The Battle of Britain was fought in the skies above southern England during the Summer of 1940. Fought between July and October 1940, historians credit the Battle as a crucial turning point in the war.
For 3 months, the RAF protected Britain from the relentless Luftwaffe onslaught. Prime Minister Winston Churchill put it eloquently in a speech in August 1940, saying:
Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few
The brave airmen who fought during the Battle of Britain have since become known as The Few.
Among The Few, are an even smaller group: the men of the Polish Air Force, whose gallantry during the Battle of Britain played a vital role in defeating the Luftwaffe.
The Polish Air Force in Britain and France
Following the invasion of Poland in 1939 and the subsequent fall of France, Polish forces were withdrawn to Britain. By 1940 8,000 Polish airmen had crossed the Channel to continue the war effort.
Unlike most British recruits, the Polish forces had already seen combat and, despite being far more experienced than many of their British counterparts, the Polish airmen were met with scepticism.
Their lack of English, combined with concerns about their morale, meant their talent and experience as fighter pilots were overlooked and their skills undermined.
Instead accomplished Polish pilots could only join the RAF reserves and were relegated to the rank of Pilot Officer, the lowest in the RAF. They were also required to wear British uniform and swear an oath both to the Polish Government and King George VI.
Expectations of the airmen were so low that the British government even informed Polish Prime Minister General Sikorski that, at the end of the war, Poland would be charged for the costs incurred for maintaining the troops.
Frustratingly this meant that able Polish men remained firmly on the ground, whilst their British comrades struggled in the air. Nevertheless it was not long before the skill, efficiency and bravery of the Polish fighters became vital assets to the RAF during this desperate time.
As the Battle of Britain wore on, the RAF suffered from severe losses. It was at this critical point that the RAF turned to the Poles.
After an agreement with the Polish government, which gave the Polish Air Force (PAF) independent status whilst remaining under RAF command, the first Polish squadrons were formed; two bomber squadrons and two fighter squadrons, 302 and 303 – who were to become the most successful fighter command units in the battle.
Once embroiled in battle, it was not long before the Polish squadrons, flying Hawker Hurricanes, grew a well deserved reputation for their fearlessness, accuracy and skill.
Despite only joining midway, No.303 squadron would make the highest victory claims in the entire Battle of Britain, shooting down 126 German fighter plans in just 42 days.
Polish fighter squadrons became renowned for their impressive success rates and their ground crew were commended for their efficiency and impressive serviceability.
Their reputation proceeded the Polish airmen both in the air and on the ground. American writer Raph Ingersoll reported in 1940 that the Polish airmen were “the talk of London”, observing that “the girls cant resist the Poles, nor the Poles the girls”.
The courage and prowess of the Polish squadrons was acknowledged by the leader of the Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, who would later write:
Had it not been for the magnificent material contributed by the Polish squadrons and their unsurpassed gallantry, I hesitate to say that the outcome of the Battle would have been the same.
The PAF played a leading role in protecting Britain and defeating the Luftwaffe, in total destroying 957 enemy aircraft. As the war raged on, more Polish squadrons were created and Polish pilots also served individually in other RAF squadrons. By the end of the war, 19,400 Poles were serving in the PAF.
The Polish contribution to an Allied victory both in the Battle of Britain and the Second World War is clear to see.
Today a Polish War Memorial stands at RAF Northolt, commemorating those who served and died both for their country and for Europe. 29 Polish pilots lost their lives fighting during the Battle of Britain.