The Real Fighter Boys Behind the Cast of So Long as We Live
December 8, 2017
By Anna Wahler
In my current historical fiction project, So Long as we Live, I knew I wanted to create my own characters to populate my fictional squadron, rather than include the names of real pilots. And yet when it came time for me to create these characters, the men I read about were so interesting it was hard not to draw on some of their fantastic personality traits when designing my characters. Here I’d like to share with you some brief bios of the people who inspired the characters in my novel.
Please note, the lives of these men should in no way be taken as spoilers for the outcome of So Long as we Live!
One thing is for sure–my manuscript would never have existed in its current form without the real-life squadron chronicler Mirosław Ferić. Ferić, who was known by his friends as “Ox,” kept an extensive diary of his life as a fighter pilot, beginning in Poland and lasting all the way until his death in 1943. Not only did Ferić record his personal thoughts in his diary, but encouraged other squadron members to record their experiences as well. On occasion, he was known to be very persuasive, even when his friends were reluctant to put their feelings to paper!
After Ferić’s death, his fellow pilots of 303 Squadron continued the diary in his memory, and the book went on to fill several volumes. The diary is now kept in the Polish Institute in London.
Character inspiration: Tadeusz Stern
Like Ferić, Tadeusz tells the story of his exile and life during the Battle of Britain with a diary he receives near the beginning of the war. I was fascinated by Ferić’s decision to let other people contribute to his personal diary. This seemed like an interesting way to tell not only Tadeusz’s story, but the story of his relationship with his squadron-mates.
Both Ferić and Tadeusz also share an overwhelming love of flying and the air that led them to outlandish circumstances. As a boy, Ferić was noted to have terrified his mother by climbing onto the balcony railing of their upper-floor flat. Several years later, he even forged his parents’ signatures in order to join the Air Force as soon as he was eligible.
Kent, a Canadian, was one of the non-Polish flight leaders posted to 303 Squadron, as the British wanted to keep leadership of foreign squadrons in their own hands–at least for the first few years of the squadron’s existence. (At this point, Canada was still part of the British Commonwealth.) However, Kent was not amused to have been pushed out of the way, as he saw it, to a squadron of Poles. Initially, his relations with the Polish pilots was less that friendly. But by the time the Battle of Britain drew to a close, Kent counted his squadron-mates as among the best pilots he ever flew with.
Character Inspiration: Johnnie Quigg
The idea of an ‘outsider’ in a squadron of outsiders was quite interesting to me. Quigg comes from Northern Ireland, thus meeting the British requirements to serve as a flight leader for foreign pilots. His background and sticky relationship with Britain means that he feels initially resentful not to have been posted to a ‘real’ squadron. But Quigg soon learns that he and the Poles have more in common that he first wanted to admit.
It’s useless to try to summarize Jan Zumbach into a tiny paragraph (or two), but I’ll do the best I can. His flying career with the Polish Air Force also began with a forgery–he was forced to resort to desperate measures due to his Swiss citizenship, as the Polish Air Force only accepted Polish citizens. While flying with the RAF in England, he went on to lead the famous 303 squadron, and received high honours from both the British and Polish governments.
After the war, however, Zumbach’s life took a strange turn. He established a taxi service in France as a front for smuggling (for what, I was unfortunately never able to find out), and later started a nightclub in Paris. Not long after that, he became involved as a fighter pilot again, this time in various conflicts in the Congo and Nigeria. Zumbach passed away in 1986, and nobody can quite agree as to the precise events, though it’s quite plausible that his less-than reputable postwar dealings were a factor.
Character inspiration: Wojtek Malinak
If a novel or film were based on Zumbach’s life, it would probably strike many as a little too outlandish–no creative embellishment needed. That said, when I chose to base Wojtek Malinak in part on Zumbach, I intentionally had to pare down some of the real pilot’s crazy exploits. What I did want to keep, however, was Zumbach’s outlandish and boisterous personality, and a certain disregard for the law.
Only thirty-two at the time of his death in combat, Ludwik Paszkiewicz’s end was certainly untimely. Yet compared to some of his younger squadron mates, Paszkiewicz was quite mature for a fighter pilot. Based on some of the memoirs of other 303 Squadron pilots, Paszkiewicz was an even-tempered fellow whose calm nature was a welcome contrast to that of, well, Zumbach and Ferić for example.
Character inspiration: Yuri Mierzwa
It’s worth noting that despite his even temperament, Paszkiewicz did not always stick to procedures. He claimed 303 Squadron’s first victory–before the Squadron was officially released to operational status, and is even reported to have performed a victory roll over Northolt airfield upon his return. This was the inspiration for Yuri’s own actions in the training flight in So Long as we Live. Yuri was created to be somewhat of a Paszkiewicz-like figure in other respects as well, acting almost as a father figure for the younger Tadeusz and Jasio.