The recent celebrations to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day were a precious point of light in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While lockdown meant that we couldn’t celebrate it as we might have wished, across the country we paused to remember, with the help of an innovative campaign by the Royal British Legion, this extraordinary moment in our history.
For myself and other members of Britain’s million-strong Polish community, VE Day is especially poignant. Many of us can trace our roots in the United Kingdom back to parents or grandparents who first came here to fight against Nazism. After jointly defeating Poland, Hitler and Stalin divided the country between them in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Polish men and women flocked to these shores in unprecedented numbers, and over the next few years, they played a pivotal role in the British and Allied war effort. From the skies of England to the mountains of Italy, and from the beaches of Normandy to the deserts of North Africa, they were always to be found where the fighting was fiercest.
For example, at the Battle of Britain, so many Polish pilots joined up that the Royal Air Force were able to field no fewer than 16 extra squadrons of fighters.
One of these, the 303 Squadron, shot down more enemy aircraft than any other squadron in the battle.
At a point when the RAF and the Luftwaffe appeared evenly matched, and the fate of both Britain and Europe hung in the balance, these brave pilots helped to tip the odds in freedom’s favour, and I’m delighted that last year two films, Hurricane and 303 Squadron, were released which brought their heroism to life once again.
But that was far from the end of it.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of visiting Libya, where at Tripoli and Tobruk Poles and Britons lie buried side by side.
These are the men who defeated Erwin Rommel, the notorious Desert Fox, and his Afrika Korps.
They sacrificed everything – the opportunity perhaps to have children and to live full and successful lives – to liberate Europe from Hitler’s New Order.
It was a Pole, Józef Kosacki, who invented the mine detector which proved so important to Field Marshal Montgomery’s victory at the pivotal battle of El Alamein.
Without it, German armies might have broken through Egypt to seize the oil fields of the Middle East.
To his name I might add those of Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Różycki, Henryk Zygalski, and all the other Polish mathematicians and cryptographers whose invaluable contributions to cracking the Enigma code were recently chronicled by Sir Dermot Turing, a relative of Alan Turing.
Yet there is one battle seared into the Polish consciousness like no other: Monte Cassino. This was one of the hardest, most brutal engagements of the entire war, as a vast Allied army fought to dislodge some of Germany’s most elite troops from a mountaintop monastery they had turned into an impregnable fortress.
It was the Poles – the same Poles who had fought their way across North Africa and up through Sicily – who eventually took it, at extraordinary cost.
And in a symbol of the special bond between our peoples, the second flag they raised over the ruins was the Union Jack.
I could go on.
I could tell you about Piorun, the flagship of the Polish navy, which as HMS Narissa defended Glasgow during the Clydebank Blitz and played a crucial role in sinking the dreaded Bismarck.
Of the Polish troops who, weeks after Monte Cassino, were fighting on the beaches at D-Day.
And I could tell you how General Władysław Anders and his men, who had given so much to the war effort, chose to fight on even when they learned that, because of the Allied pacts with Joseph Stalin, there would be no free Poland to go home to.
Or how the Attlee Government, to appease the Soviet dictator, forbad Polish troops from taking part in the victory parades in 1946.
Even 75 years on, I know how deeply that wound is felt by my Polish brothers and sisters.
Of course, Britain remained a great friend to Poland.
The combined efforts of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan led to the fall of communism and therefore brought freedom to many of the occupied Central and Eastern European nations.
Since the war, the Polish Government-in-Exile remained based in London until the return of Polish democracy in the 1990s, and in 1947 our Parliament granted citizenship to 200,000 Poles who had fought in the war.
But, we should not forget why, for so many, VE Day is a bittersweet celebration.
For tens of millions of people in Eastern Europe, the end of the New Order meant only the advent of Soviet tyranny.
Western governments, for the sake of appeasing Stalin, broke many of their promises to the Poles and other oppressed peoples who volunteered to defend them from the Nazi aggression.
It isn’t too late to put this right.
On the 75th anniversary of our shared victory, it is time to properly and permanently recognise Poland’s extraordinary contribution with a monument, one which celebrates not only the heroes of the Second World War but the enduring alliance between our two proud and independent nations.
Author: Daniel Kawczynski, Conservative Member of Parliament for Shrewsbury and Atcham
The article was firstly published on Express.co.uk