Polish Fighter Pilots of World War II
As they streamed across the border into Romania, many Polish pilots had the idea that here, finally, was a country they could count on. Poland and Romania had been on good terms since long before busy post-World War I cartographers provided the two countries with a short stretch of shared border (later erased by busy post-World War II cartographers). In 1921, Poland and Romania had signed a mutual defense treaty, which, although it didn't amount to much in geopolitical terms, provided both with a little more security in an ever more insecure Europe. When Germany invaded Poland, no one really expected the Romanian government to send troops, and it didn't. What the government did do — and the pilots were grateful for this — was to agree to accept delivery of new fighter planes that the French and British had shipped, in their own good time, to the Polish Air Force.
Among those who escaped to Romania during this chaotic period, although not all at the same time or to the same place, were the pilots and ground crews of Zdzislaw Krasnodebski's two Warsaw defense squadrons and the Deblin cadets under Witold Urbanowicz's command. Then there was Jan Zumbach, who, broken leg and all, was still trying to catch up with his Kosciusko Squadron buddies.
Flying the unarmed little liaison plane that headquarters had provided him a few days earlier, Zumbach crossed into Romanian airspace on September 17 and landed at an airfield near the town of Cernauti. Shutting down his engine and using his cane to help pry himself out of the cockpit, he expected to be greeted as a comrade-in-arms. Instead, Romanian soldiers approached and ordered him to surrender any weapons he had. Seeing that the Polish pilots who had arrived ahead of him were already being corralled "like cattle" into two nearby hangars, Zumbach managed to hide his sidearm in a pocket of his jacket. When the soldiers motioned him toward one of the hangars, he asked if he could first move his plane to a safer spot. Moments later, he was airborne again, looking down on the shouting, fist-shaking Romanians.
What neither Zumbach nor any of the others knew before they escaped from their own country was that Romania, having observed the quick work that the Germans and Soviets made of Poland, had nervously declared itself neutral and reneged on its agreement to accept the shipments of French and British planes. From that point on, whenever Polish political and military escapees crossed the Romanian border, they were arrested and hustled off to internment camps. The pits and crews of the two Warsaw squadrons were sent to a dirt-floor barracks near the village of Babadag. There they slept on lice- and roach-infested straw mats, swatted malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and soon began to despair of ever getting back into the war.
Urbanowicz and his cadets received a similar Romanian welcome. But Urbanowicz, like Zumbach, was having none of it. Shortly before he'd left Poland, he discovered a scrap of paper in his pocket, a message from a young woman friend to whom he had just said good-bye in Warsaw. On the paper was one sentence: "You will have no other aim in your life until your country is free once more." He took that message to heart: if he couldn't fly, he would find some other way to fight, despite having dissuaded the cadets from doing the same thing. They would just have to get along without him, he decided, and he turned them over to another officer. Then, in a white-hot fury, Urbanowicz crossed back into Poland — on foot, heading for Warsaw.
He didn't get far. That same evening, Red Army troops captured him in a forest and took him, with several other Polish military prisoners, to an abandoned school. As he sat there, his hands tied behind his back, Urbanowicz decided he'd rather face a Romanian refugee camp than a Soviet gulag or whatever else the Russians might have in store for him. While a guard dozed, Urbanowicz and a Polish army sergeant sitting next to him spent several hours, back-to-back, trying to work each other's knots loose. When they succeeded, they leaped up, knocking over an oil lamp, and, one after the other, dove through an open window into the pitch-dark night. Scrambling to their feet, they bolted in different directions.
Urbanowicz heard shouts, rifle fire, men running. Outside the schoolyard, he came to a dirt road. Sprinting down it, he discovered to his horror that it dead-ended at a deep, icy stream. He had no choice: he plunged in and, as he dove to the bottom, struck his knee hard on a rock. His groan of pain resonated through the black, freezing water. By the time he gasped to the surface, his Russian pursuers were on the bank. With only the top half of his head above the water, he slowly took cover behind a large boulder in midstream. A spray of machine-gun fire chunked at the water on both sides of him and ricocheted off the boulder. Finally, the Russians stopped firing but continued standing on the bank a torturously long time, talking softly. When they gave up and left, Urbanowiez, his teeth chattering, clung to the boulder a while longer. Then he swam to the far bank and crawled out, his injured knee sending jolts of pain through his body. Nearby, he found a fallen branch to use as a walking stick, and finally — wet, hungry, exhausted, and hurting — he started to hobble south. Back to Romania.
He lost track of time and never knew exactly how far he walked. Along the way, he met other escaped Polish military men who shared food with him and knowledge about the whereabouts and movements of the Soviet troops. Finally, Urbanowicz sneaked back across the border and eventually found the cadets at a transit camp. From there, they were marched to an internment barracks. They weren't in the camp long when a Polish courier approached Urbanowicz and slipped him a roll of money and a stack of false identity cards. Give each cadet some money and a card, the official said, then split up into small groups and make your way to Bucharest any way you can. We're going to get you to France.
Urbanowicz immediately felt better. At last there was a plan. People were making decisions, acting on them. The chaos was ending.
* * * * *
A new Polish government had been created and was taking charge. Based in France, it was organized after the collapse of the prewar military junta, many of whose leaders were to spend much of the rest of the war interned in Romania. At the head of the new government, serving as prime minister and commander in chief, was General Wladyslaw Sikorski, a highly respected, ramrod-straight hero of the 1919-20 Polish-Soviet conflict. Sikorski had been prime minister and chief of the General Staff in the early 1920's but had resisted the repressions imposed by Pitsudski and, later, the junta. As a result, his career had gone into eclipse. Only after the German-Soviet onslaught and Poland's collapse was he asked by the new president, Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz, to form a government-in-exile. He chose men for his cabinet representing a broad spectrum of Polish political parties, most of them liberal by inclination and strongly opposed to the former government.
From the moment he took over, the first item on Sikorski's agenda was to get Polish forces out of Romania and the other countries to which they had escaped, and back into combat. Britain and France favored the idea. Both countries had utterly failed Poland in this crisis, but now they were at war with Germany themselves and needed all the extra manpower they could get as they prepared to defend their own soil and skies. Having seen what the Luftwaffe was capable of, the British and French governments ordered their embassies in Bucharest to help with the covert evacuation of Polish military personnel. Top priority, the order stressed, was to go to the well-trained pilots and air crews of the Polish Air Force.
There wasn't much time. At first, security at the Romanian camps had been haphazard; the guards had not paid much attention when Poles tried to escape, especially if bribes were paid in advance. But Berlin was pressuring Bucharest to shape up, reminding Romania's leaders of their obligations as newly fledged neutrals and accusing them of harboring hostile feelings toward the Reich, an accusation that carried with it the implicit threat of invasion. Nor were the Nazis relying solely on warnings from a distance; they made their point even clearer by sending hard-eyed Gestapo agents to Romania. The Poles feared that all avenues of escape might soon be closed.
To expedite matters, the Polish government-in-exile established a clandestine network worthy of the Scarlet Pimpernel. In Bucharest, General Stanislaw Ujejski, a top Polish Air Force official, set up a secret evacuation center in a private apartment, using as desks every flat space he could find — the dining-room table, a grand piano, a huge bed, the floor. Meanwhile, in a basement beneath the Polish military attaché's office, Polish embassy employees were busy forging passports and visas, inventing false names for the holders (with the real names sent to Paris in coded dispatches). Many Poles escaped on their own, but others were helped by couriers, among them several young women, who took money, civilian clothing, and the phony identification papers to the camps. Risking arrest or worse, the couriers often bribed camp commanders and guards to look the other way while an escape was in progress.
In a camp at Babadag, a courier arrived one day to give the men of the two Warsaw squadrons the same instructions that the Deblin cadets had received: Take the money and papers, form yourselves into small groups, get to Bucharest. That same night, the first group of pilots melted into the darkness. The following morning, the Romanian camp commander, evidently suspicious, ordered a roll call. Witold Lokuciewski, one of two officers left in command of the rest of the men, explained the absences by saying the missing pilots were working in the fields, helping the local peasants. The commanding officer, greatly displeased, made Lokuciewski sign an affidavit that all squadron members were present and accounted for. The next night, more men slipped away, and the camp commander insisted on yet another roll call. And this time, he warned, every one of the Poles had better be there. Lokuciewski stalled. A short time later, he and the last of the airmen escaped.
Throughout Romania, young Poles were skulking through forests and fields, hitching rides on trucks, stowing away on trains, dodging German agents and military patrols — all trying to get to Romania's dusty capital. Jan Zumbach, having made an emergency landing when his liaison plane ran out of fuel, hopped a freight, while Witold Urbanowicz and some of his cadets eluded the guards at a provincial train station and boarded an express passenger train just as it was pulling out.
When the fliers finally made it to Bucharest, they were given more money and directed by Polish officials to safe hotels and the evacuation center. They were also warned that the city was crawling with Gestapo agents on the lookout for Polish pilots and troops. Get rid of anything that identifies you with the Polish military, they were told. Most did, if reluctantly, but others found it difficult to part with the few personal items they had been able to carry out with them. Some kept their pilot's wings; some, their ceremonial daggers. One pilot refused to let go of the wooden propeller he had unbolted from the nose of his aircraft. Before he was through, he would lug the large, wooden propeller from Poland to Romania to France and, finally, to England.
At the evacuation center, so many Poles lined up to have passport pictures taken that the photographer barely had time all day to pop his head out from under the hood. The young women issuing forged passports seemed to take special delight in assigning the most incongruous of professions to their countrymen. Variations on "clergyman" were among the most popular. Thus, the high-flying, skirt-chasing Zumbach became a seminarian, and Urbanowicz — also a ladies' man but with an added touch of urbane, movie-star elegance — a monk.
After Bucharest, many of the airmen headed almost due east to the Black Sea ports of Constanza and Balcic. Hundreds at a time were loaded onto merchant ships under many flags, including a number of Polish ships that had eluded German capture. Urbanowicz and Zumbach were among 750 Poles packed into a dirty old Greek freighter, the St. Nicholas, which, when it wasn't engaged in smuggling of one form or another, had been carrying Jews illegally to Palestine. The ship's most recent cargo had been a flock of sheep, whose lingering reek was overpowering. And that wasn't the worst of it. As the St. Nicholas was about to sail, Romanian port officials suddenly and inexplicably decided to deny boarding rights to several airmen. More bribes were paid. As the ship moved away from the pier, the officials did their part by turning their backs, and the airmen did theirs by diving into the oily water. They swam after the ship and were hauled aboard, exhausted but happy, just before it left the harbor.
Psychologically and emotionally, the departure from Romania was a mixed blessing for the fliers on board the St. Nicholas. They were finally on their circuitous way to France, which meant, they hoped, that they would soon be flying again against the Germans and thus would be that much closer to the day they could return home. On the other hand, for the first time since the war began, they had time to consider, in all its horror, the cataclysm that had engulfed them and their country — and their failure to prevent it. "We worried about our loved ones in Poland, about our own future," Urbanowicz recalled. "Unending discussions were held. The September campaign was revisited time and again, the same questions were asked, some of which did not invite ready answers." Their only immediate comfort was the thought that soon they would be with their French allies, who would provide them with planes to fly and ammunition to shoot. However indifferent the French may have seemed in the recent crisis, the Poles were sure they would not let them down again.
In all, more than 10,000 Polish Air Force pilots and ground crewmen — assisted by the underground networks of the government-in-exile — managed to escape Poland after the German invasion, along with thousands upon thousands of Polish soldiers and sailors. These were not just refugees but combatants determined to make another stand. For the air force, Romania was a major transshipment point until the Germans finally did manage to force the door closed. Other Poles fled south through Slovakia to Hungary or northeast to Lithuania or Latvia. Wherever the first stop was, it was invariably followed by perilous, exhausting journeys that lasted days, weeks, and sometimes months. There were airmen who traveled by ship from the Baltic to Sweden and on to Denmark, Holland, and Belgium; or from the Black Sea across the Mediterranean to Lebanon and Egypt. Others went by train or auto or on foot through Yugoslavia, Greece, and Italy. Some skied across the Carpathian Mountains in southern Poland, or headed east from Poland to Soviet ports and departed as stowaways on merchant ships. There were even those who passed surreptitiously through parts of Germany on their westward trek or who crossed the Karakum Desert into Iran, and thence to North Africa and France.
This extraordinary epic was unmatched by any other captive country during World War II. In the words of one of the pilots, thousands of Poles moved "as leaves driven by the wind or a ship's wreckage drifting with the tides. All we knew was that we had to get to the only remaining front at any price." He meant they had to get to France. They had to get to the place Urbanowicz called "the country of our dreams."
* * * * *
The Poles felt certain that they could rely on the French people to defend their own nation against a German attack. They had done so in World War I; why not now? The French had a huge army — 800,000 men under arms — and what was supposed to be a powerful air force. Surely, they would not allow Hitler to have his way with them. What the Poles did not understand, however, was that the cataclysm of World War I, which had brought Poland its independence, had sent France into a demoralized tailspin. Only twenty-one years had passed since the armistice, scarcely a generation, and the ghosts of Verdun, the Marne, and the Somme still roamed the French landscape.
Witold Lokuciewski and his comrades had their first inkling of this when they arrived in Paris from Romania at the beginning of October 1939. Initially, Lokuciewski was enchanted by the City of Lights, especially by its young women. The handsome pilot quickly acquired a girlfriend, a student at the Sorbonne whose father was an owner of the company that manufactured Renault automobiles. But Lokuciewski's delight soon turned to disappointment and disgust. This was a dream world, not a country at war. Days before, he and his comrades had seen Warsaw burn and their countrymen murdered. Now they were in a place where people whiled away their leisure hours sipping apéritifs on cafe terraces or betting on the horses at Auteuil. Instead of marching off to war, French soldiers were enjoying themselves in restaurants and nightclubs, while chorus girls sang "We'll Hang Our Washing on the Siegfried Line."
One evening, shortly after their arrival in France, the pilots of Zdzislaw Krasnodebski's two Warsaw squadrons gathered for dinner at a Paris restaurant. It was November 11 — Independence Day in Poland and Armistice Day in France and Britain, commemorating the end of World War I. Before the pilots began to eat, their commander offered a toast. In a burst of optimism, Krasnodebski's declared: "We will be celebrating the next anniversary of Poland's independence back in our country, because we have loyal allies who not only will give us modern planes, but will fight the enemy alongside us. Our victory is certain."
The French would not have disagreed. They, too, believed that victory was certain, but not in the way envisaged by Krasnodebski's — not in combat. Rather, they thought victory would come because the Germans would simply wear themselves out attacking France's impregnable defenses. The French did not seem to have learned much from watching the Blitzkrieg against Poland; they tended to belittle the Poles and their brave and desperate attempts to resist. Encouraged by false Nazi propaganda, the French thought the Poles had lost their country through incompetence, their air force destroyed on the ground and — mon Dieu! — their horse cavalry charging at tanks! These canards, coupled with a predisposition to denigrate the Poles in any circumstance, helped lead the French to ignore their own military weaknesses and overestimate the security provided by their Maginot Line, a massively fortified area along the northeastern border that France shared with Germany. When Polish pilots tried to educate their French colleagues about the fury of Blitzkrieg and the utter irrelevance of World War I-style defenses, the French listened with barely concealed disbelief, if not outright contempt.
French military planners, succumbing to the same combination of ennui, self-delusion, and arrogance as the civilian population, were no longer considering even the possibility of waging active, as opposed to purely defensive, war. Between October 1939 and May 1940, they were convinced that any German attack through Belgium would be across the plain north of Namur, not through the much more difficult and dense terrain of the Ardennes Forest, which the French regarded as impassable for tanks. With that in mind the French high command had pulled its troops back into defensive positions, certain that the Maginot Line — a zone 200 miles wide and up to 50 miles deep, consisting of underground forts, barbed wire, pillboxes, tank traps, and guns — would at least slow the Germans enough to allow time for any necessary deployment.
In the event, the high command could not have been more wrong. Not only did the Germans come through the Ardennes, but most French troops were in no mood to fight. General Alan Brooke, who commanded one of the two British Expeditionary Force corps in France, was shocked by the condition of the French soldiers he encountered after his arrival: "Never have I seen anything more slovenly and badly turned out. Men unshaven, horses ungroomed, clothes and saddlery that did not fit, vehicles dirty, and a complete lack of pride in themselves and their units. What shook me most ... was the look in the men's faces, disgruntled and insubordinate looks, and although ordered to give 'Eyes left,' hardly a man bothered to do so."
* * * * *
Although French government officials had initially encouraged Polish fliers to come to France, they seemed to have changed their minds by the time the Poles arrived. For many of the French, the presence of the airmen was an unpleasant and thus unwelcome reminder of war's reality. The British air attaché in France noted that the French "have received the Poles ... without any proper arrangements for them, with the result that they have suffered seriously in morale and in health from the appalling conditions in which they have been kept."
When Urbanowicz and his cadets arrived by ship in Marseilles, they were taken to a base near Istres, where they were housed in a primitive barracks with no heat, no furniture, smashed windows, and only straw on the concrete floor to sleep on. They had to pay for hot showers and meals. French airmen regarded them with condescension, hostility, and suspicion. They heard themselves and their country accused of starting the war, or, at the very least, of having caused it to start. "We did not socialize with the French officers at all," Urbanowicz observed. "They shunned us as if we were enemy prisoners of war." The Poles had expected to be assigned to operational units and to be thrown almost immediately into combat. Instead, while negotiations proceeded between the Polish government-in-exile and the French, the pilots were virtually confined to their slumlike barracks and ignored.
With nothing to do, the homesick, morose Poles, most wearing the civilian clothes they had picked up in Romania, whiled away the days in endless debates about their shortlived fight against the Germans and in speculation about what was happening to their homeland under German and Russian occupation. Some of them did get occasional passes to Marseilles, where they met young women and saw the sights. But the good times paled quickly whenever they saw unmolested Luftwaffe aircraft overhead. "If only we had a couple of good fighters," Urbanowicz complained. In one story, which may be apocryphal but nonetheless illustrates how the Poles viewed their French allies at the time, they heard what sounded like gunfire one night outside the barracks. A pilot shouted that he was sure it was ack-ack. The Poles rushed outside, hoping against hope that war had finally arrived in France — only to discover that the noise was the popping of champagne corks in the French officers' mess.
The frustrated Urbanowicz, for one, had had enough. A call had gone out for Polish pilots to go to England and join the Royal Air Force, and Urbanowicz was put on the list. At the end of 1939, he was part of a small group of Polish pilots and ground staff who crossed the English Channel. But the British, like the French, seemed to be having second thoughts about the Poles, once they were at hand. The Air Ministry said it could accommodate only 300 Polish Air Force pilots to begin with — and they would be relegated to bombers. This was like telling a Formula One race car driver that henceforth he would be circling the track in a bus. Still, as far as Urbanowicz was concerned, if he had to fly bombers in order to get back into the war, then he would fly bombers. Anything to get out of do-nothing France, his "dream country" only a few weeks earlier. "Leaving France," he said, "was like taking a decent, warm shower."
In early 1940, meanwhile, the French finally got around to the idea of training the Poles in French planes and attaching them to various units. Assigned to a base at Lyon-Bron, they were supposed to spend three months in training. But they proved such skillful pilots that it took most of them only a month to complete the entire course, conducted in mostly obsolete planes. At that, the French were in no great hurry to make the Poles operational. They had hundreds of combat-experienced Polish fighter pilots to choose from, all of them desperate for action, but by the end of March, only one all-Polish squadron had been formed, and only eighteen Polish pilots had been assigned to front-line French units. "For those of us who were burning to pay the Germans back in their own coin, it was a long period of declining morale," Jan Zumbach recalled.
The few Poles assigned to fighter duties found that their joy and relief at being back in the air were spoiled by the laissez-faire attitude of the French pilots they flew with. Sometimes it seemed to the Poles that the French really didn't care if the Germans overran their country. Returning from a routine fighter patrol with four Frenchmen, one Polish pilot spotted a German bomber and suggested they go after it. "You can do what you like," the flight leader radioed. "We're going home." The Pole pursued the German plane and shot it down. Back at the base, he found the French pilots drinking champagne in the mess.
Polish fliers assigned to the front-line base of Luxeuil, near the German border, argued for bombing raids across the frontier. They were told that the Germans were too weak to attack and that the war would soon be over anyway. When the Poles at Luxeuil warned the French to camouflage and hide their planes, their advice was simply ignored. Nothing was done, not even when Germany brought the "phony war" to a shattering halt by invading Norway, then Denmark, in early April. When the Germans launched their aerial attack against France early on the morning of May 10, 1940, the planes at Luxeuil were lined up in neat rows on the grass airfield. Nearly all were destroyed on the ground.
Copyright © 2003 Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud
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