Friday, 15 May 2009

Those Incredible Poles

THOSE INCREDIBLE POLES - AND THEIR LOTNICTWO WOJSKOWE

On 1 September 1939, WLADYSLAW GNYS was a 28-year-old lieutenant with 121 Sqn at Balice, west of Krakow. Hearing bombing on Krakow, he and his CO, Captain Medwecki, took off in their PZL P.11 high gull-wing, fixed-undercarriage, fighters. Stukas shot down Medwecki, but Gnys evaded, climbed to 2,000 metres, saw 2 Dornier Do-17E bombers, and shot down both. They crashed near Zurada, the first Allied victories of the war. Polish fighters shot down 25 Luftwaffe aircraft that day (Flak and fighters destroyed 228 German and 4 Soviet aircraft in the 30-day war). Gyns escaped Poland and flew with the RAF. In 1948 he emigrated to Canada, settling in Beamsville, Ontario. In 1999 he was awarded The Order of Poland (Poland’s highest award) at the Polish Embassy. He died of pneumonia at age 89 in March 2000.

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Canadians, who are justifiably incensed at UK and US historians and commentators ignoring massive and vital Canadian contributions, are themselves guilty of forgetting vital contributions of other nationals. The Poles are a prime example. We went to war in September 1939 to help Poland. We failed. It was not until 1989 that Poland was again independent. Immense Polish sacrifices helped us, but not Poland. In a country suddenly torn asunder by German and Soviet invaders, who left little time or room for escape, what the Poles accomplished is nothing short of astounding.

First we owe them Enigma which was originally developed in the UK for business. The Germans saw its potential, bought it, and improved it. Later a German clerk smuggled out a copy which he tried to sell to France and Britain. They declined, so he turned to the Poles who bought it. Two weeks before the invasion the Poles had British intelligence study it in Poland. It still took the unsung geniuses at Bletchley Park years to decode it. When they did, it shortened the war by two years, and saved countless lives.

Some 75,000 Poles managed to slip out of the narrowing corridor through Romania and Greece to Beirut and thence to France. When France fell only 19,000, including 5,000 airmen, made it to Britain.

To destroy the Polish elite the Soviets massacred 25,000 officers at Katyn and Winitza. Many thousands more were held in prisoner-of-war camps under appalling conditions. Churchill persuaded Stalin to release them to him and they were shipped out via Odessa. Six million Poles, half of them Jews, were to be killed by Germans. Poles in the Soviet zone, known to be sympathetic to London, were eradicated.

The refugee Polish Army, of 250,000 men, then fought with Commonwealth units in Iran, North Africa and Italy, their taking of Monte Cassino being just one of their accomplishments. In Normandy the 1st Canadian Army had 4 divisions, one of which was Polish. The WAAF included 1,436 Polish women. The British Post Office allowed the Poles to design their own stamps, depicting Polish ground and air forces.

In the air the Poles flew Tiger Moths, Miles Masters and Magisters, Austers, Battles, Defiants, Hurricanes, Spitfires, Warwicks, Beaufighters, Lysanders, Wellingtons, Halifaxes, Lancasters, Mosquitoes, Mitchells, Tomahawks, Thunderbolts, Mustangs, Dakotas, and Liberators. They had the world’s 5th largest air force. Squadrons included 10 fighter, 4 heavy bomber, 1 balloon, and 1 army co-op (Italy). Ground crews were mainly Polish. Poles flew Halifaxes from Britain and Dakotas from Italy into Poland on supply and espionage operations. Their 14-hour Halifax flights (57 of them) needed long winter nights.

In the Battle of Britain, 144 Polish pilots (the largest non-British contingent) shot down 203 Luftwaffe aircraft for a loss of 29 Polish pilots. 303 (PAF) Squadron, flying Hurricanes, had 126 kills, the highest score of all RAF squadrons. In the first 1,000-bomber raid, 101 of the aircraft were Polish. Polish bomber squadrons flew 11,706 operations, dropped 13,205 tons of bombs, and laid 1,502 mines. Off the Spanish coast a Polish Wellington of Coastal Command was attacked by 4 JU88s. For 59 minutes the pilot, Emil Ladro, outmanoeuvred the JU88s until they all ran out of ammunition, saluted the Wellington, and flew off.

The Poles, who handled bombers like fighters, suffered heavy losses and hundreds were taken prisoner. Hitler decreed that such Europeans be shot because they had no right to carry on the fight as their countries had surrendered. Göring, who still had a vestige of WWI gallantry left, lied to Hitler that these men were now British citizens as Churchill would not allow them to fly British aircraft until they became British citizens. Hitler bought it, saving thousands of lives. I had 200 of these Poles with me in the North Compound in Sagan, Silesia. Five of them were shot and cremated for taking part in the Great Escape.

Only a few of the 19,500 still in the Polish Air Force (PAF) in 1945 returned to Soviet-controlled Poland and they were badly treated. In September 1992, after independence, the Polish Air Force standard was returned to Poland from the U.K., and 800 PAF/RAF veterans attended the ceremonies.

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