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Nations at war
Peszke, Michael. The Polish Underground Army, the Western Allies, and the Failure of Strategic Unity in World War II. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc, 2004
x + 244 pages
Acknowledgements; Foreword; Preface; photos; maps; Notes; Bibliography; Index
Appendices: UK-Polish Mutual Assistance Agreement; UK-Polish Air Force Agreement; UK-Polish Land Forces Agreement; Revised UK-Polish Air Force Agreement; Costs of Polish Forces; Strength of Polish Forces; Occupied Homeland Sends Two Flags to Its Warriors in Exile; Chronology
No nation engulfed in the Second World War found itself enduring a fate more tragic than that of Poland, a fate made all the more bitter when its erstwhile ally and protector forced the Polish government-in-exile to accept terms mandated by the same Soviet leader whose betrayal had originally set the tragedy in motion in 1939. Michael Peszke's book is not the first to tell the painful story of how a gallant ally was sacrificed. Among many authors to cover this ground, Peszke himself has already written a very similar volume, The Battle for Warsaw, 1939-1945. (In fact, while it does not explicitly say so, the new book seems to be little more than a revised edition of that volume.) More recently, Norman Davies contributed a thick and well-received work, Rising '44, which deals with a subset of the same events and issues.
The Davies book, while focusing more tightly on the political-diplomatic-military aspects of the 1944 uprising, succeeds as a scholarly and highly accessible account which attempts to illuminate all the dark corners from every angle. While Davies sometimes takes an unusual approach to the structure and presentation of his material (such as always referring to the Polish participants by their code names or nicknames rather than their actual tongue-twisting surnames; an approach which works well within the context of his book but leaves the reader adrift when reading about the same people in other books where authors make no such concessions), he exercises the greatest care to always paint characters and events in shades of gray. Thus in the Davies book the Polish tragedy emerges from the inexorable unfolding of day to day developments and the imperfections of all players as judged by the readers, not simply because the author writes in an accusatory tone.
On the last page of the Peszke book, on the other hand, the author states "There is a tendency to see the Polish-British situation in rather radical black and white." Unlike the gray on gray of Davies, Peszke takes exactly that binary approach throughout most of his pages, constantly drawing a stark contrast between the bravery and self-sacrifice of the Poles and the duplicity of the British who were willing to sacrifice any and all to gain their own objectives. Peszke is not so blind as to miss every act of generosity from Londonand certainly a few men, such as Victor Cazalet, are portrayed as true friends of Polandbut on the whole Churchill and the British government have according to this account not much of which to be proud. Roosevelt and the Yanks come off marginally better, but only on the basis of their repeated insistence that the Poles must refer to London. Stalin, who surely deserves a full measure of guilt and shame, is treated like a distant figure of such unmitigated evil that the author is barely able to ascribe to him human emotions and motivations. Of Adolf Hitler almost nothing is written.
Peszke's writing seems further colored by some unusual figures of speech. Given that the author was born in pre-war Poland (and his father served as a colonel in the Polish Air Force), his perspective and his use of the English language might be explained by his age and background. In any event, reading this bookunlike, for example, the more scholarly Rising '44makes it obvious that the author harbors strong and unconcealed feelings about Poland's fate in World War II, a disposition occasionally rendered by quaint prose as somewhat provincial.
Nevertheless, despite the author's attitude, his book offers a great many nuggets of information. For readers who can recognize Peszke's prejudices and maintain some distance from his mostly black and white approach, there's much of interest to be found here.
To begin with, going back to pre-war relations between Poland and the West, the author immediately lodges the harsh judgment that the 1939 British guarantee of Poland"characterized by its unwillingness to advance a loan, with no plans to come to Poland's military aid or even to implement its promises of aerial attacks"was solely intended to ensure that under no circumstances would the Polish armed forces "...be at the side of the Germans." The British guarantee according to this view was not intended to save Poland but rather to ensure that the Polish Army would be utilized against Germany. Peszke also points out that even before the German invasion, Polish forces had already implemented plans for sabotage and resistance forces by creating special "stay behind" cadres and hiding military equipment in more than 300 secret underground storage bunkers; this, of course, would in due course become the core of the Home Army in occupied Poland.
Peszke goes on to rationalize the Polish defensive plan used in 1939. While sometimes criticized for deploying too far forward and stretching the army too thin in an effort to defend the entire country, the policy is explained by the author as perfectly reasonable given the facts as the Polish government understood them at the time. In the first place, according to Peszke, if the Poles failed to defend their frontiers then the Germans might simply drive into western Poland without a fight and subsequently agree to a peace settlement by which "...the Western democracies might be tempted to pursue the Munich road of appeasement" and acquiesce to a new partition of Poland. In addition, by defending the border, the Poles intended to force Germany to commit larger forces to the invasion, which would consequently pave the way for a quick and successful offensive by the French against weak German garrisons. The Polish plan, as interpreted here, also called for forcing the Germans to deploy for an attack, then quickly pulling back to new defensive positions so the Germans would lose time in pursuit and redeployment. In this way the Germans would be kept off balance untilas promisedin fifteen days the French armies launched their offensive which would be synchronized with a counteroffensive by the Polish reserve force, Army Prusy.
The book also claims that the Poles knew the date set for the German invasion:
The archival evidence that proves that the Polish General Staff predicted the date
of the German attack are the mobilization orders for Poland's aviation. On August 26,
mobilization orders for ground components of combat units were issued and these were
moved to secret bases. On August 31, the majority of the combat units were flown out
to secret bases. Thus no aviation units were destroyed on the ground as has often been
written. On August 30, Poland declared general mobilization but the British and French
ambassadors protested that such a move on Poland's part would be perceived as a
provocative act and might make it harder for the Western parliaments to honor their
treaty obligation. The general mobilization was rescinded. It is a sad commentary on
the way that history is written that some Western politicians condemned Poland for
failure to order a timely mobilization.
During the summer of 1939, all shipping offices were moved from Gdynia to Warsaw. In August, all merchant marine and fishing fleets were placed on a state of alert
and Polish transports were diverted from Polish ports, delayed in their sailing for Poland
or if in Polish waters expedited in departure. On August 28, all Polish flag carriers were
ordered to stay out of the Baltic and to obey only coded orders from Warsaw. On
August 30, 1939, the Polish Destroyer Division received instructions and weighed
anchor to sail for the United Kingdom.
Beyond the opening chapter, Peszke's main thread involves Polish planning for a return to the homeland, and how the strategy and preparations of the government-in-exile and its armed forces evolved during the course of the war. In all its permutations, the underlying expectation was that the Home Army, loyal to the legitimate government in London, would rise at the appropriate moment, andsupported by the overseas ground and air forceswrest control from the occupying Germans.
Before looking at some of the specifics of that planning, it's worth noting that Peszke never really addresses the basic fallacy in Polish strategy. The unalterable geopolitical facts showed that Poland could not be liberated by forces based in England, nor could forces in England tip the balance in any battle between the Home Army and an undefeated German occupation force. Limitations of speed, range, payload, and landing requirements meant that Allied aircraft could not hope to sustain conventional forces in the field while the Luftwaffe controlled the sky over Europe. Furthermore, the notion of the Home Army capturing a "complex of airfields" for basing Polish fighter squadrons was simply a pipedream, because the fighters could not have been sustained in Poland any easier than ground forces. Likewise, the plan to insert the Polish airborne brigade to support the rising (and/or defend airfields) would simply have condemned brave troops to death or captivity. Unless they had already driven into the heart of Germany and defeated the Third Reichin which outside case liberation would hardly be necessaryno route existed for projecting the military power of the Western Allies into Poland. The Brits and the exile Poles because of geographic reality simply couldn't liberate an effectively landlocked nation on the far side of a powerful enemy until that enemy had already been defeated. And from the moment Germany invaded the Soviet Union, there was only one direction from which Poland could be rescued.
Nevertheless, the Polish government-in-exile and its armed forces continued to plan as though they would be liberating the homeland from afar. Among the units formed, the most important for Polish aspirations was the airborne brigade. Originally a mere cadre earmarked for training and inserting small forces into occupied Poland, the formation was expanded and expectations grew accordingly. At no point, however, were the Poles ever close to controlling sufficient resources to provide their own airlift capability. As a consequence, the airborne brigade was incapable of any mission whatsoever without approval and assistance from the British. As predicted by a Polish officer, when the cadre was expanded to a brigade, the British found the morsel impossible to resist, and essentially bullied the Poles into committing the unit in a conventional airborne role at Arnhem instead of sending it to aid the Warsaw rising.
Peszke devotes some attention to the death of General Sikorksi andlike many othersis not convinced that the air crash was entirely an accident. He also looks briefly at the Katyn massacre, couriers to and from Poland, and the Polish army on the Russian front which in the author's view consisted of little more than those Home Army troops who were captured and given the choice of fighting in "Polish" units under Soviet officers or else going to the gulag.
The author spends considerably more time discussing the ramifications of the Tehran conference at which the future borders of Poland were determined, much to Polish displeasure. One interesting point here is that many of the Polish exile leaders, such as Prime Minister Mikolajczyk, were from western Poland "and had little emotional attachment" to the eastern lands consigned to the Soviet Union. "On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of the rank and file of the 2nd Polish Corps was from the disputed regions." These men had already suffered the hardship of Stalin's hospitality in the Soviet Union before being released to serve with General Anders, and they proved to be the core of enduring resentment. Likewise, the Home Army could not compromise on the issue.
The Polish prime minister's own Peasant Party in Poland, would not allow him
any such options. So in a way that was not appreciated, or was conveniently ignored,
the "recalcitrant" Polish government was merely legitimately representing its coalition.
Furthermore, the majority of the Poles in the West were military. Therefore, there
seemed to be a misperception, one which was fueled by the inimical British press, that
the Polish government was reactionary and authoritarian and dominated by the military. In fact the majority of the soldiers in the 2 Polish Corps were not career soldiers.
The majority of the career elite were dead at places like Katyn or in German prisoner
of war camps following the September Campaign. It was also a tragedy of fate that the
overwhelming majority of the officers and men of the Polish military in the West, the
famous 2 Corps, were from the eastern regions of Poland, the historical Kresy, that were
coveted by the Soviets.
The post-Tehran impasse was characterized by Churchill in his speech to the Parliament in February 1944: "I have an intense sympathy with the Poles, that heroic race
whose national spirit centuries of misfortune cannot quench, but I have also sympathy
with the Russian standpoint. Twice in our lifetime Russia has been assaulted by Germany." It is far from clear as to what German aggression against the Soviets had to
do with Poland's boundaries. But at this point logic and historical fact were irrelevant.
At this point, however, the governments, the press, and the people of the Western Allies were embracing Uncle Joe and the Soviets, and no one was willing to rock the Allied boat to support the gallant Poles.
When the Warsaw Uprising commenced on the first day of August 1944, all the years of Polish planning and preparations came to naught. The only Allied ground forces with any hope of reaching Warsaw were Soviet, and Stalin would permit no support by land or air. "The tragedy of Warsaw was that even the most suspicious and skeptical of Soviet intentions and those most pessimistic of British support could not imagine and certainly could never have predicted the unholy alliance of the machiavellian Stalin and the rage of Hitler coupled with British impotence and Roosevelt's disinterest." Peszke goes on to point out that Stalin simply permitted Hitler to eliminate the only organized force that could have resisted Soviet plans for Poland. The author proceeds to examine in intensive detail the availability of aircrew and aircraft for supplying the Home Army, the lack of British cooperation and assistance, and the totals of missions and tonnages. These numbers indicate that, even during the height of the Rising, Polish air transport resources were being constantly diverted to other tasks at rates far exceeding the effort devoted to Poland by the RAF. (See also Airlift to Warsaw by Neil Orpen.) Meanwhile, the British declined to make available to the government-in-exile aircraft for inserting into Poland even a single battalion of the airborne brigade.
The disaster of the loss of life and cultural artifacts probably will never be remedied. But the destruction of the Warsaw-based AK removed the last, most patriotic segment of the Polish population that would have undoubtedly strongly resisted Communist takeover. Granted military status, the Poles were taken to prisoner of war camps in Germany, where they were subsequently liberated by the Western Allies. Most never returned to Poland.
Although it veers away from his main topic, Peszke devotes six or seven pages to a blow-by-blow account of what he obviously considers British incompetence in wasting the Polish airborne brigade at Arnhem. In any event, by this point the Polish star was clearly in descent. The brigade's commander, Sosabowski, was sacked at British insistence for, in the author's opinion, questioning British orders and having been proved right. For outspokenness in his demands for assistance to Warsaw, the Polish commander-in-chief, Sosnkowski, resigned at the request of Prime Minister Mikolajczyk under intense pressure from the British. "Churchill eventually prevailed on Mikolajczyk to espouse a humiliating accommodation to the Soviets and their puppets in the Lublin Committee. He was given a vote of no confidence by the Polish government and resigned his office." In July 1945 the British rescinded their recognition of the Polish government in London and accepted the Soviet-installed administration.
Peszke makes no attempt to write a full and balanced account of every aspect of Poland during the war years. Although he charts the expansion and employment of Polish forces, this is by no means a history of combat operations. Likewise, the occupation of Poland remains outside the scope of the book. Almost nothing is said about the course of the Rising itself, and the Home Army actually receives relatively little attention. If the title of the book more accurately reflected its content, instead of The Polish Underground Army, the Western Allies, and the Failure of Strategic Unity in World War II it would be The Polish Government in Exile, the Western Allies, and the Failure of Strategic Unity in World War II.
Whatever the title and whatever he leaves out, the author makes it abundantly clear that the Poles suffered at every turn from the beginning of the war until the end, and even at that point their tribulations were not over. In doing so, Peszke seldom finds any aspect of British behavior worthy of honor. In the final sentence of his last chapter, Peszke goes so far as to chastise the official history of the Royal Air Force by Saunders and Richards because an appendix listing the RAF order of battle fails to identify which squadrons were Polish.
Yes, the Poles were brave and self-sacrificing allies. No, the British were not above allowing allies to sacrifice themselves. But to heap so much blame on the Brits without admitting how much was beyond their control does justice to no one.
In that regard, Anthony Eden's response to a memorandum from the British ambassador to Poland makes a telling point:
It is worth noting that the British ambassador to Poland, Sir Owen O'Malley,
minuted the British foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, arguing that Churchill's Polish
policy was flawed and contrary not only to British integrity but also to the letter and
spirit of the Atlantic Charter. He summarized his view:
The real choice before us seems to me, to put it brutally, to lie between on the
one hand selling the corpse of Poland to Russia and finding an alibi to be used
in evidence when we are indicted for abetting a murder; and on the other hand
putting the points of principle to Stalin in the clearest possible way and warning
him that our position might have to be explained publicly with equal clearness.
In the second alternative we might indeed fail to deflect him from violent and
illegal courses, but it would be on record that we had done our utmost to do so.
There is a handwritten comment from Eden here: "But would it help Poland?"
The plight of Poland is worth examining and Peszke's book is worth reading, even if not all of its suppositions, implications, accusations, and conclusions can be taken at face value.
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from McFarland & Company, Inc.
Thanks to McFarland for providing this review copy.
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Reviewed 3 April 2005
Copyright © 2005 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone