Attack on Poland – The Exodus

Attack on Poland – The Exodus

17 – 30 September: Exodus of the Fortunate Few

The Polish Government, the military GHQ, civil servants and foreign diplomats started to evacuate Warsaw on 5 September. The aim was to reach the apparently still safe south-eastern Poland, bordered by the neutral Russia and friendly Hungary and Romania. Thousands of people were moving there, and on the evening of the 17th, the Polish Government crossed into Romania. GHQ and the British and the French Embassies followed the next day. There was no other option: Russian betrayal had transformed unlikely defense into impossible one.

Soldiers and officials left behind had to deal with Germans, Russians and hostile Ukrainian populace which took the opportunity to kill any Polish soldiers they could – including by drawing them apart with horses. Air Force personnel, who had been concentrated at Litiatyn near Lwow, found it easy to escape to Romania on 17 September. Some 47 P-11 and P-7 fighter planes managed to escape to Czeriowice airfield across the border.

Others who could not fly had a far more difficult time escaping, and the attempts often ended in failure. Many if not most were rounded up by the Soviet troops that had closed the border, and others were killed by the Ukrainian bands roaming the countryside. Those captured by the Soviets were told that “you are the enemy of the working class and a bourgeois capitalist Army, you are the enemy of the Soviet Union. You deserve your fate and are being sent to us for a proper reeducation.”.

This was the norm for the Polish officers and the members of upper classes. Few cases of individual magnanimity from the Soviet troops would not change the fate that USSR had determined for the Polish army and governmental officials.

Altogether about 100,000 Polish troops and nearly 10,000 airmen together with 300 planes managed to escape into Romania, Hungary and the Baltic States. These later formed the basis for the Polish Army and Air Force in exile.

31 August – 14 October: The Polish Navy escapes

Polish Navy had a more difficult task if it were to escape surrender. It had to navigate the German-dominated Baltic and the narrow seas between Denmark and Scandinavia to reach Scotland.

But the escape had been planned from early on. The Polish Destroyer Division received orders to sail to Britain as early as 30 August. The three Polish destroyers set sail at 14:15 and managed to evade German patrols. On midday of 1 September they were met by two British destroyers and escorted into Leith. Two training ships which had been in the western waters had already arrived to Britain.

The Polish submarine division of five ships initially spent their time doing nothing but observing German ships. It was only on 7 September that they were ordered to return to the central Baltic region, but even then insufficient maintenance ensured that only Wilk was able to take up the station. On 14 September the five submarines were ordered onto patrols, and to break out for the United Kingdom when unable to operate further. If that was not an option, then they were to seek internment in Sweden. Submarines Sep, Rys and Zbik opted for the latter due to accumulated combat damage. Only Wilk and Orzel made it to Rosyth, though Orzel had difficulties as Estonians attempted to intern her and she had to fight her way out. This became an international incident, and Soviet Navy joined the Germans in hunt for Polish submarines, deploying two cruisers and six destroyers by 20 September for that express purpose.

After cruising the Baltic for two weeks, Orzel, low on supplies, decided to head for Britain. Submarine managed to reach the North Sea despite once running aground in the darkness, and on 14 October a British destroyer escorted the submarine to Rosyth.

September – December 1939: Escape From Internment

Despite the best efforts of the Red Army and the Wehrmacht, some 100 000 Polish troops and airmen managed to escape into Romania, Hungary and the Baltic States. They were preceded by the Government, which was briefly interned in Romania since it had issued proclamation that it intended to continue the war and to act as government in exile. This created a fear that Poland would be left without a government. Mosiscki wanted to nominate the Polish Ambassador in Rome, a former soldier, but the French vetoed this for the fear that such a nomination would continue the power of the old elites. Instead, Moscicki nominated Raczkiewicz as President, who appointed Sikorski as his new Prime Minister. The new government met for the first time on 2 October in Paris.

Bucharest and the surrounding countryside were full of the Polish refugees, including soldiers. Service personnel were supposed to report to the provisional holding camps, but escaping was not too difficult, especially as the Romanian officials were largely well disposed to the Poles. The Polish Embassy was still active, and so majority of the refugees managed to obtain the passport and leave Romania, mostly through either Yugoslavia, or the Romanian Black Sea ports and then Greece. Some Polish soldiers managed to reach British or French possessions, and by December there was a large number of Poles in Beirut. On 22 December, when SS Paris arrived with 1200 Polish airmen, barracks were full and so the airmen had to remain on the extremely uncomfortable ship.

Evacuations were a race against time. On 25 October Constanza ceased to be used as an embarkation point due to heavy activity of German agents there, and German government pressurized Hungary to close its borders and prevent Polish personnel from leaving the country – which Hungary kept refusing to do. As a result, a steady stream of Poles reached Athens over the next two months. Romanian government however interned all the aircraft – military and civilian alike – and many of the personnel. Escape from Latvia and Lithuania however was largely unsuccessful.

October 1939 – May 1940: Polish War in Exile

The new Polish Cabinet met on 2 October in Paris. On 5 October President Raczkiewicz announced to the Polish people the formation of the government in exile and the intent to continue the fight. By 6 December, the government was already fully committed to ensuring cooperation with Poland’s allies.

Polish Navy, being small and only assigned to cooperate with the Royal Navy, could be integrated relatively easily. Britain also desperately needed ships, and as soon as Britain declared war on Germany, the Polish Admiralty drafted an agreement regulating Anglo-Polish naval cooperation. Polish ships would be under operational command of the British Admiralty, but internal organization and crews would remain under Polish auspices. All expenses would be paid for by the British Government.

Polish Navy saw service immediately. As early as 9 September destroyer Blyskawica was ordered to escort the SS Lasall which was carrying war materials bound for Poland via the Romanian ports. The mission however was aborted on 22 September due to imminent collapse of Poland. In October, the Polish Destroyer Division was sent to patrol the western shores of Ireland so as to prevent the German submarines from refuelling and reprovisioning there with potential help of the IRA. Two submarines, the Wilk and the Orzel, both needed refits and repairs. By the end of December both were deployed to combat patrols in the North Sea.

ORP Blyskawica in the Atlantic

Polish Army and the Air Force were a greater problem, in part due to much greater number of the personnel. Those personnel who had managed to leave Romania and Hungary faced long delays in Beirut, causing demoralization. Even when they reached the destination there were problems with integration, as despite their skills and willingness it was not always easy to find them productive work. They were given no uniforms, equipment or pay, and their organization into effective units was delayed. Morale and health both suffered because the French had failed completely to make any sort of proper arrangements for the arriving troops. British for their parts refused to accept anything except the barest minimum of the Polish troops.

As early as 14 September it was decided that PAF personnel coming to Britain should be concetrated and employed as separate air unit or units under RAF. In October it was agreed that the British would take 2 300 airmen. When General Sikorski visited Britain in November, the prospect of a future land force ‘composed of Poles from other parts of the Commonwealth and from other countries’ was discussed.

In January 1940., the Franco-Polish Air Agreement was negotiated, leading to formation of two Groupes de Chasse, each composed of two squadrons, one Groupe de Reconnaissance and cadre reserve units. In Britain the first contingent of Polish airmen arrived at Eastchurch on 8 December. The French released some 200 Polish airmen a month, increased later to 250. Two operational bomber squadrons and two operational training units were to be formed within the framework of the RAF. Polish airmen would take both an oath to His Majesty and an oath to the Polish Republic.

French did their best to retain as many Poles in France as possible. As a consequence there were still in February a large number of airmen “living in the worst possible conditions in a camp near Lyons, where they had no uniforms, slept in stalls and were not being trained at all”. This was both inhumane and an irresponsible waste of scarce resources. Poles were thus very motivated to join the Royal Air Force.

The remnants of the Polish Army were collected together in Bessieres, a northern suburb of Paris, and were regrouped as the Polish Army Legion. Original cadre numbered 43 000 officers and men under General Sikorski, but this force was increased by influx of Poles from all across the Western Europe. Some 40 000 new volunteers came from the significant Polish community in France, and in Britain too there were volunteers. However, some Poles – largely Communists from universities – did not want to join, and in March there was talk in the Foreign Office in the UK of threatening them with deportation unless they joined the army.

THE POLISH ARMY IN FRANCE, 1939-1940 (HU 109707) Troops of the Independent Podhalan Rifles Brigade marching along a country road after a training session in Brittany. Soldiers are equipped with French field uniforms and, possibly, MAS-36 rifles. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

By the spring of 1940. the Polish Legion had been formed as an effective fighting force. It consisted of the following units:

  • 1st Grenadier Division
  • 2nd Infantry Rifles Division
  • 10th Armoured Cavalry Brigade
  • Light Mechanized Brigade

During the Battle for France, Polish soldiers fought for a lost cause for the second time in row. Once again they showed extraordinary bravery, and once again they had to escape the advancing enemy. Altogether some 22 500 men were evacuated from the Channel ports, and 13 000 escaped to Switzerland where the British government paid for their upkeep to prevent them from being turned over to the Germans. Of the 10 000 in Tolouise, some managed to escape to Casablanca and Thangier, and then to British territories in the Middle East. And yet again they had to be reorganized and restructured in Britain.


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