C-47 (DC-3) Dakota with Polish war-time connections heading to Poland

News Article / March 8, 2019

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By Gordon Crossley

A Second World War-era C-47 (DC-3) Dakota that was flown by Polish airmen in the Royal Air Force is being repatriated from Winnipeg, Manitoba, to Poland, where it will become part of a museum heritage display. A ceremony to mark the return of the “Dak” to Poland is being held today, at 17 Wing Winnipeg. The aircraft is scheduled to leave Canada for Poland on March 9. In this article, Captain Crossley examines the complex history of this historic aircraft, dubbed the “Spirit of Ostra Brama”.

For many years the fuselage and wings of a Douglas C-47 Dakota Skytrain aircraft (a military variant of the famed DC-3) sat lonely in a field at the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 17 Wing in Winnipeg, Manitoba. This aircraft, now in faded Transair livery, once wore dull green war paint and served with the Royal Air Force during the Second World War.

And it also has a special place in the history of Poland. After Poland fell to attacks by Nazi forces and the Soviet Union in 1939, many pilots in the Polish Air Force escaped to France to continue the fight; they later went to Great Britain when France was fell in 1940. There, in the RAF, they wore British uniforms with Polish insignia, and served in fighter, bomber, reconnaissance and transport squadrons throughout the war. The RAF’s 216 Transport Group was tasked with general and VIP transport, and had a number of Polish airmen in its ranks.

The aircraft at 17 Wing—C-47A-1-DK Skytrain / Dakota III, Douglas serial number 11906—was built in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in 1943, and “taken on strength” with the United States Army Air Force with serial number 42-92139. It was transferred to the RAF on January 24, 1944. From July to September 1944, the aircraft, registered in the RAF as FL547, flew with an all-Polish crew under pilot Józefa Tyszko. The aircraft carried normal RAF markings, with the addition of the Polish Air Force insignia of red and white squares behind the cockpit. It was named the “Spirit of Ostra Brama” and used as the personal transport of the General Inspector of the Polish Armed Forces, General Kazimierz Sosnkowski, who relocated to Canada following the war.

Ostra Brama (Gate of Dawn) is a gate in the city of Vilnius, Lithuania. Vilnius (Wilno in Polish) was part of Poland before the Second World War. Within the Gate is an icon of the Virgin Mary that is said to have miraculous powers. The Gate of Dawn is an important object of veneration for Polish and Lithuanian members of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. Pilgrims regularly travel to the Gate to attend mass and pray in front of the icon.

The name also refers to Operation Ostra Brama, the attack by the Polish Home Army in July 1944 to retake the city of Wilno from German occupation.

After the war, on August 20, 1945, the aircraft was transferred to No. 105 (Transport) Operational Training Unit (OTU) at RAF Bramcote, United Kingdom. No. 105 OTU was re-designated as No. 1381 Transport Conversion Unit, RAF Bramcote, on November 14, 1945. The aircraft was then transferred to No. 22 Maintenance Unit at RAF Silloth on April 30, 1946.

The “Dak” was then acquired by Trans Canada Airlines (TCA) and brought to Canada where Canadair began refurbishing it to civilian airline standard on July 27, 1946. Registered as CF-TES, it served with TCA until midnight on April 12, 1963, when it landed in Winnipeg; the arrival was the completion of TCA’s last DC-3 flight.

The aircraft was subsequently sold to Transair Ltd, repainted, and served for four years with that carrier. It was subsequently sold to Lambair in 1967, but retained its Transair livery. It was salvaged for parts and removed from the flying registry in 1970. The aircraft was then acquired by Keith Olson and became property of the Western Canada Aviation Museum (now titled the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada) and, once its wartime history was discovered, it was transferred to 17 Wing for preservation in 2002.

Unfortunately, while it was stored in a field on the base, the wing roots and engine nacelles were removed and scrapped in 2006 by persons who were not aware that the aircraft was being retained for historical purposes. What remains of the aircraft today is the fuselage, both outer wings, one landing gear assembly, one tail wheel assembly and the vertical fin.

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 a team of Winnipeg volunteers, nicknamed the “Ghost Squadron”. Using wartime photos of the aircraft as a guide, the name has been painted on the port side of the nose, and the Polish national insignia has been applied to both sides of the fuselage behind the cockpit. RAF roundels and the FL547 number were painted on the rear fuselage in their original locations.

Over the years, the 17 Wing Heritage office and the Polish military had maintained contact. In March 2017, Colonel Andy Cook, the commander of 17 Wing, met with Colonel Cezary Kiszkowiak, the Polish Defence Attaché to Canada, to inspect the aircraft.  On October 23, 2017, Polish Ambassador Andrzej Kurnicki, Polish Consul Wlodzimierz Czarnecki and Colonel Cook visited the aircraft. They were very pleased with the work that volunteers have done restoring the wartime RAF and Polish insignia on the aircraft to highlight its history.

In March 2018, the fuselage, wings, and other components were chipped out of the snow and moved into a hangar at 17 Wing so the aircraft could be cleaned of decades’ worth of blown-in dirt and debris.

The “Spirit of Ostra Brama” and its history are symbolic of the strong Canada-Poland defence partnership, and the aircraft is being returned to Poland out of Canada’s deep respect for that relationship. It is now ready to return to Poland.

Gord Crossley is a heritage volunteer at 17 Wing.

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