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The Warsaw Voice » Other » November 5, 2008
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Poles on All Fronts
November 5, 2008   
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The September 1939 defeat did not mean the end of military operations involving Polish soldiers, on Polish territory and other fronts of World War II. Poles fought in almost all corners of the world, playing a major role in many important battles. Numerous partisan units were active in Poland itself from the moment war operations ended in early October 1939 until the end of the war.

One of the most efficient anti-Nazi and anti-fascist partisan organizations in occupied Europe was the Home Army (AK), which comprised the armed forces of the Polish Underground State under the authority of the government-in-exile in London. The Polish Underground State had a central administration, an army (the AK), arms production, a judiciary, underground publications, and a semblance of administration in every county (county government delegates). In 1944 the AK numbered about 380,000 soldiers. AK intelligence delivered significant amounts of high-quality information to British intelligence, including news of Hitler's "miracle weapons"-the V1 and V2 missiles. The Allies received the exact coordinates of where the research was being conducted, allowing them to bomb and destroy the center in Peenemunde on Usedom Island.

The Polish armed forces in the West comprised units evacuated via Romania and Hungary in 1939, volunteers who made it to France or Britain on their own after Poland fell, and soldiers and officers who were taken prisoner by the Soviets after Sept. 17, 1939 and who were allowed to leave the Soviet Union in 1942 under political treaties. These forces took part in campaigns such as the battle of Narvik in Norway; the town was taken on May 28, 1940 by the Independent Podhale Rifle Brigade in a combined effort with the British armed forces.

Aug. 8 to Oct. 30, 1940 saw one of the biggest tests of strength in the first years of the war-the Battle of Britain, the first mass, extended conflict in history fought exclusively in the air. Throughout the battle, two Polish fighter squadrons-302 and 303-fought first as part of the Royal Air Force and then at its side, and there were 81 Polish pilots in British squadrons, giving a total of 144 Polish pilots. This was 5 percent of all the RAF pilots taking part in the battle. The Poles shot down about 170 German planes and damaged 36, accounting for about 12 percent of the Luftwaffe's losses. Twenty-nine Polish pilots were killed. Squadron 303 had the highest tally of any air force unit taking part in the Battle of Britain; it reported shooting down 126 Luftwaffe aircraft.

Also during the Battle of Britain, the Allies took advantage of the experience of Polish specialists in deciphering messages encoded using the Germans' Enigma machine, allowing them to discover many secret Nazi plans.

On Aug. 25, 1941 Australians defending themselves in Tobruk, Libya, were supported by the Polish Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade.

Poles also played a decisive role in the Battle of Monte Cassino, which opened the way for the Allies to march on Rome. In this four-month battle in 1944 around the monastery of Monte Cassino, the main force in the fourth and finally successful attack on the monastery-one of the strongly fortified elements of the Gustav Line-was the 2nd Polish Corps under the command of Gen. Władysław Anders. After storming Nazi defenses twice, the Poles finally placed their white-and-red national flag on the ruins of Monte Cassino on May 19.

The Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade took part in the Battle of Arnhem as part of the unsuccessful Market Garden operation on Sept. 17-26, 1944.

In the east, following a decision by the Soviet authorities and Joseph Stalin himself, the formation of Polish armed forces under the command of the communists began in 1943. The first unit was the Tadeusz Kościuszko 1st Infantry Division, later transformed into an army corps and finally into an army. Fighting at the side of the Red Army, Polish units fought all the way to Berlin, playing a major role in many battles on Polish territory.

Katyn and Auschwitz
One of the most tragic events involving Poles in the early period of World War II was the Katyn crime-the murder of almost 19,000 Polish officers who had been taken prisoner after the Soviet attack on Poland and kept in camps in the Soviet Union, under a March 5, 1940 decision of the highest Soviet authorities. This was almost half of the officer corps of Poland's prewar armed forces. The memo ordering the Poles to be executed (the document was made public in the 1990s) bore the signatures of Stalin and several of his closest aides. The murders were committed in the spring of 1940 by special units of the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD). Polish officers held in three POW camps-Kozelsk, Starobelsk and Ostashkov-were murdered. The victims, who had their hands tied with rope or barbed wire, were killed with a shot to the back of the head. They were secretly buried in three mass graves-in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk, in the town of Mednoye near Tver, and in Pyatikhatki in the suburbs of Kharkov. The graves in Katyn were discovered in 1943 when the area was taken over by the Nazi army. The Soviet Union vehemently denied any part in this crime, blaming it on the Germans; throughout the communist era in Poland the Katyn issue was taboo, and the truth was not officially revealed until the political watershed of 1989. The legal dispute between descendants of the Katyn victims and Russia continues to this day, with Russia refusing to class the murders as genocide as that would mean no possibility of applying the statute of limitations, opening the way to compensation for the victims' families.

The Nazis set up a network of concentration camps in occupied Poland, most of them death camps. The largest was the Konzentrationslager Auschwitz and KL Birkenau complex located in the town of Oświęcim and nearby towns in southern Poland 1940-1945. The main camps here were Auschwitz I, mainly a forced labor camp that was also the administration center for the whole complex, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, initially a concentration camp and later a death camp fitted with gas chambers and crematoria, and Auschwitz III-Monowitz, a forced labor camp in the Buna-Werke factory of the German corporation IG Farben.

The great majority-up to 80 percent-of the people sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau were Jews brought there by the Nazis from ghettoes and transition camps all over occupied Europe. After going through a selection process and being separated from their nearest and dearest, the prisoners made their final way from the railway ramp to a room where they had to undress, from where they were herded into the gas chambers and killed within about 20 minutes. Before cremation, the victims' hair was cut off and any gold teeth were pulled out. About 1.1 million people were killed at this complex, including 960,000 Jews.

Uprisings in Warsaw
On April 19, 1943, on the eve of the Jewish festival of Passover, an armed uprising broke out in the Warsaw Ghetto. Near the end of the Nazis' dismantling of the ghetto, Jewish military groups decided on a desperate fight that they knew had no chance of succeeding. Several hundred fighters from the Jewish Military Union (ŻZW) under the command of Paweł Frenkel and Leon Rodal and the Jewish Fighting Organization (ŻOB) under the command of Mordechaj Anielewicz and Marek Edelman began an uprising that lasted until the end of May. This was the first uprising in a Nazi-occupied European city. The ŻOB and ŻZW fighters used the Polish and Jewish flags during the struggle.

The uprising broke out at the call of the Jewish National Committee at a time when the already depopulated ghetto comprised just over 50,000 people, compared with almost 500,000 when its population was its highest. The entire ghetto was burned down during the uprising, and after it ended the Nazis also blew up the Great Synagogue.

The biggest military operation by a resistance movement in Europe was the Warsaw Uprising, which broke out on Aug. 1, 1944 and capitulated on Oct. 3 of the same year. The Polish Home Army, the AK, attacked the German forces occupying the Polish capital. Apart from the AK, units of other military organizations were involved in the fighting, including the nationalist National Armed Forces (NSZ), the leftist People's Army (AL) and volunteers from the Polish First Army which, marching from the Soviet Union with the Red Army, in the meantime had reached the east bank of the Vistula. The military and political objectives of the uprising were to liberate the city and form an independent Polish government. The uprising fell due to the glaring disparity in strength, poor preparation (many of the fighters were unarmed in the uprising's first days, until they managed to seize weapons from the Germans) and the lack of any outside assistance. Stalin did not issue an order for his forces to cross the Vistula because politically the uprising was directed against Moscow; the Allies limited assistance to airdropping supplies. The uprising ended after 63 days. The number of casualties on the Polish side is hard to determine exactly, but is estimated at 180,000-200,000, more than 80 percent of which were civilians. After the uprising most of the population was expelled from the city and special German units methodically destroyed buildings. As a result of this operation and earlier war operations, by the end of the war about 85 percent of Warsaw had been reduced to rubble.

The Yalta Conference
The fate of postwar Poland was decided not on the battlefield but at meetings of the anti-Nazi coalition leaders (the "Big Three"): U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. The pivotal event was the Yalta Conference of Feb. 4-11, 1945, held after the Teheran Conference (November-December 1943) and before the Potsdam Conference (July-August 1945).

The conference resulted in the de facto partitioning of Poland. With the Western Allies' approval, the Soviet Union seized almost half of Poland's prewar territory. However, Poland received "historical compensation" in the form of Western Pomerania, East Prussia and Silesia, which had been part of Germany before the war. It was also decided that Germans would be expelled from these regions.

The superpowers agreed to the formation of the Provisional Government of National Unity headquartered in Warsaw, a body that was obligated to "conduct free, unhampered elections by way of universal suffrage." However, these elections were ultimately totally controlled by the Soviets.

The Beginnings of Communist Poland
A referendum was held in Poland on June 30, 1946, designed as a show of the popularity of the ruling communists and their allies. Citizens were asked three questions: Are you in favor of abolishing the Senate? Do you want the future constitution to preserve an economic system based on agrarian reform and nationalization of core sectors of the national economy, retaining the legal rights of private enterprise? Do you want the preservation of the Polish State's western borders on the Baltic, Oder and Neisse?

To conduct the falsified voting, the Political Bureau of the Polish Workers' Party (PPR, a communist party formed in the Soviet Union and completely subordinate to its Soviet masters) appointed the State Security Commission in March 1946. Its tasks included eliminating the underground independence movement and eliminating-literally-politicians of the opposition Polish People's Party (PSL). The operation was supervised by a team from the Soviet Ministry of State Security (MGB). These functionaries were mainly there to falsify and forge referendum documents. MGB officers rewrote 5,994 reports from regional commissions and forged 40,000 signatures of regional election commission members.

According to the official results announced on July 12, 1946, most Poles voted "3 x YES," just as the communist propaganda wanted. The results were allegedly 68 percent, 77 percent and 91 percent for the three questions respectively. According to analyses by Polish historians carried out after the collapse of the People's Republic of Poland, the real results were 27, 42 and 67 percent. "Winning" the referendum allowed the communists to eliminate the PSL from the power struggle and begin gradually subjugating the entire country which soon appeared on maps under the name People's Republic of Poland.
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