SPITFIRE WITH A PUNCH - ROYAL AIR FORCE FIGHTER IN POLISH COLORS
Flight Journal|January - February 2021
Squadron Leader Clive Rowley, MBE RAF (Ret.), a former officer commanding the Royal Air Force Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, tells the story behind the latest color scheme for the Flight’s Spitfire Mk XVI TE311.
CLIVE ROWLEY

May 5, 1945. Flying at 8,000 feet and at just over 200 mph in his personal Spitfire Mk XVI TD240, Group Captain Aleksander Gabszewicz, the Commanding Officer of No. 131 (Polish) Wing, led 11 heavily laden, bomb-carrying Spitfires of 302 Squadron towards their target, an enemy troop concentration in a German village. Navigating by a handheld map to the map reference he had been given, he identified the target some distance out and ordered the other Spitfires into close echelon starboard formation.

He judged the best direction of approach so that the final dive would not have a difficult crosswind component and would take advantage of the sun, and then he flew over the target so that it ran just outside his port cannon barrel and disappeared under his port wing. When it reappeared behind the trailing edge of the wing, he rolled his Spitfire onto its back and let the nose drop through the vertical, using ailerons and elevator to position the target in the center of the gunsight (the Spitfire never had a bomb sight), settling the aircraft into a screaming dive about 20 degrees off the vertical (a 70-degree dive angle).

The other 10 Spitfires peeled off in turn, to follow the one ahead down, the momentary time lag between each creating adequate separation in the dive. As the leader, Gabszewicz fired his two 20mm cannons and two 0.5-inch heavy machine guns during the dive to keep the Germans’ heads down. Even so, red balls of flak were coming up from the ground, slowly at first, then zipping past the cockpit at a fantastic pace. When he reached what he estimated to be a height of 3,000 feet in the dive, with the speed now building up through 400 mph, he began a gentle pull and, as the target disappeared under the Spitfire’s nose, he released his three bombs: a 500-pound general purpose bomb on the centerline station and a 250-pound fragmentation bomb under each wing. The pull before releasing the bombs was vital, both for accuracy and to ensure that the 500-pound bomb on the centerline cleared the propeller disc! Then he continued a five to six G pull, straining to avoid blacking out. He levelled off just above the ground and jinked violently away from the target area. The other Spitfire pilots each repeated the process. As one veteran Spitfire divebombing pilot once told the author, “When a formation of Spitfires drops 1,000 pounds of bombs on a target, it doesn’t improve it!”

The Spitfires reformed and all returned safely, one hour and 20 minutes after they had taken off from their base at Varrelbusch, a former Luftwaffe airfield now designated B-113, just north of the German town of Cloppenburg. This was just another close air support, dive-bombing mission for the Polish Spitfire Wing, but for Gabszewicz, this was his last of the war and the sixth he had flown in his personal Spitfire TD240.

Aleksander Gabszewicz: A tenacious fighter pilot

When the Second World War ended in Europe just three days later, on May 8, 1945, Aleksander Gabszewicz had been operational with the Polish Air Force from the very first day of the war to the very last.

Born in Poland in December 1911, Gabszewicz trained as a pilot at the Polish Air Force Academy, the “School of Eagles,” at DÄ™blin. By 1937 he had qualified as a fighter pilot and was flying the ungainly and virtually obsolete, open-cockpit, high-wing PZL P.11 fighter. On September 1, 1939, the day that Germany invaded Poland, Gabszewicz shared a kill against a Luftwaffe Heinkel He 111 near Warsaw at 0900 in the morning, flying a PZL P.11. This was probably the first aerial victory against a German aircraft of WW II. That same afternoon, Gabszewicz himself was shot down and forced to bail out.

With Poland overrun by the German forces, Gabszewicz escaped to France, where he joined the French Air Force and was soon in command of a flight of Polish pilots that were attached to a French squadron and based near Lyon. He downed a German Dornier Do 17 while flying a Bloch MB 152 during the Battle of France. After the fall of France, he crossed the Mediterranean to North Africa and then travelled through Algeria, Morocco, and Gibraltar to arrive in Britain in June 1940.

Gabszewicz was initially commissioned into the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR), but on August 5, 1940, all Polish airmen were withdrawn from the RAFVR to serve with the Polish Air Force under RAF command. For the remainder of the war, the Polish Air Force was logistically and operationally embedded within the Royal Air Force.

Gabszewicz converted to the Hawker Hurricane and flew operationally during the last three weeks of the Battle of Britain in 1940. In 1941, he flew with the famous 303 (Kościuszko) Squadron and subsequently with the newly formed 316 (City of Warsaw) Squadron, becoming a flight commander. No. 316 Squadron converted to Spitfires in October 1941, and Gabszewicz became its commanding officer the following month, with promotion to Squadron Leader. During April and May 1942, on bomber escort and fighter sweep missions flying his Spitfire Mk VB, he claimed three Fw 190s destroyed, one probably destroyed, a third share in another probable, and one damaged, to add to the two shared kills he had been credited with while flying Hurricanes.

Gabszewicz was promoted to Wing Commander in January 1943 and became the Wing Leader of No. 2 (Polish) Wing, which consisted of three Polish Spitfire squadrons. While leading the Wing in his Spitfire Mk VB EN865 on a sweep over Holland on April 4, 1943, he destroyed a Fw 190 near Rotterdam, making him an official RAF ace with more than five kills in RAF aircraft.

Origins of The “Boxing Bulldog”

The exact origin of Aleksander Gabszewicz’s “Boxing Bulldog” motif is something of a mystery and seems to pre-date its wider use by other Allied units.

Photographs taken at RAF Northolt in April 1942, when Gabszewicz was the Commanding Officer of No. 316 (Polish) Squadron, show the “Boxing Bulldog” emblem painted onto the right stole of his Mae West life jacket. Clearly, he had already adopted it as his own by early 1942 and is said to have been using it from 1941. A color pencil drawing of the “Boxing Bulldog” in his personal album is dated 1942 and shows the creature wearing the colors of the Polish flag on its shorts, vest and cape, with the Polish coat of arms on its vest, but without the lightning flashes on the boxing gloves.

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