A Question of Honor: The Kosciuszko Squadron: Forgotten Heroes of World War II

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A Question of Honor is the gripping, little-known story of the refugee Polish pilots who joined the RAF and played an essential role in saving Britain from the Nazis, only to be betrayed by the Allies after the war.

After Poland fell to the Nazis, thousands of Polish pilots, soldiers, and sailors escaped to England. Devoted to liberating their homeland, some would form the RAF's 303 squadron, known as the Kosciuszko Squadron, after the elite ...
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A Question of Honor: The Kosciuszko Squadron: Forgotten Heroes of World War II

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A Question of Honor is the gripping, little-known story of the refugee Polish pilots who joined the RAF and played an essential role in saving Britain from the Nazis, only to be betrayed by the Allies after the war.

After Poland fell to the Nazis, thousands of Polish pilots, soldiers, and sailors escaped to England. Devoted to liberating their homeland, some would form the RAF's 303 squadron, known as the Kosciuszko Squadron, after the elite unit in which many had flown back home. Their thrilling exploits and fearless flying made them celebrities in Britain, where they were "adopted" by socialites and seduced by countless women, even as they yearned for news from home. During the Battle of Britain, they downed more German aircraft than any other squadron, but in a stunning twist at the war's end, the Allies rewarded their valor by abandoning Poland to Joseph Stalin. This moving, fascinating book uncovers a crucial forgotten chapter in World War II-and Polish-history.
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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
This is indeed a tale of heroism, camaraderie and glory. The dashing, gallant, impetuous Poles became the darlings of British high society and were lionized by the press in Britain and America. The authors vividly recreate the airmen's daily bouts with death and nights of partying, their lost lives and loves, and their frustrations with English fastidiousness and idiosyncrasies -- everything in the British planes seemed to be the opposite of where it was in Poland. — John Whiteclay Chambers II
Publishers Weekly
Following up the acclaimed The Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Frontlines of Broadcast Journalism, the authors offer a solid addition to WWII aviation history. The first all-Polish squadron in the Royal Air Force, the Kosciuszko Squadron was formed from experienced Polish Air Force pilots who had fled their fallen country by way of Romania and France to England. Its members, according to the authors, needed little instruction in combat flying but some in the English language. When they took to the air, the squadron's pilots, along with Poles serving elsewhere in Fighter Command, made a large (possibly indispensable) contribution to victory in the Battle of Britain. That battle is the dramatic high point of the book, which from 1941 on shifts its focus to the sorry fate meted out to Poland as a nation and Poles in particular, especially in the infamous Katyn Massacre and the Warsaw Uprising. The authors document how this mistreatment took place with the acquiescence of the Western Allies, grossly misjudging Stalin's ambitions in Eastern Europe. Despite the same extraordinarily fluent writing and thorough research found in The Murrow Boys, readers might still be left wanting to know more about the fate of some of the Polish aviators after the Battle of Britain. Even so, the political balance they bring to telling the political story is noteworthy. (Sept.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
One of the lesser-known tales of the Second World War concerns the young Polish pilots who managed to escape their ravaged country after Hitler's invasion. Some had been in the outclassed Polish air force, others were civilians, but all were determined to fight against the Nazis, anytime and anywhere. Most of them ended up in England, where the British initially were slow to recognize their fighting ability. However, none doubted their zeal—bordering on hatred—to punish Germany for what it did to their families and their nation. Fortunately, the skeptical Brits gave a few of them permission to show their skill in slow training planes. That was all that the expatriates needed. They proceeded to fly the pokey craft as if they were Spitfires, and in a very short time they found themselves organized into squadrons, equipped with the latest fighters, and thrown into the Battle of Britain. This book is about one of these fighting units, Royal Air Force 303 Squadron, named for one of the Polish heroes of the American Revolutionary War, Tadeusz Kosciuszko. The stunning exploits of those "Polish Eagles" alone would have been enough to justify a book—the refugees shot down 40 German planes during their first eight days of combat, and went on from there. Brave to the point of recklessness, their casualties were as high as their accomplishments. This title, however, is a great deal more than simply another undemanding tale of combat derring-do. Instead, co-authors Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud go behind the scenes to unearth a more significant story, a seamier account of military and political mistreatment that ranged from casual ingratitude to near-betrayal at the highest levels. Asthe end of the war neared, the Polish warriors gradually became something of a hot potato. They became a diplomatic embarrassment to President Roosevelt and to their British hosts after Stalin annexed their battered country. The squadron that ended the war as the highest-scoring unit in the RAF suddenly had no place in the post-war air force, or even in the victory parades that followed V-E Day. Being professional journalists, Olson and Cloud tell the Kosciuszko squadron's saga in a gripping style, through the eyes and exploits of five of its young pilots. Exciting aerial action is deftly interspersed with enough solid political and military history to make the book a valuable one for high schoolers as well as satisfying to the average adult reader. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, Random House, Vintage, 495p. illus. notes. bibliog. index., Ages 15 to adult.
—Raymond Puffer, Ph.D.
Library Journal
Olson and Cloud (coauthors, The Murrow Boys) tell the fascinating story of the Polish fighter pilots who helped defend England during World War II's Battle of Britain and the Allies' shameful ignoring of the Poles at war's end. Beginning with their heartbreaking barring, for fear of offending Stalin, from the 1946 London "parade of honor" to commemorate Allied victory, this consistently dramatic and detailed history chronicles the German blitzkrieg into Poland and the desperate attempt to evacuate so that the fight could be carried on from England. The book ends with extensive revelations about the Allied betrayal of the Poles when the Russians later absorbed Poland. Using unofficial diaries and letters of Kosciuszko Squadron pilots and interviews with survivors and their families, the authors bring to life these courageous men as they struggled to reclaim their national heritage. Readers will also enjoy the broader story of the Polish armed forces, which fought with the Allies against both Hitler and Stalin; the collapse of their struggle during the "peace"; and the ultimate end of World War II for the Poles, which came only with liberation in the Gorbachev era. This powerful history belongs in World War II collections in all academic and larger public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/03.]-Dale Farris, Groves, TX Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A lively tale of Poland’s famed WWII fighter wing, which contributed materially to the RAF’s victory in the Battle of Britain. Founded after WWI by American adventurers who had "come to Poland to volunteer in a nasty little war that the newly independent Poles were having with newly created Soviet Russia," the Kosciuszko Squadron transferred the Polish military’s renowned cavalry skills into the arena of the air. Prized by allies and feared by enemies, many members of the wing managed to escape Poland following the Nazi conquest and, a year afterward, found themselves in England at the service of a government in exile. Among the 17,000 Poles who fought alongside the British, the young men of the squadron were of an impulsive bent, fond of pulling out of formation to attack Nazi aircraft on their own; though British flightmasters despaired of bringing their allies into line, they came to value the Poles for their bravery and flying ability alike. The British nation took a similar view after the Battle of Britain, during which "the Kosciuszko Squadron compiled a brilliant overall record"; as Polish pilots marched in the streets, "cheered by passersby and bathed in shouts of ‘Long Live Poland!’ ", and as later they flew bravely in support of the Warsaw Uprising, they had every reason to think that their service would be remembered after the war. Alas, write Olson and Cloud (The Murrow Boys, 1996), it would not be so; though the sworn mission of the squadron was to fight in defense of a free Poland, the British and American governments were busily conspiring with the Soviet Union to turn Poland into a satellite state; whereas Franklin Roosevelt professed that he took "a distant view of thePolish question," Winston Churchill, by the authors’ account, seems to have been bent on giving Stalin whatever he wanted. Though some may take issue with Olson and Cloud’s political assessments, the fact stands that the squadron became stateless as Poland was conquered anew; only two of them ever returned home. A fine portrait, and a well-placed condemnation of a shameful episode in history: the betrayal of Poland. First printing of 75,000. Agent: Gail Ross
From the Publisher
“Exciting. . . . A tale of heroism, camaraderie and glory. The authors vividly re-create the airmen’s daily bouts with death and nights of partying, their lost lives and loves.” —The Washington Post Book World

“An impassioned, riveting account of Poland’s betrayal by Britain and the United States, which quickly forgot the Poles’ heroism in their rush to appease the Soviet Union.” —Newsweek

“Exciting and compelling, a fine story too rarely told, a tribute to the Polish fighting spirit, and a well-written war history about a distant but very good neighbor.” —Alan Furst

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375411977
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/16/2003
  • Pages: 512
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud are coauthors of The Murrow Boys, a biography of the correspondents whom Edward R. Murrow hired before and during World War II to create CBS News. Olson is the author of Freedom’s Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970. Cloud, a former Washington bureau chief for Time, was also a national political correspondent, White House correspondent, Saigon bureau chief, and Moscow correspondent for Time. Olson was a Moscow correspondent for the Associated Press and White House correspondent for the Baltimore Sun. She and Cloud are married and live in Washington, D.C.

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Read an Excerpt


They marched, twelve abreast and in perfect step, through the heart of bomb-pocked London. American troops, who were in a place of honor at the head of the nine-mile parade, were followed -- in a kaleidoscope of uniforms, flags, and martial music -- by Czechs and Norwegians, Chinese and Dutch, French and Iranians, Belgians and Australians, Canadians and South Africans. There were Sikhs in turbans, high-stepping Greek evzoni in pom-pommed shoes and white pleated skirts, Arabs in fezzes and kaffiyehs, grenadiers from Luxembourg, gunners from Brazil. And at the end of the parade, in a crowd-pleasing, Union Jack-waving climax, came at least 10,000 men and women from the armed forces and civilian services of His Britannic Majesty, King George VI.

Nearly a year earlier, the most terrible war in the history of the world -- six years of fire, devastation, and unimaginable death -- had finally ended. At the time there had been wild, spontaneous celebrations in cities all over the globe. But on this grey and damp June day in 1946, Great Britain's invited guests, representing more than thirty victorious Allied nations, joined in formal commemoration of their collective victory and of those, living and dead, who had contributed to it. As church bells pealed and bagpipes skirled, veterans of Tobruk, the Battle of Britain, Guadalcanal, Midway, Normandy, the Ardennes, Monte Cassino, Arnhem, and scores of less famous fights were cheered and applauded by more than 2 million onlookers, many waving flags and tooting toy trumpets. The marchers snapped off salutes as they passed the reviewing platform on the Mall, where the king, his queen, and their two daughters stood. Prime Minister Clement Attlee was alongside the royal family, but the attention of many was focused on Attlee's predecessor, Winston Churchill, who had led and inspired Britain through the final five years of the war.

As the Victory Parade's last contingents marched by, a thunderous roar was heard overhead. The crowds stared up at the leaden sky, transfixed, as a massive armada of aircraft -- bombers, fighters, flying boats, transports -- approached from the east at nearly rooftop level. Leading the fly-past was a single, camouflaged fighter -- a Hawker Hurricane, looking small and insignificant compared to the lumbering giants that flew in its wake. The Hurricane's pride of place, however, was unchallenged. If it had not been for this sturdy little single-seater and its more celebrated cousin, the Spitfire, the Victory Parade and the triumph it celebrated might never have occurred. In the summer and fall Of 1940, RAF pilots had flown Hurricanes and Spitfires against Adolf Hitler's Luftwaffe and had won the Battle of Britain. In so doing, they changed the course of the war and the very nature of history.

Standing along the parade route that day was a tall, slender, fair-haired man with the difficult name of Witold Urbanowicz. As he watched the Hurricane flash by overhead, a flood of memories returned to him. He had been up there in a Hurricane during the Battle of Britain. He had gazed down on this city when it was blazing with fire. His squadron had become a legend of the battle. On the first day of the London Blitz -- Hitler's attempt to bomb the British civilian population into submission -- Urbanowicz's squadron was credited with shooting down no fewer than fourteen German aircraft, a Royal Air Force record.

Setting records had already become a habit for 303 Squadron -- or the "Ko?ciuszko Squadron," as it was also known. In its first seven days of combat, the squadron destroyed nearly forty enemy planes. By the Battle of Britain's end, it was credited with downing more German air craft than any other squadron attached to the RAF. Nine of its pilots, including Urbanowicz, were formally designated as aces. Writing in Collier's three years after the battle, an American fighter pilot described 303 as "the best sky fighters I saw anywhere."

Yet, despite its accomplishments in the war, none Of 303's Pilots took part in the fly-past. None marched in the parade. For they were all Polish -- and Poles who had fought under British command were deliberately and specifically barred from the celebration by the British government, for fear of offending Joseph Stalin. A week earlier, ten members of Parliament had written a letter of protest against the exclusion. "Ethiopians will be there," the letter declared. "Mexicans will be there. The Fiji Medical Corps, the Labuan Police and the Seychelles Pioneer Corps will [march] -- and rightly, too. But the Poles will not be there. Have we lost not only our sense of perspective, but our sense of gratitude as well?"

On a June day six years earlier, Winston Churchill had risen in the House of Commons to declare: "The battle of France is over. I expect that the battle of Britain is about to begin." From the first, the new prime minister, who had been in office barely a month, made clear that Britain would not follow France into ignominy: there would be no British capitulation to Germany. "We shall fight on the beaches," Churchill famously said. "We shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender."

The courage and character that Churchill pledged for Britain had already been demonstrated by Poland. It was the first country to experience the terror of the Nazi Blitzkrieg, the first to fight back, the first to say -- and mean -- "We shall never surrender." Poland fell in October 1939, but its government and military refused then, and refused for the rest of the war, to capitulate. In a remarkable odyssey, scores of thousands of Polish pilots, soldiers, and sailors escaped Poland -- some on foot; some in cars, trucks, and buses; some in airplanes; some in ships and submarines. They made their various ways first to France, thence to Britain to continue the fight. For the first full year of the war, Poland, whose government-in-exile operated from London, was Britain's most important declared ally.

When dozens of Polish fighter pilots, including 303 Squadron, took to the air during the Battle of Britain, the RAF already had lost hundreds of its own fliers, replaced in many cases by neophytes who barely knew how to fly, much less fight. The contribution of the combat-hardened Poles, especially the men of 303, was vital. Indeed, many believe it was decisive. "If Poland had not stood with us in those days. . . the candle of freedom might have been snuffed out," Queen Elizabeth remarked in 1996.

In all, some 17,000 Polish airmen fought alongside the RAF during the war. But the pilots and air crews were not the only Poles to play an important part in the conflict. The small Polish navy participated in several important operations. Polish infantry and airborne units ought in Norway, North Africa, Italy, France, Belgium, and Germany. By the war's end, Poland was the fourth largest contributor to the Allied effort in Europe, after the Soviet Union, the United States, and Britain and its Commonwealth. "If it had been given to me to choose the soldiers I would like to command," said Field Marshal Harold Alexander, commander of the Allied forces in North Africa and Italy, "I would have chosen the Poles."

Perhaps as significant as its role in combat was Poland's contribution to the Allies' greatest intelligence coup -- deciphering the German military codes generated by the Enigma machine. Only Churchill and a handful of other British officials knew at the time of the Victory Parade that Polish cryptographers had provided the initial breakthrough for cracking Enigma -- with incalculable importance to the outcome of the war.

And what did the Poles want in return? "We wanted Poland back," said Witold Urbanowicz. Throughout the war, Winston Churchill, moved by the Poles' valor, grateful for their help, and horrified by the Nazis' unprecedented savagery in their homeland, promised they would get it. "We shall conquer together or we shall die together," Churchill vowed to the Polish prime minister, General W?adys?aw Sikorski, after the fall of France. Meeting Polish troops as they arrived in England in June 1940, British war secretary Anthony Eden declared: "We shall not abandon your sacred cause and shall continue this war until your beloved country be returned to her faithful sons.

"Yet, as the great long line of marchers proceeded down the Mall on that June morning in 1946, and as the crowds cheered and basked in the postwar world's rebirth of freedom, proud Poland remained in the shadows. Despite Eden's pledge, its "sacred cause" had been abandoned by its two closest allies, Britain and the United States. One occupier, Hitler, had been replaced by another Joseph Stalin. And on that gala day, Polish war heroes like Urbanowicz and his follow 303 pilots -- once called "the Glamour Boys of England" -- were forced to stand on London sidewalks and watch.

One young Polish pilot looked on in silence while the parade passed. Then he turned to walk away. An old woman standing next to him looked at him quizzically. "Why are you crying, young man?" she asked.

Copyright © 2003 Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud

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First Chapter

Into the Air

The night before the barnstormers came to Jan Zumbach's hometown, he was so excited he couldn't sleep. No flying machine had set down in little Brodnica before, and thirteen-year-old Jan, in the spring of 1928, had never laid eyes on one of those aviators he had heard and read so much about. When the sun finally rose the next morning, Jan and his family proceeded to the large meadow outside of town. It was National Defense Week in ever threatened, ever patriotic Poland, and nearly all the men, women, and children in Brodnica were on hand for the celebration. Flags were flying, tents had been erected for local officials and honored guests, a military band was working its way through its repertoire of polkas, marches, waltzes, and mazurkas, with a little opera thrown in for variety's sake. On the edge of the meadow, behind a cordon of uniformed soldiers, sat two gleaming Polish-built Potez 25 biplanes. Just looking at them made Jan all the more eager for the band to desist and the show to begin.

At long last, the bandleader laid down his baton. The crowd hushed. Jan and the other youngsters pressed forward as far as they could. The pilots, four of them, adjusted their leather helmets, pulled down their goggles, and climbed into their twin, open-cockpit two-seaters. With cool and practiced waves to the spellbound audience, they started off in a white blast of exhaust and a tractorlike roar. The propwash whipped off men's hats and fluttered women's skirts. Wingtip-to-wingtip, the two planes bounced over the meadow, then lifted and soared, taking Jan's heart with them as they climbed. Seconds later, still in close formation, they swooped low overthe crowd.

Jan was one of the few who did not hurl himself facedown on the grass. Transfixed, he watched as the planes climbed again, looped-the-loop, then plunged into twin, heart-stopping nosedives. When they were what seemed only a few feet from the hard earth, they pulled up and were gone, vanished over the eastern horizon. In their place were silence and a gentle late-spring breeze. Then, while the crowd still gaped and began to wonder if the show was over, the Potez  25s exploded out of the west in a gut-wrenching, tree-level grand finale that had the men cheering at the top of their lungs and the women nervously fanning themselves.

And it was there and then, in that meadow, at that instant, that young Jan Zumbach, hovering somewhere between laughter and tears, "swore by all the saints that I must, I would, be a pilot."

At just about this same time, in a town called Ostrów Wielkopolski, 100 or so miles southwest of Brodnica, thirteen-year-old Miroslaw Ferig was haunting the local aeroklub, watching planes take off and land, waiting impatiently for the day when he would be in the cockpit. Mika Ferig had always enjoyed testing gravity's limits. From an early age, he liked to teeter-arms outstretched like a tightrope walker's-on the narrow iron railing around the fourth-floor balcony of his family's apartment. Sometimes, he would swing by one arm from the same railing, terrifying his mother as she worked in her little garden, thirty or forty feet below. Mika, the mischievous ringleader of a group of neighborhood boys, was always the one to come up with daredevil games somewhere above ground level-scaling the red-tile roofs of other buildings in the apartment complex, or leaping to the ground from the garden sheds in back. "He was absolutely fearless," said Edward Idzior, Mika's closest childhood chum.

Budding aviators like Jan Zumbach and Mika Feric (and more than a few girls) were everywhere in Poland in those days. Indeed, by the late 1920s, the mere idea of flying, of a perfect escape from the mundane realities of life, was captivating young minds and souls all over the globe. Charles Lindbergh's nonstop, transatlantic solo flight from Long Island to Paris in 1927 epitomized the romanticism and excitement of aviation. But other countries had lesser Lindberghs. Two years before the Lone Eagle landed at Orly, for instance, a young Polish military pilot named Boleslaw Orlimski flew solo (with several stops) from Warsaw to Tokyo-a distance of about 4,000 miles. Orlimski's feat didn't come close to matching Lindbergh's, but he and others like him were local heroes all the same.

The fascination of young people with airplanes and flying was to have significant implications for the Polish military, for Polish society in general, and, in World War II, for the world. Historically, Poland's most dashing figures had come from the cavalry. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when Poland was a great power, mounted warriors were the key to its military might. Foreign armies, from the Turks to the Teutonic Knights, envied and feared the Polish cavalry. Of particular renown were the Husaria, who rode caparisoned steeds into battle and wore plumed helmets, jewel-encrusted breastplates, and large arcs of eagle feathers that seemed to rise, winglike, out of their backs. (The feather-covered steel frames were actually attached to their saddles.) In their day, the Husaria were the equivalent of Hitler's Panzer units: heavily armed, highly mobile, intended to crush enemy defenses in lightning charges. In one famous seventeenth-century battle, a Polish force of 3,500, including some 2,500 Husaria, crushed a Swedish army of 11,000.

To generations of young people, Poland was the Husaria. But to those who came of age after World War I-when the country was finally freed from more than a century of subjugation by the Germans, Austrians, and Russians-the cavalry had become a relic. The sons and daughters of a reborn nation were looking for new, more modern heroes. They found them in the air.

That the romance of flying attracted women as well as men made aviation all the more appealing to the men. In 1928, Witold Urbanowicz was a promising young military cadet from a modestly well-off family who was headed, as was expected of him, into the cavalry. One day, he and several classmates were at a restaurant near the Warsaw aerodrome. Sitting on the restaurant terrace, they watched as a Polish Air Force plane performed complicated, low-altitude maneuvers overhead. Witold and his companions could not help noticing that the pilot and his aerobatics had the full and admiring attention of a group of attractive young women at a nearby table. One of the women cast a jaundiced eye Urbanowicz's way. "You can't do such things on a horse!" she observed. It wasn't long before Urbanowicz decided to forget the cavalry and throw in his lot with the air force.

Unlike the cavalry, regarded by wealthy landowners and their sons as their private domain, aviation, in the more egalitarian Polish society of the 1920s, was open to just about anyone. Government-sponsored aeroklubs had been established all over the country, offering gliders, airplanes, and free lessons to those who wanted to fly. Among the teenagers who took advantage of the opportunity was Jadwiga Pilsudska, the pretty teenage daughter of Poland's chief of state, Marshal Józef Pilsudski. A cavalryman, Pilsudski did not approve of his daughter's soaring ambition, and he was not the only parent who felt that way. The mothers of Zumbach, Ferig, and countless other would-be pilots were similarly appalled.

When Zumbach first announced his aerial plans, his mother, the widow of a wealthy landowner, exploded. Aviators were drunkards and madmen! Jan's duty was to help his brothers manage their late father's large estate. "Yet, try as she might, my mother lost her battle to make me forget about flying," Zumbach reported. "She never stood a chance." At nineteen, he forged her signature on papers authorizing him to enlist in the military. After a few months of training in the infantry, he was accepted into the Polish Air Force academy at Dfblin. Mika Ferig's mother, a teacher whose Croatian husband had abandoned the family, was similarly horrified at her son's fascination with flying, and, as with Mrs. Zumbach, the first she heard of her son's application to Dfblin was after he had been accepted.


Deblin sits on a flat, grassy plain about 70 miles south of Warsaw, rimmed in the far distance by the low Bobrowniki Hills. The academy's headquarters is an eighteenth-century manor house that Tsar Nicholas I seized in 1825 after exiling the nobleman-owner to Siberia for plotting a Polish rebellion against Russia. Five years later, the tsar gave the white-columned house to a Russian general who had suppressed yet another uprising against the Russian occupiers. When Poland regained its independence in 1918, the new government turned the house and its magnificent lawns and gardens over to the air force.

With so many young Poles interested in aviation, Deblin had a wealth of applicants in the 1920s and 1930s. By 1936, the year Zumbach and Ferig entered the school, more than 6,000 young men were competing for only 90 places. The new cadets came from every level of society. Landowners' sons joined the sons of peasants, teachers, miners, and artists. As soon as they arrived, these young men who represented Poland's future found themselves immersed in Poland's past. They dined in the 200-year-old manor house, with its parquet floors and crystal chandeliers, and received instruction in the art of being a gentleman as well as in the art of flying. They were taught that an officer, gentleman, and pilot always brings flowers when calling on a lady and always kisses the lady's hand-just so-on arrival and departure. An officer, gentleman, and pilot did not gamble, drink to excess, boast, or issue IOUs. At glittering formal balls in the academy's ballroom, the cadets practiced what they learned. They waltzed and danced the mazurka with fashionable young ladies. They kissed the women's hands and spoke of gentlemanly things. "Remember," the Cadet's Code declared, "that you are a worthy successor of the Husaria and of the pioneers of Polish aviation. Remember to be chivalrous always and everywhere."

Deblin graduates appear to have taken most of their social training to heart-even if some did cut corners on the code's more puritanical aspects. Although discipline at the academy was famously strict, many cadets managed to become as well known for their off-duty escapades and for thumbing their noses at military authority as for their flying skills. To show off for girlfriends, cadet pilots were known to fly under bridges and between church spires, and if, while airborne, they happened to spot any stuffy, self-important cavalry officers riding through the countryside, they might buzz them to spook their mounts.

Prominent among the hell-raisers at Dfblin in the late 1930s were Zumbach, Feric, and Witold Lokuciewski, a former cavalry officer with the dark, boyish good looks of a movie star and the raffish attitude of a born gambler. Lokuciewski, who came from an old landed family in eastern Poland, had been one of those cavalrymen whose horses were deliberately panicked by low-flying planes from Deblin. But instead of cursing the pilots, as others did, Lokuciewski (who wasn't particularly fond of horses to begin with) dreamed of shedding his equine, earthbound existence and taking to the sky. When he got the chance to go to Deblin, he grabbed it.

Known as "the Three Musketeers" during World War II, Zumbach, Feric, and Lokuciewski were in almost constant trouble during their days as cadets. Class standing was based in part on a cadet's personal conduct and his willingness to follow orders. In the class of 1938, Lokuciewski finished next to last, Ferig eighth from last, and Zumbach thirty-eighth from last. According to a Polish Air Force historian, while "the Three Musketeers" were at Deblin their main interests were "wine, women, song-and only then study."

But, oh, how they could fly! They not only survived their Deblin training-which was as grueling and difficult as any flight training on earth-they excelled at it. After rigorous classroom courses in aerodynamics, navigation, physics, and mechanics, they learned to operate a variety of aircraft. But the primitive, open-cockpit trainers they flew tended to be old and were prone to malfunction-all of which, in a kind of aeronautical Darwinism, made better pilots of those who managed to survive. Of necessity, staying alert, using one's eyes, and improvisation were important parts of a Polish pilot's training. "We were trained to scan the sky, to look everywhere, not just in front of us," said one Polish flier. "At one time, I could turn my head almost a hundred and eighty degrees-really! a hundred and eighty!-watching for the enemy." American and British pilots who later flew with the Poles testified that they seemed to see the sky-the whole sky-better than anyone else.

Polish pilots also learned to be daring. In one exercise, Jan Zumbach was ordered to fly in a close, wing-to-wing formation with another aircraft, then to turn back and head directly at a third plane-nose-to-nose, at full speed. He was not to veer off until it was just short of too late. Following orders, Zumbach barreled toward the other plane. He waited . . . and waited . . . until he thought he could see the other pilot's eyes. Only then did he swerve-another tenth of a second, he believed, and they would have collided. After he landed, proud of his coolness under pressure, he was confronted by his commanding officer, who snapped: "Zumbach, you turned too damn soon!"

After Deblin, the cadets were sent to air force squadrons throughout the country for more intense instruction. Zumbach and Feric were told to report to the Kosciuszko Squadron in Warsaw, a choice assignment. In the romantic, daredevil world of the Polish Air Force, the Kosciuszko Squadron was unique. It had been formed in 1919 by a group of American pilots, come to Poland to volunteer in a nasty little war that the newly independent Poles were having with newly created Soviet Russia. Among the Yank volunteers were a former Harvard law student, a star football player from Lehigh, and a graduate of Yale.

The man who brought them all to Poland was a twenty-eight-year-old war hero with a thick Southern drawl named Merian C. Cooper.

Copyright© 2003 by Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud
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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with


authors of


Q: How did you come across this long-ignored part of World War II history? And why did you decide to write a book about it?
A: Lynne:
Several years ago, when we were doing research on the Battle of Britain for our first book, The Murrow Boys, we saw an old British movie about the Battle. It had one scene about a squadron of Polish pilots, which piqued my interest, because I had never known until then that Poles had flown in the Battle of Britain. A couple of years later, at a Washington dinner party, we met a woman whose father had been a Polish pilot with the RAF during the war. She told wonderful stories about her father and other Polish fliers, and we realized after talking to her that the Polish pilots had continued playing a major role in the war long after the Battle. We thought then that their story deserved telling: it was a terrific adventure story about forgotten heroes. But when we finally started doing research on the book, we realized that the story of the Poles during World War II was much richer and more complicated than we had imagined and that the importance of the Polish contribution to the Allies' victory went far beyond the exploits of the pilots.

Q: How significant was the Poles' contribution to the outcome of the war in Europe?
A: Stan:
In many respects, it was vital. During and after the war, a number of high-ranking RAF and Air Ministry officials, as well as Queen Elizabeth herself, said that if it hadn't been for the Polish pilots, Britain might well have lost the Battle of Britain. And, if that hadhappened, the course of the entire war — and of history — probably would have been altered.

Lynne: But it wasn't only the Polish pilots who were important. Cryptographers in Poland were the first to crack Germany's Enigma code system and pave the way for the entire Ultra codebreaking operation — the most important Allied intelligence coup of the war. After the war, a top British cryptographer, Gordon Welchman, said that Ultra would not have been possible without the Poles.

Stan: By the end of the war, Poland was the fourth largest contributor to the Allied effort in the European theater, after the Soviet Union, the United States, and Britain and its Commonwealth. Nearly two hundred thousand Polish military personnel — air force, army and navy — fought on the Allied side, for the most part in all Polish units. Polish soldiers and airmen made major contributions to the campaigns in North Africa, Italy, France, Belgium and Germany. Polish sailors and ships were involved in the Baltic, the North Sea, the Mediterranean and the North Atlantic. In May 1944, Polish forces were responsible for finally capturing Monte Cassino, thereby opening the door to Rome. It is worth noting, too, that Poland was the only country invaded and defeated by the Nazis that neither officially surrendered nor collaborated, and its armed forces were the only ones who fought, in one place or another, from the very first day of the war to the very last. The Poles weren't perfect, of course. They had their share of bigots and anti-Semites, but their record of opposition to would-be conquerors — whether Kaisers, Nazis, Tsars or Soviets — is unexcelled.

Q: If the Polish role in the Allied victory was so important, why has it been overlooked?
A: Lynne:
The main reason, we think, is that what happened to Poland during and after the war does not reflect well on its two principal Western allies — the U.S. and Britain. Despite all that the Poles did to help win World War II, they did not get their country back when it was over, even though Winston Churchill had promised again and again that postwar Poland would be sovereign and independent. In spite of those promises, Churchill and President Roosevelt acquiesced in the takeover of Poland by Stalin and the Russians, who historically have been Poland's bitterest enemies.

Stan: Soviet postwar propaganda also probably had something to do with it. After the Soviets took control of Poland, it was not in their interest to give credit to the wartime Polish government and military that had made such important contributions to the victory. So, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Soviets insisted that the Polish government and military had in some way been “fascist” and thus sympathetic, at least, with the Nazis. This is historical nonsense, but it is surprising how many people seem to believe it, even today.

Lynne: In our research, we came across an interesting quote from the New York Times
correspondent C.L. Sulzberger, who covered World War II. He said: “Triumph in battle offers twin trophies to the victors. Their writers can impose on history their version of the war they won, while their statesmen can impose the terms of peace.” Poland was one of the Allied victors, but it didn't receive either of those rewards. The Poles were given no voice in their country's future and were robbed of the right to tell their own wartime story. Ever since 1945, their history has been defined by others. Poland was the unwilling catalyst for World War II —the war started there. Yet in most memoirs and histories, whether written by the English, the Americans, the Germans or the Russians, Poland is treated as a helpless victim at best and as little more than a footnote at worst.

Q: Why didn't Churchill or Roosevelt feel honor-bound to acknowledge the Poles' enormous wartime contribution?
A: Lynne:
Roosevelt had very little interest in Poland during the war except as it affected his relationship with Stalin and his chances in the 1944 presidential election. Unlike Churchill, Roosevelt had no treaty obligations to Poland. Nor was he as beholden to Polish pilots, soldiers and sailors as Churchill was. Churchill understood very well the debt he and Britain owed Poland: Polish airmen had helped save his country during the Battle of Britain; Polish codebreakers had made Ultra possible; and Polish troops under British command had played vital roles in Italy and Normandy. During the war, Churchill often praised the gallantry of Polish forces. But in his postwar writing, when he tried to gloss over his own policy failures where Poland was concerned, he tended to emphasize the Poles' shortcomings and those of its wartime government-in-exile. Even so, Churchill seemed haunted and guilt-ridden by the betrayal of Poland and by his culpability in that betrayal.

Q: Getting back to the pilots, why did you decide to focus on this one particular squadron — the Kosciuszko Squadron?
A: Stan:
Its pilots were the most famous of all the Poles who flew with the RAF during the war. They were in combat for only six weeks during the Battle of Britain, but in that time, they shot 126 German planes — far more than any other RAF squadron. Altogether, some 140 Polish pilots flew in the Battle of Britain; most of them were brilliant pilots and acquitted themselves very well. But the contribution of the Kosciuszko Squadron was crucial, and the squadron's pilots were the ones who got most of the attention. They were heroes in Britain. They were portrayed in movies and plays and were featured in dozens of newspaper and magazine articles. One American magazine reporter called them “the Glamor Boys of England.”

Q: Doesn't the Kosciuszko Squadron have an American connection?
A: Lynne:
A very strong one. The squadron was actually founded by Americans twenty years before World War II began. In 1919, as Poland was fighting a nasty little war with the newly created Soviet Union, a former U.S. Army pilot named Merian Cooper, who had flown in World War I, recruited several other American pilots and traveled with them to Poland. There, they formed the squadron, which they named after Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a Polish hero of the American Revolution who later led an unsuccessful rebellion to free Poland from Tsarist Russia. The Americans even designed a squadron insignia, featuring 13 stars and stripes in honor of the 13 original American states. When the Red Army invaded Poland in 1920, the American fliers helped drive them back. The war ended soon thereafter, and the Americans returned home, but the Kosciuszko Squadron, now made up entirely of Poles, became a permanent part of the Polish Air Force.

Stan: After Germany defeated Poland at the outset of World War II, most of the men in the squadron made their way to England and were assigned to a new squadron, which the RAF designated as “303,” but which the Poles continued to call the Kosciuszko Squadron. They painted the squadron's insignia, with its stars and stripes, on all their planes.

Lynne: Merian Cooper, meanwhile, went to Hollywood and became a well-known movie
director and producer. He was responsible for making King Kong and later was head of
production at RKO Studios. Then he formed a partnership with John Ford and produced some of Ford's most famous movies, including The Quiet Man and The Searchers. When the U.S. got into World War II, Cooper went back into the U.S. Army Air Corps and eventually became deputy chief of staff for all air units in the Pacific. But the achievement he was proudest of, to the end of his days, was the founding of the Kosciuszko Squadron.

Q: The five Polish fliers you profile come across as very dashing, loyal, charming, and sexy. That doesn't exactly fit with the stereotyped image that many people have of Poles.
A: Stan:
There are, to put it mildly, a lot of false stereotypes about the Poles, not only in the United States but throughout Europe. Why? Well, for one thing, although Poland in the 15th and 16th centuries was a great and progressive European power, for most of the last two hundred and thirty years, it was occupied by other countries — primarily by Russia and Germany. Throughout that time, the occupiers promoted, as occupiers tend to do, a highly unflattering view of the people they were subjugating. They deliberately distorted the Poles' character and history — insisting, for example, that they were incapable of governing themselves. Those distortions have shaped Poland's image ever since. It's really a cartoon image, depicting the Poles as ignorant, naïve, impractical and hopelessly romantic. These stereotypes continued to dog Poles who emigrated to the United States. Polish jokes are a vestige of that.

Lynne: During World War II, both Germany and Russia played on the stereotypes to
denigrate the Poles. For example, the Nazis peddled the idea, which was soon accepted as fact in the West, that the romantic, feckless Poles, faced with the German invasion, sent their mounted cavalry against tanks, while their air force was destroyed on the ground. In fact, the Polish military, including the air force, fought with considerable skill and bravery against overwhelming odds. Yet the myths have persisted. One of the most poignant moments in working on this book came in Warsaw when we interviewed an old Polish pilot who had flown with the RAF during the war. He talked about Polish resistance in September 1939 but said he didn't think we'd believe him when he told us that the Poles fought hard to save their country. “For you, it's probably funny,” he said. We assured him it was not.

Q: Which of the five pilots captured your imagination the most?
A: Lynne:
I'd have to pick Jan Zumbach. He was this larger-than-life character — very funny and charming, with a great, booming voice and roguish manner, who loved life and positively thrived on danger. One of his nicknames in England was “Donald,” because he had a sloping nose, upturned at the tip, that reminded people of Donald Duck's bill. He didn't mind the comparison: in fact, he had his ground crew paint a Donald Duck likeness on every plane that he regularly flew in Britain. Later in the war, he became very disillusioned and cynical about the Western Allies' refusal to support the Polish cause, and after the war, he was a smuggler and then a mercenary in Africa.

Stan: I guess I'd choose Witold Lokuciewski. Talk about handsome! This guy was catnip to British women. In 1943, he was shot down and was involved in the famous “Great Escape” from a German Stalag, although he was not, in the end, among the escapees. After the war, he was one of the few Polish pilots in Britain who elected to return to Poland, even though the country was now in Stalin's hands. Other pilots who did the same thing were often imprisoned, tortured or shot – or all three. Lokucziewski didn't have it that bad, but he did have some rough years after his return. Eventually, though, he managed to rejoin the Polish

Q: Perhaps A Question of Honor will help people realize all that.
A: Lynne:
We certainly hope so.
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 17, 2007

    Mixed emotions

    For aviation buffs, the history of the Polish airmen in WW2 is very interesting. However, the authors fill about 2/3 of the book with non-aviation material, much of which is very demeaning of the contributions of the U.S. and Britain. It really gets tiring to read this type of whining from former allies.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 24, 2006

    Heroic Story

    The Poles who flew during WWII became some of the best and are most often over looked. This books sheds great light not just on war stories, but political events taking place at the time and its cosequenses for both Poland and Europe.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 6, 2005

    Why History is Important

    While the title is just a bit misleading, this book provides an extraordinary and readable history of the Polish participation during WWII. In addition, it reveals the arrogance and duplicity of our Allied leaders. Their noble posturing through the Atlantic Charter, was, in fact, ignored when the decision was made to accomodate Stalin. Using none of the advantages the Allies had to bring the megalomania of Stalin under control, they broke their pledge to the only country to stand firm against Hitler and then fought side by side (with the fourth largest allied army in Europe) with the British, American and Russians to liberate Europe from the Germans. It provides us with a clear picture of our desertion of a deserving ally while subsequently rebuilding their enemy and ours. It truly deserves the title 'A Question of Honor'. My thanks to the authors for good read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 12, 2004

    Highly Recomended

    This is a well written book. It is read with ease and easily understood.Explains a lot of why the Poles were a mistreated people in this last century and how easily history can be distorted for political gain.These pilots truelly were heroes. Once I started reading this book I couldn't put it down.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 20, 2004

    Recommended to ALL

    The book is very informative and easy to read. The poles probably had it the worst during world war 2 with the holocaust german invasion, russian invasion/and control. But they fought bravely alongside their allies and received virtually no credit for it. At the end of the war they didnt get any glory but each one of them were heroes.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 25, 2003

    An interesting and informative history of Poland during World War II

    I usually find history books dull, but this one is well written and surprisingly readable. The title implies that this book is about the Kosciuszko Squadron, but it also covers Polish history from World War I until their freedom from Soviet rule. Kosciuszko Squadron was 303 Squadron of the British Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain, which with 126 kills was the highest scoring squadron of the battle. After the fall of Poland, many of its soldiers, sailors, and airmen made it to Britain where they begged to get into the fight. At first the Polish fliers were shown little regard, but when the British were in trouble, they finally let the Poles fly. 303 Squadron (and 302) in Hurricane fighters accounted for over 150 German planes shot down. The Poles also filled out squadrons of RAF Bomber Command, and along with their fellow fighter pilots, fought with distinction and high casualties until the end of the war. Poland also fielded an airborne brigade that fought in Holland, and armored division that fought in France, and several infantry divisions that fought in Italy. Poland fought a little known war with the Soviet Union in 1919-1920 in which they embarrassed the Soviets and in particular Stalin, who would later get his revenge. When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, Nazi propaganda portrayed them as easy prey, using cavalry against tanks and running from battle. To some extent, this vision of the Poles still is believed to this day. This book goes a long way to dispel that misinformation. Although greatly out-gunned, the Poles put up a valiant fight with antiquated equipment, killing over 16,000 German soldiers, destroying 1/4 of their tanks, and shooting down 1/5 of their planes. The Poles were still fighting hard when Stalin stabbed them in the back when he signed a pact with Hitler and invaded Eastern Poland. The Russians murdered thousands of Polish officers and soldiers in one of the most despicable acts of World War II that they never admitted until long after the war. Throughout their occupation during the war, the Poles had a large underground army (which the Allies did little to help) that continued to defy the Germans and were prepared to fight when the allies came to liberate Poland. The Poles actually helped the Soviet cause by subtle sabotage of the rail systems that impeded German troop and supply movements to the Russian front. Unfortunately, the only Allied army to arrive was the Soviet Army, and we all know what followed for decades. Even under the Soviet thumb, the Poles refused to give up their religion and national pride and shunned Marxism. Today, Poland is again a free country thanks to the Solidarity Movement and the collapse of the Soviet Union. I was outraged to learn the details of the disgraceful treatment of the Polish Nation by Roosevelt and Churchill. We sold them out at Yalta along with millions of refugees to please Stalin. After fighting and dying to preserve freedom, they had no free home to return to. Some returned to Poland where they were not well received by the Soviet's puppet government and others scattered around the world. The final insult after the war was the British victory parade in London. Not a single Pole was allowed to march for fear of offending Stalin. When the Poles arrived in Britain, they started out as distrusted, then they became heroes due to their air exploits, and finally they sank to outcast status. They deserved better treatment than they received, certainly more than our illustrious French allies.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 15, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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