[...] Eric joined the army in 1940 at the age of 17, having lied about his age, and was posted to East Africa. As he was seeing no action he tried to join the RAF but was turned down due to his poor eyesight. After 2 years in East Africa he returned to South Africa where he eventually did join the RAF and as a member of 31 Squadron he was posted to Cairo. He mentioned with some humour that his eyesight was not regarded a good enough to train as a pilot but good enough to be an air gunner!
But all this was leading up to Warsaw, and what Eric referred to as the most important event of his life. The Warsaw Uprising has been described as one of the most controversial tragedies of the 2nd World War. Encouraged by the Russians, the Polish Army attacked German forces on 1 August 1944 in the expectation that they would receive help from the Russian Army who were positioned across the Vistula River. Not only did the Russian forces offer no assistance (they stopped their own army advance, grounded their air force and stopped all artillery fire) but they also refused to allow allied air forces, flying to assist the Polish uprising, from using Russian controlled airfields. This deliberate policy by Stalin led to a massive slaughter of the Polish Army and the residents of Warsaw and was described by our speaker as a massive betrayal. In London, Winston Churchill was determined to help Poland, and he ordered the RAF to fly supply missions to Warsaw and so indirectly ordered our speaker to take off as part of a Liberator force on the evening of 13 August 1944. The plan was to arrive over Warsaw at night by crossing into Yugoslavia at sunset. The plane lost height due to icing on the wing, but their first scare was when a German night fighter flew beneath them without seeing them. They went down to 2,000 ft. and then to 500 ft. where at a speed of just 140 mph they were sitting ducks and were fired on by both German and Russian guns as they followed the route of the river into Warsaw. The supplies were to dropped in the main square, but with 2 engines shot out and a fire in the under carriage, the plane crashed landed but by a miracle they missed all surrounding buildings and trees. Eric Winchester had already been wounded in the head and arm, but he and the crew managed to get through the hatch and tried to run for cover. As they did so enemy machine gun fire opened up and as they took cover they watched a passing Liberator crashing under heavy anti aircraft fire and as he told us, he has never watched a firework display again to this day. Inevitably the crew was captured and when that happened, Eric told us he felt at his most useless and humble. He was taken to a bunker where he met a wounded colleague and friend, but when he went to get water for him a German sentry struck him with a rifle butt. The friend was driven off in an ambulance and Eric never saw him again. We were then given the detail of life as a prisoner of war, threatened with death by German guards as he was moved out of Warsaw before finally arriving by train in Frankfurt. There he was held in solitary confinement for 3 weeks prior to his interrogation and being sent to a POW camp in Eastern Germany. By now the war was close to its end and when Russian forces released him he was kept as a Russian prisoner. Eventually he took the opportunity to escape into the local woods and after 3 days he was through the wood and with food given to him by Russian soldiers and help from a German family he finally crossed the River Elbe and was put into an American camp. He was finally released and taken to a German airfield run by the Americans to start his journey home. It was exactly 9 months since he took off for his unsuccessful flight to Warsaw and as he told a hushed audience, he has never forgotten anything that happened in that critical nine months of his life. Eric's description of events was immensely moving.
But what about his friend and colleague, who had been refused water before being driven away in an ambulance in August 1944? Once he returned home Eric started his search for details and this was fuelled when he attended a memorial service in Johannesburg in 1950 for all South Africans lost in the war, only to find that his friends name was not mentioned. His campaign to find out what happened and where, if he had died, he was buried became an obsession that lasted 54 years. During that time he visited Poland, and returned to Warsaw, he went through many cemeteries looking for the name of his friend. At Krakow, he reached a cemetery just as it was closing but with the help of the taxi driver he was allowed to go round all 120 graves. There he found a gravestone with the same name, but the wrong squadron and the wrong date – but what he did find were 60 graves from his own squadron, people he knew and it made him ask a very personal question - why was he allowed to survive? He wrote many letters to the Red Cross and visited their HQ in Geneva, but they could not help as he was not a relative. Also, and worst of all, his friend had been lost helping what was referred to as the Polish Underground and because they were not included in the Geneva Convention, they were declared an illegal organisation. Despite that Eric Winchester did not give up; he knew that he just had to find out what happened to his friend and finally he was given the information that he had been searching for. In 1999, the Polish Red Cross finally found the grave at Lodz, and [his] 54-year search was over.