Poland from Italy
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
This soil was won for Poland
Though Poland is far away
For freedom is measured in crosses
When history from justice does stray
— Feliks Konarsky
Following the Soviet occupation of eastern
Poland in 1939, some 1.5 million Polish citizens
found themselves arrested and transported
into Soviet labor camps and prisons. When
the Nazi sneak attack struck the Soviet Union
18 months later, British diplomats led by
Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden pointed out
to the Soviets that these exiles could provide
a potent source of manpower for the anti-fascist
Negotiations between the Soviet Union and
the Polish exile government in London opened
in late July 1941, about a month after the
Nazi attack. By mid-August the Soviets had
agreed to release Polish military prisoners
who volunteered to fight against the Germans.
However, they soon refused to allow these
soldiers to head to Britain to join the exile
units formed there — Josef Stalin would only
open the gulag gates to provide soldiers
for his own needs.
About 115,000 Poles, including women, children
and non-combatants, were eventually released
to join Gen. Wladyslaw Anders' army. Anders
formed three infantry divisions, training
at first near Orenburg and then moving to
Tashkent in Central Asia. After long political
wrangling, in the summer of 1942 Stalin finally
agreed to allow the Poles to move to Iran
as part of the Allied occupation force there.
From Iran, they soon moved to Iraq and came
under British command.
Now styled the Polish II Corps (Polish units
in the United Kingdom made up the I Corps),
Anders' troops were scattered in training
camps across Iraq and Palestine. Welcome
reinforcement came with the addition of Col.
Stanislaw Kopanski's seasoned Carpathian
which had been fighting alongside the British
in the Western Desert. But Stalin shut off
further access to the Poles imprisoned and
exiled in the Soviet Union after the London
government-in-exile began asking pointed
questions about the fate of some 15,000 missing
The controversy over the Katyn Forest massacre
died with Gen. Wladislaw Sikorski, head of
the exile movement, in a mysterious plane
crash at Gibraltar. But Stalin had no intention
of feeding more men to a movement that had
shown its hostility to the Soviet Union and
that his propaganda organs now labeled as
sympathetic to the Nazis. Anders and his
staff had estimated that at least 300,000
men could be raised from the Soviet camps,
even given strict Soviet limits on recruiting
Ukrainians, Byelorussians and Jews who had
been Polish citizens in 1939. Now these men
would be funneled into Stalin's
own Polish exile army.
The loss of these potential recruits greatly
upset Anders' plans. Two infantry divisions
had been formed, the 3rd Carpathian on the
basis of Kopanski's brigade and the 5th Kresowa
built around the staff of the 5th Division
originally organized in the Soviet Union.
Each had two infantry brigades, with skeleton
staffs of their third brigades awaiting further
influxes of manpower from the gulags. In
addition, an armoured brigade had begun formation
(with all of 10 tanks), along with an independent
infantry brigade that was to become the basis
for a third division.
Anders also lost a number of Jewish soldiers.
As his troops remained in their camps and
away from the front lines, discipline began
to break down and anti-Semitic disturbances
erupted among the troops. The corps included
about 4,500 Jewish soldiers, and in addition
about 1,500 Jewish civilian refugees — half
of them children — had accompanied them on
their trek out of the Soviet Union. During
the Poles' stopover in Tehran, Iranians had
stepped forward to help the children on their
exodus, smuggling them into Palestine by
sea. The majority of the Jewish soldiers
— including Israel's future Prime Minister
Menachim Begin — deserted to sneak into Israel,
prompting British outrage when Anders refused
to pursue them.
Without the additional recruits, and the
officers massacred at Katyn and Tula by the
NKVD, both divisions were below their authorized
strength and the British were reluctant to
commit them to combat. Instead the Poles
helped garrison Iraq against a potential
German breakthrough in the Caucasus. Both
Polish divisions lacked all of their artillery,
mortars were in short supply, and all units
had a shortage of personnel. Anders furiously
rejected suggestions that his corps be broken
up and attached to British and American divisions
in battalion-sized units, but attempts to
make up the manpower shortage with recruitment
among Polish communities in Canada and the
United States failed miserably.
Instead, Anders proposed to send his corps
into battle without a pool of replacements:
the Poles would take the manpower to replace
their losses and flesh out their incomplete
divisions on the battlefield. Large numbers
of ethnic Poles had been impressed into the
Wehrmacht as "Category Three" ethnic
Germans; though officially these people were
supposed to be ethnic Germans, Nazi officials
faced enormous pressure to recruit anyone
who looked vaguely Germanic in order to make
good the German Army's own manpower shortages.
Some of these Aryan conquerors spoke no German
at all, and Anders believed they would gladly
join their own side if given the chance.
The Poles also had intelligence indicating
that tens of thousands of Polish prisoners
of war had been sent to Italy to labor on
various projects. These men could also be
freed and put back into service.
Though uncomfortable with the plan, the
British finally agreed to declare the corps
combat-ready and in June 1943 Anders' troops
were ordered to make ready for action. The
3rd Carpathian Division moved to Italy in
December 1943, entering combat along a quiet
sector of the front along the Sangro River.
Corps headquarters followed in January 1944,
5th Kresowa Division in February and the
armoured brigade in April. In May they moved
up to Monte
Cassino, where they took
the monastery after American, British, Indian
and New Zealand troops had failed. Afterwards
the Polish corps fought up the length of
Italy to the Po Valley.
Polish troops did not participate in the
invasion of Sicily, though they were certainly
fit for combat. Kopanski's brigade had participated
in action as early as 1941 against the Italian
17th "Pavia" Infantry Division,
causing some consternation in the exile movement
as Italy and Poland were not formally at
war. That clash could be written off as the
fortunes of war, since those Italian troops
were formally under German command. But an
invasion of Italian sovereign territory was
a much stronger step, and a number of Polish
politicians shied away from such involvement.
Once Italy surrendered in September 1943,
the way was clear for Polish involvement
on the peninsula.
For Daily Content variants, we're not required
to give the fascists the same consideration; fascists deserve none.
We can add the Polish II Corps to our Bitter
Victory game as optional
reinforcements on the 2-3 August turn. The
Allied player rolls one die; on a result
of 5 or 6 all five new Polish units are available. You can download the new Polish units here.
Click here to order Bitter
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.