Have you heard the one about the Polish fighter pilots?
No joke, true story: Five Poles enlist in the British Royal Air Force (RAF) during World War II, hoping to help defeat Hitler and free their Nazi-occupied homeland. Initially underrated as airmen, the dashing Polish pilots fly and fight bravely in the Battle of Britain, deftly gunning down more Luftwaffe bombers than any other RAF squadron.
But despite their heroic exploits, the pilots’ dream of a free postwar Poland is dashed. Goodbye Hitler; hello Stalin. England turns its back as Poland falls under Soviet domination. Adding insult to injustice, Britainto avoid offending Stalinrefuses to let the bold Poles march in its victory parade.
“It’s not a funny story,” says Lynne Olson. And it’s a story almost no one in this country knows, she says, “except for Polish-Americans.”
By telling this historic but little-known tale, Olson and Stanley Cloud, the married co-authors of A Question of Honor: The Ko«sciuszko Squadron: Forgotten Heroes of World War II, aim to shoot down the idea of Poles as a feckless, lightbulb-fumbling peoplea lingering cultural myth whose origins the writers find in Nazi and Soviet propaganda.
“The Germans started the two major myths about the Poles,” says Olson, a former reporter for the Associated Press and the Baltimore Sun: “That they resisted the German invasion by sending mounted cavalry against tanks [and that] their air force was destroyed on the ground.”
Cloud, formerly of Time magazine and the defunct Washington Star, concedes that there’s some truthalbeit only a
littleto the horseback-resistance story. “In one small instance, that actually happened,” he says. “But only because they were surrounded and had no choice. It wasn’t a matter of tactics.” The hype about the pounded-while-grounded Polish air fleet, meanwhile, was an outright lie, he says.
“[The Nazis] put that information out, and everyone believed it,” Olson says, “including the West.”
Unlike France and other European nations, the authors point out, Poland never collaborated with or officially surrendered to Germany. Following the devastating Nazi invasion, thousands of Polish soldiers escaped the occupied country to continue fighting alongside other armies.
Olson and Cloud initially knew little of Poland’s crucial contributions to the Allied war effort. But while researching their previous nonfiction book, The Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Front Lines of Broadcast Journalism, the Georgetown couple took note of a scene in the 1969 film Battle of Britain, which depicts an airborne RAF squadron speaking in Polish over the radio. It piqued their interest.
“Somebody at the Polish embassy later told me,” Cloud says, “that one of the things they’re saying in Polish in that movie is, ‘Get the son of a bitch.’”
With the help of Warsaw-based journalist and translator Andrzej Lewandowski, the couple drew on the real pilots’ own diariesnot to mention back issues of the Polish magazine Skrzydla (“Wings”) and a hefty pile of other historical textsto compile the story.
Though husband and wife agreed to focus the book on the five renowned pilots of the Ko«sciuszko Squadron, Cloud notes that there were some “heated arguments, early on, over where the book was going,” particularly on the point of implicating American and British leaders in Poland’s eventual betrayal.
“I was much less inclined,” Cloud admits, “to be critical of both Churchill and Roosevelt than Lynne was.” But later on, Olson adds, “he came around to my way of thinking.” Cloud, “knowing what I know now,” says the Allied leaders’ acquiescence to Stalin was shameful.
Polish readers have bombarded the authors with grateful e-mails, the couple says. When told outside of a few historically savvy circles, readers report, the Ko«sciuszko Squadron story is typically dismissed as make-believe, so pervasive are negative generalizations about the heroes’ nationality. Says Cloud: “Many Poles have said to us, ‘It’s so great that neither of you is a Pole, because it doesn’t look like special pleading.’” Chris Shott