By Ted Rajchel
Polish Pilots who Fought in the Battle of Britain during World War II
On September 1st, 1939 the German army, supported by the air force (Luftwaffe) and navy invaded Poland from three sides. Polish defenses already collapsed shortly after the Soviet’s military launched their own invasion from the East on September 17, 1939. Polish forces fought with distinction, but Poland was crushed by the two military invaders in five weeks. Allies tried to send supplies, but Russia wouldn’t allow them to go through and threatened to shoot down the planes that carried the supplies to help Poland.
After their defeat, tens of thousands of Polish servicemen made their way to France to continue the struggle against their 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 the opportunity to fight the Germans again. During the German invasion of France in May and June, 1940, only about 10% of the Polish airmen were used in combat. The Polish airmen distinguished themselves during the French campaign, scoring 52 confirmed, 3 probabilities, and 6 damaged enemy aircraft.
The first Polish pilots reached Britain on December 8, 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 placed to various squadrons.
France’s capitulation on June 25, 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 Polish servicemen, tired of being defeated by the Germans, looked upon Britain with great anticipation and named it “The island of the last hope.” The British, like the French before them, accepted as truth the German propaganda about Polish 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 (PAF) was that it had only lasted a short time against the Luftwaffe, and I had no reason to suppose that they would shine anymore.”
Brightly operating from England, meanwhile for Britain the situation was becoming desperate. Over the course of the summer of 1940, the Royal Air Force (RAF) fighter command was engaged in a series of desperate actions against the Luftwaffe. Many experienced British pilots were killed, wounded, or simply exhausted.
The Poles from the very beginning had shown their eagerness to fight and the RAF attitude toward them became more accommodating. Two Anglo-Polish agreements were signed which formed the Independent Polish Air Force (PAF), and the formation of fighter, bomber, and army cooperation squadrons: one on the 11th of June and on the 5th of August, 1940.
In July and August two of the first Polish fighter squadrons, nos. 302 and 303, were established. 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 Ostowics and Flight Lieutenant Wilhelm Pankratz were posed to no. 145 squadron RAF on July 16. Three days later flying officer Ostowics scored
the first Polish kill in the Battle of Britain. Unfortunately, he was also the first Polish pilot to die in the battle against the Germans.
A total of 145 experienced and battle-hardened Polish pilots fought in the Battle of Britain – 79 pilots in various Royal Air Force (RAF) squadrons, 32 in no. 302 (Polish) fighter squadron, and 34 in no. 303 (Polish) fighter squadron.
On August 13th Hermann Goring launched the Luftwaffe’s all out air assault on Britain. This day, called Adlertag (Eagle Day), was the first day of the Germans’ “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 of 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 August 24th, 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 recalled the day’s actions in his memoirs.
No. 302 was the first Polish squadron to be declared operational and entered battle on August 15th. Operationally it belonged to 12 groups and its task was to relieve squadrons of 11 groups when necessary. The squadrons’ overall score during the Battle of Britain was 18 2/3 enemy planes destroyed, 12 probabilities, and one damaged. 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.
Since Charles Lindberg made his solo non-stop trans-Atlantic flight from Long Island to Paris in 1927, the world became greatly involved by pilots and aviation. No less captivated were the young Polish men, who dreamt of embarking on exciting adventures in the 1920s and 1930s; the Polish Air Force Academy of Deblin was swamped with applicants.
These young men were to become the heroes of World War II. They were a cut above the rest, not only on their flying skills, but in exhibiting a combination of qualities never seen before – chivalry, dynamism, and justice. Their off-duty escapades were nothing short of amazing. They flew under bridges, between church steeples, and sometimes swooped down to startle a group of cavalry officers below.
This Polish daring came naturally to them as did their propensity to disobey orders. However, the latter quality proved to be a distinct advantage in the heat of battle. The British were sticklers for strict discipline but lacked a sense of timing. They always went by the book, which often resulted in missed opportunities, or worse yet, fatal consequences.
The Three Musketeers, as they were called, Zumbach, Ferilc, and Lokuciewski, graduated from the academy at the top of their class and went on to fight many battles including the Battle of Britain. Their aerial exploits were already legendary when they reported for duty in England.
The Poles had the ability to “scan the sky,” and “to look everywhere,” according to American and British pilots who flew with them. The Poles could see the whole sky “better than anyone else,” a definite asset in aerial combat!
The Poles were brilliant and inventive. They devised new strategies for air combat, which have since been incorporated by the RAF and other air forces. One technique called for the planes to fly in close formation, wing-tip to wing-tip, then turn away and charge at a third plane at break-neck speed, veering off just a split second before impact. Equally effective were tactics whereby Polish fighters would fire at the enemy at close range, then come around again and fire at point blank range.
Poles carried out these maneuvers with cool and deadly reserve, and succeeded at completely unnerving German pilots. Another tactic involved low-level flying, where the pilot would approach the target at such a low altitude so as not to be seen by the enemy until the plane suddenly popped out from behind a tree or building before they were gunned down, but the most successful ploy was called the “circus.” British bombers would agree to be used as bait in broad daylight to lure German Messerschmidts “into a destructive web” created by the bombers’ Spitfire escorts. In a period of six weeks Polish fighter pilots racked up 46 kills using this trap alone.
In each battle they downed almost 30% of German aircraft. On September 26 King George VI visited the Polish airmen to congratulate them for their successes. On that day Poles had scored 48% of the kills. The Times, dated January 1, 1943 published an article praising the Poles for shooting down the 500th German air craft. Polish bombers had carried out over 3,200 raids and dropped 9,000 tons of bombs on enemy targets.
Overall, the Kosciuszko Squadron 303 was able to shoot down more than 12% of enemy aircraft—a higher rate than any other squadron in the RAF. However, the losses were heavy. The RAF lost 915 fighter planes out of a total of 1,000, while the Luftwaffe lost 1,733 planes.
The Polish ground crew were the wizards, who kept the planes flying. On September 15, 1940, nine RAF planes returned to base severely damages, and thought to be irreparable, but the ground crew worked through the night, and all nine planes were air-worthy by morning. The odds were overwhelming, but the RAF was able to defeat Germany in the Battle of Britain only with the sustained help of its allies, most particularly Poland.
In this battle, quality rather quantity mattered when the Germans lost the Battle of Britain, so too did they lose the myth of invincibility. According to Winston Churchill it was “one of the decisive battles of the war.”
The Battle of Britain would have been lost were it not for the Polish airmen. Over 120 Polish pilots were decorated. Among those awarded medals were Witold Urbanowicz, a Polish pilot with the 303rd squadron, who shot down 15 German planes, a three time ace. There were many aces. Honors poured in from King George VI and the people of England. The Polish fighters were regarded as the heroes of World War II, and became the darling of high British society.
In Westminster Cathedral there is a commemorative plaque which reads as follows: In memory of all ranks of the Polish Army, Navy, and Air Force, who gave their lives for Poland and this country (England) in the Second World War 1939-1945. During World War II, Poland was a country without a flag. Today she is free and has its flag. Poland belongs to the European Union and NATO. God bless Poland Long live Poland!
References: (1) Battle of Britain – 303 Squadron Diary; (2) Witold Urbanowicz – Wikipedia; (3)The Polish Pilots Who Flew in the Battle of Britain; (4) Battle of Britain – London Monument – S/LdRiW Urbanowicz; (5) The Kosciuszko Squadron – Battle of Britain.