A Question of Honor excerpt

Excerpt from A Question of Honor

Prologue

They marched, twelve abreast and in perfect step, through the heart of bomb-pocked London. American troops, who were in a place of honor at the head of the nine-mile parade, were followed — in a kaleidoscope of uniforms, flags, and martial music — by Czechs and Norwegians, Chinese and Dutch, French and Iranians, Belgians and Australians, Canadians and South Africans. There were Sikhs in turbans, high-stepping Greek evzoni in pom-pommed shoes and white pleated skirts, Arabs in fezzes and kaffiyehs, grenadiers from Luxembourg, gunners from Brazil. And at the end of the parade, in a crowd-pleasing, Union Jack-waving climax, came at least 10,000 men and women from the armed forces and civilian services of His Britannic Majesty, King George VI.

Nearly a year earlier, the most terrible war in the history of the world — six years of fire, devastation, and unimaginable death — had finally ended. At the time there had been wild, spontaneous celebrations in cities all over the globe. But on this grey and damp June day in 1946, Great Britain’s invited guests, representing more than thirty victorious Allied nations, joined in formal commemoration of their collective victory and of those, living and dead, who had contributed to it. As church bells pealed and bagpipes skirled, veterans of Tobruk, the Battle of Britain, Guadalcanal, Midway, Normandy, the Ardennes, Monte Cassino, Arnhem, and scores of less famous fights were cheered and applauded by more than 2 million onlookers, many waving flags and tooting toy trumpets. The marchers snapped off salutes as they passed the reviewing platform on the Mall, where the king, his queen, and their two daughters stood. Prime Minister Clement Attlee was alongside the royal family, but the attention of many was focused on Attlee’s predecessor, Winston Churchill, who had led and inspired Britain through the final five years of the war.

As the Victory Parade’s last contingents marched by, a thunderous roar was heard overhead. The crowds stared up at the leaden sky, transfixed, as a massive armada of aircraft — bombers, fighters, flying boats, transports — approached from the east at nearly rooftop level. Leading the fly-past was a single, camouflaged fighter — a Hawker Hurricane, looking small and insignificant compared to the lumbering giants that flew in its wake. The Hurricane’s pride of place, however, was unchallenged. If it had not been for this sturdy little single-seater and its more celebrated cousin, the Spitfire, the Victory Parade and the triumph it celebrated might never have occurred. In the summer and fall Of 1940, RAF pilots had flown Hurricanes and Spitfires against Adolf Hitler’s Luftwaffe and had won the Battle of Britain. In so doing, they changed the course of the war and the very nature of history.

Standing along the parade route that day was a tall, slender, fair-haired man with the difficult name of Witold Urbanowicz. As he watched the Hurricane flash by overhead, a flood of memories returned to him. He had been up there in a Hurricane during the Battle of Britain. He had gazed down on this city when it was blazing with fire. His squadron had become a legend of the battle. On the first day of the London Blitz — Hitler’s attempt to bomb the British civilian population into submission — Urbanowicz’s squadron was credited with shooting down no fewer than fourteen German aircraft, a Royal Air Force record.

Setting records had already become a habit for 303 Squadron — or the “Kościuszko Squadron,” as it was also known. In its first seven days of combat, the squadron destroyed nearly forty enemy planes. By the Battle of Britain’s end, it was credited with downing more German air craft than any other squadron attached to the RAF. Nine of its pilots, including Urbanowicz, were formally designated as aces. Writing in Collier’s three years after the battle, an American fighter pilot described 303 as “the best sky fighters I saw anywhere.”

Yet, despite its accomplishments in the war, none Of 303’s Pilots took part in the fly-past. None marched in the parade. For they were all Polish — and Poles who had fought under British command were deliberately and specifically barred from the celebration by the British government, for fear of offending Joseph Stalin. A week earlier, ten members of Parliament had written a letter of protest against the exclusion. “Ethiopians will be there,” the letter declared. “Mexicans will be there. The Fiji Medical Corps, the Labuan Police and the Seychelles Pioneer Corps will [march] — and rightly, too. But the Poles will not be there. Have we lost not only our sense of perspective, but our sense of gratitude as well?”

On a June day six years earlier, Winston Churchill had risen in the House of Commons to declare: ‘The battle of France is over. I expect that the battle of Britain is about to begin.” From the first, the new prime minister, who had been in office barely a month, made clear that Britain would not follow France into ignominy: there would be no British capitulation to Germany. “We shall fight on the beaches,” Churchill famously said. “We shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.”

The courage and character that Churchill pledged for Britain had already been demonstrated by Poland. It was the first country to experience the terror of the Nazi Blitzkrieg, the first to fight back, the first to say — and mean — “We shall never surrender.” Poland fell in October 1939, but its government and military refused then, and refused for the rest of the war, to capitulate. In a remarkable odyssey, scores of thousands of Polish pilots, soldiers, and sailors escaped Poland — some on foot; some in cars, trucks, and buses; some in airplanes; some in ships and submarines. They made their various ways first to France, thence to Britain to continue the fight. For the first full year of the war, Poland, whose government-in-exile operated from London, was Britain’s most important declared ally.

When dozens of Polish fighter pilots, including 303 Squadron, took to the air during the Battle of Britain, the RAF already had lost hundreds of its own fliers, replaced in many cases by neophytes who barely knew how to fly, much less fight. The contribution of the combat-hardened Poles, especially the men of 303, was vital. Indeed, many believe it was decisive. “If Poland had not stood with us in those days. . . the candle of freedom might have been snuffed out,” Queen Elizabeth remarked in 1996.

In all, some 17,000 Polish airmen fought alongside the RAF during the war. But the pilots and air crews were not the only Poles to play an important part in the conflict. The small Polish navy participated in several important operations. Polish infantry and airborne units ought in Norway, North Africa, Italy, France, Belgium, and Germany. By the war’s end, Poland was the fourth largest contributor to the Allied effort in Europe, after the Soviet Union, the United States, and Britain and its Commonwealth. “If it had been given to me to choose the soldiers I would like to command,” said Field Marshal Harold Alexander, commander of the Allied forces in North Africa and Italy, “I would have chosen the Poles.”

Perhaps as significant as its role in combat was Poland’s contribution to the Allies’ greatest intelligence coup — deciphering the German military codes generated by the Enigma machine. Only Churchill and a handful of other British officials knew at the time of the Victory Parade that Polish cryptographers had provided the initial breakthrough for cracking Enigma — with incalculable importance to the outcome of the war.

And what did the Poles want in return? “We wanted Poland back,” said Witold Urbanowicz. Throughout the war, Winston Churchill, moved by the Poles’ valor, grateful for their help, and horrified by the Nazis’ unprecedented savagery in their homeland, promised they would get it. “We shall conquer together or we shall die together,” Churchill vowed to the Polish prime minister, General Władysław Sikorski, after the fall of France. Meeting Polish troops as they arrived in England in June 1940, British war secretary Anthony Eden declared: “We shall not abandon your sacred cause and shall continue this war until your beloved country be returned to her faithful sons.”

Yet, as the great long line of marchers proceeded down the Mall on that June morning in 1946, and as the crowds cheered and basked in the postwar world’s rebirth of freedom, proud Poland remained in the shadows. Despite Eden’s pledge, its “sacred cause” had been abandoned by its two closest allies, Britain and the United States. One occupier, Hitler, had been replaced by another Joseph Stalin. And on that gala day, Polish war heroes like Urbanowicz and his follow 303 pilots — once called “the Glamor Boys of England” — were forced to stand on London sidewalks and watch.

One young Polish pilot looked on in silence while the parade passed. Then he turned to walk away. An old woman standing next to him looked at him quizzically. “Why are you crying, young man?” she asked.

Copyright © 2004 Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud