The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in World War II – Halik Kochanski

On 23 January 2013 I attended a talk given by Dr Halik Kochanski at the National Army Museum in London on her book The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War. It was part of a regular series of talks that are held at the NAM on Thursday lunchtimes.

She argued that this is the first book published since the fall of Communism to cover the full story of Poland in World War II. Previous works have concentrated on Poles in the Battles of Britain and Monte Cassino, the Holocaust and the Warsaw Uprising.

Poland had a population of 32 million in 1939, which was made up of 22 million Poles, 4.5 million Ukrainians, 3 million Jews, 1 million Belarusians, 0.75 million Germans and 0.75 million people described as ‘locals.’ A total of 6 million of them were killed in the war, only 10% in military actions. The dead included 90% of the Jews. Five million of the pre-war population were outside the altered post-war borders of Poland at the end of the war.

Poland was in a hopeless position in 1939, with only 1 million troops to defend itself against a German attack from three sides. The Polish plan was to defend and withdraw slowly, launching a counter-attack once the Western Allies had drawn off the Germans.

This plan failed because of the speed of the German Blitzkrieg and because the British and French did little: they were preparing for a long war.

It is a myth that the Polish cavalry charged tanks. There was an action where Polish cavalry successfully charged German infantry but were then surprised by German armour.

It is also untrue that the Polish Air Force was destroyed on the first day. It managed to disperse and continued to fight.

The Poles had few tanks, but the 10th Cavalry (Mechanised) Brigade, the only Polish armoured unit, put up a good fight. Its commander, General Stanislaw Maczek, later commanded the Polish 1st Armoured Division, which fought in Normandy in 1944 and captured the German naval base of Wilhelmshaven in 1945.

The Poles had few forces left in the East to defend when the USSR invaded on 17 September.

The Polish government and high command left the country for Romania and ordered the army to follow. About 85,000 troops escaped to Romania. Most of the government were interned, but 40,000 troops and some politicians escaped to France. 19,000 soldiers made it to Britain in 1939.

Polish military casualties in 1939 were 200,000, a third of them dead and the rest wounded. The Germans took 640,000 prisoners. The officers remained PoWs for the duration of the war, but the other ranks were employed as forced labourers. The Soviets took 240,000 prisoners.

The German policy was to make Poland into an intellectual desert, with a pool of labour that would receive only a very basic education. They killed or imprisoned many intellectuals and priests.

The main difference in the part of Poland occupied by the USSR in 1939 was that education continued, albeit in Belarussian or Ukrainian and with a big political content. They imprisoned 10% of the population, targetting anybody who had been active in the Polish state, whether as a politician or a government employee. They murdered 15,ooo Polish officers at Katyn and elsewhere.

A single resistance body, initially called the ZWZ (Union for Armed Struggle in English) and later the AK (Home Army), was established. An underground government of all political parties was set up. Attempts to extend the network to the Soviet occupied area were made but ran into the problem that the NKVD was more efficient than the Gestapo.

The Germans annexed part of Poland, establishing the General-Government in the rest of their occupation zone. Poles were expelled from the annexed territories to the General-Government; Jews went  to the Lodz Ghetto, which was inside the annexed area. The Poles took revenge by expelling Germans from Poland in 1945. Poland then lost the territory taken by the USSR in 1939, but was compensated with parts of eastern Germany.

There was some collaboration with the Germans at a low-level but none at a political level. Some Poles obtained jobs with the local administration as this protected them from being deported for slave labour. Others were conscripted into the German army and deserted as soon as they could in order to join the Allies.

The Soviets deported a million Poles to the east. Victims were selected for political reasons. Both the Soviets and the Germans gave deportees little notice. Poles expelled by the Germans were given little time to pack, and were sometimes expected to leave their homes clean and tidy for their new German occupants.

After the Germans invaded the USSR in June 1941 Poland and the USSR signed an agreement. The 1939 territorial changes were annulled and diplomatic relations restored. Poles deported to the USSR were given an amnesty, although they had committed no crimes, and a Polish army was established on Soviet soil.

Poles made their way from labour camps and collective farms to the new Polish army. Most were in poor health, and many died along the way. There was a shortage of officers because many had been murdered by the NKVD. The army was eventually evacuated to Iran, where it was supplied by the British. Many civilians accompanied it; they were sent to various parts of the British Commonwealth or to Mexico.

In 1942 the Germans proposed deporting 30 million Slavs, including 85% of Poles, east. The rest of the Poles would be Germanised. 200,000 blue-eyed, blond children were taken from their families and sent to Germany and Austria. Only about 20% returned home after the war. This great tragedy was overshadowed by the even greater tragedy of the Holocaust.

The first of 400 ghettos was set up in October 1939, and mass shootings began when the Germans invaded the USSR in June 1941. These did not reduce the Jewish populations quickly enough, so the death camps were set up. Most Polish Jews died in the four purpose built camps of Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor and Treblinka.

The vast majority of those sent to these camps were murdered in the gas chambers on arrival, with only a small number of Jews being kept temporarily alive in order to provide the slave labour to operate the gas chambers and burn the corpses. Only 110 Jews survived these camps. Auschwitz and Majdanek were combinations of concentration and death camps, where a higher proportion of Jews were initially selected for slave labour rather than immediate death, and not all the inmates were Jews.

The systematic murder of the Polish Jews began in mid 1942 and was largely over by the end of 1943. By then, the only Jews left in Poland were either slave labourers, including the inhabitants of the Lodz Ghetto, or in hiding.

It was difficult for Polish Jews to find help in escaping, as 80% of them were unassimilated, and Poland was the only occupied country where the penalty for helping Jews was death. Despite this, Zegota in Poland was the only government sponsored scheme to help Jews in occupied Europe.

It took 100 helpers to save one Jew, whilst one collaborator could betray a 100 Jews. The people named as The Righteous Amongst the Nations by Yad Vashem in Israel include over 6,000 Poles, but far more helped Jews. A few Jews collaborated; one of their tactics was to speak Yiddish in public in order to trick Jews into revealing themselves.

Jews resisted, including breaking out into forests and revolts in the Sobibor and Treblinka death camps and the Warsaw Ghetto.

The Polish government-in-exile in London commanded two corps and the AK. The Poles made a major contribution to the war in the air, most famously in the Battle of Britain, where 303 Squadron shot down more enemy aircraft than any other fighter squadron.

The 1 Corps included the afore-mentioned 1st Armoured Division and a parachute brigade. The latter unit was originally earmarked for operations in Poland, but was sent to Arnhem. Its commander, General Stanislaw Sosabowski, was unfairly criticised by General Frederick Browning, the commander of the 1st British Airborne Corps, after the operation failed. Sosabowski was later praised in the memoirs of General Robert Urquhart, commander of the 1st Airborne Division.

The 2 Corps, commanded by General Wladyslaw Anders, was made up of the men who had been captured by the USSR in 1939 and then moved to the Middle East. It fought in Italy, including at Monte Cassino. Most of its members came from the eastern parts of Poland, which were annexed by the USSR in 1945. Few of them returned to Poland after the war.

Poles made a major contribution to Allied intelligence, including the first success in breaking the Enigma code. The Germans knew that an early version of it had been cracked, and tortured four captured Polish code-breakers in order to discover if the current code had been broken. It had, but the Poles insisted, even under torture, that it had not. The Poles also provided intelligence on the German scientific research site at Peenemunde, the V2 rocket and the German plan to invade the USSR in 1941.

Poland broke off diplomatic relations with the USSR after the bodies of the Poles murdered at Katyn were discovered. It had little say in the decision taken by the Big Three of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. Stalin wanted eastern Poland, but was prepared to give Poland some German territory in return.

The Soviets formed the 1st Polish Army in 1943 from Polish PoWs who had not moved to the Middle East and Soviet officers. It was commanded by General Zygmunt Berling, a Polish officer who had refused to follow Anders to the Middle East. Its first battle at Lenino took place in October 1943, before Anders’s 2 Corps had been in action in the Middle East.

The AK had 400,000 members. A general uprising, called Operation Tempest, was planned in order to liberate Polish territory ahead of the advancing Red Army. The AK liberated Vilna and Lvov, but its members were conscripted into the Red Army when it arrived.

In 1943 a political body called the ZPP (Union of Polish Patriots) was formed in the USSR. It was dominated by Communists. In July 1944 the PKWN (Polish Committee of National Liberation) was established as a rival administration to the Polish government-in-exile in London. It was based in Lublin from 1 August, so was known as the Lublin Committee.

Also on 1 August, General Tadeusz Bor-Komorowski (Bor was his code-name and Komorowski his surname), the leader of the AK, launched the Warsaw Uprising. He thought that the Red Army was about to enter the city.

There were 50,000 members of the AK in Warsaw, but only 10% were armed. The German responded brutally to the uprising; 40,000 civilians were killed in one day. Stalin refused to give support to the AK. Only one US air supply mission was allowed to land on Soviet territory; other Allied air missions suffered heavy casualties and only 50% of the supplies dropped reached the AK.

The 1st Polish Army was ordered not to the cross the Vistula and join in the fighting. It made an attempt to do so in September, which resulted in Berling being removed from command.

Fighting ended on 2 October; most of the AK survivors were treated as PoWs, but the Germans destroyed Warsaw. The Red Army did not enter it until 17 January 1945.

A government recognised by the UK, USSR and USA was formed in 1945; it included representatives of the government-in-exile. Elections in 1947 were rigged, and the government-in-exile continued to exist in London until 1990. A referendum was held in 1946, with three questions. The official results showed majorities in favour of all three. However, in Krakow, where the elections were fair, around 85% supported the recommendation of the main anti-Communist party, the Polish People’s Party, and opposed the first question.

Dr Kochanski concluded by saying that Poland was the only Allied country to lose World War II.

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6 Comments

Filed under Political History, Reviews, War History

6 responses to “The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in World War II – Halik Kochanski

  1. William Young

    Reblogged this on Military History and commented:
    Excellent review of Halik Kochanski’s study titled The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in World War II (2012)

  2. There have been a few Polish language comments to this blog post. This is an English language blog so I have and will mark any comments in another language as spam. Sorry, but if you can read the post in English, then you can reply to it in English.

  3. Names and sources
    Names

    The battle was fought in the territory of the monastic state of the Teutonic Order, on the plains between three
    villages: Grünfelde (Grunwald) to the west, Tannenberg (Stębark) to the northeast, and Ludwigsdorf (Łodwigowo,
    Ludwikowice) to the south. Władysław II Jagiełło referred to the site in Latin as
    in loco conflictus nostri, quem cum Cruciferis de Prusia habuimus, dicto Grunenvelt.[9] Later Polish chroniclers interpreted the word
    Grunenvelt as Grünwald, meaning “green forest” in German. The Lithuanians followed suit and translated the
    name as Žalgiris.[12] The Germans named the battle after Tannenberg (“fir hill” or “pine hill” in German).[13] Thus
    there are three commonly used names for the battle: German:
    Schlacht bei Tannenberg, Polish: Bitwa pod Grunwaldem, Lithuanian: Žalgirio mūšis.

    Its names in the languages of other involved peoples include Belarusian: Бітва пад Грунвальдам, Ukrainian: Грюнвальдська битва, Russian: Грюнвальдская битва,
    Czech: Bitva u Grunvaldu, Romanian: Bătălia de la Grünwald.

    Sources
    The most important source about the Battle of Grunwald is
    Cronica conflictus Wladislai Regis Poloniae cum cruciferis anno Christi
    The most important source about the Battle of Grunwald is Cronica conflictus Wladislai Regis Poloniae cum cruciferis anno Christi

    There are few contemporary, reliable sources about the
    battle, and most were produced by Poles. The most important and trustworthy source is
    Cronica conflictus Wladislai regis Poloniae cum Cruciferis anno Christi 1410, which was written within a
    year of the battle by an eyewitness.[14] Its authorship
    is uncertain, but several candidates have been proposed:
    Polish deputy chancellor Mikołaj Trąba and Władysław II Jagiełło’s secretary Zbigniew Oleśnicki.[15] While the original Cronica conflictus did not survive, a short summary from the 16th century has been preserved.
    Another important source is Historiae Polonicae by Polish
    historian Jan Długosz (1415–1480).[15] It is a comprehensive
    and detailed account written several decades after the battle.
    The reliability of this source suffers not only from the
    long gap between the events and the chronicle, but also Długosz’s
    biases against the Lithuanians.[16] Banderia Prutenorum is a mid-15th-century manuscript with images
    and Latin descriptions of the Teutonic battle flags captured during the battle and displayed in Wawel Cathedral.
    Other Polish sources include two letters written by Władysław II
    Jagiełło to his wife Anne of Cilli and Bishop of Poznań Wojciech Jastrzębiec and
    letters sent by Jastrzębiec to Poles in the Holy See.[16] German sources include a concise
    account in the chronicle of Johann von Posilge. A recently discovered anonymous letter, written between 1411 and 1413, provided important details on Lithuanian maneuvers.[17][18]
    Historical background
    Lithuanian Crusade and Polish–Lithuanian union

    Main article: Northern Crusades

    In 1230, the Teutonic Knights, a crusading military order, moved to
    Chełmno Land and launched the Prussian Crusade against the pagan Prussian clans.
    With support from the pope and Holy Roman Emperor, the Teutons conquered and converted the Prussians by the 1280s and shifted their attention to the pagan Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
    For about a hundred years, the Knights raided Lithuanian lands,
    particularly Samogitia, as it separated the Knights
    in Prussia from their branch in Livonia. While the border regions became an uninhabited wilderness, the Knights gained very little territory.
    The Lithuanians first gave up Samogitia during the Lithuanian Civil War (1381–1384) in the Treaty of Dubysa.
    The territory was used as a bargaining chip to ensure
    Teutonic support for one of the sides in the internal power struggle.

    Territory of the State of the Teutonic Order between 1260 and 1410; the locations and dates of major
    battles, including the Battle of Grunwald, are indicated by crossed red swords
    Territory of the State of the Teutonic Order between 1260
    and 1410; the locations and dates of major battles, including the Battle of
    Grunwald, are indicated by crossed red swords

    In 1385, Grand Duke Jogaila of Lithuania agreed to marry Queen Jadwiga of
    Poland in the Union of Kreva. Jogaila converted to Christianity and was crowned as the
    King of Poland (Władysław II Jagiełło), thus creating a personal union between the Kingdom
    of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The official Lithuanian conversion to Christianity removed the religious rationale for the order’s activities in the area.[19] Its grand master, Conrad Zöllner von Rothenstein, supported by the Hungarian king, Sigismund of Luxemburg, responded by publicly contesting
    the sincerity of Jogaila’s conversion, bringing the charge
    to a papal court.[19] The territorial disputes continued
    over Samogitia, which had been in Teutonic hands
    since the Peace of Raciąż of 1404. Poland also had territorial claims against the Knights in Dobrzyń Land and Danzig (Gdańsk),
    but the two states had been largely at peace since the Treaty
    of Kalisz (1343).[20] The conflict was also motivated by trade considerations:
    The knights controlled the lower reaches of the three largest rivers (the Neman,
    Vistula and Daugava) in Poland and Lithuania.[21]
    War, truce and preparations

    In May 1409, an uprising in Teutonic-held Samogitia started.

    Lithuania supported the uprising and the knights threatened to invade.
    Poland announced its support for the Lithuanian cause and threatened
    to invade Prussia in return. As Prussian troops evacuated Samogitia, Teutonic Grand Master
    Ulrich von Jungingen declared war on the Kingdom of Poland
    and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania on 6 August 1409.[22]
    The Knights hoped to defeat Poland and Lithuania separately, and
    began by invading Greater Poland and Kuyavia, catching the Poles by surprise.[23] The Knights burned the castle at Dobrin (Dobrzyń nad Wisłą), captured Bobrowniki after a fourteen-day
    siege, conquered Bydgoszcz (Bromberg) and sacked several towns.[24] The Poles organized counterattacks and recaptured Bydgoszcz.[25] The Samogitians attacked Memel (Klaipėda).[23] However, neither side was ready for a full-scale war.

    Lithuanians fighting with Teutonic Knights (bas-relief).
    Lithuanians fighting with Teutonic Knights (bas-relief).

    Wenceslaus, King of the Romans, agreed to mediate the dispute.
    A truce was signed on 8 October 1409, and was set to expire on 24 June 1410.[26] Both sides used
    this time to prepare for war, gathering troops and engaging
    in diplomatic maneuvering. Both sides sent letters and envoys accusing each other of various wrongdoings and threats to
    Christendom. Wenceslaus, who received a gift of 60,000 florins from the knights,
    declared that Samogitia rightfully belonged to the knights and only Dobrzyń Land should be
    returned to Poland.[27] The knights also paid 300,000 ducats to
    Sigismund of Hungary, who had ambitions regarding the Principality
    of Moldavia, for mutual military assistance.[27] Sigismund attempted to break the
    Polish–Lithuanian alliance by offering Vytautas a king’s crown; Vytautas’s acceptance would have violated the terms of the Ostrów
    Agreement and created Polish-Lithuanian discord.[28] At the same time, Vytautas managed to
    obtain a truce from the Livonian Order.[29]

    By December 1409, Władysław II Jagiełło and Vytautas had agreed on a common strategy: Their
    armies would unite into a single massive force
    and march together towards Marienburg (Malbork), capital of the Teutonic Knights.[30] The
    Knights, who took a defensive position, did not expect a joint attack, and
    were preparing for a dual invasion – by the Poles along the Vistula River towards Danzig (Gdańsk), and by the Lithuanians along
    the Neman River towards Ragnit (Neman).[3] To counter this perceived threat, Ulrich von Jungingen concentrated his forces in Schwetz (Świecie),
    a central location from where troops could respond
    to an invasion from any direction rather quickly.[31] Sizable garrisons were left in the eastern castles of Ragnit,
    Rhein (Ryn) near Lötzen (Giżycko), and Memel (Klaipėda).[3] To keep their
    plans secret and mislead the knights, Władysław
    II Jagiełło and Vytautas organised several raids into border territories, thus forcing the knights to keep their troops
    in place.[30]

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