Unwilling to give up fighting the Nazis after their country was quickly overrun in September 1939, a small group of Polish pilots eventually made their way to Britain and offered their services to the Allies.
Altogether, 145 Polish pilots took part in the pivotal Battle of Britain, helping stave off the German assault and invasion that likely would have resulted if the Nazis had been victorious.
Tadeusz Sawicz, believed to have been the last of the Poles who took to the skies alongside the Brits in the 1940 battle, died this week at age 97.
Sawicz, who shot down three German planes during the war and damaged several others, went on to take part in several Allied operations throughout the remaining years of the war, including being attached to the US 9th Air Force in 1944 and escorting American bomber formations while flying a P-47 Thunderbolt.
Among the awards he received was the British Distinguished Flying Cross, the US Air Medal and the Vlieger Cruis, the Dutch equivalent of the DFC, according to The Telegraph.
The role of Sawicz and his comrades is relatively unknown, but because the Allies won the Battle of Britain by a narrow margin, some historians believe the outcome would have been different without the Polish aviators’ involvement.
Sawicz had taken part in the first military engagement of World War II, defending Poland’s skies from the invading Germans in September 1939, according to History.com.
When Poland surrendered a month later, “he joined the thousands of fliers, mechanics and ground staff who made their way first to Romania or Hungary and later to France, where they fought until Paris fell in June 1940.
Sawicz and other Polish airmen then escaped to England and, with the support of Poland’s government-in-exile, offered to assist the faltering, overextended Royal Air Force,” according to the website.
Curiously, some officials opposed the arrangement, arguing that the Poles had proved no match for Germany’s Luftwaffe. But the RAF began accepting Polish pilots into its squadrons and eventually organized 16 Polish units.
Sawicz wound up in the all-Polish squadron 303, which in late August 1940 entered the Battle of Britain.
“The largest foreign group to fight alongside the British during the epic clash, the Poles quickly showed that their critics’ objections were unfounded,” History.com reported. “Their rigorous training and extensive experience translated into outstanding performance. Indeed, squadron 303 had achieved the highest ‘kill ratio’ of any unit by the end of the battle in October.”
Of the 145 Polish pilots who took part in the Battle of Britain, 31 died in action.
In all, Polish pilots shot down more than 50 German planes during the Battle of Britain.
Sawicz, who moved to Canada in 1957, was believed to have been the last living Polish veteran of the Battle of Britain. He held the rank of brigadier general and was the recipient of Poland’s highest military distinction.
At the height of the Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill famously praised the fliers who ultimately staved off a land invasion by saying, “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.” As a result, veterans of the operation became known as “the Few.”
Historian Adam Zamoyski referenced this moniker in a 2004 book about the Polish pilots whose contributions may have turned the tide of the battle, titled The Forgotten Few: The Polish Air Force in the Second World War.
(Above: Tadeusz Sawicz, second from left, with other Polish airman during the Battle of Britain, 1940.)