Rare ‘Caterpillar Club’ pin awarded to Spitfire Ace who helped pioneer The Great Escape up for auction
A gold pin awarded to a Polish pilot who was one of the heroes of the Great Escape is being sold at auction in the United Kingdom.
Spitfire ace Stanisław Król was awarded the badge when he joined the ranks of the unofficial Caterpillar Club for RAF pilots who successfully bailed out of their damaged aircraft by parachute.
Pilot Officer Król did not receive the honour in person as he never returned to Britain after bailing out of his fighter on a bomber escort mission in 1941.
He was captured by the Germans and sent to the famous Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp for airmen who were persistent escapees.
In March 1944, with 75 others, he took part in the Great Escape, immortalised in the 1963 film starring Steve McQueen.
Król was one of the first out of tunnel Harry and remained at large for 12 days, longer than almost all the other escapees, before being recaptured. He was one of the 50 escapees executed by the Gestapo.
The 19mm-long, nine-carat gold Caterpillar Club Irvin pin, with red amethyst eyes is being offered in an auction at 1818auctioneers in Cumbria which ends on Sunday evening.
A recent auction for a similar pin belonging to Flight Lieutenant Bram van der Stok, who also took part in the Great Escape, caused a bidding war when it was auctioned in the UK two years ago, selling for five times its £600 estimate.
The Caterpillar Club was set up in 1922 to recognise those who successfully bailed out of a disabled plane wearing a parachute made by the Irvin Air Chute Company. The Club name refers to the role of the silkworm in producing parachute fabric.
For auctioneer Ken Payne, Król’s exploits during the war make the pin exceptional.
He said: “His war service makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Stanislaw, or ‘Stan’, was a Spitfire pilot who not only fought the Germans in Poland but also in France and Britain and escaped many times when captured.”
The seller of the pin wishes to remain anonymous. However, the auctioneer revealed that it belonged to her parents-in-law who first met Stan when they were on holiday.
“They formed a deep relationship with Stan who was like a second son to them. Stan named them as his next of kin, a requirement of pilots flying from British bases. The vendor has tried to return the pin to Stan’s family making enquiries through military and Polish museums.
“And now, drawing a blank, she wants this incredible badge and man to be remembered and hopes a purchaser from Poland may come forward,” Payne said.
“The vendor says her parents in-law rarely spoke of Stan because of the upsetting nature of his death and it was they who applied for the award for Stan, who never collected it,” he added.
Accompanying the pin are two letters from the Caterpillar Club confirming its authenticity. A letter of 27 February 1942 states, “We hope that he will soon be able to come home and claim it”.
He never did.
On the afternoon of 2 July 1941, Król was flying his Supermarine Spitfire Mark V on his eleventh sortie in the area of St Omer, France when he was shot down by a Messerschmitt Bf 109. He was captured and went straight into the German prison camp system.
He passed through several camps before the Germans adopted a policy of banishing persistent trouble-makers and escapers to Stalag Luft III in Lower Silesia near what is now Żagań in Poland.
He was amongst the early groups of arrivals in late spring 1942 and he immediately began preparing to escape.
At the camp, Król and his friend Flight Lieutenant Sidney Dowse were lucky not to lose their lives in late 1942 when they were caught attempting to escape by cutting through the wire fence.
Instead of being shot, they were sent to the cooler. In March 1943, he and Sydney Dowse participated in a tunnelling escape attempt which failed and saw them back in the cooler.
In May 1943, he joined Roger Bushell's escape organisation and was recognised as a powerful and efficient tunneller.
His efforts as a pathfinder digger were rewarded with a highly prized placement very near the start of the queue to escape from the tunnel.
Król finally succeeded in escaping the camp on the night of 25 March 1944 in the Great Escape.
His plan was to go to the local railway station and head to Berlin. However, his escape partner Sydney Dowse was delayed and then an air raid closed down the station causing them to change their plan.
Instead, they planned to make their way to Danzig and steal aboard a ship to Sweden. They began walking east to Poland to find friends of Król's. He posed as a Slav worker on leave and Dowse as a Danish worker.
For twelve days and nights they marched through the snow following the railway lines eastwards remaining at large longer than almost all of the escapers. However, just 2 miles from the Polish frontier, they were arrested in a barn by a Hitler Youth and some Home Guard men.
Król was one of the 50 escapees who were executed by the Gestapo. He was cremated in Breslau. His remains are now buried in part of the Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery where his headstone shows the rank Capitan.