Fighter Boys: The heroic Polish pilots of the Battle of Britain

Photo of the 303 squadron
303 squadron pilots | Wikimedia | Public Domain

On 20th August 1940 Winston Churchill addressed the house of commons and declared ‘Never was so much owed by so many to so few’. The ‘few’ that Churchill was referring to were the men and women of the Allied aircrews of RAF fighter command. While the stories of the RAF fighter pilots beating back the advances of the German Luftwaffe became legendary, there was an even smaller ‘few’ whose story wasn’t as widely publicised.

Squadron 303 based out of RAF Northolt in North West London had the highest confirmed kill rate throughout the Battle of Britain than all other squadrons in the UK, and accounted for close to 5% of all enemy aircraft shot down. Why, then, were 303 Squadron tasked with riding tricycles around airfields, and not planes, when they were first formed? Well, it’s all a bit embarrassing.

Poland, France, and the success of the German propaganda machine.

When France fell to Germany in 1940, close to 30,000 Polish military personnel evacuated across the English Channel into Britain. Among those were around eight and a half thousand combat pilots. Advising the now exiled Polish Prime Minister that ‘We shall conquer together, or we shall die together’, the Polish forces were quickly and efficiently put into action alongside the Allied forces, and two Polish fighter squadrons (302, and 303) were formed.

Despite being skilled pilots with extensive flight combat experience, Squadrons 302 and 303 were not so readily accepted by their RAF counterparts. Having been defeated by the Luftwaffe in 3 days (a fact that the Axis powers capitalised on in their propaganda) and again over the skies of France, RAF command were sceptical of the skills of the Polish fighter pilots. What they hadn’t taken into account was that the Polish had managed to push back the German Luftwaffe in outdated planes: they’d been fighting with one hand behind their backs.

This prejudice was only deepened by the language barrier between the Polish and the British pilots. Concerned that communications in the air could cause confusion, RAF Command tied the Polish fighters up in red tape to delay their addition to active duty.

Rather than expedite their training based on the skills the pilots possessed, Fighter Command had the Polish pilots begin their flight training by riding tricycles around the airfield in formation with radios and speedometers - an insult to the pilots who just wanted to get back in the air and fight. Desperate from the sheer volume of losses, new British recruits were being trained in as little as two weeks (down from six months) however 303 Squadron were still being handled with care.

Eagle Day, and the decimation of the RAF

In August 1940 the Luftwaffe began their assault over the skies of Britain in earnest. With each new attack bringing more losses to the RAF, things were getting desperate. Meanwhile 303 were still running training flights and being kept out of the action.

Late that August whilst running another training mission, Flying Officer Ludwik Paszkiewicz spotted a large group of German planes and radioed his squadron leader to advise. When he received no reply, Ludwik broke formation and charged a Messherschmitt. He and another Hurricane pilot successfully shot down the Me-110. Upon returning to base, Luwik was reprimanded for his poor actions before being congratulated on achieving the squadron’s first confirmed kill. The call was made to Fighter Command to advise that, given the loss of 100 British pilots just the week before, Squadron 303 should be considered operational. 303 were officially sent into action the next morning and in just 15 minutes shot down 6 German fighters with zero casualties to themselves.

Affection for 303 grew across Britain, and their successes in the field were well publicised across the UK. Having obtained three times as many confirmed kills as any other squadron in the RAF, the daring exploits of 303 and their distinctive fighting style that was far more aggressive than the RAF’s typical formation-based manouevre style of engagement captured the imagination of the British public.

Despite their impressive heroism and contributions to the Battle of Britain, 303 Squadron (along with other Polish military that assisted the Allies) were not invited to take part in the Allied Victory Parades for fear of aggravating further conflicts with Stalin. Their legacy, however, remains at the RAF base where 303 and six other Polish squadrons were based. A memorial stands just south of RAF Northolt in memory of the Polish airmen and women who gave their lives in the skies above Britain.

Written by:

Jo Rowan