Allies

Poland

The European theater of World War II opened with the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. The Polish Army was quickly pushed back. After Poland had been overrun, a government-in-exile, an armed forces, and an intelligence service were established outside of Poland. These organisations contributed to the Allied effort throughout the war.



Overview

Poland was the only country to fight in the European theatre of war from the first to the last day of the greatest armed conflict in the history of mankind. The war began with invading Poland: first, on September 1, 1939, by the Nazi Germany, soon after, on September 17, by the Soviet Union. Both invaders acted in concert, upon the Ribbentrop - Molotov Treaty (concluded on August 23). The allies of Poland - Great Britain and France - declared war upon Germany on September 3rd, but did not undertake any efficient military actions (the so-called "Phony War"). The Soviet Union joined the anti-Nazi alliance only in the summer of 1941, when invaded by Germany. The United States, although they gave a lot of significant material aid, joined the military actions in December 1941 when assaulted by Japan and when Germany declared war upon them.

The most important features of the Polish contribution to the defeat of Germany are determination and perseverance. Despite the severe defeat in 1939, the Poles formed five more armies, including four in exile: in France in 1939, in the United Kingdom in the summer of 1940 (after the defeat and capitulation of France), and twice in the USSR in 1941. These were the army of Gen. Anders that fought later in the South of Europe, and the one that emerged in 1943 and later fought at the Red Army's side. The fifth Polish army, created at the end of September of 1939 was the conspiratorial armed force in the occupied territory. For the entire period of the war there also existed the very important "silent front" - the intelligence. Probably up to 2 millions Poles served since September 1st, 1939 to May 8th, 1945 in all the Polish military formations - regular armies, partisan troops and underground forces. In the final stage of war the Polish troops on all the European fronts amounted to some 600 000 soldiers (infantry, armored troops, aircraft and navy). In the summer of 1944, while commencing regular military struggle against the retreating Germans, the armed underground numbered more than 300 thousands sworn soldiers. It can be concluded that Poland put in the field the fourth greatest Allied army.

Invasion

On 1 September 1939, 1.8 million German troops invaded Poland on three fronts; East Prussia in the north, Germany in the west and Slovakia in the south. They had 2600 tanks against the Polish 180, and over 2000 aircraft against the Polish 420. Their "Blitzkrieg" tactics, coupled with their bombing of defenceless towns and refugees, had never been seen before and, at first, caught the Poles off-guard. By September 14th. Warsaw was surrounded. At this stage the poles reacted, holding off the Germans at Kutno and regrouping behind the Wisla (Vistula) and Bzura rivers. Although Britain and France declared war on September 3rd. the Poles received no help - yet it had been agreed that the Poles should fight a defensive campaign for only 2 weeks during which time the Allies could get their forces together and attack from the west.

There are many "myths" that surround the September Campaign; the fictional Polish cavalry charges against German tanks (actually reported by the Italian press and used as propaganda by the Germans), the alleged destruction of the Polish Air Force on the ground, or claims that Polish armour failed to achieve any success against the invaders. In reality, and despite the fact that Poland was only just beginning to modernise her armed forces and had been forced (by Britain and France) to delay mobilisation (which they claimed might be interpreted as aggressive behaviour) so that, at the time of invasion, only about one-third of her total potential manpower was mobilised, Polish forces ensured that the September campaign was no "walk-over". The Wehrmacht had so under-rated Polish anti-tank capabilities (the Polish-designed anti-tank gun was one of the best in the world at that time) that they had gone into action with white "balkankreuz", or crosses, prominently displayed in eight locations; these crosses made excellent aiming points for Polish gun-sights and forced the Germans to radically rethink their national insignia, initially overpainting them in yellow and then, for their later campaigns, adopting the modified "balkankreuz" similar to that used by the Luftwaffe. The recently-designed 7TP "czolg lekki", or light tank, the first in the world to be designed with a diesel engine, proved to be superior to German tanks of the same class (the PzKpfw I and II) inflicting serious damage to the German forces, limited only by the fact that they were not used in concentrated groups. They were absorbed by the Germans into their own Panzer divisions at the end of the campaign.

On 17 September 1939, Soviet forces invaded from the east. Warsaw surrendered 2 weeks later, the garrison on the Hel peninsula surrendered on 2 October 1939 and the Polesie Defence group, after fighting on two fronts against both German and Soviet forces, surrendered on 5 October. The Poles had held on for twice as long as had been expected and had done more damage to the Germans than the combined British and French forces were to do in 1940. The Germans lost 50,000 men, 697 planes and 993 tanks and armoured cars.

Thousands of soldiers and civilians managed to escape to France and Britain whilst many more went "underground" . A government-in-exile was formed with Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz as President and General Wladyslaw Sikorski as Prime Minister.

The Fourth Partition

Under the German-Soviet pact Poland was divided; the Soviets took, and absorbed into the Soviet Union, the eastern half (Belorussia and the West Ukraine), the Germans incorporated Pomerania, Posnania and Silesia into the Reich whilst the rest was designated as the General-Gouvernement (a colony ruled from Krakow by Hitler's friend, Hans Frank).

In the Soviet zone 1.5 million Poles (including women and children) were transported to labour camps in Siberia and other areas. Many thousands of captured Polish officers were shot at several secret forest sites; the first to be discovered being Katyn, near Smolensk.

The Germans declared their intention of eliminating the Polish race (a task to be completed by 1975) alongside the Jews. This process of elimination, the "Holocaust", was carried out systematically. All members of the "intelligentsia" were hunted down in order to destroy Polish culture and leadership (many were originally exterminated at Oswiencim - better known by its German name, Auschwitz). Secret universities and schools, a "Cultural Underground", were formed (the penalty for belonging to one was death). In the General-Gouvernement there were about 100,000 secondary school pupils and over 10,000 niversity students involved in secret education.

The Polish Jews were herded into Ghettos where they were slowly starved and cruelly offered hopes of survival but, in fact, ended up being shot or gassed. In the end they were transported, alongside non-Jewish Poles, Gypsies and Soviet POWs, to extermination camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka; at Auschwitz over 4 million were exterminated. 2000 concentration camps were built in Poland, which became the major site of the extermination programme, since this was where most of the intended victims lived.

Many non-Jewish Poles were either transported to Germany and used as slave labour or simply executed. In the cities the Germans would round-up and kill indiscriminately as a punishment for any underground or anti-German or pro-Jewish activity. In the countryside they kept prominent citizens as hostages who would be executed if necessary. Sometimes they liquidated whole villages; at least 300 villages were destroyed. Hans Frank said, "If I wanted to put up a poster for every seven Poles shot, the forests of Poland would not suffice to produce the paper for such posters."

Despite such horror the Poles refused to give in or cooperate (there were no Polish collaborators as in other occupied countries). The Polish Underground or AK (Armia Krajowa or Home Army) was the largest in Europe with 400,000 men. The Jewish resistance movement was set up separately because of the problem of being imprisoned within the ghettos. Both these organisations caused great damage to the Nazi military machine. Many non-Jewish Poles saved the lives of thousands of Jews despite the fact that the penalty, if caught, was death (in fact, Poland was the only occupied nation where aiding Jews was punishable by death).

Fighting On All Fronts

The Polish Army, Navy and Air Force reorganised abroad and continued to fight the Germans. In fact they have the distinction of being the only nation to fight on every front in the War. In 1940 they fought in France, in the Norwegian campaign they earned a reputation for bravery at Narvik, and in Africa the Carpathian Brigade fought at Tobruk.

Polish Squadrons played an important role in the Battle of Britain, accounting for 12% of all German aircraft destroyed at the cost of 33 lives. By the end of the war they had flown a total of 86,527 sorties, lost 1669 men and shot down 500 German planes and 190 V1 rockets.

The Polish Navy, which had escaped intact, consisted of 60 vessels, including 2 cruisers, 9 destroyers and 5 submarines (one of which was the famous "Orzel") which were involved in 665 actions at sea. The first German ship sunk in the war was sunk by Polish ships. The Navy also took part in the D-Day landings.

When the Soviet Union was attacked by Germany, in June 1941, Polish POWs were released from prison camps and set up an army headed by General Anders. Many civilians were taken under the protection of this army which was allowed to make its way to Persia (modern-day Iran) and then on to Egypt. This army, the Polish Second Corps, fought with distinction in Italy, their most notable victory being that at Monte Cassino, in May 1944, and which opened up the road to Rome for the Allies as a whole. One of the "heroes" of the Polish Second Corps was Wojtek, a brown bear adopted in Iran as their mascot; at Monte Cassino Wojtek actually helped in the fighting by carrying ammunition for the guns. He died, famous and well-loved, in Edinburgh Zoo in 1964, aged 22.

All the Polish forces took part in the Allied invasion of Europe and liberation of France, playing a particularly crucial role in the significant Battle of the Falaise Gap. The Polish Parachute Brigade took part in the disastrous Battle of Arnhem in Holland. In 1945, the Poles captured the German port of Wilhelmshaven.

In 1943 a division of Polish soldiers was formed in Russia under Soviet control and fought on the Eastern Front. They fought loyally alongside the Soviet troops, despite the suffering they had experienced in Soviet hands, and they distinguished themselves in breaking through the last German lines of defence, the "Pomeranian Rampart", in the fighting in Saxony and in the capture of Berlin.

The "Home Army", under the command of General Stefan Roweki (code-named "Grot"), and after his capture in 1943 (he was later murdered), by General Tadeusz Komorowski (code-named "Bor"), fought a very varied war; at times in open combat in brigade or division strength, at times involved in sabotage, often acting as execution squads eliminating German officials, and often fighting a psychological campaign against German military and civilians. It was a costly war since the Germans always took reprisals.

The Intelligence Service of the Home Army captured and sent parts of the V1 to London for examination, providing information on German military movements (giving advanced warning of the German plan to invade Russia), and gave the RAF full information about Peenemunde, where the Germans were producing V2 rockets.

The Katyn Massacre

The first news of a massacre at Katyn Wood came in April 1943 when the Germans found a mass grave of 4,500 Polish soldiers in German-occupied Russia. The Russians responded to the German claims that Russia's secret police did it, by claiming that the massacre was carried out by the Germans themselves. In the context of the war - the Allies were fighting the Nazi war machine and Russia was a valued ally - the German version was not accepted by the British or other Allied governments. However, in the era of the Cold War, the Russian version was heavily scrutinised and questionned.

The first announcement of what had been found at Katyn Wood was made on Radio Berlin on April 13th, 1943.

"A report has reached us from Smolensk to the effect that the local inhabitants have mentioned to the German authorities the existence of a place where mass executions have been carried out by the Bolsheviks and where 10,000 Polish officers have been murdered by the Soviet Secret State Police. The German authorities went to a place called the Hill of Goats, a Russian health resort situated twelve kilometers west of Smolensk, where a gruesome discovery was made." Radio Berlin broadcast

The Germans claimed that they found a ditch 28 meters long and 16 meters wide at the Hill of Goats in which were 3,000 bodies piled up in layers of twelve. All the bodies were fully dressed in military uniform; some were bound and all had pistol shots to the back of their heads. The Germans believed that they would find 10,000 bodies (hence the figure in the broadcast) but eventually the final total was 4,500. The Germans claimed that the bodies were in good condition and they even recognised a general Smorawinsky as one of the victims. The soil had done a great deal to preserve the bodies and any documentation found on them.

However, any information relating to this massacre made public during the war came from Goebbel's propaganda ministry and had to be treated as suspect by the Allies. In January 1943, the Russians had turned the tide of the war with the defeat of the Germans at Stalingrad - a victory Churchill had urged all on the Allied side to celebrate. As if in a knee-jerk reaction, any criticism about the Russians in Easter 1943 would not have been acceptable. Any connection between the massacre and the Germans, however, would have been more readily accepted by all those fighting against the Nazis.

But what exactly did happen at Katyn Wood?

When German forces attacked Poland in September 1939, the Blitzkrieg tactic tore great holes in the Polish defence. However, on September 17th, as part of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, Russian forces also invaded Poland. The Russian leadership called on the Polish soldiers to rise up against their officers and political leaders as a punishment for getting the country into an unjust war. Those Polish officers and senior NCO's captured by the Red Army were arrested and deported to Russia.

It is known that they were taken to three camps in Russia - Kozelsk, Starobelsk and Ostashkov. One of the camps, Kozelsk, contained more than just officers. It contained arrested Polish university lecturers, surgeons, physicians, barristers and lawyers. One woman prisoner was held at Kozelsk - Janina Lewandowski. Her body was found at Katyn clothed in the uniform of the Polish Air Force. Ostashkov held officers - but it also held anybody from Poland who was considered to be 'bourgeois'. It seems that only Starobelsk held only officers from the Polish military.

To start with, the Russians attempted to 're-educate' the Poles in all three camps. Brigadier Zarubin of the Soviet Secret State Police was put in charge of this task. His efforts to promote the Soviet way of life probably had no chance. The Poles in the camp were forbidden to say Mass - which for a devout Roman Catholic nation was a major blow and it was almost certainly done secretly. Therefore, it is untenable to think that there were any takers for the Soviet view point which Zarubin was trying to sell. It seems that Zarubin reported his failure to Moscow and shortly after this a colonel from the Soviet Secret State Police turned up at all three camps. Just after the visit of this colonel, groups of prisoners were taken from the camps to an unknown destination.

In April 1940, all three camps were simultaneously cleared.

On June 22nd, 1941, Nazi Germany launched 'Operation Barbarossa'. The German military swept aside the Russian army and penetrated deep into Russia. Stalin, alarmed by the collapse of the Red Army, ordered that an amnesty should be granted to all Polish prisoners who were willing to fight against the Germans. On August 14th 1941, a Polish-Soviet military agreement was signed. However, no-one could account for the whereabouts of the officers held in Kozelsk, Starobelsk and Ostashkov. Winston Churchill himself wrote about the embarrassment such a disclosure brought on the Russian authorities.

The Polish government in exile, based in London, was especially concerned that the Russians explain where these men were. Stalin gave two answers. Initially, he claimed that the men had escaped to Manchuria. However, the authorities in Moscow - which was effectively Stalin - claimed that the men were held in territory that the Germans had taken in their lightning attack in June 1941 and that only the Germans could account for their whereabouts. This was to become the standard Moscow answer to the problem - the Germans were responsible.

Locals at Katyn Forest had long known that it was an area used by the secret police to execute those who had fallen out with Stalin's government. As early as 1929, the Soviet secret police had built a dacha there surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. To keep out the locals, the secret police also used guard dogs to patrol the perimeter of the dacha.

On July 16th, 1941, Smolensk fell to the Germans. The Russian authorities had fled from Katyn and for the first time in years, the area was open 'to the public'. In 1942, Poles from the Todt Organisation arrived in the area to collect any form of scrap. As they worked on the Hill of Goats, they found the body of a dead Polish officer who was later buried in a dignified service. However, the winter for 1942-43 was severe and the ground at the Hill of Goats was frozen over.

In the Spring of 1943, a Russian peasant, Ivan Krivozertzev, read an article in a newspaper ('Novyj Put') regarding General Sikorski and his search for thousands of Polish officers whom he could not account for. Despite communism in Russia, Krivozertzev had maintained his religious beliefs and re-called what he had seen in Smolensk in 1940.

He had seen rail wagons coming into Smolensk station but being shunted into screened sidings. He had seen men being herded under armed guard into 'Black Ravens' - the local nickname for prison vehicles. Krivozertzev had also seen 'normal' prisoners being driven from Smolensk city in lorries with shovels and pick axes. Krivozertzev went to the Germans and told them that he believed the Polish officers would be found at the Hill of Goats. The Germans went to the forest and dug up mounds that had young fir trees on the top of them. These trees gave away an obvious secret as the rings on them indicated that they had been planted in April 1940.

The Germans started digging in the Hill of Goats and found the bodies of many men, still in military uniform, who had been shot in the back of the head with their hands tied behind their backs. The Germans also found the bodies of Russian men and women who had been shot long before 1940. Curiously, the Germans claimed that the way the Russians and Poles had been tied was identical and that whoever did both sets of murders was the same organisation. The 4,500 bodies that were exhumed came from Kozelsk - no-one knows what happened to the men held at Starobelsk and Ostashkov. Moscow announced its stance on April 14th 1943:

"The Polish prisoners in question were interned in the vicinity of Smolensk in special camps and were employed in road construction. In was impossible to evacuate them at the time of the approach of the German troops and, as a result, they fell into their hands. If, therefore, they have been found murdered, it means that they have been murdered by the Germans who, for reasons of provocation, now claim that the crime was committed by Soviet authorities."

On April 15th, the British government publically stated via the BBC that the Germans had told lies and that it accepted the Russian version. This caused the Polish government in exile to call for an independent inspection of Katyn - something the International Red Cross in Switzerland could do. The German and Polish government (in exile) agreed to this; Moscow did not. The Russians broke off all relations with Poland and set up a puppet Polish government in Moscow.

When Russia advanced into Europe and re-captured Katyn, it seemed as if the issue was solved as it was clear that the Russians were not going to allow any investigation into what happened at Katyn. At the Nuremburg trials, the murders were linked to the indictment against Goering and the Russians presented their evidence to 'prove' it was the Germans, but they were never probed and Katyn drifted into obscurity. At the final judgment of the International Tribunal, Katyn was not even mentioned.

For their part the Russians claimed that the massacre took place after it became obvious that the Wehrmacht was in full retreat after their defeat at Stalingrad and that it was carried out by the Nazis.

Who committed the murders remained a mystery until 1990 when the Russian authorities admitted that it was the Russian Secret police (NKVD), that then spent much time and effort in attaching blame on the Germans.

The Cost

Over half a million fighting men and women, and 6 million civilians (or 22% of the total population) died. About 50% of these were Polish Christians and 50% were Polish Jews. Approximately 5,384,000, or 89.9% of Polish war losses (Jews and Gentiles) were the victims of prisons, death camps, raids, executions, annihilation of ghettos, epidemics, starvation, excessive work and ill treatment. So many Poles were sent to concentration camps that virtually every family had someone close to them who had been tortured or murdered there.

The country lost 38% of its national assets (Britain lost 0.8%, France lost 1.5%). Half the country was swallowed up by the Soviet Union including the two great cultural centres of Lwow and Wilno.

Many Poles could not return to the country for which they has fought because they belonged to the "wrong" political group or came from eastern Poland and had thus become Soviet citizens. Others were arrested, tortured and imprisoned by the Soviet authorities for belonging to the Home Army.



References and Resources

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Retrieved October 9, 2009, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polish_contribution_to_World_War_II

Gilbert, Martin. The Second World War: A Complete History. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1991.

Keegan, John. The Second World War. New York: Penguin Books, 1990.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Retrieved October 9, 2009, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polish_contribution_to_World_War_II

Gilbert, Martin. The Second World War: A Complete History. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1991.

"The Katyn Wood Massacre". HistoryLearningSite.co.uk. 2014. Web.

Keegan, John. The Second World War. New York: Penguin Books, 1990.