A WHITECRAIG war veteran has received one of the highest Polish accolades for his “extraordinary and distinguished service” during the Second World War.

Jozef Pudelek, who celebrated his 100th birthday this year, was presented with the Knight’s Cross of Polonia Restituta (Polish Rebirth) at his home last Friday by Dariusz Adler, the Consul General for Poland.

Mr Pudelek settled in the village with his family after the war but thoughts of his homeland of Poland, whose independence he fought for, have never been far from his memory.

He said: “I am honoured to receive this Knight’s Cross of Poland medal. I am surprised to be remembered after so many years. Freedom is precious and was worth fighting for.”

Mr Pudelek was presented with the medal by Mr Adler on behalf of the President of the Republic of Poland.

Mr Adler said: “I am delighted to be able to present one of the highest Polish Orders to a soldier of the Polish 1st Armoured Division commanded by General Maczek and in this way honour his distinguished service for the independence of Poland.

“Josef took part in the 1939 Defensive War and then got to Hungary. He fled from imprisonment and went to France and Scotland, where he joined the struggle for our freedom and yours. He participated in the Allied offensive in Normandy, including the victorious battle of Falaise in August 1944.”

He told Mr Pudelek: “I would like to congratulate you cordially and thank you for all you did for the freedom of Poland and the world, as well as for contributing to the development of Polish-Scottish relations.”

Mr Pudelek was conscripted into the Polish Army in 1939 at the age of 21 and served with the Polish Armoured Brigade. When Germany invaded Poland that year, to avoid capture his regiment crossed the border into Hungary.

Mr Pudelek was later interned in a camp near the Yugoslav border but escaped during Easter in 1940 to the town of Split.

He embarked on a Greek ship called Patrice with a crew of about five, taking six days to reach the French port of Marseille.

Mr Pudelek was sent by train to Lyon to join up with the French Army in 1940, during which time he met French battalions in retreat saying the war was over.

He retreated to Dunkirk and was taken by fishing boat to the Polish ship Stephan Battory, landing in Plymouth.

Mr Pudelek was sent to Scotland, where his unit worked on strengthening coastal and strategic defences in locations including Lossiemouth and Angus.

At the beginning of 1941 he was posted to East Lothian and billeted at the research establishment at Inveresk. He was engaged in sea defence, laying mines along the coast from Gullane to Dunbar.

This was where he met Mabel, his wife of 72 years. On the way to or from duties, Mr Pudelek would stop off at Thompson’s grocery store in Musselburgh where she worked. The language barrier proved a problem initially, so one of his comrades acted as interpreter and go-between in asking Mabel out.

In 1942, Mr Pudelek was posted to Melville Castle outside Dalkeith when lorries, bridges and engineering equipment were made available to the Polish engineering corps.

On July 18, 1944, he landed on the beach near Caen in France, taking part in the fighting around Falaise. Under the command of the famous General Stanisław Maczek, he progressed to Ghent in Belgium and then helped liberate Breda in Holland.

Following Breda, the Poles laid down arms when they heard a deal had been agreed to give Poland to the Russians at the end of the war.

Mr Pudelek was given leave in early April 1945 and returned to Whitecraig, where he was reunited with Mabel.

He returned to duty in Williamshaffen in Germany in mid-April when the Polish brigades started fighting again after a deal was agreed.

He was injured while loading a tank onto a transporter and sent to Taymouth Castle to recuperate before eventually being given leave to return to Whitecraig. He and Mabel married on July 18, 1945.

Mr Pudelek was later posted to Aberlady to the cinematic corps, showing films in camps to wounded and displaced persons. He was demobbed in October 1947 just before the couple’s son Michael was born on October 17.

Local MSP Colin Beattie visited Mr Pudelek on Monday to congratulate him on his medal.