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Polish Fighter Pilots

There has been no greater Day of Shame for the British Nation than 10th August 1945. With Hitler defeated the British bowed to the might of Soviet Russian and denied the magnificent Polish Pilots a place on the Victory Parade and tried to sever all ties with Poland. This is one man's story.
Flt Lt. Jan Adam Smigielski
Polish Ace Flt Lt. Jan Adam Smigielski

“The British pilot in the Battle of Britain shot down enemy aircraft. Polish pilots killed Germans” A chilling statement but one that accurately reflects the attitudes of those involved in the violent fight for supremacy in the air. In WWll this valiant group of pilots ensured the continued freedom of the British Isles and ultimately the world. Most of the British pilots were young, inexperienced men who virtually leapt from their school desk into the cockpit of a Spitfire. The war to them, at least to begin with, was a ‘wizard prang’, a continued and more exciting version of the games played on the college playing field. They had heard about the Nazi Blitzkrieg and seen pictures of the dramatic retreat from France. The valour of the weekend sailors who had risked life and cabin cruiser to pull the soldiers off the Dunkirk beaches had been extolled and the episode seen, not as a tragic and humiliating defeat, but as a triumph of the British fighting spirit. A sort of first leg defeat that the British Pilots intended to put right at the next fixture.

When the Polish squadrons were released on the enemy, idealism took a back seat. They had seen at first hand what the Nazis were capable of doing and had scores to settle. They flew into battle spurred on by images of Wielan. On 1st September 1937, without warning, Germans bombers zeroed in on the little town and, after dropping 70 tons of high explosives, strafed the women and children in the streets. It was a replay of what the Nazi leaders had unleashed on Guernica, in Northern Spain, 2 years earlier. In that case the destruction of the peaceful little town had the backing of the Fascist leader of the Spanish Civil war, General Franco. The Germans jumped at the chance of a spot of unhindered bombing practice against undefended buildings and people. A test run. A chance to test their navigational and bomb aiming skills against a defenseless enemy.

Flt Lt. Jan Adam Smigielski and Crew with Spitfire
Jan's (Second left) crew pose around their Spitfire.

Ten Days after the bombing of Wielan the bombers appeared again in the Polish sky above the little town of Frampol. It had a population of 3000, no industrial or military targets and presented no possible threat to the German Army. It was chosen merely because it presented a good, easily accessible and distinctive target. In the centre of the town the Town Hall was surrounded by broad lawns and wide avenues radiating out from it. Everything a novice bomb aimer needed to hone his skill. When the bombers flew back to their base and congratulations from their leaders, the town and its inhabitants no longer existed.

Jan Adam Smigielski was more aware than most of what was happening. In Torun, Poland, where he was flying with the Polish Air Force, tales were appearing daily of the atrocities performed with ritualistic fervour against his besieged countrymen. Jan had been attached to the Polish Air Force since he left school. He was an experienced glider pilot and on a conversion course to become a fully qualified pilot. With the Nazi threat becoming daily more pressing the course was completed in record speed. But not soon enough to give Jan a chance to take on the Luftwaffe in Polish skies. Most of his family had disappeared by now and he knew that once the German War machine arrived he would be killed or transported to a ‘labour’ camp. Which amounted to the same thing - only slower.

Florence Louisa Jonathan
Jan's wife and mother of actress Janina Faye, Florence Louisa Jonathan in WAAF uniform.

France was the obvious place to be. They were still in the war and the British were deployed there in vast numbers. Romania had promised planes for the fleeing Polish pilots and it was their first port of call. Unfortunately the Romanians had seen what the Nazis Panzers had done to Poland and decided to stay neutral. Which meant that Poles turning up in Bucharest were immediately arrested and interned. Jan heard about what was happening to his fellow countryman so decided to head for France. France would not be as easy to annihilate as Poland. Jan hitch-hiked across Europe. It meant that before he could reach his destination he had to go through Austria. The Germans and their supporters were everywhere. A huge no-go land for the fleeing Poles. Jan had one asset. He had spent a lot of his life in German occupied Poland and had learned to speak their language fluently. While other refuges had to take a more circuitous route to evade the invaders, Jan struck out across the heart of Austria. At first he was lying up by day and moving at night. This brought problems. Many times he almost blundered into small detachments of troops. He frequently had to take to the fields and forests. He decided that at the rate he was traveling the war would be over before he reached it. Jumping railway trucks, hiding in the back of lorries and walking when all else failed, he finally reached France. It wasn’t the France he had hoped to reach. The war was going badly. Although the French had 800,000 men under arms they were badly equipped and morale was low. The taste of the trenches and horror of WWl, fought over their country only 21 years earlier, was still with them. They were no match for the mechanised might of the victorious German troops. Jan reported to the nearest French Air Force base at Irste. There was about a dozen Polish pilots already in residence. Some of them had been there for weeks, None of them had been allowed to fly. The French were seeing treachery everywhere and were suspicious of the foreigners drifting in and wanting to fly their few remaining fighter planes. Jan hung around for a couple of days and then moved on. At the next air field, Lyon-Bron, the CO wasn’t so choosy. The rapid advance of the German troops and the effect it had on morale meant that he was short of pilots. Jan played up his experience and was soon in the air. It didn’t last long. With the collapse of France the Poles were ordered to make their way to England by whatever means available. Jan and three others managed to get to Dunkirk and cross the Channel by boat.

Jan reported for duty and was posted to an airfield near Plymouth. It was made abundantly clear to the Poles that the RAF was only extending a limited courtesy. They didn’t want the Poles as pilots. They stuck them in dilapidated huts without adequate heat or sanitation and left them to their own devices, This didn’t upset the airmen particularly. They weren’t on the south coast for a holiday. They wanted a crack at the Luftwaffe and they weren’t getting it. In daily confrontations between the Poles and the RAF commander the Poles begged for a chance to fight the enemy. The CO was adamant. He had no orders to provide them with aircraft and until he did they stayed earth bound. Grudgingly he gave permission for a limited number of training missions. As they were returning to base they spotted a formation of German bombers with fighter escort about a 1000 feet below. The flight commander ordered them to ignore what they had seen The Poles suddenly had an inexplicable communications problem and dived in. They held their fire until they were within a few yards of the enemy and then let them have the full wealth of their guns. They had done enough to assure the high command that they were more than capable of taking the war to the enemy . On the eve of the first anniversary of the invasion of Poland the squadron was made operational.. These were no school boy heroes making notches on their bed posts. These were deadly hunters stalking a prey. They weren’t looking for aircraft. They were hunting Germans.

Janina Faye
Actress Janina Faye (nee Smigielski) - an extraordinary resemblance to her mother, Florence.

Jan Smigielski was soon in the thick of the fighting. He gained more experience on Hurricanes and Spitfires and Mustang. On a sortie over Plymouth, in a tussle with a Messerschmitt 109, Jan bought himself a bad head injury and was hospitalised in Scotland for several months. Outcome was a sexy scar over his right eyebrow and a silver plate to hold in his brain. Not enough to keep the eager Pole from claiming ‘fit for duty’ status”. He was sent to Northolt , west of London, when the famous 306 Squadron was formed. The Polish Squadron was anywhere the Luftwaffe was. When the battle of Arnhem was being fought the Polish fliers were in the thick of it. They were especially chosen because they had the most experience of bad weather flying.

Without a doubt the Polish airmen did as much, if not more, than anyone to discourage Hitler from invading England. Jan earned The Cross Of Valour, The Virtuti Militari and the DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) and bar . He wasn’t presented these medals by the King as his brothers in arms were but by a Man from the Ministry. It’s hard to see where the distinction came from but the usually held concept was that the King did not ‘do’ the honours for foreign nationals. A distinction hard to fathom when these non- English men were doing more than most to preserve the country’s integrity. But it was nothing to the treatment that many Poles were to suffer when the war was won. Jan’s war finished when he was shot up over the English Channel. His glider training paid dividends. When the engine on his Spit cut out he was able to glide in and land at the American base at Manston in Kent. He was feted by the Americans but they forgot to inform his Squadron that they had him. When he finally returned to Northolt he found that his belongings, as was the custom, had been shared out among the other members of the flight. He was not amused.

Pre-Scramble Relaxation
The crew relax between sorties.

After the war Jan’s fate was similar to many of his compatriots. It seemed that although the Poles had been extolled as courageous and successful fighters during the war, once the peace settled in they were not welcome in the British Isles. Many were sent back to Poland, now in the hands of the Russians, who treated them as enemies and arrested and shot many of them. At least Jan was spared this. What did fire him up was the snub offered to him and his brothers in arms at the Victory Parade. For reasons of political intrigue the men who had fought and died defending Britain were not honoured by the inclusion of the survivors of the Polish Squadrons. It is hard to think that this could have happened - but it did. Poland was England’s first ally and most supportive nation from the onset of the War. The fact that England and France declared war on Nazi Germany because of their invasion of Poland, is not a factor. If Germany had been allowed to invade country after country with impunity, nowhere in the world would have been safe. By the end of the war the Polish pilots had flown nearly 90,000 sorties at the cost of 1669 men. They had claimed over 500 German planes and almost 200 V1 rockets.. This was just some of the achievements of the Air Force. The Army and Navy fought on every front against the marauding Nazis and acquitted themselves with valour. Surely this merited a place in the Victory Parade? But their Allies felt that it was better to placard Russia than stick their necks out for their numerically insignificant friends. So it was no surprise to anyone when Josef Stalin, Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt sat down at Yalta and agreed to send hundreds of millions of innocent Poles into the death gulags of Siberia.

Jan Adam Smigielski Inspects Downed German Plane
Jan examines a downed German plane.

Jan didn’t want to return to Poland. He had met and married an English girl, a member of the WAAF. (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force). Florence Louisa Jonathan, Fay to her friends. What Jan wanted to do more than anything in the world was stay in the Royal Air Force. But there was a mass of British born pilots who also wanted to stay and their needs had to be put first. For Jan Adam Smigielski, a man who had fought from day one of the Nazi aggression unleashed against his country, the alternatives offered were not appetising. If he wanted to stay In the RAF he was given the opportunity to learn one of two professions. Upholstery or dentistry. Was it a calculated insult? It does seem a tad tactless to offer a man who had just helped to save your country a future sprucing up tatty headboards or extracting rotten molars for the rest of his life. But Jan was a practical man. He realised that he may have been accepted when he was protecting London from the Luftwaffe but in the hard grim world of post war Britain he was just another foreigner looking for a job. He opted for dentistry but was haunted by a scenario which had him going slowly mad and doing something fatal to his patients. But with a baby on the way he had to do something which would make a living for his family. So he took up Upholstery.

Jan’s story is not unique. It, and worse, can be repeated many times over. Jan was incensed by the betrayal of his people by the Allies. So many of his countrymen had fought and died for the cause only to be tossed aside when they were no longer needed. He knew instinctively that recrimnations were pointless. What was done was done. He rarely spoke of those dark days and dangerous skies of the 1940’s. He lived and died in Ealing. His daughter, actress Janina Faye, knew little of his fight for survival until after his death. It saddens her to think that his adopted country, for which he fought so valiantly, betrayed his native land in the end. Perhaps Poland, the country which started the decline and fall of the USSR, can now, belatedly, claim its place in the society of Europe now that they have joined the EU.

And lastly. When all the fighting was done and the world was saved from Fascism and the Nazis, Poland was presented with a bill of £68,000,000. for the operating costs and equipment they used while fighting to save England. With great dignity the Poles paid without protest.

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . .

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untresspassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr

Motoring & Leisure

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