November 21, 2004

Some Fascinating Passings: R.I.P.

As you may know, I make a point of reading the obituaries at the Telegraph on line. English obituary writing is superb. They are mini-biographies, generally written about people I've never heard of before. Oftentimes, you read about people who did terribly important things during WW II. That generation is passing, you know. Here are two people, in extended entry below, who I thought were fascinating.

Click below for more.

Peter Twinn

Peter Twinn, who has died aged 88, was the first mathematician recruited as an Enigma cipher-breaker into the Government Code and Cipher School (GC&CS) before the Second World War; later he was credited with being the first British cryptographer to break an Enigma cipher, something that always embarrassed him and led him to dismiss its significance.

The Enigma machine had a keyboard into which the message was typed. Each letter then passed through a series of rotating wheels until the enciphered letter appeared on a "lampboard" above the machine. The British codebreakers had devised systems to break the cipher, but could not work out which letter on the keyboard was wired to which letter on the initial part of the encipherment mechanism.

Twinn said: "Our ordinary alphabet has them in a certain order, but the Germans aren't idiots. When they have the perfect safeguard to introduce to their machine, to jumble it all up would be the sensible thing."

Fortunately, in July 1939, Polish codebreakers, who had managed to break the Enigma ciphers but were now struggling, invited the British to a conference near Warsaw to discuss techniques that could be used to break the ciphers. They told Knox that the Germans had not, in fact, jumbled up the letters. They had wired A to A, B to B and so on, something the British had never thought possible.

"I know in retrospect it sounds daft," Twinn said. "It was such an obvious thing to do, rather a silly thing, that nobody, not Dilly Knox, not Alan Turing, ever thought it worthwhile trying."

When Knox came back, he went immediately on leave, so it fell to Twinn to try out the Polish technique. "The first thing I did when he was on leave was to see if it worked in the machine, and, of course, lo and behold, it did."

It was later pointed out to Twinn that this was the first time that any Wehrmacht Enigma cipher was broken in Britain, but he dismissed it as of no consequence: "It was a trifling exercise, but I repeat for the umpteenth time, no credit to me."

When the codebreakers moved to Bletchley Park, Twinn worked with Knox on Enigma research in the cottage next to the main house before helping Turing to set up the Hut 4 team, which broke the German naval Enigma.

In October 1941, Knox broke the Abwehr Enigma, allowing the codebreakers to ensure that the Germans believed the Double-Cross deception organised by MI5 and MI6. But he soon fell ill with cancer, and Twinn took charge of the Abwehr Enigma section in early 1942.

Its work was of particular importance during the Fortitude deception operation that helped to ensure the success of the D-Day landings.

He subsequently became Secretary of the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough. During this period, he developed an interest in entomology, gaining a PhD in the subject from London University.

His doctorate was on the jumping mechanism of the click beetle, which he studied using the ultra-high-speed cameras available at Farnborough.

On one occasion, while attempting to collect click beetles at the edge of the Farnborough runway, he was arrested by an MoD police officer who was highly embarrassed to discover that his prisoner was in fact the RAE Secretary.

In 1999 Twinn published, with PT Harding, a study of the distribution of the longhorn beetle, A Provisional Atlas of the Longhorn Beetle (Coleoptera Cerambycidae) of Britain; it records the present and past distribution of 63 species and is to be found on the desks of many entomologists.

The second one is a Polish air force general.

General Stanislaw Skalski

General Stanislaw Skalski, who has died aged 89, was Poland's most successful fighter pilot, credited with destroying at least 22 enemy aircraft and damaging others; he was decorated for gallantry four times by the British and six times by the Polish government in exile.

After escaping from Poland following the German occupation in September 1939, Skalski reached England and was commissioned in the RAF. After a period of inactivity with a fighter squadron in the north of England, he joined No 501 (County of Gloucester) Squadron at the height of the Battle of Britain in August 1940.

Flying Hurricanes from Gravesend, the squadron had seen much action, and Skalski soon claimed his first victory when he shot down a Heinkel on August 30. The next day he shot down an Me 109 fighter and destroyed two more on September 2.

Three days later he took off to attack a large bomber force approaching Kent, and sent a Heinkel down in flames before attacking an Me 109. After hitting the German fighter, he watched the pilot bale out before climbing to attack another Me 109, which he destroyed over Canterbury.

As he turned away, Skalski was himself attacked and his Hurricane set on fire. He baled out and was admitted to Herne Bay hospital, where he remained for six weeks receiving treatment for serious burns. Anxious to return to combat, he discharged himself at the end of October and returned to No 501.

Stanislaw Skalski was born on October 27 1915 at the village of Kodyn, north of the Russian city of Odessa. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, his father sent him and his mother to Zbaraz, near Lvov.

After attending school in Dubno, Stanislaw learnt to fly gliders in 1934, and the following year he qualified on powered aircraft. He now decided to become a military pilot, and entered the cadet school at Deblin in 1936; he completed his training in October 1938, graduating as an officer.

Skalski was assigned to the 4th Air Regiment at Torun, where he joined No 142 Eskadra, the "Flying Ducks", to fly PZL fighters. Following the German invasion of Poland on September 1 1939, Skalski and his squadron were in action immediately. He claimed his first victory on the opening day, and by the fifth day he had destroyed four German bombers, to become the only Polish ace of the short campaign. As Polish resistance collapsed, the remnants of his squadron escaped to Romania. He eventually made his way to the Mediterranean, where he boarded a boat for England, arriving in January 1940.

For his deeds during the Battle of Britain, Skalski was awarded Poland's highest decoration for gallantry, the Virtuti Militari. In March 1941 he was posted to No 306 (Torun) Polish squadron flying Spitfires, and during the summer of 1941 he was to claim another five victories on sweeps over northern France.

Following these successes, he was invested with the Polish Cross of Valour, to which he would eventually add three bars, and in September he was awarded the DFC. In March 1942 he joined No 316 Squadron and soon accounted for a FW 190 fighter. He was promoted to squadron leader and given command of No 317 Squadron, which he led during the combined operations at Dieppe when his pilots destroyed seven German aircraft. For his "excellent leadership" he was awarded a Bar to his DFC.

After two years' constant fighting, Skalski was rested in November 1942, when he became the chief flying instructor at a Spitfire training unit. Determined to return to a fighting unit, he became leader of the newly-created Polish Fighting Team (PFT) of volunteers in January 1943. Popularly known as "Skalski's Circus", the elite team numbered 15 of the best Polish fighter pilots. They left for North Africa a month later when they were attached to No 145 Squadron. Flying the latest Spitfire Mk IX aircraft from Bu Grara in the Western Desert, the team claimed its first victory on March 28 when Skalski and his wingman each shot down a Junkers 88 bomber.

Over the next few days, Skalski shot down two Me 109 fighters and damaged a third; and by May 13, when the final German forces in Tunisia surrendered, his Polish pilots had destroyed 30 enemy aircraft. In July, Skalski took command of No 601 Squadron at Luqa, Malta, shortly before moving to Sicily. He was only the second Pole to be given command of a RAF squadron. Soon after receiving a second Bar to his DFC in October, he was promoted to be the Wing Leader of No 131 Polish Wing at Northolt. In April 1944 he moved to command No 133 Wing, which had recently re-equipped with the Mustang fighter. In May he was awarded the Virtuti Militari for the second time.

Skalski led his three squadrons on long-range bomber escort missions, often escorting bombers of the USAAF to targets as far as Hamburg. Then, with D-Day imminent, the squadrons began dive-bombing sorties against targets in northern France. On June 24 he chased two Me 109s over Rouen, causing them to collide without firing a shot. They were his final claims, and he ended the war as Poland's highest-scoring fighter pilot. In September his operational flying career was over and he was awarded the DSO. After spending six months in the United States, he returned to become wing commander operations at HQ No 11 Group.

At the end of the war Skalski was offered a commission in the RAF, but he decided to return to Poland in June 1947. Initially, he served at the headquarters of the Soviet-dominated Polish Air Force, but, following increasing tension between the Soviet Union and the Western Powers, he was arrested in June 1948 and charged with espionage and treason;- a fate that befell many of his ex-RAF Polish colleagues. In 1949, after a series of cruel interrogations, he was condemned to death and spent the next six years awaiting execution. Eventually, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and he was finally released in 1956 after eight years in prison.

On his release, Skalski was re-admitted to the Air Force, an offer he accepted with some hesitation. He flew the Soviet-built MIG fighters, and in 1972 he ended a distinguished career with the rank of general. He became the President of the Polish Aero Club before retiring to Warsaw, where he led a lonely life.

Skalski was remembered as a great individualist and man of action. One of his pilots described him as "an eagle in the air, he was a great commander and a brilliant leader and we would follow him to hell if necessary".

On the ground he could be stubborn, and he held strong opinions which did not always accord with those of his superiors; but his fighting qualities and courage were never in doubt.

He made numerous visits to England, and attended the unveiling in June 1994 of a memorial to No 133 Wing at the site of their former airfield at Coolham in Sussex. In September 2000, he joined fellow veterans at the National Memorial to "The Few" at Capel le Ferne to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain; he insisted on sitting with his surviving friends from No 501 Squadron.

Posted by Random Penseur at November 21, 2004 09:43 AM

Many thanks for posting these obits. I learned a long time ago that many Brit and otherwise older men did fascinating deeds during WWII as well as Korea.Many years ago, I met a woman who was a "Fowles" scholar and had visited with him several times. When I asked the question "What did he do during the Second World War?" She looked at me like I had sprouted horns from my head. I thought "Oh, my you really don't know him at all!"

Posted by: Azalea at November 21, 2004 03:52 PM

Who was "him" in your comment? I'm not sure I followed.

Posted by: rp at November 23, 2004 02:56 PM

Thankyou for posting the info re Peter Twinn. My maiden name was Twinn, and I also saw the 'obit' in the Times last year. He was certainly an interesting and modest person who made quite a breakthrough re the Enigma machine. I have designed & produced a family tree for my branch of the Twinn family going back to the 17th century so I am currently researching to see if Peter Twinn was related to my great grandfather Charles Twinn. Your details added further info for which I am grateful.

Posted by: Jennifer Denning at January 30, 2005 08:42 AM
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