07906 588011 chippietownietours@gmail.com
07906 588011 chippietownietours@gmail.com

Polish War Memorial

I must have driven past the turning for the A4180 a hundred times before finally flicking the indicators and directing my car away from the busy lanes of the A40. Previously, my desire to either get to, or escape from, the congested delights of London had always persuaded me to speed past the west and east bound road signs which point towards Yeading and Ruislip. Delightful as these towns may be, it was the words ‘Polish War Memorial’, emblazoned in white capitals across the top of the metal rectangle which always tempted me to deviate off course. I was intrigued as to what sort of a monument would warrant such a grandiose notice. I imagined that the post-war government in Warsaw had commissioned some brutal piece of communist commemoration to sit in capitalist Britain. So, cruising up the slip road, I twisted my neck searching for a memorial of Soviet proportions, shards of concrete and square jawed figures striking determined poses.

When I drew up alongside the monument I realised that my socialist fantasies had gotten the better of me. The structure which remembers the 2,165 Polish airmen killed during WWII is not the work of bureaucrats, but rather surviving comrades who built the memorial soon after the armistice in 1945. The Polish air force association commissioned Miecystam Lubelski, a craftsman recently released form a Nazi labour camp, to design the structure and his plan exudes a quiet gravitas. A set of small iron gates lead to a needle of Portland stone fronted by a shallow pond and flanked by two low walls. On top of the central column is a bronze eagle, symbol of the Polish air force, and to the rear a sunken half moon walkway is inscribed with the names of the fallen, as well the insignia of their disbanded squadrons. Despite its proximity to a busy roundabout the memorial manages to radiate a serenity which succeeds in blocking out the distractions which surround it.

Back in 1939 the Polish air force was in disarray as the German blitzkrieg scattered pilots across Europe. Initially they re-grouped in Romania, and then France, but after Dunkirk those that could escape, retreated to England. Here, the Poles received a cool welcome despite the dire circumstances facing British forces. In snooty fashion the RAF refused to recognise the independence of the Polish air force and ignored their combat experience. Instead, the Poles were sent on procedural and language courses. Here, they were obliged to wear British uniforms and swear allegiance to the King. Pilot Officer Jan Zumbach wrote in his memoirs:

‘The British wasting so much of our time with their childish exercises, when all of us had already won their wings’.

Things changed during the Battle of Britain and from August 1940 the airmen flew as a sovereign force with their own insignia. In the same month the first two operational Polish squadrons were launched and eventually 145 Polish pilots defended British skies. Of all the units operating during the war, including the RAF, the No.303 “Kościuszko” squadron was the most successful, recording 126 kills. Among its ranks was Josef Frantisek, a Czech national, who joined the Polish air force after the fall of Prague in 1939. In just three weeks during September 1940 he recorded 17 confirmed kills and one probable, making him the top allied pilot during Battle of Britain. This squadron, accounting for just 5% of the available pilots, secured 12% of the total victories in the dog-fights over Britain. Clearly a great deal was accomplished by very few. Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, summarised their contribution in probably the most telling way:

‘Had it not been for the magnificent work of the Polish squadrons and their unsurpassed gallantry, I hesitate to say that the outcome of battle would have been the same’.

Polish units continued to fly throughout the war, their ranks swelled by expat arrivals from the Americas and, following the Russian entry into the war, Soviet labour camps. By the end of hostilities there were 17,000 men and women serving in 15 RAF Polish squadrons. Quentin Reynolds, one of the war’s most well-known American war correspondents, dubbed Polish airmen ‘the real Glamor Boys of England’. The British public adored the fighter pilots, waiters refused to take payments for their meals, bar owners paid for their drinks and bus conductors allowed them free journeys. After the war most of the money needed to build the memorial was raised from public donations.

Victory in Europe came at a heavy political price and with the advancement of the Red Army; many Poles were unable to return to a country under communist control. During the unveiling of the memorial in November 1948 the wonderfully named Viscount Portal of Hungerford, noted the plight of the veterans, but added that it would be to the advantage of British people if the Poles made their homes in the UK. Given the history of comradeship between our two countries it would perhaps be useful if similar sentiments could be extended into today’s world.

The memorial is located in the south east corner of Northolt airbase, the war time home of 303 squadron. Access to the base is not required and the memorial is situated just off the A40 on the way to Ruislip.

Josef Frantisek died on 8 October 1940 after he broke away from his squadron and crash-landed in a field in Surrey. His aircraft somersaulted and he was killed instantly. His final confirmed victory was a Bf 109 fighter near Brooklands in Surrey on 30 September 1940. Frantisek was the first non-British pilot to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal and Bar.

For more information on 303 Squadron


The overall contribution of the Polish Air Force in Britain during WWII


Josef Frantisek


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