THE KOSCIUSZKO SQUADRON - BATTLE OF BRITAIN
It is not a coincidence that the emblem of the Kosciuszko Squadron
bears the American Stars and Stripes. The Squadron was formed in
1919 by a group of Americans, led by Merian C. Cooper, who
volunteered to fight with the Polish army in the Russian-Polish War
This insignia was designed by one of it's members, Elliot Chess, and
features a red four-cornered military hat (that was worn by Kosciuszko
( in the 1794 uprising in the American colonies), superimposed on two
scythes crossed diagonally ( to represent the peasants who fought with
him ), on top of a background of the red, white and blue Stars and
Stripes of the American flag. This emblem was painted on each plane,
and christened the Kosciuszko Squadron: a most fitting tribute to the
indelible bond between the American and the Polish nations.
The rallying cry of the American colonists had stirred the hearts of the Poles, as they were also struggling against
tyranny in their own homeland. Over 100 Polish men crossed the Atlantic to join the Americans in the battle against
British supremacy. Among them were two Polish officers who were destined to leave their mark on American
Kazmierz Pulaski was a high ranking cavalry officer who was exiled from Poland in 1776 because of his frequent
attempts to lead uprisings against the occupiers. In Paris, he met Benjamin Franklin and was recruited among
others to George Washington's Continental Army. Pulaski's fame preceded him. He was reknown throughout
Europe for his bravery and his expertise in guerilla warfare. This so impressed Franklin that he advised Washington
of Pulaski's exceptional qualities, and as a result, Pulaski was put in charge of organizing and commanding
American's first calvalry brigade. Pulaski and his men fought under the command of Colonel John Cooper. But in
battle, a stray bullet hit Pulaski, and Cooper carried his wounded comrade and friend to safety on board an American
warship. He died two days later and was buried at sea.
The second officer, Tadeusz Kosciusko, was also a brilliant military strategist. He was able to incorporate the
natural terrain of the land as a lure to entrap the enemy. In this way they were easily surrounded and defeated by a
much smaller number of soldiers. His numerous victories did not go unnoticed. In 1783, the US Continental
Congress awarded Kosciusko with US citizenship, a pension, title to vast areas of land, and the rank of
Brigadier-General. But the following year, Kosciusko returned to Poland to continue to fight for her freedom.
These stories and many others about the bravery of Polish fighters were passed down from generation to generation
from Colonel Cooper all the way to Merian Cooper, his great-great-grandson.
Since Charles Lindbergh made his solo non-stop trans-Atlantic flight from Long Island to Paris in 1927, the world
became enamored by pilots and aviation. No less captivated were the young Polish men who dreamt of embarking
on exciting adventures. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Polish Air Force Academy at Deblin was swamped with
applicants. In 1936, of 6,000 hopefuls only 90 were chosen to be trained as pilots. Among them were the sons of
peasants, teachers, miners, and wealthy landowners.
These young men were to become the heroes of World War II. They were a cut above the rest, not only for their
flying skills but in exhibiting a combination of qualities never seen before - chivalry, dynamism, and justice. Their
off-duty escapades were nothing short of amazing. They flew under bridges, between church steeples, and
sometimes swooped down to startle a group of cavalry officers below. This Polish daring came naturally to them
as did their propensity to disobey orders. However, the latter quality proved to be a distinct advantage in the heat of
battle. The British were sticklers for strict discipline but lacked a sense of timing. They always went by the book,
which often resulted in missed opportunities, or worse yet, fatal consequences.
The Three Musketeers, as they were called, Zumbach, Feric, and Lokuciewski, graduated from the Academy at the
top of their class and went on to fight many battles including the Battle of Britain. Their aerial exploits were already
legendary when they reported for duty in England. The RAF was suffering from a disastrous shortage of pilots, yet
they wasted too much time putting these Polish aces "in- training", doubtful that they had the ability to fly combat
These Polish airmen - and oh, how they could fly, had the ability to "scan the sky", and "to look everywhere".
According to American and British pilots who flew with them, the Poles could see the whole sky "better than anyone
else", a definite asset in aerial combat! The Poles were brilliant and inventive. They devised new strategies for air
combat which have since been incorporated by the RAF and other air forces. One technique called for the planes to
fly in close formation, wing-tip to wing-tip, then turn away and charge at a third plane at break-neck speed veering off
just a split second before impact. This technique bore every resemblance to that used by any cavalry officer charging
the enemy on his steed. It's purpose was to crowd and intimidate the enemy and make him flinch or retreat.
Equally effective were tactics whereby Polish fighters would fire at the enemy at close range, then come round again
and fire at point blank range. Poles carried out these maneuvers with cool and deadly reserve, and succeeded at
completely unnerving German pilots. Another tactic involved low-level flying, where the pilot would approach the
target at such a low altitude so as not to be seen by the enemy until the plane suddenly pops out from behind a
tree or a building. Before the Germans had a chance to react, they were gunned down. But the most successful
ploy was called the "Circus". British bombers would agree to be used as bait, in broad daylight, to lure German
Messerschmidts " into a destructive web created by the bombers' Spitfire escorts ". In a period of six weeks
Polish fighters racked up 46 kills using this trap alone.
In the first week of the Battle of Britain, the Polish airmen scored an amazing number of hits, but British Command
would not believe it, even though it was confirmed by the British squadron leader. Still not convinced, Stanley
Vincent, the Station Commander, followed the Kosciuszko Squadron on an air raid, and he was amazed by what he
saw. The Polish aces attacked the German planes from a vertical trajectory " with near suicidal impetus ".
German formations quickly scattered making it easy for the Poles to pick them off one by one. "The air was full of
burning aircraft, parachutes and pieces of disintegrating wings. It was also so rapid that is was staggering."
In another battle, the Polish squadron decimated a quarter of the German bombers flying towards the London
docks. One of the pilots, Urbanowicz described the scene as akin to "twelve hounds tearing apart a boar's body "
and then going after the Messerschmidts. Within 15 minutes Poles shot down 14 German planes and 4
These Polish successes resulted in a substantial increase in the number of Polish squadrons. Originally, the
RAF dismissed the Poles as unimportant, but them clamored to obtain more of them. In 1940, there were 5
Polish fighter squadrons and 2 bomber squadrons in the RAF. By 1941, 6 more all-Polish squadrons were
added. There were 142 Polish fighters. Seventy-six of them were in the British squadrons, and the remainder in
2 all-Polish squadrons. Of the 400 fighter pilots in the RAF, 100 were Polish. The Allied squadrons were small
in comparison to the Luftwaffe. The RAF had 1,000 aircraft which included 390 planes of the 303rd Squadron ( the
Kosciuszko Squadron), while Germany had 1,500 bombers and an equal number of fighter planes.
The Polish airmen fought battles not only in England, but in France, Belgium, and Holland. In each battle they
downed almost 30% of German aircraft. On September 26, King George VI visited the Polish airmen to
congratulate them for their successes. On that day Poles had scored 48% of the kills. The Times, dated
January 1, 1943, published an article praising the Poles for shooting down the 500th German aircraft. Polish
bombers had carried out over 3,200 raids and dropped 9,000 tons of bombs on enemy targets. Overall, the
Kosciuszko Squadron, or 303 was able to shoot down more than 12 % of enemy aircraft - a higher rate than any
other squadron in the RAF. However, the losses were heavy. The RAF lost 915 fighter planes out of a total of 1,000,
while the Luftwaffe lost 1,733 planes. The Polish ground-crew were the wizards who kept the planes flying.
On September 15, 1940, nine RAF planes returned to base severely damaged, and thought to be irreparable.
But the ground-crew worked through the night, and all nine planes were air-worthy by morning.
The odds were overwhelming but the RAF was able to defeat Germany in the Battle of Britain only with the
sustained help of its allies, most particularly Poland. In this battle, quality rather than quantity mattered. When
the Germans lost the Battle of Britain, so too did they lose the myth of invincibility. According to Churchill, it was
" one of the decisive battles of the war". The Battle of Britain would have been lost were it not for the Polish
Over 120 Polish pilots were decorated. Among those awarded medals were Witold Urbanowicz, who shot down
15 German aircraft. Jan Zumbach, 8 aircraft; Zdzislaw Henneberg, 8 aircraft; Miroslaw Feric, 7 aircraft, and
Ludwik Paszkiewicz was awarded post-humously for 6 aircraft shot down. The top scoring pilot of any nationality,
was Jozef Frantisek, from Czechoslovakia, nicknamed the Czech. He so admired the Polish pilots that he
refused to fly with anyone else. But the First Commander of the 303rd Squadron, Major Zdzislaw Krasnodebski
was decorated for his bravery on September 6, 1940. When his plane was hit and in flames, he continued to fly
his mission shooting down enemy aircraft. With his hands on fire, he landed the plane, and never released his
grip on the controls.
Honors poured in from King and Country. The Polish fighters were regaled the heroes of World War II, and
became the darlings of high British society. The BBC sent congratulations on their "magnificent record" and
"all the best wishes for its future. "You use the air for your gallant exploits and we for telling the world of them.
Long Live Poland!"
"They fought for English soil with an abandon tempered with skill and backed by an indomitable courage such that it
could never have been surpassed had it been in defense of their own native land."
(Commander Thomas Gleave)
" Our shortage of trained pilots would have made it impossible to defeat the German air force and so win the
Battle of Britain if the...airmen of Poland had not leapt into the breach....
“[We] do not forget that you were the first to resist the aggressor....neither do...[we] forget that you came after
manifold trials to our aid when we most needed your help. Your valiant squadrons fighting alongside our own were in
the forefront in the Battle of Britain and so helped to restore the fortunes of the Allies throughout the years of
struggle. In good times and bad you have stood by us and shared with the RAF their losses and their victories."
(Sir Archibald Sinclair, British Air Minister- in a letter to Polish airmen after end of World War II )
In Westminster Cathedral there is a commemorative plaque which reads as follows:
|IN MEMORY OF ALL RANKS OF THE POLISH
ARMY NAVY AND AIR FORCE WHO GAVE THEIR
LIVES FOR POLAND AND THIS COUNTRY IN THE
SECOND WORLD WAR 1939-1945