The German and Soviet occupation of Poland in the summer of 1940 was a brutal affair, and thousands joined the growing resistance. Nonetheless, tens of thousands of political prisoners were rounded up, some for the simple offense of not seeing a German walk past and bowing quickly enough. Most, if not outright killed, were sent to a growing series of concentration camps that sprung up across the country. The largest and fastest growing camp was outside of the Polish town of Oswiecim.
On 19 September, 1940, resistance member and former cavalry troop commander, Witold Pilecki volunteered to be captured and get sent to the camp where he would conduct a detailed reconnaissance, and set up a resistance movement inside if possible. The next day he was picked up in a random sweep and nearly beaten to death. A few days later he was transferred to the camp outside of Oswiecim, more commonly known to the Germans as Auschwitz.
Pilecki stayed in Auschwitz for the next three years and sent weekly reports to the Polish Underground which eventually made their way to British Intelligence. Additionally, he led and coordinated the resistance movements inside the camp, synchronized escapes, planned a camp uprising, and set up services and amenities for the prisoners including a news service and a secret hospital (the Germans killed sick prisoners). But it was his documentation of the Holocaust that would be the most benefit to Mankind.
Pilecki documented the abuses of the guards, the conditions of the prisoners, and later the daily arrival of Jews and other “undesirables”. His organization meticulously detailed the extermination of hundreds of thousands of people by the National Socialists. His reports were the first evidence of genocide on an industrial scale to reach the outside world. He escaped the prison in 1943, after the guards made known that the Polish prisoner camp “staff” (Pilecki was a baker) was going to be liquidated and replaced with new arrivals.
Pilecki fought in the Home Army against the Germans for the rest of the war. After the German surrender, the Soviets rounded up any Poles with connections to the British backed Polish Government-in-Exile. Witold Pilecki, a man who survived the absolute worst the National Socialists could devise, was arrested, given a show trial, and executed by Soviet socialists for “Crimes against the People.”
The night before he was executed, he told his wife, “”I cannot live. They killed me because Oświęcim (Auschwitz) was just a trifle compared with them (the Soviets).”
On 16 September 1940, US President Franklin D Roosevelt signed the Selective Service Act into law. It required all males from the age of 21 to 35 to register for the draft. The Selective Service Act of 1940 was the first peacetime draft in American history. With Japan overrunning large portions of China, Germany possessing most of Europe and poised to invade Britain, and the Soviets, an ally of Germany, controlling most of Eastern Europe, FDR thought it prudent to prepare the US for war. The law also mobilized the National Guard and called up the officer reserves.
“America stands at the crossroads of its destiny. Time and distance have been shortened. A few weeks have seen great nations fall. We cannot remain indifferent to the philosophy of force now rampant in the world. We must and will marshal our great potential strength to fend off war from our shores. We must and will prevent our land from becoming a victim of aggression.” — FDR 16 September 1940
In just eight days thousands of British civilians were killed and wounded, and large areas of London, particularly East London, were in ruins. But with the Luftwaffe’s focus on London, Dowding’s early warning system returned to peak efficiency, and RAF Fighter Command’s airfields were repaired, its pilots rested, and its planes fixed and properly maintained.
On 14 September 1940, Hitler postponed the invasion one last time, and decreed that if the RAF wasn’t destroyed within the week, the invasion of Britain would be postponed indefinitely. The next morning Herman Goering, convinced the RAF was on its last legs, called for a maximum effort. British radar picked up a formation of German planes over France that was so large it was taking longer than normal to form up. This gave Air Marshal Dowding time to organize the set piece battle he craved since July.
At 0700 as the Germans were enroute, Winston Churchill departed London to the relative safety of the 11 Group airfield at Uxbridge where he would observe the coming battle. 11 Group put up all of its fighters to meet the attack and Churchill asked “What other reserves have we?” 11 Groups commander, Keith Park replied tersely, ‘We have none, sir.”
That wasn’t entirely accurate. When the Germans took so long to form up this gave 12 Group to the north time to form their vaunted “Big Wings”. All told the RAF put up 625 fighters to meet 1120 Luftwaffe fighters and bombers over London and southern England. It was an apocalyptic air battle that lasted all day, with fighters on both sides fighting, landing, immediately rearming and refueling, and then heading back into the battle. Some British pilots did this four and five times. When evening came and the wreckages were counted, the RAF lost 43 fighters and the Luftwaffe lost 136 planes of all types.
But it wasn’t the losses that shocked the Germans, they were completely astonished by the RAF’s response. Like all totalitarian regimes, the Germans had problems with math and routinely made overly positive assessments of their operations to show progress. Just that morning the pilots were briefed that the RAF had only 250 fighters left in the country with just 150 covering London: the Luftwaffe pilots went into battle assuming they had an 8 to 1 advantage.
Luftwaffe planners and commanders tried to excuse away the large numbers of RAF fighters, but the pilots’ eyes did not deceive them and they talked: the British had no less than 500 up at any time. Goering was lying to them. Particularly demoralizing was a five squadron 12 Group Big Wing that descended upon a bomber formation and nearly wiped it out, leaving only a few stragglers…almost as if they were deliberately left alive to tell the tale.
The Battle of Britain continued for another three weeks, but it was anti-climactic after 15 September and the Luftwaffe switched increasingly to safer night raids. On 17 September, Hitler postponed Operation Sealion indefinitely, and switched his attention to the planning for next spring’s offensive: Operation Barbarossa, the Invasion of the Soviet Union.
On 13 September 1940, the Italian X Army advanced out of Libya and into Egypt to seize Cairo and the Suez Canal, in the first scene of the first act of what would become known over the next three years as the Western Desert Campaign. The Western Desert, known so by the British because it was west of the Middle East, was a 150 mile wide and 1000 mile long strip of rocky desert in North Africa between Tripoli in Libya and Mersa Matruh in Egypt. It was bordered by the Mediterranean Coast to the north, and impassable terrain to the south: the salt flats of the Qattara Depression and giant dunes of the Sahara. The Western Desert had but a single coastal road, the Via Balbia, although there were some Bedouin tracks that connected the oases further south.
With the French threat from Tunisia neutralized by her surrender, the Italian X Army attacked east along the Via Balbia into Egypt. They were met by units of the British Armoured Division (soon to be renamed the 7th Armoured Division, aka The Desert Rats), the New Zealand Division led by the indestructible MajGen Bernard Freyberg, and the “Red Eagles” of the 4th Indian Division. But before those units became famous later in the war, in September 1940, they were underequipped, undermanned, and under trained composite formations only thrown together when the Italians declared war in June. They were overwhelmed by the Italians while defending the frontier. Yet the British and Commonwealth troops conducted a skillful delaying action and scorched earth policy, principally by destroying the coastal road, which exacerbated the Italian supply problems.
The Italian supplies had to be shipped from Italy to Benghazi or Tobruk, or even worse farther west to Tripoli, and then driven to the frontier hundreds of miles east. It didn’t help that Italy was not even remotely prepared for Mussolini’s declaration of war. The Italian merchant marine was completely surprised, and a full 1/3 of all Italian shipping was captured within two days of the declaration, because they were caught in neutral or hostile ports. Furthermore, the rough terrain was hell on the vehicles, and the hot desert wind, called the Sirocco, coated everything in a fine machinery destroying dust. Soon spare parts were fighting with food, fuel, water and ammunition for the limited space in the ships and trucks. Italian trucks were using 60% of the fuel they carried just to get to the forward units. Upon learning that the Duke of Aosta in the Sudan was stopped by the same logistics problems, Field Marshal Graziani decided to halt the Italian offensive on 16 September when he reached Sidi Barrani, just 65 miles inside Egypt. There the Italians dug in to buildup supplies for the next push.
However, the Italians only learned the first half of the First Rule of the Western Desert: “Every step forward for the attacker was one step further away from their supplies”. They didn’t yet understand the second half, “Every step back for the defender was one step closer to theirs”.
The British did.
By early September 1940, the RAF’s Fighter Command was a hot mess and barely functioning as a fighting organization. In southern England, 11 Group was not only losing planes faster than industry could replace them, they were losing pilots faster than they could be trained. Pilot losses were extremely heavy among the experienced squadron and flight leaders, and training was curtailed to the point that new pilots had less than ten hours in their Spitfires or Hurricanes before being thrown into the fray. There were numerous examples of flight leaders, and even a squadron leader, with less than fifty hours in the cockpit of their fighter. Furthermore, all of 11 Group’s airfields were cratered and smoking disaster areas, to include the sector control centers which were offline almost as much as they were online. Air Marshal Dowding seriously considered abandoning 11 Group’s airfields (which would cede the Channel to the Germans, and subsequently lead to the invasion of the British Isles), and even scheduled a meeting with Churchill to discuss moving 11Group’s airfields out of range of the Germans.
Despite Dowding’s pessimism, assistance for the RAF would come from an unlikely source, Adolf Hitler. Totalitarian rulers, and those who make decisions based on emotion or rule primarily through manipulation of emotion, are they themselves more susceptible to having their own emotions and decisions manipulated. Adolf Hitler was no different. On the night of 25 August, a Luftwaffe bomber flew off course and accidentally bombed the East End of London. In retaliation, Churchill ordered RAF Bomber Command to strike targets around Berlin. On 5 September 1940, they did so, thus belying Herman Goering’s claim that enemy bombs would never touch the German capital. Hitler was infuriated and ordered the Luftwaffe to cease attacking British airfields and “flatten London”.
On the morning of 7 September 1940, British radar picked up the largest concentration of German fighters and bombers to date. Dowding scrambled everything that had wings to protect 11 Group’s airfields. The stage was set for the largest air engagement in history.
But it didn’t happen: the Spitfires and Hurricanes were greeted by clear skies. The RAF was in the wrong spot.
600 Luftwaffe bombers and fighter bombers had an uninterrupted flight directly to London where they set it ablaze, particularly the East End. It would be the first of 57 consecutive daily raids against the city, and the next months were dubbed “The Blitz” by Londoners. But London’s loss was the RAF’s gain. With the Luftwaffe’s focus shifted to the city, and not the airfields, Dowding had the time to reorganize the early warning system and repair the airfields. The shift also allowed the pilots to get some uninterrupted rest and training, and mechanics uninterrupted time to repair and maintain the aircraft. Finally, with the obvious target being London, 12 Group had time to form up its “Big Wings” and actually get into the fight en masse.
Hitler gave the RAF, and Britain, a second chance.
When Mussolini declared war on France and Great Britain in June of 1940, he had grandiose dreams of a New Roman Empire, particularly in Africa centered on his two colonies, Libya and Abyssinia (Ethiopia). The Italians in Africa had an enormous material and troop advantage over the Allies, 415,000 to 36,000, and Mussolini planned to use it to seize Egypt, Sudan, Somaliland, Kenya, and the rest of East Africa. The entrance of Italy into the Second World War shifted the entire center of gravity for Great Britain and the Commonwealth. The Middle East was Great Britain’s Achilles’s Heel, because all of its oil and shipping passed through the Red Sea and Suez Canal or down the African coast. And despite the furious air battles fought over southern England and the spectre of invasion, Churchill sent all available troops from India and the Commonwealth, not to the British Isles, but to East Africa and the Middle East. But before the British could build up, the Duke of Aosta, Mussolini’s competent and level headed Viceroy of Ethiopia, struck first.
The Allied plan in East Africa always depended on the British massing in Egypt while holding in the Sudan, Kenya, and Somaliland. The plan relied on the French in Djibouti, the lion’s share of the Allied strength in the theatre, to counterattack any Italian advance. But the fall of France in mid-July made the French a non-factor when a pro-German Vichy French commander took over in Djibouti. In early August 1940, Italian units in Ethiopia attacked into Sudan, Kenya, and Somaliland. In the Sudan and Kenya, the Italians stalled because they overestimated the enormous logistic difficulties of operating in the wildernesses that existed on Ethiopia’s borders: the open desert of Sudan, and the 400 miles of scrub desert separating the habitable areas of Kenya and Ethiopia.
British Somaliland was a different story. The terrain was hilly, rugged, and rough, but passable, and the British had too few troops to defend it. The initial surge of Churchill’s reinforcements went to General Wavell in the Egypt where he had to deal with pro-German governments of Syria, Iraq, and Iran, and Italians massing in Libya. But Churchill wanted to avoid an Italian victory in the news (not to mention an Italian/German naval base next to the Red Sea) so he ordered some units to Somaliland once it became obvious Aosta was going to invade. It was too little too late.
The eclectic British led force in Somaliland consisted of Punjabis, Rhodesians, Free French, British regulars of the Black Watch, West Africans, East Africans, Singaporeans, part of the Hong Kong garrison, and native Somalis of the Camel Corps. Their defense was planned, supplied, and coordinated on the fly along a series of ridges south of the port of Berbera. The defenses focused on the “tugs” or wadis (dry streambeds) along the hills through which vehicles could travel. However, the Italians grossly overestimated the British forces due a simple deception plan (driving around to stir up dust to give impression of more movement) and a lack of reconnaissance due to bad maps, bad aircraft maintenance, good British camouflage discipline, and the counter reconnaissance efforts of the Somali Camel Corps.
Nevertheless, imagined troops are still in the end, imagined. Italians were just too many. Additionally, many units of the Italian Royal Corps of Colonial Troops were tough and experienced after years of fighting Ethiopian guerillas, and the best struck at the Tug Argan. Tough Eritrean and Somali askaris (native soldiers), backed by motorized regular Italian troops, Fascist Blackshirt battalions, and medium and light tanks and armored cars. The defenders of Tug Argan made a fight of it but the lack of anti-tank guns, long defense line, and the piecemeal deployment of the defenders (their deployment was determined by when they offloaded the ships) made the battle a foregone conclusion. However, they were saved from complete encirclement and destruction by a desperate fighting withdrawal by the Somali Camel Corps. The British re-embarked the ships they just disembarked a week before, the Camel Corps disbanded and melted back into the population (we shall hear of them again later), and the British departed Berbera which fell to the Italians on 21 August 1940.
While the Duke of Aosta focused on the coast, Mussolini toasted his new empire, and the world assumed the war was being won by the Axis, three very different men, with three very different views on warfare, arrived in the Sudan: the unpretentious but supremely competent Brigadier William Slim, the brilliant but eccentric Major Orde Wingate, and a certain “Mr. Strong”, who departed London in a flying boat a week before the fall of Berbera. “Mr. Strong” was the Lion of Judah, the Ras Tafari, the former Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, come to liberate his people.
The Fall of British Somaliland meant that Red Sea was considered a “war zone” and neutral American ships carrying vital supplies purchased by the British could not enter. Supplies for Wavell’s forces in Egypt had to come via the Persian Gulf and Basra Iraq, and then trucked to Cairo and Alexandria, an unsatisfactory situation to say the least. The loss at Tug Argan unleashed a flurry of activity to plan, prepare and execute the mind numbingly complex and perilously ad hoc liberation of the Horn of Africa from the Italians before the fall of the Suez Canal and the oil rich Middle East to Germans, Italians, and Soviets.
At the height of the Battle of Britain and 16 months before America’s entry into the war, Liberty Magazine, a pop culture general interest weekly out of New York published the prologue of Fred Allhof’s alt-history pulp fiction “Lightning of the Night”. Like other alt-history greats, such as the “The Third World War”, “Red Storm Rising” and “Ghost Fleet”, “Lightning in the Night” was written with the advice and input of leading military and civilian experts of the time, including Lieutenant General Robert Lee Bullard, the first commander of the 1st Infantry Division, who led the Big Red One at the Battle of Cantigny.
Set after the Nazi victory over Europe, “Lightning in the Night” was the story of the German invasion of North America. The prologue began with a surprise air attack on Pearl Harbor…
Towards the end of August, 1940, the Luftwaffe High Command realized that they were not shooting down enough British planes. In order to destroy the fighters, or at least force them away from the southern coast, the Germans needed to focus their attacks on fighter specific targets to compound the damage they were already doing in the air. On 23 August 1940, Herman Goring ordered the Luftwaffe to focus on RAF Fighter Command’s airfields of Air Vice Marshal Keith Park’s 11 Group.
11 Group covered Southern England and already bore the brunt of the Luftwaffe’s attacks. Goring’s new focus was devastatingly effective. Park’s airfields were smashed, and although heroic efforts were made to keep them open, aircraft, and more importantly, pilot availability was affected. On paper, the RAF had more assigned fighter pilots than the Luftwaffe, but the attacks on the airfields prevented the critical “battlefield calculus” from occurring: An experienced and awake pilot + a workable plane + enough fuel + loaded ammunition + a flat runway + an id’d target + time to reach it + a place to do it from all over again a few hours later = victory. The Luftwaffe was making that more difficult everyday. And only Herculean efforts by ground and maintenance crew were keeping British fighter pilots in the air.
Furthermore, as Park’s fighter squadrons were intercepting raids, his airfields were supposed to be protected by 12 Group’s fighters from the north, under AVM Leigh-Mallory. But Leigh-Mallory’s tactics were ineffective, and his squadrons routinely missed the Luftwaffe. Whereas 11 Group attacked raids quickly with a single squadron, 12 Group formed “Big Wings” of three or more squadrons, ostensibly to do more damage i.e. the principle of mass. Theoretically, it should work. But the Big Wings took too much time to form up, thereby becoming the classic “exception that proves the rule“ for the principle of mass, in other words “It’s not mass if it isn’t there”.
Finally, the Luftwaffe attacks unknowingly had a great effect on Air Marshal Dowding’s early warning system. One of the two critical vulnerabilities of the system, the Sector Control Centers, were only located on airfields for administrative convenience. (The other CV was the infamous “Filter Room”.) The Sector Control Centers were responsible for communicating directly with the squadrons, and they were smashed along with the airfields. Many RAF squadrons in late August and early September wasted their time flying around looking for the raids when the SCCs couldn’t direct them to one.
In early September, the pilot situation became critical. Shortfalls were made up by dragooning Fleet Air Arm and Coastal Command pilots, in addition to pilots from Canada, Australia, Rhodesia, South Africa, New Zealand, Belgium, France, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and even a Jewish pilot from Mandate Palestine. But even cutting pilot training hours down to the bare minimum could not produce enough available pilots. At the height of the crisis, British Secretary of State for Air, Sr Archibald Sinclair noted, the RAF had “only 350 pilots to scramble, of which nearly 100 were Poles.”
On 5 September, Dowding had to confront the serious possibility that they needed to pull 11 Group north of London to put their airfields out of the range of the Luftwaffe bombers, or they wouldn’t have enough fighters left to repel any invasion. This would effectively cede the English Channel to the Germans. He planned to brief Churchill on the 8th.
At the Casablanca and Tehran Conferences the Allies and the Soviet Union agreed to fight until the Axis unconditionally surrendered. For months starting in March 1945, Curtis Lemay’s B-29’s firebombed Japan’s primarily wooden cities causing great destruction and massive casualties among Japan’s population. Nimitz’ Navy mined the island channels which destroyed Japan’s economy, and his fast attack carriers raided Japan’s coasts with impunity. Japan’s industry was reduced to ruins, but battle hardened troops from China, many of whom had been fighting there for decades were brought back to Japan. Japan’s fanatical government mobilized the population to defend against the inevitable Allied invasion of the Home Islands.
Operation Downfall, the Allied invasion of the Japanese Home Islands, was scheduled to begin in November 1945. Downfall had two component operations: Operation Olympic, the invasion of Kyushu in November, and Operation Coronet, the invasion of Honshu in March 1946. Based on the Japanese military and civilian resistance on Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, Allied planners predicted a million Allied casualties. (So many Purple Heart medals were created for the invasion of Japan, that we are still using them today.) The Allied commanders feared “an Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other”. Planners predicted that “20%” of the “fanatically hostile” Japanese population would die defending the islands.
At the Potsdam Conference at the end July 1945, a declaration was made by the Allies and the Soviet Union threatening “great destruction” unless the Japanese surrendered unconditionally. The Japanese refused, demanding that the Emperor and his administration continue to govern Japan, and no Allied occupation force set foot on Japanese soil.
On 6 August 1945, the B-29 “Enola Gay” dropped the first atomic bomb, the 15Kton “Little Boy” which used uranium for its fission, on Hiroshima. 20,000 Japanese soldiers were killed, and 150,000 civilians died in the initial blast, the immediate fires and destruction, or from radiation.
The Japanese officially ignored the attack, even after Truman announced it to the world. Most Japanese outside Hiroshima did not even know it occurred, so tight was the government’s control of the population, until Allied leaflets told them. The Japanese dismissed the leaflets as propaganda.
On 9 August, 1945, the B-29 “Bockscar” flew to Kokura with the plutonium atomic bomb “Fat Man”. When Bockscar got to Kokura the crew found haze and smoke obscured the city as well as the large ammunition arsenal that was the reason for targeting the city. After three unsuccessful passes, they broke off and headed to their secondary target Nagasaki. Nagasaki, situated in a valley, was difficult to target and relatively unscathed as far Japanese cities went in 1945. Thought safe from bombing, Nagasaki was packed with refugees. 80,000 civilians died as a result of the atomic bombing.
(“Kokura’s Luck” is a common Japanese phrase to describe escaping a terrible occurrence without being aware of the danger.)
Also on 9 August, the Soviet Union invaded Japanese occupied Manchuria.
The Japanese still refused to surrender unconditionally. A third atomic bomb was readied.
On 12 August 1945, Japan agreed to surrender, but again only conditionally. They continued to demand that the Allies agree to Emperor Hirohito’s imperial government remaining in power, and no Allied occupation of the Home Islands before Japan would surrender.
Truman ignored the offer, though he did refuse to authorize the use of the third atomic bomb (“all those kids…”). The next morning, bombers dropped copies of the surrender request all across Japan. In response to the demands, Admiral Nimitz directed his carriers to strike targets around Tokyo on the afternoon of 13 August and General Carl Spaatz ordered another thousand bomber raid on Tokyo for the next day.
With no more word from Japan, on the morning of 14 August 1945, the Allies had had enough of Japan’s procrastination and launched the largest series of raids and attacks on the Home Islands so far in the war, primarily in the Kyoto/Tokyo/Yokohama area. 1,014 B-29s struck Japan along with thousands of smaller bombers and carrier based planes. Anything with wings that could reach the Japan was ordered to attack. Additionally, every surface vessel in the 3rd and 5th Fleets was ordered to shell targets on the Home Islands. They ranged from big Iowa class battleships launching 16” shells twenty miles inland to PT boats shooting up Japanese fishing trawlers and coastal villages with their .50 Cal machine guns.
Iwakuni, Osaka, Tokoyama, Kumagaya, and Isesaki were devastated, and what remained of Tokyo was destroyed.
The leaflets announcing Japan’s surrender offer had a profound effect on the Japanese Emperor and his Imperial cabinet. They could not deny them to the Japanese people. On 13 August, they agreed to offer to surrender with one condition, the Emperor remain on the throne as a figurehead while the Allied occupation force governed Japan after the surrender. The Allies, particularly Truman, were sure to accept, but it almost didn’t matter.
Unbeknownst to the Allies, the Japanese military attempted a coup on the night of the 13th in order to prevent any communication with the Allies. The Emperor had recorded the surrender message that afternoon and the vinyl record was given to the Emperor’s Chief of Seals, Kōichi Kido, to be played the next day to the Japanese people. That night Major Kenji Hatanaka and his conspirators launched the coup. Hatanaka and his men seized the Imperial Palace to destroy the recording, while others fanned across the city. The coup failed by the evening of the 14th, mostly due to the efforts of three men. Kōichi Kido locked himself in a secret vault in the Imperial Palace, which Hatanaka tore the Palace apart looking for the recording. He never found it. Kōichi only emerged from the vault after troops loyal to the Emperor recaptured the Palace. That there were still loyal troops was due to the efforts of General Shizuichi Tanaka, the commander of the Eastern Army, and his chief of staff. Tanaka convinced many of the plotters to go home, and his chief of staff refused the use of the radio for the ringleaders to broadcast their messages to the Japanese people.
On the morning of the 15th (Japanese time) the Emperor accepted the Allied terms of “Unconditional Surrender” and dispatched members of the Imperial family to personally inform the commanders in China, Korea, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific, who would invariably believe the pronouncements to be Allied propaganda. The Allies acknowledged receipt of the surrender at 7 pm 14 August 1945 (Washington DC time), just Emperor Hirohito was announcing it to the Japanese people. The Allies agreed to let Emperor Hirohito remain on the throne as a figurehead. President Truman made an immediate radio address and spontaneous celebrations broke out across the world. The occupation of Japan began on 28 August and the official surrender documents would be signed on 2 September.
The most destructive war in human history was over. After almost six long years (14 in the case of the Republic of China) the Allies were victorious against German National Socialism, Italian Fascism, and Japanese Racial Militarism, and the totalitarianism and authoritarianism their corrupt ideologies inevitably encouraged.
The war to keep it that way, which had begun as early as the previous year, began in earnest the next day.
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.