World War II War Hero Remembered
This is my dad: RAF NCO sergeant flight engineer Roland Poltock. The last time I saw my dad alive and was able to spend some time with him was August 1999, by which time he was already very ill as a result of progressive neurological damage he suffered from his wartime injuries. He had survived the Second World War operations he fought in and passed away in April 2003. As a teenager and undergraduate, I never understood why he was reluctant to talk to me about his experiences being under attack in the air defending Britain, but now I am older, much more experienced in life and wife of a former soldier who had his own traumatic war service to keep secret, I have a better understanding.
Now I have access to the records of his service, I know that he was one of the “Scarlet Pimpernels” of the Air, on S.O.E. operations to feed the French Resistance from Tempsford Aerodrome where he was stationed. The aircrew at the station were “hand-picked” men who had proved their worth on at least one complete tour comprising 30 operations in Bomber Command. “The life of the special operations airman was that of the lone wolf: he had no fighter escort and exploited low-flying under the most difficult conditions, contending with “flak” and fighter defence. Moonless nights were favoured for their sorties, but it was highly exacting work, requiring pin-point navigation (that is purely by calculation), and when the tiny hand-torch signal was seen at the appointed place and packages and containers dropped, they experienced a mighty sense of relief and exuberance. Once over the spot, the aircrew had to work hard in unloading their cargo quickly enough to prevent the packages being scattered.
There were times when the partisans would delay flashing in order to establish the identity of the plane— a delay which caused the pilot to fly around in the vicinity and risk arousing the defences against him. Sometimes he had such a hot reception that he had no alternative but to “skate off” (quoted from a yellowing article of unknown date from “The Bedfordshire Times and Standard” entitled “Scarlet Pimpernels of the Air-The Secret Out: Tempsford HQ Fed Resistance Movement.”)
In 1939, as soon as war broke out, 19 year old Roland volunteered for the RAF and did his general training and service. By late 1942, he trained as an air gunner at Walney Island in Barrow in Furness, then trained as a flight engineer at St Athan, qualified in February 1943 and found himself in 161 squadron stationed at Tempsford. He took part in Special Duty Operation Director 34 heading for France on March 14th 1943. He was air bomber on that flight. The engines of his HalifaxMark V DG283 MA-Y failed over Fawley, Buckinghamshire, 3 miles north-west of Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire. The wreckage caught fire and the gunner and wireless operator were killed. The pilot, Flight Officer G.A.Osborne, suffered severe burns and injuries but despite this was able to pull my unconscious father, as well as the navigator and the flight engineer, from the burning wreckage and thus saved their lives. On 13th July, Osborne received the George Medal for gallantry for risking his own life to do this as it was the second time he had saved fellow aircrash crew during the war. If the descendants of Osborne ever read this blog, I thank him on behalf of all my family for saving my father, without whom I would not exist.
Fortunately this crash had not occurred over enemy territory, so my father was taken to The Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading, where he was treated for three days for concussion and amnesia. Then he was transferred to the RAF hospital, Halton, for a further two weeks, where he was kept in bed in a darkened room. Then he was given 14 days sick leave. He was sent home to Heston, Hounslow, in his tattered battledress and only one shoe. His parents hardly recognised him and he weighed only 138lbs. He had been presumed dead so when he returned to camp at the end of his two week leave, all his personal belongings had been given away. Despite all this he was back in the air by May and made many more flights as engineer serving as a co-pilot, including air-sea rescue.
On July 29th his Halifax was attacked by enemy fighters, but escaped from that and continued on flight operations until November 1943, after which we have no family records.
Dad was discharged from service in March 1946 and was awarded the 1939-45 Star for his part in the Battle of Britain; The Aircrew Europe Star, for serving in the Aircrew Europe or France and Germany, and the Defence Medal (King’s Commendation for brave conduct) . The insignia of his squadron depicted a released shackle with the motto “Liberate” and I like to think his self-sacrifice and desire to help free our nation and those of our European Allies from the tyranny of political oppression and anti-semitism is why I have that same desire within me. I thank him for giving me life, love and security as a child and youth, for inspiring me to be independent, support myself by the use of my own creative gifts, and giving me the courage and determination to survive whatever dreadful experiences life can throw at me. I couldn’t tell him all this because as a rebellious student of the seventies, I thought I knew everything about life and politics from my intelligence, education and very limited experience of life up to that point. He told me to get out and travel the world and live life before I came and argued about politics with him. I thank God I never had to experience the horrors of war, although I came close to it as an overseas teacher in Dubai during the First Gulf War, but I will always stay true to his motto and be a “Liberator” in spirit. I owe to my father my love of history, of adventure and world travel in the service of what is honourable in life. I love the British culture he risked his life to defend and I hope my work now helps to preserve the best of what he and his generation believed in.