‘You started it. You invaded Poland!’ Tragically, that punchline from Fawlty Towers is all that most people know about Poland’s experience of the Second World War. Most young people know the story of Auschwitz, but I wonder how many of them know it is situated in Poland? Our ignorance of Poland’s tragedies in World War Two is widespread, at a time when in Britain we have a large and growing Polish community that we need to understand. Where better to look then that to the brilliant but unsung book The Eagle Unbowed- Poland and the Poles in the Second World War by Halik Kochanski.
Reading military history is a long-standing hobby for me, and I try and ration my reading because it easily becomes obsessive, especially when it comes to WW2. I find it good to read about an aspect of the war I know nothing about, rather than yet another book about D-Day. Halik Kochanski is a respected Historian at London University, the child of Polish refugees whose story she subtly weaves into her narrative. She assumes you know nothing about Poland, and educates while drawing you into the story. The book even comes with a helpful pronunciation guide, but like reading War and Peace, you have to get past the names issue.
She starts with the rebirth of Poland in 1920 and their victories over the Bolsheviks in the east (which stores up trouble on Poland’s eastern border for later on in the story). Then Poland’s humbling at the hands of Hitler and Stalin in 1939 is described in detail – while we had our ‘phoney war’, there was nothing phoney in Poland. What people never realise is that Poland was the only country overrun by the Nazis in Eastern Europe that never surrendered. The government went underground, as did key parts of the army to form the ‘AK’, while others crossed the border into Hungary and Romania, and made their escape to fight with the allies in Western Europe. Polish pilots formed two RAF squadrons, 303 squadron being based at RAF Northolt and making a huge contribution to the battle of Britain. George Vi was heard to say ‘One cannot help feeling that if all our allies had been Poles, the coursed of the war, up to now, would have been very different.’
Huge numbers of Poles were carried into exile by Stalin in Siberia and Kazakhstan, where they lived, and many died, in appalling conditions in the Gulag. Meanwhile, 3000 Polish army officers were taken into a forest near Katyn and massacred, a war crime that Stalin blamed on Hitler and never acknowledged as the Bolshevik crime that it truly was. However, the story that I was completely unaware of was the epic migration of emaciated Poles in 1942 from the Soviet Union across the Caspian Sea into British occupied Iran, where they were fed back to health and where the men joined the growing Polish army in the Middle East. This is the most evocative part of the story, and explains why Poles have migration in their blood. They have fled so many oppressors, and so often their story has been of their ability to start again, keep their identity and yet make a new home.
Kochanski covers so many neglected stories – the tough negotiations by Gen. Sikorski and his untimely death in Gibraltar, and the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943 are well covered. She documents the horrors of the holocaust, and how Polish people responded to it, in as much as they knew. Then she covers the epic events of 1944, describing the Warsaw uprising in epic detail (the Museum of the Uprising in Warsaw is an unforgettable experience), as well as the capture of Monte Casino in Italy by Polish troops, and their hapless involvement in the battle for Arnhem. The end of the book then documents the way that Stalin played off Britain and America over Poland to his total advantage, while the argumentative Polish Government in exile in London failed to stick together and thereby lost any advantage that it might have retained.
If you want to understand Poland today, and it is a huge and needy mission field, then you need to understand its history. If you want to get to know the Polish community in Britain and their psyche which is at least as complex as the British psyche, this book is essential reading. I rate it as highly as anything written by Anthony Beevor or Max Hastings.