For Your Freedom and Ours
By Lynne Olsen and Stanley Cloud
Essential reading for anyone with a fleeting interest in WWII, and a book that demands to be read in one sitting. Telling the story of the Polish fighter pilots who made up the Kościuszko Squadron that fought in the Battle of Britain this is a non-fiction work that shatters the common myths associated with Poland’s role in WWII. The book traces the lives of key members, from their early days as dashing cadets, to their transformation into a elite combat unit. Having gained early experience against the Luftwaffe in the battle for Poland, many of the pilots who went on to form the Kościuszko 303 squadron escaped via Romania, then France, before ending up in England. Having endured foul treatment from the French – seemingly uninterested in sharing the Poles desire to defeat the Nazis – the Poles arrived in Britain only to be met with the same suspicions and distrust. 'Poles cannot fight,' and 'Poles certainly can not fly' appeared to be common sentiments. Even with the German army massing their forces on the other side of the channel, the English were reluctant to let the Polish pilots into the fray.
Stiff British manner meant that before being let loose in an aircraft the Poles had to first master the British method of doing things. In one instance we are treated to the marvellous image of how the Poles were forced into riding outsized tricycles around a football pitch while an instructor barked flight formations at them. But as the battle for British skies began in earnest, high command relented and sent the 303 squadron into action. The results were immediate. Displaying a fearless sense of adventure the Poles stunned their superiors with their raffish bravery and sharp shooting. By the time Hitler cancelled his plans to invade Britain the 303 squadron boasted the highest kill rate in the RAF, with one of their fliers - Czech pilot Josef František - proving the most successful pilot in the entire battle with 19 kills to his credit. Of the 400 pilots who would defend the south of England at any one time, up to a quarter were Polish.
The books strength lies not only in its readability, but in the author's skill in unearthing the obscure. We are relayed stories of one Pole parachuting onto a tennis court and being asked to join a doubles game; in another anecdote we are told of a drunken party culminating with one pilot shooting a packet of cigarettes off the head of a colleague, William Tell-style. Possibly the most intriguing side of the book is the insight it allows into daily life. We are told of lavish high-society soirees and rowdy parties spent downing drinks called Messerschmits. With the initial mistrust banished, the Poles' maverick nature, as well as their success in battle, soon made them the darlings of the people. Compared to their starchy British counterparts the Poles were wild and willing, and an instant hit with the ladies - so much so that British pilots took to impersonating Poles in order to impress. Their reputation as playboys led to one headmistress warning her young charges to ‘keep away from gin and Polish airmen.’
For Your Freedom And Ours is hardly a feel good story, however. Set against a background of political intrigue the story concludes with the West's betrayal of their Polish allies, and of the country being signed away to Stalin by a weak-willed Britain. In spite of being labelled ‘the most formidable fighting unit in Britain,’ Poland’s contribution ultimately went unrecognised. In London’s victory parade in the immediate aftermath of the war no Poles were allowed to take part for fear of offending the Soviets. Much like Norman Davies’ account of the Warsaw Uprising, this book is a damning indictment on the Western Allies, and a welcome tonic to the one-sided stories we are so used to hearing.