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.
The Poles' success continued to the end of the Battle of Britain and throughout the remainder of the war. In the air, they were noted for their fierce concentration and almost pathological hatred of the enemy who had overrun and destroyed their country. While other British pilots tended to open fire from as much as 250 yards, the Poles closed to point-blank range, practically colliding with the enemy to ensure getting a kill. Over the course of the war, many of them paid with their lives for their all-out approach to air combat.
After the war, it is very sad to relate, these heroes who contributed so much to victory in the Battle of Britain were rapidly discarded by the country for whom they had fought so well. They went overnight from being the darlings of English society to being unwanted interlopers who ought to go home--something the Soviet occupation of Poland made impossible. Only a handful were allowed to remain in the RAF. Most had to take menial jobs, or had to emigrate to Canada, Australia or South Africa. A number did in fact return to Poland, where all were harassed by the Communists, many imprisoned, and a substantial number executed for "espionage". Not until the fall of communism in 1989 were they able to take their rightful place in Polish society, their exploits (long suppressed by the Communist government) finally discussed in the open. By 1991, the aging remnant of the Kosciuszko and Poznan veterans who had stayed in Britain were finally able to visit their native land, bringing with them the banner of the Polish Air Force with which they had paraded in 1940, a banner marked with the Virgin Mary and bearing the motto, "Love Requires Sacrifice".
The most remarkable thing about these men--and their brothers in RAF Bomber Command, and those who fought with the Free Polish Army under General Anders in Italy--was their fidelity to the cause for which they were fighting, which did not waver, even after it became apparent that the Allies had sold out the Polish cause, putting that sad country under the control of the Soviet Union. Knowing they could not go home again, they continued to fight, as he ancient Polish battle cry puts it "for your freedom and ours".
In 1997, Poland became a full member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and shortly thereafter, President Clinton traveled to Warsaw to commemorate this notable event, the fulfillment of many Polish aspirations. Standing in the Castle Square of the Old City (Stare Miastro) of Warsaw, he announced, "Together, we will work to secure the future of an undivided Europe--for your freedom and ours".
The U.S. commitment to the freedom of an independent Poland was reciprocated by that country in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11. No country, with the exception of Great Britain, has been a more steadfast partner in our war against terrorism and Islamic extremism. Poles fought alongside Americans in Iraq, and continue to fight alongside us in Afghanistan, where they have won praise from our troops and commanders for their zeal and professionalism. Indeed, with the exception of Britain, the Poles are the only NATO force in Afghanistan whose government has not placed restrictive "caveats" upon them regarding the types of operations in which they can participate. Where we go, they go--it is that simple. Elsewhere, Polish government officials have worked with the United States, sometimes in the face of domestic political opposition, to provide bases and other facilities for U.S. forces in Poland (much more conveniently located for reaching potential hot spots than our old bases in Germany). And, of course, they risked quite a bit in supporting President Bush's efforts to build a ballistic missile defense system against Iran using interceptor missiles in Poland. In return, the Poles want nothing more than to be considered as a true ally and partner of the United States, on whom they depend for protection against the threat of a resurgent Russia.
Under the Obama administration, the mutual love affair between Poland and America seems to have cooled considerably. Not only is the administration reconsidering the construction of the missile defense system on which the Polish government expended so much political capital, but it seems intent on deliberately snubbing one of our most reliable allies. For instance, September 1 marked the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, a war which began with the invasion of Poland. Some 20 percent of all Poles would die in that war, proportionally more than the losses of the Soviet Union, Germany and (of course) the United States. For Poles, the anniversary was a very solemn occasion, to be marked with a state ceremony. Three months earlier, invitations had been sent out to all the NATO and EU heads of state, as well as to the White House. Almost all were in attendance on that day--British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicholas Sarkozy. Representing the United States? Not the president. Not the vice president. Not even the Secretary of State. Just National Security Advisor General James Jones. Draw your own conclusions.
At a more substantive level, the Obama administration seems determined to sever the close ties that have emerged between the United States and all the former Soviet satellite states of Eastern Europe--Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia, Ukraine and the Baltic States--in order to "reset" its relations with Russia, a country that consistently works against U.S. interests around the world, supports governments antithetical to the United States (Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela, Iran and Syria), violates human rights on a massive scale, uses its control of European oil and natural gas supplies as an economic weapon, invades and partially annexes the territory of a neighboring state, and which seems intent upon subjugating all of its neighbors in a simulacrum of (if not the Soviet Union) the old Tsarist empire.
At the same time, we seem incapable of absorbing the fact that Russia is a power in decline, whose military forces are a hollow shell, whose economy teeters on the knife-edge of dissolution, and whose population is in the midst of a demographic death spiral. Obama and his foreign policy advisers seem trapped in a time warp when it is always 1980, and the Soviet Union stands at the pinnacle of its power. Thus, the administration offers deference, if not obeisance to a declining authoritarian adversary, while slighting vital emerging democracies who not only like the United States, but are willing to help it do the heavy lifting on the geopolitical stage.
Will the United States do to Poland in this decade what the Allies did to it in the 1940s? One wonders. Even before President Obama took office, there were signs that officials in Washington--particularly in the State Department--were suffering from what one U.S. diplomat in Warsaw described to me as "Poland Fatigue". The Poles, it was felt, were getting too big for their britches, and should just shut up and be good Janissaries. And the Poles, for their part, felt taken for granted. Poles generally, and the Polish government in particular, have an "Atlanticist" orientation. They want to be in a close strategic and economic relationship with the United States. Many distrust the European Union, and especially its ability to guarantee Polish security. As a result, they will take quite a bit of perceived abuse. But we may be reaching the limits of their toleration on this point. If the United States does not take positive steps to mend its fences with Warsaw, it may soon find a much colder shoulder when it goes looking for support in the UN, the EU, or on the battlefield.
Polish pilots killed in World War II are buried in 139 cemeteries across the United Kingdom. The largest number--some 346--are buried in Newark-upon-Trent, under a large stone cross bearing the Polish words Za Wolnosc: For Freedom. They died for that. We owe it to them to live for it, too.
Stuart Koehl is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.