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Book Review: A Question of Honor: The Kosciuszko Squadron: Forgotten Heroes of World War II by Lynne Olson

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Of all the nations that participated in the Alliance against Nazi Germany, only one was not allowed to participate in the victory parade in Britain after the war.

Its valiant airmen, who only months before had fought with distinction in the Battle of Britain, who were once the object of adulation by the British public, were now among the anonymous crowds that lined the parade route. They were clad in their civilian clothes rather than in their fighting uniforms and were denied the honor that was bestowed on all others. These men were, along with their homeland, the first victims of a new conflict that would embroil the world powers after Germany’s defeat.

A Question of Honor traces the tragic history of 20th century Poland through the lens of the Polish fighter pilots of Kosciuszko Squadron, which was formed in Britain after the collapse of France. Fleeing the destruction of their homeland, these pilots, among the other members of Poland’s surviving armed forces, went at first to Romania, where they were interned as Romania assumed neutrality.

They then fled to France, where they met with indifference and apathy even as Nazi troops were heading for Paris. Finally they went to Britain, where they were given a chance to fight not just for their homeland, but in defense of other nations that fell under Fascist steel. Once in the air, the pilots had proven themselves, receiving praise from the British public and its social elite. It was easy to believe that the liberation of their homeland would soon follow.

But this was not to be. As Britain moved closer to an alliance with the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin, Poland became a problem. Katyn, the Soviet massacre of Polish Army officers, made that problem even more intractable for the British, who were eager to keep Stalin on their side at any cost. Soon, Polish airmen became virtual pariahs as Soviet-friendly propaganda began to de-emphasize them and their war effort. As a result of the political realignment of alliances, Poland was enveloped by the Soviet darkness and remained there until 1989.

It is an open question as to how much Britain gained by becoming beholden to the Red Tsar’s whims. The great fear that Stalin and Germany’s Adolph Hitler would join forces was almost certainly entirely unfounded; both men hated one another, and Stalin would not ally himself with someone who had already betrayed him. More than likely, Stalin used the possibility of such an alliance to manipulate the British — who were in the iron grip of fear of losing the war — to sacrifice their ally.

One can only speculate as to what would have happened if Britain had been stauncher in its resolve toward Poland. But the degree of power that Stalin seemed to wield over Churchill was undeniable: For fear of offending Stalin, who detested Polish nationalism, the British excluded their Polish allies from the victory parade. Only months before, some of those pilots had been decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross for their efforts during the Battle of Britain.

A Question of Honor presents a vast canvas against which are set the personal stories of the Polish pilots. The writing seamlessly weaves a grand tapestry of history, allowing readers to share in the tragic events of the time, moving effortlessly between personal stories and the grand narratives of great-power politics. It is also unique in that it presents the events of World War II through a Polish perspective. By doing so, it allows a fresh look at the past and at the forgotten heroes of that era.

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About A. Jurek

A. Jurek is one of the editors at Blogcritics. Contact me at: a.jurek@blogcritics.org
  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    Another case of the British betraying loyal allies, and betraying the trust of those who looked to them for help. A familiar tale in this country….