Shared WWII history between Poland and Northern Ireland
by Ben MARSHALL
25 July 2022
Maciek Bator’s presentation at the Linen Hall Library, “The Bloody Foreigners: How Polish Airmen joined the Banter”, chronicled Polish air force members in the United Kingdom during the Second World War. It shed light on those who may have — figuratively — gone under the radar. It is no secret, as Bator pointed out, that the Poles who managed to survive German invasions of both their homeland and France who managed to make it to the UK were amongst the best, if not the top of the line when it came to individual skill as fighter pilots in the subsequent Battle of Britain in mid 1940.
Bator, who works with the organisation “For Your Freedom and Ours” — a translation of Polish wartime motto “Za wolność naszą i waszą” — stated that his goal for the event was to display a shared history between Poland and Northern Ireland’s experiences during the second world war. Included in that shared history is the mural on Foxglove street in east Belfast memorialising the paratroopers of Operation Market Garden, with Polish General Stanisław Sosabowski among those featured. In late 1943, squadron 315 — consisting of only Poles — was transferred to and subsequently stationed at RAF Ballyhalbert in northern County Down, becoming the first Polish unit to be headquartered in Northern Ireland.
315 was eventually replaced by squadron 303 ‘Tadeusz Kościuszko Warsaw’, which was perhaps the most famous and one of the most decorated units in Great Britain by the time the Battle of Britain had finished. Despite not being a fully operational unit until September 1940, around two months after the start of the Battle of Britain, No. 303 claimed more downings of Luftwaffe planes than any other flight squadron in the RAF throughout the whole engagement. Amongst four initial all-Polish flight squadrons officially formed in July, the Poles became the first ever independent foreign army to operate in the United Kingdom.
Unfortunately for Ballyhalbert, neither 315 nor 303 appreciated its facilities. In his presentation, Bator went into detail over the lack of amenities, including the lone pub in town which was evidently sub-par, and everything of note being far away in Bangor. One photo of an accommodation room while the Poles were stationed there has — in almost unreadable quality — “F*cking Bally-halbert” written on the door.
In total, 15 war-time graves of Polish air force members are currently in Northern Ireland. Some are there under tragic circumstances, such as training crashes due to poor weather, and some are more recent, as several Poles decided to stay in Northern Ireland after the war due to the Soviet takeover of Poland that began in 1944. 500 Polish pilots, flight mechanics and other air force servicemen were employed by the RAF after the war had finished.
Image source: Google Maps (the portrait at the top is that of Major-General Stanislaw F. Sosabowski of the Polish Airborne Forces who took part in “Operation Market-Garden” at Arnhem.)