The cost of fear

I’ve written here before about the Battle of Britain, and on Remembrance Sunday there was a documentary about one of the two Polish squadrons – 303 Squadron – that fought in it. The Polish airmen are immortalised in the Battle of Britain film in two scenes. The first is when, on a training flight, getting impatient with training, they find themselves in the middle of a midair skirmish, and join in the dogfight. They are torn off a strip when they get back, but are made operational the next day. The second is when a Polish airman is shot down and is treated by English farmworkers as if he is a German.

The documentary was based on a diary that members of the squadron kept that eventually ran to seven volumes, and it seems that both stories were true, according to the documentary. In fact the second one had a better twist: the English soldier firing close to  the feet of the Pole on the beach where he landed knew that he was an Allied airman, but was trying to make sure that he didn’t move – because he was standing in the middle of a minefield.

The Poles were only allowed to fly operationally quite late in the summer of 1940, partly through British prejudice, partly because of language isssues, and partly because of the need to train them on RAF planes and methods. A British officer says lconically early in one of the film’s dramatised sequences, “They lasted three days against the Luftwaffe.” But that was in the Polish air force’s old slow planes, and all were experienced pilots. Once behind the controls of a Hurricane they were devastating, breaking records for the number of enemy planes shot down.

Indeed, their commanding officer, a Brit, who was suspicious of their claims, followed them into the air to see if they were exaggerating. He found that they were not. One of the reasons was that because they were more experienced pilots they were willing and able to fly much closer to the enemy before opening fire. And of course, once flying, they were too good a propaganda story for the British to resist.

But the most interesting part of the film came from an interviewee who talked about the relationship between fear and combat expertise, which is worth quoting in full here:

Fear makes everybody cautious, so a degree of fear is a good thing. The important thing is to overcome the fear. And naturally, the longer you fly, that process, of initial fear, of overcoming the fear, wears you out.

By the day of the decisive air battle on 15th September 1940, some of the Polish pilots had been been flying continuously for fourteen days. It may not sound a lot, but the RAF learnt – not just from the Poles – that eight days of continuous operational service was enough for pilots. After that the fear became too much, and you needed to take a break.

The image, from the excellent site Polish Squadrons Remembered, shows King George V visiting 303 Squadron. It is used with thanks.


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