Aces in Exile
The summer of 1940 had seen the German Wehrmacht sweep through the Low Countries and France with unexpected speed and ferocity. No one in Britain had expected France to fall so quickly, and the British forces had barely escaped back over the Channel in time. By the end of June 1940, it seemed to many that Great Britain stood alone, and if they chose to keep fighting, they might face invasion or starvation. But Britain also found itself unexpected allies. As much of Europe came under Nazi rule, not only did the now exiled governments of six European nations seek refuge in Britain, but they also brought thousands of their soldiers, pilots and air crews.
The defence of Britain relied on its air force. Should the Royal Air Force be defeated, then even the powerful Royal Navy would sooner or later succumb to German air superiority. The British had, in fact, lost quite a few pilots during the evacuation from the continent, and the coming Battle of Britain would be fought on a knife’s edge.
The perfect match
It seemed like a perfect match – a host of experienced pilots and crewmen, far away from their country but with the desire to fight, and a country in dire need of reinforcements. The British and the foreign governments came to the same conclusion, however. It was one thing to have a pool of new pilots, and another thing to unite them into an actual fighting force. A common enemy and the ability to fly a plane were simply not enough.
First, the British government had to create many political necessities from scratch to legitimise the presence of foreign forces on their soil. The first step was to fall back on the Visiting Forces Act from 1933, which was initially designed to allow soldiers from the Commonwealth, like the Canadians, to station military forces in Britain without transferring their jurisdiction to the British authorities. Expanding on this law, they created the Allied Forces Act, which now legitimised the exiled governments as well, to keep their own forces stationed in Great Britain. This was important, because the Polish, Czechoslovak and French governments didn’t want their forces to simply be assimilated into the Royal Air Force. It also started a bureaucratic nightmare.
The Commonwealth soldiers had it easier. The Canadian pilots of Squadron 401 had arrived on
June 21, 1940, a month before the British skies were darkened by streams of German bombers. Squadron 401 had originally been established as the 1st Fighter Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force back in 1937. Although they had the most experience in flying the outdated Armstrong Whitworth Siskins, they had been recently upgraded with more modern Hawker Hurricanes. The Hurricanes were slower and not as agile as the BF 109 or the Spitfire, but proved to be easier aircraft to master. Squadron 401’s main task was to engage and shoot down the German bombers, mainly the Dornier 17 and Heinkel 111, and leave the dogfights with the Messerschmitts to the faster Spitfire squadrons. Although the 401 was mostly spared by the political bickering, they still had to train and upgrade their planes by British standards.
Their baptism of fire came in late August, as they met the full force of a German bomber attack head on. The Canadians pounced on the bombers, but dog fights with the German Destroyers were tearing holes in their formations. The 401, known as the “Rams”, repeatedly fought to exhaustion. Every aerial victory was hard fought, and the Canadians were willing to make sacrifices to protect Britain’s skies.
The fighting did not stop the political scheming behind the scenes, of course. For the Royal Air Force, it was clear that any pilot serving in a British uniform, irrespective of his nationality, would have to serve under the same military codes as the British pilots. The exiled governments however, wanted to be recognised as actual Allies, not just as “associated powers” or foreign volunteers. The independence of their pilots not only gave them political prestige, but legitimacy in representing their occupied home country.
If any pilots were sick of the political wheeling and dealing though, it had to be the Czechs and Slovaks. Since the Munich Agreement and the consequential invasion of the German forces into Czechoslovakia in March 1939, those men had been forced to flee their country and seek refuge in neighbouring countries until they made it to France, but the French did not exactly welcome them with open arms. Instead, they forced many of the Czechoslovakian soldiers to either join the Foreign Legion in Africa or be sent back over the border. Only a few had the chance to fly some outdated aircraft during the Battle of France, before more than 4,000 of them made it over to Britain. There, under the guidance of President Eduard Benes and foreign minister Jan Masaryk, they had their own fighter and bomber squadrons established as part of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve by mid-July 1940.
But still, many Czechoslovaks felt that they were again being held back. Lots of British officials initially had little faith in them and treated them as an amateurish, low ranking force. They trained and reorganised until the middle of August, while the skies of southern England were fought over ever more viciously. When squadron 310 was given a chance, it quickly proved its value. They began fighting their own private war against the Germans, often going so far as to pursue them back over the Channel. Their determination quickly earned them a reputation as reckless daredevils, but every time they tore into the German formations, they produced results.
Soon, the Czechoslovakian insignia was proudly painted on the wings of their planes and their red lion graced the fuselage. Respect was hard-earned. Every German plane shot down, every medal won and every daring exploit of their fighter and bomber crews was documented and featured in their own newspapers and newsreels. This was to bolster morale and to show their critics the value of their commitment. By the end of the battle no one doubted them any longer. Their 37 confirmed kills, and many more damaged enemy bombers, earned them the recognition of the top brass.
The Poles were ready to fight
Like the Czechoslovaks, the Polish refugees had been treated with suspicion and discrimination by officials. Polish General Zajac had gone to Winston Churchill personally to tell him that the Polish fighter pilots were eager to give the Germans some payback and that their maintenance personnel were already familiar with British-made airplane engines, but the RAF judged the Polish temperament as too individualistic and problematic.
Most of the exiled pilots from Poland were experienced veterans of 111 and 112 Eskadra of the Polish Air Force, and many had seen action over the skies of Warsaw in September 1939. Serving for the British, Fighter Squadron 303 was less of a new formation and more of a symbolic continuation of their own air force. Nonetheless, the men of 303 had to be introduced to new technical details like modern throttles and speed propellers, and even retractable undercarriages. The PZL P.11 they had flown before was closer to a WWI plane than the modern Messerschmitt they now had to face in combat, but they adapted quickly.
When a German 110 was shot down during a simple training flight, the British were convinced that 303 was ready. Throughout September and October, the squadron repeatedly clashed with the Luftwaffe, contesting British airspace with every sortie. And the Germans had to pay a high price for every Polish fighter they shot down. During the German attack on the London docks, the 303 alone claimed 12 Dorniers in one day. Flying for 303, the Czech Josef Frantisek, nicknamed the “Lone Wolf”, became the highest scoring allied pilot of the Battle of Britain, with 17 confirmed kills. The squadron continued to aggressively attack the Germans in dogfights over London, making 303 one of the highest scoring squadrons of 1940.
By late October, the danger of an imminent invasion seemed to be over, at least for the time being, as the British air force finally gained the upper hand, and many British officials agreed that had it not been for the foreign pilots, the outcome might not have been the same. Indeed, one-fifth of the Royal Air Force did not stem from the British Isles. Next to the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and Canadians, fought Free-Frenchmen, New Zealanders, Norwegians and volunteers from the US.
Investing in the exiled pilots
Although the Battle of Britain was won, the war was far from over, so the pilots in exile would continue fighting with the RAF until they were relieved of their duties at the end of the war. Over the war years, the British would also put quite a large amount of money and resources into cultural and educational programmes for the foreigners. Since they did not just fight the same enemy, fly the same planes and eat the same British cuisine, but also lived in British communities, they were to be integrated as much as possible. Learning the English language was the first and most important step, and once they understood more than just military orders, the foreign pilots were no longer confined to their own groups. These educational programmes did a lot to overcome initial resentment and kept morale high, so that the men felt comfortable serving and living in Britain.
Winning the war was only possible if they worked together, despite their political and cultural differences. With time, they grew fond of each other as respect was earned and sacrifices were made. Everybody lost friends and everyone had to get on with the fight until the job was done.
Today, many different veteran associations still remember the Battle of Britain as the defining moment of the Allied war effort. British monuments still speak of their deeds and emphasise how much they had to thank their own and the foreign pilots alike, who came to their aid in their darkest hour. For them: “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.”
If you’re interested in a more visual interpretation of the above story, watch our Sabaton History episode, Aces In Exile Pt.1 – Non-British RAF Pilots:
The tales of the Aces in Exile
The Canadian, Polish, Czech and Slovak pilots that fought for Britain’s Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain were men far from home, fighting for a common cause despite their differences in language and culture. Here are some of their stories.
Karel Kuttelwascher and Josef Frantisek
The Munich Agreement and the German occupation of Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939, turned the world upside down for those now occupied. Men like Karel Kuttelwascher had been heading for the ordinary life of a clerk, but changed his mind and joined the Czechoslovak Air Force as soon as he turned 18. By 1938, he had successfully completed his pilot training and served in the 32nd fighter unit of the 1st Air Regiment. The squadron had been training to defend the airspace over Moravia and Slovakia, but the German occupation and the dissolution of the whole Czechoslovak Air Force had put a stop to that. Like so many others, Kuttelwascher faced the choice of either living under German occupation or making a run for it. He chose the latter and smuggled himself on board a coal train to Poland. Looking for help in the Czechoslovak consulate in Krakow, he was greeted by a whole group of Czech pilots who had the same idea. One of them was Josef Frantisek.
Frantisek had joined the Czechoslovak Air Force in 1934 and had shown a remarkable talent for flying. With natural ease, he flew the Aero A.11 reconnaissance planes, and soon made sergeant in the 4th Air Regiment. Though he was a gifted pilot, he was also a natural troublemaker. Getting in frequent fights or going missing for days, any other pilot would have been dishonourably discharged, but Frantisek’s skill with the Avia Biplanes had earned him recommendation instead.
Like Kuttelwascher, Frantisek had chosen to escape the German occupation by smuggling himself over the border to Poland. The Czechoslovak consulate could do little but arrange contacts with their exiled government, though. At the port of Gdynia, the pilots were waiting for a chance to sail to France, when the Polish military made them an offer to stay and serve in the Polish air force instead. Kuttelwascher rejected the offer, but Frantisek agreed and went to the Polish airbase at Deblin, near Lublin.
At Deblin he might have met Witold Urbanowicz, a fighter pilot known as the “Cobra”. Urbanowicz had been serving in the Polish Air Force since 1930. He had made a name for himself for shooting down a Soviet reconnaissance plane in 1936. The Polish air force used aircraft from the early 30s, like the Breguet 19 or the PZLs, and Urbanowicz himself served as an instructor, flying the obsolete P.7. This obsolescence became painfully clear on September 2, 1939, when the German Luftwaffe began bombing Deblin airbase. Forced to flee, dodging German anti-aircraft fire, and luckily surviving a crash landing, Urbanowicz – and other surviving pilots – were ordered to fly to Bucharest, Romania on September 22. There, they would wait for the French and British air force to arrive, after which they would continue the fight. Or so they thought. Instead, the men were nearly arrested by the Romanian police. Frantisek escaped on a Romanian cargo steamer, heading to Beirut in French Lebanon. Urbanowicz had made a quick dash into Poland once more, but after nearly being caught by Soviet troops invading from the east, he fled to France.
Kuttelwascher had already arrived in France via a Swedish cargo ship, reaching Calais on July 30, before the invasion of Poland had even happened. Since France was not at war and had few plans to integrate foreigners into their own forces, the Czech pilots were not allowed to join the French Air Force. Instead, they had to choose: join the French Foreign Legion with the understanding that they would be immediately released should war with Germany break out, or be deported back to occupied Bohemia. The men accepted and signed five-year contracts with the Foreign Legion. Sent to French Algeria, Kuttelwascher endured the harsh legionnaire training, but learned a thing or two about the more modern French Morane-Saulnier fighter aircraft.
On September 3, 1939, France declared war on Germany. Although it would take another two months until Kuttelwascher would be released from his contract, he was now allowed to join the free Czechoslovak air force. In May 1940, he joined the Groupe de Chasse III and was even lucky enough to be posted with a brand new Dewoitine. The Dewoitine D.520 could have been a real threat for the German Messerschmitts, but only a few had been made when the German war machine struck.
Mark Henry Brown
Also supporting the French defences were the Canadians. Mark Henry Brown had been promoted to Flying Officer in late 1938, and with the outbreak of the war, Brown and his squadron were transferred to the Advanced Air Striking Force in Britain. Brown began actively fighting in early November 1939 as the Luftwaffe probed the British defences over the English Channel. In April 1940, a first Messerschmitt fell to his guns. Four others soon followed suit over the skies of France, making Brown the first Canadian flying ace of the war.
Heavy fighting was soon reported over Cambrai, where Erwin Rommel’s tanks were making rapid headway. Late in the evening of May 19, pilot Willie McKnight was suddenly ambushed by a dozen German fighters. Immediately, he wheeled into a steep climb, shooting down a 109 before veering away to safety.
When McKnight had visited the recruiting bureau of the Royal Air Force back in Canada, he saw his service as a chance for adventure. As part of Squadron 242, he had trained with fellow Canadians at Church Fenton, flying Blenheim bombers and Hawker Hurricanes. Now fighting from airfields in northern France, it seemed like adventure had found him. Shortly after his stunt at Cambrai, news came of the British Expeditionary Force boxed in and being evacuated at Dunkirk. The British flying squadrons rushed in, trying to keep the packed men on the beaches safe from the Luftwaffe. By June 7, McKnight had shot down six planes there, claiming 10 victories in total, but like so many of the other men, exhaustion and battle-fatigue set in. He lost 12kg in a few weeks and once nearly his life while making his way to England, leaking oil all over the Channel. Squadron 242 suffered badly in the skies over France.
On June 17, exiled Czechoslovak president Edvard Benes gave the order to evacuate all Czechoslovak military personal to the United Kingdom. Frantisek made it safely across, and by September, was sitting in a British Hawker Hurricane as waves of German bombers and fighters attacked in the Battle of Britain. On September 2, he shot down his first BF 109, and took down three other German planes the next day. Facing the elite German pilots of Jagdgeschwader 52, Frantisek made a name for himself as a daring but unruly pilot. He repeatedly sped ahead, flying into the German formations. His style was effective but also self-destructive, and the RAF wanted to reign Frantisek in. Bravery was important, but it was discipline and judgement that separated the legendary pilots from the dead pilots, as well as luck.
Urbanowicz had temporarily joined Squadron 145 in August 1940, fighting off German Messerschmitts and Ju 88s crossing the Channel. It is rumoured that one of his first victims was German ace Joachim Schlichting, but accounts differ. By August 21, Urbanowicz was assigned to the Polish 303 Squadron, and two weeks later became Squadron Leader. Throughout September, his kill tally of Dorniers and Messerschmitts grew ever longer, and he was even awarded the Silver Cross by General Sikorski. With 15 kills, he made the top 10 Allied aces of the Battle of Britain.
Frantisek topped him though, credited with shooting down nine German fighters and seven bombers throughout September 1940, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal. However, on October 8, Frantisek’s Hurricane was seen spinning through the air. It crashed and Frantisek was immediately killed. It is unknown why it crashed. It could have been personal exhaustion or mechanical failure.
Mark Henry Brown was also shot down in mid-August, 1940, but he managed to eject before the crash. After the battle of Britain, he was posted to the Middle East, and eventually fought the Germans over the skies of Malta. During a raid in November 1941 against Italian airfields in Sicily, he was hit by anti-aircraft fire. With a kill tally of 17 enemy aircraft, he was buried by the Italians with full military honours.
McKnight was busy patrolling the skies over England, facing several German raids against RAF bases. After shooting at bombers over the Thames in November 1940, he was promoted to Flying Officer. In January 1941, he was tasked with flying combat patrols over French territory, but his group was hit by heavy anti-aircraft fire and was attacked by a horde of Messerschmitts. McKnight never made it home.
For Kuttelwascher, the order to escape to Britain had come too late. He and GC III were relocated to Algeria, but France’s capitulation on June 22, 1940, discharged all their foreign pilots from service. Kuttelwascher travelled to Morocco, and eventually made it to Britain where he promptly joined the Royal Air Force. But it was not until 1941, over the coast of France, where he made his first kill in RAF service. Kuttelwascher would become a renowned night fighter, known as the “Night Reaper” for the dangerous missions he attempted.
Witold Urbanowicz would make his way to the US in 1941 and join the American Air Force. There, he switched from fighting Messerschmitts in Hurricanes to fighting Japanese Nakajimas in P-40s. It is said that during all his service in the war, not once was his plane ever hit by an enemy bullet.
These are just a few stories of the Aces in Exile. It is remarkable what these men saw and experienced. Such bravery and dedication in such dire circumstances is perhaps hard to comprehend nowadays, but the hardships and the sacrifices made during wartime should not be forgotten.
Watch our second Sabaton History episode about the Aces in Exile, Aces In Exile Pt.2 – Non-British RAF Pilots, here: