War of Liberation of the Polish People of 1939–45

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

War of Liberation of the Polish People of 1939–45


the struggle of the Polish people against fascist Germany for the freedom and national independence of Poland in World War II (1939–45).

The aggression against Poland was part of fascist Germany’s overall plan for establishing world domination. The Hitlerite leadership’s goal was to turn Poland into the private domain of the German imperialists, to increase Germany’s military and economic resources in the struggle with its rivals—Great Britain and France—and to deprive them of their ally in the east, and to turn captured Poland into a staging ground for an attack on the USSR. In the 1930’s the Polish bourgeois government pursued an anti-Soviet policy and tried to reach an agreement with fascist Germany, which left Poland isolated at the moment of the fascist aggression. On Apr. 3, 1939, the German High Command issued a directive to prepare for war against Poland. On April 11, Hitler approved the plan known as the Weiss Plan.

On Sept. 1, 1939, fascist Germany attacked Poland, thereby unleashing World War II. The Polish Army, which had not completed mobilization and deployment, offered stiff resistance to the German armies. Nevertheless, it could not withstand the pressure of the enemy, who had an overwhelming superiority in men and matériel, especially in aircraft and tanks. Although Great Britain and France did declare war on Germany on September 3, they did not extend any effective military aid to Poland. The Polish troops, supported by the working people, displayed magnificient heroism in unequal fighting during the defense of Warsaw, Westerplatte, Modlin, Hel, and other cities and in the battles on the Bzura, at the city of Tomaszóv Lubelski, and elsewhere. Nevertheless, they were defeated, and hostilities ceased in early October. The combat actions, which lasted only 35 days, revealed the ineffectual strategic leadership of the Polish supreme command, which lost control over the troops and fled, together with the government, to Rumania on September 17. On the same day, as the Polish bourgeois state was disintegrating, the Red Army entered Western Byelorussia and Western Ukraine, both of which had been part of Poland, in order to protect the population from the fascist aggression.

In October 1939, Germany annexed part of occupied Poland and set up what was called a governor-generalship in the remaining Polish lands. The Hitlerites instituted a regime of terror in the occupied territories, shot and deported masses of people; closed all educational, scientific, and cultural institutions; and created death camps in Oświęcim, Majdanek, Sztutowo, Chelmno, Sobibór, Treblinka, and elsewhere. During the entire occupation period, more than 3.5 million Polish citizens died in death camps or at the hands of executioners. The total losses amounted to about 6 million people, including those who died on the battlefield. Those exiled from Polish territories annexed by Germany totaled 2.5 million people, and about 2 million people were abducted for forced labor. Nevertheless, the Polish people continued the struggle against the fascist invaders, both within Poland and abroad.

The Polish armed forces abroad, 1940–42. In early 1940 an army of 85,000 men formed in France from among Polish émigrés under the command of General W. Sikorski, who was the supreme commander in chief and prime minister of the Polish government-in-exile in London. In May-June 1940 the Polish units fought jointly with Anglo-French troops in Norway at Narvik and in France. Later, Polish units (about 15,000 men) were formed in Great Britain. Several Polish ships (three destroyers and several submarines) that had managed to escape to Britain in 1939 served in the British Navy, and Polish pilots participated in the Battle of Britain of 1940–41. A brigade of Carpathian riflemen served in North Africa as part of the British Eighth Army and won fame in the defense of Tobruk (Tubruq) (August-December 1941) and in the fighting near Gazala (December 1941) and Bardiyah (December 1941-January 1942).

After fascist Germany’s attack on the USSR (June 22, 1941), the Soviet government and the Polish government-in-exile signed an agreement (July 1941) on forming a Polish army in the USSR from among refugees and other Polish citizens. Commanded by General W. Anders, the army was formed in September 1941 and was armed and supplied by the Soviet Union. But in 1942 the government-in-exile, in spite of Poland’s national interests, expressed opposition to Polish troops fighting on the Soviet-German front. Upon orders from the government-in-exile, Anders, using nationalistic propaganda, led almost the entire army (about 75,000 men) from the USSR to Iran between March and August 1942. The army was then moved to Iraq and in 1944 through Egypt to Italy, where it was reorganized as the Polish II Corps. A small number of conscientious and progressively minded soldiers and officers refused to go to Iran and remained in the USSR, later joining the Tadeusz Kościuszko 1st Polish Division.

Struggle against the fascist invaders in occupied Poland, 1939–43. The resistance movement developed from the very beginning of the fascist occupation. At first it was poorly organized and spontaneous, made up of numerous small organizations that often suffered failure because of poor security control. Partisan actions in Silesia and near Warsaw, Lublin, Bydgoszcz, and Kielce in 1939–40 were quickly suppressed. In 1941–42 the resistance movement became better organized, but two political tendencies arose within it. The bourgeois tendency, headed by the London government, aimed at a restoration of bourgeois landholding Poland allied with the capitalist countries. The armed forces of the Home Army (Armia Krajowa) and the Peasant Battalions, which were formed in the Polish underground, were under the authority of the London government. The Communists and left-wing groups and later the Polish Workers’ Party (PWP), which was founded in early 1942, wanted to create a people’s democratic Poland in close alliance with the USSR. The PWP resolutely opposed the anti-Soviet theory advanced by bourgeois circles of the “two enemies”— Germany and the USSR—and the Home Army’s tactic of waiting that was the result of the theory. This tactic would enable the bourgeoisie to preserve its forces and seize power at the moment of Germany’s defeat.

The PWP ordered its armed forces, the People’s Guard (Gwardia Ludowa), to wage an active struggle against the occupation forces. By late 1942 the People’s Guard had about 30 partisan detachments, which struck at the enemy’s railroad communications, carried out acts of retribution and expropriation, and captured arms. The leadership of the Home Army, except for a few large-scale divisions, avoided open engagements with the occupation forces. Detachments of the Peasant Battalions engaged in partisan actions from 1940, mainly in the Lublin and Kielce regions. From 1942 they often operated in coordination with the People’s Guard. In 1944 part of the Peasant Battalions merged with the Home Army, and another part joined the People’s Army (Armia Ludowa), which was set up by the People’s Guard on January 1 and was headed by General M. Rola Zymierski, with Colonel F. Juźwiak as chief of staff. Sabotage became very widespread and caused considerable damage to the occupation forces.

The victory of the Red Army in the battle of Stalingrad led to an intensification of the resistance movement in the countries of Europe, including Poland. Meanwhile, two concepts of the future of independent Poland crystallized. Negotiations initiated by the PWP with the Home Army leadership on joint struggle against the fascist German occupation forces failed because of the uncompromising position of the Home Army leadership. The clear position of the PWP and the selfless struggle of the People’s Guard and later of the People’s Army boosted their influence among the popular masses. At the same time dissatisfaction spread among the ranks of the Home Army because of the passivity of its leadership.

In the spring of 1943, several large Home Army units took up arms against the occupation forces on their own initiative. The Home Army leadership was forced to adopt a new tactic of so-called limited struggle. There was intensified activity by diversionary detachments, which were composed mainly of youth (harcerskie, or “boy scout”) detachments (Zośka and Parasol Battalions). In the summer of 1943 the fascist terror assumed large-scale proportions, with mass executions, the extermination of entire villages, and many arrests. In 1943 the fascist German command staged several big operations against the partisans around Lublin and Kielce. The People’s Guard mounted a vigorous armed struggle, especially on the railroad lines going to the Eastern Front, thereby aiding the offensive of the Red Army.

The Polish armed forces on the fronts of World War II, 1943–45. The Polish government-in-exile was gradually scrapping the Soviet-Polish agreement of 1941 and embarking on an anti-Soviet policy. This led in April 1943 to a rupture of relations with the USSR. At the same time left-wing Polish circles, headed by the PWP, advocated a program of close alliance with the USSR. The Union of Polish Patriots, formed in 1943, addressed itself in April 1943 to the government of the USSR with a proposal of creating Polish army units that would fight against fascist Germany alongside the Red Army. The Tadeusz Kościuszko 1st Infantry Division under General Z. Berling was formed in the USSR. The division underwent its baptism of fire in October 1943 at Lenino. A Polish corps was formed in August 1943 and deployed in March 1944 into the Polish First Army (commanded by General Z. Berling; from October 1944, General W. Korczyc; from December 1944, General S. Popławski).

On the night of Dec. 31, 1943, underground left-wing groups headed by the PWP elected in Warsaw a provisional democratic organ of power, the Krajowa Rada Narodowa (KRN), which was recognized by the Union of Polish Patriots in the USSR and later also by other Polish democratic organizations in France, Belgium, and the USA. The KRN assumed authority over the People’s Army and the Polish armed forces in the USSR, which on July 21 merged into the united Polish Army (Wojsko Polskie). The formation of partisan brigades began in 1944 (a total of 18 brigades, with an additional 13 battalions and 202 detachments). The partisans mounted vigorous attacks in the enemy’s rear, especially on railroad lines. Tens of thousand of attacks were carried out during the occupation, including about 2,300 diversions on railroad lines.

In the West, the Polish troops served in the war as part of the British armed forces, including the Polish I Corps (one tank division and a brigade of paratroopers), which saw combat in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and North Germany, and the Polish II Corps (two infantry divisions), which saw combat in Italy, where it distinguished itself especially in the fighting on the Sangro River and at Monte Cassino, Ancona, and Bologna. Fifteen large aviation units and several Polish ships served in the British Air Force and Navy. By the end of the war, the total strength of Polish armed forces in the West was about 200,000 men.

In the summer of 1944, Soviet troops entered Poland together with the Polish First Army (about 100,000 men). Upon a decision of the KRN, the Polish Committee of National Liberation, the first executive organ of the people’s state, was set up on July 21, 1944. However, the leaders of the London government refused to give up their intention of seizing power before the arrival of the Red Army and the Polish Army.

The Warsaw uprising of 1944 (August-September) was carried out upon a decision of the London government and the leadership of the Home Army without considering the situation or without coordinating with the Soviet troops approaching Warsaw. It was motivated by the selfish aims of Polish bourgeois circles and ended in a tragic defeat. The adventure cost Poland about 200,000 in dead and the almost complete destruction of left-bank Warsaw. On July 28, units of the Polish First Army, jointly with Soviet troops, initiated combat on the middle course of the Vistula, fighting for bases of operation near the cities of Dęblin, Puławy, and Warka. After the liberation of Prague on September 14, they tried to extend direct help to the insurgents. But in vew of the superiority of the enemy forces and the opposition of the Home Army command, units of the Polish 2nd and 3rd Divisions that had crossed the Vistula failed in their mission, and the remaining forces were withdrawn after a heroic resistance.

In August 1944 the Polish Second Army was formed (commanded by General S. Popławski from September 1944 and by General K. Świerczewski from December 1944). The Polish Army reached about 300,000 men by early 1945. Generously supplied by the Soviet government, by May 1945 they had received more than 300,000 rifes and carbines, more than 100,000 submachine guns, about 19,000 machine guns, about 5,000 mortars, more than 3,500 guns, 673 tanks and mounted artillery pieces, 630 planes, about 12,000 motor vehicles, and other equipment.

The Polish First Army participated in the Vistula-Oder operation of 1945, the eastern Pomeranian operation of 1945, the liberation of Warsaw (January 16–17), the breakthrough of the Pomeranian Wall (January 31-February 10), and the liberation of Pomerania and the storm of Kołobrzeg (Kolberg; March-April). Units of the Polish First and Second Armies, the I Tank Corps, the I Air Corps, and others participated in the Berlin operation of 1945. The First Army operated on the right flank of the First Byelorussian Front and conducted an offensive from the Oder to the Elbe, while its 1st Infantry Division participated in the storm of Berlin. The Second Army was covering the southern flank of the First Ukrainian Front and then participated in the liberation of Czechoslovakia. By May 1945 the Polish Army reached a strength of 400,000 men, and it had made a significant contribution toward the defeat of fascist Germany.

The Polish people waged a just war for the indepdendence of their homeland and for their existence throughout World War II both in Poland and abroad. During the liberation struggle against the fascist invaders, the concept of a people’s democratic system for Poland took definite shape and was supported by broad strata of the working people. This revolutionary process eventuated in the assumption of power by the working masses and the formation of people’s Poland. Thanks to the alliance with the USSR, the Polish people could make their contribution to the general victory over fascist Germany and defend the independence of their homeland.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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