What was the 303 Squadron?

by Jonathon Ward on April 13, 2021

For an industry built on the possibilities of time, the watch business seems to spend a lot of it looking backwards. This watch reached the Moon, or the top of Everest, or sold for crazy money at auction after somebody wore it half a century ago… This is all dreamland stuff for marketers and accountants, these decade-old achievements offering an easy way to throw an extra zero on the end of the next rerelease. But what if we didn’t only celebrate watches for what they’d done, but for what did they did next?

Enter the TRI-05 303 Squadron P8331 Limited Edition. Not just a watch containing metal from P8331, a Spitfire that was shot down during the Second World War, proceeds from each TRI-05 are helping to fund the restoration of P8331 to airworthy condition, whilst raising awareness of 303 Squadron and creating a legacy for the heroic pilots whose sacrifice has remained largely unrecognised – until now.


Who were 303 Squadron?

303 Squadron, or 303 (“Kościuszko”) Polish Fighter Squadron to use its full title, was largely comprised of Polish pilots and servicemen who had made their way to Britain following the German invasion of Poland in 1939. With Britain standing as the last bastion of resistance against Hitler’s forces, their fight against the Luftwaffe was the best hope to ultimately restoring the liberty of their homeland, if the Second World War could be won.

As a newly formed Polish Air Force squadron that operated alongside the RAF, 303 Squadron became famous for claiming the most aircraft shot down during the Battle of Britain – achieved despite joining the battle two months after it had begun! 303 Squadron also scored nearly three times the number of kills as the average British fighter squadron. Nine of these 303 Squadron pilots became known as ‘aces’, having shot down five or more enemy aircraft during their sorties. With Polish pilots already renowned for their skill and aggression, 303 made history on 7th September 1940 when it shot down 14 enemy aircraft during one sortie, without any 303 Squadron deaths or aircraft lost.

 


Where was 303 Squadron based?

Largely comprised of four fighter units of the former 1st Air Regiment in Warsaw (111th, 112th, 113th and 114th Fighter Squadrons), 303 Squadron formed in Blackpool in July before arriving at RAF Northolt, an airfield in northwest London, on 2 August 1940. This was to remain 303 Squadron’s airfield base during many operations from 1940 to 1943, with some time spent at RAF Leconfield in Yorkshire following the end of their first combat tour, amongst others.

Even today, RAF Northolt remains linked with the bravery of the Polish: the names of the 2,165 personnel who were killed during the conflict are remembered on the Polish War Memorial.

 


What planes did 303 Squadron fly?

303 Squadron flew Hawker Hurricanes from August 1940 until February 1941, until the squadron received the first of its iconic Supermarine Spitfire aircraft on 10 February. Spitfire P8331 RF-M ‘Sumatra’, the plane featured inside the TRI-05 303 Squadron P8331 Limited Edition, arrived on 13 May 1941, among the first batch of ten Mk IIB aircraft delivered to Northolt.

It’s worth noting that, whilst already extremely skilled pilots, the Poles of 303 Squadron had no experience flying either Hurricanes or Spitfires prior to arriving in the UK. In fact, they needed to be completely retaught; having trained in Poland using the likes of the PZL P.6 and P.24, the Hurricane’s controls were back to front to what they knew, while the British use of Imperial measurements were alien compared to the Poles’ knowledge of the metric system. Factor in language barriers – the Brits of 303 Squadron initially had to communicate with their Polish counterparts in French – and you can picture the groups of men huddled around English dictionaries in airfield Messes up and down the country!

 


Why were the Poles of 303 Squadron and beyond such fearsome enemies?

Much of their success stems from their training back in Poland – not only in the methods that encouraged them to use their eyes rather than their cockpit instruments, allowing the quicker detection of enemy fighters, but the antiquated aircraft they learned to fly in would ultimately help too. While Poland had developed its own aircraft during the 1930s, by the outset of the Second World War these lagged behind models like the Spitfire used by the RAF, or the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Bf 110s used by the Luftwaffe. Having trained in these poorly equipped fighters, once fully attuned with models like the Hurricane and Spitfire, the Poles of 303 Squadron and beyond found their more instinctive flying styles were enhanced by the machinery around them.

Technicality aside, the most powerful weapon the Polish possessed was one that the English didn’t, nor the Germans. These men had been driven from their homeland, ousted by an enemy who had separated them from their friends, family and loved ones, with no certainty of a return. Even to the British living amongst Polish pilots, it was obvious: ‘I remember them possessing a strong hatred towards the Germans, a passion that manifested itself in the air’. This singlemindedness was a motivation that few could rival. As Sergeant Marian Belc wrote in his diary, ‘everywhere we can hear, “Polish Squadron brave”, brilliant. Once we are in the pub, everyone wants to soak us in a beer or other drinks, if they only could. But this is all nothing, if only we could return to our homeland’. Only in ensuring the survival of Britain and subsequently toppling Germany could the Polish people ever reclaim their homeland. It’s captured in a Polish expression – one that’s been passed down through the centuries: ‘Za naszą i waszą wolność’. Its meaning: for our freedom and yours.
 


What happened to the 303 Squadron after the war?

Following the Allied victory that signalled the end of the Second World War, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding said: “If it has not been for the magnificent material contributed by the Polish contingent and their unsurpassed gallantry I hesitate to say that the outcome of the battle would have been the same”. With 126 enemy aircraft claimed by 303 Squadron during the Battle of Britain alone, the intervention of the Polish squadrons played a crucial part in turning the tide of the Second World War. It was a role that earned them celebrity status in the UK, with Quentin Reynolds, one of the USA’s most prominent war correspondents, calling them ‘the real Glamor Boys of England’.

Yet despite their heroism and sacrifice, the legacy of the Polish, including those in 303 Squadron, was to be cast aside by the announcement that the remaining living troops wouldn’t be invited to partake in the British Victory March of 1946. A ceremony that saw Allied forces joined by contingents from the Commonwealth parade down the streets of the English capital followed by a fireworks display, the Polish who had served in Britain were notably absent at Stalin’s request – the result of Polish-Russian tensions, with the Soviet-installed communist government in Poland a far cry from the democratic nation the likes of 303 Squadron had fought for.

The absence of these Polish forces whose sacrifice had allowed the very being of the parade was only just the beginning. The Allied betrayal left a bad taste with the Poles who had fought for Britain, leading to the disbanding of 303 Squadron in 1946. The British foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, even encouraged the Poles that remained in the UK to travel back home to Poland, despite accounts of returning servicemen being persecuted or executed by the communist state for fighting for democracy during the Second World War.

Think of it another way: we’ve all heard Churchill’s famous quote “Never was so much owed by so many to so few”. Yet while many predominantly associate this with the British who protected the nation during the Battle of Britain, it also includes the vital effort played by 303 Squadron and the many other Poles and Allied forces who played their part in protecting the nation during its darkest hour. Even today, many people living in a democratic Poland are unaware of their predecessors’ involvement in securing a victory over Hitler’s Germany. And that’s why, in an effort to right these wrongs, there are people who are setting out in whatever way they can to highlight this injustice.


How does the TRI-05 continue the story?

The TRI-05 303 Squadron P8331 Limited Edition tells the story of Acting Wing Commander Piotr Łaguna, who was flying Spitfire P8331 of 303 Squadron when it was shot down over Coquelles, France, on 27 June 1941.

Łaguna has graduated from the Air Force College at Warsaw, before joining 216 Bomber Squadron as a navigation officer during the Polish Campaign of 1939. Following Poland’s fall, he too exited the country through Romania, working his way through to France. He fought over France as deputy commander of all Polish manned GC1/145 ‘Warsaw’. On 10 June 1940 he was appointed its commander, but within 10 days was evacuated to England following the Fall of France. Ranked as a Flight Lieutenant, he joined fellow Polish fighter squadron No. 302 at RAF Leconfield, and by December had risen to the rank of commander, having made 17 operational and combat flights during the Battle of Britain.
Within the space of a couple of years, Łaguna’s path had seen him cross multiple countries, fly for multiple air forces and work his way up their respective structures. But as is always a risk during wartime, Łaguna was to lose his life serving his country.

Following the RAF’s declaration of a ‘non-stop offensive’ on 14 June, designed to bombard German defences in the west whilst engaged against the USSR in the east, fighter wings would perform sweeps over France and Belgium. One of these was to occur on 27 June 1941, where Łaguna and other members of 1 Polish Fighter Wing were instructed to target a steel factory in Lille. Łaguna, flying in Spitfire P8331 RF-M ‘Sumatra’ of 303 Squadron alongside Wing Commander John Kent in Spitfire P8567 RF-D ‘Picture Post’, descended to 4,000ft over the town of Gravelines, where German aircraft were spotted. Having hit three planes at a Luftwaffe airfield, German flak came in response, hitting Łaguna’s P8331. On fire, his Spitfire crashed into the ground southwest of Calais, killing Łaguna. Piotr Łaguna was buried in Pihen-le-Guines Cemetery in France, grave no. 9, row A.


With 2020 marking the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, and June 2021 marking 80 years since we lost Piotr Łaguna, initiatives like Łaguna’s Spitfire Legacy (LSL) Project are using the occasion to raise awareness of ‘The Few’ – namely by placing Piotr’s individual story at the heart of a much bigger picture.

Most importantly, Łaguna’s Spitfire Legacy are seeking to restore Spitfire P8331 to airworthy condition. The UK Civil Aviation Authority has issued P8331 with its new civilian registration, G-KOSC, with the project’s ambition to have P8331 partake in the Polish Memorial Flight to Poland for the 85th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain and the 80th Anniversary of VE Day in 2025. Funds from the TRI-05 303 Squadron P8331 Limited Edition are being used to help with this restoration project, meaning that not only does this 303-piece limited edition watch contain metal recovered from P8331’s arming panel, but it is also helping to achieve flight again!

But there’s more to look forward to before P8331 takes to the air. In the summer of 2021, two aircraft from the Historic Aircraft Collection at Duxford’s Imperial War Museum will tour Poland. The tour aims to visit key cities and locations, and has been made possible with the help of the Polish Heritage Flight. Hawker Hurricane G-HURI will sport 303 Squadron livery, while original Polish Spitfire BM597 has been remarked in 303 Squadron coding and presentation name that pay tribute to Laguna and P8331.


Beyond the restoration project and 2021 Polish Heritage Flight, Laguna's Sptfire Legacy are producing a full-scale replica of 303 Squadron Spitfire P8331 RF-M; it’ll be available to see and touch at a number of public events, including airshows, Polish Heritage days, military events and more. It would serve as an enduring reminder to the courage of the pilots who flew these machines, whilst also providing a gateway for future generations to learn about the Second World War and the many individuals involved in its horrors. By framing Łaguna and other Polish pilots at the centre of this narrative, it encourages all generations to learn the true version of what came before and, in doing so, providing the Polish soldiers who protected Great Britain the legacy that they had been deprived of until now. To ultimately see 303 Squadron’s Spitfire P8331 arrive in the homeland of the people who initially flew these aircraft will be a truly emotive experience.

View the TRI-05 303 Squadron P8331 Limited Edition here.

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