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Truly of the Few – the Polish Air Force in the Defence of Britain

Truly of the Few – the Polish Air Force in the Defence of Britain

Dr Penny Starns
ARRSE Rating
4 Mushroom Heads
This is a book on a neglected subject – the contribution the Poles made to the British war effort in the Second World War. Although Poland capitulated to the Nazis, it never surrendered. The Polish government in exile continued to function in London, and the great majority of the Polish Air Force personnel eventually made their way to the UK. There the Polish Air Force reformed; being paid for, while their funds lasted, by the government in exile.

It fought in RAF aircraft, in RAF uniform, and under RAF command, but it remained the Polish Air Force, with the red and white chequered markings of Poland somewhere on the aircraft - along with the RAF markings. Although not mentioned in this book, by the end of the war 80% of the Polish aircrew had become casualties – mainly dead; the lucky minority prisoners of war.

This book is a little bit of a curate’s egg. The bad part is (I suspect) attributable to the author not being an aviation historian. For example, one photo is captioned as Polish pilots holding the wing of a destroyed German aircraft; instead, it looks like the rudder off a Bf 109. If this book goes into another print run (and I hope it does) it might benefit from review by an aviation historian to deal with minor errors such as the above.

The plus side to this book (and it’s a big plus) is the original research carried out by the author in varying archives. Much of the material quoted in this book has not appeared in print before. This is stark contrast other recent books on WW2, which in some cases are just recycled text from earlier books.

A lot of the information in the book has been culled from combat reports, logbooks and personal reminisces. As such, a lot of the story is told through the Polish aircrew’s own words of the time, which gives the book an immediacy as you read it.

The book takes a chronological approach, starting with the various journeys made to Britain by the Poles, and how they were organised and trained. Perhaps understandably, one of the major parts of the book focuses on the Battle of Britain. The 145 Polish pilots who fought in the battle were the largest non-British contingent, and they supplied the highest scoring squadron, No. 303 squadron, although it only fought in the battle for 6 weeks.

Other chapters in the book cover the blitz, the Polish night fighter squadron, offensive patrols over the continent and the work of the Poles after D-Day. Another chapter covers a neglected area - the work of the Polish ground crews. With aircrew always in short supply, their maintenance was exemplary; if aircrew were to be lost, it would be through enemy action and not through mechanical failure.

A puzzling omission from the book is the very limited information on the work of the Poles in Bomber Command. Notorious for their desire to press on to the heart of every target, several Polish squadrons took heavy casualties and had to be transferred to Coastal Command where casualties were lower.

Yet, for all the criticisms in this review, this book has much to commend it; in particular, the wide range of original source material that has found its way into print. As such, it fills a significant gap in the historical record.

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