Obituary: Stefan Baluk, SOE agent and photographer

Stefan Baluk: One of the 'Sikorski's tourists' who took refuge in Scotland and later became a courageous SOE agent
Stefan Baluk: One of the 'Sikorski's tourists' who took refuge in Scotland and later became a courageous SOE agent
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Born: 15 January, 1914, in Warsaw. Died: 30 January, 2014, in Warsaw, aged 100

Stefan Baluk was one of many thousands of Polish troops who found refuge in Scotland in 1940. They were to follow the arrival of three Polish destroyers which reached Scottish waters on 1 September, 1939. In the following weeks, two submarines, after an epic escape from the Baltic, also made it to Scotland.

Baluk had been born in 1914, a subject of the Czar of Russia. It would be another four years before Poland would regain independence after 125 years of partition between Prussia, Russia and Austria. When Germany invaded Poland on 1 September, 1939, he had already graduated with a degree in political science and was a law student.

Having previously received training as a cadet officer, he served in a tank battalion in the short-lived but courageous defence of Poland. The country was overwhelmed when Stalin’s Soviet Union, abetting Hitler, invaded from the east on 17 September.

Baluk had evaded capture by the Germans or the Soviets and was able to escape to France via a still- neutral Hungary. His capture by the Soviets would at best have resulted in him being sent to a labour camp, at worst sharing the fate of 20,000 Polish reserve and regular officers executed in 1940 in Katyn and elsewhere.

Polish forces would initially reform, under General Sikorski, in France. With the fall of France in June 1940, General Sikorski, being assured that Britain would not surrender, ordered his troops to make for Britain, that last bastion of resistance to the Nazis.

Some 20,000 Poles – “Sikorski’s tourists”, as Goebbels sneeringly called them – were rescued from the Atlantic coast of France.

Sailing on ships of the Polish and British merchant marines, protected by the Royal Navy, they disembarked mainly in Liverpool and Plymouth. Loaded on trains, the Poles were sent to Glasgow. They would forever remember the warmth of their welcome. Glasgow’s socialist Lord Provost, Patrick Dollan, led the hospitality, and they affectionately nicknamed him Dollanski.

Early miscomprehensions were soon overcome. The Poles were quick to learn that Scotland was a nation in its own right and not a mere English region and Scots would realise that Poland, too, was a country with a thousand years of history.

Soon these Poles, with Baluk in the Polish 10th Mounted Rifles, were assigned to defend the coast of Fife against any diversionary or major German invasion. Legacies of these men are the anti-tank defences and pill boxes still seen along the Fife coast.

Another is what perhaps can now be said to be a “Scottish” invention – the mine detector invented by a Polish sapper officer based in Fife. Mass-produced, it would soon be put to use in the North African campaign and has now morphed into the metal detector used by treasure hunters.

The Poles later formed the nucleus of the Polish 1st Armoured Division, commanded by General Stanislaw Maczek, who died aged 102 in Edinburgh in 1994. It was to take part in the liberation of North West Europe in 1944/1945.

Others fought at Arnhem in September 1944, serving in the Polish Independent Parachute Brigade formed in Fife. A debate held in the Scottish Parliament in October 2009 would commemorate the 70th anniversary of these Polish-Scottish connections.

In 1942, Baluk volunteered for clandestine service in Poland as part of the Polish section of the SOE (Special Operations Executive). He was commissioned as a second lieutenant after completing a Glasgow-based Polish course.

Here, men were given training in aspects of military intelligence, covert operations, industrial sabotage and partisan warfare. He specialised in forgery and microphotography. He also underwent parachute training in preparation for being dropped into Poland.

Baluk had long been a keen photographer and had taken a record of the fighting in Poland in 1939 and France in 1940 and later the life of his unit in Scotland.

Flying from Brindisi, in liberated southern Italy, Baluk was parachuted into occupied Poland on the night of 9-10 April, 1944. Here he was immediately put into use in the forging of German identity documents for the Polish Home Army (AK).

On 1 August, 1944 the AK rose against the German occupiers of Warsaw in the forlorn belief that the Red Army close on the banks of the Vistula would support it.

This support was not forthcoming and, moreover, the Soviet Union denied landing rights for planes flying supplies from Italy. As a result, casualties amongst RAF, South African and Polish crews flying a return journey of more than 1,000 miles were extremely heavy.

Initially, the insurgents captured much of the city but the uprising was doomed. After 63 days of bitter fighting, the AK, on 1 October, capitulated to the Germans. The Polish losses were horrific. Some 200,000 civilians as well as 15,000 insurgents had been killed. Baluk, promoted to lieutenant, had been in the thick of the fighting.

He had also been decorated with the Virtuti Militari (Poland’s highest military honour for heroism and courage) for gallantry by General Bor- Komorowski, the commander of the AK. Importantly, Baluk was able to save the many photographs he took during the uprising.

Captured by the Germans, he was sent to an Oflag in Pomerania from which he escaped in January 1945. He then became engaged once more in the forging of identity papers, this time for the anti-communist resistance.

Arrested in November 1945, he received amnesty in 1952. Initially, he found work as a photographer. Over the years he would be involved in producing publications in documenting the part Poland played in the Second World War, especially during the Warsaw Uprising.

Baluk was one of 344 mainly Polish SOE agents sent to be parachuted into Poland between 1941 and 1944.

Sue Ryder, who as a First Aid Nursing Yeomanry had been assigned to the Polish section of the SOE. The patriotism and the courage of these men moved and impressed her greatly.

Nine were killed with the crew of their planes; shot down on their way to Poland. Eighty-four would die in action against the Nazis and nine, during or after the war, were killed by the communist authorities.

As a result of her regard for the men, when in 1979 she was raised to the peerage, she chose the title Baroness Ryder of Warsaw.

Baluk’s achievements in the cause of Poland were fully recognised when in 1989 democracy was restored to the country. In 2006 the Polish president promoted him to the honorary rank of general.