This is the second to last component of my long-running posts on Poland’s contributions to World War II. You can search for the other ones on my blog, since I can’t seem to hyperlink them for some reason.
Though under-appreciated in many cursory studies of military history, intelligence was has always been to turning the tide of the war, as it did during WWII more than once. Even in defeat,Poland helped the Allies learn valuable information about the Nazis. Its role was far larger than its size and military prowess would have suggested, and it was all the more remarkable considering that it was occupied for all but a single month of the war!
Interestingly, Poland’s contribution to intelligence began years before World War II even broke out. From late 1932 to the eve of the September Campaign, three mathematicians and cryptologists – Marian Rejewski, Henryk Zygalski and Jerzy Różycki – had developed a number of decryption methods and devices while working for the country’s Cipher Bureau in Warsaw. Rejewski’s cyclometer and card catalog, Zygalski’s perforated sheets, Rejewski’s cryptologic bomb, and still others. Together these could crack Germany’s infamous and once-indecipherable “Enigma” device.
In the summer before the war, Poland shared this development to its French and British counterparts, which were unable to crack the Enigma cipher themselves, and would perhaps never have been able to. The intelligence gained from these advancements, codenamed Ultra, ended up being extremely valuable to the Allied war effort (although the exact importance of this evidence is disputed, most sources agree it helped the course of the war).
Intelligence operations continued throughout the occupation as well. AK, the Polish Home Army, was instrumental in helping the allies locate and destroy a rocket facility located at Peenemünde, in 1943. They supplied intelligence to the Soviets about German troop movements into their territory. Perhaps their most well-known contribution was the provision of information on Germany’s top secret V-1 and V-2 rockets, which AK even managed to collect parts of. The subsequent analysis of these powerful weapons proved vital to developing Allied defenses against the V-2 (see Operation Most III).
In fact, until 1942 most ofBritain’s intelligence concerning Germany came from the AK reports, and until the very end, the Home Army would remainBritain’s main source of intelligence for all of Central and Eastern Europe. As early as 1940, Polish agents such as Witold Pilecki infiltrated German concentration camps, includingAuschwitz, and exposed Nazi atrocities to the world.
In July 1941 Mieczysław Słowikowski, under the codename “Rygor” (Polish for rigor) set up “Agency Africa,” which developed into one of the war’s most successful and prominent intelligence organizations. The information gathered by the Agency helped the Allies execute Operation Torch, the 1942 amphibious landings inNorth Africa that were the first large-scale assaults of their kind thus far. The success of this operation paved the way for the Italian Campaign, in which Polish forces would also serve with distinction (to be discussed later).
Indeed, Polish intelligence agents were present in every European country, whether occupied or neutral. The Poles even managed to run one of the largest intelligence networks within Nazi Germany itself. Subsequently, of all the reports received by the British from continental Europe, 43% came from Polish sources. Many Poles also served with distinction in Allied intelligence services, the most well-known of them being the reputable Krystyna Skarbek (aka “Christine Granville”) of theUK’s Special Operations Executive.
The Free Polish Forces
As I’ve clearly established,Poland continued fighting Nazi Germany in some form or another throughout the remainder of the war. But this wasn’t limited to insurgency, subterfuge, and spying (as vital as all those activities were). Believe it or not,Poland managed to maintain a large and independently operating military from the very moment the nation fell. It came to be one of the largest and more distinguished armed groups in the entire war.
After the country’s defeat in 1939, the Polish Government-in- Exile quickly organized a new army in France that consisted of about 80,000 men who had fled the country to continue the fight. In 1940 a Polish brigade fought in the Battle of Narvik in Norway, two Polish divisions took part in the defense of France, while more Polish forces were being assembled during the course of the French campaign. A Polish brigade was even formed in French-controlledSyria, to which many Polish troops had escaped to. The Polish Air Force had also shifted toFrance comprising 86 aircraft in four squadrons.
Unfortunately, despite their best efforts, Francecapitulated, with 6,000 Poles having been killed and another 13,000 captured. But the stubborn Poles once again tried to keep on fighting. General Władysław Sikorski,Poland’s commander-in-chief and prime minister, was evacuated many Polish troops to theUK. In 1941, Polish government-in-exile convinced the beleaguered Soviets (who had just been invaded) to release Polish citizens, from which emerged an army numbering around 75,000 troops. This force eventually joined the British 8th army, where it became the Polish II Corps.
The Polish armed forces in the western front came under British command and eventually numbered 165,000 towards the end of 1944, including about 20,000 personnel in the Polish Air Force and 3,000 in the Polish Navy. By the very end of the war, Polish forces totaled close to 230,000, not including the other 200,000 or so that served on the Eastern Front.
Polish Air Force
As I noted before, the Polish Air Force put up a pretty decent fight in the Battle for Poland. Despite being outnumbered and outmatched (despite their relatively high standard of pilot training for the time), the air force remained active up to the second week of the campaign, managing to inflict significant damage on the Luftwaffe, which lost 285 aircraft to the Pole’s 333 (with an additional 279 damaged).
Like the most of the remaining Polish military, pilots fled the country after it was defeated to continue the fight elsewhere, namely France. It’s a little-known fact that the Polish Air Force participated in the Battle of France as one independent fighter squadron, GC 1/145, as well as through several small units attached to French squadrons. In total, 133 pilots achieved 53-57 victories at a loss of 8 men, making up nearly 8% of allied victories – not bad given the size and relative lack of training. Polish Air Forces in France and Great Britain
As per their habit, the Poles kept the fight going every time they were pushed back: once Francefell, their air force shifted its operations to the UK, which was to be the final bulwark against Nazi domination of Europe. Polish pilots fought with considerable distinction in the crucial Battle of Britain: for example, the famed Polish 303 Fighter Squadron claimed the highest number of kills of any Allied squadron.
It should be noted that from the very beginning of the war, the Royal Air Force (RAF) had welcomed foreign pilots to shore up the heavy losses of British pilots. In the summer of 1940, the Polish Government in Exile signed an agreement with the British Government to reestablish a Polish Army and Polish Air Force in theUnited Kingdom. The first two (of an eventual ten) Polish fighter squadrons went into action just a couple of months later.
Aside from the 303, three other Polish squadrons eventually took part in the Battle of Britain: the 300 and 301 Bomber Squadrons and the 302 Fighter Squadrons. These groups comprised a total of 89 Polish pilots, in addition to more than 50 Poles that fought under British command, leading to a total of 145 Polish pilots defending theUK. Though originally outmatched in terms of skill, Polish pilots were by then one of the most experienced in the battle, most of them having already fought in the first two major battles of the war.
The 303 Squadron claimed took down 126 enemy air craft, the highest number of any fighter squadron engaged defending theUK – even though it was one of the latest to join the effort. In fact, despite constituting only 5% of the pilots active during the Battle of Britain, Poles were responsible for 12% of the total victories. They punched far above their weight level.
The Polish Air Force continued to fight beyond the UK, fighting in Tunisiain 1943 (look up the Polish Fighting Team, aka “Skalski’s Circus”) and participating in raids onGermany for the duration of the war. In the second half of 1941 and early 1942, around 19,400 pilots were serving with the British, and Polish bomber squadrons comprised a sixth of the RAF’s bombers, though they later suffered heavy losses – being a bomber was one of the riskiest positions in the war, and the Poles lost 929 pilots. Ultimately, Polish fighter claimed 629 kills by the end of the war.
The Polish Navy
I feel that Navies in general get short thrift in the European Theater of the war, and underrated Poland would of course be no exception. Indeed, its navy wasn’t much to look at, given that the country was almost landlocked. Subsequently, the Poles rightly anticipated that the fighting would occur mostly on the ground and in the air, and there was no reason to risk letting the ships get taken over in the event of defeat. So just before the war, three destroyers, the bulk of the Polish Navy’s capital ships, were sent for safety to the British Isles.
Once there, however, they continued the trend of their air and land counterparts, fighting alongside the Royal Navy for the duration of the conflict. The Polish Navy grew considerably, having been given command of several British, cruisers, submarines, and other ships that would otherwise been left in dry dock due to an initial lack of skilled British personnel to operate them. It eventually numbered 27 ships, ranging from destroyers to torpedo boats.
Like the rest of the Polish forces, the navy fought with great distinction and took part in many vital operations, most famously in efforts to sink the great German battleship, Bismarck. It sailed a total of 1.2 million nautical miles, escorted 787 convoys, conducted 1,162 patrols and combat operations, sank 53 Axis ships, damaged 24 more, and shot down 20 aircraft. Of the over 4,000 Poles who served with the navy, 450 lost their lives. Note that none of this includes the important contributions of the Polish Merchant Navy.