He fought his way through Europe to defend the skies over Britain
Piotr Łaguna with 302 Squadron at RAF Leconfield
(Image credit: © Peter Sikora Archive)
Wing Commander Piotr Łaguna
The project’s theme is Polish at heart given the history of both its Spitfire P8331 and the Pilots that flew it. However, we predominantly aim to tell the story of the 18,000 Polish Pilots and Crews, as well as the stories of all Pilots who flew during the wartime years. Piotr’s story would be a familiar tale similar to most of the men who endured those terrible years.
Poland - where it all started
Piotr Łaguna of the Grzymała crest was born on November 11, 1905 in the village of Kędziorowo (Wąsosz parish) in the district of Szczuczyn, province of Bialystok. His parents were, father Piotr and mother Julianna neé Chrudzińska. Piotr and Julianna Łaguna, an estate leaseholder, were both from an old Polish noble family which roots can be traced in XV century. They had three sons (Józef, Henryk Bronisław and Piotr) and 4 daughters (Maria, Stanisława, Konstancja and Aleksandra).
From an early age, their parents shaped their childrens’ characters by making them industrious, conscientious, responsible and disciplined. These qualities made Piotr a Polish patriot and he became a noble and righteous person. Piotr attended the 3rd elementary school in Wąsosz, and then attended the 7th private grammar school in Łomża.
When Poland was invaded by the Bolsheviks in 1919, Junior High School student Piotr immediately volunteered to defend his homeland. Since 233 Infantry Regiment was stationed in Łomża, the volunteer unit established in this area received the number In this regiment, in the period of 15 July 1920 – 15 November 1920 he served as a volunteer even though he was still under the age of 15. For his active participation in the fight against the Bolshevik invaders he was awarded the Commemorative Medal for the War of 1918-1921.
European theatre of the Russian Civil War
Credit – by Hoodinski – Own work, CC BY 3.0 Hoodinski / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)
On 30 August 1924 Piotr joined the Cadet Officer Infantry School in Warsaw before promotion on 28 November 1924 to corporal cadet officer. In the Officer Cadet School, Piotr passed the matriculation examination receiving at the end of the school year (30 June 1925) the rank of corporal cadet.
On 1 July 1925 he became a cadet student of the newly established Air Force Officers School (Oficerska Szkoła Lotnicza) in Grudziądz. During his studies at O. S. L., Piotr completed training in:
In 1927 the whole school was transferred to Dęblin, where, in the same year, the first promotion of 57 school graduates (all were observers) took place, including Piotr (28th). After completing further training on 13 September 1927, he was assigned to the 31st Light Bomber Squadron in the 3rd Air Regiment in Poznań. On 31 October 1927, he officially received the title and badge of the observer, and on 21 March 1928 he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant. Piotr received praise twice in 1928:
Group of 3rd Air Regiment airmen after Marshal Pilsudski funeral, 1935. Laguna 4 from right
On 1 January 1931 Second Lieutenant observer Piotr was promoted to Lieutenant pilot (daily order No. 278/30 and on 4 December 1930, he was posted to 131st Fighter Squadron and then consequently to 132nd Fighter Squadron. On 15 October 1939 he baled out from Spad 61C1.
Łaguna was posted to the Aerial Shooting and Bombing School in Grudziądz on 2 February 1931. Piotr, by 1931, was an experienced pilot and participated in competitions for fighter pilots organised at Grudziądz. In 1932 he was awarded the first prize for winning the Central Fighter Competition. On 19 June 1932, Polish built PWS-10 fighter aircraft were introduced and Polish fighter squadrons were equipped with them, including units of the 3rd Air Regiment. He was one of three pilots who demonstrated these aircraft to the public, the other two were Major Stefan Pawlikowski and Captain Mieczysław Mümler. He was involved in a crash landing in PWS-10 on 20 May 1933 and was seriously injured. Then on 3 October 1933, while flying a PZL P.7 fighter, he collided in the air with Lt Feliks Gazda and was again hospitalised. This prevented him from participating in an air trip to Romania and representing his regiment.
Lawica airfield, Laguna is centre-left (image credit: © Peter Sikora Archive)
Lawica airfield, Laguna is standing 2nd from right.
In the summer of 1939, Piotr was appointed Deputy Commander of 216 (XV) Bomber Squadron. Following orders 216 Squadron commanded by Cpt Władysław Dukszto left its home base at Okecie airfield on 31 August 1939, moving to the Podlodów advanced airfield near Dęblin. This was a common practice and all the Polish operational units were withdrawn from their peacetime bases to prevent them from being destroyed. Their PZL P.37 Łoś bombers were attached to 215 Bomber Squadron of the Bomber Brigade. Łaguna was appointed Bombing and Navigation Officer of this unit. He flew operational missions with the crew of Lt Przykorski. Since 3 September his squadron operated from Stara Wieś and on 4 September they bombed German armoured divisions near Piotrków and Radomsko. During the following day they attacked German armoured units in the region of Piotrków and Rozprza and then changed their location, landing at Popielewo. On 6 and 7 September 216 Squadron’s aircraft continued attacking German ground forces near Radomsko, Bełchatów, Kamieńsk, Rozprza and Przedbórz. On 7 September they bombed German tanks in the region of Różan, Ostrołęka and Nowa Wieś also reporting the destruction of one Messerschmitt. During a further encounter, three Łoś bombers were shot down by German fighters. Later he commanded at hoc formed fighter flight defending Wielick. This flight consisted of officers as well as Cadets from Dęblin. This unit was formed to protect XV Bomber Squadron aircraft. With both units, he participated in the Polish Campaign in 1939, including defensive missions in a PZL P.11g Kobuz fighter plane.
(image credit: © Peter Sikora Archive)
The majority of Polish flying and ground personnel followed their High Command’s orders to reorganise units of the Polish Military Aviation in France and continue the fight, therefore they were then evacuated through Romania and Hungary to France, where Lyon was designated as the base and Training Centre for Polish Military Aviation. Piotr Łaguna was initially allocated to Le Bourget, and then to Lyon Bron. His wife and children were initially evacuated towards the eastern border of Poland, but when Poland was invaded by the Soviet Union, Łaguna’s family was deported to Siberia, sharing the fate of thousands of other Poles. After almost two years of living in inhumane conditions, they were released after the Sikorski–Mayski agreement was signed. They travelled to India, eventually arriving in Australia.
The battle moves to France
After the creation of the independent Polish Air Force in France, Piotr was posted to III Fighter Squadron, formed from the Polish personnel and was initially planned to be sent to Finland to support this country in their fight against Soviet Russia. The Polish squadron was initially the so-called ‘Finnish Squadron’. After this conflict ended, in the middle of May 1940, with the use of the same personnel, the Polish manned 1/145 ‘Varsovie’ Squadron was formed (or according to French nomenclature GC 1/145). They were equipped with Caudron CR,714 Cyclones. He was appointed a deputy commander. Piotr’s extensive experience in military aviation acquired in Poland was now to be transferred to his younger colleagues. He demanded extensive training of pilots emphasising that victory in the fight gives confidence that a well-trained pilot acquires. He insisted that subordinates achieve excellent training and fostered discipline, which in turn gave them full confidence in their commander. The application of these rules allowed the squadron to be available for full combat readiness in a short time.
Click image to enlarge
Next to him is Kazimierz Wünsche who is playing the accordion. The latter soon after this photo was taken, joined No. 303 Squadron at Northolt and flew during the Battle of Britain. (image credit: © Peter Sikora Archive)
The command of the squadron was assigned as Major Józef Kępiński, former head of flying training at No. 1 Air Force Training Centre in Dęblin. The technical advisor on the French side was Cdt. Alexandre de Marmier. Airplanes were serviced by the Polish ground crew, including mechanics, radio mechanics and gunsmiths. The airmen wore Polish style uniforms sewn in France and Polish badges. The two flights consisted of 17 16 pilots. There were two flights: I, commanded by Cpt. Antoni Wczelik and II, commanded by Cpt. Juliusz Frey. The squadron initially trained on Morane MS – 406 aircraft. Initially based at the Bron airfield in Lyon performing patrols of the Lyon area. After being bombed at dawn on 10 May by the German bombers of Bron, on the same afternoon of that day the 1/145 squadron were moved to Mions, several kilometres south of Lyon. The squadron continued to patrol the area of Lyon. From 17 May the squadron started receiving the new type of aircraft and eventually was equipped with 36 Caudron Cyclone C.714 aircraft, which they trained in until 27 May.
Caudrons arrived straight from the factory and, without tests, were given to the Poles, causing a lot of problems from the beginning. Piotr Łaguna usually flew Caudron No. 8554/22 (I-212) with two white horizontal stripes on its fin, which symbolised deputy commander’s role. This aircraft was allocated to him on 22 May and stayed with 1/145 Squadron until the evacuation from France, being later captured by the Germans at Rochefort aerodrome. On 19 May 1940 the whole squadron was moved to Villacoublay and went under command of 23 Fighter Group Formation. Later, they were transferred to Dreux, 30 kilometres from Paris, arriving there on 2 June 1940. From 6 June 1/145 was assigned to Sous Groupement de Chasse 42, being ordered to defend Paris and the region from Vernon to Meulan. The Poles made their first claim on 3 June after damaging He 111, next one on 8 June, probably after destroying He 111, followed by four others plus one damaged the next day. Piotr Łaguna also flew during this mission. Three Polish pilots were killed, one was wounded, and another made an emergency landing.
In the morning of the 10 of June eleven aircraft from 1/145 Squadron, led by Major Kępiński, while south of Dreux, encountered a group of 15 Dornier Do17 bombers, protected by 12 Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters. Capt. Łaguna fired at one of them and later reported:
Major Kępiński was seriously wounded, Lt Łukaszewicz emergency landed. The command of the 1/145 “Varsovie” Squadron was given to Piotr Łaguna.
On 11 June, the squadron moved to Sermaises, located 15km southwest of Etámpes. Piotr Łaguna reported:
The day after Łaguna’s pilots started conversion and training flights on Bloch MB 152s. On 13 June the squadron flew to Châteauroux, from where they flew 7 operational sorties. Some of Łaguna’s pilots were posted to other French squadrons. Four days later they were moved to Rochefort. Despite the fact that the French command left the airfield, Poles continued their duty to the last moment. Łaguna ordered his squadron to organise the defence of the airfield in case of being attacked by the German paratroopers.
As France collapsed, Piotr Łaguna and the rest of 1/145 Squadron left Rochefort at 9 am on 19 June. They left their remaining 11 Caudrons and 2 Blochs and travelled to La Rochelle port. The whole crew boarded a French ship, but very soon they were ordered by the French captain to leave. At 6 pm they embarked a British ship ‘Alerpool’ and in the morning of 20 June they sailed to England. In total, 1/145 Squadron performed 64 operational and combat flights in France. Its pilot claimed 8 enemy aircraft, destroyed with the loss of three pilots killed in action, one in a flying accident and two wounded.
Landing in Britain
302 Squadron at RAF Leconfield, Łaguna sitting 6 from left (image credit: © Peter Sikora Archive)
On 7 December 1940 Piotr was appointed the new commander of the 302 Squadron after Squadron Leader Mieczysław Mümler left. At the end of the year (31 December) all the British officers left the command of the 302 Squadron, hence the squadron became completely Polish. There was a nice, agreeable atmosphere. It was a considerable personal achievement for Piotr for which he enjoyed great trust and respect among its subordinates. He was their authority. He talked to his subordinates about their joint concerns, from the discussions he always made the right conclusions for himself and for others. He was full of humour.
Although he liked to joke, he never allowed any loose discipline and misconduct. He liked the military discipline and demanded it from his subordinates. Piotr was hard during training flights for his pilots. The flight under his command resembled that of the infantry team on the military range. He was one of the best pilots of 302 Squadron. As a Pole, he was an example of patriotism and great courage. This was manifested in the fight as well as in the words that he preached in solemn moments as a commander to his subordinates.
Gpt Cpt Pawlikowski, Polish Liaison Officer with FC, visiting 302 Sqn, Spring 1941.
One of Piotr’s pilots described him:
Duke of Kent with Piotr behind the Duke.
L-R: Laguna, S/L Zdzislaw Krasnodebski (1st commander of 303), S/L Waclaw Lapkowski, commander of 303 when Łaguna was killed, sitting unk, F/Lt Jerzy Jankiewicz (303).
Piotr’s final flight was on June 27, 1941. Pilots from 1 Polish Fighter Wing were ordered to fly over France in the morning as part of Circus 25 (Z.181). Their target supposed to be a steel factory in Lillie and the Poles were ordered to fly at 13 – 16,000 feet as top cover for 24 Blenheims. As the weather worsened, instead Poles were ordered to sweep the area of Le Touquet and Gravelines. The Polish formation was led by Wing Commander John Kent and Wing Commander Piotr Łaguna, both using aircraft from 303 Squadron: P8567 RF-D and P8331 RF-M respectively.
L-R: Krasnodebski, FL Jozef Filipowicz and Łaguna.