The Blog

'For Your Freedom and Ours'

Remembering Polish Heroes of the Battle of Britain, and pondering the course of U.S.-Polish relations in the Age of Obama.

12:00 AM, Sep 16, 2009 • By STUART KOEHL
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Today, September 15, is "Battle of Britain Day" in the United Kingdom, the day on which they recall what Churchill called "their finest hour". Sixty-nine years ago, the blue skies over London were marked by thin white contrails marking the path of hundreds of fighter and bomber aircraft, contesting for air superiority over the British capital. September 15 did not mark the largest air battle in the extended campaign called "The Battle of Britain"; neither was it the bloodiest (historian Alfred Price aptly described August 18th "The Hardest Day" in his eponymous book, on which the Germans lost 69 aircraft and the British a staggering 68), nor was it the last (German daylight raids continued well into November, including a belated appearance by the hopelessly outclassed Italian air force). But September 15 did mark the irrevocable "tipping point", the day on which the German high command admitted to itself that air superiority could not be achieved in 1940, and therefore the planned German invasion of Britain, Operation Sealion, would not happen that year. In fact, it would not happen at all, because shortly afterwards Adolph Hitler turned his mind towards his nemesis, the Soviet Union. And so, in a very real way, today does mark this first British victory, which, if it did not ensure victory, did ensure that defeat was not imminent.

Today a rapidly dwindling handful of men octogenarians, Churchill's "Few" become ever fewer, and as they pass, we are losing touch with that desperate but somehow romantic summer of 1940. Look at their pictures from back then, and they seem so incredibly young, incredibly eager, the finest flower of Britain--until you seen the fatigue and tension in their eyes. More than half of the pilots who flew for Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain didn't survive the war; many who did were permanently scarred by horrible burns and other injuries. There is a tendency to think of the Few as being exclusively British (perhaps bolstered by some Canadians and a handful of "prematurely anti-fascist" Americans. In reality, RAF Fighter Command was a rather cosmopolitan bunch with representatives from all corners of the British Empire--Australia, South Africa, Rhodesia, India, Palestine--but also consisting of refugees from the air forces of Nazi-conquered Europe, particularly the Poles and Czechs.

Though few in number, these men without a country contributed mightily to the defeat of Hitler's Luftwaffe. Many had fled from their native lands and offered their services to France, only to find that country falling to Hitler's panzer divisions before they even got a chance to fight. Fleeing again to Britain, they signed on with the RAF, which at first was reluctant to employ them, fearing that language and doctrinal differences would lead to chaos in the air. As the Battle advanced, though, British pilot losses began to exceed the ability of Training Command to supply replacements. Novice pilots with barely nine hours in the cockpit of a Spitfire or Hurricane were easy meat for German fighter pilots who had cut a swath across Europe for almost a year.

Finally, Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, the Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command, agreed to make the exiles into an operational squadron (under British commanders, of course). Soon, these highly experienced fighters, many of whom had become aces over Poland in September 1939, were making their mark in the air. In fact, the first Polish squadron, Number 303 (later known as the Kosciuszko Squadron, after the great 18th century Polish patriot who also fought in the American Revolution) quickly became the highest-scoring RAF squadron in the battle, accounting for 126 kills--more than twice the number of the next highest scoring squadron, and 7 percent of all German losses in the Battle. Nine of the squadron's thirty-four pilots became aces during the Battle, and one, Josef Fratisek, a Czech who proudly called himself a Pole, became the second ranking ace of the entire Battle with 17 confirmed kills (he also claimed to have downed eleven German fighters while flying for France, but these were not confirmed). Sadly, his plane disappeared without a trace over the English Channel in October 1940.

Soon, a second Polish squadron, No. 302 (Poznan) was stood up, and on September 15, these two squadrons and their 70-odd pilots provided 20 percent of the total RAF force that intercepted the Luftwaffe attacks that day, downing some sixteen aircraft, or 26 percent of the sixty German aircraft lost that day. In return, the Poles lost two planes shot down (one pilot killed) and six damaged (one pilot wounded). It was a remarkable performance.