Flying Officer Marian Rytka MBE

Marian Rytka was born on 19 August 1914 in Warsaw, Poland. Rytka was an experienced pilot upon the outbreak of the Second World War.

During the Polish campaign in 1939, he was an instructor at the Air Force Reserve Cadet Officer's School at Radom-Sadków. He was evacuated with the school, eventually arriving in France in October 1939. He was posted to a fighter section led by Lieutenant Aleksander Gabszewicz.

Gabszewicz later ranked Group Captain, and flew in the Battle of Britain with No. 303 (Kościuszko) Squadron. The Polish Air Force Memorial Committee owns Gabszewicz' flying jacket and service cap, which is on display in the Polish Air Force exhibition at the Battle of Britain Bunker. 

Rytka arrived in the UK with many of his Polish comrades around the time of the Fall of France in June 1940, and after his initial training, he was posted to No.303 (Kościuszko) Squadron. He was transferred to No.302 (Poznań) Squadron after just six days on 23 October 1940. No.302 had flown as part of the Duxford Big Wing during the Battle of Britain. The Big Wing was a tactic demonstrated by No. 12 Group of the Royal Air Force, in which they preferred to meet the enemy in a large show of force, with multiple squadrons flying as one aerial armada.  

Rytka was credited with four aerial victories during his service. On 21 May 1941, Rytka was shot down over Northern France in Hurricane II Z2423. For three months, Rytka evaded capture and returned to Britain via Spain by 15 August 1941 and was the first Polish pilot to escape occupied Europe. For this achievement, he was commissioned and awarded the MBE.  

Handwritten report dated 8 May 1941 by Marian Rytka, describing combat over Kent.
Rytka's journey back to Britain was perilous and filled with danger. It is documented that Rytka was helped to Marseille by Harold Cole, a petty criminal, and conman, who was helping the French Resistance organise escape lines for airmen and escaped allied Prisoners of War (POW). Cole later became an agent for Nazi Germany and was killed by French police after resisting arrest in Paris 1946.1 Rytka eventually made his way over the Pyrenees to Spain. He was briefly arrested at a train station in Barcelona with some fellow escapees but managed to flee across the railway lines before permanent incarceration.  

After getting back to the UK, he was posted back to his Squadron. He was tasked with searching for a colleague in No.303 (Kościuszko) Squadron, Flight Lieutenant Zdzisław Henneberg. Henneberg had ditched in the Channel on 12 April 1941 after being shot down. Unfortunately, he was lost before Rytka could get help to him. Rytka was listed as a member of the No. 302 Squadron aircrew who partook in Operation Jubilee (more commonly known as the Dieppe Raid) in 1942.

Tragically, Rytka was killed in Spitfire BL403 in a training flight on 5 December 1942. His engine failed upon take off at RAF Northolt and he was forced to crash land and later died in hospital. He was only 28 years old. In his short service flying with the Polish Air Force in Britain, Rytka was heavily decorated. He was awarded the Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE), the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), the Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM), Virtuti Militari (VM) and the Cross of Valour (CV, 2 bars).  


Marian Rytka reports back to his squadron after an unsuccessful attempt to locate Flt/Lt Henneberg, 1941. Photo Credit: © Wotjek Matusiak archive .

Harold Cole ( 

Page last updated: 27 Sep 2021