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Polish Squadrons in Northern Ireland

Part 1: No. 315 (City of Deblin) Polish Fighter Squadron

Between July 1943 and April 1944, RAF Ballyhalbert in County Down was home to 2 Polish squadrons of the Royal Air Force;

No. 315 (Polish) Squadron from July to November 1943

No. 303 (Polish) Squadron from November 1943 to April 1944

Their time in Northern Ireland was largely uneventful with the men settling into a routine of convoy patrols and training exercises. The squadron records do however help shed a light on daily life at the airfield and the incidents that did occur.

Between June and December 1940, seven sites across counties Antrim, Down and Londonderry were selected for the construction of new airfields. This included a site on the Ards Peninsula that would become RAF Ballyhalbert.

By June 1941, the airfield was operational and was allocated to Fighter Command. On the 14 July 1941, No. 245 Squadron moved from RAF Aldergrove to the new airfield to undertake convoy patrols and defend the approaches to Belfast.

RAF Ballyhalbert photographed in August 1942. NIWM:2018.2291.01

No. 315 (City of Deblin) Squadron

Also during 1941, No. 315 (City of Deblin) Polish Fighter Squadron was formed. Initially it was equipped with Hurricanes and flew convoy patrols from RAF Speke near Liverpool. It soon moved to RAF Northolt in London where the squadron, now flying Spitfires, conducted offensive sweeps over Nazi occupied Europe.

By the summer of 1943, No. 315 Squadron was based at RAF Hutton Cranswick when on the morning of the 3 July their Operations Record Book (ORB) records that they received

'an unexpected order to move - to Ballyhalbert on the 5th.'

Squadron Leader Jerzy Poplawski states that a 'poor view' was taken of this as the squadron 'were settling down comfortably' at Hutton Cranswick. However, he then stated that,

'we forcibly remind ourselves that there is a war on, and get busy with the usual preparations for moving'.

On the 5 July 10 Handley Page Harrows landed at Hutton Cranswick at an early hour to transport the Squadron to Ballyhalbert. But by 12 noon the Poles were not ready and the Stationmaster delivered an ultimatum; that if they were not off within the hour, 'there will be hell to pay'. Eventually the squadron touched down in their transports at Ballyhalbert at approx. 14.45 where they were met with food. As the first Polish squadron to be based in Northern Ireland their arrival caused somewhat of a stir and the men heard frequent remarks of 'Look - Poles!' as they made their way to their accommodation. At their quarters, they realised that the outgoing No. 130 (Punjab) Squadron had left it in what Popwalski believes 'can only be described as a hell of a state'.

The ORB of No. 130 (Punjab) Squadron provides the answer as to the state of the living quarters at RAF Ballyhalbert. It records that they were jubilant to be leaving Northern Ireland and had celebrated the Squadron's second birthday in the days prior to their departure. A 'small' party was held at Mr Bells' local hostelry where an 'excellent' quality and quantity of beer was consumed and the inn 'trembled to the strains of the time-honoured squadron songs'. Owing to the 'fatuous' Northern Irish licensing laws, Mr Bell's closed at 21.00 and upon returning to their mess huts, riotous scenes broke out;

'stirrup pumps wheezed automatically as eager hands directed the flow of water onto anyone unfortunate enough to be within range. Individual feuds soon started up and before long, fierce encounters were being waged from behind chairs, walls, doors and tables. The ecclesiastical equilibrium of the padre was sadly unbalanced when somebody (believed to have been F/O Williams) ran amok with a fire extinguisher...a single burst heeled him over and he was last seen floating dismally amongst the debris of chairs and empty buckets...'

A few days later Popwalski records that the Squadron had a very cordial welcome to their new station and the whole atmosphere was 'most friendly' with everyone from R.A.F.N.I. anxious to help with any difficulties. He also describes RAF Ballyhalbert as being well organised with recreational facilities well above the average.

Squadron Leader Popwalski
Squadron Leader Popwalski recorded the daily training and operations of No. 315 Squadron in their Operations Record Book. Photo courtesy of Wilhelm Ratuszynski of Polish Squadrons Remembered.

When the weather permitted, their non-operational time was spent conducting training exercises such as artillery co-operation, photo-attacks, air-to-air firing and ground attacks along with night, dawn and dusk flying in their Spitfire Vbs. In early August 1943 the Squadron also spent considerable time practicing their formation flying in preparation for their Squadron Day on the 14 August when they were visited by the Commander in Chief of the Polish forces, General Sosnkowski. The 14 August was selected as the Squadron Day as on that date in 1941 the Squadron destroyed 8 enemy aircraft, had one probable and damaged another, all without loss, in a flight over France.

General Sosnkowski arrived at 19.00 on 13 August in a Lockheed 12 and was escorted in by the whole of No. 315 Squadron. Later that evening the Squadron paraded and the roll of honour of its pilots was called. Photo courtesy of Wilhelm Ratuszynski of Polish Squadrons Remembered

To mark the occasion, Mass was held in the hangar after which General Sosnkowski decorated 14 pilots with the Polish Cross of Valour and 2 with Poland's highest military award, the Virtuti Militari. General Sosnkowski then took the salute at a march past and watched the fly past that the Squadron had been training for. After lunch, an informal meeting was held where the General talked to all ranks and asked many questions about families back in Poland. Popwalski remarked that this was 'helped along nicely by almost unlimited quantities of free beer' before the day was rounded of by parties and dances 'at which Polish music and songs were conspicuous'.

Squadron Day Mass in a hangar at RAF Ballyhalbert

F/Lt Marcisz receiving the Polish Cross of Valour from General Sosnkowski during No. 315's Squadron Day. F/O Wyrozemski and F/O Zielonka are standing next in line

Receiving the Virtuti Militari is W/Cdr Sawicz, former Commanding Officer No. 315 Squadron during their Squadron Day. Next in line are P/O Blok and S/Ldr Poplawski

Although the Squadron was based at RAF Ballyhalbert, the majority of their operational flights were to be carried out from RAF Eglinton in County Londonderry and throughout their time in Northern Ireland, 315's convoy and air sea rescue patrols passed without incident.

But towards the end of August throughout September and into October, the dangers of aerial warfare were brought home to the Squadron.

On the 22 August Pilot Officer Tuczemski was killed instantly after crashing into the ground near Rasharkin during a navigation exercise. The 24 year old had only joined No. 315 Squadron in the previous month. His funeral Mass was held in a hangar at Ballyhalbert on 24 Aug before he was buried in the nearby graveyard at St Joseph's, Kircubbin.

In early September there were two further, non-fatal crashes. The first occurred in the afternoon of the 2 September when Flight Sergeant Malec was making his way to RAF Eglinton for readiness when he crash landed, wheels up, near Toome. Malec was uninjured but his Spitfire was written off. Only days later, on the 5 September, after the Squadron had practiced dog fighting with a captured FW190 and ME109, Sergeant Sadowski, another recent arrival, crash landed at RAF Ballyhalbert after experiencing glycol trouble. Sadowski required hospital treatment and his Spitfire Vb EP280 was written off.

Pictured above is the compass housing of Spitfire BM531 PK-V that crashed at Groggan, near Toome on 2 September 1943. Photo Courtesy of Hubert Nicholl.

'A Black Day for the Squadron'

In the late afternoon of the 11 September, Warrant Officer Grondowski was leading Sergeant Zygmund and Sergeant Kolek in a formation flight in bad weather when they got lost in the hills beyond Belfast. All three pilots crashed within a short period of each other with W/O Grondowski and Sergeant Kolek being killed. Sergeant Zygmund survived his crash, being able to free himself from the wreckage and walk to the nearest road. Squadron Leader Popwalski writes;

'The reason for [Sgt Zygmund] and Sgt Kolek's crash is fairly obvious, since neither had any experiences of flying in such conditions, but W/O Grondowski was a very old hand at bad-weather flying, and we can only assume that he was in a very unsettled state of mind after losing his two pupils. Sgt Zygmund reports seeing his leader's aircraft suddenly starting to climb, and that was the last he saw of him.'

Popwalski called 11 September a 'black day for the Squadron'.

No. 315 Squadron's fatalities in late August and early September 1943
L-R Pilot Officer Tuczemski, Warrant Officer Grondowski and Sergeant Kolek. Photos courtesy of Wilhelm Ratuszynski of Polish Squadrons Remembered.

W/O Grondowski crashed near Plantation House outside Lisburn, Sgt Kolek crashed near the Flush Road in the Belfast Hills and Sgt Zygmund crashed near Glengormley. The entry in the Squadron's ORB for the 14 Sept, the day of their funeral reads;

'A bright, warm day but no-one is feeling very cheerful after the funeral of W/O Grondowski and Sgt Kolek, which took place in St. Joseph's Churchyard, Ballycran, after High Mass in our own hangar church. There were many mourners, in addition to the official representatives and guards of honour; for W/O Grondowski was very popular with all who knew him, while the death of Sgt Kolek, only two days after arriving from the O.T.U., is a great tragedy.'

On the 24 September a further, minor accident occurred when Flying Officer Sworniowski could not get his wheels down and was forced to make a crash landing owing to a fuel shortage. He was able to crash land as close as possible to the maintenance hangar with a minimum amount of damage and he escaped without injury.

Additional bad news was received on 5 October when Sergeant Flegier (who had previously written off Spitfire W3937 after overshooting the runway at Ballyhalbert during a fast landing on 9 September) was killed when his Spitfire came down in the sea about 1 1/2 miles Northwest of Ballyhalbert during an interception training flight.

Sgt Flegier was buried in Movilla Roman Catholic plot, Newtownards on 8 October 1943. Photo courtesy of Wilhelm Ratuszynski of Polish Squadrons Remembered.

The remainder of October 1943 passed without loss for the Squadron. Indeed, on 27 October Flying Officer Blok, having already been awarded the Virtuti Militari by General Sosnkowski, was awarded the DFC by Air Vice Marshall D.F. Stevenson A.O.C, Northern Ireland, in a ceremony attended by the officers of RAF Ballyhalbert, No. 315 Squadron and 3106 Servicing Echelon along with members of the WAAF and the RAF.

No. 315 Squadron received orders to move to RAF Heston in London on the 12 November but were delayed by bad weather. The next day they boarded two transport planes and left RAF Ballyhalbert only to be replaced by their compatriots of No. 303 Squadron.





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