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First Kills: The Illustrated Biography of Fighter Pilot Władysław Gnyś

Author: Stefan Gnyś

This is a book as close as you could get to a first person account of an era and circumstances we will not see the like of again.

Stretching as it does from an idyllic peacetime in the countryside of a Poland breathing the first air of new freedom after 200 years of occupation, through the cataclysmic collision of the democracies of Europe with the despotic regime of a madman leading the powerful German nation on a deadly rampage and back out the other side to the fresh air of the New World, First Kills tells the story of one man’s ride through the history of most of the 20th century.

The exploits of the Polish nation in World War 2 are well-known. The hopeless but brave attempt to stem the German invasion in 1939. The gallant and effective fight put up by Polish pilots in the French Air Force in 1940. The pivotal role played by Polish fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain, where freedom itself lay in the balance for a few tense months from July to October 1940. The long slog by Polish bomber crews from 1940 up to the conclusion of the war in 1945. The heroic trek by tens of thousands of Polish soldiers from the prison camps of Russia to the eventual embrace by the British in Persia and eventually to the immortal role played by the Polish Army in the Battle of Monte Cassino and in Northern Europe from D-Day to Berlin. And of course the resistance in Poland itself, where the Armia Krajowa constituted the largest resistance movement of any occupied country.

But who were these people? What gave them the fortitude to keep going in the face of impossible odds? What made tens of thousands of them walk thousands of miles in the hope they might one day be able to take up arms again and avenge the enemy who was ravaging their homeland? What kept the flame alive for years that, hope against hope, their families back home might still be alive?

In writing this book about his father, a much-decorated fighter pilot, Stefan Gnyś tells us something of the forces that moulded his father’s character in his youth in the countryside of Poland, and in so doing, in its own understated way, we see that strength emerging which when tested in battle showed through to eventual victory.

There’s a lot of material here about Wladyslaw Gnyś - or Władek as he was known - (shown left) growing up in Poland in the 1920's and 30's, illustrated by specially commissioned drawings of childhood adventures which add charm, including a hair-raising episode where Władek rescued 2 workers knocked out by methane at the bottom of well.

There are chapters covering the training of Polish pilots at the advanced flying schools in Poland, which was to serve the pilots so well in their future battles against the Luftwaffe. It has perhaps been under-appreciated that the rigorous training applied here was entirely justified by their later successes, which have been mistakenly attributed to reckless bravery but were, in fact, the direct result of a training curriculum that was possibly the most comprehensive of any airforce then extant. Certainly the adaptability of Polish airmen to whatever aircraft they were given to fly is a testament to this. RAF pilots who flew alongside Poles during the Battle of Britain frequently remarked on their high level of flying excellence, even under the stringent conditions of close combat.

The incident where Władek scored the first Allied victory of the War from the cockpit of his out-dated Polish fighter as the Polish Air Force attempted to stop the German advance into Poland is well covered, an incident which established Władek in the pantheons of greatness. There is also interesting material from this period about the German pilot Władek and his comrade were up against on that fateful day.

There is extensive material about the Polish Air Force during the Battle of France, which will be of interest to the historian because this subject is relatively poorly served in the literature.

Chapters covering his later exploits as the Polish Air Force expanded its role within the RAF structure are liberally illustrated with photographs, some of which will be new to the reader. Stefan Gnyś clearly went to great lengths to uncover previously unpublished images of his father and his comrades in arms.

Władek rose high in the ranks of the Polish Air Force but never lost his hands-on approach to the task of beating the Germans. No desk flying for this pilot! The incident of his loss to flak over France after D-Day is well told, with its details of the incredible luck that saw him badly wounded, captured by the enemy, but still able to escape and find his way back to England. A truly miraculous escape.

In later chapters we learn of the war hero’s move to Canada and his establishment there of a family and a work career, which must have seemed tame compared to his war-time activities. These chapters are charmingly accompanied by many personal family photographs.


Stefan Gnyś talks about his father

In summary, this is far from a run-of-the-mill wartime story, being more of a touching and revealing look into an extraordinary life, one that fought the good fight and came through more or less intact to face a new challenge in raising a family in the peace he had fought so long and strongly for. That he also completed this task successfully is testified to by the full and worthy life lived by his son, Stefan, of whom he must have been very proud, and who has expressed through this splendid book the love and respect every father must hope a son should feel for his father.

Hardcover Edition: ISBN 978-1-61200-556-0

Digital Version: ISBN 978-1-61200-577-7

Publisher: Casemate Publishers (UK)Tel: +44 (0)1865-241249

Available directly from the Publisher and from Amazon


November 27 2018: at a ceremony at the Polish Aviation Museum in Kraków, Stefan Gnyś presented the Museum with a plaque commemorating his father and his colleague Captain Medwecki. This is covered here.

Stefan Pietrzak Youngs October 2018. SY added Ceremony details 2018-11-27

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning we will remember them. - Laurence Binyon

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Last Modified: 10 March 2021, 15:18

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