Thursday, November 11, 2010

In Foreign Fields

In practically every town and village in Kent you will come across memorials, such as the one pictured below, commemorating many thousands of men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice during two World Wars.

Visit any churchyard in Kent and you will find the neatly tended graves of service personnel, not only from Britain but Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and other far flung corners of the former British Empire.

Here are the stories behind two of those many thousands, both buried in foreign fields.

The memorial at St Peter & St Paul church in Farningham includes the name of my great uncle William Wansbury.

He was born in Kent in 1919 and joined the RAF in 1938, eventually progressing to the rank of Aircraftman 1st Class (ground crew).

In February 1942 RAF personnel, including William, were sent to assist in the defence of the Dutch East Indies which were being invaded by the Japanese.

The combined Dutch, British and Australian forces on Java were not able to withstand the ferocious Japanese onslaught.

On 8th March 1942, William was taken prisoner.

In April 1943 a contingent of around 2000 "fit and healthy" British and Australian POW's were shipped in inhumane conditions to a small coral island called Haruku in the Moluccas.

Those who had not died during the long voyage from Java were immediately set to work building an airfield which the Japanese intended to use as a base for bomber missions against Australia.

Using only primitive hand tools the prisoners were forced to break coral all day long in an attempt to level the ground for the runway whilst enduring continual maltreatment from the brutal Japanese guards.

Tropical diseases including dysentery, malaria and beri beri were rife in the camp and claimed the lives of over 400 men in the space of a few short months.

William succumbed to malnutrition and disease on 14th September 1943 aged just 23.

He is buried on the neighbouring island of Ambon with nearly 2000 further victims of the Japanese war crimes in a cemetery immaculately maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Flight Lieutenant Zdzislaw Henryk Przygodzki is buried in Watling Street Cemetery in Dartford.

He was born on 12th July 1918 and flew with 316 "City of Warsaw" Polish fighter squadron which was formed in 1941.

Several Polish squadrons were formed during the Second World War and they fought with distinction during the Battle of Britain.

On 8th September 1944, Flight Lieutenant Przygodzki took off from RAF Coltishall in his North American Mustang III fighter FB345, possibly on a mission to intercept incoming V1 rockets.

Due to bad weather he was forced to return to base and for unexplained reasons his aircraft crash landed near Bayfield Hall in Norfolk.

I have not been able to find out so far why Flight Lieutenant Przygodzki was buried in Kent and not nearer to the crash site in Norfolk.

The grave is sadly in neglected state at the moment. There is, however, a chance that this situation may be rectified.

I recently sent a copy of my photograph of Flight Lieutenant Przygodzki's grave to the founder of a web site called Polish War Graves. The web site commemorates many thousands of Polish servicemen laid to rest in the UK and other European countries.

He was in contact with a member of the Polish Government and brought up the condition of Flight Lieutenant Przygodski's grave and was given an assurance that "something would be done about it".

Only time will tell whether a Polish politician is any better than a British one, at keeping his word!

If you would like to leave a comment, please do so, they are always very welcome.

Further reading from the archives...

The White Cross of Shoreham

The Hurricane and Spitfire Memorial

Remembering "The Few" in Kent

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Kent - Invicta - The Legend

No matter where you find yourself in Kent, you will come across the County's insignia - the white horse and invicta motto.

The stories behind these two ancient symbols of Kent are very intriguing and shrouded in legend.

The white horse is said to trace it's history back to the fifth century AD when Saxon mercenaries, lead by brothers Hengist and Horsa, landed in Kent at the behest of Vortigern, ruler of the Britons.

Vortigern wanted Hengist and Horsa and their warriors to aid him in his war with the Picts and Scots. The Saxons were fearsome warriors and very successful in battle. Vortigern is said to have rewarded them by granting them control of the Isle of Thanet in East Kent.

The Saxons, however, were extremely ambitious. Sensing weakness, they turned against Vortigern, eventually forcing him to cede the whole of Kent to them.

The white horse is said to have appeared on Hengist's battle flag and has remained a symbol of Kent to this day.

Now to the second part of the story - the Invicta legend.

Fast forward to 1067. The Normans under William the Conqueror have defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings and are marching on London.

According to tradition, close to the village of Swanscombe, William and his men were met by the Kentishmen lead by Archbishop Stigand and Egelsine, the Abbot of St Augustines.

Each of Kentishmen carried a bough giving the appearance of a moving forest descending rapidly on the Normans. At a given signal, the boughs were cast aside revealing the Kentishmen armed and ready for battle.

However, the Archbishop and Abbot met with William and assured him of their allegiance, provided he was willing to grant certain privileges to the people of Kent and to respect their ancient rights and traditions.

Not wishing to commit his forces to another major battle so soon after Hastings, William is said to have agreed to the request.

The word invicta, meaning undefeated or unconquered, was adopted as the motto of Kent.

The monument shown in the picture above can be found in the grounds of St Peter & St Pauls in Swanscombe and was erected in 1958.

If you have enjoyed reading this post, please feel free to leave a comment. They are always welcome.

Further reading from the archives ....

They Burned for their Beliefs

The Meopham Air Disaster - 21st July 1930

Visit to West Malling