Finest Hour 145, Winter 2009-10
1939- 1945 : Poland’s Contribution to Victory in the Second World War
The only countries which fought from beginning of the war to the end were those of the British Commonwealth and Poland. There is room for many views about Churchill’s policies in respect of Poland, but there is no doubt he felt deeply toward that country, as this and the following article will describe.
By Winston S. Churchill
Sir Winston’s grandson is a Churchill Centre Associate, Trustee and Honorary Member.
The Polish people and nation will forever hold a warm place in British hearts. It was in defence of Poland’s freedom and independence that Great Britain drew the sword against Nazi Germany on 3 September 1939, within forty-eight hours of the German invasion of Polish territory.
The 145 Polish pilots named in the RAF Roll of Honour for the Battle of Britain constituted the largest non-British contingent engaged. They formed five percent of the RAF’s front-line strength in the struggle, and provided its most battle-hardened pilots. No. 303 Kosciuszko Squadron claimed the highest number of “kills” (126) of all the squadrons engaged in the skies over Britain. Given the knife-edge on which the outcome depended, it could be argued that the Poles played a key role in turning the tide of victory when the fate not just of Britain, but of the world, hung in the balance.
In the field of Intelligence Poland made an immense contribution by sharing with Britain and France, on 25 July 1939—just six weeks before war began—their six and one-half years’ work in cracking the German Enigma code. This enabled the code-breakers at Bletchley Park, at a very early stage in the war, to provide my grandfather with the “Ultra” decrypts—undoubtedly the most important single source of real-time intelligence available to the Prime Minister and the British Chiefs of Staff. “Ultra” played a crucial part in the successful prosecution of the war, and in ending it earlier than would otherwise have been the case.
After the dismemberment of Poland by the Nazis and the Soviets acting in concert, the Polish Resistance came into being, numbering 200,000 to 300,000
soldiers and many more civilian sympathizers. In the wider field of Intelligence, 43 percent of all reports received by the British secret service from continental Europe during the war originated from the Polish Home Army, which further-more provided the key intelligence that pinpointed and made possible the destruction of the Peenemunde V-2 Rocket launch-site by the RAF on the night of 17-18 August 1943.
On land Polish ground-forces, allied to the British (General Anders’ Army), or serving under British command, numbered 142,000 by war’s end. The Soviets recruited a Polish People’s Army numbering 200,000 under their command. Among the key battles in which Polish ground forces took part were Warsaw (1939), France (1940), Narvik (1940), Tobruk (1941), Normandy (1944), Monte Cassino (1944), Arnhem (1944) and Berlin (1945).
In the air, by the end of the war, 14,000 Polish airmen were serving in fifteen RAF squadrons or with the U.S. Army Air Force. Losses of Polish aircrew serving with RAF Bomber Command amounted to 929. Meanwhile, at sea, 4000 Polish seamen served with the Royal Navy, of whom 450 perished, most in the Battle of the Atlantic.
My grandfather was a great admirer of the Polish nation and a staunch defender of their national sovereignty. After the Great War, on 29 August 1920, Winston Churchill echoed William Pitt in 1805 by declaring: “Poland has saved herself by her exertions and will I trust save Europe by her example.”
A generation on, following the outbreak of World War II, in his BBC broadcast of 1 October 1939, he avowed: “…Poland has been again overrun by two of the great powers which held her in bondage for 150 years, but were unable to quench the spirit of the Polish nation. The heroic defence of Warsaw shows that the soul of Poland is indestructible, and that she will rise again like a rock, which may for a spell be submerged by a tidal wave, but which remains a rock.”
In a broadcast to the Polish people on 3 May 1941 he paid this tribute: “When the call came Poland did not hesitate…to risk all the progress she had made rather than compromise her national honour; and she showed in the spontaneous response of her sons and daughters that spirit of national unity and self-sacrifice which has maintained her among the great nations of Europe through all her many trials and tribulations.”
On 22 February 1944 he declared in the House of Commons: “I took occasion to raise personally with Marshal Stalin the question of the future of Poland. I pointed out that it was in fulfillment of our guarantee to Poland that Great Britain declared war upon Nazi Germany; that we had never weakened in our resolve, even in the period when we were all alone; and that the fate of the Polish nation holds a prime place in the thoughts and policies of His Majesty’s Government and of the British Parliament. It was with great pleasure that I heard from Marshal Stalin that he, too, was resolved upon the creation and maintenance of a strong integral independent Poland as one of the leading Powers in Europe.”
His hopes were frustrated. On 1 August 1944, with the Red Army on the banks of the River Vistula just sixty miles from Warsaw, General Bor Komorowski, Commander of the Polish Home Army—following repeated implorings by Radio Moscow—ordered a general uprising against the Nazi occupying forces. It was nothing but a cynical ploy by Stalin who, though nominally Poland’s ally, was determined to see the destruction, at the hands of the Nazis, of the Polish forces allied to the West, so as to install in power in postwar Poland a Communist puppet regime.
The Nazis concentrated five divisions of troops including three SS divisions in Warsaw to quell the uprising. But Stalin ordered the Red Army, which had swept westwards 400 kilometres in the previous month, to stand fast on the Vistula, arms-folded—a shameful betrayal of an ally. This permitted the Nazis to destroy the Polish Home Army, together with the patriotic forces allied to them. For sixty-three days the battle raged in the streets of Warsaw—even in the sewers beneath.
Desperate appeals flowed into London and Washington from the beleaguered Polish fighters, requesting urgent air-drops of weapons, ammunition and supplies. But Warsaw was at the extremity of the range of the RAF, and Stalin refused to allow Allied transport aircraft, after dropping supplies to the embattled Poles, to land and refuel in Soviet-liberated territory just 100 kilometres to the East.
Churchill, determined to help the Poles any way that he could, was outraged. He promptly proposed to Roosevelt that Great Britain and the United States threaten jointly to suspend convoys to Murmansk and Archangel, delivering aircraft, tanks and war materiel to the Soviets, until Stalin agreed to allow their transport aircraft to land and refuel.
President Roosevelt replied to the Prime Minister on 26 August: “I do not consider it advantageous to the long-range general war prospect for me to join you.” Without U.S. support, the proposal had to be abandoned and the Poles were left to fight on with minimal outside support against impossible odds.
Speaking in Question Time in the House of Commons, a month later on 26 September, the Prime Minister said: “I welcome this opportunity of paying tribute to the heroism and tenacity of the Polish Home Army and the population of Warsaw, who, after five years of oppression have yet fought for nearly two months to contribute all in their power to the expulsion of the Germans from the capital of Poland.”
Just a week later, the valiant but forlorn Polish resistance came to an end. A further three months were to ensue before the Soviet advance was resumed and Warsaw was “liberated” by the Red Army on 17 January 1945.
It is frequently alleged that Churchill and Roosevelt “gave away” Poland at the Yalta Conference (4-11 February 1945). The reality was that Poland’s fate had been sealed by the fact that the Soviet Red Army was by then already at the heart, and indeed at the throat, of Europe. Short of declaring war on the Soviets, which neither Britain nor the United States were in a position to do, there was nothing that could be done to save our gallant Polish allies, to whom so much was owed.
eville Bullock’s following article provides eyewitness testimony to how excruciating the Polish tragedy was to my grandfather. In Poland’s defence Britain had drawn the sword against Nazi Germany, and Poland’s contribution to the allied victory of 1945 was important—indeed heroic.
I can say without hesitation that it was Churchill’s greatest disappointment of the war that Poland, in the very hour of her liberation, was to discover that five years of Nazi slavery was instantly replaced by a Soviet slavery that
The text is the author’s article in Poland’s Contribution to Victory in World War II, published in support of a new Polish War Memorial in National Memorial Arboretum near Litchfield, Staffordshire, England. The Arboretum comprises 150 acres of woodland and memorials dedicated to the fallen in wars of the 20th and 21st centuries. A detail of the Polish Memorial is shown above.