Thursday, November 11, 2010

In Foreign Fields

In practically every town and village in Kent you will come across memorials, such as the one pictured below, commemorating many thousands of men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice during two World Wars.

Visit any churchyard in Kent and you will find the neatly tended graves of service personnel, not only from Britain but Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and other far flung corners of the former British Empire.

Here are the stories behind two of those many thousands, both buried in foreign fields.

The memorial at St Peter & St Paul church in Farningham includes the name of my great uncle William Wansbury.

He was born in Kent in 1919 and joined the RAF in 1938, eventually progressing to the rank of Aircraftman 1st Class (ground crew).

In February 1942 RAF personnel, including William, were sent to assist in the defence of the Dutch East Indies which were being invaded by the Japanese.

The combined Dutch, British and Australian forces on Java were not able to withstand the ferocious Japanese onslaught.

On 8th March 1942, William was taken prisoner.

In April 1943 a contingent of around 2000 "fit and healthy" British and Australian POW's were shipped in inhumane conditions to a small coral island called Haruku in the Moluccas.

Those who had not died during the long voyage from Java were immediately set to work building an airfield which the Japanese intended to use as a base for bomber missions against Australia.

Using only primitive hand tools the prisoners were forced to break coral all day long in an attempt to level the ground for the runway whilst enduring continual maltreatment from the brutal Japanese guards.

Tropical diseases including dysentery, malaria and beri beri were rife in the camp and claimed the lives of over 400 men in the space of a few short months.

William succumbed to malnutrition and disease on 14th September 1943 aged just 23.

He is buried on the neighbouring island of Ambon with nearly 2000 further victims of the Japanese war crimes in a cemetery immaculately maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Flight Lieutenant Zdzislaw Henryk Przygodzki is buried in Watling Street Cemetery in Dartford.

He was born on 12th July 1918 and flew with 316 "City of Warsaw" Polish fighter squadron which was formed in 1941.

Several Polish squadrons were formed during the Second World War and they fought with distinction during the Battle of Britain.

On 8th September 1944, Flight Lieutenant Przygodzki took off from RAF Coltishall in his North American Mustang III fighter FB345, possibly on a mission to intercept incoming V1 rockets.

Due to bad weather he was forced to return to base and for unexplained reasons his aircraft crash landed near Bayfield Hall in Norfolk.

I have not been able to find out so far why Flight Lieutenant Przygodzki was buried in Kent and not nearer to the crash site in Norfolk.

The grave is sadly in neglected state at the moment. There is, however, a chance that this situation may be rectified.

I recently sent a copy of my photograph of Flight Lieutenant Przygodzki's grave to the founder of a web site called Polish War Graves. The web site commemorates many thousands of Polish servicemen laid to rest in the UK and other European countries.

He was in contact with a member of the Polish Government and brought up the condition of Flight Lieutenant Przygodski's grave and was given an assurance that "something would be done about it".

Only time will tell whether a Polish politician is any better than a British one, at keeping his word!

If you would like to leave a comment, please do so, they are always very welcome.

Further reading from the archives...

The White Cross of Shoreham

The Hurricane and Spitfire Memorial

Remembering "The Few" in Kent


  1. Good post! I think the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission fulfilled a critically important role as soon as WW1 ended. Largely the bodies could never be brought back to Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and India. They had to do the best they could, memorialising those brave young men wherever they lay - Belgium, France, Israel.

    My grandfather was luckier than your great uncle. He was injured terribly, but at least he lived.

  2. Glen, this is a moving post.

    Good luck in your bid to persuade the Polish Government to pay towards the improvement of Flight Lieutenant Pryzgodski's grave. The efforts of Polish airmen in World War Two are often overlooked in Britain.

  3. A poignant post.

    Polish service personnel made huge sacrifices for our freedom.

  4. @Hels - thanks for the comment. The graves and war memorials are visible reminders of those who died but the ones who were injured like your grandfather and sometimes had to suffer their whole lives must also not be forgotten.

    @Walk Talk Tours - Hi Phil - I was obviously aware of the Polish air crew that served during WWII but it never occurred to me that there would be war graves in two of our local cemeteries (the other one contains a Polish sailor's grave).

    You would think with all the Polish tradesmen currently living in this country it should be fairly easy to organise a restoration party for Flight Lieutenant Przygoski's grave.

  5. A very good post. I learned a lot reading this, for i am from the United States, and have not heard of this before. By the way, thank you for the comment on my poem "Veterans Day" :)

  6. Hi Glen, a poignant post. I hope the Polish politicians come up trumps for you.
    I watched the remembrance service on TV and found the roll call of all those who had died this last year heart-breaking - it seems 'lest we forget' doesn't apply to the politicians as we always seem to be engaged in some conflict or war.
    My great grandfather died at Gallipoli and his name is on the memorial there and also on the memorial in his home village.
    We never knew where he had died and the Commonwealth war Commission were fantastic in helping us find out. Although he lived in Yorkshire, my great grandfather was born in Lancashire and so was assigned to the Munster Fusiliers, one of the British Regiments who fought and for the most part died, alongside the Anzacs at Gallipoli.

  7. Gosh, the story of your great uncle is so sad. At 23, people are meant to be vibrant, healthy and strong and I cannot imagine what level of hardship he must have endured. How awful. This is a lovely post and I hope the Polish government come through for Flight Lieutenant Przygodzki's grave!

  8. Hi Glen,
    Thankyou for your comment on my post, and link to this article. It is always good to know more about the names on these memorials, and I agree, the internet is a wonderful way of making connections, then sharing that information for others to find.
    Another of my uncles was a prisoner of the japanese during the war. He came home, but had some terrible stories about his time in Changi.

  9. Very powerful. Remember reading this post. Reminded of it thanks to your post on BlogCatalog.


  10. Hi,
    I ask about the possibility of using photos of the tomb of Henry Przygodzki Zdzislaw on our website

    1. Hi Greg, if you would like to use the photo it is fine with me.