We knew all about the war at Burghley Road Primary School. Our Dads had fought it, our Mums were still sweeping up the mess and we, the boys of Miss Kirby’s class, had heard all the stories and were now busily embellishing them.
“My Dad was a Spitfire pilot. He shot down 13 Messerschmitts - rat tat tat tat tat!”
“That’s nothing! My Dad was a commando and parachuted into Holland - bang bang bang!”
“Oh yeah? Well my Dad was a Submarine Captain and he sunk the Bismark!”
My friend Barzo said nothing. He was always silent on the subject.
“Hey Barzo! What did your Dad do in the war?”
“Come on Barzo…what did he do?”
“Was he a conchie? Frightened of fighting?”
“Yeah.That’s what he was - a conchie cowardy custard!”
“Cowardy cowardy custard! Cowardy cowardy custard!
That is what we shouted at Barzo. Eventually, after much goading, Barzo responded.
“My Dad was an agent with the Polish resistance”, he said quietly.
That shut everyone up for a bit. This was all a long way from the usual round of fighter pilots, tank commanders, frogmen and naval captains that we were used to. Blimey! Barzo’s Dad was a…secret agent! Then some self appointed war expert - and Miss Kirby’s class was full of them - piped up…
“That’s rubbish,” he said. “Your Dad couldn’t have been an agent with the Polish resistance. There weren’t no resistance in Poland. The only resistance was in France. We all know that!”.
A quick burst of French ‘v’ Gestapo playground gunfire confirmed the point. Barzo pressed on.
“Well he was. My Dad was an agent with the Polish underground.”
There was a slight pause, then some Clever Dick waded in again, this time with every schoolboy’s unassailable challenge.
Now none of the fighter pilots, tank commanders, frogmen and naval captains had been asked to bring in evidence of their father’s wartime activities - but Barzo had made his claim and now he had to stand by it.
A couple of days later Barzo came to school dragging a heavy canvas bag behind him. This was very unusual because at Burghley Road Primary School we didn’t have homework, special projects or books we had to read so nobody had bags, so what was in Barzo’s? At playtime he told us.
“It’s my Dad’s pistol” he said. “The one he had in Poland.”
“Oh yeah? Oh yeah? Well let’s see it!”
Barzo opened up his bag and inside was a huge, black, greasy revolver. This was so far from the shiny silver and plastic “Roy Rogers” cap guns that we played with - “Bang! Bang! You’re dead!” - that we knew that this great slab of metal was the real deal.
“Cor! Cor! Cor!”
Barzo pulled it out and held it up. 20 other grubby, nail chewed, ink covered hands reached for it.
“Give us a go. Come on Barzo - let’s ‘ave it”
Clever Dick wasn’t having any of this.
“Yeah, yeah. Very nice - but I bet yer it ain’t loaded!”
Just as Barzo was about to inform the crowding boys that his Dad always said that there was no point having a gun if it wasn’t loaded one of 80 inquisitive fingers found the trigger and pulled it!
The gun fired upwards in a great belch of flame. Kids fell back gasping and screaming. All over the school people thought that the war had started again. Dinner ladies started brewing up huge saucepans of soup and the school nurse rolled up bandages and prepared for casualties. Girls cried and boys ran away. Mr George, a bona fide wartime time hero who had been wounded in the Western Desert, came charging across - “What the bloody hell…!” he said and took the gun from Barzo’s trembling hands. He then grabbed him by his ear and, while the other teachers organised us back to our classrooms, dragged him away.
In 1951 there was no Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, no counselling for distressed pupils, no boards of enquiry and no compensation claims. Live came and we just got on with it. The story never got into the newspapers and eventually the entire episode was forgotten. Barzo did tell me though that a couple of days after the event his Dad was woken up in the early hours of the morning by some large gentlemen from a mysterious government organisation who removed a number of potentially dangerous wartime ‘souvenirs’. Barzo’s dad wasn’t bothered. He was used to large gentlemen knocking on his door in the early hours. He had been a secret agent with the Polish underground, hadn’t he?
After the War the government organised a number of weapons amnesties inviting people to hand in wartime souvenirs. Many thousands of weapons were collected ranging from loose ammunition, bayonets and hand grenades to huge artillery shells, heavy machine guns and anti tank projectiles.
As well as continual attacks against the German occupation the Polish Underground Army supplied Britain with a great deal of important military intelligence including information on the Enigma code machine, the V1 flying bomb and the construction of concentration camps in Poland.
THE POLISH WAR MEMORIAL
On the 19 September 2009 a war memorial was unveiled at the National Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire, honouring the 500,000 members of Polish Armed Forces: the Air Force, the Army, the Navy and the Polish Underground Home Army who served during World War 2.
Feliks Keidrowski, 88, a veteran of those times said of Poland’s contribution to the Allied war effort: “I’m glad it was recognised at long last - it’s a long time after the war.” It was also a long time since I last thought of Burghley Road Primary School and my friend Barzo and his Dad.
– from Martyn Day