Article 3 – The “King” of Squadron 303-Kozciuszko Squadron I

Nicknamed “The King” because of his natural leadership abilities, flying ace Zdzislaw Krasnodebski was responsible for molding the famous Kozciuszko Squadron into one of the most formidable fighting units of World War Two. But it almost never happened. At the outbreak of the war, Krasnodebski was the commander of a squadron of PZL-11 fighters that disabled some of the first German bombers attacking Warsaw. During one of those skirmishes Krasnodebski’s plane was hit by enemy fire. As he slowly descended by parachute the German pilot who shot him down circled around and tried to finish him off. But the squadron’s second-in-command intercepted the German plane and Krasnodebski, while badly burned, lived to fight another day.

There are many myths about Polish military efforts during the 1939 campaign, and one of the most pervasive is that the Polish Air Force was destroyed on the ground. In reality, the commanders of the Polish Air Force had decided to deploy their fighter aircraft at dozens of secret airfields throughout the country to protect them in case of an attack by the German Luftwaffe. The plan was successful and when the war broke out, almost all of these aircraft took to the air and engaged the enemy. The Luftwaffe, however, had more than 3000 fighter aircraft against less than 400 for the Polish Air Force. But despite the disparity in numbers, and the fact that the Luftwaffe’s modern fighter aircraft were faster, more maneuverable, and better armed than the outmoded Polish aircraft, the Polish pilots managed to shoot down over 170 enemy fighters during the campaign.

But the enemy’s advantage in numbers and superior equipment could not be overcome and Poland’s Air Force was eventually defeated. While they no longer had the aircraft necessary to carry on the fight, the surviving Polish pilots were widely recognized as among the finest in the world. Thousands of them had escaped to Romania and Hungary but were being detained in internment camps. When General Wladyslaw Sikorski took command of the Polish government-in-exile, one of his first orders of business was to get the Polish pilots out of captivity and transport them to France.

In their outstanding book, A Question of Honor, authors Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud describe in eloquent detail the clandestine network established to free the pilots. Polish embassy employees in Bucharest forged passports and visas, provided money, clothing and shelter. At great personal risk, bribes were paid and local guides hired to assist the young pilots in their escape. Once again on the move, thousands of young Polish pilots snuck through forests, stowed away on trains and hitched rides on peasant wagons in their quest to reach the Black Sea ports of Constanza and Balcic. At the ports more bribes were paid as the pilots boarded dozens of merchant ships, in some cases by diving off the docks and swimming to the boats. More than ten thousand Polish pilots and ground crewmen successfully evaded the German SS and Gestapo and arrived in France to again do battle with the enemy invaders.

After the fall of France, the Polish pilots and crewmen made their way to England to join the Royal Air Force and carry on the fight. Among these daring and highly skilled Polish pilots was The King, Zdzislaw Krasnodebski, who became the ranking Polish commander of Squadron 303, the famed Kozciuszko Squadron. Future installments of this column will describe the exploits of the Kozciuszko Squadron, which had the highest kill rate of any squadron in the RAF during the Battle of Britain, one of the epic air battles of all time.