Turowicz’s health was deteriorating. He knew he was a financial burden to his family. It would come as no surprise if he committed suicide, a Polish intelligence officer wrote in 1971.

Wadysaw Józef Marian Turowicz was one of the refugee pilots from Poland who joined the Royal Air Force and fought for Britain during World War Two. No longer needed by the Allies after the war and unwelcome in their newly communist homeland, some of the pilots settled in Pakistan and helped establish one of the most admired air forces in the world at the time.

An aeronautical and astrophysics engineer in addition to being an avid pilot, he would go on to rise to the rank of Air Commodore and also headed up its space and missile programmes. Pakistan would bestow numerous national and military honours on him, and also grant him and his family Pakistani citizenship.

He helped establish the Pakistan Air Force and was known as the godfather of Pakistan’s space and missile programme. But Air Commodore Władysław Turowicz (pronounced Vuadisuav Turovich) was a Pole who became a Pakistani hero.

His name does not exist on the pages of Polish history, but he figures in the records of Służba Bezpieczestwa, or SB, the security service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the People’s Republic of Poland, which allocated a big budget and a group of its best men to recruit Air Commodore Turowicz into its structures.

“Did he spy against Pakistan?” I asked the employee of Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance in Warsaw who guided me through the microfilms on Turowicz and his family.

The institute has recently opened to the public thousands of files from the notorious agency that was the main intelligence organisation in communist Poland from 1956 until the end of the People’s Republic in 1989.

“It is not clear, there’s been no research on the Polish pilots in the Pakistan Air Force, so you must go through all these files to find out. But I hope he didn’t. Those pilots were people of better sort, of much higher standards,” he said, leaving me with the SB reports, intercepted letters to family members, photographs, bills, medical checks, conversation transcripts, and handwritten notes of several agents involved in recruiting Turowicz.

Turowicz with other officers (Chaklala, 1954) -Photos by Tahir Jamal/White Star. Courtesy Pakistan Air Force Museum.
Turowicz with other officers (Chaklala, 1954) -Photos by Tahir Jamal/White Star. Courtesy Pakistan Air Force Museum.

The SB’s preliminary note says Turowicz, with his high rank in the Pakistani military, huge respect and knowledge, would be a valuable asset for the organisation. It seems they became interested in recruiting him when he joined the national space agency after the India-Pakistan war of 1965, and further reinforced their efforts when Pakistan was about to launch its nuclear programme.

According to the biographical file, Turowicz was born in 1909, in Wadziejewsko village, Siberia, to an aristocratic family. The very Polish name of the village might suggest it was a colony for Poles imprisoned or exiled by the Tsar; it is also unlikely that Polish aristocrats would live far in the Amur valley, on the border of Russia and China, for reasons other than political.

In 1920, with his parents and siblings, Turowicz began the journey to Poland, which finally was a sovereign republic again after 150 years when Russia, Prussia and Austria annexed its lands.

They reached Poland in 1922 and settled down in Warsaw. After matriculation, Turowicz was enrolled at the Faculty of Aviation of the Warsaw University of Technology. A brilliant aeronautical engineer, he graduated with honours.

He liked air racing. In 1936, at the Warsaw Aero Club, he met his future wife Zofia who, at the age of 20, was already a famous glider pilot. At the outbreak of World War Two, Turowicz – then a Polish Air Force lieutenant – was stationed in south-western Poland. He received the order to retreat to Romania and was soon locked up in an internment camp. Zofia found him there in 1940, and somehow managed to receive permission for them to marry.

In autumn 1940, they began the journey to the West. Through Hungary, Yugoslavia, Switzerland and France, they reached England. Turowicz joined the Royal Air Force as a flying instructor and a test pilot.

Turowicz being decorated by President Ayub Khan in 1966 for meritorious service to the Pakistan Air Force -Photos by Tahir Jamal/White Star. Courtesy Pakistan Air Force Museum.
Turowicz being decorated by President Ayub Khan in 1966 for meritorious service to the Pakistan Air Force -Photos by Tahir Jamal/White Star. Courtesy Pakistan Air Force Museum.

The first SB officer in charge of recruiting Turowicz reported he could not get accustomed to life in England and left when an opportunity arose in 1948. That opportunity was in the newly formed state of Pakistan and he moved with 30-odd other Polish pilots to the RAF base in Karachi.

The statement is unconvincing. Unfortunately, documents on the group of Polish pilots who helped establish the Pakistan Air Force remain classified in Great Britain, which had seen over 8,000 Polish air personnel arrive on its shores in 1940. Many of them, who could no longer fight in their country, which had been torn to pieces by the Nazis and Soviets, believed they could strive against the German Luftwaffe from the sceptred isle.

Polish Squadron 303 was considered the best unit in the Battle of Britain.

But the RAF no longer needed them after the war. Neither did Poland. Many pilots who returned after the war were imprisoned by the new communist regime. The government of Pakistan chose 30 Polish officers from the RAF, offering them three-year contracts and a home when they could not return to their land of original belonging.

A beautiful documentary film directed by Anna Pietraszek, Polish Eaglets Over Pakistan (2008), has thus far been the only attempt to bring them back – or at least their names – to Poland.

A monument in honour of Turowicz at the Pakistan Air Force Museum -Photos by Tahir Jamal/White Star. Courtesy Pakistan Air Force Museum.
A monument in honour of Turowicz at the Pakistan Air Force Museum -Photos by Tahir Jamal/White Star. Courtesy Pakistan Air Force Museum.

Group Captain (retired) S Ahtesham A Naqvi of PAF spoke to Pietraszek about how, even after 60 years, he remembered the Polish pilots as his teachers and instructors at the Pakistan Air Force Academy in Risalpur, and as friends.

“Poles came to help us when we were abandoned by everyone else,” he says in the documentary.

The Poles might have felt the same.

Plaque at PAF Museum Karachi.
Plaque at PAF Museum Karachi.

Air Vice Marshal M Akhtar, Air Commodore Kamal Ahmad and Squadron Leader Ahmad Rafi remember them as kind, noble and soft-spoken. They were not “foreigners” they say; Turowicz was “like an elder brother”.

Akhtar says that the first thing that impressed him and which he found endearing was that Turowicz, as a senior officer, had the privilege to be served food in his own room but would always come to eat at the canteen with the younger pilots.

In the SB files, the agent described him as “a Pakistan enthusiast". He interpreted Turowicz’s enthusiasm as “a debt of gratitude".

Turowicz receiving Prime Minister Khawaja Nazimuddin -Photos by Tahir Jamal/White Star. Courtesy Pakistan Air Force Museum.
Turowicz receiving Prime Minister Khawaja Nazimuddin -Photos by Tahir Jamal/White Star. Courtesy Pakistan Air Force Museum.

Turowicz was interested in everything related to Poland. All of the SB agents involved in the operation to enlist him – diplomats, representatives of a foreign trade agency or engineers – observed that Turowicz was a “pre-war kind of patriot". They were convinced this deep, idealistic patriotism only needed a proper material incentive to have him recruited, especially as his health and the family’s financial situation were not good; Zofia had to become a physics and mathematics teacher to support them.

"Pre-war" in the Polish language is charged with meaning other than chronological. Years ago, when it could still be used for people, my grandmother would recommend a doctor as “a good pre-war physician". My mother, who had not witnessed the war, often mentions "pre-war" manners or gallantry if a man has to be described as courteous. We all know the pre-war intelligentsia was of better quality, higher moral standards. In this term, there is a lot of what Pakistanis call lehaaz – good upbringing, graciousness.

Air Commodore Wladyslaw Turowicz (Second from right), Mrs Zofia Turowicz (Third from left) with other officers and cadets (1954, Chaklala).
Air Commodore Wladyslaw Turowicz (Second from right), Mrs Zofia Turowicz (Third from left) with other officers and cadets (1954, Chaklala).

Between 1918 and 1939, Poland saw remarkable economic and scientific development, the flourishing of mathematics, philosophy and psychology. The famous Lwów-Warsaw school of thought was then at the height of its international recognition. World War Two, followed by nearly half a century behind the iron curtain, cut this legacy off in every possible sense.

It was surprising, at the very least, to see the "pre-war" attribute used by SB functionaries; to many Poles now, their agency remains the most despicable manifestation of Poland’s post-war reality.

Turowicz is buried at the Karachi Christian Cemetery -Photos by Tahir Jamal/White Star. Courtesy Pakistan Air Force Museum.
Turowicz is buried at the Karachi Christian Cemetery -Photos by Tahir Jamal/White Star. Courtesy Pakistan Air Force Museum.

While reading the letters of Turowicz family members or persons who posed as their friends, I could not contain the feeling of guilt. Going through personal correspondence and reports of those who intercepted it feels like two-fold eavesdropping. At some point, the agents seemed to be close with Turowicz. Maybe a real friendship was established – if anything meaningful can flourish from an unequal relationship based on a betrayal of intimacy.

Through the archive files, I entered Turowicz’s private life without invitation and with helplessness. In films, when our heroes are in danger, sometimes, we want to warn them and change the course of what has already happened – it was the same kind of futile desire to intervene.

Statue of Turowicz at PAF Museum Karachi.
Statue of Turowicz at PAF Museum Karachi.

In 1966, the SB approached Turowicz’s eldest daughter, who was visiting her aunt and grandmother in Warsaw. A handsome officer was put in charge of courting her to gain an entry point to her father. He could have been successful, as even the aunt and grandmother saw in him a potential husband for the young lady. But the story ended soon, as another agent stationed in Pakistan had already begun to establish a cordial relationship with Turowicz himself.

It seems the first attempt at recruitment was unsuccessful. During a reception hosted by a Polish diplomat, one of the guests who allegedly represented the Polish Air Force insisted on a one-to-one conversation Turowicz. After a while, Turowicz left the party.

In 1970, Turowicz visited Poland for the first time after the war, to receive treatment at a well-known orthopaedic clinic near Warsaw. A doctoral student in engineering was placed at the same clinic to seek Turowicz’s help in translating English technical terms. On the last day, the student asked whether Turowicz loved Poland enough to do something for its benefit.

AOC SAC receiving Consul General, Republic of Poland at the PAF Museum-14 August 2006.
AOC SAC receiving Consul General, Republic of Poland at the PAF Museum-14 August 2006.

Turowicz certainly loved Poland, but that Poland was already owned by the past, or maybe it never existed. His Poland was a collection of nostalgias – inherited from parents in Siberia and later his own, and informed by pre-war nobility and honour.

A few days after the incident with the agent in student garb, the Polish diplomat who had befriended Turowicz’s family in Karachi invited him and his sister for a dinner in Warsaw. Discussion focused on a rumour that the Polish Communist Party’s secretary’s translator was a spy and had escaped to Germany. After a long silence, Turowicz confessed he had met many spies, especially during the India-Pakistan war. He said they were slimy, worthless people, men without qualities, whom he would never let close.

He then raised his voice: “I will never become one of them.”

The file ends with signatures, stamps of senior officers and a note that the operation was aborted since all further attempts to recruit Turowicz would be to no avail.


Recalling an unlikely Pakistani soldier

Of the many post-World War Two episodes, one that merits attention is that of a group of Polish officers and men who sought refuge in Britain after their homeland was invaded by Germany. Most volunteered for the armed forces; a considerable number joined the Royal Air Force.

Air Commodore Władysław Turowicz.
Air Commodore Władysław Turowicz.

When Pakistan offered them three-year contracts with high salaries, 30 Polish officers choose to join the Royal Pakistan Air Force as it was known then. (‘Royal’ was dropped in 1956 when Pakistan became a Republic). They were led by Squadron Leader Wadysaw Józef Marian Turowicz, a pilot and engineer. He was commissioned in the Polish Air Force as an aeronautical engineer and fighter pilot, but later immigrated to the United Kingdom to join the RAF.

During World War Two, he flew the British-built Handley Page Halifax Bomber and also served in the RAF Aeronautics Division as a technical inspector, overseeing aircraft electrical and system information for organising, testing and evaluating aircraft.

When Turowicz joined the Royal Pakistan Air Force in 1948, he brought his tremendous skills and knowledge with him. He set up technical institutes in Karachi, and taught at and revitalised the Pakistan Air Force Academy, where he also worked as chief scientist. In 1952, Turowicz was promoted to the rank of Wing Commander, in 1959, to the rank of Group Captain, and in 1960 he became an Air Commodore and an Assistant Chief of Air Staff in charge of PAF’s Maintenance Branch.

Air HQ staff circa 1961-Turowicz seated extreme right.
Air HQ staff circa 1961-Turowicz seated extreme right.

In 1966, the government of Pakistan transferred Turowicz to the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (Suparco), Pakistan’s national space agency, as its chief scientist. After the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, he and Nobel laureate Dr Abdus Salam successfully convinced the then president, Ayub Khan, of the importance of a space programme for a developing country like Pakistan. The duo also persuaded the US government to invest and train Pakistan’s scientists in the field of rocket technology.

Turowicz was appointed head of Suparco in 1967 where he initiated the space programme, upgraded the Sonmiani Satellite Launch Centre, installed the Flight-Test Control Command, the Launch Pad Control System and System Engineering Division. Turowicz embarked upon a project for the fabrication and launch of a Pakistani satellite that enabled Pakistan to master the field of rocket technology. Few people are aware that the renowned engineer designed ballistic missiles of short and medium range and also participated in the development of Pakistan’s nuclear programme.

Mrs Zofia Turowicz (third from left) with other instructors and cadets (Chaklala,1954).
Mrs Zofia Turowicz (third from left) with other instructors and cadets (Chaklala,1954).

Turowicz was killed in a car crash on January 8, 1980. He was buried with full military honours. For his meritorious service, Turowicz was honoured with many awards including the Sitara-i-Pakistan, the Tamgha-i-Pakistan, the Sitara-i-Khidmat, the Sitara-i-Quaid-i-Azam, the Sitara-i-Imtiaz, the Abdus Salam Award in Aeronautical Engineering and the ICTP Award in Space Physics. The Pakistan Air Force placed a memorial in honour of Air Commodore Turowicz at the PAF Museum while Suparco established the Wadysaw Turowicz Space Complex in Lahore.

A side note: Zofia, Turowicz’s wife, also contributed to the Pakistan Air Force in her own way. She taught gliding to Shaheen Air Cadets in Karachi and Rawalpindi, and applied mathematics and particle physics at Karachi University. She, too, was honoured by Pakistan’s government for her achievements and was awarded the Pride of Performance and Sitara-i-Imtiaz.

Life sketch at PAF Museum Karachi.
Life sketch at PAF Museum Karachi.

This article first appeared on Dawn.