Trail of Hope - Anders Army - Norman Davies

Trail of Hope - Anders Army - Norman Davies

In 1941 all across the Soviet Union Polish citizens were struggling to survive. They had been deported from Poland to Russia on the orders of the Soviet leader Stalin. Taken from their homes, often in the dead of night, they were crammed onto cattle trucks and after a train journey of many weeks placed in work camps (Gulag) or dumped on the steppe of Kazakhstan. The deportations had begun after the Soviet Union attacked and occupied the eastern part of Poland in 1939. Conditions for the Poles in the Soviet Union were appalling and many had already died.

On 22 June 1941 Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Suddenly the Soviet Union needed all the help it could get. In July Great Britain and the Soviet Union agreed to cooperate in the fight against Nazi Germany. In London the Polish government-in-exile and the Soviet Union came to an agreement that the Soviets would release their Polish prisoners from the camps so that a Polish Army could be formed in Russia to fight the Nazis. This Polish Army was to be commanded by General Wladyslaw Anders who was set free by the Soviet Secret Police (KGB) from the Lubyanka prison in Moscow. The starved, disease-ridden Poles now had a glimmer of hope that they could survive their terrible ordeal in the Soviet Union.

Polish Army in Russia

A Polish Embassy was opened in Kuibyshev (now called Samara) in Russia. Professor Stanislaw Kot was appointed as Ambassador. The Polish Army HQ was initially set up at Totskoye. The Red Army also offered them bases at Buzuluk, Tatishchevo and Chkalov. The Poles began to be released from their imprisonment but faced the daunting task of finding the Polish Army across the vast distances of the Soviet Union. Polish consular officials and Persons of Trust went to the main railway junctions and cities of northern Russia and Siberia. There they helped released Poles with food, tickets and money and told them where the Polish Army could be found.

...the men who reported for duty [at Polish Army HQ]...gaunt, exhausted, lice-ridden, and mal-nourished individuals dressed in rags. (p. 59)

The late Ryszard Kaczorowski (1919-2010) who became the last President (1989-90) of the Polish government-in-exile in London explained to the author Norman Davies how he was deported from Bialystok at the age of 21.

After a journey of many months, which took him to the Pacific port of Magadan and thence by boat to the terrible camps of Kolyma in the goldfields of Yakutia, he had arrived in north-eastern Siberia in mid-1940 in a group of over 300 deportees. Shortly before his tragic death in the air crash at Smolensk in 2010, he told me how a year after his deportation he had returned from Siberia in a group of only 18 survivors. (p. 78)

General Anders was concerned at the lack of Polish Officers arriving at Polish Army HQ. Where were they? They didn't know that in the spring of 1940 around 25,000 imprisoned Polish Officers, members of the Police, judiciary and clergy were executed on the orders of the Soviet leader Stalin. This event became known as the Katyn Massacre.

In December 1941, with the German Army at the gates of Moscow, Stalin met with General Sikorski (Polish Prime Minister and Commander in Chief) and General Anders in Moscow. Agreement was reached that the Anders army should be moved to the south and that it would be increased to six divisions. General Anders left Totskoye on 15 January 1942, travelling by train on a 5-6 days journey, for Yangi-Yul, 12.5 miles from Tashkent in Uzbekistan.

The Polish Army units were now re-located to the following places:

  • 5th Infantry Division (Dzhalyal Abad, Kirghizia)
  • 6th Infantry Division (Shachrizyabs, South Uzbekistan)
  • 7th Infantry Division (Kermine, Central Uzbekistan)
  • 8th Infantry Division (Pachta, then Chok-Pak, Kirghizia)
  • 9th Infantry Division (Ferghana, Uzbekistan)
  • 10th Infantry Division (Lugovoy, South Kazakhstan)
  • Artillery Centre (Karsau, Tadzhikistan)
  • Army Training & Engineers (Vrevskoye, East Uzbekistan)
  • Armoured Forces (Otar, West Kirghizstan)
  • Women's Auxilliary Service (Guzar, South Uzbekistan)

The distances between the bases was huge. The nearest base to Yangi-Yul was 400 miles. The move to the warmer south brought epidemics of typhus and typhoid fever, as well as other diseases such as malaria, and the Polish men and women under Anders' command died at the rate of 300 to 400 a month.

Escape from the Soviet Union

General Anders had a further meeting with Stalin in March 1942. They agreed that half the Polish Army and their dependants could be evacuated to the British zone in Persia (Iran). Between 24 March and 5 April 1942, 44,000 Polish soldiers and dependants left the Soviet union by train and ship for Iran. The trains took 3 or 4 days to reach the port of Krasnovodsk on the Caspian Sea. From there, on over crowded ships, the Poles went to the Iranian port of Pahlevi.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote to Stalin suggesting that the bulk of Anders army should be moved to the Middle East. In July 1942 General Anders was advised that he could now move the remaining Polish soldiers and their dependants to Iran. The "2nd Evacuation" began in July 1942 and went on for a couple of months.

The numbers evacuated are shown in the table below. (Source p. 176; original source "General Anders - Addenda to Biography" Z. S. Siemaszko 2014 pp. 74-78)

Evacuations I II Total
Officers and Men 40,500 30,000 70,500
Women's Auxiliary Service 2,000 1,000 3,000
Male + Female Cadets 2,500 2,000 4,500
Total Military 45,000 33,000 78,000
Families 16,000 8,000 24,000
Children under 14 9,500 3,000 12,500
Total Civilians 25,500 11,000 36,500
Overall 70,500 44,000 114,500

The last man to leave, on the last organised group of evacuees, was Colonel Klemens Rudnicki, Commander of the 6th Division. He was fortunate to be declared fit to travel as he was suffering from malaria and dysentery.

Delightedly we watched the disappearing shores of this country of lies and deceit, knowing that we were now sailing towards the free world, to which we wholeheartedly belonged. (p. 179; original source "The Last of the Polish War Horses" Klemen Rudnicki 1974 pp. 249-250)

The Poles had finally left the Inhuman Land.

Civilian Diaspora

For many of the Poles arriving in Iran their journey would end at Pahlevi. A military nurse, Helena Czupryn, working in the hospital in Pahlevi, recorded that many were too ill to survive.

And all the time the ships of the refugees kept coming. Thousands, tens of thousands, ... emaciated, broken, desperately sick but still living people...Despite all our efforts, most of our patients were just too weak to live. Many of them seemed to have hung on just long enough to reach freedom, and I found myself remembering the men from the salt mines and their desperate efforts to get home to their families and often I wept for all these poor people. (p. 180-181; original source Days of Aloes, Helena Edwards 1992)

In April 1943 the Germans announced that they had found the bodies of thousands of Polish Officers in a mass grave in the Katyn forest, near Smolensk in Russia. The Polish government-in-exile asked the Red Cross to investigate. In response Stalin broke off diplomatic relations with the Polish government-in-exile, ended the so-called amnesty for Polish citizens and slammed the frontier posts shut. Those Poles who remained in the Soviet Union were now trapped.

It is important to remember that those Poles who remained in the USSR far exceeded those who had managed to leave...Many of the Poles stranded in the USSR simply died, or disappeared without trace... (p. 183-185)

The British authorities in Iran counted and registered the Polish arrivals. They set up schools, hospitals and welfare centres to meet their needs. The Polish government in London contacted embassies and Allied countries to see if they would give refugee to the Polish civilians in Iran. The following offered assistance:

  • Colonial government of British East Africa
  • Maharajah of Nawanagar in India
  • Jewish Agency in Palestine
  • Government of Mexico
  • Prime Minister of New Zealand

Polish refugees who went to East Africa usually went by sea from Karachi to Mombassa. The journey took 5 or 6 days. There were eight camps in East Africa set up in the years 1942-43. Other camps were established in Northern and Southern Rhodesia and the Dominion of South Africa. More than half of the Polish civilians who left the Soviet union found refuge in Africa.

Most of the Poles who went to India travelled by sea, first to Karachi and then to Bombay. In 1942 they set up home at a camp in Balachadi in Gujarat. In 1943 a second camp was opened at Valivade, 480 miles south of the first camp.

Nearly 1,000 Jewish children in Iran were handed over by the Polish Army to the "Jewish Agency" and they were resettled in Palestine. The government of Mexico accepted two groups of Polish refugees. One group left Iran in July 1943 and the other in August 1943. Iran was 8,000 miles away from Mexico by sea. The Mexican government gave the Poles a vast ranch at Santa Rosa in the south-west highlands of Mexico.

The New Zealand government accepted 753 orphans and 105 carers who arrived there on 1 November 1944.

Anders Army

In 1943 the soldiers of Anders Army were moved from Iran to Iraq. They were tasked with defending the oilfields in northern Iraq from possible German attack. By the summer of 1943 the threat of a German advance into the Middle East had evaporated. In July the British and American armies had landed in Sicily, Italy.

The role reserved for the Anders Army was to take up positions on the periphery of the Mediterranean theatre, to train for combat readiness while the outcome of the landings in Sicily was awaited, and then to join the second line of advance of the VIII Army in Italy. Their first destination was Palestine. (p. 344)

In August 1943 convoys of British military trucks began to move the Polish Army from Iraq to Palestine. The Polish soldiers lived in tented encampments and trained rigorously to prepare themselves for battle against the Germans. In November 1943 thousands of Polish troops arrived in Egypt in order to make the sea crossing to Italy.

The main elements of the Polish 3rd Carpathian Division set sail from the Egyptian port of Alexandria on 16 December. They arrived at Taranto in Italy on the 21 December. In the following three months 55,000 men and women of Polish II Corps left Egpyt for Southern Italy. General Anders arrived in Naples on 6 February 1944.

Allied forces were in control of Southern Italy but were facing stiff resistance from the Germans as they attempted to move north towards Rome. The Germans held the strategically important Abbey of Monte Cassino. Founded in AD 537 it was the oldest Roman Catholic monastery in the world. The abbey was located at the top of a huge promontory which dominated all the surrounding peaks and valleys. The capture of Monte Cassino was a key allied objective in order to open the road to Rome.

Three attempts to capture Monte Cassino had failed.

  • 1st attempt (17 January - 11 Febuary) Lead roles British X Corps and US II Corps - 11,000 allied casualties.
  • 2nd attempt (15 - 18 February 1944) Lead V Corps of British VIII Army.
  • 3rd attempt (15 - 22 March 1944) Lead 2nd New Zealand Divison.

In May 1944 the fourth attempt was to be made. General Anders Polish II Corp was given the task of capturing Monte Cassino.

On 11 May 1944 General Anders issued his order of the day:

Soldiers! The moment for battle has arrived. We have long awaited the day of revenge and retribution over our hereditary enemy...Trusting in the Justice of Divine Providence, we go forward with the scared call in our hearts: God, Honour, Country. (p. 453)

The Polish II Corps had been given a very tough task.

While two British corps were to surge forward and on either side of them, and I Canadian Corps was to drive into the nearby Liri Valley, the Poles were asked for the near impossible to take Monastery Hill by frontal attack. The German defenders enjoyed every advantage: firing down from long-prepared and carefully hidden positions. (p. 455)

The first Polish assault on 12 May did not succeed - 281 men and 3,503 men were lost in the attempt. However on 18 May the Poles raised their red and white flag above the monastery ruins and a bugler sounded St Mary's Trumpet Call to signal victory!

The next task given to Polish II Corps was the capture of the Italian Adriatic port of Ancona. General Anders brought three main formations to the battle: the 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division, the 5th Kresowa Infantry Division and the 2nd Warsaw Armoured Brigade. The Poles emerged victorious with the battle for Ancona lasting 34 days (16 June - 18 July).

Kazimierz Nycz (1914-1944), a prewar cavalryman...15th Regiment of Lancers, died in the battle for Ossimo [Italy]...He was the Uncle of the future Cardinal and Archbishop of Warsaw, who took his name... As the Cardinal remembers, his few possessions were returned to his family after the war by Britain's War Office, they included letters, two clothing coupons to the value of the money found in his pocket, and a rosary from Jersualem, that was laid in his mother's grave. (p. 475)

In October 1944 the news from Warsaw was bleak. The Polish Home Army, after rising up against the Germans in Warsaw, had been forced to surrender after 63 days. In January 1945 the Soviet Army had overrun the whole of Poland. At the Big Three Conference (USA, USSR & UK) at Yalta (February 1945) it was decided that Poland would belong to the Soviet sphere of influence and that eastern Poland would be incorporated into the Soviet Union. The reaction from the soldiers of Polish II Corp, in the words of Germand Anders, was one of bewilderment and numbness that the Russians had been given control of their homeland.

Post War Resettlement

Germany surrendered in May 1945 and the war in Europe came to an end. In June the UK and USA withdrew their recognition of the Polish government-in-exile in London and instead recognised the Soviet imposed government in Poland. General Ander's Polish Army in Italy, still serving under British command, now numbered over 100,000. The Polish soldiers faced the awful recognition that there was no independent Poland to return home to and that a life in exile beckoned.

The Polish government in Warsaw and the British government both wanted the Polish soldiers to return to Poland. However British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin told the Poles that if they did not want to go to Poland then they could stay in Great Britain. The British created two organisations the Polish Resettlement Corps for army and navy personnel and the Polish Air Force resettlement Corps for airmen. Service in these organisations would last two years and would prepare Poles for a return to civilian life.

During the years 1946-1948 the British arranged for ships to bring the Polish forces and civilians to Britain from Italy, the Middle East, Africa, India and the Levant. The Poles on their arrival were sent to camps scattered throughout Britain.

Life in the PRC resembled nothing more than that of a Polish village. As often as not, the buildings were prefabricated Nissan huts...every camp had its chapel and chaplain, its school and its teachers...The men wore uniform and were addressed according to military rank. (p. 550)

About half of those in the Polish Resettlement Corp chose to remain in Britain and half decided to emigrate. A popular destination was Australia: 60,000 Poles emigrated there. Others went to Canada, Argentina or Brazil. Of those that remained in Britain Polish communities began to form in Glasgow, Manchester, Bradford, Birmingham, Coventry and parts of London. Every year on the 11th November Polish veterans join their British counterparts at war memorials throughout Britain to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice in war and to commemorate the Polish Independence that they fought so long and so hard for.

General Anders lived in England until his death aged 77 in 1970. He is buried with his fallen comrades at Monte Cassino. He never returned to Poland.

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 Trail of Hope - The Anders Army, An Odyssey Across Three Continents

Author Norman Davies
ISBN 978-1472816030
Publisher Ospery Publishing 2015
Booksellers Amazon (UK) - Amazon (USA)
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This page was added on 15 October 2016.