Born on 18 July 1918 in a Polish family living in Opole (at the time Oppeln in Germany). Several months later the family moved to Katowice. He studied chemistry at Lwow Technical University, at the same time he obtained a glider pilot's licence. After the war broke out he managed to travel via Rumania, eventually arriving in UK. Following fighter pilot's training, on 14 July 1942 he was posted to No. 317 (Polish) Squadron "City of Wilno". He served with it until the end of the war, having flown a total of 124 combat and 57 operational sorties. After the war he continued his scientific career. He obtained two Doctor's degrees: at the Imperial College of Science in London, England and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (USA). He settled in the USA where he gained fame as an expert in rocket fuels, pioneering the US space industry. He was a member of the elite presidential committed that assessed progress in rocket development, and another one that controlled US lunar programme. He cooperated closely with the NASA. Persuaded by his namesake, the German designer of WW2 V2 rocket, Wernher von Braun, the Polish scientist joined the US space programme. He worked on the first American satellite, and on many subsequent projects, including the Apollo. He was part of the elite of American rocket scientists. He was also an outstanding sportsman. In 1969 he represented the USA at the World Championships in fencing.
Werner Kirchner, wartime pilot of 317 (Polish) Squadron, and the Magnificent Seven, commanders of Gemini and Apollo space crafts.
From left to the righ John Young (‘APOLLP 16’) Pete Conrad (‘APOLLO 12’)
Jim Lovell (‘APOLLO13’) Dr. W.R. Kirchner Vice President Aerojet,
Neil Armstrong (‘GEMINI VIII, APOLLO 11’) Tom Staford (‘APOLLO10’)
Jim McDivitt (‘GEMINI IV, APOLLO 9’) Ed White (‘Gemini IV’).
I MARRIED A POLISH
I met Pilot Officer Werner Kirchner in Perranporth, Cornwall, while I was there on holiday in the summer of 1943. I had just passed my physical examination for the W.R.N.S. and could imagine no place more idyllic than the small, north coast resort in which to await my call-up. But events intervened, and I remained in mufti throughout the war. They intervened as I was spending a day on the beach with my dear friend Molly and her little boy Michael. We formed quite the English holiday scene, with a picnic basket complete with tea, cucumber sandwiches, and Marmite and butter ones too. Only the barbed wire to keep the Germans out — around the perfectly accessible beach, gave a hint of the horrors abroad on that lazy, sunny day. I went for a swim. 'Have you been in the water?' Those were the first words spoken to me by Werner as I regained the beach from the surf,
dripping droplets of Atlantic Ocean. But his uniform was very handsome, and the Polish insignia suggested that perhaps he had not yet mastered all of the 'At the beach' chapter of his phrase book, so I made allowances."Yes," I answered, towelling my soaking wet hair. This not very auspicious opening exchange nevertheless led to sharing of sandwiches, sponge cake, and tea. Florian Martini, a fellow Polish pilot, was with Werner and made the fifth of our little group. At the time, their squadron was posted in the area for three months of rest and recuperation from the almost daily scrambles from Northolt in defence of the skies above London. That day on the beach was the first of many Werner and I then spent in each other's company. The linguistic hurdles did not prevent much joking and laughter, although my habit of rapid speech, I was assured, was not one of my most endearing qualities. I also learnt much about Poland and the Poles, the horrors of September 1939, and gripping tales of escape. Werner at that time had been a student at Lwow University, and when the German bombs fell on the railway station, he reported to the local Air Force station for voluntary duty since he knew how to fly. From there, he was directed to a unit stationed some one hundred miles south, next to the Romanian border. Striking out with four other students, three of whom sadly gave up the ordeal and returned to Lwow, he reached the unit about a week later. With the Soviets invading Poland from the east, he crossed the Romanian border and made his way south, finally arriving in Beirut in time for Christmas Day Mass, celebrated on a warm beach under swaying palm trees. A far cry from a cold and snowy 'Wesolych Swiat', but no doubt closer to Bethlehem's climate! A troopship took Werner, along with many other Poles anxious to begin dropping a few bombs of their own, across the Mediterranean to Marseilles. He was then stationed in Lyon for several months, but the war was not to be waged from French soil. Barely ahead of the German advances, thousands of Poles and British troops, Werner among them, made their way to Dunkirk. That almost miraculous evacuation probably lost Hitler the war as early as the Spring of 1940. Bedraggled, exhausted, and extremely lucky, Werner arrived with thousands of others in Plymouth. He vividly recalls being handed a cup of extraordinarily strong - by tepid continental standards - tea, with milk! None of your pale infusions in a glass, thank-you-very-much! It's an English habit that has stuck with him to the present. From Plymouth, Werner, along with other Polish fliers, was sent to Blackpool where they were billeted with local families. The generosity and hospitality of the North Country certainly did not go unappreciated, especially after having had to buy glasses of water from villagers as they trudged through France. For entertainment there were comedians such as Max Wall and Max Miller, certainly worth a slice out of the half-crown weekly RAF pay. Werner recalls laughter to the point of tears at the slapstick and barely understood jokes. There was marvellous music too, supplied by the orchestras of Henry Hall and Geraldo, and in the Ballroom there were girls, girls, girls... and dancing too, if one were so inclined.I think the more I listened, the better Werner's English became, and with the language barrier sufficiently lowered by October of1943, we were married at the Brompton Oratory in Kensington. Wing Chaplain Father Nowacki officiated at our ceremony, and pilots from three Polish fighter squadrons attended, prompting Werner to remark that a timely Nazi bomb on the Oratory would win Hitler the war. Werner, having successfully obtained the ring from his best man, S/Ldr. Komicki, was instructed by Father Nowacki to place it on the ring finger of my right hand, apparently a Polish custom. Werner persisted with my left, prompting an increasingly exasperated Father Nowacki to inquire, "Who is presiding over this ceremony, you or I?" to which Werner replied, "Whose bride is it, yours or mine?" Some time later, during what I assume to have been a particularly long interlocution in Father Nowacki's tent, Werner inquired of the priest why he was so determined I should wear my wedding band on the right, after the Polish custom. "My dear fellow," he replied, "I know you wanted all the Englishmen to know that Deirdre was a married woman, but I wanted all the Poles to know. You can't imagine what I hear in the confession booth." Everyone in Werner's squadron adored Father Nowacki. He was all one could hope for in a chaplain, and more. On the airstrip when the Spitfires were taking off, he would bless each aircraft with holy water. Often, when a returning damaged aircraft crashed upon attempting a landing, he would race toward the wreckage on his bicycle, often arriving at the site before the emergency vehicles. On several occasions, he pulled pilots from burning aircraft just prior to otherwise fatal explosions. Werner wrote to the Pope on the sixtieth anniversary of Father Nowacki's priesthood, praising his truly exceptional contributions as chaplain during the war. The ensuing letter from the Pope to 'Walencik', as one Polish priest to another, I am sure was among his most cherished possessions. Werner's squadron was eventually posted to a pre-lnvasion airfield outside Lewes, Sussex. We lived in the small village of Plumpton, renting rooms in the farmhouse of a delightful family. In those days of limited rations, we were treated to milk - warm from the cow - cream and fresh eggs. Well-nourished, I awaited the birth of our son. At that time every lane was filled with tanks, trucks and jeeps. Soldiers were everywhere. Everything was camouflaged. The Invasion was inevitable and imminent. My daily walks across the green fields were a source of great pleasure and solace, but underneath every pleasant or comforting thought ran a current of uncertainty. We just did not know what was going to happen. Several days after the Normandy landings, Werner walked through that farmhouse door...intact! The tears of relief, I suppose at the time, were personal, but they were equally applicable to the initial successes of the Allied forces in France. In the wake of the outrageous concessions made at Yalta, it became clear to Werner that a return to Poland was out of the question. We therefore began working on difficult and lengthy plans to emigrate to the United States. In 1947 Werner received an invitation from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for further graduate work in the Chemical Engineering Department. We finally left London on a dark and dismal November day, both of us carrying stateless papers since Werner was considered 'stateless' and I was no longer considered a British subject having married a foreigner. After a ten-day trans-Atlantic crossing, in very rough weather, we docked in New York on Thanksgiving Day. We lived for about two years near Boston, while Werner completed his studies and then moved to Southern California where he began his career developing advanced rocket propulsion systems at Aerojet General Corporation. On one occasion, I joined Werner for a reception and dinner. I happened to be seated next to Werner von Braun, who was then working for the US Army. I could not help complaining to him about the spectacle, from my bedroom window in Sussex, of the V-ls flying by, chug-chug-chugging, exhaust flaming, on their way to London. He charmingly, if not altogether convincingly, distanced himself from responsibility for that weapon, pointing out that he worked on the V-2s. Well, at least they weren't noisy. You couldn't see them either.Across the table at the same dinner sat Werner, flanked on one side by a medal-bedecked Luftwaffe general, sporting an Iron Cross. He had been a Focke-Wulf 190 pilot. "How did I miss you?" Werner joked. "Well, I suppose I must have missed you too, "replied the general. He seemed a good fellow, and if the two of them had ever been in a rhubarb together I'm glad they did miss each other! To me, Werner's fellow pilots, although fearless warriors of the exceptional bravery typical of all fighter pilots of the time, were also remarkable for their boyishness. Virginia Martini, the former Lady Jersey, a great friend, remarked that she was surrounded by little boys in uniform. But those were genuine terms of endearment. There was a refreshing absence of the reserve common in the English Man-at-Arms. Dedicated and courageous beyond doubt, but no 'stiff upper lip' for these lads, who were given to immediate tears at the first chords of Chopin's Polonaise played by Tomasz Glihski at the White Eagle in London. And Werner has not lost his flair at 83. When, after giving a banquet speech recently, he was asked who he'd like to be if not himself, he replied, 'Deirdre's second husband.' Well, he'd have to ask me first, but with a ready with like that, and charm to boot, I'd probably say 'yes' again.
"MIND IF I BORROW YOUR SPITFIRE"
(Some Retrospective Glances of A Polish RAF Pilot)
Air Force Night British United Services Club, Altadena 9-19-97
FILT Werner R. Kirchner (Speaker)
My fascination with flying began when I was 14 years old. During my summer vacation I enrolled in a glider school in Poland's Carpathian Mountains. Two years later, I became an instructor to eager students most of whom were older than myself. After entering the Lemberg University shortly thereafter, I learned to fly small aircraft at the Aeroclub, making frequent trips across Poland from Lemberg to Katowice, my hometown 250 miles due west of Lemberg. World War 11 started for me when through the open window of my apartment on the morning of September 1, 1939, 1 awoke to the shrill whine of the Luftwaffe Junkers 86 dive bombing the Lemberg railway station. With that fateful morning fresh in my memory for the remainder of the war, I constantly scanned the skies above England and France for these Junkers, hoping for a bit of private revenge. At the end of the September invasion of Poland by Germany from the west and by the Soviet Union from the east, I escaped via Romania to Beirut and from there across the Mediterranean to France, being eventually evacuated by the British from Dunkirk. Just before the fall of France in June 1940, 1 was at that time with a Polish infantry company making our way north to the English Channel. En route, a French detachment intercepted us and its commanding officer, a French major, requested that we surrender our weapons, and proceed to a POW camp. Our commanding officer suggested instead that we be permitted to choose either to voluntarily surrender or to continue with our march northward. The French Major agreed. Of the 200 of us, eighty stepped forward and elected not to surrender. When I stepped forward, two of the guys standing next to me remarked that they expected me to be among the last to do so. They told me that while we were on the French troop carrier en route from Beirut to Marseilles, the ship had been shadowed by a German U-Boat. Given my German first and last name, the rumors on the ship were that I was a German spy somehow in communication with the German submarine, and that I was going to be thrown overboard that night. When I asked why they didn't do it, they replied that an intervening bridge game became so engrossing that suspicion against me apparently evaporated, and the plotters forgot their plot! Upon arrival in England, I was immediately inducted into the Royal Air Force, since I knew how to fly, and after a crash course in English I was dispatched to a flying school in Carlisle. During my first training flight, in a Miles Magister, my young English Pilot Officer instructor, after reaching an altitude of 5,000 ft blurted through the intercom, "I've got her!" so I obediently removed my hands and feet from the controls. The aircraft immediately started to side slip, to spin and to go through the most incoherent maneuvers. I was convinced that the young P.O. wanted to impress me. When we nearly hit the ground, he gunned the engine, regained control and immediately returned to the airfield. After landing, he jumped out of the rear cockpit and furiously demanded an explanation. "Kirchner you told me you knew how to fly." I replied: "But. you said you had her." "No, no," he corrected - "I said you've got her!" It was a case of broken English, and all the pieces were in my own lap! After we had sorted out all the pronouns that I found so elusive at the time, we climbed back into the cockpit for another less garbled and safer try. Language difficulties didn't always pose so much of a danger, and certainly had their lighter side. For the amorous young Pole in search of a bit of companionship, an advanced pick-up line might have been:" You go me pictures yes?" or "Dancing want you me nicely together go?" As the Sunday Post observed, "The verb may not be in the proper mood, but the soldier doesn't worry about that, so long as the girl is." English instructors were constantly harassed by the foreign lovelorn for letters intelligible to the local objects of their affection. One language instructor hit upon a laborsaving device: he prepared a series of ready-to-sign and send letters, each suited to a specific occasion or requirement, e.g. an invitation to dinner, a dance, or - as the British sometimes say, "a bit of the other." This way your Bogdan or Zbigniew would simply request "Letter number 7 please Teacher' according to the demands of the moment. From Carlisle I was "posted" to a Service Flying School in Montrose, Scotland, and from there to an Operational Training Unit for Spitfires in Grenchmouth. From there I joined Polish Fighter Squadron 317, already a crack flying unit. Its legendary squadron leader, Skalski, introduced me to the 'intricacies of combat flying in the superb RAF fighter aircraft, the Spitfire Mark V. As a novice in the squadron, I was assigned for the first 10 combat missions to fly on the squadron reader's wing, the safest position in the formation. On one of my first missions over France, the squadron engaged a wing of Messerschmitt 109's. During the engagement, the squadron was completely dispersed, while I hung on desperately to the wing of my leader. Over the channel on the way back to England, we encountered a Heinkel He 111 bomber returning from a bombing over London. With a steep turn from above we attacked the
bomber with short bursts, from our 20 MM cannons. Soon thereafter, I saw what I supposed were Morse code light signals coming from the Heinkel's tail. I guess I must have leafed through the Geneva Convention at some time, because I immediately notified my leader via radio, that the Heinkel is signaling surrender. My earphones cracked back: "Werner, you idiot, that's the tail gunner shooting at us!" Upon returning to our Northolt base, I was most gratified that on debriefing of our eventual downing of the Heinkel, the squadron leader did not mention my naive remarks. In speaking of S/L Skalski, I'm reminded of his stroke of genius during the disastrous 1942 Dieppe raid in which mostly Canadian troops suffered severe casualties before retreating. Five Polish squadrons participated, rejoining the battle several times during
the day after refueling in England. The German fighters proved adept at avoiding engagement with the British fighters and punched through to attack allied ground troops and bombers. So Skalski, together with S/L Zumbach of 303 Squadron designed a trap. During its fire return over the Channel after refueling, Skalski's 317 Squadron flew in front, low, deliberately veering this way and that, practically bumping into one another, in imitation of a bunch of novice flyers on their first mission. But high above, Zumbach's 303 kept a close eye on them. Sure enough, a large formation of Foche- Wulf 190's sighted the seemingly inept squadron and licking their chops over the easy pickings dived on the Poles. The trap slammed shut. 303's Spitfires attacked from behind and within minutes shot down 15 German planes without the loss of a single plane of their own. In fact the five Polish Squadrons included in the raid represented just 10% of the combined 56 allied fighter squadrons, but they accounted for 18% of the German losses, and themselves accounted for only 4% of the allied losses. A few months after the Morse code signaling Heinkel incident, upon returning from a deep sweep over France, our Scottish intelligence officer F/Lt Rene, jumped up on my wing and told me to get into uniform as soon as possible, because we were to drive to a London hospital to interrogate a Luftwaffe Hauptman. On the way, Rene explained that upon bailing out the Hauptman broke his leg, and for the last two days, his English interrogators could extract nothing beyond his Name, Rank and Serial Number. Rene, in consultation with the RAF HQ in Uxbridge, suggested that they might have better luck with a German speaking Pole asking the questions. As we entered the Hospital, a young RAF Flying Officer intercepted us in the hall, with: "I understand you're going to be talking to our German guest. I was the bloke who shot him down; it was a piece of cake, really strange. He made no evasive or defensive maneuvers at all. Could you try to find out why?" Entering the Hauptman's room, we encountered the same chilly reception. After 10 minutes of unproductive chit chat, I proposed that Rene leave me alone with him for a more intimate tete a tete - or rather Kopf a Kopf. The one-on-one approach proved equally unrewarding, but as I was eaving, I recalled the curiosity of the pilot who had cut short the Hauptman's war career, and I asked, "The pilot who shot down your plane was wondering why no evasive maneuvers?" The Hauptman turned beet red: "What does that Schweinhunt mean? We know that the Spitfire was not equipped with a Stromberg carburetor (i,e. to feed the engine in an upside down altitude), so when I saw the Spitfire on my schwanz (tail), I made half-roll," "And then what did you do," I asked. "Nothing! I was waiting for his Rolls Royce engine to start coughing." To my utter amazement, when I told him that the Spitfire did not have to answer with its own half roll, since the German fighter was already in the gun sight, he replied, "When I make a half roll, he has to make a half roll!" Unfortunately for too many RAF pilots, all too few of their German adversaries shared the Hauptman's lock-step inflexibility on aerial tactics. Early in 1943 our squadron was equipped with the Spitfire Mark IX.. This was the high altitude version powered by the Merlin 60 Rolls Royce engine and equipped with a two stage supercharger, one clicking in at 18,000 ft., the other at 27,000 ft. This feature tilted the scales of aerial combat in our favor, since we were consistently attacking the enemy from above. On one of my first missions, involving an armada of about 200 B-17s on a bombing mission to Schweinfurt, our squadron was assigned to escort the first box of 71 American B-17 Bombers, flying at about 20,000 ft. Just as we reached the French coast, flying at close to 38,000 ft., everything in my cockpit began to blur, into gray at first, then into black. I had lost consciousness. The next thing I knew, I was diving straight through the second box of the B-17 formation. Apparently my oxygen regulator was stuck at its high altitude setting, causing me to black out, and became unstuck while diving. Determining the exact identify of a lone fighter screaming from above down through a formation of B-17's was not a high priority for already jittery American gunners! They let me have it. The tracers came at me from all directions. But Christmas came early for me and I made it through to sea level. From there I had no choice but to return to base, since I could not possibly catch up with my squadron. Let us fast-forward to a recent dinner hosted by "Q B" Club (a Pilot's Club in Santa Monica.). In the course of the evening I recalled this incident, and a colonel sitting across the table interjected: "Werner dammit, I was on that mission leading the 3d box and we all were shouting "Look at the silly fool." While I registered thanks for my escape, I remarked to the Colonel that I hoped their marksmanship improved over the course of the mission - and that they were able to draw a better bead on the Messerschmitts than they had on my stray Spit! He responded, "We had orders to shoot, but not necessarily to aim; we all knew that it was a Spitfire from the escorting squadron." Did I detect a wink in the Colonel's eye as he said this and if so, what did it mean? To this day I'll never know if I survived the episode due to poor shooting or to second - guessing of orders. Maybe it was just plain old good luck. Without that none of the survivors at the end of the war would have made it. Not all cases of fighters breaking formation to dive down through bomber squadrons below involve the pilot's loss of consciousness. Early, in the war, one Northolt Wing and two Exeter Wings were escorting a formation of Blenheim bombers over Arras. During the return to England, a pilot from Exeter Wing shouted on the radio, "Wladek, look out, there's a Messerschmitt on your tail!" Thereupon, all the Wladeks in the wing, and there were a bunch of them, gunned their engines and dived down through the lower squadrons causing a great deal of confusion among the bombers. Fortunately the German fighters patrolling high above did not notice the mayhem and did not attack. Fortunately for me - as far as I know -1 was the only Kirchner flying in the Polish Air Force. The sound of my name shouted in my earphones got my undivided attention really fast! Certainly some of the most exciting of my RAF days occurred during the invasion of Normandy, June 6, 1944. We were stationed at a field aerodrome near the Sussex coast. At I 1:00 PM, June 5th, the entire wing was assembled in our large operational" tent- where the terse but eloquent proclamation of General Eisenhower was read. This was followed by the assignment of the three squadrons for the first day of the invasion. Our squadron was the first to take off, providing high cover for P-38 Lightnings and B-25 medium range bombers. After the midnight briefing we could not sleep, listening instead to the German radio, with Lord HAW-HAW dismissing any idea that the allied forces could successfully orchestrate an invasion After take off at 4:30 AM we reached the Channel where below us an armada of 4,000 ships was heading towards Normandy. The entire French coast from Le Havre to Brest, was an inferno. We saw the 87th and 101 Airborne American divisions landing, behind the German line as well as the assaults on the beaches. Few people know that the Germans were unable to take an aerial picture of the invasion for two weeks. Every time we saw a German aircraft approaching the region we would pounce on it from all directions. I was more afraid of colliding ,with one of our own fighters, than of being ambushed by German aircraft. Allied domination of the air at that critical time was practically complete. Five weeks after the invasion, we landed on our own airfield in France designated "B-10" near Caen, supporting the ground forces as they moved steadily eastward into Germany. On one of the patrols, as I was leading a flight of six Spitfires, we encountered a Panther tank, which immediately left the road and sought refuge on the soft earth of an adjacent field, where ordinance could not bounce up into its unprotected belly. Circling the stationary tank, we fired our 20MM cannons. After three futile attacks on the tank, I heard "Excuse me please" over the radio, I turned my head and saw a British Typhoon approaching from behind. With an embarrassing economy of time and movement, the Typhoon flew in low towards the tank and released a single five inch HVAR rocket which streaked forward and in one massive blow, tossed aside by a good 20 yards the entire turret, simultaneously setting the tank afire. "Thank you very much" said the Typhoon pilot as he peeled off, no doubt slightly embarrassed for having crashed our little party! The HVAR may not have been a "Smart Bomb," but it was a generation beyond our 20MM cannons, and surely pointed the way to the ordinance of the Gulf War many years later. Well, I certainly hope that these remembrances and anecdotes have not been too tedious for you. But if they haven't been, I've got more! I would just like to close by observing that the war in which I participated, as no doubt did many of you, is now a conflagration sunk well below the horizon. What for us remain vivid experiences, seared into our memories, are for the younger generations merely paragraphs and footnotes in the history books. Nevertheless, given the proper occasion the "Old Guard" can still command attention. For example, as the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the.' war approached in 1988, Squadron Leader Skalski, now Brigadier General wished to meet the two German pilots he had shot down on September 1,1939. The two were located and although one died before the meeting, the other was able to attend, together with the German ace Adolf Galland. Galland wished particularly to pay his complements to the valor and skill of the Polish airmen, whose presence in the sky the Luftwaffe pilots used to recognize by their formations. Galland himself urged his young pilots to fight like the Poles do." I thank you for the opportunity to address you on this great "Air Force Night."