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A Question of Honor
The forgotten heroes of World War II
By Steven Martinovich
Although it was common knowledge at the time, history written after World War II has done much to diminish the important role that Poles played in the defeat of Germany. After Poland fell to the Wehrmacht and the Soviet army in 1939, tens of thousands of Poles escaped to other nations to continue the fight. By the war's end, the Poles represented the fourth largest contributor to the Allied army. Of those, the 17 000 Poles who served as pilots and ground crew in the Royal Air Force may have played the most prominent role. Despite their invaluable contributions, however, their allies in a heinous example of realpolitik ultimately betrayed Poland's brave sons.
As Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud document in A Question of Honor: The Kosciuszko Squadron: The Forgotten Heroes of World War II, the squadron -- named after a Polish hero of the American Revolution -- began life in the days after World War I. A group of American pilots, led by Merian Cooper, joined together to aid Poland in its defensive 1919-20 battle against the Soviet Union. The result of that forgotten conflict gave Poland its independence after centuries of subjugation at the hands of the Russians, Germans and Austrians. Building on that legacy, Poland assembled a corps of superbly trained pilots who fancied themselves the successors to their nation's dashing cavalry.
Despite their obsolete equipment the Poles fought a savage battle when Germany invaded on September 1, 1939 and managed to inflict heavy losses on the invaders. Their fate was sealed, however, thanks to their old enemy to the East. The German-Soviet nonaggression pact divided Poland up and faced with two powerful foes, Poland was defeated militarily. Refusing to give up the fight, Polish soldiers, airmen and seamen fled primarily for France and England, the two nations who had pledged to react to any invasion of Polish soil. After participating in the defence of France, a battle the Poles seemed more interested in fighting than their hosts, most moved onto England to continue the fight.
The bravest may have been the members of the Kosciuszko Squadron, credited with downing more German aircraft than any other attached to the RAF with nine of its pilots going on to become aces. Stunning their British counterparts with their skill and the ferocity of their attacks on German bombers and fighters, the squadron -- along with other Polish squadrons -- was instrumental during the Battle of Britain. With the aid of the squadron's diary and other documentary evidence, Olson and Cloud introduce the reader to the men who flew the missions and their astounding exploits. It's a compelling story that is interwoven with Poland's tragic history and explains why these men fought so bravely. For them, the fight was ultimately for their homeland.
Unfortunately the fascinating exploits of the Kosciuszko Squadron recedes into the background for much of A Question of Honor when Olson and Cloud instead focus our attention on global politics. They relate how the Poles, the Allies' most unwavering partner, were sold down the river along with the rest of Eastern Europe by a Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill determined to maintain a war-time alliance with a bullying Soviet Union, a nation determined to avenge its earlier loss to the Poles. The machinations that doomed Poland to communism for five decades does place the struggles of the Poles in a wider context but it comes at the cost of abandoning an interesting story with larger than life characters for a long stretch of the book.
That failing aside, A Question of Honor is another step in the long journey to properly honoring a group of men who were denied even the privilege of marching in England's victory parade after the war. It manages to outrage the reader at the criminal treatment of the Poles at the hands of their supposed allies but more importantly it also celebrates the heroism of men determined to beat back evil and restore independence to their homeland. A Question of Honor has its problems but thanks to Olson and Cloud when it focuses on its central characters it is a gripping work.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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