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In the words of Col Eric Charron, March 8, 2019, was a “great day for Canada and a great day for Poland.”
Charron, commander of 17 Wing Winnipeg, Man., was speaking before a crowd of military and civilian personnel in 17 Wing’s Hangar 10 during the departure ceremony for a Second World War Polish C-47 Dakota Skytrain aircraft (a military variant of the DC-3) named “Spirit of Ostra Brama.” The aircraft has since travelled from Winnipeg to a military museum in Warsaw, Poland.
“Ostra Brama” means “Gate of Dawn,” a holy site in the city of Wilno (now Vilnius, Lithuania), and also refers to Operation Ostra Brama, a battle of the Polish Home Army to free Wilno from Nazi occupation in July 1944.
Members of Ghost Squadron, a group of volunteer restorers, did much of the work required to get the old aircraft to a state where it could be repatriated to Poland.
“This ceremony had great significance for us Poles because the plane was used by a very important general during the Second World War,” said Mikolaj Cholewicz, deputy head of mission at the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Ottawa, Ont. “It’s also of significance because of Polish and Canadian cooperation. We are very satisfied that this plane can be back on Polish soil.”
“The plane, which once wore dull green war paint and served with the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, has a special place in the history of Poland,” wrote Capt Gord Crossley, 17 Wing’s heritage officer, in the ceremony program. “Built in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in 1943, this aircraft was transferred to the Royal Air Force on Jan. 24, 1944. From July to September 1944, the aircraft flew with an all-Polish crew under pilot Jozefa Tyszko.
“The aircraft carried normal RAF markings, with the addition of the Polish Air Force red and white square insignia behind the cockpit, and was named ‘Spirit of Ostra Brama.’ The aircraft was used as the personal transport of the general inspector of the Polish Armed Forces, General Kazimierz Sosnkowski.
“After the war, the aircraft was transferred to various RAF units before being acquired by various Canadian airlines before being removed from the aircraft registry in 1970. The aircraft became property of the Western Canada Aviation Museum (now the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada), and once its wartime history was discovered, it was transferred to 17 Wing Winnipeg for preservation in 2002.
“In October 2016 the fuselage was moved into a compound on the base to secure it from further damage. Recently, to highlight the past of the aircraft, the wartime markings were re-applied by volunteers at 17 Wing. Using wartime photos of the aircraft as a guide, the name has been painted to the port side of the nose, and the Polish national insignia has been applied to both sides of the fuselage behind the cockpit,” added Crossley.
“History is very important,” observed BGen Sean Boyle, deputy commander of 1 Canadian Air Division, during the ceremony. “It informs who we are as people, and has a hand in shaping where we are going. The story of this aircraft speaks to the courage and selfless dedication of countless Poles who, after their homeland had fallen, signed up with the armed forces of Poland’s allies to continue to fight for the liberation of their country.”
Those alliances continue to this very day, and are as vital now as they were during the Second World War, Boyle noted. “Canada and Poland are both partners in NATO, which is the most durable and successful political-military alliance in history, having secured peace across Europe and North America for almost 70 years. Every day, NATO’s 29 allies work and train together to keep our respective citizens’ safe and secure.
“In recent years, Polish and Canadian forces deployed with other partners to various places around the world, including under the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks on our ally, the United States.
“It is my hope that this artifact of our collective history will continue to tell its important story in Poland.”
Col Karol Budniak, defence attaché at the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Washington, DC, said the Polish government is very excited to have the original C-47 returned to Poland. “This is the only plane used by our Supreme Commander during the war,” he said. “From the historical point of view, it’s amazing to have that type of aircraft in a Polish museum, the military museum in Warsaw.”
Jolanta Gronowski, the vice-president of the Sokol (a Polish-Canadian organization) of St. Boniface, Man., said that, as both a Pole and a Canadian, she was proud. “I immigrated here when I was five years old, from Warsaw. It gives me privilege to see an historical moment of what transpired during the Second World War, and also the Canadian government, for honouring such an event.”
The ceremony brings closure to a certain chapter in Canadian and Polish aviation history, said Charron following the official proceedings. “It was lucky for us that we happened to have people at 17 Wing who recognized what this was all about,” he said. “It was a diamond in the rough, and we were able to secure it with years of letters back and forth, and coordination of logistics. At the end of the day, it became a logistics issue to confirm how we were going to transport this aircraft back to Poland.”
He also noted that Col Kevin Kimpinski, from 2 Canadian Air Division, and 17 Wing’s Maj Greg Niemczyk would be flying to Poland as official representatives when “Spirit of Ostra Brama” is finally installed in the museum in Warsaw.
Other speakers included Krzysztof Grzelczyk, consul general of the Republic of Poland in Toronto; Dr. Wlodzimierz Czarnecki, honorary consul of the Republic of Poland in Winnipeg; Capt (Navy) Krzysztof Ksiazek, defence military, naval and air attaché at the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Ottawa; Andrzej Ruta, president of the Polish Combatants Association in Canada; Janusz Tomczak, president of the Canadian Polish Congress in Canada; and representatives of the City of Winnipeg, the province of Manitoba and the federal government.
“Spirit of Ostra Brama” was loaded onto a contracted Antonov cargo plane on March 9, 2019, and flown to Warsaw.