The road to Britain
On 1 September 1939 the German Army, supported by the Air Force (Luftwaffe) and Navy (Kriegsmarine) invaded Poland from three sides. Polish defences, already strained under a powerful and innovative German assault, collapsed shortly after the Soviets launched their own invasion from the east on 17 September. Polish forces fought with distinction, but Poland was crushed by the two invaders in five weeks.
After their defeat, tens of thousands of Polish servicemen made their way to France to continue the struggle against a common enemy. The Polish Air Force (PAF) was recreated and established on French soil following a number of agreements between the French government and the Polish government-in-exile. Despite suffering a crushing defeat, Polish airmen maintained excellent morale and relished the opportunity to fight the Germans again.
In April 1940 the PAF was comprised of three fighter wings and one close reconnaissance wing, each with two squadrons. The combat experience and fighting ability of the Polish pilots was largely ignored by the French. Training was generally inadequate and conducted on obsolete equipment. Polish pilots were rarely deployed to combat units. During the German invasion of France in May and June 1940, only 174 Polish airmen, or 10% of the available strength, were used in combat. Despite these difficulties, the Polish airmen distinguished themselves during the French campaign, scoring 52 confirmed, 3 probables and 6 damaged enemy aircraft.
A group of pilots of No. 303 (Polish) Fighter Squadron RAF standing by one of their Hawker Hurricane Mark Is at RAF Leconfield in Yorkshire, 24 October 1940. Picture from left to right are: Pilot Officer Miroslaw Feric, Flying Officer Bogdan Grzeszczak, Pilot officer Jan Zumbach, Flying Officer Zdzislaw Henneberg and Flight Lieutenant John Kent, a Canadian who commanded 'A' Flight of the Squadron at the time. Collection object: CH 1533
Polish pilots on British soil
The first Polish pilots reached Britain on 8 December 1939, arriving in Eastchurch in Kent after their departure from France two days earlier. More large transports followed in two-week intervals, and by early June 1940 a total of 2,164 air personnel had arrived in Britain and been assigned to various squadrons. France's capitulation on 25 June 1940 forced the Polish Armed Forces, alongside other Allied troops, to withdraw their units to Britain. A further 6,220 Polish air personnel would reach Britain by the end of July 1940, increasing the total of Polish airmen on British soil to 8,384 men. Exhausted servicemen, tired of being defeated by the Germans, looked upon Britain with great anticipation and named it 'The Island of the Last Hope'.
On their part the British, like the French before them, accepted as truth the German propaganda about Polish ineptitude in resisting the German-Soviet invasion and were doubtful about the flying skills of the Polish pilots. Flight Lieutenant John A Kent, who was posted to No. 303 (Polish) Fighter Squadron during the Battle of Britain, summed it up in his memoirs: 'All I knew about the Polish Air Force was that it had only lasted about three days against the Luftwaffe, and I had no reason to suppose that they would shine any more brightly operating from England'.
Types of aircraft used by the PAF during the invasion of Poland, including a PZL.37 'Los' medium bomber of the 1st Air Regiment with row of PZL P.11 fighter planes of the 111th and 112th Fighter Escadrilles in the background, photographed at Okecie airfield near Warsaw in early 1939. No. 303 Squadron carried on the 11th Escadrille's traditions. Collections object: HU 4044
Meanwhile for Britain the situation was becoming desperate. Over the course of the summer of 1940, RAF Fighter Command was engaged in a series of desperate actions against the Luftwaffe. Many experienced British pilots were killed, wounded or simply exhausted. There were not enough trained pilots and there was insufficient time to train those available for combat. The Poles, from the very beginning, had shown their eagerness to fight and the RAF's attitude towards them became more accommodating. Two Anglo-Polish Agreements were signed, one on 11 June and one on 5 August 1940, which formed the independent Polish Air Force and envisaged the formation of fighter, bomber and army cooperation squadrons. In July and August, two of the first Polish fighter squadrons, Nos. 302 and 303, were established.
Once the agreements were in force, the first task was to get the Polish pilots trained on a completely new type of aircraft. The Poles had to be taught practically everything from scratch, including how to measure speed in miles instead of kilometres and fuel in gallons instead of litres. They had to learn to push the throttle forward to accelerate, not backwards as it was set in Polish aircraft. Another problem for them was flying aircraft with retractable landing gears - many pilots landed with the wheels still up. Pilot Officer Wladyslaw Rozycki of No. 238 Squadron RAF expressed how difficult the training procedure could be: 'This day a very sorry and unpleasant thing happened to me. I have damaged a machine, for the first time in my eleven years of flying! Even more painful, as it happened on foreign soil'.
Language lessons became a top priority as most of the Polish pilots did not know a single word of English. Communication between British and Polish officers had to be carried out in French. The RAF also came up with a way to teach the 'newcomers' British tactics. Pilots of Nos. 302 and 303 Squadrons were ordered to ride tricycles - all equipped with radio, speed indicators and compasses - around airfields in flying formations. The Poles, combat experienced and eager to fight, did not take that kind of approach very lightly. Pilot Officer Jan Zumbach wrote in his memoirs: 'The British wasting so much of our time with their childish exercises, when all of us had already won their wings'.
It soon became clear to the British that the Poles were extremely skilled pilots. In July 1940 the first Polish fighter pilots joined RAF Squadrons. Flying Officer Antoni Ostowicz and Flight Lieutenant Wilhelm Pankratz were posted to No. 145 Squadron RAF on 16 July. Three days later Flying Officer Ostowicz scored the first Polish kill in the Battle of Britain by sharing a He 111 over Brighton. Unfortunately he was also the first Polish pilot to die in the battle, shot down by Messerschmitt Bf 109s south of Swanage on 11 August. Finally the Poles joined the battle against the Germans on equal terms.
Flying Officer Zdzislaw Henneberg, Flight Lieutenant John Kent and Flying officer Marian Pisarek, all from No. 3030 Fighter Squadron, stand by one of the Squadron's Hurricanes at RAF Leconfield on 24 October 1940. Collection object: CH 1531
During the Battle of Britain
A total of 145 experienced and battle-hardened Polish airmen fought in the Battle of Britain - 79 airmen in various RAF squadrons, 32 in No. 302 (Polish) Fighter Squadron and 34 in No. 303 (Polish) Fighter Squadron.
On 13 August Hermann Göring launched the Luftwaffe’s all-out air assault on Britain. This day, called Adlertag ('Eagle Day') was the first day of the Germans' Adlerangriff ('Attack of the Eagles') operation. For the next few months, the RAF and the Luftwaffe would engage in a series of intense air battles as the Germans sought to destroy RAF Fighter Command and secure control of the skies over England ahead of their planned invasion.
Polish pilots in RAF squadrons played a substantial part in all operations against the Luftwaffe in increasing numbers. One of the finest examples of their work was a remarkable feat accomplished by Sergeant Antoni Glowacki of No. 501 Squadron RAF, who on 24 August claimed five enemy bombers, which were shot down in three combat sorties over one day. He was one of only three pilots who achieved 'Ace-in-a-Day' status during the battle and recalls the day's actions in his memoirs: 'Suddenly a Defiant with a Messerschmitt 109 on its tail flashed across my path between me and the Junkers. I am now firing at the Messerschmitt and see my bursts sink into its fuselage and wings. He is hit and goes down closely behind the Defiant, which trials black smoke. Both aircraft crash into the sea below'.
No. 302 was the first Polish squadron to be declared operational and entered battle on 15 August. Operationally it belonged to 12 Group and its task was to relieve squadrons of 11 Group when necessary. The Squadron intercepted its first enemy aircraft on 20 August. The encounter ended with a Junkers Ju 88 bomber shot down by the British unit commander, Squadron Leader William Satchell. Other pilots in the squadron would distinguish themselves during the climactic combat over London on 18 September, when the squadron shot down nine enemy aircraft and scored a further three probables and one damaged. The Squadron’s overall score during the Battle of Britain was 18 2/3 enemy planes destroyed, 12 probables and one damaged.
Portrait of Flying Officer Antoni 'Tony' Glowacki, who shot down five enemy planes in one day on 24 August 1940 while in service with No. 501 Fighter Squadron RAF. At the time this photograph was taken, 13 April 1943, he was serving with No. 308 (Polish) Fighter Squadron. Collection object: HU 106461
Meanwhile, the pilots of No. 303 (Polish) Fighter Squadron were awaiting action with growing desperation. Most of them were experienced veterans of the Polish and French campaigns. After weeks of training on bicycles at RAF Northolt, the pilots finally got a chance to prove themselves in combat. On 30 August six of the unit's Hurricanes took off on a routine interception exercise to carry out a mock attack on six Blenheim bombers in the St. Albans area.
One of the pilots, Flying Officer Ludwik Paszkiewicz, describes the action in an official report: 'After a while we noticed ahead a number of aircraft carrying out various evaluations… I reported it the Commanding Officer, S/Ldr [Squadron Leader] Kellett, by the R/T [Radio Telephone] and, as he did not seem to reply, I opened up the throttle and went in the direction of the enemy…Then I noticed, at my own altitude, a bomber with twin rudders – probably a Dornier – turning in my direction…Then I aimed at the fuselage and opened fire from about 200 yards, later transferring it to the port engine, which I set on fire…The Dornier…dived and then hit the ground without pulling out of the dive and burst into flames. I have been firing at an enemy aircraft for the first time in my life'.
On his return to Northolt, Flying Officer Paszkiewicz was reprimanded for breaking discipline and congratulated on his and the squadron's first victory. The next day the squadron was declared fully operational and posted to No. 11 Group. This episode was immortalised in the famous "Repeat, please" scene in the classic 1969 film, Battle of Britain.
Pilots of No. 303 Fighter Squadron rest in front of a dispersal hut at RAF Northold in September 1940. From left are: Pilot Officer Witold 'Tolo' Lokuciewski (leaning on the chair); Flight Lieutenant Witold Urbanowicz (seated in the chair in the foreground); Zygmunt Wodecki, the squadron doctor (in a dark uniform); Sergeant Josef Frantisek (in the back, face partially covered); Flight Lieutenant John Kent; Flying Officer Ludwik Paszkiewicz. Collection object: HU 106457
In the following weeks the squadron achieved a truly astonishing score of 126 enemy planes, as well as 13 probables and 9 damaged, claiming the title of the best scoring unit of the Battle of Britain. One of their extraordinary feats was shooting down 14 enemy planes, plus four probables, in one sortie over London on 7 September - the first day of the Blitz - without a single loss on their side.
Nine of the squadron's pilots qualified as 'aces' for shooting down five or more enemy planes. One of them was Sergeant Josef Frantisek, a Czech who called himself a Pole and preferred to fly with Poles. With a personal score of 17 enemy planes, he was the top scorer of the Battle of Britain. Four of the Polish officers were awarded Distinguished Flying Crosses after the Battle, amongst them Flying Officer Witold Urbanowicz, the Polish commander of No. 303 Squadron and one of the best scorers with 15 kills.
Portrait of Sergeant Josef Frantisek, the Czech fighter ace who served with No. 303 Fighter Squadron and was the highest scoring pilot of the Battle of Britain. He is credited with 17 confirmed kills and 1 probable. Collection object: HU 106456
In the Battle of Britain, Polish pilots serving in all RAF squadrons achieved a remarkable score of 203.5 destroyed, 35 probables and 36 damaged. Other sources give 131 kills as there is generally variation in figures for claimed 'kills' - the entire RAF score was lowered from 2,692 to 1,733 aircraft destroyed due to the discrepancy between British and German official figures.
Such a feat could not be achieved without a price. Twenty-nine Polish pilots, including Ludwik Paszkiewicz and Josef Frantisek, lost their lives in combat against the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain.
Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, who once was so reluctant to allow Polish pilots into battle, summarised their contribution in probably the most telling way: 'Had it not been for the magnificent work of the Polish squadrons and their unsurpassed gallantry, I hesitate to say that the outcome of battle would have been the same'.
The first four Polish recipients of the Distinguished Flying Cross of No. 303 Fighter Squadron wear their awards after a presentation ceremony by Air Marshal Sholto Douglas at Leconfield,15 December 1940. Left to right are: Flying Officer Witold Urbanowicz, Pilot Officer Jan Zumbach, Pilot Officer Miroslaw Feric and Flying Officer Zdzislaw Henneberg. Collection object: CH 1840.
After the battle
Polish fighter pilots became instant celebrities with all classes of British society. International journalists flocked to airfields to write about their exploits, waiters refused to take payments for their meals in restaurants, bar owners paid for their drinks and bus conductors allowed them free journeys. Quentin Reynolds, one of the war’s most well-known American war correspondents, dubbed Polish airmen 'the real Glamor Boys of England' in Collier's Weekly, an apt reflection of the 'hero worship' attitude the British had towards them.
After the Battle of Britain the Polish Air Force continued to serve alongside the RAF until the last day of the war. By early 1941 the PAF listed 13 units – eight fighter, four bomber and one reconnaissance squadron. In 1943 and 1944 a further two observation squadrons were formed. Polish airmen in these squadrons participated in practically all RAF operations in the European theatre of the war. Their contribution to the war against Nazi Germany was significant, although achieved at a very heavy price. The 1,903 personnel killed are today commemorated on the Polish War Memorial at RAF Northolt.
After the war, some of the Polish airmen settled in Britain and continued their service in the RAF, mostly as flight instructors. Others decided to return to Poland, by then under Soviet occupation. This often had very serious consequences. The Communist regime, distrustful towards ex-servicemen of the Polish Armed Forces in the West, barred them from flying in the PAF and in numerous cases imprisoned them on trumped up charges of espionage. One of the most drastic cases is that of Wing Commander Stanislaw Skalski, the top Polish scorer of the entire war, who spent eight years in prison after initially being sentenced to death. It was not until Stalin's death in 1953 that most of the airmen were able to regain their ranks and serve again in the Polish Air Force.
The Poles' reputation for gallantry towards women became so famous that some British pilots pretended to be Polish. Collier's Weekly published a supposedly successful pickup line devised by one of the RAF pilots: 'I am a Polish aviator. Please have a drink with me. I am very lonely'. Wing Commander Tadeusz Sawicz of the 3rd Polish Fighter Wing is photographed here with his bride, Mrs Diana Hughes, after their wedding at Corpus Christi Church on Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London on 24 August 1944. Collection object: HU 128081
Step back into summer 1940 for an unforgettable weekend at the sell-out Duxford Battle of Britain Air Show. Epic flying, historic aircraft, vintage fashion and movie magic will culminate with a mass Spitfire formation taking to the sky. Limited tickets available. Plan your visit today.