Polish Air Personnel in RAF Service

Whatever negative feelings Medhurst, Boyle, Sholto Douglas and the others may have harboured towards the Polish Air Force in the desperate summer of 1940 were substantially mollified by events come the winter. All of the Polish crews proved themselves worthy of allied status ten times over during the Battle of Britain, and though little criticisms remained – such as their tendency to monopolise the radios during combat flying – by 1941 all of the serious doubts had been swept away. Indeed, even in the summer, attitudes had been changing noticeably. At first Medhurst had insisted that the ‘French’ and ‘British’ Poles were not to be mixed in squadrons if at all possible, mainly to protect the latter from defeatist influences, but Gp Capt Leslie Hollinghurst, the Deputy Director of Organisation, recorded that: ‘as a result of closer acquaintance with the “new” Poles, they [Air Intelligence] have decided that they are not such bad fellows after all and have withdrawn their objection’. This view was reinforced during the autumn of 1940 when most of the senior RAF commanders and politicians from both countries conducted high-profile visits to the Polish stations, presenting medals, giving speeches, and generally talking up a relationship which was settling into a satisfactory condition.

Although the alliance was stabilising in military terms, the Poles still had two political issues which were not fully resolved from their point of view. The first was British assistance in establishing recruitment schemes abroad so that their very healthy core stock of air personnel would not be diminished by combat losses and unavoidable demobilisation due to age or disability. The second was the perpetual quest for independent status. The question of recruitment will be dealt with in Chapter Three, primarily because the Polish experience was broadly in line with that of the Czechoslovaks in that both groups suffered when they tried to export their enthusiasm to a largely disinterested North America. But, disappointing though these efforts ultimately were, the all-important need for prestige drove both of them into head-on confrontations with the British over the question of independence. It was a battle which the Poles eventually won, and one which the Czechs lost with great indignity.

Even by late 1940, the British were still reluctant to discontinue the practice of duplicating middle- and high-ranking posts within all the allied air forces (a not unreasonable decision considering the language difficulties and lack of a thorough knowledge of RAF practice on behalf of the allies), but this did not slow the political momentum behind Polish desires to achieve fully independent status. Success in this quest would be measured in various ways: (1) an agreement between the two nations that would formally enshrine the bilateral aspects of the alliance; (2) the creation of a separate Polish Air Force Inspectorate that would have full powers in the field of promotion, selection, training and administration; (3) equal, or at least substantial, representation at strategic level. This last point should not be confused with the creation of an independent stratum of command regarding missions and routine flying, for the Poles, as junior allies, were always prepared to follow the British lead when it came to active operations. Rather, as with their earlier requests for a seat on the Supreme War Council, the Poles felt entitled to a say in what course the war took, especially regarding operations or plans which affected the home territory. It was to be an unfulfilled objective, partly for political reasons on behalf of the British, many of which surfaced in the last years of the conflict, and partly because with the entry of the USA into the war after Pearl Harbor, that power automatically put many of the lesser groups into the shade, assuming an ever-greater dominance in strategic affairs which even Churchill had difficulty in resisting at times.

In 1940, however, no such obstacles existed, and it fell to the Polish High Command and political representatives to make the best possible case for the creation of independent armed forces. Indeed, all of the European allied powers felt entitled to independence in one form or another, and more often than not the air contingents were the focal point of their efforts. For its part, the War Office had no great objections to forming Army units which reflected the national character of each ally, but we should bear in mind that in 1940 there was no land war and it was relatively easy to create free-standing organisations which could, if need be, be smoothly integrated with the home Army. That was not the case in the air. Given the crises of that summer, and the obvious implications that air power would henceforth be a major strategic tool, the RAF felt wholly justified in its insistence that it retained as much control as possible over the allied groups. Equally, each allied government felt to a greater or lesser degree that the air units stood as elite representatives of their own national freedom and their determination to resist the invader, therefore the potential for conflict was vast.

As we have seen, the agreement to split the Polish air personnel between Britain and France was a separate issue dealt with in October 1939. However, the Polish terms of service were another matter, and the British side-stepped any unnecessary complications by simply rewording the Anglo-Polish naval agreement which legally formalised the collaboration at sea. This was not enough for the Poles, for in essence it meant that they were seen and described as an associated power simply assisting the British government with its war against Germany, when what they wanted, quite reasonably, was a level of international standing much higher than that. Even before the attack on France, Sikorski had been campaigning for greater recognition for the Polish presence to be embodied in the military agreements. He tried first with Chamberlain – meeting with little success – and then Churchill, who demonstrated that although the spirit was willing, the influence was weak. As far as Sikorski was concerned, Polish sovereignty rested largely upon the process of officer promotion and selection – a power which the British intended to reserve for themselves. As things stood in May 1940, the RAF had first and last say over who would receive commissions in the Polish section of the RAFVR – something which Sikorski strongly rejected. The British argument rested upon the constitutional point that only the King, ‘as advised by the Air Council, can promote officers belonging to that force’. Furious with this ill-judged and almost feudal declaration, Sikorski complained directly to Churchill, who put pressure on the Foreign Office to intervene. Within days the Air Ministry had relented, but not entirely, for the subsequent re-draft of the agreement merely permitted promotion to be considered by a joint board of Polish and British representatives, with the Poles having the final approval.

The air war over Britain that summer slightly delayed the negotiations leading towards the finished document, but by August all the outstanding issues had been resolved, or at least were in a state of compromise. The Poles had initially pushed for Polish military law to be applied in all cases, but this was refused by the Air Ministry with the not unsound argument that it would be unworkable where both nationalities were serving in the same squadron or on the same station. The compromise here was to insist that RAF law would apply at all times when a Polish individual was serving with the RAF in any capacity, and although in theory he would be subject to Polish military law, when the terms of Polish military law and Royal Air Force law differed, the latter would prevail. Furthermore, all disciplinary courts would consist of an equal number of British and Polish officers as judges, but with a British officer serving as president of the court and holding the casting vote. On the question of promotion, it was decided that all recommendations were to be generated by unit commanders then forwarded to the Polish High Command by the RAF for the former’s approval, but only if the RAF agreed with the recommendation in the first place. As a nod to Polish sovereignty, however, all men were permitted to take an oath of allegiance to the Polish Republic, and the agreement provided for the creation of an independent Polish Inspectorate theoretically responsible for all matters relating to the force, though in practice it represented the interface between the two air ministries, the primary channel of communication through which the RAF could monitor the condition of the Polish Air Force and, perhaps more importantly, the means by which the RAF could make its wishes known. But the Poles, and to some extent the British too, had taken for granted the creation of a formal Inspectorate as early as March 1940. In any case, it served both parties to have such a body in place: from the Polish side, it enabled them to monitor and maintain the development of the air force in exile, and from the British viewpoint, it relieved them of the burdensome task of day-to-day administration, allowing them to concentrate on the major issues of policy and deployment.

The first incumbent was Gen W.J. Kalkus, the existing head of the Inspectorate since September 1939, but when the transfers to Eastchurch were well under way, Polish requests to have him sent to Britain were at first rebuffed. The Directorate of Organisation was clearly displeased with the prospect of a senior commander viewing the shambles at Eastchurch, minuting Porri in March 1940, ‘[His visit] would not serve any useful purpose because any shortcomings that he might discover would certainly be well known to us’ – the implication being that the RAF could not stand before him covered in shame when as far as they were concerned they were only doing what was expected of them.

The attitudes changed when Davidson, the station commander at Eastchurch, supported the proposal and enlisted the help of the British Attaché in Paris. The latter described Kalkus as a man ‘with very pleasant manners’, the only serious drawback being that he spoke no English or French. Davidson concurred with this view, though he warned that the proposed Inspectorate might prove to be larger than imagined because the Poles had a few surplus officers which they wished to employ. However, the argument was clinched when the attaché added: ‘I should say that he is not a very strong man, and this impression is borne out by his nickname among his own people which is “the sheep in lion’s clothing”.’

This was more than enough to sway even the devout sceptics like Boyle who minuted all departments that Kalkus was clearly the man for the job, and that the creation of an Inspectorate within the RAFVR would ‘enhance the levels of control’ over the units in Britain. At a meeting in May, it was decided that Kalkus would be given the immediate rank of Air Commodore and have a staff of twelve, though there was still some foot-dragging over the powers he would be endowed with, and whether this would lead to a form of de facto independence by the back door. Davidson argued that the Inspectorate must be formed with all possible speed because the workload placed upon him was at times intolerable, and that the senior Polish officer, Capt Stachon, was forced to refer to his superiors in Paris before even the smallest decision could be taken. Then, in late May, AVM Paul Maltby, the AOC No. 24 (Training) Group, which shouldered most of the responsibility for the training programme at Eastchurch, wrote directly to the Air Council and complained about the expectations placed upon Davidson at Eastchurch:

[He] is becoming far too involved with all matters concerning the various Polish contingents in this country, no matter where they are stationed [and] he is being consulted not only by various branches of the Air Ministry and the Polish authorities, but even by politicians. I submit that it is quite beyond his capacity to command his station . . . if he is expected to act as an advisor on widespread policy matters at the same time.’

He closed by urging the creation of ‘some central authority’ at once, and henceforth all doubts were cast aside and Kalkus was formally installed at the beginning of June. If anything, this little episode demonstrates yet again that the British were totally unprepared for dealing with the Poles in any capacity, but also that any proposals for improving the situation had first to run the gauntlet of suspicion that by passing greater autonomy to the Polish High Command, the British would lose more of what little control they had to begin with.

The first Anglo-Polish Military Agreement was signed on 5 August 1940, with appropriate appendices covering the respective air, sea and land forces. Apart from defining the powers of the Polish Inspectorate, it also officially removed the entire contingent from the RAFVR and placed them under their own national banner. It went some way towards fulfilling Polish aspirations, but it had one crucial omission: it did not include any promise by the British to restore the territory of Poland once victory had been assured – something which did not pass unnoticed by the Poles. The preamble only committed the two governments ‘to prosecute the war to a successful conclusion’, a vague and slippery objective which meant that the British could avoid indelicate matters of territory and frontiers at the war’s end.

Furthermore, the Poles were not the only group whose postwar ambitions were kept at a distance by the British: the Czechoslovaks too were to discover that their new friends were inclined to shuffle and mumble when the question of ‘afterwards’ was raised, and it was even more galling to both these nations when the agreements with the other allied countries of Western Europe proudly proclaimed restoration and deliverance. This is one reason why the British preferred all of the national agreements to be kept secret between the contracting parties, and why they were never elevated to state treaties, for this would have meant parliamentary ratification, and therefore publicity. In short, although the various allied military agreements were, in the main, little more than carbon copies of each other, the essential differences lay in the amount of power each group had over its own forces, and what policies the British government intended to follow once the war had been won. Nevertheless, and perhaps wisely, the Poles did not seek further conflict over this matter, for had they done so they would have faced a wall of opposition from the Foreign Office and the Cabinet. But in 1940, looking around at the grim state of the war, this was a minor point of contention compared to the very real business of getting on with the fighting.

In the years that followed, the Polish Air Force superbly demonstrated that getting on with the fighting was something it could do without prompting from the French, the British, or anyone else. By mid-1941, most of the doubts and suspicions of darker days had been dispelled by the sheer tenacity and determination of these men in exile, to the point where the RAF started to throw open hitherto shuttered doors to selected members of the Polish High Command. This still did not extend to what might be termed ‘secret information’ or strategic briefings, but when Sikorski requested that certain of his officers might serve for a time in Command or Group Headquarters so they might learn more about the central organisation of the RAF, both the DAFL and Portal (then the CAS) signalled their wholehearted concurrence. Polish officers were gradually seconded to British squadrons, and like senior officers in other allied forces, eventually placed in command of some of them.

The social dimension was also a positive one for the Poles. Zamoyski spends considerable time describing how attractive the Poles were to British women in the first half of the war, and there can be little doubt that the Polish airman or officer was very much an exotic creature until the arrival of the Americans in large numbers. But what he lacked in spending power, the Pole amply made up for in charm, ‘traditional’ values and sheer symbolism, for he represented merely by his existence in British uniform all that was mythically wonderful about Britain’s crusade against tyranny. The Czechoslovaks also enjoyed this backwash of sympathy, though perhaps their social acceptance was promoted by a pinch of guilt over the Munich affair. Men from both groups made friends easily in Britain; several hundred married British women. For a while, too, the Pole was a social accessory in the upper reaches of the British class system. The huge amount of radio and newspaper publicity generated by their successes in the air made a token Polish officer de rigueur at any cocktail party worth the name, and although things were to turn very sour indeed for the Poles by the war’s end, the eighteen months between the Battle of Britain and Pearl Harbor proved to be a happy hunting season for all the Slavs.

If the medals, the public acclaim and the sexual conquests were indicative of the bright side of the Polish exile, there were darker aspects which exercised the diplomatic skills of the politicians. The application of Polish military discipline raised some eyebrows in the service departments and Whitehall, for although the British were the final arbiters in matters of gross infringement, minor issues were dealt with at a local level and occasionally drew unfavourable comments regarding harsh treatment meted out to men who had for whatever reason managed to transgress the Polish codes of honour and service.

Part of the cause was the defeat of Poland itself, which led to an urgent need to rebuild and restore national pride through the service arms in exile. This led some Polish officers to interpret indolence, dissent or simply fatigue as evidence of cowardice or disloyalty, and there were examples of men being humiliated or punished for offences which would have attracted lesser reprimands in the British forces. The Air Ministry decided that this was a hangover from the pre-war days, declaring some of the older Polish officers to be ‘too rigid and inflexible in outlook’. In the early part of the war, the RAF applied pressure to the Polish High Command to transfer or reassign officers whose very presence gave rise to disciplinary problems in Polish squadrons, and they also adduced this conflict between ideals and codes of practice to explain much of the tension which had plagued the exiles in the Eastchurch era. Even as late as Christmas 1940, the British were still having difficulties integrating RAF officers into some Polish squadrons within the system of dual command, and it was not until the summer of 1941 that most of the problems had been resolved. By that time, the RAF had successfully collaborated with the Polish High Command to reduce or remove the small cohort of career officers whose enthusiasm for order had threatened the stability of some Polish squadrons.

The Polish air crews were unique among the European allies in exile because they alone were denied a triumphant return home at the end of the war. After nearly six years of bitter and intense fighting, their reward was to fall into the political abyss created by the sudden upsurge in tension between East and West, and as the major powers positioned themselves ready for a new confrontation, so the Poles were swept along virtually powerless to direct events.

They themselves were aware of what was happening – or likely to happen – as the war in Europe ended. A Polish forces magazine, Robotnik, published several letters from men who complained of anti-repatriation propaganda being spread by some officers. These scare tactics, generally consisting of blood-curdling warnings of deportation or internment by the communists, were interpreted by the Foreign Office as useful indications of the growing political divisions within the Polish forces, attitudes which had been slowly developing since January 1944, when in a meeting of the Post-War Reconstruction Committee, at which a Polish representative was present, it became apparent that Poland would inevitably be occupied by Soviet forces after the defeat of Germany. ‘This had, not unnaturally, created a considerable commotion in Polish circles,’ ran a Foreign Office minute. ‘We had better deal with this dangerous rumour immediately. Our explanation would be that the Moscow Conference had a document before them – not subsequently agreed to – concerning the general administration of the liberated territories.’

The conference to which this rather unsettled note referred was the meeting of foreign ministers in the Soviet capital between 18 October and 30 October 1943. Their brief was to set the agenda for the first meeting of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin in Tehran at the end of November, and again the Polish government-in-exile tried in vain to have a voice. Polish–Soviet relations at this time were sour indeed. Stalin had used Polish outrage at the discovery of the massacre at Katyn to break off all diplomatic relations with the London group in April 1943, and by the end of that year the arrival of the Red Army in Polish territory was imminent. The Poles attempted to persuade Churchill to take up their case with Stalin, but the former was outflanked and isolated at Tehran by the other two leaders, and the latter had nothing to lose by ignoring the desires of the Polish government in London. In the event, the Tehran Conference decided that Poland would be shifted westwards on the map, with Stalin gaining enormous territories in the east, and the Poles being compensated by German land in the west. At Tehran, the carve-up of Poland had begun in earnest; in fact, the eventual dismemberment of all of Eastern Europe was set in motion there. When the news reached London, the Polish government redoubled its efforts to have the Western allies stand firm, but it was always going to be a fruitless exercise. The overwhelming need to have Stalin continue the war in the east and not make a separate peace with Hitler was enough incentive for Britain and America to petition him with little more than vague hopes for a sunny Polish future; anything concrete would have been waved aside. Furthermore, Churchill’s scheme for a second front rooted in a Balkan invasion was also scuppered at Tehran. Such an expedition might have brought some relief to Poland, or at least the troops of Western allies on her soil, but it was never to be. On the night of 3 January 1944, Russian troops crossed the Polish frontier, and there they were to remain for a long time.

Rumours of the talks in Moscow and Tehran gradually filtered down to the Polish forces in exile, and the de facto occupation of Poland by the Red Army made the rumours metamorphose into grim expectancy. However, this did not lead – as one might have expected – to a sudden downturn in morale. On the contrary, the commitment to the defeat of Germany and an honourable peace remained as high as ever in the Polish forces. But, like the Czechoslovaks, the pervasive effect of the Soviet advance made itself felt in political terms. The Polish government’s efforts to play down the dark reality of events at home by continually pointing to the fact that nothing had been firmly settled and that a satisfactory deal with Stalin was still possible led men to believe that victory might still mean freedom. That attitude was not to last long, however, because the true horror for the Polish people erupted on 1 August with the Warsaw uprising. Throughout the two months of struggle, the powerlessness of the Western allies to be of any assistance was forlornly monitored by the Polish forces in Britain and Europe, and although it is doubtful that the West could have provided any substantial military aid, Stalin’s refusal to allow Western planes to use Soviet airfields for supply drops merely confirmed in the minds of many thousands of Poles that they had been sold out in the West, leaving their beleaguered homeland to be inexorably drawn into the Soviet orbit.

The Warsaw uprising and its subsequent failure dealt a shattering blow to Polish morale. Worse still, other exiles alongside whom they had fought for five years were gleefully anticipating their own return home. August 1944 had seen Gen de Gaulle, dodging Vichy snipers, marching in triumph through Paris; the battle for Belgium, though still with all too much life left in it, was going to be won sooner or later; and also in August, the Free Dutch Army’s Princess Irene Brigade began the liberation of the Netherlands, and it was only the allied failure at Arnhem which greatly stifled the process. Nevertheless, the war was clearly being won; Germans were on the run all over Europe, and yet, as one Polish pilot said: ‘As we sat around the radio, we died a little during each of those 63 days of the rising.’ The slaughter and hideous reprisals meted out by the Germans left Warsaw as little more than an open wound, and it was all the more unbearable with so much joy all around.

It was this pain and uncertainty about what the future held which triggered the factious elements within the Polish forces. As the last full year of the war came to a close, the Chiefs of Staff report for the final quarter of 1944 merely recorded the continuation of ‘restlessness’ in the Polish Air Force, but added: ‘It has not weakened either spirit or discipline in the squadrons.’ This was true enough, but there were deeper elements at work in the minds of men who had given so much for what appeared to be so little. For it seemed to many that the cause had been lost, and that their allies had given their consent to Poland being swallowed by a hostile power. Then the final blow to Polish hearts was cruelly delivered – not by Britain, America or even Stalin – but by those very ordinary people who had once been their unreserved champions: the British public.