After the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, the British RAF assembled several Polish fighter squadrons. These squadrons consisted of volunteers, men and women who had been forced to flee their own country and families. People of Polish origin, angered by the German occupation. Even foreign nationals who simply wanted to see a free Poland.
Although at first these squadrons were met with discrimination, the hastily assembled units became some of the most effective of the entire RAF. During the aerial Battle of Britain, 303 Polish Squadron were the most effective unit of the campaign. The following are ten of the pilot aces who fought like hell to liberate Poland.
10. Michal Cwynar
Living in Orzechowka, this Polish ace was born on November 14, 1915. Michal graduated from Air Force school in 1936, being assigned to 113 EM. When war broke out, 113 EM fought valiantly against overwhelming German invaders despite heavy losses and limited fuel supplies. Cwynar personally downed two enemies before he was evacuated to France through Romania. On April 25, 1941, after fleeing France, Michal joined the 315th Polish Squadron of the RAF.
Gaining victories against enemy fighters, Cwynar became most efficient in shooting down V-1 rockets with 315th Polish Squadron when they were reassigned to hunting duty in July 1944. To effectively hunt rockets, which traveled at fast speeds, the Mustangs which Michal and his squadron used had to be modified greatly. This put strain on the engine, and as such, was a highly dangerous job. On the morning of July 24, after successfully downing a V-1, Cwynar’s engine failed. At 2,000 feet, with his propeller running only on airspeed, Michal had to make an emergency landing which would have been tragic had he not been near an airfield. By the end of the war, Cwynar had downed 5 enemy fighters and 5 of the 53 V-1 rockets that his entire squadron had destroyed.
9. Antoni Glowacki
Hailing from Warsaw, Antoni was born on February 10, 1910. Partaking in both Army and Air Force training, he became a flight instructor in 1938. In September, 1939, Glowacki flew reconnaissance for the Warsaw Armoured-Motorised Brigade until he was evacuated to France via Romania. Arriving in Britain on January 28, 1940, the refugee was assigned to 501 RAF Fighter Squadron.
During the Battle of Britain, Antoni became one of only two pilots and the only Pole to earn ace status within a single day. This took place on August 24, when he shot down three Messerschmitts and two bombers during a battle. Despite being badly damaged during this great, Antoni returned to an airfield only after running out of ammunition during another duel. Only a few days later, on August 31, he survived being shot down in his Hurricane.
After such heroism, Antoni served as a flight instructor and commander for the rest of the war. In November 1941, he became a flight commander for 303 Polish Squadron, securing two probable and one shared kill. From February 1943, Antoni acted as a flight commander for 308 Polish Squadron. In both roles, he led the Polish forces to many victories. He later went on to serve in the USAAF and after the war, joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force. Antoni secured a total of 9 kills during his brief career as a fighter pilot.
8. Gabby Gabreski
The son of a Polish immigrant, Francis “Gabby” Gabreski was born in Oil City, Pennsylvania on January 28, 1919. Gabby had a tough start to his flying career, barely passing his training and nearly being kicked out of the Army Air Corps for fainting from a hangover during a morning parade. Stationed in Hawaii, Gabreski awoke to the sound of explosions on the morning of December 7. Pearl Harbor was under attack. An aircrew, including Gabby, were readied to man 10 undamaged planes. After searching the harbor for 45 minutes, it was obvious that the Japanese had already left, and that America was at war.
In October of 1942, after being sent to fly with the RAF in Europe, Gabby met a group of Polish pilots also serving under the RAF. Sympathetic to their situation and wishing to avenge his homeland, he was able to convince RAF and American command to allow him to join 315 Polish Squadron. Gabby flew 26 missions with the Poles, engaging in combat only once. However, observing and training with the Polish aces in combat taught this otherwise novice pilot a great deal about being a fighter pilot. After being transferred to the 56th Fighter Group when they arrived in Europe, Gabreski was somewhat resented for his Eastern European background. Commander of 9 pilots, Gabby claimed his first kill on August 24, 1943. On December 11, he successfully took down a Messerschmitt before losing his squadron. Gabby then successfully landed on fumes, after losing a German plane which had damaged his own plane greatly.
From that point on, victories came easy, with a total of 28 air victories and 193 missions a few weeks after D-Day. This made him America’s leading ace, due in no small part to the training he received as part of 315 Polish Squadron. After reaching his flying limit, Gabby went against orders to go on “one more” mission before reassignment. Shot down on this mission, he was taken prisoner by the Germans. Gabby went on to fight in the Korean war.
7. Josef František
Josef, born in Czechoslovakia on October 7, 1913, fled the country after the Munich agreement, which allowed Germany to annex vast swathes of his country. On July 29, 1939, František received an offer to settle in Poland and join the Polish Air Force, an offer which he accepted. Based at Deblin airbase, the Germans attacked the facility on September 2, before Polish planes could launch in retaliation. Josef was forced to flee the largest airbase in Poland, which was by that point no more than a smoldering ruin. Josef helped in the evacuation of aircraft from Gora Pulawska airfield, flew reconnaissance and communications and also aiding the defense of the city of Luck. On September 22, Josef fled Poland along with what was left of his friends.
Arriving in France, Frantisek changed his name briefly to avoid his family being targeted. Fleeing to England during the evacuation, the Czech and Pole veteran joined the 303rd Polish Squadron. From September 2 to 30, 1940, Josef went on a rampage in the heat of the Battle of Britain. Achieving 17 kills during this period, he was beaten only by two other pilots, both of whom perished. Josef excelled at lone wolf tactics, sometimes flying off from his squadron to engage enemies. He would also patrol the channel, laying in wait for German planes attempting to return home, who were usually low on ammo and fuel.
On October 8, 1940, František was seen flying away from a routine patrol, and his plane later crashed on Cuddington Way in Ewell, Surrey. His body was found flung from the cockpit into a nearby bush, with a broken neck suggesting that he died instantly. The circumstances surrounded his death are still unknown, with some saying he was exhausted from constant German raids and others saying that he was trying to show off to his girlfriend with aerobatic moves. What is evidently clear is that Josef fought like a lion, flying under a Polish flag to liberate both Poland and Czechoslovakia. Josef’s kills remained at 17, one of the greatest scores of the war.
6. Marian Pisarek
Born on January 3, 1912, Marian started his military career as a rifleman, or as the Russians called them, cannon fodder. In 1934, he joined the Air Force, graduating in March 1938. At the outbreak of war, he was the Second Commander of 141st Fighter Squadron. Shooting down two enemy fighters and attacking an armored column by the 4th day, Pisarek was then forced to evacuate to France. The Polish squadron that Marian joined in France was forced to flee to Britain before they were combat ready.
On September 7, 1940, a group of 11 Poles from the 303rd Polish Squadron, including Marian, engaged a bomber group. With the group destroying 14 German planes in all, Pisarek claimed one enemy downed before being forced to bail. July 2nd, 1941, saw the Squadron escorting a group of bombers to attack an electric facility at Lille. During their return, the Polish 308th, which Marian now commanded, were attacked by a far larger group of sixty German fighters. Under his command, the group destroyed five Messerschmitts, losing two of their own pilots, one dead, the other captured.
On July 17th, Marian commanded a group of a dozen Polish spitfires who again successfully defended themselves against a large group of Germans. Under his command, the 308th became the most successful Polish air force in 1941, with 52 confirmed victories. After being given command of 1st Polish Fighter Wing, Marian was shot down on April 19th, 1942. Despite his short tour of duty, Pisarek took down 12 enemies.
5. Boleslaw Gladych
Born on May 17, 1918, Boleslaw had not completed his aviation training by the time Germany unleashed its Blitzkrieg. Fleeing to Romania, Gladych was briefly detained at Turnu Severin, a Romanian internment camp, before escaping to France. On June 10, 1940, whilst flying for the French, Gladych’s plane was badly damaged during a duel with a Messerschmitt. The German, with the call code “13,” seeing that the Pole was in a helpless situation, waved his wings and disengaged. Upon French surrender, Boleslaw fled to England, joining 303 Polish Squadron. He claimed his first kill on April 26, 1941, five days after completing training.
On June 23 of that year, Gladych was shot down and injured. In the spring of 1943, during a heated battle, the Pole downed a Focke-Wulf but was badly damaged by another. The German pilot flew close, waved his wings and disengaged, with a “13” on the fuselage. The pilot was the same one which had already spared his life once.
In the Autumn of 1943, Gladych narrowly avoided accidentally shooting down an aircraft carrying British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and was grounded by the RAF. Not wanting to miss out on the action, Boleslaw joined the US 56th Fighter Group. On February 21, 1944, he downed two Messerschmitts in a single mission. On March 8, whilst escorting bombers to Berlin, Gladych faced a group of three Focke-Wulfs. Claiming one, he was already low on ammo and fuel. The two remaining planes, one of whom was call code “13,” held their fire and signaled to Boleslaw to land at a nearby airfield. The Polish pilot descended, dropped landing gear, and prepared to land. Closing in to land, he suddenly opened fire on the airfield with remaining ammunition. Flak gunners on the ground opened fire, accidentally damaging the escorting German planes and allowing Gladych to escape. After running out of fuel during his escape, he was forced to bail in the English Channel. Surviving the war, his wartime score totaled 17 destroyed.
4. Eugeniusz Horbaczewski
Born in 1917 in Kiev, Ukraine, the Horbaczewski family moved to Poland whilst Eugeniusz was very young. Completing Officer Flying School, he was awarded the rank of Second Lieutenant. Fleeing Poland after the invasion on September 17, 1939, Horbaczewski joined the RAF to liberate his country from German rule.
A spitfire pilot in the Polish 303rd, Eugeniusz first met the enemy on October 6, 1941. Seeing a lone Messerschmitt, the Pole attacked, despite being low on fuel. The German plane began burning, but Horbaczewski was forced to disengage by the victims wigmen. Somehow, he landed successfully on fuel fumes. On April 4, 1942, whilst escorting bombers, Eugeniusz attacked and took down a Focke-Wulf which had successfully killed Lt. Daszewski, a fellow Pole and veteran of the Battle of Britain, only moments earlier. Whilst in Africa on April 6, 1943, Eugeniusz saved his Wing Commander by hitting a Messerschmitt from more than 100 meters away. Later that month on April 16, Horbaczewski attacked a group of five Messerschmitts by himself. Destroying one, his Spitfire was badly damaged by the others, igniting in flame. Sending his plane into a nosedive, Eugeniusz was ready to bail until, against all odds, the fires died out. For extra style points, he forced the damaged plane to glide, landing safely at Gabes Airfield.
After the North African campaign, the Pole was given command of 324th Fighter Wing. In combat over Sicily, Eugeniusz claimed three more victims, two of which were downed within 40 seconds. On August 18, 1944, a dozen Mustangs under the command of Eugeniusz engaged sixty Focke-Wulf fighters. Although the Allies were victorious, with 16 kills versus the enemy’s 3, Horbaczewski was killed in action, but not before claiming 3 aircraft downed in the skirmish. Eugeniusz is credited with 16 and a half kills throughout his career.
3. Jan Zumbach
From a Polish-Swiss family, Jan was born on April 14, 1915, in a village near Warsaw. His Swiss citizenship disallowed him from joining the Polish Air Force. However, through deception, Jan managed to join in 1936, and graduated from aviation school in 1938. Zumbach, now a lieutenant, was recovering from a broken leg in a hospital near the Romanian border when war broke out. Attempting to make contact with his squadron, Jan ventured to Warsaw on his still-wounded leg. Unable to find his friends, he fled to Romania the day before the Red Army also invaded Poland. Fighting with the French air force until their surrender, Zumbach joined the RAF after being evacuated.
After joining 303 Polish Squadron in August 1940, Jan shot down his first enemies, two DO-215 bombers on September 7, 1940. Two days later, he shot down a Messerschmitt and seriously crippled another. During the Battle of Britain, Zumbach shot down at least five more German aircraft. In October 1941, Jan escorted Allied bombing runs and on October 13, was caught alone by several German fighter planes. In the battle that followed, Jan shot down at least two before making an escape. Throughout the period, he was shot down twice, surviving both crash landings. On May 17, 1942, Jan assumed command of 303 Polish Squadron. Obtaining various other high ranking promotions, Zumbach never forgot his duty in the air. On April 7, 1945, he was forced to land in enemy territory after running out of fuel, and was taken prisoner until the end of the war. Jan survived the war with 13 confirmed kills.
2. Witold Urbanowicz
Born near Augustow on March 30, 1908, Urbanowicz joined the Polish Air Force in 1930. When the German invasion began, Witold was a flight instructor. Leading his cadets and other instructors, he briefly fought the overwhelming enemy in inferior training planes. He eventually fled with his cadets to Romania though Witold quickly returned to Poland by himself to continue fighting. Upon his return, he was very briefly captured by USSR troops, escaping from them on the same day as his capture. Making his way to Romania and then to France, Urbanowicz joined the RAF.
On August 8, 1940, only four days after his first flight, Witold claimed his first kill, a Messerschmitt. As a squadron leader in the 303 Polish Squadron, the Pole personally shot down four planes across two days, ending the Battle of Britain with 15 confirmed kills, becoming one of only eight RAF triple aces. After the Battle, he was assigned to desk work until October 1943, when he joined the USAAF “Flying Tigers.” Based in the Asian theater, Witold escorted bombers, delivered supplies to Chinese troops and sank as many as 15 Japanese river boats. In one instance, the Pole battled six Japanese Zero fighters at once on his own. Witold is credited with 28 kills throughout the course of World War II. Also imprisoned on espionage charges when he returned home, Urbanowicz eventually retired to America.
1. Stanislaw Skalski
Stanislaw Skalski was born on October 27, 1915, in the village of Kodyn, close to the Russian border. He started training to become a military pilot at Deblin in 1936 and completed his training in October 1938, graduating an officer. When Germany invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939, Skalski had destroyed seven German planes in the first few days, becoming the only Polish pilot to earn the rank of ace during the invasion. As things turned south, Stanislaw fled to Romania and boarded a boat to England, arriving in January 1940.
Joining the RAF 501 (County of Gloucester) Squadron in August, Stanislaw gained four kills in that month alone. On September 5, he took down a bomber and two escorting Messerschmitts, before being shot and forced to eject. Badly burned but alive, Skalski left hospital after only six weeks. Not able to run to his plane because of his wounds, he would sit in his cockpit for the entirety of his shifts, ready to scramble. In March 1941, the Pole joined 306 Polish Squadron, being promoted to commander of the squadron in May 1942, leading them to many victories. After seeing combat in Africa as part of the 306, Stanislaw became the first Pole to command an English squadron, the 601 County of London Squadron, during the invasion of Sicily and Italy. On June 24, 1944, whilst under attack from two BF109s, Skalski performed a dart maneuver which caused the two attacking aircraft to collide mid-air.
By the end of the war, he had 22 confirmed victories. If he weren’t enough of a hero already, he later spent 6 years in a Soviet prison on false espionage charges.