The Polish Army Exodus from the Soviet Union during WWII

Ribbentrop-Molotov Treaty


On August 23, 1939, two totalitarian states, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed a Non-Aggression Treaty that historians call the Hitler-Stalin Pact or Ribbentrop-Molotov Treaty. The German Wehrmacht invaded Poland from the west, north, and south on September 1, 1939. Great Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, but no military actions were started, despite a pre-war signed agreement with Poland referred to as the Guarantee. Two weeks later, on September 17, 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east. The western half of Poland was annexed by Germany and the eastern half by the Soviet Union as per the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Poland ceased to exist.


Neither Great Britain nor France declared war on the Soviet Union. Terror began on both sides of the German-Soviet border. Polish people suffered mass arrests, executions, and deportations to Germany or the Soviet Union.


A German and a Soviet officer shaking hands at the end of the Invasion of Poland. September 1939. Source: TASS press agency , October 1939, published also in "Krasnaya Zvezda" in September 1940 ( the first anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland ). Besides part of Soviet newsreel from October 1939. Author unknown. Public domain


German-Soviet Trade Cooperation


Following the joint invasion, trade between Nazi Germany and the USSR developed. Agreements signed in August 1939 and February 1940 secured the exchange of Soviet raw materials for German technology. Germany also guaranteed the Soviet Union a loan of 200 million Reichsmarks for more than seven years at an interest rate of five percent per annum. Mutual visits by government delegations were part of economic and military cooperation. Consequently, the Soviet Union became a major supplier of basic industrial raw materials to the Third Reich, including oil, manganese, copper, nickel, chromium, platinum, wood, and grain in exchange for weapons and military technology, and technical equipment.


Gestapo-NKVD Conferences


Simultaneously, the two totalitarian regimes continued their close partnership in the security field. In late 1939 and early 1940, Gestapo and NKVD held several security meetings. More than 60,000 refugees and prisoners were exchanged in the spring of 1940. The USSR handed over thousands of Jews to the Germans, among others.


Operation Barbarossa. The End of German-Soviet Friendship


The launch of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, called Operation Barbarossa, on June 21, 1941, changed the course of WWII. On June 22, 1941, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965) announced in a radio speech that Great Britain would welcome the Soviet Union as an ally in the war against the Third Reich. Furthermore, Churchill declared Britain’s technical and economic support to the Soviet Union. This announcement surprised the Polish Government-In-Exile in London, which considered itself at war with the Soviet Union following the Red Army invasion in September 1939. The attitude of the British government put Władysław Sikorski (1881-1943), the Polish Prime Minister-In-Exile, under enormous pressure. He had to start the negotiations with the Soviet ambassador in London, Ivan Maisky (1884-1975), and agree on his position with the British foreign office. During the first weeks of the German invasion, the Soviets massively lost their soldiers, land, and infrastructure. The Germans were advancing on all fronts. The Soviets dramatically needed any help and were ready to make far-reaching concessions regarding the Polish-Soviet consensus.


On July 30, 1941, the so-called Sikorski-Maisky Pact was signed. Sikorski achieved a few crucial points: the Soviet Union recognized the Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 1939 as not being valid, a Polish army formed in the Soviet Union would fight against the Germans, and amnesty would be granted to all Polish citizens in the Soviet Union. With the opening of the Polish Embassy in Kuybishev, diplomatic relations between the two countries were normalized. Professor Stanislaw Kot (1885-1975), a senior minister in the Polish Government-In-Exile in London and a close friend of Prime Minister Sikorski, became the Polish Ambassador to the Soviet Union. No agreement could be reached regarding the eastern Polish frontier.


A Polish-Soviet military agreement was signed two weeks later. It was decided that the Polish army would be a land force only and subordinate to the Polish government-in-exile in London. Prime Minister Sikorski nominated General Władysław Anders (1892-1970) as commander of the Polish army in the Soviet Union.


Military exercise in the Polish camp in Tockoje, the Soviet Union, 1941/1942. Public domain


Recruitment


Soon after general amnesty was proclaimed for the first time in the history of the Soviet Union. It was a miracle for hundreds of thousands of Poles arrested and deported from east Poland deep into Russia or Asian Soviet republics. Some heard the news on the radio, some read it in the newspapers, and some heard it from the Soviet soldiers or NKVD officers in the gulag. Information about the amnesty and formation of the Polish army on Soviet soil spread like wildfire. Poles became intoxicated by the vision of freedom. Soon, thousands of Polish men, women, and children from every corner of the Soviet Union began to travel to the recruitment sites of the Polish army. “The train journey was the end for many as hunger and illness took their toll. At each stop, the corpses of dead children were taken off. Our entire route was strewn with the bodies of children,” noted one of the survivors.


Based on the estimated number of Polish POWs and former soldiers, the Polish and British authorities calculated the Polish army would be able to recruit between 100,000 and 150,000 fighters. However, in the early stage of army development, conflicts with the Soviets arose. Stalin wanted to limit the conscription to 30,000 soldiers. Therefore, the Soviets delayed the release of the Poles who were in better health and spirits, sending instead the disabled and sick. On December 1, 1941, the Soviets stated that only Polish citizens who were ethnically Polish could be recruited to the Polish army. Other nationalities living before the war in Poland, including Ukrainians, Belarussians, and Jews, would only be recruited by the Soviet Red Army.


Tensions


Tensions grew between Polish leaders and the Soviets around the significant number of missing Polish officer POWs. At that point, Anders was unaware that NKVD murdered the officers in the spring of 1940. The other critical difference referred to the training and use of the Polish army. The Soviets sought to shorten the training and wanted to incorporate the Polish units into their structure as separate divisions. They rejected the concept of the Polish army fighting as an integrated unit. On February 2, 1942, during the meeting with Anders, the Soviet military authorities ordered him to immediately send his 5th Division to the front despite a lack of training, artillery, and other heavy equipment. Anders refused. The Soviets announced that the amount of food delivered to the Polish Army would be significantly reduced. Tensions escalated even further as the Soviets viewed the Poles as a hostile element. Polish schools and orphanages were shut down, and humanitarian aid from abroad was blocked. The NKVD arrested the representatives of the Anders Army who were recruiting the soldiers. In the Polish army, the Red Alarm was announced, the training munition was divided among the units, and the soldiers slept fully dressed. The situation became explosive. “We decided to offer strong resistance if the Soviets attempted to take us by force and hack our way through to Afghanistan or Iran. We even began to prepare for such an emergency. Under the pretext of excursions, we reconnoitered the passes and roads to the Afghan frontier,” remembered Colonel Klemens Stanisław Rudnicki (1897-1992) in his memoir, The Last of the War Horses.


Exodus from the Soviet Union to the Middle East


On March 18, 1942, Anders met Stalin. Anders finally got Stalin’s approval for transporting 30,000 Polish soldiers and some thousands of civilians from the Soviet Union to the British troops in Iran. On March 23, 1942, General Anders gave the order for the evacuation. The day after, the first ship left the harbor Krasnovodsk (now Türkmenbaşy) in Soviet Turkmenistan and crossed the Caspian Sea to Pahlevi in Iran. The following month, the entire Anders Army (over 70,000 soldiers) left the Soviet Union. The Polish soldiers did not forget the civilians. Over 30,000 were able to exit the Soviet Union with the Army.


Middle East, Africa, and Italy


The Polish Army went through Iran and Iraq and joined the British Army in the Middle East. It participated in the fight in northern Africa against the Axis Powers. In early 1944, the Polish troops landed in Italy. They were essential in many battles, including the Battle of Monte Cassino.


After the War


Demobilization of the 2nd Polish Corp was announced in May 1946. Soldiers were obliged to leave Italy for Great Britain and join the Polish Resettlement Corps or return to Poland. However, returning to the country was a complicated option. The Anders Army soldiers mainly came from eastern Poland, which was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1945. Furthermore, the communist Polish secret service and the Soviet NKVD persecuted Polish soldiers who fought in various units subordinate to the Polish Government-In-Exile. Their imprisonments and torture in communist Poland were common. Of those who left the Soviet Union with general Anders, only 310 decided to return to Poland. The majority of the soldiers and the civilians spread all over the world.

The Soldier Bear Wojtek served in the Anders Army on the combat route from Iran to Italy. He was officially enlisted in the rank of private and later promoted to corporal. Wojtek carried ammunition and became a celebrity. After the war, he lived the rest of his life in the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland. Photo: Wikipedia/Public domain

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-15736812


Recommended reading:


Winston Churchill broadcast on Germany's Invasion of Russia during WW2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yhqLrZURkMQ


Norman Davies, Trail of Hope: The Anders Army, An Odyssey Across Three Continents, Osprey Publishing, 2015.


https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-15736812