Stanley Zajchowski, Helen's husband, with fellow pilots in the Polish Air Force (PAF); Mr Zajchowski is on the far left.
Helen and Stanley Zajchowski during the war.
Portrait of Helen Zajchowski during the war.
Helen and her husband Stanley at their wedding in 1943.
"Now, they never told you what you were working on, but I was working on a dam and I was supposed to make little models of houses and trees and everything had to be done to scale."
The war had just started, and a few of us decided that we would go and join the forces. We didn’t want to be stuck in any old offices and do nothing, you know. We wanted to be there and having fun with all the other women. So, this was myself and two friends. We joined the air force [Women’s Auxiliary Air Force] and went down to Uxbridge [England] and got settled in, and so on. And then we were sent up to Scotland and during the time we were in Scotland, we saw a notice in the door of the hut there, and it said, if you have had plenty of art school training, you could perhaps want to join this special group. It didn’t specify what. Well, there was three of us, we decided, okay, let’s go, we’ll try it. We’ve all been to the college of art, and we were all just ready to try anything.
So off we went, and we didn’t have any idea what we were getting into at all, we didn’t know what the job entailed. But, I mean, you know, who cared in those days, you just had to go and do your best and see what happened. It was an exciting time and it was fun to be young and to be able to try things and do things.
We were told, “Well, you’re going to be doing some work with your eyes, so you have to try the” – we had to do some eye tests to make sure that our eyesight was sufficient onto the job, so to speak. So, off we went, we did that, and all three of us got in, and we were called patternmakers. Now, who on Earth has heard of a patternmaker, I don’t know, but anyways, that was the name they gave us because they didn’t know what to call us, I think.
We were taken down to Foosport Country Club, between Marlow and Henley[-on-Thames, England]. And we thought, “Oh, this is great.” There was this huge, huge room, and in this room, there were tables and on the tables there was models in various stages of construction. And, we were put to work on some of these models. They were made of stuff called Jollib, it was not like clay, but it was similar to clay, but it was more like, it was a wood-based, little bits of wood in it. And the first job that they gave me was to work on a dam. Now, they never told you what you were working on, but I was working on a dam and I was supposed to make little models of houses and trees and everything had to be done to scale, you know, perfectly. The whole setup was done by aerial photographs.
So we weren’t told what this thing was. So I worked on this table, with this partially built sort of model, where it was a biggish model. I think people can see it if they see the, I think there’s a movie called the Dam Busters , there you see them all around a room with a big model on the table in front of them. And that would have been the model we all worked on.
It really haunted me a bit, ever since, to think that below that dam, there were houses, there were people, there were everything and yet, we had to take it out somehow, I guess. Thought about it quite a lot, often. But I mean, we were young, it was wartime, you were doing anything you could do, to win the war.
I was visiting my grandmother because I was going to go in, that was when we were just waiting for our call-up papers to come through, you know, just waiting before we went. And there was masses of Poles walking up and down, all they used to do when they were on leave was walk around St. Andrews [Scotland], which they loved, they thought it was a great town.
We were supposed to meet somebody, a young fellow who was going to take me to the movie and it was Goodbye, Mr. Chips , I wanted to see it so badly, [starring] Robert Donat, you know. And these guys were walking up and down, walking up and down, and one of them came up and said, “You’re waiting a long time,” and I thought, Yes, I am, the young man, I was supposed to meet has not turned up. So I thought to myself, “Well, nothing can happen to me, the place is full of people, I mean, I should be perfectly safe and get the bus outside when I come out.” So I went in there and the guy I went in with was my husband. I met him there, and we hit it off, and we visited each other during the air force all the time. And then I got married while I was in the air force.
But there certainly was, you know, all those years in the munitions huts and working there and all that sort of stuff, but there was always the feeling that, “Oh, we’re just, in a little while, it’ll be all fixed up, it’ll be fine.” Of course, the Germans weren’t going to get to us, we were perfectly sure about that, because we’re British, you see, they couldn’t possibly, couldn’t possibly. People really felt that way, you’d be surprised, there was people were perfectly sure that we’d take care of the Germans in no time flat. It didn’t work out that way, of course. There was always the feeling that, “Oh, in a little while, it’ll be all fixed up, it’ll be fine, it’ll work out.”