Sunday, June 29, 2008

Squadron Leader Michal Cwynar: Polish fighter pilot ace

Squadron Leader Michal Cwynar: Polish fighter pilot ace

Squadron Leader Michal Cwynar
Michal Cwynar was the last of the fighter aces from that most welcome group of Polish pilots who reached these shores after the fall of France in June 1940, having fought the Germans during the invasion of his own country in September 1939 and the Italians in the Battle for France. He was to continue to fly as a fighter pilot in the Polish squadrons that served with the RAF for the remainder of the war, becoming an ace, with five combat victories, and also shooting down three V1 flying bombs.

Cwynar was born in 1915 in Orzechowka near what was then Lemberg, a city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. (From 1918 it was Lwow, Poland; from 1945 the Soviet city of Lvov; it is now Lviv, Ukraine.) Following in the footsteps of his older brother Stanislaw he joined the Polish Air Force in 1933 and after training was posted, as an NCO, to the 4th Squadron of the Pursuit Brigade.

The squadron was equipped with the PZL P11c, a high-wing monoplane with an open cockpit and fixed undercarriage. His first flight commander was Wladyslaw Gnys (obituary, March 22, 2000) the pilot who on the morning of September 1 destroyed the first German plane to be brought down in the Second World War.

On the afternoon of September 1 Cwynar’s flight, in its obsolescent but manoeuvrable planes, intercepted some Ju87 Stukas returning from a bombing raid and that afternoon he made his first kill. Frequently changing airstrips, his squadron, though decimated, continued to take a toll of German bombers and fighters until September 17, when the Soviet Army invaded Poland from the east.

Times Archive 1941: The airmen of Poland
General Sikorski said they had served their country gallantly while she was still free, and were serving her equally gallantly today by fighting wing to wing with their Allies of the RAF

That day, the Poles flew their remaining planes to Romania. Cwynar was interned but under the guise of a civilian mechanic managed to escape in a Greek ship sailing from Constanta to Beirut, then under French control. From there he sailed to France where Polish units under General Sikorski — “Sikorski’s Tourists” as Goebbels scathingly called them — were being formed.

Cwynar was assigned to a fighter group at Le Luc in Provence flying Morane-Saulnier 406s. He was pleasantly surprised by the camaraderie he found, all ranks from the CO to sergeant pilots sharing the same table with the best wine in the town’s best restaurant. Later the unit was re-equipped with the Dewoitine D520 and moved to Toulon, from where it undertook sorties against the Regia Aeronautica when Italy entered the war on June 10.

With the French capitulation on June 22, the group was ordered to fly to Algiers, where the Poles noticed a change in attitude by their French brothers-in-arms now under the collaborationist leadership of Pétain. They decided to make their way to Gibraltar and thence to Britain, where Cwynar arrived on July 17, 1940. He was to be one of several hundred Polish Air Force personnel who formed the nucleus of four bomber and ten fighter squadrons.

Instead of being able to participate in the Battle of Britain, Cwynar was posted to a bomber and gunnery school in Dumfries, from where he towed targets over the Solway Firth while his colleagues were in action over the South of England. In Dumfries, however, he met his future wife, Margaret Marchbank.

In April 1941 he at last joined a front-line squadron, No 315 City of Deblin, flying Hurricanes, based at Speke, defending Liverpool. In July the squadron was re-equipped with Spitfires and undertook offensive sweeps over France. On August 14 the three Polish squadrons of the Northolt wing met a large formation of Messerschmitt Me109s near Le Toucquet and in an extended dogfight Cwynar had his second combat victory. On September 16 he shot down another Me109 over Saint-Omer. Later commissioned, in February 1943 he destroyed an Fw190 over Calais.

After a period “resting” as an instructor in April 1944 he rejoined 315 Squadron, now converted to Mustangs, and commanded by the charismatic Eugeniusz Horbaczewski, who by the time he was killed in action on August 18, 1944, had 16½1/2combat victories to his name. On June 8 Cwynar was promoted to flight lieutenant and became second in command of the squadron. On that day, leading four Mustangs on an armed reconnaissance over the Allied landing zone his aircraft was hit by ground fire and lost power but he was able to make a forced landing in a cornfield within the Allied beachhead. As he fled from his Mustang, in case its fuel tank should explode, a British corporal on a motorcycle shouted at him to stop where he was. He had strayed into a minefield from which the soldier guided him to safety.

On his first morning back with the squadron, Horbaczewski ordered him to take a Mustang and fly to Dumfries to reassure his wife, who had been told that he had been reported missing. He returned to the squadron after lunch with his wife, and Horbaczewski, to demonstrate that none of his pilots was being favoured, assigned to Cwynar the leadership of the last sortie over France that evening.

With the V1 attacks on Britain beginning a week after D-Day, the squadron was switched to air defence against this new menace, since the Mustang was one of the few piston-engined aircraft capable of intercepting the pulse-jet powered flying bombs. Cwynar was to destroy three in the next few weeks.

On July 30, 1944, 315 Squadron was given the task of escorting Canadian Beaufighters on a sortie looking for German shipping hugging the Norwegian coast. It was intercepted by Me109s, Cwynar bagging one and sharing a claim for a second. On September 5, 1944, Cwynar had a close shave, as he led his flight over Hanover. He was hit by flak, a shell entering his cockpit and grazing his neck before exiting through the rear of the canopy.

On September 8, 1944, Cwynar was awarded the DFC. After a further period resting he was promoted to squadron leader and on July 3, 1945, was given command of 316 City of Warsaw Squadron, leaving his beloved 315 as the longest-serving pilot in it. His brother Stanislaw commanded a Polish bomber Squadron, No 300, ending the war as a group captain and station commander of the Faldingworth Polish bomber base in Lincolnshire.

After the war and the disbandment of the Polish forces who had fought with the Allies, Cwynar, like most of his comrades, chose a life in exile rather than returning to a now Soviet-dominated Poland. He moved to his wife’s home town, Dumfries, where he set up a business as a coach trimmer and upholsterer. She died in 1965 and he later married Mabel Shankland. She, too, predeceased him. There were no children of either marriage.

During the war Cwynar had been notable for entertaining his squadron on the guitar, and one of his first big expenses in civilian life was the purchase of a German Hoffner guitar for the great sum then of £300. In Scotland he played in a jazz trio. His other love was his garden in which he strove to re-create the habitat of his native Carpathian foothills, and with his wife awaited the return of migrant birds.

In addition to his DFC he was decorated with the French Croix de Guerre, the Virtuti Militari V Class and the Polish Cross of Valour four times.

Squadron Leader Michal Cwynar, DFC, Croix de Guerre, Virtuti Militari, wartime Polish fighter ace, was born on November 14, 1915. He died on May 26, 2008, aged 92

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