Battle of Britain profile of courage: John Alexander Kent and the RAF’s Polish fighter pilots

Biography / September 12, 2019

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By Paul Collins

The 79th anniversary of the Battle of Britain  will be observed on Sunday, September 15, 2019.
A national ceremony will be held at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, Ontario,
and local ceremonies will take place across Canada.

John Alexander Kent was born in the Elmwood neighborhood of Winnipeg on June 23, 1914, and from a very young age knew that all he ever wanted to do was fly. His first encounter with an airplane was with one used to take passengers up for rides around the city from an amusement park near his home. The hopes of five-year-old Kent were briefly dashed when his mother forbade him to even go near the aircraft, let alone fly in it. With the exception of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Forestry Patrol, there was very little aviation activity in Western Canada. Even so, Kent used to ride his bicycle to their base on the river to admire the graceful flying boats used by the RCAF at that time. Before long, aircraft belonging to the mine owners and grain dealers began to appear all over Western Canada. However, Lindbergh’s solo flight from New York to Paris was the one event that sparked the greatest interest in aviation, putting it firmly on the map.

With the wave of post-war economic prosperity coming to a peak in the mid-1920s, there came a far greater interest in aviation, especially by those who had profited from that economic expansion. This led to an interest in flying that increased exponentially, not only as a means of opening up Northern Canada but also as a recreational activity. As a result, flying clubs, such as the Winnipeg Flying Club, sprang up all over Western Canada, and soon flying became the thing to do. Aircraft increasingly could fly faster and longer, as records were seemingly only made to be broken, and the increased publicity of the Schneider Trophy races, for which the earliest versions of the Spitfire aircraft were produced, gave aviation a romance that few other pursuits at that time could enjoy.

However, on Kent’s 15th birthday, his life would change forever. His father took him out to the Winnipeg Flying Club and allowed him to take his first flight. After being shown a Gypsy Moth aircraft that the club had just obtained, he was invited for a flight. Kent climbed into the cockpit and was securely strapped in. His eyes covered with goggles and wearing a leather flying helmet, he sat motionless, not knowing what was going to happen next. Just then the engine turned over, the propeller began to spin and the pilot in the seat behind him manoeuvred the small aircraft to the end of the unpaved runway. Within minutes they were airborne and headed east. The pilot pointed out the street where Kent lived, and he shouted and waved at his house, despite knowing there was no way anyone could see or hear him. That half hour seemed like an eternity, and the experience utterly consumed him. Kent knew there was no longer any doubt about it, he HAD to fly!

After much negotiating and pleading with his parents, they finally agreed to allow him to pursue a career in aviation. However then, like now, wanting to fly and actually learning to fly are two different things. After discovering that joining the RCAF would require a six-year university course, Kent’s only option was to have his father fund his flight training, on the condition that he graduate from high school, to which he readily agreed.

Kent began his flying lessons under the guidance of Konrad “Konnie” Johannesson, who had flown with both the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Air Force (RAF) in the First World War. Under Johannesson’s tutelage, Kent mastered the Cirrus Moth aircraft and soon was tossing it around the air, spinning and stalling the aircraft easily. In November of 1931, at the age of 17, Kent became the youngest licensed pilot in Canadian history. This feat echoed in 1933, as Kent became the youngest-ever commercial pilot in Canada.

Still, despite these incredible accomplishments, the prospects for actually making a living flying airplanes was, at best, rather bleak. There was a drastic cutback in aviation activity as a result of the Depression. Prime Minister R. B. Bennett cut the air mail contracts, causing a number of pilots to lose their jobs, and he also chopped a large number of RCAF pilots virtually overnight, creating a sizable pool of very qualified pilots for any available flying positions.

Kent even briefly considered becoming a soldier of fortune, entertaining an offer from the Chinese to fight against the Japanese in Manchuria. Despite an advertised pay of $1 million a month, the idea was quickly dismissed when Kent learned he would be flying surplus Sopwith Camels. In addition, the Prime Minister also decreed that any Canadian who took up the offer of the Chinese government would forfeit their Canadian citizenship, further cementing Kent’s disapproval. In his book, Kent speculates that since he would be flying biplanes against the Japanese air force, he seriously doubted he would have been able to collect even one month’s pay.

In late 1933, Kent saw an advertisement offering a short service commission in the RAF for six years’ duration. After numerous exams, he received his letter advising him that he was selected as a candidate for the program and asked that he make his own way to London no later than March 1935. It was a painful parting for Kent and his mother, as he had been her sole companion during the long four years his father was away fighting in the First World War. In February 1935, he said his farewells and left for England.

After reporting to the RAF depot at Uxbridge, he was sent to No. 5 Flying Training School at Sealand near Chester. Kent began his training on the Avro Tutor, an aircraft he found very easy to fly, especially when they began the aerobatics portion of their training. Kent easily passed his initial training, scoring 490 out of a possible 500 marks, graduating fifth in his class. He was then posted to No. 19 Squadron, based at RAF Station Duxford, near Cambridge.

One of the standard "dramatis persona" of any military story, real or imagined, is the classic English martinet, the strict and often unreasonable disciplinarian within any military unit who will brook no questioning of any of their orders. This is the kind of officer who cannot grasp the difference between commanding respect and demanding respect. It seems that Kent ran headlong into such a character himself during his flight training at Duxford. While flying a Gloster Gauntlet, in tight formation of course, Kent suddenly realized that his flight commander was approaching the airfield with the intent of landing in formation, which they had never done before. However, the angle of the perimeter fence of the airfield was such that their approach put Kent closest to it, and he ran the risk of catching the undercarriage of his aircraft on it. As a precaution, he pulled up, broke formation and went around again and landed on his own. After taxiing in, he was subjected to, as he called it, “a veritable broadside of invective and abuse which was repeated when I tried to explain why I had acted as I had”.

In his tirade, his all-knowing flight commander made it quite clear that it was not Kent’s job to watch the fence; all he had to do was watch the flight commander and follow him. He would take care of the fence. As Kent slunk away to lick his wounds, the flight commander detailed another of his charges to get ready for another formation practice. One of the officers who seemed to have taken the greatest pleasure at Kent’s misfortune was now flying in his place, and as they came in for their landing, that officer’s undercarriage struck the fence as Kent knew it would and his aircraft flipped over onto its back and was destroyed, with pilot escaping serious injury.

With more than a little frustration, Kent was left with the definite impression that in this man’s Air Force, you just cannot win. During his time at Duxford, Kent logged hours in a variety of aircraft, honed his firing skills and night flying skills and, by 1937, saw that the events in Europe were slowly starting to have an effect on the RAF, as more squadrons were being added, more pilots were going into training and more and more aircraft were being ferried onto bases all over England. It was then that Kent began participating in large-scale exercises that had aircraft rapidly taking off and climbing to 25,000 feet [7,620 metres] and then attempting to intercept other formations of planes. This was, of course, the introduction of the “scramble” that would be used so effectively during the coming Battle of Britain.

As expected during training, Kent had his share of white-knuckle rides in aircraft that had mysteriously lost power, requiring the newly minted RAF officer to do some very fast thinking and some even more impressive flying to get himself home safely. In one instance on a night flying exercise, he misjudged the location of the airfield and made a perfect landing in the back garden of the station commander who, as one would imagine, was none too pleased to have an airplane come crashing down in his back yard in the middle of the night. Another time, the engine on Kent’s engine started banging, coughing and finally cut out at 15,000 feet [4,572 metres]. Unbelievably, he banked his aircraft a few times, easily glided back to base and miraculously rolled to a stop just out front of the hangar.

One thing that has become clearly obvious is that Kent was, quite simply, born to fly. Regardless of the aircraft, he seemed to intuitively sense what the aircraft was capable of almost instantly, bringing out the best in any machine he chose to fly. Contrast this with a pilot like Buzz Beurling who seemed to be more suited to killing rather than flying. Beurling was, of course, a highly skilled pilot, but it seemed to be secondary to his ability to shoot down enemy planes, using the aircraft more as a weapon than anything else. If one reads the speech he gave while on his war bonds tour, one is left a little uneasy as he publicly states his keen satisfaction “when you actually blow their brains out,” discussing how he deliberately aimed at the pilots heads when firing.

By the end of 1937, Kent had grown a little dispirited with England and more than a few times had a strong urge to return home. As Kent’s mother was English, she spoke of England as nothing short of Utopia, which contrasted sharply with the country that greeted Kent upon his arrival. He felt that in many ways England was lagging far behind Canada and, as a result, began romanticizing his home the way his mother had done. Still, there were some things that he was not able to reconcile. In terms of the technology, the pervasive belief among the English that central heating was unhealthy resulted in many chilly days. As someone who grew up with the seemingly endless prairie summers, Kent found it very difficult to adjust to the unpredictable and often foul English weather. He quickly came to the conclusion that England was just not for him, and he took two months’ leave and went back to Winnipeg. Oddly enough, he was surprised that Winnipeg was not all that he had remembered it to be either. He says “Portage Avenue was not quite two miles wide, nor were the street cars and automobiles quite as big as I had thought they were”. Some doubt crept into his mind, as he thought that maybe England wasn’t quite so bad after all, but he resolved to stay in Canada and applied to the newly formed Trans-Canada Airlines for a pilot’s job. During the interview, he was advised that there would be a job for him in a year’s time, so he resolved to return to England to continue flying and then come back to Canada. Once again, he said his goodbyes to his family and left for England, assuring them that he would be back in a year.

It seems the RAF had other plans, for when Kent arrived in England in October 1937, he was posted to the Experimental Section of the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough for test pilot duties. Kent was, quite simply, thrilled beyond measure not only because of the challenges that lay ahead but also because his selection meant that he was among the best pilots in the entire RAF and that his skills had been noticed by those above.

It was during his time as a test pilot that Kent would earn his Air Force Cross, as he made over 300 mid-air collisions with various types of barrage balloons and cables of different thickness. In discussing his first attempted collision, he talks at length about all the various precautions that were made, the chase aircraft that would film the results and, above all, the fact that it took seven tries for him to finally make his first collision, with all the tension that built up prior to each attempt. Most pilots, of course, do their best to avoid any type of cable or other such thing while flying, yet there was Kent, doing everything he could to throw the wing of his plane into such devices and finding that hitting something in midair is not as easy as it sounds. As he mentioned, the anticlimax was awful, even when he finally hit the cable after seven attempts, because it simply snapped in half from the impact without any damage being done to the aircraft at all.

After his time at Farnborough and with the Second World War having just begun, Kent was posted to the High Altitude Photographic Reconnaissance unit where he flew the specially equipped photo reconnaissance  Spitfire aircraft, which were stripped of all standard equipment – guns, armour plating and even the radio – to enable them to carry as much fuel as possible and which had a modified canopy, without the perspex. The only thing the pilots of these aircraft had was speed and height should they get into any trouble. Kent was detailed to make a photo pass over Holland and, while enjoying the view at 35,000 feet [10,688 metres], heard a distant thumping coming from somewhere behind him. He paid it no attention and marvelled at being able to see northern France, Holland and Belgium, but still, the thumping grew louder and louder, and now affected his aircraft. He finally turned his head and saw what had been causing the thumping, a trail of German flak that had been chasing him for several kilometres.

After the fall of France in the spring of 1940, Fighter Command, as could be expected, was in a highly agitated state and, as such, Kent received three different postings almost in as many days. When the smoke cleared, he was finally posted to RAF Northolt as a flight commander with the Royal Air Force’s newly-formed No. 303 Polish Squadron.

To Kent, who – despite his many successes – had earned a reputation as being arrogant, bossy and – that gravest of sins in the eyes of the English – ambitious, this was the last straw. Posted to a foreign squadron that had not even been formed, he was thoroughly fed up and despondent. He resented the fact that he had been put in with a group of pilots who, to his recollection, had lasted about three days against the Luftwaffe; Kent did not think that they would shine any more brightly in England. Although no one at the time had any appreciation of it, the first rumblings of the Battle of Britain had begun in July 1940, as the Germans had started their attacks on the Channel convoys and ports.

Despite the fact that before the war, the Polish Air Force had had one of the most thorough and rigorous training programs in all of Europe and the bulk of the Polish pilots who made their way to England after the German invasion of Poland and the fall of France had been, on average, flying for almost 10 years, the RAF saw fit to retrain these pilots almost from scratch. Instead of putting these men in planes, they were ordered to ride around a football pitch on oversized tricycles, each fitted with a radio, compass and speed indicator. This absolutely infuriated the Poles, who were skilled, veteran pilots. As one instructor mentioned to Kent, “Their spirit’s magnificent, … I think they hate my guts more than they hate the Germans!” These frustrated pilots not only felt badly because they had been unable to save their home country from the Germans but were also now being prevented from getting their revenge on a bitterly hated enemy. One area where training was required was in the pilot’s English, or rather the lack thereof.

Aside from the lyrics to “Roll Out the Barrel” and the phrase “four whiskeys, please,” the Poles spoke no English, although a number of them did speak French. Squadron Leader Ronald Kellett and Athol Forbes, the other flight commander in No. 303 Squadron, spoke French, so that allowed for some communication, but as Kent did not speak French, he was left odd man out.

His solution was to do a walk-around with the Polish pilots and repeat the English and Polish words for the various components of the aircraft. He also learned the Polish phrases for all the procedures involved in take-off, flying and landing, writing the words out phonetically on his knee pad so he would have them available when in the air. This amused the Poles considerably, and for his efforts, they named him “Kentowski”, making him an honorary Pole. The training, along with the frustration felt by the Poles, continued and, as expected, there were a few scrapes and bumps along the way. Some of the Polish pilots were unused to flying in aircraft with a retractable undercarriage, and there were several unfortunate belly landings from their having forgotten to lower their landing gear. Another issue was that the Poles were used to opening the throttle by pulling it back, instead of pushing it forward. Kent admits to having torn a large strip off one of the pilots for making a belly landing knowing all the while the Pole had no idea what he was saying.

Despite these setbacks, it soon became clear to Kellett, Kent and Forbes that once the Poles got into the air, they were actually very, very good. Kent was especially impressed with their reaction times and their flying ability. Squadron Leader Kellett even became an advocate of the Poles, quick to challenge any disparaging remarks made by any other RAF officers – remarks that he more than likely had made himself prior to his command of No. 303 Squadron.

Two episodes reveal Kellett’s admiration for the Poles in more tangible ways. In one instance at the end of August, due to inevitable bureaucratic nonsense, the Poles did not receive their pay, so Kellett wrote a personal cheque from his own account to cover the pay bill. The other, a little more flashy, was when the squadron was offered the use of a battered old truck for transport from the officers’ mess to the airfield; Kellett intervened again. Other squadrons had cars, and one Canadian squadron even boasted a 1911 Rolls Royce, so Kellett brought in his own open-topped 1924 Rolls Royce touring car, which could ferry as many as twelve pilots to their planes in grand style. The Polish mechanics on the squadron tended to Kellett’s car with the same effort that they tended to the pilots’ Hurricanes. It was considered an excellent morale booster.

Another pleasant surprise for Kent was the arrival of the RAF’s No. 1 Squadron with which Kent had flown previously in France. Kent was especially pleased to be flying with Hilly Brown, “A” Flight commander on the RAF squadron. Kent clearly admired his fellow Manitoban, whom he considered one of the finest fighter pilots he knew, Brown having chalked up a score of 17 aircraft even in this early stage of the war. In addition, a third squadron was moved to Northolt. RCAF No. 1 Squadron (eventually renumbered to 401 Squadron to prevent confusion) was now posted there, and Kent greatly enjoyed having his fellow countrymen so close by. There were now three different air forces at Northolt: Polish, British and Canadian, with Canadians in all three of them. It was the enthusiasm of the Poles that led to their finally being allowed to fight against the Luftwaffe. As depicted in the 1969 movie The Battle of Britain, the Poles broke off from their training exercise and attacked a formation of German bombers, scoring their first victory, on August 30, 1940, when they followed a stricken enemy bomber right down to the ground to ensure it crashed. Kellett immediately asked for permission to declare the squadron operational, and on August 31, one day before the anniversary of the German invasion of Poland, his request was granted. On their first scramble, after some vectoring about, they intercepted a formation of Messerschmitt 109s (Bf109s), and in minutes, six German aircraft were destroyed. In very short order, the Poles showed that they were more than equal to the task of aerial combat. Despite joining two months late, No. 303 “Polish” Squadron would become the highest scoring of all squadrons in the Battle of Britain, destroying 126 aircraft in six weeks while only losing eight of their own pilots. It was a record unrivaled by any other squadron.

Starved for good news in those dark days of the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz, the British press eagerly wrote about the Poles, and their photos were splashed about the newspapers with abandon. The success of the Poles was even a major topic of conversation over dinner at 10 Downing Street in early September. While the Polish pilots themselves downplayed their victories, the British, including the Prime Minister himself, were doing quite the opposite. In his diary, Churchill’s private secretary, Jock Collville, records that there was some debate as to how good the Poles really were. Churchill advanced the argument that one Pole was worth three Frenchmen. Lord Gort (later Viscount Gort), who commanded the British Expeditionary Force in France, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding strongly disagreed with the Prime Minister. In their view the ratio was more like ten Frenchmen for every Pole.

Kent’s first combat victories came on September 9, 1940 when he shot down a Me 110 fighter and a Junkers 88 (Ju 88) bomber. On 23 September, he destroyed a Bf 109 fighter and damaged a Focke-Wulf (Fw) 58 reconnaissance aircraft, while intercepting a raid over Dungeness, Kent. He shot down a Ju 88 after a raid over London on September 27. The day before, His Majesty King George VI paid a visit to the squadron and signed the history book where the pilots had carefully detailed their wartime experiences from the start of the war in Poland. In contrast, when Prime Minister Churchill was presented with the same book and one of the pilots asked in his best broken English “Please, to sign, sir?” Churchill barked, “What’s all this?” Kent explained that it was a history book the squadron was keeping, and they liked to get the signatures of every notable person who paid them a visit. With not a little contempt, he snorted, “Why should I sign it?” Kent replied icily with more than a little bite in his words “Well sir, His Majesty saw fit to sign it on the preceding page!” Churchill turned the page, saw the King’s signature, looked at Kent, sniffed “all right” and signed.

This book has a very special place in the history of No. 303 Squadron. It was originally started by Miroslaw Ferić as a diary; he then went beyond what had originally been requested by his comrades, writing down not just a dry account of their actions but also their thoughts and feelings about what they were doing. The pilots originally resented his urgings, but after Ferić’s death, his remaining comrades took up the task as an act of remembrance. Today the diary is in seven volumes and spans thousands of pages.

Kent was offered a glimpse into the mindset of the Polish pilots one day after flying near London and seeing the smoke and flames that were a result of the Luftwaffe’s first raid on the city. Of the episode, Kent says:

I don’t think I have ever been so angry and I found myself beating my fists against the sides of my cockpit in a fury. It was a strange experience, I had not realised that I could feel so deeply, but at that moment I would have butchered any German I could lay my hands on.

That night I looked at the red glow over London and brooded – I was beginning to understand the attitude of the Poles.

Finally, on October 11, No. 303 Squadron moved north for a rest and, soon after, Kent was given command of the RAF’s No. 92 Squadron, stationed at Biggin Hill just south of London. The Poles gave Kent a send-off party that lasted well into the small hours, and he was one of the few left standing at the end, despite all the revelry and alcohol, which only raised the esteem in which the Poles held him.

No. 92 Squadron had suffered terrible losses and gone through three commanding officers in one month. Kent grimly realized he had been appointed to take over a disorganized, undisciplined and demoralized collection of first-rate pilots. It was felt by the higher-ups that No. 92 Squadron should be pulled out and moved north for a rest, but Kent felt that to do so now would be disastrous, as it would then be known that the squadron had “had it”.

Kent quickly saw that more than a few pilots had what was called “109-itis” and had lost all confidence in their ability to cope with the Germans. This was shown by the tendency of those pilots to break formation and fly home, disobeying orders. However, rather than giving them a rest, Kent advised these pilots that the next time that happened, they would not have to worry about the Germans shooting them down, he would do it himself. Kent knew this was bitter medicine and that the pilots in his squadron hated his guts, but he was the first commanding officer the squadron had had who was more experienced than they were. Whether a result of his tirade or not, on the very next patrol the squadron flew in the best formation Kent had ever seen. Still there was some resistance to his attempt to enforce discipline and, on one more occasion, he saw fit to berate the entire squadron to a man. Kent knew what little popularity he had quickly vanished and was sure that dark threats were made behind his back. However, his message slowly started to get through, and the squadron began to grasp that his “tirade had not been delivered simply because I was an unpleasant bastard but because I had done it for their own good”.

Slowly, the frequency of the German raids lessened, but no one in the Battle knew that it was in its closing stages. It was around then that No. 92 Squadron received the new Spitfire Mark Vb, the first Spitfire with 20 millimetre cannons. Kent was a great advocate of arming the Spitfires with cannons and, as such, No. 92 Squadron was the first to be given these newly configured aircraft as a test. Whilst on patrol in their new Mark Vs, the pilots were startled at how effective even a short burst from the cannons was in completely destroying enemy aircraft.

Late in February 1941, Kent learned that he was to be awarded the Virtuti Militari; “this decoration is Poland’s highest military award, ranking, in Polish eyes, with our Victoria Cross” and the oldest military decoration in all of Europe. He was invited to an investiture held by General Sikorski, the head of the Polish Government in Exile. Kent recalls the evening as a seemingly endless stream of food, wine, champagne, vodka and flashbulbs, ending with pink champagne in a flat off Park Lane whose location remained a mystery to Kent the rest of his life.

After his time with No. 92 Squadron, Kent was promoted to wing commander and given command of the Polish Wing at Northolt, which now had four Polish squadrons and was enjoying the reputation as one of the finest collection of fighter pilots in all of England. He led numerous bomber escorts into France as well as raids on the French countryside.

About his time with the Poles, Kent had this to say:

I cannot say how proud I am to have been privileged to help form and lead No. 303 Squadron and later to lead such a magnificent fighting force as the Polish Wing. There formed within me in those days an admiration, respect and genuine affection for these really remarkable men which I have never lost. I formed friendships that are as firm as they were those twenty-five years ago and this I find most gratifying. We who were privileged to fly and fight with them will never forget and Britain must never forget how much she owes to the loyalty, indomitable spirit and sacrifice of those Polish fliers. They were our staunchest Allies in our darkest days; may they always be remembered as such!

Finally, Kent was relieved of his command at Northolt and sent to Canada for six months for a war bond tour. He joked that he was always unsure if that was a reward or punishment. On a sadder note, the lecture tour was the last time he saw his mother, who passed away before the war ended.

Before the end of the war, Kent went on to serve in Libya, then returned to England and after the war act as personal staff officer to Air Chief Marshal Sholto Douglas, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Air Forces in the British Zone of Occupied Germany. Kent’s final wartime victories included 13 aircraft destroyed, three probables and three damaged. Time does not allow me to elaborate on his post-war career, which was mainly concerned with being lead test pilot for the RAF.

What strikes me about Kent’s career the most is that he was equal to whatever task was presented to him. From becoming the youngest pilot in Canadian history at that time, to playing a leading role in the Battle of Britain, to bringing a broken and demoralized squadron back to fighting form, I have come to have the greatest admiration for his dedication not only to duty but also to the pilots who were in his care. I like to think that his strength of character and resourcefulness are reflective of the upbringing he had in Winnipeg and that we Winnipeggers can be proud to know that those qualities and a little piece of the place that we call home were instrumental in guiding Kent to the successes he had as of one of “The Few.”

Paul Collins is an amateur historian and writer living in Winnipeg. He is the co-chair of Building a Legend, a non-profit group whose goal is to build an airworthy Spitfire as a memorial to the 402 “City of Winnipeg” Squadron.

This is a slightly condensed version of an article that appears in the Royal Canadian Air Force Journal’s 2015 special Battle of Britain edition.

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