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The Hidden Heroism of Witold Urbanowicz


By Clara Sarrocco | September 2011
Clara Sarrocco has been a longtime member and secretary of the New York C.S. Lewis Society. She has taught courses on C.S. Lewis at the Religious Study Centers of St. Joseph's Seminary (Dunwoodie) in Yonkers and Immaculate Conception Seminary of the Diocese of Brooklyn. She is also a member of the University Faculty for Life and the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. In addition to being the assistant director of both the Council on National Literatures and Griffon House Publications, she edits Book Digest.

“From her sorrowful eyes and scarred face Our Lady of Czestochowa encourages all to entrust themselves to her protection.” These are the cherished words of the hymn to the Black Madonna of Poland, heard in Polish churches for centuries. Her image is scarred by a number of violent attempts to destroy her. It is fitting that at the American shrine in her honor in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, there is a cemetery with rows of identical stone crosses marking the graves of those who gave their lives and youth for freedom, for America, and for Poland. There, under a magnificent statue of the Resurrection, and both the American and Polish flags, hundreds of war veterans lie together in silent witness to their sacrifice. Among the crosses are the graves of a husband and wife, graves that, in their simplicity, do not call the passing visitor to stop and take notice. One is marked Witold Urbanowicz — General — Pilot and the other simply Jadwiga Ur­banowicz.

Their story begins in 1908 in the country village of Olszanka, near the city of Augustow, Poland, where Witold was born to a modestly well-off family. Historically, Poland’s military heroes came from the cavalry. The Husaria, as the cavalry was known, had proved itself in battle from at least the sixteenth century. But for modern Poles, the heroes were found in the air. Thus, young Witold entered the Polish military academy in Deblin to train as a pilot. After Deblin, he received further training with the elite Kósciuszko Squadron in Warsaw, where he eventually rose to the rank of second-in-command. An unusually gifted pilot, Urbanowicz became a flight instructor at the Deblin Training Center, where he earned the nickname “Cobra.”

By 1939 rumors of war abounded, and Urbanowicz was given the assignment of taking a group of air cadets to Romania for the purpose of flying new “Hurricane” fighter planes back to Poland. While on this assignment, war came to Poland in the early morning with a Blitzkrieg of nearly a million German troops and hundreds of planes and tanks smashing the country from the north, south, and west. By midday the German Panzer division was in the heart of Poland, and it seemed that the entire country had been set on fire. The treaty between Germany and the Soviet Union enabled Stalin to invade Poland from the east. If the Poles thought the Russians would assist them, they soon learned how mistaken they were. Urbanowicz returned to Poland on foot and was immediately arrested, some accounts state by the Red Army, some by the Nazis. Regardless, he managed to escape his captors and rejoin his unit in Romania. He was given false papers and money with instructions to take his cadets to Bucharest, where they would find help getting into France. Had this not taken place, Urbanowicz most likely would have been killed in the Katyn Forest massacre, as were many of his friends and colleagues.

The pilots’ welcome in France was less than cordial. But soon a call came for Polish pilots to go to England and join the Royal Air Force (RAF). Due to their superior training, the Polish pilots acquitted themselves in their flying ability in both France and England. Disdain soon transformed into respect. During the Battle of Britain in 1940, Lt. Urbanowicz, now the youngest squadron commander in the RAF, was credited with fifteen confirmed kills and one probable, giving him the title of top Polish ace and placing him in the top ten of all allied aces of the battle. It is widely claimed that without the aid of the Polish pilots England would have succumbed to a Nazi invasion.

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