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WW II: Behind Closed Doors

Stalin, the Nazis and the West

Fighting with the Allies

Remembering Polish Fighters

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Churchill and General Sikorski inspecting
Polish troops in Scotland, October 1940

It took Adolf Hitler less than one year, from September 1939 to June 1940, to conquer the countries between central Poland and the Atlantic Ocean. But across Europe, soldiers, sailors, and airmen from those defeated nations made their way by the thousand to Great Britain, where they regrouped and trained under British command to fight another day. By July 1940, more than 25,000 foreign troops were training in Great Britain, including about 14,000 Poles, 4,000 Czechs, 3,000 anti-Nazi Germans, 2,000 Frenchmen, 1,000 Dutchmen, 1,000 Norwegians, and 500 Belgians.

In Europe, the Poles had the largest contingent from an occupied country fighting with the British–their forces in the West ultimately numbered 200,000 men. In September 1939, the Polish armed forces had battled the Germans for two weeks before being blindsided by the Soviet Union’s attack from the east. With only minimal help from Poland’s allies, France and Great Britain, and with most of his forces fighting the Germans, Poland’s commander-in-chief Marshal Edward Smigly-Rydz ordered his soldiers in eastern Poland to withdraw south into Romania or Hungary, hoping to save them for future battles. By the end of the month, some 90,000 Poles had made their way into those two countries. A few more escaped through Lithuania and Latvia.

The Polish government-in-exile , which moved to Paris in September 1939, quickly began reassembling units, using soldiers who made their way across Europe as well as members of Polish communities living abroad. By 1940, about 43,000 of these troops joined the Polish units forming in France and fought alongside the French when Germany attacked that country in May. Around 20,000 Polish soldiers were evacuated by Great Britain’s Royal Navy after the fall of France in June. They were taken to Scotland, where they worked in coastal defense.

Polish Air Force squadrons in the Royal Air Force (RAF) played an important role in the Battle of Britain (July 1940–June 1941), shooting down a disproportionate number of German aircraft. They also manned supply flights to Warsaw during the 1944 uprising . By the end of the war, around 19,400 Poles were serving in the RAF. Polish fighters in the British army are remembered most often for their heroic efforts in the Italian campaign and their success in capturing the monastery at Monte Cassino in May 1944, where elite German troops had halted the Allied advance for months.

General Anders, who was Commander of the 2nd Corps, agreed to us taking part in the fight in the Battle of Monte Cassino. This was our baptism of fire.

- Wieslaw Wolwowicz, Polish 2nd Corps

Polish units also fought notably alongside Canadian forces in the battle for Normandy , which began in June 1944.

Right, well the Poles, they were very admirable. You really have to say that. They were brave soldiers, they were the bravest of them all in fact. But it was more like an inner drive that went almost to the level of fanaticism.

- Joseph Klein, 1st Paratrooper Division, German Air Force

The other European countries that Hitler conquered contributed fewer troops for battle, but their efforts were also vital to the Allied cause. In 1946, an immense parade was held in London to celebrate the Allied victory. Troops from every Allied country were invited to march along the parade route–except one. The British government did not want to anger the new Stalin-approved Communist government in Poland by including the Polish fighters who had fought so valiantly with the other Allies in the war, so the Poles were left out.

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Polish troops in action at
Monte Cassino, Italy, May 1944

We were the allies, we were the allies of the British, and we weren’t even invited to take part in the victory parade after the war. We were like people who’d done the hard work and now whom nobody wanted anymore.

- Wieslaw Wolwowicz, Polish 2nd Corps

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