Amid the dark pools and close-wrapping clouds on top of one of Yorkshire’s highest peaks, there stands an isolated war memorial. It’s hard to get to, needing a long and strenuous walk up Buckden Pike, a mountain that often swirls with mist and soaking rain, even when the valleys are lit by sunshine. Down in the grassy meadows, wooden signposts point up towards the ‘Polish War Memorial’, hidden on the moors.
Many walkers have no idea what the stone cross is for until they read the words on its base, and yet it holds an atmosphere of silence and respect. This small monument does something else too, telling a story that cuts through the confused fury of our current national debate on immigration.
In 1941, at the height of the Battle of Britain, a group of young Polish R.A.F airmen set out on training flight in a Wellington bomber. 19 year old Joseph (Joe) Fusniak was the rear gunner, and he remembered afterwards that the plane hit a sudden, mid-air blizzard.
While trying to find their bearings, inexperienced and without the modern instruments that save lives today, the pilot misjudged their position and the plane crashed onto the bleak moorland on top of Buckden Pike.
Joe struggled out of the remains of the gun turret, which had separated from the rest of the plane, and dragged himself on a broken ankle to discover the bodies of his friends lying in the snow and wreckage. One of them was still alive – the radio operator, Jan Sadowski – but barely conscious, and Joe knew the only way he could save his friend was to go for help.
The teenager set off into the teeth of a horizontal blizzard, using a piece of wreckage as a crutch, and crawling because he couldn’t walk. A Yorkshire fox guided him off the mountain, which is why there is a statue of a fox’s head on the memorial today. Coming across the animal’s tracks, Joe guessed that it was making its way down to a farm “looking for chickens”. And so he followed the animal’s footsteps for agonising hours, until finally he spotted figures in the distance and called out for their help, before collapsing.
The Parkers, who found him, thought at first Joe was a downed German pilot because of his strong accent, and yet they carried him into their house and cared for him as best they could. They raised the alarm, and valiant attempts were made to try and reach the other injured crewman. But Buckden Pike was at its harshest that night, and by the time a local man finally made it to the crash site a day later, the young radio operator had died.
So here is a story of six young Polish RAF airmen whose British bomber went down on a Yorkshire moor, killing five of them. At a time when patriotism is used by some as a veil for bigotry, we shouldn’t forget such debts. Britain fought off invasion thanks to the heroism of British citizens, but also thanks to the sacrifice of young men and women from around the world: pilots from 15 nations fought in the Battle of Britain.
But even this isn’t the tale that cuts through the modern fury on migration. When his ankle was healed Joe went back to the war, surviving prisoner of war camps and the Lamsdorf death march, returning to marry his English sweetheart. And then, in the 1970s, he came back to Yorkshire, to the bleak place where he’d lost his crewmates. He decided to erect a memorial to them, and to the kindness of the local family who’d found and helped him.
Once again he was aided by people from the surrounding villages, who helped him to get the necessary permissions, carried materials up to the mountaintop and worked with Joe to set the cross in its place. When the cross was vandalised years later, local air cadets set to work and repaired it. Every Remembrance Sunday, someone climbs the peak and lays a wreath there. Every day, walkers stop at the cross to read the inscription, or place their hands on the fox’s head and wonder.
Joe helped to create this nation – his friends gave their lives for it. Which is why the lonely memorial on top of Buckden Pike tells such a deep tale, because our links with people from other nations run this deep, even into our national myth of what it means to be British. Keep calm and carry on, and he did. A teenage migrant, who received a medal for bravery from King George VI. A modest man, whose efforts to remember his friends have become a part of a Yorkshire landscape and its community.
Copyright top image: IanS. http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/3759774