Poland and the Poles in the Second World War

The Eagle Unbowed - Poland and the Poles in the Second World War Book Cover

The Eagle Unbowed - Poland and the Poles in the Second World War

Halik Kochanski

ISBN 1846143586
London: Penguin Books



93 Books about Poland | Polish War Graves in Britain

What was the Polish experience in the Second World War? That of a nation which suffered greatly.

Attacked by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in September 1939.
Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union divided Poland between them.
Most of Poland's 3 million Jews were murdered by Nazi Germany.
The Soviet Union executed, with a bullet to the back of the head, around 25,000 of the Polish Army Officer corp and other intelligentsia. An event which became known as the Katyn Massacre.
Between 300,000 and 1,500,000 (estimates vary) Poles were deported by the Soviet Union to Siberia.
The Polish Underground Army in August 1944 launched the Warsaw Uprising: an attempt to regain control of their capital city from the Germans before the Soviet Red Army seized control. Sixty-three days later 15,000 Polish fighters and 200,000 Polish civilians were dead - the city of Warsaw lay in ruins.
At the end of WW2 the Soviet Union incorporated eastern Poland into the Soviet Union.
In July 1945 the Western Allies (UK & US) withdrew recognition of the Polish government-in-exile in London in favour of the Soviet imposed government in Poland. Polish forces, the First to Fight, received no invitation to the Victory parade in London in 1946.

Outbreak of War

At 4.45am on the morning of the 1st September 1939 the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on the Polish military depot at Westerplatte in Danzig. The 2nd World War had begun!

The 200 Polish defenders at Westerplatte, under constant bombardment from the German Navy and Air Force, finally surrendered on the 7th September. The Germans lost 300 men, the Poles 15.

The German attack on Poland launched a Blitzkreig (Lightning War). They invaded Poland from three directions with highly mobile armoured columns. The German Air Force also launched a ruthless bombing campaign on Polish towns and cities.

Everywhere towns were bombed, refugee columns strafed, passenger trains bombed and their fleeing passengers machine-gunned. (p. 62)

On 17th September the Soviet Union attacked Poland from the East. A secret pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had been signed in August 1939 as a result of which they agreed to divide Poland between them. The Polish forces were now faced with enemies from all directions. On 20th September the Polish forces were ordered to attempt to escape to Romania and Hungary and from there to make their way to France to establish a new Polish Army.

The capital city Warsaw was still in Polish hands. Hitler ordered that Warsaw was to be starved into submission. On 22nd September the Germans launched a massive artillery bombardment of the city and the Luftwaffe bombed the city from the air. The pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman stated that:

The corpses of people and horses killed by shrapnel lay about the streets, whole areas of the city were in flames...(p. 81)

On 27th September Warsaw surrendered, the Germans entered the city on the following day. On 30th September 140,000 Polish troops marched out of the city into captivity.

A Polish force of 2,000 men still held out on the Hela peninsula, a 20 mile long strip of land, only a few hundred yards wide, in the bay of Danzig. The German battleships Schleswig-Holstein and Schlesein shelled them constantly. The German infantry attacked and forced the Polish surrender on 1st October.

Polish losses were considerable (p. 84):

  • 66,300 soldiers and airmen killed
  • 133,700 soldiers and airmen wounded
  • 694,000 soldiers captured by the Germans
  • 240,000 soldiers captured by the Soviets

A Polish Government-in-Exile was formed in France. Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz was appointed as President and General Wladyslaw Sikorski became Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. The new government was situated in Angers, 190 miles from Paris.


The occupying powers Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union set about imposing their different ideologies on Poland. In Warsaw the Nazi flag the Swastika flew from public buildings and the Star of David was painted on Jewish shops.

Heinrich Himmler asserted that:

all Poles will disappear from the world...It is essential that the great German people should consider it as its major task to destroy all Poles. (p. 98)

On 6th November 1939 the German SS arrested 183 professors at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. They sent 168 of them to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

The Germans confiscated art treasures from the Polish state and private collectors. This included paintings by Canaletto, Raphael and Rembrandt.

The Soviets sought to remove all signs of the Polish state by destroying memorials and removing signs which had the Polish eagle. All private and religious schools were abolished.

In October 1939 the Soviets sent 25,000 Polish officers, government officials, police and prison guards they had captured to three camps: Starobelsk, Ostashkov and Kozelsk. The head of the Soviet NKVD, Lavrenty Beria, determined that these Poles were irredeemably anti-Soviet and with Stalin's approval ordered that they be shot. Between early April and the end of May 1940 the Poles were gradually removed from the camps and executed. An event which has become known as the Katyn massacre.


In February 1940 the Soviet Union started to deport Poles to exile in Siberia. This was the first of four major deportations:

  1. February 1940 - Polish military settlers, policemen and foresters.
  2. April 1940 - Families of officers imprisoned in the Soviet Union and Poland, in hiding and abroad.
  3. June 1940 - Refugees from German occupied Poland who had not accepted Soviet passports.
  4. June 1941 - Polish citizens from the Baltic states and those missed in earlier deportations.

The Soviet Secret Police (NKVD) arrived at the homes of Poles in the middle of the night, banged on their doors and gave them 30 minutes to two hours to gather some belongings. They were then taken to a rail track and loaded onto trains of cattle trucks. Their journey into exile in Siberia could take a number of weeks.

Estimates of the numbers of Poles deported vary between 300,000 and 1.5 million. They were exiled to northern European Russia, Siberia and Kazakhstan.

Those exiled in February 1940 were sent to north European Russia and Siberia. The mainly women and children exiled in April 1940 were sent to Kazakhstan. The deportees in June 1940 were sent to Siberia and north European Russia. In the June 1941 deportation the men were sent to labour camps in the Sverdlovsk region and their families went to Siberia and Kazakhstan.

Nothing prepared the Poles for the extreme weather conditions in the Soviet Union...The snow started in the second half of October and did not clear completely until the early part of May. In Siberia the deportees were forced to work in the forests and mines throughout the winter... (p.152)

Release from Captivity

On 22 June 1941 Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union. This event proved to be the salvation of many Poles in Siberia and Kazakhstan. The Soviet Union, in response to the attack, negotiated an agreement in July 1941 with the Polish government-in-exile in London that Poles deported in 1940 and 1941 would be granted an amnesty and allowed to go free. The agreement also allowed for the creation of a Polish Army in the Soviet Union under the command of General Wladyslaw Anders.

General Anders had been captured by the Soviets in 1939 and been imprisoned in the Lubyanka in Moscow. He was released to take command of the Polish Army after the amnesty.

Anders had been brought up in Russian-controlled Poland and had served in the Russian Army during the First World War, spoke fluent Russian and had a clear understanding of the Russian mentality...Anders harboured such hatred for the Soviets and inspired such loyalty from his troops, who shared his opinons, that he would on occasion pursue an independent line from and in conflict with Sikorski's wishes. (p. 171)

The Poles released from captivity were to be directed south towards a better climate and the Polish Army. Polish representatives were sent to key railway stations, e.g. Kuibyshev, Gorki and Novosibirsk, to help direct Poles to the army camps. The long train journeys from north to south took their toll and many died on the way from exhaustion, hunger and disease.

There were few Poles able to make the journey from the lead mines in Kolyma and Kamchatka.

20,000 Poles...in the lead mines of Kolyma but only a few hundred were fit enough to attempt the journey...only 20 arrived; all the 3,000 Poles who had worked in the lead mines of northern Kamchatka had died of lead poisoning before the amnesty. (p. 177)

General Anders was concerned that so few officers were arriving at the camps. He asked Captain Jozef Czapski to draw up a list of missing officers and to make enquires with those arriving at the camp to see if they knew anything about the missing officers.

The location of the Polish Army in the Soviet Union was reorganised in January and February 1942. They were spread through Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan and Uzbekistan.

  • Headquarters - Yangiyul, south-west of Tashkent
  • 5th Infantry Division - Dzhalyal Abad, near Chinese border
  • 6th Infantry Division - Shachrizyabs, south Uzbekistan
  • 7th Infantry Division - Kermine, central Uzbekistan
  • 8th Infantry Division - Czok-Pak, Kirghizstan
  • 9th Infantry Division - near Ferghana, Uzbekistan
  • 10th Infantry Division - Lugovoy, south Kazakhstan
  • Artillery - Karasu, Tadzhikistan
  • Engineers - Vrevskoye, east Uzbekistan
  • Armoured Forces - Otar, west Kirghizstan
  • Army Depot - Guzar, south Uzbekistan

In March 1942 the Polish Army in the Soviet Union consisted of 70,000 men. The Poles and the Soviets had come to an agreement that 30,000 of the men and their dependent families should be evacuated to Persia. The evacuation began on 24 March 1942 with the first ship leaving the port of Krasnovodsk to cross the Caspian Sea to the Persian port of Pahlevi. The ships were packed full of Poles and the journey took between 1 and 3 days. The last ship carrying the Polish Army arrived in Pahlevi on 5 April 1942. 31,189 soldiers and 12,408 civilians were evacuated in March/April 1942.

The remainder of the Polish Army was evacuated in August 1942. By 31 August 43,476 soldiers had been evacuated and 26,094 civilians. In addition 2,694, most of whom were children, were taken by road to Meshed in Persia.

The Polish civilians in Persia were moved to various countries:

  • India
  • Uganda - 6,400
  • Tanganyika (Tanzania) - 8,000
  • Rhodesia - 5,000
  • Kenya - 1,500
  • South Africa
  • New Zealand - 700
  • Mexico

At the end of 1944 around 8,000 Poles, the sick and the old, remained in Persia. Over 1,000 Poles had died in the Persian capital of Teheran and were buried there.

Katyn Massacre

In April 1943 Nazi Germany announced that it had discovered the remains of thousands of Polish officers buried in a forest at Katyn, near Smolensk, in German occupied Russia. They had been shot by a bullet in the head.

The Germans accused the Soviets of the crime, the Soviets denied any responsibility. The Polish asked that the International Red Cross carry out an investigation; in response the Soviet government broke off diplomatic relations with the Polish government-in-exile.

General Wladyslaw Sikorski

In May 1943 General Wladyslaw Sikorski left London for a visit to Polish forces in the Middle East. On his way back to London his plane left Gibraltar and on take-off immediately crashed into the sea. All the passengers on board the plane were killed.

The funeral of General Sikorski took place at Westminster Cathedral in London on 15 July 1943. He was buried in the Polish war graves plot at Newark cemetery in Nottinghamshire.

Polish Forces in Italy

In July 1943 the Allies invaded Italy. The Italians on 3 September signed an armistice with the Allies and in response the Germans launched an armed takeover of the country. By October the Germans were defending a set of fortifications across the peninsula called the Gustav Line centred on the monastery at Monte Cassino.

Allied forces launched a number of attacks beginning in February 1944 in an attempt to capture Monte Cassino. The first three were unsuccessful. In March General Andrers, commander of Polish II Corps, was asked if Polish forces would lead the next attack on Monte Cassino. Anders accepted the challenge.

Polish forces began their attack in May 1944. The first day brought a high number of Polish casualties. The Poles took a few days to recover and attacked again on 17 May. This time the attack was successful and on the morning of 18 May the Polish flag was flying above Monte Cassino.

Polish losses in the battle for Monte Cassino were considerable:

  Officers Other Ranks
Killed 72 788
Wounded 204 2618

In the spring of 1945 the Polish Army in Italy heard the news that eastern Poland was to be given to the Soviet Union. An agreement at Yalta between USSR, USA and UK had agreed to Polands' borders being shifted to the west. For the men of the Polish II Corps who mostly came from eastern Poland this was a terrible blow.

The outcome of the Second World War was devastating for Poland. Six million Poles had been killed, a communist government was imposed on Poland by Stalin and her eastern territories were incorporated into the Soviet Union.

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