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Cover Story June 06, 2006


 

 


by lyle e davis

They have universally been recognized, by both friend and foe, as the best damned aviation unit of World War II.

During the Battle of Britain they accounted for the highest number of kills among the 66 Allied fighter squadrons engaged in that critical phase of the war.

Who are they? They are the Polish Air Force's "Kos'ciuszko Squadron."

You would think that an Air Force that contributed so much to saving Great Britain from certain defeat at the hands of the Luftwaffe would receive the thanks of a grateful nation and its leaders.

You would be wrong.


The insignia of the Kosciuszko Squadron... of which they were, justifiably, fierce

This is a gripping, little-known, and brilliantly told story of the scores of Polish fighter pilots who helped save England during the Battle of Britain and of their stunning betrayal by the United States and England at the end of World War II.

The story is told in the absolutely brilliant book, A Question of Honor by Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud, a husband and wife writing team that produced a scholarly, well documented book that is easy to read and follow . . . though, at times, it is painful to read as you read about how the leaders of Great Britain and the United States lied and betrayed these brave people.

Revolving around five pilots of the renowned Kosciuszko Squadron, the authors show how the fliers, driven by their passionate desire to liberate their homeland, came to be counted among the most heroic and successful fighter pilots of World War II.

In this recounting of the story we shall draw on the Kosciuszko Squadron’s unofficial diary—filled with the fliers’ personal experiences in combat—and on letters, interviews, memoirs, histories, and photographs, all bringing the men and battles of the squadron vividly to life. We shall follow principal characters from their training before the war, through their hair-raising escape from Poland to France and then, after the fall of France, to Britain. We see how, first treated with disdain by the RAF the Polish pilots played a crucial role during the Battle of Britain, where their daredevil skill in engaging German Messerschmitts in close and deadly combat while protecting the planes in their own groups soon made them legendary.

We shall see that those of us who so admired Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the two great Allied leaders . . . are badly let down by their deceit . . . by their unforgivable treatment of a brave ally such as Poland. Winston Churchill once said . . . “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” And he did. Churchill wrote a six-volume history of World War II. For some strange reason he tended to gloss over his own policy failures, especially where Poland was concerned.

Many literary critics praise this magnificent book. Among the comments:
Of the book, “A Question of Honor,” former Secretary of State Zbigniew Brzezinski (of Polish descent) said:
“A gripping account of personal gallantry and of political treachery. On a par with the recent best-sellers about the fighting men of World War II.”

Their subsequent treatment by the British government, including its refusal to let the survivors march in the Victory Parade of 1946, in craven deference to Stalin, was one of the most shameful episodes of the Cold War.”
—John Keegan
“This book presents us with one of the most disgraceful ethical horrors of World War II—how, believing the need to support Stalin at all costs, we discredited, and later neglected, our oldest, bravest, and most trustworthy ally in order to conceal the truth of a revolting crime.”
—Robert Conquest

The background is this: In the spring of 1919, Merian C. Cooper, a former U.S. Air Service pilot in France, was visiting the Polish battle lines as the head of American relief work in southern Poland. When he saw the sacrifices being made by the Poles to defend their new nation, he thought of the possibility of an American volunteer squadron, similar to the Lafayette Escadrille of 1916, to assist them. He immediately went to Paris where he met a friend, Cedric E. Fauntleroy, who had been a combat pilot during the war. Together, they received official permission to recruit former U.S. flyers for a Polish squadron.

Seventeen Americans volunteered their services to Poland and they formed The Kosciuszko Squadron, named in honor of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the Polish patriot who had fought so well in the American Revolution under George Washington.

Fast forward to the early days of World War II:

No. 303 "Kosciuszko" Polish Fighter Squadron (In Polish: Warszawski Dywizjon im. Tadeusza Kosciuszki) was formed in Great Britain as part of an agreement between the Polish government in exile of 1939, and the United Kingdom on 2 August of 1940 and became officially operational a few weeks later on 31 August.

Soon, Great Britain would be attacked daily by Hitler’s Luftwaffe in his determined effort to bring Britain to her knees. Britain would mount furious air defenses . . . more and more aircraft were being built to replace those shot down . . . but British pilots were so scarce that they soon were sending new pilots into combat who had only barely soloed with 10 hours of flight training!
This period is known as “The Battle of Britain.”

Just a few notes from the unofficial diaries of the Kosciuszko Squadron at the beginning of The Battle of Britain:


P/O Henneberg (left), S/Ldr Kent and P/O Pisarek.

August 30, 1940, the training continues, with pilots practicing mostly the infamous "Formation Attack" drills of the RAF. During such a flight, Lt. Ludwik Paszkiewicz notices a group of German planes being attacked by British fighters. He leaves the squadron formation and


Left: the 303 pilots in readiness. In the center is Zdzislaw Henneberg. On his left Kazimierz Dzaszewski. Both killed in action later on.

attacks a stranded Dornier 17, which crashes into the ground shortly after. (According to post-war research, the plane misidentified as Dornier 17 by Paszkiewicz was a Messerschmitt Bf 110.) After the flight, he receives a reprimand from the commanding officer, immediately followed by warm congratulations on opening the squadron's tally. Starting on the next day, the squadron is declared fit for operational duties as part of No.11 Fighter Group.
August 31, 1940, in the late afternoon, the squadron is scrambled for its first operational flight. In a dogfight over Kent, the 'A ' Flight claims four confirmed and two probable victories over Messerschmitts Bf 109’s. The victors are S/Ldr Kellet, Lt. Henneberg, Lt. Feric and Sgt. Karubin. All pilots return safely to the Northolt arerodrome, making this opening day a very successful one for the squadron. Miroslaw Feric later remarked in the Squadron Chronicle: I calmly take the aim, judge the deflection, and fire at the Hun. It's all so strangely easy, so much different than over Poland, where one tried, and did all the hard work, and instead of getting the Hun, in the end the Hun got him.


After another successful sortie: Feric (left), Kent, Grzeszczak, Radomski, Zumbach, Lokuciewski, Mierzwa (partially visible), Henneberg, Rogowski and Szaposznikow.

The Hurricanes, while still somewhat inferior to Messerschmitts Bf 109, are far more capable than the gull-winged PZL fighters flown by the Poles in September 1939, and the pilots finally feel their equipment is on par with their enemy's.

September 2, 1940, the squadron is scrambled three times on this day. On the last occasion, they meet a group of Luftwaffe fighters. Lt. Feric shoots down a Bf 109, while Sgt. Frantisek gets one Bf 110. Their first Hurricane is lost as Feric makes a forced landing in the vicinity of Dover.


King George VI visited the unit during the Battle of Britain on September 26. Just left of him, partly visible is S/Ldr Urbanowicz, who took over after S/Ldr Krasnodebski was wounded. Presenting pilots is S/Ldr Kellet. King shakes hand with P/O Feric, who oh his right has P/O Zumbach, F/O Cebrzynski and F/O Januszewicz.


September 3, 1940, another fight with German fighters over Dover. Sgt. Frantisek scores his second victory, one Hurricane force-lands (Sgt. Wojtowicz), one returns damaged (Lt. Henneberg).

September 5, 1940, in the afternoon, the squadron (nine Hurricanes) intercepts a German bombing raid escorted by Bf 109s. A fierce fight develops, in which Polish pilots claim 8 victories (5 Bf 109 and 3 Ju 88). A most unusual victory is scored by Sgt. Karubin who, having run out of ammunition, drives his opponent into the ground by flying a bare few feet above him. Four victories over Bf 109s (by S/Ldr Kellet and Sergeants Frantisek, Wunsche and Karubin) have been verified after the war. The squadron suffers its first loss - Lt. Lapkowski is shot down, and breaks his arm while getting out of his plane - he lands on his parachute and is taken to hospital.
September 11, 1940, a day of glory for 303 Squadron, but also the day when their first casualties are sustained. Fifteen minutes after being scrambled (at around 16:00 hours), the squadron in full formation intercepts a German raid. Thanks to a determined attack, the pilots scatter the German formation. However, in the initial attack on the bombers, Lt. Cebrzynski is badly wounded by their defensive fire - he dies in hospital on September 19. A few minutes later, Sgt. Wojtowicz finds himself alone over Westerham, against six Messerschmitts Bf 110. In two successive attacks, he shoots down two of them, but is finally shot down and killed himself. A description of the fight is sent to 303 Squadron a few days later by the residents of Westerham, who witness the encounter. Overall, the pilots claim 14 victories, of which ten (2 Bf 110, 1 Bf 109, 3 Do 17 and 4 He 111) are confirmed. The Bf 109, shot down in a dogfight over Southern England by Sgt. Frantisek, was piloted by Hans Wiggers of JG 51, an ace with 13 victories to his credit.

September 15, 1940, on this day - which is traditionally considered the turning point of the Battle - the squadron is scrambled twice. Shortly after 11:00 hours, nine Hurricanes led by F/Lt. Kent take off to intercept a German raid. After a few minutes, Kent starts chasing a group of Bf 109s at full throttle - as the result the squadron enters the fight separated into sections. In a big melee, the pilots claim nine victories (6 Bf 109, 1 Bf 110, 2 Do 17). Lt. Lokuciewski is wounded, many Hurricanes are badly shot up. Again, only nine aircraft are available for the afternoon flight, and in the course of the mission the two flights separate. Flight 'A', led by S/Ldr Kellet encounters a group of enemy planes, and claims four victories.

Meanwhile, Flight 'B' led by Witold Urbanowicz, reduced to only five aircraft, in a determined attack scatters and turns back an escorted German raid of several dozen bombers. Lt. Urbanowicz brings down two Do 17s, but two Polish pilots are shot down - Sgt. Brzezowski is killed, while Sgt. Andruszkow bails out safely. (Lt. Urbanowicz scored 13 victories while flying with 303 Squadron)

On this day, overall, the pilots of 303 Squadron claim 15 victories, at the cost of one pilot killed and two wounded, and two Hurricanes destroyed. Several aircraft are badly damaged.

September 17, 1940, one Bf 109 is shot down over the Thames Estuary by Sgt. Wojciechowski.

September 18, 1940, in the morning, the squadron is visited by Gen. Wladyslaw Sikorski, the Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Armed Forces. Many pilots receive high Polish decorations. Later in the day, the squadron is scrambled three times. In the last flight, Lt. Feric shoots down a Do 17 over London, while Sgt. Frantisek claims a Bf 109.


Group of the 303 ground crew at Lenconsfield. Notice the 126 number chalked on the fuselage and under the badge, the unit's tally during the Battle of Britain.

September 20, 1940, it's the second day of a period of bad weather, there's little enemy activity. The squadron has already gained a great deal of popularity with the British public, as exemplified by the following telegram, received on this day:

Broadcasting House,
London S.W.I,
20-th September, 1940.

The B.B.C. sends warm greetings to the famous 303 Polish Squadron with lively congratulations upon its magnificent record and all best wishes for its future. You use the Air for your gallant exploits and we for telling the world of them.

Long live Poland!

F.W. Ogilvie, Director General

Kosciuszko Squadron is famous for claiming the highest number of enemy kills during the Battle of Britain of all fighter squadrons then in operation through September to October 1940. The squadron was disbanded in December 1946 shortly after the end of World War II.


178th German airplane shot down by the 303 Squadron. From the left side: Sgt. Rokitnicki, F/Sgt Wunsche, Flt Lt Bien'kowski, Fg Off Horbaczewski and Fg Off Lipin'ski. In the background Spitfire VB, BM144 -D flight by Zumbach.

Its success in combat can be attributed to the years of extensive and rigorous pre-war training many of the long-serving Polish veterans had received in their homeland; far more than many of their younger and inexperienced RAF comrades now being thrown into the battle. In its first seven days of combat, the squadron claimed to have destroyed nearly forty enemy planes. The squadron became a legend of the Battle of Britain and its pilots were called "the glamour boys of England". Withdrawn from battle for a rest on the 11th of October, the squadron had claimed 126 kills in 6 weeks. However, losses had also been heavy, with 18 Hurricanes lost, seven pilots killed and five pilots badly wounded.

During 1941-43 303 Squadron pilots flew on Fighter Command's offensive sweeps over North West Europe, flying the various types of Spitfires. During the Operation Jubilee 303 Squadron achieved the highest number of air claims of all Allied squadrons. On April 11, 1942, when an aerial gunnery contest was staged within the 11th Fighter Group, the three competing Polish squadrons - 303, 315 and 316 took the first three places out of all 22 air squadrons, 303 Squadron coming first by a very healthy margin. After D-Day the squadron remained with ADGB ('Air Defence Great Britain'), moving to Coltishall for operations over Holland. April 1945 saw the unit equipped with P-51 Mustangs.

The 303 "Kosciuszko" Squadron was the most effective Polish squadron during the Second World War.

In what had to be one of the more painful episodes in this illustrious unit and its nation’s history, the worst example of Western backstabbing comes when the U.S. and Britain recognize the post-war Soviet-puppet government of Poland, the most symbolic moment comes when the British are conducting their Victory Parade, on June 8, 1946, and the Labour government invites Communist Poland to take part but, lest Stalin be offended, bars the Poles who actually fought for England. The pilots of the 303 Squadron were the only representatives of the Polish Army invited to the London Victory Parade in 1946 but they were so offended that no other Polish units had been invited, nor the legitimate Polish government-in-exile, they declined to attend, watching from the sidelines instead.
Since the end of the war, the Squadron morale was decreasing due to the treatment of Poles by the Allies, and the Squadron was eventually disbanded in December 1946.

Squadron statistics:

Year 1940 through 1945
Overall Combat sorties 9900
Hours of flight time 16,747
Scores:
(from September 1, 1940 until May 8, 1945)
Battle of Britain Score
destroyed 126
probables 13
damaged 9

1940-1945 Score
destroyed 205 1/6
probables 40
damaged 28

The pilots who commanded the Kossciuszko Squadron originally were British. Later, command was turned over to their own officers. Here, a statement from one of their earliest British commanders:

I cannot say how proud I am to have been privileged to help form and lead No. 303 Squadron and later to lead such a magnificent fighting force as the Polish Wing. There formed within me in those days an admiration, respect and genuine affection for these really remarkable men which I have never lost. I formed friendships that are as firm as they were those twenty-five years ago and this I find most gratifying. We who were privileged to fly and fight with them will never forget and Britain must never forget how much she owes to the loyalty indomitable spirit and sacrifice of those Polish fliers. They were our staunchest Allies in our darkest days; may they always be remembered as such!
Group Captain John A. Kent DFC, AFC, Virtuti Militari.
These brave and talented Polish fliers had escaped to France and then Britain after their nation fell to Hitler and Stalin and they had become heroes of the Battle of Britain in particular. The ties between America and Poland have been deepened by the immigration of so many Poles to the U.S. and by Poland's adoption of a universalist creed in the 19th Century--"For Your Freedom and Ours"
--which, as the authors say, implies "Polish unity with all lovers of liberty."

Finally, the grip that both Pope John Paul II and the Solidarity Movement exercised on the American imagination, as they fought against Communism, often in unison with Ronald Reagan, must surely have been strengthened by the long and unique relationship between the Poles and us. This background of friendship and the mutual historical obligations between the two nations makes the story that Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud have to tell all the more infuriating.

The book's subtitle, "Forgotten Heroes," aptly describes the Eastern European troops who fought with the Allies after their own countries were defeated. Several years ago there was a bittersweet film, Dark Blue World, about Czech fliers who joined the RAF. A satisfying romantic adventure, it left the viewer longing to know more about its heroes. Come to find out, beside the 1250 Czechs there were some 8500 Polish airmen (a total of 200,000 Polish soldiers, air force, and navy eventually fought with America and Britain). Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud ably resurrect the memory of the brave Polish pilots and those colorful souls, Jan Zumbach, Miroslaw Feric, and Witold Lokuciewski [known collectively as "The Three Musketeers"]; Zdzislaw "the King" Krasnodebski; Witold Urbanowicz; and even Jozef Frantisek [a Czech]), all of whom breathed life into the Kosciuszko Squadron.

Surrounding this uplifting tale is the sad history of betrayal by the West, which at the official level ignored Poland's war with the Bolsheviks after WWI, then left it to the depredations of Hitler and Stalin, and then, after WWII, abandoned it to Communist rule and domination by the Soviet Union--all this despite repeated promises to vindicate Polish independence and freedom.

Nine men of the Kosciuszko Squadron had become aces in the Battle of Britain, including Urbanowicz, and the squadron had shot down 14 Luftwaffe planes just on the first day of the Blitz. Yet in the haste to cozy up to the Soviets they were abandoned after the war. Even Churchill, whose romantic streak Poland and these Poles in particular appealed to, apparently felt no compunction about bargaining away Polish territory or even freedom in his talks with Stalin. And, once Churchill was gone from power, the British government made it clear that the two hundred thousand Polish refugees were no longer welcome, competing for scarce jobs, and should return posthaste to their homeland, even if it was oppressed.

One finishes the book filled with admiration for Poland and her idealistic, resilient people--their motto, "For Your Freedom and Ours"--and deeply ashamed of the Anglosphere, which in its hurry to end WWII left the job undone and an invaluable ally under the jackbooted Soviet heel. Ms Olson and Mr. Cloud have done the Poles and the cause of honest history-telling a great service.

The following words were written in the Squadron Chronicle by its British commander, S/Ldr Ronald Kellet when he was leaving the unit:

We fought together through the great offensive of 1940 and I then knew that the pilots of No. 303 Squadron were not only the best but would also see me through any troubles. In the month of September, 303 Squadron was on top - no squadron from the Empire could equal the courage and skill of our pilots, no bombing could daunt our airmen.

About the Authors:

LYNNE OLSON and STANLEY CLOUD are co-authors of The Murrow Boys, a biography of the correspondents whom Edward R. Murrow hired before and during World War II to create CBS News. Olson is the author of Freedom’s Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970. Cloud, a former Washington bureau chief for Time, was also a national political correspondent, White House correspondent, Saigon bureau chief, and Moscow correspondent for Time. Olson was a Moscow correspondent for the Associated Press and White House correspondent for the Baltimore Sun. She and Cloud are married and live in Washington, D.C.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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