1945: For Britain, war is over, but what to do with the Poles?
At the beginning of World War Two Poland was Britain's most useful ally, defeated for the moment, but
full of fight. This special relationship between Britain and Poland was cemented during the Battle of Britain when Polish
pilots proved their worth in the skies above. In those early days it was clear that the Germans, especially the Nazis,
were the enemy. The British however, took a neutral stance with respect to the Poles' hatred of the Soviets. Britain
was not threatened by the Red Army and very little news leaked out of the Soviet occupied Polish territories. The
Soviet Union did not appear to be such a bad place to live in. This view was enhanced by the Soviet and Communist propaganda
machine in Britain.
The relationship began to erode with the German invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941.
For the British, Germany was now definitely the only enemy. Stalin and the Soviet Union suddenly took on the role of
victim and became a firm ally of the west. The only good thing about the situation for the Poles was that a few of them were
allowed to leave the Soviet prisons and Siberian slave labour camps. After the entry of the United States into the war and
the arrival of American troops in Europe, the relatively small, non-English speaking Polish contingent gradually began to
fade in importance.
Into 1943 and through 1945 as the Soviets gained strength and then momentum against the Germans, it became
clear that they might just mop up the Germans and keep heading west. Similarly, as Japan began to lose ground against the
United States, the Soviets threatened to involve themselves in Japan as well. Suddenly, the British and Americans
found themselves in a race to conquer Germany and Japan before the Russians did.
Meanwhile, the ranks of the Polish forces in the west had continued to swell throughout the war (250,000
men by September 1945) as new recruits were added following their release from slave labour, concentration or POW camps. Forced
conscripts from the German army were also assimilated as they were liberated. The Polish commanders were actively
strengthening the Polish Armed Forces in the west as the war with Germany wound down because they were preparing for the
war against the Soviet Union which they were sure would soon follow.
Towards the end of the war, the British and Americans increasingly considered the Soviet Union to be a potential
new enemy however, war weariness forced them to compromise with the Soviets. As a consequence Stalin was handed great concessions
in an attempt to keep the world peace. One of these concessions was Poland itself (and other eastern lands). A further demand
of Stalin was that the British abandon the Polish Army in the west. Fear of Stalin was such that, upon his insistence,
the British did not allow the Poles to march in London's victory parade.
So, what to do with the Poles? With the fighting in the west winding down, there was no plan to transfer the
Polish forces to the Pacific War and they were considered too angry to serve effectively in a policing
role. Churchill was not about to forcibly repatriate these honourable Allied soldiers as he understood the danger
many of them would face in Soviet occupied territory. The only solution was to demobilize the Poles, send them away
and hope they keep quiet.
Pressured by Stalin from early on, the British authorities slowly began to put limits on the ability of
the Polish army to function. To start, assistance to the Home Army was severely curtailed when
all flights from Britain and Italy into Poland were discontinued in December 1944.
Churchill and Roosevelt then handed over eastern Poland to Stalin at the Yalta conference in February,
1945. Although this meeting determined the fate of their country, Polish representatives had not been asked to attend.
Also in February 1945, the British Foreign Office asked the Polish Government
to stop sending radio messages to Poland. A few days later the request was expanded to include a ban on all communication
On March 15, 1945, the Polish Commanders were told that their units were to be demobilized with the men
being given a choice to return to Poland or to remain in Britain. This was particularly difficult news for the 1st Polish Armoured
Division which was heading east through the low countries into Germany and had always assumed that it would continue on to
The final blow for the exiled Poles came on June 30, 1945 when the British and American governments officially
recognized Stalin's Provisional Government of National Unity as the effective government of all of Poland (not just
the eastern provinces) until the free elections which were to be held at some point in the future. The Polish Government-in-Exile
in London, in an instant, had lost all authority over its own country. The Communists managed to delay
the elections until 1947 when they were certain that they had destroyed most of the opposition.
The London Poles did not give up easily. Efforts to fight Soviet style Communist domination in Poland by
the Polish Military in the west continued but became increasingly uncoordinated and inffective. The political and
military situations in England and Poland were infinitely complex and without sufficient power and authority in their hands
the exiled Polish leaders could not exert much control. In contrast, the Polish and Soviet Communist administrative, military
and security organs were able to exert an increasingly powerful control over the land and population as time went on.
The Polish people themselves were also ready for some law and order, no matter who provided it.
During the years 1945 to 1947, Polish units in Italy, Western Europe and elsewhere were recalled to Britain
and through the Polish Resettlement Corps (PRC) were disarmed, demobilized and given aid in leaving Britain. Of those
who did arrive in Britain, some 6,800 soldiers returned to Poland while the vast majority, some 160,000, decided to stay in
the west. Many of those moved on to other countries overseas, leaving about 120,000 remaining in Britain.