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Turbulent odyssey of Battle of Britain hero pilot

A new film tells the story of Jan Zumbach, a Polish pilot in the RAF during the Battle of Britain. But, says writer Robert Ryan, that isn’t the half of it...

05 September, 2018 — By Robert Ryan

Iwan Rheon, second from left, as Jan Zumbach in the film Hurricane

ALMOST five years ago now I was asked to appraise a movie script that told the story of the Polish pilots who had fought in the RAF during the Battle of Britain and beyond. I knew the vague outline of the story: the Polish flyers were overwhelmed by the better-equipped Luftwaffe on home turf, escaped to France to continue the fight and, when France capitulated, made their way to England where, despite their abilities, they were left to cool their heels.

Only in the darkest hour of the Battle of Britain were they finally unleashed on the Germans, and proved themselves formidable opponents. In fact, 303 Squadron, the first of the “foreign” RAF units, became the highest-scoring squadron in the Battle of Britain, although the British public, who in 1940 feted and idolised the Poles, and the government turned out to have very short memories once peace came.

The script told the story well enough, but the squadron featured never existed and characters were amalgams of real people. I thought there must be enough real stories around the actual 303 Squadron and the individuals in it to carry a movie. That’s when I discovered Jan Zumbach.

Of wealthy Swiss-Polish heritage, Zumbach’s life story was enough to fill several movies. The version of the script that eventually got made only tells the story of Zumbach – played in the film Hurricane by Iwan Rheon – when he and his fellow Poles were fighting in the skies over England. But there is so much more.

Born near Warsaw in 1915, Zumbach’s love for flying was ignited at the age of 13, but his mother disapproved of this ambition so he enlisted in the army and transfered to the Air Force. At the age of 23 he was flying (antiquated) PZL fighters in the 111th Squadron and war was coming.

Infuriatingly, on the eve of the German invasion in September 1939, Zumbach broke a leg when his plane somersaulted during a night landing. Hors de combat as Poland crumbled, he made his way to Romania and then to France, before heading to Blackpool.

There, weeks passed in a fug of boredom before, in July 1940, it was announced that a Polish squadron was to be formed at RAF Northolt. There was more frustration, however, as the Poles had to endure English lessons and get used to RAF jargon.

Robert Ryan

Flying Hurricanes, rather than Spitfires, the Poles proved to be tenacious fighters and were often considered positively reckless by their RAF counterparts.

Zumbach was awarded eight kills and one probable between August 2 and October 31. Like many of the Poles, he also found he scored highly with British women, as he revealed in his rather unreliable memoir, On Wings of War (credited to “Jean Zumbach”).

Zumbach, later a Wing Commander, went on to lead 303 Squadron, but it was his post-war activities that set him apart. He, like other Poles who had served the Allies, had reasons to be disappointed in his treatment after VE Day. Thanks to the British government’s desire to appease Stalin, the Polish armed forces were not allowed to march in the victory parade in 1948. And because he wouldn’t take part in any of the resettlement schemes for Poles, Zumbach claims in his memoirs that he was given three days to leave the country he had risked his life for. He reasserted his Swiss identity and moved to Paris.

In the immediate post-war years an enterprising and amoral Zumbach used his newly formed Flyaway charter company to smuggle diamonds, cigarettes, Swiss watches, gold, people and even penicillin. By the late 1950s, however, he had gone more or less legit, running a restaurant and a nightclub in Paris and, as he put it, “getting fat”.

Then, in 1962, war came calling again.

The offer was from President Moïse Tshombe of Katanga, which had ceded from the Congo, to put together the fledging country’s airforce, under the cover of an airline known as Air Katanga. It turned out to be a brutal conflict, with Zumbach’s rag-tag of an airforce providing ground support as Katanga battled Congolese and UN troops.

Zumbach carried out more than 60 raids, but, outgunned by the UN and out of pocket because of Tshombe’s bounced cheques, he returned to France, where he dealt in second-hand planes. But Africa wasn’t quite finished with him.

In 1967 the Republic of Biafra broke away from Nigeria. War broke out between the federal government and the new state in July of that year. One of Biafra’s representatives contacted Zumbach and asked if he could find them a bomber. He paid $25,000 for a mothballed Douglas B-26, which he sold on for $80,000 – only later did he find out the middleman charged Biafra £320,000. Zumbach was persuaded to deliver the plane in person and, eventually, to oversee its re-conversion to a bomber.

Going by the name “John Brown”, he flew bombing missions for the new Biafran airforce, destroying several aircraft and a helicopter on the ground, as well as killing a senior Nigerian army commander. This even though most of the “bombs” he used were improvised exploding cooking pots.

But again, Zumbach was on the wrong side and Biafra lost the war and tipped into a horrendous famine. He returned to France and wrote his memoirs and, rumour had it, his dealings in planes and sometimes weapons. His explanation for his colourful life? “Trouble comes naturally to some men, while soft living feels like a hair shirt.”

Jan Zumbach died on January 3, 1986, aged 70, in somewhat mysterious circumstances. The investigation into his death was closed by order of the French authorities without explanation. Maybe “trouble” had finally caught up with him. He was buried at Powązki Military Cemetery in Warsaw, Poland, a hero of 303 Squadron, home at last.

Hurricane, co-written by Robert Ryan, is released on September 7.

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