The news was alarming, to say the least.
At just past 1am on the morning of 4th May 1942, radio operators based in Exeter, reported that forty German bombers – Junkers – had taken off from Nazi-occupied Paris and were now heading for Exeter. Although the news was not totally out of the blue – Exeter had already been suffering as a result of the Baedeker Raids and had already experienced serious attacks late in April – this promised to be the worst attack yet.
Thankfully, a small but valiant band of heroes were on hand to defend Exeter that night. Demonstrating incredible bravery and facing terrible odds, the 307 Polish Night Fighter Squadron went into battle despite having only four serviceable Beaufighters available. As we know, Exeter did not escape bombing that night. However, without the actions of the Polish fighters, the consequences would have undoubtedly been worse. By 2.30am, the squadron were accredited with shooting down four Junkers including one which had crashed near Topsham cricket ground.
In short, the role of the Polish Night Fighters in defending wartime Exeter, is too often overlooked.
The story of the Polish Night Squadron essentially begins with the German invasion of Poland in September 1939: the event which triggered British involvement in the Second World War. With Poland defeated, many Polish pilots made the hazardous journey to Britain. Eventually realising their worth, the RAF soon had the Polish pilots flying with them, initially stationed in Blackpool. In Lincolnshire, a new division was formed under Squadron Commander Stanislaw Pietraszkiewicz. It was named the ‘307 (City of Lwow) Night Fighter Squadron’. It arrived in Exeter in April 1941. The location was fitting. The city of Lwow, now known as Lviv is now part of the Ukraine. By coincidence, the city has the same motto as Exeter: “Semper Fidelis”: always faithful.
The division had another name too: they were known as the ‘Night Owls’ or the ‘Lwow Eagle Owls’. An owl, a plane and a crescent moon were included in their emblem.
The Night Owls remembered
The Night Owls remained in Devon until they were moved to Swansea in April 1943. Their role in Exeter had extended way beyond the actions of May 1942. Many of the pilots suffered death, not just in combat, but often as a result of technical faults on their planes. They also came to play a vital role in city life. Some of the pilots married and had children during their time in Exeter.
2019 was the 80th anniversary of 307 Squadron and in November (14-15 November) 307 Squadron held a major exhibition at Exeter Guildhall to mark the anniversary. The Polish flag was raised on 15th November over the Guildhall as has happened every year since 2012.
Extra: What were the Baedeker Raids?
The Baedeker Blitz was a series of air raids launched during April and May 1942, in response to the RAF attack on the undefended city of Lübeck. The German high command reportedly used the 1930s edition of the Victorian Baedeker series of guidebooks to help them identify English towns which were valued primarily for cultural value, rather than for their strategic or military importance. Exeter – in fact, a city of cultural value but also not strategically insignificant either – was targeted first. The overall campaign was abandoned fairly quickly but nevertheless cost some 1,600 lives in total and destroyed many buildings.
Chris Hallam wrote the 2019 book, A-Z Exeter – Places, People, History and co-wrote, Secret Exeter (2018). Both books are available now from Amberley.