Polish Airmen

The Battle of Britain is often presented as the time when Britain stood alone against the enemy. But on the 15th of September, ‘Battle of Britain Day’, one in five of all pilots in the air defending Britain was Polish.

While most of Europe had been conquered and occupied, Poland alone never formally surrendered. The Polish Air Force escaped through Rumania to France, and after the fall of France, they escaped again to Britain: for them,‘The Island of the Last Hope’.

By June 1940 some 6,000 members of the Polish Air Force had reached Britain, pilots, ground crew, and administrative staff. They had come here to fight under the traditional Polish motto ‘Za Wolnosc Wasza i Nasza’ – ‘For Your Freedom and Ours.’

Before they could be deployed operationally, Polish airmen first needed to learn enough English to be able to follow instructions from Ground Control. Having already fought in Poland and in France, this was a very frustrating period for pilots who had already amassed so much combat experience.

On 15th August 302 Polish Squadron, City of Poznan, was declared operational at RAF Leconfield in 12 Group, and on 31st August 303 Polish Squadon ‘Kosciuszko’ was declared operational at RAF Northolt in 11 Group. In addition a larger number of other pilots served in existing RAF Squadrons, bringing the total number of Polish pilots who took part in the Battle of Britain to 145. They constituted the largest national group after the British, and were followed by New Zealand, Canadian and Czech pilots, and those of other occupied countries and the British Empire.

303 Squadron alone had an extraordinary impact on the Battle. Although operational for only six weeks out of the sixteen that are regarded as the Battle period, 303 became the highest scoring Squadron of any that took part in the Battle with 126 confirmed victories. Among the pilots of 303 was Sgt Josef František, a Czech who had flown with the Polish Air Force since the occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939; he became the highest scoring pilot of the Battle with 17 confirmed victories before he was killed.

The achievements of the ground crews were equally exceptional. By the end of the fighting on 15th September, all the surviving Hurricanes of 303 Squadron were judged to have levels of battle damage that could only be repaired by return to the factories. But overnight the ground crews managed to repair everything in the hangars, and by next morning all aircraft were restored to operational capability.

In total, 145 pilots of the Polish Air Force accounted for over 200 or around 7.5% of all enemy aircraft credited as destroyed in the Battle; 29 pilots were killed during that period.

Overall, the judgement on the contribution of the Polish Air Force is best left to those who bore the highest responsibility. Sir Archibald Sinclair, Secretary of State for the Air Force said:

“Our shortage of trained pilots would have made it impossible to man the squadrons which were required to defeat the German air force and so win the Battle of Britain if the gallant airmen of Poland had not leaped into the breach.”

And yet more tellingly, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding said:

“Had it not been for the magnificent material contributed by the Polish Squadrons and their unsurpassed gallantry, I hesitate to say the outcome of the Battle would have been the same.”