No. 303 (“Kościuszko”) Polish Fighter Squadron (Polish: 303 Dywizjon Myśliwski “Warszawski im. Tadeusza Kos’ciuszki”) was one of 16 Polish squadrons in the Royal Air Force (RAF) during the Second World War. It was the highest scoring RAF squadron of the Battle of Britain.
The squadron was named after the Polish and American Revolution hero General Tadeusz Kos’ciuszko, and the eponymous Polish 7th Air Escadrille founded by Merian C. Cooper, that served Poland in the 1919-1921 Polish-Soviet War. No. 303 was formed in Britain as part of an agreement between the Polish Government in Exile and the United Kingdom. It had a distinguished combat record and was disbanded in December 1946.
No. 303 (Polish) Squadron was formed on 2 August 1940 at RAF Northolt, and became operational on 31 August. Its initial cadre was 13 Officer and 8 NCO pilots and 135 Polish ground staff. At the outset, serving RAF officers were appointed to serve as CO (S/L RG Kellett) and Flight Commanders (F/L JA Kent and F/L AS Forbes) alongside the Poles, as the Polish pilots were unfamiliar with RAF Fighter Command language, procedures and training.
The name chosen by the squadron was in honour of the famous Polish Kosciuszko Squadron which fought during the Polish-Soviet War in 1920. No. 303 Squadron was also linked to the original Kosciuszko Escadrille through personnel that had served in the squadron. Later, further air force units from the aforementioned unit were renamed the 7th, 121st and 111th Escadrilles of the Polish Air Force.
The Battle of Britain August–October 1940
During the Battle of Britain, No. 303 Squadron was equipped with Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft. Manned by experienced veterans, equipped with a fighter on a technical par with most of its opponents, and expertly backed by the well-established RAF command, communication and logistics infrastructure, was able to become an effective fighting force during the Battle. After a period of training, on 24 August 1940, the squadron was scrambled for the first time, although it did not come into contact with any enemy aircraft. On 30 August 1940, the squadron scored its first victory while still officially non-operational, when a German Messerschmitt Bf 110 of 4./ZG 76 (initially incorrectly recorded as a Dornier Do 17) was shot down by F/O Ludwik Paszkiewicz during a training flight. The wreck was excavated in 1982. After S/L Kellet’s personal recommendation, the squadron was declared operational next day by No. 11 Group RAF.
On 31 August 1940, the squadron was scrambled in the late afternoon on its first operational sortie. In a dogfight over Kent, “A” Flight claimed four confirmed and two probable victories over Messerschmitt Bf 109s, possibly of LG 2. Claimants were S/L Kellet, F/O Henneberg, P/O Feric and Sgt. Karubin.
During 2 September 1940, the squadron was scrambled three times. On the last scramble, P/O Feric shot down a Bf 109 and then made a forced landing near Dover while former Czechoslovak Air Force pilot Sgt. Josef František claimed a Bf 110. The following day over Dover, Frantisek claimed his second victory; with a total of 17 victories he was the top-scoring Allied fighter pilot during the Battle of Britain. On 5 September, nine No. 303 Hurricanes intercepted a German bombing formation escorted by Bf 109s, with the Poles claiming five Bf 109s and three Junkers Ju 88s for one loss: P/O Lapkowski bailing out wounded.
On 6 September 1940, nine Hurricanes were scrambled towards incoming bomber formations. However, during the climb, they were bounced by Bf 109s of III./JG 27. S/L Kellet and F/L Forbes both force-landed, and were wounded slightly, while Sgt Karubin bailed out wounded, S/L Krasnodebski was severely burned and three other Hurricanes were damaged. The squadron claimed five Bf 109s (of JG 27 and JG 52), a Do 17 and a Heinkel He 111. F/O Witold Urbanowicz was appointed as acting Squadron Commander.
On 7 September 1940, the German air offensive switched to the London docks. No. 303 Squadron was successfully vectored towards the incoming bomber streams and claimed 12 Do 17s and two Bf 109s, with P/O Zumbach, P/O Feric, Sgt. Szaposznikow and Sgt. Wojtowicz all scoring double victories. P/O Daszewski was shot down and seriously wounded, while F/O Pisarek bailed out. His Hurricane crashed in a back garden of a house in Loughton, killing a family of three in their shelter. Two other aircraft were damaged. On 9 September 1940, 12 Hurricanes were scrambled and two claims made over Bf 109s by Zumbach (both of JG 53) and one by Frantisek -a Bf 109 of 7./JG 27 – who also claimed a He 111 of KG 53 as a “probable”, while a Bf 110 was shot down by F/L Kent. Sgt. Wunsche had to bail out with burns over Beachy Head, and Sgt. Frantisek crash-landed.
At 16:00 hours on 11 September 1940, the squadron attacked a bomber formation south of London. F/O Cebrzynski was fatally wounded by return fire, while Sgt. Wojtowicz shot down two Messerschmitt Bf 110s before being shot down and killed. The pilots claimed two Bf 110s, one Bf 109, three Do 17s and four He 111s.
In the massed dogfights over London on 15 September 1940, the squadron was heavily involved, with nine Hurricanes led by F/L Kent intercepting a German raid in mid-morning. Nine kills were claimed: six Bf 109s, one Bf 110 and two Do 17s. In the afternoon, a flight formation led by S/L Kellet claimed four victories, while the five-strong “B” Flight led by F/O Urbanowicz, claimed two Do 17s, for two Polish pilots shot down (Sgt. Brzezowski killed, Sgt Andruszkow baled out while P/O Lokuciewski was wounded in the leg, returning to base safely). During the day, No. 303 Squadron claimed 15 victories.
On the afternoon of 26 September 1940, No. 303 Squadron was scrambled towards a large enemy raid over Hampshire, with the Poles claiming 13 victories for three Hurricanes damaged (actual Luftwaffe losses were nine in total). There was further intense fighting on 27 September 1940, with 11 Hurricanes engaged by massed escorts to a KG 77 30-bomber formation. The squadron claimed 15 victories: six Bf 109s, two Bf 110s of LG 1, four “He 111s” (probably Ju 88s) and three Ju 88s although F/O Paszkiewicz and Sgt Andruszkow were killed. F/O Zak was wounded and baled out over Horsham and four Hurricanes were lost in total. Just six aircraft were serviceable during the afternoon, engaging a raid of 15 Ju 88s. Two bombers were brought down before the escort intervened, and a Bf 109 was also claimed. F/O Urbanowicz claimed four German aircraft during the day. On 30 September 1940, F/O Urbanowicz once again claimed four victories, additionally a Do 17 was brought down by P/O. Radomski, who baled out, as did Sgt. Belc, while Sgt. Karubin claimed a Bf 109.
On 5 October 1940, Polish pilots claimed five Bf 110s and four Bf 109s, though P/O Januszewicz was killed. (Eprobungsgruppe 210 lost two Bf 110s Jabos and JG 3 and JG 53, a Bf 109 each). A fight over the Thames Estuary on 7 October saw claims for three Bf 109s of LG 2. On 11 October 1940, the squadron was transferred for a rest to Leconfield in No. 12 Group, ending its participation in the Battle of Britain.
No. 303 Squadron claimed the largest number of aircraft destroyed of the 66 Allied fighter squadrons engaged in the Battle of Britain, even though it joined the fray two months after the battle had begun.
Its success in combat can be mainly attributed to the years of extensive and rigorous pre-war training many of the long-serving Polish veterans had received in their homeland, far more than many of their younger and inexperienced RAF comrades then being thrown into the battle. Tactics and skill also played a role; on one occasion, No. 303’s Sgt Stanislaw Karubin resorted to extreme tactics to bring down a German fighter. Following a prolonged air battle, Karubin was chasing a German fighter at treetop level. As he closed in on the tail of the German fighter, Karubin realized that his Hurricane had run out of ammunition. Rather than turning back to base, he closed the distance and climbed right above the German fighter. The German pilot was so shocked to see the underside of the Hurricane within arm’s reach of his cockpit that he instinctively reduced his altitude to avoid a collision and crashed into the ground.
Withdrawn from battle for a rest on 11 October 1940, the squadron had claimed 126 kills in six weeks. Relative to aircraft downed, losses were small with 18 Hurricanes lost, seven pilots killed and five badly wounded. Although the number of Battle of Britain claims was overestimated (as with virtually all fighter units), No. 303 Squadron was one of the top fighter units in the battle and the best Hurricane-equipped one. According to historian John Alcorn, 44 victories are positively verified, making No. 303 Squadron the fourth highest scoring squadron of the battle, after Squadron Nos. 603 AuxAF (57.8 verified kills), 609 AuxAF (48 verified kills) and 41 (45.33 verified kills), which all flew Spitfires. It was also had the highest kill-to-loss ratio; of 2.8:1. However, J. Alcorn was not able to attribute 30 aircraft shot down to any particular unit, and according to Jerzy Cynk and other Polish historians, the actual number of victories for No. 303 Squadron was about 55–60. According to Polish historian Jacek Kutzner the verified number of kills of 303 Squadron is around 58.8, which would still place it above all other squadrons regarding verified kills. This is presented by Kutzner’s chart, which shows Polish confirmed kills (left column), confirmed kills of all Allied squadrons, including Polish (central column) and real German losses on each day when No. 303 Squadron was involved in air combats (right column). In its first seven days of combat, the squadron claimed nearly 40 enemy aircraft.