No. 303 Polish Squadron History
written by Wilhelm Ratuszynski

 

1940

            The unit began its formation in July 1940 in Blackpool. The flying personnel consisted of very experienced pilots of the 111 “Kosciuszko” and 112 “Warszawa” Eskadra of the Polish Air Force. Poles never really considered it a new unit, but a continuation of the squadron’s history dating back to 1918. The unit was formally commanded by British Officers: S/Ldr Ronald Kellet CO, and F/Lt John Kent (Canadian) and F/Lt Athol Forbes, commanders of Flight “A” and “B” respectively. Their Polish counterparts were S/Ldr Krasnodebski with F/Lt Urbanowicz and F/Lt Opulski.
   
On August 2nd, the squadron moved to RAF Northolt - the name that became an integral part of the PAF history. Before the war Northolt rarely hosted operational units, being mostly used as sport airfield with wide grass strip slopping slightly eastward. Its infrastructure consisted of few corrugated metal sheet hangars, solid main building, elegant officers mess and wooden and solid quarters. During the war, the aerodrome was one of the main bases of the 11 Group. There was enough room to disperse planes of four squadrons, but not for all the pilots, and some of them were billeted in local villas but in rather Spartan conditions.

    On the very next day upon arrival, the Poles commenced their training on Miles Master, and on the 6th on Hurricane Mk Is. As previewed, in August the unit’s received initial complement of 18 fighters. Some had problems to adjust themselves to new equipment, which for some made a huge difference of what they flew before.
   
John Kent recalled: “We were faced with the problem of not only to form and train the Squadron in normal way, we also had to teach rudimentary English and convert the pilots onto our aircraft which were Hurricanes. This presented more problems than one would normally expect, as some of the pilots had never flown aircraft with retractable undercarriages. Also throttles worked in reverse direction, few had handled constant speed propellers, the airspeed was indicated in mph instead of km/h and altimeter registered feet instead of meters. All this led to some interesting situations as one can imagine – furthermore, our tactics were different and they never heard of Radar and interceptions controlled from the ground. I was amazed and very favorably impressed at how rapidly the Poles mastered these complexities, both pilots and ground crews.” (Icare magazine, 1965)

            While the Poles were training, the Battle of Britain was in its full swing, and toward the end of the month they were impatient, and begun openly complain about not being sent into action. Jan Zumbach later wrote in his book: “We were fed up with British stubbornness, playing around with Blenheims and being confined to our sector.” Their status changed suddenly, when on August 30th, F/O Paszkiewicz shot down a Dornier during a training flight. Thus, although still not operational, the squadron achieved its first success and joined the raging aerial battle. Its finest hour had arrived.

Read about the No. 303 Polish Squadron Battle of Britain exploits here

     On October 11th, after nearly six weeks of being in the thick of fighting, the exhausted 303 was moved to Leconfield. It then became a intensive fighter training unit, and begun receiving replacements for those who had been killed, wounded, or sent to OTUs as instructors.
   
The Battle of Britain (BoB) was in its last stages, and although the favorable weather for invasion could still come, its threat was vanquished. The Luftwaffe was still a handful, but the Fighter Command could breath easily now.
   
On 15 December 1940, in recognition of their merits, Air Marshall Sholto-Douglas decorated Witold Urbanowicz, Zdzislaw Henneberg, Jan Zumbach and Miroslaw Feric with DFCs. The fifth one was posthumously given to Ludwik Paszkiewicz. Few days later S/Ldr Kellet, F/Lt Kent and F/Lt Forbes (both were given their own commands) left the unit, and No. 303 Squadron became purely Polish.

1941

            By early 1941, the defense of the island remained the RAF Fighter Command prime task, but now it could venture into other jobs. The main German fighter Bf109 was still superior to Hurricane and Spitfire in climb rate and altitude performance, what caused the RAF planners to conceive a new fighter tactic called “Mosquito” (later called Rhubarb). Their objective was to harass and irritate the enemy by surprised, hedgehopping attacks against a variety of its targets on the ground. This suited very well Polish spirit and mentality to seek and engage the enemy.
   
The 303 flew the first of such a sorties on January 22. Six Polish Hurricanes led by F/Lt Henneberg attacked two German airfields at the estuary of the Somme River causing considerable damage. F/Lt Lapkowski brought a souvenir from that mission; 25 feet of telephone wire somehow wound round the engine of his Hurricane.
    Toward the end of January 1941, the squadron converted itself to Spitfires: first the Mk Is then Mk II.

    In February, the unit joined “Circus” operations, with the first such sortie being flown on the 2nd. Several more followed, and none was easy. If the squadron did not engaged enemy fighters often the flak shrapnel damaged planes. March was filled with typical over-the-channel service: offensive missions, scrambles for interceptions and convoy patrols.
    When in the first days of April, No. 306 Polish Squadron arrived at Northolt, the No. 1 Polish Fighter Wing was formed. No. 601 Squadron stationed at Northolt (which started to become more and more Polish in character) complemented the two Polish units. The Wing was commanded by W/Cdr Kent with his Polish counterpart W/Cdr Urbanowicz, the former 303 Squadron pilot and the Battle of Britain ace. Tactically, both were subordinate to the sector CO, while administratively to the station commander.

        As a part of the Wing, the squadron flew offensive missions over the continent. In April the 303 flew many fruitless interception against sporadic raids of German aircraft. No wonder that the most popular among pilots were “Mosquito” missions.
   
On 12 April, six 303 Spitfires were led by CO, S/Ldr Henneberg in the Le Touquet - Abbeville area. Poles carried out few daring attacks on German airfields. Unfortunately, the Henneberg’s plane was hit by light flak. Pilot decided to try for home and had to ditch in the channel. Despite being previously located and intensive 24 hours rescue mission, Henneberg was never found. The unit lost not only the popular CO, but also an excellent pilot and the Battle of Britain veteran credited with eight kills.
    Its first offensive sortie (Circus) the Polish Wing flew on April 16th. The 303 pilots were engaged by Bf109s, and in ensuing dogfights two Poles were lost: P/O Waszkiewicz and P/O Mierzwa. F/O Strzembosz managed to reach the base with a badly shot-up plane.

   Till July 13 - when it was rested at RAF Speke near Liverpool - the squadron carried out almost daily operational sorties of various types.
  
Conspicuous in this multitude of events, is “Rhubarb” from May 15, when the 303 pilots shot down a Ju52, along with several Bf109s destroyed another one on the ground, and strafed and wrecked a small ship. Boleslaw Drobinski recalled later: “This was my first combat mission as a member of this squadron (303). My wingmen was Sgt Belc
… Coming back we passed the French coast and I noticed five ships in a line sailing north. From the direction of travel it was unlikely that they were Allied vessels. I told Belc - I’ll take the first one and you take the last one.
Nobody was shooting at us from the ships, probably because they thought that we were their own aircraft coming out from the French coast. At the last moment I opened fire and gave as long a burst as I could. Just before reaching the ship I pulled up into the clouds, as it begun to shoot back. After a while I heard Belc telling me that the ship was burning…
”(SS Senateur Louis Barfleur, a merchant vessel. WR)

     No less successful was a sortie on June 18, when in a fierce fighting over the France the 303 pilots shot down four Bf109s without losses. A week later the “Kosciuszko” squadron chalked up six more Messerschmidts.
    
On June 23, the unit flew two full strength escort missions over France, where its pilots claimed five German fighters destroyed and four probables. During the second one, P/O Gladych was wounded but managed to crash land on an English beach.
    
The squadron lost another CO on July 2. During escort mission over Lille the 1 Polish Wing, with the 303 in a middle of it, fought some 60 German Bf109s. The squadron lost S/Ldr Lapkowski who was killed in action, while Sgt Gorecki had to bail out and was rescued three days later from the channel. That day 303 pilots claimed four kills. The squadron command was given to S/Ldr Arentowicz, who himself was shot down and killed six days later. He was replaced by the Flight “B” commander F/Lt Jankiewicz.

   The Wing’s units changed from time to time when the front-line squadrons were routinely relieved, by those stationed farther north. This system of service by rotation was not popular among pilots, but gave them a well-deserved rest, so needed for the future service. After five month of strenuous operational duty the 303 was rested. The move came on July 13. Its new base became Speke, and now the 303 belong to the 9 Fighter Group.
   During the farewell ceremony Air Marshal Sir Stafford Leigh-Mallory decorated F/O Lokuciewski with a DFC.

   Typically for squadrons in for a rest period, part of the 303 flying personnel changed. New pilots relieved those transferred to other duties or lost in operations. Therefore, apart of normal service (during the rest squadrons continued operational flying but not in expected combat zones) many training flights were done. When returning to front-line service, the squadron had to have full complement of fully qualified fighter pilots.
   For some reasons, any squadron during on rest experienced tragic events. The 303 was not excluded as P/O Juszczak on August 11, and F/Sgt Karubin (BoB) a day later, were lost in flying accidents. On a happier note: in September S/Ldr Jankiewicz and F/Lt Drobinski were decorated with DFC, seventh and eighth awarded the unit's pilots.

     On 7 October 1941, the squadron returned to Northolt and the 1 Polish Fighter Wing. Soon after it was reequipped with Spitfire Mk Vs. That month the unit flown four offensive sorties: three “Circus” and ”Rhubarb”. In each one, pilots fought with German fighters, new FW190s among them. New scores were added.
    
With unfavorable weather setting in, the rest of the year brought much less action. In November, the 303 made seven offensive missions and only three in December.

   In combat in 1941, No. 303 Squadron aggregated 46 enemy aircraft destroyed, seven probably destroyed and four damaged, with a loss of 9 pilots (three COs). Two pilots were lost in accidents and were rescued from the channel. The unit also lost 20 Spitfires.

1942

            The beginning of the year featured long stretches of a bad weather, and only one offensive sortie was flown in January. Few, one-section convoy patrols was all the unit had done till mid February. On the 12th that month, the whole squadron was scrambled for the search of German battleships “Scharnhorst” and “Gneisenau”, dashing through the channel. Led by W/Cdr Rolski, Poles flew a fruitless sortie in a bad weather and were directed by the ops to patrol some 100 km east of German convoy.
   Two days later, the 303 suffered a painful loss. F/O Feric, the BoB veteran and the unit’s chronicler died crashing a newly received Spitfire during test flight.

   Toward the end of February, the weather begun to cooperate and the RAF seized the opportunity to renew its offensive actions. The American 8th Air Force joined in and the Allied bombing effort intensified. Numerous missions needed escort, and the 303 flew many of those. On 13 March, Poles flew as a top cover in the “Circus” of 8 Bostons on their way to Hazebrouck, and were attacked by Bf109s. In a fierce dog fight S/Ldr Kolaczkowski and F/O Drobinski downed one German fighter each, while F/O Lipinski was credited with a probable. Flight “A” commander, F/Lt Lokuciewski was shot down and taken prisoner and F/O Horbaczewski managed to return in a badly shot up plane.

   Worth noticing are results of the prestigious 11 Group aerial gunnery competition held on April 11th. On 22 fighter squadrons, the Polish squadrons (303, 316 and 315) took three top places. As a winner, No. 303 Squadron received a trophy and official recommendation from Air Marshall Leigh-Mallory.

   Slowly the frequency of offensive sorties increased and toward the end of April, the 303 flew over the Channel almost daily. Majority of these operations were “Circus” and “Fighter Sweep”. Poles engaged German fighters on numerous occasions, scoring some and loosing some. Although Allies gained the air advantage, German fighter units contained many excellent pilots, and the Luftwaffe, modernizing its planes and adopting new tactics, still presented itself as a formidable opponent in the air.
   May 1942 was no less busy. For the 303 character of the service did not change and lists of losses and victories continued to lengthen. Changes among flying personal were common. On of those was the changed of CO, when on 9 May S/Ldr Zak replaced S/Ldr Kolaczkowski. Another change came on 25 May. The new CO became S/Ldr Zumbach.
   On 5 June, during the afternoon escort mission, the 303 pilots fought groups of Bf109s and FW190s bagging three kills (F/O Gladych, P/O Szelestowski and Sgt Stasik) without losses. In first half of June, the unit flew 16 full-strength operational sorties, not counting several air-sea rescues and interceptions. The strain of continuous service begun to show, and the squadron was rested on 15 June.

   The new location, Kirton in Lindsey (Lincolnshire) was located 35 miles SW of Hull. Pilots on duty stayed in readiness, usually in section strength. Newly arrived personnel received a good dose of training.
   On 3 July, the section was scrambled against two marauding Ju88s. Four 303 pilots: P/O Kolecki, Sgt Rokitnicki, F/Sgt Wunsche and F/Sgt Popek, quickly gained a visual contact with the Germans and shot them down.

   On 15 August, the squadron temporarily moved to Redhill south of London. The move came in preparation of the “Jubilee” operation at Dieppe. Together with the 303 came 317 Polish Squadron and four others. For the next three days there was no flights and ground crew were ordered to have maximum number of serviceable aircraft.
   During the Jubilee, the 303 made four sorties over Dieppe and saw plenty of action.

Read about the squadron actions on 19 August 1942.
(to follow soon)

    The day after the “Jubilee” the 303 returned to Kirton in Lindsey, where it continued to rest practically till March 1943. The rest of the year was uneventful. On 1 December S/Ldr Bienkowski assumed the command of the unit, replacing Jan Zumbach. On the 19th, the 12-plane detachment of flew over to airfield at the coast, from where it took part in a bigger operation against German fighters, designed to divert their forces from 90 B-17s bombing Ramilly in France.

    In 1942 at Kirton, No. 303 Squadron renewed its traditional ties with the Americans , when the 94 Squadron USAAF spent some time as part of No. 12 Group. Rather jovial relations were established between Poles and American, which at the beginning were dominated by “trade” talks. A very good start to this friendship was visit paid the previous year by Colonel Cooper, one of the first American pilots in the old No.7 “Kosciuszko” Fighter Squadron.
    Later on, the 303 received a copy of Collier’s from the United States, where Capt. Newell O. Roberts recalled: “They sent us to train with the hottest combat squadron in Britain, the 303rd Polish Pursuit Group. They were flying Spitfires. Those Polish kids taught us everything they had learned in combat over Europe. Then we went along on seven combat operations over France. On none of these were we jumped by the Jerries. By the time we reached Africa, we knew how to sweep the sky of Jerries and Eyties. The Poles are the best sky fighters I saw anywhere.”

   In 1942, No. 303 Squadron totaled 21 enemy aircraft destroyed, 9 probables, and 2 damaged. The unit lost 10 pilots: four killed in action, two in accidents and four taken prisoners.

1943

   In January 1943, the 303 carried out regular squadron-in-rest duties: training, convoy patrols and readiness. Only once, on 21 January, the unit took part in an offensive sortie over France, when one Flight joined 2 Polish Fighter Wing in a sweep over Abbeville-Le Touquet.
   Next month brought more operations. The busiest was February 26th, when the unit flew two full strength “Roadstead” missions, escorting bombers raiding the port of Dunkirk.
   During the first half of March, the 303 flew several sorties for the joined maneuvers of the Army, Navy and Air Force coded “Spartan”. Then the pilots were rejuvenated when orders were received for several “Rhubarb” and “Rodeo” missions. One of those was a sortie done by section of F/Lt Drobinski. Pilots successfully strafed multiple targets. As usual, that did not happen without facing strong AA fire, what resulted in a serious damage done to Sgt Gorny’s Spitfire. Despite being seriously wounded, he brought back the plane, which he crashed loosing consciousness during landing. Those operations continued in April.
   During all this time, Poles did not encounter German planes. Only on three occasions in May, the 303 pilots had a chance to fight; on one of them S/Ldr Bienkowski claimed one FW190 damaged.

   On June 1st, the unit returned to Northolt, and once again became part of the 1 Polish Fighter Wing. The squadron began conversion to Spitfire Mk IX, a new version designed to match performance of the German Focke Wulf 190. The new version had almost twice the range of the Mk V, and sorties were considerably longer, as the fighter could now reached far into France.
   The conversion was done very quickly, and in the middle of the month the 303 resumed operations. On 9 June, shooting down a FW190, F/O Sliwinski scored the unit's 200th victory. 

Toward the end of June, the unit flew many sorties, often two, three times a day. Scraps with German fighters were sporadic. On the 24th, in a dogfight over Flashing, F/O Kolubinski damaged one FW190, but two Poles were shot down: P/O Karczmarz and P/O Kobylinski became POWs.
    July was marked by the change of the command. S/Ldr Falkowski, a BoB veteran, replaced Zygmunt Bienkowski on July 4. Two days later, the squadron led by the Flight “A” CO, F/Lt Majewski and sweeping together with No. 316 Squadron over Amiens, fought a prolonged and interrupted battles with groups of FW190s. The 303 claimed four German fighters without losses. Altogether, in July the unit made 21 operational sorties.

    August 1943 was even busier. Many “Ramrod” missions were flown. On several occasions, Poles also escorted American B-17s. On August 17, while escorting some 60 B-17s, the 303 led by F/Lt Arct surprised a group of FW190s sending down four of them without losses, with F/Sgt Chudek scoring twice.
    Escorting the Fortresses sometimes meant air-sea rescue. John Keema recalls:” On August 24, 1943 a flight of fighters from the 303 and 316 squadrons came to our assistance as we were trying to return to base from a bombing mission over France.  Our B-17 had a couple of engines shot out and as we headed home alone, we were attacked by German fighters. S/Ldr Falkowski 303 CO (leading the Wing. WR) ordered some pilots to escort us back.  We were attacked by FW-190's, and one of them was shot down by F/Lt Longin Majewski and F/Sgt Tadeuz Szymkowiak.  We ditched in the English Channel and the Polish pilots radioed our position to Air-Sea Rescue.  They stayed with us until we were rescued.  A few days later we were to visit the 303 but weather prevented our doing so.
    S/Ldr Falkowski was the one who stayed with his section over the Americans and guided the rescue launches to their position. All in all, August was the unit’s most successful month of the year.

For the next two and a half month, the 303 continued its intensive service over the channel, and the pilots became quite familiar with some portions of its coastlines.
    On 6 September, the unit flew two full strength escort sorties. During the morning one, S/Ldr Falkowski once again guided an air-sea rescue after spotting three dinghies with American airmen. During this flight, his pilots chased away few FW190s lurking around. During the afternoon escort of 72 Marauders, the 303 pilots bagged five German fighters. In September the unit recorded 27 operational sorties, with additional 22 in October and first week of November.

On November 12th, the 303 was detailed off to RAF Ballyhalbert (Northern Ireland) for another period of rest. On 20th, S/Ldr Koc assumed the command of the unit, which was in process of changing its Spitfires Mk IXs back to Mk Vs. As usually, the squadron pilots stayed in readiness, flew convoy patrols (Jurby on the Isle of Man), and trained. Together with the 307 and 316 Polish squadrons, the 303 became part of the newly created Air Defence of Great Britain (ADGB). Other Polish fighter squadrons became part of the 2nd Tactical Air Force and had much more chance to meet the enemy in the air. Feeling relegated to duties of secondary importance, the 303 pilots felt disappointed.

At the end 1943, No. 303 Squadron had a record of 203 enemy aircraft destroyed, 40 probables, and 25 damaged. Although the unit remained in operational service for the rest of the war, this record did not change.

1944

The unit remained in Northern Ireland till 1 May 1944, when it was moved to the advanced landing ground (ALG) at Horne some 30 miles south of London. Over there it joined the 142 Fighter Wing. Suitable airstrip covered with wire netting known as the Sommerfield Track made up for the facilities. Everything the Wing needed to operate was under canvas, as part of the plan to prepare units for field operations from the airstrips in Europe. On the field airports intensive work was to ensure the maximum mobility and self-sufficiency, and many RAF fighter units went through that run-through before the Invasion.
    From Horne, the unit began flying escort sorties across the channel, mostly against V-1 sites. On 21 May, the squadron led by S/Ldr Koc strafed targets near Lille loosing two pilots in the process: F/O Brzeski and Sgt Kempka were shot down and taken prisoners. The next day in similar sortie Sgt Bartkowiak was lost. He evaded capture and returned to the unit four months later.

On D-Day, the 303 took active part in operations over the landings. Three full strength sorties were flown without incidents that day, and for the next week the squadron continued to fly patrols in the designated areas over Normandy.
    During the invasion, the Germans began using its V-1 weapon on a mass scale. Unfortunately, ALG Horne was in the pathway of those flying bombs, and 19 June the 303 moved to Westhampnett near Portsmouth. Eight days later the unit relocated to ALG Merston. From Merston it continued its operation across the channel, often flying ground attack sorties. In June the 303 recorded few losses, among them F/Sgt Chudek with 9 kills to his credit, who was shot down and killed.

On 18 July, the unit moved yet once more. It went back to Westhampnett and received new Spitfires Mk IXs. The Luftwaffe was hard to find in the air, but the flak defenses were getting stronger. To that flak, the unit lost more aircraft and pilots in August and September. However, those losses were not significant.
    On 26 September, the 303 saw a CO change: S/Ldr Drobinski replaced S/Ldr Koc. The squadron continued to be employed in over the channel operations, using its Spitfires for various ground attacks. The most important were attacks on V-1 and V-2 sites located in Holland. Rarely the 303 pilots were called for anti-shipping strikes, but on one such a mission on 1 November, Sgt Wierzchowicz was shot down and killed.

In 1944, the unit lost five pilots in combat, one pilot in flying accident and three were taken prisoners.

1945

    During the first months of 1945, the 303 continued to operate over Holland, but on somewhat lesser scale. Eventful days were sporadic, and unfortunately many of these were days of losses. On 25 February, the squadron was led F/Lt Szpakowicz on an Armed Reco over Holland. His aircraft was hit by flak during ground strafing and he had to ditch in a channel Zype near Shouwen. The Flight "B" commander drowned. Two days later, F/Sgt Prusak was lost crashing his Spitfire during take off at Harrington.
    On April 3, the squadron joined the 133 Polish Wing at Andrews Field, and as the only one unit of the PAF, it was reequipped with Mustang IV. The aircraft sweetened a little bit pilots’ frustration with the lack of action. Despite making several sweeps over the Germany, no opposition was encountered.
    On 25 April 1945, No. 303 Polish Squadron made its last operational sortie, when it escorted Lancasters during the raid on Berchtesgaden. Its CO S/Ldr Drobinski led the unit, with both Flight commanders: F/Lt Szelestowski and F/Lt Zdanowski.

    After the war, the squadron was relocated few times and its fame as the best unit of the Battle of Britain wore off. The morale – as among all the other Polish units – were law, and the commanders had a hard time to keep discipline. The unit recorded several flying accidents, of which four resulted in pilot’s death.
    Since 1 February 1946, till its disbandment in December 1946, F/Lt Lokuciewski led the unit. He was given this post following his return from imprisonment in Stallags.

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