Wimbish World War Two plane-crash hero speaks out about extraordinary life
PUBLISHED: 09:00 04 January 2017
When the burning mass of a plane crashed in Wimbish in 1950 a brave-hearted soldier leapt up, abandoned his game of bridge, grabbed a fire extinguisher, and jumped into the wreck to rescue the people inside.
The hero, Alan Mack, was disobeying orders when he saved the pilot and an airman by cutting them free and pulling them out of the flames.
Alan, who was described as a “well-known amateur sportsman”, told the newspaper at the time: “I grabbed a fire extinguisher and rushed outside, the fierce blaze prevented me getting near the plane, but I went round it and found I could approach from the far side.”
He said that as “we began cutting his parachute harness away [a] sudden burst of flame forced them” into a ditch, but eventually they were able to get the pilot clear.
The pilot, K Sharman, had to go to Saffron Walden General Hospital but was not severely injured.
At the time military personnel were forbidden to rescue anyone from Wellington bomber planes, because they were so unpredictable and likely to explode.
Alan has just reached his 100th birthday and is only now telling his life stories, with the help of his friend, Captain Mark Ponting.
The two men met by chance in a crowded Czech bar when Mark asked to sit by Alan, and it turned out Mark was organising a reunion for the men involved in the crash.
Capt Ponting said: “I regularly go and see him and we have kept in touch because he is an amazing man and he is one of the most modest people you could ever hope to meet which, given his life, is amazing.
“He has this light in him which I hope more people could have, and everything about him is really an example to all of us.”
Mark described Alan as a “loss for Poland” and a “gain for England”.
Alan’s brave feat came naturally to him, as he had served in the Army and escaped capture a number of times in the Second World War.
Originally a lieutenant in the Polish Army, going by Alfons Mackowiak, his first near-death experience happened when he was rounded up by Russian forces to be taken to what would later be called the Katyn Massacre.
Alan might have been one of the more than 4,000 corpses of Polish soldiers that were found in a mass grave in 1943.
That body count estimate has since risen to more than 20,000 victims.
However, inside the rail wagon Alan realised something bad was afoot and so recruited the help of his fellow captives to pull apart the metal bars and squeeze out of the moving train.
This was only possible as he was a slight man of athletic build.
But he was not deterred, and so reformed an artillery unit of 90 to fight the German army on the Maginot Line, which is a defensive boundary between France and Germany lined with fortifications.
The line failed when Germany broke through its defence and so his unit was soon wiped out, leaving Alan and another comrade to surrender to the German Army.
Nonetheless Alan just ran away, narrowly missing being shot – he felt bullets whistling past his ears.
“The dear Lord must be with me,” he said went through his mind at the time.
Stumbling across a farmhouse in his escape, Alan was lucky the farmer’s wife was Polish and took pity on him, dressing him as a French peasant.
Luckily Alan was born in Berlin, and bilingual, so he was authentic in travelling to Paris in his disguise, but a German SS officer still singled him out and arrested him again.
However, neither the German questioner nor his would-be translator could speak French very well and so Alan was able to get away unharmed.
Weeks later, travelling towards England, he had another run in with a German interrogator which ended more dramatically – Alan only got away by punching him in the face and knocking him out.
Before long he found himself in England and spent the rest of the war as a captain, the unarmed combat instructor of the Polish Special Operations Executive.
By 1948 Alan was training Olympians in the 3,000m on the track, in hockey, and in boxing, going on to become a coach at Oxford University Athletics Club for 25 years.
He also coached double Olympic world medallist Sebastian Coe while at Haringey Athletic Club.
And all this before the rescue that put him firmly on the map, being reported by the then Saffron Walden Weekly under the headline ‘Three escape as bomber blaze is “mass of flames” after Wimbish crash wreckage blocks road’.
Alan now lives in London and was planning to document his life in memoirs before his health deteriorated and he reverted back to his mother tongue, Polish.