in World War II - Myth and Reality
The role of Poland in the Second World War is often misunderstood and
under appreciated. The myth that the Poles were easily and quickly knocked
out of the war is just that - a myth. Not only did Poland have the fourth
largest army combating the Germans, the most highly decorated navy, and
the largest and most effective resistance organization, but she made numerous
other great contributions that are often overlooked.
Invasion of Poland
On September 1, 1939, without a declaration of war, Germany's army,
navy, and air force invaded Poland from three directions. The Germans
made initial sweeping success through the use of their blitzkrieg
tactics, which confounded the already surprised Poles. After their initial
stumblings, the Polish forces regrouped behind the Vistula and Bzura
rivers, and began mounting a serious defense against the German invaders.
September 17, another surprise rocked the Poles. The Soviet Union
attacked from the east, leaving the Polish Army surrounded on all
sides by the two most powerful armies in the world. Despite the staggering
odds, the Poles fought valiantly, making the invaders pay for every
inch of ground they took. Though many people believe that Poland capitulated
in a matter of days, it actually took over a month for the Germans
and Soviets to achieve victory.
All told, the Poles put forth a better resistance to invasion than did
France, which had prior warning of German aggression, captured German
battle plans for the invasion of France, the aid of the British Expiditionary
Force, not to mention the absence of Soviet invaders. Forces in Warsaw
held out until September 27, and the "Polesie" army, commanded by General
Kleeberg fought until October 6, 1939.
Poland fought the invasion of the German and Soviet forces alone for
35 days. Though Britian and France had promised aid in the event of German
agression, and in fact declared war on Germany after the invasion of Poland,
they did nothing to help the Poles. Despite repeated pleas from the Polish
government, the Allies made no moves to aid Poland, or even to hinder
Germany. During this time, the Polish forces created ideal conditions
for the Allied forces to engage the German forces from the west. For all
of their verbal support, however, the Allies failed to back their words
with action. Had they taken advantage of the decidedly advantageous situation
created by the Poles, World War II might have lasted a much shorter time,
and had a much less horrific toll.
Many myths surround the German invasion of Poland. The most widespread
myth is that of the infamous Polish cavalry charge against German armor.
The story was originally reported by the Italian press and became popular
with German propagandists. The true story is that two Polish Lancer
squadrons engaged and destroyed some German infantry. After the infantry
had been defeated, German armored vehicles appeared.
Exposed on open terrain, the
Lancers had no chance for escape. A small detachment of the squadron,
in a heroic suicide charge, drew fire away from their comrades and allowed
the majority of them to escape. Italian war correspondents came upon the
scene and were told by German soldiers that it resulted from the cavalry
having charged the tanks. The false story was then spread, and the truth
was effectively buried.
to popular view that the Polish Air Force was destroyed on the ground,
the fact is that Polish squadrons were dispersed to special runways,
and later evacuated to Britain. The pilots were well trained and fierce
fighters, but their planes were a generation behind the Luftwaffe
and greatly outnumbered. Despite this, Polish fighters and anti-aircraft
batteries shot down a surprisingly large number of German aircraft.
Later in the war, after the Polish government and armed forces fled
to England, Polish airmen played a vital part in the Battle of Britain.
At the peak of the fighting, twelve percent of the pilots fighting over
England were Poles. This enabled the exhausted Fighter Command to maintain
its operational strength, replacing killed and wounded British pilots
with Polish pilots. The quality of the Polish pilots counted even more
than their numbers. A Polish fighter squadron, No. 303, became the highest
scoring fighter squadron in the Royal Air Force. More than 12% of the
total number of German planes shot down were shot down by Polish pilots.
Like the air force, the Polish Navy also made valuable contributions.
Despite its small size, the Polish Navy took part in an amazing number
of operations. It was everywhere, from the Mediterranean to the Baltic,
and it took part in every major landing, from North Africa all the way
through to Normandy. The courage and determination of the Polish sailors
was outstanding. The Polish Navy won the most decorations, per capita,
of any naval force among the Allies.
The Polish destroyer ORP Piorun was the first Allied ship to
engage the Bismark in the battle in which the great German battleship
Intelligence, and Other Contributions
In addition to the armed efforts of the Polish soldiers, Poland contributed
to the Allied victory with a series of discoveries, technical achievements,
monetary aid, and intelligence coups.
Before the war, Polish Secret Service mathematicians and cryptographers
managed to break the most secret German codes. Polish built copies of
the Enigma machine were given to France and Britain in July 1939.
The ability to read coded German communications was one of the primary
keys to Allied victory, and played a major role in the formulation of
intelligence and battle plans, quite possibly reducing casualties as well.
A device was invented by the Polish Navy that could take bearings on
the origin of short waves. With this, the Allies could locate German U-Boats
after they sent radio messages, allowing convoys to avoid known U-Boat
locations. This was extremely important, since German U-Boats extracted
a heavy toll on Allied Merchant Marine shipping, in addition to sinking
warships. The United States alone lost over 7000 Merchant Marine vessels,
which resulted in great loss of life, but even worse for the war effort
was the loss of incredible amounts of materiel. The Polish short wave
device allowed a greater number of ships to navigate the Atlantic safely,
which boosted the war effort tremendously.
One of the better known operations of the Polish Secret Service was
the identification of the main base of the V-1 and V-2 rockets on the
Peenemunde Peninsula. When some of the experimental rockets were transferred
to Poland, the Polish AK (Home Army) managed to intercept one of the
rockets and transport it to England. The Polish secret service also
managed to obtain technical and tactical information on the rockets.
The mine detector was also a Polish contribution. Lt. Jozef Kos invented
the first metal detector, and realized that it could be used to detect
mines. Constructed in Scotland by Polish officers, it consisted of a
plate, mounted on a wooden arm, which could detect and locate metal
objects underground. When a mine was detected, the detector would send
a buzzing noise to earphones worn by the operator.
When the Polish Government-in-Exile fled Poland for Britain, they took
with them large amounts of Poland's gold reserves. These reserves provided
great aid to a financially stricken Britain, allowing them to purchase
desperately needed war materiel.
Africa and Italy
The operations in North Africa marked the first major theatrical defeat
of the Axis powers. The eviction of the Axis from North Africa opened
the way for dominance of the Mediterranean, and the invasion of Italy.
The turning point in the battle for North Africa came at Tobruk, Egypt,
in August 1941.
was besieged by the Afrika Korps in early August. The Polish Carpathian
Brigade was assigned to defend the toughest eastern defense sector
behind the Ras el Madauar hill. With their Australian comrades, the
Poles successfully defended Tobruk, repulsing numerous German attacks.
When the 8th army again went on the offensive, the Carpathian Brigade
took Medauar hill, and White Knoll hill. The brigade continued in
pursuit of the enemy, with operations for the continuation of the
North African war.
Through 1944, the Polish II Corps fought alongside the Americans and
British Armies in the Italian campaign. Their most spectacular success
came at Monte Cassino, where they opened the road to Rome by knocking
out the citadel of Monte Cassino, which had defied numerous assaults by
other Allied forces. The Poles were able to do something that no American
or British Army had been able to do. In addition to Monte Cassino, the
Poles also captured Ancona and Bologna.
Beginning with D-Day on June 6, 1944, the Battle of Normandy lasted
for three months. By August, the Canadian 1st Army had driven a wedge
into the German line, heading south to join up with the American 3rd
Army. The Germans, fearing they would be surrounded, redoubled their
The Polish 1st Armored Division, with its Canadian comrades, was given
the task of breaking the German line and completing the encirclement of
the Germans. The Poles were determined to avenge German atrocities in
Poland, and continued to attack even when they lost contact with the Canadians.
They single-handedly blocked the Germans from escaping for a week. The
carnage wrought the Poles at Falaise Gap was perhaps the bloodiest of
the battle. The last German reserves of tanks and heavy equipment were
destroyed here, and organized German resistance ceased to exist anywhere
in France after the Battle of the Falaise Gap.
The Polish Parachute Brigade was made up of soldiers who had escaped
from Poland, and also of volunteers from Polish emigre communities around
the world. The Brigade took part in the largest airborne operation of
the war (and in history) at Arnhem and Driel in Holland. Although they
knew that their heavy anti-tank equipment had been lost, the Poles decided
against aborting, and chose to jump anyway. Without their big guns,
the Brigade's soldiers suffered heavy losses attempting to reinforce
the valiant British commandos holding the bridge over the Rhine.
The last German victory of the war, Operation Market-Garden, was doomed
from the beginning. Poor planning, leadership, and execution on the part
of British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery led to a hopeless situation
for the men on the ground. Only the brilliant drive by George S. Patton's
Third Army prevented defeat from becoming massacre.
The Polish Home Army had been active since 1939, having set up the
most effective partisan and espionage system of any of the Allies. By
1944, the Home Army had more than 400,000 soldiers and agents, operating
from the English Channel to eastern Siberia.
On August 1, 1944 the Home Army in Warsaw rose up against the Germans,
believing they would be relieved by the Soviets, who were fewer than
20 kilometers away. They captured the whole city but had ammunition
sufficient for only a week.
These soldiers were loyal to the legal government of Poland located
in London, England. Stalin ordered his armies to stop and wait until
the Germans put down the uprising, knowing that this would kill off
the Polish leadership and make it easier for his "Lublin Committee"
puppet government to be installed. Not only did the Soviets cease their
advance, but they also refused to allow Allied planes to land on Russian
airfields after they dropped supplies to the Polish freedom fighters.
But the Warsaw garrison fought on for two months, with little more than
their bare hands and raw courage.
More than 20,000 Polish soldiers were killed, as were hundreds of
thousands of civilians, murdered by the Germans during the uprising
or shipped off to Auschwitz-Birkenau after the garrison surrendered.
The Germans destroyed most of the city during the fighting, and later
burned whatever buildings were still standing. More than 90 per cent
of Warsaw, including almost 100 percent of the Old Town, was destroyed.
The Warsaw Uprising was not the only example of Soviet atrocities committed
against Poles. The mass graves at Katyn were discovered in 1943. The remains
of more than 5,000 Polish officers were discovered, with hands still bound,
and with a single bullet wound to the back of their head. Stalin had ordered
the execution of the Polish officer corps, in hopes of dampening resistance.
Many more mass graves of Polish officers, soldiers and civilians are in
the old Soviet Union, yet their location is known only to the perpetrators,
most of whom are long dead, many by the same methods they used on Poles.
The Allies, fearing the reaction of the Soviet Union, decided to remain
quiet on the issue of such murders.
Unlike after World War I, where
the Allies stood by Poland in the post-war negotiations, retaining her
borders and sovereignty, after the end of World War Two, Poland was abandoned,
and "given" to the Soviet Union. At Teheran, and other meetings of the
Big Three, the British and Americans agreed to let the Russians keep Polish
lands awarded them after the invasion of Poland in 1939. This miscarriage
of justice was kept quiet by the Allies, and is widely unknown. Then,
at Yalta, the Allies placed Poland into the Soviet sphere of influence.
This last step effectively gave the Soviets the green light for the full-scale
occupation of Poland.
The final injustice--having the fourth largest combatant force fighting
the Germans, Poland should have had a prominent place in the Victory parade.
The Poles, however, and all of their crucial efforts, hardships, and victories,
were forsaken once again. The Polish soldiers were forced to watch from
the side, as others marched triumphantly, even though the Poles had taken
a leading role in the defeat of Germany.
Over a half million fighting men and women, and six million civilians,
more than 18% of the population, lost their lives. Approximately
90% of Polish war losses were victims of prisons, death camps, raids,
executions, starvation, excessive work and ill treatment.
Poland lost 38% of its national assets, as compared to Britain which
lost 0.8%, and France which lost 1.5%. Worse yet, a part of Poland was
also lost. The eastern provinces were annexed by the Soviets, including
the two great Polish cities of Lwow and Wilno. Poland itself was lost
until the recent fall of the Soviet Union, when she regained her sovreignty
after almost 50 years under the Soviet shadow.
Polish soldiers in the west could not return home, for they were branded
traitors by the new communist regime. Soldiers still in Poland fared
worse, for many were arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and even executed
by the Soviets, simply because they belonged to the Polish Home Army.
Of all the warring nations, Poland was among the most devastated. The
loss of life and resources, while terrible under any circumstance, was
made harsher by the loss of territory and sovereignty to the Soviets.
For all of her contributions, Poland was treated almost as an enemy by
the Allies. Though Poland was forgotten in the jumble of the post-war
world, the role that she and her citizens played in the defeat of Nazi
Germany is too important to be forgotten as well.