Obituary: Jadwiga Pilsudska-Jaraczewska, pilot

Polish chief of state's daughter who flew under RAF command during the war. Picture: Contributed
Polish chief of state's daughter who flew under RAF command during the war. Picture: Contributed
Have your say

BORN: 28 February, 1920, in Warsaw. Died: 16 November, 2014, aged 94.

During the Second World War 14 Polish air force squadrons under overall RAF command flew from Britain’s shores. Three Polish women pilots also flew, albeit not in combat, amongst them Jadwiga Pilsudska. She was the last of the three to survive. They served with the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) and their duty was to safely deliver planes from factories to RAF bases.

Jadwiga was born in Warsaw in 1920, the second daughter of Jozef Pilsudski, Poland’s then chief of state. She was hardly six months old when in August 1920 Pilsudski decisively defeated the Red Army at the gates of Warsaw.

The victory saved Poland’s new-found independence after 125 years of partition between the Prussian, Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires.

Pilsudski was born in 1867 in the area under Russian domination. His was a minor landed gentry family, patriotically Polish and strongly Catholic. He became a socialist revolutionary fighting czarist rule but Polish independence was his ultimate goal.

In this he differed from his near contemporary Feliks Dzierzynski. Wth a similar landed Polish-Catholic background, he became a Bolshevik and in 1917 became the chief of the Soviet Secret Police, the Cheka.

In a 1926 coup d’état Pilsudski overthrew what he saw as a faltering democratically elected government. He became, until his death in 1935, the authoritarian ruler of Poland. The coup would bitterly divide Polish opinion for generations.

Jadwiga and her sister would then live in Warsaw’s Belvedere Palace. She found sport a means to escape the restrictive and stultifying atmosphere of being Pilsudski’s daughter.

She loved tennis, riding and skiing but aviation became her passion and aged 17 she took up gliding.

The German invasion of Poland on 1 September, 1939, followed by the Soviet invasion from the east on 17 September, changed her life. Jadwiga had on the outbreak of war enrolled on a nursing course in Wilno (now Vilnius the Lithuanian capital).

Her mother decided to take her daughters to Lithuania before Wilno fell to the Red Army. The Pilsudski women would have had an uncertain fate had they been captured. From there the family made it to Sweden via Latvia. They were then flown to Britain.

Initially Jadwiga enrolled on an architectural course in Cambridge. With the founding of the ATA in 1940 Jadwiga saw it as her duty to take a active part in the war as a pilot.

The remarks made by the Commanding Officer on completion of her training stated that she was “a most promising pilot of above average ability. In view of her extreme youth she carries herself with a quiet and dignified ease which is exemplary.”

She would complete several hundred hours in the air, ferrying many types of planes. Of these, 69.5 hours were in Hurricanes and Spitfires.

In January 1944 she was released from the ATA to continue her architectural studies in the Polish School of Architecture attached to Liverpool University.

She felt that she would serve the reconstruction of her country as an architect. Her sister Wanda was at the time completing her medical studies in Edinburgh.

Edinburgh University had hospitably facilitated the formation of a Polish Medical School and a Polish Veterinary School, allowing Polish refugees to complete studies they had started before the outbreak of war.

In 1944 Jadwiga married Andrzej Jaraczewski, a Polish naval officer. He was watch officer on ORP Burza, one of three Polish destroyers that reached Scottish waters and Leith on 1 September, 1939.

Anxiously awaiting the turn of events, the crews were relieved when on 3 September Britain declared war on Germany. The Polish ships were soon in action alongside the Royal Navy.

These Poles were the precursors of the 20,000 Polish servicemen who would be stationed in Scotland after the fall of France in the summer of 1940.

Jaraczewski would later command a motor torpedo boat, one of several crewed by Poles. In the Channel these fast craft would be pitted against German E-boats.

Victory in Europe in 1945 did not bring the freedom the Poles had hoped for. Their country was to fall under Soviet domination. Most of the Poles who had fought under overall British command chose a life of exile.

Jadwiga, the daughter of the man who defeated the Soviets in 1920, would hardly have been welcomed back. The Jaraczewskis settled in London. For a time she worked as an architect for the London County Council and then with her husband run a furniture business.

In June 1977 the couple took part in the Thames River Pageant celebrating the Queen’s silver jubilee crewing a former motor torpedo boat.

With their son and daughter, the couple became active supporters of Poland’s Solidarity movement. Soon after the fall of communism and the advent of democratic rule in Poland the Jaraczewkis, with Jadwiga’s sister Wanda, returned to Poland in 1990.

The Pilsudski sisters would find themselves feted as the daughters of, to many, one of Poland’s great heroes. They would give their energies to a project for a museum dedicated to their father’s memory in what had been the family’s modest manor.

Jadwiga was widowed in 1992 and her sister Wanda died in 2001.