By Zosia Beigus
Following the defeat of the Polish army by the joint forces of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR in the September Campaign of 1939, an order went out for Polish soldiers to make their way, as best they could, to France where a Polish Government in Exile was formed under the premiership of General. Sikorski and a Polish army was being assembled to continue fighting alongside Poland’s allies – Britain and France. Those who did not make it across Italy to France headed for Syria where they were formed into the Carpathian Rifle Brigade, which later fought at Tobruk. The forces that formed in France participated in the abortive Narvik campaign and, following the defeat of France in 1940, evacuated to Britain.
In the meantime Hitler’s ally, Stalin, was consolidating his hold on the part of Poland the Soviet Union had annexed under the Ribbentrop – Molotov pact, by deporting to Siberia anyone thought likely to resist the annexation. By the time Hitler broke the pact with the Soviet Union and attacked it on the 22nd June 1941, close to a million Poles had been deported. Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union brought the Soviets into the Allied camp with Britain and, more awkwardly, Poland. The British government brokered a pact between Poland and the USSR under which Stalin declared a so called “amnesty” for all Poles in Prisoner of War Camps, NKVD prisons and in Soviet Exile and agreed to a Polish army being formed in the USSR; all those who heard of “the amnesty”, and were able to undertake the journey, set out for the recruitment centres. At this time Britain had a desperate need for troops to protect the Middle Eastern oil fields so, in 1942, the Polish army and its dependents left the Soviet Union for Persia (today’s Iran) to be re-equipped and made ready for battle. Together with units already in England (Polish Navy, Air Force and Army evacuated from France) the Polish Armed Forces in Exile thus became the third largest fighting force in the West after Britain and America. Their Battle Honours include Narvik, the Battle of Britain, Battle of the Atlantic, Tobruk, Monte Cassino, Normandy and Arnhem.
Civilians who escaped from the Soviet Union with the troops were placed in camps in British colonies in India and Africa to await the end of the war and return to their homes in an independent Poland.
Unfortunately, the political settlement between Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill meant that when the war ended the Soviets annexed Eastern Poland and incorporated it into the Soviet Union, while the rest of Poland became a puppet state with a communist government imposed by Russia. The vast majority of Poles rejected this settlement and chose to remain in the West where they could continue the political struggle for an independent Poland while maintaining their language, culture and traditions for an eventual return to their homeland.
When, in July 1945, the British government withdrew recognition from the Polish Government in London and recognised the Warsaw regime imposed by Russia, it found itself with a very tricky problem. What to do with a large allied army, air force and navy which had fought alongside their British ally throughout the war, and still owing its allegiance to, and under the control of, a government no longer recognised by the British and actively hostile to the government now proclaimed by Britain and the USA as the legitimate government of Poland? One of the options was to repatriate forcibly the Polish armed forces and their dependents to Poland but, as it is succinctly put in a cabinet briefing paper ‘....it needs to be born in mind that the Polish army is currently the largest fighting force in Italy.’ The problem was solved in a pragmatic and very British way. A Polish Resettlement Corps (PRC) was raised as a corps of the British Army and all those wishing to remain in the West were recruited into this newly created corps for the period of their resettlement and demobilisation. Some 125,000 chose to join the PRC and remain in Britain. They were joined by their families and dependents from wherever the fortunes of war had left them, swelling the numbers to well over 200,000.
PRC units coming to Britain retained their Polish command structure and organisation including the Medical Corps which moved into Hospitals built and equipped by the US Army during the war and now abandoned. In 1946 Penly and Iscoyd Park became home to the Polish 3rd Field Hospital and Llanerch Panna housed Polish Field Hospital no. 11. Both were formed in 1941 in the USSR as part of the Polish 2nd Corps and accompanied it throughout its journey through the Middle East, Monte Cassino and other battle fields of Italy. The hospitals served not only servicemen but also their families and the wider Polish community of civilians who had spent the war in displaced persons camps in India, East Africa and the Middle East and eventually made their home in Britain.