A look at the bravery and skill of the Polish pilots with the RAF.
Facing the enemy – and the doubt of allies.
After the fall of Poland to Nazi Germany, the government in exile quickly raised a force of 75,000 soldiers in France, comprising troops who had escaped to continue the fight. Many of these soldiers were pilots. Even though they were well-trained, experienced, with some having over ten years of flying experience, and already seasoned against the Luftwaffe, they were largely ignored by the French, with only 174 getting a chance to fly when Germany invaded its western neighbor. Many of the pilots who did get to fight flew obsolete fighters but still managed to inflict losses on the Germans.
After the fall of France, some 8,000 Polish air personnel managed to escape to Britain to continue the fight. Like the French, the British were also dismissive at first. One English pilot who later flew with Poles wrote: “All I knew about the Polish Air Force was that it had only lasted about three days against the Luftwaffe, and I had no reason to suppose that they would shine any more brightly operating from England.”
Polish pilots were eager to replace the mounting British losses who fell daily during the Battle of Britain, but they had to convince the RAF of their ability first. Most of them didn’t speak a word in English and could only talk to British officers in French. They had to learn to measure distances in miles instead of kilometers and fuel in gallons instead of liters. They had to learn to push the throttle forward for full speed, rather than pulling it back like they used to do. Having flown fixed-gear planes earlier, they had to learn and remember to lower the landing gear before touching down. Veteran pilots had to ride tricycles, equipped with radio, speedometer and compass, in formation around the airfield to prove they understand basic maneuvering.
Culture shock was also something to deal with, especially the rainy weather and the food, with one Pole remarking that English cuisine “consists of making the worst dishes from the best produce on Earth.”
The Poles, however, were quick to convince the RAF and charm the general populace. Two Polish fighter squadrons and two bomber squadrons were set up, followed by more later in the war, while some airmen were placed in other, British-staffed squadrons. Once they started flying, the story of the gallant patriots quickly spread in the media and the Poles soon enjoyed free meals in restaurants, free drinks in pubs and free rides on the bus. During one mission, a Polish pilot had to bail, landing on the grounds of a tennis club – and was promptly invited to a doubles match. Another man parachuted and landed in the backyard of a London residence right at the feet of a girl whom he married two months later. Yet another was found by a lady whose husband was off to the war and who only let him return to his unit after two days of “recuperation.” Having an old-world charm with their bows, heel-clicking and flowers after the first date, the Poles became so popular with the English ladies that “I’m a Polish pilot, please have a drink with me, I’m very lonely” became a pick-up line for British airmen trying to get in on the action.
Not every Pole shot down was so lucky. One was lynched by a local mob that mistook his Polish protestations for German. Another avoided the same fate by swearing at his attackers in English, which made them realize he was on their side.
In the air, Polish pilots amazed the RAF with an aggressiveness that was first taken for a lack of discipline. Rather than maneuvering in close units and firing from 150 yards away, they would dive at the enemy and open fire at point blank range, hitting more frequently and spreading panic.
On August 30, 1944, 303 Squadron earned its wings thanks to this aggression. While out on a training mission, a pilot spotted and reported genuine enemies but his English squadron leader didn’t react to the report. Acting on his own initiative, he and another pilot broke off and shot down one of the German bombers. On his return to base, he was reprimanded for breaking discipline and then congratulated on his and the squadron’s first kill. Later that evening, his squadron leader made a call to Fighter Command, declaring “Under the circumstances, sir, I do think we might call them operational.”
Polish pilots played a critical role in the Battle of Britain. No. 303 Squadron alone scored nearly three times as many kills as the British average, with one-third of the losses. Jozef Frantisek, a Czech pilot flying with the Poles, became the highest-scoring ace of the battle with 17 kills. Another pilot became one of the three aces in a day of the battle by destroying five enemies in a single day. During the darkest days of the battle, when only about 350 pilots were ready to sortie, almost 100 of those were Polish.
Though the Polish contribution to the war was invaluable, they were quickly discarded afterwards. With Poland ending up under the Soviet Union’s control, Britain appeased Stalin by forbidding Polish pilots from participating in the victory march in London. Many Polish soldiers returned to their homeland, now a Communist dictatorship, only to be the targets of suspicion and sometimes even imprisonment due to their western connections. Many more remained exiles for the rest of their lives.