The European Voluntary Workers who left lasting impression in post-war Telford

Freshly out of the Army and still only in his early 20s, John Latham suddenly found himself with around 30 workers to look after – and a lot of them could not speak any English.

John Latham was there when this Avro Anson took off after force landing in Donnington in October 1938.
John Latham was there when this Avro Anson took off after force landing in Donnington in October 1938.

Our recent feature about the role played by European Voluntary Workers who came to Britain in the post-war years to plug a serious labour gap prompted 91-year-old Mr Latham, from Trench in Telford, to share his own experiences.

"I had come out of the Army and started at COD Donnington when my boss asked for me one day and said 'you have some EVWs coming to work for you and you will be in charge of them.' I was only 22, and I had about 30 of them sent to me," he said.

Now, 70 or so years on, he can still remember all their names.

"The person who was in charge of them was Miodrag Krsmanovic. His wife was an English woman. She was the welfare officer while I was there.

"I did 42 years at Donnington, doing transport all the way through, and finishing up as transport manager. I started there in 1949 when I came out of the Army, and my role at Donnington then was transport chargehand in charge of cranes."

Things were a little difficult with his new charges.

"There were Ukrainians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Yugoslavs, and Poles, and some of them spoke English, some of them spoke broken English, and some spoke different things."

A presentation of awards to Donnington depot transport drivers. They include, fifth from right, (between two women), Gvoka or Govaka; middle, between the man with glasses and a woman, Knezevic; and on the other side of the same woman, Karpenko.

He was able to communicate speaking an entirely different language – Italian.

"Fortunately I spoke a little bit of Italian, and some of them had been in Italy during the war."

He says they were good workers and everybody got on, working as a team. And he knew of only one of them who returned to his home country, Henry Olcheskis – the name is phonetic – who went back to see a daughter he had never seen.

"Eventually he went back to Lithuania. The last time I heard of him he was arrested as soon as he got into Lithuania by the Russians because he had been in England. I have never heard anything of him since."

Mr Latham, who was awarded the Imperial Service Medal in 1991, can still remember the names of many of those workers, and has jotted them down – the spellings are likely to be phonetic.

So there was Marius Ilic, Dane Kontic, Alex Stankovic, Dragomir Stojanovics, Ardvid Dabrin, brothers Joe and Stan Vingris, Mike Milosevic, Knezevic, Sawka, Larsen, Andy Borkowski, Johnny Trufunovic, Samson, Lazic ("his wife Joyce is still alive"), Henry Olcheskis, Jacobanic, Tomovic, and Govaka.

As it happens, although Mr Latham originally went in the Army, he has a lifetime interest in aircraft.

"I saw the first Spitfire which flew from London to Glasgow on Empire Day. He was going to land at RAF Tern Hill if he needed petrol, did two runs over Tern Hill, and then went up to Scotland without landing.

"I also saw the Avro Anson which landed at Donnington at the back of the Little Theatre. It landed in that field and ended over the railway line in a woman's garden. I lived then on Trench Road, by the Dun Cow.

"I was there when it took off. Where the Aldi is now, they opened the fence because they didn't think the pilot could get off, but he got it off before the length of the field."

That incident, in October 1938, was covered at the time by the local press.

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