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.