Polish War Memorial, Northolt
I must have driven past the turning for the A4180 a couple of hundred times before finally flicking the indicators and directing my car away from the terminally busy lanes of the A40. Previously my desire to either get to, or escape from, the congested delights of London had always persuaded me to speed past the west and east bound road signs which point towards Yeading and Ruislip respectively. Yet, delightful as these towns may well be, it was the words Polish War Memorial, emblazoned in white capitals across the top of the metal rectangle which always tempted me to deviate off course. I was intrigued as to what sort of a monument would warrant such a grandiose notice and always imagined that the post-war government in Warsaw had commissioned some brutal piece of communist commemoration to sit in capitalist Britain. So, cruising up the slip road, I twisted my neck searching for a memorial of Soviet proportions, all shards of concrete and square jawed figures, striking determined poses.
When I drew up alongside the monument I realised that my socialist fantasy had gotten the better of me. The structure which remembers the 2,165 Polish airmen killed during WWII is the work not of bureaucrats but rather surviving comrades who sought to build the memorial soon after the armistice in 1945. The Polish air force association commissioned Miecystam Lubelski, a craftsman recently released form a Nazi labour camp, to construct the memorial and his plan exudes gravitas through simple design. A set of small iron gates lead to a needle of Portland stone fronted by a shallow pond and flanked by two low walls. On top of the central column is a bronze eagle, symbol of the Polish air force, and to the rear a sunken half moon walkway is inscribed with the names of the fallen as well the insignia of long disbanded squadrons. Despite its proximity to a busy roundabout, and given that the dead end approach road is used as a car park, the memorial manages to radiate a serenity which succeeds in blocking out the distractions which surround it.
Back in 1939 the Polish air force was in disarray as the German blitzkrieg scattered flyers across Europe. Initially they re-grouped in Romania, then France but after Dunkirk those that could escape, retreated to England. Once there the Poles received a somewhat cool welcome despite the dire circumstances facing British forces. In typically snooty fashion the RAF refused to recognise the independence of the Polish and chose to send the experienced pilots on procedural and language courses at various training centres. Once there the disgruntled Poles had to wear British uniforms and swear allegiance to the King. Things changed during the Battle of Britain and from August 1940, the airmen flew as a sovereign force with their own insignia and kit. In that same month the first two operational Polish squadrons took to the air and eventually 145 Polish pilots defended British skies. Of all the units operating, including the RAF, the No.303 "Kościuszko" squadron was the most successful, recording 126 kills. Among its ranks was Josef Frantisek, a Czech national, who chose to join the Polish air force after the fall of Prague in 1939. In just three weeks during October 1940 he recorded 17 confirmed kills and one probable making him the top allied pilot during Battle of Britain. Overall this squadron, accounting for just 5% of the available pilots, secured 12% of the total victories in the dog-fights over Britain. Clearly a great deal was accomplished by very few.
Polish units continued to fly throughout the war and ranks were swelled by expat arrivals from the Americas and, following the Russian entry into the war, from Soviet labour camps. By the end of hostilities there were 17,000 men and women serving in 15 RAF Polish squadrons. The flyers were well known for a bravery that often verged on the reckless but their passion was that of people whose homeland had been occupied. This was clearly recognised by ordinary British people as most of the money raised to build the Polish memorial was collected from public donations. Sadly victory in Europe came at a heavy political price and with the advancement of the Red Army; many Poles were unable to return to a country under communist control. During the unveiling of the memorial in November 1948 the wonderfully named Viscount Portal of Hungerford, noted the plight of the veterans but added that it would be to the advantage of British people if the Poles made their homes in the UK. Given the history of comradeship between our two countries it would perhaps be useful if similar sentiments could be extended into today’s world.
How to get there
The Polish War Memorial is on the south east corner of Northolt airbase, the war time home of 303 squadron. Access to the base is not required and the memorial is situated just off the A40 on the way to Ruislip. Multimap.