Boleslaw (Bill) KOBYLEC
A D-Day Pilot Remembers: A first-hand account of a Polish airman's role in the military campaign that ended the Second World War
June 5, 1944
The war dragging on into its fifth year. Finally, preparations were well underway for the invasion of Europe, still controlled by the Nazis. My unit, 305 squadron of the Polish Air Force, was to be involved in the coming invasion.
Our airfield was hidden in wooded terrain in Lasham, Hampshire, southern England. Recently constructed runways smelled of fresh asphalt. Coniferous trees seemed to embrace our concealed, airplanes, Mosquito fighter bombers. These twin-engined aircraft of wooden construction were well armed and used for night or day operational flying. Camouflaged tents pitched among the trees served as lodgings for crews and ground staff. Not far, about a half kilometre away in a spacious tent, was the kitchen catering to all of us around the clock. Night was our busy time because that's when we flew most of our sorties. Daytime flying was rare and limited only to training.
The weather on June 5th was typically English, and the sky was covered with gray clouds. The hands of the dock moved slowly towards five. As usual at this hour, the airmen and I jumped into the jeep and drove to the mess for an evening meal. The temporary mess was an enormous place with tables and benches protected from rain or sun by thick stretched canvas. It was always busy. On the menu were bacon and eggs, my favorite food. Considering that the war had already lasted four years, shortages had affected everyone and resulted in the rationing of food. The only exception in the: rationing system was made for the flying crews.
After the return from our meal, a sudden alarm assembled the members of our squadron. This seemed very unusual. As operational aircrew, each of us was expected always to be ready for assignment, but this of us sensed that this meeting would be different. Shaken by this sudden call, we become curious about the change in routine. We were taken by hastily assembled lorries back in the direction of the kitchen. From all sides of the airfield, vehicles filled with airmen started to congregate. I noticed. that, in addition to our group, members of other squadrons representing many nationalities were included in the assembly. Behind the mess tent was a small hill topped by a few trees. It created the impression of an amphitheater as it slowly began to fill with airmen.
After a few minutes, 400 to 500 of us focused our attention on the slit in the canvas, where a high- ranking officer emerged. He was an Air Marshall of the Royal Air Force. He began with a short prepared statement declaring that tonight allied troops would attack the shores of Normandy. He then told us that it would be our duty to give all our effort to the success of the invasion. He ended with rousing words wishing us "Good luck" and "God bless."
FILLED WITH PRIDE
We were dumfounded but filled with pride that fate had chosen us to be part of this great historical event. The happy faces of everybody showed delight. After all, we had been waiting for this event since the war began in 1939.
After the announcement, we filed through the tent where three-dimensional topographical maps were laid out on the tables showing the northern regions of France. These defined exactly the German defensive positions and concentrations of troops along the Normandy coast. We were also briefed regarding the terrain and location of anti-aircraft artillery. After returning to the squadron, within 15 minutes I was up in the air testing and preparing my plane for the night sortie. This would be my first flight of the invasion. Evidently, the same orders had been given to other squadrons, for the sky was buzzing with Mosquitoes landing or taking off.
After the test flight, all crews were ordered into a briefing with the intelligence officers. They disclosed to us our targets and gave us details about them. After this, there was nothing to do but wait for take-off. Our plane received a last, very careful inspection by the mechanics. My navigator, Jan Trznadel, and I ran through the flight plan again and again to be sure of the smallest details. Take-off time arrived. Was I afraid? I was excited, but I was too busy to be scared. Besides, this flight would be similar to others and I really did not know what to expect. So I was calm.
After testing my engines and going through a detailed cockpit drill, I joined the queue of planes waiting for the take-off. Finally, the Mosquito slowly began its take-off, rolling along the runway and gaining speed. With the last bounce of the wheels I knew I was airborne.
The scene was unreal. Although it was dark, at a height of about 300 feet I sensed that I was not alone. Looking around, I saw that in every direction the sky was filled with airplanes. It seemed that there were hundreds of them, each pulling by a long steel cable a glider filled with troops fully armed and prepared for the coming battle.
At two thousand feet the clouds hung low, almost touching the plane. The Weather was generally poor. Because of strong winds my plane was tossed about. Putting my Mosquito into a gentle turn, I set its course towards the shore of Normandy. Flying at a speed of 240 miles per hour, I found myself over the English Channel. Very soon, in spite of the darkness, I noticed the outline of its shores and I realized that in only 60 miles I would be over France.
Each moment of the flight brought something new. Flying south towards Cherbourg, I noticed that the French coast, which on previous flights had always been dark and peaceful, now glowed and was brighter than ever before. It did not take me long to realize that this indescribable light show over the French coast was caused by thousands of bombs and luminous bullets tearing humanity apart. The earth below me was lit up from the explosions. I cannot begin to describe the sight. The explosions stretched along the coast as if a giant hose was spraying fire with flickering flames. Startled by this sight for some time, I regained my concentration and continued with my mission. My plane carried four five-hundred pound bombs: two were in the bomb bay and one was attached beneath each wing. The nose and belly of my Mosquito held four cannons and four machine guns.
My mission was to bomb the railways and supply roads used by the German troops. It seemed to me that my Mosquito was approaching the target area too fast. I had to fulfill my mission, but the decision as to how to do it belonged to me.
As I began to turn inland, I had to find a route that would take me safely through the antiaircraft fire. To the west of the city of Cherbourg was the island of Alderney, which appeared to have less flak. Immediately I decided that going through this relatively safe space was my best chance of reaching my target. I asked my navigator for a new course. After a few moments he informed me that I could change the course to 270 degrees — west — and fly parallel to shore. This brought me to Alderney. There I turned left and found myself between the isle and the western shore of Normandy.
In this area the intensity of anti-aircraft fire was much less and it seemed to me that the possibility of reaching the network of German supply lines was much better on this course. Flying along the isle of Alderney I received a light antiaircraft barrage and, before I realized that my plane was the target, my navigator asked me to change course again. According to my assigned flight plan. I had only 20 minutes to reach the target. The weather was not very good. But in spite of the clouds, railways, roads, rivers and towns were clearly visible, as were moving vehicles along the roads. My mission was to bomb supply routes of all kinds. I identified a very busy road with moving transport. I had to circle a couple of times to zero-in on the target and find a good approach for the bomb run. I did this without too much hurry as 1 had not attracted any flak. That surprised me greatly. For my bomb run, I followed the railway track to the crossing. I opened the bomb bay and began to dive towards the target. At 300 feet, I released two bombs. Then, and only then, I noticed tracer bullets flying towards me and, at the same time, my plane was caught by searchlights.
My Mosquito was illuminated like an actor on stage. From the pilot's seat, it was like looking at the very core of the sun. I was temporarily blinded. Moving my head away from the beam, I watched carefully the height at which my plane was flying. I knew that the lower I flew, the better was the chance of getting out of the reflector beams.
I had to close my eyes for a moment in order not to lose control over my plane. It was as though thousands of photographic flashbulbs lit up at the same time. From previous experience I knew I could not trust my altimeter. Closing my eyes slightly, I tried to look at the illuminated terrain instead of piloting the plane by instruments. I dove to drop the remaining two bombs. As I gained speed and flew closer to the ground it was difficult for the searchlights to keep up with me. Suddenly I found myself in darkness again and I knew that I had succeeded in my escape.
The flak which greeted me so unexpectedly seemed to come from the road running along the railway track. I made a 180-degree turn and began to fire at moving vehicles. The recoil from the four cannon vibrated the soles of my feet and my hands on the controls. This lasted only seconds and, when the trigger stopped reacting to my pressure, I knew that I had no more ammunition. The direction of my plane when the attack ended was exactly on course for the return to my base. This was confirmed by my navigator and I commenced to climb. Although I considered my mission to have been successfully completed, I was still over enemy territory. This was not the time to relax.
I checked my machine guns to be prepared if attacked by German fighters. This could happen at any time. Carefully looking at the dark sky, I watched the space in front of the plane and my navigator watched the back. The Mosquito had a design flaw which allowed the tail to obscure the view to the back. This gave the Germans the opportunity to sneak up from the rear and down the plane. Luckily, I did not meet German fighters this time as I headed back to base. After half an hour of flying and filled with a sense of achievement, I crossed the western shores of France and flew towards the isle of Alderney which I had passed earlier that night. On my right, I noticed again the luminous barrage of fire. But all of this was almost behind me. Only then I began to notice in my radio headphones what sounded like the Tower of Babel. Hundreds of voices of different nationalities: shouts, curses and calls for help, MAY DAY, MAY DAY, attention on the right, George f------ Jerry behind, ferfluchte donne veter, MAY DAY again. But in my returning Mosquito I had a feeling of safety. I was leaving this hell, at least for tonight. The picture created by the madness of humanity that night was etched for ever in my memory. Lulled by the monotonous noise of the engines, I returned to the base, safe and in one piece. It was my first flight of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Europe that led to the end of the war.
305 Bomber Squadron
On the left, an illustration of the D-Day bombing mission by Connolly. Above, a photo of a Mosquito bomber.
This photo was taken 2 weeks before the German invasion of Poland, in September 1939. Kobylec is on the right.
Boleslaw (Bill) Kobylec moved to Montreal, Canada after the war, and later settled in Kingston, Ontario. He died in 2011.
WW2 photo of Kobylec with his navigator Jan Jozef Trznadel. Jan died in action on 16 August 1944 and is buried at the Newark-upon-Trent cemetery.