A Question of Honor

A Question of Honor

The Kościuszko Squadron : the Forgotten Heroes of World War II

Book - 2003
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A Question of Honor is the gripping, little-known, and brilliantly told story of the scores of Polish fighter pilots who helped save England during the Battle of Britain and of their stunning betrayal by the United States and England at the end of World War II.

Centering on five pilots of the renowned Kosciuszko Squadron, the authors show how the fliers, driven by their passionate desire to liberate their homeland, came to be counted among the most heroic and successful fighter pilots of World War II. Drawing on the Kosciuszko Squadron's unofficial diary-filled with the fliers' personal experiences in combat-and on letters, interviews, memoirs, histories, and photographs, the authors bring the men and battles of the squadron vividly to life. We follow the principal characters from their training before the war, through their hair-raising escape from Poland to France and then, after the fall of France, to Britain. We see how, first treated with disdain by the RAF, the Polish pilots played a crucial role during the Battle of Britain, where their daredevil skill in engaging German Messerschmitts in close and deadly combat while protecting the planes in their own groups soon made them legendary. And we learn what happened to them after the war, when their country was abandoned and handed over to the Soviet Union.

A Question of Honor also gives us a revelatory history of Poland during World War II and of the many thousands in the Polish armed forces who fought with the Allies. It tells of the country's unending struggle against both Hitler and Stalin, its long battle for independence, and the tragic collapse of that dream in the "peace" that followed. Powerful, moving, deeply involving, A Question of Honor is an important addition to the literature of World War II.
Publisher: New York : Knopf, 2003
Edition: 1st ed
ISBN: 9780375411977
Branch Call Number: D786 .O57 2003
Characteristics: xii, 495 p. : ill. ; 25 cm
Additional Contributors: Cloud, Stanley


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Jan 02, 2020

Winston Churchill gave the title “Triumph and Tragedy” to the sixth and final volume of his epic series “The Second World War”. This would also be an apt description of the story Lynn Olson and Stanley Cloud tell in this book, her third and the second written jointly with Cloud. In fact, the story of Poland in WW2 probably helps to explain why Churchill gave his book that title. As the above reviews make clear, Olson and Cloud combine the inspiring story of the Polish airmen and soldiers who helped save Britain – and continued to make vital contributions and sacrifices to the Allied cause until war’s end – with the disheartening and downright depressing account of how Poland was abandoned to the tender mercies of Josef Stalin, and how it spent over 40 years as a Soviet satellite state, finally gaining its freedom in the early 1990’s. It is a story far too little known in the West, especially the story of the Warsaw Uprising in July-Aug.-Sept. 1944. In my opinion the second part of the story overshadows the first because it paints a broader picture, compelling the reader to think about the “fine art” (if it can be called that) of diplomacy, and its obvious limitations in that often principle must be sacrificed on the altar of expedience.

As Olson makes clear, this is certainly what happened in Poland’s case; the incredibly complex issue has been exhaustively debated elsewhere and is really beyond the scope of a brief review. Every reader will have to decide for himself or herself the degree to which Churchill and Roosevelt were guilty of abandoning the principles of the Atlantic Charter in order to appease Stalin (Olson herself treats them pretty harshly!), and whether or not they did everything they possibly could to secure Poland’s liberty, as they often promised, and to prevent the “Iron Curtain” from descending across eastern Europe, as of course it eventually did. Olson’s book serves as a superb springboard for the further study of Cold War diplomacy and the degree to which what was served up for public consumption resembled what really went on behind closed doors (evidently not much!).

The book concludes by bringing the story of the survivors of the Kosciuszko Squadron into the present day (2003) and in a touching final scene shows how the official Polish Air Force standard was at last returned from Britain to its native country in 1992 after the fall of communism. Poland is now a member of NATO (as of 1997) and hopefully will never again have to repeat the refrain of suffering through a long and terrible ordeal (which in this case cost it six million dead, fully a fifth of its population, including about 3 million Jews and the rest ordinary -- mostly Catholic -- Poles) in order to maintain (or regain) its freedom. The Poles were very magnanimous in forgiving past betrayals when they asked to join NATO and should never be abandoned again, nor should any hint of this (such as questioning the need for NATO itself!) ever again be suggested. A copy of the Atlantic Charter should be posted in every office in the White House and Congress, where it's possible that many of the current occupants have never even heard of it.

Addendum: two films have paid tribute to the role of Polish servicemen during the war. They are “The Battle of Britain” (1969) which shows the Kosciuszko Squadron in action in Aug.-Sept. 1940, and “A Bridge Too Far” (1977) dealing with the role of Polish infantrymen in Operation Market Garden in October 1944. Both great films!


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