The Forgotten Few: The Polish Air Force in the Second World War

By Adam Zamoyski. New York. Hippocrene Books [171 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016]. 1995. xi + 239 pages. Index. Bibliography. Maps and photographs. Hardcover. $24.95.

Joseph Kotarba

My educated guess is that most Polish-Americans' understanding of the role of the Polish military in World War II consists of grossly misleading accounts presented in the mass media. The most common accounts are those offered in thirty-second sound bites of late-night television documentaries on World War II combat. The typical bite begins with a film of Stuka dive bombers screaming towards and blasting away small groups of Polish cavalry - on horseback, no less! - with gleaming swords raised high. The bite concludes with a wave of Panzer tanks roaring over the land to finish off the gallant if confused Polish officers. By means of such sound bites, Polish military efforts during the war come across as just another Polish joke.

The narrative makes it clear that militancy, of the kind practiced so often by Germans and Russians, is simply not a Polish feature.

Adam Zamoyski's readable history of the Polish Air Force does much to dispel the misconception of modern Polish military ineptitude. He tells a marvelous and often humorous adventure story, full of bravery, commitment, pride, and determination. The reader also gets bits of insight into the Polish character.

Zamoyski sets the tone for the book with his account of the birth of the Polish Air Force:

     The first Polish operational flight took off on 5 
     November 1918 from Lewandowska airfield against 
     Ukrainian nationalist forces attacking the city of 
     Lwów. It was carried out by Janusz deBeaurain, the 
     son of a doctor from Zakopane, and Stefan Bastyr, an 
     officer in the Austro-Hungarian air service.  They were 
     piloting a contraption composed of salvaged parts of 
     at least three different aircraft....The flying machine, 
     proudly painted in the Polish colors of white and red, 
     bumped along the grass runway and rose steadily into 
     the air.  It puttered over the Ukrainian lines and 
     dropped two bombs, causing more astonishment than 
     damage, and then returned safely to Lwów.  The Polish 
     Air Force was born. (6)

Like other young men smitten with the allure of flying, early Polish pilots were fun-loving and risk-taking barnstormers. They flew for the red and white in conflicts ranging from World War I to the Polish-Soviet war. They came from all social classes and regions in Poland. The Polish Air Force gained respectability through superb pilot training and ground support that was second to none.

It is a recurring feature of Polish history, and of the history of the Polish Air Force, that the Poles do not control the 'means of production' - in this case, production of airplanes. They only fly them, albeit exceedingly well.

When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, however, the 159 open-cockpit and slow Polish P-11 fighter planes were no match for the Luftwaffe's 2000 sleek and powerful Messerschmitts. The surrender of Poland a month later led to the exodus of Polish pilots who, for the most part, ended up in England. There, they joined the Allied war effort and accounted for themselves quite well. In all, the Polish Air Force in Britain consisted of 14 squadrons and 17,000 pilots and support personnel. They flew a total of 102,486 sorties, shot down 745 enemy planes, dropped thousands of bombs, and laid hundreds of mines. Almost 2,000 fliers were killed and almost as many were wounded. The Polish Air Force fought hard in spite of spotty support from the Allies, cultural differences with British pilots and civilians, debilitating confinement in Soviet gulags earlier in the war, a longing for home, and a host of other hardships. The Polish pilots fought with the hope that they would eventually return triumphantly to their homeland, a hope dashed by the Allied betrayal at Yalta.

Although Zamoyski's descriptions of battle activity is thrilling, the best material in the book is the personal stories of the heroic pilots. One of Zamoyski's stars is Jan "Johnny" Zumbach. Zumbach was Squadron Leader of the most famous Polish squadron, #303. He quickly built quite a reputation both as a fearless dogfighter, shooting down eight German planes during the Battle of Britain, and as a ladies' man. In December 1944, Zumbach met a shady entrepreneur in a bar in Wellington, and was soon helping him move uncut diamonds from London to Brussels in his Mustang fighter plane. After several years of short-term and unrewarding (i.e., land-based) jobs, Zumbach was asked in 1962 by Moise Tshombe to create an air force for Katanga, the rebel province in the Congo. Zumbach also fought in and survived the war in Biafra in 1967. He died a mysterious death in 1986.

One very obvious point Zamoyski makes throughout his book is that the Polish Air Force and its exploits were, and still are in the Western world, largely under-appreciated if not forgotten. After the war, the British did not want them to stay, and the Soviet-imposed government in Warsaw did not want them to return. I can think of two issues discussed in Zamoyski's book that go a long way in explaining this sad fate, one negative and one positive factor that together may also apply to the Polish experience more generally.

First, to borrow from Marxist terminology, the Polish Air Force did not control its means of production: a historically recurring problem for Poles and Polish-Americans. It was largely an air force without its own planes. The Polish pilots were dependent on the availability of British, French and American planes and supplies. They took their orders and pay from British officers and, consequently, they sometimes appear as underpaid and naively romantic mercenaries in Zamoyski's book. I do not like this feature of our ethnic character.

Second, Zamoyski's forgotten few provide additional evidence for a feature of the Polish character that should be obvious to everyone, but for some strange reason is not: Poles are not very mean or militant. Sure, Zamoyski's pilots loved the adrenaline rush of a good dogfight, a crisply tailored uniform, a timely salute, and the adoring attention of the single girls in town. Zamoyski, however, provides no evidence that the pilots were in any way inclined to treat the enemy as an object to be hated and annihilated, the way the German and Russian troops did in accordance with their commitment to total warfare. Feliks Szyszka's experience is illustrative:

     Feliks Szyszka was shot down over Warsaw on the 
     first day of the war, and as he hung on his parachute, 
     his face and body badly burned, a German fighter 
     flew back and forth shooting at him.  He had seventeen 
     bullet wounds on his legs alone when he landed, and 
     spent four months in the hospital....In Britain he joined 
     one of the Polish fighter squadrons, and in 1941, over 
     France, bagged his first Messerschmitt.  The German 
     baled out, and Szyszka found himself tearing down on
     the parachuting pilot.  'I really don't know what was  
     happening with me, but my finger was poised on the 
     machine-gun button,' he recalls.  'I only needed to 
     press it.  But I had to see his face.  So I bore down on 
     him and held my fire.  The German grew in my sights, 
     twisting on the cords and waving his arms fanatically.  
     In the end I saw his face clearly.  It was terrible, but 
     different, oh how different, from the face I had seen 
     over Warsaw.  It was crazed with fear.  The German 
     dropped his arms and hung there like a rag doll.  But 
     I could not shoot.  I just couldn't.  I banked my Spitfire 
     and passed a few meters from his face.  For awhile I 
     watched as the parachute drifted groundwards.  Then 
     I rejoined the squadron, and when I landed - I      
     suddenly felt deep happiness.' (117)

I am glad Feliks did not shoot the German pilot, and I am glad we are like Feliks.

When I finished reading this book, I imagined what a great story this would be for Americans besides those of Polish descent. If we had any meaningful influence on the mass media in the United States, Zamoyski's story would be written into a screen play and produced as a film. The film would be built around the exploits of Johnny Zumbach, to be played by...let's about Tom Cruise? Yes, Tom Cruise would do a great job recreating the spirit of courage and cunning that marked the Polish Air Force pilots and crew, but which also marks who we are. Postmodern culture, dominated by the presence of the mass media, offers this strategy as an appropriate way for ethnic groups to successfully project their character to the world.

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