Polish Armed Forces in the West

Active participation in the anti-German coalition through the use of its armed forces was a matter of the highest priority for the Polish government in exile. Although Polish units could not single handedly influence the outcome of the conflict (although in instances such as the Battle of Britain in 1940 or breaking the Gustav Line in 1944 they played a significant role), they nevertheless emphasized the continuity of the Polish state, her participation in the war and carried the hope of fair compensation for Poland at war’s end. The army was also to play a significant role in the liberation of Poland. However 200,000 soldiers of the Polish Armed Forces in the West were destined to wage battle on foreign soil..

Malestroit (France) April 10, 1940. Soldiers of the Independent Highlander Rifle Brigade take their oath. Photo: Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum in London / KARTA Center
Malestroit (France) April 10, 1940. Soldiers of the Independent Highlander Rifle Brigade take their oath. Photo: Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum in London / KARTA Center

I. From Narvik to Wilhelmshaven

In Spring 1940 Polish forces in France numbered close to 80,000 soldiers and officers. Their first deployment to combat was in Norway, during the battle of Narvik in April 1940 (Polish Independent Highland Brigade) and subsequently in the Battle for France (May-June 1940). After the defeat of France only a small portion of the men (around 18,000) managed to be evacuated to Great Britain, with the remainder being imprisoned, interned or demobilized. In the development of the Polish Armed Forces in the West, one of the main stumbling blocks proved to be a lack of recruits. Attempts to raise volunteers in the USA and South America failed, and personnel shortages were only alleviated in 1942 after the evacuation of General Wladylsaw Anders’ Polish Army which had been formed in the USSR as well as thanks to the recruitment of Polish citizens who had been conscripted into the Wermacht who were then taken prisoner by Allied forces (22,000 by the end of 1944). When the allies opened the second front in France and Germany, ranks of the Polish Armed Forces were again replenished by the addition of Poles who had been forced laborers and prisoners there.

Breda (Netherlands) November 11, 1944. Soldiers of the 1st Armored Division under the command of General Stanislaw Maczek parade after liberating the city. Photo: Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum in London / KARTA Center
Breda (Netherlands) November 11, 1944. Soldiers of the 1st Armored Division under the command of General Stanislaw Maczek parade after liberating the city. Photo: Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum in London / KARTA Center

The I Polish Corps, formed in Great Britain and comprising the land forces of the Polish Armed Forces in the West, participated from 1944 in fighting in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. For instance the 1 Armored Division led by General Stanislaw Maczek made a name for itself in the Battle of the Falaise Pocket and in Chambois in Normany in August of 1944, and later in September-November in Gadava, Antwerpt, Breda and Moerdijk. In September 1944 the 1 Independent Parachute Brigade under the command of General Stanislaw Sosabowski participated in Operation Market Garden. In April and May 1945 Polish armored units took part in fighting in North-Western Germany, and on May 5 they captured the Kriegsmarine base in Wilhelmshaven and accepted the capitulation of the garrison there. After the war, a large portion of the soldiers of the Polish Armed Forces in the West, especially those hailing from Eastern parts of Poland, remained abroad.

The only members of the Polish Armed Forces in the West who could directly fight in Poland was members of the 316 Clandestine Unit, excellently trained soldiers who were dropped into occupied Poland from February 1941 to December 1944 to support the underground conspiracy. “Silent Unseen” as they were called included in their ranks the last director of the Home Army General Leopold Okulicki, Colonel Kazimierz Iranek-Osmecki, member of the Home Army Head Command.

II. From Tobruk to Bologna

Tobruk (Libya) 1941. Soldiers of the Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade man their positions in the dunes. Photo: Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum in London / KARTA Center

Tobruk (Libya) 1941. Soldiers of the Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade man their positions in the dunes. Photo: Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum in London / KARTA Center

The Polish Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade which was formed in Syria did not share the fate of the Polish forces fighting in France in 1940. The brigade was transferred to Palestine (then under British control) after France’s surrender, and from August 1941 to early 1942 participated in combat in North Africa, where it took part in the defense of Tobruk. The Polish Army in the USSR, which was formed in 1941-42 (also called the Anders Army) and later evacuated in 1942 to the Middle East numbered almost 80,000 soldiers. This Army, together with the Carpathian bridge formed the II Polish Corps under the command of General Anders.

Monte Cassino (Italy) May 24, 1944. General Wladyslaw Anders - commander of the II Polish Corps - in the ruins of the Benedictine Convent, which was captured by Polish forces. Photo: Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum in London / KARTA Center
Monte Cassino (Italy) May 24, 1944. General Wladyslaw Anders – commander of the II Polish Corps – in the ruins of the Benedictine Convent, which was captured by Polish forces. Photo: Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum in London / KARTA Center

In December 1943/January 1944 this corps was transferred to Italy, where it fought until the end of the war. The first battle in which the II Corps took part in, and which immediately became legendary, was the capture of the fortified convent on Monte Cassino which was defended by veteran German units. After bloody fighting (860 soldiers of the Polish II Corps died and almost 3,000 were wounded) the defender’s were routed on May 18, 1944, which enabled the Gustav Line to be broken. Subsequently the Corps helped break the Hitler Line and the Gothic Line (during which Polish forces captured the strategically important port town of Ancona). The last battle of the II Corps was the fight for Bologna on April 21, 1945.

After the war only a small portion of soldiers of the II Corps returned to Poland, predominantly Silesians and Pomeranians who previously served in Wehrmacht units. The majority, especially those hailing from regions of Eastern Poland, which in 1944 were incorporated into the USSR, remained abroad.

Bologna (Italy) April 1945. Soldiers of the II Polish Corps in the newly liberated city. In the car are among others General Zygmunt Szyszko-Bohusz and Klemens Rudnicki. Photo: Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum in London / KARTA Center
Bologna (Italy) April 1945. Soldiers of the II Polish Corps in the newly liberated city. In the car are among others General Zygmunt Szyszko-Bohusz and Klemens Rudnicki. Photo: Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum in London / KARTA Center