70 Years Ago This Month
By Douglas W. Jacobson
Why were they so good?
That question is often asked about the famous squadron of Polish aviators that fought in the Battle of Britain. Squadron 303, the Kozciusko Squadron, had the highest kill rate of any squadron in the RAF. Had it not been for the skill and daring of the Polish aviators, the Battle of Britain would almost certainly have been lost. As the BBC broadcast in the waning days of the epic struggle, “The Poles use the air for their gallant exploits, and we for telling the world of them. Long Live Poland.”
But why were the Poles so good? Before the Battle of Britain, and even during its first few weeks, the commanders of the RAF were so dubious of the Poles that they kept them out of the fighting. It wasn’t until casualties among the British aviators had mounted to alarming proportions that the Poles were sent into battle. And then, when the Poles’ kill rate during their first week of combat exceeded all expectations, the British Station Commander, Stanley Vincent, refused to believe the numbers. He followed the Kozciusko Squadron on their next sortie to see it for himself. Amazed at what he witnessed, Vincent later wrote, “The Polish pilots attacked from almost vertical trajectories with near suicidal impetus, scattering the enemy formations then picking them off one-by-one. It was so rapid, it was staggering.”
One of the Polish aces, Miroslaw Feric, kept a diary throughout the battle that sheds some light on why the Poles were such superior combat aviators. Some of it had to do with the fact that they were older than their British counterparts, and had combat experience in Poland and France. Unlike the Brits, these battle-hardened veterans were used to the ear-splitting clatter of machine guns, cockpits filling with smoke, and enemy planes attacking from all directions. After one battle in which they shot down 14 enemy planes in just fifteen minutes, Polish ace, Witold Urbanowicz, calmly described the skirmish as, “Twelve hounds tearing apart a boar’s body.”
But much of their success was a direct result of their daring, aggressive tactics in the air, which can be traced back to their early training in Poland. Polish combat airplanes were so slow and obsolete that the aviators were trained to get close before opening fire, less than 200 yards, compared to the British who opened fire at over 600 yards. They were trained to be aggressive, to crowd and intimidate, and make the enemy flinch. British Air Wing Commander, Athol Forbes, after observing the Poles tactics said, “When they go tearing into enemy bombers and fighters they get so close you think they’re going to collide.” In a similar vein, RAF Squadron Commander, Ronald Kellett, wrote, “The Poles seemed to transport their cavalry tactics, and certainly its élan, from the ground to the air.”
Not only were the airplanes the Poles trained in before the war slow, they were also not equipped with sophisticated radio and radar equipment. Consequently, Polish aviators learned to use their eyes, and to constantly move their heads about to spot enemy aircraft. Those skills served them well in the chaos of combat where they constantly scanned the skies to spot enemy aircraft then peeled off to engage. Finally, it could also be argued that the Poles had something to prove after their defeat in 1939.
But regardless of the reasons for their success, the valor of the Polish aviators earned lasting admiration and respect from their British comrades-in-arms. As RAF Group Commander Thomas Gleave wrote, “They fought for English soil with an abandon tempered with skill and backed by an indomitable courage such that it could never have been surpassed had it been in defense of their own native land.”
Douglas W. Jacobson is the Polish-American author of the award-winning book, NIGHT OF FLAMES: A Novel of World War Two. Mr. Jacobson has been a frequent contributor to this newspaper and has written a second historical novel set in Poland in World War Two, THE KATYN ORDER, which will be released in May, 2011. You can visit him on the web at http://www.douglaswjacobson.com.