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303 Squadron’s Spitfire P8331 RF-M ‘Sumatra’ was being flown by Piotr Laguna when it was shot down over Coquelles in 1941. A piece of its arming panel sits within this 303-piece limited edition. Powered by a Swiss-made movement and containing cues to Poland’s aeronautical history, each TRI-05 is a piece of history on your wrist – all whilst raising awareness of a story that has remained unheard for nearly 80 years…
Winston Churchill once said "history is written by the victors", yet sometimes even those on the winning side can be denied their rightful place. This is the story of 303 Squadron, and 18,000 Polish voices that were ignored. Until now.
In time, Polish pilots from squadrons like 303 would come to be referred to as ‘the Few’ by Churchill, earning the respect of those within the RAF for their courageousness and skill – but whose legacy would be wiped, their place on the British Victory March of 1946 refused.
The Battle of Britain is undoubtedly one of the most pivotal events in determining the course of modern history. Yet things could have been very different today without the bravery of ‘the Few’.
Hitler's forces had overturned most of Europe, leaving defeated Allied powers in their wake. As they advanced ever closer towards the English Channel, one solitary isle represented a final bastion of resistance.
The words of Stalin, brutally evidenced by the Gulag camps set up across Poland and beyond. Later, at his request, 18,000 Polish people that fled and fought for Britain would be denied a place at the London Victory Celebrations of 1946. Today, as their exclusion becomes more widely known, a number of projects are being used to raise awareness of this injustice.
Before Covid struck, the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day would have seen Polish veterans march with Allied and Commonwealth forces for the first time. Even today, many Poles are unaware of their predecessors’ vital involvement in the war effort. We're looking to change this.
TRIBUS is collaborating with Łaguna's Spitfire Legacy (LSL) Project, an initiative using the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain to raise awareness of ‘The Few’, where British and Polish forces united to fight towards a common purpose. The Project aims to do this by placing the individual story of Wing Commander Piotr Łaguna at the heart of a much bigger picture.
To do this, the Project is creating a full-scale replica of 303 Squadron Spitfire P8331 RF-M, and embarking on the rebuild of the aircraft Łaguna was flying as he was shot down over Coquelles on 27 June 1941. This replica is available to see and touch at a number of public events, including airshows, Polish Heritage days, military events and more whilst the actual 303 Spitfire is painstakingly restored and made airworthy again. They will serve as enduring reminders 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.
As a project dedicated to such an emotive subject, involving great sacrifice that ultimately preserved the freedoms we enjoy today – it was only right to tell the story of 303 Squadron and Piotr Łaguna in greater detail. Discover more below:
303 Squadron’s formation can be traced to a document dated 6 July 1940, with its first appearance in any operational records at RAF Northolt on 2 August 1940. Yet its development was long in the making.
With its proximity to the German Empire, Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russian Empire, Poland had faced centuries of continuous struggle asserting its borders, and even its existence; between 1772 and 1918 Polish territory was divided between these three hostile powers, and Poland as a country ceased to exist.
That all changed with the end of the First World War, with the Treaty of Versailles recognising the creation of an independent Polish nation. Poland was now tasked with creating a military of its own; a matter complicated by its new troops having returned from the three separate countries that had ruled over it for the past 123 years – all with an assortment of different uniforms and equipment!
One of the most prestigious Polish units was Kościuszko Squadron. Born as 3rd Aviation Escadrille in Cracow on 7 November 1918, it was sent to defend Lwów against Ukraine. Following its re-equipment with fighter aircraft in May 1919, it would become 7th Fighter Escadrille.
In March 1919, 7th Escadrille was visited by American Capt. Merian Cooper. He had a historical connection to Poland, as his great-grandfather John fought in the American War of Independence alongside two Polish heroes, Tadeusz Kościuszko and Kazimierz Pułaski.
Pułaski gave his life protecting the American colonies, and Cooper felt compelled to repay his nation’s debt to Poland. In September 1919 returned to Poland with nine American pilots. They officially joined the Polish Army on 17 October 1919.
This Polish-American alliance were posted to 7th Escadrille. Lieutenant Elliott William Chess designed 7th Escadrille’s famous badge, with a new name, ‘7th Polish-American Fighter Escadrille Tadeusz Kościuszko’, approved by Polish authorities on 31 December 1919.
Despite Poland’s turbulent history, its past created a solidarity and resilience amongst the population. This fight for freedom, whether their own or for other oppressed nations, became a vital part of the Polish identity.
The squadron’s ‘Kościuszko emblem’ is an enduring icon. Comprised of two scythes ready for combat and a Polish peasant cap (‘rogatywka’) set against a background of stars and stripes, it combines national hero Tadeusz Kościuszko’s role in the American Revolution with his subsequent leadership in a Polish uprising against the Russians in 1794.
Following the Polish-Russian war of 1919-21, members of the 7th Eskadra were sent to Warsaw to join the new 1st Air Regiment. During this peacetime, an abundance of pilots graduated from academies such as the esteemed Polish Air Force Cadet Officers’ School in Dęblin.
However, despite the early ‘30s heralding major technological advancements for the Polish aeronautical industry (the P.6 and P.24 being prime examples of two aircraft that were world-leading at their time of release), these were outdated by the decade’s end.
As tensions grew in 1939, Poland’s location proved detrimental again. Invaded by Hitler’s forces from the west, the Second World War had begun. Already hampered by inferior aircraft against the Luftwaffe, a crushing blow arrived 16 days later as the Red Army crossed its eastern border.
Unable to protect both fronts, the Polish Air Force soon ordered the evacuation of its units into Romania. In true form, the Polish never surrendered; despite losing 333 of their 392 aircraft, they still launched 1,400 sorties, scoring 126 aerial victories.
Although driven out of their beloved homeland, it was the land behind them that spurred these Polish men on as they made their way into France and Britain to continue their fight.
Yet, with over 8,500 Polish airmen (including non-commissioned men) having made their way across Europe under false documentation, many that arrived in France were greeted with distrust that bordered on hostility. France had suffered greatly in the First World War, and a trepidation lingered with the emergence of new aggression from Hitler and Stalin.
While Polish pilots had been converted to French fighter aircraft by March 1940, the surge of the German forces from the east and Italian forces from the south led to a French surrender. On 18th June, all Polish soldiers were ordered to evacuate to Britain, ‘The Island of Last Hope’.
Above are the words of Tadeusz Kościuszko. It speaks volumes that, over a century after his death, the Polish forces continued to live by his words. Confronted by the unknown, they pushed on regardless, knowing they were doing so to save their country.
‘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’ - Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, 1946
With an influx of Polish troops into Britain, pre-existing negotiations had meant the creation of two all-Polish bomber squadrons, 300 and 301, were well underway. In light of France’s surrender, and with Britain the only remaining country currently fighting Germany, plans were made to create two fighter squadrons, 302 and 303.
After some initial wrangling that demanded the Polish join the RAF Volunteer Reserve (until then, British law had stated foreign troops couldn’t be based on British soil) it was agreed that they should be allowed to reform in Britain as an allied nation, with the Polish Air Force operating in tandem with the Royal Air Force.
Largely comprised of four fighter units of the former 1st Air Regiment in Warsaw (111th, 112th, 113th and 114th Fighter Squadrons), 303 Squadron had formed in Blackpool in July before arriving at RAF Northolt, an airfield in northwest London, on 2 August 1940.
August proved restless for the members of 303. Many were already experienced pilots and had clocked considerable airtime against the Germans, yet their training consisted of adapting to the squadron’s Hawker Hurricanes.
Adapting to these unfamiliar machines, with their seemingly back-to-front controls and alien Imperial measurements, was further frustrated by language barriers – leading to groups of men huddled around English dictionaries in Messes up and down the country!
Days after an attempted Luftwaffe bombing raid that narrowly avoided RAF Northolt, 303 Squadron registered its first takedown. Whilst practicing bomber interceptions as part of a training sortie, Flying Officer Ludwik Paszkiewicz spied and subsequently shot a Messerschmitt 110 out of the sky.
Following Paszkiewicz’s brave act, the Squadron was granted full operational status the very next day. It was to be the first of many…
Although what constitutes when a plane has technically been destroyed can be disputed – hardly surprising when there are two other not too dissimilar classifications, probably destroyed and damaged, and an assessment needs to be drawn in the midst of a dogfight as Messerschmitts buzz around you like wasps – there is a picture taken after 303 Squadron had departed Northolt that depicts a count of 126 scrawled on the side of a Hurricane, accompanied by a Swastika and a crudely drawn yet instantly recognisable Hitler.
In fact, letters from RAF Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding specifically state ‘The first Polish Squadron (No. 303) in No. 11 Group, during the course of the first month, shot down more Germans than any British unit in the same period’.
This record was set despite 303 only arriving at Northolt 23 days after the battle’s start, with Paszkiewicz’s first victory recorded 51 days later. On 15 September, now known as Battle of Britain Day, 303 shot down 16 aircraft alone.
What made the Polish such effective and fearsome adversaries? Their training encouraged them to use their eyes rather than their cockpit instruments. Progressing from the PZL P.24 to the Spitfire saw their instinctive flying styles enhanced by the machinery around them.
Technicality aside, the most powerful weapon the Polish possessed was one neither the English nor Germans had. These men had been driven from their homeland, ousted by an enemy who had separated them from their family and loved ones, with no certainty of a return.
To John Freeborn, the Polish pilots’ sentiment 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.
Only in ensuring the survival of Britain and subsequently toppling Germany could the Polish ever reclaim their homeland. It’s captured in the Polish expression above – one that’s been passed down through the centuries. Its meaning: for our freedom and yours.
Following the Battle of Britain, there was a decided change in activity from the intense aerial conflict that had been the trademark over the skies of Britain.
With the Luftwaffe’s depleted resources having resulted in Hitler postponing any plan of a land invasion, the previous months had been focused on a nighttime bombing campaign of industrial cities across the country, commonly known as the Blitz.
This had left the Royal Air Force’s bases prominently attack-free, allowing its squadrons to commit to increased offensive operations across the English Channel.
22 January also saw the arrival of their first Spitfires, which were soon to be the aircraft of choice; 10 February saw their first operation in Spitfires, and the last in Hurricanes. The commencement of these offensives saw the creation of new fighter wings consisting of multiple squadrons.
303 became part of the 1st Polish Fighter Wing, founded at Northolt on 1 April 1941. Its main roles included the escorting of bombs across the Channel, sweeps across France and Belgium and other patrol missions.
Wing Commander John Kent, formally a flight commander of 303 Squadron, would lead 1st Wing alongside Polish Wing Commander Witold Urbanowicz. Urbanowicz would lead the 1st Wing until his departure on 28 May where he was replaced by Squadron Leader Piotr Łaguna.
While victory in the Battle of Britain proved a crucial turning point in the Second World War, it was just one step of many for the Polish. Years of conflict remained – but their desire to return to their homeland never wavered.
The pilot that inspired Łaguna's Spitfire Legacy (LSL) Project, the story of Piotr Łaguna speaks volumes. His own journey reflects the bravery, dedication and sacrifice made by many Polish people who left their homeland, some sadly never to return.
Born on 11 October 1905 in Kędziorowo, a village within the Russian-controlled Podlasie region of Poland, Łaguna was accepted to the Air Force Officers’ School in 1925, graduating two years later. He continued to progress through the Officers’ Training Centre at Deblin, subsequently passing an Advanced Flying Course in Cracow. Following graduation from the Air Force College at Warsaw, he joined 216 Bomber Squadron as a navigation officer during the Polish Campaign of 1939.
Following Poland’s fall, Łaguna exited the country through Romania, working his way to France, he was supposed to join a squadron that was never formed (III Polish Fighter Squadron), but eventually became deputy commander of the all-Polish GC1/145 ‘Warsaw’.
On 10 June 1940 Łaguna 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.
By December Łaguna had risen to the rank of commander, having made 17 operational and combat flights during the Battle of Britain. In May 1941 he was shot down during combat but bailed out successfully, and on 28 May was appointed as Acting Wing Commander of 1st Polish Fighter Wing.
Within 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. Yet this 35-year old husband and father would lose his life fighting for his country.
Piotr Łaguna was buried in Pihen-le-Guines Cemetery in France, grave no. 9, row A.
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; although he attempted to bail during its descent, Łaguna’s proximity to the ground didn’t allow for enough time to open his canopy, killing him in the process.
As is the tragic nature of war, Piotr Łaguna died without knowing the outcome of the Second World War, or seeing the return of democracy to his beloved Poland in 1989. But without his bravery, who knows what different outcome there might have been. For his and his comrades’ sacrifice, we are eternally grateful.