When it comes to histories of the Second World War, every country, inevitably, plays up its own role and its contribution to the overall victory. There are, however, few countries like Poland whose contribution was so great and yet whose contribution has been so forgotten by the world. It is little wonder that fifty years on, the war still evokes much bitterness and pain among the Poles. The Second World War has been a wound in Poland that has adamantly refused to heal.
The treatment of the Polish Forces during and after the war has remained controversial - to the Poles at least. At their height, the manpower of the Polish Armed Forces under British command reached 249,000.
35,000 were evacuated from France in June 1940
1,780 were recruited in Britain
14,210 escaped from occupied Europe
2,290 were recruited from Canada/Argentina/Brazil
83,000 were evacuated from the USSR
89,300 joined after deserting German Forces
7,000 joined from liberated France
21,750 were liberated Polish Prisoners of War [POW]
26,830 Killed in Action/Missing/Died of Wounds
228,000 July 1945 (technical close of recruitment)
21,000 former POWs recruited after July 1945
This made the Polish Armed Forces the fourth largest after the Soviet, United States and British Armed Forces.
When the war began the Poles had to witness two defeats in two years; In September 1939, German technological superiority won over the Poles. In a bitter and hard fought campaign, the ferocity of which surprised even the Germans, few histories of the war remember more than the apocryphal stories of Polish cavalry charging German tanks, fewer still give more than a passing word to the other invasion of Poland from the Soviet Union and its effect of dashing any hope of a Polish stand in the east.
Arguably Poland's greatest contribution to the final victory over the Nazis was the presentation to the British and French Governments of "Enigma" decoders which helped the Allies read German coded messages. Just before Poland fell to the Germans, the Polish intelligence service managed to smuggle two machines out of the country and Polish cryptologists helped in the decoding of the high-level German communications that is now recognised as being crucial to the outcome of the war.
Thousands of Polish troops escaped their country and made their way to France - the traditional home of the Polish exile - and set up an exile Government at Coetquidan. The army and air force were reformed and placed under French command.
When the Poles took to the front to defend France they manned two full infantry divisions with a further two in the process of being formed - an independent Highland Brigade and an armoured brigade under General Maczek. The Polish Air Force in France consisted of two fighter squadrons, with a further two in training but when the Germans invaded France, the French collapse was as swift as the Polish one and, some might argue, less creditable.
The Poles took part in the abortive invasion of Norway, landing the Highland Brigade at Narvik, but as that joint British and French campaign collapsed, the allies were evacuated - the Poles were returned to France only to be captured defending Brest. Of the Polish Armed Forces in France, only some 20% were evacuated to Britain to fight again. Of those who were left behind, many Poles set up independent Polish underground units in France but most, however, went into German captivity.
The Polish Government-in-Exile reformed for a second time, this time in London, just in time for the Battle of Britain - another effort where the Poles can claim that their contribution did have an effect on the overall victory in Europe. The 71 Polish fighter pilots of 302 and 303 Polish squadrons and the 80 Poles who flew with British squadrons shot down 203 German planes and damaged a further 36. This was over 11% of all the planes shot down in the Battle of Britain and at that time the Poles made up the largest contingent of foreign pilots flying with the Royal Air Force.
The Polish Army saw action again in 1941 as the Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade was moved to Tobruk in North Africa to take part in its defence, besieged as it was by German and Italian troops. The Poles defended the town for four months alongside the British 70 Division and Czech and Australian battalions until it was relieved by a British offensive.
1942 saw the creation of the Polish Army in the Soviet Union from the over one and a half million Poles who were deported from Poland to all parts of the Soviet Union after its 1939 invasion of Poland. After the German invasion of the USSR, the Soviets found themselves on the same side as Britain and Poland and so issued an "amnesty" for these Poles and allowed recruitment under General Wladyslaw Anders. After much pressure on Moscow, Anders managed to get his troops evacuated to Persia where they were equipped by the British and began life as the Polish 2nd Corps. The Corps took part in the campaign in Italy. It fought at Cassino and hoisted a Polish flag on the ruins of the abbey which it captured; it took Ancona and ended the war by liberating Bologna.
In Britain, General Maczek was given command of the Polish 1st Armoured Division which was sent to France shortly after D-Day. It took part in the drive through Normandy, culminating in the battles of Falaise and Chambois where the Poles cut off the retreat of 60,000 Germans. The Poles were fighting as part of the Canadian Corps and so the victory was not attributed as a Polish victory but, as a mark of respect, Canadian sappers erected a sign on Mont Ormel that read "A Polish Battlefield"  The Division went on to liberate Abeville, St Omer, Ypres and Ghent. The Poles drove through France and Belgium into Holland where they liberated Breda and then into Germany where the Polish Division accepted the surrender of the port of Wilhelmshaven.
The Polish Independent Parachute Brigade under General Sosabowski had wanted to parachute into Poland to help the ill-fated rising in Warsaw that had broken out on the 1st August, 1944, but were dropped instead at Arnhem as part of operation "Market-Garden" to fight alongside the British 1st Airborne Division and to suffer the same defeat.
The Polish Air Force continued flying throughout the war. In North Africa, Polish pilots flew with 112 "Shark" Fighter Squadron and the "Polish Fighting Team" that was commonly referred to as " Skalski's Flying Circus" after its Commanding Officer [CO]. In Britain, the Poles' two fighter squadrons were increased to seven (302, 303, 306, 315, 316 & 317) and a further one was formed in Italy (318). The Poles flew a night fighter squadron (307), a fighter-reconnaissance squadron (309), two bomber squadrons (300 & 305), a Coastal Command bomber squadron (304), an artillery observation squadron in Italy (663) and a special duties flight (formerly 301 bomber squadron redesignated as 1586 Flight).
The Polish Navy, although small in 1939, was rapidly expanded by the loan of British ships to be manned by Polish crews. Polish submarines patrolled the North Sea and the Mediterranean; Polish warships served in the Atlantic and Murmansk convoys; the Polish Navy saw service in the Narvik campaign, the Dunkirk evacuation, the assault on Dieppe, hunting the Bismark, the invasion of Sicily and the invasion of France on D-Day.
When the war in Europe ended in May 1945, the position of the Polish Armed Forces was unclear. Despite its long struggle alongside the Allies in the name of Poland, it seemed that Poland was far from free. The Red Army, which had come to Poland as liberator, was to stay as conqueror with, it was widely felt at the time, the complicity of London and Washington. Jan Nowak-Jezioranski, formerly a courier between London and the underground Home Army in Poland, has views on the "victory& quot; that are typical of many Poles:
"Poland conducted two wars with two attackers. We won against the Germans, but lost against the Soviets. May 9 is an anniversary of both victory and defeat, and that is how we should see it." 
and of the Soviet guns he heard celebrating the end of the war he writes:
"For thousands of Poles, who had fought heroically for freedom, those triumphant salvoes heralded death, torture, prison and persecution."
The Poles felt betrayed. To many Poles it appeared that their interests had been sacrificed to appease Stalin and whereas the Poles had remained faithful to the Allied cause, the same could not be said of the Allies to the cause of a free and independent Poland.
In August, 1941, Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt had signed what became known as the "Atlantic Charter" - a declaration of war aims and aims for the post-war world. Points two and three read:
"Second, they desire to see no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the people concerned;
Third, they respect the right of all peoples to chose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them; [...]" 
These fine words were not matched by the outcome of the wartime conferences at Teheran and Yalta, and then at Potsdam. Poland had been consigned to the Soviet sphere of influence and had lost vast tracts of land to the Soviet Union. The Provisional Government in Poland was dominated by a pro-Soviet element that had been imported from Moscow by the Red Army. The Soviet secret police, the NKVD, was detaining and deporting many Poles and while the Western powers were, half-heartedly, demanding elections and democracy in Poland, the Polish troops were in despair knowing that it was already too late and they would not be going home.
On the 50th anniversary of the end of World War Two in May, 1995, the President of Poland, Lech Walesa, made a speech to Polish veterans that was filled with the bitterness that Poles feel towards the end of the war:
"Having been invaded in September, 1939, the Poles never laid down their weapons. They fought from the first day of the war until the last. They fought on many fronts, on Polish soil and abroad, for our freedom and yours. They fought at Narvik, in France, in the Battle of Britain, at Tobruk, Lenino, Monte Cassino, in Normandy, in Belgium, in Holland, the Warsaw Rising and the battle for the Pomeranian Wall. Above defeated Berlin only three flags flew - the white flag of capitulation, the red flag and the red and white flag. The Polish Armed Forces were the fourth largest Allied army. Poland never disgraced itself by having a government that collaborated with the fascists. However, our loyalty to the Allies was put to a difficult test.
The information about the Katyn atrocity hit us hard. Ignoring all human and military rights, and on the orders of Stalin and the Soviet leadership, 20,000 prisoners were bestially murdered - the only crime of these soldiers and policemen was that they were Poles. At Katyn, Kharkov and Miednoje the flower of our officer corps was exterminated. This was not an accident; it was not a mistake. It was political genocide, ruthlessly and coldly planned. The Great Powers of the world knew about it. The Allied leaders - they knew and still they said nothing. The larger political interests, the greater game of spheres of influence on the world map covered over these uncomfortable truths. Politics knows no sentiment. For that reason the Warsaw Rising had to fail and that is why at Teheran and Yalta it was agreed that after the war Poland would be in the Soviet sphere of influence. A faithful ally was sacrificed to maintain the world balance of power. On hearing of the Yalta agreement General Montgomery light-heartedly joked to General Maczek that Maczek would now be a Soviet general - a bitter joke.
Let the West and the East not be surprised that even after 50 years this bitterness still gnaws at us. The 8th of May cannot just be a celebration of victory. It is a day of thought and reflection on the lessons of history, on the responsibilities of political leaders and on the future. Every nation has the right to its own appreciation of events. We understand that others might see the past differently... we can not, however, forget the nature of the Stalinist system. It had nothing in common with liberty and democracy. Behind the front-line troops the NKVD entered Poland and, with their Polish supporters, began the persecution of Polish patriots. The Stalinist night descended followed by the drama and farce of the PRL [Polish People's Republic]. We will not be silent about all of this just because it does not fit into someone's concept of history." 
Walesa went on to say that the Poles did not keep carping on about the war to reproach and upbraid anyone. It was simply to remind people that that was the way it was.
It is little wonder that the rest of the world has forgotten about the Poles. For years in Poland the troops in the West were a forgotten army of whom no one was allowed to speak. General Anders, Sosnkowski and the other military leaders were cast as traitors and fascists. In January, 1945, the Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Armed Forces, in Poland, Marshal Michal Rola-Zymierski announced:
"Carrying out the directives of the most reactionary military and political enemies of the Soviet Union, the Sosnkowski-Anders clique from the very beginning decided to fight not against the Germans but against Russia and they tried to bring up their soldiers in that spirit.
The anti-Soviet blindness of these reactionary maniacs who had learnt nothing from the war, as well as the actions of General Anders which were damaging to Polish affairs, had become a source of shame to the Polish uniform." 
The Polish Armed Forces in the West were branded with the mark of Cain by the Communist authorities and like Cain they were forced to wander the earth to find a home. If such a powerful representative as Marshal Zymierski could make such a pronouncement about the Poles in the West, then it did not bode well for a future return to Poland.
The casualty figures for the Poles in the West clearly demonstrate that, far from being reluctant to fight the Germans, the Poles threw themselves into battle with an abandon that even impressed the Germans.
|KILLED||WOUNDED||MISSING IN ACTION|
|UNDER FRENCH COMMAND:|
|UNDER BRITISH COMMAND:
|Polish Army Libya||156||467||15|
|1st Armoured Division||1,290||3,823||22|
|1st Parachute Brigade||211||346||173|
|POLISH AIR FORCE||1,803||1,348||445|
|TOTAL CASUALTIES UNDER BRITISH COMMAND : 22,106|
|At Officers School|
|BATTLE OF LENINO:|
|FORCING THE RIVER WISLA:|
| FIGHTING IN POMERANIA
(1st Feb-7th Mar, 1945)
|FIGHTING FOR KOLOBRZEG:
(8th-18th Mar, 1945)
|ASSAULT ON BERLIN
(16th Apr-8th May, 1945)
TOTAL CASUALTIES UNDER SOVIET COMMAND:
Even as late as 1984 and the 40th Anniversary of the
D-Day landing, the Poles were not invited to take part. Although the British Government had
changed its political complexion, the commemoration was turned into a strictly NATO event.
Possibly the prospect of having to explain how a one time ally was now, nominally, an enemy
might have proved embarrassing so the Poles were ignored completely.
After the momentous events in central and eastern Europe after 1989, it suddenly became politically correct to invite Poles to wartime anniversaries but first the Poles had to hold their own victory parade - the first parade that would see veterans from all the fronts that the Poles fought on marching together in Warsaw. The parade was held on 15th August, traditionally 'Soldiers Day', 1992, in the presence of the Polish President, the Polish Premier and the Polish Chief of Staff.
Poland's role in the Second World War is now beginning to be recognised. Poles across Europe watched with pride as satellite television broadcast the Polish Army marching alongside its former allies at the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings, Polish ships were represented at the anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic and men of the Polish 6th Air Assault Brigade made a commemorative parachute jump at Arnhem to mark that battle's anniversary.
In the autumn of 1994, a platoon of Scots Guards went to Poland to take part in "Co-operative Bridge" - the first joint exercise under the "Partnership for Peace" and the British 5th Airborne Brigade flew to Poland to take part in "Valkyerie Venture" a joint parachute exercise that began to re-establish Poland's place alongside its former allies. 
The Poles who fought under British command had been vilified by the Communists in Poland and the response from the British was, at best, cool. The Polish Armed Forces' march "...towards Poland, whole, free and independent" took a long time and it remains difficult to come to a conclusion other than the one reached by John Ellis that, along the way, the Poles had indeed been "shabbily treated".