Poland, in World War II
by Mark Wegierski
During the more than seven decades following the end of World War II, an ongoing stream of disinformation from various quarters e.g., the former Soviet Union and left-wing British circles, has clouded the sterling record of Poland and the Poles during World War II. In a climate of increasing ignorance of the most basic historical facts and realities, it is important to remember the Polish role in World War II, on the 75th anniversary of the tragic Warsaw Uprising of 1944 and 80 years since the start of the war.
THE BEGINNING OF WORLD WAR II
On September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany, under the leadership of Adolf Hitler, invaded Poland, without warning or a formal declaration of war. Hitler’s publicly professed objective was “to get rid of that intolerable Polish Corridor.” The Polish government’s restrictions on the German population in the Corridor and in Danzig (Gdansk), had given Hitler a pretext for war. On August 31, Hitler’s SS-men staged a mock-attack on the German radio-station in Gleiwitz (Gliwice) — blaming it on the Polish army — in the hope that this would encourage France and Britain to renege on their treaty obligations to Poland. As it was, France and Britain put pressure on Poland to delay its general mobilization from August 31 to September 1, which probably resulted in something like 300,000 Polish troops never getting into action. Given the diplomatic context of the time, France and Britain might not have declared war on Germany at all, had Poland surrendered quickly to Nazi Germany, in the hope of more lenient treatment.
Nazi Germany hurled virtually its entire army and air force against the outnumbered, outgunned, and under-equipped Poles. The fighting was nevertheless ferocious, as evidenced, for example, by the high number of officer casualties on both sides. One of the features of the Blitzkrieg was the deliberate targeting of civilians in aerial and artillery bombardment, as well as mass, summary executions, which were carried out against captured Polish soldiers during the September campaign.
The Polish effort in September 1939 was further weakened by the Fifth Column – which operated both in the west (Volksdeutsche), and in the east where Stalin had invaded, plus some Ukrainians, Jews, and Byelorussians, as well as Polish Communist sympathizers. Poland was unquestionably the first country to fight Nazi Germany.
POLISH CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE ALLIED WAR EFFORT
Polish military intelligence clandestinely obtained a working copy of the Germany Army ULTRA coding machine a few years before the outbreak of the war, and much of the mathematical work necessary for its decoding was done by Polish mathematicians. Without the Polish input, it is highly unlikely that the Allies could ever have cracked the ULTRA code.
Almost all of the German armed forces attacked Poland in September 1939, while the Siegfried Line opposite France stood practically empty — but the French did not seize the opportunity to attack. Tens of thousands of Polish troops escaped through Romania and Hungary — the reformed Polish Army in France in Spring 1940 numbered about 85,000.
Polish forces played a vital role at Narvik in early 1940, the only place in Norway where the Allies achieved a degree of success. In the Fall of 1940, Polish fighter-pilots played an important role in Britain’s defensive air war, the Battle of Britain, achieving some of the highest kill-ratios of enemy planes. Hitler’s planned seaborne invasion of Britain never took place.
In May 1941, the Polish destroyer “Piorun” (Thunderbolt) played a role in the chasing and sinking of the “Bismarck” – the Polish Navy (based in Britain) continually made contributions far out of proportion to its small size.
The Polish Carpathian Riflemens’ Brigade, which had originally formed in French Syria in early 1940, came under British command in Egypt, and fought in the Desert War against Rommel from November 1941 to March 1942. The Polish Merchant Marine contributed 42 vessels to the Allied cause – ten of these vessels dramatically escaped from French ports in late-Summer 1940, in defiance of the orders of the collaborationist Vichy France government.
Most of the Polish forces in the West took part in the Italian Campaign, 1943-1945, where the Polish Second Corps fought, most notably at the Battle of Monte Cassino in May 1944, arguably the most decisive battle of the Italian Campaign, a brave frontal assault against the “impregnable” German positions, which finally opened the road to Rome.
In August 1944, the First Polish Armoured Division, formed from the Polish First Corps which had trained in Scotland, were involved in the battles around the Falaise Gap, in the aftermath of the Normandy invasion. In September 1944, the First Polish Parachute Brigade, the second major unit to emerge from the training formation, the Polish First Corps, undertook a suicide mission to retrieve the situation at Arnhem, during Operation Market-Garden.
The Polish underground identified the V-1/V-2 rocket works at Peenemünde, which were then virtually destroyed by a massive Allied bomber-raid, delaying the German rocket program at least six months — this meant that the Normandy landings and campaign were conducted without the threat of these rocket-attacks. The rocket-works were then moved by the Germans deep into occupied Poland, where the Polish underground was actually able to retrieve a fired but unexploded test-copy of the V-2, which was eventually dismantled by technical specialists and conveyed to England by a clandestine aircraft run.
The intelligence-gathering efforts of Poles across Nazi-ruled Europe, carried out under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, gave the Western Allies (particularly the British) information of a high value at various junctures of the war – indeed, virtually the entire net of clandestine agents inside of Nazi-occupied Europe working for the British, was Polish.
POLAND UNDER GERMAN AND SOVIET OCCUPATIONS
On September 17, 1939, Stalin’s armies crossed the eastern frontiers of Poland, preparing to seize that part of Poland guaranteed to them by secret clauses of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Hitler annexed Polish Pomerania (“the Corridor”), the area around Poznan (Posen), and the part of Silesia belonging to pre-war Poland, directly into the Reich. These areas were to be 100% Germanized. Most of the Poles in those areas who refused to officially renounce their nationality were deported eastward.
The rest of German-occupied Poland was designated the General-Gouvernement, where the Poles were slated to become mindless slave labour for the German “settlers.” Stalin at this time planned to deport all Poles from the areas he had annexed, deep into the Soviet Union – both regimes committing themselves to perpetually maintain the extinction of Poland.
The Polish state, nation, people, and culture were basically ground to near-destruction between the two great totalitarian terror regimes of the 20th century — Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union.
Nazi and Soviet murders of Polish intelligentsia and Poles of all classes began in the first days of the war. There were extensive property confiscations by both Nazis and Soviets. In November 1939, the professors and researchers of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow were treacherously seized and sent to German concentration camps, where most of them died from ill-treatment.
The first transports to the German concentration camp of Auschwitz in 1940 consisted of Christian Polish intellectuals and national leaders. In the Winter of 1939-1940, close to one million Poles were deported for slave labour from eastern Poland to Siberia, and other remote regions of the Soviet Union.
In April 1940, Stalin ordered the execution of 15,000 Polish military officers and 11,000 other Polish state officials, the cream of Poland’s national elite, at the forest of Katyn and other sites.
Nazi Germany imposed slave labour on millions of Poles. There were thousands of “Lidice’s” in Poland — Polish villages whose inhabitants were systematically liquidated.
The Poles had one of the largest and best organized underground resistance movements in Nazi-occupied Europe, and no local Quisling government or military formations aiding the Germans.
The very mention of Poland or display of its state and national symbols was strictly forbidden by the Germans — Nazi Germany aimed at the extirpation of Polish national culture — the Polish intelligentsia and clergy were hunted down and sent to the concentration camps — entire libraries, archives, and art-collections were burned or plundered — Polish national monuments in cities and towns were systematically destroyed – even thousands of roadside religious shrines in the countryside were demolished.
Over five million Poles (one-fifth of the pre-war Polish population of about 25 million) perished as a result of the Second World War — close to nine million citizens of the pre-war Polish state, from a total population of about 35 million citizens, perished, including five million Poles, and nearly three million Jews who were citizens of pre-war Poland.
STALIN’S CHANGE OF POLICY
When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June, 1941, a significant change in Stalin’s policy toward the Poles perforce occurred. He allowed tens of thousands of surviving Poles, from the close to one million he had deported to Siberia and other remote regions of the Soviet Union, to make their way southward to join the Polish Second Corps forming in the Near East. He also eventually allowed Poles to volunteer for military units to be formed in the Soviet Union, the so-called Kosciuszko Division, named after the American Revolutionary War and Polish Insurrectionary hero, Tadeusz Kosciuszko. Their most notable action was probably their breakthrough at the Pommernstellung (Pomeranian Wall) fortifications in early 1945, quickly opening the path to the Baltic Coast.
THE HOLOCAUST OF EUROPEAN JEWRY
The German occupation in Poland, as in most of the conquered lands to the east of the Reich, was savage and brutal – far different from the occupations of Western and Northern European countries, where the Germans acted in a relatively restrained fashion. All efforts to save Jews occurred in a context where the Christian Poles themselves were being subjected to a thoroughgoing and systematic genocide. Most Christian Poles were living on the edge of extermination or starvation, and the German occupation forces would enforce the death-penalty (often on entire families, and often by burning alive), for the slightest aid given to fleeing Jews. One could be killed for giving a glass of water to a Jewish person.
Of the six million Jews who perished, nearly three million had been citizens of pre-war Poland. In pre-war Poland, although there certainly were frictions, actual violence was very rare. The assertion by William Styron, in Sophie’s Choice (which was turned into a highly prominent film), that a professor of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow called for the extermination of the Jews, is totally false. Even the most fringe Right parties in Poland never approached the degree of hatred and revilement against Jews seen across a very broad stratum of society in Germany in the early 1930s. The pre-war Polish government, which could be seen as a “centrist authoritarianism”, actually jailed prominent Polish Far Right leaders, in order to dampen down ethnic tensions.
As the war reached its apogee on the Eastern Front, the Nazi leadership accelerated its program of extermination against the Jews. More Jews were shipped from other parts of the Nazi empire to German-occupied Poland (especially the so-called General-Gouvernement), where the largest death camp, Auschwitz, was located. The reports of the Polish underground about the slaughter carried to Western Allies at this time, for example, by Jan Karski, were largely ignored and disbelieved.
Editorial Note; for a divergent take on these issues, see Neighbors: the Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (2001), by Jan T Gross and, by the same author, Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz (2006). A recent Polish law makes any suggestion of Polish complicity in the Holocaust a civil offence
THE WARSAW UPRISING
On July 22, 1944, the Communist-led Polish National Liberation Committee was created, calling for the establishment of a Polish People’s Republic — in opposition to the Polish Government-in-Exile in London. Although the Communists later claimed that the Committee assembled in Lublin and that it had been “unveiled” in Chelm Lubelski, in fact, the PNLC was created in Moscow and operated largely in Moscow for much of its earlier existence.
On August 1, 1944, the tragic Warsaw Uprising was launched.
There had also been a doomed uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943. It should be remembered that the Soviet front was several hundred miles away at that time, so the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising could never have been successful. The Polish underground tried to assist the Jewish fighters, but had limited means under the crushing German occupation. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was as an existential gesture of defiance, doomed from the outset.
By August 1944, however, Soviet armies had reached the east side of the Vistula River (the main city of Warsaw is on the west side), and it was widely expected that the Germans would soon crumble. Although the Soviets had arguably outrun their logistical tether at this point, most historians think that Stalin suspended Soviet offensive operations in order to allow the Germans to crush the Uprising. The Polish resistance, nevertheless, continued over more than two, increasingly nightmarish, months. The partisan fighters of the Polish Home Army, who mostly had only small arms, could not overcome the heavily armed and supported (tanks, artillery, flame-throwers, etc.) German forces. Furthermore, Hitler had gave explicit orders to utterly destroy Warsaw.
Stalin was also culpable in that he refused landing rights to Western Allied planes that could have airdropped weapons, munitions, and other supplies to the insurgents. The Allied airdrops to Warsaw were therefore virtually suicide missions, for which there were nevertheless considerable pilot volunteers.
Over 240,000 Poles, most of them civilians, including massive numbers of women, children, and the elderly, perished in the Uprising, often being killed in the cruelest of ways (such as being burned alive when the Germans deliberately set fire to the Poles’ makeshift hospitals). The Germans exacted a ferocious retribution against the Poles, levelling the entire city, systematically blowing up buildings and monuments in their perceived order of importance to Polish culture, destroying or looting whatever art-works could be found, and deporting the remaining population to concentration camps.
POLAND, BETRAYED BY THE ALLIES?
At the Conferences of the “Big Three”, USA, Britain, USSR at Teheran, Yalta, and Potsdam, it was decided that Poland would be reconstituted in the boundaries of the Polish Piast state of the early Middle Ages, that is, the frontiers would be shifted by about 200 miles westward. While Poland would receive lands it had lost some 600 years ago, and would be forced to expel the German population living there, it would also lose lands that had been under its influence for over 600 years, and such Polish population there which had survived the various depredations of the war would simply be brutally transferred into the lands vacated by the Germans. The net loss of territory between the gains in the west, and the losses in the east, was almost one-fifth! In Stalin’s conception, the Polish gains in the west would bind Poland forever to Russia, because of Poles’ fear of German revanchism, while Poland’s eastern frontiers would now roughly coincide with what had been the Nazi-Soviet demarcation line of 1939.
Polish soldiers took part in the final battles against Nazi Germany, including the Battle of Berlin. But they did not obtain the fruits of victory. The adjustment into the new boundaries would have been difficult enough, without Stalin’s further goal of imposing hardline Communism on Poland. Stalin could have chosen to allow for considerable internal autonomy while Poland remained under Soviet influence – along the lines of Finland. But that was not Stalin’s way. A civil war between the remnants of the nationalist underground, and the emerging Communist security apparatus, supported by huge Soviet forces, raged until 1949. Over 100,000 Poles died resisting Soviet Communism. Hundreds of thousands of Poles were severely and/or permanently injured as a result of heavy beatings, systematic torture, and brutal conditions of incarceration. Stalin sardonically commented, in his typically crude fashion, that “imposing Communism on Poland was like trying to saddle a cow.”
Churchill and Roosevelt did not treat the Poles in the West fairly. They were seen as “unusually recalcitrant towards Stalin”. The Polish gold reserves, which had been spirited out of Poland in 1939, and had indeed paid for most of the expenses of the Polish armies under Western Allied command, were unaccountably returned to the Communist government in Poland, with the result that many Polish veterans were left without any means of future sustenance. The general commanding the First Polish Parachute Brigade, for example, ended up working as a common labourer in Britain. Polish soldiers in the West were not even allowed to officially participate in the great postwar victory marches in London and other cities.
WORLD WAR II VICTORY MARCH, 1992
The real World War II victory march for the Polish military took place on Polish Soldiers’ Day, August 15, 1992, when Polish veterans from all over the world gathered to celebrate the beginning of a new, free Poland, and the end of Soviet Communism.
Partially based on an article co-authored with Apolonja Kojder that appeared in Polish American Journal, August 2004
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based historical researcher. He was born in Toronto of Polish immigrant parents