The Battle of Britain - The Magnificent Poles

Posted on Friday 30th August 2013

By Adam Zamoyski. This article was extracted from The Forgotten Few and is reproduced here be permission of Pen and Sword Books Ltd.
On the afternoon of 30 August 1940, 303 Kosciuszko Squadron, still undergoing training at RAF Northolt, was carrying out an exercise in escorting a group of Blenheim bombers when a formation of German planes came in sight. Squadron Leader Kellett, the unit’s British commander, wanted to get the vulnerable Blenheims and his own planes out of the battle zone.
Pilot Officer Ludwik Paszkiewicz, who had noticed the enemy planes first, reported his wish to attack them over the radio, and, apparently receiving no answer, he took matters into his own hands and peeled off from the formation.
He went for the nearest of the German planes, a Dornier 17, which he shot down with a single burst of his machine guns. Having chased off the others he returned to Northolt, where he landed a little after the rest of his squadron. He was ordered to report immediately to Kellett, who gave him a thundering reprimand in front of his fellow pilots for leaving the formation without authorization.
Kellett then privately congratulated Paszkiewicz on his skilful attack, and announced that on his personal recommendation the squadron had been posted operational as from the next day. Thunderous cheers greeted the news. The pilots had been getting desperately restive as they watched the other squadrons stationed at Northolt, one British and one Canadian, go up on operations every day. They were also at loggerheads with some of their British superiors, nucleus of old hands from 1 Warsaw Air Regiment, many of whom had clocked up several kills in Poland and France. They included Zdzistaw Henneberg, who had brought his whole flight safely to Britain after the fall of France; Josef Frantisek, a Czech who had joined them in Poland and fought with them in France, knocking out eleven enemy aircraft by the time he reached Britain; Urbanowicz, transferred from RAF 145 Squadron; Zumbach; and others.
Grouped together in their own squadron, the Poles were not on their best behaviour, like those posted to British units. ‘They were a complete law unto themselves,’ in the words of a British fitter stationed at Northolt. ‘Nobody could control them.’ Their clannishness and cockiness put backs up and irritated those less concerned with their flying and fighting skills than with having to live and work alongside them. ‘The Poles were a funny bunch, actually,’ remarked the same fitter. ‘We used to get along.... reasonably well, but there was no real love lost between us.’
There was even less love lost between the Poles and the detachment of Irish Guards assigned to the base, and their differences flared dangerously on at least two occasions. One was at a dance in Ruislip, when a disagreement over dancing partners turned into a pitched battle after which a number of guardsmen had to be hospitalized. The other was sparked off by an altercation between drunken Polish ground crew returning to base and guardsmen checking their passes. ‘Machine gun fire from the south-east corner of the aerodrome!’ barked the tannoy in the operations room, to the consternation of the station commander, Group Captain S F Vincent. ‘I became thoroughly alarmed, thinking of parachute attacks, fifth columnists or something equally serious,’ he writes. When he went outside his own ears confirmed his alarm. ‘There was the Guards and the Poles having a proper firefight.’ Both sides soon ran out of ammunition, and Vincent managed to restore order. He also managed, miraculously, to hush up the incident, thereby avoiding a string of enquiries and commissions, but he had the Irish Guards replaced by the Coldstream Guards.
Group Captain Vincent was a regular officer in the RAF who had seen action in the First World War and, at 43, was on the old side. An enthusiastic flier, he understood the feelings of pilots, and he was not wedded, like some, to minute observance of regulations. But he did have certain responsibilities, and he had been given the firm instruction that ‘until all the Poles learn to speak English properly, they stay on the ground’. The primary concern was that if they did not understand English, the pilots could not be directed to an interception point or vectored home over the radio. Vincent did what he could. The pilots were given bicycles, told to don radio transmitter sets, and made to cycle around Uxbridge football pitch in perfect flying formation, responding to every order they received to turn one way or the other. ‘I could not declare them operational until they could understand English better, so they hated me!’ writes Vincent.
Squadron Leader Ronald Kellett, 303’s commander, was more popular. A small, jovial figure known throughout the service as ‘Boozy’ Kellett, he was an Auxiliary who despised most regular RAF officers and liked to tell them so. And he could afford to. His father owned a coal-mine in Durham, he had been brought up in a stately home, and he made a respectable living as a stockbroker. He was also a very experienced flier. He delighted the Poles – and annoyed the regulars – with his magnificent Rolls-Royce and his subversive attitude.
He had two flight lieutenants, Athol Forbes and John Kent, an intelligence officer, an adjutant, an orderly-room corporal and three senior ground crew NCOs to help him turn these Poles into a fighting unit. The fact that they considered themselves to be one already did nothing to help him. To make matters worse, Kellett, Kent and Forbes did not get on together.
Kellett and Forbes spoke fluent French, which permitted them to communicate with some of the Poles. Kent, a Canadian from Winnipeg, was ‘thoroughly fed up and despondent’ about his new job. He was a very competent officer, but he was arrogant and tended towards bossiness, which did not endear him to many. He was also ambitious, and probably resented being placed under the command of an Auxiliary. ‘All I knew about the Polish Air Force was that it had lasted about three days against the Luftwaffe and I had no reason to suppose that they would shine any more brightly operating from England,’ he writes. He spoke no French at all, so he concentrated on learning a few key words of Polish, which earned him the sobriquet of ‘Kentowski’.
Kellett was less concerned with linguistics than with the pilots’ skills. One pilot remembers him pointing to a plane and uttering the word ‘Hurricane’, then flapping his arms like a bird and saying ‘Fly’, and then pushing the pilot towards the plane. Kellett quickly realized that these were excellent fliers; but, being new to it, they often left the radio switched on when not using it, which jammed the frequency, or forgot how to use it at critical moments.
More worrying was that, with little experience of retractable undercarriages, they sometimes forgot to lower them when coming in to land, and being unused to closed cockpits often forgot to open and lock the covers before landing (a precaution against being trapped in a burning machine). They soon got the hang of their Hurricanes, and although only the most rudimentary communication had been established, the squadron was needed in battle. English or no English, the Poles felt that they were ready, and in this they were not mistaken.
On the squadron’s first operational day, 31 August, six planes went up on patrol and returned to base having shot down four Messerschmitt logs, with two more unverified. The pilots were euphoric, not least at the ease of fighting in proper machines.
‘I caught up with him easily,’ one of them scribbled in the squadron scrapbook that evening. ‘He grew in my sights until his fuselage filled the whole luminous circle. It was certainly time to fire. I did so quite calmly, and was not even excited, rather puzzled and surprised to find that it was so easy, quite different from Poland, where you had to scrape and strain until you were in a sweat, and then instead of getting the bastard he got you.’
Telegrams of congratulation poured in. ‘Magnificent fighting 303 Squadron,’ ran that from the RAF Chief-of-Staff. ‘I am delighted. The enemy is shown that Polish pilots definitely on top.’ As a treat, the pilots of 303 were given a day off – the very last thing they wanted. The RAF believed it was good for the psychological health of pilots to spend as much time as possible off the station. There was some justification for this with respect to British pilots, who could go home to their families. Polish pilots posted to RAF squadrons were often taken home by their British colleagues or relaxed with them at suburban tennis clubs, but the pilots of the all-Polish squadrons were isolated and had nowhere to go. They regarded it as a punishment rather than a treat to be grounded, particularly on 1 September, the anniversary of the German invasion of Poland.
On 2 September they were in action again, over the Thames estuary and Dover, downing two German planes, with another two unverified. Along with a signal of congratulation, they earned themselves a light rebuke from Air Vice-Marshal Sir Keith Park of 11 Fighter Group. ‘The Group Commander appreciates the offensive spirit that carried two Polish pilots over the French coast in pursuit of the enemy today,’ it read. ‘This practice is not economical or sound now that there is such good shooting within sight of London.’ The British were still nervous of ‘Polish hot-headedness’.
The squadron went on notching up successes without any losses. On 5 September they shot down seven more planes and damaged one and on 6 September they repeated the same score, this time losing six of their own planes, but the only pilot hurt was Kellett. This meant that it was Forbes who led them on the following day to head off a massive German raid on London, which Göring termed ‘the historic hour when our air force for the first time delivered its blow right into the enemy’s heart’. He had come to the Headquarters of the Luftwaffe and Fleet at Cap Gris-Nez to take personal command.
Congratulations from the staff and the government were flooding in daily. When the car arrived with the sixth message from Downing Street, Kellett had had enough, and he sent back a note to the effect that, as words were losing their power, a more appropriate token of appreciation would come in the shape of a rase of whisky – which duly arrived. But the extraordinary suc- cesses of 303 had also raised eyebrows, and the Northolt intelligence officer was asked to investigate whether the Polish claims were not on the wild side (this was before cameras were fitted to run when the guns fired). Kellett and his two RAF flight leaders insisted that, if anything, they erred on the side of caution. As well as being highly competitive, the pilots of 303 had a healthy dose of the Polish characteristic of jealousy of one another’s achievements, and none of them could get away with claiming a kill unless it had been witnessed and certified beyond doubt by at least one colleague. But Group Captain Vincent was suspicious.
The next time 303 was scrambled, he took a plane up and followed them. The squadron met a large enemy formation over the London docks. Two Hurricanes immediately climbed high above, while the rest hung back, with Vincent behind them. Then the two lone planes dived almost vertically onto the Germans, spitting fire and making as if to collide with them, which forced the bombers to break formation. ‘The Poles behind jumped in on to the scattered individuals and suddenly the air was full of burning aircraft, parachutes, and pieces of disintegrating wings,’ records Vincent. ‘It was all so rapid that it was staggering.’ He tried to join in himself, but each time he fixed on a German plane it disintegrated before his eyes as a Pole got there first, and he returned to Northolt feeling old and musty. ‘I told Wilkins [the intelligence officer] that what they claimed they did, indeed, get!’
That day, 303 had repeated their record of fourteen certain kills, but this time at the cost of their first real losses, as two pilots were killed in the afternoon sortie. One of these, Flight Sergeant Wojtowicz, found himself on his own against six Messerschmitts. The population of Westerham spilled out onto the streets to watch as he destroyed two of the enemy planes before being sent to the ground in flames himself, and on the next day the Town Council sent a message of thanks and condolence to Northolt.
A remarkable aspect of the Battle of Britain was that a high proportion of civilians could actually see it going on. As the citizens of southern England were in a sense living on the battlefield, they could even participate, when a pilot crash-landed or parachuted to the ground. This helped to create a very special brand of solidarity between combatants and non-combatants. But it held hazards for any Pole who might come down to earth in such a way: they could never be quite sure of the reception they would get on the ground, as they were often taken for Germans. Franek Surma’s parachute caught in a tree just outside a pub in Kent, and a group of Free French who had been drinking in the pub almost lynched him for a ‘sale Boche’.
Zdzislaw Krasnodebski, the Polish commander of 303, was just setting his sights on a German bomber when he was himself attacked from behind.
Suddenly the glass on my dials was splintering and the fuel tank, holed by shells, burst into flames. I wanted to jump, but I could not undo the straps. There was a moment of resignation, but the will to live triumphed and I managed to undo the straps, open the cockpit and bale out. Remembering my unpleasant experiences in Poland, I refrained from opening my parachute, so as to get out of the fighting as quickly as possible and not make a target of myself. As I approached the ground, I thought that my adventures were over, but this turned out to be premature, for out of the bushes and buildings spilled the figures of Home Guards, brandishing guns, evidently hoping to bag a German. Luckily their English sang-froid held out and they did not shoot.
Krasnodebski was so badly burnt that he was rushed to hospital, but on the whole parachuting airmen were kept by the locals as long as possible and lionized. In this way, they got to know a remarkable cross-section of English society. Czestaw Tarkowski dropped on to the top rung.
I was floating down, looking at the countryside. Fields and meadows, large old oak trees. Despite frantic efforts, my parachute caught on the top branches of one of these. People with pitchforks and staves ran up. One of them, armed with a shotgun, was screaming ‘Hande hoch’. ‘F.... off,’ I answered in my very best English. The lowering faces immediately brightened up. ‘He’s one of ours!’ they shouted in unison. Hands reached up to help extricate me from the extremely uncomfortable position I was in. I was escorted to a vast fourteenth century house, the likes of which I had never seen before. The walls were covered in oak panelling, the darkened portraits of forebears looked down attentively, and a maid in a mob-cap led me into a large drawing-room. When they found out I was a Polish airman, they did everything they could for me. I was scorched and dirty, so I was given the opportunity to wash and my clothes were cleaned up. A young woman put some ointment on my burning and raw face. At lunch, my host made sure that my glass was never empty, and the twenty-year-old wine with which I was plied warmed and relaxed my aching muscles. It went to my strained and still reeling head.
He was installed in a comfortable armchair, where he slept until he was picked up by a sergeant from his base.
The shock, the alcohol and the sunny afternoon meant that I sat in the car in a complete daze. I looked at the surroundings through a mist.
At a set of traffic lights, he noticed someone waving a stick and shouting insults in German. ‘Madam, it’s one of ours – it’s a Polish pilot,’ the driver explained. The old lady’s face fell. She reached into her purse and produced a florin. ‘There was no time to resist, so I returned to base with a gleaming florin.’
Another airman penetrated a less aristocratic, but no less exclusive world, as Richard Cobb relates:
My sister’s father-in-law’s tennis club was a respectable institution, that is to say, members were admitted to it not according to the quality of their tennis, but of their speech. The first essential was that the aspiring member should ‘speak nicely’; if he did, one would assume he was a gentleman and a fit person to play ball with. My sister’s father-in-law always played a ‘foursome’ with the unmarried sister of a vicar, ‘a gentleman who kept dogs’, and his wife. The ‘foursome’ was of about fifteen years’ standing, not the sort of thing in fact that Adolf Hitler could interrupt.
On this particular Saturday, the doggy gentleman and his wife and my sister’s father-in-law were all on the court punctually at 3 pm, but there’ was no sign of the vicar’s sister. At 3.30 they were still standing on the court; it was most annoying, such a thing had never happened in fifteen years. Up above, all sorts of things were happening, and now and then aeroplanes fell out of the sky like dead flies. But the three were much too angry to pay attention to the weekend visitors from across the water. How were they going to have their game? How was my sister’s father-in-law going to get through till Wednesday without his exercise? The doggy man swore and swore, and his wife started getting irritable. ‘It’s too bad, Archibald,’ she said, ‘it really is too bad, war or no war.’ There was a war. A parachute was coming down, with someone swinging from it. The wife was the first to notice it. ‘Archibald, look, look, one of those Germans is coming down, surely he won’t land here, it’s private property!’ But he did, parachute and all, in a tree by the ladies’ dressing-room, where he remained hanging. The three would-be tennis players were puzzled what to do. My sister’s father-in-law, a resourceful man, eventually decided. ‘Look here, we’ll go to the foot of the tree and ask him who he is. If he’s a German we’ll leave him up there and phone Police Constable Snodgrass. If he’s one of ours we’ll cut him down and give him tea.’ So they moved over to the tree and shouted up, ‘Hello there! Who are you? Sind sie Allemanisch, or whatever it is? You know – sie wissen was I mean? Understanden sie?’ ‘Ask him if he is a Nazi,’ said the wife triumphantly. ‘Sind sie Nazi’? ‘Bloody fools Nazis,’ came distinctly from the branches. ‘Me, Polish man’. ‘’Oh, good chap, bloody good chap!’ said the doggy man. ‘Let him down.’ Then my sister’s father-in-law had an idea and the three whispered together. ‘But he’s not a member,’ objected the wife. ‘To hell with that,’ said her husband vigorously. So they cut him down. ‘Do you play tennis?’ he asked, and the airman replied, ‘Pardon, yes, thank you, I am quite all right.’ So they lent him some white flannels and took him to the gentlemen’s dressing-room. When the RAF car came for him, the remaining three staggered to deck-chairs. They’d never had such a game. The wife gasped: ‘Such a nice man, so strong, and how polite!’ My sister’s father-in-law murmured: ‘What a game! I don’t think I’ll play next Wednesday.’ In the club minutes you can read: ‘August 2nd, Polish officer, introduced by Mr and Mrs ——.’ That’s how a Pole came to this little town and entered the English Holy of Holies, a lawn tennis club which was strictly closed to all but ‘nice people'.
Lower down the social scale, the experience could still prove interesting. One pilot came down in a south London back garden and fell at the feet of a girl, whom he married two months later.
The knowledge that there were Poles up in the sky over London touched a chord in the population, and the fame of 303 began to spread. The press related tales of the bravery and skill of the ‘cavaliers from a conquered land’. Fan mail poured in from all over the country. A school in Ruislip had a whip-round and sent 450 cigarettes ‘for the brave Polish fighters’. A girls’ school in Glasgow sent them ten shillings. The Borough of Willesden, which had collected money to fund a Spitfire, stipulated that it should be flown by a Pole. The Daily Telegraph printed poems sent in by enthusiastic literati. ‘Gallants, who here patrol the sky, And strew the land with wrack of raiders,’ one bard began.
‘We had a fantastic time,’ remarks one pilot. ‘We were continually mobbed, and we were also very much in demand among English women.’ For a girl at this time, to be seen on the arm of a fighter pilot was a triumph. ‘I just cannot begin to describe the effect that “wings” had on a girl then,’ confirms Joan Wyndham, a WAAF stationed at Stanmore. Besides wearing two sets of ‘wings’, the regulation British ones and the Polish pilot’s eagle, the Poles enjoyed an additional glamour based on novelty value and the romantic aura with which people endowed their nation.
One day 303 returned to base after an operation, but without Flight Lieutenant Antoni Wczelik. Next day, his crashed plane and a Messerschmitt he had evidently shot down were located. The German pilot was apprehended, but there was no sign of Wczelik. Two days later he was officially posted missing and his gear was packed up to make room for a new pilot. But that evening he gaily marched into the Northolt mess. He had parachuted on to a golf course, to the consternation of some elderly gentlemen in the middle of a game. He was dragged off to the club house and plied with drinks. By the evening he was so drunk that he was taken home by a lady whose husband happened to be on active service overseas, and who refused to let him go for two days.
The only ones who had mixed feelings about the successes of 303 were the pilots of 302, who had been patrolling the east for the past two weeks without sighting a single enemy plane. Their frustration built up into frequent rows between their commander Mieczystaw Mummler and his British counterpart, Squadron Leader Jack Satchell. Satchell was a regular officer, and although he was thirty years old, he was young in spirit, more so than Mummler, who belonged to the old school and could not catch the spirit of 1940. Satchell’s flight lieutenants were younger and less experienced than their Polish pilots, and one of them, Nigel Farmer, was by common consent a poor and therefore dangerous pilot. The only thing that made up for this was that 302 was stationed with 242 Canadian Squadron, commanded by the legless Douglas Bader. Poles and Canadians vied with each other in horseplay, and having no legs did not prevent Bader from leading his men when the evening’s entertainment consisted of building a barricade of furniture down the centre of the room and then fighting a battle over it.
302 Squadron’s chance to prove themselves came on 15 September, arguably the most crucial day of the Battle of Britain, when massed German attacks on London succeeded one another and virtually swamped the fighter squadrons sent up to meet them. As if sensing the importance of that Sunday, Winston Churchill had gone to the headquarters of 11 Fighter Group at Uxbridge, and spent the whole day in the operations room following the course of the battle.
303 Squadron was scrambled in mid morning and again at about 2 pm, when, along with one other RAF squadron, it had to head-off a raid by some 400 German planes. The fact that only twenty-four Hurricanes could be sent up to meet such a force is eloquent testimony to the shortage of fighters on the British side. To bolster the thinning defences of the capital an extra fighter wing, consisting of 302, a Czech, a Canadian and two RAF squadrons, was seconded from 12 Group to help. This wing was led by Douglas Bader, who was already immensely popular with the Polish pilots, and as it took off from Duxford to go into action, Bader shouted ‘You’ll be in Warsaw soon!’ over the radio. The pilots of 302 were determined to show their colleagues what they could do, and shot down ten German planes, with another five probables, at the cost of two planes and one of their own pilots killed.
The terrified mug of the Kraut flashed by, and a split second later he crashed into the ground, throwing up a cloud of smoke and clods of earth. I pulled up higher and circled over the burning remnants of the machine before turning away and taking a course for my base.’
But on 15 September, when he tried to repeat the procedure with a German bomber over the Thames estuary, he ended up ramming it and had to bale out of his disintegrating Hurricane. Another pilot of 303 also rammed a German, but he was less lucky and died on the way to hospital. ‘I got him, though,’ were his last words.
After every such victory one cannot help the thought going through one’s head that if we’d had such machines in Poland, things would have been so wonderful and so different,’
Churchill declared that the German squadrons had been ‘cut to rags and tatters’ on that day as he left the Uxbridge operations room. But it was not just a question of numbers of aircraft shot down. As one British pilot pointed out, the Poles, and particularly the pilots of 303, were particularly effective at breaking up and driving back enemy bomber formations, which was, after all, the object of the exercise. Thus, on 11 September, the twelve Hurricanes of 303 had intercepted a force of 150 German bombers crossing the south coast bound for London and forced them to jettison their bombs over Sussex and turn back for France.
They achieved such successes in a number of ways, but the principle was always the same – to force the Germans to break formation. Standard RAF training dictated that a pilot should open fire at a distance of not less than 150 yards, when all eight of the machine guns in a Hurricane’s wings (which converged slightly) would hit the enemy plane at the same spot, producing maximum impact and minimizing the risk. The Poles would have none of this. With centuries of cavalry tactics in their blood, they believed in the psychological effect of a charge aimed at the centre of an enemy formation. They also swore by holding their fire until they were very close, with the whole side of the enemy plane before them. ‘When they go tearing into the enemy bombers and fighters they go so close you would think they were going to collide,’ wrote Forbes. At this point they would fire a raking broadside which even it it did not hit something vital, certainly unnerved every single member of the enemy bomber’s crew.
When flying together in formation German bombers could defend themselves with their combined firepower, but once scattered they were far more vulnerable, so if their formation was broken up, individual planes would tend to cut and run. ‘The great number of German fighters and bombers they brought down by this method shows that they knew how to make it pay,’ comments Wing-Commander W B Austin. But the Poles did not stick rigidly to any one tactic, and the pilots of 303 con- tinually worked out new variants, with Kellett, in response to what was a completely novel form of fighting and a novel situation. Any tactic required ‘complete trust and perfect timing’, and in this respect the Poles responded well to him. ‘It was just common sense, really,’ adds Kellett. ‘And besides, once you’d gone in to attack there was no time to worry about what anyone else was doing.’ A few seconds’ pause or hesitation could cost a pilot his life.
Although Sunday, 15 September 1940 is now regarded by many as the turning-point in the Battle of Britain, this was by no means obvious to the participants. Huge formations of German planes continued to raid London in a desperate attempt to smash Britain into submission. By mid September Poles represented well over 10 per cent of all the fighter pilots defending the south-east, as British casualties mounted and Poles took their places. It was nevertheless 303 that continued to steal the lime-light.
On 17 September General Sikorski came down to Northolt to visit the squadron and decorate some of the pilots with gallantry awards. Churchill also dropped in unannounced several times on his way back to London. On 26 September King George VI paid 303 a visit. He inspected the base and talked with the pilots, who were on readiness in the dispersal hut. Suddenly the tele- phone rang, scrambling the squadron. The pilots dashed for the door, brushing aside the king with little ceremony, and ran to their machines. The king watched them take off and wished them ‘happy hunting’ over the radio before leaving the base. He also asked to be informed of the results. The squadron engaged and turned back an invading party over Portsmouth and returned to base safely. The telegram they sent to Buckingham Palace that evening read:
Eleven shot down for certain, one probably destroyed. Own losses nil.’
On the next day, 27 September, with an RAF squadron, 303 destroyed thirty-one German planes in 30 minutes over the Isle of Wight, and notched up its hundredth confirmed kill in Britain. It lost two pilots, including Ludwik Paszkiewicz, who had scored its first kill exactly four weeks earlier. Such losses could not mar the joy of the 303 pilots, and even Group Captain Vincent was dragged into the celebrations, noting that he had never found himself propelled so high into the air without wings before.
Life changed after that. On 28 September the Germans adopted a new tactic. Instead of massive raids against London, they now used their bombers by night, or in very high-level flights. Their fighters swept the skies in smaller groups, engaging and tying down British defending fighters, or carried out low level strafing raids. This meant more work for the defending squadrons, which were scrambled several times a day but often could not make contact with the smaller raiding parties. There were thus fewer engagements, and consequently fewer kills. It was altogether more tiring and less fun for the pilots. It was also dangerous. The RAF’s losses continued to mount, causing it to draw on the pool of waiting Polish airmen, with the result that by the beginning of October 1940 there were times when one in five of the British fighters defending London was manned by a Pole. 303 Squadron had clocked up another twenty-six kills by 11 October, when it was withdrawn from the front line and sent to Leconfield for a period of rest. It had set two new records for the highest number of enemy planes shot down in a month (more than double the tally of the next highest-scoring squadron), and for the lowest ratio of own losses to successful kills. The squadron’s place at Northolt was taken by 302, whose pilots welcomed the opportunity to boost their reckoning. But their expectations were dashed. They were frequently scrambled but rarely made contact with the enemy, and when they did come across a large formation of Messerschmitts on 15 October, they lost two of their own pilots. Three days later they again lost two pilots in battle, while two more killed themselves landing in bad weather.
The Battle of Britain is officially deemed to have ended on 31 October. Of the 2,927 pilots who manned a fighter at any point between June and November, 146 (just under 5 per cent) were Poles. Of the 2,692 German planes deemed by the RAF ‘destroyed for certain’ (including those brought down by anti-aircraft fire and balloons), 203 (over 7.5 per cent) had been credited to Poles. 303 Squadron had downed three times the average RAF score, and incurred one-third of the average casualties. Excluding the sixteen planes shot down by Kellett, Kent and Forbes, 303 accounted for 110 certain kills, nine probables and six damaged, at the cost of eight of their own pilots. The figures for 302, excluding the five aircraft shot down by its British pilots, were sixteen definites, ten probables and one damaged, at the cost of six own losses. The eighty-nine Polish pilots serving in various RAF squadrons accounted for seventy-seven definites, sixteen probables and twenty-nine damaged, and seventeen of them lost their lives.
Although these figures proclaim a glorious performance, one must be very cautious before extrapolating any conclusions from them. The Polish individual top score of seventeen enemy planes shot down was about half the personal scores of some British ‘aces’. On the other hand, statistics show that in the RAF as a whole, 4.9 kills cost one own death, while the Polish squadrons notched up 10.5 enemy planes destroyed for every own pilot killed – a staggering discrepancy. Apart from demonstrating that Poles together work better than Poles apart, these figures would seem to bear out the Polish claim to superior tactics and better teamwork – the last thing the RAF top brass had expected of them.
‘The readiness to help a stricken comrade was a feature among the Poles that I was to witness on several occasions,’
‘One felt safe with them,’ adds Thomson; ‘they knew their business.’ Kellett himself is almost embarrassed by the way the three Poles of his section looked after him in the air, with an almost almost ‘feudal’ sense of loyalty.
Figures and statistics are by nature unfair, and in the case of the Battle of Britain, one is not comparing like with like. The RAF had many seasoned pilots of great skill, but it also contained many chivalrous boys, barely out of school, with great reserves of courage but little training and no fighting experience. The average age of all fighter pilots who took part was twenty, while the average age of the Polish pilots involved was twenty-four – a significant difference. All the Poles had hundreds of hours of flying time on a variety of planes behind them, and most had some fighting experience. The British squadrons had more time in the front line than the Polish ones, which entered the battle at a later stage or, like 302, were largely outside it. This meant that the British aces could clock up more kills, but it also meant that many more inexperienced young pilots were killed, particularly in the first weeks. The fact remains that the Poles did achieve above-average results, and there are several good reasons for this. Their very strong motivation and their hatred for the Germans meant that they were psychologically steadier and more determined than their British colleagues. They were on the whole older and more experienced, and they employed superior tactics. They had been trained to fly on inferior planes with little in the way of support systems, and as a result ‘their understanding and handling of aircraft was quite exceptional’, were the words of one British flight instructor. This meant that they were better equipped to get themselves and a damaged plane back to base, or to make a safe forced landing in difficult terrain. They had also had to face a vastly superior enemy in their primitive machines. They were thus able to make the most of their equipment, and while 303 was flying Hurricanes, which were inferior to the Messerschmitt 109, they could nevertheless achieve better results than Bntish squadrons equipped with the far more advanced Spitfire. ‘We would have done better if we’d had Spitfires, like the English,’ commented one. The Poles had, it has to be remembered, downed Messerschmitts with their P-11s, which had less than half of the speed and one-fifth of the firepower of a Hurricane. But perhaps their greatest asset was their eyes.
British airmen were trained with a wealth of sophisticated equipment, including radar and constant radio contact with the ground and other planes. They therefore naturally relied on these to tell them where they were and where the enemy was. ‘You’d get these chaps who’d go up, lose half their bloody squadron, and they never saw a thing,’ as one British squadron leader puts it. The Polish airmen had been through rigorous medicals before being accepted into the air force, including stringent eyesight tests. Moreover, until they reached England they had never enjoyed the luxury of radio or radar, so they relied for their own safety on keeping an eye out on all sides at all times. The Poles always seemed to see everything first,’ remarked Squadron Leader Crook, who had two of them in his squadron, and he was not alone in noticing this. ‘The Poles seem to have an uncanny gift in this respect,’ another British pilot told a Daily Telegraph reporter. ‘They have “spotted” Germans in the distance long before I have been able to see them.’ Another, talking to an Evening News reporter, explained that,
whereas the British pilots were trained to rely on their radios, and to go exactly where they are told, Polish pilots are always turning and twisting their heads in an effort to spot a distant enemy’.
Given the speed with which an enemy fighter could dive out of the sun and attack from behind, this was a tremendous asset.
Another element in the fine showing of the Polish squadrons, intangible yet undoubtedly very important, was the superiority of their ground crews. These were the pick of the pre-war ground personnel, supplemented by LOT engineers and technicians from aircraft factories in Poland. ‘I don’t believe any squadron had better NCOs or better aircraft maintenance than 303,’ wrote Kellett. These men faced a challenge quite different from that faced by the pilots. One of the mechanics wrote,
For the pilots, a Hurricane or a Spitfire was not actually such a novelty. A machine like any other, a little practice and you’re off. But for the mechanics it was a difficult, a very hard nut to crack. While the engine itself and the body did not present any great problem, the instructions, the names of tools and parts caused major headaches to even the most resourceful among us. At first, we would get new machines in exchange for damaged ones, but as the number of sorties grew, the supply system began to falter and one had to begin to fly ‘on one’s own industry’, just as it had been in 1920 and 1939 in Poland, and in 1940 in France. And it was here that the Polish mechanic showed what he could do. With strange use of language and particularly hands, they managed to explain to the stores personnel what the problem was in order to obtain the necessary part. And if the part they needed was not there, they would make it up themselves, because, after all, the pilots had to fly on something.
What helped was the quality of the machines they were put to work on. ‘Nothing flashy,’ commented the chief engineer of 303, ‘but there are no nasty surprises or construction faults either. It’s all good sound workman- ship.’
‘The mechanics like to have their own planes to work on, and here you can see our Polish traditions and habits coming out,’ writes the engineer. ‘It was always the tradition that every plane had its own fitter and his assistant – it did not like or want others. To begin with, when we blindly subordinated ourselves to British ways and abandoned our own, it often happened that numerous doctor-mechanics would endlessly debate how to repair a sick plane.’
As soon as they joined their own squadrons, they reverted to the Polish system. ‘The return to Polish ways has meant that the planes now have their permanent guardians, tender and sensitive to every minute ailment of their own machine.’ These ‘guardians’ were to be found hanging around their Hurricane at all hours, endlessly cleaning and re-checking odd pieces of equipment. ‘There was no caste difference between pilots and mechanics,’ writes Krol. These are not empty words. He was the son of an illiterate peasant, while many of the fitters were middle-class men with degrees. Yet several British officers have made the point that the Polish officers treated their men ‘like dirt’, and professed themselves disgusted by it. Kellett recalls having to sort out a mutiny by three ground staff who refused to obey one of the officers of 303. Andrzej Nahlik, a pilot who spent as much time in British as in Polish units, tells a different story. ‘The British treated their ground crew with far greater hauteur, even with scorn,’ he states, adding that there was far more rigid stratification in the RAF between aircrew officers, aircrew NCOs and ground crew. The very idea that an officer was awarded a DFC and an NCO a DFM for the same action struck the Poles as monstrous. Polish ground crew themselves believe they enjoyed a completely different standing from those of the RAF.

The very proportion of ground to air crew must have made a difference: in the RAF it was more than 100 to 1, in the Luftwaffe it was about 80 to 1, and in the Polish Air Force it was only 30 to 1. ‘Brothers have never been closer than we were,’ confirms Skalski’s fitter. He recalls a reception where Skalski, the Battle of Britain ace and by then a wing-commander, walked up to him and kissed his hands. The British officers present were astonished and a little shocked at the sight of a wing-commander kissing a fitter’s hands. ‘Were it not for these hands I would never have shot down so many planes – I’d be dead,’ Skalski declared. ‘The whole squadron was one family, sharing the joy of victories and successful flights, and sharing in the sorrow of losses. The mechanics would be in a frenzy of excitement as the planes came back from an operation, waiting to see whether they would buzz the airfield or make a victory roll, signifying success. They could see from the torn masking of the machine guns if the plane had been firing and would run up to their planes, hang on to the wings while they were still taxiing and shout: “How many?” The pilots would show them on their fingers. According to the pilots, the ground crew took more pride in the squadron’s score than did pilots themselves. “Mine’s been firing,” hollers one of them, as though it were all down to him. Such is the unwritten but immutable law, that the machine belongs not to God, nor to the king, nor to the government, but to him, and only to him, an oil-smeared scarecrow in blue overalls.’

The ground staff were just as eager as the pilots to get the machines airborne again. ‘Just take a look at what happens when a plane returns from a flight – like a honey sandwich it is instantly covered in busy bees, and you can almost hear the hum of a hive,’ writes 303’s engineer. Their dedication was so great that during its whole participation in the Battle of Britain, 303 only went up four times with less than its full complement of twelve planes.
When the squadron returned to Northolt after the fighting of 15 September, the ten planes (two had been shot down) were declared write-offs by Kellett. But the mechanics refused to see the squadron reduced to its four spare machines, and after a night of frenzied clanging and banging, twelve planes stood ready for take-off on the runway.
Such hard work meant that the squadron remained at full strength in virtually all operations, which obviously increased its effectiveness and its collective safety. The meticulous attention to detail also minimized the possibility of snapping cables, jamming machine guns or instrument failure, all of which could easily cost a pilot his life. Above all, the devotion of the mechanics meant that the pilots were utterly confident that their planes were in prime condition and fine-tuned, and such confidence counted for a great deal in battle.
However one reads the statistics, one can see what made Flight Lieutenant Kent call 303 ‘the finest squadron in the whole world’ – to which he added ‘profound thanks for keeping me alive and teaching me to fight’. With only about 400 fighters defending the south-east at any one time, the Polish contribution of between 50 and 100 in action throughout September and October was vital. On 11 September, the Poles accounted for 18 per cent of the enemy aircraft destroyed, on 15 September they accounted for 14 per cent, on 19 September 25 per cent, on 26 September a staggering 48 per cent.
‘Our shortage of trained pilots would have made it impossible to man the squadrons which were required to defeat the German air force and so win the Battle of Britain, if the gallant airmen of Poland had not leapt into the breach.’ Sir Archibald Sinclair, the Secretary of State for the Air Force.
‘What we could have done without the Polish fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain is difficult to contemplate.’ Air Marshal Sir Michael Beetham.
More telling still is the statement by the far from effusive Dowding, who declared:
‘Had it not been for the magnificent material contributed by the Polish squadrons and their unsurpassed gallantry I hesitate to say that the outcome of battle would have been the same’.
'Two Hurricanes immediately climbed high above, while the rest hung back, with Vincent behind them. Then the two lone planes dived almost vertically onto the Germans, spotting fire and making as if to collide with them, which forced the bombers to break formation. The Poles behind jumped in on to the scattered individuals and suddenly the air was full of burning aircraft, parachutes, and pieces of disintegrating wings...'

Having faced the might of Göring's Luftwaffe in outdated fighters defending their homeland they were more than delighted with their Hurricanes and Spitfires.

'Each time he fixed on a German plane it disintegrated before his eyes as a Pole got there first.'

One of the Polish 'few' who proved more than a match for the Luftwaffe.

Hours of boredom in the dispersal huts were relieved by, in this case, a game of draughts.

'The terrified mug of the Kraut flashed by, and a split second later he crashed into the ground, throwing up a cloud of smoke and clods of earth. I pulled up higher and circled over the burning remnants of the machine before turning away and taking a course for my base.'

Pilots of 303 Squadron waiting for the signal to scramble at Northolt, September 1940.

A Spitfire of 303 Squadron ready to scramble.

An armourer loading machine gun magazines in the wing of a fighter.
Dedicated Polish ground crew, paying attention to detail, contributed greatly to the success of the Polish pilots.

Pilots from 303 Kosciuszko Squadron during the Battle – 'the finest squadron in the whole world'.

The Battle of Britain is officially deemed to have ended n 31 October. Of the 2,927 pilots who manned a fighter at any point between June and November, 146 (just under 5 per cent) were Poles. Of the 2,692 German planes deemed by the RAF 'destroyed for certain' (including those brought down by anti-aircraft fire and balloons), 203 (over 7.5 per cent) had been credited to Poles.

Further Reading

The Forgotten Few
(Paperback - 239 pages)
ISBN: 9781848841963

by Adam Zamoyski
Only £14.99

By the beginning of 1941 there was a fully fledged Polish Air Force operating alongside the RAF. With 14 Squadrons it was larger than any other of the Air Force from Nazi-occupied Europe that had joined the Allies. Over 17,000 men and women passed through the ranks of the Polish Air Force while it was stationed in the UK.

They shot down 745 enemy aircraft, with a further 175 unconfirmed. They dropped thousands of bombs and laid hundreds of mines, flying 102,486 sorties notching up a total…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...


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