The Valiant Poles – Pt 1
With some notable exceptions, most of us who write military history don’t earn great financial windfalls for our work. However, there are other intangible benefits that come our way from time to time that make it all worthwhile. In the coming months I’d like to share with you one such once-in-a-lifetime experience. In 1983, my first book, Decision in Normandy was published in the United Kingdom and in the U.S.A. it was widely reviewed and reviews often produce letters and telephone calls (and these days, e-mails) from readers that praise, criticize, ask questions or some combination. Occasionally they bring surprises. In the spring of 1984 a letter arrived on my doorstep postmarked London. It was from a former Polish officer who served in the Free Polish 1st Armored Division during World War II, and it contained an interesting invitation that subsequently led to an unforgettable experience.
However, before we come to that, some background about the exile Poles is in order. Not nearly enough has been written about the magnificent Polish contribution to the Allied cause in World War II or of their shameful postwar mistreatment by the British government. This month’s article and those that will follow are a step toward redressing this omission.
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After the Germans invaded and overran Poland in September 1939 a large number of Poles escaped to the West, most to France while others escaped through Romania to Syria, then under French mandate. Suddenly stateless and with families still in Poland, they had a burning desire to participate in some way in striking back at the Nazi occupiers who had hijacked their nation. The Poles were warmly welcomed by the French government and most joined the new 80,000-man army created by an exile Polish government. Part of the Allied force sent to Narvik, Norway in the spring 1940 was composed of a Polish brigade. Their days in France were numbered when the Germans invaded the West on May 10, 1940 and advanced to the English Channel. After Dunkirk, the bulk of the German Army methodically moved south to finish off a French Army that also contained of two Polish divisions. The exile Polish air force flew some eighty-six aircraft during the Battle of France and shot down fifty-five German planes.
After the fall of France in June 1940, those that were not killed or captured again fled, some to Switzerland where they were interned; but most were successfully evacuated to Britain where a Free Polish movement was formed under the exile prime minister and commander-in-chief, Gen. Wladyslaw Sikorski, who agreed to the formation of both a Polish Air Force and a Polish Army. In 1941, the Polish exile government cut a deal with Stalin to free a number of interned Poles who fled to the Middle East and formed an army of some 75,000 under the command of Gen. Wladyslaw Anders. During the war their numbers increased and by 1945 there were some 228,000 exile Poles in various military units in Britain, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean.
One of the Hurricanes flown by 303 Squadron during the
Battle of Britain
Polish exiles were scattered throughout the United Kingdom during World War II. Some were based in Scotland constructing coastal defenses and living in primitive conditions; others joined the new army, while Polish fighter pilots volunteered for the RAF or formed the all-Polish No. 302 and 303 Squadrons. Although their aircraft were antiquated compared to the far more modern Luftwaffe, the pilots of the Polish Air Force were well trained and combat-tested against the Germans in September 1939 — that training was put to good use in Britain and in other places where the Allies fought. Although commanded by RAF officers, these units were uniquely Polish. Flying Hawker Hurricane fighters during the Battle of Britain, the pilots of No. 303 Squadron had an amazing record of success. Between the time it became operational in early August 1940, until October 11, when it was withdrawn for a well-earned respite, No. 303 claimed 126 German aircraft, a record unequalled by any RAF squadron. Seven Polish pilots were killed and five others severely wounded, with a loss of eighteen aircraft. Overall, there were four Polish fighter squadrons and eighty-nine pilots involved in the Battle of Britain. Fifty other Polish pilots flew with RAF units. They were all fearless, patriotic and avid to retaliate against the Germans. As you will learn in a future article, the exile Poles’ hatred of the Nazi enemy was boundless.
Eventually there were ten Polish fighter squadrons, and from July 1940 to the end of the war on May 8, 1945, Polish pilots flew 9,900 combat sorties, logged nearly 16,000 hours of flight time and destroyed 629 Axis aircraft. In all, 14,000 Polish airmen served in fifteen RAF and USAAF squadrons. Initially, however, the British were skeptical and thought the Poles too undisciplined, too boisterous and since most had scant knowledge of English, in need of “civilizing.” These misplaced fears were quickly dispelled by their exceptional deeds in the air. Nor were attractive young English ladies bothered by the language barrier and found the only “civilizing” these brave young men required was English lessons that were willingly given – and received! As one account of the Battle of Britain notes, there were few who had not quickly mastered the phrase “You very beautiful” and “You me go cinema.” (1)
Churchill closely followed the Battle of Britain, often spending hours observing the flight controllers in the underground operations center of No. 11 Group of Fighter Command in the London suburb of Uxbridge. One of Churchill’s concerns and pet peeves was airfield defense in the event of expected enemy airborne landings. One morning, accompanied by Air Vice-Marshal William Sholto Douglas, Churchill unexpectedly arrived at Northolt air base in west London and ordered the base commander to sound the alarm for a mock enemy parachute attack. He then began touring the base to view the reaction. What he saw left him in a foul mood. Disorder reigned and no one seemed to know quite what to do.
Arriving at the sector where the Spitfires of a volunteer exile Polish fighter wing were kept in readiness, Churchill saw the pilots standing on top of the protective berms, peering skyward and ignoring the elderly roly-poly Englishman shouting at them. “Come down at once,” Churchill angrily demanded. ”You should never stand on a skyline when the enemy are about.” Growing ever more irate and frustrated when they ignored him, Churchill did not realize that most did not speak much English. Next, he went into a dispersal hut and encountered a group of Polish pilots playing cards, reading and smoking. Now boiling mad, he demanded of the squadron leader why they were sitting around when enemy parachutists were attacking. His comeuppance was swift. The unruffled Polish commander replied, “We know it’s a false alarm. If it were not, we’d have been ordered into the air by now.” With Sholto Douglas barely suppressing a grin, the Pole proffered a beautifully bound visitor’s book to the glowering prime minister and politely invited Churchill to sign it. He did and with that his mood softened at the delight of the Poles over having acquired his autograph. (2) Moreover, it was impossible to be angry with these gallant men who were fighting and dying protecting Britain.
Polish aircrews also flew with Bomber Command in raids over Germany and paid an exceptionally heavy price. Over 900 aircrew of Bomber Command were killed during the war.
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There were also elements of the Polish navy and merchant marine that escaped in 1939 from ports in the Baltic to the West that fought with the Royal Navy. Polish ships participated in both the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck in May 1941, and in the D-Day landings in Normandy in June 1944. There were also Polish ships involved in every major operation of the war, including Operations Jubilee, (the raid on Dieppe in August 1942); Torch (the invasion of Vichy French North Africa in November 1942); Husky (the invasion of Sicily in July 1943); Baytown (the invasion of Calabria in September 1943); Avalanche (the Salerno landings later that month), and Shingle (the Anzio landings in January 1944).
Once formed, the exile Polish Army also fought valiantly. But, that is a tale to be continued next month. And, oh, yes, there’s also that letter I mentioned at the beginning of this article.
1. Stephen Bungay, The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain (London: Aurum Press, 2001), p. 173.
2. Sholto Douglas (Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Douglas of Kirtleside), Combat and Command: The Story of an Airmen in two World Wars (New York, 1966), pp. 496-8.