Friday, 8 July 2016

The Poles in the Battle of Britain

I've been really appalled at the reports of attacks against migrants in the wake of the Brexit vote, especially the Poles for whom I have the greatest of respect. Some folk in this country seem to have a short memory about the Poles, who made a dramatic and significant intervention during the Battle of Britain in 1940.

By coincidence, I've been sorting out my office over the last week and have found an old transcript of an interview I carried out in March 2000 with a former Polish fighter pilot who served with The Few in 1940, and who in so doing helped to turn the tide of the Battle of Britain in favour of the RAF (the interview was carried out as part of a Channel 4 documentary on The Few, which appeared in the Secret History series). I've reproduced segments here to help share his story further, as a testament to him and so many others who helped this country in its darkest hour.

Ludwik Martel, born in 1919, was a pilot with the Polish Air Force who was forced to flee to France in the wake of German occupation of his country. When the Germans then subsequently invaded France, he made his way to England, where he and his fellow Poles initially received a frosty welcome. Having been deemed to have been easily defeated, the British initially opted to train them up as bomber pilots, rather than fighter pilots.

LM: There was impression in England, especially Lord Dowding expressed his views that he was a bit frightened to accept Polish pilots to Fighter Command, because he said they lost the war in Poland, they lost the war in France, what kind of morale are those boys going to have? Well, we couldn't by talking convince him that we could still have morale to fight, but then, so they took chance, and they start taking pilots to the, in small groups to English squadrons, and meantime they formed two Polish squadrons. Those Polish squadrons were mainly people who had experience of fighting in Poland and in France. So that was the big advantage, and the morale was very high....

Although they were initially treated with caution, events soon forced RAF Fighter Command (under the command of Sir Hugh Dowding) to reconsider the use of the Poles as fighter pilots. The highly trained Auxiliary squadron pilots who had started the war with the RAF had taken heavy losses, and the much less experiencedpilots brought in to replace them, with little training, were also taking major losses in the air.

LM: ...later on, the things start getting very bad, the losses in the squadron were too big... Dowding make the decision, take anybody who can fly. So we were actually given the chance to come back to fly again, we were sent to different refreshment places for refreshing courses, and sooner or later we all became operational pilots.

Ludwik was attached initially to 54 Squadron at Catterick, where he was given seven hours training on a Tiger Moth bi-plane. He was then sent to 603 Squadron at Hornchurch for the duration of the rest of the Battle of Britain. Once there, he was given just 50 minutes on a Spitfire with an instructor, and practised just four or five take-offs and landings, before being declared flight ready.

The Polish contribution was to be a game changer. Having been frustrated at not being able to participate until this point, they now had the opportunity for payback to the Luftwaffe which had driven them into exile from their own country.

LM: Oh they make a terrific impact because, you must realise, as I said, the pilots were experienced pilots. And that... their record of shooting 126 aircraft, plus 13 damage, in the Battle alone, was the highest score in the Fighter Command. So that was a terrific boost to every Pole who was in the air force, and we were very proud ...it proved that the pilot, experienced pilot was the pilot who was properly trained. You see, probably if English pilots had more chance to be better trained, probably wouldn't have to have such heavy losses. But, so that, we had 145 Polish pilots I think in the Battle of Britain, and we lost 31 only. So that was a good record.

During the Battle, Ludwik shot down a Messerschmidt Bf109, but was himself shot down on October 25th 1940:

LM: ...that was very unfortunate, because the squadron was flying tight formation, and we were moving through the clouds from about, from the ground to about twenty, over twenty thousand feet, and we just met. We'd been warned on the location that there were enemy aircraft in the vicinity, so we were hoping then we'd get through the clouds.. but unfortunately we went through the clouds and they were on top of us, so they shot straight away the three, the last section of the three plus one, and I was the one, as well. So the other three were killed. I managed, I fainted and I managed to get the air, get control of the aircraft. I was a bit wounded on the left hand side, I had a cannon blow up on the left wing. And, luckily enough I force landed and that was the end of my... very depressing thing which happened to me that time was on just about maybe two, three hundred yards away on the right side was a bloody windmill, and I was sure that I'm in Holland. I was so sad, and I said, well that's the end of me, of my war. Anyhow,, then suddenly the Home Guard was coming and then I got, they helped me out of the aircraft, and the officer comes and they recognise that I'm not a German because I have a Polish armband and I was taken to hospital. And ten days later I was flying again.

During our interview I asked Ludwik for whom was he really flying?

LM: ...I think that we fly for Poland. We knew that, we're going to do well now that war we were going to back to independent and free Poland again, so that, we always had that in mind. Poland was first, yes.

But to save Poland, he first had to help save England and Britain:

LM: We were... 1940 we realised that we were fighting for Germans not to invade England... everybody was thinking the same, and they said, we have to carry on and fight like hell, because we must stop Germans coming here.

Ludwik survived the war, and spent the rest of his days in England. He sadly passed away in 2010 - an obituary for him is available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/7712030/Lives-Remembered.html. When I met him in Wimbledon, London, in late 1999 and again in March 2000 for the production of the documentary, he was a charming man, and a delight to meet. A belated thank you once again to Ludwik for sharing his experiences with me.

NB: For more on The Few, I'd thoroughly recommend checking out Men of the Battle of Britain, 60th Anniverary Edition, by Kenneth G. Wynn (CCB Asociates, 1999).

Chris

For details on my genealogy guide books, including A Decade of Irish Centenaries: Researching Ireland 1912-1923Discover Scottish Church Records (2nd edition), Discover Irish Land Records and Down and Out in Scotland: Researching Ancestral Crisis, please visit http://britishgenes.blogspot.co.uk/p/my-books.html.

4 comments:

  1. Well done Chris for this post, which is especially poignant when it is remembered that the same Poles saw at the end of WW2 Poland becoming a Communist state, cut off behind the Iron Curtain. That Communism ended and we got a Europe that is not just Western European is in part down to Polish tenacity in never giving up on the idea that they would one day be free.

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  2. Indeed. One other part of the interview with Ludwik concerned the end of the war, in which he mentioned how he and fellow Poles were not allowed to participate in the victory parade in London after the war, for fear of offending the Russians. They had to put up with a hell of a lot.

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  3. I have included your blog in this week’s Interesting Blogs on Friday Fossicking at

    http://thatmomentintime-crissouli.blogspot.com.au/2016/07/friday-fossicking-15th-july-2016.html

    Thank you, Chris

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