POLISH patriots are mourning a Colchester-based count who was said to have been the country’s “president in exile” during the communist era.

Hundreds of people are expected to attend celebrations in Poland of the life of Count Juliusz Nowina Sokolnicki, who moved to Essex after escaping his homeland when Stalin and Hitler invaded.

The aristocrat, who has died aged 88, was a key player in the Polish underground movement, which fought to keep the country’s identity alive through more than 40 years of Soviet rule.

He was, however, a controversial figure, as both his main claims to fame were disputed.

He led one of two rival “Governments in exile”, which claimed to have inherited authority from the Polish regime, which fled to Romania in 1939, ahead of a simultaneous Nazi and Soviet invasion.

Although, Mr Sokolnicki had links to royalty on his mother’s side, detractors denied he had a legitimate claim to the title count.

Regardless of the uncertainty over his status, he will be remembered with warm affection by his many friends in Colchester.

Drinking Polish vodka in his honour at his wake at the George Hotel, guests toasted a man they knew as a perfect gentleman.

During the event, attended by the Colchester Town Watch, female well-wishers recalled how he would always get to his feet when a woman entered the room, even when his health was frail in advanced age.

Mr Sokolnicki was signed up by the Polish Army in 1939 to help in the ultimately doomed bid to stop the German and Soviet invasion.

He was captured by the Russians, but escaped when a friend picked the lock of a shed they had been locked in with a penknife.

He joined the underground resistance in Nazi-occupied Poland, and then fled to Italy, where he fought for the Allies with the Free Polish 2nd Corps.

After the war, he was sent to Britain as he was deemed to be at risk of assassination had he tried to return.

Cut off from his upper-class roots, Mr Sokolnicki became a railwayman and later a transport manager and a manager in a furniture shop, living in modest homes in York Place, off East Hill, Colchester, and later in Irvine Road.

From 1947 he was actively involved with the Government in exile, campaigning for a democratic Poland and organising fundraising functions for freedom efforts back home.

He claimed to have become president in exile when his predecessor died in 1972, but another ex-patriot, Stanislaw Ostrowski, laid claim to the title. As the title had no legally-recognised authority, it was difficult to prove who had the better case.

Mr Sokolnicki returned to Poland when the country won independence in 1990.

But he continued to live in Colchester and married wife Avril, aged 72, in 1993.

Mr Sokolnicki’s daughter, Shirley Evans, said: “He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and after the war he had nothing, but he just got on with it and took whatever jobs he could get.

“With him, it was always about helping other people.”