The battle of Britain that took place in 1940 was one of the most important events of WWII and had a significant role in determining the future of Europe. Poland’s contribution to the battle was the Secret of Enigma and 145 pilots who became legendary for their efficiency. The battle was summarised by Sir Winston Churchill in few words: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”. Poles are very proud to have made up some of that “few”.
Polish air forces had a strong connection to Scotland. But before we get to that, let’s quote a few paragraphs from the materials prepared for an exhibition about Polish Pilots presented every year by Polish Association Aberdeen during the Leuchars Airshow.
“When Poland was invaded by Germany from the West and the Soviet Union from the East, during the Black September of 1939, many Polish pilots made their way to Great Britain through Romania and France. Initially the RAF Fighter Command was suspicious of them. The British doubted their spirits because of two lost campaigns – in Poland and in France. Polish pilots soon proved them wrong. In the Battle of Britain, in 1940, Polish fighter pilots had the most impressive record of any RAF squadrons. They accounted for only 5% of Allied aircrew defending Britain, but shot down 12% of all German aircraft destroyed. They fought so fiercely that many RAF commanders had doubts about the accuracy of scores reported by Polish pilots. One of them was W/Cdr Stanley Vincent, the commander of Northolt RAF station. One day he flew together with the Polish 303 Squadron and observed the fight against the German bombers. After the combat he said: “Suddenly the sky became full of firing aircraft, parachutes and parts of broken wings”. Vincent tried to fight, but every time he wanted to attack the Germans, a Polish pilot was one step ahead of him. So he did not manage to fight in this battle. After the landing he said to the Intelligence officer: “My God, they are really doing it!”. Some crews of Nazi bombers jumped out of their planes with parachutes even before Poles opened fire…
The success of the Polish pilots inclined the British command to expand the Polish Air Force. By the summer of 1941, 8 fighter and 4 bomber squadrons were created. Polish pilots protected Britain not only by shooting down Nazi airplanes, but also by destroying V1 missiles, participating in many operations over the continent, escorting the bombers, bombing different targets in Germany as well as providing air support to the landing troops during the invasion in June 1944. Polish air units operating from Italy airdropped special forces soldiers (the famous Cichociemni – Polish commandos trained in Scotland in guerilla tactics (link)) and equipment for the Home Army in Poland. During the Warsaw Uprising (August-September 1944) the Polish crews flew 91 times with the supplies for the fighting city. From 1940 to 1945 the Polish squadrons and the Polish pilots serving in British units achieved 621 confirmed kills.”
What about the Polish pilots in Scotland?
Squadrons 304, 309, 307 and 315 were located at airfields in Scotland. Operational Training Units were located near Grangemouth (every single Polish spitfire pilot was trained here between 1941 and 1943!) and St Andrews. There was also the Polish Barrage Balloon Unit that was involved in defence during the Clyde Blitz.
Bomber Squadron 304 was stationed in Wester Isles. Apart from fighting the U-boots they struggled with extreme weather, sheep blocking runways and a plague of mice eating the clothing and equipment. The RAF Air Commodore in command said of the squadron that “they would fly when sea-gulls won’t” (1).
The 309 Cooperation Squadron was initially formed in Glasgow, then relocated to Fife to be eventually re-equipped as a fighter reconnaissance squadron based at Crail. Allan Carshwell in his book ‘For Your Freedom and ours’ mentions an interesting event:
“… one particular incident took place that might be regarded as typically Polish. In September 1942, a single Mustang Aircraft of the squadron made an unprecedented flight from Caril to Stavanger in German occupied Norway without either orders or permissions. It attacked several targets, then returned safety to Scotland. The pilot (Janusz Lewkowicz) was trained mechanical engineer who had calculated that the flight from Scotland to Norway was just possible. He had sent his calculation to the authorities but had received no response, so he decided a practical demonstration was required. On his safe return to Scotland he was reprimanded for flying without authority and congratulated on his initiative. From then on the operational range of the mustang was greatly increased.” (1)
This story is very similar to one about the first combat involving Polish Pilots in the Battle of Britain. On August 30, during a training flight, F/O Ludwik Paszkiewicz from 303 squadron saw a group of German bombers. He ignored the order to avoid combat and attacked them on his own, achieving one kill. It was the first shot made by 303 squadron. This made the RAF commanders realise that the Polish unit had achieved full operational capability, so they consequently detached the unit on the front line. On the very first day of action – August 31 – six pilots from 303 squadron shot six German aircraft with no losses. On the same day the RAF incurred the greatest number of losses of Battle. Polish pilots were put to work just on time.
Battle of Britain 1969 – “Repeat please!”
This explains why by some the Polish pilots were considered great warriors and horrible soldiers… That first fight was beautifully pictured in the classic movie from 1969 Battle of Britain.
In 2013 thanks to Grangemouth Spitfire Memorial Trust and the cadets of the 1333 Grangemouth Squadron, after years of work and research, an extraordinary memorial has been unveiled. It consists of a memorial wall and a unique 1:1 scale replica of a Spitfire Mark 1 commemorating the trainee pilots who had come to RAF Grangemouth from Britain, Czechoslovakia, Holland, Belgium, Canada, USA, Australia, New Zeland, Ireland, India and of course Poland, who learned to fly the spitfire fighter aircraft and died at the airfield while serving with the 58 Operational Training Unit. The spitfire is painted in the colours and markings of Eugeniues Lutomski, a Polish pilot who was 23 years old the day he died in 1941 at the Grangemouth aerodrome.
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”
Sir Winston Churchill
Photo at the top of page: Squadron Leader Leslaw Międzybrodzki, AFC, RAF – Courtesy of Zosia Międzybrodzka.
An interview and more, never published before, amazing photographs related to Międzybrodzki will be publish soon.
Words: Jarek Gasiorek
Grangemouth Spitfire Memorial Abbotsinch Rd, Grangemouth, Falkirk FK3 9UP
(1) “For Freedom Yours and Ours. Poland Scotland and the Second World War” Allan Carswell ISBN 0-948636-54-8
”Polish War Graves in Scotland – A testament to the past” Robert M Ostrycharz – ISBN 1 872286 48 8