Penrith man who was honoured for heroism at Battle of Monte Cassino

Date: Monday 20th March 2017
Joe Zajac
Joe Zajac

ONE of the two surviving Poles to have taken part in the Battle of Monte Cassino during World War II has died at the age of 93.

Boguslaw Zajac, who was known universally as Joe after settling in Penrith, died following a battle with cancer. Born in Ulnanow, Poland, he was the second of four children born to Jozef and Zofia Zajac, but had only a brief childhood, before the outbreak of World War II tore his family apart.

His father was a horse breeder and farmer, who bred horses for the Polish cavalry. Following the outbreak of war, the Russians removed the entire family to Siberia, where his mother died from typhus and gangrene. After they were released by the Russians, the family was on a train from Siberia when Joe’s elder brother got off to look for food and got left behind.

The family was taken to Iran and then Palestine and the children grew up in an orphanage until, at the age of 17, Joe joined the Army and was reunited with his father, with them both fighting alongside Allied troops in the Polish army. The pair were both awarded the Virtuti Militari, the highest Polish military decoration for heroism or courage, for their bravery at Monte Cassino, a battle in which a high proportion of the Polish troops were wiped out.

After the war, Joe, like his father and youngest brother, settled in England, as their home town had become part of Russia, and Poles returning home were frequently killed. It was while living at the Carleton camp, Penrith, which became a site for refugees following the war, that he met his future wife, a fellow Pole named Janina Milosz, who was living at a similar encampment at Lowther. Janina attended a football match at which Joe was the goalkeeper and the couple went on to get married and have three children together, Barbara, Krystyna and Irena.

A keen sportsman, Joe had played football for the Polish forces team. He was also a keen athlete, competing as a runner, high jumper and pole vaulter, and even being invited one year to take part in the Highland Games — an achievement of which he was extremely proud.

In 1969, while working for the county council on the motorway, he suffered a spinal injury, which resulted in him being completely paralysed for eight weeks. After this time, his wife was told he would never walk again. However, doctors were proven wrong as he gradually regained the use of his legs. While he was left with problems in one leg, he did not let this hold him back and he was still teaching his grandchildren to do headstands when he was 80 years old.

His children say he was a “modern dad” before the term was even coined, regularly pushing them round in their pram as youngsters, playing with them and teaching them all how to swim.

Joe spoke little to his children of the atrocities he had seen during his early life. When he did speak of those times, he would usually focus on funny anecdotes or bizarre tales, such as that of Wojtek, the brown bear adopted by the Polish troops after being bought as a cub in Iran. Joe would tell how the animal would drink beer and smoke cigarettes, as well as carrying ammunition for his comrades. In order to get him on to a British transport ship, the bear even had to be officially drafted into the Polish Army as a private, and, after the war, he lived out his life at Edinburgh zoo — where former Polish soldiers would often throw him a cigarette!

Joe worked on for a short while following his accident, supervising youngsters on work experience with the council. In his retirement, he focused largely on his garden, often spending from morning until dusk working there. Despite his injury, he continued his interest in sport, playing table tennis, snooker and particularly darts, which he played for the Royal British Legion.

Joe is survived by his three daughters and grandchildren Jessica and George. A Requiem Mass was held at St. Catherine’s Church, Penrith, on Wednesday, followed by interment at Penrith cemetery. Walker’s Funeral Directors, Penrith, had charge of the arrangements.