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

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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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375726255
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/12/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 512
Sales rank: 241,766
Product dimensions: 5.19(w) x 7.97(h) x 1.02(d)

About 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.

Read an Excerpt


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 of in a white blast of exhaust and a tractorlike roar. The propwash whipped of 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 over the 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 Feric was haunting the local aeroklub, watching planes take off and land, waiting impatiently for the day when he would be in the cockpit. Mika Feric 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 Poles 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, Feric, 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 Deblin. Mika Feric'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 Deblin 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 Feric 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 I 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 Deblin in the late 1930s were Zumbach, Feric, and Witold Lokuciewski, a former cavalry oYcer 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, Feric 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 Kotciuszko Squadron in Warsaw, a choice assignment. In the romantic, daredevil world of the Polish Air Force, the Kotciuszko 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.


"This Race Which Would Not Die"

The son of a prominent Florida lawyer, Merian Cooper had been bewitched by Poland for as long as he could remember. Growing up in Jacksonville at the turn of the century, he had listened to stories about the friendship between his great-great-grandfather, Colonel John Cooper, and Kazimierz Pulaski, a Polish hero of the American Revolution. The tales of Poland's glorious but tragic past, told to Colonel Cooper by Pulaski, were passed down to later generations of the Cooper family. There was no more eager audience than young Merian.


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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