Seventy-five years since V-E Day in 1945 – a précis of the role of Poland and the Poles in World War II (Part One)
By Mark Wegierski
During the seven-and-a-half 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 disturbingly 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 V-E Day.
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 had staged a mock-attack on the German radio-station in Gleiwitz (Gliwice) -- blaming it on the Polish army -- in the hope that this would be the excuse that would allow 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 tried to surrender quickly to Nazi Germany, in 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 also the deliberate targeting of civilians in aerial and artillery bombardment, as well as in mass, summary executions, which were also sometimes carried out against captured Polish soldiers already 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 (some Ukrainians, Jews, and Byelorussians, as well as Polish Communist sympathizers).
Poland was unquestionably the first to fight Nazi Germany.
Poland’s Contributions To The Allied War Effort
-- Polish military intelligence had 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;
-- nearly the entire German armed forces attacked Poland in September 1939, 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 Fall 1940, Polish fighter-pilots played a highly 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 an important role in the chase and final 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 in 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;
-- August 1944, the First Polish Armoured Division (formed from the Polish First Corps which had trained in Scotland) played a vital role in the battles around the Falaise Gap, in the aftermath of the Normandy invasion;
-- September 1944, the First Polish Parachute Brigade (the second major unit to emerge from the training formation, the Polish First Corps), was sent on 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 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 clandestine intelligence-gathering efforts of Poles across Nazi-ruled Europe, carried out under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, gave the Western Allies (particularly the British) information of very 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.
To be continued.
(Partially based on an article co-authored with Apolonja Kojder that appeared in Polish American Journal, August 2004.)
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher.