One morning in late April 1944, at 3 am, Polish Air Force (PAF) navigator Jan Stein Rosinski and his pilot Tadeusz Ciula bailed out soon after their plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire over Nazi-occupied France.
They were part of the 305 Ziema Wielpolska PAF Polish bomber squadron, a highly-respected squadron of the Allied forces, and had taken off in their Mosquito plane from Lasham airfield in Hampshire, UK.
They were tasked with the mission of striking Leeuwarden Air Base, a Nazi-occupied military airport near Amsterdam.
With their aircraft significantly damaged after the strike, the aviators decided to head south, away from the English Channel and almost certain death. When they ran out of fuel, the pilots parachuted into a field near the small town of Creil, 50 kilometres from Paris.
The story that follows is the result of piecing together letters, telegrams, video and photographs owned and preserved by the descendants of our protagonists, as well as historic files from the French Resistance. They have been shared with Euronews by Axel Stein, nephew of Jan Stein.
A few days later, Jan Stein Rosinski – whose name was changed by his Polish commander to Jan Rosinski to avoid any association with Germany during the war – and his pilot took refuge at a farm in Rieux, 11 kilometres north of Creil.
The French Resistance helped him and his colleague find the farm, as the Gestapo in Creil was actively looking for the pair.
Farmer Louis Lannoye, his wife Antoinette and his family agreed “from the heart” to protect and hide both Jan and Tadeusz. “They risked their lives,” recounts Jan's nephew Axel, “the family would have been executed if the Germans had found out they were hiding Allied airmen."
The men stayed at the Lannoye farm for five weeks, where they were fed and taken care of. The family, along with the French Resistance, later helped the Polish duo escape to safety through occupied France, Bordeaux, Spain and Gibraltar to the United Kingdom, where they arrived on 11 June, 1944, five days after the D-Day landings.
There, Jan Stein joined his wife and his newborn baby, Ian, and continued flying for the Polish Air Force until the end of the war. He visited his “rescuers”, as he came to call them, in November 1944, and then again for the last time in 1952.
One afternoon in October 2017, Axel Stein was asked by a colleague and aviation enthusiast about the aeroplane his uncle Jan flew during the war. It was a Havilland Mosquito, a British bomber aircraft which became famous for its rather unusual balsa wood body cover. Axel promised to send his colleague a photo and looked for pictures of the plane that his cousin Ian, Jan's son, had shared a couple of years before.
“I started looking in each of the emails my cousin had ever sent me. I found the Mosquito photos, along with another one of my uncle, posing with his fellow pilot and two other people, with a note that read ‘with our helpers, the Lannoye [family], Rieux, Oise, France’."
Overcome with curiosity, Axel decided to send an email to the Mayor of Rieux, whose details he found online.
“Dear Madame, Monsieur,
I write to you at this time to ask if by any chance you have a family in your community called LANNOYE.
While digging through the family archives, we found a photo of our uncle, the Polish navigator Jan Stein Rosinski whose plane was shot near Rieux in 1944 and hidden by the couple you see in the photo, identified as the Lannoye.
If there are still survivors of this family, we would like to know if you would be so kind as to put us in contact. We would like to personally thank the descendants for this act of courage and patriotism.
Thank you in advance for your kind reply to this email coming to you from New York.
Five hours later, Axel got his response.
“Dear Axel Stein,
It is with great emotion that I read your e-mail from New York!
The answer to your question is: YES, YES. The descendants of the LANNOYE family are still in Rieux.
I myself remember Jan Stein, who was hidden by my parents, Louis and Antoinette LANNOYE, farmers in Rieux (Oise). I am their daughter, Denise LANNOYE, widow of SCHROBILTGEN, and Mayor of Rieux for many years. I was born in 1935 and was very young when Jan was with us. I have pictures and short films where your uncle appears.
The correspondence between us shall begin, those who have lived before us are now uniting us with their history, their courage and their example.
Very warm greetings to you and your whole family.
Denise SCHROBILTGEN, born LANNOYE,
Mayor of RIEUX.”
And the correspondence did indeed begin. From the date of that first contact between Axel and Denise, and Denise’s daughter Elvire Laroche, it took two years to arrange a meeting. The date was set for 7 September this year, coinciding with the 75th anniversary of Jan’s first return visit to the farm after he had escaped to the UK.
Around 50 members of the Lannoye and Stein families, including two of Jan’s sons, Ian and Michael, came together and celebrated in true French fashion, with plenty of good food and wine.
The families now want to make a documentary about their shared past. And they have another mission – to find the family of Tadeusz Ciula, the pilot who stayed on the farm with Jan.
“At the moment, we have been unable to locate them, but we’re still on the lookout,” says Axel.