One of history's great paradoxes is Britain's 1939 declaration of war
in support of Poland when Nazi Germany invaded and its eventual decision with
the U.S., once the war was won, not to interfere with the Soviet Union's savage
takeover of that country .
"Honour" looms large in A Question Of Honour: The Kosciuszko Squadron,
Forgotten Heroes Of World War II
. Written by an American husband-and-wife
team of journalists, Lynn Olson and Stanley Cloud, it is a necessarily bitter
but balanced presentation of history that has stirred razorish debate for
decades. It focuses on the remarkable contribution of Polish pilots in the 1940
Battle of Britain that stopped cold Germany's cross-Channel invasion plans. Some
76 Poles flew in Royal Air Force (RAF) squadrons; 66 others formed two
Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, chief of the RAF's Fighter Command,
at first hesitant about employing the Poles, said later: "Had it not been for
the magnificent (work of) the Polish squadrons and their unsurpassed gallantry,
I hesitate to say that the outcome of the battle would have been the same."
An even more eloquent tribute came from RAF Wing Commander Thomas Gleave,
who fought in the Battle of Britain: "I wonder if mankind is yet aware of the
credit that is their due. They fought for English soil with an abandon, tempered
with skill and backed by an indomitable courage such that it could never have
been surpassed had it been in defence of their own native land."
Eventually, there were 11 Polish fighter squadrons and three bomber
outfits making up the fourth largest allied air force behind Britain, the U.S.
and the Soviet Union. Poland's contribution covered far more than its 17,000 air
and ground crews. In total, its soldiers, sailors and airmen numbered 150,000.
Their army is remembered for taking Monte Cassino in Italy at a cost of nearly
1,000 killed and more than 3,000 wounded, and their armored brigade's
magnificent fighting at Falaise and other battlefields in occupied Europe.
The Poles who had fought ferociously at home against the German invaders
continued the battle in France. When the French surrendered, they fled to
Britain and fought on. Their war began early when they made a magnificent
contribution by presenting the British and French with a replica of Germany's
top-secret Enigma coding machine. This led to the development of Britain's
legendary code-cracking system called Ultra, which read German military messages
for most of the war.
The Kosciuszko squadron of the title was formed in 1919 by a group of
U.S. pilots who had gone to Poland as volunteers in a war that newly independent
Poland was having with the Soviet Union.
Despite all their noble efforts, hundreds of thousands of Poles were
barred from the 1946 Victory Parade in London by Clement Attlee's Labour
government, which invited the Soviet Union's Communist Polish government
instead. The RAF was livid and insisted a delegation of Polish airmen be
included. Belatedly, a few were invited to march but they declined as a protest
against the exclusion of their army and navy compatriots. Oddly, the Communist
government in Warsaw and the Soviet Union also declined.
Only about one in five Polish servicemen returned to Poland after the
war. The rest stayed in Britain or emigrated to Canada, the U.S., Australia, New
Zealand and South Africa. The Attlee government tried to scare the Poles into
going home by painting a bleak future if they stayed on.
The RAF high command immediately intervened and made it clear the service
would not turn its back on the "strongest, the most loyal and faithful, and the
most persistent European ally of all ... part and parcel of the RAF... to
contemplate, in their tragic hour, anything short of sympathetic and generous
treatment is unthinkable."
The government eventually became resigned to the fact that most Poles
would not be returning to their Communist and Soviet-dominated homeland, and set
up an agency to help them find work in war-weary and job-short