Poles and Czechoslovaks in the Battle of Britain
After the Fall of France, in June 1940, thousands of airmen from occupied Europe escaped to the United Kingdom to continue the fight against Hitler’s Germany. The largest contingents came from the east, and by August that year, there were some 8,400 Polish and 900 Czechoslovak personnel stationed here. For the Poles, who had been driven from their homeland in 1939, only to be forced to flee again, Britain was the ‘Island of Last Hope.’
Prime Minister Winston Churchill was happy for the continental airmen to join the Royal Air Force. He sought to show the world, and especially the neutral United States, that Britain and her Allies were committed to continuing, and winning, the war. He also knew that after suffering heavy losses in the Battle of France, the RAF was short of trained pilots and needed all the help it could get. For reasons of national prestige, the governments-in-exile established in London were also keen for their airmen to see action. This was all very well, but few of the Poles or Czechoslovaks spoke any English, and they came from countries with cultures, customs and traditions very different to those of their new hosts.
The first Polish airmen had arrived in Britain in December 1939. They were enlisted in the RAF Volunteer Reserve and took an oath of allegiance to the King. This was later amended under the terms of the Allied Forces Act of August 1940, which afforded the Polish Air Force independent status and allowed its personnel to swear loyalty to their homeland. In practice, the Poles remained fully integrated within the structure of the RAF with regard to operational control and in matters of organisation, training and discipline. The Czechoslovaks also joined the RAFVR, and there they stayed, principally because their small numbers necessitated the support of RAF ground crews.
The Slavs knew next to nothing about the British. One Czech pilot had read that they:
‘…. wore bowler hats and striped trousers, carried brief-cases and took no notice of anyone unless they were ill-treating a dog.’
While a Polish flyer was under the impression that:
<‘…the typical Englishman [differed] little in temperament from a fish.’
Pilot Officer Wladyslaw Nowak was invited to a lavish party, complete with orchestra, only to be asked by his well-meaning hostess if ‘Polish people lived in houses.’ Amused, he and a friend borrowed two violins and established their cultural credentials by playing a Brahms duet. It should be said that Nowak’s country had not enjoyed a good press in Britain before the war, being presented as a prickly, militaristic state determined to preserve its independence at any cost. Now, however, British propaganda sentimentalised the Poles, portraying them as romantic cavaliers who lived only to fly and fight.
The Czechoslovaks, for their part, had been memorably dismissed by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain as a people ‘in a far-away country…of whom we know nothing’; but while there may have been residual guilt in Britain at having let them down at Munich, in Whitehall, Czech refugees were viewed as politically suspect.
In fairness, the exiles presented very real political, social and administrative problems at a time of grave national peril. At all levels, the language barrier had a profound effect on interaction between the East Europeans and their RAF comrades; and it raised doubts about the wisdom of attempting to integrate them into Fighter Command’s complex system of command and control. The authority of Polish and Czechoslovak leaders, both civil and military, had been compromised by defeat, and it was by no means certain that they commanded the loyalty of their men. Furthermore, the presence in Slav units of communists and fascists was a disruptive element alarming to the British with their traditional mistrust of politicised fighting forces. Worse, although the exiles had been screened by British Intelligence, at least one Gestapo agent, the Czech Augustin Preucil, managed to infiltrate Fighter Command and there may well have been others. It is perhaps understandable in this context that neither the Poles nor Czechoslovaks were initially entrusted with detailed information about the workings of radar.
There were other issues to address. Conflict between the relatively relaxed discipline of the RAF and the disciplinary codes of the exiles surfaced; and on one occasion RAF officers were forced to intervene to prevent the execution by firing squad of a Czech pilot whose ‘crime’ had been to damage his Hurricane in a clumsy landing. Meanwhile, a full-blown fire-fight flared at Northolt between Polish airmen and a detachment of the Irish Guards in which, by some miracle, no one was killed. While this and other episodes were smoothed over by the RAF, they seemed to confirm the stereotype of the Slavs as difficult and a little wild.
The greatest cause for concern, however, was the morale of the Poles and Czechoslovaks; many of whom had been twice defeated by the Luftwaffe. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, the head of Fighter Command, had misgivings about employing them as he doubted their commitment and feared their presence in RAF squadrons would damage the morale of his men. Indeed, he appears to have envisaged the creation of Polish and Czechoslovak national squadrons as a ‘cordon sanitaire’ to isolate the contagion of defeatism he suspected they carried. It is worthy of note that he had no objection to exiles from Western Europe joining his squadrons.
On coming to Britain, Czech airman, Pilot Officer Tomas Vybiral, recorded his immediate impressions:
‘8th August 1940, arrived in England: this is the only…country that really wants to fight. Cannot compare with what has happened in France. The RAF is the best air force ever organised.’
Pilot Officer Stanislav Fejfar, another young Czech, agreed, writing in his diary:
‘We arrive at RAF Cosford, the buildings and organisation are perfect…I am impressed by the…RAF, these people are business-minded.’
He added: ‘I just want to get on with it and get into a British fighter cockpit.’
Fejfar’s last comment typifies the frustration so many Polish and Czechoslovak airmen felt at being, as they saw it, side-lined into attending language classes and studying King’s Regulations, when they were both ready and willing to fight.
Despite Dowding’s reservations, the shortage of trained fighter pilots eventually forced him to accept the introduction of Slav airmen into British squadrons. A total of 145 Poles fought in the Battle of Britain, nearly 100 of whom served with the RAF. They were joined by 88 Czechoslovaks, roughly half serving in British units. Four national fighter squadrons – Nos. 310 and 312 (Czechoslovak) and Nos. 302 and 303 (Polish) – were quickly formed and equipped with Hurricanes. Each was led by an RAF officer and RAF flight commanders with Polish or Czechoslovak understudies. One such flight commander, Canadian Flight Lieutenant John Kent, described his disappointment at being posted to No. 303 Squadron.
‘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.’
He was to be pleasantly surprised as the Slavs set about the task of defending Britain’s airspace with courage, skill and a will to win.
The first Polish victory came on 19 July 1940 when Pilot Officer Antoni Ostowicz of No. 145 Squadron shared in the destruction of a Heinkel He 111. Sadly, on 11 August, he became the first of his countrymen to be killed in the Battle. The first victory by a national unit – a Junkers Ju 88 – was achieved by No. 302 (Polish) Squadron on 20 August.
And on 24 August, Sergeant Antoni Glowacki of No. 501 Squadron despatched three Messerschmitt Me 109s and two Ju 88s, in three sorties, becoming ‘an ace in a day.’ The Royal Air Force Museum is privileged to hold his flying log book in its Archive.
Flight Lieutenant Gordon Sinclair, a flight commander with No. 310 Squadron, later described his men in battle:
‘The Czechs were totally disciplined. They did what was expected of them, though not necessarily what they were told to do, because they knew…instinctively what they were supposed to do.’
The story of No. 303 Squadron’s baptism of fire is probably familiar. On 30 August the Squadron was on a routine training flight near RAF Northolt, led by Squadron Leader Ronald Kellett, when Pilot Officer Ludwick Paszkiewicz spotted a formation of enemy aircraft being attacked by Hurricanes. Paszkiewicz alerted Kellet’s attention to the fight but, on receiving no reply, he broke formation and promptly shot down a Messerschmitt Me 110. When they landed, the Pole was reprimanded for his indiscipline and then congratulated on his success. That evening, Paszkiewicz, deeply religious and a teetotaller, got drunk for the first time in his life. The following day, No. 303 Squadron was declared operational.
With 17 confirmed victories, Sergeant Josef Frantisek, also of ‘303’, was one of Fighter Command’s most successful pilots. Frantisek was a Czech who refused to observe air discipline and so was allowed to fly as a ‘guest’ of the Squadron. This extraordinary airman would fight what was, in effect, a private war against the Germans until his death in a flying accident on 8 October 1940.
Whether serving in RAF squadrons or in their national units, the East European airmen flew and fought superbly. They loved their high-performance Hurricanes and Spitfires and they relished meeting the enemy on equal terms. Miroslaw Feric, another 303 Squadron pilot, described the experience of shooting down an Me 109:
‘I caught up with him easily, he grew in my sights… it was time for firing. I did it quite calmly and I was not even excited, rather puzzled and surprised to see that it was so easy, quite different from Poland when you had to scrape and try until you were in a sweat, and then, instead of you getting the enemy he got you.’
The Poles and Czechoslovaks reinforced the squadrons of Fighter Command in the crucial five weeks between 24 August and 30 September when the shortage of pilots had become critical, and it appeared that the RAF might well lose the Battle. The statistics make interesting reading. The 145 Polish pilots, representing some five percent of Fighter Command’s overall strength, claimed 203 German aircraft for the loss of 29 of their number killed. This amounts to 15 percent of the Command’s total score or 1.4 enemy aircraft for every Pole engaged. Nearly three-quarters of the Polish pilots served in 11 Group, and, at the height of the Battle, they constituted 10 percent of the Group’s total strength. On 15 September 1940, now celebrated as ‘Battle of Britain Day’, one in five of the pilots in action was Polish. The Poles were ably assisted by Czechoslovak pilots serving in British units and in No. 310 Squadron based at Duxford in 12 Group; the Czechs being credited with destroying 59 enemy aircraft.
When they heard how well the exiles were fighting, the delighted British were generous with their praise. The King visited ‘303’ at Northolt and signed their Squadron chronicle (it was an unofficial diary so, technically, His Majesty was in breach of King’s Regulations); in Cabinet it was said that:
‘the morale of the Polish pilots is excellent and their bravery much above the average’;
and the British ground crews of 310 Squadron took to wearing Czech buttons on their tunics. Air Chief Marshal Dowding admitted he was wrong about the Poles, and would later write:
‘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 the battle would have been the same.’
Over the summer, the people of Britain took the East Europeans to their hearts, and young British women competed for the honour of dating a dashing Czech or Polish ‘fighter boy’. Indeed, such was the appeal of the Poles, British airmen acquired ‘POLAND’ shoulder flashes and spoke in broken English in the hope of improving their chances.
After an uncertain start, the RAF had trusted the exiles and they had repaid that trust with interest. More Polish squadrons were formed, and by VE Day, there were 15 PAF fighter, bomber, coastal and special duties units served by a force of 14,000 men and women. A total of 2,408 Poles were killed and they are commemorated on the Polish War Memorial at RAF Northolt.
Due to recruiting difficulties, the Czechoslovak contingent remained small, with only four squadrons, but the quality of the men engaged might be summed up by the motto of No. 312 Squadron: ‘Not Many but Much.’ Czechoslovaks served with distinction in all commands and out of 2,500 flying personnel, 511 were killed.
Sadly, whereas the airmen from Western Europe returned to their homelands as liberators, the Poles, and later the Czechoslovaks, watched helplessly as their countries were taken over by the communists. As those that returned home risked death or imprisonment, most opted to remain in Britain or to begin new lives abroad. A few hundred of the Slavs were readmitted to the peacetime RAF where some, such as such as Air Vice-Marshal Alec Maisner, a Pole, continued to serve into the 1970s.
The contribution of the Polish and Czechoslovak airmen to victory in the Battle of Britain was disproportionate to their numbers. What made them so good? Three main factors may be identified: their training; their experience; and their motivation. Though small and poorly-equipped, the pre-war Polish Air Force boasted some of the best trained pilots in the world. Entry into the Air Force Academy at Deblin was extremely competitive, and cadets underwent a rigorous medical examination which eliminated all but the very best. Training was demanding for the cadets and conditions austere: it toughened them up physically and mentally. As one pilot later wrote, ‘Those four years gave me a lifetime’s armour plating.’
The gunnery of PAF fighter pilots was exceptional and, for maximum effect, they were trained to fly very close to the enemy before opening fire. Pilots also practiced flying straight at one another, only breaking at the last possible moment, as a way of gauging distance and developing nerve. Though traditionally individualistic, the Poles placed emphasis on team fighting, and on the importance of going to the aid of a comrade in danger. Incidentally, Sergeant Frantisek’s notorious lack of discipline was not appreciated by his comrades, who only hit on the solution of letting him fly as a guest of ‘303’ as an option to having him posted off the Squadron altogether.
Pilots were above all trained to use their eyes, and in combat, the Poles’ extraordinary vision usually made them the first to see the enemy and the first to respond. A pilot explained the phenomenon:
‘The British have efficient radio telephony. We had not. Therefore, we had to make eyes do the work of ears.’
The pre-war Czechoslovak Air Force was also highly selective, and in 1933, only 22 cadets from the military academy at Hranice progressed to advanced aircrew training. The syllabus at the Central Flying School at Prostejov was divided equally between aviation theory, flying training and athletics, and discipline was stern. Those that stayed the exacting year-long course found themselves posted to the highly motivated, and relatively competitive, Czechoslovak Air Force. By the time of the Munich Crisis of September 1938, the CzAF comprised six regional Air Regiments and was equipped with more than 1,500 aircraft, 800 of which were front-line types. With the German occupation, in March 1939, the CzAF was disbanded, but 470 airmen escaped to France and were temporarily enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. A further 93 airmen, including Sergeant Frantisek, were accepted into the ranks of the Polish Air Force.
With the outbreak of war, on 1 September 1939, the Polish Air Force’s 300 mostly obsolete aircraft were opposed by the German Luftwaffe equipped with over 1,300 modern fighters and bombers. The PAF’s squadrons were not, however, destroyed on the ground in the first days of the campaign, as is often thought, but had been intelligently dispersed to forward airfields located around the country. The Polish pilots fought well, and in the brief campaign managed to shoot down 126 enemy machines for the loss of 114 of their own.
Following the Soviet invasion and German victory, most of the airmen left Poland and were interned in camps in Rumania, Hungary and elsewhere before escaping to France to continue the war. Once there, their superior training and that most precious commodity – combat experience – stood them in good stead. Although only engaged in the latter part of the Battle of France, Polish pilots destroyed 56 German aircraft.
The Czechoslovak airmen were allowed to leave the Foreign Legion to join the French Air Force. They acquitted themselves well in the Battle of France, claiming 100 enemy aircraft for the loss of 18 killed. A fair few of these were shared victories, however. Some of the Czechoslovaks serving with the Polish Air Force, such as Josef Frantisek, also saw action in 1939.
By the time they reached this country, the Slav pilots had undergone what has been characterised as a process of ‘natural selection.’ In other words, those that had experienced Blitzkrieg twice – and survived – clearly had something going for them. Of course, flying with the RAF was very different to anything they had experienced hitherto, and their poor English impeded their progress. In addition, the novelty of Imperial, rather than metric measurements, and aircraft with retractable undercarriages, caused a number of minor accidents. Nevertheless, in spite of these problems, the word coming out of the Operational Training Units in July 1940, was that the Slavs were very good, and that they were flying their Spitfires and Hurricanes to the limit.
The exiles knew they were good, and they were, moreover, highly critical of the RAF’s outmoded battle formations and tactics. Rather than adopting the inflexible parade ground ‘Vic’, they had learned to fly in more open formations. Their tactics were also more versatile – and more deadly – than the RAF’s clumsy Fighting Area Attacks. Trained to get in close, the Poles made the most of their eight rifle-calibre machine guns. All of the Hurricanes on 303 Squadron had their guns harmonised to converge at 200 yards, rather than the standard RAF 400 yards spread, or the 250 yards favoured by more experienced British pilots.
However, while the Poles and Czechoslovaks fought with aggression, they were far from the suicidal cavaliers of legend. They had both the confidence, and the ability, to take calculated risks, but they were not reckless. Indeed, ‘302’ and ‘303’ each lost only eight pilots in the campaign, a casualty figure much lower than that of most other squadrons. The Czechoslovaks, for their part, suffered only nine pilots killed.
Polish ground personnel were also highly skilled and their dedication, efficiency and capacity for hard work made for high rates of serviceability on the two national Squadrons. The ground crews’ ‘finest hour’ came after the fighting on 15 September, when 303 Squadron’s Flying Officer Wiorkiewicz, and his team, managed overnight to restore nine apparently un-repairable Hurricanes for the next day’s operations.
As for motivation, the contribution of the Polish and Czechoslovak airmen must be seen against the backdrop of the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe and its attendant horrors. The exiles received enough information from their homelands to know that those they loved lived under constant threat of arrest, deportation and execution. To protect people at home, the airmen used assumed names or covered their faces when posing for photographs.
Hitler’s plan was for Poland to be wiped from the map and its people to act as slaves until their eventual elimination as a race in about 1975. Some statistics: Poland lost 6.5 million souls, the highest proportion of any of the combatant nations. Warsaw alone, suffered 700,000 dead, more than the death tolls of the UK and USA combined. Overall, the country is estimated to have lost 38 per cent of its national assets. Britain, in comparison, lost 0.8 per cent and France 1.5 per cent. After the war, a Polish writer commented:
‘The Germans worked long and hard to impart to the Poles an emotion largely alien to their character – hate. They succeeded in the end.’
Czechoslovakia suffered less in comparison, but in excess of 350,000 people were killed by the Germans – most infamously the entire populations of the villages of Lidice and Lezaky. Nazi Germany’s long-term aim was to deport and murder most of the Czech population.
Hate drove some of the Slavs to shoot enemy airmen in their parachutes: a habit they had learned from the Germans in 1939. On 31 August, Squadron Leader Alexander Hess of 310 Squadron attacked a Dornier which crash-landed near Epping Forest. He had recently received the news that his wife and daughter in Czechoslovakia had been killed, so he followed it down, determined to finish off the crew. Three Germans emerged from the wreckage who, on seeing him, held up their hands. He told a comrade:
‘I hesitate, then it was too late, so I go around again to make sure I kill them – they wave something white – again I do not shoot – then I think it is no use – I am become too bloody British!’
Many of the Slavs found comfort and strength in religion; and for all the pain and suffering they had experienced, few doubted that God was on their side. On 27 September, Ludwick Paszkiewicz was killed. His friend, Pilot Officer Jan Zumbach, ordinarily a cynic with a sharp wit, wrote:
‘He gave his life high up there, somewhere, where earthly matters are so distant, the rays of the sun so pure, and God so close.’
On 2 September 1940, No. 303 Squadron was involved in a combat near Dover in which one pilot, Sergeant Jan Rogowski, demonstrated the qualities that set the Eastern European airmen apart. According to the Combat Report, now held in the Archive of the RAF Museum, the Squadron was patrolling at 19,000 feet, when Rogowski saw a formation of nine Me 109s at 22,000 feet, diving down on them out of the sun. Instantly assessing the situation, he delivered a head-on attack, which broke and dispersed the Germans. In a fierce battle over the Channel, Rogowski and Sergeant Frantisek each shot down a Messerschmitt, Pilot Officer Henneberg probably destroyed another, and Pilot Officer Feric damaged a fourth. In doing so, Feric’s engine was disabled, and so, shutting it down, he prepared to attempt to glide back across the sea to England. Sergeant Rogowski immediately took station as his escort. Both were in turn covered by other pilots until Feric effected a forced landing at Eythorne.
Typically, it was a Pole that saw the enemy first: the RAF officers leading the Squadron are not mentioned in the report. Typically, Rogowski had the courage, the skill and the confidence to take a calculated risk, which, on this occasion, paid off handsomely. Typically, he then made the most of his advantage, shooting down a Messerschmitt himself while the others successfully engaged the enemy. And, typically, he stayed with a stricken comrade until he was sure he was safe. The Squadron’s British Intelligence Officer, Flying Officer Hadwan, was suitably impressed writing:
‘The Polish pilots showed up very well in this action, working in intelligent combination and pressing their attack right home. Sgt Rogowski deserves special commendation for his quick and courageous attack which probably saved the Squadron from what might have been a disastrous surprise.’
It would be easy to portray Jan Rogowski and his Polish and Czechoslovak comrades as supermen, but this was far from the case. They were, however, highly trained, highly experienced and highly motivated professionals on top of their game. To its credit, the RAF was quick to recognise the calibre of the men serving with them, and it should be congratulated for allowing the exiles their head. The RAF was also meritocratic, and it is perhaps enough to say that it encouraged the best and the brightest of two principled, courageous and resourceful nations to participate fully in the defence of Britain, and of what remained of European civilisation.
Let the last words be those of Johnny Kent, who, you will remember, had been reluctant to serve with the Poles. On leaving ‘303’ he added the following to the Squadron Chronicle:
‘Best wishes and all the luck in the world. To the finest Squadron in the whole world, and with profound thanks for keeping me alive and teaching me to fight…’
He appears to have meant it, for not long after he broke the nose of a British Army officer unwise enough to refuse to stand for the Polish national anthem.
‘The Forgotten Few: The Polish Air Force in the Second World War’, Adam Zamoyski (John Murray, 1995)
‘Airmen in Exile: The Allied Air Forces in the Second World War’, Alan Brown (Sutton Publishing, 2000)
‘Poles in Defence of Britain: A Day-by-Day Chronology of Polish Day and Night Fighter Pilot Operations, July 1940-June 1941’, Robert Gretzyngier (Grub Street, 2001)
‘No. 310 (Czechoslovak) Squadron, 1940-1945’, Tomaš Polák (Aero Editions International, 2006)
‘303 (Polish) Squadron Battle of Britain Diary’, Richard King (Red Kite, 2010)
‘Squadron Leader Wladyslaw Jan Nowak: Biography’ (Ed. Wojtek Matusiak, 2012)
‘Blood on Their Wingtips: A Second World War Timeline for No. 303 (Kosciuszko) Polish Squadron at RAF Northolt’, Nina Britton Boyle (BookTower Publishing, 2016)
‘One of the Few’, John Alexander Kent (The History Press, 2017)