During the Second World War, Franciszek Kornicki and his trusty Spitfire helped in the fight to liberate his home country of Poland.
And that same plane could be taking one final journey with him as it passes over the church at his funeral.
Franciszek was the last-surviving Polish fighter squadron commander from the Second World War, and is a national hero in his home country.
He passed away a few weeks before his 101st birthday at the Sussex Clinic in Shelley Road, Worthing, having lived in Horsham Road, Findon for 33 years.
His son Richard Kornicki, 64, said his father would want to be remembered as ‘a faithful son of Poland’: “My father said he was brought up to think it was the duty of every Pole to serve the country as well as they could and fight to defend it, and that is what he did for the rest of his life.”
Franciszek was born in Wereszyn, in eastern Poland, on 18 December 1916 and in 1939, on the brink of the Second World War, he qualified as a pilot from the Polish Air Force academy in Dęblin.
As the Nazis took over Poland, he and his fellow pilots travelled to Romania, and with false papers from the Polish embassy, sailed to Marseille to continue the fight in France.
When France was captured in 1940, Franciszek and thousands of other Poles travelled to Liverpool via the Basque country and fought to liberate their homeland with the RAF.
On 13 February 1943, the then-26-year-old took command of the 308 Polish Fighter Squadron becoming the youngest squadron commander in the Polish Air Force.
His son Peter, 67, said: “That sort of role calls for expert flying and the ability to lead men into battle, which is a skill few have, but my father did.”
He was a fighter pilot for three years during the war, and after it ended he was awarded the Silver Cross of the Virtuti Militari, Poland’s highest military honour.
In 1948, he married Patience Williams in Paddington and they had their two sons. After several stints, he retired from the RAF in January 1972, and the couple moved to Findon in 1984.
Much of his pilot memorabilia is in the Polish Museum at RAF Northolt in west London, where he flew from many times.
He will be buried nearby in the Polish airmen’s corner of Northwood Cemetery with several of his best friends on Thursday, November 30, at 3pm, after a funeral service at St Michael’s Catholic Church in Hayling Rise, High Salvington at 10am.
Plans are in motion for his Spitfire plane to fly over the church.
To pay their respects to the national hero, the Polish consul, ambassador, and defence attaché will attend the service with an honour guard.
In September 2012, the Polish president Bronisław Komorowski presented him with the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta – similar in prestige to a knighthood – and two months later he was made a colonel in the Polish Air Force.
He also won a poll by the RAF Museum to become ‘The People’s Spitfire Pilot’ with 325,000 votes, with the second placed British-born pilot getting 6,300.
As well as his fame in Poland, he was also a well-known figure in Findon, and joined the community campaign to save it earlier this year.
His son Peter said that even on his death bed his father retained his unwavering spirit. He said: “He opened his eyes and looked around, and with a grin, he said ‘what is going on, is this a funeral?’
“It was an indication of his lack of fear of death, which went back to his fighter pilot days, his sense of humour, and his ability to charm people.”
‘I LANDED DRENCHED WITH PERSPIRATION’
On July 23, 1941, flying a Spitfire MkII, Franciszek flew his first mission over France.
He described the experience: “We were over twenty thousand feet with France below us when I heard on the RT [radio transmitter] that enemy aircraft were approaching, and later there were reports of attacks and warning shouts - somebody was fighting somewhere. I thought we were moving about a bit nervously when I remembered the golden rule: never fly straight and level for any length of time - and so I too weaved behind my energetic leader, trying desperately not to collide with anybody and not to lose him. I managed, but I did not see much else except him and my immediate neighbours. Our squadron was not molested and we all came back in one piece. I landed drenched with perspiration, jumped out of my aircraft, lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply”.
ONE LAST FLIGHT
In 2010, a then 93-year-old Franciszek was reunited with the Spitfire he flew in the war at RAF Northolt on the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.
Peter said: “It was a bit surreal for us as he hopped onto the wing and jumped in like he was a 20-year-old.”
The last flight in his logbook, recorded in 2015, was from Shoreham airfield to RAF Northolt for its centenary celebrations. On the return journey, he took over the controls for 20 minutes and flew the plane over the Sussex downs.
Richard said: “It was absolutely wonderful; he was smiling from ear to ear. He knew what he was doing; he said it was like riding a bike.”