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Znajdujesz się w Start arrow Artykuły arrow Poles in Battle of Britain - interviews
29.03.2017.
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28.12.2009.

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The Battle of Britain is rightly heralded as one of the proudest moments in British history - a time when 'the few' performed unimaginable heroics in the face of overwhelming odds and, in a few short weeks, very probably changed the outcome of the war. But what is less well known is that a significant minority of those pilots flying for the RAF were not British at all, but were Polish. They were also brilliant pilots - as the statistics verify. One Polish squadron, 303, was the most successful squadron in the whole of the Battle of Britain.

The Poles came to continue their fight against Hitler after the fall of Poland. Initially kept grounded by RAF top brass, they subsequently proved themselves in dramatic fashion. But their dream of a liberated Poland was shattered when, at the end of the war, the allies handed over Poland to Stalin.

Now, the story of 303 squadron is to be told in a new documentary, The Battle of Britain, part of the Bloody Foreigners season on Channel 4. One of those pilots featured is Witold Urbanowicz, who was the Squadron Leader and one of the most successful Polish air aces of the war. Here, his son, also called Witold, tells his extraordinary story, and reveals why we all owe a debt of gratitude to men like his father.

Interviews by Benjie Goodhart.

 

Witold Urbanowicz Interview 

 

What did your father do in Poland before war broke out?

Before the outbreak of war my father was at the equivalent of the Polish Air Force academy. He was an instructor of fighter pilots. He was flying all the time. Then war broke out, and before Poland fell they were fighting over there. Then they had to go to Romania, and then through France, and finally to England, and that's when he and the rest of the squadron volunteered for the RAF.

Who did he leave behind in Poland?

He left his father, his mother, his brothers.

Did he have misgivings about leaving?

Absolutely. But when he left, he had every intention of returning. Of course he didn't want to leave his family, but he did what he felt he had to do.

Initially, being a Polish pilot in Britain was quite frustrating. They were kept out of battle, weren't they?

Yes, they were. On one occasion Air Chief Marshall Dowding came out to the base to visit to give a 'Let's go troops!' sort of speech, and at the end he said 'Any questions?' and my father said 'When are we going to get to fly?' And he said 'Well, we're thinking about when the right time for that would be,' and my father's response was basically 'We didn't come here to sit on our backsides.' They were very frustrated.

When the Polish pilots in 303 Squadron finally did get into battle, they had an astonishing impact, didn't they?


Absolutely. They were battle-seasoned. They had learned to fly on inferior, antiquated machines. You really had to be an incredible flier to make a difference on those machines. Then they had flown the underpowered and less manoeuvrable French planes. By the time they came to England and started flying the Hurricanes, they were in heaven. And after their first sorties, once the British top brass began to realise what they could do, it was all different. They realised these guys were the real deal.

So it was the inferiority of the aircraft they'd flown previously that meant they were such good pilots, in a sense?


That was certainly one part of it. It was also their training. There's a story about one of the Polish pilots recalling his training. When they were being trained, they had to fly at each other and play chicken until the very, very last moment. And when this guy was learning to fly, he had got so close he could actually see the eyes of the pilot he was going straight at, and he pulled out at the very last moment, and thought 'Oh my God, I never believed I could do that.' He got to the ground, and the instructor chewed him out for pulling out to soon.

How many planes did your father shoot down?


He had 17 confirmed in the Battle of Britain, and then another two in China when he was flying with the Flying Tigers. He was one of the top ten pilots in the Battle of Britain, and the top Polish ace during the battle.

What were your father's impressions of the British people?

He loved the Brits. He absolutely loved them. He had problems in terms of frustration, and things he wanted to get done, and he was never a man to hold back in terms of what he felt, regardless of who he was talking to. But he was a huge Anglophile, he had a great love for this country and its people.

The King came to congratulate the 303 Squadron, didn't he?

Yes, there are pictures of my father shaking hands with the King. It was a great honour for him, as it was for all of them. And moments after the pictures were taken, the klaxon went off and they had to scramble and go to take on the Germans, so the whole thing was interrupted.

Was the Battle of Britain the most intense time of the war for your father?

From a combat standpoint, yes. But don't forget, they took on the Germans back in Poland, so that was an intense experience. They were under-manned and under-powered. And getting out of Poland, after it fell, and over to France, was difficult as well. But I would say the Battle of Britain was the most intense, because the scale of it was just phenomenal. The dogfights were just extraordinary. My father would have one or two enemy planes in front, one on his tail, watching the others in his squadron in the same situation, people were parachuting, there was debris from exploding planes, it was incredible.

Did your father talk about his wartime experiences much?

In the United States, where my father went after the war, a lot of people just locked away their wartime experiences. It was perhaps partly post-traumatic stress. They didn't really open up until the very end of their lives. I guess they had some internal sense that it was time to pass the story on. My father was a very, very cut-and-dried person. They did what they had to do, they did it well, they succeeded, and now it was time to get on with the rest of his life. So I was aware of what he'd done in the war, because of the artefacts around the house, but he didn't really talk about it very much at all until his mid-80s. He didn't brag about it, it was his duty, and that was it.

The Battle of Britain was incredibly finely balanced. It's no exaggeration to say that the polish pilots probably made the crucial difference, is it?

Yes, I think you could absolutely say that. If you think of the sheer numbers of pilots involved in the battle, and then you look at the number of Polish pilots involved, and the number of kills that the Polish fighters contributed, without those additional kills and those additional missions it would all have been different. You could say that without them they would not have won the war. But it was also down to another man. I'm here in London for the installation of the statue at Trafalgar Square on the fourth plinth for Sir Keith Park - he commanded the 11th, which was the Group that defended London and southern England. And what I learned about him was that while the Poles were fantastic and made the difference against the Germans, without the strategic understanding of Park it wouldn't have been successful.

In spite of the extraordinary contribution made by the Polish pilots, after the war, Poland was simply handed to the Russians. That must have felt like a dreadful betrayal.


Absolutely, no question about it. My father felt very bitter about it, especially with Attlee and Roosevelt, because they were the ones who gave it away, not Churchill. It was all done in the name of appeasing the Russians. The Great Victory March down the mall that took place in 1946 had every allied country represented except the Poles, who had to stand on the side. They weren't invited to participate, in case it angered the Russians.

Was your father present, literally watching from the sidelines?

Yes, he was. It broke his heart. It was absolutely horrible, and something he had to live with for the rest of his life.

Did your father ever return to Poland?


He went back in the mid-to-late 40s, 1947 or 48, to visit his mother. From what I understand he was arrested in charges of espionage, and either he was broken out by the British underground, or he was let go due to diplomatic negotiations - there are different versions of the story. After that, he didn't go back until way in to the 80s, when they made him a general, after the Berlin Wall fell and Lech Walesa became president of Poland. It was a complete validation of his life.

He's something of a celebrated figure in Poland, isn't he?

Very much so. Last year was the 100th anniversary of my father's birth. The War Museum in Poland had a huge exhibition about him, which I worked to help them prepare for, and donated a lot of his artefacts. He's a very well-known figure back in Poland. He also wrote seven books about his experiences, covering everything from his experiences with the Flying Tigers in China, to the Battle of Britain, to his becoming a pilot in the first place.

What do you think your father would have made of this film?

He would have loved it. He would have been pleased as punch at the fact that this effort was made.

And what does it mean to you?

I think it's wonderful. Anybody who walks through this beautiful city (London) would not be walking through it as it is if it wasn't for people like my father. I turned on the BBC this morning, and everyone was wearing poppies, not just people from that generation, but their children, grandchildren and, in some cases, great grandchildren. That legacy lives on, and it's so critical to have that memory, and to have pride in it. It says something for your character, as a nation. I think this film brings another reminder of that. People can't conceive of the stakes, for all humanity, of that battle, and what a hair's breadth of a chance of victory we had. It's a very uplifting story.

This interview is available free for reproduction in full or in part.

By Benjie Goodhart

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303 squadron. Battle of Britain

 

  

Philip Methuen Interview

Thursday 12 November 2009

The Battle of Britain is rightly heralded as one of the proudest moments in British history - a time when 'the few' performed unimaginable heroics in the face of overwhelming odds and, in a few short weeks, very probably changed the outcome of the war. But what is less well known is that a significant minority of those pilots flying for the RAF were not British at all, but were Polish. They were also brilliant pilots - as the statistics verify. One Polish squadron, 303, was the most successful squadron in the whole of the Battle of Britain.

The Poles came to continue their fight against Hitler after the fall of Poland. Initially kept grounded by RAF top brass, they subsequently proved themselves in dramatic fashion. But their dream of a liberated Poland was shattered when, at the end of the war, the allies handed over Poland to Stalin.

Now, the story of 303 squadron is to be told in a new documentary, The Battle of Britain, part of the Bloody Foreigners season on Channel 4. One of those pilots featured is Miroslaw 'Ox' Feric, who was one of the most successful Polish air aces of the war, and whose detailed squadron diaries form an invaluable historical record of 303 squadron's extraordinary achievements. Here, his son, Philip, tells his extraordinary story, and reveals why we all owe a debt of gratitude to men like his father.

What did your father do before the outbreak of war?

He was a professional pilot in the Polish Air Force. He and a lot of the others who'd joined the Kosciuszko squadron [as the 303 had been known in its former incarnation in Poland] had all gone through the Polish equivalent of Cranwall [RAF training college] as professional air force pilots. The academy was called Deblin. He was commissioned as an officer in the Polish Air Force in 1938. A lot of them had been pilots for at least a year before the Germans attacked Poland.

The fact that a lot of them had that experience was perhaps what stood them in such good stead when they came over to Britain, wasn't it?

Yes. They had been very well trained. They were taught on planes that were similar to our Gloucester Gladiators and things like that, which obviously were no match for the Messerschmitts. But then, of course, we only got the Spitfire and the Hurricane just in time. They did their best against the Germans, and actually managed to do remarkably well - I think they knocked out about 150 of them before they were overrun.

What happened thereafter? How did your father end up in Britain?

My father's very well known for the fact that he started a diary recording the squadron's day-to-day activities from the outbreak of war in September 1939. The diary details what they did and where they went, with sketches and details of the various fields they used as airfields as they withdrew towards Romania - because that's all they could do. They eventually ran out of parts, fuel, ammunition and everything, and abandoned their planes at the Romanian border. They all managed to get to Bucharest and get civilian clothes and money, and there was a very clever escape organisation to get as many Polish pilots as possible out of Romania. They came down through Yugoslavia or via Greece, and eventually they all wound up in France.

Were they were attached to the French air force?

Yes, until France collapsed. But the French wouldn't let them fight. They were allowed to act as observers and fly observation missions, but fighting wasn't allowed. They were very distressed. Having fought their guts out to try and beat the Germans, to be faced with a largely indifferent French air force who didn't seem to care whether the Germans came or went, they found incredibly depressing. As France fell, they got themselves out of France. Some, like my father, took the plane they'd been allocated by the French and flew it to North Africa. The ones who were in Northern France were able to get straight across to England, but most of them went South. They arrived in North Africa and then were shipped to England. They arrived in dribs and drabs, but in the end most of the air force from Poland made it to England.

And then 303 was formed as one of the Polish squadrons.

Yes. It was largely made up of the Kosciuszko squadron, and so most of them had flown together. It's rather like a football or rugby team, if you know how the other people fight and fly, you're at an advantage. And they were all taught the same way, and they were all experienced. They were all in their mid-20s, whereas a lot of the RAF pilots were still teenagers. They were battle-hardened, they were extremely angry, and wanted to get their own back at the Germans. But of course they'd been rested as well, because they hadn't done much in France, and they had to go through a lot of retraining in England - there was the language barrier, and new planes to come to terms with, and different radio systems. So they were raring to go when they were let loose in the Battle of Britain.

They must have found being kept out of the battle hugely frustrating when they first arrived in Britain.


Yes. Air Chief Marshall Dowding decided that in order to fly with the RAF, they had to operate under RAF rules and RAF systems. They were taught to fly in RAF close formations, although they actually adapted the formations, because they were so tight and rigid and organised that they weren't tactical. The Poles were probably the first to tactically fly differently to give them an advantage. It was the way they'd been taught to fly, to be able to look around them at all times and know exactly what was in front of them, above, below and either side of them. But it was the language that was the barrier they had to overcome. So the Poles were all put on a football field on tricycles with radios strapped to them, and made to ride round and practice giving directions and talking to each other and so on in English, until they were of a standard that was reckoned acceptable for them to be able to talk to base from the air. So it was very frustrating to them. They'd been given these marvellous planes that were out of this world as far as they were concerned, and they just wanted to get at the enemy.

When they went into battle in the end, they had the most astonishing impact, didn't they?

Yes. This was because they were incredibly well-trained, they'd got enough flying experience with the Hurricanes, they knew from their experience in Poland that they had to get in close, because in Poland their planes had been so slow. So they didn't open fire until they were at 200 yards or less. The RAF would open fire at 600 yards. There was an amazing amount of skill in flying the planes. A lot of the British pilots had never even fired their guns before. So they'd be up there, in a dogfight, performing manoeuvres they'd never done before, then they'd hit their guns, the cockpit would fill with this amazing noise of eight machine guns firing, and with smoke. There's the noise over the radio of people shouting and swearing and screaming and everything else. They just weren't prepared for it. It was a terrifying experience. The Poles had had all of this experience in Poland the year before, so it didn't bother them so much, and they were able to get on with the job of shooting down planes. And they were battle-hardened, and had the determination to do it.

How many planes did your father shoot down?

It was something like eight, plus a couple in Poland. He's the tenth-highest scoring Polish pilot - and bear in mind he was killed in 1942.

The King came down to meet the squadron, to thank them for their extraordinary performance. Did your father meet him?

There's actually a picture of my father shaking hands with the King. He came down to visit them, they were on standby, having just got back from a sortie. There's a picture of them in line with the King, and my father's in a fore-and-aft hat instead of a peaked cap, shaking the King's hand.

That must be a source of great pride.

It is. I'm incredibly proud of my father's exploits. I've got his medals and his wings, and they mean a great deal to me.

Do you know the circumstances of your father's death?

It's slightly surrounded in mystery. He took up a Spitfire, as far as we know to test it. And something went wrong - whether something hadn't been mended properly, or something that was damaged then broke, we don't know. It went into a dive quite suddenly, and the angle got steeper and steeper, and at a certain speed the wings break off. And one broke of and knocked off the rear tailplane on one side, and then the other one broke off and knocked off the tailplane on the other side, and it went down like a cigar, and crashed into the edge of the runway at Northolt. He tried to get out, and was half out of the cockpit when it hit the ground. He'd had a similar experience in September 1939 in Poland, where he'd been shot up, and had inverted his plane in order to get out. His parachute didn't open, and he landed in a forest, in trees, and survived. He was very lucky. He was saved by the forest canopy, and lived to fight another day on that occasion. Sadly, he wasn't so lucky in 1942. I was five months old. My mother was working in the war effort, and obviously couldn't look after me, so her aunts - my great aunts - brought me up. My mother, as far as I know, was killed in an air raid later. I never really knew her, and obviously I didn't know my father. So all I know is what I read in books and what I've been told. It,s a little bit frustrating not knowing more.

As such, the squadron diary must be that much more important to you?


Yes. The squadron diary is fascinating. The only problem is, I don't speak Polish. Bits have been translated, and there are bits in English. Everyone contributed, and the Polish squadrons had to have a British squadron leader as well as a Polish squadron leader, and two British section leaders. And they all contributed to this diary. At the end of each day, people would write things in it, so it's a very interesting historical document. It was reports of precisely what had happened in the air virtually after each sortie.

After his death, the squadron kept the diary going in his memory, didn't they?

Yes, they did, very much so.

They must have held him in very high esteem.

Yes, I gather he was a very popular fellow in the squadron.

What do you think your father's motivation was for keeping such a detailed resource?

I think it started as a personal thing - keeping a diary to record his thoughts and actions - but then expanded and became a squadron diary. And he badgered people to write in it. My father was known as 'Ox', and there are comments in there saying 'Ox is at me again to write in this goddamn diary, I can see him looking at me now, so I must write.' He did make them write, and it is a fantastic document. It's a great document for me, because my father features heavily in it, but it also tells the stories of people like Jan Zumbach. He was very well known. In fact, the spitfire that's been used by the BNP, the markings on that are unmistakable as Jan Zumbach's plane. He had his own logo on that plane - a Donald Duck - and you can see it quite clearly just forward of the cockpit. And the BNP have used his picture, which I find very ironic!

How important was the contribution of the Polish pilots, in your view?

They tipped the balance of the Battle of Britain in Britain's favour, without a doubt. They came in at just about the last gasp, when the RAF was very stretched indeed, and provided fresh and much needed and very experienced pilots and resources. That squadron shot down more German planes than any other squadron in the battle, and when you consider the battle had been going for months before they joined, that's pretty extraordinary. I think it's fair to say that the Polish squadrons had a huge effect on the outcome.

As such, what happened to Poland at the end of the war must have felt like a great betrayal.

Oh, absolutely. They didn't have a free country, after all their sacrifices, their country was neatly divided up and Joe Stalin had grabbed it. They couldn't really go back home - those that did were killed. One or two went home later. But most stayed in the UK or went to France or America. It was a very sad end after everything they'd done.

What do you think your father would have made of this programme?

I think he would have been thrilled that almost 70 years on, their effort was still being remembered.

What does your father's story mean to you?

I'm thrilled that my father and his comrades arrived here in England and were able to help fight for a free world. I have this amazing feeling about the whole thing, I'm so proud of him and his comrades, and what they did.

By Benjie Goodhart

This interview is available free for reproduction in full or in part.

Zmieniony ( 16.01.2010. )
 
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