Waclaw Chrystyn has had an astonishing life. Born in Poland less than five years after the end of the First World War, as a young man he survived Nazi labour camps during the Second World War before escaping to fight with the Polish army. Later, after he settled in Yorkshire, he was awarded one of the country’s highest honours for helping to save the life of a miner trapped undergound at Water Haigh colliery.
Equally remarkable is the story of Waclaw’s wife Emilia, also from Poland, who was forcibly transported to Siberia from where she travelled to Iran and then a British colony in Africa before she too came to England to marry a man who she only knew through his letters.
Waclaw (or Walter in English) was born in the summer of 1923 on a small family farm near the village of Horochow in the Wolyn district of what was then eastern Poland. His father and mother, Piotyr (Peter) and Antonina, were tenants on about 16 acres of land, half of it given over to crops and the rest as grazing for horses, cows, pigs and hens. In other parts of the country there was starvation but as a child Waclaw believes his family were not poor and had a “middle” standard of living.
After leaving school when he was 14 Waclaw helped on the farm. Then a couple of years later their landlord, a woman who had a substantial estate, paid for him to be trained to be a farm foreman at an agricultural college in the city of Lwow about 60 miles away. However he was only there for a short time before Adolf Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 triggering the Second World War. Under an agreement with Germany the Soviet Union also invaded from the east and Poland was carved up between them.
Just before the war Waclaw managed to return home where he was briefly a member of the local territorial defence force but within three weeks of the German invasion the Polish government and what remained of the army had to retreat into Romania. For the next two years he remembers living relatively peacefully in German controlled territory. Things took a turn for the worse though in 1942 when, along with two other young men from his village, he was detained and taken to a series of labour camps before ending up at Tilsit in what was then East Prussia. After the war the city became part of the Soviet Union and is now part of Russia on the border with Lithuania near the port of Kaliningrad.
From Tilsit, in 1943, he was taken to another camp near Ljubljana in Yugoslavia where he was put to work maintaining railway lines which were often attacked by the Yugoslav partisans. It was during one attack that his German guards were overcome and he escaped with others and joined the partisans. Working with them was a Polish officer who organised for Waclaw and about 30 other Polish men to be smuggled on to a fishing boat near the port of Trieste on the Adriatic coast. Hidden in the hold they were taken out to sea and eventually found themselves docking at Alexandria, one of the main British bases in Egypt.
By then a significant part of the Polish army had also made their way to the Middle East. After the 1939 invasion hundreds of thousands of Poles had been deported to Soviet slave labour camps on the orders of Josef Stalin. Many died including over twenty thousand who were murdered and buried in mass graves in the Katyn forest by the Soviet secret police. Those who survived spent weeks in appalling conditions crammed into cattle trucks on trains travelling east.
Release for the survivors from the “gulag” camps came in the summer of 1941 after the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union. In a deal, brokered by the British, Stalin signed a pact with the Polish government-in-exile freeing their soldiers and civilians. They then travelled, as best they could by train and then boat across the Caspian Sea, to British controlled Iran and Iraq where at first they defended the oil fields. Known as the “Anders Army” they were led by General Wladyslaw Anders who had been tortured in the infamous Lubyanka prison in Moscow.
When the prospect of an attack by the Germans began to fade the Anders Army was transferred to Palestine to prepare to take part in the Allied invasion of Italy. They were combined with other units which had fought alongside the British in North Africa and became officially known as the Polish Second Corps (2 Korpus Polski). Sometime in late 1943 or early 1944 it was this 45,000 strong force that Waclaw Chrystin joined and was trained as a tank driver, first with the 15th Poznan Lancers and then the 10th Hussars.
By April 1944 Waclaw had landed at Bari in Italy ready to begin the long slog north as the Polish Second Corps fought as part of the British 8th Army. Other sections from the corps took part in the last decisive assault during the Battle of Monte Cassino which wrested control from the Germans but cost thousands of Allied lives. Meanwhile Waclaw’s unit kept to the Adriatic coast until they eventually reached Bologna in April 1945 after much heavy fighting.
It was during this period that Waclaw met his future wife’s younger brother. Wladyslaw Puc (pronounced Vladek Putch) was a gunner in the same unit and one day Waclaw caught sight of a photograph he had. It was Wladyslaw’s sister and Waclaw asked if he could write to her. So began an international correspondence that lasted for over four years until Waclaw and Emilia Puc eventually met for the first time in Engand after the war.
It turned out that Emilia, who was born in 1924, had lived about five miles to the west of the city of Rowne and just over 60 miles to the east of Waclaw’s home village. Emilia’s father, Mieczyslaw Puc, had served in the First World War and had been granted a 10 acre farm which in 1939 ended up in the Soviet controlled part of Poland.
Consequently Emilia, her mother Maria, father and brother were all deported to a gulag camp in the forest near the city of Kotlas in northern Russia, a region with bitterly cold winters and short hot summers.
The family managed to survive intact throughout 1940 and the following winter. Then in 1941, along with other Poles, they were granted their freedom and set off on another long journey heading for Iran crowded on to a train of cattle trucks with no seats or toilets. It was as they were passing near the city of Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), to the east of the Ural Mountains, that Emilia’s father died. He was only 49 and his unnamed body had to be left behind at a railway station.
Joining other fleeing Polish exiles Emilia, her mother and brother, made their way into the mountains of Uzbekhistan. A diary they kept indicates they passed through Tashkent and Samarkand before staying for a while in the Guzar area where they built a mud and straw hut to live in whilst fending off poisonous snakes. After that they made another long trek to Krasnovodsk (now Turkmenbasy) on the Caspian Sea and went by boat to the safety of the Iranian port of Pahlavi. By then it was under Allied control after the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran in August 1941 undertaken to protect the oil fields and the Persian Corridor supply route to the Soviet Union, now a western ally after being attacked and invaded by Nazi forces.
After landing in Iran the Pucs were taken to one of five transit camps in Tehran where, by all accounts, they and thousands of other refugees were warmly welcomed by the Iranian people despite food shortages. Emilia had contracted malaria on the journey and was treated at one of the hospitals. After recuperating her brother was sent to Iraq to join the Anders Army. Meanwhile Emilia and her mother set out on the next stage of their odyssey.
It’s not clear if they were given a choice but the plan was to send the civilians to various colonial outposts of the British Empire as well as Mexico. The destinations included New Zealand, India, Uganda, Kenya and South Africa. Maria and Emilia were taken by boat from southern Iran to Mombassa and from there to the relatively peaceful backwater of Lusaka in what was then Northern Rhodesia. Emilia earned five pounds a month as a nanny for a British army doctor’s family and her mother worked in the camp’s kitchen. It must have been a stark contrast to the deprivations of the previous three years.
Once they’d established contact Waclaw and Emilia wrote regularly to each other with few, if any, of the letters going astray thanks to the efficiency of the British Army’s postal service. In later life Emilia destroyed the surviving correspondence but between them they must have entertained thoughts of returning home to Poland after the war. However that was not to be thanks to the agreements, and broken promises, made at the Yalta conference in the Crimea in February 1945.
At Yalta, attended by the “Big Three” – Winston Churchill, President Roosevelt and Josef Stalin – the Soviet Union was allowed to keep the Polish territory it had annexed at the start of the war. This meant Waclaw and Emilia’s family homes would become part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and at the end of the Cold War in the 1990s their land would remain in modern day Ukraine. Stalin had given a guarantee that in the rest of Poland free elections would be held but he reneged on the deal and a communist government was installed.
Most of the Polish servicemen who had fought valiantly with the Allied forces, in Italy and elsewhere, felt betrayed by the Yalta decisions and feared returning to live in a totalitarian communist controlled state so they opted to stay in the west. Tens of thousands of them, Waclaw Chrystyn included, took up Churchill’s offer of jobs and homes and came to the United Kingdom. At first they were placed in the Polish Resettlement Corps, still in uniform and under military discipline, but with the aim of giving them educational opportunities and finding work.
During 1946 Waclaw came to England and lived at a camp near Petworth in Sussex where he learned to cook for Polish officers. Then, after visiting a labour exchange, he volunteered to become a coal miner.
As with other industries after the war, including agriculture, iron and steel, textiles and transport, the coal industry was suffering from a shortage of manpower. To alleviate this in 1947 government officials devised a scheme whereby Polish recruits were given basic training at five centres around the country, and accommodation at hostels, which had previously been used by “Bevin Boys” during the war.
An agreement was drawn up between the newly formed National Coal Board and the National Union of Mineworkers stipulating that local union branches had to give their consent before Poles could be employed at their pit. Polish miners were required to join the union and they would also be the first to be made redundant if it could be proved that their continued employment prevented a British miner being taken on.
Despite these requirements it appears that the Poles, and those from other nationalities recruited from refugee camps as European Volunteer Workers, were welcomed into mining areas across England, Scotland and Wales. By the end of 1948 there were about 15,000 of them. A survey carried out at pits in South Wales reported that “Polish miners are full of grand spirit and keenness… showing extremely good discipline and understanding of needs in our present economic struggle.”
The local communities were said to take every opportunity to show how much they were interested in the newcomers and colliery officials noted that hard working Poles were valued as piece and contract workers underground by the existing workforce. At every pit it was stressed: “They are fine chaps, a grand batch of keen workers, very reliable and full of initiative, well behaved and of a friendly attitude towards everybody, highly respecting and preserving the unity and spirit of the local community.”
As an inexperienced miner Waclaw Chrystyn spent about four weeks in 1947 at the Askern training centre between Knottingley and Doncaster before being sent to his first pit, St. John’s near Normanton, where he finished his training. He initially worked as a ripper removing rock and setting rings or arches along the underground roadways known as gates. Later he graduated to be a fully qualified miner at the coal face using a pick and shovel to load shotfired coal onto conveyor belts. At first he lived in the miners’ hostel in Castleford before he placed an advert in a local newspaper looking for his own room in a lodging house.
Emilia and Waclaw continued to write monthly to each other and in 1948 she and her mother sailed from Cape Town to Southampton on the Arundel Castle, a mail boat and passenger steamship operated by the Union-Castle company. Along with 600 other refugees, including children and the elderly, they landed on the 30th of May and were sent to a resettlement camp at Daglingworth near Cirencester. It was there that she met Waclaw face to face for the first time. Shortly afterwards mother and daughter moved via Browning camp near Horsham to one near Worthing where Emilia worked in a laundry. After Waclaw made several visits south they were married at Worthing on 22 January 1949. Her brother also came to England and after marrying a local woman settled in Sussex where he became a council worker.
In Castleford the Chrystyns lived in lodgings and Emilia took a job at Town Tailor’s factory on Albion Street. In two years they had saved up enough to put a deposit on their first house on Wood Street near the town centre and just around the corner from the factory. They moved in in 1951, the same year Emilia gave birth to twin boys at the maternity hospital in Wakefield. Maria Puc also came to live with them.
Around this time Waclaw moved to work at Water Haigh colliery at Woodlesford working on the 6 am start day shift and commuting by West Riding bus to a stop on Methley lane followed by a short walk across the fields to the pit. The main reason for the move was the colliery’s modern baths which meant he could return home in the afternoon to his young family washed and in clean clothes. In January 1955 both the Chrystyns became naturalised British citizens.
After the drama of his youth Waclaw was probably not expecting any further excitement but one day in February 1956, whilst he was on a coalface in the Beeston seam at Water Haigh, there was an unexpected rockfall and he took part in attempts to rescue two fellow miners.
The men, Bill Higgins and Harry Ellis, had been breaking into a new section of the seam which crossed a fault in the rock. It displaced the coal in a vertical direction and for some reason the bars they were using to support the roof gave way and they were buried under the fall.
The nearest man to them was Charlie Gibbons from Kippax and he was first on the scene pulling at the rubble to try and get them out. Waclaw Chrystyn was about 70 yards away. He knew there was something wrong when the face conveyor stopped working and he rushed to join Charlie in the rescue. The pit’s manager, Billy Williams, was on the surface at the time of the fall and went down to take charge. Other men formed a line to take away the rubble and dump it into an area known as the gob, from where the coal had been mined.
After several hours of digging Bill Higgins was extracted and taken to the surface for first aid and then to hospital. With Harry Ellis still buried there was another fall of rock and by the time the rescuers reached him late in the evening he was dead.
Unusually there appears to have been no contemporary report of the accident in local newspapers and if a formal inquest took place the records of that have been lost from the archives. The fullest written account of what happened came a few months later when it was announced in the London Gazette that Waclaw Chrystyn, Billy Williams and Charlie Gibbons had been awarded medals for their bravery.
The citation provided fuller details of the rescue: “A fall of roof occured burying two colliers at the coalface side of the fall. It was clear at this stage that both men were alive as they could be heard. Gibbons, who was working about 8 yards away, at once went to the spot and removed debris until joined by Williams and Chrystyn. Williams, who had been on the surface at the time of the accident, took charge. He realised there was a danger of further falls and erected a protection over the trapped men. He and Chrystyn then continued their efforts to free the men.
”During the whole period they were in a position of extreme danger, the roof and sides being in such a state that a collapse could have occured at any time. At 3.15 pm one man was released but there was another large fall which completely buried the second man. The rescuers continued their efforts until 10 pm when the dead body of the second man was recovered.
”Williams and Chrsytyn were in extreme personal danger the whole of the time and nothing could be done to provide them with protection from further falls. Without thought or regard for their own safety Williams and Chrystyn calmly, quietly, and with great skill persevered with their rescue work. Gibbons was also exposed to danger of further falls, and displayed courage and endurance.”
The events of that day were still fresh in Waclaw’s mind 62 years later although, given the passage of time, his memory of some of the details varied slightly from the official account. He remembered putting up timber for protection and being at the front of the rescue effort using a shovel and hammer to get at the fallen rock. When they pulled Bill Higgins away he had said: “Take me away, take me away.” He had no memory of Harry Ellis saying anything at all.
The day after the accident Waclaw returned to work on the same shift and was interviewed in the pit’s canteen about his role in the rescue by an official. Several months went by and then he received a letter congratulating him on winning the George Medal, instituted in 1940 by King George VI, the country’s second highest honour for civilian bravery. He was sworn to secrecy until the official announcement was made in the London Gazette on 9 October. Billy Williams was given the same award and Charlie Gibbons was given the British Empire Medal. Tragically he was to never know, as he was killed when his motorbike was hit by a lorry on Swillington Bridge whilst he was on way to work on a foggy day just two weeks before news of the awards came out.
Waclaw Chrystyn and Billy Williams received their medals at the last of five autumn investitures in the white and gold State Ballroom at Buckingham Place on Tuesday 27 November 1956. They were accompanied on the all expenses Coal Board trip to London by their wives who attended the ceremony to watch the Queen, in “a burgundy brocade patterned dress, diamond brooch and pearls,” talk to their husbands for three minutes each. In what must have been a bittersweet moment for her, Kathleen Gibbons, Charlie’s widow, was sitting with them.
Waclaw told the Yorkshire Evening News that the Queen had asked him how long he had been in Britain and where he came from in Poland. Billy Williams said she remarked that she had a tremendous admiration for all people who worked underground. “It was a very proud moment for me. I was greatly impressed by the Queen’s informality,” he said.
Also honoured that day were over 160 others including service men and women who had fought in Malaya, two policemen for their rescue of a man from a burning carriage in the Barnes railway disaster, and Ernest Musgrave, the director of Leeds City Art Gallery and Temple Newsam House, who received an OBE.
After talking to reporters and having their photographs taken the party from Water Haigh were treated to lunch by the Coal Board. That evening they all went to the Palladium to see a long running show called “Rocking the Town” starring the singer and comedian Harry Secombe, pianist Winifred Attwell, singer Alma Cogan, and the comedy and character actress Beryl Reid. The next day they returned to Yorkshire by train from Kings Cross and, according to the Evening News, Billy and Waclaw were back at work at Water Haigh on the Thursday morning.
Unfortunately it appears there was jealousy from some sections of the workforce at Water Haigh towards Waclaw Chrystyn for his award. It made him feel uncomfortable so after a few months he decided to leave and moved to Whitwood colliery. When that pit closed in 1968 he returned to St. John’s and from there in 1973 he went to Ackton Hall colliery near Featherstone where he stayed until he retired with redundancy pay in 1983.
Despite the horror and suffering of their early adult years Waclaw and Emilia Chrystyn had long and fulfilled lives and they took much comfort from their membership of the Roman Catholic Church. During the Cold War Waclaw could only write to his surviving relatives and wasn’t allowed to return to his home village. After the break up of the Soviet Union in the 1990s he was finally able to travel to see his younger brother in the Ukraine and he also came to Yorkshire.
Emilia Chrystyn, who had been ill for a number of years, passed away peacefully at home at the age of 91 in 2016. Her mother, who was naturalised in 1973, had died aged 94 in 1997.
Waclaw continues to prosper and he is now a great grandfather. Looking back on his life he said: “I lucky to go through that. Believe me, I lucky.”
Click on the links below to listen to Waclaw’s story.
From Poland to Italy and Africa