A little bit more About Poland and the Poles during WW2

A little bit more About Poland and the Poles during WW2

It’s the long May weekend, a time for dance, song, patriotism and chilling in today’s Poland. 1 May is May Day (officially NOT Labour Day, post-communism), 2 May is Flag Day and 3 May is Constitution Day. Flag Day is the anniversary of the day the Polish flag was hoisted following the Battle of Berlin.

flag day

Which brings us to the point of this brief About – what did the Poles get up to during World War 2?

Well, for one thing, they were invaded from three sides – East, South and West.

The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact was signed on 23 August 1939 and basically consisted of two items – a guarantee of non-aggression between Germany and the USSR, including a commitment that neither party would ally with or aid an enemy of the other party, and a secret agreement on the future division of Romania, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland into Nazi and Soviet spheres of influence in anticipation of “potential territorial and political rearrangements of those countries”.

So, with that pact in place, Germany went ahead with the support of some Slovak elements and invaded Poland on 1 September 1939. The USSR had been preoccupied with the Japanese in Manchuria but a ceasefire was agreed on 16 September, freeing the Soviets up to invade Poland on the 17th.


Polish territory held out until 2 October, when the garrison on the Hel Peninsula surrendered (there are lots of relics of the coastal defences on Hel, which is also a major destination for beach and water sports – see About the Seaside). The last engagement on Polish soil was the Battle of Kock (sorry) which lasted four days and ended with the surrender of General Franciszek Kleeberg’s Independent Operational Group Polesie near Lublin on 6 October. Around 66,000 Poles died in the invasion and close to 700,000 were captured. Poland was divided among Germany, the Soviet Union, and Slovakia.

But that was not the end of it – not by a long way!

The War after 6 October 1939

Significant numbers of Polish military personnel escaped, typically via Romania, Latvia or Lithuania to continue fighting.

A Polish Highland Brigade took part in the Battle of Narvik and two Polish divisions took part in the defence of France while a motorised brigade and two infantry divisions were forming. In Syria, Poles formed the Independent Carpathian Brigade and one and a half squadrons of the Polish Air Force in France were operational with a further two and a half in training.


About half the Polish personnel fighting in France were killed, captured or interred but nevertheless some 19,000 were amongst those evacuated to Britain, about ¼ of whom were air crew.

1941 (by which time Germany was at war with the USSR)

Following an agreement between Stalin and the Polish government in exile the Soviets released some Polish citizens, 75,000 of whom formed an army under General Władysław Anders. In 1942 80,000 Polish troops and about 20,000 supporting civilians transferred to Iran, permitting the occupying Soviet army to be released for action. This “Anders Army” would join the British Eighth Army, where it formed the Polish II Corps.


In the West the number of Poles fighting under British command had reached 195,000 by March 1944, and by the end of the year 20,000 served in the Polish Air Force and 3,000 in the Polish Navy. Following the release of prisoners of war and inmates of labour camps the number of Poles in the Polish Armed Forces stood at 228,000.

The Battle of Monte Cassino – four battles, actually – ran from 17 January to 18 May 1944 and ended with members of the 12th Podolian Polish Cavalry Regiment raising the Polish flag over the ruins.


At its peak, the number of Poles fighting alongside their allies in the West was over 250,000, including about 4,000 Polonia and Wojtek, the bear.


It is believed that by the end of the War Polish soldiers fighting in the East and West formed the fourth largest group of soldiers in World War 2.

Harry Tusk

Prince Harry and Polish PM Donald Tusk at Monte Cassino, on the 70th anniversary of the end of the Battle

Battle of Britain

The first two (of an eventual ten in the course of the War) Polish fighter squadrons went into action in August 1940. Despite a late start, 303 Fighter Squadron supplied 5% of the pilots active in the Battle of Britain and were responsible for 12% of the total victories.

Four Polish squadrons specifically took part in the Battle of Britain – 300 and 301 bomber squadrons and 302 and 303 fighter squadrons.

303 squadron

303 badge


The Polish Air Force was kept busy with fighting in Tunisia and raids on Germany. For part of 1941 and 1942 it made up 1/6 of the total forces available to Bomber Command.

On the Water

On the eve of the War three Polish destroyers were sent to the UK, where they fought alongside the Royal Navy. Given British ships (in the absence if sufficient trained British crews), the Polish Navy’s 2 cruisers, 9 destroyers, 5 submarines and 11 torpedo boats went into battle alongside the other Allied navies including the operation against the Bismark, escorted close to 800 convoys, sank 12 enemy ships and shot down 20 aircraft.

ORP Conrad

ORP Conrad (formerly HMS Danae)

In the East

Anders Army, formed in 1941, was a force for the Allies and, in 1943, was transferred to the British Eighth Army in the Middle East where it became the Polish II Corps. The Soviets had never really supported Anders – it was under the control of the Government in Exile in London and independent of the Soviet command. In 1943 the Soviets created a second Government in Exile, the Union of Polish Patriots, and the Polish People’s Army (Ludowe Wojsko Polskie or LWP). The LWP, reaching numbers of 200,000, fought on the Eastern Front, left the Germans to wipe out Polish resistance in the Warsaw Uprising and was present at the Battle of Berlin and Prague Offensive.


Before the War only 68% of the Polish population were ethnic Poles. Thus the invading German forces had a significant number of ethnic Germans to call upon and some 500,000 Polish citizens are believed to have been drafted into the German armed forces. Even before the War, ethnic Poles living in Germany had been subject to the draft.

Many of these people – who had joined the German forces with varying degrees of enthusiasm – subsequently applied to join the Polish units of the Allies.

The Holocaust

Most people linking Poland with the Holocaust will initially make the connection with ghettos, the slave labour camps and the extermination camps set up by the Nazis.


Buna Werke – workplace of most of the slave labour from Auschwitz III-Monowitz

But it is estimated that some tens of thousands of Poles were executed by the Nazi Germans during the War for helping Jews.

At the start of the War there were over three million Jews living in Poland. By the end there were a little over 100,000 left alive. More than 50,000 had been saved by the efforts of the Council for Aid to Jews (Zegota), a body whose funding came from the Polish government in exile.


The rest were saved by the efforts of individuals, families, small groups and even entire communities.


Rudolf Weigl, biologist and inventor of the first effective typhus vaccine, worked in Lwów. His vaccines were smuggled into the Lwów and Warsaw Ghettos and he harboured Jews and personally risked the death penalty to do so.

The State of Israel awards the status of Righteous Among the Nations to non-Jews who saved Jews from extermination during the Holocaust. Over 25% of the people granted the status to date have been Poles.


Just five weeks before the outbreak of World War 2 the results of six and a half years’ work by three Polish mathematician-cryptologists were handed over to France and Britain – techniques and devices to facilitate decryption of messages produced using Enigma machines.

Intelligence vital to locating and destroying the German rocket facility at Peenemunde and gathering information and evidence of the V-1 and V-2 rockets were down to the Polish Home Army (Armia Krakowa, or AK). Parts of a V-2 which crashed on 30 May 1944 recovered by the AK were flown to Britain along with drawings of larger parts, too big to fit the RAF plane sent to collect them.


In July 1941 Agency Africa was set up to gather information used in planning the amphibious landings of Operation Torch in North Africa, paving the way for the Italian campaign.

During the War Polish Intelligence operated in every European country, including one of the biggest networks in Germany and many Poles served in the intelligence services of the Allies including Britain’s Special Operations Executive. 43% of the reports from continental Europe received by the British between 1939 and 1945 came from Polish sources; until 1942 most of Britain’s intelligence from Germany came from AK sources and the AK remained the main source of intelligence from Central and Eastern Europe until the end of the War. As early as 1940, Polish agents had entered concentration camps, including Auschwitz, and told the world about Nazi atrocities.

Educating the future leaders of Poland

You’ll remember that Poland was occupied, in the main, by two forces – Germany and Russia – and that the German part was divided between those areas absorbed into Germany (and re-populated by ethnic Germans) and the remainder called the General Government and intended to serve as a source of semi-literate slave labour for the new Germany (once resettlement had taken place and the undesirables had been exterminated). In the context of removing potential future leaders, of course, the Soviets had played their part in the events of Katyn and in shipping millions of Poles to slave labour camps.

Himmler said “For the non-German population of the East there can be no type of school above the four-grade rudimentary school. The job of these schools should be confined to the teaching of counting (no higher than up to 500), the writing of one’s name, and the teaching that God’s commandment means obedience to the Germans, honesty, industry and politeness. Reading I do not consider essential”.

In consequence, the only schools remaining open were those teaching skills for trades and factory workers. Just two years after the invasions of Poland even the number of children attending primary school in the General Government had fallen by 50%.

What happened next was quite remarkable – teachers, professors and education professionals organised primary, secondary and tertiary education, with estimates of 1,500,000 children in underground primary education by 1942, with a further 100,000 in secondary education and 10,000 taking university level courses.

At university level, courses would be offered in law and social sciences, humanities, medicine, surgery, theology, mathematics and biology. Underground universities operated out of Lwów, Warsaw, Wilno (now Vilnius, but then the fifth largest Polish city), and Kraków, with branches in many other cities. In one university, Warsaw, there were 300 lecturers and 3,500 students by 1944.


Poland’s children and young people progressed from underground primary schools to underground secondary and technical schools and then to underground universities. In all, close to 10,000 students received master’s degrees and several hundred others received doctorates from the underground universities. Among those who studied at the underground seminary in Krakow was Karol Józef Wojtyła – the future Pope Saint John Paul II.

Rising up

We’ve written more about it in About Warsaw, but we must write again about the Warsaw Uprising.

You know about Katyn, the shorthand for the notorious 1940 execution by the Soviets of the potential leaders of a free post-War Poland. In 1944, as Soviet forces advanced on German held Warsaw the Soviets broadcast messages to the citizens of Warsaw, promising support if the city would rise against the occupiers.


On 1 August 1944, with Soviet forces just across the river, Warsaw rose up – the Home Army and the civilian population began what was supposed to be a 48-hour operation.


63 Days later, with more than 250,000 dead, the city surrendered. The German victors ordered the population expelled, the contents of the museums taken to Germany or burned and the city razed to the ground.


The Soviet Army did nothing.


Under the overall control of the Polish Government-in-Exile, London, and in practice the military arm of the Polish Underground State, what is usually called the Home Army (or Armia Krajowa) was formed in early 1942 in part from the merger of elements formed earlier in the war. By 1944 it absorbed most of the other underground forces and by 1944 the Home Army and its allies numbered up to 650,000 men and women.


A primary focus for the Home Army was the Eastern Front – sabotage of German rail and road transport is thought to have destroyed or significantly delayed about 12.5% of all German transports heading for the Front. Total German casualties from Home Army actions are estimated at up to 150,000 – and the number of Germans tied down by the Home Army is estimated at up to 930,000!


Because of its allegiance to the Polish GIE in London and hence to the West, the Soviets provoked the formation of a communist-led alternative. The main communist force was the (Polish) People’s Army (Armia Ludowa), created in 1944 with the aims of supporting the Soviet military and aiding in the creation of a pro-Soviet communist post-war government.

Large number of Home Army members took place in the Warsaw Uprising – joined by about 500 members of the People’s Army.


Because of its allegiance to the Polish GIE in London and hence to the West, the Soviets provoked the formation of a communist-led alternative. The main communist force was the (Polish) People’s Army (Armia Ludowa), created in 1944 with the aims of supporting the Soviet military and aiding in the creation of a pro-Soviet communist post-war government.


Large number of Home Army members took place in the Warsaw Uprising – joined by about 500 members of the People’s Army.


I found this table of sabotage operations carried out by the Home Army and its predecessors:


Attacks on Germans 5,733
Locomotives damaged 6,930
Locomotives delayed in overhaul 803
Derailed transports 732
Railroad cars damaged 19,058
Transports set afire 443
Disruption of electric power in Warsaw 638
Military vehicles damaged or destroyed 4,326
Railroad bridges blown up 38
Aircraft damaged 28
Gas storage tanks destroyed 1,167
Gas tanks in tons of gas destroyed 4,4674
Oil shafts incapacitated 3
Carloads of wood wool burnt 150
Military warehouses burnt 122
Military food storage houses burnt 8
Production in factories brought to a standstill 7
Defective parts for aircraft engines produced 4,710
Defective cannon barrels produced 203
Defective artillery shell produced 90,000
Defective aircraft radios produced 107
Defective capacitors for electronic industry 570,000
Defective lathes produced 1,700
Important plan machinery damaged 2,872
Various acts of sabotage 25,154


Visiting the Krakow Museum of the Home Army

The museum is situated at 12 Wita Stwosza street, a ten minutes walk northeast of the Old Town central historic district of Krakow, opposite Galeria Krakowska shopping mall across the railroad tracks and near both the city’s main train station and bus depot. It occupies a converted 1911 Austrian barracks of the Krakow Fortress and a vast bunker of the command center under it. GPS coordinates 50 4’ 15’’ N, 19 56’ 58’’ E.

h a museum


The Home Army Museum in Krakow is closed on Mondays. Otherwise between September 1st and June 30th it’s open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. In summer, between July 1st and August 31st the museum is open from noon to 7 p.m. on Sundays and from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.

A single ticket is 13 PLN. An English guided tour costs 100 PLN.

Contact the General Nil Fieldorf Home Army Museum

Postal address: Muzeum Armii Krajowej im. Generala Emila Fieldorfa – Nila, ul. Wita Stwosza 12, 31-511 Krakow, Poland.

Phone , fax (+48) 124100760.

Email e-mail: biuro@muzeum-ak.pl




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s