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The Polish Underground Army, the Western Allies, and the Failure of Strategic Unity in World War II

Jolanta W. Best

By Michael Alfred Peszke. Foreword by Piotr S. Wandycz. Jefferson, North Carolina, and London: McFarland & Company, 2005. 244 pages. Appendices, bibliography, index. Hardcover.

Thanks to the efforts of its air crews, sailors, and
the Carpathian Brigade in beleaguered Tobruk,
the Poles had paid their dues to the British and
Allied side

Michael Alfred Peszke was born 1932 in Dęblin, Poland, and at present he lives in Wakefield, RI. He is a psychiatrist by profession and historian by avocation. After attending schools in Scotland and England, he studied at Trinity College, Dublin University, and at the Dublin University School of Medicine where he received his medical degree. Until his retirement in 1999 he worked on the East Coast of the United States. This is his third book related to wartime Poland; his previous publications include The Battle for Warsaw, 1939-1944 (1995) published in the East European Monographs Series, and Poland’s Navy, 1918-1945 (1999) published by Hippocrene. Peszke’s interest in the Polish military was sparked by his father, who together with many other Poles served as an officer with Britain’s RAF during the Second World War. His book is particularly good in describing the history of restructuring the Polish military in Britain, its contributions to the victory of the Allied Forces, and failed diplomatic efforts by the Polish government in exile to restore Poland’s independence.

The book’s cover features the Polish Parachute Brigade Flag and a painting by Piotr Górka presenting “Liberator Mk. VI of the Polish Air Force Special Duties Squadron 1568.” Its eight chapters are characterized by symmetry and clarity. Peszke is a master of succintness. The chapters are organized chronologically, but several appendices, notes, pictures, and a bibliography allow for further interpretation. The book can be interpreted as a depiction of events leading to a predictable conclusion, but it is also an arrangement of the “great themes” of war. It provides the details of the September 17, 1939 invasion when the Soviets broke the Non-Aggression Treaty (20); it delineates the Polish evacuees in Hungary and Romania (27-28), General Sikorski’s war strategy (31), the Battle of Britain (48-50), the agony of the Warsaw Uprising (153-158, 159-169), and the Yalta outcome (180-184). The Polish Underground Army also deals with Polish participation in the Norwegian and French campaigns and with the Polish Parachute Brigade. It provides a narrative on the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa), and the Katyn graves.

Piotr S. Wandycz’s foreword states that “Poland’s contribution to the Allied war effort is often minimized or glossed over. . . And yet, in proportion to the size and population of their state, the Poles rendered great services in the war against the axis powers” (2). They helped to reconstruct the German Enigma machine ciphers and handed it over to the French and the British. In the September 1939 campaign, Polish soldiers inflicted heavy casualties on the Germans, who lost about 300 planes and 1000 tanks in their Blitzkrieg in Poland (1). Wandycz says that Peszke’s book can be viewed as the first attempt to evaluate the military and strategic thinking of the Polish government in exile in Paris and London.

Peszke meticulously reconstructs the Polish plan to fight the Germans. Other historians have described Poland's plans as “grandiose,” but not “absurd” (2). Using the little-known historical documents from the British archives, Peszke pieces together the details of the relationship between the Western Allies, the Soviets, and Poland’s postwar political fate. The appendices feature the “Revised Polish-British Air Force Agreement (1944),” the “Cost of the Polish Forces While Based in the United Kingdom” (202-203), the article on “Military Symbolism: Occupied Homeland Sends Two Flags to Its Warriors in Exile,” and other documentation.

Additionally, Peszke reconstructs the “Balkan strategy” and its significance for Poland. From the beginning of the war the Poles tried to convert Romania and Hungary to the Allied side. Sikorski always viewed the Balkan and Danubian countries as an important factor that might lead to a possible victory over the Germans. He also felt that victory could have been achieved by strong Allied forces supported by a clandestine army in occupied Poland, the “soft underbelly of Europe.” Peszke claims that Winston Churchill shared a similar belief. In August 1944, Churchill reluctantly agreed with the Americans to withdraw divisions from the Italian campaign to start the “Operation Dragoon” in southern France (10). According to Sikorski’s war strategy based on the Balkan alliance, “Poland would be reinstituted in its 1939 boundaries, but with the elimination of the East Russia” (45). The plan would have allowed for incorporation of the “Free City of Danzing” into Polish territory. This goal could have been accomplished only by the adoption of the Balkan Strategy by the Allied side. Sikorski considered an alliance based on the old and beneficial relationships between Poland and Romania, or between Poland and Hungary (10). However, Peszke admits that “there appear to be no archival documents to prove that this [Balkan strategy] was discussed by the two statesmen [Sikorski and Churchill]” (10).

The book supports the thesis that the Polish government in exile, and Generals Władysław Sikorski and Kazimierz Sosnkowski in particular, worked to integrate the Polish forces into the Allied armies. They were tying “the Polish underground army to the Western strategic and military goals” (45). The long-term goal was to liberate Poland from the Germans and the Soviets. The Home Army was established for that purpose.

Peszke‘s work gives excellent insight into the British policies of the Second World War era. It also demonstrates that the Polish Home Army “owed its allegiance to the Polish government in the West and was completely loyal to the Polish commander in chief in exile . . . and was aided by supplies from the West” (29-30).

Peszke quotes Winston Churchill speaking in Italy, on August 23, 1944: “Is there any stop on the publicity for the facts about the agony of Warsaw, which seems from the papers to have been practically suppressed? It is not for us to cast reproaches on the Soviet Government, but surely facts should be allowed to speak for themselves. T here is no need to mention the strange and sinister behavior of the Russians, but is there any reason why the consequences of such behavior should not be made public?” (163)

Peszke points out that the Battle of Britain played a special role in the history of the Polish Air Force (49). The 302nd Poznański and 303rd Kościuszko squadrons were fighting in the air battle over southern England and London. There were also many other Polish pilots fighting in RAF squadrons. Altogether, the Battle of Britain engaged 154 Polish pilots (48-50). On 20 September 1940, the BBC sent the following message to the world about the bravery of the Polish 303 Squadron (the British are always good about tea and sympathy): “The BBC sends warm greeting to the famous 303rd Polish Squadron with lively congratulations upon its magnificent record and all the best wishes for the future. You use the air for your gallant exploits and we for telling the world of them” (49). After the successful battle over the British skies, the Polish air strength grew further and included the bomber squadrons (300, 301, 304, and 305), as well as the new fighter squadrons (315, 316, 317, and 309). They were organized into the Polish wing under the command of Major Urbanowicz (50).

The final chapters of the book describe Polish determination and values. The failure of the Warsaw Uprising (Chapter 7) and the bitterness of Yalta (Chapter 8) give the author an opportunity to offer an interpretation of the war and of the moral stance of those states whose representatives signed the postwar treaty agreements. On March 3, 1945, Churchill wrote to President Roosevelt: “At Yalta we agreed to take the Russian view of the frontier line. Poland has lost her frontier. Is she now to lose her freedom? . . . That is the question which will undoubtedly have to be fought out in Parliament and in public here” (181). Churchill must have known that he lied through his teeth, for the matter had been already decided-but he maintained the “tea and sympathy” appearance.

Peszke’s book is ambitious, well written, and revealing. Sometimes the amount of information is overwhelming and continuity breaks down. Yet Peszke helps to set up in his readers a “comparative imagination” built on a plenitude of historical data. The book challenges us to think critically about the interpretations of the Second World War proffered by a large segment of the American academia.

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