Race Matters

How the Poles saved England - another forgotten story

In 1940, Britain stood alone against the might of Nazi Germany. The Nazi totalitarian state represented the most viscous and violent threat to the rights of man the world has ever experienced. In the space of less than one year, Germany had invaded and subjugated Poland, Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, Holland, Belgium and France. Now she stood poised across the English Channel, needing only to knock the Royal Air Force from the skies, before sending her gray-clad army across the waters to occupy London and the other British cities.

Anyone growing up in this country will be familiar, to some degree, with the tale of what came next. Brave British fighter pilots, facing overwhelming odds, fought in England’s blue skies all summer against the might of the German Luftwaffe. When it was over, we stood victorious, saved by The Few; that handful of fighter pilots. The Germans pulled back and decided that it made more sense to attack the vastness of the Soviet Union than to attempt to defeat our small island.

But most people have forgotten, or they never knew, that The Few was a truly multinational force. Fliers from across Europe, and from the British Dominions, had volunteered to fight in large numbers. During the Battle of Britain, Poland alone contributed over ten percent of the fighter pilots engaged. Bomber Command would later be twenty percent Polish.

Poland’s contribution to the military efforts of the Western Allies was not limited to flying aircraft. Polish soldiers made up the fourth largest Allied ground force; over 400,000 men and women. Poles who had been taken to the Soviet Gulag by Stalin following the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland, later made their way to the Middle East, via Persia. Here they too joined up to fight and they served in North Africa and Italy, most notably becoming the victors at the famous battle of Monte Cassino.

It was the Poles who broke the secret German Enigma coding system, possibly winning the war for the Allies with this single act. Poles uncovered the secrets of the German rocket programme and reported on the events of the Holocaust as they unfolded. Poles suffered, pro-rata, the heaviest losses of any nation during the Second World War, yet the Polish underground resistance became the largest and most active in Europe, tying down vast numbers of German soldiers, who would otherwise have been fighting on the front lines.

Another forgotten army of Poles, some 300,000 strong, fought alongside the Soviet Red Army. They drove from the heart of Russia to Berlin, suffering massive losses along the way. But these men and women also displayed the dogged determination that is characteristic of their nation. They fought Nazism longer than any other people and they suffered more. One and a half million Poles were taken as slave labour to the Reich, for example, and an estimated half million Polish children were kidnapped from their parents and raised as Germans for their racial characteristics. Yet the Poles prevailed and to this day, even the youngest Pole can tell you the story of Poland’s struggle, exhibiting a knowledge of history and a national pride that few British children can match.

So, the next time you hear Polish spoken, or meet a group of Poles in the street or in a park, do not apply the mental badge, ‘immigrant’ and avoid them. Instead, badge them as the sons of daughters of heroes who gave their all that we might live freely, working and travelling as we please. Go and talk to them about Poland’s long war; you will see their eyes light up and you will hear the pride in their voices. And you will walk away inspired.

Mark Johnson is the author of Never Surrender: Poland’s Long War, 1939-1945, which will be available for purchase online from late May 2014.

Photo Credit: www.warrelics.eu
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