It was all over in just 36 days. Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland, backed by the Soviet Union, was the first success of Hitler’s Blitzkrieg and effectively erased Poland from the map of Europe. Polish soldiers, however, never gave up the fight. Some of them fled the country to fight elsewhere. This is how the legend of Squadron 303 was born.
Pilots of the Squadron 303, 1941, England. Scroll over the image to find out who is who.
It was all over in just 36 days. Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland, backed by the Soviet Union, was the first success of Hitler’s Blitzkrieg (lightning war) and effectively erased Poland from the map of Europe. Polish soldiers, however, never gave up the fight. Some of them fled the country to fight elsewhere alongside the Allied forces. This is how the legend of Squadron 303 was born.
After the Polish army was forced to sign the capitulation act on 6th October 1939, they fled via Romania to France and from there, when France surrendered to the Nazi invasion, to Great Britain. They were allowed to join the RAF (Royal Air Force) to fight under British command but as Polish soldiers on behalf of the Polish government-in-exile. The idea was simple: let’s defeat Hitler by any means necessary and then reclaim our country. Unfortunately it turned out that this goal wouldn't be so simple to achieve…
Soon it turned out that almost none of the Polish pilots spoke any English, which became an ineffaceable barrier, stopping them from being immediately thrown into the fight against the Germans, as desired. Instead, they were sent to English classes and on training flights, learning to fly the British way and communicate via the radio. Meanwhile, the Poles were desperate to fight, eager to take revenge on the Nazi German armies that had destroyed Poland and forced them away from their homes. Moreover, the Battle of Britain started soon and it was immediately revealed that the RAF’s resources were drastically insufficient. By the middle of 1940 Britain had lost half of its front-line pilots and was losing the battle bit by bit. Still, the Polish pilots, much more experienced than some of the hastily schooled youths in the air, were not allowed to take part in real war.
There were chaps, 18-year-olds, who had flown 15 hours and they were thrown into the battle. A lot of them never came back from their maiden flight.
Franciszek Kornicki, 303 Squadron pilot
On August 30th, during another training flight, Flying Officer Ludwik Paszkiewicz noticed a Luftwaffe aircraft. Because the British squadron leader Ronald Kellett failed to respond, Paszkiewicz decided to take matters into his own hands, attacked and brought down the enemy.
Paszkiewicz was given a public dressing down in front of the other Polish pilots by Squadron Leader Kellett for leaving the formation without permission. After this, Kellett privately congratulated him and announced that the squadron was now fully operational.
Chris Trueman, ‘Polish Pilots in the Battle of Britain’
High Flying Poles
The statistics of the RAF forces are not unambiguous but with no doubt Squadron 303 was the most efficient and lethal weapon of the Battle of Britain. It was scrambled to the battle almost three times a day and claimed the largest number of aircraft destroyed of the 66 Allied fighter squadrons engaged in the Battle of Britain, even though it joined the fray two months after the battle had begun. F/O Jan Zumbach and Josef František (Czechs fighting in squadron 303) became widely known and celebrated aces of the RAF and were allowed to leave formations and fight independently – the highest of privileges. The squadron was very successful defending London from bombings as well as repelling air attacks against the seaports of south-eastern England, and definitely contributed to the turnaround in the Battle of Britain and the final victory of the Allied forces. Their wild and fierce style of dogfighting has become a legend and is still taught in the Polish and Royal Air Forces today.
Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.
Winston Churchill about RAF British and foreign pilots
No Happy Ending
The Battle of Britain was won. Eventually, World War II was won, and the exhausted Allied forces were reluctant to continue fighting. During the Yalta conference Winston Churchill, who greatly admired the Polish RAF pilots, signed the treaty that dropped the Iron Curtain. Poland was reinstated as a satellite communist country and those who fought for the free Poland alongside the Allied forces were now treated in their homeland as traitors or at least highly suspicious renegades. Polish soldiers were not even invited to participate in the London victory parade because they were soldiers of the Polish government-in-exile, unacknowledged by Soviet Russia. Soon the Polish hero pilots were turned into unwanted emigrants, unsuccessfully competing for jobs with British people, unwanted in the UK and with no possibility of returning and no future in Poland.
Consolation came no sooner than 1989, when Poland finally got rid of communism and Soviet-Russian supervision over its affairs. All of the pilots were given the highest military honours and medals of state recognition. Arkady Fiedler’s book about Squadron 303 gained a mandatory and much loved position in the reading lists of schools.
This year, two celebrated Polish directors, Łukasz Palkowski and Władysław Pasikowski, are independently preparing to make films telling the story of Polish pilots fighting in the Battle of Britain. Given the success of their recent films such as Gods, the story of Squadron 303 should hit international headlines again next year.
Author: Wojciech Oleksiak, 17th March 2015. Sources: www.historynet.com, Chris Trueman - ‘Polish Pilots in the Battle of Britain’, www.channel4com ‘Bloody foreigners. Untold Battle of Britain’, polish airforce.pl, www.thenews.pl.