While Poles Yet Live
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
The Second World War began in Poland, and no nation suffered more or fought harder for its liberty. Soviet troops took tens of thousands of Poles prisoner during their invasion in September 1939, and many of these men remained in prisoner of war camps when the Germans attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941.
Seeking assistance wherever it could be found, the Soviet regime released these men and allowed them to form a Polish army in exile, led by Gen. Wladislaw Anders. But the Soviets at first would not allow the Poles to leave the Soviet Union, only agreeing during late 1942 to send them to Iran and on to the Middle East.
Josef Stalin soon regretted his moment of weakness, and further transit of Polish volunteers to the West was forbidden. Polish-Soviet relations exploded in April 1943, when the Germans discovered a mass grave in the Katyn Forest just west of Smolensk. The bodies of over 4,000 Polish officers lay there, massacred in 1940. Though the Soviets denied the claim and blamed the Germans. But the Nazis were no strangers to mass murder and recognized it when they saw it, bringing in foreign forensics experts to bolster their propaganda.
The Polish government-in-exile in London, fortified with British radio intercepts indicating that the Germans seemed to believe their story, demanded an investigation by the International Red Cross. Stalin responded by severing diplomatic relations with the Polish exiles and recalling his ambassadors from Allied capitals for "consultations." Three months later the controversy died when the Polish Prime Minister, Gen. Wladyslaw Sikorski, died in a mysteriously convenient plane crash in Gibraltar. The Western-Soviet alliance would not be threatened after all.
With the London Poles now counted as Nazi sympathizers, the Soviets set up their own communist government-in-exile along with matching armed forces. The 1st "Tadeusz Kosciusko" Infantry Division immediately began forming from the seemingly endless supply of Polish prisoners who could be induced to "volunteer" — approximately 1.5 million people were deported from Eastern Poland between September 1939 and June 1941. To command the new formation, Stalin personally selected Col. Zygmunt Berling, a Polish officer who had been forcibly retired in June 1939. Arrested at his home and thrown in prison by the NKVD, he "turned" within a few months and cooperated against his former comrades. When Anders began forming his army Berling was appointed chief of staff to the new 5th Infantry Division, but when the Poles began their journey to Iran he deserted his post.
About 11,000 Polish recruits were gathered at a camp at Sielce near Ryazan in May 1943 for the new division; about half the officers (including most of the command staff) were Soviet citizens and many spoke little if any Polish. The division was organized as a standard Red Army rifle division, but included a tank regiment and the Emilia Plater Women's Battalion, named for the hard-fighting cavalrywoman of the 1830 uprising. Polish officers wore Polish insignia and the unique Polish headgear, but the remainder of the equipment was of Soviet origin (or, occasionally, of British or American manufacture). Declared combat-ready in July, the division did not enter combat until September, and on 12 October scored a notable but bloody success, overrunning the German defenses at Lenino at the cost of 510 killed and 1,770 wounded.
Recruits poured into the depots, and even as the 1st Division fought its first battle, a new 2nd Division and an armored brigade were already moving to the front to join them in the Polish I Corps, also under Berling's command. More manpower became available in early 1944 when the Red Army began to liberate Polish-inhabited districts of Volhynia. In July 1944 the I Corps became the Polish First Army, now at a strength of five infantry divisions plus a tank brigade, a cavalry brigade and several artillery and engineer brigades. It took part in the Lvov-Sandomierz offensive, forcing a crossing of the Vistula. By August it had approached Warsaw, and when Polish partisans rose against the Nazis in an effort to liberate the capital, Berling ordered his army forward to support them in direct defiance of Red Army orders.
Though too prominent a figure in Soviet propaganda to execute, Berling was cashiered and sent to teach at the War Academy in Moscow. He was replaced at First Army by Gen. Wladyslaw Korczyc, and as overall commander of Polish forces by Marshal Michael Zymierski-Rola. Zymierski had been deputy chief of Army administration in the early 1920's and had commanded the elite 2nd Legion Infantry Division in the Russo-Polish War. But in 1926 he chose the wrong side in Josef Pilsudski's coup d'etat, and the next year was convicted of bribery and embezzlement and sent to prison. Recruited by the NKVD during the 1930s, he had commanded the communist resistance army in early 1944.
With a more trustworthy commander in place, the Polish forces could now expand even more. Formation of the Second Army began in September 1944, but officer shortages hampered its development and plans for a Third Army and a Polish Front had to be abandoned. Polish-speaking Soviet officers could not make up the shortage, and experience showed that Polish soldiers often would not willingly follow Russian officers. Troops from the Second Army entered the front lines in January 1945, and took part in the operations around Berlin. In late April, Second Army suffered over 18,000 dead in a four-day battle around Bautzen. It ended the war in Czechoslovakia. By war's end it numbered five infantry divisions, an artillery division, a tank corps and a number of independent artillery, tank and engineer brigades.
First Army assaulted and captured Kolberg on the Baltic coast, a city Adolf Hitler had ordered defended to the last man in emulation of the Prussian stand there in 1807. It then took part in the assault on Berlin, and troops of 1st Division planted the red-white Polish banner on the Brandenburg Gate (for just one day, before the Soviet command tore it down). Polish soldiers took the Berlin Zoo and the Technical University, both the scenes of fanatic resistance: 7,228 Polish soldiers were killed in action clearing the Nazi capital, and over 17,500 wounded. Meanwhile other units of First Army encountered troops of the American Ninth Army near Spandau.
Polish soldiers of First and Second Armies marched in Moscow's victory parade, even as their brothers who had fought in the West were denied participation in London's ceremonies. It would take another 44 years before Poland would be free again.
Both First and Second Armies appear in our Red Vengeance game of the Soviet liberation of Eastern Europe. There is no provision for Third Army, but for our Polish fans we can certainly remedy this. Third Army appears at Warsaw during the fourth Allied Organizational Phase in which Warsaw is Allied-controlled. You can download the new Third Army playing piece here.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.