First Fighter Ace Cover

First Fighter Ace

In the Cockpit with a World War II Fighter Pilot

Stanislaw Skalski, translated by John Bednarz Jr.

Stackpole Books, Guilford, Connecticut, 2017, 176 pages

Book Review published on: March 29, 2019

First Fighter Ace: In the Cockpit with a World War II Fighter Pilot is a biographical work that details the experiences of the author, Stanislaw Skalski, immediately prior to the German invasion of Poland in 1939 through his escape to Romania in late September 1939. Skalski’s narrative describes his role in the Polish air force and provides a perspective of the prewar and combat operations of elements of the Polish air force and its struggle against a numerically and qualitatively superior adversary in the opening days of World War II.

On 1 September 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland with a vastly numerically superior air force of 3,781 aircraft (1,179 fighter aircraft) as compared to the Polish air force’s total of 390 aircraft (150 fighter aircraft). This overwhelming numerical dominance was further exacerbated by the qualitative advantage that the Luftwaffe, an aerial branch of the German Wehrmacht (Nazi armed forces) in World War II, also enjoyed. The main German fighter aircraft in 1939 was the Messerschmitt Bf 109D-1 with a top speed of 579 km/h. Conversely, the Polish air force’s main fighter aircraft, already considered obsolescent in 1939, was the Jedenastka PZL-11C with a top speed of 300 km/h. There was a similar disparity in the armament of the aircraft. The Messerschmitt Bf 109D-1 was equipped with four 7.92 mm machine guns, whereas the Jedenastka PZL-11C had two 7.92 mm machine guns.

Skalski begins his story with a short but well-written preface that provides context for the rest of the book by briefly contrasting advantages that the Luftwaffe had in aircraft as compared to the Polish air force. He does not use this as an excuse for the shortcomings of the aerial defense of Poland but rather to highlight the courage and steadfastness of the airmen who flew in its defense.

In the first three chapters, Skalski introduces the reader to his fellow pilots while detailing the training activities of his squadron in the months leading up to war. He explains that even as they were training, they had the foreknowledge that their aircrafts were obsolete. Interspersed within this is a description of the mood of the country and his comrades as tensions escalated with Germany, culminating with the invasion of Poland.

The remaining chapters relate the determination and optimism that his fellow pilots and he felt at the onset of war in spite of the long odds. He clearly acknowledges that they were cognizant of the disadvantages they were facing, both during aerial combat and through a shortage of logistics. His descriptions of the successful and unsuccessful tactics that were used are straightforward and uncomplicated. Skalski ably details the challenges posed by frequent moves from airfield to airfield to protect the squadron from detection and attack from the Luftwaffe and later due to the advances of the Wehrmacht. In the end, he provides a somber description of the descent into chaos and defeat of the Polish armed forces.

First Fighter Ace is a story told as if the reader was listening to the author describe his wartime experiences in person. It is for readers who are unfamiliar with a point of view from the Polish perspective. It is informative, at times enlightening, and well worth reading.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Roger J. Linder, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas