Friday 22 March 2024

In Defence of Poland by Rebecca Alexander

My first neighbours were a couple in their eighties from Poland. As time went on, they told me stories of life in childhood, celebrations, food, the Slavic language, the beautiful landscape and grand history. After Joe died, his wife Rosa started to tell stories of his journey through the war. 

Zygmunt Bieńkowski and Jan Zumbach present the first "trophy" of Squadron 303

On 1st September, 1939, as we all know, Germany invaded Poland. What is less commonly known is the scale of the invasion. 1.8 million German combatants poured across Poland from three sides, from Germany, East Prussia and Slovakia in one day. They brought the massive power of the Luftwaffe, which had some of the most evolved and heavily armed planes of that time. Hitler had ordered that the attack was to be carried out “with the greatest brutality and without mercy”. 

Sixteen days later, The Poles were beaten back and trying to protect Warsaw, when Stalin invaded the part of Poland ceded to him by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The Poles were overwhelmed, and had lost at least twenty thousand civilians and more soldiers. Poland never formally surrendered but its government, navy and air force evacuated to London, seeking a place from which to win back their homeland. 

The Polish Air force had taken its outdated P11s with open cockpits and two machine guns against the faster, better armoured and closed in cockpits of the Me-110s, with four machine guns and two cannon. They fought gallantly and often successfully, but they were also outnumbered. Despite the disadvantage, Polish pilots far outnumbered their planes by 5 September, down to 120 aircraft. By the time the order came to evacuate on 17/18 September, pilots were reduced to flying trainer planes, unarmed civilian planes or their battered P11s across to neighbouring Romania. Despite their disadvantages, they had brought down 126 German planes, with more probably shot down and or damaged. It would now be a long and difficult journey to safety. 

Most of the Polish Air Force made their ways by circuitous routes to France, with the stated aim of defending the French then driving forward to liberate Poland. They stole planes and gliders, drove cars and lorries, caught rides on horse drawn cars and the last of the trains. The Romanians took their smart uniforms, exchanging them for their own clothes, stealing personal jewellery, boots and weapons when the refugees couldn’t hide them. The country was poor, the language unfamiliar, the only common language was French. Refugees were marched to an internment camp in Cernăuți, along with thousands of soldiers, ordinary people and other airmen. About eighty percent of the air force (over nine thousand air- and ground- crew) had got to Romania. Another thousand escaped through Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia or Hungary. Fifteen hundred were captured by the Soviets and sent to labour camps. 

Conditions in the Cernăuți camp were terrible. There was poor sanitation, little food or shelter, but security was very lax. Polish Air Force personnel escaped, travelling across nominally neutral Romania on foot, horse and cart or train to Yugoslavia or Hungary. A few secreted coins for bribes, and home-made documents got them through border checks, avoiding the odd Nazi sympathiser. On one occasion, realising they were being followed, two pilots caught and questioned a man speaking in German on a concealed radio, eventually making the decision to kill him as a Nazi spy. 

Many walked over the Carpathian mountains, some dying in the cold. The Hungarians were civil and helpful, despite having a very active fascist party and anti-Jewish legislation, and many were helped onwards toward Italy. General Józef Zając, a pilot, was stopped in Fiume, which was then in Italy, accused of being a Jew. Only his rosary and Polish credentials saved him. Pilots reaching the Black Sea were able to take ships to the Mediterranean and to French or British ports. Others struck out through Germany itself, walking into Belgium then across to France, knowing they could be shot if caught. 

The Polish personnel were incredibly resourceful. Three mechanics walked to the Italian border on the Yugoslav side and claimed they were Italians who had accidentally wandered across the border, the Yugoslavs sent them into Italy rather than fill out visa forms. After walking across Italy, they used the same ruse to get into Switzerland, from which they could legally travel into France. 

Polish pilots escaping north to Lithuania were not so welcome, and Latvians were cautious, not wanting to offend the Soviets. Polish agents in collusion with the British embassy helped many pilots escape by boat to Sweden, then on to Denmark or Norway here they headed for France. 

The Polish Air Force initially wanted to defend Europe by bolstering the French air defences. Bomber pilots were sent to England to start training but fighter pilots were accommodated, as they drifted in, at Luxeil, Le Bourget and dispersed around the French airbases. 

Many French politicians didn’t believe it would come to another war. The Polish pilots were placed on out of the way airfields with old Caudron Cyclones, defective planes that the French called ‘flying coffins’ were grounded by the French air ministry. The Poles couldn’t wait to engage the German Luftwaffe, and were happy to fly in the Caudrons. As on the first of September, the Germans attacked at dawn, blowing up French planes in their airfields and hangars while the Polish pilots chased them off as best they could. Six weeks after arriving at the airbase, the French surrendered and the Poles were off again, commanded by their leader General Sikorski, to flee to the coast and get, by any possible means, to Britain. 

Polish pilots stole planes, boats, rode trains, hitched lifts and walked to the coast, where thousands were rescued. Those in bases in the south of France fled to the Mediterranean coast. British steamers, Polish naval vessels that had joined the Royal Navy, and British warships transported them to Britain from ports as far away as Algeria and Casablanca. One had stowed away on a steamer going to Mexico, travelled up through the US and Canada and joined a unit coming to the UK. 

Altogether, 6,200 made the journey successfully. It was a heroic migration, but the fight had hardly begun. The Poles (and Czechs, Hungarians, Yugoslavs and French who had joined them) arrived just in time to adjust to the RAF regulations, learn the language and cope with the different culture before the onslaught of the battle of Britain. The Poles, who had experienced actual combat against the German forces, were horrified to be demoted to the lowest rank, pilot officers, and to have to practice formations and radio commands on bicycles on the runway. They were happier to be training in relatively advanced British planes and to be reunited with their ground support crew, who were so conscientious some only slept when their pilots were in the air. 

By the time Polish pilots flew their first missions in defence of Britain, they had survived their own rigorous training, months of dogfights against the power of the Luftwaffe in Poland and France, travelling across and increasingly hostile Europe, training in old biplanes at British training grounds and learning a new language and customs. They complained mostly about the strict rules within the air forces, and the food, but the locals were welcoming and the British were determined to fight off any invasion. 

Dunkirk had left the Royal Air Force short of 450 pilots, with a loss of another 300 a month as the German planes started incursions across the English Channel. The British knew the Polish pilots had been trained to use their own initiative over staying in strict formations or waiting for commands. It was easier to assemble pilots that hadn’t been integrated into the depleted squadrons, into their own, Polish groups. 

On 31 August 1940, the newly formed 303 squadron was operational, six of their Hurricanes defeating four confirmed and two probably Messerschmitt 109s, and they continued to have considerable success for the week up to the Battle of Britain. 

303 squadron pilots. L-R: F/O Ferić, F/Lt Lt Kent, F/O Grzeszczak, P/O Radomski, P/O Zumbach, P/O Łokuciewski, F/O Henneberg, Sgt Rogowski, Sgt Szaposznikow (in 1940)

By the 31 October 1940, the battle was over. Almost three thousand pilots of all Allied nations had taken part, destroying over thirty percent of the German planes, although at considerable loss to their own forces. 

British pilots on average took down 5 enemy planes per pilot lost. The Poles averaged 10.5, meaning they were able to fly many more missions for the rest of the war with tremendous success. Nearly two thousand Poles were killed and thirteen hundred wounded, winning 342 bravery awards. 

As the RAF’s Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding put it: ‘If it had not been for the magnificent material contributed by the Polish squadrons and their unsurpassed gallantry, I hesitate to say the outcome of the battle [of Britain] would have been the same.’ 

After the war, the Polish airmen couldn’t safely return to Poland, which was lost to the Soviet Union. A few who tried were either arrested and interned, or shot as traitors or spies. Most, like my neighbour, settled in Britain and many were offered permanent posts in the RAF when the Polish Air Force was disbanded. Taking Joe’s story of the journey to Britain and his burning desire to free Poland, I am presently writing a book based on a fictional pilot which comes out January 2025 with Bookouture.

If you are interested in reading more about this subject, I can recommend: The Forgotten Few; The Polish Air Force in Word War II by Adam Zamoyski (2004) and Truly of the Few; The Polish Air Force in Defence of Britain by Dr Penny Starms (2020)


Mary Hoffman said...

Thank you, Rebecca. Fascinating!

Sue Purkiss said...

I knew about the 303 Squadron, but I didn't know about the struggle the Poles had to get here - an extraordinary story!