Kościuszko pilots relaxing outside a Northolt dispersal hut. Ludwik Paszkiewicz is on the left, Witold Łokuciewski on the right. (Jacek Kutzner)
The Poles, pilots and ground crews alike, did not need to be told twice. They sprinted for their Hurricanes, the pilots pausing only long enough to clip on their parachutes. They scrambled into their cockpits. The engines were switched on. The planes roared to life. Ground crewmen removed the chocks from under the wheels, ducked away, and watched as the fighters bounced over the uneven turf gaining speed, and finally lifted into the air and moved into formation. Barely two minutes had elapsed since the phone rang.
The squadron's two flightsRonald Kellett's A Flight, Athol Forbes's B Flightwere vectored toward Dorking, but Kellett's men were the only ones to see action that day. After about twenty minutes of flying, the six Hurricanes were east of Biggin Hill when they saw a formation of some sixty German Dornier bombers in the distance, guarded by a screen of fighters. As the flight prepared to attack the bombers, one of the Poles spotted several Messerschmitts nearby and pointed them out to Kellett. Kościuszko's British squadron leader said simply: "Pick out your target and go get'em." It had been one year almost to the day, since the Luftwaffe had joined in the devastation of Polandand the humiliation of the Polish Air Force. Now, after twelve months of anguish, anger, and frustration, the time had come to begin settling the score.
Red section, led by Kellett, swooped out of the sun, hurtling down on the surprised enemy like avenging furies. Within moments, three Messerschmitts had plummeted to the ground. When other nearby German fighters turned to take on Kellett and his wingmen, they were attacked from the rear by Kościuszko's Yellow section. On one German's tail, Mirosław Ferić marveled at how easy it seemed to get a Messerschmitt into a Hurricane's sights. "The fuselage now filled the entire diameter of the luminous ring," he wrote in his diary later. He fired a short burst, about twenty rounds, and was "surprised and puzzled at the ease of itquite different from Poland where you had to scrape and try until you were in a sweat, and then, instead of getting the bastard, he got you." Here, Ferić noted, the result was "immediate and wonderful." In seconds, the German plane was trailing fire and smoke. The pilot scrambled out and jumped, his parachute flaring out above him. As Ferić watched him descend, he thought of Warsaw and what the Germans had done to it, of the Polish women and children slaughtered by German pilots like this one. It crossed his mind that he could start getting even by shooting this now helpless German out of the sky, but he decided against it. It wasn't his scruples that dissuaded him; it was the number of witnesses. He would leave the Jerry to the British Home Guard on the ground.
In less than fifteen minutes, each of the six pilots in A Flight, including Kellett, had shot down a Messerschmitt. By seven o'clock, the entire squadron was back on the ground. In their first all-out fight, they hadn't lost a single pilot or plane, and before they landed, Ferić and several others performed victory rolls over the field.
The squadron was euphoric. After reporting details of the action to the unit's intelligence officer, the pilots found themselves suddenly eager to write entries in Ferić's diary. "If it goes on like this, we shall fill volumes!" Ferić whooped in his own entry. There were congratulations from the RAF's senior command as well. Late that night, the squadron received a message from Sir Cyril Newall, chief of the Air Staff "Magnificent fighting 303 Squadron. I am delighted. The enemy is shown that Polish pilots definitely on top." And from Stanley Vincent: "Congratulations on magnificent first operational day."
The best-known photo of the Kościuszko Squadron. Italong with others showing Polish pilots in the RAFwas smuggled by the underground into occupied Poland during the war. On the extreme left are Mirosław Ferić and John Kent. Jn Zumbach (goggles atop his head) is in the center. Witold Łokuciewski is fourth from the right in the foreground. (Imperial War Museum)
The Kościuszko Squadron compiled a brilliant overall record in the Battle of Britain. But it is doubtful that its contribution was ever more urgently needed than on that first day of combat. For it was on August 31 that Fighter Command suffered its heaviest losses of the entire battle thirty-nine fighters destroyed and fourteen pilots killed. But the Germans lost an identical numberand the Kościuszko Squadron's pilots were credited with 15 percent of those kills, with no losses of their own.
Although scrambled the following day, the squadron encountered no enemy planes. It wasn't until late in the afternoon on September 2 that the Poles again saw action, with A and B Flights dispatched to intercept two German formations over Kent. This time, the Luftwaffe was not caught off guard. In a heartbeat, ten or so Me-109s peeled off from the bomber formation and dove out of the sun at the Poles. Spotting the Messerschmitts approach in the glare, Sergeant Jan Rogowski, a babyfaced twenty-year-old, aimed his Hurricane directly at them, scattering the formation and ruining the surprise. As John Kent later remembered it, "a general melee ensued," with the brown and green Hurricanes once again getting the better of the Messerschmitts.
When the German pilots, who had to worry about fuel limitations on their long-range attacks, turned to head back across the Channel, the Poles were in hot pursuit. Most gave up and headed to Northolt as soon as the Germans were out of British airspace, but Ferić and Zdzisław Henneberg, a former Dęblin instructor, continued to pursue two of the Me-109s until they found themselves over the French coast. Just as Ferić closed in on his quarry and fired a short burst from his guns, he felt a sharp jolt, and black oil exploded across his windshield, making it almost impossible for him to see. He'd been hit. Reluctantly, he broke off his attack and turned to head back across the Channel. Opening his canopy so he could reach around and wipe the windshield with his handkerchief he saw black smoke pouring from his violently shaking engine.
Ferić switched off the still smoking engine and decided to try to glide back across the Channel to home. Trailing smoke, unable to maneuver he was an easy prey for any German fighter that happened to be return ing to France from England. As the seconds ticked by, with nothing below him but water, Ferić saw his altimeter steadily dropping: 8,000 feet. . . 7,200... 6,800. Two planes appeared in the hazy distance, and Ferić caught his breath. Then he recognized them as Hurricanes and saw the Kościuszko Squadron insignia on their fuselages. The planes turned and flanked him, flying close enough that he could see Witold Łokuciewski and Ludwik Paszkiewicz in the cockpits. Moments later, Jan Rogowski joined them to see Ferić safely home.
The Dover cliffs began to loom on the horizon, and Ferić wondered if he was closing fast enough to clear them. The altimeter was at 5,000 feet now.. . 4,500... 4,000. He positioned his Hurricane for maximum lift. Then there was nothing more to do but ride on inunless he wanted to lose the plane, and possibly his life, by ditching or jumping into the Channel. Ferić listened to the wind whistling past his canopy and stared at the altimeter as the needle approached 2,700 feet. He was so low now he could see individual waves on the water. Nevertheless, he was beginning to think he might actually make it over the cliffs. A few moments later he didat 900 feet.
Spotting a large field near the coast, Ferić tightened his safety harness and braced himself for a crash landing. His Hurricane hit the ground with a tremendous jolt, skidded a few hundred feet, and bounced to a stop. The plane was badly damagedits propeller ruined, its undercarriage jammed, its skin in various places dented and peeled back like an orange's. As for Ferić, he escaped with only scratches and a mild reprimand (directed at Henneberg as well) in the form of a telegram from Air Vice Marshal Keith Park: "The Group Commander appreciates the offensive spirit that carried two Polish pilots (Henneberg and Ferić) over the French coast in pursuit of the enemy today. This practice is not economical or sound now that there is such good shooting within sight of London."
AFTER THE EXCITEMENT and success of the Poles' first two days in combat, the next two days proved a disappointment. On September 3, the Kościuszko Squadron engaged in two brief and mostly inconsequential encounters with enemy planes, although František did record his second kill by downing an Me-109 over the Channel. On the 4th, there was no contact at all with the Germans.
On September 5, however, the Poles more than made up for their inactivity. The Luftwaffe that day was in the process of launching twenty-two separate raids throughout England, striking hard at air fields and factories but also bombing dozens of towns and cities, from
London to Liverpool. Approaching the Thames estuary in midafter noon, Kościuszko's Red section, led by Kellett, spotted a large German formation bombing the London docks. In a repeat of August 31, Kellett and his two wingmen pounced on the formation in a lightning attack. All three Hurricanes claimed a victim within moments. Then Sergeant Stanisław Karubin went after his second Messerschmitt, forcing it to fly lower and lowerKarubin firing all the whileuntil the two were just above the treetops. When Karubin finally exhausted his ammunition, he flew straight for the 109, missing it by only a yard or two. The unnerved German lost control and crashed.
The squadron's Blue section, led by Athol Forbes, proved just as successful, shooting down three bombers and a fighter. In all, the Poles were credited with destroying eight enemy aircraft20 percent of that day's RAF kills.
In those first exciting and exhausting days of combat, the Kościuszko Squadron seemed almost invincible. With all its victories, it had not yet lost a single pilot; indeed, its only reported injury had been a fractured shoulder. That happy situation, as everyone knew, could hardly continue.
Shortly before 9:00 a.m. on September 6, the Kościuszko Squadron, along with the rest of II Group, scrambled to intercept a vast German air armada300 or 400 planes, in formations almost 20 miles long. It was a tough assignment in the best of circumstancesall the more tough for the Poles, whose takeoff time was set too late for them to achieve surprise. What they needed to do was gain as much altitude as possible as quickly as possible, so they could scan the sky, pick their targets, and gain a slight advantage over the faster 109s. But that, too, was a problem, because a plane loses speed and maneuverability when it climbs. As the squadron ascended, the pilots, squinting into the milkwhite dazzle of the sun, realized, too late, that they were flying straight into a formation of German bombers screened by Messerschmitts. Already committed, the Poles attacked but were quickly set upon and surrounded by a horde of 109s. Bullets and the smoke of tracer bullets crisscrossed the sky.
Zdzisław Krasnodębski takes a nap between sorties, using sandbags as a pillow, out side a Northolt dispersal hut during the Battle of Britain. (Stanisław Blasiak)
Zdzisław Krasnodębski, who was leading Yellow section that morning, had just set his sights on a German bomber when he was hit from behind. The glass on his instrument panel shattered, and his fuel tank must have been punctured, too, because he suddenly smelled and saw gasoline sloshing around in the cockpit When it ignited, Krasnodębski was instantly swathed in flames. He grappled with the straps of his safety harness and, unable to unbuckle them, for a brief moment resigned himself to death. Then the pain of his seared face and hands somehow goaded him, and he began struggling again with the straps. Finally, he freed himself ripped off his oxygen mask, and pulled open the canopy. Turning the plane on its back, he fell out of the cockpit and into the cold rush of air somewhere over Farnborough, smoke streaming away from his burning flesh and clothing.
As he fell, Krasnodębski remembered, through a fog of pain, his last parachute jump. It had been over Poland, and he had come close to being shot by a Messerschmitt as he descended. He had learned a lesson from that. This time, he would wait to open his chute so that he would not make such a tempting target. Hurtling downward, the icy wind whistling past, he grabbed for the ripcord when he was about 10,000 feet above the ground. He grabbed, and grabbed again. He couldn't find it! With the ground rushing toward him, he frantically moved his burned fingers over the surface of the parachute bag until, finally, he located the handle and gave it a sharp tug. The chute opened and filled, jerking Krasnodębski upward. As he floated down, flames eating into the tough material of his overalls, he heard the rumble of an approaching plane. My God! he thought. Not again! But it wasn't a Messerschmitt this time. It was a Hurricane, which continued circling him until he was down. Later, Krasnodębski learned that the pilot had been Witold Urbanowicz, who "initially took me for a German and intended to change the direction of my journeyfrom down towards the ground to straight to heaven. I was saved by my yellow Mae West, which he recognized." For his part, Urbanowicz never acknowledged any such bloodthirsty intent.
As for Krasnodębski, he was barely conscious when he hit the ground. He was immediately surrounded by members of the local Home Guard, who rushed out of the bushes with their World War Ivintage rifles pointed menacingly in his direction. Despite his dazed mind, his pain, his scorched and blackened face and hands, and his minimal command of the English language, Krasnodębski somehow managed to persuade the Home Guardsmen that he was on their side. Soon he was in an ambulance headed for Farnborough Hospital.
Ronald Kellett also ended up in Farnborough Hospital that day. Kellett's Hurricane had been hit while he was in the process of shooting down a Heinkel. Large chunks had been shot out of both of his wings, the rudder barely worked, the elevator didn't function at all. Unable to bale out because of a jammed canopy, Kellett was left with few options, none of them good. He managed to slow his Hurricane down to about 140 miles per hour and landed at that speed on the bomb-pitted runway at Biggin Hill, careening down the entire length of the runway before his brakes finally brought him to a stop. An airman rushed out of a nearby dugout, hacked off the Hurricane's canopy with an ax, and pulled out the dazed, slightly wounded Kellett. They had just made it to a dugout when German bombers made another pass over the airfield and hit the runway on which Kellett had landed. After the raid, he was taken to the hospital, where the wound in his leg was treated and he was released back to Fighter Command for duty.
It had been a very rough day for the Kościuszko Squadron. The unit was credited with shooting down seven more German aircrafta remarkable score, considering the difficulties it encounteredbut four of its men had been wounded and four planes destroyed. Most distressing was the loss of Krasnodębski, the squadron's popular Polish commander. "The King" was the squadron's soul, the man who Urbanowicz said had done the most to meld a group of unruly individualists into a spectacularly successful team. "He didn't score many victories in the air," said Urbanowicz. "His victory was on the groundin the training and upbringing of the young officers in his command."
Zdzisław Krasnodębski, his face and hands badly burned, in the hospital after being shot down on September 6, 1940 (Stanisław Blasiak)
That night, Urbanowicz and the Kościuszko Squadron's doctor went to see Krasnodębski at the hospital. He was in bed and awake, but his burned face, hands, and legs were swathed in bandages. "How did we do today?" he asked weakly. Urbanowicz recounted the day's victories and losses. "I just hope they don't keep me here too long," Krasnodębski said. "I plan to be back as soon as possible." Later, the squadron's doctor learned that Krasnodębski, who had seen only one week of combat in England, would have to spend months, perhaps years, in the hospital. It was unlikely, the British doctors said, that this man who lived for flying would ever fly again.
WHEN THE FIRST wave of German planes swept over the English coast the next afternoon, September 7, there was little indication that the day's raids would be significantly different from the dozens that had preceded them over the previous three weeks. At exactly 3:54 p.m., a WAAF plotter at II Group's Uxbridge sector control station set down a marker on the large map table, indicating that radar had picked up twenty-plus enemy aircraft. Less than a minute later, the number had jumped into the hundredsa flotilla of bombers and fighters even more massive than the one responsible for the previous day's devastation. "I'd never seen so many," marveled an RAF pilot whose squadron was one of eleven immediately ordered into the air. "As far as you could see, there was nothing but German aircraft coming in, wave after wave." Not until the raiders bypassed Biggin Hill, Kenley, Manston, and other hard-hit airfields did it become clear the Germans were altering their strategy once again. Now they had a new primary target: London.
Actually, the Luftwaffe had been hitting London for more than a week. The attacks, though relatively minor and intermittent, had been enough to cause an angry Winston Churchill to order the first British bombing raids on Berlin. Then it became Hitler's turn to be angry, and, as the Führer had already amply demonstrated in Poland, his temper often led to major and irrational tantrums. "If they attack our cities," he thundered, "we will simply rub out theirs!"
By this time, too, Hitler and Goring had persuaded themselves that the Luftwaffe had succeeded in neutralizing the RAF and was therefore free to concentrate on London and other cities. It was a spectacular miscalculationand no less so for being almost true. In two weeks, the RAF had lost 227 fighters, had seen major damage inflicted on its air fields and sector control stations, and was close to being finished. What Fighter Command needed above all was time to regroup, and Hitler was about to provide just that. As Churchill wrote later: "In the fighting between August 24 and September 6, the scales were tilted against Fighter Command. If the enemy had persisted in heavy attacks against [RAF installations and communications], the whole intricate organisation of Fighter Command might have broken down."
But Germany did not persist. Instead it began eight weeks of massive bombing of Londoneight weeks that were the most intense chapter in the eight-month reign of terror called the Blitz.
At Northolt, the Kościuszko Squadron pilots had been on standby for hours. They waited in their planes, sweltering in their Mae Wests, as the sun beat down. Four pilots were in Hurricanes on loan from the Canadian squadron, replacing the ones that had been lost the day before. At 4:45 p.m., the pilots' earphones crackled with an urgent call: "303, scramble! 303, scramble!" Red flares shot into the sky. The planes jounced over the field, and in thirty seconds were airborne.
The Poles joined forces with I RAF Squadron, also based at Northolt. Both squadrons were ordered to fly east, toward the London docks, where the full wrath of the Luftwaffe was about to be felt. Approaching the outskirts of the capital, Jan Zumbach could see below what looked like wads of cotton woolthe shell bursts of British antiaircraft guns in the vicinity of the docks. Then, off to the right, he saw about forty Dornier bombers, surrounded by Messerschmitts, on their way to drop their bombs. Zumbach waited impatiently for the order to attack, but Athol Forbes, who was leading the squadron that day, continued on course, seemingly oblivious to the enemy's presence. Zumbach was "writhing with frustration." If the squadron didn't strike in the next few seconds, more than 40 tons of bombs would rain down on London.
Then, over the radio, he heard a voice barking in Polish: "Attack! Follow me!" It was Ludwik Paszkiewicz, who was leading Yellow section and once again was taking matters into his own hands. Paszkiewicz rocked his wings and broke formation, turned right and dived. Close behind was the rest of his section, then those commanded by Henneberg and Urbanowicz, and bringing up the rear, the section led by Forbes, who had finally caught on to what was happening. The entire squadron, wheeling around in a great arc, plummeted down, out of the sun. "We gave them all we had," Forbes reported later, "opening fire at 450 yards and only breaking away when we could see the enemy completely filling the gunsight."
Jan Zumbach in front of a Hurricane. (Jacek Kutzner)
When it came Zumbach's time to shoot, he pushed the firing button and nothing happened. Realizing that he had left the safety catch on, he turned the air blue with his swearing as he wrenched his plane into a tight turn, the centrifugal force of the maneuver pushing him back against his seat. Once more, he managed to get a German bomber into his sights. After several bursts from his guns, the Dornier disappeared in a wall of fire. Zumbach dived after another and fixed on him easily. He pressed the firing button, and, moments later that bomber, too, exploded. Trying to avoid the ball of flame, Zumbach banked so violently that he blacked out. His plane plummeted downward. He regained consciousness and pulled out of the dive only a few hundred feet from the ground.
By this time, nearly a quarter of the German bomber formation had been destroyed. "It was like twelve hounds tearing a boar's body to pieces," Urbanowicz declared. With another hunting simile, Forbes marveled at the sight of "the Dorniers fall[ing] out of the sky like partridges out of a covey, sometimes two at a time." The surviving bombers, after scattering in panic, turned and headed back to France without dropping their bombs. The Poles then focused their attention on the Messerschmitts, which already had come under attack from I Squadron.
Marian Pisarek, who had been an infantry officer in Poland before joining the air force, picked off a 109, but was attacked and hit by another German fighterone of three Kościuszko pilots to be shot down that day. With his plane in flames, Pisarek started to scramble out, but his left foot snagged on the edge of the cockpit. As the burning Hurricane spiraled down, Pisarek, dangling from it, desperately tried to wrench his foot loose. He finally managed to pull his foot out of his boot, fell free, and opened his parachute a few thousand feet from the ground. He landed in the backyard of a suburban cottage, in the middle of the owner's prized rose garden. Rushing out of the house, the owner proceeded to give the dazed young Pole a mild lecture about the importance of not trespassing on private property. But the English passion for privacy soon gave way to English cordiality: the man took Pisarek into his house and brewed him a pot of tea. Limping inside sans boot, the highly embarrassed Pisarek tried hard to conceal the large, ragged hole in his left sock.
Victory roll followed victory roll as the triumphant Hurricanes returned home to Northolt. "Everyone was dancing with excitement," Zumbach said. In less than fifteen minutes of combat, the Poles had shot down fourteen German planes, plus four "probables." Paszkiewicz and Zumbach had a pair of kills each; Urbanowicz had one, plus a "probable." Łokuciewski also had a kill, a German plane that he said "burst like a soap bubble" as soon as he fired at it. Perhaps even more significant than the number of kills that day was the Kościuszko Squadron's remarkable ability to disperse a German bomber formation before it could hit London. A day already filled with horror on the ground would have been that much worse if all forty Dorniers had made it through.
The Poles' joy at their accomplishments was tempered by their dismay at the damage that the Germans had managed to inflict anyway. In that first raid of the Blitz, hundreds of Londoners were killed, thou sands injured and driven from their homes. Seeing the huge columns of smoke and the blood-red glow of the fires in the East End, the men of the Kościuszko Squadron were reminded of the way their own capital had been attacked and set ablaze just a year earlier. But, like Warsaw, London, about to endure fifty-seven straight nights of bombing, would prove indomitable because, like Varsovians, Londoners were willing to risk everything in the name of independence, liberty, and honor. His countrymen, Winston Churchill remarked during the war were "bred to value freedom far above their lives."
IN ITS FIRST week of combat, the record compiled by the Kościuszko Squadron was so impressive that some people in Fighter Command simply didn't believe it was true. Among the doubters was Northolt's station commander, Stanley Vincent, who wondered if the Poles might be guilty of inflating the numbers in their post-action reports.
Questioned by Vincent, Kellett insisted that he maintained the strictest scoring standards. If anything, he said, the squadron's combat reports had understated its accomplishments. Vincent was not persuaded. He ordered his intelligence officer to "treat these claims with a lot of reservego through them with a toothcomb." After a brief investigation, the officer reported back that he could find no discrepancies. Still skeptical, Vincent decided he would find out for himself. On September 11, he was following the squadron in his own Hurricane when the Poles encountered a large enemy bomber formation over Horsham heading for London. Flying above the squadron, Vincent watched as two Hurricanes peeled off and dived almost vertically at the German bombers "with near suicidal impetus." Startled by the ferocity of the attack, the German pilots broke formation, whereupon the Poles began picking off the scattered bombers one by one. Several times during the combat, the Poles would close almost to a collision point before opening fire on a target. The results were devastating for the Germans. "Suddenly," Vincent declared, "the air was full of burning aircraft, parachutes, and pieces of disintegrating wings. It was all so rapid that it was staggering." An experienced fighter pilot himself Vincent tried to get into the fight, but every time he started to close on an enemy bomber, a "diving Pole would cut in between, and I had to pull away to avoid being hit myself." Remaining prudently on the sidelines, Vincent was finally persuaded. When he landed at Northolt that afternoon, he told his intelligence officer, "My God, they are doing it!"
The station commander, who from that day on was a staunch supporter of the Poles, was hardly their only admirer. Indeed, by the middle of September, the pilots of the Kościuszko Squadron had become unofficial heroes of the realm. Government officials, senior RAF officers, private citizens, the prime minister, and the king himself joined at various times in paying honor to the squadron that shot down nearly forty planes in a little over a week. Wrote the BBC's director-general: "The BBC 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!"
Most of these tributes were carefully copied by Ferić into his diary. Throughout the Battle of Britain, he never lost sight of his goal: to document the squadron's achievements in the little book he carried every where with him. When his fellow pilots, particularly Zumbach, refused on occasion to write about their victories, Ferić did it for them. "I am committed," he wrote, "to preserving all that may be forgotten, all that is most dear to us right nowthe heroic battle deeds of our pilots."
His commitment was still not much appreciated. "Ox has become a real plague for the pilots," Zumbach growled in mid-September. "The poor sods are still in their planes when he grabs them by their ties, pushes the pen and book towards them and hisses ominously into their combat-deafened ear: 'Start writingnow!' " As his colleagues discovered, it was almost impossible to elude Ferić's pursuit. From his hospital bed, a wounded Kościuszko pilot wrote on September 21: "So he finally got me: I mean Ox, of course. He came here, ostensibly on a visit, but he had the book with him and he ordered me to write."
When he did deign to write in Ferić's diary, Zumbach, who was far less romantic than his friend and had no interest in proclaiming his or anybody else's heroism, would often parody the florid, overheated prose used by some of his compatriots. Writing about the hectic combat on September 7, Zumbach began: "The sun was just like it is today. Its hot rays caused the earth to give off a fragrance, as intoxicating as the scent of your beloved girl's body. Somewhere, hidden in the lilac thicket, a nightingale was warbling its song. This mood was shattered suddenly by the scream of sirens. . ."
Jan Zumbach and Mirosław Ferić with a squadron mascot. (Imperial War Museum)
That, Zumbach noted, was how a writer would begin his account "Not being one," he went on, "I will tell how things really were. Well, the sun was there all right, but not like it is today, because today, it is raining and the sky is overcast. There are no lilac bushes on the aerodrome and the nightingale is a beast entirely unknown in England. There was no fragrance either.... The one thing that did happen was the alarm."
While Zumbach played down his and his comrades' victories, the British, including the prime minister were doing the opposite. Over dinner at 10 Downing one September night, a major topic of conversation was the success of the Polish pilots. "It was generally agreed that they were magnificent fighters," John Colville wrote of the evening's discussion. There was some debate, however, about just how good the Poles really were. Winston Churchill averred that one Pole was easily worth three Frenchmen. Lord Gort, commander of the British Expeditionary Force in France, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, once so skeptical about the Polish fliers, strongly disagreed. The ratio, in their view, was more like ten Frenchmen per Pole.
At Buckingham Palace, George VI's secretary, Alexander Hardinge, admiringly referred to the Polish pilots as "absolute tigers." In a letter to Lord Hamilton, Hardinge wrote: "One cannot help feeling that if all our Allies had been Poles, the course of the war up till now, would have been very different." An RAF squadron leader, speaking of the Polish airmen, was quoted as saying: "They are fantasticbetter than any of us. In every way they've got us beat."
Over and over, the question was asked: what made the Poles so good? The answer was complex. Generally older than their British counter parts, most Polish pilots had hundreds of hours of flying time in a variety of planes, as well as combat experience in both Poland and France. Unlike British fliers, they had not been trained to rely on a sophisticated radio and radar network and had learned to fly in primitive, outdated planes. As a result, said one British flight instructor, "their understanding and handling of aircraft was exceptional." Although they appreciated the value of tools like radio and radar, the Poles never stopped using their eyes to locate the Luftwaffe. "Whereas British pilots are trained.. . to go exactly where they are told, Polish pilots are always turning and twisting their heads to spot a distant enemy," an RAF flier noted. To become a pilot in prewar Poland, one had to have virtually perfect vision, and Polish airmen worked hard to maintain and even improve their ability to spot objects at long distances.
A British pilot spoke with awe about two Polish fliers assigned to his squadron. The two Poles would lie on their cots in the dispersal hut and track the progress of flies creeping up and down the wall. Later in the war, Witold Urbanowicz, attached briefly to the fighter group that succeeded the legendary Flying Tigers in China, astonished his young American comrades with his visual acuity. "To me, Colonel Urbanowicz was like a swami or seersomeone who sees all and knows all," said Donald Lopez, a rookie pilot with the group. "I couldn't believe the details he could give you after a fight. He saw everything that happened and everything that everybody did."
The Poles' exceptional concentration was equaled only by their daring. British pilots were taught to fly and fight with caution. They were instructed not to get in too close, to open fire on the enemy at a distance of not less than 150 yards. The Poles, by contrast, had been trained at home to be aggressive, to use their planes the way a cavalryman uses his charger, to crowd and intimidate the enemy, to make him flinch, and then to bring him down. After firing a brief opening burst at a range of 150 to 200 yards, just to get on the enemy's nerves, the Poles would close almost to point-blank range. That was where they did their real work. "When they go tearing into enemy bombers and fighters they get so close you would think they were going to collide," observed Athol Forbes. Only then did the Poles unleash their devastating broadsides, which, as Forbes noted, "will cut chunks out of any part of a German bomber and generally disable it in one attack."
In the airborne war of nerves, Polish pilots, more often than not, were the winners. On several occasions, Forbes reported, crew members of Luftwaffe bombers, seeing that Kościuszko's Hurricanes were about to attack, baled out before their planes were hit. Even allowing for the hyperbole of war, the squadron's ability to break up bomber formations and send them fleeing back to France was just as important in the defense of Britain as its ability to shoot planes out of the sky. Indeed, the Poles' daredevil style proved so effective that Ronald Kellett and John Kent both adopted it on occasion. Kent, when commanding "these intensely brave men" in combat, liked to think of himself as leading a charge of the famed Polish cavalry. "In fact," he said, "the Poles seemed to transport their cavalry tactics, and certainly its élan, from the ground into the air."
Thanks to the Poles, Kellett also cut back on the use of the RAF's tight V-shaped flying formations and the use of outdated, prewar text book tactics. The rigid, close formations, with a "tail-end Charlie" or "weaver" behind, were "simply suicidal," said one Polish pilot. He spoke for all the Poles, whether in British or Polish squadrons. They hated flying in close formation, because it forced them to worry about avoiding collisions with their own planes instead of concentrating on finding the enemy. In their view, loose formations, spread out fairly wide, with planes at slightly different altitudes, were far more effective, if for no other reason than that they gave everyone in the squadron a clear view of the sky.
For the Poles, the idea of using set-piece attacks (and expecting the Germans to follow British textbooks) was also ridiculous. The pilots of the Kościuszko Squadron were constantly devising new tactical variations in response to the latest German maneuvers. "It was just common sense, really," Kellett said after the war. "Besides, once you'd gone in to attack, there was no time to worry about what anyone else was doing." In other words, combat rarely, if ever, went by the book. Once the shooting began, it was every pilot for himself.
Up to a point. The Poles also believed in protecting one another as much as possible. They were noted for going to the aid of other pilots under attack, and in many post-action reports, there are references to Kościuszko Squadron pilots shepherding damaged planes or protecting pilots who had baled out from German strafing attacks. During one sortie in early September, John Kent was chasing a German bomber when he realized a 109 was closing in on him from behind. In a flash, Zdzisław Henneberg's Hurricane cut in front of the Messerschmitt and forced him to break off. Henneberg stayed with Kent, acting as his bodyguard, until the British pilot shot down the bomber and gained cloud cover. Back at Northolt, Kent thanked Henneberg for chasing the German fighter off his tail. No thanks necessary, the Pole said. By the way there were six Messerschmitts chasing you, not just one.
Ronald Kellett, who also had been protected by the Poles on a number of occasions, credited them with keeping him alive during the Battle of Britain. "Unless the leaders are well supported by those behind them, they fall an easy prey to the enemy fighters," he wrote after the war. "In this connection it is greatly to the credit of the Polish airmen that the three English pilots who commanded the Squadron and flights survived the Battle.. . ."
Another reason, often overlooked, for the squadron's success was the extraordinary skill and dedication of its Polish ground crew members. "I don't believe that any squadron had better... aircraft maintenance than 303," Kellett wrote. From the first days of the campaign in Poland, the mechanics of the Polish Air Force were noted for the fiercely protective care they lavished on their aircraft. In his diary, Miroslaw Ferić recalled how, on the second day of the war in Poland, his mechanic presented him with a special brush to clean his P-n's windshield in the air. And when Ferić was shot down two days later, "my mechanic could not console himself after the loss of my machine, which he took such loving care of."
Five Kościuszko Squadron pilots seen behind the wing of a Hurricane (from left):
Mirosław Ferić, unidentified pilot, Jan Zumbach, Zdzisław Henneberg, and John
Kent. (Imperial WarMuseum)
When the squadron was first organized in England, Kellett suggested to members of the ground crew that they keep the same hours as the pilotsin readiness from one half hour before sunrise to one half hour after sunset. But during the frenetic weeks of the Battle of Britain, the
squadron's mechanics worked round the clock to keep the planes flying. They were such wizards at repairing badly damaged planes that only four times during the battle did the squadron take off with fewer than its full complement of twelve Hurricanes, an accomplishment that obviously increased the squadron's effectiveness.
The climactic day of the Battle of BritainSeptember 15, 1940 turned out to be the ultimate test of the ground crew's skill. At the end of that day of ferocious fighting, Kellett declared that nine of the squadron's aircraft were good for nothing but the scrap heap. Control fins had been shot off cables severed, wings and engines punctured with bullets, radiators smashed. But the mechanics were determined to prove the squadron leader wrong.
After working through the night, they had all nine planes on the runway the next morning, ready to sortie.