Internet sleuths track down mystery WWII woman from 70-year-old photo

The photo from the archive of the Institute of National Remembrance shows a young woman wearing the steel-blue military uniform designed for the air forces, a side cap with the Polish Eagle and leather gloves. Her brown hair is tied up neatly. Institute of National Remembrance

Internet detectives have tracked down the identity of a woman from a photo taken over 70 years ago after it was posted it on social media asking if anyone knew her identity. 

The photo, which was taken in the UK, comes from the archive of the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), the Polish state institute whose work includes documenting Nazi and communist crimes. 

The IPN posts the photo on social media asking followers if anyone knew her identity, adding: “We would like to know whether she remained in exile or if she returned to the Fatherland, destroyed by the war, where Stalin's terror was raging for good.”Institute of National Remembrance

It is kept in a file entitled the “The Polish Armed Forces in the West”, referring to the forces loyal to the Polish government-in-exile first formed in France and its territories in the Middle East after Poland was defeated and occupied by Nazi Germany and the USSR in September 1939. 

Later, after the fall of France in June 1940, the forces were recreated in Britain – which explains why the picture was taken in Britain.

The photo had been kept in a file entitled the “The Polish Armed Forces in the West”, referring to the forces loyal to the Polish government-in-exile first formed in France and its territories in the Middle East after Poland was defeated and occupied by Nazi Germany and the USSR in September 1939. Institute of National Remembrance

It shows a young woman wearing the steel-blue military uniform designed for the air forces, a side cap with the Polish Eagle and leather gloves. Her brown hair is tied up neatly.

The picture had been taken somewhere in Britain, although the Institute did not know where, suggesting it may have been in London or in Edinburgh, Glasgow or St Andrews, in Scotland.

The photo shows a young woman wearing the steel-blue military uniform designed for the air forces, a side cap with the Polish Eagle and leather gloves. In her hands she is holding an object which internet users identified as being a medal. Institute of National Remembrance

The Institute published the photo on its Facebook page on 14 March in the hope of finding out who the woman is, what happened to her after the war and whether she is still alive – or whether her children or grandchildren are. 

The woman’s age is not provided, but even if she were just 20 years old in 1940, she would be over 100 now.

Institute of National Remembrance

Within less than 48 hours, internet sleuths had managed to track her down, identifying her as Maria Barr (Barczyńska) who is seen at Buckingham Palace after collecting a Flying Cross medal which had been awarded to her late husband, Squadron Leader Phillip R. Barr. Institute of National Remembrance

“We would like to know whether she remained in exile or if she returned to the Fatherland, destroyed by the war, where Stalin's terror was raging for good,” the Institute wrote in the post below the picture, referring to how many people who served in the Polish Armed Forces in the West remained abroad in exile after the forces were disbanded in 1947, rather than return to Poland, where the new communist government viewed them as enemies.

The post was shared over 4000 times on Facebook, with people suggesting ways in which the woman’s identity could be established; for example, by contacting other Polish women who served in Polish forces at the time who might recognise her.

Maria met her husband onboard the Polish Navy troopship MS Sobieski, pictured here at anchor on the Clyde, November 1942.IWM FLM 8900

Now, 48 hours later, the mystery has been solved after internet users managed to track down old newspaper archives. 

In one cutting, the woman is identified as Maria Barr (Barczyńska) who is seen at Buckingham Palace after collecting a Flying Cross medal which had been awarded to her late husband, Squadron Leader Phillip Rex. Barr. 

Squadron Leader Philip R. Barr was killed in action in November 1942.Squadron Leader Philip R. Barr was killed in action in November 1942.

He was a half Polish, half British airman who had been shot down over France and was being evacuated on the Sobieski ship where the couple met. 

He later went missing in action. 

The IPN later posted: “Thanks for all your comments and involvement. The power of social media worked well in our case.” Institute of National Remembrance

Maria told the newspaper she had been “born in Grodno and studied at Wilno” before the war interrupted her studies. 

She said: “I am now working in the Polish Red Cross at Edinburgh (sic).

“This work helps me forget my loss, but I always hope that my husband will return and get to know Poland, the country of his ancestors.”