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The black briefcase

The black briefcase in the Polish museum at RAF NortholtRichard Kornicki CBE is chairman of the Polish Air Force Memorial Committee, which was formed this year to continue the remembrance of the Polish contribution to the war effort. Here he talks about his father, Franciszek Kornicki, the only surviving Polish squadron commander in the UK, and the great importance of remembrance.

In the Polish collection at RAF Northolt there is a display featuring a small, black, leather attaché case. It is worn. The handle has been repaired with wire.

It was issued to Franciszek Kornicki as a young cadet at the Polish Air Force Academy, Dęblin, in about 1937.

Kornicki was in the last cohort to complete the three year course in 1939, just before Hitler's invasion. By the end of the war, half of those who graduated with him were dead.

When Kornicki flew in defence of Poland, the briefcase was under his seat in an open cockpit. When Stalin invaded from the east, he escaped into Roumania to continue the fight from elsewhere, the case his only possession.

Avoiding internment in Roumania, he escaped by sea to Marseilles, flying in the allied cause until France capitulated. He was evacuated from St Jean de Luz, finally arriving in Liverpool...with the same small, black briefcase.

Black briefcase map

The case stayed with him throughout his war-time career, culminating as Officer Commanding 317 Squadron,  and then served him in the post-war RAF, in civilian life, and finally in retirement as a trustee of the Polish Air Force Association.

Richard and Franciszek KornickiThat simple leather case encapsulates most of his adult life. It is a physical reminder of the odyssey which he, and so many thousands of other Polish airmen made as they fought za wolność waszą i naszą - for your freedom and ours.

At every point on that journey, that attaché case was present. It will still be there when he is gone.

It is a witness; it serves to remind people of an extraordinary story, not unique to my father, but experienced by thousands of Poles whose war began on 1 September 1939, not 3 September; whose role in the air war in Britain was critical (the Polish 303 squadron being the highest scoring squadron in the Battle of Britain); who were banned by the British government from participating in the 1946 victory parade for fear of offending  Stalin; and whose war did not finally end until Communism fell and Poland was once again free, long after peace in the West.

Those of us who have enjoyed the peace they fought for owe them much. But it is a debt simply paid: by remembering. By remembering their comrades who never lived to see Germany defeated or Communism collapse.

By remembering those who carried injuries for the rest of their lives. By remembering simply that when the RAF flew to defend this country, the Polish Air Force flew with them.

It is to pay that debt of memory that the new Polish Air Force Memorial Committee has been formed, with the strong personal support of the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Stephen Dalton, and of the Commander in Chief of the Polish Air Force, General Lech Majewski. As the son of one who made that journey I feel privileged to be its Chairman.

By Richard Kornicki CBE

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