Too give you an example of the kind of nerd that I am, I subscribe to a number of history magazines. My two favorites are National Geographic History and BBC History. I am almost never fully current in my reading of them, I am often a month or two behind, but I get through them and read them cover to cover. See, total nerd! Anyway, I was reading one at the end of 2018 and the back page had an advertising for a movie with Iwan Rheon. Most of us know Iwan from playing Ramsey Bolton on Game of Thrones, however this add showed him as a fighter pilot for the RAF, my interest was piqued.
The title for the movie in that ad was Hurricanes. After a few months of searching for it and looking for US release dates, I found it at Target under the name Men of Honor. It was a very interesting story, to say the least and after watching the film, I had to know more about these men.
The Battle of Britain
From July to October 1940 the skies over Britain was one huge battle zone, with hundreds, if not thousands of planes in the skies. After France fell, Hitler wanted to invade Britain, but to do that he first needed control of the skies over it. The German Luftwaffe was confident that it would be easy for them to achieve air superiority, but the British had other plans.
Too better protect the country in the air, there needed to be a ground system tracking aircraft coming and going over Britain. That is where the Dowding system came in. Named after the first commander of the RAF, the Dowding system divided Britain into groups and each group into sections. Each section had an Operations Room. The job of the Operations Room was to direct fighters in combat, receive information of incoming aircraft from ROC (Royal Observer Corps), this provided real time data to officers and commanders in an age long before GPS tracking.
Each Observation Room was equipped with a main plotting board and main plotting table. The main plotting board was connected at all times with three headsets to observer posts, as these would be the first to spot incoming enemy aircraft. Each headset would be wired to a specific post. The main plotting table would contain a large map of the area divided into sections marking ROC posts. To show position and count of aircraft the plotting table used counters that showed the number of planes coming in and their altitude, along with the time that they were observed, in five-minute increments.
By the summer of 1940 over 8,000 RAF pilots were Polish. They had fled their country to fight the Luftwaffe in other nations. Many made it to France and fought in the air above France until it fell. They then fled to Britain and joined the RAF. They were not welcomed with open arms. Many in RAF command didn’t like that they flew without fear of death, many could not speak English and they were a rowdy group. But when they flew, they gave it all that they had. The war cabinet would eventually form the first two Polish squadrons No. 302 and 303. I would like you to meet three of these brave men.
Josef was actually Czech. He was born in 1914 in what was then part of the Habsburg Empire, but would later become Czechoslovakia. There is very little known about his parents or family, I could not find any information as I began to write this.
By the age of 12, he had started driving cars. Like many in his country, he held a deep deadly hatred of the Nazi’s and when Czechoslovakia fell to them without any resistance, he fled to neighboring Poland, where he flew in their air force.
He was known for his daring, even in rickety outdated planes he would fly low over German positions and drop hand grenades on the troops below. When Poland fell, he fled to France and joined their fight. When France fell, he fled to Britain and joined the 303.
He wanted to fly with the Poles, he had a deep admiration for their fighting spirit. The fighting spirit that they shared is what made him so successful as a pilot. Like his Polish counterparts, they flew with a reckless abandon because they truly had nothing to lose anymore. Many of them had already lost their families and loved ones to the Nazi’s and in essence they wanted payback.
When he flew, he was known to fly close into the enemy aircraft before opening fire on it, he liked to play hide and seek in the clouds with his enemies. He was known to leave formation and chase enemy aircraft across the channel and back into France. Because of his success he was allowed to basically wage his own “private war” against the Luftwaffe and the Nazi’s.
Josef was to be one of the most successful RAF pilots with what many consider the highest scores of the Battle of Britain. He was killed on October 8, 1940 when his plane flipped over and crashed landed in Surrey, he was killed on impact.
Jan was born in Warsaw in 1915 to wealthy Swiss parents. He would hide his Swiss nationality in order to fight for Poland. He joined the Polish army in 1934 and in 1936 he was moved to the air force and was sent to officer training school which he completed in 1938. However, before he could even engage the enemy, he was injured in a training exercise.
When he was well, he fled to France, like so many other Polish fighter pilots. He flew with the French air force until June 10, 1940 when he was one of many planes shot down by German forces, but one of the few to survive. He, like Josef, fled to Britain.
When he arrived in Britain, he joined the 303 squadron with 33 other Polish pilots, based in Northolt with the RAF. Jan was an exceptional pilot. On September 7, 1940 he shot down two German Dornier bombers and would go on to claim one more bomber and five German fighter planes during the Battle of Britain alone.
In December of 1940 he was awarded the Virtuti Militari, Poland’s highest military honor, from the exiled Polish government. May 9, 1941 Jan was shot down, and again, escaped without injury. To give him a break from the front lines of battle, he was moved in December 1941 to being an instructor for incoming pilots. But, sitting still and teaching was not in his blood and within a few months he was back with the 303, this time as it’s commander.
After year in command of the 303, Jan was given command of the Polish Wing until January 1945. Again, as a reward for his service he was posted to the No. 84 groups HQ, so he could take part in the liberation of Europe.
Jan left the RAF in 1946 and he died in France in 1986. His total tally for his years in the RAF were: 12 confirmed kills (2 he shares with another pilot), 5 probable and 1 damaged. And he would receive the Distinguished Flying Cross from Britain.
Witold is probably the Polish pilot we know the most about. Born March 30, 1908 in Olszanka, Poland, he began flying in 1930 at cadet flying school in Deblin, where he graduated in 1932. In 1936 he created a bit of a political shit storm by shooting down a Russian recon plane flying in Polish airspace. In public he was chastised for his actions, however in private he was congratulated, as there was no love lost between Poland and Russia. After the incident he was moved to the Polish air force where he earned the nickname “cobra”.
When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 the Luftwaffe had its hands full, Polish planes were faster and more heavily armed. Too keep him out of Russian hands, as they had attacked from the east as part of the Nazi-Soviet pact, he was sent to Romania. We don’t know why he left the safety of Romania, but he fled back to Poland where he was captured by Russian troops. He had earned the nickname of “cobra” for a reason, the same day he was caught, he escaped.
Witold, like the others in our tale, fled to France where he was asked to join the RAF 145th squadron. He took his first operational flight on August 4, 1940 and four days later scored his first confirmed kill. Within 17 days of his first operational flight, he would join the 303 with Josef and Jan.
With a very strong personal drive to succeed, he became the squadron commander shortly after arriving. But it would also be his drive that would alienate him from the other pilots and on October 21st, 1940 he was relieved of the command of the 303. However, even through all of this he would end the Battle of Britain with 15 confirmed kills. He became one of eight triple aces from that battle.
The rest of the war saw Witold moving about. In July 1943 he joined the United States Air Force and flew with the famed Flying Tigers, where scored several kills. 1944 found him as an Air Attaché to the United States.
Witold ended the war with 28 kills. For this he was award the Distinguished Flying Cross, Order of Merit and the Virtuti Militari.
He would return to Poland after the war and be imprisoned as a spy, even after spending five years fighting for his country in the British and United States military. After he was released from prison, he went to the United States and worked as an airline pilot from which he retired in 1973. He returned to Poland once more, after the Iron Curtain fell, in 1991. In 1995 he was given the honorary title of “general” by the Polish military, he died August 17, 1996 in a Veterans Administration Hospital in Manhattan aged 88.
Witold was not unusual in facing prison when he returned home to Poland after the war. Almost every pilot that returned to the now Soviet held Poland was treated horribly. Accused of being spies and traitors to their country, even though they had risked their lives to defend their country from tyranny. Many were imprisoned and some just outright murdered. It is hard to understand the thinking behind killing men who fought with incredible bravery and sacrifice, they were unafraid to die and that is how they flew.
One the things we can learn from these men, that history has largely over looked, is that no matter how many times we are a pushed down, we have to get back up. They did it by fleeing from one country to another to fly and fight those who invaded their homes. We must stand up to tyranny in all its forms, just like they did. And we have to be prepared to be reckless in that fight. To Josef, Jan, Witold and all the other brave Polish and Czech pilots, well done! History has not forgotten you and we will remember you.
I hope that you have enjoyed this week’s blog and that you will be encouraged in its message. I will keep sharing stories from World War II and the Holocaust, as we cannot let these stories just fade into the past. The lessons they teach are just as relevant today, as they ever were. I hope that you share this blog via email or social media, or even word of mouth. I look forward to seeing you all again in two weeks!
The below is the link to purchase the DVD/Blu Ray from Amazon: