RAF lecture

The formation of the Polish community in the UK after 1945, is the result of population movements brought about by the Second World War. So we need to look at the origins of that war, because it was largely British decisions which meant that it started in Poland. Moreover, what is interesting about the story of the Polish community, is the beginning of the story.

I am very well aware, that what I shall talk about makes for unpleasant hearing to British ears. It is a harrowing story, which started badly, and got worse, and what makes it particularly difficult to tell is the fact that we were supposed to have been allies!

But there is a context. If you take nothing from this talk, take this: it is a remarkable fact that in over 1,000 years of English & Polish history, there has NEVER been a war between us. The taboo was never broken, and this is perhaps why in the years 1939-46, both sides always pulled back from the brink. It is a great irony that WW2 began in Poland, because until the spring of 1939, both the German and Polish governments were determined to avoid war between them, and went to extraordinary lengths to come to an accommodation. WW2 would have happened anyway of course, but somewhere else.

But then came the 31 March 1939 British Guarantee to Poland, bizarre because of the state of the British Army and the 24 April 1939 British & French Chiefs of Staff conclusion, that coming to Poland's aid was impossible and Poland must be left to its fate. The French wanted to tell the Polish Government, the British refused. But the Polish Government and Army took the guarantee seriously and broke off talks with Germany, drawing up a plan to fight for 14 days until the Western offensive started.

Although Hitler didn't want war with Poland (see Mein Kampf) the Soviets did. The Nazi Soviet pact of 27 Aug 1939 proposed partition of Poland & military co-operation against the West, which allowed German bases in Russia, from which Western shipping was attacked until June 1941.

As a result of the joint German and Soviet invasion of Poland on 1st & 17th September 1939, the country was partitioned, and the Soviets almost immediately began a policy of war crimes and ethnic cleansing in their zone of occupation. As Poland was a multi cultural country non Poles suffered too. Jews in particular were targeted by the Soviets. Here is Jan Gross' account of events in the "No Mans Land" between the German and Soviet zones in Poland in October 1939: "When German Commissions arrived in Lwow, Wlodzimeirz & Brzesc to facilitate the return of evacuees to the German Zone, thousands of Jews demonstrated in support of Germany and Hitler. Imagine the crowds: thousands of Jews cheering "Long live Hitler"" (p35).

In 1940 the terror began in earnest. 25,000 Polish officers POWs were murdered in Katyn Forest and four great deportations aimed to ethnically cleanse Eastern Poland of its Polish inhabitants, although 48% of the deportees were actually non Polish. Some 2 million were deported to Siberia (including 2 future prime ministers of the state of Israel), and within 18 months half were dead. The terror only stopped, once the German invasion of the Soviet Union began in June 1941. My own family were actually being deported during the invasion, and might have avoided it, had the Luftwaffe managed to bomb Minsk Station more accurately. The German invasion led to the 30 July 1941 Agreement between the Soviet Union and the Polish Government in Exile in London. This allowed the immediate release of surviving detainees, who were to form the new Polish Army in the USSR under gen Anders. This idea of Poland's war time PM gen Wladyslaw Sikorski was totally unrealistic, and in 1942 gen Anders became the only Polish general to come out of WW2 with any credit, when against the wishes of the Polish & British governments, he led his army AND THEIR DEPENDANTS into Iran, where they initially defended British oil installations. He thereby saved their lives, and from then on he did everything possible to limit casualties. For Poland this was the high point of the war.

1943 was the turning point for Poland. It began badly with possibly the most stupid decision the West ever took, when US President Franklin D Roosevelt announced at Cassablanca in January, the policy of unconditional surrender of Germany. This unnecessarily prolonged the war, because in August 1942 even Himmler of the SS was willing to accept a return to the borders of 1 Sep 1939. It also guaranteed the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe & the Cold War, which as we now know, in the end had to be waged by re building & re arming Germany. But worse was to come. In April the mass graves of Polish officers were discovered at Katyn Forest, which poisoned Polish-Soviet relations for the next 50 years. It also poisoned Polish-British relations, because of the attitude of successive British governments, which continued to deny the facts, even after the Soviets admitted liability in 1988. Things only changed in 2002. In July Polish-British relations took a further turn for the worse, when gen Sikorski was killed on take off at Gibraltar Air Base. There are two versions of what happened, and the British files are still closed. Finally at the Teheran Conference in December 1943, Churchill suggested to Stalin, that the Soviet zone of occupation in Poland, could become a permanent part of Russia. This was the second British betrayal of Poland in WW2, and like the first it was kept secret.

A word about Churchill. For 50 years he was presented by Polish historians as a war criminal and a betrayer of Polish interests, but new research by Ciechanowski and others, suggests otherwise: The view now is that after WW1 Britain had taken such losses among its elite, that it lacked the personnel to intelligently apply its age old policy of a balance of power in Europe. So by 1939 the Chiefs of Staff and Lord Halifax had concluded that it was now too late to stop Germany, and had embarked on a policy of reluctant collaboration, hence the abandonment of Czechoslovakia in 1938, Poland in 1939, and the debacle at Dunkirk in 1940. In this context Churchill was a genius and a maverick, who believed Britain could resist. Hence his relations with the Polish Government in Exile of gen Sikorski from the Battle of Britain in 1940 to the spring of 1943 were excellent. But Churchill was born half American. And once he realised the American president wanted neither an independent Eastern Europe, nor a British Empire, he became not like Lord Halifax a reluctant collaborator, but a an enthusiastic cheerleader for American policy. He actually told the president that Britain had had its day, it was now America's chance to shine, and that if he were a young man today, he would choose to be an American, which being born half American, he personally could.

1944 was the year the Polish Western Army scored its tactical victories, most famously in May 1944 by capturing the monastery of Monte Cassino and opening the way to Rome for the Allies, but strategically it made no sense to carry on. Gen Anders was aware of this, and he only agreed to take the challenge of Monte Cassino by making a cold calculation, that this was the best way to limit Polish casualties. He knew that if he won, it would be a media spectacular, after which he and his army would hopefully not be asked to do any more. If he refused the challenge (the British did give him this option), there would be nothing for which his army would be remembered, and the alternative of fighting alongside the British in many minor battles would actually lead to greater losses of men. And by this time gen Anders was convinced that WW2 was going to end badly for Poland, and further losses were futile. Unfortunately the view of the general and the Polish Government in Exile in London was not shared by the Resistance in Poland, and in August 1944 the Warsaw Rising began, ostensibly to liberate the capital from German occupation, but actually to allow the Government in Exile to be flown in and take power, before the Soviets crossed the Wistula River. It ended disastrously, because the Soviets not only refused to help, but actually reached a temporary truce with the Germans, but it showed the sense of honour of the RAF, which remembered the Battle of Britain and the fact that at one stage 20% of the fighter pilots were Polish. They organised the Warsaw Bridge flights to help the insurgents. These were suicide missions, and their only purpose was a sense of esprit de corps.

It may surprise you, that after so many shocks, it was the Yalta Conference of Feb 1945, which really seems to have shocked the Polish Army in the West, and it is from this point on that everyone became convinced that the British had betrayed them. This is possibly because the full facts of what happened in 1939 and 1943 were not yet known in all their details, but more likely because of wishful thinking, censorship and war time propaganda. Yalta recognized that Poland would be a Soviet occupied zone, as it had been in 1939, and that the ethnic cleansing of Eastern Poland, from which the vast majority of gen Anders' soldiers came from, would be continued, this time with the collusion of the Western Allies. On 21 Feb 1945 Churchill met gen Anders in Italy, and Anders told him he could no longer ask his men to fight. There are lots of stories about what was said at this meeting, but what is clear is that it was emotional. There was also a crucial consequence. When Churchill returned to London, he made a speech to parliament in which he stated that the issue of Poland was a question of honour, and he made what came to be known as the Churchill Pledge, which is why I am here along with 125,000 others. He said all members of the Polish Armed Forces should be given British citizenship, because they were "all men of our own blood". This expression is highly significant because in the First Polish Republic, the easiest way to become a member of the elite, was to be adopted into one of the ruling families. In effect it seemed Churchill was offering peerages! The Churchill Pledge shocked the Foreign Office, who were at the time considering some less honourable solutions, including a Soviet proposal to round up the members of the Polish Armed Forces, and return them to Russia to be shot.

The low point was 1946. Elements of the Polish Army in Italy under gen Sulik, were organising the concentration of the Army into 4 armed cantonements, where they intended to make their final stand against an expected joint Soviet, American & British invasion. In March the British considered imprisoning gen Anders, during his visit for talks with the Government in Exile in London. The situation in Italy was now very difficult. A British Brigadier General was travelling the country with snatch squads, which were picking up Polish Officers of Ukranian ethnicity, and shipping them to the Soviet Union for execution. This happened to my father's friend, who was travelling with him at the time. My point is: what had we come to, if a British Brigadier General was running riot in Polish occupied Italy, actively participating in Soviet war crimes, and the Polish Army Command, was allowing it to happen.

Ironically Churchill, by now retired, pulled us back from the brink. On 20 March 1946 Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin wrote a letter to every member of the Polish Armed Forces in the West grudgingly inviting them to come and live in Britain. A condition was that they should enlist for 2 years in the Polish Resettlement Corps, where they were supposed to learn English and a trade. Obviously an exception was made for gen Anders, who did not have to suffer the humiliation of enlisting, but was instead given a very generous parliamentary pension. This did however need to be renewed by a vote of the House of Commons every 2 years.

The 2nd Polish Corps began arriving in Britain in 1946, and the last contingent left Italy with gen Anders on 31 October 1946. About 250,000 were entitled to come to the UK, but in the event only half that number came, the rest choosing other countries to go to. As members of the Polish Resettlement Corps, they were legally under British military discipline, but under Polish operational command, and they lived in former army camps, together with their families, who had been travelling with them throughout the war, since enlistment in Russia.

The first to arrive in Leamington Spa, were Czarnecki, Zakrzewski, Czarzasty & Chmiel in spring 1948. In early 1950 others arrived from camps in Marlborough Farm, Long Marston, Ladbroke & Avon Carrow. They did not choose to come here, they were brought here and allocated jobs. Despite the Churchill Pledge they did not receive British citizenship, and in any case they would have refused it. Most remained stateless persons on UN Travel Documents, until their deaths. I do not need to explain to this present audience the meaning of esprit de corps, of the durability of friendships forged in battle. So what we had in Leamington was a community in the truest sense of the word. It was a community not because there is something special about being Polish, but because there is something unique about having been in a military unit.

In late 1947 a group of Polish military personnel from Finham Park Camp in Coventry came to work at Warwick Power Station. They also attended mass at St Peter's Church in Leamington, and took up Czarzasty's proposal of setting up the Syrena Sports Club in Victoria Terrace. In 1949 Polish numbers in Leamington were swelled by 103 who arrived at Bridge End WAC Camp in Warwick, where the first Sunday mass was said in Polish. This was transferred in May 1950 to Greatheed Road WAC Camp in Leamington, along with the residents. When Greatheed Road WAC Camp closed in 1955, mass was said at St Peter's Church. The Polish mass was the only time people met, once the Syrena Club folded in 1950, and political disputes and a long running split in the Government in Exile, meant that it was not until 1960, when Mon Jozef Golab was appointed parish priest, that a real effort was made to organise the Polish community in Leamington, which at the time numbered about 250. The Kolo, named after the Polish parliamentary tradition of debating in a circle, where all members are equal, was formed in 1961. Mon Golab was a key figure, and it is thanks to him that the Polish Centre in High Street was bought in 1968. He found the money by suing the West German government for compensation for the 6 years he spent in Nazi concentration camps.

The other key figure was Prof Scholtz, a minister in the Government in Exile from 1972 until 1990, and incidentally Chair of the Polish Centre at the same time. In those years the Polish Centre and the community had a clear political profile and very clear demands: free elections in Poland, the withdrawl of Soviet troops from Poland, and the restoration of civil liberties including free speech and free association. One of the ironies was that the Polish Government in Exile had democratic demands, and its power base was the PPS Polish Socialist Party. Nevertheless both it and the Polish community in general were regarded with intense suspicion by the British Left. Once the issue of the Katyn Forest massacre was added to the mix, which as I said earlier poisoned Anglo Polish relations for decades, it is fair to say that there was complete lack of understanding between the political representatives of the Polish community and the British political establishment, particularly as represented by the Left and the Foreign Office. Of course with the benefit of hindsight the Polish political demands were entirely realistic, and have all been met since 1990. Soviet communism on the other hand turned out to be an aberration, and has now gone. Interestingly this is what both Gen Anders and Churchill predicted would happen at their meeting on 21 February 1945. Churchill said that he believed communism would wither away, and in 40 years time, there would be no more disagreements between Russia and the West. Anders agreed, but he pointed out that while Britain could afford to wait for better times, Poland's elites would be decimated in the interim. Both turned out to be right.

What I have not talked much about is the everyday life of the Polish Community in Leamington, mainly because nothing very exciting happened. No riots, no terrorist activity. As I said at the beginning, since the dawn of history, we have never faught each other, this is a taboo neither side has broken, and it explains a lot.

Dr Stanisław Jan Librowski