This photograph shows actor Iwan Rheon of Marvel’s Inhumans, Misfits, Riviera and another world-conquering mega-series whose name has slipped my mind. As the shoulder flash suggests, he is in character as a pilot in the RAF’s 303 Squadron, formed during the Battle of Britain. He plays Jan Zumbach, who flew in the mostly all-Polish 303 (he was actually of Swiss descent, but wrote that he was “Polish by upbringing and a Pole at heart”). To begin with the senior officers were British or Canadian, but later in the war Zumbach would become squadron leader of 303.
The film this still is taken from, Hurricane, tells the story of the Polish involvement in the Battle of Britain, how, as the highest scoring squadron in the RAF, with the most enemy kills, they were celebrated and feted, before, at war’s end, being abandoned and vilified. There was a shocking survey in 1946 that suggested the majority of the British public thought the Poles should go home. Once there, the returnees who had helped the Allies to victory were shunned, imprisoned and in some cases executed because the Stalinist puppet government thought they had been tainted by their time in the West. In his autobiography On Wings of War (subtitled My Life as a Pilot Adventurer) Zumbach claimed he was given just three days to pack up and leave this country after serving it for six years, even though he was technically a Swiss citizen. As he wrote: “Some of my comrades went back [to Poland].. at first they were given a hero’s welcome. Within a year they were in prison on charges of spying for the British.”
Jan Zumbach didn’t make that mistake. He became a diamond smuggler, running gems by air, out of Paris and Geneva and into Antwerp, feeding the dealers whose stocks had been depleted by war. He also traded in sterling bank notes, most of which were excellent forgeries by the Nazis. Eventually he went on to fly for rebel air forces (often he was the air force, operating a single plane) in Congo and Biafra, before dying mysteriously in Paris in 1986, aged 70. There are discrepancies in some of his accounts in On Wings of War, but even if half of it is true, his was a remarkable life. Sadly, although I tried with earlier drafts of the screenplay, there simply wasn’t enough room in the movie Hurricane to tell the full story of Jan Zumbach. Maybe next time.
- Hurricane is filming at the moment. It is scheduled for release in the latter half of 2018.