Polish Air Forces in France 1940


The Polish Air Forces (Polskie Siły Powietrzne) was the name of the Polish Air Forces formed in France and the United Kingdom during World War II. The core of the Polish air units fighting alongside the Allies were experienced veterans of the 1939 Invasion of Poland. They contributed to the Allied victory in the Battle of Britain and most World War II air operations.

A total of 145 Polish fighter pilots served in the RAF during the Battle of Britain, making up the largest non-British contribution. By the end of the war, around 19,400 Poles were serving in the Polish Air Force in Great Britain and in RAF.

After the joint German-Soviet victory in the Invasion of Poland of 1939, most of the flying personnel and technicians of the Polish Air Force were evacuated to Romania and Hungary, after which thousands found their way to France. There, in accordance with the Franco-Polish Military Alliance of 1921 and the amendments of 1939, Polish Air Force units were to be re-created.

At the outbreak of war, British, Polish and French delegates met at the French Air Ministry, Paris (25.10.39) to discuss how to utilize the Polish armed services personnel now available. General Sikorski had become the new commander in chief and was highly respected by the PAF. The Poles wanted to re-establish their air force in Britain due to the RAF having superior equipment than the French and they had also been given some training on British made equipment. It was the French who suggested the service personnel should be divided equally for incorporation into their armed services for a speedier reinforcement. Britain agreed to take 300 pilots and 2,000 technical support staff while the residue would be eventually moved to front-line units in France. Group Captain A.P. Davidson who had acted as the Air Attaché in Warsaw had a high regard for the quality and training of the PAF and saw an opportunity to borrow navigators to make up a shortfall in the RAF. The British and French legations in Bucharest were contacted to help General Zajac, the commander of the PAF to help set up a clandestine network for the evacuation of over 90,000 personnel from the Rumanian camps. This was done under the noses of Gestapo agents who now riddled the country, watching all movement and traffic.

However, the French headquarters was hesitant about creating large Polish air units, and instead most Polish pilots were attached to small units, so-called keys. Only one large unit was formed, the Groupe de Chasse polonaise I/145 stationed at Mions airfield. However, it was not until May 18, 1940 that this unit was equipped with planes – and even then these were the completely obsolete Caudron C.714 fighters. After 23 sorties the bad opinion of the plane was confirmed by the front-line pilots. It was seriously underpowered and was no match for the enemy fighters of the period. Because of that, on May 25, only a week after the plane was introduced to active service, French minister of war Guy la Chambre ordered all C.710s withdrawn. However, since the French authorities had no other planes to offer, the Polish pilots ignored the order and continued to use the planes. Although the planes were hopelessly outdated compared to the Messerschmitt Me 109E’s they faced, the Polish pilots nevertheless scored 12 confirmed and 3 unconfirmed kills in three battles between June 8 and June 11, losing 9 in the air and 9 more on the ground. Interestingly, among the planes claimed shot down were four Dornier Do 17 bombers, but also three Messerschmitt Bf 109 and five Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighters. The rest of the Polish units were using the Morane-Saulnier M.S.406 fighter, slightly more reliable.

The Polish Air Force in France had 86 aircraft with one and a half of the squadrons fully operational, and the remaining two and a half in various stages of training. Altogether, the Polish pilots flew 714 sorties during the Battle of France. According to Jerzy Cynk, they shot down 51.9 enemy planes (summing fraction kills – 57 kills including 16 shared victories), in addition to 3 unconfirmed kills and 6 3/5 damaged. According to Bartłomiej Belcarz they shot down 53 aircraft, including 19 kills shared with the French. These 53 victories makes 7.93% of 693 allied air victories in the French campaign. At the same time they lost 44 planes (in combat, accidents and on the ground) and lost 8 fighter pilots in combat, 1 missing, and 4 in accidents.

After the collapse of France in 1940, a large part of the Polish Air Force contingent was withdrawn to the United Kingdom. However, the RAF Air Staff were not willing to accept the independence and sovereignty of Polish forces.




Waiting in France 1944




Lieutenant-General Fritz Bayerlein’s command, the so-called Panzer Lehr division, had been formed, like two other divisions (9th and 10th SS), principally to combat the Allied invasion, originating as a ‘lehr’ or demonstration unit and formed from the panzer training schools at Potsdam and Bergen. From eastern France it was transferred to Budapest in Hungary where it added the 901st Infantry Lehr Regiment, thereafter comprising two panzer grenadier regiments, the 130th Panzer Regiment, plus armoured artillery, engineer, signals and anti-tank battalions. In this form it returned to the Orleans area of France in May 1944, moving to Le Mans in June, one of the strongest divisions in the German Army with 109 tanks, forty assault guns and 612 halftracks -double the normal army complement of the last-named. As a ‘demon-stration’ division it could be expected to prove a formidable opponent of expert soldiers, but Bayerlein was a worried man, as he confided to his colleagues:

“Panzer Lehr has a prime duty on the invasion coast, but we are based well inland and unable to maintain the standard of training I demand, this due to a number of factors:

1 – the fuel situation, which becomes ever more critical;

2 – the nature of the local terrain, which prevents realistic manoeuvres;

3 – indecision at higher levels, which has resulted in a series of orders as to our location, all of which have been countermanded.

As a result I believe there is a real danger that when the invasion does come we will be caught in the wrong place. I believe Rommel agrees with this. The Field Marshal is always on the move along the coast and believes that if the enemy invasion forces are not defeated in the first few hours then we will lose, if only because of their air superiority.

What also worries me is that no firm tactical decisions have been made; every time our proposals are put forward no complete agreement is reached. The general consensus of opinion seems to be that we must wait and see. The people at 15th Army and von Rundstedt himself continually state the need to maintain strong forces in the Calais area, believing it is the most suitable place for an invasion. Rommel is scathing in countering this; he says for that very reason the enemy will avoid it! This seems obvious to him and we of Army Group B agree. Rommel insists the Bay of Seine is the most likely spot for a landing. I am sure he will be proved correct.

As to the general state of preparedness in materiel, apart from the fuel situation I am well satisfied. We are well equipped and have the experience to do a good job in defence, though from what I know of the Allied air power we are in for a difficult time. We know what we can expect from Goring and his Luftwaffe! We rarely see them! We have made our own intelligence assessment of the Allied strengths and weak-nesses on the ground; I fear if they are allowed to build up sufficient strength in materiel and manpower they will overwhelm us. They are capable in time of fielding a huge army on the continent. As to the British, I know them from experience. We are in for a tough fight. Even though I have no great fears over their tank arm I feel that once allowed to establish themselves they will never let go.

As to our Führer, I have never looked upon him as other than a Nazi figurehead, though he certainly has some amazing abilities. He is not the kind of man I see as honourable to lead Germany in any sort of conflict. I have heard rumours of a plot against him, but no details, and I never concern myself with such things. I hope Rommel stays clear of anything like that. It would be a very great shock to know he was involved.”

Major-General Gunther Blumentritt, Chief of Staff to C-in-C West, shared Bayerlein’s concerns:

“In Army Group B Rommel has done everything possible I believe to prepare the defences, but the uncertainties remain and will do until after the enemy lands his main force. We can rely on one thing: the Russians will desert at the first opportunity! As to our intelligence of the enemy’s preparations, the Luftwaffe have not been of the greatest help, though we are sure of the great concentrations of ships in the southern ports, especially in the area Portsmouth, Plymouth and Weymouth. It will need greater watching. Our listening service is monitoring the channels to the French Resistance and I believe they will provide an excellent pointer to the exact date. In the SS divisions we have excellent quality, yet even there they are to a considerable degree untried men.”

As a Colonel, Bayerlein had narrowly escaped capture and death at Alamein, allegedly taking to his heels while the then commander of the Deutsches Afrika Korps, General von Thoma, stood his ground to be bagged by the advancing British. Lieutenant-General Edgar Feuchtinger was another desert veteran who escaped capture, though the 21st Panzer was virtually destroyed in North Africa:

“We took some hard knocks in the desert, but now we are rebuilt and I have done my utmost to instil a renewed esprit de corps in the division. We have been able to get the vehicles we needed, but the men are another matter. So many veterans have been lost in Africa and Russia, but I am sure that by the time the invasion season is upon us we will have solved the problem within the constraints of our situation. Things are not perfect. The fuel situation is a constant problem; we are not allowed to carry out large-scale manoeuvres because of this and the nature of the countryside, which is very claustrophobic and thick with villages and farms to prevent combat in its more realistic terms. As a result too many of our exercises are carried out on map tables, which is all very well in theory. I had hoped to practise a large-scale invasion alert and send the division helter-skelter to the beaches, but this seems unlikely to happen. It is all very frustrating and I know our colleagues in Army Group B are of the same mood. Our conferences with 15th Army are stultifying; it is an effort to try and get some reality into our thinking and planning. We are always told the Führer will not allow this or that.

As to the SS divisions, naturally they are of good value, but it is impossible to play with them as they are all under Hitler’s control. And I must say von Rundstedt does not show the flexibility he should, even though he has no love for the Führer. He has an excellent military brain, but has become stultified through inaction.

The French play only a small part in our calculations. What activities the Resistance indulges in, such as espionage and sabotage, do not affect us, even though we must take it for granted our dispositions are known to the enemy because of French spies.

We have become good colleagues of Rommel and the other commanders in northern France. We are all much of the same mind. Once the Allies are permitted to gain a foothold they will build up over-whelming strength. For that reason the invasion must be defeated on the beaches.”

Kurt Meyer earned his laurels in the Balkans and Russia before being appointed second-in-command of the newly formed 12th SS Hitlerjugend division later in 1943.

“Gentlemen, comrades, I have been appointed deputy under General Fritz Witt, who I know very well by experience. I have every confidence in him. Our new division will now enter serious training here in Belgium, which will last several months. From my long experience in the East I feel competent to take on this honourable task and confident the division will attain its combat status to help protect the invasion front. As you realise, it is difficult to place our units at con-centration points since we do not know exactly where the blow will fall. For this reason the Führer and others, including Rundstedt, believe it wise to hold the panzer divisions back from the coast in readiness so they can be moved swiftly to any one point where the chief landing takes place. In this view I and some others agree; elsewhere there are those who disagree.

The 1st Leibstandarte SS are nearer the invasion front, but we are all spread too thin, and I fear time will prove of the essence when the Allies do come.”

His fear that the time factor would be crucial in the early stages of the coming battle would prove to be justified, though even Meyer, with his great combat experience, had no idea how time would be bought at his expense by the Allied air forces. Confidence in his division would have been shaken had he appreciated the terrible ordeal soon to face them -not that there was anything Meyer could have done about this. A total lack of preparation to face air attack by the enemy’s tactical air power went unnoticed, even though the desert veterans of the German Army could have enlightened him on this danger.

It is interesting to compare 12th SS with 21st Panzer, which according to one authoritative source was the only panzer division in the West unfit for service on the Eastern Front, being equipped in some units with inferior tanks of foreign manufacture (i. e. Czech and French), some of them lightweight.* It was also weak insofar as it contained only one infantry segment (104th Panzer Grenadier Regiment). By comparison 12th SS contained not only the standard engineer, signals, artillery and anti-tank battalions, but two infantry regiments plus a ‘projector’ battalion of heavy multiple mortars (the ‘Moaning Minnies’), totalling some 20,000 men in all. Its training cadres were supplied by the 1st SS, the average age of its soldiers alleged to be only seventeen; the truth was probably eighteen, and photographs seem to bear this out. Neither were they large, physical supermen.

Since 1940 Himmler and his staffs had endeavoured and succeeded in building up the strength of their SS divisions, so that by 1944, while practically every division in the German Army had been cut down through attrition to around 10,000 men, the SS divisions were maintained at around double that number, and were always stronger in armour. This was achieved despite the fact that every one of the ‘classic’ SS divisions had been decimated during the protracted and bitter battles in the East. For example, of the 17,265 soldiers of the 3rd SS Totenkopf division who invaded the USSR on 22 June 1941, 12,625 had become casualties by the following March, with only 5,029 being replaced. Despite an 80% loss rate, the division lived to fight again in the best SS tradition as a ‘fire brigade’ unit in Russia after being withdrawn to France for rebuilding as a full-fledged panzer division. Diverted by the impending Mediterranean crisis and then ordered back to the Russian front, Totenkopf’s extra-ordinary and often insubordinate commander Eicke managed to gain a month’s respite from his superiors (Himmler and Hitler) in order to try and bring his depleted division back to full strength. How he did this would require a whole chapter. Suffice to say that his efforts, while un-typical of the SS as a whole, do illustrate the great energy and zeal displayed by the German military in times of crisis.

Eicke was saddled with thousands of sub-standard recruits, boys fresh from labour service without discipline (on SS lines) and lack-ing physique. These he worked from dawn to nearly midnight on gruelling physical training and combat exercises, while armed parties of SS veterans toured the French countryside, confiscating every usable vehicle and converting it to their use. By the time his month was up, 120 trains were required to transport Totenkopf to Kiev in the Ukraine, the jumping-off point for the battle zones. The soldiers had huddled frozen in box cars for two weeks on that journey.

Eicke was ruthless, as evidenced by his earlier ‘exploits’, and due for death soon afterwards. Meyer and the other SS commanders, by contrast, had no such problems in the West where conditions, at first, were heavenly in comparison to those in the East. Only in 1944 did they greatly deteriorate when the Allies inaugurated their transport inter-diction campaign through the bombing and strafing squadrons which, incidentally, cost the lives of somewhere around 10,000 French civilians.

If some emphasis has been put on the SS, this is because in the Normandy match it was they who provided the backbone and became the greatest obstacle to the Allied advance. Many German Army units would fight stubbornly on the coast, but once this defensive crust was broken the cudgel was mainly in the hands of men like Meyer, Sepp Dietrich, Hausser and Ostendorff (the latter on the American front). How was it that the Germans could take ‘kids’ who were invariably undernourished by Allied military standards, certainly only average or smaller physically, and somehow transform them into fighting ‘fanatics’?

The results of SS-type training (rather than indoctrination in the ideological sense) show in the accounts that follow when the ‘Normandy experience’ is viewed from the German side.