‘The Citroën Traction Avant saved our lives’

Posted in Citroen Traction Avant, Poland, Romania by Deputy city editor on March 23, 2011

The car had “certainly not” broken down. Picture shows Citroën Traction in October 1939 on the 7km mud road leading to the  ‘vast estate’ at Suceava, Romania. The account of this episode in the Cranleigh RC parish magazine explains that it was the custom of the landowner to send his ox teams to pull cars through the deep mud – as ‘a gesture of friendship & welcome.’

Basia Weaver (née Rytarowska), who lives quietly today in Cranleigh, Surrey, a member of St Nicholas Catholic church and an amateur historian, has no trouble finding material. She has a story of her own – of an exile that involves escaping both Nazis and subsequently Soviets, each having invaded her native Poland within a few days of one another, in 1939.

Her account of her escape from Poland to Bucharest and subsequently Cranleigh via Yugoslavia, Italy, France, Algeria, Morocco and Portugal, contains the intriguing revelation (to a Tractionist) of the vital role played by her father’s new Citroën Traction Avant, which was the family’s vehicle for escape. Basia found a new home in England after making a perilous flight across the Bay of Biscay, an area where German air presence was assumed. She is now occupied translating family archives and trying to recover the story , so as to enlighten her grandchildren, when they ask why, and how, and what happened.

I met the remarkable Basia by pure coincidence, or Tractiondipidity, outside the Sun public house in Dunsfold, in the company of Modestine, my 1951 Citroën Traction Avant.

The power of the Traction to attract admirers and good stories has rarely been bettered. Basia spotted the car, one thing led to another, and over a soft drink she told me of her father’s beloved Traction, which outran incoming armies from two directions. I am of course fascinated, additionally when she said she had flown from Lisbon to Bristol, during World War II.  This is an air link that carries a certain distinction, in my Junior Jet Club plane spotters book. My former neighbour Rex Cowan in Hampstead many years ago also used this flight. There is a lot about BOAC Flight 777 on Wikipedia and elsewhere.

In this epic tale of exile, the Traction “saved our lives,” recalls Basia. “It withstood appalling road conditions and survived the first six months of the war impeccably. A broken exhaust, resulting from the roughly cobbled roads on the outskirts of Bucharest, was the only mishap it suffered.”

“To avoid the blocked roads caused by numerous breakdowns and the lack of petrol, my father sometimes drove over ploughed stubble fields or through the woods,” she recalls in her account published in the March 2011 edition of the St Nicholas, Cranleigh, parish magazine.

After the escape from the Germans, the family was only briefly safe. “We were staying within 5 km of the Polish/Russian border when the Russian army invaded south-eastern Poland on 17 September 1939.”  They drove to Romania, where in February 1940 the beloved car had to be sold.In a letter, Basia remembers Bucharest where there were a large group of Polish families as Romania had become the major escape route for Polish civilians and some in the military when Poland was attacked from the west and the east. She also remembers 2-1/2 years in Algiers.

“I remember some of the women we knew in Algiers were later with us in London so I presume that others made the same journey we did from Algiers/ Tangiers / Gibralter / Lisbon to Bristol.”

The BOAC flights between Lisbon and Bristol operated by brave KLM crews provide a colourful and tragic sidebar to the greater problems of civil aviation at the time. It is currently unclear to me if the commercial service was used by Basia and her mother when they landed in Bristol on 8 September 1942, or might they have been on another kind of flight. As Basia herself acknowledges: “The story of the Lisbon-Bristol flights is fascinating and needs unraveling.”

Basia’s father joined the Polish army in exile and after service in France was evacuated to Britain in June 1940. Basia’s sister married a French national in Algiers. Basia’s parents, born in the Ukraine, then part of Czarist Russia, had survived the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Russian civil war and the Polish-Russian war of 1920, and then the second world war. “Having lost everything twice in their lives, in 1948 they decided to stay in the UK and so start again. They died in England aged 85 and 93.”

What an amazing story!

Comments are welcome especially from those who can ‘interpret’ more about the Traction !