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    Why They Couldn’t Go Home. The Uncertain Future of the Soldiers of the Polish 2nd Corps

    The Yalta Agreement of February 1945 effectively ended the hope for an independent Poland following World War Two and doomed thousands of men and women of the Polish Armed Forces to lifelong exile, even though many of these people had been fighting alongside the Allies for almost six years. Under the Yalta Agreement the Provisional Government of the Republic of Poland (Lublin Government) which had been installed by the Soviet Union was recognized. The Polish eastern border was to follow the Curzon line, which meant that large areas that formed part of Poland in 1939 had been taken away, including the cities of Lwów and Wilno.  This was of particular consequence to many of the men and women serving with the Polish 2nd Corps, since the majority serving in this corps came from these areas. They literally could not go home again. Home was no longer part of Poland. Poland was to receive traditional territories in the west from Germany as compensation. Poles from the east were to be resettled in the west in lands formerly occupied by Germans. Germans were to be moved out of these lands and resettled in smaller Germany. In both cases this meant a huge displacement of peoples. For Poles this now meant that they would be living in a Poland which was a satellite state of the Soviet Union.  

    Simply put Poland and its Armed Forces, including the Polish 2nd Corps, were betrayed by the leaders of Great Britain and the United States and the future of Poland was left under the control of the Soviet Union. Most of the soldiers of the 2nd Corps would resettle in Great Britain and several of the Commonwealth countries, including Canada and Australia, and some would find themselves scattered across the globe. Poland would not regain its independence until 1989  and by then most of the Veterans of the former Polish Armed Forces had adapted to their new lives in their adopted countries. By 1989 many of the Veterans were dead and buried in their adopted countries, while the memory of their exploits was kept alive by their children and grandchildren.   

    On May 7, 1945, Germany officially surrendered to the Allies, bringing an end to the European conflict in World War II. In July 1945, based on the Yalta and Potsdam Agreements, the Allies withdrew their support and recognition for the legitimate Polish Government in Exile in London. The Provisional Government of National Unity/ Tymczasowy Rząd Jedności Narodowej was recognized and instructed to hold open and democratic elections – these elections were never to take place. The United States and Great Britain established formal relationships with this government and recognized the newly determined borders of Poland.

    On May 23, 1946 the decision to demobilize the Polish Armed Forces in the West was made public. At that time there were approximately 600,000 Poles left stranded in the west including those of the Polish Armed Forces, the Polish civilians who travelled with General Anders Army, children from camps in India and Africa, political and cultural refugees, Poles from German forced labour camps, Poles from German prisoners of war camps, including those who surrendered after the Warsaw Uprising, and those from concentration camps.

    No more volunteers were to be accepted into the Polish forces, including the Polish 2nd Corps in Italy. At this time with the addition of men and women freed from German camps, and from other sources such as the units interned in Switzerland the total number in the Polish 2nd Corps was over 120,000 including 10,000 women.

    A Polish communist Military Mission came to Italy to encourage Polish soldiers to return to Poland. The proposal put forth by the Provisional Government of National Unity urging Polish soldiers to return to Poland began with the identification of categories for which these Polish soldiers could be criminally charged should they return to Poland. The soldiers were also encouraged to return so that they could take part in the promised free elections that were to take place. Those who decided not to return ran the risk of losing their Polish citizenship, which meant they might never be able to return. The British Government under Prime Minister Atlee was doing everything possible to encourage as many Poles to return to Poland as possible. However, the Provisional Government of National Unity stated that they do not recognize the Polish Armies in the West as part of the Polish Armed Forces and that each soldier would have to apply to return as an individual. It was clear that the new Polish government would not welcome back the soldiers of the Polish 2nd Corps as heroes, rather in many ways they would be seen as traitors and anti-communist and would be treated as second class citizens. It is not surprising that the soldiers of the 2nd Corps were not willing to return under such conditions.  

    The Poles of the 2nd Corps who wanted to return to Poland were told to congregate at a camp in Cervinara, near Naples. From a total of 112,000 soldiers, a handful of officers and approximately 14,000 regulars opted to return to Poland. Although the reasons some chose to return were many and varied a large percentage consisted of Pomeranian and Silesian ex-POWS who had originally been forcibly conscripted into the Wehrmacht.

    The British War Office set up the Polish Resettlement Corps (PRC) in March 1946 for the more than 100,000 Polish troops under British command. It was established by the new Labour government under Clement Attlee and was intended to offer direct support to the Polish soldiers and their families. They could consider entering civilian life in Britain, being repatriated to communist Poland, or emigrating elsewhere. Enrollment for a maximum of two years was voluntary and as such they would remain part of the British military. There were 260 PRC camps spread out over England, southern Scotland and the coast of Wales. It was designed to ease their transition from military into civilian life and to keep them under military control until they were fully adjusted to British life.  For Polish soldiers the PRC was a necessary evil but it also underlined the sad fact that they were no longer part of the Polish Armed Forces. 

    At the same time, it was decided to move the Polish 2nd Corps from Italy to Great Britain for demobilization. They were to join the PRC. The British Government also asked the governments of Commonwealth Dominions if they would accept a certain number of Poles. Once the Polish soldiers joined the PRC they were no longer part of a Polish Army and the hope of fighting for an independent Poland died. The order for demobilization was given on May 29, 1946.

    On July 9, 1947 the Polish Armed Forces in the West, including the 2nd Corps, were officially dissolved and General Wladyslaw Anders transferred responsibility for the protection of the Polish Military Standards to The Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum in London, England. As of that date the Polish Armed Forces in the West had ceased to exist and the men and women in those forces found themselves with a very uncertain future.  Most of the members of the Polish 2nd Corps realized that they would not be returning to an independent Poland and that their wandering would continue.

    The Poles of the Polish Armed Forces in the West felt betrayed by their wartime allies. There was considerable anger and a general feeling of despair. A number of Polish soldiers committed suicide. Many of the Poles in the armed forces knew they could not return to Poland. There were a great many good reasons not to return including:

    • A communist government had been installed in Poland. Most of the people in the Polish Armed Forces were staunchly anti-communist.
    • The communist government was a puppet of the Soviet Union. The Poles had many reasons not to trust the Soviet Union. The majority of those who served with the 2nd Corps had first in the period of 1939-1941 endured arrest by the Soviets and then exile in Siberia before being able to join the 2nd Corps. Many family members had died due to the harsh treatment.
    • The Soviet Union had ordered the execution of more than 22,000 Polish officers in 1940 in what is collectively known as the Katyn Massacre.
    • The Yalta Agreement had taken away the homes of thousands of Polish soldiers when these lands were transferred to Ukrainian, Belarussian and Lithuanian Soviet Republics. They had no homes to return to.
    • The Soviets had taken over many farms in the eastern part of Poland and redistributed these farm lands to local peasants and collectives. The owners of these farms had nothing to return to and many would face arrest if they did return.
    • The Trial of the Sixteen and other executions of pro-Western Poles, particularly the former members of the AK (Armia Krajowa/ Home Army) had taken place
    • After year 1944, in communist Poland thousands of Armia Krajowa soldiers were arrested and murdered by secret Polish communist police, while many more  thousand  in the eastern part of prewar Poland were arrested by Soviet NKVD, sentenced and sent to Soviet gulags for the next several years till the end of the 1950’s for their service for an independent Poland and for fighting against the  Germans during WWII.

    Because the majority of the members of the Polish Armed Forces in the West refused to return to Poland, Britain created the Polish Resettlement Act 1947, Britain’s first mass immigration law.

    Realizing that the Polish Government in Exile in London now had limited authority and very limited ability to act, these Poles understood that they were going to have rely on their own resources. These people faced a very difficult situation. They had fought for almost six years on many fronts only to discover that their country was not free and that they would not be able to go home again. Many questioned what exactly they had fought for and why all the sacrifices. The Polish soldiers asked themselves: “Why did so many of their comrades die in vain?” While most allied soldiers could not wait to go home, Polish soldiers faced a very uncertain future, in foreign lands and far away from home.

    In order to give themselves some direct control over their futures, Polish soldiers, as early as 1946, began to form associations of Polish combatants. 

    Wherever there were groups of Polish soldiers units of the Polish Combatant’s Association (Stowarzyszenie Polskich Kombatantów – SPK) sprung up. A meeting of all these separate units was called in August 1947 in London, England for the purpose of uniting these groups into one large organization. The purpose of this organization in the immediate future was to assist Polish veterans in resettlement into every continent on the planet and in the longer term to maintain and realize in every Polish immigrant community and in every country the idea of an independent and free Poland. For many of these soldiers the war was not over. The struggle for an independent Poland continued.  

    By 1948 approximately half of the former soldiers of Polish Armed Forces in the West decided to stay in Britain and half emigrated with significant numbers going to Australia, Canada, South America including Argentina, Brazil and Chile, South Africa and the United States. Wherever they went the soldiers of the Polish 2nd Corps formed branches of the Polish Combatants’ Association, joined other para-military, built Polish halls, became involved in the Polish scouting movement and supported Polish schools. The goal of an  independent Poland was spread by them throughout  their new homelands, with their continuing support to the colleagues, which came back to their families in postwar Poland. The spirit of Polishness engendered by the values of the 2nd Corps was maintained by the veterans until they departed for their final report.

    Author: Stan Skrzeszewski, Canada

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