Romualdas Marcinkus was born in Jurbarkas, Lithuania (then in the Tsarist Russian Empire) in 1907. His father was a policeman. After the First World War and the Russian Revolution, Lithuania gained independence. At school, Romualdas was enthusiastic about sports, above all football. When he was 17 he moved to Kaunas to complete his education and he enrolled at the Kaunas Military School ready for service in the army. But he carried on a fine football career part-time.
Football and Flying
Romualdas Marcinkus played for LFLS Kaunas and won league titles. He also won the Baltic Cup championship, where Lithuania played against teams from Latvia and Estonia. He played 40 times for Lithuania, and was coach of the national team. Meanwhile, he became a pilot, paratrooper and expert in aerial reconnaissance. But then came war. Romualdas, like many Lithuanians, sided with Finland in the Winter War against the Soviet Union. Then, in 1940 he left Lithuania to fight with the French Air Force.
Legacies of War
After the Fall of France, Romualdas went to England to join the RAF. By now, his homeland was occupied by the Soviet Union. In 1942, he was shot down over the North Sea, captured and sent to Stalag Luft III camp for Prisoners of War (POWs). This was the scene of the “Great Escape” in 1944, when a mass breakout in which 76 prisoners got out. Romualdas was one of the 76. But he was also one of the 50 executed after being recaptured. In Britain he was honoured with war medals, while in Soviet Lithuania he was ignored. Only after independence was regained in 1991 was he recognised as a hero in his homeland.
Romualdas Marcinkus was a man in search of a homeland. He began life as a citizen of Tsarist Russia, enjoyed much of his short life serving independent Lithuania, both as air force pilot and as an outstanding footballer, saw his country forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union, fought for Britain’s RAF, and died a war hero in 1944, aged only 36.
For fifty years he was ignored in Soviet Lithuania. After independence in 1991, independent again he was recognised. In the place of his birth, Jubarkas, they named a street after him, and his family were able to receive the medals Britain gave him in 1945.