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    The World War II years: Historical Underpinning


    1. The German and the Soviet Attacks and Poland’s Territorial Losses in September 1939

    On September 1, 1939, the German Army invaded Poland, crossing its western, northern, and southern boundaries. Seventeen days later, the Soviet Union’s Red Army invaded Poland in a massive military attack crossing its eastern border. On September 28, 1939, Warsaw capitulated. That day, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov discussed the German-Soviet Boundary and Friendship Treaty to take effect immediately. Belligerent Germany and the Soviet Union divided Poland’s territory and defined their state borders along the Curzon Line.

    2. Poland’s Human Losses Suffered in the Military Assault of 1939

    According to the 1995 estimations, during the 1939 Polish Military Campaign, between 95,000 and 97,000 Polish soldiers were killed by the German and the Soviet Armies (Gałęzowski).  The German military offensive on Poland resulted not only in the death of tens of thousands but also in the capture of 587,300 Polish troops; 420,000 were sent to POW camps in Germany, where 10,000 died (Gałęzowski).  During the Soviet invasion, the Red Army detained 452,500 Polish POWs and sent 200,000 to forced labour camps in Siberia or other remote locations near the Arctic Circle. These POWs were subjected to forced labour in forestry and gold and other precious metals mining, working in extremely harsh weather environments and living in inadequate housing to shelter them from the elements.

    3. Declaration of the Authority of the Soviet Union over the Eastern Territories of Poland followed by Arrests, and Massive Deportations of the Polish Population

    Soon after the annexation of the eastern territory of Poland, the USSR government announced that all Poles living there had become Soviet citizens (Anders 135).  Before the invasion, the Soviet authorities had prepared lists of Poles who were to be imprisoned after the annexation (Anders 67).  The people involved in Poland’s political, economic, social, and community life and those unsympathetic to the Soviet Union were rounded up for deportation. The Soviets executed the leading anti-communist members of the so-called “capitalistic groups” (Welles).  Furthermore, the Soviets forcefully enlisted thousands of young Polish men of military age into the Red Army. Those who refused military service or to take on Soviet citizenship were imprisoned and sent to heavy labour camps. Also, the massive deportations of the Poles living in the eastern territory of Poland took place. General Władysław Anders stated that up to one and a half million Poles had been deported to Russia starting at the beginning of the war. Anders estimated that when the newly formed Polish Army of under 115,000 was evacuated from Russia to the Middle East by September 1942, half of those deportees had already died from exhaustion, malnutrition or starvation, and illnesses. Despite efforts to evacuate as many Poles as possible, “hundreds of thousands” were left behind, and Anders believed these “ragged and starved slaves” were still working there at that time (Anders 116).

    In several attempts to calculate the number of Poles deported starting in 1939, sources once estimated a total as high as a million. However, after the archives opened in Russia and more recent (2009) research, the numbers were revised, stating that at least 320,000 were deported from the Eastern territory of Poland (Szarota and Materski).

    The first systemic deportation on February 10, 1940, involved no less than 140,000 ethnic Poles (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej).

    Entire families were forcefully deported and resettled to remote locations in USSR. This group comprised families of military settlers, middle and lower civil servants, forest-service workers and railroad employees.

    The second wave of forced deportations by the Soviet government, involving at least 61,000 people exiled to remote locations in the USSR, took place on April 13, 1940. In this phase of deportation, the families of individuals previously arrested by the Soviets were deported, including the families of Polish soldiers and citizens murdered at that time in the Katyń Massacre (Aneta Hoffmann).

    The third massive deportation occurred in June 1940 and involved at least 79,000  Polish citizens. It is also important to note that even though in lesser numbers, people of different nationalities were deported, especially many Polish Jews who fled to the eastern territories of the Second Polish Republic from central and western Poland (Aneta Hoffmann). The fourth significant wave of deportation involving at least 40,000 Poles was conducted in June 1941.

    4. The 1941 German Attack on the USSR and the Formation of the Polish Armed Forces in the USSR

    In June 1941, Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union, prompting Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union, to make efforts to restore relations with the Polish government-in-exile, leading to the signing of the Sikorski-Mayski Agreement in London in July 1941. Two weeks later, Stalin declared an amnesty, freeing hundreds of thousands of Polish soldiers and citizens captured by the Soviets. Also, the Soviet Union consented to create the Polish armed forces on the territory of the USSR. On August 4, 1941, Władysław Anders, still in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison, was informed that he had been appointed by the Polish authority with the consent of the Soviet Government to be Commander of the new Polish army. Polish soldiers were to be subject to Polish law and military regulations, proving the self-governance of Poland.

    When the Poles heard the news that a new Polish army was being formed to fight the Germans, thousands of them rushed to join, travelling by any means of transportation to the depot at Buzuluk. The Polish prisoners released from the Soviet detention camps were severely emaciated, suffered from illnesses, and had little clothing when reporting to the recruitment camps. Despite that, they were willing to fight for the freedom of their homeland. Most of them had been civilians or low-ranking soldiers. Despite significant efforts, including inquiries with Stalin, the Polish representatives in the Soviet Union could not locate many high-ranking Polish officers captured during the Soviet invasion (Anders 85).

    5. Transfer of the Anders’ Army to the Middle East

    In December 1941, the Anders Army was stationed near Kuybyshev and Buzuluk (Anders 83-91). The challenges of harsh winter conditions caused many to freeze to death. Many Polish soldiers were in poor health. The lack of supplies in the Polish Army camps prompted General Anders to propose transferring the army and refugees to the Middle East. There, the army was to get the assistance of food promised by the British government. After recuperating and undergoing training using Anglo-American supplies, the army was to be transferred back to Russia. Winston Churchill had agreed with such a plan. In light of the suffering of the recruits joining the Polish army in the USSR, Polish Commander-in-Chief Władysław Sikorski presented the details of the proposal to Joseph Stalin during a meeting on December 2, 1941, seeking his approval (Anders 83-91).

    General Anders recalled Polish Commander-in-Chief Władysław Sikorski saying, “I propose that the whole army and all men fit for service be moved, for example, to Persia, where the climate and the promised British assistance will make it possible for the men to recover in a comparatively short time. A strong army could be formed, which could then return to Russia to take up the Russian front” (Anders 86-87).  Furthermore, Commander-in-Chief General Sikorski affirmed to Stalin, “For my part, I wish to declare that the army would return to the Russian front and that it might even be reinforced by some British divisions,” General Anders recalled him saying.

    General Sikorski’s proposal to Stalin reflected an earlier correspondence between the Special Representative of the President of the United States and the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union (Hull).

    The declaration of December 4, 1941, concluded the meeting with a statement ‘“German Hitlerite Imperialism” was the worst enemy of humanity […and] that each country would give the other full military support and that the Polish armed forces in Soviet territory would fight side by side with the Soviet Army” (Anders 90).  Although Stalin promised to improve the food rations for the Polish army, the difficulties of obtaining them grew (Anders 92-94).  The worsening weather brought more deaths and suffering (Anders 94-95).  Eventually, at the beginning of 1942, the Soviet authorities decided to allow for the transfer of the Polish troops to the south near Tashkent, marking the start of a long journey to the Middle East and Italy (Anders 94). The challenges the Polish army experienced did not stop, as even the NKVD (The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, USSR) kidnapped the recruits from the camp and whole convoys of those wanting to join the Polish army were left in the steppes to die without food (Anders 95).

    Mr Władysław Niewiński, who assisted in the humanitarian mission transporting civilian and military people from the USSR to the Middle East, stated that the last transport of mostly Poles that landed in Pahlavi took place on September 1, 1942 (Jaworska 158).

    6. The Breaking of Polish-Soviet Relationship over the Katyń Discovery

    Katyń near Smoleńsk, occupied by the Germans from October 1941 until March 1943, held a gruesome discovery. The Germans claimed they had found mass graves of thousands of murdered Polish POW officers taken captive in 1939. Military uniforms, documents and memoirs found next to the bodies indicated that these officers were killed while these areas were under Soviet occupation, dating before the German invasion of the USSR on June 22, 1941. The Polish government-in-exile appealed for a Red Cross investigation as the Germans claimed that the Soviets had killed these officers. With the rapidly approaching possibility of an investigation by the Polish government-in-exile, Joseph Stalin broke off relations with Poland in April 1943.

    Stalin’s move complicated the situation of Poland and thousands of Polish citizens who were still imprisoned in the USSR or were under the jurisdiction of the Soviet Union’s government.

    7. The Anders Army Involvement in the Monte Cassino Battle

    In December 1943, the II Polish Army Corps joined the British 8th Army as part of the Italian Campaign. The 1st Canadian Division and the 5th Division of the 1st Canadian Corps also participated. At the beginning of 1944, the German troops secured their heavily fortified position at the Monte Cassino Monastery, standing on a 700-meter rocky hill overlooking the Liri and Rapido rivers’ valleys entrances. The Nazis hid in bunkers and military structures, preventing the Allied troops from accessing the road to Rome. The January – February 1944 attacks of the American and British troops on Cassino Hill brought heavy losses to the Allied troops. The subsequent February March attack by the American Fifth and the New Zealand Armies was also unsuccessful when these troops tried to take the abbey from the Germans.  Starting March 3, 1944, the Polish troops fought side-by-side with the British, American and French soldiers, attacking the Germans fortified in the monastery. The II Polish Army Corps was also assigned to maintain the communication between the Eighth and the Fifth Armies on the front line. The attack of the Allies and the Anders Army on May 11 brought heavy losses and caused the Polish troops to retreat. The Anders Army and the Allies attacked again on May 17, 1944, and the following morning, a Polish flag was hoisted above the monastery’s ruins. General Anders reported that “the losses totalled – in killed, wounded, and missing – 281 officersand 3,503  other ranks” (Anders, 181). The Allies suffered 55,000 casualties, and the battle became known as the longest and bloodiest battle in the Italian Campaign.

    8. The Impact of the Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam Conferences on the Anders Army

    At the 1943 Tehran conference, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin set the postwar Polish-Soviet border on the Curzon line (Office of the Historian), thus, disregarding the boundary established before the 1939 German and Russian invasions. No representative of the Polish government-in-exile was present at this conference. The Anders’ troops saw this as unjustly giving Poland’s eastern territory, where they were born, to the Soviet Union. At the 1945 Yalta conference, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin called for a Polish Provisional government to be established (The Yalta Conference).  In 1945 at the conference in Potsdam, these three powers de-recognised the Polish government-in-exile in London, directly affecting the Polish troops and putting the Anders Army in a problematic situation. General Anders criticised the foreign powers’ arbitrary decisions on Poland’s borders as undemocratic.

    author: Aldona Jaworska, Canada

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