Island of Last Hope

With the defeat of France in June 1940, large numbers of Polish, Czechoslovakian, Norwegian, Dutch, Danish, Belgian and French airmen escaped to the United Kingdom to continue the fight to liberate their countries from German occupation.

The Poles, who had been driven from their homeland in 1939 only to be forced to flee again, called Britain ‘the island of last hope’.

Most of these refugees spoke little or no English and they came from countries with very different cultures and traditions to those of their new hosts. Despite this, the British respected the exiles’ courage and fighting skill and rose to the challenge of integrating them into the RAF.

Accordingly, lessons in English were provided and ‘national’ squadrons were formed. Promotion was offered to the most able, irrespective of their country of origin, and the Allied governments-in-exile were given a degree of control over their airmen. The newcomers responded well to this open-minded approach and they quickly demonstrated their fighting qualities.

During the Battle of Britain the most successful unit was No. 303 (Polish) Squadron, and the top scoring fighter pilot was Sergeant Josef Frantisek; a Czech national who also flew with that Squadron.

Throughout the war exiled personnel served with distinction in all operational Commands and in all theatres.

By the end of the fighting in Europe in May 1945 there were some 29,800 Allied and neutral personnel serving in or with the RAF; including numbers of Greeks and Yugoslavs and over 14,000 Poles. By this time the Polish, French and Norwegian contingents had achieved independent status.

Most of the exiles returned to their homelands as liberators; however the Poles, and later the Czechs, watched helplessly as their countries were taken over by the Communists. As those that went back risked death or imprisonment, a majority chose to remain in Britain. Some began new lives in Commonwealth countries or in the United States.