The invasion of Poland in 1939 was not the walkover portrayed by German National Socialist propaganda, particularly in the air where the Polish air force was portrayed as destroyed on the ground. Poland’s small air force consisted of 400 obsolete planes, but number of flight hours made its pilots some of the best trained in world. The Luftwaffe suffered 900 planes shot down by the Poles before the German 5:1 superiority overwhelmed them. Towards the end of the campaign, thousands of pilots and ground crew escaped to Great Britain or France.
In August 1940, the RAF’s Air Marshal Dowding didn’t want to use the Polish squadrons because their lack of English language skills prevented their effective integration into his early warning system. So for the first 45 days of the Battle of Britain the Polish pilots, dozens of whom were aces and double aces, spent their time learning the proper English language procedures for coordinating with the Sector Control Centers and other fighters in the air.
However, on 30 August 1940 during a training flight over Kent, 303 Squadron RAF encountered a German bomber raid enroute to the airfield at Eastchurch, and one of the Polish pilots attacked. The pilot, a veteran of both the Polish and French campaigns, was frustrated with the RAF’s insistence on more training, and used the time honored tactic of not understanding the radio commands of his British instructor pilot. He shot down a German Bf110 and broke up the formation. Bowing to the inevitable, Dowding made 303 Squadron operational the next day.
303 Squadron was nicknamed the “Kosciuszko Squadron” after the Polish patriot and engineer who fought in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. 303 Squadron was formed on 28 July 1940 from pilots of the former 111 “Kosciuszko” and 112 “Warszawa” squadrons of the Polish Air Force. They were equipped with older Hawker Hurricane fighters, unlike many British squadrons which were equipped with far superior Supermarine Spitfires. Nonetheless, in the first seven days of September, 303 Squadron shot down 43 German planes for only six planes shot down and three pilot losses. The RAF refused to believe the numbers until the British sector commander came down to fly with them on 8 September. They scrambled four times, and shot down five more German planes without loss.
One victory that day was a Bf 109 that the Polish pilot chased over the tree tops. Out of ammunition, the Pole flew just above his target. The German pilot looked up, saw the fuselage of the Hurricane less than a meter from his canopy and instinctively dove away… straight into the ground. (The real life inspiration for Goose’s Polaroid scene in Top Gun? You know, “foreign relations”.) Impressed with their aggressiveness, dedication, technical and tactical expertise, and their “lust for contact”, the RAF never doubted the Poles of 303 Squadron again.
145 Polish pilots in five squadrons took part in the Battle of Britain, by far the largest contingent after the British. In early September, when the Germans had bombed Fighter Command’s airfields almost into submission, British Secretary of State for Air, Sr Archibald Sinclair noted, the RAF had “only 350 pilots to scramble, of which nearly 100 were Poles.”
The scarlet scarves of 303 Squadron would go on to shoot down 126 German planes in six weeks with the loss of only 13 pilots. This was the largest number of any of the 66 RAF fighter squadrons that fought in the Battle of Britain. Sgt Josef Frantisek, a Czech member of 303 Squadron who fought for the Poles after his country was given away by Neville Chamberlain in 1938, had the most kills of any pilot in the Battle of Britain with 18.
Pic notes: Note the cavalry czapka in the center of the 303 “Kosciuszko” Squadron emblem. The 13 stars around the outside of the red and white stripes was Kosciuszko’s heraldic device which he adopted after the American Revolution. (It was also a medal for gallantry in the Republic of Poland between 1919-1939). Also note the traditional Polish “war-scythes” on the emblem. “War-scythes” were made by uprighting normal scythe blades to make a form of fauchard. “Uprighting the scythe” was the traditional sign that the Poles were going to war. (You can’t harvest grain with an uprighted scythe; you can only harvest Germans, Russians, Swedes, Turks, and Communists.) The war-scythe is also a symbol for Polish independence, and “scythemen”, “Kosynierzy” in Polish, are roughly equivalent to “minutemen” in American culture. That was particularly appropriate during the Battle of Britain when the pilots had only a few minutes to get airborne to engage the Luftwaffe.