The Soviet-German invasion and the Polish exodus (1939-1940)

Chapter 2. The Soviet-German invasion and the Polish exodus (1939-1940)

On 1 September 1939, Nazi-Germany invaded Poland with a Blitzkrieg overwhelming the Polish army in speed and with more modern equipment. Adolf Hitler’s aim was to conquer Poland as quickly as possible and to -temporarily- cease the European conflict. In his opinion, the Western allies had no stomach for fighting and desired the non-intervention of the appeasement politics during the latter part of the interwar period. Great-Britain and France proved him wrong and declared war upon him on 3 September 1939.

Furthermore, Hitler made an arrangement with Stalin to split the territory of the Polish state (Von Ribbentrop-Molotov pact ) because they considered this area to be a monstrosity. The Soviet leader entered the eastern part of Poland approximately two weeks after the initial German entry (17 September 1939). Consequently, the Polish army that was regrouping eastwards, in order to take a stance, but was taken by surprise when Soviet forces attacked them from the rear. All was lost to preserve Polish sovereignty. The catastrophe ended with 70,000 killed in action, 133,000 wounded in action and a -grand total of- 670,000 Polish soldiers were taken prisoner by the Soviets and Germans.

However, roughly 80,000 could escape, fleeing via Romania, Hungary, Lithuania and Latvia. Most of them were not directly witnessing the German intention with the remnants of the Polish state. The Nazis were quickly focusing on the extermination of state and educational structures. Their plan was to reduce the population to ‘workers’ for the 1000 year Reich and repopulate the territory with -superior bred- Germans. All the Poles that did not fit the requirements to be ‘Germanized’ were deported to the ‘General Government’ in Central-Poland. People that were considered intellectuals were deported to concentration camps, where they were killed or worked to death.

Footage from the film ‘Katyn'(2007) in which Soviet NKVD officers shoot Polish officers

The situation was the same in Soviet occupied Poland. In early 1940, roughly 10,000-15,000 Polish high ranking officials, but mostly, military officers were deported to three prison camps in the Soviet Union.  On 5 March 1940, Lavrenti Beria, the chief of the Soviet secret service (NKVD) gave the order to move the prisoners to the forests of Katyn, near Smolensk and execute them. The main reason for the Soviets to execute that many military officers was to break the nationalist tendency of the Polish population. According to the Soviets, this group had to be eliminated in order to subdue the soldiers and the civilian population. Moreover, Soviet leadership concluded that a repetition of the Wojna Bolszewicka (1920) had to be avoided.

The Soviet massacre of Polish military officers was discovered three years later (April 1943) by withdrawing German units. At that time, Poland being an ally of the Soviet Union, Nazi-Germany exploited the gruesome discovery in order to drive a wedge in the alliance against them. Recently, Katyn made the news again. President Kaczynski, his wife, high ranking civilian- and military officials were on their way to Smolensk to attend the 70th anniversary of the Katyn tragedy (10 April 2010). The airplane that carried the president’s party crashed near Smolensk. Poland was in mourning, due to the event. Later that year, on 26 November, the Russian parliament acknowledged that Stalin and the NKVD were to be held responsible for the ordeal, thus reaching out to their neighbors. The Katyn event is still a sensitive topic between the countries. Even at this moment, any reconciliation of the Russian federation would greatly contribute to a better understanding between the countries.

Polish in France
Polish soldiers in France (June 1940). They are wearing French uniforms with a white eagle badge on the helmet

Since October 1939, the Polish army that could escape imprisonment from the Soviets or Nazis were mainly heading for British and French territories. These places were considered safe, because of the pre-war alliance between Great-Britain, France and Poland.  Not only the government escaped, also the national gold supply was evacuated and brought to the West, notably London and Ottawa. The amount of approximately 75,000 kilos was sufficient to field an army for the duration of the war. The Polish government in exile took refuge in Paris and prepared for war again, the army and air force followed. The navy avoided confrontation with the Kriegsmarine and sailed to Great-Britain to reinforce the Royal Navy.

Between early October 1939 and 10 May 1940, the Polish armed forces in France grew rapidly from 1,900-84,000 soldiers. Approximately 40,000-45,000 soldiers arrived from Poland; the others were mustered among the Polish population living in France. The Polish government-in-exile called upon the Poles in France to join the armed forces for the liberation of Poland. The French government preparing for war was not willing to listen to the advice and documentation that the Polish government and military presented. An atmosphere of: ‘you have tried and lost, now it is our turn’ prevailed over listening to experience.

The Poles fought together with the French in the period 10 May – 19 June 1940. The 2nd Polish Rifles Divison saw combat in Eastern-France, near Parthenay. After encirclement by the Germans on 20-21 June 1940, they headed for Switzerland. The majority of them were interned by the Swiss for the rest of the war. The Independent Carpathian Brigade was active during the –temporarily- recaptured city of Narvik, Norway. In Lorraine, the 1st Grenadier Division supported the French retreat of the 52nd Division. Finally, General Stanisław Maczek and his 10th Polish Armored Brigade fought in the Champagne and Burgundy regions. In France, about 1,400 Polish soldiers were killed, 4,000 were wounded, 16,000 taken prisoner and 13,000 managed to escape to Switzerland. Consequently, 45,000 soldiers out of -the original- 80,000 fighting force remained intact. But only 20,000 Poles found their way to Great-Britain. What happened to the rest of the group? Most of the 25,000 remaining Poles lived in France before the war and were able to reintegrate in French society. Although demobilized, this group played an important role in resistance activities and gathering information for the allied cause.

The remaining 20,000 Poles regrouped in Great-Britain where they once again joined the Polish air force, navy and government-in-exile. Moreover, a steadily growing number of escapees from Poland arrived at the British Isles, providing the badly needed manpower to replenish the armed forces. At first, the British government felt uneasy about the rising amount of foreign troops coming into their country. The initial disconcert about foreign troops on British soil faded when the territorial integrity was threatened by the Germans. This time the Polish air force could prove itself.

Particularly Polish pilots of the 303rd squadron distinguished themselves in the Battle of Britain (10 July-31 October 1940), aided against German bomber and fighter planes entering British airspace. The more experienced Poles in ‘top of the bill’ British fighters, in combination with aggressive tactics proved a valuable asset in subduing the German hostility. The success of the Polish pilots in taking down German planes was also known to the general British public and beyond. The New York Times wrote: ‘The Poles flying in the RAF are becoming the legendary heroes of this war’. For a while, it became fashionable to be seen with them at social events.

The resilience of the Poles was astounding, suffering defeat in Poland and France; they constantly regrouped and continued fighting. What was the motivation of these Poles to travel in large numbers to keep on fighting in the West? Based upon interviews, the main argument to carry on fighting after the loss of their country was: liberating the Polish state (patriotic sentiment), fighting the Germans (rejection of surrender) and joining friends/family that were also fighting (group cohesion).


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The Molotov- Ribbentrop pact (1939)

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Rupert Butler, The Gestapo (Londen 1993), 46-47.

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Lynne Olson, Stanley Cloud, A Question of Honor: The Kosciuszko Squadron: Forgotten Heroes of World War II  ( New York 2004), 200.

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J.P. Nater, Katyn. De ontrafeling van een massamoord (Rotterdam 1985), 19-20.

Sergo Beria, Beria my father. Inside Stalin’s Kremlin (London 2001), 54.

Allen Paul, Katyn: Stalin’s Massacre and the Seeds of Polish Resurrection (Annapolis 1996)

Dmitri Volkogonov, Autopsy of an Empire: The Seven Leaders Who Built the Soviet Regime (New York 1998)

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George Sanford, ‘The Katyn Massacre and Polish-Soviet Relations, 1941-43’ in: Journal of Contemporary History Vol.41 Nr.1 (2006), 95-111 

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Michael Alfred Peszke,  Poland’s Navy, 1918-1945 (Cambridge 1999), 36-37.

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Ewa van den Bergen-Makala en Jan Minkiewicz, Het aandeel van de Polen in de bevrijding van Nederland (Ambassade van de Republiek Polen, Den Haag 2004), 15.

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Steven J. Zaloga en Richard Hook, The Polish Army 1939-45 (Oxford 1982), 15.

Craig Thompson, ‘Poland’s avenging eagles; Poland’s eagles’ in: The New York Times (29 juni 1941).

Winston S. Churchill, Memoirs of The Second World War (Londen 1959), 358 and 366

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Onno Sinke, Verzet vanuit de verte. De behoedzame koers van Radio Oranje (proefschrift Rijksuniversiteit Groningen 2009), 65.

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