The skies over Great Britain on 15 September 1940, exactly 80 years ago, saw one of the largest aerial battles in history. The day, now known as the Battle of Britain Day, is when the German air force, the formidable and so far undefeated Luftwaffe, conducted its largest and the most concentrated attacks against London as part of what is now, and was already then, called the Batttle of Britain.
A veritable armada of about 1,500 German aircraft assembled from their bases in occupied France, Belgium, Holland, and Norway, crossed the British coast in two big waves, one in late morning, and another in the afternoon, in an attempt to engage the whole of the British Fighter Command, part of the Royal Air Force (RAF) responsible for Britain’s air defense under Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding.
Among the squadrons scrambled that day to defend the British skies were two Polish Air Force fighter squadrons flying alongside the RAF: Nos 303 (“City of Warsaw – Tadeusz Kościuszko”, 11th Group, operating out of Northolt, North-West of London), and 302 (“City of Poznań”, 12th Group, operating out of Leconfield aerodrome in the East Riding of Yorkshire), as well as a significant number of Polish fighter pilots scattered among and flying with various British squadrons.
Both Polish squadrons were flying the Hawker Hurricane Mk. 1, a relatively modern fighter plane of British design that the Polish airmen could only wish they had access to during the disastrous September campaign in Poland a year earlier. Unlike their Polish airplanes prior, the British machines were an almost equal match for the German Messerschitts, Heinkels, Dorniers, and Junkers, and the experienced Polish aviators were making excellent use of them to destroy the enemy aircraft.
The two Polish squadrons, having claimed at least 28 kills, 7 planes probably destroyed, and 3 damaged, respectively took first and third place on the Fighter Command scoreboard that day, losing only two pilots of their own killed, and two additional ones shot down.
Squadron 303 was already famous among the general British public for its exploits against the Germans. The British propaganda routinely used the squadron’s victories to boost the morale of its citizens. The squadron’s position at the top of the daily scoreboard of all Fighter Command was by then a regular appearance. This was partly due to their base at Northolt being close to the center of action over London giving them a chance to engage more often, and in no small part due to their combat experience, superior tactics, skill, and determination to kill as many Huns as they possibly could.
The pilots of the Polish squadron 302 also took part in this success, despite being stationed away from the action, and the operational handicap imposed on them by the rigid and inflexible British tactics, specifically those advocated by Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh Mallory, who – while in command of No. 12 Group – literally dragged the Poles into its famous ‘Big Wing’ concept, which the highly experienced Polish pilots openly criticized as disastrous. Flying in such formation limited their individual abilities and made the whole group less maneuverable, slow, and ineffective.  Despite this handicap, they showed what they were capable of when given a chance.
Thus the date of 15 September 1940 became a milestone in the history of World War II. As if sensing the importance of that Sunday, Winston Churchill had gone to the headquarters of 11 Figher Group at Uxbridge and spent the entire day observing the course of the battle from the operations room, leaving quite impressed.
The Polish contribution to the success of the RAF became legendary, although later largely forgotten. It wasn’t just the raw number of enemy aircraft destroyed, impressive as it were, but – as one British pilot pointed out – the Poles were particularly effective at breaking up and driving away the enemy formations, preventing them from carrying out their objectives of bombing ground targets, which was the main point. Also, when flying together in formation, the enemy bombers could defend themselves with their combined firepower, but when scattered they were far more vulnerable to the close-range attacks preferred by the Poles.
Britain and the British Commonwealth was the only major power standing in the way of a German dominated Europe at the time. The heavy losses of Luftwaffe on that day persuaded Hitler to postpone the Operation Sea Lion to invade Great Britain, and eventually to cancel it altogether. The defeat of Luftwaffe had far reaching consequences for the remainder of the war.
The German air force was supposed to gain and then maintain air superiority over the invasion area and to neutralize the mighty British Royal Navy that would make the job of invading Britain very difficult. The chief of Luftwaffe, Reichsmarshal Herman Göring, in his boisterous self-confidence, believed that his air force could single-handedly destroy the British and force them into submission. He pretty much promised Hitler to destroy RAF within weeks, if not days.
The reasons for the Luftwaffe’s failure are many. Hitler’s military incompetence, lack of vision, and impatience, along with Göring’s overconfidence, played a major role. The inaccuracy of German intelligence, who thought the RAF was on the verge of collapse, and their underestimating the resolve and the determination of the Allies, also played a role. The bravery of Polish pilots, the dedication of Polish ground personnel, and their collective determination to defeat the Nazis, the invaders of their homeland, were crucial. Along with their RAF colleagues, they fought bravely, unwaiveringly, in significant numbers, and with deadly efficiency.
With the Germans launching their raids only when the weather was favorable, and the forecast for 15 September being sunny and clear, the RAF could have predicted the attack. Being able to intercept and decipher secret German communications – largely due to the work of Polish cryptographers before the war – also helped a lot to prepare for it.
Then, there were the accidents of history, such as the lone unfortunate Heinkel bomber, having lost its way over the enemy territory and dropping its full load of bombs on London – up till then off limits to Luftwaffe bombers – which enraged the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who ordered a bombing raid on Berlin, which in turn made Hitler furious and prompted him to make a fateful decision… In an error of what came to be of critical importance (and potentially cost the Germans the entire war), the Germans moved the weight of their attacks to London rather than continuing to cripple airfields and military infrastructure. Although the attacks had devastating effect on the city and its residents, it crucially gave the RAF time to recover, and reinforce.
The air battles of 15 September were the most intense engagements of both sides so far and, despite the Battle of Britain being far from over, showed some cracks in the Luftwaffe’s unbeaten reputation. While regarded today as a major turning point in the Battle, the significance of this day was by no means obvious to the participants at the time. The war continued and huge formations of German planes continued to raid London for weeks afterwards – until the weather turned to the worse.  It seemed that the German invasion was a matter of days. Today we know that the Germans abandoned this plan sometime in the middle of September.
Although the 303 continued to steal the limelight, it was by no means the only Polish contributor. By mid-September, Poles overall represented well over 10 percent of all the fighter pilots defending Britain. While British casualties mounted, the RAF continued to draw on the pool of waiting Polish airmen and, by the beginning of October 1940, one in five of the fighters defending London was Polish.
Andrzej (Andrew) Woźniewicz
Andrew is a lifelong aviation enthusiast, a licensed and instrument-rated private pilot and airplane owner, with keen interest in the history of aviation in general, and Polish wings in particular.
This is the first of a series of articles that will be published to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain – an aerial conflict that turned the tide of the Second World War.
The Polish ‘Few’ – Polish Airmen in the Battle of Britain, Peter Sikora, Pen & Sword Aviation, 2014
The Forgotten Few – The Polish Air Force in World War II, Adam Zamoyski, Pen & Sword Military, 2018
Udział Polaków w Bitwie o Anglię, Jan Jokiel, Instytut Wydawniczy PAX, 1968
Polskie dywizjony lotnicze w Wielkiej Brytanii 1940-1945, Wacław Król, Wydawnictwo MON, 1982
Polish Wings in the West/Polskie skrzydła na Zachodzie, Bohdan Arct, Interpress, 1970
Dywizjon 303, Arkady Fiedler, Wydawnictwo Poznańskie, 1976History