WWII  Australian-Polish Comrades-in-Arms
Waldemar Niemotko

The outbreak of the Second World War brought together two geographically distant countries, Australia and Poland.   The Third Reich invaded Poland at the dawn of the 1st September 1939.  Two days later, Great Britain declared war on Germany. “Australia is also at war, announces the Prime Minister, Hitler’s arbitrary policy must be checked for security of the world.” – was the headline of the newspaper Advocate of Burnie (Tasmania) on 4 September 1939. With a subtitle: “Force to check march of force.” PM Robert Menzies stated: “(T)he peaceful adjustment of difference, the rights of independent peoples to live their own lives, the honouring of international obligations and promises – all these things are at stake.”   

Dr Lachlan Grant, a historian of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, has identified numerous sources in their Research Centre collection reflecting upon Australian-Polish war time alliance.  This started as early as in 1940 during the air battle of Britain. 

Around 32 Australians served in the Fighter Command RAF, beyond those who became a part in the Bomber Command RAF. There were some 150 Polish pilots who flew the Fighter Command RAF, within four and, later, sixteen squadrons. The Polish pilots of the “Hurricane” No. 303 Squadron RAF, named after Tadeusz Kościuszko, the national hero both to Poles and Americans, scored some 126 aerial victories over German aircraft during the three-month campaign. Their daredevil fighting technique has brought about a saying: “if you want a short life and a glorious death, fly with a Polish airman.”   The names of some of them were: Zdzisław Krasnodębski, Witold Łokuciewski, Stanisław Skalski, Witold Urbanowicz and Jan Zumbach.  A reference book is A Question of Honor: The Kosciuszko Squadron Forgotten Heroes of World War II by Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud (Random House, New York, 2004).

In 1941 it was in Tobruk (Libya) that Diggers from the 9th Division were brought closer to British, New Zealand, South African, Indian, (Free) French, Czechoslovak and Polish comrades, within 241 (or 242) days of the German-Italian siege.  On 29th August, the Polish Independent ‘Carpathian’ Rifle Brigade started replacement of  the Australian 18th Brigade and the Indian 18th Cavalry Regiment.  A History of the 2/17 Australian Infantry Battalion 1940-1945, p. 64 gives credit to the ground operations: “Patrolling continued each night, now including a Pole in each patrol as the battalion did their utmost  to pass on every bit of useful information they could to their new friends before being relieved.”  And further on: “On the night of 3/4 Sept the Poles took over from 2/17 Bn, with the CO and coy rear parties remaining with the Polish Bn for 48 hours to assist them in settling into their new role.” 

On 15 January 2013  Dr Brendan Nelson, Memorial’s Director stated “Australian and Polish forces were closely associated during the Second World War, no more so during the siege of Tobruk”.  He added: “Here Major General (later Lieutenant General Sir) Leslie Morshead formed a strong bond with Major General Stanislaw Kopanski, the commander of the Carpathian Brigade. Writing to the Polish officer [in bidding farewell in October 1941] Morshead praised ‘the soldierly qualities and military bearing of your [Kopański’s] troops... 
I see in them the manifestations of an undaunted spirit which the enemy will never quench.’ 
In 2011, the‘Carpathian’ Brigade was mentioned in the Memorial’s special anniversary exhibition: Rats of Tobruk, 1941.  There was released a Polish-English photographic album Tobruk 1941, authored by Zbigniew Wawer (Bellona, Warsaw, 2011). 

To some extent, Polish troops fought in Tobruk under Australian direct command.  In the English-Polish Special Issue (15 August 1941) of Nasze Drogi (Our Roads), a soldierly bulletin of the time (AWM Record 3DRL 2632 11/1), an Englishman gave his impressions on Polish allies: “They can put up with the most primitive conditions from the soldiering point of view and never grumble so long as they are getting on with the job. (...) They get on particularly well with the Australians.  I’ve known Australians and Poles talking together for hours and getting on like a house on fire though not understanding a word of each other’s language.  The officers are nearly all regular soldiers of high technical ability – fine soldiers and good fellows.”

From mid-1942, within the British 8th Army, both Australian and Polish military participated in preparation to the major, armoured  confrontation that became renown as the El Alamein Battle.  The enemies felt confident by laying down extensive, in their opinion, non penetrable mine fields.  A conventional method prevailed  to approach with a bayonet the explosive device that was buried in the sand.  This cause many casualties.  A significant increase of the rate of the mine clearance, was achieved by the use of five hundred portable Mine Detectors No 2 (Polish) that would send  a ‘ping’ sound to headphones whenever they passed over a metal object beneath.  This was a pre-war brainchild of the Polish inventor, Captain Józef Stanisław Kosacki who further developed it when in Scotland with his countrymen, Lieutenant Kalinowski and Andrzej Garboś. The invention was not patented and it was donated, free of charge, to the British Army. 

            Major-General Leslie Morshead was decorated on 21 November 1941 in Cairo (Egypt) by General Władysław Sikorski, Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Forces. It was the Silver Cross of the Polish Order of Virtuti Militari, in recognition of Morshead’s service as Commander of the Tobruk Fortress.  He later received a salute on 30 October 1942 from the marching Polish lads, aged from 11 to 15 years, who were attached to the 1st Australian Advanced Ordnance Workshops in Rafa (Palestine).

            The Polish ‘Carpathian’ Brigade, having grown to the size of a division, performed famously in the Battle of Monte Cassino, mid-May 1944.  Throughout the Italian campaign, the Allied ground forces had a support from six RAAF squadrons: 3, 450, 451, 455, 458 and 450.  During the operation “Market-Garden”, Australians were among the aircrews of RAF Transport Command and supporting units which flew the airborne forces into Arnhem (the Netherlands).  Those included the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade (organised in the UK by General Stanisław Sosabowski) which was dropped on Arnhem on 21 September 1944.

            A high proportion of Australians had No.148 Halifax RAF Squadron that was flying mostly from Ancona (Italy), to drop supplies to the underground forces on the territories occupied by Germany.  Particularly dangerous were the missions from May 1944 in support of the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa).  The No. 178 Squadron RAF joined in delivering supplies to Warsaw Uprising (August-September 1944).  The Soviets did not allow  touch down for refuelling on their nearby airfields. (Sir Llewellyn Woodward, British Foreign Policy in the Second World War, HM Stationery Office, London, 1971, vol. III, pp. 202-210).  From over 200 missions, only half were successful.  Some of the Australian airmen were shot down, at times wounded.  Most of them went into hiding safely with Polish partisans, occasionally even joining their ranks. Germans kept Australian POWs in Sagan (now Żagań), Lamsdorf (Łambinowice), Thorn (Toruń) and Schubin (Szubin). 

There are 43 Australian airmen and POWs buried in cemeteries in Poland (died at the age from 20 to 43 years): Malbork – 3, Poznań – 18 and Kraków – 22 where a project is underway to erect at the Vistula-river bank, an impressive monument to Allied aircrew, Australians among them.  There is in Hobart (Tasmania) a Polish-Australian Brotherhood-in-Arms Tobruk Monument, amidst 400 graves of  Polish ‘Rats of Tobruk’.  They all kept, to the last moment, a faithfulness to the commitment: For your freedom and ours.

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