Commemoration ‘2005: Dr Robin Petersen

Love Demands Sacrifice (Unofficial standard of the Polish Air Force in Britain)

Robin05

In spring of 1941, a beautiful banner hand-stitched by the women of Wilno and smuggled by the Polish underground, arrived in London. The banner bore the words “Love demands Sacrifice” under an image of the Virgin Mary. This banner became the unofficial standard of the Polish Air Force in Britain, and from 1941 it was rotated among the various Polish squadrons until it was to be carried into Warsaw with the squadron who would eventually carry it home.

The banner never made it home, at least not in the way intended by General Sikorsky, the Polish Prime Minister and Commander in Exile. It never made it home because most of the 30,000 Polish military who were in Britain at the end of the war, did not want to return home to a country once again occupied by their enemy. Betrayed at Yalta, the Poles who had fought, in the words of their slogan “For your freedom and ours”, were left homeless and exiled, even banned from taking part in the great Victory march through London at the end of the war because of global geo-politics.

But who were these airmen and soldiers and sailors who fought the Nazi’s longer than any other nation? What had they achieved once their beloved land had been defeated so decisively in September 1939?

Before I answer that, I want to tell you about who I am.

I am not a Pole. I have no Polish ancestry at all. But over the years of my marriage to Heather Jones, I have fallen in love with the story of people of Poland and of the Warsaw uprising as I have listened to it through the experiences of my father-in-law, Bryan Jones.

His story and that of his brave South African comrades of 31 Squadron, you have heard this morning at the Katyn memorial service. You have also heard of the courageous and daring exploits of the Jewish Poles of the Warsaw Ghetto, who rose up against the Nazi’s in 1943, and you have heard of the heroism of the AK and the people of Warsaw in the great Warsaw uprising of August 1944.

But like me, I am sure that you have not heard of the many other stories of Polish heroism and resistance during this terrible war, during this terrible time of destruction.

So when I was asked by Andre Romanowicz whether I would speak on this topic today, I was ignorant. I suppose I had believed the myths that still circulate about the gallant and romantic, but ultimately fool-hardy resistance of the Polish cavalry against the Nazi blitzkrieg. I had heard and not questioned the myths and stories about the “easy” defeat of the Polish army in the face of the onslaught. I had heard and unthinkingly believed that the Polish Christians had done very little to assist the vast Polish Jewish community as they were systematically exterminated by the evil logic of the Nazi Final Solution.

So what a privilege for me to discover a whole new world as I prepared for this talk, What a privilege, a humbling privilege, it was for me to read about the way in which the Poles had defended their homeland to the last, never capitulating, and how the military men and women that remained had managed in the most dire circumstances to flee after the defeat and regroup, first in France and then in Britain, and how they participated decisively in many of the most significant battles of the war: The Battle of Britain, Narvik, Tobruk, Monte Cassino, the liberation of Bologna, and many others.

And so, in this short time, I want to tell you about my journey of discovery, as I highlight some of the more significant and poignant of the stories.

First of all, let me talk about the manner in which the people of Poland demonstrated how their love for their country demanded the ultimate sacrifice. Let me replace in your mind, as it was in mine, the myth with the facts.

Polish Resistance

What about the easy capitulation of the Poles on their own soil?

The Poles were the first country to experience the devastating effect of the German blitzkrieg and the ruthlessness of the Nazi war tactics. Aircrew dangling from their parachutes were fair targets to the Germans. Civilians, including women and children were attacked and killed by the invaders, following secret instructions from the Fuhrer: “Kill without pity or mercy all men, women and children of Polish descent or language. Only in this way can we obtain the living space we need”.

The Poles, like the Dutch and French a few months later, were woefully unprepared for this new form of warfare. But here is the fact: The Poles never officially surrendered. In fact, they held out longer than expected, until they were invaded from the east by the Soviets as well. Of all occupied countries, it was the only one with no local collaborating government.

This is even more remarkable, because Hitler’s goal was the complete extermination of the Polish nation. Their language, culture and history were to be destroyed, and, chillingly, their elite was to be systematically liquidated.

The Einsatzgruppen, or Nazi extermination squads, entered Poland soon after Warsaw fell, and began their work of horror. “Jews, intelligentsia, clergy and the nobility were to be exterminated.

Before the war, 4/5 of the world’s Jews lived in Poland. No wonder over 3 million Polish Jews died in the war, most exterminated in the death camps and in the destruction of the Polish ghetto in Warsaw. But over 3 million non-Jewish Poles also perished in the war. Poland lost 20% of its population in the war, compared with 11% of the USSR, 7% Germany, and less than 1% of Britain and the USA. No nation suffered more. No occupied nation resisted more vigorously. It is no surprise that two of the only three urban uprisings against Nazi occupation in Europe occurred in Warsaw. Poles, Jewish and Christian alike, refused to capitulate to the horror.

And what about the Polish Jews? The “tremendum” of the horror of the holocaust was borne by them above all nations. 3 million Polish Jews perished. But far from the myth of non-Jewish indifference to this fate, did you know that in the Yad Vashem, the Israeli memorial to the Holocaust, Poland stands top of the list of nations whose citizens are honoured among the “Righteous of the Nations” for their assistance to the Jews. And only in Poland was it automatic death penalty for oneself and ones family for rendering this assistance. Also honoured at Yad Vashem is the Zegota, the code name for the Relief Council for Polish Jews formed by the AK, and who were responsible for saving the lives of at least 40,000 Jews.

Battle of Britain

So what happened to the Poles who were able to escape from their defeated country? Crossing countless borders in the most difficult of circumstances, they regrouped and participated in the futile defence of France, and in Narvik, Norway, actually defeated the Germans and pushed them out the peninsula back into Sweden.

These now battle hardened soldiers and airmen regrouped in Britain, where they were at first cautiously received, and then, as their fighting mettle was demonstrated, gladly welcomed.

Their most significant feat was the decisive role that the Polish pilots of the famous Kosciuszko (303) Squadron and the Poznan (302) Squadrons played in the most critical turning point of the war: The Battle of Britain.

In all 5500 Polish airmen and crew made it from Poland to France to the Britain. The 142 combat trained and combat hardened members of these two squadrons made the decisive difference in the fortunes of the Allies in the Battle of Britain.

Here are some of the facts:
– In Sept 1940 of 962 German planes shot down, Poles accounted for 131.
– One in eight enemy planes shot down in the Battle of Britain were shot down by Poles.
– In 6 weeks of the Battle of Britain, the Kosciuszko Squadron flying Hurricane aircraft and led by its aces Witold Lokuciewski, Miroslav Feric, Jan Zumbach, Witold Urbanowicz and Zdzislaw Krasnodebski, shot down 126 enemy aircraft, twice as many as any other squadron for that period.

Their tactics, honed in their battles with the Luftwaffe in their defence of Poland, where they were flying vastly inferior aircraft, were to Get as close as you can before opening fire. In this they brought to air the elan of the Polish Cavalry.

Thomas Gleave: “I wonder if mankind is yet aware of the credit that is their due. They fought for English soil with an abandon, tempered with skill and backed by indomitable courage such that it could never have been surpassed had it been in defense of their own native land.”

Sir Hugh Dowding Air Marshall of the RAF ” Had it not been for the magnificent work of the Polish squadrons and their unsurpassed gallantry, I hesitate to say that the outcome of battle would have been the same”

Quote: “One cannot help feeling that if all our Allies had been Poles, the course of this war, up till now, would have been very different”

Monte Cassino

It was not only in the air, but on the ground that the Polish fighting forces demonstrated their prowess and their commitment to fight for “Your freedom and Ours”.

Perhaps the most famous, or infamous, of the battles in which they participated successfully, was the battle for the heavily defended Monte Cassino. Blocking the advance of the Allies up the boot of Italy, Monte Cassino had withstood months of Allied attempts to dislodge the German occupiers.

The number II Polish Corps was then assigned the task of attempting to do what others had failed to do. In one of the most heroic and bloody battles of the Italian campaign, the soldiers of II Corps eventually managed to liberate Monte Cassino, determined to prove to the Germans and to their Allied comrades that they had the ability to take the battle to the enemy and win in the face of enormous odds.

In two perilous ascents, they finally routed the German defenses, but at great cost. Over 1000 men were killed and 3000 wounded in the attack.

One of the most poignant moments came as the battle weary Polish troops entered the now devastated monastery. Olson writes: “As the Regimental standard gently fluttered atop the mountain, the sound of bugle suddenly pierced the air. An unseen lancer was playing the Krakow Hejnal, a famous call celebrating a 13th century trumpeter in Krakow, whose throat had been pierced by an arrow as he summoned his fellow citizens to battle against the Tartars. Commemorating the trumpeter’s interrupted call to arms, the Hejnal breaks off abruptly, in the middle of a note. At the sound of the trumpet, thousands of hardened infantrymen wept like children. After their years of wandering and exile, they were hearing, from a supposedly impregnable German fortress, the voice of Poland”. (p.313)

Conclusion

So on this day of remembrance, let us remember with pride the achievements of the Polish people: of the gallant Polish army, the intrepid pilots of the Polish Air Force, and above all, the indominable courage to resist of the Polish people, both Jew and Christian, for the love of their country and for the love of freedom.

And let us remember with shame and humility the betrayal of the this people and this nation through the horror of this war and the 45 years that followed.

And let us celebrate today, that 60 years after the end of this terrible conflict, we all — Poles, South Africans, Britons, Jews and Germans can sit together and remember, can sit together as friends, can sit together and vow that such a horror, such a Shoah, such a devastation will never again be allowed to happen.

And we do so in and as a nation of South Africans who have endured and overcome our own history of horror, our own shame and our own struggle. May we continue in this great country of ours to show the way to world of peace and reconciliation, of justice and freedom, of forgiveness and restitution.

I want to close with the prayer for Africa,
but today make it the prayer for Poland as well:
“God bless Africa, Guide her leaders, Guard her people, and give her Peace”
“God bless Poland. Guide her leaders. Guard her people. And give her Peace”

Acknowledgments:

1. Olson, L, and Cloud, S “For your Freedom and Ours: The Kosciuszko Squadron. Forgotten Heroes of World War II” (Arrow Books: 2003)

2. Filipow, Krzysztof and Wawer, Zbigniew “Passerby, Tell Poland” (Arkady, Warsaw, 1991)

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