2nd Polish Corps: ‘We were united by the blood we shed together’ - Polish History Museum in Warsaw SKIP_TO
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2nd Polish Corps: ‘We were united by the blood we shed together’

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It was the largest tactical unit of the Polish Armed Forces in the West, its battles have become the stuff of legend and its commander is regarded as one of the most important figures in 20th-century Polish history. On 21 July 1943, the 2nd Polish Corps under the command of General Władysław Anders was established in Iraq.

The situation changed after July 1941. The German attack on the Soviets and the signing of the Sikorski-Mayski Agreement made it possible to create an army led by General Władysław Anders with Poles in the USSR. Several tens of thousands of soldiers were successfully assembled. Supply problems, disagreements over the concept of using Polish units and Stalin’s increasingly hostile policy towards the Polish Government-in-Exile, however, led to soldiers being moved out of the USSR to the Middle East.
 black and white photo of General Władysław Anders enlarge
General Wladyslaw Anders
fot. CAW / Gen. Władysław Anders, photo: Central Military Archive
black and white photo vintage soldiers in the trenches enlarge
Infantry of the 2nd Polish Corps in the Battle of Monte Cassino - soldiers at the briefing
fot. NAC

While Polish units were organising themselves in Iraq, a breakthrough occurred on the war fronts. The defeat of the Germans at Stalingrad, the retreat from the Caucasus, the victory of the British at El Alamein and the landing of the Americans in French North Africa had removed the threat to the Allied oil facilities. The vision of an attack in southern Europe, in Italy and the Balkans, was becoming ever closer. And it was for this purpose that Polish troops were to be established in the Middle East.

In the first months of 1943, the Polish Army in the East was completing reorganisations of subordinate commands. In March, the 2nd Tank Brigade became independent, and the 6th Lviv DP was merged with the 5th Vilnius (Wieleńska) DP to form the 5th Borderlands (Kresowa) DP (its two brigades inherited their names from the divisions). At this time, preparations began to be made for the separation of frontline troops and rear units - the command of the latter was taken over by Brigadier General Józef Wiatr, before the war the head of work on a mobilisation plan codenamed W.

On 16 November, the new Commander-in-Chief, General Sosnkowski, arrived in Palestine for an inspection, in order to observe the units’ exercises and conduct briefings in the 2nd Corps command for the following weeks. The decision was also taken at that time to divide the Polish Army in the East into three units: 2nd Polish Corps, its Base, which was to serve as a recruitment and logistics base in Italy, and the units left behind in the Middle East.

Allied command was also consulted at this time on the structure of the corps. From the Allied perspective, the problem was that the Polish infantry divisions had two brigades each, rather than three like their British counterparts. The Commander-in-Chief did not agree to the reinforcement of one infantry division and the addition of British units to the corps - for political reasons, he wanted a uniformly large Polish tactical unit to fight in Italy. Ultimately, the reorganisation did not take place.
 soldiers at Monte Cassino vintage black and white photo enlarge
2nd Polish Corps in the Battle of Monte Cassino Generals Władysław Anders (1st from the left) and Bronisław Duch (2nd from the left) accompanied by unidentified soldiers
fot. NAC
crowd of infantry soldiers and in military car black and white vintage photo enlarge
The entry of the 2nd Polish Corps into Bologna: generals Zygmunt Szyszko-Bohusz (1st from the left) and Klemens Rudnicki (at the wheel) in a Willys MB car; T17 (Staghound) armored cars are visible on the left. April 21, 1945,
fot. NAC

The 2nd Polish Corps, which was the largest tactical unit of the Polish Armed Forces in the West during the Second World War, began its combat trail in the winter of 1944 with attrition warfare on the Sangro River. In May of the same year, it took part in the Battle of Monte Cassino, which made the name of the Polish soldier famous - on 18 May, a patrol from the 12th Podolia Uhlan Regiment occupied the ruins of the Benedictine monastery, which had not been captured in previous assaults.

In the following months, the Corps' combat trail took the formation through Ancona, the Line of the Goths, the Emilia Apennines and ended in April 1945 in Bologna. The Polish units were stationed in Italy until mid-1946, after which they were transported to the UK and demobilised. The vast majority of General Anders’ soldiers, like their commander, chose to emigrate after the war, as, being largely inhabitants of the eastern provinces of the Second Republic, their places of origin were now lost to the USSR.

However, their combat merits and legend were passed on to the next generation of Poles - first semi-officially in the Polish People’s Republic, then with full commitment in the post-1989 Third Republic. To this day, the ‘trail of hope’ from the USSR through Persia, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt and Italy is an important component of Polish memory of the Second World War, and General Władysław Anders or the heroes from Monte Cassino occupy a prominent place in the national canon of history.

Author dr Tomasz Leszkowicz