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Obituary: Joe Tarnowski, electronics engineer and intelligence officer

Joe Tarnowski, electronics engineer and intelligence officer. Born: 19 March, 1922, in Maniewicze, Poland (now Ukraine). Died: 12 September, 2010, in Edinburgh, aged 88.

When 17-year-old Josef (Joe) Tarnowski was sentenced to ten years in the Siberian Gulag at his show trial on Christmas Eve, 1940, he knew that what he had been handed was intended as a death sentence.

But the young Polish freedom fighter, a member of the Armia Krajowa (the AK, the "Home Army"), was to survive the frozen hell of the Soviet Gulag and embark on a remarkable odyssey which would take him half-way round the world before he disembarked at Gourock in 1943, a member of the Free Polish Forces, and a young man whose journeys had just begun.

He was born in Maniewicze in eastern Poland (now western Ukraine) on 19 March, 1922 and his childhood, as he described it in his autobiography Walking with Shadows, was in many ways idyllic. He often said that the healthy, outdoor life and the wholesome organic food of his youth was what helped him survive the Gulag both physically and mentally.

The idyll was to end for this intelligent and conscientious student in September 1939 when the Soviet army crashed into Eastern Poland to claim its part of the spoils under the secret protocols of the Nazi-Soviet Pact.

Part of Tarnowski's intelligence gathering for the AK was to record the kinds of stock and material which the Soviets were transporting in huge amounts to Nazi Germany to help its war effort in the west.

It was only a matter of time before Tarnowski was arrested by the NKVD (latterly the KGB), badly tortured and sentenced to Vorkuta in the Arctic Circle, his transportation orders signed by Nikita Khrushchev as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Ukraine (eastern Poland having been annexed by the USSR).

As a Soviet slave in the criminal kingdom that was the Gulag, Tarnowski survived some three months in reasonable health partly due to the protection of a (former Soviet) General Mirsky, a fellow prisoner, who kept an eye on his work "quota" and rations.

But he then developed scurvy and knew death was imminent until, as he liked to put it: "Hitler inadvertently saved my life".

With the German invasion of the USSR, the Polish slaves became "comrades" overnight and Tarnowski and his fellow prisoners were to undertake another gruelling journey in cattle trucks, this time to Uzbekistan.Surviving malaria, Tarnowski eventually passed into the British sector in Iran on the "blood wagon" (the military ambulance).

He then volunteered for the Polish Paratroop Brigade, travelling through Persia, Syria and Palestine before boarding a transport ship at Suez which was to take him to Scotland via South Africa, the Antarctic Ocean, Rio de Janeiro and Sierra Leone, a zigzag course designed to avoid U-Boats.

After hospitalisation in Perthshire due to recurrent bouts of malaria, Tarnowski began his paratroop training at the "Monkey Grove" in Upper Largo and underwent what he called the "Pittenweem experience" where the ladies of Fife introduced the young Poles to Scottish customs, songs and dances. At a dance in Fife in early 1944 he met his future wife Janet before he was eventually dropped into the bloody slaughter of Arnhem.

At the close of the war Tarnowski was a soldier-policeman among the ruins of the Third Reich. In September 1945 he entered Portsmouth technical college to train as an engineer and applied for British citizenship as any return to Soviet controlled Poland would have meant almost certain death.

In August 1947 he married Janet and in 1952 their only daughter Josephine (Jose) was born (from her previous marriage Janet also had a daughter, Janice, of whom Tarnowski was extremely fond).

As an electronics engineer during the Cold War Tarnowski had difficulties in finding employment and in gaining promotion as many electronics and telecommunications companies worked on government contracts and regarded his Polish origins with suspicion.

This was something which rankled in the soul of the Gulag survivor but Tarnowski had a well-developed sense of irony and never knowingly underestimated the stupidities of British officialdom. It was with the multi-national ITT that he was to find his career at the cutting-edge of the new technology and to travel to almost every country in western Europe (as well as the USA) with his work.

In the early 1970s he did some project work in South Africa but refused to live there. When he saw the black townships surrounded by barbed wire he knew "it was the Gulag all over again".

In the late 1970s he spent several years living and working in West Germany where he was treated as "British".

Though his Polish origins (and name) were obvious they were never mentioned. He made two visits to a bleak Communist Poland in the 1970s to visit his widowed mother; visits he found deeply disturbing.

It was not just the attentions of the secret police; he could not believe the poverty which the Soviets had visited upon Poland as a matter of policy.

When Janet took ill they retired to St Andrew's in her native Fife. Janet died on Christmas Eve, 1988.After a difficult period or re-adjustment, Tarnowski took up voluntary work with the charity BESO (British Executive Service Overseas) which involved many trips to post-Communist Poland to help new businesses grow in the economic desert left by the collapse of the command economy.

Through BESO he was to meet his partner of later life, Margaret Dryden (as well as former Polish president Lech Walesa) and in December 2000 he received an MBE for his tireless work in promoting British-Polish industrial and educational links.

In 1999 he was also awarded the Polish Silver Order of Merit and in June 2006 he received a second award: Officer of the Polish Order of Merit (equivalent to a British OBE).

Throughout his life, Tarnowski never lost sight of his Polishness and remade and maintained many friendships with pre-War Polish and Jewish friends.

Very much of a Liberal cast of mind, he deplored the communist ruin of Poland but, equally, he warned nave Polish entrepreneurs against the excesses of Thatcherism.

Widely read, he had a deep interest in history and culture.

He always felt that the Polish contribution to the Allied war effort was greatly undervalued and, like many Polish combatants, he felt insulted by the British government's refusal to allow the Free Polish Forces to take part in the Victory Parade in London in 1945 for fear of offending Stalin

Very much a warm-hearted family man, Tarnowski had charm and wit. When, in May 2006, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands awarded the Royal Order of King William of Orange to the Ist Polish Parachute Brigade for its distinguished and outstanding acts of bravery, skill and devotion to duty at the Battle of Arnhem, he commented: "In some Scottish circles that might make me unique - a Catholic Orangeman!"

He is survived by his daughter Jose, his step-daughter Janice and his partner Margaret.

 
 
 

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