They saw the whole sky
One hundred and forty-five Polish fighter pilots took part in the Battle of Britain between 10 July and 31 October 1940. Historians believe that the high number of German planes shot down by these Polish pilots helped bring about victory for the Allies in the battle. The Embassy of the Republic of Poland in London is paying tribute to these pilots in a campaign named #BoBPoles: For your freedom and ours.
“A fighter pilot in the sky needs to change into a cobra; he must attack with conviction, with lightening speed and effectiveness,” Witold Urbanowicz, a Battle of Britain ace, once told cadets at the Dęblin flight school.
Urbanowicz later became the head of the No. 303 Polish Fighter Squadron named after Tadeusz Kosciuszko. The squadron was recognised as the most prolific RAF unit during the Battle of Britain, shooting down the highest number of German Luftwaffe planes, with Urbanowicz ranked among the Allies’ top ten pilots.
The first Polish pilots were joined Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) in July 1940. The fighter pilots were allocated to over a dozen British squadrons as well as two Polish squadrons, 302 and 303. They participated in the Battle of Britain from the start until its very end. The majority of the Polish pilots had previously flown in the Polish Air Force in September 1939 as well as in France in 1940. In total, there were 145 Polish fighter pilots spread across two Polish divisions and over 20 British squadrons. After the British, Poles made up the second biggest national contingent of pilots fighting on the side of the Allies during the Battle of Britain. Czech pilots made up the third largest group, with 88 pilots.
The first success of a Polish pilot during the Battle of Britain was recorded on 19 July 1940, when lieutenant Antoni Ostowicz of the 145 Squadron helped shoot down a Heinkel He 111. Ostowicz was also the first Polish pilot to die in the battle, on 11 August. The most effective Polish fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain included: Witold Urbanowicz (who shot down 15 Luftwaffe planes), Jan Zumbach (8 victories), Mirosław Ferić (7 victories), Stanisław Skalski (5 victories) as well as the Czech Josef František (17 victories), who chose to fly with the Polish 303 Squadron. Poles made up 5% of all RAF pilots and they inflicted almost 12% of all Luftwaffe casualties.
“Poles were successful because they were very well trained,” Wojciech Krajewski, senior curator and historian at the Polish Army Museum, told Polska.pl. “The Polish Air Force before the war had a very strict recruitment process. These were young men in excellent physical condition who were well trained in pilotage, acrobatic manoeuvres and combat. Furthermore, Polish leaders before the war predicted what a future war would look like and, as a result, organised training manoeuvres for the pilots. During these exercises, groups of planes would attack each other and individual pilots would try to carry out complex acrobatic movements so that they could “get on the tail” of an enemy plane. These were unconventional methods for those times, as has been attested to by several Polish veterans of the Battle of Britain, including the late Brigadier General Stanisław Skalski. These pre-war exercises did a lot to prepare Polish pilots for the challenges they faced during the Battle of Britain as well as later on in the war,” Krajewski adds.
#BoBPoles campaign commemorates 75th anniversary of Battle of Britain
Throughout the summer, historical Hurricane and Spitfire fighter planes, painted in the colours of the Polish Air Force, will be on display across England.
The project, also displayed prominently online, is part of the #BoBPoles initiative launched by the Polish Embassy in London to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.
The fighter planes used by the Polish Air Force during the Second World War were displayed for the first time this summer during the Flying Legends air show in Duxford. The Polish Embassy in London has prepared a short film about the event for those not able to attend the event in person.
As part of the #BoBPoles project, the embassy co-financed the painting of the historical Hurricane RF-E P3700 in the colours used by the legendary 303 Polish Fighter Squadron. The original aircraft bearing this number was flown by Kazimierz Wünsche, who was shot down in combat on 9 September 1940.
The Spitfire, which is also part of the #BoBPoles project, is the only original aircraft used by Polish pilots flying in Squadrons 315 and 317 after the end of the Battle of Britain. Colonel Franciszek Kornicki – the last surviving commander of a Polish squadron during WWII – flew the aircraft during the war.
During the air show in Duxford, Grażyna Gąsiorowska, the daughter of pilot Kazimierz Wünsche, and Ryszard Kornicki, the son of Franciszek Kornicki, proudly watched the aircraft once flown by their fathers.
Both planes painted in Polish colours are owned by the Historic Aircraft Collection Ltd. and are on permanent exhibition at the Imperial War Museum w Duxford. The Hurricane and Spitfire will also be shown at other air shows this summer, such as, the RIAT in Gloucestershire held from 17 until 19 July.
The #BoBPoles project coincides with the launch of the Polish Embassy’s Instagram presence which contains photographs of Polish soldiers from the Battle of Britain.
You can also follow #BoBPoles on the Polish Embassy’s Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube profiles until the end of October.
Apart from their excellent pilotage and sky acrobatics, Poles were known among their British peers and leaders for the ability to “see the whole sky” – they had a talent for spotting enemy planes well before pilots of other nationalities. “Their observational skills were a result of their pre-war habits. Before the war most Polish fighter planes did not contain radio equipment. This meant that pilots were unable to communicate with each other – and ground control – while flying. The only way that they could communicate with each other was by using hand gestures. They developed a sharp alertness to their surroundings, as it was impossible for fellow pilots to warn them about immediate threats. Even when they flew in British planes, equipped with radios and closed cabins, you could see Polish pilots turning their heads almost 360 degrees to watch the sky,” Krajewski says. It was a very useful habit. “The English said that when they flew with a Polish pilot in their team, it was the Pole who would always spot the enemy first.”
In a letter to Lord Hamilton, King George VI’s secretary, Alexander Hardinge, wrote: “One cannot help feeling that if all our allies had been Poles, the course of the war, up till now, would have been very different.” An RAF squadron leader, speaking of the Polish airmen, was quoted as saying: “They are fantastic – better than any of us. In every way they’ve got us beat.” These opinions expressed by the British are documented in the book “For your freedom and ours. The Kosciuszko Squadron. Forgotten heroes of World War II” authored by Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud.
“In the way that Polish pilots battled in the sky, one could see perhaps a touch of Polish romanticism but also a stinging determination rooted in their longing for their homeland occupied by the Germans and their strong desire to return. Polish pilots were willing to fight and sacrifice themselves because they thought that by doing so they would bring victory closer, and the faster this would happen, the faster they could return home. Little did they know that the war would go on for another five years, leading to the deaths of many of their colleagues and countrymen,” says Wojciech Krajewski of the Polish Army Museum.
Polish technicians on the ground also helped repair airplanes damaged in the course of battle. Many of these plans were initially deemed unfixable, but Poles managed to give a lot of the machines a new lease on life.
“The British would send such planes to specialised workshops and would wait many days for them to be repaired. But Poles managed to fix them at the airbase itself. They were great mechanics, well prepared by their work on Polish fighter planes before the war. Pilots would receive their fully functional planes back the very next morning. As a result, more pilots were able to re-join combat the next day and this, Poles believed, brought them closer to victory and their return to Poland,” Krajewski says.
In the Battle of Britain, the British Royal Air Force had at their disposal two types of fighter planes: the Hurricane and the more modern Spitfire. Hurricane pilots were recommended to attack bomber aircraft, whilst Spitfires were designated fighter planes because they were faster, more agile and could more effectively take on German Messerschmitts. Poles in the 302 and 303 Squadrons soared to victory in Hurricanes, whilst Poles flying in British squadrons flew in both types of planes.
The victorious outcome of the Battle of Britain paved the way to overall victory for the Allies in World War II. Having successfully defended itself in 1940, Great Britain became an “unsinkable aircraft carrier”, from which war with Germany was continued and resistance movements (including in Poland) were supported. It also acted in June 1944 as the springboard for the momentous Normandy Campaign, which opened a second front in Europe. Polish pilots played a significant role in the defence of Great Britain in 1940. Despite their contribution however, many of them returned to civilian life after the war and their achievements were largely forgotten by society.
“I studied the biographies of every single Polish pilot that participated in the Battle of Britain, all 145 of them. I calculated that 77 of them survived the war. Most of them, 41, stayed in England, after the war. Some of them took jobs with the Royal Air Force. Others emigrated to Canada, the United States and Argentina. Then there were those who helped set up Pakistan’s air force after the war. Thirty Polish pilots were killed during the Battle of Britain, 38 died in later stages of the war and two died in airplane accidents. The rest had to decide what to do with their lives – whether to return to Communist Poland or not,” Krajewski says. In total 14 Battle of Britain veterans returned to Poland. “Most of them returned because they had parents and families in Poland. Others returned out of a sense of duty, as Poles. The Communist regime was distrustful of Polish army, including air force, veterans who had returned from the West. Later on, when persecutions and purges started in 1948, over a dozen Polish Air Force veterans were arrested and subjected to brutal interrogation and torture. Some of them were charged with crimes and shot. After Stalin’s death in 1953, during the so-called Polish October, a transition in the politics of Poland, the pilots were released and rehabilitated. This was the case with Stanisław Skalskiego,”says Krajewski of the Polish Army Museum.
“On the other hand, in Great Britain Polish veterans had to adjust to civilian life during peace time. They competed for jobs with British people returning from the war in Europe. While wearing a Polish pilot’s badge during the Battle of Britain was seen as a mark of honour, after the war many Poles became less demonstrative about their Polishness, for fear of discrimination. They had to find themselves new jobs and new lives. Some of them succeeded in both, others lived out mundane lives,” Krajewski adds.
“Battle of Britain 1940” exhibition at the Polish Army Museum
“This exhibition is the first of its kind in Poland. We want to show all sides of the conflict, not only that of Polish and British pilots, but Germans as well,” Wojciech Krajewski, the senior curator of the exhibition says. “Most Battle of Britain artefacts remained in England, because that is obviously where the battle took place. The 16 pilots who returned to Poland after World War II were unable to bring many objects with them,” Krajewski adds. “They came with one suitcase or a big sack which usually contained the bare necessities as well as one photo album, their uniform, perhaps some medals and memories. That’s all. Most of the artefacts can be found in museums and private collections in Great Britain and Germany.
The exhibition, which will open its doors to the public on 30 September, will not only contain Polish memorabilia. These days, museums are open to the world. We reached out to British and German museums. We will display items that have never been exhibited in Poland before. For example, we expect to have many variations of uniforms and flight suits worn by German pilots, including the full uniform of Adolf Galland, one of Germany’s most prolific pilots during the Battle of Britain. We will also most likely have an engine of a Messerschmitt shot down by the British ace Douglas Bader,” Krajewski says.
“We also intend to display uniforms worn by Polish pilots from the collections of the Polish Army Museum as well as other museums. These will include uniforms worn by Witold Urbanowicz, Stanisław Skalski, Zdzisław Krasnodębski, Jan Falkowski and Karol Pniak. The uniform of Krasnodębski, the first leader of Squadron 303, currently part of the collection at Jasna Góra monastery in Częstochowa, will be made available to the public for the first time,” Krajewski adds.
“We will also show remnants of Hurricane planes and German airplanes, including the cover of a Messerschmitt bf 109E cabin, shot down during the Battle of Britain. They come from private collections. Also on display will be the famous banner of the Polish Air Force, made available by the Air Force Museum in Dęblin. Everything will be presented in a modern setting with state-of-the-art multimedia, films and special effects.”
The exhibition will be open to the public until 7 January.