On 1 September 1939, 62 German divisions poured across the Polish border. More than 1,000 aircraft carried out bombing raids on the Polish capital and destroyed most of the Polish Air Force on the ground.
Two weeks later, the Red Army invaded from the east.
Warsaw surrendered on 27 September following 18 days of continuous air assault. By October, the country was under German and Soviet control.
The battle for Poland was over in a matter of weeks. Yet many Poles continued fighting the Nazis until the last day of the war.
Polish pilots excelled during the Battle of Britain
In the aftermath of the German invasion of Poland, tens of thousands of Polish servicemen escaped occupation and travelled west to France and Britain. The skills of Polish airmen were initially held in low regard by their adopted nations but in the summer of 1940, they proved a vital asset to Britain’s Fighter Command.
Polish pilots in Britain found themselves training in unfamiliar aircraft, practising unfamiliar tactics and communicating in French with their English counterparts. But their proficiency in the air shone through and their eagerness to get back in the fight won the admiration of their colleagues.
As well as serving in existing RAF squadrons, after August 1940 Polish pilots also served in two Polish Fighter Squadrons, designated 302 and 303. The latter clocked up more kills than any other squadron in the Battle of Britain, with their tally reaching an astonishing 126. Meanwhile, nine of its pilots became “aces”, meaning they had achieved five or more kills.
Polish pilots served alongside their Allied counterparts for the duration of the war.
Polish codebreakers contributed to breaking Enigma
Five weeks before the German invasion of Poland, two British intelligence officers – Alastair Denniston and Dilly Knox – met with Polish cryptographers in Warsaw. The Poles gave the British two replica Enigma machines and a raft of documentation covering their decryption work on the cipher since 1932.
The Enigma machine was invented by German engineer Arthur Sherbius in the early 1920s. By the early 1930s, the German army and navy had developed their own versions of the machine and were using them to communicate encrypted messages.
In 1932, alarmed by Germany’s growing militancy, Polish Intelligence assembled a team to crack the code. Key to the success of the Polish team was their application of mathematical rather than merely linguistic methods of decryption. Among the key members of the team were mathematicians Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Rozycki and Henryk Zegalski.
The Polish team swiftly discerned the secrets of the specially adapted military Enigma machines. In 1938, Rejewski developed a purpose-built machine known as the bomba to search for solutions and by 1938 the Poles were successfully reading 75 per cent of intercepted German communications.
Their achievements put the Poles streaks ahead of the British, who had struggled to make progress with Enigma. But in 1938, as war approached, the Germans added two additional rotors to the Enigma set-up, massively increasing the number of possible solutions and locking the Poles out.
It was at that moment that Polish Intelligence chose to share its findings with the French and British. In doing so, it laid the foundations for the work of Bletchley Park, which would ultimately change the course of World War Two.
Polish forces earned a ferocious reputation in the desert
In late 1939, tens of thousands of Poles were evacuated from Romania, where they had been interned, to French-held Syria. Most opted to continue their journey to France but several thousand chose to remain in Syria and formed the Polish Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade, or SBSK. Following the fall of France, the SBSK defied Vichy French authorities and marched into British-held Palestine.
In 1941 the SBSK was sent to Libya, where it formed part of the force heading to Tobruk to relieve the besieged 9th Australian Division.
The Australians were intrigued by the Poles. Their enthusiasm and hunger for battle proved particularly surprising. But when the Australians heard what their Polish comrades had witnessed in their home country, they understood why they were so eager at the prospect of battle.
The SBSK was posted along Tobruk’s western perimeter. Over the course of 10 weeks, the Poles earned a ferocious reputation among the multinational Tobforce, a reputation that only grew in prestige over the course of the North African campaign. Australian war correspondent Alan Moorehead wrote of them:
“They went into battle as though they were buccaneers boarding a 15th century galleon … I saw shells bursting among them and as the smoke hung on the desert for a minute you would be sure the sector had been wiped out. But when the cloudburst cleared there they would be again – the fighting Poles, still going forward and shooting as they went …”
Polish special forces smuggled a V-2 rocket to Britain
In 1941, Britain’s SOE created a new elite fighting force comprising of the best of the best from the Polish forces in exile. The unit became known as Cichociemni – Silent Unseen.
Recruits were put through a rigorous training programme that included martial arts, cryptography and sharpshooting. Of almost 2,500 applicants, a mere 600 passed the test.
Once trained, agents were parachuted into occupied Poland to augment the forces of the Armia Krajowa – the Polish resistance movement. Together, the AK and the Cichociemni disrupted German supply routes and gathered vital intelligence. But their most famous exploit came in July 1944.
In early 1944, the AK took an interest in a factory in southern Poland where the Germans appeared to be testing a new kind of rocket. With each test, it was a race against time for the AK to beat the recovery crews to retrieve the remnants of the rockets.
Finally, on 1 May 1944, an intact, unexploded rocket was found in marshland near Sarnaki. The AK informed the RAF and the two organisations hatched a plan to smuggle the rocket out of Poland. A specially adapted Dakota transport plane was dispatched to an abandoned air strip.
Having successfully loaded the rocket on board, the crew of the Dakota were distressed to discover that the extra weight had caused the plane’s wheels to sink into the muddy ground. The AK operatives, with help from local villagers, dug the wheels out of the mud with their bare hands.
With the hours before dawn ticking away, oxen were then attached to the aircraft to pull it clear of the mud. Finally, with no more time to spare and all involved having risked capture and certain death, the aircraft took off.
When it arrived in London, the Dakota’s cargo yielded components, diagrams and photographs documenting the German V2 rocket. This crucial intelligence was passed to the Crossbow Committee, the organisation responsible for operations against Germany’s long-range weapons, and provided key details for a defence against the V weapons.
The exiled Polish government informed the Allies about mass killings in Poland
After the fall of Poland, the Polish government-in-exile was based first in France and later in Britain. As well as working with the Polish resistance movement to carry out operations against the German occupying forces in Poland, the government-in-exile also played an important role in circulating reports from the Polish underground movement about mass killings and concentration camps.
As early as May 1941, the government-in-exile informed Allied governments about mass deportations to Auschwitz and atrocities committed against Jews in the first 15 months of the occupation.
In December 1942, Foreign Minister Edward Raczynski made the first official governmental denunciation of the mass extermination of Jews. By June 1944, dispatches from Poland were reporting on the mass deportation of Czech Jews and the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
Despite a concerted effort to encourage the Allies to act on the information coming out of Poland, the government-in-exile was unable to prompt international intervention.
The 1st Polish Armoured Division sealed victory in Normandy
The conclusive action of the Normandy campaign came in August 1944, when Allied commander Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery ordered the envelopment of German Army Group B inside what would become known as the “Falaise Pocket”.
With British and Canadian forces sweeping around to the north, and the Americans from the south, some 100,000 German soldiers faced encirclement. By 19 August their only escape route was a two-mile-wide gap.
The 1st Polish Armoured Division arrived in Normandy in early August and was attached to the Canadian Army. On 19 August, under the command of General Stanislaw Maczek, the Poles captured Hill 262 on the Mount Ormel ridge, overlooking the German escape route.
Cut off from reinforcements and short of ammunition, 1,500 Poles held this position for two days and nights, even in the face of ferocious German assaults. Finally, on 21 August, they were reinforced by the Canadians and the pocket was shut, sealing 60,000 German soldiers inside.
Koskodan, Kenneth 2009 No Greater Ally: The Untold Story of Poland’s Forces in World War II London: Osprey