Battle of Britain Heroes

The pilots who defended Britain against the German Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain came from across the globe. The largest foreign contingent to fight in the Battle of Britain were the Polish, and their contribution and skills during the battle have become legendary.

The RAF came, facing odds of six, eight, ten to one and dove in, shouting the old hunting cry: Tally Ho!

They're known as the few. The pilots who defended Britain against the German Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. Images of these brave airmen epitomised Britain's defiance in the summer of 1940. These pilots came from across the globe from New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, the United States and from the occupied nations of eastern Europe: Czechoslovakia and Poland.

They came together to defend the last staging point for a future liberation of Europe. The largest foreign contingent to fight in the Battle of Britain were the Polish. Over five devastating weeks, Poland had been crushed by invaders from Germany and the Soviet Union. Tens of thousands of Polish servicemen escaped to France to continue the fight. When Blitzkrieg swept through Western Europe, pilots of the Polish Air Force relished the chance to fight the Germans again, but despite their battle experience the French were reluctant to let them fly.

Craig Murray: "In September 1939, Poland was rapidly overrun by the German blitzkrieg. It was nothing really to do with Poland's fighting ability; in fact, the Air Force was very good, they were very well trained, and they took only the best people. The problem was they were using obsolete aircraft and they didn't really stand much of a chance against the modern German fighters such as the Bf-109 and Bf-110 and generally the modern warfare style the Germans were using just overrun the country very quickly and it wouldn't be the last."

With the fall of France, thousands of Polish airmen arrived in Britain. Tired of defeat they nicknamed it 'the island of last hope'.

Craig Murray: "The British reaction to the Poles was at the time was reticent and cautious I suppose. They'd seen how quickly Poland been overrun and thought perhaps they weren't really up to the task and the French had also thought this as well, when the men of them had fled to France to continue the fight um but they'd soon found out how good the Poles actually were and eventually the British would find it too they actually had very experienced very skilled pilots."

Polish pilots were soon flying with various RAF units. However, as well as negative preconceptions the Polish had other challenges to overcome to fly with fighter command.

Craig Murray: "They did have problems. Obviously the language barrier was obviously the main one but it wasn't such just things like this, it was getting used to modern fighters with retractable undercarriages that went up and down. The ones they'd had were obsolete fighters. On top of that they had the metric system they had to get used to reading in miles an hour rather than kilometers an hour, and also getting used to things such as you push forward to accelerate a British fighter where you pull back on the stick to with the Polish aircraft, so it's things that they had to get used to."

But they persevered. Equipped with the hurricanes and spitfires of the RAF, the Polish had the chance to fight the Germans on equal terms, and despite the challenges they faced their skill in the air was unquestionable.

Craig Murray: "When the Polish airmen came to Britain there was a realisation they might be worth putting them into their own squadrons. In this case 302 and 303. Now they are formed relatively late into the battle, into August, but from the very start they're incredibly successful, and in the case of 303 Squadron they are the most successful allied squadron during the Battle of Britain.

With the Poles, the way they fight, they get very close to the enemy before they open fire which is a dangerous thing to do but it does ensure a kill more often than not. They're driven by something very different from the British in the sense that Britain is not occupied it may have been attacked but it's not the same as having your country occupied by an enemy force, so, they're very very keen as were the Czechs to bring the battle to the Germans."

In August, German attacks intensified. On the 24th Sergeant Anthony Giovatsky claimed five German bombers during three sorties, becoming one of only three pilots to achieve the status of Ace in a Day.

The two Polish squadrons 302 and 303 entered service the same month. 302 Squadron excelled in its defence of London in September, accounting for nine aircraft on the 18th of September alone. By the end of the battle, it's score had reached 18 plus a further 12 probable kills. The contribution of 303 Squadron has become legend.

Craig Murray: "One particular group captain decided to test one of the squadrons just to see what their claims were they came back from one sort of quite shaken saying oh yes they do in fact get what they say they get. 303 Squadron has the highest kill count off any squadron during the battle; their kill ratio is something in the region of 14 to one.

Their ace pilot is a Josef František who ironically is not Pole he's a Czech but he prefers to fly with the Poles and he becomes the highest scoring pilot of the Battle of Britain with 17 confirmed kills."

In total during the Battle of Britain, 146 Polish pilots served with the RAF across numerous units and the two polar squadrons they accounted for more than 200 kills, but such a feat came at a cost.

29 polish pilots lost their lives during the Battle of Britain including Josef František who was killed in an accident that has never been explained in October 1940. Commander-in-chief of fighter command Hugh Dowding, who had questioned the skill of the Polish pilots at the start of the battle summarised their contribution in these words: “Had it not been for the magnificent work of the Polish squadrons and their unsurpassed gallantry, I hesitate to say the outcome of the battle would have been the same.”

The Polish pilots became instant celebrities.

Craig Murray: "The American media saw them as a sort of glamour boys the Battle of Britain. Yeah, they were very well received here, them and the Czechs, their contribution was well marked and their aggressiveness and taking the fight to the Luftwaffe was was recognised by all I think."

The Polish Air Force continued to serve with the RAF until the end of the war. The Polish War Memorial at RAF Northolt lists the names of more than 1,900 personnel who lost their lives. After the war, some airmen chose to remain in Britain, and they continued to work for the RAF mostly as flight instructors. Others returned to Poland by then under Soviet occupation. Under the communist regime Polish pilots who had fought in the west were barred from flying in the Polish Air Force and many were imprisoned on trumped-up charges of espionage.

The Polish pilots of the Battle of Britain would have to wait until 1953 and the death of Stalin before some of them were able to take to the skies again.

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