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The Warsaw Voice » Other » September 2, 2009
Marking 70 years since WWII broke out
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The Struggle Continues
September 2, 2009 By W.Ż.    
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Following the failure of the September campaign, many Polish combatants joined the underground resistance in Poland, formed partisan units or swelled the ranks of other Allied armies to fought
on virtually every front throughout World War II.


The Katyn massacre of 1940 was the greatest tragedy to befall Poland during the early days of the war. Some 19,000 Polish officers held in POW camps in the Soviet Union in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Poland were murdered en masse. The decision to carry out the killings, taken March 5, 1940, was made at the highest level of Soviet authority. The execution order, which first came to light in the 1990s, bears the signatures of Joseph Stalin and his closest aides. The murders were carried out in the spring of 1940. The victims, whose hands were tied with rope or barbed wire, were shot in the back of the head. They were secretly buried in mass graves in Katyn forest near Smolensk, in the village of Mednoye near Tver, and in Pyatykhatky forest on the outskirts of Kharkiv. The entire operation was carried out by the NKVD, the Stalin-era Soviet secret police.

The loss of more than half the country's pre-war officer corps in the Katyn massacre, together with the fact that many of the rest were being held in German POW camps did not, however, prevent the formation of an effective resistance movement. The Home Army (AK), the armed forces of the Polish Underground State loyal to the Polish government in exile, was one of the most efficiently organized anti-Nazi partisan armies in occupied Europe.

The Underground State had a centralized administration, an army, an armaments production system, a justice system (whose functions included meting out the death penalty to collaborators and traitors), a rich cultural life, an underground publishing industry and its own administration in every district of the country. A lot of vital information, including details about Hitler's V1 and V2 rockets, was obtained by Home Army intelligence and passed on to their British allies. The British, armed with precise geographic coordinates, bombed the German research facilities in Peenemünde on the Baltic island of Usedom, bringing rocket research and production to a screeching halt.

The Home Army numbered around 380,000 soldiers in 1944. The Warsaw Uprising was at once the greatest armed resistance campaign in Europe and the bloodiest battle the Home Army fought in. The uprising broke out Aug. 1 and raged until the insurgents surrendered Oct. 3.

The military and political objectives of the uprising were to liberate the capital and set up an independent Polish government. The insurgents failed because they were up against overwhelmingly superior forces, lacked outside support and were poorly prepared. Many of the insurgents went into action unarmed, aiming to wrest whatever weaponry they could from the Germans.

Joseph Stalin declined to order his forces, camped a few hundred meters to the east across the Vistula, to assist because the political objectives of the uprising ran counter to those of Moscow. The western Allies did not provide any major assistance, instead limiting themselves to air dropping supplies.

The uprising lasted 63 days. Polish casualties are hard to gauge but were in the order of 180,000-200,000. More than 80 percent were civilians. After the uprising, most of the population of Warsaw was expelled while special German units moved in to systematically destroy the city. This, in addition to all the prior wartime damage the city had sustained, reduced around 85 percent of Warsaw to rubble by the end of the war.

The wisdom of launching the uprising is still disputed. Some historians take the view that the Underground State and its military commanders made a catastrophic decision that condemned tens of thousands of the best soldiers in the resistance, along with hundreds of thousands of civilians, to certain death in a military operation that had no chance of success.

Nobody, however, questions the value of Polish participation in campaigns on other fronts. The Polish armed forces in the West were made up of units evacuated via Hungary and Romania in September 1939, volunteers who made their way to France or Britain after the fall of Poland, and soldiers and officers taken prisoner by the Soviets after the Red Army invaded Poland on Sept. 17, 1939 and released in 1942 following a political accord. The Polish Independent Highland Brigade, took the Norwegian town of Narvik May 28, 1940, in a joint operation with the British army.

The Battle of Britain, which lasted from Aug. 8 until Oct. 30, 1940, was a major trial of strength in the early years of the war as well as being the first sustained, large-scale operation to be fought entirely in the air. The No. 302 and No. 303 Polish Fighter Squadrons took part, as did the 81 Polish pilots who flew in British squadrons, making a total of 144 Polish pilots, or five percent of the Royal Air Force pilots who fought in the battle. Polish pilots shot down some 170 German planes and damaged another 36 in what amounted to around 12 percent of Luftwaffe losses. Twenty-nine Polish pilots were killed. No. 303 Polish Fighter Squadron had 126 confirmed kills, making it the most effective in the Battle of Britain.

Allied efforts were also helped by the work of Polish codebreakers who succeeded in deciphering the cryptograms of the German Enigma encoding machine (pictured above). This is now seen as a breakthrough that helped win the war, as many of Germany's military secrets could be uncovered.

The Polish Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade arrived in Tobruk, Libya, Aug. 25, 1941 to reinforce and relieve the Australian forces defending the city.

Polish forces also played a decisive role helping the Allies seize Rome at the Battle of Monte Cassino, a series of four battles fought around the Abbey of Monte Cassino, 130 km south of Rome, Jan. 17 to May 18, 1944. The Second Polish Corps, under the command of Lt. Gen. Władysław Anders, were the main force in the fourth and final assault on the abbey, one of the heavily fortified components of the Gustav Line. After two attacks, the red and white flag was finally raised over the ruins of Monte Cassino.

The First Polish Independent Parachute Brigade took part in the Battle of Arnhem Sept. 17-26, 1944, as part of the abortive Operation Market Garden.

Stalin set up a Polish army of his own, one under communist command. What started out as the Tadeusz Ko¶ciuszko First Infantry Division soon became a Corps and eventually the Polish People's Army. Polish units, fighting alongside the Red Army, took part in a lot of battles on Polish soil on their bloody way to Berlin.
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