Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1939, and the country’s air force played a key role in defending their homeland. They were often outnumbered, but they still managed to fight back until the end of the Battle of Britain.
The polish squadrons remembered is a historical article about Polish airmen who fought during the Battle of Britain.
During the Battle of Britain, Polish pilots fought bravely against marauding Messerschmitts, only to have their efforts largely disregarded when Poland was incorporated into the Communist bloc at the conclusion of the war.
On the morning of August 8, 1940, a flight of young Royal Air Force pilots got into their Hawker Hurricanes as the Battle of Britain was still gaining pace. Witold Urbanowicz, a young Polish pilot who had fled his nation when the Germans and their Soviet allies overran it in September 1939, brought up the rear of the formation. Assigned to the dangerous “tail-end Charlie” position, he knew he would be the enemy’s first target if they struck, but he didn’t care. He was overjoyed at the prospect of retaliating against the Nazis.
Urbanowicz marveled how the British could keep their formation so close that their wingtips were nearly touching while yet keeping an eye out for the Luftwaffe. He had less reason to be concerned about airborne accidents since he was alone in the back, and he was the first to see a swarm of German aircraft coming from the east. Urbanowicz, speaking poor English, enthusiastically radioed a warning to the squadron commander as Messerschmitt Me-109E fighters held a defensive position over a group of bombers. The Pole examined his machine guns, gunsight, oxygen mask, and goggles with his pulse racing. He didn’t want anything to go in the way of his opportunity at vengeance.
On December 15, 1940, Air Marshall Sholto Douglas presents Squadron Leader Witold Urbanowicz with the Distinguished Flying Cross. Zdzisaw Henneberg, Jan “Donald Duck” Zumbach, and Mirosaw “Ox” Feri were also honored on that day. (Chapter 1839 of the IWM)
When he spotted four more Germans coming from the west, he assumed they were returning after a mission and, presumably, were running short on fuel and ammo. He immediately switched his attention to the four Me-109s and launched a direct assault on them. Three of them dispersed in various directions, but one got into a twisting battle with the Hurricane, and the German abruptly kicked over into a steep dive, followed by the Pole. Urbanowicz became aware that he was descending into a bigger formation of hostile aircraft while fixated on his prey. He subsequently said that seeing so many black crosses reminded him of being in a “airborne graveyard.” He persisted in his pursuit of his prey.
The German pilot pulled his aircraft westward, heading back toward land at wave-top height, but had to draw up when he approached the chalky cliffs of Dover, attempting to throw off his persistent pursuer. At that same moment, Urbanowicz opened fire from close range. The Messerschmitt burst into a raging flame, turned onto its back, and plunged into the English Channel, splattering oil and saltwater over Urbanowicz’s windscreen. The young Pole returned to his base at Tangmere, exhausted but elated after his first kill as an RAF pilot, collapsed into a cot in the dispersion tent, and promptly fell asleep.
When Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Urbanowicz was a flight instructor, and he was one of many Polish airmen shaken by the Luftwaffe planes’ vastly superior quality, which savaged the outmoded, outnumbered squadrons desperately opposing them in their elderly PZL P-11 and P-7 fighters. The Warsaw Pursuit Squadron was able to shoot down 34 Luftwaffe aircraft and damage another 29, but at the cost of 36 of its own planes. The blitzkrieg ushered in a new age of warfare, with air power as a key component, and soon all of Poland was helpless under the Nazi onslaught.
Approximately 30,000 Polish military men — about 8,500 of them were in the air force — fled France through different routes between June 18 and 24, 1940, and arrived in England, where new Prime Minister Winston Churchill told them, “We will conquer together or we shall die together.” The Polish pilots, desperate yet resolute, soon prepared to battle not only for their own defeated nation, but also for this kingdom they jokingly dubbed “Last Hope Island.” The stunning loss of France in late June had shocked the British out of their complacency, which had pervaded the nation even after Parliament’s declaration of war on Germany on September 3, 1939. Despite the apparent severity of the situation, the British regarded the weary Poles with contempt at first, trying to assign them to bomber groups. Although some Poles were hesitant to switch to bombers, the majority were adamant on filling the interceptor duty. Urbanowicz made this apparent to the RAF’s senior leadership, beginning with Fighter Command commander Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding. He and the majority of his troops were graduates of the Polish air force’s Deblin school, one of the world’s most difficult flight training institutions. All they needed to do was get used to flying on British aircraft.
The Luftwaffe mobilized to wipe the RAF from its home skies in preparation for Operation Sea Lion, the planned invasion of the British Isles, thus their training had to be rushed. The majority of the Polish pilots were sent to the newly formed No. 303 Squadron of the Royal Air Force, which was led by Squadron Leader Ronald Kellett. Kellett, who had a French mother, was particularly disturbed by France’s haphazard military reaction to Nazi invasion. “All I knew about the Polish Air Force was that it had only survived approximately three days against the Luftwaffe, and I had no reason to think it would shine much brighter operating from England,” recalled Canadian Flight Lieutenant John Kent, one of two RAF flight commanders assigned to 303 Squadron.
Kellett was particularly concerned about the Polish force being sent to protect the crucial RAF sector station at Northolt, which is just 14 miles from London. No. 302 Squadron, the second Polish unit, was sent to the less-important base at Leconfield in Yorkshire. Number 303 was one of 21 squadrons tasked with defending the city, as well as key seaports and the whole southeast of England.
Kellett, who at 31 was older than most of the soldiers who would fly against the Luftwaffe in the following months, was apprehensive about being assigned to a squad of unknown foreigners whose previous performance against the enemy had, in his opinion, been lacking. The linguistic barrier added to the animosity between Polish and British pilots. They coexisted in uncomfortable silence since they couldn’t speak out their disagreements and doubts.
Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, the top commander of Nazi Germany’s air force, declared August 13, 1940, as Adler Tag — “Eagle Day.” At that moment, the Luftwaffe launched an all-out attack on the United Kingdom. “We have arrived at a critical juncture in our air battle against Britain,” Göring said. “The elimination of the enemy’s warriors must be our primary priority.”
154 RAF pilots were killed, disabled, or went missing in action between August 8 and August 18. On the 19th, the Air Ministry reduced recruit training to two weeks (prewar training had taken six months). Cadets had 14 days to train to fly and duel in a massive three-dimensional combat arena at speeds of exceeding 300 mph. The Poles, on the other hand, had prior experience in aerial warfare.
Fighter Command was still hesitant to deploy its Polish pilots, but No. 303 Squadron was conducting exercises over Hertfordshire at 4:15 on August 30 when Flying Officer Ludwik Paszkiewicz observed a huge flight of German bombers and fighters approximately 1,000 feet above his formation. “Hullo, Apany Leader, bandits at 10 o’clock,” Paszkiewicz radioed Kellett after the Poles had learned some combat orders in English. Kellett didn’t even bother to reply. His unit had been told to train rather than battle.
Paszkiewicz, on the other hand, accelerated and raised the nose of his plane. “Paszko” joined another fighter that had hooked onto the tail of a twin-engine Messerschmitt Me-110 of the 4th Staffel, Zerstörergeschwader 76 (4/ZG.76), which was already attacking the Germans. The Hurricane pilots opened fire at the same time, causing the Me-110 to fall into a fiery death dive.
Kellett called Fighter Command headquarters that evening, while Paszkiewicz drank himself silly celebrating his first win. Given the RAF’s loss of almost 100 pilots in the previous week, Dowding agreed with Kellett when he said, “Under the circumstances sir, I do believe we could declare them operational.”
The Poles of No. 303 Squadron were among many RAF flights that flew through a huge formation of more than 200 Luftwaffe aircraft attacking the key sector station at Biggin Hill on the afternoon of August 31, the first anniversary of the Nazi invasion. Kellett and five of his troops each shot down a Messerschmitt in under 15 minutes of battle without incurring any casualties. Sir Cyril Newall, Chief of the Air Staff, called the unit that night and said, “Magnificent combat, 303 Squadron!” I’m overjoyed!”
The squadron’s A and B aircraft rushed to intercept two German formations over Kent on September 2. The Germans were on the lookout, and as the Poles fired their Hurricanes upward, ten Me-109s from the 4th Staffel, Jagdgeschwader 77 (4/JG.77), broke out in the hopes of hitting the Poles out of the sun. Sergeant Jan Rogowski, a twenty-year-old pilot, saw the falling robbers, pulled his aircraft around, and rushed straight at them, weapons blazing. Rogowski’s response dispersed the German formation while also warning his colleagues of the approaching danger.
The Germans quickly disbanded and returned to France. The Messerschmitts were pursued by Miroslaw Feric and Zdzislaw Henneberg all the way into French airspace. Feric’s aircraft was damaged, but he made it back across the Channel before crash-landing in a field close inland from the Dover cliffs.
On September 5, Göring conducted 22 different bombing sorties throughout England, targeting industries, airfields, and cities. Kellett commanded the Red Section of No. 303 Squadron against a flight nearing the Thames River shoreline in London. Kellett was the first to attack on the bombers, followed by two Polish wingmen, and all three Hurricane pilots swiftly took down aircraft. Sergeant Stanislaw Karubin then detach himself from Kellett and attach himself to the tail of an Me-109 from above. Karubin drove the Messerschmitt lower and lower with his machine guns blazing. He continued pursuing his target at treetop level until he ran out of ammunition, rushing in an apparent effort to ram the 109. On one pass, Karubin missed by a few feet, and the German fell even lower and smashed.
The squadron’s Blue Section, led by Briton Atholl Forbes, shot down three bombers and a fighter, bringing the day’s Polish total to eight aircraft, or 20% of the RAF’s overall kills for September 5. The squadron had yet to lose a single soldier, but the Nazi air assault had only barely begun.
On the morning of the 6th, the squadron joined the rest of 11 Group to intercept a large German fleet of 300 to 400 planes flying across a 20-mile-wide front, aiming for objectives all over the United Kingdom. The Poles, dazzled by the sun, flew straight into a column of bombers escorted by Me-109s, squeezing for the vital altitude advantage. The result was a massive dogfight.
Major Zdzislaw Krasnodebski, the commander of Yellow Section, had a bomber in his sights when a 109 he hadn’t seen started fire behind him. The Pole’s fuel tank was damaged by German 20mm gun rounds, pouring flaming gasoline into the cockpit. Because he was blinded by the flames, Krasnodebski was able to flip his craft over and unfasten his safety belt, tear off his oxygen mask, and yank open the canopy. He waited until he was out of the battle zone before pulling his ripcord, fearing that the Germans would shoot him as he hung powerless in his chute. He attempted to release his parachute when he was approximately 10,000 feet up, but couldn’t locate the ripcord at first. He eventually located the handle and pulled it as hard as he could.
Even after his lengthy free fall, he heard the scream of an incoming aircraft seconds after the chute split open, and thought a German was targeting him. That pilot had meant to shoot down the hanging parachutist, but it was a Hurricane piloted by Urbanowicz, who diverted off at the last minute when he saw the characteristic yellow Mae West life jacket used by RAF pilots. Urbanowicz circled the parachute the whole way down, completely oblivious to the fact that he was protecting one of his fellow Poles.
Krasnodebski landed outside Farnborough, where he was mobbed by elderly members of the local Home Guard who were armed with guns. Despite the fact that the wounded flyer spoke little English, the elderly men knew it wasn’t German he was muttering, and they called an ambulance to take him to the nearest hospital.
Polish pilots soon shown their adamant resolve to shoot down Luftwaffe aircraft at any costs. No. 303 Squadron members examine damage to a Hurricane piloted by Sgt. Josef Frantiek. The Czech pilot had brushed off an approaching Me 109, to which he responded, “He couldn’t, however, fire at me. I was dangerously near to a bomber’s tail.” (Image courtesy of HistoryNet Archives)
Kellett was also present. He reported to the hospital to be checked after being injured in a crash landing in his battle-damaged aircraft. Despite losing four aircraft and having all four pilots injured to different degrees, the Polish squadron managed to shoot down seven Luftwaffe fighters. Krasnodebski’s paralysis, though, was a sobering blow. He was the senior Polish commander and had molded the unit into a cohesive combat squad, earning the nickname “the King” from his soldiers due to his dictatorial demeanor. “In the air, he didn’t have many victories,” Urbanowicz said. “His triumph was won on the ground, in the training and nurturing of his young officers.” The British physicians anticipated he would be in the hospital for months, if not years, and that he would never fly again.
The September 7 bombing assault seemed to be typical of others that had been planned for a month, but plotters and ground observers quickly detected a difference. The air raids appeared to go on forever. The RAF, concerned, sent 11 aircraft to pursue the skyborne armada, and one somber pilot subsequently said, “I’d never seen so many.” There was nothing but German planes pouring in, wave after wave, as far as the eye could see.”
The raiders arrowed straight for London, bypassing their previously preferred targets of Biggin Hill, Manston, Kenly, and other patched-up airfields. An enraged Churchill authorized revenge attacks on Berlin and other German towns after a few previous instances in which dispersed Luftwaffe bombers lost their route and dropped their cargoes on the city. “If they assault our cities, we will simply rub out theirs!” shouted a furious Hitler.
The Nazis seemed to have the RAF on the ropes because of their massive assaults on radar sites and airfields in August and the first week of September. “If the enemy had continued in intensive assaults on [RAF facilities and communications], the whole complex structure of Fighter Command could have broken down,” Churchill later wrote. Time was critical for the RAF to recover, mend, restock, and revive itself. Hitler granted Fighter Command that reprieve by forsaking strategic attacks in favor of terror bombing. Even yet, the inhabitants of London would pay the price for the RAF’s respite for the following eight months.
The Polish squadrons never faltered in their determination, even with gaps in their ranks replaced by on-loan Canadian pilots. Nos. 302 and 303 squadrons alone shot down 14 enemy planes on September 7 and had four probables. Their propensity of rushing at German planes like a pack of raging bulls shattered formations. Survivors of the bombings frequently returned home without dropping their bombs.
Because Northolt’s station commander Stanley Vincent did not believe the Polish airmen’s claims of kills, he secretly took off in a Hurricane and followed the squadrons on a mission. He subsequently recalled being shocked by the Poles’ fury in battle as they charged into the Luftwaffe aircraft “with near-suicidal vigor” while flying at a higher height. Vincent attempted to get into the battle before all the targets were gone, noting that the sky was “full with flaming planes, parachutes, and bits of dissolving wings,” but every time he got a bead on a bomber, a hurtling Pole would cut in front of him and bag the plane himself. “My God, they’re doing it!” he muttered to his intelligence officer after arriving at Northolt.
No. 302 was now known as the Poznán Squadron, while No. 303 was renamed Kosciuszko, after Polish hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who fought against Britain during the American Revolution. After shooting down almost 40 German aircraft in a week, a new generation of brilliant Polish fighters had come to the United Kingdom’s assistance. The Poles were given a case of whiskey by Fighter Command, and notable Britons from King George VI on down expressed their heartfelt thanks.
Both German and Allied intelligence estimates of each other’s casualties were woefully wrong at the time. The number of troops and machines lost by the Luftwaffe was estimated to be about twice as high in England as it was in Germany, while the German estimate of British casualties was five times higher. Assuming that the RAF was doomed and that Hitler was eager to start Operation Sea Lion, Göring planned the most devastating assaults yet on September 15, assuming that this would be the last straw for the supposedly stricken Fighter Command.
Ground workers at RAF Northolt in London are preparing three Hawker Hurricane aircraft for yet another sortie. (Getty Images/Central Press)
On that unusually warm day, both Polish troops joined 17 RAF fighter squadrons in the skies to intercept waves of German aircraft approaching the Channel coast. “What other reserves have we?” Churchill asked Air Vice Marshal Keith Park from an underground operations center under Uxbridge as the sky above southern Britain was filled with one massive dogfight. The somber prime minister was informed, “There are none.”
The Germans returned in force three hours after the first assault. The squadrons from Poznán and Kosciuszko rushed back into the fight. Kellett led eight of his Poles in an attack on a 400-plane German formation above Gravesend. Fortunately for this small group of interceptors, another British squadron entered the brawl soon after it began. Because so many men abandoned crippled planes and the sky was clogged with parachutes, fliers (on both sides) feared that the notoriously trigger-happy senior citizens of the Home Guard would mistake them for an invading German paratroop division and “shoot us with duck shot or catch us on a halberd while we were landing,” as one Kosciuszko pilot later remarked.
The Polish pilots lost two aircraft that day, with one pilot, Sergeant Michal Brzezowski, dead, but they also shot down 16 German bomber formations, scattering them and chasing them back over the Channel with their bomb bays still full.
Seventy Poles, or almost 20% of the entire RAF fighting strength, took part in the crucial September 15 battle. The day’s combat was characterized by Churchill as “one of the most crucial engagements of the war,” since Göring had hurled practically his whole air force against the islands in an attempt to gain air dominance in advance of Hitler’s invasion. The Luftwaffe’s image of invincibility had been damaged, and the Führer postponed the assault of Britain indefinitely two days later.
A grateful King George paid a visit to the Polish air forces on September 26. The air raid sirens started to blare once again, and the pilots raced for their aircraft while His Majesty and the foreign heroes tried to converse. The squadrons, which had been vectored to Portsmouth, dove out of the sun onto an unsuspecting German flight, shooting down 11 aircraft and scoring one probable without loss. Despite the fact that the Kosciuszko Squadron was closing in on its 100th kill after an impossibly short time in action, the physical and mental strain of nearly continuous battle was starting to show.
On September 26, King George VI congratulates Witold Urbanowicz, Atholl Forbes, Ludwik Paszkiewicz (KIA the following day), and Walerian Zak (from left) shortly before they embarked on another mission. (Image courtesy of HistoryNet Archives)
Sergeant Tadeusz Andruszków and Flying Officer Ludwik Paszkiewicz — whose personal score at the time was six — were killed in a dogfight over Horsham on the 27th, while Flying Officer Walerian Zak was severely burnt. Jozef Frantisek, the top-scoring pilot of No. 303 Squadron — and the highest-scoring RAF fighter ace in the Battle of Britain, with 17 kills — was killed in a strange noncombat accident near the village of Ewell on October 8. Frantisek was the only Czech in the Kosciuszko Squadron, and his colleagues had seen that his nerves were strained. He informed a fellow pilot that the only time he wasn’t scared was when he was flying. Some speculated that he committed suicide.
The Kosciuszko Squadron was transferred to central Britain for a much-needed break at this time. These soldiers shot down 126 German aircraft in only six weeks, more than any other RAF squadron during that same period. Nine of the 34 Polish pilots had shot down five or more planes. Five of them received the Distinguished Flying Cross in December.
The Battle of Britain was officially declared over on October 31, 1940. Although Luftwaffe attacks against British targets continued throughout the next spring, the intensity of the Nazi air assault began to diminish as Hitler began planning his invasion of the Soviet Union and began relocating his air forces to the east. The RAF lost 915 aircraft in aerial action between July 10 and October 31, 1940. After losing 1,733 planes in the attempt to subdue Britain’s air force, the Luftwaffe would never fully recover. The RAF, on the other hand, would only grow stronger.
Pilots gather around the engraved tail-fin of their 178th victim, a Junkers Ju 88, on August 26, 1942. (MH 13763) (IWM MH 13763) (IWM MH 13763) (I
The 142 well-trained and combat-experienced Polish pilots may have been the decisive element in the Nazi air campaign’s demise. The few of Poles who took part in the major combat on September 26 shot down 48 percent of the German aircraft destroyed that day. “Had it not been for the superb [effort of] the Polish squadrons and their unmatched bravery, I hesitate to say that the result of the fight would have been the same,” Sir Hugh Dowding said when the Luftwaffe started to vanish from English skies.
The RAF had created five additional fighter squadrons and two bomber squadrons staffed by Polish pilots by the end of 1940. By the spring of 1941, six additional Polish fighter squadrons had been established, and Polish units were no longer required to have British commanders. Some British squadrons had Polish commanders towards the conclusion of the war.
The Poles were thankful to the British for their assistance. “England helped us sense the power and justice of our shared cause,” said Polish novelist Antoni Slonimski afterwards. We will never forget the principles and honesty that govern our wonderful nation.” Unfortunately, such principles were not extended to a free Poland free of Soviet control during the postwar division of Europe. The United Kingdom and the other Allies surrendered to Josef Stalin, and the Polish pilots’ efforts were largely forgotten. After the war, Polish pilots were not even allowed to march in the London victory parade.
Kelly Bell wrote this essay, which first appeared in the May 2007 edition of Aviation History magazine. Subscribe to Aviation History magazine now for more excellent stories!
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The polish air force ww2 records is an article about the Polish Air Force during World War II. It talks about how they fought in the Battle of Britain, and also includes some pictures.
Frequently Asked Questions
What happened to the Polish 303 Squadron?
The Polish 303 Squadron was a squadron of Polish fighter planes that were part of the Royal Air Force during World War II. It was disbanded in 1945, just after the war ended.
Which nationalities fought in the Battle of Britain?
The Battle of Britain was a battle that took place in the skies over the United Kingdom during World War II. It was fought between Germany and Great Britain from July to October 1940.
Did Polish pilots fly Spitfires?
Yes, Polish pilots did fly Spitfires during the Battle of Britain.
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