Poles, the Battle of Britain and Yalta

Part of the ceaseless attack on British and English identity by the media is to “examine” the alleged myths surrounding great British achievements, especially military victories.

The week beginning 28th June was Channel 4’s turn with the “Battle of Trafalgar” and the “Untold Battle of Britain” in which the role of Polish pilots in the RAF’s 303 squadron was show-cased.

Actually the story has been told many times and nobody who has studied the battle is likely to overlook the Poles’ contribution, just as those who fought alongside them at Monte Cassino or in Normandy will forget their bravery and devotion to fighting the Germans.However a sense of proportion is called for.Air Ministry records released in the 1970s give around 3,000 RAF pilots who flew in the Battle of Britain from June to September 1940.Of these, 2,560 (82%) came from the United Kingdom; 249 (8.3%) from the British Commonwealth – Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Rhodesia, South Africa – many of whom had paid their way to join the peace-time RAF; 147 (4.9%) were Poles; 87 (2.9%) Czechs, 61 (2%) from other nations – all mostly fleeing from the German tide which engulfed Europe in 1939-40.All the tens of thousands of devoted ground crew, radar tracking team members and aircraft factory workers, without whom the Battle of Britain could not possibly have been undertaken let alone won, were almost exclusively from Britain.

Of the top ten fighter pilots by “kills” (i.e. confirmed downed German fighters) one was Polish, one Czech (who chose to fly with 303 squadron rather than with other Czechs), and the other eight were from Britain and the Empire.

All these facts are well-known (although the claims of “kills” have been heavily down-graded from claims at the time).The Battle of Britain was won in 1940 by the British over the South-east of England by the deployment over a period of 4 months of almost entirely British people and technology.

The Sunday Times’ programme reviewers (June 27) however, added a further contentious point, namely that “the 147 (Polish) pilots’ reward was to have their country handed over to the communists in the post-war settlement”.This is a hoary old chestnut which is resurrected in the media about every ten years or so.

At Yalta in February 1945, Churchill fought like a tiger to get the Russians to agree to free elections in Poland against outright opposition from Stalin (whose armies had swept through Poland in January 1945 and had reached the present Eastern border with Germany) and vague neutrality from the ailing Roosevelt, more preoccupied with the future of the British Empire in Asia than with the impending Soviet Empire in Europe.As Anthony Eden, the then British Foreign Secretary records (“The Reckoning”, Chapter 15), Poland overwhelmingly took up the most time at Yalta as he and Churchill wrestled with Stalin over it.The reality was and is that with his armies in control of almost all of Poland, there was no way Stalin was going to allow free elections in a country from which Germany had launched its attack in 1941.

Britain went to war in September 1939 in fulfilment of its guarantee to Poland.It was the deepest disappointment for all in Churchill’s government that, after all the sacrifice of British treasure and life, Poland could not be freed in 1945.When the Berlin wall came down in 1989, it was in effect the last act of the Second World War, with the complete freeing of Poland and the other East European countries, the final fulfilment of the pledge of 1939.For contemporary journalists, film-makers and historians to represent it otherwise is a travesty.

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