Exiles in the Air

Armed with fast, powerful planes, plenty of ammunition and the paradoxical combination of faith and hatred, members of the exiled Allied Air Forces are out to kill. Shooting Messerschmitts is no sport to them. It's a grim business aimed at the extermination of almost everything German, as quickly as possible.

Homeless Poles, Czechs, Norwegians, Dutch, Belgians, French, Greeks, Yugoslavs, escaped from their own Axis-dominated countries, have been operating with the RAF for the last four years. They intend to go on fighting until their cities and villages have regained national freedom and the right to govern themselves. Their story is an inspiration, a lesson in comradeship, in singleness of purpose against a common aggressor.

Figures of their successes cannot be revealed, nor, for the safety of relatives still under oppression, can many names be given. Nearly 400 awards and decorations have gone to these aviators, have been accepted with quiet satisfaction.

When Germany swept into Poland on September 1, 1939, the world first saw what mass bombing can do to a great modern city, what 3,000 aircraft can do to 300. The small force was destroyed — in numbers — but the national faith of Poland was not broken. Germans destroyed their homes, towns, aircraft, murdered their people, but still many fighting men were left, particularly men trained for the Polish Air Force.

Within two weeks of Hitler's first blow, these flyers sneaked out of Poland, headed for a free country. They traveled through every part of Europe, Asia Minor and North Africa, as far north as Sweden, as far east as Russia, south as far as Syria and Egypt, walking, train-hopping, sledging, killing their way. By December, 1939, the first of them had arrived in England. Some were in France but when France fell in June, 1940, the travelers who had stopped off there to fight pushed on to England.

Czechs also had begun to escape and although neither they nor the Poles had a free country any longer, they had a common faith and desire to fight Germany. Many of the Czechs in France were concentrated into the 5th Squadron of Number I Wing of the famous Cigogne squadron. With this French fighter group they fought themselves to exhaustion. Czech pilots took third, fourth and twelfth places in the list of ace fighters in France. When France fell Poles and Czechs moved across the Channel.

The first group of nineteen pilots arrived in England by transport aircraft the day after the French armistice was signed. More followed. On June 21 Dutch and Polish merchant vessels loaded with Czech airmen put into English ports. By July 9 the last shipload was in, and three days later the Independent Czechoslovak Air Force was created. The first Polish squadron to be formed in England had been in being eleven days. These groups were just in time for the Battle of Britain.

While the Czechs and Poles had been making their way across Europe, Norwegians, hopelessly outnumbered, fought on at home until Hitler took over France. There were few ways of escape but a small number took them. Some flew. Some came in fishing smacks. A few actually rowed across the North Sea. Against such odds only a handful of Norwegians trickled into England but it was a steady trickle which in time was built into a force second in numbers only to the Poles, among the Allies in Britain.

By May 1941 they had their own Naval Squadron of float-planes in Iceland, flying on convoy escort. By July 1941 they had two new squadrons of fighters operating in sweeps over France, in January 1942 began flying in protection combats over Dieppe. They have flown over the Ruhr since the first attack on Krupps on the night of March 5, 1943, helped pound Dortmund, Duisburg, Bochum, Mulheim, Wuppertal, Dusseldorf and Cologne.

Many Norwegians are in Halifax squadrons. The Commanding Officer of one of these squadrons, reports that their skill and coolness in emergencies can always be depended upon. One Norwegian pilot came back from operations four times with engines shot out of action. Each time he had pressed home his attack, returned home safely with only three engines running. The DFC he received was one of the most popular awards made to the men of this squadron according to the CO.

Usually a Norwegian pilot flies with one of his own countrymen as navigator. Together they make a perfect team. Until recently, most of these men posted to one particular squadron were either pilots or navigators but now there are a good many of them doing other jobs in aircraft. Eight Norwegian pilots and one navigator have lately been posted to a squadron together with three wireless operators, three air gunners, two flight engineers. They have joined a squadron in which there are also British, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand airmen.

By the early summer of 1940, in small boats and fishing craft, the Dutch and Belgians were making their way to England — the Belgians, who before the war had been trained largely on Hurricanes, the Dutch with rich experience in coastal craft. They also arrived in time for the Battle of Britain.

Then, in June, 1940, the first Free French airmen arrived. They traveled by way of Spain, Africa and the Mediterranean, knowing that not only were they declared enemies of Germany, but also of Vichy. Over their heads hung the fear of what might happen to their families through their action, but just the same they came to England.

There was a pilot known as Claude, one of a number who were to be decorated by high Vichy officials in North Africa for their part in the war that presumably had ended for them. Claude had been a prisoner of the Nazis, escaped and made his way to North Africa. There was a demonstration of flying before the presentation. Claude took off with the rest, circled the airfield, then quietly broke formation, flew off to Gibraltar. In that story of Claude is the spirit that breathed in all of them. They wanted to fight the Hun.

However, spirit alone does not man Spitfires, Hurricanes and bombers. Few of the Allied personnel could speak English, not many could handle English aircraft. They began to learn.

But meanwhile the Battle of Britain was about to begin and comparatively few of the Allied airmen were ready for it. Of those who were, the Poles and the Czechs were by far the largest force. July 1940 saw the first two Polish bomber squadrons formed, although they were not operational until September. The first two Polish fighter squadrons and the first Czech squadron had also been assembled.

On August 7 and 26 respectively, within three weeks of each other, the Poles and Czechs had their first successes in battle. Polish fighter squadrons shot down five enemy aircraft without loss to themselves. The Czechs downed two. A month later, Hurricanes of the Polish squadron destroyed thirteen enemy planes, probably destroyed four, damaged two, with a loss of only three of their own aircraft.

In the first month of operations, the Czech squadron shot down twenty-eight enemy ships, damaged many others. They formed a second squadron and both groups had their own ground staffs. One thirty-three-year-old Czech fighter pilot flew in the Fighting French Air Force and the RAF as well as in the Czech. He was decorated by all three.

Because of their comparatively small numbers, it was not until after the Battle of Britain that the Belgians formed their own squadron. Units of the Royal Dutch Air Force were formed into two squadrons of the RAF in the summer of 1940. Daily, these Dutch pilots performed the grim, unspectacular tasks of coastal patrol, bombing enemy shipping, depth-charging U-boats, protecting our convoys, helping in air-sea rescue. Today they are fighting from the northern shores of France to the Indian Ocean. Like the Poles, they were in the Dieppe raid. Their pilots have won glory in the Pacific.

By the time the Battle of Britain was over the men of the Allied Air Forces had learned enough English to train by, had mastered the unfamiliar aircraft. A new phase began. This was the offensive by Bomber Command, an offensive in which the Allied Air Forces began to take part in September when the first Polish bomber aircrews hit enemy shipping in the harbor of Boulogne.

In August the First Czechoslovak Bomber Squadrons were formed and ready for operational training. A month later that group carried out its first operational flight — against Brussels. That was the beginning and, as time went on, these men flew over Belgium, as their strength grew took part in the 1,000 bomber raids on cities of the Rhine and Ruhr.

The Poles too were growing in strength and experience. The Polish Bomber Squadron has been working with Bomber Command of the RAF since its inception. Poles have flown through the Ruhr from the first attack on Krupps and Essen, have had a full share of encounters with Germany's reinforced night-fighter squadrons. For shooting down one of these night-fighters a Polish rear gunner received the DFC.

Since they began to fly with the RAF. Polish airmen have had a reputation for audacity in battle. Particularly during the fierce struggle of the last few months RAF men have noticed the high standard of discipline in the air among members of the Polish bomber squadrons. This has been proved by the fact that their casualties throughout the period of battle have been as low as those of any squadron in Bomber Command. In spite of their daring they have always kept to the plan of attack laid down in the RAF action sheet, have been punctual to the time-table of the huge, minutely planned air operations of recent months. The accuracy of their bombing is attested by the number of night photographs they bring back with the target in view.

By the time the thousand-bomber raids on Germany began two other dispossessed peoples had joined the fight — Greeks and Yugoslavs. From their seaplane base at Kotor, the Yugoslavs slipped down the Dalmatian coast, reached Egypt in small numbers to help the RAF. They are still escaping to join their countrymen and help expand the Yugoslavian Air Force. The first Fighting French Squadron was formed nearly eighteen months after French pilots had begun to reach England. Despite all the conflicting loyalties which followed the fall of France, those who escaped to Great Britain had one undivided will to fight Germany. Significantly they took as their emblem the dual Cross of Lorraine. once carried by Jeanne d'Arc, Within nine months of the formation of their first squadron, French pilots operating under the RAF shot down thirty-four enemy craft over Europe, were at work in Syria, in the Middle East, in French Equatorial Africa.

A Greek squadron of Hurricanes grew up to help protect Mediterranean shipping, to raid enemy convoys. A second squadron did submarine patrol work, made long-range reconnaissance flights.

All these exiled warriors are united by a single aim even greater than that of revenge for the cruelties their people have suffered. That they want just retaliation is certain, but more than that they fight for the freedom to live their own lives, in their own countries, in their own way.

This article was originally published in the January, 1944, issue of Air News magazine, vol 3, no 6, pp 17-19.
The original article includes 26 small photos.
Photos credited to International, British Combine, Curtiss Wright, United Nations Information, Inter-Allied Information Center, Netherlands Information Bureau, Ryan, British Information Services, Central Press Photos, European.