Wladyslaw Gnyś is not a well-known name from WWII, but it should be. The brave Polish pilot was the first person to shoot down two German planes at the start of the war.
Wladyslaw – Wladek to his friends – was born in Poland at Sarnów, Kozienice County, on August 24, 1910. In 1931, Gnyś joined the Polish Air Force and completed his pilot training at Grudziadz. He attained the rank of Corporal and was an instructor at the Aviation Cadet School in Deblin. In 1938, he graduated as a 2nd Lieutenant from the Officer Cadet School for Non-Commissioned Officers in Bydgoszcz and was assigned to 121 Fighter Squadron based in Krakow.
Early on the morning of September 1, 1939, Wladek was woken by a bombing raid on Krakow. He and his captain, the group commander, jumped in their old P-11c fighter aircraft and took off. Almost immediately, they were attacked by two German Ju 87B dive-bombers. His captain’s plane suffered severe damage, and he was killed. Wladek succeeded in hitting an attacking Stuka, which left the battle trailing smoke but was able to return to its base. Gnyś then fired on two German DO-17E bombers and shot both of them down.
With the fall of Poland to the Germans, Wladek escaped to France and joined the French Air Force, where he was credited with three shared kills. But again he was forced to flee in July 1940, when Germany invaded France. He arrived in England on July 14, 1940, at Liverpool docks and immediately joined the Royal Air Force.
During his enlistment with the RAF, he helped protect his adopted country by fighting in the Battle of Britain, and he also took part in the invasion of Normandy. On August 20, 1944, he was promoted to command his own unit, the 317 Polish Fighter Squadron, flying Spitfires. A week later, while operating in the skies over Normandy at Rouen, Wladek was shot down and captured by German soldiers. He was sent to a POW hospital as he had a bullet in his liver – a souvenir of the war that he carried to his dying day.
Wladek did not take his capture lying down. He escaped from the hospital and made contact with the French Resistance who returned him safely to the Allied lines. At the end of the war, he settled in Canada with his English wife, Barbara.
His son, Stefan Gnyś, has written a biography of his father’s life, First Kills: The Illustrated Biography of Fighter Pilot Władysław Gnyś. The book covers his life from humble beginnings in rural Poland, through his exciting life flying for three of the Allied air forces during the war, to his commemoration as a national war hero.
The book also contains a fascinating footnote to the history through which this amazing man lived. In the summer of 1989, fifty years after the war, Wladek met one of the German Stuka pilots involved in the attack back in September 1939. The two former enemies shook hands, put the past behind them and remained friends for the rest of their lives.
Wladyslaw Gnyś was a unique and fascinating man. He was credited with the first aerial kills of WWII, flew with distinction for three Allied air forces and then met and reconciled with the man that killed his superior officer and almost killed him. On top of all that, he was a father and family man. A remarkable life lived to its fullest.