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

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

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by Lynne Olson, Stanley Cloud

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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,


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.

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

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
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6.40(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.90(d)

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

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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Question of Honor: The Kosciuszko Squadron: Forgotten Heroes of World War II 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.