Daily Archives: 6 February, 2010

The Forgotten Few – the Polish Air Force in World War Two by Adam Zamoyski

The Forgotten Few

One of the saddest and most tragic stories of the Second World War has to be that of Poland. The vey reason that Britain and France went to war – Polish independence – was betrayed at the Yalta conference in 1945. But the story of Polish tragedy has a long history before and after the Second World War – Poland has at various times been occupied by France, Austria, Germany and Russia. In fact, it is only really from 1918 and 1939 and the fall of Communism in 1989 that Poland has controlled its own destiny.

After the all of Poland in 1939 thousands of Polish men somehow made their way by various routes to France, and then to Britain. The Poles made a significant contribution to the Allied war effort – an Armoured Division after D-Day, more Army units in Italy, a Polish Parachute Brigade fought at Arnhem and Polish Navy ships supported the D-Day landings.

But perhaps the most important contribution was the Polish Air Force. Poles manned a significant number of Fighter and Bomber Squadrons, fighting in the Battle of Britain and also in the strategic Bomber offensive. After initial problems adapting to the RAF’s ways and British society, the flying Poles made not only a sterling fighting contribution, but also left an indelible mark on many Brits. In a typically British fashion the Poles were regarded as ‘hot-headed’ and too aggressive. Perhaps if RAF officers had had to flee their homeland, they might not have been quite so critical.

This book by Adam Zamoyski tells he story of the Polish Air Force with remarkable detail. Born to Polish parents and having lived in Britain for many years, Zamoyski is ideally placed to tell this story. The biblography shows extensive research, most usefully of Polish sources. The story is picked up before 1939, and describes the development of the Polish Air Force between the wars. We are then told about how the Poles made their way from their homeland to take up the fight in France and then Britain, and the long and arduous development of Polish squadrons under RAF command.

Not only is this a story of aircraft and squadrons, but it is also a very human story. Tales of young men forced from their homeland, ending up in a strange country, and not knowing what fate would befall their beloved Poland cannot fail to stir the heart. We also learn about the culture clashes between British society and the Poles. And tales of romance between British girls and Polish airmen are aplenty. As a social history, this is a fascinating read and reminds us that many other nationalities, exiled to Britain, contributed to the wider war effort. All too often their contributions are ignored. Somehow we rarely hear about the Polish squadrons who fought the Luftwaffe in 1940 – apart from condescending scenes in war films showing Polish airmen as excitable and immature.

But the saddest part of their story has to be the final fate of Poland in 1945. Agreed to be part of the Soviet sphere influence at Yalta, the Poles in British service felt betrayed. They rapidly became an inconveniece and embarassment to their British hosts, and were shamefully treated. Many of them were only given the right to settle in Britain after long and traumatic struggles. The Author gives some sad example of how British people in some cases turned against the Poles, fearing that they were stealing jobs and calling for them to ‘go home’.

This is a story of shabby treatment that deserves to rank alongside the scapegoating of Sosabowski and the Polish Paras after Arnhem. Perhaps the Allies had no choice over the Polish question at Yalta, but the authorities in Britain could at least have treated the brave Poles so much better. Hopefully this important book will go some way to rehabilitating the story of the Polish Air Force in the Second World War.

The Forgotten Few is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Book of the Week, debate, Royal Air Force, World War Two

Portsmouth Harbour tour #2

There were a couple of foreign warships in port this weekend, so I thought I would take the chance to go on the Pompey harbour tour and take some pics!

FGS Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

FGS Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

FGS Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is a German Frigate of the Brandenburg Class, and its the first time a ship of that class has visited Portsmouth. They’re very impressive ships with a 76mm main gun, Vertical launch anti-air missiles and exocet anti-ship missiles, as well as Rheinmetall 20mm cannons. They’re currently underoing an upgrade and the Vertical launch missiles are being replaced with Sea Sparrow, and the Exocets with RBS 15 Mk.3. Interesting how she looks like a German warship – high, stacked and mean looking.

HNLMS Johann De Witt

HNLMS Johann De Witt

HLMS Johann De Witt is a Dutch Landing Ship. Launched in 2007, she is from a class of two ships. She can accomodate numerous landing craft, which use the stern dock to embark troops. She also has a large flight deck and hangar for up to 6 Lynx helicopters. She can carry 611 marines, 170 armoured personnel carriers or 33 Main Batle tanks – a impressive sealift capacity. The Dutch Navy and Marines can form a joint task force with the Royal Navy’s amphibious task group, so she could well operate with British ships. She’s very similar to the British Bay Class. Unlike the Bay Class however she has good self-defence – 2 Goalkeeper guns and 4 Oerlikon 20mm cannons – and the Bay Class lack a hangar.

HMS Manchester

HMS Manchester

HMS Manchester is a Batch 3 ship of the Type 42 Class of Destoyers. She’s looking her age now and her and the rest of the class are due to be replaced as the Type 45 Destroyers come into service. The Sea Dart missile system is pretty much obsolete now compared to the Sea Viper, even if it hasn’t yet been fully proven in trials. Notice also how shes longer than the earlier Type 42’s – they proved to be very poor in rough seas, so the later ships were lengthened. But this would have cracked the hull, so they had strengthening fitted along their sides.

HMS Iron Duke

HMS Iron Duke

HMS Iron Duke is a Type 23 Frigate. She has a 4.5inch main gun, Sea Wolf verital launch anti-air missile system and Harpoon anti-ship missiles. They were originally designed as anti-submarine ships for the North Atlantic, but nowadays are more likely to be seen fighting pirates and drug-smuggles. The Iron Duke performed well in the Carribean last year, but is a Cold War anti-submarine frigate the best ship for fighting drug smugglers? She has a proper warship name though, named after the Duke of Wellington. My Great-Grandad served on the First World War vintage Iron Duke, a battleship.

HMS Invincible

HMS Invincible

Finally we see HMS Invincible, the mothballed Falklands veteran aircraft carrier. She was withdrawn from service in 2005 – technically she is in ‘extended readiness’. Not sure what the Navy means by this, as if you look on Google Earth you can see her propellers on the flight deck – I don’t think shes going anywhere anytime soon. She’s probably been robbed of parts to keep her sister ships Illustrious and Ark Royal running. My dad worked on Invincible when she first came into the Dockyard, many moons ago. She’s due to be towed to the breakers yard later this year.

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Filed under Dockyard, maritime history, Navy

RAF war dead: some comparisons

Perhaps the most evocative image of the RAF in the Second World War is of gallant fighter pilots fighting off the Luftwaffe in the summer of 1940. The Battle of Britain, in many eyes, was the RAF’s biggest contribution during the Second World War.

The RAF has always been fiercely protective of its independence, and as a result has long championed two strengths that underlines it – air defence and strategic bombing. With some small changes over time this still holds true today – witness the lavish amount of Eurofighters, compared to the shortage of Helicopters. There is something extremely glamorous about fighters. A Spitfire is graceful, a sportscar, whereas a Lancaster is a great lumbering beast, more akin to a truck.

But among all the emphasis on Spitfires and Hurricanes, are we missing something? What about the Bombers?Just as a comparison, Between 1939 and 1947 14 men from Portsmouth died whilst flying Spitfires and Hurricanes. 92 were killed flying Lancasters and Halifaxes.

Why is there such a difference in numbers? For a start, fighters had a single pilot, whereas Bombers had a much larger crew. If a plane was shot down, the losses were much higher. And while Fighter Command was extremely busy during the summer of 1940, throughout the war and particularly from 1942 onwards Bomber Command was attacking occupied Europe night after night – prolonged operations were bound to take their toll.

Given that by 1943 Bomber Command was able to launch raids consisting of 1,000 bombers, we have some impression of just how many bombers were being launched into the air offensive. Once we take into account that bombers flew night after night, and the attrition brought on by German defences, its not surprising that so many Bomber men were killed in action.

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Filed under portsmouth heroes, Royal Air Force, World War Two