In 1985, I was a young West Mercia police officer stationed at Malvern in Worcestershire, and discovered from my friend Andy Long that on 11 May 1941 a Polish Battle of Britain pilot, Flying Officer Franek Surma of 308 ‘City of Krakow’ Squadron, had baled out of Spitfire R6644 over Madresfield owing to an engine fire. We investigated, located the crash site, interviewed eye-witnesses, and confirmed that Surma – an ace – was shot down over the French coast six months later and remained missing. This was my personal ‘light bulb’ moment – which changed the course of my life.
Andy I and founded the Malvern Spitfire Team to research the story and recover the remains of R6644 near Jennet Tree Lane. We also decided that because Surma was missing, it would be appropriate to remember him through a small memorial cairn at the roadside. In September 1987, therefore, following months of publicity, the excavation took place at a public event organised to raise money for the RAF Benevolent Fund. Thousands of people attended, and that afternoon Polish Battle of Britain pilots Squadron Leaders ‘Gandy’ Drobinski DFC and Ludwik Martel unveiled our memorial – which at the time, during the Cold War, was the only such tribute to an individual Polish fighter pilot in the UK. Early in 1988, the Polish Air Force Association in GB entertained members of the Team to a luncheon at their London HQ, at which I was made an ‘Honorary Pole’ in recognition of our efforts and achievement.
The following year our exhibition, telling the story of Surma and R6644 opened at Tudor House Museum, Worcester, attracting 10,000 visitors in just three months. Thereafter this became a travelling exhibition, ‘Spitfire!’, enjoyed by countless people nationwide.
In 1989, I traced Surma’s surviving sisters in Poland, who were deeply moved by our commemoration of their beloved brother, and who remained deeply upset by the fact that he had no known grave – more of which later.
In 1992, my book telling the Surma and R6644 story, ‘The Invisible Thread: A Spitfire’s Tale’, was launched at Malvern’s Abbey Hotel at an event attended by many of the Few and featuring a fly-past by an airworthy Spitfire – bringing the town to a standstill. On that day, our charity, The Surma Memorial Trust for Youth, was launched in honour of Franek Surma – £25,000 being raised for this worthy cause from the sales of the print of the book’s cover which featured a painting by Mark Postlethwaite. The Trust distributed all funds, without incurring expenses, to projects working to improve the quality of life for young people.
Today, as a result of our work all those years ago in raising awareness, there is a school in Poland named after Franek Surma, and more recently I have re-told the Surma story in ‘Spitfire Voices’ (Amberley Publishing, 2010).
All these years later, I am still researching Circus 110, the ill-fated operation on which Surma lost his life. Years ago I worked out that he had been shot down by Hauptmann Johannes Seifert of I/JG 26, who was driven off by Pilot Officers Stabrowski and Poplawski – the latter a friend of Surma’s who I traced in Argentina. Recently, I have discovered that an unknown airman is buried at Dunkirk Town Cemetery – whose body was recovered from a Spitfire which crashed on the date in question, 8 November 1941. That day the RAF lost seventeen Spitfires, the pilots of four of which remain missing in the Dunkirk area: Surma, two Canadians and a British pilot. Unfortunately the Commonwealth War Graves Commission have no further information regarding the location of this Spitfire’s crash site, which would help narrow the field. After protracted communications, French officials are now checking at my request original cemetery records for any further clues…. fingers crossed…. So, at this time a 1:4 chance that this is Franek Surma’s last resting place. In all likelihood he crashed into the Channel and this is not he, but symbolically at last it could be, and it was a moving moment to recently stand by this unknown Spitfire pilot’s grave.