The Polish contribution to the UK war effort in WW2 – Westminster Hall Debate

July 4, 2019

An important debate initiated by Daniel Kawczynski MP took place in UK Parliament’s Westminster Hall on Tuesday 2 July 2019. Mr Kawczynski is the first ever Polish born British Member of Parliament and is recognised for promoting Anglo-Polish relations and highlighting the contribution that one million Poles make to the UK today. He sent an invitation to his colleagues in House of Commons to join him in this debate and share some of their recollections and tributes of the Polish war effort to the cause. Over 20 MPs and Lords attended the debate. Below we present the full two speeches made by Daniel Kawczynski MP and Stephen Pound MP. Mr Pound represents the Labour Party in Ealing North. These two statements, together with many similar voices from their other colleagues, represented an honourable and dignified way to honour the Poles who together with Brits, side by side, fought against the demons of totalitarianism in the past century. Despite the MPs different views on multiple political matters, their respect and affection for Poland united them all that day.

A video from the proceedings is available below:

Daniel Kawczynski’s speech:

The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of the summer of 1939 was designed to destroy and annihilate the Poles. On 1 September 1939, a few weeks after that treaty between the Germans and Russians was signed, the brutal invasion of Poland by German forces took place. Despite so much subjugation—so many cities were destroyed and so many Poles were imprisoned, and tyranny was imposed on Poland in 1939 and thereafter—Poles themselves refused to be subjugated.

Poles share our values of freedom and are determined to be free people. They came from Poland in unprecedented numbers to join up with British forces and fight with their British counterparts in 1939 and 1940. The Polish Government-in-exile came to be based in London. Thanks to the hospitality and generosity of the British Government, the Polish Government-in-exile operated in London until 1989 and the fall of communism in Poland, when a democratic and legitimate Government was finally restored to Poland. The most important battle in which they participated was the Battle of Britain.

Today, I again had the great honour of speaking with Lord Tebbit about his views on the Battle of Britain. One of the most enjoyable things that I have done in my 14 years as a Member of Parliament was to join Lord Tebbit at the RAF club for an Anglo-Polish dinner, where he was the guest speaker. He said something that really resonated with me, that I will always remember, and that I wanted to share with the House. According to Lord Tebbit, the Royal Air Forceand the Luftwaffe were so evenly matched in the summer of 1940 that the British side was beginning to lose that battle. Those were the words of Lord Tebbit, not my own.

Lord Tebbit said that replacing the planes was relatively easy—continuing production in armaments factories and creating the planes was fine—but that replacing the pilots was extremely difficult. We all know how long it takes to train a pilot, and it was very difficult to replace all the losses. According to him, the Poles coming in such unprecedented numbers to join to British forces in the summer of 1940 was what tipped the balance to the British side.

Last year, two wonderful films were released in the United Kingdom: “Hurricane” and “303 Squadron”. I have spoken about those films to colleagues, who have then watched them, and I urge you, Mr Pritchard, as my Shropshire neighbour, to watch them if you have the opportunity. They are modern-day accounts to share with the next generations the extraordinary heroism, courage and determination of those Polish pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain. The Polish 303 Squadron shot down more enemy aircraft than any other squadron in the Battle of Britain. Although it is the most famous squadron, it was only one of 16 Polish squadrons embedded in the RAF.

There are now 1 million Poles in the United Kingdom, and we benefit enormously from their contribution to our country. In the past, I have heard people talking about Poles coming to live and work here and how dependent we are on Polish plumbers and other professions, but we were so dependent on those highly skilled and brave Poles who came in 1940.

Last week, I met Mr Burakowski, the new editor of the Shrewsbury Chronicle, which is the main newspaper in my constituency. He told me about the experiences of his father, who was one of those Poles who came over during the second world war and was part of a bombing squadron.

The Poles were led out of captivity in the Soviet Union by the famous General Anders—we have on many occasions invited his daughter, Senator Anna Maria Anders, to address the Polish diaspora in the House of Commons. General Anders brought many Polish soldiers from captivity in the Soviet Union, through Iran, to join up with British forces in Palestine, where they were equipped and trained before joining the British 8th Army.

Before the revolution in Libya, I had the opportunity to visit British and Polish graves, side by side in cemeteries in Tripoli and Tobruk. It was so poignant to see just how young those boys were—in certain cases, they were 19, 20 or 21. The British and Poles fought side by side in desert terrain in Libya, hundreds of miles from their homes, so young and with so much ahead of them—the opportunity perhaps to have children and to live full and successful lives. Yet at the age of 19 or 20, they sacrificed their lives together to fight the tyranny of fascism. That is why we remember them and their sacrifices today.

The battle of El Alamein was the turning point in the whole north African campaign. Anybody who has studied maps of the battlefront and topography of El Alamein will realise the extraordinary importance of landmines in that operation. A Pole, Józef Kosacki, invented the mine detector, which was successfully used for the first time in 1941, in El Alamein. As I said, that battle was the turning point in the north African campaign. The allied forces and the axis powers were very finely balanced at that juncture in 1941. Imagine if we had lost and Rommel’s forces had managed to push forward beyond Egypt and take the oil fields of the middle east. The events that unfolded in the second world war may have been very different. We therefore celebrate the great contribution of Józef Kosacki, a great Pole who died in 1990 and who had invented the mine detector.

Mr Cunningham mentioned Monte Cassino. Once the Polish and British forces had gone through El Alamein and Tobruk, retaken Benghazi and Tripoli, and gone through Tunisia, they came up through Sicily and the spine of Italy, finally reaching the Gustav line, which was part of the most strongly fortified, highly elevated defences across the spine of Italy, which were perceived to be impregnable. The most difficult part of the Gustav line was Monte Cassino itself. On 18 May 1944, at 9.45 am, a patrol of the 12th Podolski Lancers Regiment reached the ruins of Monte Cassino. They put a Polish flag there, followed shortly by a British flag.

It is easy to talk about some of those sacrifices and statistics, but today in my House of Commons office I watched the YouTube video of the battle at Monte Cassino—hand-to-hand combat, throwing grenades at each other, and being fired upon all the time. It was perceived to be one of the bloodiest and most difficult battles on the whole of the western front during the second world war. At Monte Cassino alone, the Poles lost 923 men who died, 2,931 injured and 345 reported missing. It is in the lexicon of the whole of the Polish narrative—all Poles carry Monte Cassino close to their heart.

I had better stop talking about Monte Cassino, or I will start to well up. A song called “The Red Poppies on Monte Cassino” symbolised the extraordinary amount of blood spilled by Polish soldiers to reach the top in order to liberate it. We are not allowed to speak in foreign languages in the Chamber, but in Polish the song is called “Czerwone maki na Monte Cassino”, which translates as “The Red Poppies on Monte Cassino”.

These Westminster Hall debates throw up all this interesting information, including about the arboretum in his constituency. I very much encourage members of the public watching the debate on television throughout our country to take advantage of a visit to Lichfield, near his constituency, to look at the wonderful arboretum and at that memorial.

General Anders, who led the Polish forces at Monte Cassino, said:

“Twenty two days under constant fire, in terrible conditions, seven days of fierce struggle to break German defences…It was not just the Battle of Cassino, it was a battle for Poland.”

That was from his book, “Without the Last Chapter”.

Recently, we saw the commemoration of the D-day landings on television. Our Prime Minister joined Mr Morawiecki, the Polish Prime Minister, on the 75th anniversary of those important landings. D-day, 1944, was the start of the liberation of the whole of the continent of Europe. Again, the Poles were there at D-day, even though only the month before they were fighting at Monte Cassino. Polish airmen took part in protecting the convoys of soldiers moving towards Normandy. Polish ships took part in Operation Neptune, the naval part of the D-day landings. And, later in the campaign, the Polish 1st Armoured Division, attached to the British and Canadian forces, landed to take part in the fighting around the Falaise pocket.

In Operation Market Garden, when the allies tried to shorten the war by landing in the Netherlands, Polish paratroopers took part in unprecedented numbers with their British counterparts. Again, I have had the opportunity to visit the Polish and British cemeteries in the Netherlands, and to see the same recurring theme: the sheer youth of those young men who together gave up their lives so that we might have freedom.

My hon. Friend John Howell mentioned Bletchley Park. He is absolutely right, because Polish mathematicians and code breakers came over from Poland. Sir Dermot Turing, a relative of Alan Turing, in his book, “The Real Story of How Enigma Was Broken”, highlighted the unique, outstanding and overwhelming contribution of Polish mathematicians and cryptographers to breaking the Enigma codes. I cannot begin to explain how important that was. It gave us the opportunity to understand where German positions and movements would be forthcoming, allowing us to shorten the war by, some suggest, at least two years—my hon. Friend alluded to this—and potentially saving hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives. I will put three gentlemen on the record: Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Różycki and Henryk Zygalski. For someone born in Poland, even I have difficulty pronouncing those surnames —I dread to think what the people in Hansard will do with them, so I hope that I pronounced them correctly.

Recently, a book was donated to the House of Commons Library, and only two weeks ago we had an exhibition here in the House of Commons about a lady called Krystyna Skarbek—or Granville. According to legend, she was Winston Churchill’s favourite spy. She was a young Polish lady who was dropped behind enemy lines on many occasions. She was instrumental in reconnaissance and in helping to ensure that sabotage against German forces was co-ordinated effectively.

Despite all such extraordinary contributions—my hon. Friends and other hon. Members will acknowledge that Poland made them—the Clement Attlee Government refused to allow Polish soldiers to take part in the victory parade on 8 June 1946, for fear of offending Joseph Stalin. By that stage, that dictator had already managed to impose a brutal, tyrannical communist puppet regime in Poland, but for fear of upsetting him we in this country decided to exclude the Polish forces from the victory parade.

(…) I want to take this opportunity to say that, as a fluent Polish speaker—or attempting to be fluent; it is a very difficult language—when I go to Poland and speak to people in English, what they say is quite different from what they say when I talk to them in Polish. They are very friendly to the British—they love them and want to work with them—but that is still a source of real pain for the Poles. He touches on a very important issue: how do we repair what happened in 1946? How do we engage and work with the Polish diaspora here in the United Kingdom to create a new monument, or do something to ensure that their unique contribution is highlighted? We have a Polish war memorial in Northolt, but in the run-up to many anniversaries can we do something in addition, yet again to celebrate the contribution of Poles and educate the younger generations about their unique contribution?

(…) The first thing I gave to Jonathan Knott, the British ambassador to Warsaw, when he came to visit us was a copy of a book outlining Operation Unthinkable, which was Churchill’s plan basically to do the unthinkable: to carry on beyond Berlin and liberate Warsaw. Of course, we had declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939 because of our treaty obligations to Poland. The Poles were sad and concerned that a second front against Germany was not possible in 1939 and early 1940 by the French and the British. At that juncture, the Poles were left to defend themselves, fighting the Germans on one side and the Russians on the other. Towards the end of the war, Churchill wanted to promote those plans to liberate Warsaw, but unfortunately he was thwarted by Roosevelt, Stalin and others. Poland was then subjugated to 50 years of brutal tyrannical communist regime.

I believe I am the only Conservative MP who was born in a communist country. I know what communism is, what it looks like and how it feels. I used to go back every year to see my beloved grandfather, Roman Kawczynski, under communism. What our fellow Europeans went through, being subjugated to a politically Orwellian and economically illiterate system, is beyond comprehension. One reason why the Polish have needed help in the post-communist era to rebuild their country, their industries and their infrastructure is the appalling impact that communism had on their country.

I chair the all-party parliamentary group on Poland—if any hon. Members have not joined, they had better do so, and I very much invite them to. I think we have 62 members, making us one of the larger all-party groups. When we take regular delegations of British MPs to Poland, we go to see a memorial in Warsaw where one of those British planes crashed in a park while trying to supply food and weapons to the underground fighters in the Warsaw uprising. They were taking on the Germans in the summer of 1944 while the Russians stayed on the other side of the river, allowing the slaughter to take place on an unprecedented scale. I would like my right hon. Friend to know that we laid flowers at the monument in the park where the British plane crashed. He is absolutely right; Stalin refused to allow the British planes, flying from Italy—I think Ancona or somewhere on the coast—to fly to Warsaw. They had to fly all the way there, drop the equipment and fly back.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s reference to the sacrifices of Poles in helping their Jewish friends and neighbours during the second world war. Members of my family were shot by the Germans for hiding Jews on our estate in western Poland. Poland was the only country in occupied Europe with the death penalty for helping Jewish people. People knew exactly what they were doing when they hid and protected Jews. In my family’s case, the Germans made my relative watch as they shot his 12-year-old daughter first, then his wife, and then him. His crime was hiding Jewish friends and neighbours. That is something we will never forget and will always pass on to our children and the next generation.

The alliance with Poland today is very strong. We have 1 million Poles living, working and contributing to our country. In a post-Brexit world, their rights will be guaranteed in our country, and they will continue to make a vast contribution to our island. We will not put sea mines in the English channel and barbed wire on the cliffs of Dover. We will continue to welcome highly skilled, highly educated Polish workers to our country with the new immigration work permits that will be afforded.

When we go to Poland, we meet soldiers who are working on a rotational basis in north-east Poland. We already have 150 British soldiers in the Suwałki gap; I hope that is a prelude to a permanent NATO base—or maybe even a permanent British base—in eastern Poland. The Americans are already talking to their Polish counter- parts about an American base in Poland, so I hope that we will follow suit.

I have received a two-page letter from the Royal British Legion; I am not sure whether representatives have managed to come here today. It outlines what its Remember Together campaign is doing to engage with the Polish community up and down the country and, collectively with British counterparts, to remember the tremendous courage and dignity of the British and Polish pilots.

As the first ever Polish-born British Member of Parliament, I take great pride in the contribution of Poles to this country, not only in the battle of Britain, but subsequently. I hope that we will continue to work with this key, strategic European partner for many years to come, to forge ever closer and stronger military and economic links”.

After Mr Kawczynski many MPs took the floor, among others: Jeremy Lefroy, John Howell, Daniel Poulter, Paula Sheriff, Andrew Slaughter, Julian Lewis, Mark Pritchard, Stephen Pound, Alex Chalk, Gillian Keegan, Gregory Campbell, Alex Sobel, Jim Shannon, Bill Grant, Douglas Chapman, Khalid Mahmood and Sir Alan Duncan. Mark Pritchard was in the chair.

Steven Pound’s speech:

It is customary on these occasions to say what a pleasure it is to serve under the chairmanship of whoever happens to be in the Chair, and, Mr Pritchard, in this particular case it is a real pleasure as you have a true knowledge, understanding and sympathy for this subject and for the points we are discussing. I congratulate Daniel Kawczynski on securing the debate. Many a time we have stood opposite each other, divided by politics but united by our affection, respect and admiration for the heroic Poles of yesterday and today.

You may ask, Mr Pritchard, why it is necessary for us to repeat this litany of heroism. It has been done before and it may be done again. It is essential that we do so. First, I cannot think of any other example in British history where so small a group of people achieved so much. I will not quote Churchill—he was talking of something different—but in all honesty we owe so much to those few Poles who came here.

Secondly, we have come to acknowledge, respect and understand the contributions that the Poles make comparatively recently. When I was a young man growing up in Hammersmith, I remember friends who were actually called Małgosia described themselves as Margaret and every Paweł called himself Paul. Everybody seemed to conceal their Polishness; we did not understand that they were Polish. Polish history was something we did not know about or understand. It was only with the Polish millennium in 1966—which coincided with the World cup, in which the Poles supported us when we were playing against Germany—that the Poles started to emerge as a people. Even then, we did not understand about Polish history.

I am from west London, born and bred; I know the Katyn memorial and the Northolt Polish war memorial. There are still people, such as our excellent Polish ambassador, who will always wear the red and white insignia of 303 Squadron; I see some people in the Gallery are wearing it today. The contribution that that Polish squadron, based at RAF Northolt, made has been adumbrated by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham; it was extraordinary. We need say no more, except to say that anyone who knows anything about the conduct of the darkest days of the second world war will hang their head in shame if the heroic contribution and the blood sacrifice made by those Polish fighter pilots is not acknowledged.

(…) We need say no more about the Polish contribution to the RAF—it has been said before and it must be said again—but I turn to the heroism of the Polish army. Those who fought with General Anders walked, marched and, in some cases, crawled from Siberia through the whole of Iran to north Africa, to turn the tide in El Alamein. As we have heard, they fought from Tobruk up through Sicily and into the impregnable mountain fortress and Benedictine monastery that could not be broken, Monte Cassino, which was occupied by a crack division of German paratroopers—in fact, the crack division of the Luftwaffe.

Those paratroopers held out against one of the biggest combined armies that has ever been assembled. There was a New Zealand regiment made up entirely of Māori, as well as people from north Africa, France, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and the United States; but there was one group of people—the Poles—who fought their way from hilltop to hilltop, up that precipitous mound, and planted the red and white flag in the still-smoking ruins of Monte Cassino. With the nobility that typifies those people, General Anders’s army then planted the Union flag. I have climbed that hill and seen how difficult it must have been, but my memory is not just of the beautiful and newly restored Benedictine monastery; it is of the graveyard at the foot of Monte Cassino. There is an allied graveyard and a Polish graveyard. Why? There were so many Poles who died that they could not be incorporated into the allied graveyard.

At the base of that graveyard is one grave that stands alone; it is always covered in flowers, either red roses or poppies—poppies, for the poppies in the snow. It is the grave of General Anders, one of the great heroes. Like the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham, I recently had the honour of meeting Senator Anders and to briefly discuss those days. There are three sets of headstones in that graveyard: some with the Orthodox cross; some with the Star of David, because Jewish Poles fought there; and some with the Christian cross.

One of the utter tragedies is that while General Mark Clark was racing towards Rome, where the photographers were waiting for him, General Anders was told by the Supreme Commander of the British forces that there would be no return to Poland. He was told that for all the Poles had done, that was it. Because of the pact with the brutal dictator we have heard about, there would not be a British supported return to Poland. As a human being and a hero, General Anders could have done what many of us would have done; he could have said, “In that case we are going home. We are throwing down our rifles, we are taking off our packs and we are leaving.” Anders did not do that. He said, “We fight on,” and fight on they did. That typifies the strength and determination of the Polish people.

I want to touch on an area that has not been touched on in any detail, and that is the extraordinary contribution of the Polish naval forces. In 1939, the Polish navy was in quite good condition. It was a modern navy, with submarines. It managed to escape from Gdańsk and the seaports in north Poland to Leith, the port of Edinburgh, where the flagship, the Piorun—which is Polish for thunderer—was laid down in the John Brown shipyard as the HMS Narissa. She was renamed and crewed entirely by Poles. These Polish ships, which came under the command of the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, made an incredible contribution in theatres of war from Narvik, Dunkirk, the Lofoten Islands and Tobruk, as well as the Murmansk convoys, where the grandfather of my hon. Friend Paula Sherriff sailed with them, to the Normandy landings.

In two particular areas, the Polish navy made an incredible contribution; I beg your indulgence, Mr Pritchard, in allowing me to mention them briefly. The first was the awful night of 13 March 1941, when more than 1,000 people in Glasgow were killed. It was called the Clydebank Blitz. I pay tribute to Martin Docherty-Hughes who introduced a debate on the Floor of the House about that subject. John Brown’s shipyard and the Singer factory next to it were bombed ruthlessly, and Clydebank and Hardgate, and virtually that whole part of Glasgow, were destroyed. The opposition to the Luftwaffe was led by the Piorun. She was in harbour, undergoing repairs. She had six anti-aircraft guns and some old refitted Bofors guns—what we used to call pom-poms. She fought off the second wave of the Luftwaffe. How many lives she saved I cannot even begin to think. It is extraordinary to think that Piorun was laid down in the very shipyard that she then defended, having sailed from there to Poland and back again. It is almost as if she was born to defend her birthplace, as many a Pole would say.

The second thing is the extraordinary occurrences of May 1941 when the hinge of history was turning. The Germans had massive naval superiority. They had the two best ocean raiders in the world: Bismarck and Tirpitz. They also had the best heavy cruisers: Gneisenau and Scharnhorst. Had they got out into the north Atlantic, our supply routes from Canada and America would have been finished. There would have been no opportunity whatever for us to continue the war at sea. Tirpitz, as we know, was destroyed in the fjords of Norway by the RAF, but Bismarck had earlier that year, in the battle of the Denmark strait, not only destroyed the British taskforce, but sunk the pride of the Royal Navy: the mighty Hood. Many matelots of my father’s generation still say the old “Andrew” died with the Hood. She was the pride of our Navy and Bismarck sunk her and moved on.

In May, Admiral Tovey and task force H were sent, under the instructions of Churchill, to the area off the Norway coast to sink the Bismarck. Who was there at the front of that? Not just Rodney and Repulse, but Piorun, the Polish destroyer that steamed ahead as fast as she could, and, it is said, did not even wait for embarkation orders. She left Scotland and headed straight for the battlefield. Then, as we know, Bismarck had her steering gear crippled by a Fairey Swordfish torpedo and was slightly reduced in her manoeuvrability, but she still had powerful weapons: eight 15-inch guns in four turrets. Piorun was one of the ships in that taskforce that on 25 May 1941 received probably the most significant message received in the sea war in the last war, and it came from Bletchley. It came from a Polish interpreter who had managed to break the codes, and it told precisely what the German admiral was doing. Even though Piorun was then straddled at 12,000 metres by a complete bombardment from Bismarck, she carried on. Some say she delivered the coup de grace; some say she was the last torpedo fired into Bismarck.

I will close by saying two things. Betrayal is an ugly word, but I think that in some ways the Poles were betrayed at the end of the war. We compensated with the 1947 legislation, but in some ways we let the Poles down. I would say that the Poles never, ever let us down. It is not for me to make an obvious pro-European pro-EU statement, but is it not wonderful what we can achieve when we fight together in a common cause? If ever I have to fight anyone anywhere at any time, let it be with our brothers and sisters of the free republic of Poland, some of the bravest and most heroic people it has ever been my honour to know”.

The guests gathered in the Public Gallery gave a big round of applause to Stephen Pound.

Full transcript of the debate: In context Individually

Citation: HC Deb, 2 July 2019, c482WH

M.B.

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