The Second World War

On September 1st., 1939, 1.8 million German troops invaded Poland on three fronts; East Prussia in the north, Germany in the west and Slovakia in the south. They had 2600 tanks against the Polish 180, and over 2000 aircraft against the Polish 420. Their "Blitzkrieg" tactics, coupled with their bombing of defenceless towns and refugees, had never been seen before and, at first, caught the Poles off-guard.

Henryk Sucharski (d. Naples, 1946) an experienced Army officer, became garrison commander at Westerplatte in 1938. In 1921 the Council of the League of Nations gave the Poles, who did not as yet have a sea port, the right to transship and store military goods in the harbour of the Free City of Danzig. The Harbour authorities, unhappy about the transshipment of arms and ammunition, and the presence of Polish troops, in the Free City, felt that a more suitable site lay to the north of the city on the peninsula at the mouth of the Wisla; Westerplatte. In 1924 the League decreed Poland's right to establish a Military Transit Depot on Westerplatte, making this technically Polish terrain. In 1925 the Poles were allowed to station a detachment of 88 soldiers (3 officers, 21 NCOs and 64 privates) to safeguard the depot and handling operations. Poland was not given any rights to possess military fortifications at Westerplatte but, nevertheless, secretly built a number of concrete-brick guardhouses and fortified the cellars of the barracks buildings and, when the threat of armed conflict became very likely, strengthened the garrison to 182 (with a possibility of mobilising a further 20 civilians). Standing instructions for the Polish detachment were to defend the base for a period of six hours when it was expected that relief would arrive but the withdrawal of Polish army detachments from the region of the Bory Tucholskie to the Bydgoszcz region (in August) meant that this had to be extended to twelve hours. In reality Sucharski knew that relief would be highly unlikely and that their resistance would be merely symbolic; armament was limited to one 75 mm gun, 18 heavy machine-guns, 33 hand or light machine-guns, 160 "Mauser"-type rifles, 2 anti-tank guns, 4 mortars and about 1000 grenades. Only 38 soldiers had helmets. Despite this, the garrison was fully prepared for hostilities; one-third being on stand-by duties in shifts, manning the well-concealed outposts, whilst another third performed their duties openly to create a sense of normality, and the remainder rested (fully armed and dressed).

Serving under the command of Major Henryk Sucharski, at the end of August 1939, Staff Sergeant Wojciech Najsarek was the station master responsible for supervising the loading and unloading of equipment from railway wagons. Najsarek has the unenviable distincton of being possibly the first military victim of the Second World War, having been killed when Westerplatte railway station was attacked in the very first moments of the war. At 4.45 am., 1 September 1939, the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire (the opening shots of the War) whilst, simultaneously, the Germans - as a prelude to a land assault - blew up the entrance to the depot killing Najsarek.

The Germans had expected resistance to be light and were surprised at the opposition they met; their losses were considerable and the myth grew of powerful bunkers and fortifications on Westerplatte. Under constant heavy shelling, dive bombing by Stukas and continuous land assault, outnumbered by about 100 to one, the garrison heroically held out for seven days. On 7 September, completely exhausted, food and drinking water running out, unable to care for the wounded and having lost a key outpost to the shelling, Major Sucharski ordered his men to surrender (10.15 am). Of the approximately 200 personnel, 15 soldiers were killed and 13 seriously wounded in battle and over a dozen died or disappeared during the occupation. The German forces numbered around 3000, but their exact losses have never been revealed. The stand at Westerplatte was frustrating for Hitler who had wanted the removal of all traces of the Polish presence on the first day and was forced to divert men and materials away from other fronts; he insisted on making a personal tour of this "Little Polish Verdun" (21 September 1939). The Polish Supreme Commander, Marshal Smigly-Rydz, honoured the Westerplatte defenders by awarding them the Virtuti Militari. Major Sucharski died in hospital in Naples (30 August 1946); on 1 September 1971, his ashes were exhumed from the Casamassima cometary and laid to rest amongst the men who fell - the "Lions of Westerplatte".

By September 14th. Warsaw was surrounded. At this stage the Poles reacted, holding off the Germans at Kutno and regrouping behind the Wisla (Vistula) and Bzura rivers. Although Britain and France declared war on September 3rd. the Poles received no help - yet it had been agreed that the Poles should fight a defensive campaign for only 2 weeks during which time the Allies could get their forces together and attack from the west.

On September 17th. Soviet forces invaded from the east. Warsaw surrendered 2 weeks later, the garrison on the Hel peninsula surrendered on October 2nd., and the Polesie Defence group, after fighting on two fronts against both German and Soviet forces, surrendered on October 5th. The Poles had held on for twice as long as had been expected and had done more damage to the Germans than the combined British and French forces were to do in 1940. The Germans lost 50,000 men, 697 planes and 993 tanks and armoured cars.

Thousands of soldiers and civilians managed to escape to France and Britain whilst many more went "underground". A government-in-exile was formed with Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz as President and General Wladyslaw Sikorski as Prime Minister.

Raczkiewicz, Wladyslaw (b. 1885; d. 1947), the lawyer and politician, Raczkiewicz fought in the Russian army in WW1, and later presided over the Supreme Polish Military Committee set up in Petrograd (June 1917). This body organised Polish forces on the Eastern front intended to oppose the Germans and thus maintain an independent Polish presence in the east mirroring the Blue Army on the Western Front. He became Minister of the Interior, President of the Senate (1930 - 35), and appointed by Moscicki, President of the Polish Government in Exile (1939 - 45). He formed the Government in Paris under the premiership of Sikorski who also became commander-in-chief of the Polish armed forces. A National Council consisting of senior representatives from all the major parties was convened under the premiership of Paderewski and chairmanship of Mikolajczyk. The Government was recognised by the Allies and began to reform the Polish armed forces with escapees as they made their way across Europe, and Polish volunteers from France and the US. By June 1940 there were 84,000 men in four infantry divisions, two brigades and an armoured brigade, and air force of 9,000 and a navy of 1,400.

Sikorski, Wladyslaw (b. Lwow, 1881. d.Gibraltar, 1943). The career of General Sikorski, civil engineer, soldier and politician runs parallel to that of Pilsudski. Austrian Poland, economically strong with democratic tendencies more advanced than in the other occupied parts of Poland, had become the political base for the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) since 1908. Foreseeing war between the Partitioning Powers, the right wing of the party made preparations for insurrectionary action by setting up the "Zwiazek Walki Czynnej" ("Union for Armed Struggle"); the founders were Marian Kukiel, Kazimierz Sosnkowski and Sikorski. The aim of the Union was to create a form of secret military school and embraced the more active members of the PPS Fighting Organisation (which had been closed down by Pilsudski after the success at Bezdany, 1908). The Union was responsible for the establishment of the Riflemen's Unions throughout Galicia, exploiting an Austrian law which permitted the formation of paramilitary societies but also receiving assistance from the Austrian authorities who were keen to see Pilsudski involved in anti-Russian activities if war broke out. The Zwiazek Walki Czynnej" was the origins of the Polish Army. During the Balkan crisis of 1912 it was decided to build a political machine to represent the secret societies; the Provisional Commission of Confederated Independence Parties. The Provisional Commission consisted of representatives from the PPS, Polish Social-Democratic Party, the National Workers Union, the National Peasant Union, and several other, smaller, organisations from Galicia and the Kingdom. Sikorski had decided to embark on a political career accompanying a military one and joined the Commission as the representative of one of these smaller groups; the Polish Progressive Party. When the Supreme National Committee was set up in Krakow (August 1914) aiming to unite all Polish independence movements under the Austrian aegis, he became Chief of the War Department and came into conflict with Pilsudski who wanted to be independent of the Supreme National Committee and its pro-Austrian policy; it is from this period that the struggle, both personal and political, between Sikorski and Pilsudski, dates. Sikorski commanded the Fifth Army in the Polish-Soviet War, performing outstandingly in the action on the Wkra where he experimented with the use of tanks and motorised cars (his attack on Kowel has been described as the first ever blitzkrieg), and emerged as Prime Minister in the political crisis that followed the assassination of the first Polish President, Narutowicz (1922). Sikorski's government saw a disastrous rise in inflation and fall in the value of Polish currency resulting in bitter industrial action culminating in a general strike (1923) and bloody confrontation between workers and the army. Created Minister of War (1924), he confronted Pilsudski and was forced into retirement after the May Coup of 1926. During his enforced retirement Sikorski published "Przyszla Wojna" ("Modern Warfare", 1934) in which he advocated the use of "mechanised fighting units operating in close co-operation with a powerful air force" and correctly foresaw that the Wehrmacht would be the first to use such tactics. In 1936, along with Wincenty Witos, Jozef Haller and Ignacy Paderewski he became a founding member of the Morges Front, determined to rebuild a respectable centre-right opposition. His opposition to Pilsudski's dictatorial methods sent him into political "exile" until the Nazi invasion swept away the "Sanacja" regime in 1939. He volunteered his services to Smigly-Rydz at the outbreak of WW2 but was turned down. After 1939 he was commander in chief of the Polish army in France and Prime Minister of the Polish Government in Exile and played a very delicate balancing act in trying to improve Polish-Soviet relations, despite the Soviet invasion of 1939 and severe opposition from within his own government. In 1941 he was a co-signatory of the Sikorsky-Maisky pact with the USSR which allowed for the release of Polish citizens who had been deported to the Soviet Union after 1939. On 11 April 1943, the Germans discovered the mass graves of 4,231 Polish officers executed by the Soviet NKVD (Secret Police) at Katyn and the Polish Government demanded an investigation by the Red Cross, whereupon the Soviets broke off diplomatic relations with the Poles. This proved to be very embarrassing for the Allies. On 5 July the plane in which General Sikorski was travelling back to London crashed on take-off from Gibraltar, it has always been suspected as a result of sabotage by the Russians with British connivance.

Under the German-Soviet pact Poland was divided; the Soviets took, and absorbed into the Soviet Union, the eastern half (Byelorussia and the West Ukraine), the Germans incorporated Pomerania, Posnania and Silesia into the Reich whilst the rest was designated as the General-Gouvernement (a colony ruled from Krakow by Hitler's friend, Hans Frank).

In the Soviet zone 1.5 million Poles (including women and children) were transported to labour camps in Siberia and other areas. Many thousands of captured Polish officers were shot at several secret forest sites; the first to be discovered being Katyn, near Smolensk.

The Germans declared their intention of eliminating the Polish race (a task to be completed by 1975) alongside the Jews. This process of elimination, the "Holocaust", was carried out systematically. All members of the "intelligentsia" were hunted down in order to destroy Polish culture and leadership (many were originally exterminated at Oswiencim - better known by its German name, Auschwitz). Secret universities and schools, a "Cultural Underground", were formed (the penalty for belonging to one was death). In the General-Gouvernement there were about 100,000 secondary school pupils and over 10,000 university students involved in secret education.

The Polish Jews were herded into Ghettos where they were slowly starved and cruelly offered hopes of survival but, in fact, ended up being shot or gassed. In the end they were transported, alongside non-Jewish Poles, Gypsies and Soviet POWs, to extermination camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka; at Auschwitz over 1.5 million were exterminated. 2000 concentration camps were built in Poland, which became the major site of the extermination programme, since this was where most of the intended victims lived.

Stanislaw Ryniak (b. Sanok,1916; d. 2004), a non-Jewish Pole, has the dubious distinction of being the first person to be imprisoned in Auschwitz. In May 1940 the Nazis arrested Ryniak in his hometown of Sanok. Accused of being a member of the resistance he was transported, along with hundreds of other Polish political prisoners, to Auschwitz (which was a concentration camp especially set up in 1940, on the site of the pre-war Polish Army barracks at Oswiecim, to accommodate the huge increase in the number of Poles arrested - far surpassing the capacity of local prisons). He arrived at Auschwitz on June 14. Numbers were tattooed on the prisoners' arms in the order of their arrival; the first 30 numbers were given to German criminal prisoners who would serve as camp guards. Ryniak's number was 31, thus making him, essentially, the first genuine inmate. Auschwitz rapidly expanded; in 1941 the Germans began to build Auschwitz II - Birkenau, at the site of the village of Brzezinka, which, in 1942, became the place where the mass extermination of the Jews was begun. Over 1.5 million people were exterminated at Auschwitz in a "death factory" established in order to make murder less emotionally stressful to the perpretators; the mass-gassing of thousands at a time being more detached than putting a bullet through an individual's head on a regular basis. Between 1942 and 1944 over 40 other sub-camps were set up as extensions of German industrial plants and employing slave labour; the largest of these being Auschwitz III - Monowitz built by IG Farbenindustrie. In 1944, Ryniak was transported to the Leitmeritz work camp, in what is now the Czech Republic. Upon his release, he weighed only 88 pounds. He is buried in the Osobowicki Cemetery, Wroclaw.

Many non-Jewish Poles were either transported to Germany and used as slave labour or simply executed. In the cities the Germans would round-up and kill indiscriminately as a punishment for any underground or anti-German or pro-Jewish activity. In the countryside they kept prominent citizens as hostages who would be executed if necessary. Sometimes they liquidated whole villages; at least 300 villages were destroyed. Hans Frank said, "If I wanted to put up a poster for every seven Poles shot, the forests of Poland would not suffice to produce the paper for such posters."

Despite such horror the Poles refused to give in or cooperate (there were no Polish collaborators as in other occupied countries). The Polish Underground or AK (Armia Krajowa or Home Army) was the largest in Europe with 400,000 men. The Jewish resistance movement was set up separately because of the problem of being imprisoned within the ghettos. Both these organisations caused great damage to the Nazi military machine. Many non-Jewish Poles saved the lives of thousands of Jews despite the fact that the penalty, if caught, was death (in fact, Poland was the only occupied nation where aiding Jews was punishable by death).

When the Soviet Union was attacked by Germany, in June 1941, Polish POWs were released from prison camps and set up an army headed by General Anders. Many civilians were taken under the protection of this army which was allowed to make its way to Persia (modern-day Iran) and then on to Egypt.

Anders, Wladyslaw (b.1892; d.1970), the Polish nationalist and army commander, led Polish troops in the Russian army in WW1 and, in 1939, fought against both German and Soviet troops. Wounded and captured by the Russians after the Fourth Partition in 1939, Anders was arrested whilst hospitalised in Lwow and kept imprisoned in the famous N.K.V.D. prison, the Lubianka. When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, in 1941, Anders was released under the Sikorski-Maisky pact and asked to form a Polish army in Russia - it was whilst doing so that he discovered the atrocities that had been carried out by the Soviets against Polish soldiers and civilians; forced labour and mass-murder (especially of 4,500 Polish Officers in the forest of Katyn). After a series of harassments and the withholding of food rations, being unable to trust his Soviet "allies", Anders marched his army, along with a large number of civilians, out of the Soviet Union in an extraordinary odyssey; from prison camps in Siberia and the Gulag Archipelago (around Archangel), through Central Asia, Iran, Palestine and then to Egypt where the Polish Second Corps merged with the Carpathian Brigade and was incorporated into the British Eighth Army. This journey had been made possible due to an agreement between Britain and the Soviet Union that the Poles could act as occupational forces in the place of Commonwealth troops who could now be transferred to the Far East in order to fight the Japanese. In Egypt Anders' soldiers contributed greatly, especially at Tobruck and then as part of the allied campaign in Italy, where the Polish forces distinguished themselves, successfully taking Monte Cassino. His sense of betrayal when the Allies allotted Poland to the Soviet sphere of influence after the war (and hence making Poland a satellite state of the Soviet Union) and of the subsequent decision of the Allies not to allow the Polish forces to take part in victory celebrations so as not to upset relations with the Soviets (a decision that still stood at the 50th anniversary of the D-Day Landings!) reflected that of most Poles forced to live in the West. His campaign to publicise the Katyn atrocity resulted in his being stripped of Polish citizenship in 1946 along with 65 other senior officers. Exiled, he became a leader of the Polish forces-in-exile in Britain.

All the Polish forces took part in the Allied invasion of Europe and liberation of France, playing a particularly crucial role in the significant Battle of the Falaise Gap. The Polish Parachute Brigade took part in the disastrous Battle of Arnhem in Holland. In 1945, the Poles captured the German port of Wilhelmshaven.

In 1943 a division of Polish soldiers was formed in Russia under Soviet control and fought on the Eastern Front. They fought loyally alongside the Soviet troops, despite the suffering they had experienced in Soviet hands, and they distinguished themselves in breaking through the last German lines of defence, the "Pomeranian Rampart", in the fighting in Saxony and in the capture of Berlin.

The "Home Army", under the command of General Stefan Roweki (code-named "Grot"), and after his capture in 1943 (he was later murdered), by General Tadeusz Komorowski (code-named "Bor"), fought a very varied war; at times in open combat in brigade or division strength, at times involved in sabotage, often acting as execution squads eliminating German officials, and often fighting a psychological campaign against German military and civilians. It was a costly war since the Germans always took reprisals.

The crime of Katyn was discovered in 1943 and created a rift in Polish-Soviet relations. From now on the Home Army was attacked by Soviet propaganda as collaborating with the Germans and being called on to rise against the Germans once the Red Army reached the outskirts of Warsaw.

Secretly, at Teheran, the British and Americans agreed to letting the Russians profit from their invasion of Poland in 1939 and allowing them to keep the lands that had been absorbed. The "accidental" death of General Sikorski at this time helped keep protests at a minimum.

When the Russians crossed into Poland the Home Army cooperated in the fight against the Germans and contributed greatly to the victories at Lwow, Wilno and Lublin only to find themselves surrounded and disarmed by their "comrades-in-arms" and deported to labour camps in Siberia.

On August 1, 1944, with the Russian forces on the right bank of the Vistula, the Home Army rose in Warsaw; the Warsaw Rising.

Bor-Komorowski (real name; Tadeusz Komorowski) b. Lwow, 1895; d.1966, led the AK (Armia Krajowa; Polish Home Army) forces during the 62-day Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Though initially rejecting the idea of an uprising in Warsaw, Bor-Komorowski became convinced that an armed rising was inevitable in order to maintain an independent Polish presence on Polish soil at a time when the Soviets had created the PKWN (Polish Committee of National Liberation) in Lublin and begun to intern AK units, and since, with the attempted assassination of Hitler at Rastenburg, there were signs of an imminent German collapse. The decision to launch the Uprising was a tragic mistake; since, as no uprising had been previously envisaged, the AK forces in Warsaw were ill equipped (as ammunition and arms had actually been sent out of the city to support action in the countryside) and other crucial preparation (such as medical provision) was very poor. The decision to initiate the Uprising was made in haste and ill-prepared; some leading members of both civil and military authorities were only informed by chance or at the last minute. The timing of the Uprising (at 5 pm; rush hour) was intended to cause inconvenience to the German forces but in fact caused a great amount of disruption to the civilian population, taking them by surprise, separating them from their families for the duration and ultimately resulting in heavy casualties. When the Soviet forces stopped outside the city, the Germans were able to concentrate on the destruction of the insurgents but, despite the heavy shelling, bombing and assaults using armour, came across unexpectedly strong opposition. They gradually eliminated isolated pockets of resistance and gradually closed in on the centre (Srodmiescie). In these areas, after surrendering, many civilians and soldiers were executed or sent to concentration camps to be exterminated and the buildings were razed to the ground. Polish tactics included the use of the sewer system as a means of maintaining communications between areas that were surrounded by the Germans (the evacuation of the suburb, Mokotow, was immortalised in Wajda's 1956 film, "Kanal"), and, when the Germans began to systematically demolish the city, to make full use of the ruins as part of the defensive system. Not only had the Russians ceased to advance but they also refused to allow Allied planes to land on Russian airfields after dropping supplies. It is doubtful that the Uprising would have lasted as long as it did without the general support of the civilian population which suffered terribly. There were horrific atrocities committed by the German forces (who consisted largely of criminals and Ukrainian and Cossack anti-Soviet forces fighting for the Germans). The Germans were so impressed by the underground forces that they accorded them full military honours when they eventually were forced to surrender (2 October). The AK lost around 20,000 soldiers whilst around 225,000 civilians were also killed. In accordance with Hitler's instructions the city was razed to the ground so that when Soviet forces entered, in January 1945, the city (that had housed 1,289,000 inhabitants) did not contain a living soul and 93% of the buildings were destroyed or damaged beyond repair. The subsequent reconstruction and regeneration of the city is one of the great events of post-war Polish history. The Warsaw Uprising has much significance in post-War Polish history: the failure of the western Allies to aid Warsaw destroyed the faith of the greater part of the civilians in them, whilst the inability of the government-in-exile to secure any aid discredited it. Ultimately the Uprising brought about a realisation that the only hope for Poland lay in some form of understanding between the Poles and the Soviets but the failure of the Soviets to come to the aid of Warsaw was also the source of much bitterness. Much of what happened later had its roots here.

The defeat in Warsaw destroyed the political and military institutions of the Polish underground and left the way open for a Soviet take-over.

With the liberation of Lublin in July 1944 a Russian-sponsored Polish Committee for National Liberation (a Communist Government in all but name) had been set up and the British had put great pressure, mostly unsuccessful, on the Government-in-exile to accept this status quo. At Yalta, in February 1945, the Allies put Poland within the Russian zone of influence in a post-war Europe. To most Poles the meaning of these two events was perfectly clear; Poland had been betrayed.

The war ended on May 8th, 1945.