↑ Return to The Pilots

RB396’s Pilots – Anna Leska-Daab

Anna Leska-Daab in her ATA personnel photograph, 1941

Anna Leska-Daab in her ATA photograph, 1941

The 9th November 1944 was just another busy day for Polish Air Transport Auxiliary pilot Anna Leska. In the morning she delivered a Rolls-Royce Griffon engined Supermarine Spitfire MkXIV to RAF Cosford before hitching a ride to 51 Maintenance Unit at RAF Lichfield to fly a new Hawker Typhoon down south to RAF Westhampnett (now Goodwood). In her logbook, Anna’s delivery flight of RB396 lasted 40 minutes. She then took the controls of a Fairchild Argus and, with a couple of passengers, set off again. The work of the ATA in late 1944 was busier than ever. RB396 was just another Typhoon designed for the front in her logbook. But Anna Leska’s journey to RB396 had been remarkable.

Born on 14th November 1910, Anna Zofia Marta Leska grew up with a love of flying. She learned to fly gliders and hot air balloons at the Warsaw Aeroclub. In the late 1930s, she and fellow pilot Stefania Wojtulanis had had their applications to the Polish Air Force turned down, but the onset of war in 1939 changed that overnight. Anna and Stefania were assigned and to the personal flight of General Jozef Zajac, the Polish Air Force’s Commander-in-Chief. Flying in commandeered, unarmed aircraft, they managed to stay ahead of the invading Wehrmacht. They hid their aircraft in woods at night to prevent them from being discovered. While the Polish Army surrendered on the 27th September, General Zajac ordered his staff south to escape Poland to carry on the fight.

General Józef Zając (1891-1963) Commander of the Polish Air Force in 1939

General Józef Zając (1891-1963) Commander of the Polish Air Force in 1939

Fellow ATA pilot, Diana Barnardo-Walker, daughter of ‘Bentley Boy’ Woolf Barnato and granddaughter of Barney Barnato of de Beers fame, recounted how Anna had told her of her escape from Poland in her memoir Spreading My Wings. Anna escaped with a friend by sneaking onto an occupied airfield at night and stealing a plane. In the pitch black, they refused to give anything away by turning on a light, and without checking how much fuel they had in their tanks, they took off, rather startling the German aerodrome guards. They made it to Romania when their fuel ran out. Other versions of this tale have Anna escaping with four passengers in the Wedel Chocolate Company’s three-seat aircraft. Regardless of the various versions of the escape, Anna’s joined the hundreds of thousands of refugees who escaped Poland to carry on the fight against the Nazis. On arriving in Romania, these refugees would find a less than warm welcome. They had their aircraft impounded and many Polish soldiers would spend the freezing winter of 1939 in internment camps where thousands would perish. Anna was luckier and was taken in by a local police chief and his wife.

The Poles did not want to wait around in Romania and General Zajac was especially keen to get his Air Force out and back into the fight. With spies and Gestapo crawling all over Romania, escape was difficult but Anna received a note to dress in a skirt and meet a car at a certain time. She was then whisked to Bucharest and then, seven months later, arrived in France. Anna had no idea what had happened to her family, but when he checked into a hotel in Menton, near Nice, she saw that her father had stayed in the same hotel, only days before on his way to England. Anna though, headed for Paris where the Polish Air Force had set up its headquarters. There she met up again with Stefania Wojtulanis and, with two other female pilots, they were, as Stefania would record, commissioned as Pilot Officers and allowed to wear full steel blue air force pilots’ uniforms with a star on each epaulette. Needless to say, Paris loved them.

 

Anna's brother Kazimierz Leski (21 June 1912 — 27 May 2000)

Anna’s brother Kazimierz Leski (21 June 1912 — 27 May 2000)

But Anna’s race to stay ahead of the Germans was not yet complete. When France fell in June 1940, Anna was sent to St Jean de Luz where she was whisked to Plymouth. From there she made her way to the Polish General Staff building, located on Buckingham Palace Road. There she met a friend who advised her to head up to room 303. When she knocked on the door, it was opened by her father. Anna’s brother, Kazimierz Leski, would remain in Poland, join the Musekteers as the head of counterintelligence and lead the “Bradl” company of the Home Army’s Miłosz battalion during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.

The Air Transport Auxiliary was formed on 15th February 1940 as a civilian organisation to release pilots from ferrying duties so that they could serve in active squadrons. Their motto was Aetheris Avidi, “Eager for the Air”. But, ATA was quickly, very unofficially, acknowledged to mean “Anything to Anywhere” and over the course of the war, the men and women of the ATA, from 25 countries, would ferry 309,000 aircraft of 147 types all over Britain. These aircraft would be flown in all weather and without radios and minimal, if any instrumentation. Under the leadership of Commander Pauline Gower, later MBE, the women’s section would be stood up. Following a few months as an interpreter at the Air Ministry, Anna joined the ATA in January 1941 along with compatriot Barbara Wojtulanis. They would later be joined by a third Polish pilot, Jadwiga Pilsudska, the youngest daughter of Marshal Józef Piłsudski. When Jadwiga and her family fled Poland, they took her father’s uniform with them.

Life in the ATA was busy and the types of aircraft each pilot could fly were based upon a category system. While the women initially could only fly non-combat aircraft, by August 1941, they were regularly delivering Spitfires and, by wars end, would deliver every type of aircraft in the RAF’s armoury. 

A Polish pilot, Anna Leska, who flies a Spitfire for the A.T.A., White Waltham, Berkshire, England 1942’ by Lee Miller [4327-45] © Lee Miller Archives, England 2019. All rights reserved. leemiller.co.uk

A Polish pilot, Anna Leska, who flies a Spitfire for the A.T.A., White Waltham, Berkshire, England 1942’ by Lee Miller [4327-45] © Lee Miller Archives, England 2019. All rights reserved. leemiller.co.uk

In April 1942, while at White Waltham, a young American photojournalist on her first assignment for Vogue snapped a picture of Anna in the cockpit of a Spitfire. Lee Miller’s photograph would become famous, as would Miller’s career as a War Photographer and Surrealist. The image of Anna in her Spitfire would become the lead photograph for the Imperial War Museum’s retrospective Lee Miller: A Woman’s War in 2016.

While Anna’s Polish compatriots would have digs in London and commute to the ATA’s base at White Waltham, Anna would live closer to base. But, the lights of London would call and at one of the many rounds of parties, Anna met fellow Pole Mieczysław Daab, a navigator with 301 Squadron. Mieczysław would be shot down on August 18, 1942, in a Vickers Wellington and eventually end up in Stalag Luft III until liberation in January 1945. They would marry after the war.

Anna would describe her life as an ATA pilot in an article she wrote after the war, which is now housed in the ATA archive at the Maidenhead Heritage Centre. She wrote:

“For each delivery, we received a separate form with a number of copies of course giving details of each pick-up place and final destination with the name and number of the squadron. These flights were the most favourite. The pilot of the “taxi” received a long list of passengers, who to drop off and who to pick up, where and when. The “collection” always took a whole day and was a good opportunity for over-time, but it was not an interesting job.”

Anna would also recollect that a day in Ops was a day dealing with “a mass of business in a very short time.” It also meant making the sandwiches for the pilots out on delivery.

Anna was remembered by Barnado-Walker as a ‘much loved, fiery character’. Another friend remembered that her experiences escaping Poland had left her ‘deeply and permanently upset’. Anna would famously clash with another ‘fiery character’ in the form of Chilean Margot Duhalde. No one really knows how their feud began, but it reached its height in a ‘dogfight’ over Hamble. They were both in Spitfires and the story goes that Duhalde ‘jumped’ the queue while they were coming into land. Neither backed down, it was perhaps a good thing neither aircraft were armed. Duhalde would remember that they ‘fought’ over everything, in the ground, in the air. We would barge in front of each other when taxiing to take off or cut each other off when we were coming into land.’

They were shopped to their boss, Margot Gore, by Duhalde’s boyfriend at the time, Squadron Leader Gordon Scotter, who feared for their safety. Gore made Duhalde apologise to Anna, but she swore that she would knock Anna’s teeth out after the war! There is no record if the threat was ever attempted. They never patched things up. At a reception in the ATA’s honour many years later with the Duke of Kent as the guest of honour, they made pleasant to the Duke and promptly started arguing again.

 

Anna Leska with fellow Poles Jadwiga Piłsudska and Stefania Wojtulanis

Anna Leska with fellow Poles Jadwiga Piłsudska and Stefania Wojtulanis

Anna delivered RB396 without an issue, but while landing a Typhoon at Eastleigh one day, she was hit by Squadron Leader Michael Graham in a Spitfire who was landing after an air test. Apparently, the landing ‘T’ had been changed and Graham hadn’t noticed during his quick flight and the two aircraft collided, making a mess of both. S/L Graham’s knowledge of Polish profanity, it is said, was greatly increased following the incident.

In her article about the ATA, Anna remembered the time when she had to break the rule about flying above 3,000′ in a Mosquito:

 

“One day before the Normandy Landings, I was taking a Mosquito to a squadron in Kent. It was fairly foggy, but knowing the area I did not expect any problems. The route took me along the peaks of hills to a radio station, at which I had to change course to avoid barrage balloons. At first, everything went well. I had to fly lower than I intended because a lot of low clouds came in off the English Channel, but I found the masts of the radio station a bit early and on the wrong side, but breathing more easily, changed course and waited for the next point of recognition. Visibility had become so bad that I could only see the ground immediately below me. After a while, I felt uneasy so to be sure I changed course due east, knowing that when I reach the sea I can start searching for the coast. With some luck and quite unexpectedly I flew straight into an airfield on which I landed feeling very pleased with myself. It was only then I found out that I had changed course at the wrong radio station and flew straight through the barrage balloons, fortunately not knowing anything about it and not seeing a single ballon.”

 

The Hamble Ferry Pool with Anna Leska in the second row, far left.

The Hamble Ferry Pool with Anna Leska in the second row, far left.

Anna Leska would retire from the ATA on 31st October 1945, the last of the Polish contingent to leave. By this time, she had delivered 1,295 aircraft of 93 types, including multi-engine aircraft, flying boats and 557 Supermarine Spitfires. Anna’s logbooks show she was airborne for 1,241 hours with the ATA. She received, in recognition of her service, many Polish and British decorations, including the Polish Military Pilot Badge and the Royal Medal. She would say of her time in the ATA:

“I enjoyed the most flying Mosquitos, Spitfires, Typhoons and Tempests which were very powerful. Many times, especially in bad weather, I would have gladly have exchanged the aeroplane for a bicycle and was afraid many times. Fortunately, when the bad moments passed, the fear went as well leaving perhaps, only a few grey hairs.”

Anna and Mieczysław would marry and live in London until 1977 when they would return to Poland. Mieczysław passed away in 1980; Anna on January 21st 1998. She was 87.

We are very proud that RB396 was delivered by such a truly remarkable woman as Anna Leska-Daab. RB396 will fly in her honour and the many men and women built, flew, maintained and paid the ultimate sacrifice in Hawker Typhoons.

Anna Leska-Daab donated her papers and logbooks to the Polish Aviation Museum in Krakow, where they have digitised her logbooks for 1941 and 1945 and made these available to view on their website.

To play your part in returning one of Anna Leska-Daab’s Hawker Typhoons to the air, join the RB396 Supporters’ Club today. For more information, please click the banner below.

Anna Leska-Daab is buried with her family and husband in the Powązki Cemetery, Warsaw

Anna Leska-Daab is buried with her family and husband in the Powązki Cemetery, Warsaw

Click Here to Join

Sources:

Spitfire Women of World War 2 by Giles Whittell

Spreading My Wings by Diana Barnato Walker

BBC’s Spitfire Women documentary 2010

http://platerki-wspomnienia.blogspot.com/2011/02/anna-leska-daab-1910-1998-pilotka.html

 

 

Translate »