All Commentary
Friday, June 1, 1956

Habeas Corpus to the Rescue

Mr. Jordan is a British journalist.

At the old Mark Brown’s Wharf in London, on Wednesday, July 28, 1954, the “Jaroslaw Dabrowski,” flying the flag of Communist Poland, was unloading huge bales of wood wool used for packing. Agile cockney dockers went down into the hold to lash the bales to chains swung from an old-fashioned crane.

Suddenly a scream was heard from the hold. Sidney Palmer, one of the dockers, shouted, “There’s a ghost down here!” He had been scared by a long, thin arm reaching out from behind some bales. His mates rushed down and found an emaciated young man lying there—obviously a stowaway. He was too weak to stand up, and they could not understand his broken English.

“He kept on saying, ‘English police,’ and ‘water,’” Palmer later recounted, “so I gave him a cigarette and my mate went to fetch some water. We laid him on a board and attached the crane chains to it, and swung him up to the deck. If we had known then what we do now, we could have swung him ashore.”

Antoni Klimowicz, the young stowaway, tried to tell the Englishmen to get him off the ship. But as soon as he landed on deck, the ship’s officers dragged him off and locked him in a cabin.

The whole matter might have ended there, but for a British prejudice of long standing against anyone being held prisoner without due legal process. Under the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, any person knowing about a man’s unlawful detention may apply for a writ ordering the jailer to “have at the Royal Courts of Justice the body of” the prisoner.

Klimowicz had gone to sea in 1949, and had served for two years on the “Jaroslaw Dabrowski.” Son of a worker, too young to remember prewar Poland, he might have accepted the new regime. But in 1951 he was asked to spy on his shipmates. When he refused, he was stamped “politically unreliable.” As a result, when called up as a conscript, he did not serve in the navy as would have been normal for a seaman, but in the army, where opportunities for escape are fewer.

After his discharge from the army, he applied for his old job on the “Jaroslaw Dabrowski” but was turned down. His secret-police record was following him around.

Klimowicz knew the sailing schedule of his old ship and was familiar with its layout. When he saw her at the Gdynia docks on July 22, he knew she was due in London four days later. Acting on impulse, he slipped into the hold, without provisions or water. He made for himself a tiny hiding nook, no bigger than a coffin. Soon the huge bales of wood wool were lowered over him and Klimowicz was buried alive. He could not even give himself up to the crew before the cargo was unloaded in London, since he had no means of attracting their attention.

Time passed and the ship was still in harbor. A mechanical failure caused the sailing to be delayed for two days. By the time the “Jaroslaw Dabrowski” was under way on the 24th, the stowaway was already suffering acute thirst and hunger, and wondering whether he would last out the four-day voyage and the unloading. When the ship finally docked, he was too weak to stand. That is how he came to be discovered that Wednesday afternoon, after nearly six cramped, hungry, and thirsty days in total darkness.

The next day, young Klimowicz was interrogated by an immigration officer, in the presence of the skipper, who helpfully served as interpreter. Concluding that he was dealing with an ordinary stowaway, the British official refused him permission to land—normal procedure with persons attempting to enter the country without proper documents.

By Friday the story had spread among the London Poles, who began to gather on the quayside. That evening over a hundred of them were marching up and down, chanting anticommunist slogans and angrily demanding the release of their countryman. Reporters and photographers were also at the scene—but on a different story.

They were covering the voluntary departure, aboard the same freighter, of two American citizens. Dr. Joseph Cort, 26, and his wife had resided in Britain for some time. When Cort received a draft notice from the American consulate, he declared that he would not return to his native United States to face “terror and persecution” for his procommunist views, but would settle in Red Czechoslovakia, “to live in a free country.”

Twice Klimowicz was visited by a Polish political officer. At first the officer was beguilingly polite: “If you sign this paper, agreeing to go back voluntarily, I will see to it that you are given a good job on your return. You will get a scholarship to the Merchant Marine Academy and become an officer. You have a fine career ahead of you, my friend, if you go home.” But Klimowicz knew too well what awaited him at the hands of the secret police. He refused to sign.

When the political officer returned the following day, there were no more honeyed words. He threatened his prisoner, but Klimowicz still refused to sign.

At the quayside, one of the alerted Poles, whom we will call Kowalski, had the idea of enlisting the help of the police by lodging a fictitious charge against Klimowicz. He went up to the inspector in command of the police detail on the wharf and said, “A man on board this ship stole my wallet, containing one pound and 13 shillings. I want him arrested before he leaves British jurisdiction!” The inspector, guessing Kowalski’s motives, refused to take any action.

Kowalski thereupon sought out the address of the nearest magistrate and rushed by taxi to his home, rousing him from bed to obtain an arrest warrant. “Are you quite sure it was only one pound 13 shillings?” the magistrate asked. Kowalski hastily revised it to ten pounds and the magistrate signed the complaint.

Back at the quay, the Pole triumphantly produced the paper, but the inspector refused to budge. “Your information is incorrect, sir,” he said placidly. Kowalski raised his voice so that the reporters could hear him. “It will be a sad day for this country,” he said, “when the police take over the duties of the judiciary. Only a magistrate can decide whether my information is correct or not.”

The reporters, already intrigued by the chanting demonstrators, swarmed around, asking questions. “Gentlemen, you are witnessing a murder!” Kowalski shouted. Somewhat shaken, the inspector vanished, probably to consult his superiors at Scotland Yard by telephone. In the meantime the “Jaroslaw Dabrowski” took a pilot on board and started moving downstream. Although it was now past midnight, the Poles were still on the docks, cursing the communists. Some of the women were weeping.

As the freighter disappeared in the mist below Tower Bridge, the first round of the fight for Klimowicz’s freedom was lost. But the wheels of British justice had been set in motion by the bogus charge against him—and once started they never stop.

At 2:20 a.m., off Woolwich Reach, some way down the Thames, the “Jaroslaw Dabrowski” was ordered to stop by the blinking lights and wailing sirens of police launches, alerted by radio. By Saturday morning the story was on the radio and in the early Saturday papers—“a communist kidnapping” some called it.

Early Saturday a Polish-born London attorney, Jan Jaxa, decided to invoke the Habeas Corpus Act. Unfortunately an annual English Bank Holiday—the first weekend in August—was just beginning and nearly everyone had left London for the country. Yet the Registrar of the High Court of Justice, when Jaxa explained the situation to him, agreed to stand by with his staff throughout the day, and if need be, even Sunday, to issue the Writ of Habeas Corpus as soon as a “leave” was obtained from a judge. To forego the Bank Holiday weekend is a major sacrifice for Londoners.

Jaxa then drove his car through the heavy holiday traffic to the home of the Honorable Mr. Justice Davies in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, about 35 miles west of London. When Jaxa arrived in the early afternoon, he found the jurist in corduroys, tending his rose garden. The judge evidently knew the purpose of the visit, for he approached the attorney with outstretched hand. “I am afraid, Mr. Jaxa, that you are too late,” he said.

The lawyer looked stunned. He visualized the communist ship sailing eastward, already out of British territorial waters. But the judge continued calmly: “The Chief Justice of England, Lord Goddard, has just granted leave to issue a Writ of Habeas Corpus and appropriate action is being taken.” The attention focused on the case by the quayside demonstrations and the charge against the stowaway had not been wholly wasted.

There remained the little matter of serving the writ on the skipper of the “Jaroslaw Dabrowski.” When Prime Minister Churchill heard about the situation, he reportedly snorted, “Haven’t we any destroyers left?” Lightning action followed. The destroyer “Obdurate” soon was steaming down the Thames, ready to stop the Polish ship within British waters, by force if necessary, if she tried to slip through the screen of police launches.

“Jaroslaw Dabrowski’s” lights were dimmed that night. In his dark cabin Klimowicz was listening in dread for the sound of its engines, which would indicate the departure of the ship for the open sea and Gdynia. But instead he heard approaching motor boats. It was 10:45 p.m. on Saturday, July 31.

Ten launches of the Thames police surrounded the ship, keeping their engines running. A boarding party of 30 husky policemen in their tall cloth helmets clambered up the rope ladder, under command of Sir John Nott-Bower, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, better known as Scotland Yard. Sir John politely asked the skipper to deliver “the body of Antoni Klimowicz” in the terms of the Act of 1679—devised to safeguard liberty against feudal abuses and now serving against communist tyranny.

Captain Glowacki, who had been conferring through the day with the Polish Ambassador, refused to comply. About 30 members of the crew faced the unarmed bobbies. Some garbage was thrown at the police and a fight seemed imminent.

Sir John ordered the ship searched. His bobbies soon located a locked cabin. Seizing some fire axes, they hacked the door to pieces. A British immigration official was the first to greet Klimo-wicz. “You are free!” he said in good Polish.

After Klimowicz was taken off, the “Jaroslaw Dabrowski” sailed to Gdynia, taking Dr. Cort and his wife to Red sanctuary. Did the Klimowicz case give them some food for thought? Here was a simple sailor, the son of workers, risking his life to escape Soviet rule. Here was the government machinery of a great nation set in motion to secure the freedom of one humble human being.

A hearing in the High Court of Justice, on Tuesday, August 3, lasted less than two minutes. The Lord Chief Justice made an order staying further proceedings under the Habeas Corpus Act, and left the matter of the young man’s future status for the decision of the Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe. Meanwhile, Klimowicz remained under the protection of British security officials. On Saturday, August 7, he received permission to remain in Britain.

In accordance with arrangements made by the security officers, a group of London Poles met their rescued countryman at Victoria Station. The bustling crowdsdid not recognize the young man in a shabby raincoat and a seaman’s cap over his curly hair. He was no longer a celebrity—just a free man.

Now visiting the United States, Antoni Klimowicz is telling Polish-Americans about life in their captive homeland. He is telling them also about what he could not know when London bobbies broke down his cabin door: how a great democratic nation, from cockney dockers to the Lord Chief Justice, was galvanized into quick action by the plight of a simple fugitive from communism. []

It is firmly implanted in our common law tradition that it is better for ten miscreants to go free than for one innocent to be incarcerated.


Thomas E. Dewey, The Study of Release Procedures
for Mental Patients in New York State
, 1954

The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One’s right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.


Supreme Court, Board of Education v. Barnette,
319 U. S. 624, 638