Anders’ Army

Dalester, Going Postal
Polish volunteers released by Stalin

My Dad fought with XXX Corps in Egypt and used to tell a tale about a polish cavalry unit that arrived  there he thought, all the way from Poland. On arrival in Egypt he said that the horses were in much better  condition than the men as they had walked the 1000s of miles to save the horses for when they needed them.

I tended to treat this tale with a pinch of salt until I came across an extraordinary account of  the efforts made by polish soldiers to get back into the war after being defeated by the Russians, many  having been held in hundreds of Gulags in Russia until the Germans turned on the Russians, and others, who  made amazing journeys from Poland to Iran in order to continue the fight.

At the fall of Poland in 1939, some Polish units had joined the French Army of the Levant in the hope of  continuing the war but after the defeat of France, they were ordered to quit the French Army by General  Wladislaw Sikorsi because French General, Eugene Mittelhauser, had decided to side with Petain and the  Vichy Government. The “Polish Brigade” then made its way to Palestine where the British clothed, fed and re-armed them. They initially numbered some 319 officers and 3,437 soldiers, later to grow to around  5000 as yet more continued to arrived. I believe it was one such Polish Cavalry unit that my father witnessed eventually arriving in Egypt later in the war. This rag-tag unit of Polish escapees was  notable for the high levels of well educated men in its ranks and was quickly rearmed and renamed  “the Polish Independent Brigade Group” and became to all intents and purposes a British Motorised Infantry  Brigade.

On 30 April 1941, in response to the offensive of Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps, the PIBG was moved near to  the fighting at Mersa Matruh, where it spent the next 10 weeks strengthening defensive positions. It was then withdrawn to the El Amiriya camp near Alexandria, and on 18 August 1941 the first convoy of the Brigade’s units left for besieged Tobruk. Transported in seven convoys, between 21 August and 28 August, the Brigade took over the westernmost perimeter, relieving Australian troops in the process.

On 9th December, during the British Eighth Army’s offensive, Operation Crusader, which was to lift the  siege, the Polish Brigade seized the strategically important town of Acroma and broke through to the Eighth Army. Due to their impact on the battle, the Polish soldiers were awarded with the prestigious  title of the ”Tobruk Rats” by their Australian comrades in arms.

Whilst these Poles were fighting in Egypt, the opportunity to form a new Polish Army arose in 1941 after  Hitler turned on the Russians. Following an agreement between the Polish government in exile and Joseph  Stalin, the Soviets released Polish soldiers, civilians and citizens from imprisonment in the Gulags and during 1942 tens of thousands of men, women and children were released from Russian internment.

From these a 75,000-strong army was formed under General Władysław Anders, a former Polish Cavalry General (tanks not horses). Anders had been held at the infamous Lubyanka prison in Moscow and was released by Stalin on 4 August 1941 to organise the new army.

Now known as “Anders’ Army”, most of the freed Poles assembled in Bouzoulouk, Samarkand, and were ferried from Krasnovodsk across the Caspian Sea to the Middle East (Iran), however, thousands of former   Polish prisoners had to walk from the southern border of the Soviet Union to Iran. Many died due to cold  weather, hunger, and exhaustion, some having walked most of the way from Siberia. Eventually, about 79,000  soldiers and 37,000 civilians were able to leave the Soviet Union (the operation was later stopped by  Stalin when the Red Cross uncovered the Katin Woods massacre and blamed the Russians). Anders’ Army was  transferred to the operational control of the British government and placed under the British Middle East Command, traveling from Iran, through Iraq and on to Palestine.

When the 75,000 strong Anders’ Army eventually reached Palestine there were some four thousand Jewish  soldiers in their ranks, the better part of three thousand of whom immediately “left” the army. Some  deserted, while others, including Menachem Begin, future Israeli Prime Minister, obtained permission to  depart their formations. They joined Jewish settlements in the region which had been agitating for a Jewish  homeland since before the start of the war. The Polish army apparently did not pursue any of the Jewish deserters.

Much of Anders’ Army was assigned to the Polish Second Corps, a part of Polish Armed Forces in the West.  With the Corps, troops from Anders’ Army fought in the Italian Campaign, including the Battle of Monte  Cassino where they suffered heavy losses. Their contribution is highly valued in Poland and frequently  commemorated in names of streets and other places. Others were shipped back to the UK to retrain and to  support Polish Airforce units that had been in the UK since virtually the start of the war.

Dalester, Going Postal
Memorial in Jeruslaem

Its strange how small pieces of half remembered stories often enable a bigger picture to be assembled years later. It’s even stranger to see how decisions made for perfectly good reasons over 75 years ago have worked out, some for good, some not so good.

What would the Middle East look like today if the Poles had not been released by Russia and the  likes of Begin never made their way to Palestine?

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Dalester ©