Polish No. 303 Squadron and the Hurricane 80K
While the evacuation of Dunkirk continued under increasing pressure of the Nazi German forces, it was not only British troops which arrived at the harbour. There were also French, Belgian and Polish troops. Only half a year before, the Poles had fought the Nazi invasion before escaping via neutral Romania. From there, most made their way to France to continue the fight. Once there, their superior training and that most precious commodity – combat experience – stood them in good stead. The Polish Army in France numbered 82,000 men from Poland or émigré families. The Polish Air Force in France had 86 aircraft fully operational, although most were second-rate aircraft disdained by the French. During the Battle of France, Polish pilots destroyed 56 German aircraft.
By this time they had undergone a process of ‘natural selection’. In other words, those that had experienced Blitzkrieg twice – and survived – clearly had a lot going for them. For the Poles, who had been driven from their homeland in 1939, only to be forced to flee again, Britain was now the ‘Island of Last Hope.’
However, the RAF authorities had doubts about the value of the Polish crew. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, commander of Fighter Command, refused to allow them to serve in RAF squadrons for fear they’d instil a defeatist mentality in the British airmen. Instead, national squadrons would be formed. The first were No. 300 and No. 301 bomber squadrons and No. 302 and No. 303 fighter squadrons.
The Polish veterans knew they were good. Often older than their RAF comrades, nearly all were fully-trained and each had an average of 500 hours flying. They brought to this country valuable ‘corporate knowledge’ of the business of air fighting, and with it, the British thought, a touch of arrogance.
On 30 August 1940, No. 303 Squadron was on a training flight near Northolt, led by Squadron Leader Ronald Kellett, when Pilot Officer Ludwick ‘Paszko’ Paszkiewicz spotted an enemy formation being attacked by Hurricanes. Paszkiewicz called out to Kellet but, receiving no reply, he broke formation and promptly shot down a Messerschmitt 110. On landing, the Pole was reprimanded by Kellett for his indiscipline and then congratulated for his success. That evening Paszkiewicz, deeply religious and a teetotaller, got drunk for the first time in his life. The following day, 303 Squadron was declared operational.
At the end of the 16-week campaign, the top-scoring Fighter Command unit was No. 303 Squadron, which in only 42 days claimed 126 enemy aircraft destroyed. One of the most successful individual pilots – with 17 victories – was Sergeant Josef Frantisek, a Czech who also flew with ‘303’.
Trained to get in close, Polish airmen made the most of their eight .303in machine guns; and all of the Hurricanes on No. 303 Squadron had their guns harmonised to converge at 200 yards rather than the standard RAF spread of 400 yards. However, they were not reckless. This is borne out by the fact that during the Battle No. 302 and No. 303 Squadrons each lost only eight pilots, a figure much lower than that of most RAF units.
Pilot Officer Miroslaw Feric, a pilot on No. 303 Squadron and standing on the left in the image below, described the experience of shooting down a Messerschmitt Bf 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 bastard he got you.’
The RAF was quick to recognise the calibre of the men serving with them and it should be congratulated for allowing the Polish and Czechoslovakian pilots their head. The Slavs in turn appreciated the RAF, which, according to veterans, was efficient, fair and understanding of their needs. The Air Force was also truly meritocratic and it is enough to say that it encouraged the best and the brightest of two principled, courageous and resourceful nations to participate fully in the successful defence of Britain’s airspace.
The statistics make interesting reading. The 146 Polish pilots, some 5% of Fighter Command’s strength, claimed 203 enemy aircraft for the loss of 29 of their number killed. This represents 7.5% of Fighter Command’s total score or 1.4 enemy aircraft for every Pole engaged. On the 15th of September, now celebrated as ‘Battle of Britain Day’, one in five of the pilots in action was Polish.
Dowding admitted he was wrong about the Poles, and would 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’.
It was not only in the air that the Poles excelled, for the ground personnel of ‘302’ and ‘303’ were the pick of the Polish Air Force. Their skill, dedication and capacity for hard work made for high rates of serviceability on the two Squadrons. The ground crews’ finest hour came after the fighting of 15 September, when No. 303 Squadron’s Flying Officer Wiorkiewicz’s team managed overnight to restore nine apparently ‘un-repairable’ Hurricanes for the next day’s operations.
Polish ground crew was not all-male. Many Polish women served with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). The Polish women played an important role within the Polish squadrons. The first recruit was Helena Paszkiewicz who completed her training by October 1941. Polish WAAF’s worked alongside mechanics and armourers. In all some 45 trades including domestic, clerical, medical and technical were covered by the trained Polish personnel. Nicknamed the ‘Waafki’, the Polish WAAFs were allowed to wear Polish Air Force cap badges and insignia to distinguish them from their British counterparts. Approximately 1,426 women served in the Waafki.
In honour of all those who served 80 years ago, we are organising our Hurricane 80K Challenge in which we are challenging you to walk, run, jog, swim or bike 80K in 80 days. More than 4,000 people have already signed up. Lisa shared with us ‘Today as part of my 80K challenge I ran 20K around East Sussex. This beautiful memorial was for “Warrant Officer Stanislaw Jozefiak” who served in the war (1940-1946) in the Polish Air Force. It totally made me reflect on how lucky we all are because of brave service men and women’.
The Hurricane 80K Challenge was created to inspire you all with the Battle of Britain story. But it has taken on a new meaning to many of us during this difficult time.