Battle of Britain Day – The Debt we Owe to the Poles
Today is recognised as Battle of Britain day; the day when, in the autumn of 1940 Britain’s Royal Air Force was stretched to its limit. Churchill was visiting the Number 11 Group bunker that day and described seeing “all the lights glowing red” on the tote boards. That meant that ALL the Squadrons of 11 Group were engaged in action over the skies of southern England trying to stop the German bombers and their fighter escorts getting through.
However, today I want to reflect on the contribution of another nation in particular. I get very annoyed when the Government and the Ministry of Defence put out press releases referring to the UK and Commonwealth air crews in World War Two. Yes of course they were the majority and were critically important to our success in Fighter and Bomber Commands, but there were significant numbers of non-Commonwealth airmen in the Royal Air Force. By far the largest contingent were the Poles although they were accompanied by Czechs, Belgians, French, Americans and others.
The Poles were experienced pilots who, whilst masssively outnumbered, put up a firm resistance against the Luftwaffe in their outdated (and also training) aircraft. The story of hopeless Polish land forces charging Panzers with cavalry was a myth perpetrated in the early stages of WW2 but in the air there was some truth in the story. What really did for Poland though was the subsequent Soviet invasion from the east while they were battling to fight against the advancing Germans. Many Polish pilots escaped through Romania and reached France to join the fight against the Germans. How many people remember that, unlike France, Poland never surrendered? When the Polish pilots reached France they wanted to get into action against the Luftwaffe but were frustrated by the complacent attitude and sometimes downright hostility they experienced. Very few managed to see any real action before France was invaded and surrendered, leaving the Poles to find ways to reach the UK to carry on the fight.
Those Poles who were captured by the Soviet invaders suffered greatly. Many were deported to Siberia, from where some managed to escape on foot via Iran. One veteran told me he and his brother got a boat from Iran to Argentina and then to Liverpool in order to carry on the fight for their homeland! When they arrived in the UK many found similar suspicion to that experienced in France, although the RAF was much better prepared than the French air force and more willing to get them flying. However, the RAF hierarchy insisted on British officers being in charge and the Poles had to learn English and RAF ways of doing things. They were issued with RAF uniforms but were allowed to keep their own identity with Polish cap badges and shoulder flashes.
Most of the Polish fighter pilots were sent to RAF Northolt in west London where they were formed into new Hurricane squadrons. However, they were not put into action immediately, instead flying endless training sorties, albeit with live ammunition. On 30 August 1940 while up on a training sortie a young Pole called Ludwik Paszkiewicz spotted a German Me11o. Ignoring orders he broke off from his squadron and shot the Me110 down. The next day his squadron, 303 (Polish) Squadron was declared operational. Later renamed 303 (Kosciuszko) Squadron it went on to be the top scoring RAF squadron in the Battle of Britain.
The bravery of the Poles frequently bordered on recklessness. They had lost their country, many had lost their families, and in their own words, many were out for vengeance. Whereas the British pilots zeroed their cannons to 400 yards, the Poles usually zeroed theirs to just 100 yards. In the air and at high speeds that is extremely close! By contrast the British tended to be gentleman fliers who had enjoyed leisurely weekends at flying clubs before the war. That does not detract from their bravery or success but it did lead to tensions between the Brits and the Poles at times. The Station Commander of RAF Northolt throughout the Battle of Britain was Group Captain Stanley Vincent, he was sceptical about the claims of the Poles to have shot down so many German aircraft, so one day he took his own Hurricane and followed them up on a raid. He saw that when they encountered the German fighters much of what they had been taught went out the window and they were knocking them out of the sky left right and centre. In his biography Vincent notes that in his diary he wrote “By God they ARE doing it!”. He became a firm advocate for the Polish pilots (as did other RAF officers who worked with them) and in due course they were allowed to have Polish flight and later squadron commanders.
The Polish fighter squadrons were a key part of the defence of London and England. Much of their time was spent initially at RAF Northolt and they later fought their way across France and into Germany with allied forces. At the end of the war the British government planned a massive victory parade through London but in order to avoid upsetting Stalin and the Soviets, the Poles were denied permission to march by the Labour Government of Clement Attlee. The RAF protested and the government relented but then on the day of the parade the Government changed its mind again and the Poles were prevented from taking part. This betrayal still rankles with many Polish veterans.
After the war many Polish airmen settled in the UK and married British women rather than return to their homeland which was now occupied by Soviet troops and forced into adopting Communism. I am privileged to count some of them as my friends.
Today the relationship with the Polish Air Force and the veteran community is strong. There is an annual commemoration at the Polish War Memorial (off the A40 in west London) every year, which I help to organise. For the last two years we have invited Polish Air Force Officer cadets from their academy at Deblin to attend the ceremony and this has been much appreciated by the UK-based veterans. We also have a permanent exhibition of the WW2 Polish Air Force at RAF Northolt which can be viewed by appointment.
It is my opinion that without the Poles (and other nations) in the Battle of Britain, we would have lost.
So on this historic day remember “The Few” who fought so valiantly and succcessfully but do not forget that without the Poles and other nations they would have been much fewer!