A Question of Honor: The Kosciuszko Squadron: The Forgotten Heroes of World War II
by Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2004, $29.95.
After Poland fell to the German Wehrmacht and the Soviet Red Army in 1939, tens of thousands of Poles escaped to other nations to continue the fight. By the war’s end, the Poles represented the fourth-largest contributor to the Allied forces. Of those, the 17,000 Poles who served as pilots and ground crewmen in the Royal Air Force may have played the most prominent role. Despite their invaluable contributions, however, their Allies, in a heinous example of Realpolitik, ultimately betrayed Poland’s brave sons.
As Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud document in A Question of Honor, No. 303 Squadron, RAF—named after a Polish hero of the American Revolution as well as the struggle for Polish sovereignty—began life in the days after World War I. A group of American pilots, led by Cedric Fauntleroy and Merian Cooper, formed the original Ko´sciuszko Squadron to aid Poland in its 1919-20 war against the Soviet Union. Building on that legacy, Poland assembled a corps of superbly trained pilots who fancied themselves the successors to their nation’s dashing cavalry.
Despite their obsolescent equipment, the Poles fought a savage battle when Germany invaded on September 1, 1939, and managed to inflict heavy losses on the invaders. After their country was overwhelmed, Polish soldiers, airmen and seamen fled to France and Britain, the two nations that had pledged to react to any invasion of Polish soil. After participating in the defense of France, a battle the Poles seemed more interested in fighting than their hosts, most moved on to England to continue the fight. Among the bravest were the fighter pilots of No. 303 Squadron, credited with downing more German aircraft than any other attached to the RAF during the Battle of Britain, with nine of its members becoming aces. With the aid of the squadron’s diary and other documentary evidence, Olson and Cloud introduce the reader to the men who flew the missions and their astounding exploits. It’s a compelling story interwoven with Poland’s tragic history and explains why these men fought so bravely. For them, the fight was ultimately for their homeland.
Unfortunately, the fascinating exploits of the Kosciuszko Squadron recedes into the background for much of A Question of Honor, since Olson and Cloud instead focus their attention on global politics. They relate how the Poles, the Allies’ most unwavering partners, were sold down the river along with the rest of Eastern Europe by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, who were determined to maintain a wartime alliance with the Soviet Union, a nation intent on avenging its earlier loss to the Poles. The machinations that doomed Poland to communism for five decades do place the struggles of the Poles in a wider context, but it comes at the cost of abandoning the interesting story of its primary subject for a long stretch of the book.
That failing aside, A Question of Honor is another step in the long journey to properly honoring a group of men who were denied even the privilege of marching in Britain’s victory parade after the war. It may outrage some readers at the criminal treatment of the Poles at the hands of their supposed allies, but more important, it also celebrates the heroism of men determined to beat back evil and restore independence to their homeland. A Question of Honor has its problems, but when it focuses on its central characters, it is a gripping work.
Originally published in the October 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.