Poles in the Battle of Britain

Infantry, artillery and armor units always await battle longer than they participate in it. The case was similar with Polish units during the Second World War. Only Polish airmen and sailors fought practically without pause from the first days of the war.

Great Britain. Two pilots of the 304 Bomber Squadron “Silesia” in the cabin of the plane. Photo: Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum in London / KARTA Center
Great Britain. Two pilots of the 304 Bomber Squadron “Silesia” in the cabin of the plane. Photo: Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum in London / KARTA Center

After the September 1939 campaign, Polish airmen, well trained and prepared for immediate action, were one of the first groups to be evacuated from Poland. They served heroically in May-June 1940 in the defense of France. In Great Britain, Polish airmen were initially formed into two bomber squadrons (300 and 301) and two fighter squadrons (302 and 303). Over 80 Polish airmen also served into Royal Air Force (British) units. In total, during the war the Polish Air Force counted 16 divisions which fought over Europe and North Africa. Polish airmen gained great fame through their participation in the Battle of Britain which lasted from July to October 1940. Polish pilots, numbering 144 persons (which accounted for roughly 5% of all RAF pilots) shot down 170 German planes, damaging an additional 36, which statistically was close to 12% of Luftwaffe losses suffered during the Battle of Britain. The majority of these shoot downs, 126 of them, was done by the Polish 303 squadron. The 303 “Warsaw” Fighter Squadron named after Tadeusz Kosciuszko was recognized as the best unit in the RAF. The division’s engagements during the Battle of Britain became, already during the war, one of the most prominent symbols of Poland’s contribution to the Allied cause. A book written by Arkady Fiedler 303 Division published in London in 1942 also helped popularize the contribution of Polish airmen to the defense of Britain. Reprints of the publication were secretly transported back to occupied Poland that same year, and in 1943 three additional editions were published using the underground press.

The Baltic Sea, August 30, 1939. The Polish Navy’s destroyers ORP "Grom" ORP "Blyskawica" and ORP "Burza" depart the port of Gdynia and head to Great Britain. Photo: Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum in London / KARTA Center
The Baltic Sea, August 30, 1939. The Polish Navy’s destroyers ORP “Grom” ORP “Blyskawica” and ORP “Burza” depart the port of Gdynia and head to Great Britain. Photo: Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum in London / KARTA Center

Entering the fight even before Polish pilots were Polish sailors. In September 1939 much of Poland’s navy was saved from destruction, as many ships were sent to Great Britain right before war’s start. Additional vessels escaped to Great Britain later, most notably the submarine “Orzel.” At war’s end, the Polish Navy was composed of 1 cruiser, 6 destroyers, three submarines, and six submarine chasers. They participated in the Battle of the Atlantic, as well as in battles in the North Sea and Mediterranean Sea. They helped evacuate France in 1940 and took part in the Invasion of Normandy in 1944 during which they protected around 800 supply convoys. It is worth pointing out, that both Polish merchant marine and Polish transport carriers contributed to the Allied cause, including such ships as “Batory” “Pilsudski” and “Sobieski”.

The North Sea. Lieutenant Kazimierz J. Hess and Petty Officer First Class Jozef Gajda on the deck of the destroyer ORP "Piorun". Dated 1940s. Photo: Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum in London / KARTA Center
The North Sea. Lieutenant Kazimierz J. Hess and Petty Officer First Class Jozef Gajda on the deck of the destroyer ORP “Piorun”. Dated 1940s. Photo: Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum in London / KARTA Center