This year marks the 75th anniversary of The Battle of Britain, and since this is such a pivotal moment in British history, I thought it would be appropriate to cover it in some way in an episode of this podcast. Also, I was asked recently by a listener in the comments section of my website to talk about the story of the Battle of Britain, specifically the role of one particular group of Polish pilots known as Squadron #303. So, here it is – the story of one of the most important moments in modern British history – The Battle of Britain, and the contribution made by a small group of pilots from Poland.
The Battle of Britain is often cited as a proud moment in British history, particularly by nationalistic Brits who also believe that we shouldn’t let any immigrants into our country. Squadron 303 killed twice as many German fighters as any other squadron, and one pilot in particular became something of a flying legend, with a record number of kills. But the thing is, these heroes of the Battle of Britain weren’t actually British, they were foreigners, fighting in British made Hurricanes and Spitfires. Where did these brave and skilful pilots come from? Poland. So, this episode is not just a history lesson about Britain, but also a bit of a shout-out to my Polish listeners out there – I know there are quite a few of you. If you’re not Polish, then I hope you appreciate the telling of this story of danger, bravery and global warfare.
The Battle of Britain
First of all, this is Churchill speaking, before the battle of Britain begun.
*Churchill speech 1 – “Their finest hour”
So, what was the situation?
It was 7 September 1940.
Northern France was occupied by the Germans, and airfields everywhere were covered in bombers, loaded up and ready to begin bombing raids on strategic targets all over the UK. Hitler was about to take a bit crap all over Britain.
This was a year after Britain had declared war on Germany after Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia and then Poland. It had been a pretty good year for Hitler. He’d basically marched across most of Western Europe and seized it, just like Napoleon and the Romans had done before. Hitler had a pretty effective strategy which we now call Blitzkrieg, or ‘lighting war’ which involved using planes to bomb the crap out of an area before sending in infantry and tank divisions to quickly mop up enemy troops. It was devastatingly effective as it took advantage of speed, mobilised mechanical heavy weapons, surprise and the general disorganisation of the enemy as a result of the air bombing. He used this approach to great effect in the invasion of Poland and then The Netherlands, Belgium, and France. In just one year Hitler’s troops were in control of large parts of mainland Europe.
British forces had been forced to evacuate the continent after effectively being chased away by the Germans. There was a big retreat and escape from France at Dunkirk. It was a military defeat for the Brits who ended up in a pretty desperate situation. The Nazis controlled the continent. The USA wasn’t in the war yet so we couldn’t rely on their full assistance. Britain was basically alone, cut off from the mainland, just separated from the enemy by a few miles of water, waiting to be attacked and invaded by the Germans. Not a good position to be in.
Perversely, this is often the moment that many Brits feel very nostalgic about. As I said, it’s often referred to as our finest hour. I think there may be something in the British consciousness that actually enjoyed the idea of being completely separated from the rest of the continent, as if it clarified the ‘us against them’ attitude of some people. This was perhaps our darkest hour. We faced total oblivion and invasion by the nazis. Certainly, thousands of Brits were going to be killed. Beloved properties and national monuments would be destroyed in the bombing, but for some Brits looking back on the Battle of Britain, this was a moment to be proud of, like it made us a great nation. I suppose the reason people say that is because it was a time when Britain showed some character and spirit. The whole country sort of pulled together and formed a united front. Churchill made his famous speech.
*Churchill Speech 2 – “We shall fight them on the beaches”
It was rousing stuff. Ultimately, Britain survived the invasion attempt. People feel proud of that.
But, it’s ironic that many of the people today who are still nostalgic for that moment are also the ones who preach a certain kind of politics – anti-immigration, nationalistic values, something approaching a kind of English or British fascism. They’re the ones who love that moment when Britain was alone, facing the invading hoards from the continent. It’s ironic because during that battle we were fighting against fascism. Now it seems that it’s the fascists at home who like to remember it.
Anyway, it looked pretty bleak for Britain.
Hitler decided that before attempting any kind of land invasion, he would attempt to thoroughly smash The UK from the sky. He planned to target industrial centres in the big cities, key points of infrastructure and even some national monuments and residential areas. The aim was to cripple the country, both physically and mentally. Ooh, scary stuff.
So, on 7 September 1940 the Luftwaffe were all ready and prepared to launch operation.
Britain at this moment was steadily making weapons from anything they could get their hands on. All heavy metals were being thrown into factories. All the money was being spent on defence and weapons. A lot of Brits felt the squeeze. Obviously it wasn’t as bad as in the occupied countries, I imagine. I don’t know, I wasn’t there. But I imagine having a bunch of nazis from another country marching around your home town making themselves comfortable was rather difficult to take. So the Poles, the Czechs, the Belgians, Dutch and French (well, most of them anyway) were no doubt having a pretty awful time too, not to mention any other nations that I haven’t mentioned. This was a world war of course – so if I don’t mention your country in this episode I am sorry. This is after all the Battle of Britain.
Anyway, Britain was preparing itself for a rather bad time. A lot of planes were being constructed, men were being trained to fly and fight in the air.
The Germans were feeling pretty good about themselves. Morale was high. They’d just walked all over Europe and felt on top of the world. They basically felt absolutely superior. Whipped up by the rhetoric of their charismatic (albeit completely insane) leader, they’d been led to believe that the world was theirs and this was the natural order of things. Wrong.
So, the nazis were pretty chuffed and probably couldn’t wait to have a go at Britain, this global superpower of the time.
This was the biggest aerial attack of World War 2 so far. At 5pm on 7 September the first wave of bombers reached their targets in London. Apparently the sound they made was pretty scary. A kind of low, depressing drone sound. Ominous.
It was a Saturday afternoon in London. When I think of Saturday afternoons back home I think of tea, sandwiches, football with my Dad. I don’t imagine death from above, or death from any direction for that matter. The planes targeted the industrial areas, but a lot of workers lived right next to them and their homes got bombed too.
But that was just the beginning. What followed was a rain of bombs that no other city had ever seen in history. 12 hours of bombing without a break, continuing through the night. A lot of people died, and others were convinced they would follow.
How did the pilots feel? According to interviews they just hoped that they’d hit their targets, but they knew that civilians were probably getting killed. Really, they were a bit cut off from what was happening on the ground. I expect they didn’t feel too proud of themselves.
For the British people, particularly Londoners I think this bombing created hopelessness in some, but also a gritty determination in others, as well as a visceral hatred of the germans.
The fires caused by the bombing lasted for 57 nights, and in fact these fires were more damaging than the bombing raid.
The Nazi strategy was to continue to bomb, terrorise and demoralise the nation. Hitler expected Britain to give up and surrender to Germany, so he could then turn his attention on the East. He knew that it would be unwise to attempt to invade Russia (correction: The USSR) while also fighting on the Western front. So victory in the west was a crucial part of his plan. He expected Britain to surrender. He underestimated us.
It became a battle of wills, embodied by two men – Hitler and Churchill. It was Churchill who rallied the British people. He inspired them to carry on. He echoed the sentiments of the nation, that they would never ever surrender.
*Churchill Speech 3 – The Blitz*
Hitler didn’t expect Churchill to refuse to deal with him. This may have been a bit of a surprise. Britain was not going to be a walkover.
The German air force had already knocked out a lot of our warships in the English channel and planned to launch surprise air attacks on England, but England had a technological advantage: radar. This is now used in airports all over the world. It’s a kind of tracking device to monitor the skies. Radar was used as an early warning system, to let the RAF know if German bombers were on their way to England on missions. This allowed the RAF to scramble fighter planes into the skies in order to engage the German parties in combat. The Luftwaffe had no idea that radar even existed, so when RAF planes suddenly turned up to meet them in the skies it must have been a bit of a surprise. The fighting in the sky was essentially a duel of fighter pilots in single-man planes. Dog fights, one on one battles. Tracers from bullets flying through the sky. Chaos and destruction in the air.
It must have been incredibly frightening for the pilots. So many people were killed. Dogfights lasted seconds. It was a question of being aware of your surroundings and planning your attacks. If you had the right strategy you’d have the advantage and you’d find the enemy in a vulnerable position from which you could open fire and take out the plane. If your strategy was bad, you’d leave yourself open to attack.
The Germans were flying Messerschmitt 109s, the Brits in Hurricanes and Spitfires.
There were so many deaths during these fights that the pilots accepted that they would almost certainly die sooner or later. Everyone just expected to die. Imagine how that felt for these men. Living like that, in the knowledge that tomorrow or the next day, would be your last. What would that do to your mind? I’m sure it was the same for both sides. For the Germans there was the added fear that they would run out of petrol, or that they would be forced to crash land in enemy territory and then taken captive. The German pilots were forced by their superiors to always accompany the bombers, even if their smaller planes were running out of fuel. Sometimes these amounted to suicide missions for the fighter pilots who simply didn’t have enough fuel for the whole mission. Many pilots drowned as they had to bail out of their planes, landing in the English channel, miles away from the land.
Many wives, mothers, sisters and girlfriends lost men who were close to their hearts, again on both sides.
Women didn’t all stay at home worrying though. In the RAF the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force were an integral part of the British defences. They worked in the operations room and helped to coordinate the fighters.
So, in the summer of 1940 the Germans failed to break the RAF. That’s when Hitler decided to launch the large scale bombing attacks on London and other locations, and that was the true beginning of the battle of Britain.
Like on 7 September, waves of German bombers came across the channel, and RAF planes took off to meet them, engaging them in mid-air. The German bombers were well armed with machine guns, and also flanked by fighter planes too, which engaged the RAF in more one-on-one dogfighting. There were a lot of bullets in the air. The German escorts managed to keep the RAF at bay, allowing the bombers to continue to London. Large parts of the city were reduced to rubble. To this day, it remains one of the characteristic things about the city – there are gaps in the old buildings in which more modern buildings have been constructed. It doesn’t have the consistency of a city like Paris, because large parts of the city were completely destroyed during the war and then re-built later. Of course it wasn’t just London. All the main industrial cities took a beating, particularly Coventry in the midlands which got absolutely smashed in a huge bombing raid. It’s very sad. It was a beautiful and proud city with a magnificent cathedral. That’s now gone and is replaced by more modern structures, but something essential was lost, and for years Coventry was like a ghost town for the people growing up there in the aftermath of the war.
Londoners had to hide from the bombing in cellars under houses, or in specially made bomb shelters, even in underground stations like Oval in South London.
Between September and November 1940 London was bombed over 300 times. Thousands of individual bombs were dropped. London’s children were evacuated, meaning they were sent away for their own protection. Most of them went north into the countryside, away from the industrial targets. That must have been a very emotional moment, having to say goodbye to children and parents. I expect many of the parents thought they’d never see their kids again. Some children were taken all the way to Canada from Liverpool, and many were killed when their ship was torpedoed by a German submarine.
Back in London, the RAF with their radar and the brilliant Spitfire fighter plane had something of an advantage in the air, although it was a very slight advantage. Goering the military commander did not achieve the results he’d hoped for and decided to carry out all his bombing raids on London at night. The skies were lit up with fire as London burned, and with the lack of accuracy in the dark many residential areas all around London were hit and many civilians were killed. Nevertheless, Londoners kept their morale and managed to carry on as normally as possible during the day. Clearing up bomb damage but also attempting to go about their daily business. This is one of the things that kept the Germans at bay. The spirit of the people of Britain. Perhaps that’s what makes people so proud and causes them to say that this was Britain’s finest hour.
But the normality of daily life came to a sudden stop at approximately 5pm every day when everyone got into bomb shelters and the raids began again. Even though many people managed to carry on, I’m sure that many of them were basically walking around like zombies, expecting it all to be over by the end of that day. Many of them were ready for surrender, but they didn’t.
*Audiobook recommendation – “The Battle of Britain: From the BBC Archives”
The bombing continued all the way into the next year, until May 1941. Hitler called off the attacks on Britain, choosing instead to focus his attention on the east and Russia (Correction: USSR). However, that proved to be a problem for him because it left him open in the West, and later when America joined the war, Britain became a vitally strategic position for the allies. It was from the south coast of England that the allies launched their major counter attack against the Nazis with a land invasion in Normandy, Northern France which ultimately led to allied forces getting all the way to Berlin. Despite being a hero to the Brits, Churchill didn’t emerge from WW2 completely clean. There were large scale bombing raids on Germany from Britain, including the destruction of Dresden and massive damage to Berlin, largely as a response to the attacks on British cities.
In the east the Nazis struggled through bitterly cold and tough conditions fighting against the Russians (I mean Soviets). Many many Russian (Soviet) lives were lost as well as Germans. Ultimately Hitler couldn’t sustain a war on two fronts. The size and resilience of the Russian army (Red Army) in the east proved too difficult for Hitler, but also his inability to crush the spirit of the Brits left him open on that side too. The Battle of Britain proved to be Hitler’s first major defeat and was a decisive moment in World War 2, representing a turning point in favour of the allies. Nazi soldiers didn’t put a foot on British soil. The invasion never happened.
But that’s not the end of the story, because I’d like to turn my attention to a particular squadron of pilots who made an extraordinary contribution to the Battle of Britain, a contribution that could have made all the difference. During the battle, Britain was hanging on by its fingernails. Every single day of combat, British resources were stretched to their absolute limit. Dozens of pilots and planes were lost every day over British skies. They couldn’t have carried on much longer. If Hitler had continued, he would probably have crushed the British spirit, but he didn’t and Britain managed to hold on just long enough to keep the Germans at bay.
Churchill called it Britain’s finest hour, and famously said that “Never was so much owed by so many to so few”.
*Churchill Speech 4 – “Never was so much owed by so many to so few”
What gave Britain the edge? Well, it was partly radar, partly the brilliantly engineered Spitfire – which was specifically made as a bespoke fighter to keep up with and out-speed the German planes, while holding extra fuel to keep pilots in the air longer. The Spitfire is now a national icon, and it has to be said, is a rather beautifully designed plane, with its rounded and curved wings and fuselage.
But also it was the individual pilots involved in the fighting. There was one squadron which stood out, the 303rd. You might imagine them to be a band of plucky young British gentlemen, but in fact they weren’t. These men who may have saved Britain were in fact foreigners, from Poland.
303 squadron was one of 16 Polish squadrons who flew with the RAF during the Battle of Britain. They were pilots who had flown against the Germans previously, but who had escaped to England when Poland was invaded. They turned out to be the highest scoring RAF squadron during the Battle of Britain. One of the pilots in particular was not in fact Polish but of Czech origin and was called Josef František. He is perhaps the most famous member of the squadron and is famous for being one of the highest scoring allies in the Battle of Britain.
The squadron chose its own name, The Kościuszko Squadron – named after another flying squadron that had taken part in the Polish/Russian war of the 1920s. In fact the 303 contained some members of that squadron. So they were already a pretty distinguished flying team. It was made up of about 21 pilots and a number of ground staff, and what was the prime reason for their success during these air battles? Anger and a vicious hatred of the nazis. This was like a high-energy fuel for these men, who just couldn’t wait to take down Nazi planes at the earliest opportunity.
But their opportunities were slow to come. The team was based in Northolt in England, and were assigned two RAF officers to look after them. The officers were responsible for training the Polish pilots in RAF protocol, but also in the basic English necessary to follow orders and instructions. So, before the pilots even got a chance to take to the skies, they were forced to sit through weeks of English lessons, and I imagine in those days it was pretty mind numbing stuff! There was no LEP that’s for sure.
Apparently the Polish pilots were so desperate to get at the Germans that during a training flight, when a party of German planes was spotted in the vicinity, one of the Polish pilots, called Ludwik Paszkiewicz, broke formation and tore after the German planes engaging them in combat. He shot down a German Messerschmitt Bf 110. The RAF officers were convinced and the next day the squadron was immediately put into action. This was the beginning of an incredible run of missions in which the 303 squadron scored a record breaking number of kills in the air. Apparently, these guys were absolutely incredible. Again, fuelled by a bitter hatred of the Germans, the pilots just pushed everything that bit further, going out of their way, taking incredible risks to take down as many planes as possible. But also, their use of British Hurricane fighter planes was a big advantage for them too. Previously they’d flown planes that were less powerful and less well-engineered. This had honed their flying skills considerably. IN their previous planes they’d been used to having to fly much closer to the enemy in order to get accurate hits. In the Hurricanes, with their increased speed and firepower the pilots continued to fly very close to enemy planes like they had done before, but this time the results were devastating. The German planes didn’t stand a chance. Later the squad were equipped with Spitfires and this made all the difference.
No. 303 Squadron claimed the largest number of aircraft destroyed of the 66 Allied fighter squadrons engaged in the Battle of Britain, even though it joined the fray two months after the battle had begun.
Josef František was a particularly successful pilot. He was considered by his commanding officers to be ill-disciplined and a danger to other pilots when flying in formation, but he was devastatingly successful at taking down Germans. In the end, he was given the right to break formation and go out on solo missions to pick off as many enemy planes as he wanted. In this way František was able to fight his own private war against the Germans, allowing him to take down at least 18 planes in one month, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal.
Sadly, on 8 October 1940, František’s Hurricane crashed in Ewell, Surrey during a landing approach after a patrol. Reasons for the crash are not known, but according to some theories, he may have been making aerobatic figures to impress his girlfriend, or it might have been a result of battle fatigue and physical exhaustion. So he never lived to see the end of the war.
The success of 303 squadron in combat can be mainly attributed to the years of extensive and rigorous pre-war training many of the long-serving Polish veterans had received in their homeland, far more than many of their younger and inexperienced RAF comrades then being thrown into the battle. Tactics and skill also played a role, as well as a daring commitment to bringing down the enemy; on one occasion, No. 303’s Sgt Stanislaw Karubin resorted to extreme tactics to bring down a German fighter. Following a prolonged air battle, Karubin was chasing a German fighter at treetop level. As he closed in on the tail of the German fighter, Karubin realised that his Hurricane had run out of ammunition. Rather than turning back to base, he closed the distance and climbed right above the German fighter. The German pilot was so shocked to see the underside of the Hurricane within arm’s reach of his cockpit that he instinctively reduced his altitude to avoid a collision and crashed into the ground.
After World War 2, Poland was occupied by Soviet forces and its borders were redrawn as part of the 1945 Potsdam Conference. Poland became enveloped in the Soviet Union (correction: Not the Soviet Union, but the Soviet controlled Eastern Bloc), behind the iron curtain. I’m not sure how many Polish people feel about what happened after world war 2. I understand there is some bitterness at the allies, and probably Britain in particular about this, that perhaps we sold-out the Polish or forgot them, or betrayed them by not securing their freedom. Many sad things happen at an international diplomatic level during or in the aftermath of war. They’re regrettable. I wonder how the Poles generally view Britain these days. Is there resentment there? Or is that just a thing of the past. I hope we can all let bygones be bygones.
Nowadays a lot of Polish people live and make their living in the UK. In London for example there is a very large Polish community. Where I used to live in Hammersmith there is the Polish cultural centre just up the road, and many Polish people live in the area. I guess for many of them it’s a chance to get more opportunities for living in the UK, and I’m pretty proud to be part of a country that offers opportunities for people from other countries, and it’s clear to me that residents from other nations can bring a lot of skills and benefits to the country they move to. I’m not one of these people who complains about immigrants stealing people’s jobs. Immigrants are often skilled people who can contribute a lot, as we saw from the example of the 303 Squadron, who might have given the RAF an edge over the Germans in the Battle of Britain. Maybe they saved the day and helped Britain stay free, allowing us all to indulge in these nostalgic memories about our “finest hour” in which we stood up to the Nazis when all hope was lost.
That is the end of the story and that’s the end of this episode. Please leave your thoughts on the page as usual. Have a good day.
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