Tag Archives: poland

Using Google Maps to plot War Cemeteries

I had a brainwave whilst browsing google maps the other day. Why not use the drop-pin feature on Google Maps to plot the location of War Cemeteries where Portsmouth casualties are buried?

Using the CWGC‘s directions, and with a bit of searching, I have begun to plot the locations of a number of war cemeteries, beginning with Germany, Belgium, Czech Republic, Poland, Algeria, Tunisia, and some of the Far Eastern Countries.

Hopefully its something I will be able to use to help people locate exactly where they relatives are buried. It also helps us appreciate how the war was fought – in what countries, and the locations of war cemeteries as campaigns were fought.

Take a look at my customised map here.

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Filed under portsmouth heroes, Remembrance, World War Two

Youtube picks

David Beckham visits troops in Afghanistan

Now, lots of harsh words are spoken about footballers – some of it true (yes you, Ashley Cole!) and some of it not so true. But David Beckham’s recent visit to Afghanistan showed what a true gent he is. He’s always struck me as more grounded than people seem to think, and he certainly comes across like that here.

Solidarity Poland 1981

This is a section of the BBC Documentary series The Cold War that looks at the Solidarity Movement in 1980’s Poland. It also focuses on Pope John Paul II and Lech Walesa. I can remember watching this in College for A-Level History. There has always been something tragic about Polish history that has fascinated me.

Black Label Society – In This River (Live)

I spent many years of my youth listening to this band. Zakk Wylde has to be the greatest heavy metal guitarist out there, and this is his tribute to Dimebag Darrell of Pantera, who was murdered onstage in 2005. Its a very emotional song and means a lot to me too.

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Katyn 1940 by Eugenia Maresch

Far too many horrific and tragic events took place between 1939 and 1945. One of the saddest ironiest of the recent death of the Polish President, First Lady and many prominent Poles in an air crash was that they were on their way to take part in a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre of thousands of Polish Officers by the Soviets in 1940. Its a timely reminder that massacres long ago have very strong resonance in the present day.

This book by Eugenia Marsch is a forensic and exacting attempt to describe the way in which the west – and the British Government in particular – did not, for whatever reason, hold the Soviets to account for what they perpetrated at Katyn. During the war and for many years afterwards the Soviets insisted that the killings must have been carried out by the Germans – after all, the Nazis did have a track record for mass killings. It was only during the 1980’s, and with Glasnost and Perestroika, that the Russians finally admitted to the atrocity.

The first section describes in crystal clear detail how the mass graves at Katyn were discovered. In particular its interesting to read about how the Germans were keen to involve a team of Polish doctors an official from the Polish Red Cross – why would they be so open to invite the Poles to the scene if they were guilty of the killings? And in terms of the forensic and criminological evidence, it is almost beyond doubt that Katyn was perpetrated by the NKVD in the spring of 1940.

The western Governments were faced with something of a dilemma. From evidence, it seems that they were in little doubt that the Russians were responsible – but as they were in a wartime alliance with Soviet Russia, Britain and the US were stuck between a rock and a hard place. They were under no illusions that Stalin was a deeply unpleasant character, but the priority was to defeat Germany, and the bulk of the fighting was being undertaken by the Russians on the Eastern Front. When Winston Churchill was chided by one MP for making a complimentary speech about Stalin, he replied, ‘If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least one complimentary reference to the devil in Parliament’, and I think that sums up the dilemma perfectly.

Of course, as a matter of principle the Western Governments should have pursued the perpetrators in the strongest possible manner. But Governments have to act in the reality of the situation, and the Soviets were of course going to deny their part in Katyn for years. And until several years after 1945, it was in no-ones interests to inflame tensions with the Russians. The war had to be won, and after that, thousands – probably many of them Poles – may have died if the west had confronted them. I guess the Katyn issue is not unlike that of Auschwitz – the Allies knew what was going on there, and of course its easy to think that they should have done something. But the Allies really couldn’t achieve that level of accuracy with their bombing – as seen in the Butt report.

It was only with the onset of the Cold War that the west was able to confront the Katyn issue – in particular a US Congressional committee did much to highlight the affair to the US and the world at large. Even though the Soviets continued to deny it, Historians all but confirmed that the Katyn massacre was carried out by the NKVD.

This is a fine book, and I found it incredibly gripping reading – I have always found Polish history interesting. It is very heavy reading at times – the author includes in full a lot of contemporary documents, and I suspect that the text has been translated from Polish to English. I would like to have seen more engagement with other historians work, as many other writers have looked at Katyn over the years, and it is better to engage within a disourse than to ignore it.

What of the authors argument, that the British Government was hypocritical? Whilst it is impossible not to grasp the strength of feeling, it is hard to see what exactly the diplomats, civil servants and politicians could have done. Sadly though, Britain did not have a great track record of standing up for Poles during the war as seen by the Sosabowski affair after Arnhem. We might wonder how objective it is, in that it was written by a Pole. I think it is about as balanced as we could expect. But Katyn is an important part of the Polish psyche, and that is exactly why what happened there in 1940 should never be forgotten.

Katyn 1940 is published by The History Press

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Filed under Book of the Week, cold war, Uncategorized, World War Two

Prisoner of the Gestapo by Tom Firth

The word ‘unique’ gets bandied about a lot in historical circles, but this book really is something special, and in all likelihood, the only one of its kind. And for so many reasons.

Tom Firth was born to an English father and a Polish mother, and hence had dual Anglo-Polish nationality. After living abroad for most of his youth, the summer of 1939 found him holidaying in Poland, of all places, seemingly little aware of the grave danger awaiting him. After German forces invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, and Britain declared war on the 3rd, Firth found himself an enemy alien on two counts.

Finding himself in the soviet zone, after the Germans and Russians had shamefully colluded to carve up Poland, Firth actually made the effort to cross into the German zone. Once back in Warsaw he had to procure a fake identity card and assume a fully Polish identity – as an British national he ran the very grave danger of being rounded up and assumed to be an escaped POW. Despite this danger, he became involved in an escape organistation helping British evaders.

Almost immediately, however, the escape line was broken, and Firth was captured by the Gestapo. Taken to Montelupich Prison in Krakow, where he was held for several years, he endured numerous interrogations and beatings and maltreatment. All the time he managed to keep up the pretence of being an ordinary Pole, aided by his fluent Polish. And despite the Gestapo’s best efforts, they had no real evidence against him. Eventually – and luckily – he was released. As his story shows, not many escaped the Gestapo alive.

Even after his release, Tom Firth seems to have lived life on the edge. He found work teaching English to the daughters of a wealthy landowner in the east of Poland. When the Red Army neared in 1944 he and the other men on the estate were rounded up and marched west to become slave labourers. By a miracle, Firth was released – the rest of the group were later murdered.

This book really is something else. Tom Firth’s predicament is one that I had never really given much thought to, and I suspect many others are the same. Just how many British nationals were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time during the war, in Poland and in other places? For example, how about the many Commonwealth War Graves Commission employees? How many lives were affected by the tragedy of war? For that is one thing that jumps out from these pages – the sheer number of people who were uprooted, churned around and spat out again by wartime occupation.

Firth gives us a very illuminating picture of life in wartime Poland – under the Russians and the Germans, life as an enemy alien ‘behind the lines’, and being a prisoner of the Gestapo. Its an aspect of the Second World War that we do not know a great deal about, and for that reason this book is truly unique and very special.

Prisoner of the Gestapo is published by Pen and Sword

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The Forgotten Few – the Polish Air Force in World War Two by Adam Zamoyski

The Forgotten Few

One of the saddest and most tragic stories of the Second World War has to be that of Poland. The vey reason that Britain and France went to war – Polish independence – was betrayed at the Yalta conference in 1945. But the story of Polish tragedy has a long history before and after the Second World War – Poland has at various times been occupied by France, Austria, Germany and Russia. In fact, it is only really from 1918 and 1939 and the fall of Communism in 1989 that Poland has controlled its own destiny.

After the all of Poland in 1939 thousands of Polish men somehow made their way by various routes to France, and then to Britain. The Poles made a significant contribution to the Allied war effort – an Armoured Division after D-Day, more Army units in Italy, a Polish Parachute Brigade fought at Arnhem and Polish Navy ships supported the D-Day landings.

But perhaps the most important contribution was the Polish Air Force. Poles manned a significant number of Fighter and Bomber Squadrons, fighting in the Battle of Britain and also in the strategic Bomber offensive. After initial problems adapting to the RAF’s ways and British society, the flying Poles made not only a sterling fighting contribution, but also left an indelible mark on many Brits. In a typically British fashion the Poles were regarded as ‘hot-headed’ and too aggressive. Perhaps if RAF officers had had to flee their homeland, they might not have been quite so critical.

This book by Adam Zamoyski tells he story of the Polish Air Force with remarkable detail. Born to Polish parents and having lived in Britain for many years, Zamoyski is ideally placed to tell this story. The biblography shows extensive research, most usefully of Polish sources. The story is picked up before 1939, and describes the development of the Polish Air Force between the wars. We are then told about how the Poles made their way from their homeland to take up the fight in France and then Britain, and the long and arduous development of Polish squadrons under RAF command.

Not only is this a story of aircraft and squadrons, but it is also a very human story. Tales of young men forced from their homeland, ending up in a strange country, and not knowing what fate would befall their beloved Poland cannot fail to stir the heart. We also learn about the culture clashes between British society and the Poles. And tales of romance between British girls and Polish airmen are aplenty. As a social history, this is a fascinating read and reminds us that many other nationalities, exiled to Britain, contributed to the wider war effort. All too often their contributions are ignored. Somehow we rarely hear about the Polish squadrons who fought the Luftwaffe in 1940 – apart from condescending scenes in war films showing Polish airmen as excitable and immature.

But the saddest part of their story has to be the final fate of Poland in 1945. Agreed to be part of the Soviet sphere influence at Yalta, the Poles in British service felt betrayed. They rapidly became an inconveniece and embarassment to their British hosts, and were shamefully treated. Many of them were only given the right to settle in Britain after long and traumatic struggles. The Author gives some sad example of how British people in some cases turned against the Poles, fearing that they were stealing jobs and calling for them to ‘go home’.

This is a story of shabby treatment that deserves to rank alongside the scapegoating of Sosabowski and the Polish Paras after Arnhem. Perhaps the Allies had no choice over the Polish question at Yalta, but the authorities in Britain could at least have treated the brave Poles so much better. Hopefully this important book will go some way to rehabilitating the story of the Polish Air Force in the Second World War.

The Forgotten Few is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Book of the Week, debate, Royal Air Force, World War Two