Polish Fighting Team in Tunisia, March-May 1943

By late 1942, the Luftwaffe surrendered initiative in the skies over Western Europe to the Allied air forces, and fighter combat over France was quickly becoming a rare and sought-after affair for Polish pilots. Meanwhile, Polish military leaders were eager to prepare a cadre of commanders, who would be able to lead the future air force in liberated Poland. Thus, the idea of sending a team of highly qualified, experienced pilots to North Africa, was born.





Four of the 15 pilots of the PFT: S/Ldr Waclaw Krol, W/O Wladyslaw Majchrzyk, W/O Mieczyslaw Popek and P/O Wladyslaw Drecki


Consequently, in the end of 1942, word was circulated among Polish fighter squadrons, that volunteers for the Team are being sought. However, only pilots who had been with a fighter squadron for at least a year, and had flown 30 or more sorties over enemy territory would be accepted. Out of 68 volunteers, 15 pilots were selected. They were a mix of truly experienced veterans, who had flown in all the major campaigns against the Luftwaffe since 1939, and aggressive, up-and-coming youngsters - but already with healthy operational experience. The command was given to Stanislaw Skalski, an ace with 15 victories to his credit, and one of the two most successful Polish fighter pilots at that time.

Polish Fighting Team was formed on February 5, 1943 in the Polish fighter base at Northolt, and after crossing the Mediterranean by ship and some further travel, arrived at Bu Gara airfield, 150 miles west of Tripoli, on March 13. The pilots were attached to No. 145 RAF Squadron as the 'C' flight, and equipped with six Spitfires Mk. V. The Team achieved operational readiness on March 17, but it wasn't till March 28 that Polish pilots for the first time engaged enemy planes over African soil. By then the Team had been re-equipped with the latest British fighters of the time, Spitfires Mk. IX.


On March 28, 1943, the flight led by Skalski encountered a group of Ju-88 bombers escorted by Bf 109s. After a short fight, Skalski and Horbaczewski each shot down a Ju-88, thus opening the Team's tally. Five days later, on April 2, as the result of a sandstorm that had lasted for almost two days, only four Spitfires took off to intercept an enemy formation. In the fight with 16 Bf 109s the four pilots again came out on top, shooting down three Messerschmits, only one Spitfire returning damaged.

Patrols in flight strength continued for the remainder of the African campaign, but Polish pilots often flew escort duties in larger formations, especially after April 6, 1943, when the British 8th Army commenced its final offensive in Tunisia, which in conjunction with American advance from the West was destined to route Axis troops from North Africa for good. Following the Allied advance, the Team was moved twice, to Fouconnerie, and then to Goubrine. During that time the Team's tally grew steadily, and it was in that period that it was beginning to be called 'Skalski's Circus'.


On April 18 the Team sustained its first and only loss. During an uneventful patrol F/Lt. Wyszkowski, lagging behind the formation, was bounced by a pair of Bf 109s. His Spitfire was badly shot up and he crash landed in enemy territory, to be taken prisoner by Germans. Two days later, while on an escort mission, Polish pilots took their revenge. They were guided towards a mixed German-Italian formation of about 20 fighters, and in a surprise attack shot down three Bf 109s and three Macchis 202. Three other enemy fighters were downed by other pilots of 145 Squadron.

Perhaps the most interesting engagement took place on April 22, 1943. The entire 244th Fighter Wing with 145 Sqn. acting as the top cover attacked a formation of about 20 six-engined Messerschmitt 323 'Gigant' transports escorted by a similar number of German and Italian fighters. 145 Sqn and the Polish flight, led by F/Lt. Pniak engaged the escorts, and in the resulting dogfight five Bf 109s and one Mc-202 were added to the Team's tally. Meanwhile, taking advantage of the fact that the escorts had been engaged , the remaining pilots of the 244th Wing got a clean shot at he transports, few of which were lucky to survive the encounter. Tons of supplies much needed by Axis troops were sunk in the Mediterranean Sea.


Mechanics at work on a PFT Spitfire ZX-1. Aircraft of the PFT shared No. 145 Squadron's code letters (ZX) but received numbers 1 to 6 instead of letters for individual identification.


Polish pilots examine the wreckage of a downed Macchi Mc-202 'Folgore'


In late April and early May, as the Tunisian Campaign was drawing to a close, the fighting lost its intensity. The last victory for the team was claimed on May 9 by W/O Sztramko, who shot down a Bf 109. Following the end of the campaign on May 13, Polish Fighting Team was disbanded. In recognition of the Team's outstanding success, three pilots were entrusted with command duties in British units - S/Ldr Skalski became the commander of No. 601 Squadron, S/Ldr Horbaczewski of No. 43 Sqn, and F/Lt Drecki commanded a flight in No. 152 Sqn.

Overall, throughout the six weeks of fighting, the Polish Fighting Team claimed 25 confirmed and three probable victories, as well as nine damaged enemies. While the long-range goals of the enterprise - with Poland falling into Soviet hands - were never to be realized, the experience gained by these pilots served the Polish Air Force well throughout the remainder of the war. S/Ldr Eugeniusz Horbaczewski, the most successful pilot of the Polish Fighting Team, led 315 Squadron to its greatest success during the Normandy invasion. Many of the other pilots also took command posts in Polish fighter squadrons upon their return to Great Britain.

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