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The Participation of the Polish Military on the Fronts of World War II

by Ted Rajchel

On May 3rd, Poles throughout the world commemorated 228 years of the existence of the Constitution of Poland. The Polish constitution was ratified on May 3, 1791, and gave the people a representative government, not a government ruled by royal families or dynasties. The Polish constitution was patented after the United States Constitution, which was ratified in 1788. The Polish constitution was the only written document of its kind in all of Europe at that time. Poland’s neighboring states became fearful of the democratic movement in Poland, so they decided to invade Poland. By 1795, Poland was totally under foreign domination, with the entire territory of the Kingdom of Poland divided between Prussia, Austria, and Russia. The conquest of Poland lasted until 1918. After World War I, Poland once again became an independent nation.

During the Second World War

Poland was attacked by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Both totalitarian countries divided Poland and began to persecute her people. The Nazis murdered about 90% of the Polish Jews and more than a million Catholic Poles. The Soviets also murdered a comparable number of Poles; many others were sent to concentration camps in Siberia. After this horrible period was over and World War II had ended, new boundaries were designed for Central Europe by Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt at Yalta. Poland lost a third of its pre-World War II area, which was taken over by the Soviets. As “compensation”, the allied powers gave Poland a large part of Germany, east of the Oder and Neisse Rivers. Nearly the entire population of those provinces either escaped the Red army in 1945 or was later expelled to Germany. The territory was settled by Polish refugees from the East, who wanted to avoid Soviet rule. In addition, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians were forced to leave Poland to settle in the Soviet Union. Most of the Jews who survived the Holocaust emigrated to Israel or America.

The Polish Military Fought on All European Fronts

Polish armed forces were formed outside the borders of their country, which were under foreign occupation. They fought, and, at times, experienced defeat. Yet, Poland was the only European country which never capitulated, from the first day of World War II to its last. This armed conflict, the greatest in the world’s history, began with an attack upon Poland in 1939, first by Germany on September 1, and then by the Soviet Union on September 17. In June 1941, after the Third Reich’s attack on the USSR, the Soviet Union joined the great coalition whose combined force won the war. Their leaders decided the new division of the world, including how post-war Poland would look. Although Poland belonged to the victorious camp and Polish soldiers fought on all of Europe’s fronts including the capture of Berlin, full independence for Poland would not be won until 1989.

Polish Military Represented the Allies

Poland was occupied by German and Russian troops. Even without a flag, Poland became a byword among liberty-loving people. Poland represented the fourth largest fighting force. There were over 400,000 Poles with the Russian military and over 200,000 with the British military. Poland’s underground state and its underground army became known, from 1942 onward, as the home army. Although resistance movements existed in all parts of occupied Europe, Poland was the only country with a secret state, comprising of its own army, ministries, parliament, police, and social care. Poland was the only European nation to fight from the very first day of World War II to the very last day of the war. Over two million Poles were, in some way, part of a Polish military formation between the first of September, 1939 and the eighth of May, 1945, be it the regular army, partisan units or the underground army. By the summer of 1944, towards the end of the war and as fierce battles were waged against retreating German troops, around 600,000 soldiers (in the infantry, tank division, air force or navy) were part of Polish divisions fighting on all European fronts. Polish underground forces had over 300,000 soldiers within their ranks. These figures put Poland’s army at the fourth largest within the allied powers during the war after the Soviet Union, the United States, and Britain.

Polish Military in Battles

In the defense of Westerplatte, a coastal point near Gdansk, Poland (September 1 to 7, 1939), the Polish submarine “Orzel” made its way from Tallin, Estonia to England without maps or arms. In the battles of Narvik, Norway, the Polish Mountain Brigade won the sole allied victory in the Norwegian campaign of 1940 (May 28 to June 7). A whole Polish division fought at Legarde and Saint Die in France. Poles shot down about twelve percent of the Luftwaffe planes downed in the Battle of Britain. A Polish brigade was effective in the defense of besieged Tobruk (August 15 to December 8, 1941). The submarine “Sokol” was one of the bravest allied ships operating in the Mediterranean. Polish bombers dropped bombs over Nazi Germany. Poles entered the fight in the East at the side of the Soviet armies (Lenino, October 12, 1943). The First Army fought soon after, at Warka and Praga (on the line of the Vistula River). In the summer of 1944, the Polish armored division, together with the Canadians and Americans, broke the Nazi line of defense of Normandy at Falaise in France. The Polish corps fighting in Italy captured the hill and abbey of Monte Cassino (May 1944), opening the way for the allies to go to Rome. The Polish Parachute Brigade fought a courageous battle at Arnhem, The Netherlands, in the attempt to forge the Rhine. Polish ships convoyed allied transportation of arms and supplies to Murmansk (USSR) through the North Atlantic. The partisan movements spread over large parts of the country. The Ost (East) Front communication lines were in constant peril. Hundreds of transports were blown up. In Peenemunde, Germany, Polish intelligence had discovered where the V-1 rocket was produced. Soon afterward, Polish scientists and intelligence men solved the V-2 mystery and transmitted it to the allies (the testing ground at Debe, Poland). Poles participated massively in the resistance movements of Denmark, France, Greece, The Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia. Some were in command and others became national heroes. The Polish underground struggle, the escapes, and sabotage activities continued wherever possible – in the concentration camps and armaments factories. The Second Polish Army, marching from the East, fought in the Battles of Bautzen and Dresden and took part in the liberation of Czechoslovakia. Side by side with the Soviet Army, the First Polish Army took part in the assault on the Pomeranian Bulwark, Kolobrzeg and helped to take Berlin to end the war. Warsaw (1939-1945) was the inspiration and the motive power of the national struggle. About sixty percent of the pre-war Warsaw population died in September 1939, in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1944, and in the Resistance Movement. In 1944, the city ceased to exist; it was destroyed by fire and blown up on Hitler’s orders. Poles fought on all fronts from Narvik to Wilhelmshaven, through to Tobruk, Bologna, and Monte Cassino. The participation of Polish pilots in the Battle of Britain between July and October 1940 has, over the years, become the stuff of legend. The 144 Polish pilots who made up around five percent of the Royal Air Force shot down about twelve percent of the total losses suffered by the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. What made this feat even more remarkable is that the majority of these hits were carried out single-handedly by the No. 303 Kosciuszko Polish Fighter Squadron, regarded as the best division within the RAF.

The Most Important Battle Experienced

The battles, at this time, were the ones fought by society on an everyday basis or, in other words, the fight for physical survival. In order to survive, one had to break the regulations put in place by the German authorities. By doing this, Poles risked, on a daily basis, being sent to concentration camps or even being killed on the spot. During the duration of the war, between three million Polish citizens were forced into labor. Hardship conditions were experienced by those working in heavy industry, in particular, the defense sector.

The Polish Council to Aid Jewish People

The Polish Council to Aid Jews rescued around 2,500 Jewish children by placing them with Polish families and orphanages, some of them church-affiliated. It is estimated that the number of Polish citizens who helped Jews in occupied Poland during the Second World War is somewhere between several dozen thousand and several hundred thousand. Poles also made up the highest number of people recognized by the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem for their efforts to rescue Jews. Over 6,500 Poles have received the ‘Righteous Among Nations’ medal from Yad Vashem, from over 25,700 in total (as of 2015).


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