‘Our debt is eternal’: Johnson during exhibition on Poles in Battle of Britain

It is the first permanent exhibition highlighting the pivotal role that Polish airmen played during the Battle of Britain and it is on this occasion that UK PM Boris Johnson explicitly said that his country’s debt to the courageous aces “is eternal”.

Officially opened on May 21 by Poland's Ambassador Arkady Rzegocki and London Borough of Hillingdon Councillor Ray Puddifoot in the presence of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the exhibition is located at the Battle of Britain Bunker in west London.

On display are exhibits and documents, many of which have not been shown to the public until now. The array of exhibited objects tells stories of Polish combat missions during WWII. The exhibition does not focus exclusively on the airmen as it also brings the role and importance of observers, ground crew and the Polish Women's Auxiliary Air Force to the fore.

Visitors are able to learn about the journeys undertaken by Polish Air Force personnel following the invasion of Poland by Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939. The exhibition explores the military preparations in pre-war Poland and how the Polish Government in exile and military were organised in France and Britain during 1940.

During the opening ceremony, PM Johnson said that the Spitfire fighter plane on display in the Battle of Britain Bunker always reminded him of Polish pilots' bravery and efficacy in shooting down German planes in the Battle of Britain. He expressed his absolute conviction that the outcome of the battle would have been much different, should there be no Poles to fight on Britain’s side and that his country’s debt to the Polish pilots was eternal.

Polish Ambassador to the UK Arkady Rzegocki said the Battle of Britain, whose 80th anniversary was commemorated last year, "turned the tide of WWII."

He went on to say that the exhibition was an expression of the gladness of Hillingdon Council, which “has decided to honour the memory of those without whom the war could have ended differently." The diplomat added that this was the first permanent, open-access exhibition in the UK about the role of the Polish Air Force during the war and a great opportunity "to reflect on the Polish-British spirit of camaraderie that binds us thanks to those who in the past shed blood for Poland, the United Kingdom and Europe."

The particular historical connection between the Polish Air Force and Hillingdon is that of accommodation as it is in the RAF Northolt base located in the borough that Polish squadrons were stationed. Moreover, the Polish units participated in combat missions organised by Headquarters No. 11 Group (RAF Fighter Command) based at RAF Uxbridge.

Whereas for the Battle of Britain Bunker, the exhibition venue, it is there that the group's operational centre, from where the air defence of London and South East of Britain was coordinated, was located.

"We're delighted to open this fantastic exhibition which shines a spotlight on the invaluable efforts our Polish allies made during one of history's most notable conflicts," Mr Puddifoot said.

"Their lesser-heard stories of bravery echo those of Britain's pilots, crews and officers whose collective heroism played a vital part in bringing the war to an end," he added.

The British officially recognise the battle's duration as being from July 10 to October 31, 1940, when large-scale German air raids took place. The Poles, with a force of 145 people, were the second-largest nationality on the side of the Allies. Accounting for less than 5 percent of the pilots, they knocked down more than 10 percent of German planes.

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