Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
This is the story of the Allies’ scepticism and wanton ignorance about the Nazis’ Final Solution; and one man’s mission to overturn it. That man was Witold Pilecki, a “farmer and father of two in his late thirties with no great record of service or piety – not so different from you and me”. Except he was, with scarcely believable courage and perseverance, he put nation above his family, and subjected himself to horrendous risks. He deliberately placed himself into the hands of the Gestapo in one of their round-ups in September 1940, in the near certainty that he would be sent to Auschwitz, where many of his friends already resided.
American author, Jack Fairweather, tells the tale deftly, and the lead-up to Witold’s arrest is the more dramatic for being understated. Once behind the wire, the first-person accounts of Nazi brutality are chilling. These are much strengthened by illustrations of prisoners’ sketches, and occasional photos of laughing SS guards. In such a bleak environment, colour is added to the text by the prisoners’ frequent attempts to undermine the system, a favourite being when one chap in the stables inserted a button under the saddle of Rudolf Hoss, so that when the camp commandant came for his daily ride, the horse would buck.
Witold was very successful in creating an underground movement within the camp and he soon dreamed of an insurrection. But first he had to alert the Allies to the fact that Auschwitz was an extermination camp, and not “just” a concentration camp. The unwillingness of the Allies to accept this was, to 21st century eyes, shameful. But one should remember that anti-semitism was widespread around Europe (not the least in Poland, where locals were quick avail themselves of the property of imprisoned Jews). There were plenty of far right apologists for Nazi Germany in the UK (I will be reviewing a book about them soon). The Polish General Sikorski, who was the target for Witold’s later request that the camp be bombed, saw the threat of Auschwitz as one against Poles rather than Jews. Although the Allies in due course developed bombers with the range to reach Auschwitz (witness the raid on Peenemunde in August 1943), they did not accede to this diversion of the war effort.
By November 1942 Witold had engineered the escape of a colleague, the quaintly named Napoleon, who showed great perseverance in making it to the UK in a journey of nearly 6 months. He carried Witold’s oral testimony. Witold himself made it to Warsaw in August 1943 and the tales of the Warsaw uprising are as tragic as earlier chapters. The scale of SS reprisals was appalling, and the book underlines the Allies' shame in selling Poland down the Vistula.
That Witold died at the hands of the Soviets rather than the Nazis is perhaps the ultimate tragedy of this book. Extremely thoroughly researched, and very well written, this book is highly recommended.
The occasional aviation scene is not handled that well: a Whitley bomber, with a cargo of agents to parachute into Poland, “lurched” down the runway at Stradishall – wrong verb.