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The Buckden Pike Memorial Cross: Polish Survivor of Tragedy in the Dalesicon for Recommended story

by Richard Fusniak

Contributed by 
Richard Fusniak
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03 October 2003


'On the summit of Buckden Pike, standing south of the Trig Point, close by the boundary wall, is one of the saddest monuments in the Dales. A stone cross with fragments of aircraft parts embedded in its concrete base stands as a memorial to a Polish crew of an RAF plane that crashed at this spot during a severe snowstorm in the Second World War. There was one survivor.'

…an extract from the book ‘Walking the Dales’ by Mike Harding.

On 30 January 1942, a crew of six Polish airmen from 18 OTU took off from RAF Bramcote, Warwickshire on a training mission in a Wellington Bomber. Without warning, they hit a bad snowstorm. Frantically searching for landmarks they caught a faint glimpse of a town below and looped once round it. Unknowingly travelling over Skipton, Yorkshire, they continued, blindly heading towards the Dales into unforeseen danger! The pilot was tense - he could see nothing but a screen of white light in front of him.

'We could not identify the town we had seen. The snowstorm was getting worse by the minute. From then on we hadn't a clue about the terrain below us, so we carried on heading north for a while.'

Twelve-year-old Norman Partington stood in the school playground at Kettlewell. Suddenly the dark shape of the plane became visible, looming through the falling snow. He knew the plane was too low. One minute later, Tommy Metcalfe, a Home Guard living in the next village, Starbotton, not far from Buckden Pike was greeted by the blast of a blizzard as he opened his front door. He spotted a fox making across the road to the farmhouse where his wife was working, so he shouted to alert her but by the time he had grabbed his gun the fox had raced up the hill. It was ten minutes past noon, and despite the roaring wind Tommy was startled by the drone of a plane passing overhead only for it to shortly fade away, drowned by the howling elements. Puzzled, he too thought, 'That plane is too low!'

'I heard the pilot over the intercom say he was shutting down the cowls to warm the engines.'

Joseph (Joe) Fusniak, the rear air gunner, was beginning to tire with the stress of looking for enemy aircraft in such adverse conditions, and despite his heated air jacket he was freezing cold. Suddenly Joe lurched, buffeted around violently in the turret. Bits of twisted flying metal thudded around him. He cracked his head on a bolt stud above him and a ringing sound buzzed in his ears. Semi-conscious, shocked and dazed, he became aware, after what seemed to be an eternity, that he was no longer protected inside his aircraft but surrounded by deep snow. The body of the plane was not to be seen - the rear gunner's turret had snapped clean away from the fuselage.

'Later I learned that the plane (top speed of 235 mph) had clipped a six-foot-high stone wall on the 2,302-feet-high mountain and had careered several hundred feet along the ridge before stopping. Had it been just a few feet higher, it would have cleared it.'

Stilled dazed, Joe released himself from the turret and thought he heard the sound of a cow. Starting to crawl towards it he collapsed to the ground. An agonising pain seared through his left leg - he had badly broken his ankle! He had to find the main frame of the plane to get shelter. Eventually the skeleton shape of the battered fuselage emerged, both ends smashed open, the wings and engines missing. Checking each member of the crew scattered outside the wreckage, he found that four had been killed instantly. Hearing the groaning sound again he found the wireless operator, Sergeant Jan Sadowski, still alive but seriously injured. Panic, fear and fright set in as Joe tried to accustom himself to the unbelievable situation he and Jan were in. The radio was not working and they were snowbound - maybe very high up and miles from help.

'If I stayed we might both die; there was only one hope and that was to leave him and search for help - fast! I found a parachute and wrapped it round him to keep him warm.'

Joe rummaged around the crumpled fuselage, found two tins of tomato soup, stuffed one in his bomber jacket and left the other with Jan. Then he set off into the unknown not knowing which way to go, but automatically turning his back against the biting horizontal blizzard winds. Grabbing hold of a broken wooden strut from the wreckage he clawed himself forward, dragging his injured limb with him. Several minutes later he collapsed again with exhaustion, resting in despair. Instinctively, he decided to retrace his steps.

'I could not see any further than six feet. The snowflakes were larger than my thumbnail - the size of a golf ball. Suddenly, I was amazed to see faint animal traces in the snow in front of me - the footprints of a fox pointing in the opposite direction I was originally heading. If I had continued, I would have gone deeper into the moors.'

He knew from his boy-scout days that the fox would make downhill to a farmyard in search of food and shelter. Following the impressions, he turned sharp right at one point avoiding a sheer drop that the fox had sensed. Trying to keep the marks in sight as the snow threatened to obliterate them, Joe slid and crawled his way down. Then his worst nightmare happened - his strut broke and the footprints disappeared.

'I struggled for several hours trying to make my way down treacherous slopes and over stone walls partially submerged in deep snow drifts. I remember a vertical cliff and nearly slid over the edge.'

Despite the biting cold with temperatures below zero, Joe was sweating profusely with pain. Hypothermia was setting in. He was dizzy and seeing flashing lights and stars in front of his eyes. Propping himself up against a stone wall to rest, his past life started to appear before him. He knew that if he fell asleep, he would not wake again and all chance of getting help for his comrade would be lost. Soon, night-time would descend, for it was now a late winter afternoon. He cried bitterly with hopelessness.

'I prayed for help. Then something compelled me to look up. The clouds briefly broke and a dazzling shaft of light appeared out of the sky outlining the valley and habitation. It was as if it were a sign from heaven, a mystical experience. It uplifted and gave me the tremendous strength and courage I needed to continue over the wall in my quest for help.'

With all his might he pulled his body over the wall and began to shout 'Help, help'’ Figures unexpectedly appeared in the distant gloom. He had reached a road near a stream at the village of Cray near the White Lion Inn. The landlord's daughter, Nannie Parker, had spotted him and thought he was a shepherd. She rushed to tell her father, William. Joe's ordeal was nearly over as he was dragged to the warmth and safety of the public house.

In May 1942, in recognition for his bravery, Sergeant Joseph Fusniak was awarded the British Empire Medal by King George V and decorated by Chief Air Marshall 'Bomber' Harris.

Haunted by the trauma of the crash in Yorkshire, which nearly cost him his life, Joe has re-visited the scene several times since, quietly reflecting on his greatly missed flight companions. In 1973, not far from the White Lion Inn, he looked at the Pike and decided to build the memorial cross.

In July 1942, Joe was blasted out of his turret on a bombing mission over Germany, and held as a POW in Stalag VIII-B. Now 81 years of age (2003), he lives to tell his tale - but that's another story!

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