Number of Soldiers: 180,000
Number of Fallen: 65,000
Number of Medal Holders: 180
On the eve of World War II, the Polish Regular Army comprised approximately 280,000 people, who were organized in 30 Infantry Divisions, 11 Cavalry Regiments, and 2 Mechanized Regiments. The Reserve Army included approximately 3 million Reservists.
About a million and a half Soldiers, 2,800 Cannons and 500 Tanks took part in the war.
The Air-Force had in its possession about 400 operational Fighter-Airplanes, which were organized in 15 Fighter Squadrons.
The Navy had in its possession 4 Destroyers, 5 Submarines, 23 Airplanes, and a small Force for Coastal Defense.
All these did not constitute an equivalent power that could withstand the might of its foes – the German Army from the west and the Soviet Army from the east – who, after 35 days of fighting, conquered Poland’s entire territory.
At the outbreak of the war, on 1 September 1939, approximately 150,000 Jews reported for duty in the general call-up for the defense of Poland. Until the war’s eruption, the Polish Military, against an Anti-Semitic background, restricted their enlistment in the various Corps and Forces. The majority of them served in the Infantry, some in the Artillery and some in the Medical Corps. Military Rabbis served too. Most of the Jewish Officers were in low ranks, some were advanced to the intermediate ranks and few to the senior ranks (above Major).
The most senior Jewish Officer in the Polish Army – General Bernard Mond – a Commander of an Infantry Division in the Krakow area, was the only Jewish General in the Army.
The number of casualties among Jewish Soldiers of Poland reached some 65,000.
In the fighting against the Germans, the Polish Army’s casualties were approximately 70,000 people, and about 420,000 were captured.
Around 60,000 Jewish Fighters were captured by the German Army. Some 3,200 Jewish Prisoners-of-War were executed by the Germans in the Lublin area.
After the Soviet “Red Army” invaded Poland, on 17 September 1939, the Polish Army lost approximately 7,000 persons and around 250,000 Soldiers were captured, among them about 25,000 Jewish Fighters.
Of those Prisoners-of-war, 21,768 were murdered by the Red Army in the Katyn Forest, near Smolensk. Among them were 436 Jewish Prisoners, including the Chief Rabbi of the Polish Army – Major Boruch Steinberg.
Of the Prisoners who were released, 10,000 joined the ranks of the “Red Army” and other Polish Units that established in the U.S.S.R.
Following the defeat, some 90,000 Soldiers managed to escape out of the Country. The majority of them, around 70,000, fled to Hungary and Romania and also to the Baltic States, and from there about 43,000 reached France. The latter fled to the U.S.S.R., especially to Lithuania and Latvia.
These people served as the basis in the raising of the Polish Army in the West – Polskie Sity Zbrojne, or PSZ – whose units, which included a high percentage of Jews, fought in various Theatres of Battle in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, in Ground, Naval and Air Corps.
The Polish Armed Forces in the West
On 4 January 1940, after the defeat, Polish General Wladyslaw Sikorski founded a Government-in-Exile in France. With the approval of the French Government, he raised a Polish Army on French soil, with its Headquarters at the Hotel “Regina” in Paris and its main Base in the Brittany Peninsula. This Army relied, in part, on recruitment of people from among the Polish citizens of France, from whom approximately 100,000 were enlisted. They were organized and equipped within the framework of 3 Infantry Divisions and 2 Armored Brigades. Four Fighter Squadrons were also established.
These Forces fought in the Battle for France, under the command of the French Army.
One Regiment (the Independent Carpathian Brigade) even found its way to Syria, which was under a French Mandate at that time. Upwards of 14,000 Jews served in this Unit, out of about 50,000 Jews of Polish descent who were then living in France.
In April, 1940, a Polish Regiment joined French and British Forces on the northern Front in Norway and participated in the Battle of Narvik. Among the fallen in that Battle were also many Jews, who were buried in the Skole Haakvik Cemetery in the area.
In late May of that year, in the Campaign in France, the 1st Division entered combat, and in June it reached the la Manche Channel. Some of its men were captured and some crossed over to England.
The 2nd Division (the “Podhale Rifles”) fought in the Saone Region and in the Belfort Territory, and retreated into Switzerland, where its men were placed in Prisoner-of-War Camps.
The 3rd Division and the Armored Brigades fought on the Loire River; some of their men were captured and others managed to reach England.
The Polish Troops fought courageously against the Germans who had invaded France and they absorbed many casualties. After the French defeat at Dunkirk, about 20,000 Polish Soldiers were also evacuated, including some 1,000 Jews.
Approximately 50,000 Polish Soldiers took part in the Campaign in France; 1,400 of them were killed, and more than 4,500 were wounded.
So did Polish Pilots participate in the Campaign, and they succeeded in downing about 50 German airplanes.
About 150 Polish Pilots took part in the Battle of Britain, in the framework of Polish as well as British Squadrons. They downed a total of about 200 airplanes, which constituted around 12% of the Luftwaffe – the German Air-Force – aircraft that were downed in this Campaign.
Among those, it is worth noting the part of some 100 Jewish Officers. They served in the Polish Air-Force, which was now operating within the framework of the RAF, and 32 of them fell in these Battles.
This turn of events encouraged the British to increase the Force Array of the Polish Air Units within the RAF to 8 Fighter Squadrons and 4 Bomber Squadrons. They went on to participate in battles in the Western Desert as well as raids on V-1 and V-2 Rocket sites and on various other targets in the heart of Germany. They also took part in the Invasion of Normandy.
So too did the Polish Fleet participated in the Naval Campaign in the Atlantic Ocean.
On the eve of the war’s eruption, several of its Destroyers and Submarines left for England. Those, and additional Vessels that had been leased from the British Royal Navy, alongside the British and the American Fleets, took part in various Naval Operations – Narvik, the Dunkirk Evacuation, the pursuit of the “Bismarck”, the Normandy Landings, and more.
The Polish I Corps, and in its framework the 1st Armored Division under the command of General Maczek, was raised with the Polish Army Soldiers who had been evacuated to England, in 1941, and it was joined later by the 1st Independent Parachute Brigade as well. Over 500 Jews fought in this Force, of whom about 40 were Officers.
After the fall of France and the establishment of the Vichy Government, the Regiment that had been dispatched to Syria (the Independent Carpathian Brigade) left for Egypt through Eretz Israel, where it joined British Forces. It was then transferred to Libya, and participated in the defense of Tobruk and in the fighting in the Western Desert. Jews fought in the ranks of this Unit as well. In March, 1942, it returned to Eretz Israel and was reorganized as a Division, which was later joined with the Polish II Corps (“Anders’ Army”) and in its framework took part in the Italian Campaign.
The German Offensive on the Soviet Union (Operation “Barbarossa”, on 22 June 1941) was a turning point in the development of Poland’s Political and Military structures. In accordance with a July, 1941, agreement between Sikorski and Stalin, the Polish Government-in-Exile was permitted to recruit Polish citizens in Soviet territory and to establish a Polish Army that will fight within the ranks of the “Red Army”. The Soviets opened the gates of all the Prisoner-of-War Camps and released Polish Citizens, many Jews among them. They raised a Polish Army that included more than 70,000 people, headed by General Wladyslaw Anders, who was known as an Anti-Semite and prevented Jews from joining the enlistees. Following the deterioration in Polish-Soviet relations, it was agreed that Anders’ Army would leave for Iran and Iraq and later for Eretz Israel. Together with it when it departed were also over 100,000 civilians, and among them many orphan Jewish children (the “Tehran Children”) who got to be smuggled to Israel this way. Approximately 4,000 Jews reached Eretz Israel in the framework of Anders’ Army. From among them, 2,000 enlisted in the British Army, and later, some enlisted the “Jewish Brigade”, the “PALMACH” (Strike Force), the ETZEL (National Military Organization) and the LECHI (Fighters for Freedom of Israel). One of these Soldiers was Menachem Begin, who would one day become Prime Minister of Israel. The Army was reorganized within the framework of the British Army as Polish II Corps and in late 1943, and early 1944, it was transferred to the Italian Front, where it became famous for its fighting in Monte Cassino, in the “Gustav” Line. It also took part in various battles in northern Italy, and in liberating some of the towns in the area. About 2,600 of its 50,000 Soldiers fell in this Campaign. Within the ranks of this Army fought 850 Jewish Officers and Soldiers; 28 of them fell, and 62 were wounded; 136 were awarded with decorations, among them 6 Jewish Fighters who were awarded with the Order of the “Virtuti Militari”, the highest Polish Military Decoration for Gallantry, for their outstanding conduct in these Battles.
During the Allies’ preparations for Operation “Overlord” in Normandy this Polish Force was included as well, and it was set in Britain. In the course of the Operation, the 1st Armored Division, under the command of General Maczek, was landed in France in the framework of the Canadian Corps, and it became famous primarily in the Falaise and Chambois Battles, in August, 1944, where it closed the trapped German Forces’ withdrawal routes. Thereafter, the Division participated in the liberation of parts of northern France, and of Belgium and Holland, and it completed its long journey in the German Port City of Wilhelmshaven.
Another Unit, the 1st Independent Parachute Brigade, took part in the Battle of Arnhem, in Holland, and absorbed many casualties there. Several hundred Jewish Soldiers also participated in this Battle and many of them were killed; they were buried in Military Cemeteries in the area, under gravestones bearing the Star of David.
At the conclusion of the war, the Polish Forces that had fought alongside the Western Allies numbered about 210,000 persons.
The Polish Army on the Eastern Front
With the departure of Anders’ Army from the U.S.S.R., in late 1942, and following the massacre in the Katyn Forest of the Polish Officers who had fallen in Russians hands, relations between Moscow and the Polish Government-in-Exile were broken off. In May, 1943, the Soviet Government agreed to the formation of new Polish Army Units that will fight alongside the “Red Army”. These Units were raised without the consent of the legal Polish Authorities, with the Command in them being mostly Russian, and they were susceptible to the influence of Polish Communist elements. This Force later contributed to the Communist takeover of Poland and assisted greatly in this Country’s Military effort.
The first Force, raised in May, 1943, was the Division named after “Tadeusz Kosciuszko”, under the command of Colonel Zygmunt Berling, a veteran Polish Officer. The Force soon grew into an Army that in July, 1944, numbered approximately 100,000 persons, among them about 2,700 Jewish Fighters, and into two Armies that numbered approximately 330,000 persons at the conclusion of the war.
Among the Fighters in this Division there were Jews whose fighting was renowned, especially in the Battle of Lenino, in Belarus, in October, 1943. These same Forces tried, unsuccessfully, to assist the Fighters in the Warsaw Uprising, in 1944; they participated in the liberation of northern Poland and the Baltic Coast, and later on, in early 1945, in the great “Red Army” Offensive into Germany, and finally in the occupation of Berlin.
The “Kosciuszko” Division was the only Detachment, except the Russian Army, permitted to raise its flag on the ruins of the German Capital.
The Forces completed their 1,000-kilometer journey in May, 1945, in Czechoslovakia.
Approximately 20,000 Jewish Fighters fought in these Battles, which also included the liberation of Berlin; 2,077 of them fell, of whom 261 were Officers.
About 80 Jewish Soldiers fell In the Battle to liberate Berlin and about 40 went missing.
Medals of Valor were awarded to about 300 additional Jews in this Campaign
.among them “Hero of the Soviet Union”, General Juliusz Hibner