The Unlikely Iranian-Polish Alliance in World War II
By David Meyler
My wife, Susan, from an Armenian-Iranian family, grew up in Tehran as a member of the Russian Orthodox church. One of her earliest memories as a small girl was the funeral of her step-grandfather, buried in the Dulab cemetery, in the southern part of the city, one of the main Christian burial grounds in Tehran.
There she was astonished to see row on row of identical white tombstones, stretching, unendingly it seemed, across the green grass. When she asked what those white stones were, her mother replied those were the graves of the Polish exiles. And when she asked who Poles were, she learned they were people who had come from far away Europe when her mother was just a young woman.
The distant origins of this story go back to more than a 150 years before the outbreak of the Second World War. At this time, the Qajars (a Turkish-speaking clan from Azerbaijan) was solidifying their rule in Iran, and beginning to take the ancient empire on a new aggressive path of modernization and cultural renewal. At the same time, the once powerful Polish kingdom was in its death throes, experiencing the process of annihilation at the hands of its three most powerful neighbours, the monarchies of Prussia, Russia and Austria.
By the 1770s, the end of Polish independence was in sight. The so-called First Partition of 1772 saw more border territories lost to Austria, Russia and Prussia. The Second Partition in 1793 left only a small rump territory around Warsaw and Grodno, and this was totally wiped out in the final Third Partition two years later. Kosciuszko led a rebellion, but was crushed. The promises of independence under Napoléon proved ephemeral, and his defeat saw the country again divided up, with the lion's share going to Russia. It appeared most unlikely that the fates of Persian and Polish peoples would ever cross paths.
Under the aggressive shahs of the early Qajar period, Mohammad Khan, Fath Ali, and Naser-ed-Din, Iran fought a number of wars with its neighbors during the late 18th Century and during the first part of the 19th, with mixed results. Some territory was reclaimed from the Ottoman Turks, but Russian forces had taken a number of former Persian provinces in north, in particular Georgia and Armenia in Caucasus and Turkmenistan east of the Caspian.
In the 1850s, a war was fought with Britain over the province of Herat, a traditional part of the Persian empire, but the province now formed the western frontier of the relatively new kingdom of Afghanistan. The British, wary of the Russian push south, uncomfortably close to India, were extremely sensitive to any changes along India’s northwest frontier. In spite of success against the Afghanis, a defeat by the British Indian army along the Persian Gulf at Khosab forced Iran to relinquish its claim to Herat.
Humiliated by this defeat, Iran fell into an increasingly steep spiral of decrepitude, and proved unable to stave off further Russian and British advances, which in effect carved the nation into two zones of influence. Neutral during the First World War, Iran's territory was crossed freely by Russian, British and Turkish forces. There were only two effective military units in the Persian army: the Russian-officered Persian Cossack Division in the north (to secure Russian interests), and the British counterpart to the south, the English-officered South Persia Rifles, which protected Imperial interests along the Persian Gulf.
Central Iran, including the Qajar capital, Tehran, was a kind of no-man’s land. In spite of much mutual distrust, the British and Russians finally agreed to a Swedish-officered gendarmerie, to serve as a non-aligned royal guard for the shah, and give the emperor some means to enforce a centralized control (at least regions the Russians or British couldn’t bother with). But the gendarmerie soon garnered a reputation for rampant corruption. Both the colonial powers appeared safe from any kind of Iranian national movement, but then came Reza Khan.
In 1925, an army officer of the Persian Cossacks, Reza Khan, the effective ruler of Iran since 1921, staged a coup and removed the last Qajar emperor of Persia. He had begun his career as a trooper in the Cossack Division, where he was called Reza "Maximi," or Reza the Maxim-gunner. His powerful build made him the ideal choice to operate the cumbersome wheeled machine guns then in use.
He eventually worked his way up to the rank of colonel, putting him in position to take over the division in 1921 after the last Russian officers left to fight in the Russian civil war against the Bolsheviks. By 1925, he was in a strong enough position to depose the puppet shah and make himself emperor, Reza Shah, under the new dynastic name Pahlavi (the language of the Parthians, closely related to ancient Persian).
Poland had been made a republic after the First World War. Polish nationalism, much like the Palestinian question in the last half of the 20th Century, was one of the key sources of European instability in the 19th. Violent uprisings took place against the Russians in 1830 and again in 1863, but both were smashed with great violence. It was not until 1918 with the total defeat of all three of its old enemies, the empires of Austria, Germany and Russia, that an independent Poland was created again.
Polish territorial issues, would, however, once again spark a war in September 1939; a war which in turn would unite already smoldering conflicts in Africa and Asia into a world-wide conflagration. The Russo-German conquest in 1939 saw the nation again partitioned after barely two decades of independence. Iran appeared to be unaffected, left as a virtual backwater. Traditionally, Iran was of strategic importance as a buffer between the Russian empire in the north, and British India to the south. However, when relations between the two powers were cordial, or at least non-hostile, Iran ceased to be of immediate importance (and in this, it didn’t matter whether Russia was czarist or Soviet, foreign policy towards Iran remained pretty much unaltered).
However, three factors changed Iran’s position: petroleum, Erwin Rommel, and Operation Barbarossa. If coal was the fuel that powered the First World War, oil was the fuel of the Second; and Iran, producing 8.6 million tons of crude oil in 1940, was the largest producer in the world (Iraq produced 2.5 million tons, while the oil fields of Saudi Arabia were not yet being tapped to any great degree). The Iranian people found themselves sitting upon a strategic asset of immeasurable value. The second factor was Rommel’s Afrika Korps, which had made such rapid advances in North Africa that Britain’s vital link to its Asian possessions via the Suez appeared to be on the verge of being cut. Then the German invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941, Operation Barbarossa, changed the entire strategic complexion of the war.
Although the danger of an Allied invasion clearly grew during the summer of 1941, the shah made no defensive plans, although some of his generals were bold enough to suggest the creation of defensive redoubt in the central mountains. The shah doggedly refused to pay attention to the increasing tension, and believed he could ride out the war as a neutral, and still maintain good relations with the eventual winners: British, German or Russian.
Using the obviously spurious excuse that 800 German workers present in the country were secret operatives ready to stage a coup, the British and Soviets moved into Iran on August 25, 1941, without a declaration of war (a week short of the second anniversary of the invasion of Poland). Reza attempted to maintain a middle road, but the resulting policy was paralysis. He did not order a full mobilization (for fear of unnecessarily antagonizing the British and Russians), but the frontier garrisons were expected to resist (as a fob to the Germans). In fact, field commanders received virtually no directives from the capital. Some garrisons put up tough resistance, others withdrew in confusion. Order was initially maintained, but by the second day, desertions, often led by the officers, became widespread.
The Soviets took no chances and used overwhelming force, even though the Germans were driving hard for Moscow. Moving along both sides of the Caspian, there were three mechanized columns with 40,000 men and 1,000 tanks. In contrast, the British forces comprised only 19,000 men, mostly from the Indian army, with a handful of obsolete light tanks, and included the 8th and 10th Indian Divisions, the 2nd Indian Armoured Brigade and the 10th British Armoured Division (this unit was just converting to armor from cavalry and had not received its tanks). There was relatively heavy fighting in the south in the port of Abadan, and in west-central Iran, just across the Iraqi border. On August 28, a general Persian surrender ended all fighting. Reza Shah abdicated in favor of his son, and spent the rest of his life in exile, dying in South Africa.
The occupation of Iran would provide Stalin with the solution of one of his other problems: the 1.7 million Polish prisoners (men, women and children) located into labor camps across the Soviet Union since 1939, had, literally overnight on June 22, 1941, become Polish “allies in exile.” A Polish army in exile was quickly organized under General Wladyslaw Anders, but several difficulties arose. A key one was Stalin’s hostility to the Polish nationalist leadership of the army. Anders was mandated to raise a division by October, but the Soviets were slow in providing rations. Thus, while Anders had 36,000 men in arms, food rations for just 30,000 were provided, and this did not include the civilians.
Tension with the Polish nationalist leadership continued, and the Poles continued to suffer from disease and malnutrition. Finally Anders came to an agreement with Stalin that those troops and their dependants who could not be provided for from Soviet sources would be evacuated to Iran. With the nationalists out of the way, a Polish army of exile under complete communist control, the Ludowe Wojsko Polskie, could be built up in the Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, the evacuation to Iran began. Many thousands of Poles did not make it, dying of disease and exhaustion along the way, while many thousands more were simply too far away or too weak to begin the exodus. The first wave took place in March-April 1942 and included 31,500 soldiers and 12,500 civilians, while the second occurred in August-September and included 45,000 soldiers and 25,000 civilians.
They arrived in overcrowded ships at the port of Pahlavi. The British and Iranian authorities had not been told until very late that women and children would also be arriving, and were generally unprepared for the severity of malnutrition and disease the exiles were suffering. Typhus was the most deadly ailment. A makeshift camp comprising over 2,000 tents (provided by the Iranian army) was hastily erected along the shoreline.
After arriving, the Poles were trained at various bases in Iran and Iraq, and were incorporated into the British Eighth Army as the 2nd Polish Corps. By mid-1943, the corps was transferred to Palestine and Egypt for final preparation, and subsequently saw service throughout Italy. An armoured division and a parachute brigade would also fight in north-western Europe.
The Poles and Iranians formed an immediate and lasting friendship, viewing themselves as equal victims of big-power imperialism. Although having to deal with British and Russian occupation and themselves often short of food, the generosity of the common Iranian people proved vital in making up the rations doled out by the British and Indian military forces. The chief of the Polish forces in the Middle East, Josef Zajac and Iranian Minister of War, Aminollah Jahanbani (who had been imprisoned by Reza Shah for some ill-advised criticisms), established a close personal relationship after they discovered they had been students at the same French military academy. [A personal note, my wife’s mother was a business partner with a sister-in-law and a close friend of the Jahabani family. She remembered Jahanbani going to prison with dark hair, and emerging with his hair turned completely snow white — the shah’s prisons were not a place you wanted to be.]
The custom of Polish soldiers saluting Iranian officers on the streets sprang up spontaneously. The British and Indian troops rarely showed the Iranians any degree of respect. The Polish refugees in particular recall the special care given to Polish orphans by the Iranian people. Since that time, the name Dariusz (Darius) has become a common Polish boy’s name.
Altogether 2,806 of the refugees died and were buried in Iran, most from typhus. Dulab cemetery in Tehran contains the largest number of graves, 1892, the rows of tombstones all marked with the date 1942.
There was one last Polish connection with Iran. In a tragic irony, it was at the Tehran Conference of 1943 between Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill that the fate of Poland in post-war Europe was determined. Poland, in a secret agreement, was assigned to the Soviet sphere of influence, and few of the thousands of the Polish refugees that passed through Iran would ever return home.
Send the Polish exiles into battle in Western Desert Force.