90 Books about Poland | Polish War Graves in Britain
On 13 April 1943 Nazi Germany announced that it had found the mass graves of thousands of murdered Polish Army officers. They were buried in a forest at Katyn, near Smolensk, in German occupied Russia. The Germans blamed the Bolsheviks for the crime. The Soviet Union immediately denied all responsibility for it and accused Nazi Germany of carrying out the atrocity.
The Polish government-in-exile in London asked the International Red Cross to investigate. This was supported by Germany but opposed by the Soviet Union. The Red Cross declined to investigate without the support of all the interested parties: the Soviet Union, Poland and Germany.
Excavation of the Graves
The Germans began their excavation of the mass graves at Katyn in March 1943. They found 3,000 bodies in the first grave. A report by the German police in June 1943 stated that:
The work of exhuming, examining and identifying the bodies of Polish officers came to an end on 7 June 1943...The seven mass graves of murdered Polish officers which have been cleared cover a relatively small area. Of 4,143 exhumed bodies, 2,815 have been definitely identified...In many cases identity cards, documents and considerable sums in zloty banknotes were sewn into the legs of their boots...From the translation of diaries, of memoirs, and other notes found with the bodies, it was proved that the officers who had been taken prisoner by the Soviet army in 1939, were sent to various camps:
The majority of those killed in Katyn Forest had been in the Kozielsk camp (250 kms south-east of Smolensk on the railway line Smolensk-Tambov)...With a few exceptions all the bodies show pistol-shots in the head...Very many of the dead men had their hands tied behind their back. (pp. 127-130)
- Pavlishchev Bor
The Prison Camps
The Soviet Union invaded Poland on 17 September 1939 and it sent the Polish Army officers, Police officers and leading intellectuals it captured to three special camps at Kozielsk (Russia), Ostashkov (Russia) and Starobelsk (Ukraine).
Of 14,920 Polish prisoners of war, the great majority of them officers...only 448 were ever seen alive again. The bodies of 4,143 (...later rose to 4,253) were found buried at Katyn - all of these victims having been former inmates of Kozielsk camp. (p. 37)
The camp at Kozielsk was on the site of a former Orthodox monastery. One of the survivors of the camp was Professor Stanislaw Swianiewicz who is quoted as saying:
Soviet political theory recognizes two methods only of dealing with a defeated enemy: he must either be forced to work for the good of the Soviet Union (and if so, he can and ought to be "re-educated") or else be annihilated. The Soviet authorities had to decide which of these two methods should be applied to the Polish officers in their hands...Interrogation of the prisoners-of-war now began. (p. 39)
Another survivor of the Kozielsk camp said that the authorities task of "re-educating" the prisoners was complicated by the strong religious beliefs that they held.
Communal evening prayers are an old tradition in the Polish Army and the prisoners attempted to keep up this task...[it] was strictly forbidden by the camp authorities. These orders were ignored...we substituted a few minutes' silence for reciting the prayers aloud. Imagine the interior of the former Orthodox church, in which 600 prisoners were accommodated. Bunks in five tiers covered every inch of the floor space. The church building was in semi-darkness...here and there private candles...added a flicker of light. Every night around 9 o'clock...a silence fell as at the Consecration of the Host during Mass. People of various faiths...observed these few minutes of spiritual life...Special measures were taken by the authorities on Christmas Eve, 1939, when nearly all our chaplains were arrested and sent to unknown destinations during the night. Only one of them was ever heard of again...the others disappeared without a trace. (pp. 41-43)
In the spring of 1940 the camps were wound up. From early April until May groups of prisoners were removed from the camps on an almost daily basis. At the Kozielsk camp the first group of men was sent away on 3 April 1940. They travelled by train from Kozielsk to Gniezdovo railway station near Smolensk. The prisoners were then taken to Katyn forest, 3 kms west of Gniezdovo, shot and thrown into the mass graves.
The Germans, after having an International Red Cross investigation blocked by the Soviets, decided to establish an International Medical Commission. They invited leading experts in forensic medicine from nine countries of German occupied Europe and one from neutral Switzerland to conduct their own investigation into the mass graves at Katyn. This commission reported in May 1943 that:
The way in which the hands of the victims were tied is similar to that observed in the case of corpses of Russian civilians, also exhumed in Katyn Forest, but buried much earlier...The Commission observed that the uniforms of the exhumed bodies, especially in respect of buttons, badges of rank, decorations, boots...etc. were typically Polish. The uniforms in question were winter ones...[concluded] that the victims were buried in the uniforms worn by them up to the moment of their death...From statements made by witnesses, as well as from letters, diaries, newspapers, etc. found on the bodies, it follows that the executions took place in March and April 1940. (pp. 141-143)
In 1971 the Katyn Memorial Fund came into being. This fund was charged with the task of designing a memorial to the Katyn dead, raising funds and finding a site in London where it could be placed. The author of the Katyn Massacre, Louis Fitzgibbon, was asked to become Honorary Secretary to the Fund's committee. An obelisk with the words "Katyn 1940" was eventually placed in Gunnersbury Cemetery, Hounslow, London on 18 September 1976.
The book is a compilation, with some additional material, of two previous books by the author: Katyn - A Crime Without Parallel (1971) and The Katyn Cover-Up (1972) both published by Tom Stacey.
The author Louis Fitzgibbon died on 31 January 2003 aged 78. The Times (London) wrote in its obituary:
FitzGibbon’s Katyn mission was twofold: to achieve a Soviet admission that it was they and not the Nazis who had murdered the Polish officers, and to establish a site for a London memorial to the dead. The latter was achieved in 1976, the former had to wait until the early 1990s, when the Russian authorities finally admitted responsibility...FitzGibbon’s campaign for a monument to the victims in London achieved a conclusion when a black granite obelisk was unveiled in Gunnersbury Park, West London, in September 1976. Its inscription, “Katyn 1940”, anticipated by some years the eventual Russian admission of the truth.