The Fighting Polish Eagles of the RAF

By John Dudek 07 May 2015 0

On that first morning of the Second World War in Europe, a formation of 70 Heinkel He111 and Dornier Do 17 bombers were flying in the vicinity of the village of Nieporet Poland, just north of Warsaw.  The bombardier in the lead Heinkel's nose was focusing his bombsight on the airfield below.  Spying the rows of Polish aircraft neatly lining the airstrip, he prepared to drop his bombs.  Looking over his shoulder he laughingly shouted to the pilot "Herr Oberleutnant, the Poles appear to be asleep!"  The pilot and co-pilot smiled and nodded their heads happily in agreement.  Suddenly, an ominous shadow passed over the bomber and the startled bombardier looked out to see the terrifying sight of a Polish gull-winged PZL fighter plane diving on them from out of the sun.  The bombardier froze as the fighter plane came into point blank range.  The fighter pilot's grim and determined face could be plainly seen in his open cockpit.  In his remaining seconds of life, the bombardier saw the flash of the fighter's four machine guns as the bomber's greenhouse glass nose shattered into shards of flying glass, killing everyone in the front of the plane and sending it into its death spiral to earth far below.  Throughout the bomber formation, the German bombers immediately came under fighter plane attack from some 30 crazily weaving and jinking Polish fighter planes that flew like a swarm of deadly butterflies.  The fighter's insane flying circus antics spoiled the bomber machine gunners aim.  Several other bombers quickly fell before their accurate machine gun fire before the German formation broke up to flee eastward without ever dropping their bombs upon their target.

 

 

One of the greatest enduring and accepted myths of the Second World War, and one originally promulgated by the Nazi German propaganda ministry, is that the Polish Air Force was surprised, caught on the ground, and completely destroyed in the opening hours of Germany's undeclared blitzkrieg war with Poland.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  The Polish Military and especially its Air Force had received war warnings several days in advance.  While the Polish Army was still in the early stages of mobilization at the start of the fighting, its air force had wisely dispersed all of its primary and secondary operational aircraft and their invaluable air crews far away from all known airfields to unknown country-side satellite air strips.  The remaining aircraft seen on their main air bases were those out of service for lack of parts, or dummy mock planes constructed out of wood and canvas to deliberately draw German aerial bombs and gunfire.  Poland's Air Force remained an operational and deadly entity that continued inflicting heavy losses on the enemy well into the second week of the month long German and Soviet Russian invasion of conquest.  At the start of the war, the Poles had the third largest Allied Air Force after Great Britain and France although much smaller in number of aircraft than their compatriots.  Whatever they lacked in quantity, they more than made up for in the high quality training with their pilots using realistic combat tactics during the pre-war years.  Later this was proven during the Battle of Britain where the highest scoring fighter squadron in the RAF was 303 Squadron made up entirely of ex-patriot Polish pilots.  In fact, the three highest scoring fighter squadrons in the RAF during WWII were of Polish origin.

At the outbreak of World War 2, they were possibly the best trained pilots in the world. Because of the relatively small size of the pre-war Polish Air Force only a select few of the many candidates made it through training to the combat units. The training programme at the Aviation Cadets School in Deblin and the Advanced Flying School in Grudziadz-Ulez was very demanding, both with regard to flying and shooting skills, with constant competition among the pilots, each striving to do their best. In front line units - unlike in other air forces of that time - dogfight training in various configurations (one vs. one, one vs. two, section vs. section, or even squadron vs squadron) was a constant, and gunnery competitions were also regularly staged. It's no wonder then, that these pilots were a in a class of their own.

The Polish Air Force was born at the nation's (re)birth following the First World War.  Poland was fortunate that so much war surplus arms, ammunition and aircraft had been left behind by both the German and Russian Armies when they retreated at the war's conclusion.  While the Poles soon built an army from scratch, an air force also began to emerge using both German and Russian aircraft.  In the political vacuum during the highly fluid and unsettled months and years following the Great War, Poland would be in great need of both branches of service in their military against the powers of Germany, the Soviet Union, Lithuania and the Ukrainian nationalists who threatened the new nation's borders.  Within three years of Poland's creation the newly created country successfully fought wars against all of them in defense of its national sovereignty.  The new nation emerged victorious, strong and confident in its ability to defend itself against its neighbors.  As Poland began to industrialize in the 1920's, it became a hot bed of revolutionary aircraft designs, many of which were incorporated into its air force.  Unfortunately, this leap in technology quickly ebbed in the aftermath of Jozef Pilsudski's coup d'état in 1926. As the nation's new leader, Pilsudski considered Poland's air force to be of secondary importance to its other military branches of service.  By 1939, Poland's primary fighter plane was the PZL P.11.

 

 

The gull winged fighter with its fixed undercarriage had been designed in the early 1930's and was approaching obsolescence especially against the newest generations of German aircraft of the late 1930's.  While most new German planes could outrun and out gun their Polish adversaries, the Polish fighter planes were far more manoeuvrable in a dog fight and had greater pilot vision in all directions from the plane's cockpit.  By 1939, the next generation of Polish aircraft were still on the designer's drawing boards, so they never saw full production because of the war.  At the start of the war, one of the world's best medium bombers was the Polish PZL. 37 Los twin engine bomber. 

 

 

Smaller than most contemporary medium bombers, it was still able to carry a heavier bomb load than comparable aircraft, including the famous Vickers Wellington. It was relatively fast and easy to handle and thanks to its double wheeled landing gear, it could operate from rough fields or meadows.  The only drawback was its relatively weak defensive armament consisting of three machine guns.  During the September Campaign, despite their good performance they were far too few in number to change the outcome and often lacking fighter cover, sustained heavy losses, especially when used to attack armored columns.

With the signing of the Nazi Germany-Soviet Union non aggression pact of 23 August 1939, it was decided that Poland would be invaded and then partitioned by the victorious signatory powers at the campaign's conclusion.  France and England were allied to Poland and swore they would declare war on Germany should they invade.  In addition, Rumania too had a loose military alliance with Poland.  As Germany's dictator Adolf Hitler continued to threaten and warn Poland of his evil intentions, the Poles began to mobilize its military, although the French and British fervently hoped some last minute concessions could be found to head off war as had been done the year before during the Munich Crises that resulted in the partition and ultimate destruction and dismemberment of Czechoslovakia.  In Poland's case no suitable concession could be found and Germany invaded them on 1 September 1939.  Facing a gross disparity in aircraft numbers, the Polish Air Force nonetheless went to war against Germany.  With only 400 modern aircraft including 169 fighter planes in its inventory, they faced some 3,000 German fighters, bombers and dive bombers. For the first 17 days of September, Poland's Air Force fought heroically against overwhelming odds in the air while its equally hard fighting army was pushed back and decimated by the new German blitzkrieg (lightning war) mechanized warfare tactics.  In those first 17 days of war, the Poles shot down a total of 147 German planes in aerial combat at a loss of 118 of their own fighter planes.  In addition when the USSR invaded Poland on 17 September 1939, the Poles immediately shot down six of their bombers and fighter planes.  Facing the bitter gall of a rapidly approaching military defeat, Poland's government ordered its remaining aircraft to be flown south to neighboring Rumania. 100 warplanes and 50 civilian aircraft soon touched down at an airfield at Galati, Rumania. 

 

 

However, Rumania soon was forced to bend to German political pressure and rescind its military alliance with Poland to declare itself neutral.  All of the Polish aircraft were interned there for the duration.  The hard fighting Poles continued to fight savagely both on land and in the air in eastern Poland against the German and Soviet aggressors until 6 October 1939 and their nation's final capitulation.  With the help of Polish political embassies and consulates providing bribe money and forged papers, large numbers of Polish military personnel went into exile to fight another day and they eventually numbered over 90,000 men.  The first contingent of fighter pilots crossed the Mediterranean by ship to land in France.  Upon their arrival, the French were strangely hesitant and reluctant at the creation of large Polish air units within their air force and only one such unit the Groupe de Chasse Polonaise 1/145 was ever formed.  Even worse still, the Poles weren't equipped with their long obsolete French Cauldron C .714 fighter planes until 8 days after the final German invasion of France on 18 May 1940.  Nonetheless, the Poles quickly scored 12 confirmed kills and three unconfirmed kills with their obsolescent planes at a loss of only 9 of their own aircraft. In the final remaining days of the Battle of France, according to Jerzy Cynk they shot down 51.9 enemy planes (summing fraction kills - 57 kills including 16 shared victories), in addition to 3 unconfirmed kills and 6 3/5 damaged. According to Bartlomiej Belcarz they shot down 53 aircraft, including 19 kills shared with the French. These 53 victories makes up 7.93% of the 693 allied air victories in the French campaign. At the same time they lost 44 planes (in combat, accidents and on the ground) and lost 8 fighter pilots in combat, 1 missing, and 4 in accidents.

With France's final capitulation, the Polish pilots and air crews again went into exile, this time to embattled Great Britain.  Upon arrival, they were more warmly welcomed than they'd been in France.  The British military were in dire straits and on the ropes while facing an imminent German amphibious invasion after their withdrawal from Dunkirk.  While they had been rearming since 1938, the British had sufficient planes but not enough skilled pilots.  The Poles soon filled that void. However, their incorporation into the RAF (Royal Air Force) presented its own share of teething problems early on - one of which was the language differences between the two peoples.  The Poles were forced to memorize basic English sentences to identify themselves as being Polish if ever shot down over England so as not to be mistaken for Germans.  A humorous example of what could and often did happen was recreated in the epic film "The Battle Britain" One could easily see a recently shot down Polish pilot with his hands up being led away to interrogation by a farmer and a home guardsman at the point of a pitch fork saying pleasantly over and over  "I am a Polish pilot.  What a lovely day!  England is a fine country!" 

Another problem in the future working relationship between the two air forces was that the Polish Air Force in Great Britain, though organizationally and operationally within the RAF structure, was an independent air force, and many decisions (like sending Polish pilots away from the European theatre) had to be agreed on with the Polish command. Numerically, it was the fourth largest Allied air force, after the Soviet Union, the U.S. and Great Britain. Also, the equipment it used was, as that of the entire Polish Army in the west, leased by Great Britain to the Polish government. After the war, a bill for over 68 million pounds sterling, covering the equipment and operating costs of the Polish Air Force in Great Britain was paid from the Polish gold reserves deposited in Canada. It's ironic that, cynically abandoned by her Western allies in Yalta, after making a contribution of blood to the very survival of the Western democracies, Poland had yet to pay for the privilege. Still, from their standpoint, the Poles were fighting for their own country, hoping to return to a free Poland as her own independent armed forces.

Even though Air Marshall Hugh Dowding voiced his doubts as to the effectiveness of the new Polish pilots in the RAF, their fighting record kill rate of German planes soon spoke for itself during the Battle of Britain where the Polish 303 and 302 Squadrons became the top scorers of downed German planes.  This conduct only continued to grow during the war as more Polish squadrons were formed in the RAF.  On 11 April 1942, an aerial gunnery contest was staged within the RAF's 11th Fighter group.  The first three places of the 22 competing squadrons were won by 303, 316 and 315 squadrons, all of Polish origin.  The original 303 Squadron came in first by a large margin.  However, the Poznanski and Kosciuszko Squadrons (302 and 303) were snubbed by the media of the day because of an official High Command decree.  To this day, the fighter pilot Anton Glowacki who achieved Ace status in a single day and the top ace Witold Urbanowicz are unknown to the British general public.  These Polish fighter squadrons remained in the thick of the fighting for the remainder of the war but suffered 70% fewer losses than any of the RAF's fighter squadrons.

The Poles had a number of other crosses to bear and useless "red tape" to deal with during their early months with the RAF.  The British government told Polish General Sikorski, the Prime Minister of the Polish Government in Exile and Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Armed forces, that Poland would be forced to pay all costs regarding the maintenance of the Polish military fighting for England after the war.  Their pilots had to swear two oaths, one to the British King George VI and another to the Polish government.  In addition, they could only join the Volunteer Reserve of the RAF.  A number of other petty measures were enacted for seemingly no other reason than to keep the Poles in their place.  As a result, a number of Polish pilots had to wait in training centers for posting.  Meanwhile the RAF continued to suffer losses due to the lack of combat experienced pilots.  When the first preliminary agreement was signed between the British and Polish governments in June 1940, the first two Polish bomber (300 and 301) and fighter squadrons (302 and 303) were formed.  Later, an additional 11 fighter, bomber, air reconnaissance and night fighter squadrons were formed and soon gave good account of themselves during combat operations.

 

 

The fighter squadrons, flying the Hawker Hurricane fighter, first saw action in the third phase of the Battle of Britain in late August 1940, quickly becoming highly effective. Polish flying skills were well-developed after the Invasion of Poland and the pilots were regarded as fearless and sometimes bordering on reckless. Their success rates were very high in comparison to the less-experienced British Commonwealth pilots. The 303 squadron became the most efficient RAF fighter unit at that time, and RAF commanders protested when government censors refused to allow this fact to appear in the press. By late 1940 the American visitor and writer Ralph Ingersoll reported that the Poles were "the talk of London" because of their victories. Although, the visitor wrote that now "they always have a girl on each arm. They say the girls cannot resist the Poles, nor the Poles the girls".

 

 

Many Polish pilots flew in other RAF squadrons, usually given nicknames because, as Ingersoll wrote, "the Polish names, of course, are unpronounceable".  The Polish fighter squadrons originally flew Hurricanes, then Spitfires.  Eventually some squadrons were equipped with P-51 Mustangs later in the war. Polish night fighter squadron pilots flew the Bristol Beaufighter, the Boulton-Paul Defiant and finally the de Haviland Mosquito. At the same time, the Polish bomber squadrons flew every British light, medium and heavy bomber in its inventory.   To sum up what the average Polish pilot felt about fighting on the British side - King George VI, on visiting a Polish squadron, asked a Polish airman what was the toughest thing he had to deal with in the war. The reply was "King's Regulations...".  To be fair, virtually all of these earlier strictures were eventually relaxed and forgotten as soon as the Poles proved their mettle and worth in the fierce fighting and a fine, close and amicable working relationship between the two nations was forged in the heat of battle.

After the war was over, the Poles returned their planes and equipment to the British.  However, with Poland now occupied by the Communist Soviet Union, few Polish pilots, soldiers and sailors chose to return to Poland and many who did disappeared into the Soviet gulags. The vast majority of Polish military men remained in exile in the UK or emigrated to a host of other friendly western countries.  And so the Fighting Polish Eagles of the RAF, their heroic deeds, myths and legends faded away into history, but in some parts of England their memory remains ever green.

A memorial to those Polish pilots killed while on RAF service has been erected at the south-eastern corner of RAF Northholt aerodrome. In addition, a large memorial to Polish Air Force squadrons in the war is situated on the floor of the north aisle of the reconstructed Wren church St Clement Danes, London.

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