The Daily Telegraph
Polish pilot streaking ahead in Spitfire vote
The RAF Museum’s public vote to choose the greatest Spitfire Mark V pilot in history appears destined to be a landslide victory for Franciszek Kornicki, the last surviving Polish Second World War squadron commander. After attracting a massive groundswell of public support from the Polish community, thanks partly to a campaign led by a Polish news magazine, Mr Kornicki, 100, is leading the poll by more than 250,000 votes.
WHEN the RAF Museum decided to hold a public vote to choose the greatest Spitfire Mark V pilot in history, they might have thought the winner would be found close to home.
After all the expected target of the People’s Spitfire Poll, hosted on the Telegraph website, was the British public, whom the RAF have protected for 99 years.
But after attracting a massive groundswell of public support from the Polish community, Franciszek Kornicki, the last surviving Polish Second World War squadron commander, is leading the poll by a landslide – more than 250,000 votes and counting.
Polish weekly news magazine Newsweek Polska and national newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza have both supported the campaign to have Mr Kornicki voted number one, which was set up to celebrate 100 years of the RAF next year. The eastern European campaign has also been waged here in the UK, with the Polish Embassy and Polish Radio London urging the UK’S 813,000-strong Polish population to back Mr Kornicki, who turned 100 last year.
Speaking yesterday from his care home on the south coast, he admitted he was “surprised and a little bewildered” at the overwhelming support, but was quick to point out that he was “just one of a great many” who helped win the war.
Born in the small village of Wereszyn, east Poland in 1916, Mr Kornicki joined the Polish Air Force academy as a cadet. After the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, like thousands of other Polish pilots he was ordered to retreat through western Europe and continue the fight.
By the start of the Battle of Britain in July 1940, some 6,500 members of the Polish Air Force had made it to Britain including 146 pilots – many travelling the same route as Mr Kornicki from Ro- mania to France. He arrived in October 1940 and was posted to 303 squadron.
It became the most successful Fighter Command unit in the battle, shooting down 126 German machines in only 42 days.
Sgt Kornicki was credited with 17 victories, making him Fighter Command’s top scoring Battle of Britain pilot. In February 1943, aged just 26, he became the youngest squadron commander in the Polish Air Force.
The same year he was awarded the Virtuti Militari, Poland’s highest military decoration for his leadership of the squadron. Cited in the award was Mr Kornicki’s exemplary leadership while escorting a group of British bombers over northern France and ordering a daredevil attack on a squadron of enemy aircraft trying to intercept them.
Four enemy aircraft were shot down in the ensuing dogfight. “It may not have done much to advance the war effort,” Mr Kornicki said, recalling the incident. “But it was fantastic for morale.” The grandfather of five and greatgrandfather to seven, still recalls the comradeship between the British and Polish pilots at RAF Northolt.
He remembers his old Spitfire fondly and always flew with a crucifix in the cockpit. Yesterday, he paid tribute to the men who kept it airborne.
“My aircraft was cared for by a fitter and rigger, great chaps, and my only regret is that I cannot recall their names because they deserve equal recognition for everything this wonderful aircraft achieved,” he said.
After the war, with Poland under Communist-control, he remained in exile and joined the RAF; serving as an officer for more than 20 years.
In 1948, he married Patience Williams, now 94, and the couple have two sons: Peter, 67, a professor of Japanese at Cambridge University and Richard, 64, a former civil servant and chairman of the Polish Air Force Memorial Committee who was appointed CBE in 2000 for services to the Home Office.
To celebrate his 100th birthday last December the family gave a surprise lunch at a hotel close to his home in Findon, West Sussex.
While Richard Kornicki described the family as “delighted” by the poll, he insisted his father would want “equal attention paid to everybody who took part in that struggle”.
He added: “Poland was the only country in Europe that was occupied by the Nazis but never surrendered, maintaining their government and armed forces fighting from abroad, all under the same motto: ‘for your freedom and ours’.”
The poll ends this Sunday and an image of the winner will be turned into a life-size cut-out to stand beside the iconic Spitfire VB BL614 in the Museum’s centenary exhibition next year.