Polish Daredevils

Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud's A Question of Honor: The Kosciuszko Squadron: Forgotten Heroes of World War II (Knopf, $27.95) begins as an exciting story of a group of heroic Polish fighter pilots fighting for England after their own country fell to Hitler in 1939. Named after a Polish patriot who fought in the American Revolution, the squadron chalked up twice as many kills as any other RAF unit, its skilled and daredevil pilots swooping their Hawker Hurricanes directly at the bombers and fighters of the Luftwaffe. In their enthusiasm, the authors overreach by crediting this single squadron with making the difference between victory and defeat in the 1940 Battle of Britain.

This is indeed a tale of heroism, camaraderie and glory. The dashing, gallant, impetuous Poles became the darlings of British high society and were lionized by the press in Britain and America. The authors vividly recreate the airmen's daily bouts with death and nights of partying, their lost lives and loves, and their frustrations with English fastidiousness and idiosyncrasies -- everything in the British planes seemed to be the opposite of where it was in Poland. (Because none of the fliers remains alive, this husband-and-wife team interviewed the pilots' children to augment written sources.)

Olson and Cloud dilute their otherwise fascinating account of the Kosciuszko Squadron by devoting the second half of this lengthy book to a history of Poland in World War II. The result is an unwieldy and ultimately unsatisfactory effort to meld two different stories. The long recapitulation of the generally well-known wartime history of Poland overwhelms the fresh material about the aviators.

In addition, this retelling of the Polish national saga has some rather peculiar aspects. The emphasis is on non-Jewish Poles; references to anti-Semitism or the Holocaust are minimal. The authors have chosen to stress Polish individualism, nationalism and resistance to Nazism and communism on the one hand and the manipulation and betrayal of Poland by other major powers on the other. In their lengthy and rather polemical account of Allied diplomacy, the authors vigorously (and rather simplistically) condemn President Franklin Roosevelt for "betraying" Poland to the Soviet Union.

As these four books illustrate in such different ways, the many disparate aspects of the epochal conflict of 1939-45 can be re-examined through new perspectives and newly obtained sources, from previously classified documents about decision-making to fresh oral histories of ordinary people living in that extraordinary time.

World War II was a defining moment in the 20th century. It was a time of enormous challenge and also of great hope for a better world at home and abroad. Is it any wonder that it continues to be so fascinating today?

John Whiteclay Chambers II teaches history at Rutgers University and is editor-in-chief of "The Oxford Companion to American Military History."


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