After the joint Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland of 1939, a large part of both the flying personnel and technicians of the Polish Air Force were evacuated to Hungary and Romania. From there, most of them made their way to France and then to Britain. For the others who were arrested by Russians in occupied Poland, the journey to the UK started somewhere in the frozen woods of Siberia. By the mid-1940s some thirty-five thousand Polish airmen, soldiers and navy personnel arrived in the UK, making up the largest non-British military force in the country, of those, some 8500 were airmen. By the end of the war around twenty thousand Poles were serving in RAF. Polish personnel served in all commands and in all theatres, and earned a reputation for exceptional courage and devotion to duty. After the war only a small proportion of the pilots returned to Poland, and those who returned were very often treated as enemies of state and were arrested by communist government.
In 2008 I started a long-term project that focuses on those who remained in the UK as well as those who emigrated to the USA and Canada after the war, due to hostility they were experiencing in Britain at that time. The images I have taken over the years form a poignant reminder and valuable historical record of the bravery of these men and women.
Over the past six years I visited nearly thirty men and women. Most of them have died since then. They were heroes, even though they hated to be called so. They arrived in a foreign land and fought for it, hoping in that way they could help their homeland. All of them made significant, if lesser known, contributions to the RAF’s victory.
The journey in search of those forgotten heroes took me from my native Poland, through the UK, Canada and the USA. Getting to know all of them was worth every effort made and every mile travelled.
The archival images come from the private collections of the veterans that I photographed.