back to base and crash landed hitting his face on the gun site. Soon afterwards despite his protests, due to the injuries, he was sent to the Marshall Pilsudski Hospital, where family friend, Dr. Michal Grodzki, operated on him. About the 6-th of Sept. Maciek was transported to Chelm where he met with his mother. On the 16-th managed to cross the border with Romania at Sniatyn. For the September Campaign he was awarded the Polish Cross of Valour. On the 29-th of Oct. reached France and a month later found himself in Salon, with other officers. After a medical examinations in February 1940 he was one of the first pilots who converted to Moranes 406 at Lyon-Bron. He also took part in the defence of Lyon airfield, attacked by German bombers on the 10-th of May. On the 24-th of June he arrived in England and together with others found himself at the Gathering Camp in Blackpool. Later having gone through Central Flying School at Upavon and Operational Training Unit- Sutton Bridge he appeared for six days at 317 sq., only to move to 56 0.T.U, to convert to Hurricanes. Having returned to 317 he did not stay there very long, receiving on the 17 of March, posting to 303 sq.- continuing traditions of it’s parent unit. While serving with that formation, on the 28-th of June 1941, Maciek shot down two Me109s, flying the Spitfire IIB P8335 RF-R “Sampang”. Unfortunately having ran out of fuel, on the way back, he had to bale out over the Channel and was picked up an hour later. On the 20-th of Aug. he got posting to 306 sq., where he flew in the “B” flight commanded by Stanislaw Skalski. On the 1-st of Sept. received promotion to F/O and on the 20-th of Febr. 1942 was sent to 317 sq. There he completed his first operational tour of duty and the 1-st of June saw him at 58 O.T.U. in Grangemouth taking up the instructors post. He stayed there till 15-th of Dec.42 and for a short period flew with 315 sq., leaving on the 20-th of Febr. At that time “Polish Fighting Team” was being formed to take part in the fighting in Africa. Maciek put his name forward and was accepted. From the second half of March till May .43 he flew operationally as a member of that formation. 20-th of Apr. was a lucky day for him as he shot down Me109, damaging the other. After the “Circus” got disbanded, Maciek as one of three pilots together with Skalski and Horbaczewski, agreed to stay with British squadrons in commanding positions. On the 15-th of June they moved with 244 wing to Malta being posted together to 601 sq. Soon afterwards Skalski took command of that unit. On the 8-th of Aug. Maciek was posted to 152 sq. on the special request of it’s new commander- S/Ldr B.Ingram, to take over the “B” Flight. From Lentini East, where he joined the squadron, the 322 wing moved on the 6-th of Sept.to Milazzo East to support the invasion at Salerno. Maciek scored his last and fourth victory- shooting down another Me109, on the 11-th of Sept. Two days later- 13-th of September 1943, during the take off for a second trip that day, the left hand tyre burst on the Spitfire VC ES112 UM-U, he was flying. Unable to counteract the swing, he hit with the left wing, another Spitfire parked too near the runway. His plane was equipped with additional 90 gal. overload tank which exploded on impact killing him instantly. Maciek was buried on the site of the landing strip. About a year later, on the 24-th of June .44 his body was exhumed and reburied at Catania British War Cemetery, where he rests to this day. Always joyful and friendly was universally liked and respected. His total official score stands at four enemy aircraft destroyed and one damaged. He was awarded Silver Cross of Virtuti Militari Order, Cross of Valour with three bars and many British Campaign Medals.

compiled by T.Drecki

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