The official British Victory Parade to celebrate the end of World War II took place in June 1946, once hostilities with Japan had ended. The Parade was a show of strength from Britain and its Allies. It included representatives of foreign forces from across the globe. Yet where were the Poles who constituted the fourth largest group of Allies? And why did it take until 10 July 2005 for these men, including sons of soldiers to march in London?
Despite the Polish troops being the fourth largest Allied group in World War II, as soon as the European war ended the British government recognised the new communist government in Poland instead of the Polish Government in Exile to whom the troops were loyal. In 1945, the decision of the Yalta conference was announced, confirming that Poland was to lose territory to the Soviet Union and the rest of it was to be under Soviet domination. A year later the provisional government in Poland deprived the generals of the Polish army of citizenship and began to repress these soldiers who chose for family reasons to return home, treating them as foreign spies and enemy collaborators.
Polish soldiers felt betrayed for their loyalty and contribution to the victory of the Allied Forces and by early 1946, those stationed in the UK were being asked why they weren’t going home! Of course they would have preferred to go home, most simply had no choice.
Anguish and bitterness
During the war Poles had become heroes, especially those in the RAF during the Battle of Britain. It must have been a very sobering time for the Polish soldiers who arrived in the UK in 1946 from Italy. Especially for those from the Eastern borderlands whose family lands had been annexed by the Soviet Union. One of my grandfathers didn’t even know if his wife and child were alive, having been told they had perished along with their home. After so much time together, their units had become their families. The Prime Minister Ernest Bevin, wanting to broker peace with the Soviet Union, wrote to each Polish soldier in March 1946 entreating them to return home, adding that assistance would be given if they felt they could not. They must have been shaken at the news and uncertain of their future.
“A good friend of mine with whom I had many conversations before he decided to go, he was of this opinion that we ought to go and fight from within. He stayed in the forces about a year or eighteen months and they accused him of working against the state and he was executed…. many, many were sent to concentration camps” (Mr Z, Sheffield, quoted in “War, Resettlement, rooting and ageing: An oral history study of Polish Emigres in Britain” by Michelle Winslow)
The Polish Resettlement Corps was established in May 1946 and the 1947 Polish Resettlement Act followed, allowing Poles to enter some workplaces, have some education and support. It didn’t take long for Poles to settle down, though still with an eye on their suitcases as they felt war could start any day with the Soviet Union.
Myths about invitation
Myths still abound about the invitation of Polish troops in 1946. When I worked at the Ministry of Defence, organising a NATO conference, my boss, a Navy Commodore despite being a decent man, would often say that the Poles always want special treatment and how they had in fact been invited to the Victory Parade. This isn’t quite true. Initially forces from Poland were invited to come, rather than those stationed in the UK, but they were apparently told by Moscow not to accept the invitation. “Have you lost all sense of decency and gratitude?” said Air Marshal Sir Philip Joubert. After complaints in Parliament and from the RAF that the Polish soldiers in the UK were not invited, a small group of pilots who had taken part in the Battle of Britain were finally sent an invitation. They declined as so many of their colleagues in the Army and Navy had been ignored. You can only guess at the feelings of the Poles knowing this event was taking part, yet they were separated in various camps around the UK, unable to be recognised for their efforts.
So the day of 8 June 1946 dawned in London without any Pole in attendance. There are also myths about the Victory Parade being a British and Commonwealth event, with only representatives of foreign forces invited. However let us remember that these representatives took part and Polish forces had fought alongside the British since the first day of the war in 1939.
So what changed?
So how did their inclusion in 2005 come about? In fact, large scale commemoration ceremonies only really started 50 years after the end of the war, though this is not an answer to the question of why it took so long. In 2003, Michael Moszyński, son of Captain Stefan Moszyński raised the issue with the then Prime Minister Tony Blair, who sent a formal apology via his Private Secretary, expressing regret that the Poles had not been invited to the Victory Parade. At the time they were starting to plan the 60th Anniversary Commemorative Event for 2005 and promised that the Poles would have a role. However Michael continued to lobby dignitaries including The Duke of Edinburgh and the Head of the Armed Forces General Sir Mike Jackson, to give Poles a key role. It was the same Commodore, my ex-boss, who organised the National Commemoration Celebration Day of VE Day and VJ Day in London on 10 July 2005. A few days before it began, it was confirmed that the Poles would lead the march down the Mall. Justice, finally?
It took 64 years for the first official memorial to the Polish forces fighting under British command to be erected in September 2009 at the National Memorial Arboretum near Lichfield, 70 years after the outbreak of World War II. Again, it only happened due to lobbying by Dr Marek Stella-Sawicki and Polish Associations. The first memorial to Polish airmen was unveiled in West London in 1948 and many more have been erected in memory of Polish soldiers since, by Polish groups including the Ex-Combatants Association and another is being discussed in central London at the moment. Sadly this is too late for our patriotic grandfathers to see…. but they are all fitting commemorations to their memory.
So constant campaigning does brings result, however late; achieving just recognition for our fathers and grandfathers … and there is a constant swell of support out there. Just think of how many people voted for Franciszek Kornicki to be honoured by the RAF Museum this year. Such a huge sacrifice cannot be forgotten.
This article is based on many sources including the works of Michelle Winslow, Michael Moszyński and Adam Zamoyski. Featured image is by Jeremy Hoare/Alamy Stock Photo
If you enjoyed this article, you may also like to read my article about the Battle of Monte Cassino