The Polish Air Force in the Second World War
In a series of whirlwind campaigns beginning in 1939, the forces of Nazi Germany had conquered land from the Baltic to the Atlantic coast. A seemingly unstoppable combination of mechanised ground forces and powerful air operations had smashed cities, torn apart resistance and gone as far as taking Paris itself. Of the nations of Europe at war with Germany, only Great Britain remained unconquered, the Channel keeping out the Germans for now. As darkness fell across the continent, the British People stood alone.
Except, of course, they didn’t.
Even setting aside the huge number of people from across the British Empire who had come to fight in Europe, from India, Australia and New Zealand in the east, to Canada in the west, people from many nations had joined the defence of liberty. American volunteers, long before the entry of their own country into the war, came to fly in the Royal Air Force. People of captured countries across Europe, such as Czechs, Norwegians, Dutch and Belgians had arrived to fight both in defence of Britain and for the freedom of their own lands.
And then there were the Poles.
The Fall of Night
It had taken the German military just four weeks to power across Poland and beat it into submission, chopping it in two as part of the Faustian Molotov-Rippentrop Pact and handing the eastern half to the Soviet Union. Despite the valiant efforts of the Polish armed forces, there was no real doubt about the outcome of the invasion once the Soviets had joined the fight. Mutilated, the country would spend the next six years brutalised and oppressed.
Knowing what would happen to them should they stay, and keen to fight again, members of Poland’s army and air force fled the country, passing first through currently-unoccupied neighbours, later making their way to France, and finally to Britain. Their resilience and determination was unparalleled, yet their capabilities were, at least for a while, unappreciated. The late summer of 1940 would change all that, and set them on a path to glory about which everyone, everywhere, should know.
If the Poles are remembered, a lot of credit goes to the pilots of 303 Squadron and their exploits in the Battle of Britain. The 303 was not the only, or even the first, Polish squadron put together, but what it achieved in the late summer of 1940 would guarantee its place in history. Over the course of the Battle of Britain, the 303 would shoot down one hundred and twenty-six German planes, more than any other squadron. It produced legendary heroes in the form of Jan Zumbach, Witold Urbanowicz, Eugeniusz Szaposznikow and Witold Łokuciewski, among many others. Yet, in the beginning, they were ignored by superiors and authorities. Perhaps it was the idea that the successful invasions of Poland by the Nazis and Soviets were indicative of a failure on the part of the Polish military that led to the RAF leadership mistrusting the Polish pilots’ attitudes and abilities, or maybe it was something else. Whatever it was, the leadership was proved completely wrong.
What was it that made Polish squadrons, the 303 in particular, so effective? Arkady Fiedler stated that one reason was Polish pilots’ superior eyesight. Whether this was biologically true or not – all pilots had eye tests, so there is no reason to doubt the assertion – the Polish pilots certainly could pick a German formation out remarkably quickly and at great distance. It should not be forgotten that they had actually had combat experience in both Poland and France, which surely gave them more awareness of enemies in the skies than the trainees of the RAF. Yet the thing that probably defined them most clearly was their method of attack. This was a no-holds-barred assault from up close, flying in loose formations and then getting in far closer to the German planes than was normal for British RAF pilots. It was a technique they had already made use of in their homeland and in France, and was devastatingly effective. Particularly given the fact that the Hawker Hurricanes in which they flew had less than twenty seconds of firing time, this was essential. Finally, was it simple determination that made them so effective? To suggest that British pilots were not determined to protect their country would be insulting and plainly untrue, yet perhaps the horror of finding their own land torn to pieces gave the Poles an extra edge.
One thing that must not be forgotten when looking at the 303 is that it was not exclusively a Polish squadron. Initially it had a British commander, then there was its Canadian pilot, John Kent. And then there was Josef František. This Czech renegade had fought his way across Europe after the fall of his country, first stealing a plane to fly to Poland, then fighting through the German and Soviet invasions, then on to France and finally to England. Put simply, he was one of the most amazing aces of the war. Fiercely independent, frequently insubordinate, he was eventually given a plane and told he could roam about by himself, something at which he excelled. In less than a month in September 1940 he shot down seventeen German planes, with one additional probable victory. It was with pilots like these – as well as the Polish heroes – that the 303 contributed so much to the RAF’s success in the Battle of Britain.
To the Bitter End
So the Battle of Britain was won and the island nation remained free of Nazi control. The role of Polish pilots in the battle was well known – for the moment – but looking across general histories of the period, one could be forgiven for thinking that was it. Yet, of course, it was not as if after the Battle of Britain had been won the Poles congratulated themselves, put their feet up and had a cup of tea for the next five years. They had been the first to face the Germans in 1939, and they would be there fighting in 1945, with the same fierce determination, character and skill as they had from the start.
Once Britain’s shores were relatively safe, aircrews who had been focused exclusively on island defence began to move out into other fields of operations. As the war in the Atlantic Ocean heated up and convoys of ships bringing supplies essential to British survival came under threat, the 304 bomber squadron joined efforts to sink U-Boats, with some success. Polish RAF bomber squadrons naturally joined the major raids against Germany, as well as in Italy. 300 Squadron, the first Polish squadron to be established in 1940, took part in most major raids during the war, including those directly against Germany as well as extensive involvement after D-Day in 1944. Its final mission, surely extremely satisfying, was bombing Hitler’s home at Berchtesgaden.
The fighter squadrons too were hard at work for the rest of the war, proving again and again their skill and determination. 303 Squadron in particular was extremely effective as an escort unit for bombers, at one time scoring forty-six enemy planes shot down, with no bombers lost, in a single six-week period. 302 Squadron was called in multiple times as an escort for Churchill. It was Polish crews who perfected the art of knocking the V-1 ‘Doodlebug’ flying bombs off course and harmlessly into the Channel by using their own planes to disrupt the weapons’ jet streams. Spectacularly, on the 18th of August 1944, 315 Squadron, tooled up in fantastic P-51 Mustangs, shot down sixteen enemy planes in a single day, the record for any RAF squadron during the war.
Individual pilots also found themselves fighting the fight in different ways. Eugeniusz Szaposznikow, who had downed eight German planes as part of the 303 during the Battle of Britain, was made an instructor for new pilots joining the RAF. Witold Urbanowicz found himself first in the United States lecturing American trainees on flying techniques, then joined up with a US squadron and headed for China, where he registered eleven victories before returning to Britain.
To detail every contribution made by Polish pilots during the Second World War would take a book thick enough to stand on the Earth and reach the Moon. Suffice to say, their legend and awareness of it should stretch far beyond their involvement in the Battle of Britain. They fought first in 1939 and they would fight to the bitter end in 1945.
The Bitter End
In 1945, these dedicated, brave Polish pilots, their ground crews, all the Polish land and naval forces and everyone they knew back home were betrayed. After nearly six years of struggle, both for the liberation of their country and in defence of others, they found their homeland handed to the Soviet Union under the terms agreed at the Yalta Conference. This was the Soviet Union that had guaranteed Poland’s fall with its 1939 invasion from the east. This was the Soviet Union of Stalin, the butcher of millions, the Soviet Union of Lavrentiy Beria, architect of the massacres of Poles at Katyń and elsewhere, the Soviet Union that had deported and killed thousands upon thousands of Poles. Now most of the land taken by the Soviets in 1939 would remain with them and a pro-Moscow puppet government installed. If Churchill and Roosevelt truly felt they could trust Stalin’s promises to respect elections in Poland, it is hard to understand why.
At the London Victory Celebrations in 1946, the Poles were conspicuous by their absence. Bowing to Soviet pressure, Polish land and naval forces were not invited. Ignoring the Polish Air Force that had done so much during the Battle of Britain was a step too far for the RAF and the government allowed the invitation of a few representatives, but the pilots and commanders declined the offer in protest. So began a long period of relative invisibility for those brave allies who had given so much during the conflict, in Europe and elsewhere, and Poland itself began to disappear into obscurity. In the West, promises made to Poland were all but forgotten and interest waned, their history being rewritten. In a particularly ungracious move, when writing his history of the war, Winston Churchill had the nerve to opine that the Poles had brought all the trouble, massacres and repression on themselves through poor decisions and ‘follies’.
In Poland, the process of deleting the Poles from history was even more extreme. The Communist puppet government pushed the Kremlin’s agenda, creating a new historical narrative that favoured the Soviet Union and ignored the efforts of the Polish people themselves. Mention of the Polish forces in the West was suppressed, focus put solely on the Red Army and its liberation of the country. ‘Liberation’ is not liberation when it comes with its own cage. Yet of course this attempt to eradicate a sense of Polish identity and pride was never going to work. Anybody who had been paying attention for even just the past couple of centuries would surely have known that. It would just take a long time for them to finally be free.
The most ‘forgotten’ of Poland’s warriors in the West were surely the land and naval forces, who had fought in theatres of war from Norway to Africa, the Atlantic to the Middle East, but even the heroes of the skies found themselves remembered by fewer and fewer people in the Allied countries despite the construction of memorials to them like the one at Northolt. Awareness may have been sparked again by Polish pilots appearing in the 1969 film Battle of Britain, but it is only more recently that a concerted effort has been made to recognise how important and far reaching were their efforts. It is heartening to see, as the tale is inspirational, and a place should long remain in the memory for these glorious heroes who came out of the sun and soared across the clouds like blades of wind.