This assembly for primary schools discusses the Battle of Britain, in particular focusing on the Polish RAF Pilot Janusz Zurakowsk. It teaches primary children elements of British history, as well as bringing to their attention the stories there are to hear, and lessons there are to learn, from older generations
September 15th is commemorated as Battle of Britain Day, and September 21st as Battle of Britain Sunday. During the week in between, RAF veterans will be arranging public fundraising events. Our assembly commemorates “The Few”, taking as an example the Polish RAF Pilot Janusz Zurakowski (1914 – 2004).
Introduction for teachers
Zurakowski is an excellent role model for Polish people, a reminder of the huge contribution made by Polish servicemen in WW2. He was twice a refugee – first from when the Soviets invaded his part of Poland, then from Poland to the UK when the Nazis occupied Poland. Then he was an immigrant from the UK to Canada, where there’s a “Zurakowski Park” in his honour.
After the war, Zurakowski was a test pilot on the early jet fighters. For special air displays he developed a unique and frightening looking trick whereby he made a jet fighter do a cartwheel through the air. A note at the end explains how he did it, if you want to pursue this.
- Picture of Zurakowski.
- Picture of a Spitfire.
- A child who can do a good cartwheel.
Who can do a good cartwheel? Yes, I know lots of you can. [Spend some time on this if you like.]
Why have I asked you to do this? All will be revealed in time. But first, let’s get on with our assembly. It’s to commemorate Battle of Britain Day. What’s that? Well, let’s see.
Sometimes, as you travel around our country, you see signs pointing to where battles were fought long ago [give any local examples]. The Battle of Naseby, for example, or the Battle of Marston Moor. There aren’t any signs pointing to modern battles, though, partly because there were no World War 2 battles fought in Britain.
Well, there was one, but it doesn’t have a battlefield. That’s because it was fought in the sky, between the Royal Air Force and the Luftwaffe, the German air force. It’s called the Battle of Britain. It was an important battle because both sides were fighting to control the skies over Britain. If the RAF had been defeated, then the German Army might have been able to come across the Channel and attack our country. But the RAF were not defeated. Pilots of fighter planes went up day after day during the summer of 1940 to defend Britain against German attacks. 2,353 British RAF pilots took part in the battle, and 574 from other countries – that sounds a lot, but compared with the millions who fought in World War 2 it wasn’t many at all. Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously said, after the battle. “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
Ever since then, those 2,927 men have been known as “The Few”. We remember them especially this week, because it was on September 15th 1940 that the biggest of the air battles took place. After that day, the Luftwaffe gave up their attempt to win the air battle over England.
Today we remember “The Few”, and in this assembly we’ll think especially of one pilot who can represent for us all of those brave men.
Of the 2,927 who made up “The Few” in the Battle of Britain, 544 were killed. Another 791 were killed later in the war. Many of the survivors went back to quiet family lives. Some continued to fly. One who didn’t give up flying was a Polish pilot, squadron leader Janusz (“Jan”) Zurakowski; a hero to Polish people, British people and Canadians – let’s see why that is.
Jan was born in 1914 in Poland. When he was fourteen, his part of Poland became part of Russia, because the border between the two countries was changed. So his family moved back over the border so they could stay in Poland, and when he was old enough he joined the Polish Air Force to be a pilot. Then, in 1939, the Germans attacked Poland, and although Jan and other Polish soldiers and airmen fought bravely, Germany conquered Poland, and Jan escaped to England where he and many other Polish pilots joined the Royal Air Force. Jan flew a Spitfire in the Battle of Britain. He was one of many Polish soldiers and airmen who fought the Nazis alongside the British.
Many RAF pilots died in the Battle of Britain, but Jan survived, and after the war he became a test pilot, trying out new aircrafts, often risking his life in order to make sure that planes were safe for the men who would later have to fly them. While he was testing planes, he did all kinds of aerobatic tricks, including one he invented himself. He could make a jet fighter do a cartwheel – not looping the loop or any of the other manoeuvres, but a proper cartwheel that he’d invented himself. It looked like the one that (name) did for us. He’d do it at air shows and everyone loved it. [See below for an explanation of this.]
After a few years as a test pilot in England, Jan emigrated to Canada where he continued to be a test pilot until he was forty-five. Being a test pilot is a dangerous job and Jan promised his wife he’d stop when he was forty, so he was five years late on his promise. In 1959 the couple retired to keep a small hotel at Mounts Bay in Canada. There he was happy for over forty years, surrounded by his family, making friends and tinkering with boats until he died in 2004 at the age of 91. Now, at Mounts Bay, there’s a Zurakowski Park in his memory, created by all the local people who had grown to love and respect him through his long retirement. As an old man he’d be seen by the water, perhaps working on one of his boats, and only the people in the know would realise that here was a Polish refugee who’d been a war hero and an intrepid test pilot. After he died, his 20-year-old granddaughter Krysia who’s also a flyer said “He was a role model, but he was also a grandpa. He was someone to look up to for his great skill in aviation, but he never showed the slightest bit of arrogance I wanted to take him in a glider with me, but I never got the chance to do it before he got sick. Every time I go into the air, I’ll think of him.”
Poland is a country that’s suffered terribly from invasion by other nations – especially Germany and the Soviet Union. Its people have known terrible cruelties, and they have won great honour and respect for their bravery and undying love for their country. Any older Polish person might well have interesting stories to tell if you ask, and any young Polish person should be very proud of their heritage. They can certainly stand beside us when we remember those who gave their lives in World War 2, or when we remember the Battle of Britain, because Polish soldiers and airmen played a full and unselfish part in all that happened in those years.
Lord, we thank you that nations which once were enemies are now at peace. May we build a future in which wars play no part. We thank you Lord for those who gave their lives in World War 2, especially, this week, the young men – British, Canadian, Australian, Polish, French, American and others – who joined the Royal Air Force and fought for this country. We thank you, too, for those who, like Jan Zurakowski, survived the war and lived happy lives with their family in the years that followed.
Anyone who’s lived a long time has a story to tell. Take time to hear some of them.
Zurakowski was a test pilot on the Meteor fighter which had two jet engines, one on each wing. He’d pull the plane up into a vertical climb until the speed dropped to virtually nothing, then he’d open up one engine full throttle and slow the other one down. The plane would do a full end over end cartwheel before settling into a steep dive.
This e-bulletin issue was first published in September 2008
About the author: Gerald Haigh