Tag Archives: Poles

Wojtek the Soldier Bear to be honoured

A picture of Wojtek ov Voytek the bear-soldier

Wojtek the Soldier Bear (Image via Wikipedia)

Wojtek the soldier bear has to be one of my favourite stories from the Second World War.

Adopted as a cub by Free Polish soldiers who were serving in Iran, Wojtek the Brown Bear grew to 6 feet tall and 500lbs, and went on to serve with Polish Forces in Italy, helping carry ammunition throughout the mountainous terrain in Italy. After the war, when Poles who had served with the allies were not allowed to return home, Wojtek saw out his days in Edinburgh zoo in Scotland.

It’s such a heartwarming story, in fact I’m surprised that Disney have never made a film about it. When Prince Charles, William and Harry visited a Polish Museum and the curator showing them round started to explain about Wojtek, Prince Charles told the curator that the young princes were familiar with the story.

Now a ¬£200,000 monument is planned to commemorate Wojtek. A maquette of the planned work, by sculptor Alan Herriot has been unveiled, showing Wojtek and his handler, Peter Prendys. Herriot has deliberately chosen to show the interaction between man and animal, rather than the usual image of Wojtek carrying shells. He must have provided a welcome relief from the horrors of war. I hope the project happens, as I’ve always had a soft spot for the Poles during the Second World War.

Animals have always had a poignant role in war – not having much of a choice, but serving loyally none the less. The play War Horse is receiving rave reviews in the west end at the moment, and the animals in war monument in London is incredibly moving. Wojtek has to be one of the most heart-rendering stories of animals serving during war.

Thanks to John Erickson for the tip-off on this story, which came from the Daily Telegraph.

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Filed under News, Uncategorized, World War Two

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

65 years ago – The battle slips away

Sosabowski and Thomas at Driel on the 23rd

Sosabowski and Thomas at Driel on the 23rd

After the Poles landed south of the Rhine, the Germans carried on mortaring and shelling the British positions in the Oosterbeek perimeter. By now the British were severely lacking in ammunition, food and other supplies. They faced a number of determined attacks that threatened to overwhelm them completely.

After the Irish Guards began their advance from Nijmegen, it became clear that the high, exposed road leading to Arnhem was completely unsuitable for tanks. As a result, the 43rd (Wessex) Division took over the attack, choosing to swing left away from the road and attempt to link up with the Poles at Driel.

Given the grievous losses suffered at Arnhem and Nimegen by the airborne soldiers, it is not difficult to escape the conclusion that Thomas and his Division could have tried harder. When they eventually reached Driel and came into radio contact with Urquhart, Thomas asked Urquhart why he did not counter shell the Germans. “with what?”, was Urquharts infuriated reply.

On the night of 24 September the 4th Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment attempted to cross the River. Like the Poles before them they were met with heavy fire, and only a few men got across. Many of the Dorsets were taken prisoner, including their Commanding Officer.

It was becoming clear that the German opposition to Operation Market Garden had been much stronger than anticipated. All along the corridor, from the Belgian border, Eindhoven and up to Nijmegen and beyond XXX Corps and the US 82nd and 101st Division were fighting tooth and nail to hold their ground. A bridgehead over the Rhine near Arnhem could possibly have been accomplished, but it was apparent that the Ground Forces did not have the resources to carry on the advance and outflank the Ruhr, thus rendering the whole Operation a failure.

At a conference back down the corridor Horrocks and Browning met with Miles Dempsey, the commander of the British Second Army. This was the first time that Dempsey had played any meaningful part in the battle. The naturally ebullient Horrocks wanted to carry out a left hook and cross the Rhine to the west, but Dempsey ordered that this was not possible, and that the survivors of the 1st British Airborne Division were to be evacuated as soon as possible. This was done with Browning’s approval, the only real contribution Browning had made to the whole operation since landing.

Sadly, the recriminations were already beginning. Sosabowski’s abrasive character had made him few friends, and rapidly senior British officers began to treat him most shamefully. He received no backing from Browning, technically his commanding officer. The Poles were placed under the command of Thomas, an officer junior to Sosabowski, who told the experienced Pole that if he did not carry out his orders, he would find someone who would.

Even though the fighting at Arnhem was drawing to a close, the shameful episode over who was at fault was only just beginning.

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Filed under Arnhem, Remembrance, Uncategorized, World War Two