Polish Airmen Are Fighting in Britain's War
Recently, Polish airmen fighting in the R.A.F. on R.A.F. machines, in British skies, against the common enemy, have achieved many successes. Here Mr. Henry Baerlein, who has visited, on behalf of "The War Illustrated", the headquarters of a Polish bomber squadron, tells something of the work and spirit.
We have lately been told in official communiques that in mass attacks upon this country the Germans have encountered Polish fighter squadrons which have operated with marked success; indeed, the magnificent dash and determination of this allied force has made people think that their psychology would be less adapted to bombers. That this is not so I have learned in the course of a recent visit to a bomber aerodrome, part of which is allocated, to the Poles, Not only do they speak enthusiastically of the British machines they fly – "we are," one of the pilots said to me, "terribly satisfied with them" but the British authorities are just as appreciative of the work of these airmen.
Most of the Polish airmen who arrived in Britain were very experienced pilots, some in civilian and others in military flying, so that it was not long before they had accustomed themselves to our methods and machines. These, they say, are much easier to handle than the types which they flew in France. The fact also that our bombers are heavily armoured: so that they can reach their targets in spite of opposition, has greatly impressed them. Their one regret is that these machines cannot carry three times as many bombs. And, talking of bombs, a Polish squadron-leader told me of his astonishment when he saw how even in wartime our practice-bombs are so well made. "As beautifully formed," he said, "as jewels, and I realized how good must be the bombs we are given to drop."
It was in the middle of September that the Poles began to participate in bombing expeditions, so that it was rather foolish of Goebbels to declare on the wireless that during the night of September 13th a Polish pilot accompanying a British raid to Berlin had flown on to Warsaw and given himself up. The Poles are anxious to reply to such a calumny when they receive the order to bomb Berlin.
The squadron-leader was likewise astonished and delighted that a young airman in this country has to pass through exactly the same curriculum now as in peacetime. That this is not so in the German air force is obviously he said, one of the reasons for their heavy losses. And how many of them have enough experience to attempt the feat of dive-bombing by night?
Not all the members of this bomber squadron can speak English as well as that officer, but he told me that this matters surprisingly little, and especially is it so among the rank and file. For the first two weeks they talk to each other, somehow or other, about their planes, and then they feel quite capable of enlarging the conversation to include their girls. These Poles are perfectly at home in Britain, though in the winter they will think regretfully of the fortnight's skiing which was part of their ordinary service at home. They have not the smallest complaint to make of the food, and the squadron-leader became almost lyrical in alluding to the cook at another base who serves up a joint of beef partly well done, partly underdone, partly lean; partly fat, so that everyone is satisfied.
"As to our work," he said, "I believe that we are giving satisfaction." This, I afterwards ascertained, is an understatement, for the Poles have been doing splendidly. For instance, the squadron-leader had just received a letter from a young compatriot of his temporarily in hospital whom he had known very well in Poland. There he shot down four Germans himself and, with another pilot, two more. Here, after a week's training, he went up, brought down one and was himself brought down and, as this happened at a height of less than 600 feet and he could discover no flat landing-place, his machine crashed, but the damage to himself was not serious. Going up on the next day, he shot down four Messerschmitts and a Heinkel, after which his machine caught fire and he was obliged to bale out, a proceeding rendered difficult-in fact, he said in his letter, it was the most difficult undertaking of his life-because his plane was in a diving position. This resulted in his being struck by the tail and he was pretty severely wounded in the leg. He is now hoping that this and the burns on his hands and face will not keep him in hospital.
While the squadron-leader had been talking three Polish officers (one of them a chaplain who, like his companions, was in the uniform of the R.A.F. with the word "Poland" as a shoulder badge had come in from a neighbouring base. As it happened they had all been so busy in various ways that they had not had time to pick up much of our language, but the two air forces, said the squadron-leader, understood each other perfectly. He then translated for my benefit an incident which had occurred in the other squadron. A gunner was helping to take the flares out of a bomber on its return early one morning. The fourth one which he handled started to burn. He feared that it would explode and injure the two men still in the plane arid the plane itself. So he grasped it in his arms, ran across a field and was gravely wounded when the explosion took place. The first question he put on recovering consciousness in hospital was with regard to the condition of the aircraft and his two comrades. The CO. who told us of this affair remarked with a smile that "I would not have got it out of the man himself." The Polish airmen, like ours, he said, considered that the most harassing part of the day's work was the description of their exploits to the intelligence officers on their return. All they want to do then is to rest and go up again.
On October I the Polish Minister of information, Prof. Stronski, contrasting the defences of Warsaw and London, declared the Polish fighting pilots were very happy to share in the Battle of London. The Polish Squadron 303 had shot down during September 1940 over 100 Nazi aircraft, and by their successes then were repaying the German Air Force for the tragic fate of Warsaw in September 1939. The squadron leader of this No. 303 was wounded in a fierce battle over London and was decorated with the Virtuti Military Cross on August 8 by General Sikorski.