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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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La Grande Illusion

La Grande Illusion, a French film directed by Jean Renoir, has recently been restored and re-released. It was made in 1937 and was banned by the Nazis. Joseph Goebbels called Renoir ‘Cinematic Public Enemy Number 1′. It is set in WWI, mostly in Prisoner of War (PoW) camps, but features little combat. The key issues of the film are class, nationality and duty.

The film starts with Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin), a pilot from a humble background, preparing to fly on a reconnaissance mission with Captaine de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), an aristocratic staff officer. The next scene takes place in a German officers’ mess. The two Frenchmen have been shot down by von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), another aristocrat. He invites them for lunch before they are sent to a PoW camp. Von Rauffenstein knows de Boeldieu’s cousin and they find that they move in similar circles.

The scenes in the PoW camp are similar to those in later American and British films about WWII PoWs; the French officers dig a tunnel with improvised tools, presenting difficulties in disposing of the soil; the guards are dim; Maréchal spends time in solitary confinement; the prisoners put on a concert party; they eat well thanks to parcels from home, especially those sent to Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), the son of a rich banker.

It must be remembered that this is a 1937 film; it is the later Anglo-American films that have followed Renoir. The French officers come from a wide range of backgrounds, but co-operate well in their attempts to escape and share their parcels from home. There is a link between the defiant singing of the Marseillaise in this film and the similar scene in Casablanca; in the later film, Madeleine Lebeau, Dalio’s then wife, appears in the Marseillaise scene, playing Yvonne, Rick’s jilted lover. Dalio played the croupier in Casablanca.

Maréchal and de Boeldieu are eventually sent to a fortress prison camp. Rosenthal is already an inmate and von Rauffenstein, unfit for combat service because of wounds, is the commandant. Von Rauffenstein offers privileges to de Boeldieu. He is prepared to take de Boeldieu’s word of honour that his quarters contain no prohibited items, but insists on searching the quarters of other French officers.

Von Rauffenstein’s motivation appears to be that he sees a bond between two aristocratic, regular officers rather than any attempt to turn the Frenchman against his colleagues and country. There is a clear link between the two aristocrats, who can switch fluently between English, French and German, have friends and acquaintances in common, and to a large extent belong to an international class. They foresee that their class and way of life is doomed, regardless of which side wins the war.

An excellent film, well acted and directed film, which is the precursor of many other PoW films. Some do not like films that are in 1.33 aspect ratio, black and white, subtitled and have only two female characters, a mother and her small daughter. If you do not have such objections, then it is well worth seeing.

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In Darkness – Holocaust Film

In Darkness is a Polish film, directed by Agnieszka Holland,  which was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of 2011. The dialogue is a mixture of Polish, Yiddish, German and Ukrainian. The English subtitles were clear, helped by the background generally being very dark.

The film is set during the Holocaust in World War II. A number of Jews attempt to escape into the sewers of Lvov in Poland (now L’viv in Ukraine) when the Germans liquidate the Ghetto. Some of them are helped by Leopold Socha, a sewer inspector and former petty criminal.  He is excellently played by Robert Wieckiewicz.

In Darkness is very atmospheric, re-creating both the cramped, dark and unhealthy conditions in which the Jews have to live and the initial level of distrust between Socha and the Jews; at first he appears to aid them only because they pay him to do so, whilst some of them distrust Poles and/or look down on him because he is uneducated.  It shows that Socha risked the lives of himself, his wife Wanda and their daughter by helping the Jews, but that Poles were also executed in reprisal for acts of resistance that they had nothing to do with.

The film is based on a book by Robert Marshall called In the Sewers of Lvov: A Heroic Story of Survival from the Holocaust. One of the Jews, Krystyna Chiger, then a small child, wrote a memoir called The Girl in the Green Sweater: A Life in Holocaust’s Shadow.

SPOILER ALERT! The links in the next two paragraphs reveal more about the story than some may wish to know before seeing the film.

Socha was helped by Stefan Wroblewski, another sewer worker. Both men and their wives were later recognised by Yad Vashem as being amongst the Righteous of the Nations for their roles in saving Jews during the Holocaust. As with most films about true events, it claims to be ‘based on true events’ and has a degree of fictionalisation and character amalgamation.

This article from the Los Angeles Times is by David Lee Preston; his mother, Halina Wind, was saved by Socha but does not appear in the film. It mentions that Stefan Wroblewski’s fate was not as shown in the film, and that a third sewer worker, Jerzy Kowalow, also helped. There is a character in the film called Kovalov who helps Jews, but he was a factory owner/manager rather than a sewer worker.

A very good film, but one that has a limited release in the UK and, I suspect, the rest of the English-speaking world. There is some sex, nudity and violence, but none of it is gratuitous.

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The Spanish Link in Cracking the Enigma Code

This morning, BBC Radio 4’s Today programme broadcast a short report by Gordon Corera on the presentation of two German Enigma code machines by the Spanish Army Museum in Toledo to GCHQ, the British signals intelligence agency. GCHQ will retain one of the machines and the other will go to the museum at Bletchley Park, Britain’s World War II code-breaking centre. The Spanish Army Museum received a later and more sophisticated machine in return. An NCO found several Enigma machines in the Spanish Defence Ministry a few years ago.

Germany and Italy both sent forces to support the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. The Germans used Enigma machines to ensure that their communications were secure. Britain was aware of the Enigma machine and in 1927 bought a commercial version, which was less sophisticated than the military one. German military radio traffic could not be heard in Britain, but Britain could detect the radio signals of the Germans in Spain, enabling work to start work on decoding the Enigma.

The main benefit of these efforts were that they showed the British that the Enigma code was not unbreakable. The Poles, who could pick up German military radio signals, had made more progress in breaking the military Enigma code and shared these with Britain and France just before the start of the war.

The story of the successful efforts to break the Enigma code during World War II  is now well known, although the Polish contribution is sometimes underplayed. The manner in which the foundation to these attempts was laid during the Spanish Civil War was unknown until now.

Gordon Corera wrote an article on the story for the BBC’s website. It emphasises the importance of technology and co-operation between countries in intelligence and security. This link to the BBC website includes his report; not sure if it will work outside the UK. (Warning! It starts as soon as the page opens.) He interviewed GCHQ’s official historian, who was introduced as being called just Tony. Apparently, GCHQ is so secret that the surname of its historian cannot be revealed!

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Leningrad by Anna Reid – Aye Write Book Festival, Glasgow

I recently attended a talk by Anna Reid on her book Leningrad: Tragedy of a City Under Siege, 1941-44, held as part of Glasgow’s Aye Write book festival. The US edition of the book is called Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944.

She described the Siege of Leningrad as being one of the great atrocities of World War II. Estimates of civilian casualties range from a quarter to a third of the population of 2.5 million; she says that the best estimate is that 750,000 civilians  died, most in the first winter of the siege, 1941-42. This excludes military casualties. The Germans tried to starve the population rather than assaulting the city. The Siege lasted from 8 September 1941 until 27 January 1941

The book covers military history, but it is mainly a social history about civilian life in the city. Internal government documents are now available, as are NKVD archives, including informers’ reports.  She mainly used diaries written at the time to learn the opinions of Leningraders, although she did conduct half a dozen interviews with survivors. She didn’t do any more because of the amount of information available in diaries. Diarists risked arrest if their diaries were found and contained criticism of the Soviet regime. Many therefore wrote in coded language and hid their diaries. They are still being handed in to museums and archives.

The differences between the traditional Soviet view of the siege and the truth is now being discovered:

  • A  significant minority of the population at first wanted a German victory as a price worth paying to get rid of the Bolsheviks. These attitudes mostly changed once the brutality of the Germans became apparent. Most people distinguished between the country and the regime and fought for their country rather than for Communism.
  • The dreadful military mistakes were not talked about in the USSR. There was criticism of Stalin by Khrushchev and subsequently, but specific actions such as the huge casualties caused by sending the militia, the Opolcheniye, into action with no training and poor equipment were not mentioned. Neither was a naval retreat from Tallinn that was ordered too late because the leadership were in denial over the situation. Half the ships were lost in what was like Dunkirk, but without air cover.
  • Stalin considered giving up the city, as it was more important to preserve the army.
  • Political repression continued during the siege. The NKVD archives contained a number of diaries whose authors had been arrested. They were harmless people, often denounced by neighbours.
  • Contrary to the view that everybody was in it together, there was inequality in the allocation of rations. They were skewed in favour of soldiers and manual workers and against women, infants and adolescents. Some institutions, such as the Hermitage and the radio station, were privileged and their employees did better. Those at the Party HQ did best of all. In the winter of 1941-42, people’s world narrowed and they became interested only in food. In the spring of 1942, some mothers were offered evacuation with their work places. They could generally take their children but not their elderly parents, who were often dependent on them. Some mothers even had to leave their children. Anna Reid told the harrowing story of one mother who was evacuated. Her daughter went with her, but her son was too weak to travel. The mother died, but the daughter survived and returned to Leningrad; she was unable to find out what happened to her brother.

Russian historians now discuss the truth about the Siege of Leningrad, but the general population still believe the Soviet myth. The view that, whilst Stalin was a murderous dictator before and after the war, he was a great war leader persists. Anna Reid employed several Russian researchers and translators who were shocked at what they learnt during the course of their work.

There is some self-censorship in discussion of the Siege because of consideration for the feelings of the survivors. Anna Reid finds their stories inspirational once the Soviet propaganda is stripped away.

Leningrad was the first city that Hitler tried and failed to take. Neither side had the strength to end the siege, resulting in static warfare. It differed from Stalingrad, where fighting took place in the city and most civilians were evacuated. Civilians could not leave Leningrad until the spring of 1942.

Even in the spring of 1942 evacuation was difficult. People not being evacuated with their work place had to bribe the drivers to get onto the trucks that were driving along the Ice Road across Lake Ladoga. The trucks were open so many died on the journey. The presence of feeding and medical stations is a myth, at least in the spring of 1942.. Even once across Lake Ladoga, you still had to get onto a train and find a town that would give you a residence permit and ration card.

The city’s normal death rate of 4-5,000 per month rose to 11,000 in November 1941, 50,000 in December and 100,000 in each of January, February and March 1942. There was a subsequent drive to clean up the city, grow more food and return to normal life.  a mass evacuation by barge in the summer of 1942 reduced the population to 600,000 by August, making life more normal in the winter of 1942-43, when things were better organised.

This was a very interesting talk, although my interests are more towards the military aspects of the Siege. The book took three years to research and a further two to write. It is available in hardback and as an e-book. Amazon are taking orders for the paperback, but do not give a publication date.

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The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power, 1898-1918 by Sean McMeekin

The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power, 1898-1918 by Sean McMeekin is the story of German attempts to raise a Jihad against the Allies in the Middle East during World War I. Reviews have mostly been positive; negative ones on Amazon are mostly from readers who assumed from the first part of the title that was about the construction of the railway. That is part of the story, but a long way from being the whole of it. The second part of the title, The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power, more accurately describes the book.

The story is of the strategy of the Central Powers, so concentrates on them, but the Allied response is not neglected. Russian, British, US and French archives have been used as well as Turkish, German, Austrian ones. An Epilogue discusses the impact of German wartime actions on the modern Middle East.

McMeekin manages to combine the telling of an exciting story with archival research. The number of characters can be hard to follow, but they are well drawn. He points out that German and Ottoman relations were often poor, and that their aims sometimes conflicted, especially in the Caucasus in 1918.
The Germans thought that that could use the power of Islam to bring down the British Empire. In fact, many Muslim leaders took German gold but did little in return, and often tried to play off Germany against Britain.

Logistics were a major problem for the Germans, who could not supply enough arms to their potential Muslim allies. The two main Ottoman victories over the British Empire, Gallipoli and Kut-al-Amara, resulted from German discipline and Turkish tenacity, not Islam. There isn’t a great deal on the main military campaigns.

The number of quotes from John Buchan’s novel Greenmantle are a bit strange in a non-fiction work. The author comments on the historiography of the Armenian massacres, but does not take a clear stance; he teaches at Bilkent University in Ankara, so may be constrained in what he can say. These are minor criticisms. The book is now out in paperback as well as hardback, and it is also available as an e-book.

This review is a slightly re-worded version of one that I originally posted on the Great War Forum, an excellent website for anybody interested in World War I. This link is to the thread that includes my review, and this one is to Forum’s home page.

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16 March 2012 · 5:57 pm