Friday, June 19, 2015

Polish II Corps

Polish II Corps (Polish: Drugi Korpus Wojska Polskiego), 1943–1947, was a major tactical and operational unit of the Polish Armed Forces in the West during World War II. It was commanded by Lieutenant General Władysław Anders and by the end of 1945 it had grown to well over 100,000 soldiers.

Following the signing of the Polish-Russian Military Agreement on August 14, 1941, a Polish Army on Soviet soil was born. The first commander, General Michał Tokarzewski, began the task of forming this army in the Soviet town of Totskoye on August 17. The commander chosen by General Władysław Sikorski to ultimately lead the new army, General Władysław Anders, had been just released from the Lubyanka prison in Moscow, on August 4, and did not issue his first orders or announce his appointment as commander until August 22.

This army would grow over the following two years and provide the bulk of the units and troops of the Polish II Corps.

The Polish II Corps was created in 1943 from various units fighting alongside the Allies in all theatres of war. The 3rd Carpathian Division was formed in the Middle East from smaller Polish units fighting in Egypt and Tobruk, as well as the Polish Army in the East that was evacuated from the USSR through the Persian Corridor. Its creation was based on British Army Act of 1940 that allowed the allied units of the exiled government of Poland to be grouped on one theatre of war. However, the British command never agreed to incorporate the exiled Polish Air Force into the Corps. In 1944 the Corps was transferred from Egypt to Italy, where it became an independent part of the British Eighth Army under General Oliver Leese. During 1944-1945 the Corps fought with distinction in the Italian campaign, most notably during the fourth and final Battle of Monte Cassino, the Battle of Ancona during Operation Olive (the fighting on the Gothic Line in September 1944) and the Battle of Bologna during the Allies' final offensive in Italy in March 1945.

In 1944 it numbered about 50,000 soldiers. During the three subsequent battles the Corps suffered heavy losses (in the final stage of the Battle of Monte Cassino even the support units were mobilised and used in combat) and it was suggested to Gen. Anders that he withdraw his units. However, since the Soviet Union broke diplomatic relations with the Polish government and no Poles were allowed out of the USSR, Anders believed that the only source of recruits was ahead - in German POW camps and concentration camps.

By 1945 new units were added composed mostly from freed POWs and Poles forced to join the Wehrmacht, increasing the amount of soldiers to approximately 75,000; approximately 20,000 of them were transferred to other Polish units fighting in the West. After the war the divisions of the Corps were used in Italy until 1946, when they were transported to Britain and demobilised. The total establishment of the Polish Second Corps in 1946 was 103,000. The majority of soldiers remained in exile and settled in Britain. The Corps had a consistently high fighting reputation and was well-regarded by the American and Commonwealth troops they fought alongside with.

In May 1945 the Corps consisted of 55,780 men and approximately 1,500 women from auxiliary services. There was also one bear, named Wojtek. The majority of the forces were composed mostly of Polish citizens who were deported by the NKVD to the Soviet Gulags during the annexation of Eastern Poland (Kresy Wschodnie) in 1939 by the Soviet Union. Following the Operation Barbarossa and the Sikorski-Mayski Agreement many of them were released and allowed to join the Polish Armed Forces in the East being formed in Southern Russia and Kazakhstan. Due to political reasons the Soviet Union soon withdrew support for the creation of a Polish Army on its territory and lowered the supply rate, which forced General Władysław Anders to withdraw his troops to British-held Persia and Iraq. From there the troops were moved to British Mandate of Palestine, where they joined forces with the 3rd Carpathian Division which was composed mostly of Polish soldiers who had managed to escape to French Lebanon through Romania and Hungary after the Polish Defensive War of 1939.

The main bulk of the soldiers were from the eastern voivodeships of pre-war Poland. Although the majority of them were ethnic Poles, there were also members of other nationalities who joined the units of II Corps, most notably Jews, Belarusians and Ukrainians. After being relocated to Palestine, where there was little for the enlisted men to do, many Jewish soldiers of the corps "unofficially" discharged themselves by simply fading into the countryside. Menachem Begin, however, though encouraged to desert by friends of his, refused to remove the uniform until he was officially discharged from the army.

The armament was as follows:
    248 pieces of artillery
    288 anti-tank guns
    234 anti-air guns
    264 tanks
    1,241 APCs
    440 armoured cars
    12,064 cars, Bren carriers and trucks
    1 brown bear


  1. Hi Mitch, My grandfather appears in the first photograph! Can you let me know where the photo comes from please as I would love to try and get a copy?


  2. Hi Michelle

    English: Polish II Corps: Junacy - students of Polish high school in Casarano, Italy on a trip to Otranto.
    Polski: 2 Korpus Polski: Junacy - uczniowie Gimnazium polskiego w Casarano we Włoszech na wycieczce do Otranto.
    Date 1 April 1946
    English: Photograph from collection of Benon Tuszyński (JarekT's uncle)
    Polski: Fotografia z kolekcji Benona Tuszyńskiego (wujka JarkaT)