Aces High: Polish Airmen at R.A.F. Northolt, 1940-1945

 Dr. Piotr Stolarski 


Photo of Polish pilots of 303 Squadron (1940)

   Above: Polish pilots of 303 Squadron (1940)

This month’s blog post, coinciding with my talk on Tuesday 21 March 2017, ‘From Blitz to Brext: Ealing’s Polish Community, 1940-2016’, takes a look at the wartime roots of Ealing’s Polish community. Although a few Poles lived in Ealing and its environs before World War Two, the community really began as a result of that conflict, as Polish veterans and their families put down roots in the west London area after demobilisation. Polish pilots made a vital contribution to the defence of the British Isles during both the Battle of Britain and the German bombing campaign on London, known as the Blitz. This post recalls the background and course of their struggle, while highlighting the heroism and sacrifice of representative individuals based at R.A.F. Northolt. My book, Polish Ealing, will be on sale at the talk, for those wanting to explore the local history of the Poles in greater detail. 


Poland and Great Britain in World War Two  

Britain went to war in September 1939 as a result of the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany, ostensibly in order to free Poland. Thus began a war in which the Poles would make common cause with the British, and the survival of both nations was directly linked to the fortunes of war against a common enemy.  

After being invaded from the west by Nazi Germany on 1 September 1939, Poland’s eastern lands were occupied by Soviet Russia soon afterwards. The result was a new partition of Poland between the two totalitarian states (Poland having been partitioned in the late eighteenth century, and re-established after World War One), as a result of which 5,850,000 Polish citizens lost their lives during the war – many of them Jews. 

While many Polish soldiers had been captured by the Soviets, some (including airmen) managed to escape after the defeat of 1939 and made their way via Hungary and Romania to France, where up to 80,000 Polish soldiers were based (and an unknown number fought) against the German invasion in 1940. After the fall of France, 19,000 (one source suggests over 27,000, yet another 35,000) were evacuated to the UK; the remainder were killed or ended up in German POW camps. 

Most of those evacuated to the UK were subsequently based in Scotland. They formed the nucleus of the Polish Armed Forces. It was in London that the Polish Government-in-Exile was established under General Sikorski in 1940. In 1941, General Władysław Anders formed a 75,000-strong army from captured Polish soldiers in the Soviet Union, moving it to Iran. In the Middle East this force linked up with the British 8th Army and formed the Polish II Corps.  

Ealing diarist Alexander Goodlet on the Poles, 1939  


Photo of Ealing diarist Alexander Goodlet

                                   Above: Alexander Goodlet 


The Poles certainly made an impact locally during the war itself. Ealing resident and diarist Alexander Goodlet (1900-1956) made a number of remarks about the Poles after the German invasion in 1939. On 13 September 1939, he remarked that  

                    Today the splendid Polish resistance has moved that blackguard Hitler
                    to issue an order to bomb and destroy without mercy the Polish civil
                    population and at the same time the German High Command admit
                    that they are shooting all Polish soldiers taken prisoner… 

On 18 September he noted the ‘wholly bad news’ of the ‘utter destruction of Poland by Russian and German Armies’, and on the 28th he commented on the Russo-German Pact which ‘confirmed… the complete partition of Poland’. Many Ealing residents must also have sympathised with Poland in 1939, though the local paper did not feature much about Poland’s plight, focusing more on domestic local matters. 

Polish Airmen in the Acton Gazette, 1940  

Nevertheless, Polish airmen appeared in at least six short articles in the Acton Gazette between August and December 1940, during the Battle of Britain. On 9 August 1940, the paper published a letter from a Commanding Officer of ‘an RAF station’ (probably RAF Northolt), giving an insight into how the Polish and British airmen were getting along:  

                    It is sometimes enlightening to hear an honest opinion of ourselves.
                    Polish officers say that they always believed England to be very
                    powerful with vast resources and a great tradition, but also somewhat
                    egoistic and selfish. Since they have come to England they have found
                    us very kind – which they think must be due to the warming influence
                    of the Gulf Stream! What amazes them is our stern severity on parade
                    and the complete friendliness of officers and men when they are not
                    on parade.  

As for what the R.A.F. thought of the Poles, the letter goes on:  

                    The Polish airmen here have our respect and admiration. Their
                    strength is rooted in deep religious feeling and a patriotism which is
                    derived from each man’s love of his own village and country. They
                    have been through great hardships in Poland, Rumania, Syria and
                    France and, by contrast, are now thoroughly enjoying the physical
                    pleasures of a bed and good food. But nearly every man bears the
                    scars of tragedy knowing that his family, if alive, is suffering from a
                    degree of oppression and cruelty such as never darkened Poland
                    before in all its tragic history.  

Another article related how all the members of a Polish squadron had fought in Poland in 1939, before making it to Britain via Romania and France. They had to get used to British customs early on:  

                    At first life on a British R.A.F. station was strange to the Poles, but
                    within 24 hours they were thoroughly at home. These men mix in mess
                    with their British comrades. At all meals except one there is the sound
                    of much chatter. The silent meal is breakfast. A Polish officer explained:
                    “Soon after we arrived here my brother officers noticed that the
                    Englishman prefers to break his fast in a complete and stony silence.
                    The Englishman only wakes up after breakfast. So we oblige him by
                    keeping as quiet as possible! 

Further articles detailed Polish airmen’s customs, habits of inscribing messages on bombs that they dropped (such as ‘Revenge for my aunt killed at Warsaw’), and revealed that while the ‘Polish newspaper printed in this country is widely read… Polish books are scarce’. The paper suggested that ‘Poles living in England who could send books to their countrymen at R.A.F. stations would be doing a great kindness’. A discussion of Polish pilots’ ‘unusually good eyesight’ in spotting German planes, as well as praise for their rapid training, fighting spirit, and combat effectiveness was also published in the Acton Gazette. In 1943, several Polish teachers in uniform visited local Acton schools to observe teaching practices there, teaching the children to pronounce their names and after the children’s singing of ‘God save the King’, the Poles sang the Polish national anthem.  

The Battle of Britain 


Painting of Polish Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain

   Above: Polish Hurricane descending during the Battle of Britain


The British consider the Battle of Britain to have lasted from 10 July 1940 to 31 October 1940, though German raids on British cities (‘the Blitz’) continued until June 1941. According to Wikipedia:  

                    The primary objective of the Nazi German forces was to compel
                    Britain to agree to a negotiated peace settlement. In July 1940, the air
                    and sea blockade began with the Luftwaffe mainly targeting coastal
                    shipping convoys, ports and shipping centres, such as Portsmouth.

                    On 1 August, the Luftwaffe was directed to achieve air superiority over
                    the RAF with the aim of incapacitating RAF Fighter Command and, 12 
                    days later, it shifted the attacks to RAF airfields and infrastructure. As
                    the battle progressed, the Luftwaffe also targeted factories involved in
                    aircraft production and strategic infrastructure and, eventually, it 

                    employed terror bombing on areas of political significance and civilians. 

Winston Churchill made a famous speech in the House of Commons on 20 August 1940, referring to the significance of the battle: 

                    The battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the
                    survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life
                    and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole
                    fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler
                    knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. 

The Battle of Britain was the first to be fought almost exclusively by aircraft (though antiaircraft artillery also played a vital role). Almost 3,000 pilots fought on the British side, the vast majority of them UK citizens. Contrary to the legend, there was no shortage of pilots, but there was a shortage of trained fighter pilots and fighter aircraft (necessitating increased production), as opposed to bombers. 

After intense struggle, the German intention to force Britain to surrender by air attack failed, and in September 1940 they shifted to strategic bombing of the UK, first by day and by night, then by night only. Ultimately, the Royal Air Force proved its mettle. The Germans suffered higher losses in men (2,585 air crew killed or missing, 925 captured, and 735 wounded) and in aircraft (1,977 aircraft destroyed) and lacked the trained pilots and planes to establish the air superiority needed to launch an invasion of Britain. 

Although German raids killed 23,000 and injured 32,000 people, the Luftwaffe were unable to achieve any of their strategic objectives. Winston Churchill summed up the effect of the battle and the contribution of RAF Fighter Command, RAF Bomber Command, RAF Coastal Command and the Fleet Air Arm with the words, ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’. Pilots who fought in the battle have been known as The Few ever since; being specially commemorated annually on 15 September, ‘Battle of Britain Day’. 


Polish Squadron 302 BadgePolish Squadron 303 Badge

             Above: Badges of the Polish 302 and 303 Squadrons, which flew in the Battle of
             Britain from RAF Northolt


Polish Participation in the Battle of Britain in Context 

Although defeated in 1939, Poland made an important contribution to winning the war, as around 850,000 Poles fought on in various guises both at home and abroad: including in the anti-Nazi Resistance; under British command; and under Soviet command.   

Most famously perhaps, during the Battle of Britain (immortalised in the 1969 film of the same name, which depicts Polish pilots amongst others), 145 Polish pilots defended British skies (July-October 1940). They made common cause with the Royal Air Force against Hitler’s German air force (Luftwaffe) which was tasked with destroying the Royal Air Force in anticipation of Operation Sea Lion (the planned invasion of Great Britain). 

During the battle, the Polish 302 (Poznań) and 303 (Warsaw) Squadrons took part from RAF Northolt; both flying Hurricanes (though by 1941 both flew Spitfires). 303 Squadron, named after Polish and American freedom fighter Tadeusz Kościuszko, was the highest scoring Hurricane squadron during the Battle of Britain (126 kills claimed – c. 60 verified), also destroying the highest number of German aircraft in proportion to losses incurred of any participating squadron. 


Photo of a Polish Squadron 303 plane

             Above: The Polish 303 Squadron claimed 126 kills in the Battle of Britain – the
             highest total of any of the 66 participating Squadrons. Around 60 kills have
             been verified by historians – still the highest total of any Squadron. It lost 18
             Hurricanes, 7 pilots killed, and 5 badly wounded, in six weeks of combat.  


The most important characteristic of the Polish pilots, which made them so valuable, was their experience of combat against the German foe. The tradition of Polish aviation went back to the Polish-Soviet War in 1920. Many Polish pilots had been part of the Polish Air Force in the 1930s. Since then many of them had fought the Luftwaffe in 1939 in Poland, and in 1940 in France, before coming to aid the British. They were very well trained, motivated, and effective as a result. Since the RAF had lost 435 pilots killed in the French campaign, it was badly in need of experienced fighter pilots. 

Polish fliers participated in many close-run dogfights over southern England and northern France during the Battle of Britain. On 2 September 1940, a dozen Hurricanes of 303 Squadron took off from Northolt to intercept a German raid, led by their commander Flight Lieutenant John Kent. Near Dover, 10 German fighters attacked the squadron at 19,000 feet out of the sun. The Poles pursued the Messerschmitts, according to F/O Zdzisław Henneberg’s description:  

                    After a few moments of suspicious ‘sniffing’ of each other, the 
                    Messerschmitts and Hurricanes start to dog-fight. The whole ‘gang’ roll
                    over towards France. In the forefront, like scared deer, the
                    Messerschmitts. My machine somehow runs quite well. I select a less
                    speedy Me and am glad to find that the distance between us is
                    shrinking.

                     I start at 200 metres. The Jerry pulls up from his dive and gets a long
                     burst from 100 metres. He starts to smoke and executes a bunt. I
                     repeat his manoeuvres, but the distance between us is increased for
                     a moment. I close in on him easily, though, and the situation is
                     repeated. We are over France already. I keep on chasing him, quite
                     surprised that the Jerry, after four good bursts, somehow doesn’t
                     want to go down, even though he vomits think dark grey smoke,
                     and flames are jumping over his engine. 

                    Some suspect noise comes to my ears. After a while I realise it’s
                    machine guns. I turn round and see: on my right goes a smoking Me.
                    He is too far to shoot, though, as proved by the lack of tracers around
                    my machine. It turns out that they are shooting at me from the ground.
                    I fire another burst at my game and peek at the Jerry after me. I can
                    see flames from his barrels. I break port – the burst goes past me.

                     I start at 200 metres. The Jerry pulls up from his dive and gets a long
                    No way I can continue chasing that Jerry. Very grey puffs of smoke
                    with 
flashing grenade bursts surround my machine. Making shallow
                    turns
 to port and starboard I leave unfriendly France, chased by the
                    artillery 
fire far into the sea. The Jerry has run away, but still he’s got
                    what he’s 
got, and he must have been scared like hell. The other Jerry,
                    
that chase me, had been, as it turned out, shot up by Sgt. František.  

Nevertheless, the Polish contribution should be seen in context. Out of 2,936 pilots in the Battle of Britain on the British side, 595 (just over 20 per cent) were non-British. Apart from the 145 Poles, these included 127 New Zealanders, 112 Canadians, 88 Czechoslovaks, 32 Australians, 28 Belgians, 25 South Africans, 13 French, 10 Irish, 7 Americans, 3 Rhodesians, and 1 each from Jamaica and Mandatory Palestine. (Kenneth G. Wynn gives slightly different figures in his Men of the Battle of Britain (1989), p. 2.)

The Allies lost 1,495 aircrew killed during the battle; non-British allied airmen accounting for 196 (13 per cent) of these – including 35 Poles. The 145 Polish pilots thus constituted just under 5 per cent of the total, though just over 24 per cent of the Poles lost their lives in the Battle of Britain.

Although the 303 Squadron fought from Northolt at the height of the battle (from 17 August 1940 to 11 October 1940), 302 Squadron was based there only from 11 October 1940 to 23 November 1940. Some Poles also fought in other units. It should also be remembered that many other squadrons were based at RAF Northolt during the Battle of Britain, including squadrons 257, 43, 1(F), 1 RCAF, 229, and 615. These and many others continued to fly from RAF Northolt during the remainder of the conflict.  


Polish Airforce Ensignia

                       Above: Symbol of the Polish Air Force (1921-1993)


After the Battle of Britain 

In 1941, after the Battle of Britain, 302 and 303 Squadrons were joined at Northolt by the 306 (Toruń) and the 308 (Kraków) Squadrons. 303, 306, and 308, formed the No. 1 Polish Fighter Wing under the dual command of the Canadian, Wing Commander John Kent (nicknamed ‘Kentski’ by the Poles), and Wing Commander Witold Urbanowicz. 

In 1942, the Polish Fighter Wing comprising the 302, 303, 308, and 317 (Wilno) squadrons, took part along with Canadian, British, American, and Free French forces, in the famous, but unsuccessful, Dieppe raid (19 August 1942). 

The 305 and 315 Squadrons were also Polish, based at Northolt in 1941 and 1942-1943 respectively. In total, 14 Polish Squadrons fought with the RAF during World War II, shooting down 769 enemy planes in the West. 


Polish Air Force pilot’s wings (World War Two)

   Above: Polish Air Force pilot’s wings (World War Two)


Polish Aces at RAF Northolt  

NB: a fighter ‘ace’ is a pilot who has destroyed 5 or more enemy aircraft in combat. 


     MIROSŁAW FERIĆ (1915-1942) – 303 Squadron 

Photo of Spuadron 303 Miroslaw FericBorn in Austria-Hungary in 1915 to a Croatian father and Polish mother, Mirosław Ferić joined the Polish Air Force before the war and defended Warsaw during the German invasion, sharing in the destruction of two enemy planes.

His unit escaped to Romania, and was interned, but he escaped to France by sea. He trained on French planes but saw no combat in the French campaign before making his way to Britain in June 1940.

Joining 303 Squadron at Northolt, he subsequently destroyed 8 planes in the Battle of Britain, and another in June 1941. On 14 February 1942, his Spitfire broke up and fell on Northolt aerodrome on a training flight, for unknown reasons, killing him. 

Awards:

  • Virtuti Militari (Silver Cross);
  • Cross of Valour (Poland) – twice;
  • Distinguished Flying Cross (UK) 

ZDZISŁAW HENNEBERG (1911-1941) – 303 Squadron 

Squadron 303 pilot Zdzislaw HennebergBorn in Warsaw in 1911, Zdzisław Henneberg joined the Polish Air Force before the war. He shared in the destruction of a German aircraft in September 1939, and later escaped to France where he trained on the French fighter plane, the Morane-Saulnier M.S.406.

In the French campaign of 1940, Henneberg commanded nine Bloch MB 152 aircraft defending Chateauroux airfield and the Bloch factory, for which he was awarded the Croix de Guerre.

After the fall of France he arrived in England and joined the 303 Squadron in August 1940. He destroyed 8 aircraft in the Battle of Britain, became a Flight Commander, and later took command of 303 Squadron.

Returning from a raid on French airfields in April 1941, his plane crashed into the sea. Henneberg is believed to have survived the impact, but to have drowned. His body was not found. 

Awards:

  • Virtuti Militari; Distinguished Flying Cross (UK);
  • Cross of Merit (Poland) – triple bar;
  • Croix de Guerre (France) 

    WITOLD ŁOKUCIEWSKI (1917-1990) – 303 Squadron   

Squadron 303 pilot Witold LokuciewskiBorn in Russia to Polish parents in 1917, Witold Łokuciewski joined the Polish Air Force in 1936 and destroyed one German aircraft and probably another in 1939 over Poland.

He joined the 303 Squadron in Northolt in August 1940 and destroyed 4 German planes in the Battle of Britain, sustaining a leg wound in a dogfight over Kent.

Having destroyed 5 more planes in combat, he was appointed a Flight Commander in November 1941 and was shot down and captured by the Germans in March 1942. Łokuciewski was imprisoned in Stalag Luft III, took part in the Great Escape (1944), but was recaptured. He was freed in late April 1945, and commanded 303 Squadron until it was disbanded in December 1946.

He returned to Poland and was later imprisoned for five years. He rejoined the (now Communist controlled) Polish Air Force in 1957, and ended his career as a military attaché in London, from 1969-1972.  

Awards:

  • Virtuti Militari (Silver Cross);
  • Cross of Valour (Poland) – three times;
  • Polonia Restituta (Knight’s Cross);
  • Polonia Restituta (Commander’s Cross);
  • Distinguished Flying Cross (UK);
  • Croix de Guerre (France) 

LUDWIK WITOLD PASZKIEWICZ (1907-1940) – 303 Squadron   

Squadron 303 pilot Ludwik W PaszkiewiczBorn in 1907, Ludwik Witold Paszkiewicz joined the Polish Air Force before the war. After the fall of Poland he escaped to France and flew with the French Air Force against the Germans in 1940.

According to Kenneth G. Wynn, he destroyed a German bomber while on a training flight after joining 303 Squadron: ‘He broke away from the squadron formation to attack it. Back at Northolt he was reprimanded and then congratulated.’

He destroyed three more bombers, and two fighters, before being shot down and killed in his Hurricane on 27 September. The remains of his Hurricane were found in a farmer’s field and returned to RAF Northolt in 2006. 

Awards:

  • Virtuti Militari (Silver Cross);
  • Cross of Valour (Poland) – twice;
  • Distinguished Flying Cross (UK) 

    STANISŁAW SKALSKI (1915-2004) – 302, 306, 316, 317, 501, and 601 Squadrons 

Polish pilot Stanislaw SkalskiStanisław Skalski was the first Allied air ace of the war and the highest scoring Polish fighter ace, with 18 confirmed kills. Joining the Polish Air Force in 1936, Skalski, shot down 4 German aircraft in the 1939 campaign. On 1 September 1939 he gallantly landed next to a German aircraft that had been shot down, helped to bandage the crew, and arranged for them to receive treatment at a military hospital. He fled Poland after the 1939 campaign via Romania to France, and then arrived in the UK. 

Commissioned in the RAF in January 1940, he joined 302 Squadron at Leconfield in August, but soon transferred to 501 Squadron at Gravesend – a predominantly British outfit. He destroyed 5 aircraft while at 501 Squadron during the Battle of Britain, but was shot down himself in September 1940 and spent six weeks in hospital with severe burns. In March 1941, Skalski transferred to the Polish 306 Squadron. Made a Flight Commander in August 1941, he shot down 5 more German planes with 306 Squadron, before becoming an instructor. He returned to battle in March 1942 as a Flight Commander with 316 Squadron, based at RAF Northolt. He destroyed two more aircraft, before being given command of 317 Squadron at RAF Northolt in June 1942, a command he held for five months. 

In 1943, Skalski led a crack Polish unit of 15 pilots in the Middle East known as the ‘Polish Fighting Team’ or ‘Skalski’s Circus’. Together, they destroyed 30 enemy planes between March and May 1943, over the Western Desert. Skalski then commanded 601 Squadron in Malta, from July 1943, which soon moved to Sicily. He returned to the UK in October and was appointed Wing Leader of 131 Wing at RAF Northolt in December 1943. He destroyed two more German planes while commanding 133 Wing from April 1944, made up of three Polish Mustang squadrons. Skalski later trained in the USA at the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, and finished the war in the UK in January 1945 as a Wing Commander Ops to HQ 11 Group. 

Upon returning to Poland in 1947, he joined the Air Force of the Polish Army. Unfortunately he was falsely accused of spying and sentenced to death by the Communist authorities. Having spent three years waiting for execution, his sentence was changed to life imprisonment. Skalski was finally released in October 1956, after the end of Stalinism. He subsequently held headquarters appointments in the Polish Air Forces. Skalski was later put in charge of aero clubs in Poland. In 1988 he was promoted to Brigadier General and died in Warsaw in 2004.  

Awards:

  • Virtuti Militari (Golden Cross);
  • Virtuti Militari (Silver Cross);
  • Polonia Restituta (Knight’s Cross);
  • Cross of Valour (Poland) – four times;
  • Order of the Cross of Grunwald (3rd class);
  • Distinguished Service Order (UK);
  • Distinguished Flying Cross (UK) – and two bars;
  • 1939-1945 Star with Battle of Britain clasp;
  • Italy Star  

EUGENIUSZ SZAPOSZNIKOW (1916-1991) – 303 Squadron   

Pilot EUGENIUSZ SZAPOSZNIKOW, 303 Squadron   Sergeant Eugeniusz Szaposznikow joined 303 Squadron in August 1940, and destroyed 8 enemy aircracft in the Battle of Britain. He was posted to Montrose, Scotland, as an instructor in May 1941, and became an officer in November 1941.

He returned to operations in December 1943 and rejoined 303 Squadron after a spell with 316 Squadron, and became a Flight Commander in July 1944. He was released from the Polish Air Force as a Flight Lieutenant in late 1946, and settled in Britain, changing his name to Sharman. He died in Nottingham in July 1991.

Awards:

  • Virtuti Militari (Silver Cross);
  • Cross of Valour (Poland) – four times;
  • Cross of Merit (Poland);
  • Distinguished Flying Medal (UK) 

WITOLD URBANOWICZ (1908-1987) – 145 and 303 Squadrons 

WITOLD URBANOWICZ (1908-1987) – 145 and 303 Squadrons

Born in 1908 in Poland, Witold Urbanowicz joined the Polish Air Force in 1930. He flew improvised missions during the German invasion of Poland, and managed to escape to Romania with fifty cadets, thence to France by boat. He arrived in Britain in January 1940, trained on Hurricanes, and joined 145 Squadron at Westhampnett in August 1940.

Soon posted to 303 Squadron as Flight Commander, he proceeded to shoot down 16 aircraft, the highest total for a Polish pilot in the Battle of Britain. He organised the Polish Fighter Wing in 1941 at Northolt, consisting of the 303, 306 and 308 Polish Squadrons, later recruiting Polish Americans on a posting to the USA for the Polish Air Force in the UK.

In 1943 he flew in China against the Japanese, destroying two of their planes in December 1943. He also served as Polish Air Attaché on behalf of the Polish government in Exile, in Washington, on a few occasions. After the war he emigrated to the US, where he worked for various airlines. He won medals from several nations, including Poland, Great Britain, the USA, and China.  

Awards:

  • Virtuti Militari (Silver Cross);
  • Cross of Valour (Poland) – four times;
  • Distinguished Flying Cross (UK);
  • Air Medal (USA);
  • Flying Cross (China) 

JAN ZUMBACH (1915-1986) – 303 Squadron   

Pilot Jan Zunbach

Half-Swiss, Jan Zumbach joined the Polish Air Force in 1936. Recovering from a flying accident in September 1939, he was not with his unit when the Germans invaded. He escaped by air to Romania, arriving in Marseilles by ship via Beirut in October 1939. He joined the French Air Force but saw no action and arrived in Plymouth in June 1940.

He joined 303 Squadron at Northolt in August and destroyed 8 enemy aircraft during the Battle of Britain. He commanded 303 Squadron as Squadron Leader from May 1942 until the end of November 1943. Destroying several more aircraft during the war, Zumbach later held staff appointments, but became leader of the Polish Wing at Kirton-in-Lindsey in 1944.

He was forced to make a landing in enemy territory in 1945 after a navigational error and lack of fuel and spent the final few months as a POW. His final wartime tally was 12 (also 2 shared) confirmed kills, 5 probables, and 1 damaged.

Jan Zumbach became a smuggler after the war and then flew as a mercenary in the wars in Africa – organising and commanding the air forces of Katanga and Biafra in the 1960s, under the pseudonym ‘John Brown’. He died in France in 1986.  

Awards:

  • Virtuti Militari (Silver Cross);
  • Cross of Valour (Poland) – four times;
  • Distinguished Flying Cross (UK) 

After the War: The Polish War Memorial at Northolt 

Polish War Memorial in Northolt

Unveiled by Lord Tedder, RAF Marshal and Chief of the Air Staff, in November 1948, this memorial commemorates the Polish squadrons and 546 air crew who died fighting with the Royal Air Force (RAF) during World War II. It was refurbished, expanded, and rededicated in 1996 during a ceremony attended by Princess Anne. The obelisk is engraved with the names of four bomber and ten fighter squadrons, and battle locations. A stone wall displays the names of Polish airmen who perished in 1940-1945. 

The memorial was the main focal point for Polish commemoration of World War II until the construction of the Katyń Memorial in Gunnersbury Cemetery in 1976. It remains a key link between the Polish community and wider British society: a focal point for paying homage to Polish participation in a joint struggle for defence of the United Kingdom against Nazi aggression – playing out in the local area during the Battle of Britain. 

Thus Northolt, an integral part of Ealing, was both a place where Poles defended Britain and later settled themselves. Its continued significance to the Polish community is beyond question and roots the community in the borough both as geographical location and place of commemoration of a dual Polish-British national wartime heritage.  

Conclusion

Polish historian Adam Zamoyski summed up the contribution of the Polish Air Force in World War Two in these terms:

                   Some 17,000 men and women passed through the ranks of the Polish
                   Air Force while it was stationed on British soil. They not only played a
                   crucial part in the Battle of Britain, they also contributed significantly to
                   the Allied war effort in the air. They shot down 745 enemy aircraft, with
                   another 175 unconfirmed, destroyed a further 25 on the ground and
                   damaged 259. They shot down 190 flying bombs aimed at London.
                   They dropped 13,206 tons of bombs, and laid 1,502 mines. They sank
                   three ships, eight miniature submarines and two U-boats, damaging
                   another thirty. They destroyed 1,171 tanks, armoured cars and other
                   vehicles, 84 rail engines and 606 railway coaches. They flew a total of
                   102,486 sorties, notching up 290,895 operational flying hours, and took
                   part in virtually every type of RAF operation. They achieved this at a
                   cost of 1,973 killed and 1,388 wounded. They won 342 British gallantry
                   awards, including 9 DSOs and 191 DFCs, as well as 15 American ones. 

All in all, the Polish airmen in World War Two made a superb contribution to the freedom of Europe. Along with others in the Polish Armed Forces, they have passed into legend as heroic individuals who gladly put their lives on the line for Poland and her Allies. These then were the sort of people who settled in the UK, including in the Ealing area, after the war, the distinguished persons who put down roots and founded Ealing’s Polish community. 

My talk, ‘From Blitz to Brexit: Ealing’s Polish Community, 1940-2016’ is on Tuesday 21 March 2017 in the Green Room of Ealing Central Library. Cost: £3 for library members, £5 for non-members. Please book in advance in person or by telephone: 0203-700-1052 or 0203-700-1055. My book, Polish Ealing, will be on sale.  

Further Reading

Sources marked with an asterisk are available at Ealing Local History Centre or in Ealing Central Library 

  • Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org) – for many articles about individuals and the Battle of Britain
  • Gretzyngier, Robert, Poles in Defence of Britain, July 1940 – June 1941 (2001)
  • Olson, Lynne, and Cloud, Stanley, For Your Freedom And Ours. The Kościuszko Squadron: Forgotten Heroes of World War II (2003)*
  • Simpson, Ian, and Wilcox, John (eds.), The Northolt Story – 85th Anniversary Edition (n.p., n.d.)*
  • Stella-Sawicki, Marek, Garliński, Jarek, and Mucha, Stefan (eds.), First to Fight: Poland’s Contribution to the Allied Victory in WWII (2009)*
  • Townsend, Peter, Duel of Eagles (1991)
  • Wynn, Kenneth G., Men of the Battle of Britain (1989)
  • Zamoyski, Adam, The Forgotten Few: The Polish Air Force in World War II (2010)*

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