The Poles in Great Britain since 1940

The Poles in Great Britain since 1940

Until the 3 July 1943, the Polish government in exile had two main achievements. The first success was made on 30 July 1941, the Sikorski-Maisky treaty. This agreement between the Polish and Soviet government made it possible for Polish soldiers and civilians, who were incarcerated in the Soviet Union, to be liberated. The Soviets promised that every Pole in their country would receive full amnesty. Furthermore, it was agreed that 100,000 Polish soldiers would be released and shipped for combat to Western Europe.

The second accomplishment was not to give in to Stalin demands on the reconfiguration of Polish boundaries. In the first phase of the war, the Polish government could still keep the Soviet leader at bay and was -to a certain extent- protected by the Western allies. On 4 July, the Prime Minister and Chief of the Armed Forces, Władysław Sikorski, was killed in an airplane accident off the coast of Gibraltar. After the death of Sikorski, the Polish government in exile, never fully recovered and had trouble presenting themselves as a dependable counterpart.  The Polish politicians and military officers accused the Soviets of causing Sikorski’s death and the -by then- recently released news on the Katyn massacre.

The British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, was from that moment increasingly aggravated by the behavior of the Polish government in exile. He started to build an understanding with Stalin at the Teheran Conference (28 November -1 December 1943). Churchill discussed with Stalin that he wants to mediate between him and the Poles, without involving the latter, due to the Katyn incident. This gesture of the British Prime Minister gave Stalin the impression that Churchill chose him above the Polish friendship. The Western allies needed Stalin badly in those stages of World War II, because the Soviets were already pushing back the Germans. However, –at that time- the Western allies were not even in the position to open a second front in Western Europe. In the same period, Sosabowski mentioned in his biography that during his visit to the United States in December 1943, he saw a map of the division of Europe with Poland already being placed in the Soviet zone.

The Polish General Władysław Anders, a Soviet prisoner, was tasked by the Polish government in exile to lead an army of 100,000 men out of the Soviet Union, in accordance with the Sikorski-Maisky treaty. His ‘army’ was no more than a collection of malnourished group of men, women and children that wandered through Russian lands, like Moses walked through the desert. Anders’ army travelled from the Soviet-Union through Persia, Iraq, Palestine and Egypt. At their final destination the army was joined with other Polish military units that escaped in 1939 and were already fighting with the British.

General Wladyslaw Anders, Commander of the Polish 2nd Army Corps

General Władysław Anders organized the 2nd Polish Army Corps, which totaled 83,000 soldiers in 1943. Any additional troops that were available from the Sikorski-Maisky treaty were shipped to Great Britain, where they would be the nucleus for the 1st Polish Armored Division and the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade. The 2nd Polish Army Corps would fight with the 8th British army and advance through North Africa, Sicily and were involved in the heavy fighting at Monte Cassino.

Another Polish general, Stanisław Sosabowski, was tasked by the Polish government-in-exile, to organize a Parachute Brigade. These military units came in short supplies, because of the high level of physical and mental fitness a soldier must demonstrate during dropping and combat. Parachute units were perceived as highly valued assets during World War II. Therefore, Sosabowski set up a highly advanced training program for recruits and maintained a high level of selection. His training program was praised by the British and other Western allies, who saw the Polish parachute troops as the most skilled. General Sosabowski was confronted by the dilemma ‘quantity versus quality’.

He was pressured by General Frederick Browning to provide troops for his First Allied Airborne Army (FAAA), but the Polish general was not willing to give in by lowering his standard. The Polish general could and wanted to maintain a level of quality, because his men were destined to be dropped over Poland. Browning started pressuring Sosabowski to increase his readiness for deployment and to become part of the British military organization. Oddly enough, Browning’s pressure on Sosabowski coincided with the death of Sikorski, exploiting the power vacuum in the Polish government-in-exile.

General Frederick Browning, Commander British 1st Airborne Division

The atmosphere between the two generals already proved to be grim in the latter part of 1943. Next spring, on 11 March 1944, the clash was settled at a higher level. Field Marshal Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff and military advisor to Churchill, cancelled the previous agreement that the Polish brigade could only be dropped over Poland or materiel intended for the Poles would be withheld. Shortly, a compromise was reached with the Polish government-in-exile. The Polish concession resulted in a commitment that the brigade could be deployed in one large operation, or several minor missions. It was agreed that the Polish brigade should be withdrawn from combat, if losses would mount over 15 percent.

Stanisław Maczek is the last Polish army general to be discussed in this publication. After fighting in France (until June 1940), his forces were immediately directed towards Scotland for patrolling the coasts against a possible German invasion. Since mid-1942, the potential threat vanished and Maczek could start turning his 10th Brigade into an armored division. The Polish general soon encountered problems between infantry and cavalry units that were not operating smoothly. He was mainly preoccupied with soothing the differences between these units, because he knew that integrating them could enhance his fighting abilities.

The key problem he encountered was the constant lack of personnel, while in Great Britain. Most Polish land forces were fighting in North-Africa, with general Anders who needed all the men available. A solution was found to transfer all the soldiers from administrative functions to combat positions. Still, Maczek’s men numbered only 13,872, which was small for a division. Luckily, the lack of personnel would diminish during the landing in Normandy. Several forced Polish laborers and captured Polish Wehrmacht conscripts would join rank and augment the need for soldiers. Consequently, the 1st Polish Armored Division would become a fighting force of about 16,000 men.


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