Polish Fighter Pilots of World War II

Pilots of 303 (Polish) Squadron walking away from a Hurricane.

Pilots of 303 (Polish) Squadron walking away from a Hurricane.
Pilots of 303 (Polish) Squadron walking away from a Hurricane.

On the outskirts of London, not far from the Royal Air Force base at Northolt, stands the Polish war memorial. A well-known local landmark, the memorial was erected in 1948 with money that was contributed largely by British people in response to an appeal from the Polish Air Force Association. On the memorial are inscribed the names of 1,902 Polish men and women who gave their lives fighting alongside French and British forces in the Second World War.

When war broke out in September 1939, the Polish Air Force consisted of 300 near-obsolete aircraft flown by highly-trained pilots and crews. The German Luftwaffe had 1300 modern aircraft at its disposal, but in a short campaign the Polish pilots gave a good account of themselves, shooting down 126 German planes. Victory went to the numerically superior Luftwaffe however, and when the Russian Army invaded Poland most of the Polish airmen left to fight in the French Air Force. They were responsible for downing 56 German aircraft in the battle for France.

France was invaded by the German army in June 1940, and over 8,000 Polish airmen were evacuated to England – their ‘island of last hope’. They fought bravely alongside British Air Force crews, playing an important part in the Battle of Britain which was fought in the skies over Southern England between July and October of 1940. The Poles fought for Britain so that their homeland might be free from tyranny, the Business Insider UK reports.

Michal Solarski is a London based photographer whose work is largely based on his own Polish background and experiences. Michal is particularly interested in documenting migration and memories, and his new self-published book, The Airmen, contains photographs of surviving Polish airmen who fought with the Royal Air Force in England during the war years. Michal spent six years travelling through Poland, The United Kingdom, Canada, and the USA, talking to and photographing nearly thirty men and women.

At the end of the war, British troops from overseas returned in large numbers, and Britain’s economy had suffered badly. There was tough competition for jobs, and although some of them stayed, many Polish people decided to seek a future elsewhere. The Poland they fought so bravely for was no more – it was by then under Communist rule, so they went to Canada and the USA.
Michal Solarski’s book forms a unique historical record containing photographs of some of the men who fought for their country all those years ago.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE