Flying Officer Franciszek Gruszka
Franciszek Gruszka was born on 21 January 1910, in Lwów, Poland, to an affluent farming family. He and his two brothers progressed to higher education and Gruszka decided to pursue a military career. He graduated from the Polish Air Force Academy at Dęblin in 1934, subsequently acting as an instructor for new cadets. He was known as an affable character and was deeply respected by his subordinates.
"My brother had many friends and was very popular. Even before his military days he was known for his great courage and generosity. He liked music and was a splendid mandolinist, me accompanying him on guitar. He had no match in wrestling and aviation was his passion."
On 17 September 1939, the day the Soviet Union attacked Poland from the east, Gruszka was given orders to cross the Romanian border (an escape route used by many Polish military personnel). Gruszka had passed through Romania, Italy and Yugoslavia to reach France and arrived in Paris on 7 October 1939. Gruszka and two of his Polish colleagues, Pilot Officer Bolesław Drobinski and Sergeant Józef Szlagowski, decided they would be best placed to resist the German forces in the United Kingdom, so after a short stay in France, they became three of the first Polish pilots to reach the UK in December 1939.
Like most Polish pilots who reached the UK, Gruszka was first sent to Blackpool and was then assigned a particular RAF squadron. After a short spell of training, he was sent to No. 65 'East India' Squadron, based at RAF Hornchurch, one of No.11 Group's sector station HQs. Gruszka became one of the first Polish pilots to operate a Spitfire aircraft.
Gruszka flew numerous operational sorties in early August 1940 and his skill was recognised by his RAF colleagues. Pilot Officer David Glaser, one of No. 65 Squadron stated the following about Gruszka:
"We were very fond of our 2 Poles. I was really only a youth and both Gruszka and Szulkoswki were experienced and respected pilots in their own air force before the War. I looked up to them."
Glaser was later an attendee at Gruszka's burial at Northwood Cemetery in 1975.
On 18 August 1940, Gruszka took off in Supermarine Spitfire Mk I R6713 with No. 65 Squadron to intercept a German raid near Canterbury. Luftwaffe targets on this day included some important airfields in Kent, such as RAF Manston and RAF Biggin Hill, and RAF Kenley. He was spotted by eyewitnesses in the early afternoon, engaged in fierce dogfights over Kent. Gruszka's Spitfire was last seen around 14:15, chasing a German fighter fleeing towards the coast.
Gruszka's aircraft crashed in marshland near Canterbury in Kent and his Spitfire was fully submerged until it was uncovered in 1971. Gruszka's body was found in the cockpit of the aircraft. He was identifiable by a gold fountain pen, which had been engraved with the names of his fellow pilots. He was buried with full military honours in 1975 at Northwood Cemetery.
18 August 1940 became known as the 'Hardest Day'. The Royal Air Force suffered the loss of 10 pilots and 68 aircraft destroyed, including Fleet Air Arm losses. The RAF sustained more losses on this day than at any other time throughout the Battle of Britain.
Gruszka left family in Poland, with his two brothers surviving the war. Due to Poland being behind the 'Iron Curtain', his family only found out about Gruszka's story when they heard reports of his funeral on the BBC World Service. Members of his family have subsequently visited his grave site at Northwood Cemetery.
Acknowledgements: With thanks to Dilip Sarkar and Wotjek Matusiak.