Exeter pays tribute to Polish pilots who saved the city from destruction in 1942

For many years ceremonies have been held in the Exeter Guildhall in honour of the 307th Polish Night Fighter Squadron – “Lwów Eagle Owls”, who were once described by city residents as their ‘Guardian Angels’, to honour the airmen’s determination and dedication in saving the city from complete destruction during the Luftwaffe’s air raids in 1942 known as the Exeter Blitz.

On November 15th, the Polish airmen from 307 Squadron have been honoured in an annual ceremony taking place in the city of Exeter as a token of friendship and appreciation. The hallmark moment of the whole event is raising of the flag of Poland on the Guildhall roof to flutter over the city as it was done 77 years ago when Rowland Glave-Saunders, the then city mayor, said: “Pilots from this Polish squadron have been our guardian angels for over two years (…..). We shall proudly hang this flag in our Guildhall to remind future generations of what Poland did for us in the darkest hours which this country has passed”. 

 

We have been honoured to participate in this moving event organised by the “307 Squadron Project” – the British-Polish charity established to promote and study the history of the 307 Polish Squadron of ‘Lwów Eagle-Owls’. Michael Parrott, an Exeter-born historian told British Poles that in 2012 he became seriously interested in studying the Squadron history and contribution to the city defence.

The original flag, given to the city by Squadron Leader Jan Michałowski on 15th November 1942, was kept in the Guildhall but was lost some time ago, but a new one was purchased and dedicated. Thanks to Michael the tradition of the Polish flag-raising was born in 2012. Since then, the ceremony takes place every year on 15th November to commemorate the 1942 Polish airmen’s victorious defence of the city and the day has been officially announced as the ‘307 Squadron Day’.

 

The Squadron was established on 24th August 1940 in Blackpool in answer to a steady increase in Luftwaffe night bomb raids on historically and culturally important British cities. It was the first non-British, radar-equipped RAF night squadron and its chosen logo depicting an eagle-owl, a night-time predator bird with characteristic big green eyes, proudly decorated the plane fuselage. Below the logo was painted the 307 number.

In the beginning the squadron was under Polish-British command. During the war, over 1400 members served in it. In April 1941, the squadron was moved to Exeter, which incidentally, was sharing the motto ‘Semper Fidelis’ with Lwów. Andrzej Michalski, a member of the “307 Squadron Project”, told British Poles portal, that it had been the one and only Polish night fighter RAF squadron.

 

On the night of May 3rd, 1942, the Germans sent 40 bomber planes to raid, as they thought, the seemingly defenceless city. But it was not to be, for the city was guarded by Polish airmen from 307 Squadron who managed to destroy 4 enemy aircraft during the night fight. The squadron kept guard over the city until April 1943. During the whole of the war they took in 3,879 combat flights during which 28 pilots and 26 gunners and navigators were killed.

The 2019 event was under the honorary patronage of the Polish Ambassador, Professor Arkady Rzegocki. During the ceremony, a letter from the Ambassador was read by the Deputy Defence Attaché Lt. Col Artur Miśkiewicz in which his appreciation and happiness were expressed that the military achievements of 307 Squadron are getting more and more acknowledgements and publicity. However, he also mentioned that after the war Poland remaining under Soviet domination, had no reason for happiness at all, and the squadron members faced a very difficult decision to make: to return to the Soviet-occupied homeland or stay in the West and never to see their loved ones again. 

After the Polish flag ceremonial raising on the Guildhall mast, all the guests were invited to the 307 Squadron exhibition “Lest We Forget” and the exhibition “The Polish D-Day Story” prepared to commemorate the Poles participation during the D-Day Normandy invasion, and also to listen to a lecture by historian Jerry Bird about the plane crash of squadron leader  Major Jan Michałowski (who was killed during a test landing on one engine on 21st March 1943). The event concluded with a wreath-laying ceremony at the St. James Chapel in the Exeter Cathedral.

If you read these words, it is worth to remember, that for Polish airmen Great Britain was the island of last and only hope, the last battlefield of faith, honour and victory. They showed the best of courage in every battle alongside British RAF pilots, often proving exemplary training, perseverance and determination. They kept winning not only single fights but also fighting off the organised attacks of a hundred machines with swastika decorated wings. Their skills and experience ultimately contributed to the British victory in WW2. Having said that, it is our duty to remember and to honour those who, in the face of German aggression, had the courage to stand firm in defence of honour, homeland, and freedom.

Therefore, if you are planning to visit Exeter, please find a moment and visit, whenever possible, Exeter’s Higher Cemetery to pay tribute to 31 Polish pilots who were buried there.

Many thanks to the 307 Squadron Project for the initiative and effort to organise a unique celebration dedicated to our Heroes.

 

Author: Maria Byczynski

Pictures: British Poles

Translation: Jolanta Pitera