The 2nd Corps, also known as the Anders Army, has always generated considerable interest. Interest in remembering the soldiers of the 2nd Corps will be especially high this year given that it is the 130th anniversary of the birth of their commander – General Władysław Anders, and the 80th anniversary of the evacuation of Polish troops from the USSR. On the occasion of these anniversaries, it is worth recalling the many different and complicated routes that so many Polish citizens took to join the ranks of the Army.
Route One – The Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade
After the tragic September Campaign, Polish soldiers found themselves in various situations – in Soviet or German captivity, interned in Lithuania or Romania, returned to the families etc. Many of those who escaped to Romania, along with volunteers from the General Government area, and who wanted to continue fighting for Poland, got through to France and joined the Polish Armed Forces in the West. Those who were too late to take this route, as a result of the German invasion of France, so that it was no longer possible to reach the West, could still head for the Middle East. It was there at the beginning of 1940 that many Polish volunteers, including descendants of the 19th-century Siberian exiles from Harbin in Asia, gathered to become part of the Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade, which then gained fame in the battles near Tobruk and El-Gazala, alongside British and Australian troops.
Route Two – The Polish Army in the USSR
At the same time (1940–1941), over one million Polish citizens were arrested and deported from the territories of Poland occupied by the Soviets in 1939 during four mass deportations to Siberia and Kazakhstan. The only crime committed by these civilians subjected to this cruel repression was that they were Polish citizens. Babies, children and the elderly were not spared.
While long trains of freight cars were relentlessly pushing deeper into the USSR, Poles who had been fighting in the underground were tortured in prisons, and Polish officers, policemen, judges, prison and border guards were murdered in Katyn, Kharkiv and Miednoje, as well as in the Bykivnia and Piatichatki death marches. Those who were not murdered were sentenced by the Soviet courts to labor camps scattered throughout the USSR from Arkhangelsk to Kolyma.
It was from these Poles – exiles and camp survivors – after the “amnesty” of 1941 was announced under the Sikorski-Majski Pact, that the infantry divisions of the Polish Army in the USSR – Anders’ Army, while still in “the inhuman lands”, were established. Thanks to the great commitment and care of General Władysław Anders (released in August 1941 from the Soviet Lubyanka prison in Moscow), thousands of civilian refugees, mainly women and children, found support and care alongside this new-formed army. The evacuation of the Army and the refugees, carried out in two stages (March-April and August 1942) from the USSR across the Caspian Sea to the Middle East, saved over 100,000 Polish citizens from starvation, disease and exhaustion. All the survivors (soldiers and civilians) remembered this moment for the rest of their lives.
In Tehran, the Polish soldiers and civilians were separated. The soldiers were transported to Iraq and later to Palestine and Egypt, where they underwent extensive military training. It was in the Middle East that Polish soldiers rescued from the USSR joined forces with soldiers of the Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade, who had already experienced combat in Africa.
This is how the 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division was created. When the Anders Army arrived in Iran, no one thought that these recent exiles, lost rovers, would be fighting and winning in the Italian campaign alongside the well-equipped and trained Allied forces in just two years. It was these soldiers who, in the fourth attempt, won the Battle of Monte Cassino and who fought and succeeded at number of other important strategic engagements on the Apennine Peninsula.
Route Three – Compulsory Service in the Wehrmacht
From 1941 to 1943, Poles who lived in the Polish lands of Pomerania, Greater Poland and Silesia (which after September 1939 had been forcibly incorporated by the Germans into the Third Reich) were required by the German occupation authorities to serve in the Wehrmacht. It was these Poles, forced into the Wehrmacht, who provided significant reinforcements to the Polish 2nd Corps fighting in Italy. They had no choice about serving in the Wehrmacht because if they didn’t their families could be sent to a concentration camp – either to Stutthof or Auschwitz, depending on where they lived. After the Allied landing in Normandy, they did their best to desert or to be captured by the British. Once free from the Wehrmacht, 95% of them decided to join the Polish Armed Forces in the West, including the 2nd Corps. General Anders set one condition which was that for their own safety, they would take on assumed names – so that if they were captured by the Germans, it would protect them from inevitable death by execution for desertion. It was these soldiers who reinforced the 2nd Corps after the battles for Monte Cassino and Ancona, and they played a major role in the victory in April 1945 during the clashes for the liberation of Bologna.
Route Four – Through the Home Army, German Concentration Camps, POW and Labor Camps
The last wave of wanderers who reached the 2nd Corps came from the POW, concentration and labor camps that existed during the war in the Third Reich. These camps had been liberated by the Americans in May 1945. Travelling through Austria, soldiers of the Home Army, former Warsaw insurgents and soldiers taken prisoner after the September 1939 campaign, made it to Italy.
Even though World War II was over, they joined the ranks of the Polish 2nd Corps, hoping that they would take part in the liberation of Poland from yet another occupation – this time yet again by the Soviets. Unfortunately, in July 1945, the Allies recognized the new communist government in Poland installed by Stalin as legitimate and the 2nd Corps was forced to transfer to and demobilize in Great Britain.
Most of the soldiers in the 2nd Corps came from the eastern part of pre-war Poland. They fought “until the last drop of blood”, even though they knew about the Yalta decisions and that their lands in Poland would be taken and given to the USSR. After the war along with all of the ranks in the 2nd Corps, they faced a difficult decision – to stay in the West or risk returning to the country occupied by the Soviets and ruled by the subservient Polish communists. Relatively few returned to Poland and it was mainly those who had left their families in Poland.
Known derogatorily as “Andersowcy“, they had difficulty finding good jobs, continuing their education, etc. The last of them are now living amongst us.
Earlier, as it was in the West, they were in close-knit communities doing their best to continue the traditions of their military units. After the fall of communism, they handed over these traditions to formations in the Polish Army, schools, scout troops, and to students at different levels. Young people listen willingly, because the lots of the soldiers of the 2nd Corps are extremely interesting and informative.
Most of General Anders’ soldiers remained in the West – mainly in Great Britain, the United States, Canada and Australia. Together with their General, they worked hard to preserve the traditions of the 2nd Corps, including establishing the Polish Combatants Association, but also in adapting to work in civilian society, to gain an education for themselves and for future generations (Polish Language Schools).
The civilians evacuated with the Anders Army from the USSR to Iran ended up going via Tehran and Ahwaz to Karachi in India, then on to settlements for Polish refugees in East Africa, South Africa, India (Balachadi, Valivade), Mexico (Santa Rosa) or New Zealand (the community for Polish orphans in Pahiatua). The Polish authorities, in cooperation with the British administration, were responsible for the evacuation of troops and civilians, the largest in the history of World War II, and then for creating for Poles in a distant foreign country, far from hostilities, a substitute for free Poland – with Polish schools, scouts, and clergy.
It should also be remembered that in wanting to save as many Polish citizens as possible from the “inhuman land”, General Anders ordered the formation of units of cadets (Junaks) and younger volunteers in order to be able to accept under-age candidates as soldiers into the army, as well as the Auxiliary Women’s Service (Pestki), in order to save many Polish women. The Junak schools developed and operated until 1947 in the Middle East, while women actively supported Polish soldiers in the fighting in Italy – mainly in transport companies, sanitary and administrative services, as well as in communications.
The fate of the civilians evacuated from the USSR with the Polish Army was similar to the fate of the soldiers of the 2nd Corps. Many of them also remained in the West, creating large Polish communities in the United States (children from the Santa Rosa colony in Mexico), Canada, South Africa (Polish orphans from the Oudtshoorn community), Australia or New Zealand (former children from Pahiatua and their descendants).
As we have seen, the Polish 2nd Corps consisted of groups of Polish citizens who suffered different fates and who followed different paths to get there.
Together, they created a unique formation of Polish soldiers within the British 8th Army, which being far from their homeland fought for freedom from German and Soviet oppression for all of Europe. Unfortunately, as a result of the decision by the Big Three, it was not given to them to reach and liberate Poland, which in 1945 was surrendered to the Soviet sphere of influence for a further 55 years. Nonetheless, the memory of this unique Army will live on and will not be forgotten. An exceptional military formation, because it consisted of exceptional people.
Let’s remember their different routes to the 2nd Corps, read about their lives and learn from them. It is well worth it.
author: Aneta Hoffmann