Urbanowicz started flying in 1930 when he joined a cadet flying school in Deblin. He graduated from this school in 1932 and moved on to fly fighter aeroplanes. Urbanowicz first made a name for himself in 1936 when he shot down a Soviet reconnaissance aircraft that had crossed into Polish airspace. With the potential this had for a diplomatic incident, Urbanowicz was officially reprimanded. However, relations between Poland and the USSR were bad and Urbanowicz was quietly congratulated for this deed. He was moved to a Polish Air Force training base where his overall performance and demeanour led to him being nicknamed ‘Cobra’.
On September 1st 1939, the Germans invaded Poland. The success of Blitzkrieg relied on a coordinated air and land attack. The developments in the aircraft used by the Luftwaffe were not matched by those in Poland. Polish fighters just about matched the speed of Luftwaffe bombers and were outclassed by the Me-109, which was not only much faster but also more heavily armed. Urbanowicz was ordered to go to Romania but quickly returned to Poland where he was captured by Soviet troops – the USSR having invaded Poland from the east as part of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939. Urbanowicz escaped from his Soviet captors on the same day of his capture. He went to Romania and from here to France. While in France Urbanowicz was invited to join the Royal Air Force (RAF). After a course to familiarise himself with the new Hurricane and Spitfire fighter aircraft, Urbanowicz joined 145 Squadron.
Urbanowicz made his first operational flight on August 4th 1940 and on August 8th he made his first kill – a Me-109. On August 21st, Urbanowicz transferred to 303 Squadron – the famous Polish Squadron. After its commanding officer was injured, Urbanowicz was made Squadron Leader. He was highly successful in the air and he shot down four German aircraft on two separate days and he ended the battle with fifteen confirmed kills. There can be little doubt that Urbanowicz was a highly skilled pilot who was almost certainly a very driven one as well – the Germans, after all, had forced him and his colleagues out of their own country. However, it was this drive that alienated Urbanowicz from other Polish pilots and on October 21st, just two months after joining the famous 303 Squadron, he had to hand over command of the squadron to a new commander. Regardless of this, Urbanowicz had made his mark in RAF history by becoming one of the most successful aces of the Battle of Britain – one of just 8 ‘triple aces’.
His flying career after the Battle of Britain was somewhat anticlimactic when compared to his achievements in that battle. Urbanowicz commanded the 1st Polish Fighter Wing from April 1941 to June 1941 before being moved to staff work.
In 1943, Urbanowicz accepted an offer to fly for the USAAF and he joined the ‘Flying Tigers’ and was credited with a number of kills. In 1944, he was later to become an Air Attaché in the United States.
In total, during World War Two, Urbanowicz was credited with 28 kills. During the course of the war, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Order of Merit. The Polish government in exile awarded Urbanowicz the Order of Virtuti Militari – its highest award for valour.
When World War Two ended, Urbanowicz returned to Poland but was arrested as a spy. Post-1945 Poland had a communist government and as Urbanowicz had been in Great Britain and the USA for five years, he was open to being accused of such activity. In fact, numerous exiles were similarly accused on trumped up charges.
Urbanowicz was imprisoned but released and went to live in America. He worked for a number of airlines until his retirement in 1973.
Urbanowicz only visited Poland, the land of his birth, in 1991 once the communist regime had fallen – as it had done in most of Eastern Europe. In 1995, Urbanowicz was promoted to general – an honorary title but one that recognised what he had achieved especially as a fighter pilot during the Battle of Britain.
Witold Urbanowicz died on August 17th 1996 at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Manhattan, New York aged 88.