Polish Free Army
When Poland fell to the Germans in 1939, a substantial number of their Armed Forces personnel avoided capture and escaped to France.
The Polish forces were evacuated to Great Britain under the leadership of General Vladyslaw Sikorski. Then, in Sept 1939, the Soviet Red Army marched into Poland from the East and thousands of Polish soldiers still fighting were taken Prisoner of War. Two years later, Germany invaded Russia and Stalin was forced to capitulate with the Polish.
Captured Polish General Władysław Anders, agreed to command an army of 90,000 Polish prisoners and in 1942 he led them to Persia (now Iran) to begin training with Sikorski’s army. The Polish Free Army operated independently within the allied armies throughout the war fighting with great distinction in Italy against the Nazi Regime.
Ander's Army fought with the British as the Polish 2nd Corps, taking part in the campaigns in North Africa and in Italy. Their most famous achievement was the capture of Monte Cassino in May 1944, after three previous assaults had failed with heavy loses. 2nd Corps remained in Italy to the end of the war, fighting on the Adriatic coast and in the Po Valley. Anders himself ended the war as acting commander of all Polish forces in the west.
At the end of the war the 2nd Corps was disbanded, and 98,000 of the surviving 112,000 men decided to settle in the west, with only 14,000 returning to a newly Communist dominated Poland, large parts of which had been lost to the Soviets. Anders settled in Britain, taking command of the organisation that helped to resettle the Poles in the west, and acting as a leader of the Polish community in Britain until his death in 1970.
Outbreak of War
In Aug 1939, Germany and Russia signed the infamous Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, where they agreed to divide up Eastern Europe including Poland into two spheres of influence. On 1 Sept, 1939, without an official declaration of war, Germany invaded Poland from the North, South and West. At the outbreak of hostilities, General Wladyslaw Anders was in command of Polish forces who attempted to block the German advance into Poland.
The Nazi invasion marked the beginning of the Second World War for all of Europe. And for Poland, the Soviet invasion two weeks later, on 17 Sept 1939, would also mark the beginning of their 50 year struggle against communism. During their eastward retreat from the Germans, General Anders and his soldiers ran into advancing Soviet forces. General Anders was captured and interred in the infamous Lubianka prison in Moscow, and over 200,000 Polish soldiers were captured as Prisoners of War.
In Feb 1940, the Soviets also began mass deportations of Polish citizens from the eastern borderlands to various labour camps and prisons. It is estimated that as many as 1.7 million Polish citizens were deported from Feb 1940, until the German invasion of Russia in June 1941. The Polish prisoners worked in mines, quarries, in the forests cutting timber, and some on collective farms. All were given meagre rations, rarely enough to sustain life, and forced to live in lice-infested primitive barracks.
Poland also suffered horribly under the Nazis. Over 6 million Polish citizens, half of them Jewish, were murdered. Entire village populations were locked inside churches, which were set on fire. Thousands of war prisoners were shot and burned alive. Many thousands more were sent to concentration camps and death camps, where they died of hunger, disease, and abuse. Millions were shipped as slave labourers to Germany and suffered similar tragic fates.
Germany invades Russia
In June of 1941, the Germans invaded Russia and changed the situation dramatically. After a Polish - Soviet agreement, Polish prisoners were released from camps and prisons to form a Polish Army in the Soviet Union to fight the Germans. General Sikorski, the Polish Commander in Chief, appointed General Anders as the commander of this army in August 1941.
Upon review of his troops for the first time, General Anders found them half starved and in rags. In addition to these hardships, the troops lacked basic equipment, rations and other necessities, so Polish commanders requested that the Polish Army be transferred to join its Western Allies in the Middle East.
In the spring of 1942, over 100,000 Polish soldiers and civilians were permitted to leave the Soviet Union via Persia (Iran) to join the British Army, and in this way the Polish 2nd Corps came into being. From Iran the newly created Corps moved to Iraq and then to the mountains of Lebanon where the men underwent military training.
Polish 2nd Corps
Through 1944, the Polish 2nd Corps fought alongside the Western Allies in the Italian campaign and distinguished themselves with their spectacularly successful attack on the citadel of Monte Cassino, which had earlier defied numerous assaults by other Allied forces. This opened the road to Rome. Total Polish casualties during the battle were over 4,000 officers and men, and about 1,000 killed.
The inscription at the entrance to the Polish military cemetery at Monte Cassino reads:
We Polish soldiers
For your freedom and ours,
Have given our souls to God,
Our bodies to the soil of Italy
and our hearts to Poland.
Polish Home Army
By July 1944, the Soviet Red Army was sweeping across Polish territory pursuing the Germans toward Warsaw. Stalin was hostile to the idea of an independent Poland, so the Polish Home Army tried to seize control of Warsaw from the Germans before the Red Army arrived. On 1 Aug 1944, as the Red Army approached the city, the Warsaw Uprising began.
Stalin ordered his armies to halt their advance on Warsaw when they were less than 20 kms away. He expected the Germans to put down the Rising and eliminate the Polish leaders making it easier to set up a minority communist government in Poland afterwards.
The armed struggle went on for over two months without any support from the Allies. Eventually the Home Army fighters and the civilians assisting them were forced to capitulate to the Germans. Many were transported to POW camps in Germany, while the entire civilian population was expelled. Polish civilian deaths were estimated at between 150,000 and 200,000. In the aftermath of the Uprising, the Germans responded with the almost complete destruction of Warsaw.
More than 20,000 Home Army soldiers were killed. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were murdered or shipped off to Auschwitz once the garrison surrendered. The Germans destroyed most of the city during the fighting, and later burned any buildings left standing.
Other Polish Contributions
Before war broke out, Polish mathematicians and cryptographers succeeded in breaking the secret German codes to the German "Enigma" machine. Copies of the machine were sent to France and Britain in July 1939 before the invasion. This was one of the single most important factors in the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Polish airmen played a vital part in the Battle of Britain. At the peak of the fighting, one in eight pilots was Polish. Squadron 303 was equipped with Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft and became the highest scoring fighter squadron in the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain.
The 1st Polish Armoured Division landed in France at the end of July 1944 as a part of the 1st Canadian Army and played an important role in the closing of the Falaise Pocket in August 1944.
The Polish Parachute Brigade participated in the largest airborne operation of the war at Arnhem in Sept 1944 during the liberation of Holland. On 12 April 1945, the 1st Polish Armoured Division liberated the Oberlangen POW camp in Germany, which held over 1,700 Polish women, captured during the Warsaw Uprising.
At the end of the war, Poland was the fourth largest military power fighting Nazi Germany and should have had a prominent place in the Victory parade in London in 1946. Regrettably, Polish soldiers were not invited to the ceremonies, and had to watch from the sidelines, as their comrades in arms from other nations marched triumphantly.
General Anders lived the remainder of his life in England and never applied for British citizenship. He died in May of 1970, as a Pole in exile, and at his request was buried with his soldiers at the Polish cemetery at Monte Cassino.
In Oct 1943, during the Teheran Conference, both Roosevelt and Churchill agreed with Stalin to let the Russians keep the Polish land captured by Russia after they invaded Poland in Sept 1939. This area, known as the Eastern Borderlands, was almost half of Poland's prewar territory, and contained the cities of Wilna and Lwow. It is from these areas that the majority of the soldiers of the 2nd Polish Corps came from.
Then, at the Yalta conference in Feb 1945, the Allies placed Poland into the Soviet sphere of influence. In effect, Poland was condemned to endure Soviet occupation after the war, sealing their fate for the next 50 years.
Over a half million fighting men and women, and six million civilians, almost 20% of the population, lost their lives during the war. Approximately 90% of Polish war losses were victims of prisons, death camps, raids, executions, annihilation of ghettos, epidemics and starvation. There are few families who do not have someone who was tortured or murdered in Nazi concentration camps or the Soviet labour camps. Over one million war orphans and a half million invalids were also produced by the war.
During the war Warsaw was almost completely destroyed. After the war, the capital was rebuilt in the same style it had been prior to the war, using old photographs and architectural drawings.
Soldiers of the Polish Armies in the west could not return home, for they were branded traitors by the new communist regime. Instead, they had to find new homes. Those that returned to Poland, were arrested, imprisoned, tortured and some, executed by the Soviets because they belonged to the Polish Armed Forces in the West.
In 1978, Krakow's Bishop, Karol Wojtyla became the leader of the Church as Pope John Paul II. During his visit to his native Poland in 1979, his famous words below, woke the entire nation.
"Let your Spirit descend,
Let your Spirit descend,
and renew the face of the earth,
the face of this land".
After many rebellions against communism in: 1956, 1968, 1970, 1976 and finally with the Solidarity Movement in 1980, Poland regained her freedom in 1989. The roots of Solidarity and the destruction of the Soviet Empire were born out of the spirit of the Warsaw Uprising.
Background story thanks to the Polish Combatants Association.