I am thinking quite a lot about families at the moment as I am about to become a grandfather for the first time. Seventy-five years ago both of my son’s grandfathers were serving in the Allied armed forces so the 2020 celebration of Victory in Europe Day is an appropriate time to write about them. Neither wanted to be a soldier but events sometimes override personal ambitions and plans. The war trampled across their lives and altered their futures. However, the way they dealt with the experience was shaped by the values they had learnt, at least in part, from their parents.
My father, Kenneth Hubbleday, was conscripted into the army as a 19-year old in 1942. He had left school at 14 and worked in the Post Office as a telegram boy delivering messages on a BSA Bantam motorbike. Much to his father’s annoyance, he left this steady job and went to work on Birmingham market for a friend of the family. In his spare time, he looked after his racing pigeons, went fishing and tinkered with a cherished BSA 350.
When he was called up, he spent an unhappy two months at Catterick where he had all of his money stolen by a fellow recruit before being posted to the Royal Armoured Corps. He was assigned the role of a gunner in a tank regiment and he detested it. Luckily for him, someone spotted that he was a fish out of water and, after only three weeks, he was transferred to the Royal Corps of Signals. He remained there for the next five years.
He was sent to North Africa and served as a despatch rider in the 8th Army under General Montgomery. He was then transferred to the carrier pigeon unit because of the knowledge his hobby had given him before the war. He had fallen on his feet and he was made a Lance-Corporal. The only thing which threatened to spoil this happy situation was when his officers began talking of parachuting them into the Balkans to work with resistance fighters behind the lines.
In the end this didn’t happen but something else occurred which was an ordeal he wouldn’t have expected. He stood up for his men when they were ordered unfairly by a corporal to do extra duties. He could have kept quiet but he didn’t and as a result he was punished for insubordination. He was sent to the ‘glasshouse’, the army’s prison, and had to endure being treated as a hardened offender. He refused to talk about it other than to tell me once that the guards were sadists. When he was released, his commanding officer gave him money to go for a drink and made it clear that he was appalled by the whole business.
After the allied successes in North Africa, the 8th Army crossed the Mediterranean to Sicily and began fighting its way northwards. The battle for Italy was a tough campaign and it took much longer than expected for the Allies to reach Rome and then the Alps. The Battle for Monte Cassino held up progress for the first five months of 1944. Eventually, dad’s unit reached Austria in 1945. He then spent his happiest time of the whole war waiting to be demobilised while living on a farm where he was allowed to exercise the horses.
He arrived back in England in 1947, having been the only one of his nine brothers and sisters to have been called up. His discharge papers contained the following testimonial written by the major who had been his commanding officer: He is a good, keen and efficient worker who is always willing to assist in any work in excess of his normal duties. A thoroughly decent and reliable character.
He spent the rest of his life as an electrician working for his sister Doris and her husband Ron out of premises on the Stratford Road in Shirley. He was a quiet and thoughtful man with many practical skills and anyone who knew him would have recognised the truth of the army’s testimonial. Very sadly, he died of pancreatic cancer in 1985 when he was only 62.
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The account that follows of my son’s other grandfather is based on some remarkable research which my brother-in-law, Chris Rowan, has done. I have produced only a brief summary of a detailed history which he has written.
My wife’s father was Ignacy Romaszko who was born in 1915, two years before the Russian revolution, in a small village in the west of tsarist Russia. In 1921, the area became Polish and that is how Ignacy thought of himself. His parents were peasants but his father was a skilled carpenter and had worked in St Petersburg to earn enough money to buy a small farm.
Ignacy won a scholarship to a college in Vilnius where he trained to be a teacher, graduating in 1935. He then began two years compulsory military service followed by service in the reserves. On September 1st 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland and Ignacy, who was now teaching in Vilnius, was called up for active duty. He returned home briefly to pack his bags before going back to defend the city with the 1st Legions Infantry Regiment. This was the last time he was to see his family or homeland.
The Polish reservists were heavily outnumbered by the German forces and short of heavy weapons. It was decided that they should evacuate to the neutral country of Lithuania, where they were interned. Meanwhile, Soviet Russia had invaded Poland from the east and begun a systematic extermination of officers and intellectuals. Lithuania was forced to cooperate and in July 1940, Ignacy was put in a freight wagon on a train and sent to the first of several Russian prison camps. His final destination in June 1941 was a forced labour camp on the Kola Peninsula, north of the Arctic Circle.
The conditions were inhumane and Ignacy was fortunate that within a month of arriving at the camp, Russia was invaded by Germany and came over to the Allied side. The imprisoned Polish soldiers were released but continued to be mistreated in the chaotic circumstances of the next few months. Eventually, a Polish army was reconstituted under General Anders, a former Polish cavalry commander, and Ignacy was appointed a platoon commander. After many months of wrangling between Russia, Poland and Britain, ‘Anders’ Army’, as it became known, moved to Uzbekistan and then to Iran where Britain wanted them to defend the oilfields.
In May 1942, Ignacy was transferred to Palestine, which was under British control, and assigned to the 3rd Carpathian Rifles Division. This was at a time when Britain feared that German forces in North Africa might overrun the British and capture the Suez Canal. However, this didn’t happen and at the beginning of 1943, Britain recruited Polish soldiers to join the RAF. Ignacy was selected and shipped to Greenock, Scotland in June. He was trained as a navigator and finished the war as a Flying Officer and the Adjutant at the Polish Air Force Apprentices School, RAF Halton.
After the war, Poland became part of the Soviet Republic and it was dangerous for Poles in exile to return since they were treated as traitors by Moscow. Ignacy made a new life in England and retrained as a teacher. At the end of his course, the Principal of Loughborough Training College wrote the following testimonial: He has wide experience of life and a resulting maturity of outlook. Of his character and personality one cannot speak too highly. He is most willing to co-operate, has an unusual courtesy of manner, and should prove a particularly acceptable colleague.
Ignacy changed his surname to Rowan to make it easier to fit in to his new homeland. He died of leukaemia tragically young in 1959 and links with his Polish family were gradually lost as the Cold War made communication impossible. In 2019, his son, Chris, managed to trace some branches of the family in Belarus and my wife and I joined him on a visit there. The Romaszko cousins were delightful and Ignacy had not been forgotten. Ironically, one of the cousins had been a colonel in the Russian army during the Cold War and his career had suffered because of his link with the West.
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The reunion was an emotional and uplifting occasion for all of us. Family ties are important and understanding something of your family’s history is important too. So tomorrow we will be remembering the past but, as a grandfather-in-waiting, I have written this blog for the future, for someone about to be born who will hopefully read it when he begins to wonder about the past that has helped to shape him.
7 May 2020