Polish Armed Forces in Exile

Polish troops in French uniforms

Polish troops in French uniforms. They bear the Polish eagle on the French Adrian helmet.

POLISH ARMY IN EXILE

Many Polish soldiers, singly or in small groups, had evaded capture or escaped internment after the defeat in 1939, and made their way to France through the Baltic countries in the north, and through Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia and Italy in the south. The formation of a Polish Army in France had begun in November, 1939, and a large camp was set aside for the Poles in Coetquidan in Brittany. Polish volunteers arrived in a steady stream until they filled camps in no less than three French departments.

Gradually an army began to take shape. It was to comprise a headquarters, training establishments, two infantry divisions with a further two in the process of formation, an independent Highland Brigade, and an armoured cavalry brigade: a total strength of some 72,000 men.


Polish Army units in France:

Units Polish Army in Exile
Infantry Division Highland Brigade Armoured Brigade
Total units 4 1 1
Infantry regiments2 divisions with three, 2 division with two inf regiments2 regiments with 2 battalions each2 battalions motorised cavalry
Officers ? 227 ?
NCOs, Privates ?4,551 ?
Total men16,000 or 11,0004,7783,323
Mortars ?30 (15 x 60mm, 15 x 81mm) ?
Howitzers and Field guns60 (36 x 75mm M1897/17, 12 x 105mm, 12 x 155mm) ?12 (105mm)
Anti-tank guns36 (30 x 25mm, 6 x 47mm) 256 (25mm)
Tanks 90 Renault R-35

When the German invasion took place, the Polish Army was only half ready. The 3rd and 4th Infantry Divisions were called upon to provide 12 anti-tank companies to reinforce French divisions, while the 10th Armoured Cavalry Brigade, after only a few days in which to get used to its new equipment was split into two, and a combat group was sent straight into action. The Independent Highland Brigade which had been modelled on the French chasseurs alpins – although few of its men knew much about mountains – was shipped off to Norway. In France the 1st Grenadier and 2nd Rifle Divisions sustained heavy casualties before being driven across the border into Switzerland and internment.

From a total of 83,000 men serving in the Polish Forces abroad on 15 June 1940, 24,000 were evacuated to England where they joined 3,700 Poles already serving with the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, 5,000 were in the Middle East, and 50,000 were casualties, prisoners of war, or internees.

Polish troops march through an English town during the summer of 1940

Polish troops march through an English town during the summer of 1940. British battledress is worn with the addition of Polish insignia on the side cap and on the collar. Polish soldiers were well-known for their smart military bearing which has been well captured in this photograph.


Polish troops began arriving in the United Kingdom on 24 June 1940. September 1940 saw the formation of the Polish Corps which was to have a headquarters, two rifle brigades and a cadre for a third, as well as the various supporting arms and corps services. The continuing shortage of other ranks and specialists and the overall lack of equipment which prevailed at this time ensured, however, that there were delays in completing the formation.
Towards the end of 1940 the strength of the Corps was 3,498 officers and 10,884 other ranks making the Polish contribution to the British armed forces by far the most significant of the exile armies. The shortage of artillery was remedied by the attachment of a regiment of British medium field artillery. Since there were no armoured fighting vehicles, armoured personnel formed rifle units.


Polish Air Force

The crews of the 84 Polish aircraft which had been evacuated to Romania in October 1939 were interned, but one by one they managed to reach France, where, by April 1940, 8,678 Polish airmen assembled. This number represented almost the complete trained flying and ground personnel of the pre-war Polish Air Force.
Despite shortages of equipment and machines and poor morale it was decided to form one fighter group and one bomber group. On 4 January 1940 the Franco-Polish Air Agreement was concluded: this recommended the formation of two fighter groups, a reconnaissance group and a personnel pool. On 22 February 1940 General Sikorski, Commander-in-Chief of Polish Forces, detached the Air Force from Army control and made it an independent branch of the armed forces. When the Germans invaded France in May 1940 only the Polish fighter groups had become operational, while the other formations were being equipped and undergoing training.
On 19 June General Sikorski appealed to his Polish troops to make their way to England where Polish forces would again be re-formed. Some pilots flew their aircraft to England, while others escaped by ship. By July 1940 some 550 Polish airmen had reached England. During the fighting in France Polish airmen claimed 56 enemy aircraft destroyed for the loss of 11 pilots and 40 aircraft.

The status of Polish airmen in Great Britain was subject to extensive negotiation between the British and Polish governments, but on 5 August 1940, when there were over 8,000 Poles ready to enlist in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, a new agreement between the Polish and British authorities was concluded. Legally the Polish Air Force was now part of the independent Polish armed forces; its personnel were to swear allegiance only to Poland, and the Polish flag was to fly side by side with the Union Jack on airfields used by the Polish Air Force. In all matters concerning organization, training, supplies and discipline the Polish Air Force was subordinate to the RAF.
The first Poles to go into action with the RAF in July 1940, served in RAF squadrons, but by the end of August Nos. 302 (Poznanski) and 303 (Kosciuszko) Squadrons were operational and making a vital contribution to the outcome of the Battle of Britain . By the time the fighting was over at the end of October 1940, the Poles had claimed 203 enemy aircraft destroyed or just over seven and a half per cent of the total number destroyed during the whole battle. The cost was 29 Polish pilots killed. Poles also made their contribution in No.1 Bomber Group which flew operational sorties against the German invasion fleet which was being assembled in the Channel ports.


Polish Navy

The crews of the Polish ships which arrived in Leith in Scotland on 1st September 1939 were the first Polish servicemen to arrive in Britain, but they were quickly put to sea again to take part in patrol and convoy work.
On 18 November 1939 the Anglo-Polish Naval Agreement was signed in London and it established the terms under which the Polish detachment of the Royal Navy would operate. Ships of the Polish Navy would be crewed and commanded by Poles wearing Polish uniforms; ships would fly the Polish ensign, but in all operational matters the Polish detachments would be subordinate to the British Admiralty.
In the first year of the war Polish units carried out convoy duties on the vital Atlantic routes, and two vessels participated in the Dunkirk evacuation. As there was a surplus of trained Polish crews the British Government began to lease additional destroyers, submarines, and motor torpedo boats to the Polish Navy.

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