Polish Pilots in the Battle of Britain
The battle of Britain, the air engagement between the Royal Air Force and the Luftwaffe above the English Channel and the English Channel and the South-east coast of England in 1940, after the fall of France, was the first air battle, on a major scale, ever to be fought.
Upon its issue depended nothing less than the invasion of England.
The Royal Air Force, already badly depleted from the war in France and evacuation of Dunkirk, needed new and young reinforcement. After the collapse of France, some 5,500 Polish airmen arrived in Britain and the formation of the Polish bomber squadron began early in the summer of 1940.
The RAF was concentrating on the expansion of the fighter force. The Poles were keen, experienced fighters and were willing to share their acquired knowledge with the RAF to help defeat the enemy and win the war.
However, there are no roses without thorns-not everything ran smoothly. Few of the newly arrived Poles spoke English. They had to be re-trained on British equipment by the British pilots and had to have a working knowledge of air-to-air and air-to-ground radio communication.
Their willingness to fight, co-operation and enthusiasm enabled them to learn enough to make a vital contribution to the victory in the decisive battle of the Second World War, the Battle of Britain.
The pilots of the 302 Squadron had already had battle experience during the campaign in Poland, scoring 31 victories and in France, as part of GC 1/45, scoring 12 victories. The pilots of 303 Squadron were also war-hardened having scored 24 victories over Warsaw.
Two Polish fighter Squadrons, Nos. 302 and 303, commanded initially by a British office, so that at least one could speak the language, were the first to complete non-British squadrons of the allied air forces to go into action. The British c.o.’s, at first hesitant to take over their new commands, wondered why the most vital defense sectors were allocated to the Polish squadrons. Their doubts were soon dissipated by the then Air Chief Marshal, Sie Hugh Dowding’s message:
“The Polish squadrons swing into the fight with a dash of enthusiasm which is beyond praise. They were inspired by the burning hatred for the Germans, which made them very deadly opponents, the 303 Polish Squadron in No 11 group, during the course of the month, shot down more Germans than any British unit in the same period”
Even before the two Polish Squadrons were formed, some 50 Polish pilots, flying with the British units in the early phase of the Battle of Britain.
(august 8 to 18) had shot down 4% of the enemy planes accounted for by the RAF. It is a worthwhile to note that on August 24, A. Glowacki (later S/L DFC, DFM) while serving with 501 Squadron shot down five Germans in one day.
Pilots of the Polish fighter Squadrons were initiated into the combat and reported their first victories before either were declared fully operational.
No. 302, flying Hurricane destroyed its first German on August 24. No. 303, operating from Northolt, scored; its first victory on August 30; one day before it became operational.
On August 31, six Hurricanes of 303 Squadron on their first “official sortie ”, destroyed four Messerschmitt 109s and damaged two without any losses to themselves. Their achievements were amplified by the telegram received from the Chief of the Air Staff, which read: “Magnified fighting 303 Squadron.
I am delighted. The enemy is shown that Polish fighters are definitely on top.”
From August 19 to September 5,302 and 303 Squadrons, together with the Polish pilots serving, in the RAF units, accounted for 10% of all enemy aircraft shot down by the RAF. Between September 9 and October 5, when German attacks reached their climax, 13% of all enemy machines destroyed in the air combat fell to the guns of the Polish fighters.
One air victory followed another with 303 Squadron in the lead. On September 7, 12 Hurricanes from 303 Squadron attacked the formation of Dorniers bombing London docks and destroyed 14 bombers losing two of their own pilots. Polish fighters (including those in RAF units) were responsible for the destruction of 23% of the Germans shot down on that day. O September 19, Polish victories responded up to 25% of the day’s total.
On September 26, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth came to Northolt and talked to the pilots of the 303 Squadron. The Royal visit was interrupted by a “scramble” ordering the Squadron pilots to intercept 50 enemy bombers over Portsmouth. His Majesty requested that the result of the mission be telephoned to him. Before he reached Buckingham Palace, the 303 were back from the mission with the following message awaiting the King: “Eleven enemy aircraft shot down, one probable, our losses-nil”
The Polish share of that day was 48% of all enemy aircraft destroyed. Throughout the Battle of Britain, 303 Squadron, as part of Group was stationed in Leconsfield and engaged mainly in patrol work of the East Coast. Finally, with the transfer to Duxford came real success. On September 15, Squadron 302 attacked with fury a large formation of German bombers and dispersed it completely, shooting down eight and damaging five. The telegram received from Air Chief Marshal, Sir Cyril Newall read: Well done 302 Squadron. Your success yesterday was an outstanding example of fighting, which is frustrating the enemy attack. Keep it up.”
The Battle of Britain lasted from August 8 to October 30, 1940. During the period, the Polish fighters were accredited with the following achievements with the unfortunate loss of 26 of their own men.
Confirmed shot down 203 Probable shot down 35 Damaged 36 Total 274*
On this anniversary of the Battle of Britain, this article is limited to the description of the achievements of the Polish fighters during that phase of the air warfare, but this by no means was the total achievement of the Polish Air Force in Great Britain. It compromised 17 fighter and bombers squadrons from its beginning in 1940 until the end of hostilities in 1945.
About the Author
Three wartime escapes service in four air forces and 32 years an airman sums up the career of Mike Kowalski.
He began his career in 1935 at the Polish Air Force College, at the tender age of 17.
On graduation in 1938 he joined the Polish Air Force as radio operator. After the Germany attacked on 1 September 1939 the outnumbered PAF was overwhelmed. Young Kowalski was one of a number of Polish fighting men captured and interned in Hungary while trying to get to France.
There, a Polish army and air force was being reformed on Fr soil.
It took Kowalski and ten other escape from the Hungarian prison, and through arrangements with the French embassy in Budapest make their way to France.
But the malaise of the phony war meant no training program and little equipment for the Poles; the French were unprepared for their arrival. After months of relative inactivity Kowalski joined a Polish aircrew serving with a French unit, but training had hardly begun when, on June 17, 1940, France was surrendered.
Undaunted, the Polish crew attempted to steal their aircraft and escape to Britain. The French thwarted the plan, but allowed the Poles to escape through France and North Africa to Britain.
After a brief period of OUT training and acquiring come ability in the English language, Sgt. Kowalski began ops with 305 Polish Squadrons flying Wellington bombers in May 1941.
But in August 1941, night raid to Aachen their aircraft was badly damaged by an enemy fighter. Kowalski parachuted to safety in Belgium along with his co-pilot. The two had also been shot down over Poland in 1939! The underground took over, and ad 18-month tour as an instructor that he was posted to Canada to serve with the RAF’s Atlantic Transport Group at Montreal.
Because of his RAF Transport Command duties at Dorval he had come to know and love Canada. So, while some of his compatriots returned to Poland or settled in other lands after the war’s end, Mike chose Canada.
Within a month of discharge was working at Northern Electric, and he found the change to civilian life radical;” adjustment…. required much perseverance and courage.”
The transition was eased when, after receiving Canadian citizenship in September 1948, he joined 401 (RCAF Auxiliary) Squadron as a flight lieutenant in telecom.
In 1949 he transferred to the newly formed no. 1 Radar and Communications Unit and was responsible for recruitment of trainees for 2041 Aircraft and warning Squadron, then being formed.
His heavy air reserve tasks resulted in six months leave of absence from Northern Electric during installation of synthetic trainers and operations room. Weekends exercises at Pinetree chain radar base RCAF Stn. Lac St. Denis, Que. Followed, and Flt-Lt. Kowalski was the second air reserve officer in Canada to be qualified in the Fighter Control speciality.
In 1953 his former Polish air Force Squadron commander, Konstanty Bielecki, requested assistance in forming a Polish Wing as part of the RCAF Assn. Following organizational meetings with the president of Montreal’s 306 Maple Leaf Wing and RCAF Assn. National President AVM G.E. Brookes,310 Wilno Wing was formed in the autumn of 1953.
Although Flt. -Lt. Kowalski helped the new wing and arranged for meetings to be held in the 1 R&C Unit mess, his reserve activities left him no time to serve with the new wing’s executive committee.
In later years his busy activities with the RCAF Auxiliary saw him closely involved with the 401 Squadron Standard presentation in 1961, and in 1962 he was promoted squadron leader to serve as Chief Admin Officer with 1 Group headquarters of the RCAF Auxiliary. He retired in 1967.
His retirement from the Auxiliary allowed him more time for RCAF Assn. Involvement, and since then he has served in various wing, group, and national executive positions.
Named president of Quebec Group in 1972, he was selected as Eastern Regional Director in 1974v and for two years oversaw the development of RCAF Assn. Activities in Quebec and the Maritimes.
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