Polish Deportees in the Soviet Union - Origins of Post-War Settlement in Great Britain

Polish Deportees in the Soviet Union

On 1 September 1939 Nazi Germany attacked and invaded Poland. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had signed an agreement in August 1939 to divide Poland between them. In accordance with this agreement the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east on 17 September 1939. Poland was then partitioned into Soviet and Nazi zones of occupation.

Members of the Polish Armed Forces who had avoided capture by the Germans and Russians escaped abroad to Romania, Hungary, Lithuania and Latvia. There they were interned. The Polish government was re-established in France under the command of General Wladylsaw Sikorski. Many members of the Polish Armed Forces managed to escape from internment in the neutral countries and attempted to make their way to France. Others succeeded in escaping to the Middle East.

Soviet Occupation of Poland

The Soviet Union captured and imprisoned about 200,000 Polish troops. These Polish prisoners of war were sent east into the vast depths of the Soviet Union to prison camps and to forced labour.

Many were sent to the Arctic and sub-Arctic region of the White Sea and the Solovestsky Islands for forced labour on the White Sea Canal. Others were directed into forestry and logging operations deep into Siberia...Typhus, dysentery and malnutrition were endemic throughout this dispersal, abetted by starvation diets, and mortality rates were high particularly in the winter and spring of 1939-40. (p. 21)

Polish officers were held in camps in the Soviet Union at Kozelsk, Ostashkov and Starobelsk. In the spring of 1940 the Soviet Secret Police (NKVD) murdered around 25,000 Polish Army Officers in what has become known as the Katyn massacre.

On 10 February 1940 the Soviet Secret Police (NKVD) banged on Polish doors in the middle of the night and rounded up about 250,000 men, women and children. They were taken to awaiting trains and loaded into cattle trucks. A journey lasting two or three weeks, in severe winter weather, was about to begin which would take the Poles into exile in Siberia.

The deportation of 10th February was effected by a total of 110 trains, each carrying slightly more than 2,000 people. (p. 24)

On 13 April 1940 another large deportation of 330,000 Poles took place.

...according to all post-war sources, including the Sikorski Institute, a total of 160 trains dispersed the victims into areas of Asiatic Russia, mainly to Kazakstan and further eastwards to the Altai Kraj... (p. 25)

A third mass deportation took place in June and July 1940 when a further 250,00 Poles were exiled to areas in the north of Russia and to the republics of Baszkirska, Maryjska and to Krasnoyarski Kraj.

It is estimated that between 1939 and 1941 the Soviet government deported 1,700,000 Poles into exile in the Soviet Union.

By the middle of ... 1942, half the above total were dead. (p. 28)

Nazi Germany Invades the Soviet Union

In June 1941 Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa the codename for the invasion of the Soviet Union. On 30 July 1941 a Polish-Soviet pact was signed in London between General Wladylsaw Sikorski and the Soviet Ambassador to Great Britain Ivan Maisky.

This treaty provided an amnesty for all Polish citizens held in the Soviet Union and for the formation of a Polish Army in Russia. General Wladylsaw Anders was released from Soviet captivity in the Lubianka prison in Moscow and appointed as Commander in Chief of the Polish Army in the Soviet Union.

The gathering point for the Polish Army in the Soviet Union was to be between the Volga and the Urals at a place called Buzuluk, east of Kuibyshev. It was proposed that the following divisions would be created:

  • 5th Division stationed at Tatischevo
  • 6th Division and Reserve regiment stationed at Totskoye

The condition of the men who arrived at Buzuluk, after being released from Soviet prison camps, was dreadful.

Nearly two years of suffering and deprivation in prison, labour camp, and penal colony had taken its toll in health. Typhus and dysentery were commonplace, and many deaths had occurred in transit from imprisonment to freedom. (pp. 44-45)

By October 1941 1,965 officers and 34,139 other ranks had reported for military duty. This number had increased to 44,000 by December 1941 but the Soviets had only provided rations for 26,000.

General Sikorksi met with Stalin in early December 1941 and an agreement was reached that:

  • The Polish Army would be increased to 100,000.
  • The Polish Army would be transferred to the southern part of the country.

The new headquarters of the Polish Army was to be at Yangi-Yul near Tashkent. On 15 January 1942 the evacuation of the Polish Army from Buzuluk was begun. By mid-March 1942 the Polish Army numbered 70,000.

Escape from the Soviet Union

An agreement was reached with Stalin in March 1942 that allowed General Anders to evacuate the Polish Army from the Soviet Union. The Polish Forces were to go by train to Krasnovodsk on the Caspian sea and from there by boat to Pahlevi in Persia.

Between 24 March and 4 April 1942 the Krasnovodsk depot received 33,039 military and 10,789 civilian evacuees, many dying on the Caspian waterfronts...The survivors crossed the Caspian in batches in Soviet ships to Pahlevi between 26 March and 10 April. (p. 51)

In August 1942 a second evacuation took place to Krasnovodsk mainly from Uzbek and Kirghiz territory.

This exodus was larger, consisting of 44,832 military personnel and 25,347 civilians, and placed in transit from Krasnovodsk to Pahlevi between 8 and 30 August. (p. 52)

The 35,000 civilian refugees were placed in camps in various parts of the British Empire. This included camps in India and in the African countries of Uganda, Tanganyika, Kenya and Rhodesia.

The Polish Second Corps

The Polish Armed Forces which escaped from the Soviet Union were moved to training camps in Palestine to get ready for military service. They were joined with the existing Polish Carpathian Brigade and renamed the 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division. In September 1942 the Polish Forces in the Middle East were called the Polish Army in the East. This Polish army was designated as Second Polish Corps when it was assigned to the British Eighth Army in July 1943.

The Second Polish Corps was transferred from the Middle East to Italy between December 1943 and March 1944. In May 1944 the Poles broke the prolonged German defence at Monte Cassino in Italy. The victory at Monte Cassino was achieved only with high casualities of killed, wounded and missing - 281 officers and 3,503 other ranks.

The Polish Second Corps went on to capture Ancona in July 1944 and to break through the German Gothic Line in August and September 1944.

At the end of the war the Polish Second Corps in northern Italy consisted of nearly 112,000. The agreements between the Soviet Union, the USA and Great Britain to shift Polands' frontiers westwards meant that most of the Polish Second Corps had no homes in Poland to return to.

Polish Resettlement Corps

In May 1946 the British government proposed that it would transport the Polish Second Corps from Italy to Britain and create a Polish Resettlement Corps. This was to be a unarmed military unit, with voluntary enrolment, which would last for two years and provide opportunities for employment and vocational training. The British government also agreed to transport and accommodate families in the camps in India and Africa.

  • By 1947 207,000 Polish servicemen had arrived in Britain.
  • Of 114,000 enrolments into Polish Resettlement Corps most were from Polish Second Corps.
  • Of General Anders 80,000 evacuees from the Soviet Union only 310 volunteered to return to Soviet dominated Poland.
..the work of the Resettlement Corps succeeded by the end of 1947 in placing 57,000 ex-servicemen permanently into industry. (p. 70)

In October 1949 the British Home Office reported that there were 126,909 Poles in Britain.

...we may surmise that within the ... 127,000 ... 80,000 of former deportees to the Soviet Union thus formed the backbone of the Polish community in Great Britain. (p. 73)

Polish Deportees in the Soviet Union - Origins of Post-War Settlement in Great Britain

Author - Michael Hope
ISBN - 0948202769 (1st edition 1998, 2nd edition 2000, 3rd edition 2005)
Publisher - Published by Veritas Foundation Publication Centre, London.
Book Availability - Amazon (UK) - Amazon (USA) - BookFinder.com

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This page was added on 13 February 2011.