Following the invasion of Poland by the German Armed Forces on 1st September 1939 the partially mobilized Polish Army initially resisted the invasion but over the next 15 days were gradually overrun and on the 17th September the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the Eastern Border, Poland capitulated on the 27th September, and was split into a Soviet zone in the East and a German Zone to the West.
What is forgotten in the euphoria of the victory in Europe is that the Poles in the Eastern Soviet sector suffered as badly as those in the Western German sector, with the rarely mentioned Soviet atrocity of “Katyn” remaining unanswered until 1992.
Over the next few days as part of the VE celebration I’ll bring you snapshot stories about the Polish experience of World War II. What few people remember is that the Polish Airforce largely escaped the German invasion and many of their planes and pilots escaped to France and Britain where many fought with valour in the “Battle of Britain” with a kill ratio that often exceeded their British and Commonwealth comrades. Many members of the Polish Armed Forces fought a fighting retreat to the Romanian and Hungarian borders where after a brief internment they were allowed to travel to France where a Polish Army was formed and fought alongside the British and French armies following the German invasion of France. About 30,000 Polish soldiers and airmen were evacuated with the British troops from France to form the nucleus of the Polish Armed Forces who would serve with distinction in the Normandy Landings.
Meanwhile in Poland, those members of the Polish armed forces who had surrendered to the Soviet invading forces on 27th September 1939, many of their officers were initially allowed to return home after first registering with the Soviets, and about 150,000 other ranks were deported eastwards into the Soviet Union. On the 10th December all Polish officers residing in the Eastern sector were arrested by members of the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB) deported to the Soviet Union and sometime in May 1940, 40,000 of these detained Polish officers were executed in what is now known as “Katyn”; and their families (mainly women and children) were arrested in the early hours of the 13th of April locked into cattle trucks and deported en masse to Kazakhstan in what has been called the “Forgotten Odyssey”.
Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, an amnesty regarding polish deportees was declared and many of the internees were allowed to leave by making their way south to cross the Caspian Sea into Persia (now Iran), where the men and women formed the Polish II Corps, that was incorporated into the British 8th Army and fought with distinction throughout the Italian campaign and notably in the Battle of Monte Casino.
Following the Cessation of hostilities the Polish Armed Forces that had fought with such distinction were not permitted to take part in the Victory Parades and Victory Celebrations in case it upset the Soviet Union (especially Joe Stalin!).