A Conversation with LYNNE OLSON AND STANLEY CLOUD
Authors of A QUESTION ON HONOR
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 had happened, 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 pilots in Britain who elected to return to Poland, even though the country ws 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 Poland.
Q: Perhaps A Question of Honor will help people realize all that.
A: Lynne: We certainly hope so.