Robert Gretzyngier’s account of the Poles who fought for the RAF so gallantly during the Battle of Britain both amazes and captivates the reader. It includes personal and moving accounts from and about the airmen who fought and died for Britain during the Second World War.
This day-by-day coverage begins with the journey of the Polish pilots who escaped the advancing Germans not once, but twice, as both Poland and France fell into Nazi hands.
The book starts with the invasion of Poland and the inadequate supply of intelligence available to Polish pilots, which reduced their effectiveness against the Germans flying superior aircraft. Gretzyngier then details the pilots’ escape to Romania and their journey to France, where, again, they fought against German Me109s with inferior machines.
Major Kosinski, who played an important role in getting the Polish pilots across the channel to Britain, narrates the Poles’ journey to Britain, or ‘Last Hope Island’. He describes the difficulties faced by the Polish airmen as they, in the words of one pilot, ‘went back to school’.
The Poles had to acquire the basic skills needed to communicate with British colleagues, but they also had to learn how to take off in and land the Spitfires and Hurricanes that were to become so crucial to Britain’s survival.
The day-by-day accounts of the pilots in the OTUs (Operational Training Units) detail the challenges the Poles faced in dealing with the new aircraft; they were not used to flying with retractable landing gears, and this unfamiliarity led to several crashes.
The first Poles joined front-line squadrons in mid-July 1940. Their contribution to the Allied cause was immediate, and the importance of the support they provided is evident in the high number of planes they shot down.
Using diaries and combat reports, Gretzyngier then examines the experiences of various Polish pilots from different squadrons. The book also covers the founding of 303 Squadron and its transfer from an OTU squadron to an operational one, as immortalised in the film the Battle of Britain.
As late summer turns into early autumn, Hugh Dowding and the rest of the RAF command grew to respect and rely on the pilots who held off wave after wave of Goering’s bombers and fighters, defending the RAF airfields and cities that Hitler promised to turn into dust.
Gretzyngier’s story concludes in June 1941, with the Poles defending Britain’s south coast and escorting bombers over the Channel. Hitler gave up trying to invade Britain, and, instead, moved his bombers and fighters east in preparation for Operation Barbarossa.
The book excellently details the difficulties faced by Polish pilots as they journeyed from Poland to Britain and adapted to new aircraft. The use of passages from both diaries and combat reports gives great insight into the effectiveness of these combat veterans and how they coped with the RAF’s reservations about their skill as pilots.