At the start of FALL WEISS (1939), the still mobilizing Polish Army had 280,000 men on active duty and three million in reserve. Pressed by the entire strength of the Wehrmacht in the west, and then by massive forces of the Red Army in the east from September 17, the Poles fought hard and valiantly, but not well and in vain. Following Poland’s surrender many thousands of officers were murdered by the NKVD at Katyn, Kharkov, and Tver. Others were killed by the Germans. Nearly 100,000 Polish soldiers went into foreign exile. Over 40,000 found a way through the Balkans to France, where they were joined by 40,000 more in time to fight the Germans in the west in FALL GELB in 1940. One unit of 6,000 moved to Palestine upon the French defeat, where they joined the Free French as the “Carpathian Brigade,” a force later expanded into the 3rd Carpathian Division with fresh arrivals. It fought in Italy as part of Polish 2nd Corps. However, Polish 2nd Rifle Division was trapped by the fighting in France in 1940 and was forced to seek refuge in Switzerland, where its men were interned. Other Poles made it to the Middle East or evacuated to Britain, where they were armed and fought alongside British and Commonwealth forces for the rest of the war in Africa, Italy, France, and then into Germany in 1945. Poles also fought alongside or as part of Royal Navy and other Allied naval forces. Some 20,000 served with Allied air forces, notably as fighter pilots in France and during the Battle of Britain . By the end of the war hundreds of thousands of Poles were serving alongside or as integral parts of Western Allied armies.
Inside occupied Poland the “Armia Krajowa” or Home Army formed. Originally known as the “Union for Armed Struggle,” it represented a broad coalition of resisters to German occupation. Armia Krajowa membership peaked at over 380,000 in 1944, including 35,000–40,000 women, many of whom were active fighters in close and deadly combat. During the second half of 1941, following the German invasion of the Soviet Union, General Wladyslaw Anders was appointed to command Polish ground forces reconstituted from 1.5 million Polish prisoners released by the Soviets. It was also agreed that Polish naval and air personnel would be released to the British. In August, Moscow agreed with London that the Poles should be armed by the Red Army, with some assistance from Lend-Lease, and count in the Soviet order of battle. By October, 25,000 Poles had enlisted. Their equipment and training was minimal, given Joseph Stalin’s distrust of Poles as well as the desperate circumstances facing the Red Army that fall. Already, political relations began to sour over a deepening mystery of missing Polish officers needed for the new divisions. They were already dead, buried in mass graves in the Katyn Forest and outside Tver and Kharkov. Untrusted by their Soviet hosts and untrusting of them, the Poles were moved to Central Asia and to Far East bases in early 1942. Other problems arose when Moscow forbade recruitment of ethnic Poles it identified for political reasons as Belorussian, Jewish, or Ukrainian. Anders refused to send his underarmed and poorly supplied divisions into combat. Even so, he raised six understrength divisions of 11,000–12,000 men each, with more men in reserve. This armed force deep inside his territory made Joseph Stalin profoundly suspicious. He ordered it cut from 72,000 men to just 44,000 and constricted supply. That freed over 30,000 Polish troops to be transferred to British control. They left the Soviet Union across the Caspian, thence via Iran to Iraq. With supply and recruitment problems continuing in Russia, Anders soon followed with the remaining 44,000 men and their dependents.
Once in the Middle East these Polish eager troops were incorporated into the 2nd Polish Corps under the umbrella of Britain’s Persia and Iraq Force (PAIForce). They spent the first half of 1943 training and protecting oil fields in Iraq against possible German invasion and seizure. In August they were moved to Palestine. While there, some Jewish soldiers deserted. A few joined local Zionist militia opposed to British rule. Four months later 2nd Corps moved to Egypt, bringing over 50,000 well-trained and highly motivated troops closer to action against the Axis. In early 1944 the Poles corps finally went into combat against the hated Germans, alongside Allied troops in the invasion of Italy. Anders led 2nd Polish Corps into combat, so it became popularly known to Western Allied troops as “Anders’ Army.” Polish 2nd Corps saw heavy fighting at Monte Cassino, storming the rubble and overwhelming the last German defenders while suffering great casualties. It subsequently fought sharp actions along the Gothic Line and at the Argenta Gap (1945). Left by the untidy end of the war without a country to which most felt they could return, many veterans of 2nd Corps and other Polish units spent the rest of their lives in embittered exile in Britain, Canada, France, or the United States. Altogether, some 250,000 Poles serving with the British were offered a chance to join the “Polish Resettlement Corps” for two years postwar service, preparatory to final settlement in the UK or overseas.
Meanwhile, Joseph Stalin authorized formation of a pro-Communist Polish division within the Red Army in 1943. It was led by Zygmunt Berling. He was a former chief of staff to Wladyslaw Anders, but abandoned Anders in 1942 on the eve of departure from the Soviet Union. The new division was deficient in officers, a recurring consequence of the Katyn massacre. A second Communist division was established thereafter, joining the 1st to form a Polish Corps. With additional divisions added in 1944, this formation became the Polish Army in the Soviet Union, sometimes called “Berling’s Army.” By 1945 it comprised six divisions. It saw extensive fighting in Ukraine in 1944, then moved north to eastern Poland later in the year. Serving under Konstantin Rokossovsky, Berling made forward contact with the Home Army near Warsaw on September 15. Desperate efforts to cross the Vistula late in the Warsaw Uprising were denied by higher Soviet strategic imperatives and the difficulty of the crossing. After Warsaw was liberated during the Vistula-Oder operation in early 1945, the NKVD eliminated as many Home Army personnel as it could locate. In the interim, Soviet-sponsored 1st Polish Army overcame bitter Waffen-SS resistance along the Pomeranian Wall in late April 1945, then participated in the fierce battles around Berlin. Its commander in those operations was General S. Poplawski. A second Polish–Communist army of five divisions fought in the south, deep into Czechoslovakia during March—May, 1945. Many of these Communist troops formed the core of the Polish national army set up by the Soviet Union in eastern Poland to back the claims of the Lublin Poles. After the war, elements of the force became the national Polish Army in time, but one from which Anders’ men and other exiled patriots were excluded.