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A Question of Honor

The Kosiuszko Squadron: Forgotten Heroes of World War II

Reviewer: Raymond Gawronski, SJ

[A Question of Honor - The Kosciuszko Squadron: Forgotten Heroes of World War II] By Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. 512 pages. Hardcover. $18.45 on

He was an incongruous figure in Brooklyn. Dressed in a three-piece suit, hobbling on feet frozen while crossing wintry mountains in his escape from Poland, Pan Andrzej Komornicki used to charm and delight the people he visited. Kissing ladies’ hands, speaking of the Krakow of his youth, he would flash a courageous smile from those metallic teeth of quondam Eastern Europe. People would sing songs of prewar Poland when he visited, and then the evening would be over, and graciously he would head out into the alien world of postwar New York.

Pan Komornicki returned to me recently, in the America of the twenty-first century, as I read this magnificent paean to the Polish fliers and other military personnel whose contribution to the Allied War effort was virtually essential, and yet was repaid with rank dishonor. Olson and Cloud are a husband/wife team of jouranlists. Both authors have had journalistic postings in Moscow and the White House; Cloud had been “Saigon bureau chief.” They live in Washington. In A Question of Honor, they have seriously contributed to the rehabilitation of Poland in the eyes of the world.

To understand what they have attempted, one must have a sense for the treatment of Poland in Western literature. Sometimes lionized as heroic lovers of freedom, one is as often dismayed to see references to “those Poles” who were perpetually chafing against the good order established by three European imperial powers which had, incidentally, divided Poland up among themselves and slated it for destruction, not only as a state, but eventually as a cultural entity, as a nation. Eventually, with the support of the United States, Poland emerged from the Versailles Conference a state once again, which, even in its multinationality, was a decent semblance of what it had been before the Partitions. No sooner was the treaty signed than Poland found herself in a war with the Soviet Union, which was intent on marching through Poland to unite with the workers in Germany. The defeat of the Soviet Union under Marshal Piłsudski was a stunning blow to the young Joseph Stalin, among others, and it gave Europe a breathing space from the raging and growing Bolshevik crusade.

The fourth largest of the Allied contingents in the Second World War, Poland suffered losses far higher than any other nation in the War: Warsaw alone had more casualties than the United States in both Pacific and Atlantic theaters.

Under the Partitions, the areas that had been Poland had been relegated to become the most backward provinces of the three powers. The authors document how, in the twenty years between the two world wars, the Poles did a remarkable job of building a functioning modern state. Steeped in European culture, religion, history, it was the generation that bore the hopes of generations, and would produce a Karol Wojtyla, among other notable figures.

Poland began forming an air force, a patchwork made up from planes from various neighboring states and others. Its academy produced rough and ready pilots who, with the help of some Americans who were mindful of America’s debt to Poland in the Revolution, formed what was called the “Kosciuszko Squadron.” In September 1939, Poland was invaded by two monstrous powers, Nazi Germany and, seventeen days later, the Soviet Union. Contrary to myth, Poland fought valiantly for over a month, exacting significant losses especially from the Germans. The authors are at pains to put to rest hostile German propaganda which portrayed the Poles as a primitive people, who fought tanks with cavalry (not at all the case). They maintain that this German propaganda was later picked up in the West when it became inconvenient to support the Poles.

The book rather loosely follows the careers of a handful of fighters of this Kosciuszko Squadron as they make their way West from a defeated Poland, through a defeatist and stunningly unhelpful France, to Britain. Initially treated with contempt, the Polish flyers quickly proved themselves remarkable and made a most significant contribution to the Battle of Britain. During that Battle, in fact, they were seen as indispensable. Feted by the British population, they were given their own commands in the Allied War Effort. Indeed, Poland was the only nation to have fought the Germans from the first until the last days of the War. The Poles were also the ones who broke the German code-the Enigma-and laid the indispensable foundation for successful later British efforts to crack its successor codes.

Though subtitled “The Kosciuszko Squadron,” A Question of Honor aims fors far more: it tells much of the story of the Polish role in the Second World War (even as The Red Horse did for the Italians). The thread of the air battle for Britain and its heroes continues throughout the book, but though central, it links the major events in the War, especially in Poland. The fourth largest of the Allied contingents, Poland suffered losses far higher than any other nation in the War: Warsaw alone had more casualties than the United States in both Pacific and Atlantic theaters. Warsaw emerges as the heart of Poland, and the Warsaw Rising in 1944 features prominently in the story. Both the cynical Soviet refusal to help the Poles whom they had encouraged to rise up, and the refusal of the Allies to come to their aid are documented, and well considered.

The War began for Poland’s integrity, even though her Western Allies did not keep their part of the agreement at the beginning of the War. Poland fought heroically, counting on the opening of a Western Front by an attack on Germany’s exposed Western border which the French and the British did not open. In addition to the flyers who came to Britain, an entire Army was assembled in the Soviet Union and worked its way West to fight most notably at Monte Cassino in Italy.

But even as the Poles distinguished themselves on every field of combat in the War effort, the Western Allies had made an alliance with the Soviet Union, one which gradually began to squeeze the Poles out of the picture. The Soviets had killed some twenty thousand Polish officers at the Katyn Forest and elsewhere. And the Polish government in exile were urged to enter into an “alliance” with the Soviet government. The United States and Britain pretended not to understand that this was impossible.

The last sections of the book detail how, beginning at Teheran, Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill disposed of this troublesome “ally.” It is clear in this presentation that Stalin was master of the situation throughout. Roosevelt is portrayed as a consummate egotist, blinded by his own charm and conviction that he could manipulate “Uncle Joe.” Only at the very end, prior to his death, did Roosevelt begin to “get a clue” that it was he who had been manipulated throughout. Churchill emerges as a tragic figure. A man of powerful rhetorical gifts, he was able to rally the British nation at the nadir of the War, when its very existence seemed doomed at the hands of the massive German air invasion. With the help of the Poles-for which he was effusively grateful-Churchill rallied against the Germans. He repeatedly pledged Poland’s territorial integrity. But Britain herself was drained by the War, and found herself a junior partner to the American allies who had little interest in Poland, apart from Roosevelt’s successful manipulation of the then significant Polish ethnic vote in America. Having duped the Polish Americans, Roosevelt gave Stalin a free hand in Poland. Churchill is portrayed as psychologically drained and unstable in the latter days of the War: in the end, he has to justify himself in his autobiography by denigrating the Poles.

At the book’s end, we find the Poles treated as a nuisance once again. This powerful ally was excluded both from the founding of the United Nations and the victory parade in London: we find Polish soldiers weeping on the sidewalks of London, while representatives of tiny nations around the globe marched celebrating victory. For those from Eastern Poland-an especially large contingent of the fliers-the betrayal was doubly painful as the Soviet Union simply incorporated the eastern half of prewar Poland. For the rest, there was generally no return to a Stalinist puppet government which it suited the Western powers to recognize.

A Question of Honor is a genuine achievement. It shows both the history of the Poles, and how Western propaganda-news media, film-changed images with political fortunes. It begins to explain why the Poles have been so vilified for decades: the worst enemy one can have is a bad conscience, and the bad conscience of Poland’s allies had to destroy Poland’s image. If Poland emerges as the most honorable of the nations involved in the Second World War, the authors are also realistic and fair in their treatment of the Allies, especially the British who, in spite of good and sincere intentions, found themselves in an impossible situation.

Every November I visit the Polish cemetery at Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where my parents are buried. It is also a military cemetery, and on the way to their graves, I pass the grave of Pan Komornicki. This year I shall pause longer at his grave, and pray with profound respect in the midst of the hundreds of military veterans buried there, who fought so valiantly, and suffered so long, “for your freedom and ours.”

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