The Battle of Britain was still gaining momentum when a flight of young Royal Air Force pilots climbed into their Hawker Hurricanes on the morning of August 8, 1940. Bringing up the rear of the formation was a young Polish pilot, Witold Urbanowicz, who had escaped his country when the Germans and their Soviet allies overran it in September 1939. Assigned to the vulnerable “tail-end Charlie” position, he knew that if the enemy attacked he would probably be their first target, but he did not care. He was grateful beyond words for any opportunity to strike back at the Nazis.
Urbanowicz wondered how the Britons could maintain their tight formation with their wingtips almost touching and still watch for the Luftwaffe. Alone in the rear, he had less cause to worry about midair collisions, and he was first to spot a gaggle of German planes approaching from the east. Messerschmitt Me-109E fighters were holding a protective position above a formation of bombers, and Urbanowicz, speaking broken English, excitedly radioed a warning to the squadron commander. His heart pounding, the Pole checked his machine guns, gunsight, oxygen mask and goggles. He did not want anything to interfere with this chance at revenge.
When he saw four more Germans approaching from the west, he thought they were likely returning from a mission — and hopefully low on fuel and ammunition. He instantly turned toward the four Me-109s and attacked them head-on. Three scattered in different directions, but one engaged in a twisting dogfight with the Hurricane, and the German suddenly kicked over into a steep dive with the Pole following. Fixated on his quarry, Urbanowicz suddenly realized he was diving through a larger formation of enemy planes. He later said that seeing so many black crosses made him feel like he was “in an airborne cemetery.” Still he stuck with his target.
Trying to shake off his dogged pursuer, the German pilot yanked his plane westward and headed back toward land at wave-top altitude, but had to pull up when he reached the chalky cliffs of Dover. At that instant Urbanowicz opened fire from near point-blank range. The Messer-schmitt exploded into a roiling fireball, flipped onto its back and splashed into the Channel, splattering Urbanowicz’s windshield with oil and seawater. Exhausted yet exhilarated over his first kill as an RAF pilot, the young Pole headed back to his base at Tangmere, flopped onto a cot in the dispersal tent and immediately fell asleep.
Urbanowicz was a flight instructor when Nazi Germany invaded his country on September 1, 1939, and he had been one of many Polish airmen shaken by the vastly superior quality of the Luftwaffe planes that savaged the outmoded, outnumbered squadrons desperately opposing them in their elderly PZL P-11 and P-7 fighters. The Warsaw Pursuit Squadron managed to destroy 34 Luftwaffe planes and damage 29 more, but at a cost of 36 of its own planes. Soon all Poland lay defenseless beneath the Nazi assault as the blitzkrieg ushered in a new era of warfare, with air power as a major element.
Between June 18 and 24, 1940, approximately 30,000 Polish military personnel — about 8,500 of whom were in the air force — escaped France by various routes and made their way to England, where new Prime Minister Winston Churchill informed them, “We shall conquer together or we shall die together.” Desperate but determined, the Polish airmen quickly steeled themselves to fight for not only their own vanquished country but also this kingdom they were forlornly calling “Last Hope Island.”
The shocking defeat of France in late June had jolted the British from the widespread complacency that had blanketed the country even after Parliament’s September 3, 1939, declaration of war on Germany. Despite the obvious gravity of the situation, however, the Brits initially treated the haggard Polish arrivals with scorn, attempting to assign them to bomber units. Although some of the Poles reluctantly agreed to convert to bombers, most were determined to fill the interceptor role. Starting with Fighter Command leader Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Urbanowicz made this clear to the RAF’s high command. He and most of his men were graduates of the Polish air force’s academy at Deblin, one of the most demanding flight training facilities in the world. All they needed was to become accustomed to British planes.
Their training was unavoidably hurried, as the Luftwaffe mobilized to sweep the RAF from its home skies in preparation for Operation Sea Lion, the planned invasion of the British Isles. Most of the Polish pilots were assigned to the RAF’s newly created No. 303 Squadron, commanded by Squadron Leader Ronald Kellett. With a French mother, Kellett was especially distressed by that country’s feckless military response to Nazi aggression. Still, he pretty much agreed with Canadian Flight Lieutenant John Kent, one of two RAF flight commanders posted to 303 Squadron, who said, “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 it would shine any more brightly operating from England.”
Kellett was also worried about the Polish contingent being assigned to guard the vital RAF sector station at Northolt, just 14 miles from downtown London. The other Polish unit, No. 302 Squadron, was sent to the less-important base of Leconfield in Yorkshire. Number 303 was one of 21 squadrons that would defend the capital as well as the crucial seaports and all of southeastern England.
Kellett, who at 31 was older than most men who would fly against the Luftwaffe in the coming months, was unenthusiastic about being saddled with a group of unfamiliar foreigners whose past performance versus the enemy had, in his mind, left something to be desired. The tension between Polish and British pilots was compounded by the language barrier. Unable to talk out their differences and uncertainties, they coexisted in awkward silence.
The supreme commander of Nazi Germany’s air power, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, designated August 13, 1940, as Adler Tag — “Eagle Day.” At that point the Luftwaffe descended in its all-out strength on Great Britain. “We have reached the decisive point in our air war against Britain,” Göring announced. “Our first aim must be the destruction of the enemy’s fighters.”
Between August 8 and 18, 154 RAF fliers were killed, crippled or went missing in action. On the 19th the Air Ministry cut training time for recruits to two weeks (prewar training had taken six months). Cadets had 14 days to learn to fly and dogfight at speeds of over 300 mph in a gargantuan, three-dimensional battle arena. The Poles, however, were already experienced in aerial combat.
Fighter Command was still slow to use its Polish airmen, but at 4:15 on the afternoon of August 30, No. 303 Squadron was carrying out maneuvers over Hertfordshire when Flying Officer Ludwik Paszkiewicz spotted a large flight of German bombers and fighters about 1,000 feet over his formation. By this point the Poles had memorized some battle commands in English, so Paszkiewicz radioed Kellett, “Hullo, Apany Leader, bandits at 10 o’clock.” Kellett did not deign to respond. His squadron had been ordered to practice, not fight.
Paszkiewicz, however, opened his throttle and pointed his aircraft’s nose upward. The Germans were already under attack by a few Hurricanes, and “Paszko” joined another fighter that had latched onto the tail of a twin-engine Messerschmitt Me-110 of the 4th Staffel, Zerstörergeschwader 76 (4/ZG.76). The Hurricane pilots opened fire simultaneously, sending the Me-110 into a blazing death dive.
That evening, as Paszkiewicz got gloriously drunk celebrating his first victory, Kellett telephoned Fighter Command headquarters. Considering the RAF had lost almost 100 pilots during the previous week alone, Dowding did not disagree when Kellett told him, “Under the circumstances sir, I do think we might call them operational.”
On the afternoon of August 31, the eve of the first anniversary of the Nazi invasion, the Poles of No. 303 Squadron were among several RAF flights that ranged through a massive formation of more than 200 Luftwaffe aircraft targeting the pivotal sector station at Biggin Hill. During a mere 15 minutes in combat, Kellett and five of his men each shot down a Messerschmitt without suffering any losses of their own. That night Chief of the Air Staff Sir Cyril Newall rang up the squadron and gushed: “Magnificent fighting, 303 Squadron! I am delighted!”
On September 2, the squadron’s A and B flights scrambled to intercept two German formations over Kent. Still rueful at their reception in this area three days earlier, the Germans were on the watch, and when the Poles gunned their Hurricanes skyward, 10 Me-109s of the 4th Staffel, Jagdgeschwader 77 (4/JG.77), peeled off in hopes of attacking the Poles out of the sun. Twenty-year-old Sergeant Jan Rogowski spotted the plunging bandits, yanked his plane around and charged directly at them, guns blazing. Rogowski’s reaction both scattered the German formation and warned his comrades of the enemy’s approach.
The Germans soon broke off and turned back toward France. Miroslaw Feric and Zdzislaw Henneberg chased the Messerschmitts all the way into French airspace. After Feric’s plane was hit, he managed to make it back across the Channel, then crash-landed in a meadow just inland from the cliffs of Dover.
On September 5, Göring launched 22 separate missions to bomb factories, airfields and towns across England. Kellett led No. 303 Squadron’s Red Section against a flight approaching London’s Thames River waterfront. Followed by two Polish wingmen, Kellett was first to pounce on the bombers, and all three Hurricane pilots quickly knocked down planes. Sergeant Stanislaw Karubin then broke off from Kellett and fastened onto the tail of an Me-109 from slightly above. Blazing away with his machine guns, Karubin forced the Messerschmitt lower and lower. When he ran out of bullets, he kept after his quarry at treetop level, charging in an apparent attempt to ram the 109. Karubin missed by only a few feet on one pass, and the German dropped even lower and crashed.
Led by Briton Atholl Forbes, the squadron’s Blue Section shot down three bombers and a fighter, to bring the day’s Polish take to eight planes, 20 percent of the RAF’s total kills for September 5. The squadron had still not lost a single man, but the Nazi aerial invasion was just getting started.
On the morning of the 6th the squadron joined the whole of 11 Group to intercept a massive fleet of Germans, between 300 and 400 aircraft on a 20-mile-wide front, aiming for targets throughout Britain. Straining for the crucial altitude advantage, the Poles, blinded by the sun, flew directly into a formation of bombers escorted by Me-109s. A sprawling dogfight ensued.
Leading Yellow Section, Major Zdzislaw Krasnodebski fixed a bomber in his sights, but a 109 he had not noticed behind him opened fire. The German’s 20mm cannon shells hit the Pole’s fuel tank, spilling burning gasoline into the cockpit. Blinded by the fire, Krasnodebski managed to turn his craft onto its back and unfasten his safety harness, rip off his oxygen mask and yank open the canopy. He was careful not to pull his ripcord until he had dropped clear of the combat area lest the Germans shoot him as he hung helpless in his chute. When he was at about 10,000 feet, he tried to open his parachute, but at first could not find the ripcord. He finally found the handle and yanked it with all his strength.
Seconds after the chute cracked open, he heard the scream of an approaching fighter and feared a German was targeting him even after his long free fall. That pilot had indeed intended to target the dangling parachutist, but it was not a German plane; it was a Hurricane flown by Urbanowicz, who at the last moment saw the distinctive yellow Mae West life jacket worn by RAF pilots and veered off. Urbanowicz circled the parachute all the way down, not realizing he was safeguarding one of his brother Poles.
Krasnodebski landed outside Farnborough, where elderly members of the local Home Guard surrounded him and aimed their rifles. Although the injured flier spoke little English, the old men could tell it was not German he was mumbling, and they summoned an ambulance that took him to the local hospital.
Kellett was there too. After being banged up in a crash landing in his battle-crippled aircraft, he reported to the hospital to be examined. Although the Polish squadron had lost four planes, and all four pilots had been wounded to varying extents, it had shot down seven Luftwaffe planes. Still, Krasnodebski’s crippling injuries were a sobering blow. Dubbed “the King” by his men because of his imperious bearing, he was the ranking Polish officer and had molded the unit into a cohesive fighting team. “He didn’t score many victories in the air,” Urbanowicz explained. “His victory was on the ground — in the training and upbringing of the young officers in his command.” The British doctors said he would spend months if not years in the hospital and predicted he would never fly again.
The bombing attack of September 7 at first seemed typical of those that had been coming for a month, but plotters and ground observers soon noticed a difference. The air raids seemed endless. The alarmed RAF immediately sent 11 squadrons after the skyborne armada, and one sobered pilot later recounted: “I’d never seen so many. As far as you could see there was nothing but German aircraft coming in, wave after wave.”
Bypassing their previously favored targets of Biggin Hill, Manston, Kenly and other patched-up airfields, the raiders arrowed straight for London. After a few earlier incidents when scattered Luftwaffe bombers lost their way and dumped their loads on the capital, an incensed Churchill ordered retaliatory strikes on Berlin and other German cities. A raging Hitler screamed, “If they attack our cities we will simply rub out theirs!”
Because of their heavy attacks on radar installations and airfields during August and the first week in September, the Nazis seemed to have the RAF on the ropes. As Churchill later wrote, “If the enemy had persisted in heavy attacks against [RAF installations and communications] the whole intricate organization of Fighter Command might have broken down.” The RAF desperately needed time to regroup, repair, replenish and resurrect itself. By abandoning strategic strikes for terror bombing, Hitler gave Fighter Command that respite. Still, for the next eight months the people of London would pay the price for the RAF’s reprieve.
With the holes in their ranks filled by on-loan Canadian pilots, the Polish squadrons never wavered in their resolve. On September 7 alone, Nos. 302 and 303 squadrons downed 14 of the enemy and had four probables. Their habit of charging like mad bulls into German flights broke up the formations. Surviving bombers often turned for home without dropping their bombs.
Not believing the kill claims turned in by the Polish airmen, Northolt’s station commander Stanley Vincent surreptitiously took off in a Hurricane and followed the squadrons on a mission. Flying at higher altitude, he later described being stunned by the Poles’ ferocity in combat as they plunged into the Luftwaffe flight “with near-suicidal impetus.” Noting how the sky “was full of burning aircraft, parachutes and pieces of disintegrating wings,” Vincent tried to get into the dogfight before all the targets were gone, but every time he drew a bead on a bomber, a hurtling Pole would cut in front of him and bag the plane himself. After landing at Northolt, he stammered to his intelligence officer, “My God, they are doing it!”
By then, No. 302 was being called the Poznán Squadron, while No. 303 Squadron was now named Kosciuszko, in honor of Polish soldier Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who had fought against Britain in the American Revolution. Now a later generation of splendid Polish warriors had come to the aid of the United Kingdom, having shot down almost 40 German warplanes in a week. Fighter Command presented a case of whiskey to the Poles, and prominent Britons from King George VI on down sent their grateful best wishes.
At this time both German and Allied intelligence were seriously inaccurate in their estimations of each other’s losses. English estimates of the number of men and machines lost by the Luftwaffe were approximately twice the actual number, but the Germans’ approximation of British losses was five times too high. Assuming that the RAF was kaput and with Hitler anxious to launch Operation Sea Lion, Göring scheduled the heaviest attacks yet for September 15, expecting this would be the last straw for the presumably tottering Fighter Command.
Both Polish units joined 17 RAF fighter squadrons that climbed into the sky that unseasonably warm afternoon to intercept successive waves of German aircraft nearing the Channel coast. As the sky over southeastern Britain was filled by one vast dogfight, Churchill, inside an underground operations complex beneath Uxbridge, asked Air Vice Marshal Keith Park, “What other reserves have we?” “There are none,” the sobered prime minister was told.
Three hours after the first attacks, the Germans returned in force. Again the Poznán and Kosciuszko squadrons hurtled into the fray. Over Gravesend Kellett led eight of his Poles in an assault on an enemy formation estimated at 400 planes. Fortunately for this tiny group of interceptors, shortly after the melee commenced another British squadron joined the fracas. So many men abandoned crippled planes, and the sky was so crowded with parachutes, that the fliers (from both sides) drifting down feared the notoriously trigger-happy senior citizens of the Home Guard would mistake them for an invading German paratroop division and, as one Kosciuszko pilot later remarked, “shoot us with duck shot or catch us on a halberd while we were landing.”
The Polish airmen lost two planes that day, with one pilot, Sergeant Michal Brzezowski, killed, but they shot down 16 of the enemy, scattered the bomber formations and chased them back across the Channel with their bomb bays still full.
Seventy Poles, almost 20 percent of the total RAF fighting strength, participated in the critical combat of September 15. Churchill described the day’s fighting as “one of the most decisive battles of the war.” Göring had thrown virtually his entire air force at the islands, and expensively failed to achieve air superiority in preparation for Hitler’s invasion. The Luftwaffe‘s aura of invincibility had been tarnished, and two days later the Führer indefinitely postponed the invasion of Britain.
On September 26, a grateful King George visited the Polish air units. As His Majesty and the foreign heroes struggled to communicate, the air raid sirens once again began to wail and the pilots sprinted for their planes. Vectored to Portsmouth, the squadrons dived out of the sun into an unsuspecting German flight, shooting down 11 planes and scoring one probable without loss. Although the Kosciuszko Squadron was, after an absurdly short time in action, closing in on its 100th kill, the inevitable physical and mental strain of almost constant combat was beginning to show.
On the 27th, Sergeant Tadeusz Andruszków and Flying Officer Ludwik Paszkiewicz — whose personal score then stood at six — were killed and Flying Officer Walerian Zak was badly burned in a dogfight over Horsham. On October 8, Jozef Frantisek, No. 303 Squadron’s top-scoring pilot — and the highest-scoring RAF fighter ace in the entire Battle of Britain, with 17 victories — was killed in a mysterious noncombat crash near the town of Ewell. Frantisek was the Kosciuszko Squadron’s only Czech, and his comrades had noted that his nerves seemed frayed. He had told a brother pilot that the only time he was not terrified was when he was flying. Some suspected his death was a suicide.
At this point the Kosciuszko Squadron was sent to central Britain for a direly needed rest. In just six weeks these men had shot down 126 German planes, more than twice as many as any other RAF squadron during that period. Nine of the 34 Polish fliers had downed five or more aircraft. In December five of them were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The date usually accepted as the end of the Battle of Britain is October 31, 1940. Although Luftwaffe strikes on British targets continued through the following spring, the ferocity of the Nazi air assault began to wane as Hitler commenced preparations for his invasion of the Soviet Union and started transferring his air units to the east. Between July 10 and October 31, 1940, the RAF had lost 915 fighters in aerial combat. The Luftwaffe would never fully recover from the loss of 1,733 planes in the attempt to subdue Britain’s air force. The RAF, however, would just keep getting stronger.
The 142 well-trained and combat-seasoned Polish pilots may well have been the deciding factor in hurling back the Nazi air campaign. In the significant fighting of September 26, the handful of participating Poles had shot down 48 percent of the German planes destroyed that day. After the Luftwaffe began to disappear from the English skies, Sir Hugh Dowding remarked, “Had it not been for the magnificent [work of] the Polish squadrons and their unsurpassed gallantry, I hesitate to say that the outcome of the battle would have been the same.”
By the end of 1940, the RAF had established five more fighter squadrons and two bomber squadrons manned by Polish airmen. By the spring of 1941, there were six more Polish fighter squadrons and Polish units no longer had to have British leaders. By war’s end, some British squadrons had Polish commanders.
The Poles were grateful to the British. Polish author Antoni Slonimski later wrote: “England made us feel the strength and righteousness of our common cause. We shall not forget the ideals and honesty by which this great nation is guided.” Unfortunately, in the postwar partitioning of Europe, those ideals did not extend to a free Poland independent of Soviet influence. Britain and the other Allies yielded to Josef Stalin, and the contributions of the Polish pilots were all but forgotten. Polish airmen were not even permitted to march in the London victory parade after the war ended.
This article was written by Kelly Bell and originally published in the May 2007 issue of Aviation History magazine. For more great articles subscribe to Aviation History magazine today!