Polish Air Force – Myths and Facts by Peter (Piotr) Sikora

It is very sad to admit that the subject of the Polish Air Force in the West was marginalised in Poland throughout many decades of the last century. Mostly because the communist censorship disregarded its importance, and the veterans were treated as the enemies of the State. It is also crucial to say that this Communist regime was installed in Poland against our will as an immediate result of Poland being handed over to Stalin by her former Allies. In Great Britain the situation was not much better. War has ended, and Britain had her own problems to deal with. After so many years of being neglected, the subject of Poles who fought alongside their Western allies became of a secondary importance or even totally forgotten.

We live in 21 century when the internet allows us to share information much quicker than before and the subject of Poles fighting during World War Two has become hot again, quite often due to various anniversaries, rather than because there is a pure need for learning. Unfortunately using the internet has many disadvantages. Due to an easy accessibility that allows everyone to publish whatever they want, we can find a lot of information about the Polish Air Force that have very little to do with the truth, some of these information are total fiction and internet users seem to accept it. There are individuals known for the ignorance or misleading information as well as organised groups of people, some of them you may have seen in action. Although they talk convincingly, they have very little to do with historical accuracy. 

Therefore today I would like to talk about some of these mistakes, myths and understatements. Some of you, who attended my talks, may recognise the subjects that I will cover, but it is crucial to repeat it again and again until the right message is send across.  It is also not easy to admit our own mistakes, but the error that I am going to mention often appeared in Polish publications and was repeated by many historians, including myself of course, over and over again. Even the project that I initiated some years ago and which was called ’17,000 Reasons to Remember’ of which you have probably heard already and which we ran together with Bentley Priory Museum and Aik Saath got its title wrong. According to the recent calculations there were over 18,000 men and women serving in the Polish Air Force in the West. Therefore even knowing that we were wrong, I am glad to finally get it right.

MYTH 1: So called ‘Centenary of the Polish Air Force’

The so called ‘Centenary of the Polish Air Force’ was audibly celebrated in Poland as well as in Britain in 2018. However the name of the Polish Air Force (which in Polish translates directly to ‘Polskie Siły Powietrzne’) had been established as such 79 years ago in Great Britain in 1940. That happened when the military aviation structures of Poland have been evacuated across the English Channel and re-created in exile. Hence this name had been officially used only between mid-1940 and January 1947

In regards to the pre-war period, usage of such name is neither entirely fortunate nor correct and as such can only be treated as the most obvious and easy,  but it is not a direct nor exact translation of the words: Lotnictwo (Aviation), Polskie Lotnictwo Wojskowe (Polish Military Aviation) or (Military Aviation of Poland) under which it was known in Poland. Before the outbreak of the Second World War this arm of the Polish military system also functioned under various names such as Sekcja Żeglugi Powietrznej (Air Navigation Section) or Wojska Lotnicze  (Aviation Forces) or Lotnictwo Wojskowe (Military Aviation) and even few others. 

A little bit of background is needed here. In 1918 after regaining their independence, the Poles formed the first units of their free military aviation. It is also worth of mentioning that even before that, there were Polish manned units formed within German Empire or Russian Empire forces during the Great War. Therefore officially we can certainly claim the centenary of the free Polish Military Aviation. 

Unfortunately comparing both air forces – Polish and British – which recently was happening quite often, is very tricky. Unlike the independent RAF, in Poland the whole air arm was almost an integral part of the Polish military chain of Armed Forces, and responded to Army orders. Although in 2018 the RAF also celebrated its 100th anniversary, but the military aviation in Britain has much longer history, as we all know.

Back to Poland. It was General Władysław Sikorski, who was by then the Military Affairs Minister, who had this long time ambition to separate the Polish flying units from the rest of the Army. In 1928 however Sikorski was removed from his post. Sikorski returned to power when he was appointed the Polish Commander in Chief in exile after the Polish Campaign of 1939 has been lost. Some historians however blame General Sikorski for his high political ambitions that were visible especially after evacuation from Poland. He is occasionally accused of placing his personal vendetta against the previous government members-rivals as his first priority. After arriving in France he unleashed a ‘witch hunt’ that quickly was spread out throughout the exiled structures of Polish forces to show Sikorski’s policy of anger against those who were accused to be guilty of losing the Polish campaign. Initially all the attention was concentrated on that, instead of on the main task which was to re-form the Polish army and aviation.  

The main task to rebuild the Polish Army (and aviation of course) in France was eventually partially achieved, despite French reluctance and mistrust, therefore another myth of Poles serving in French Air Force (Armée de l’Air) can be definitely ruled out. In many ways the Poles then achieved a semi-independent status and they were called simply Siły Powietrzne (Air Forces), Siły Powietrzne Armii Polskiej (Air Forces of the Polish Army) or Polskie Jednostki Lotnicze (Polish Aviation Units) and some of the Polish airmen were able to fly operationally during the French Campaign.

According to some recent thesis Sikorski’s mistakes, internal games and indecisions caused a lot of Polish personnel being unable to leave France after this country capitulated. In Great Britain, he tried to win his reputation back and rebuild his position. Hence he has put a lot of pressure on the Polish military aviation and its independent status. And again, quite often it is Sikorski who is blamed for striving for the independence of Polish aviation from the RAF as this divorce costed the Polish Government in Exile a massive bill of over 100 million GBP to cover all the expenses related to the Polish Air Force and its operations. The bill was issued after the war by the British.

To summarise: the term of Polskie Siły Powietrzne  (Polish Air Force) by no means  resemble the organisational status under which the Polish Military Aviation operated between 1918 and 1939 as a branch of the Polish Forces. That’s why celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Polskie Siły Powietrzne (Polish Air Force), the term commonly used during the past months by various media, politely saying is very much disputable.  

MYTH 2 of the ‘brief’ Polish Campaign of 1939 that was lost quickly

Geographical location of Poland in Central Europe (not in Eastern Europe as some journalist ignorantly insist), country that was almost totally or to be exact in 85% surrounded by her enemies and supporters of IIIrd German Reich, became one of the biggest disadvantages during the German Blitzkrieg followed by the Soviet cowardly aggression. Despite fighting a lone war against Nazi Germany, Hitler’s ally Slovakia and the Soviet Russia, Poland fought much longer than some historians claim, ignorantly calling September Campaign a ‘brief campaign’. It is by all means very patronising and unfair. It is an unfortunate result of Nazi war time propaganda but also of the ignorance shown after the war. The whole Western world started using Goebels propaganda’s lies, which claimed that the Polish cavalry equipped with swords and spikes only conducted many suicidal charges against German tanks, to show stupidity and naivety of Poles. Unfortunately this picture still exists today, often copied and propagated in Western documentaries and publications. 

Once the Western powers realised that they couldn’t or wouldn’t be involved, they put a closure on the Polish problem, not realising that by not getting involved and neglecting Polish Ally, they indirectly supported the IIIrd Reich to rise into even bigger power by securing more territory and resources to support Hitler’s ambitions. Lord George said that the Soviets freed Polish workers oppressed by the Polish regime (!) while future Prime Minister Winston Churchill justified Soviet aggression by saying that the Russians made a strategic move to secure their own safety (!). It has to be said that the regular units of the Polish Army fought until October 6, 1939. So the term of a brief campaign can be ruled invalid. 

How very often we can read about the Polish airmen being taken by surprise and their aircraft being destroyed within hours or within few days while still on the ground? In fact, in anticipation of war, all the Polish operational flying units were alerted, moved away and dispersed few days before the war began. They were transferred from their usual bases to the well-hidden advanced landing grounds. Hence apart from the training and non-operational aircraft being destroyed by the German bombs, the rest of the machines participated in fight, and majority of them were lost in combat or due to the lack of spare parts and fuel. 

By comparison the French Campaign, fought by much more powerful army and supported by the British, was lost in not much longer period of time. We can only speculate what would have happened if there was no Channel that stopped the German tanks from invading Britain… British Empire, many times stronger than Poland, was not ready for war either.

MYTH 3: ‘Escape from Poland’

Polish airmen and soldiers ‘have escaped’ from Poland or Polish airmen ‘fled’ Poland in order to join the RAF. These are very unfortunate words that may mislead some readers, especially those who know less about the reality of war. Yet they are commonly used by the Western historians and journalists. Let’s be clear. In Polish language the word of ‘escape’ has only one and negative meaning and translates directly to ‘running away’. Therefore calling soldiers, who were unable to continue the fight, who were left alone by their Allies, and who were ordered by their superiors to evacuate themselves in order to continue the fight, by the name of ‘escapees’ is rather unjust. We won’t discover America again by saying that every soldier who escapes from the battlefield is known as a deserter and faces a court-martial, or at least he is called a coward. Although British historians would never call the operation Dynamo (Dunkirk evacuation) a ‘mass escape’, they very freely use the same term when describing the circumstances of how the Polish airmen and other soldiers left Poland. 

It is understandable that those Polish airmen who in 1939 were interned in Rumania or Hungary have escaped from internment camps in order to continue their journey, as these two counties were ruled by pro German governments. But in case of the Polish Campaign of 1939, despite of the ways of evacuation in most cases being rather chaotic, those men followed strict orders of evacuation. Therefore the word of ‘evacuation’, that describes an ad-hoc organised mass operation which was purposely created to re-organise and rebuild the Polish military structures abroad to continue the fight, is much more appropriate. 

MYTH 4: Poles were unable to fly British equipment as they only flew an obsolete aircraft in Poland

We have to remember that the Polish military industry had less than 20 years to develop – from regaining independence in November of 1918, having by then no aviation industry at all, and inheriting country destroyed and plundered by the former oppressors, to losing her freedom again in September 1939. During those less than 20 years, Poland have fought several wars defending and securing her borders, yet managed to gain some huge aeronautical successes recognised by the world and developing an aircraft PZL P.6 that in early 1930s was proclaimed the first totally metal built but also the best fighter plane of the world.   By comparison British Hawker Hurricane developed by Great Britain, one of the World’s most powerful countries and biggest players, entered the service only in December 1937, less than two years before the World War Two, whilst Supermarine Spitfire went into production in 1938 and during the Battle of Britain there was still a significant shortage of these magnificent aircraft! Please also remember that the RAF used Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters during the war. Equally it is worth of mentioning that only in January 1939 the Hawker Fury biplane was finally withdrawn from the Fighter Command, being slower than the Polish PZL P.11c and having less powerful armament. At the same time the RAF used Fairey Battles, which were called ‘flying coffins’ or Armstrong Whitleys better known as ‘flying barn door’. 

It is not true that the Poles were unfamiliar with the modern aircraft. Significant group of Poles arriving in Britain in 1940 previously flew modern French aircraft across the Channel. That’s why they knew how to use flaps or retractable undercarriage. For them, however, the main obstacle was to learn that in England, unlike in any other European country; they had to push the throttle, instead of pulling it, which was located on their left, instead of the right. According to Pilot Officer Zumbach, they had to basically reverse their reflexes. They also had to quickly adapt to all the measurements being in gallons, inches, yards or miles and the height had to be described in feet, not meters, which caused a massive difference at the beginning. Hence many of the initial crashes were caused by technical issues and misunderstandings rather than Poles being unable to cope with the modern aircraft. 

Language barrier was crucial too of course! Many of the Polish airmen knew French, whilst English for most of them was a lingual challenge in 1940.Above all these, the Poles had to face a completely different approach towards the aerial tactics used by the British. Polish fliers were shocked by the use of the ‘Vic’ formation that was known since the Great War, which consisted of four sections flying in extremely tight formation. Generally speaking each pilot had to wait for his turn to attack the enemy and had to follow an enemy bomber until his ammo ran out, with the other sections of his squadron waiting in the queue for their turn. 

Poles used to fly in different practical formation back in Poland, more similar to the Germans, that’s why their formation was more flexible and accurate and the results of their actions were deadly. Above all they were shooting from a very short distance to make sure that the bullets are reaching their target. They flew with the aim to kill every b….y enemy, not like their British colleagues who did not see all these horrible scenes of civilians being killed, towns bombed before, and therefore were ‘only’ protecting their country.

MYTH 5: Poles are often accused of breaking discipline by using their native language in combat

Out of over initial 8 thousands ‘invaders’ from Poland, many spoke French, some of them spoke German, some Russian. It was obviously due to the geographical location of Poland in Central Europe (again, not in Eastern Europe, as many journalists still claim) and historical movement of her borders. For most of them, especially in the winter of 1939 and then in spring of 1940, the English language was a huge lingual challenge. That’s why the Poles were communicating in the air by using their own language.  It had nothing to do with their lack of discipline. It was very much a practical choice. When they were facing an enemy, having seconds only to make their companions aware of possible danger, instead of thinking: ‘ what is the b….y word in English?!’ they obviously used the language which all of them understood.

MYTH 6: ‘Poles were serving in the Royal Air Force’ & there were ‘Polish squadrons of the Royal Air Force’

Such  large contingent of foreign military personnel of 8,000 men that arrived in Britain between winter 1939 and the summer of 1940, was something that Churchill’s government had to deal with. Clearly these Slavic people were desperately needed, yet their legal situation was not clear. Hence it was a huge political, logistical and organisational challenge for the British, from the other perspective, it was a massive injection of, in many cases, battle hardened soldiers that His Majesty needed so much. 

Let’s be honest, it never happened before that any Allied army was formed, or as in this case, re-organised on the British soil. That’s why the status of newcomers was uncertain. It was decided initially that all the Polish airmen who came to Britain between winter of 1939 and spring of 1940 should join the Voluntary Reserve of the Royal Air Force and they had to sworn loyalty oath towards the British monarch as well as towards their own exiled government. However on August 5, 1940 the agreement between General Sikorski and Winston Churchill has been signed. In few words: it was declared that the Polish Air Force with its General Inspectorate would be an integral part of the Polish Armed Forces in Exile, not any of the British forces. Furthermore the Polish Air Force had to respond to superiority of the Polish Commander in Chief, yet they kept their autonomy being equal to Army and Navy. That’s not all! Following intensive negotiations, on August 22, 1940 an Allied Forces Act has been approved by the British Parliament giving the Polish Air Force its legal status. Soon after all its members were withdrawn from the Voluntary Reserve of the RAF and subsequently joined the Polish Air Force. Despite operating under the operational and logistical command of the RAF, unlike the Free French, Dutch or Czechoslovak airmen, the Polish Air Force maintained its partially independent status. 

But even after the date of August 5, 1940 the British understanding of the Polish Air Force situation was not clear, therefore the lack of clarity is not surprising even nowadays and can be seen all over the internet, on tv or in newspapers. To give you an example of difficulties with understanding the status of the Polish Air Force, one of the Polish airmen recalled: The English, for very long time and since the French catastrophe, treated us in this way, that was described by one of the RAF officers: “Todays Polish Air Force is a child of the RAF. We act as father, who tries to raise his son for the good and brave human being”. Unfortunately even today the understanding of the whole legal situation did not improve a lot, and some historians or journalists call the foreign contingent by the name of the ‘Poles in the RAF’.

MYTH 7: How many Polish squadrons were formed under British command?

As I said before, the internet or papers are full of revelations. Many people ignorantly claim that there were 16 squadrons of the Polish Air Force created in the West. This is absolutely not true! Initially the British only agreed for two Polish manned light bomber squadrons to be formed and I personally do not think that they should be blamed for this. They were suspicious towards the Poles, questioning their abilities, morale, skills and language improvement. British had their main doubts asking if the Poles could cope with another combat after being involved in two lost campaigns: in Poland and then in France. 

During the Battle of Britain four fully operational Polish Squadrons were formed:  302 ‘City of Poznań’ and 303 ‘Tadeusz Kościuszko City of Warsaw’ both being fighter squadrons; 300 ‘Mazovian Province’ and 301 ‘Pomeranian Province’ both being bomber squadrons. All four were made operational and flew in combat during the Battle of Britain! Nonetheless there were other Polish squadrons formed in 1940 such as 304 ‘Silesian Province’ and 305 ‘Wielkopolan Province’ (both bomber), 306 ‘City of Toruń’, 307 ‘City of Lwów’, 308 ‘City of Cracow’ (all fighter) and 309 ‘Czerwieńska Province’ (army co-operation), but they all were made operational later. In 1941 further three fighter squadrons were formed: 315 ‘City of Dęblin’, 316 ‘City of Warsaw’ and 317 ‘City of Wilno’, and then in 1943 the last Polish squadron was formed, it was 318 ‘City of Gdańsk’ (not Danzig, as the recent BBC tv drama teaches us), which was fighter reconnaissance.

To summarise, the Poles formed four bomber squadrons, two of which were later posted for other duties, nine fighter squadrons and one army co-operation squadron which was later posted for fighter duties too. Due to further shortage of reinforcements – human supply, and significant losses they were unable to expand the Polish Air Force and to grow even bigger.

Polish airmen participated in all major operations and battles over Europe and elsewhere. Poles had three fighter wings in total, many flying schools of various levels, they had their Air Force Staff College, Polish section of Women’s’ Auxiliary Air Force, there were Polish ferry and experimental pilots, Polish Air Force newspaper and even a Polish football team. Poles had a group of fighter pilots who flew with American 56th Fighter Group, as well as in other American squadrons. The Polish Fighting Team, better known as ‘Skalski Circus’, was a group of 15 pilots, attached to 145 Squadron RAF in March 1943 in North Africa and gained astonishing successes.

Finally No. 663 Air Observation Post Squadron was formed in Italy in 1944, but this unit consisted of former artillerymen converted into unarmed Taylorcraft Auster pilots and it was formed within the 2nd Polish Corps. It was never the Polish Air Force Squadron, as some ‘experts’ claim this days.

It has to be said, that out of over 18 thousand airmen and women of the Polish Air Force in the West, which consisted of the initial group of 8 thousand that came to England in 1940, but also of those who were freed from the Soviet gulags and of the Polish immigrants who came from various countries (vide Jan Stangryciuk), nearly two thousands lost their lives in action, in flying accidents or due to other causes. Unfortunately these two thousands of Polish airmen who died, are frequently being added by various authors or social media experts on top of the total number, rather than being deducted. 

MYTH 8: No. 303 ‘Tadeusz Kościuszko’ being called an elite squadron

The 303 ‘Tadeusz Kościuszko’ Squadron was very much real and its war time activities and successes are well documented and easy to trace and access. Yet so many fantastic legends aroused recently around this unit, again, thanks to so called experts that use the safety of an internet to avoid the consequences of their actions. They consciously create amazing stories rather than accessing the historical data that is widely available. Nowadays googling became easier than traveling, researching and reading.

The so called ‘Kościuszko’s Squadron gained its almost celebrity status many years before World War Two and all that happened back in Poland since the first month of her independence. It was initially formed as the 3rd Flying Squadron in November of 1918, and then renumbered as the 7th Flying Squadron one month later, finally changed its status again, but this time to fighter escadrille and it was operationally used during the Polish – Ukrainian War. Soon after this unit was joined by the American volunteers and quickly named after the Polish national hero General Tadeusz Kościuszko, who fought for the American independence in 18th century (ironically against the British). These American fliers fought alongside the Poles in the Polish- Bolshevik war, attacking enemy’s cavalry and transport.

The war has ended, Yankees returned home and in 1925 the squadron became 121st  Fighter Squadron and eventually in 1928 –  111th Fighter Squadron. 

111th Squadron became famous purely due the a war movie or a blockbuster – as we can say today –made in Poland in 1930 under the title of ‘Gwiaździsta Eskadra’ (The Starry Squadron), but also thanks to the Airmen’s’ March that was composed initially as the 111th Fighter Squadron’s anthem and only later evolved into the official air force march in 1937. Interestingly the pilots of 111th Squadron never won any of the prestigious fighter tournaments organised every year in Poland for the Air Regiments to compete, and during the Polish Campaign of 1939 they shot down far less enemy aircraft than their colleagues from the other fighter units. 

However, when they came to England, they were well trained and had this massive advantage over their colleagues posted to British squadrons, that here they knew each other and they fought alongside their countrymen, with whom in most cases they fought arm in arm before. At Northolt they formed a large group of people speaking the same language and sharing the same feelings towards the enemy. Squadron Leader Zdzisław Krasnodębski’s pilots understood their own tactics, but above all – they could support each other  physically and mentally on the ground as well as in the air. 

And there is a question: Was 303 any better than its twin squadron 302 or some of the individual pilots posted to British squadrons? Definitely not! ‘City of Poznań’ Squadron colleagues were equally well trained and experienced, some of them had already more claims under their belts than 303 pilots. 302’s bad luck was based on the pure fact that during the crucial period of the Battle of Britain they operated within No.12 Group, being quite far from London.

What is interesting that initially it was planned that both Polish squadrons would be formed at the same airfield – RAF Leconfield, quite far from the centre of Battle of Britain. Only the decision made on paper on July 17, 1940 had ‘transferred’ future 303 Squadron, that was not even organised by then,  to Northolt. It was therefore the decisive factor that helped Poles to be at the right place and at the right time and efficiently use their fighting skills. 

And then there is another question: Was 303 an elite squadron?

My answer would be that 303’s Polish commander Sqn Ldr  Zdzisław Krasnodębski, simply wanted to gather the airmen whom he knew from 1 Air Regiment in Warsaw. Hence he handpicked guys that he trusted, he saw in action and he commanded in Poland and then in France. I personally think this was the crucial factor. No magic involved! 

Forgotten Polish bomber squadrons during the Battle of Britain

Historians still argue whether bomber crews that participated in so called ‘Battle of the Barges’ also known as ‘The Other Battle of Britain’ should be called ‘participants of the Battle of Britain’. They were attacking the German invasion fleet that gathered across the Channel ready for the final push. The Germans were hoping that the supremacy in the air would be shortly secured by the Luftwaffe. In my personal view this operation carried by the Bomber Command played a crucial part of defending British territory as well as fighting German bombers or fighter aircraft in the air by their colleagues from Fighter Command. I remember very well my conversation with my friend the late Colonel Władysław Łapot, who took part in two operational missions against German invasion fleet in September 1940, and who was very disappointed that him and his colleagues were never considered to be a part of the Battle of Britain.  It is crucial to remember that during September and October of 1940 both Polish bomber squadrons: 300 and 301 performed 8 operational sorties each, employing 46 and 39 of three people – crews respectively. 

The numbers

Polish Air Force participated in all major operations and battles over Europe and elsewhere. The brave Polish airmen flew and fought since September 1, 1939, by then fighting lone war against Nazi Germany’s supremacy. Under British command they shot down 748 enemy planes, claiming further 177 as probably destroyed and 252 damaged. They also destroyed 191 flying bombs V1. In total, since September 1939 they claimed 954 enemy aircraft destroyed. Polish fighter pilots flew over 73,000 sorties while Polish bomber crews flew 11.706 sorties and dropped 14.708 tons of bombs. 

All these brave men and women from Poland, who fought ‘for your freedom and ours’ should be remembered forever. They never asked for glory or for special place in history, hence they should remain in our hearts the way as they really were. Therefore it is important to finally put all these myths and ignorance aside. 

 

Author: Peter (Piotr) Sikora

Pictures: from the author’s private collection