Polish Army in Soviet Hands


Polish troops taken captive by the Russian Red Army.


Forces of Polish Anders Army in Russia 1942.

During the second half of 1941, following the German invasion of the Soviet Union, General Wladyslaw Anders was appointed to command Polish ground forces reconstituted from 1.5 million Polish prisoners released by the Soviets. It was also agreed that Polish naval and air personnel would be released to the British. In August, Moscow agreed with London that the Poles should be armed by the Red Army, with some assistance from Lend-Lease, and count in the Soviet order of battle. By October, 25,000 Poles had enlisted. Their equipment and training was minimal, given Joseph Stalin’s distrust of Poles as well as the desperate circumstances facing the Red Army that fall. Already, political relations began to sour over a deepening mystery of missing Polish officers needed for the new divisions. They were already dead, buried in mass graves in the Katyn Forest and outside Tver and Kharkov. Untrusted by their Soviet hosts and untrusting of them, the Poles were moved to Central Asia and to Far East bases in early 1942. Other problems arose when Moscow forbade recruitment of ethnic Poles it identified for political reasons as Belorussian, Jewish, or Ukrainian. Anders refused to send his underarmed and poorly supplied divisions into combat. Even so, he raised six understrength divisions of 11,000-12,000 men each, with more men in reserve. This armed force deep inside his territory made Joseph Stalin profoundly suspicious. He ordered it cut from 72,000 men to just 44,000 and constricted supply. That freed over 30,000 Polish troops to be transferred to British control. They left the Soviet Union across the Caspian, thence via Iran to Iraq. With supply and recruitment problems continuing in Russia, Anders soon followed with the remaining 44,000 men and their dependents.

Joseph Stalin authorized formation of a pro-Communist Polish division within the Red Army in 1943. It was led by Zygmunt Berling. He was a former chief of staff to Wladyslaw Anders, but abandoned Anders in 1942 on the eve of departure from the Soviet Union. The new division was deficient in officers, a recurring consequence of the Katyn massacre. A second Communist division was established thereafter, joining the 1st to form a Polish Corps. With additional divisions added in 1944, this formation became the Polish Army in the Soviet Union, sometimes called “Berling’s Army.” By 1945 it comprised six divisions. It saw extensive fighting in Ukraine in 1944, then moved north to eastern Poland later in the year. Serving under Konstantin Rokossovsky, Berling made forward contact with the Home Army near Warsaw on September 15. Desperate efforts to cross the Vistula late in the Warsaw Uprising were denied by higher Soviet strategic imperatives and the difficulty of the crossing. After Warsaw was liberated during the Vistula-Oder operation in early 1945, the NKVD eliminated as many Home Army personnel as it could locate. In the interim, Soviet-sponsored 1st Polish Army overcame bitter Waffen-SS resistance along the Pomeranian Wall in late April 1945, then participated in the fierce battles around Berlin. Its commander in those operations was General S. Poplawski. A second Polish-Communist army of five divisions fought in the south, deep into Czechoslovakia during March-May, 1945. Many of these Communist troops formed the core of the Polish national army set up by the Soviet Union in eastern Poland to back the claims of the Lublin Poles. After the war, elements of the force became the national Polish Army in time, but one from which Anders’ men and other exiled patriots were excluded.

Polish Army in the East

It came into being on 21 July 1944 through merging of the Polish Army in the USSR and the underground, communist People’s Army (AL). It encompassed the 1st and 2nd Armies as well as the second echelons of the Supreme Command. In May 1945 it consisted of 14 infantry divisions, 4 air divisions, 4 artillery divisions, 1 cavalry brigade, 5 armoured brigades, 12 artillery brigades, 5 sappers’ brigades and 2 reserve brigades.

The Commander of the Polish Army was Marshall Michał Żymierski.

Commanders of the 1st Army:

– Gen. Zygmunt Berling,

– Gen. Władysław Korczyc,

– Gen. Stanisław Popławski.

Commanders of the 2nd Army:

– Gen. Karol Świerczewski,

– Gen. Stanisław Popławski.

Number of soldiers on 1 May 1945:

– 395 000 żołnierzy.

Number of tanks and armoured cars:

– 800

Number of guns and mortars:

– 1600.

Number of aircraft:

– 450

During their fight, the troops of the Polish Army eliminated around 50,000 enemy soldiers, took 40,000 prisoners of war, seized or destroyed around 800 tanks and armoured guns, 4000 towed guns and mortars, as well as 150 aircraft.


Zygmunt Berling

Berling did not participate in the defence against the German Wehrmacht during the invasion of Poland in 1939. After his home city of Wilno was occupied by the Soviet Union under the terms dictated by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Berling, along with many other Polish officers, was arrested by the Soviet Union’s secret police, the NKVD. Berling remained in prison until 1940, first in Starobielsk and later Moscow, but since he agreed to co-operate with the Soviets, he avoided execution by the NKVD in the Katyn Massacre.

After the Sikorski-Maisky Pact of 17 August 1941 Berling was released from prison and nominated to be the Chief of Staff of the recreated 5th Infantry Division, and later the commander of the temporary camp for Polish soldiers in Krasnowodsk. The growing tensions between the Polish government-in-exile of Raczkiewicz and Sikorski in London and Joseph Stalin eventually led to many of the Polish soldiers and over 20,000 Polish civilians in Soviet territory under General Władysław Anders leaving the Soviet Union and forming the 2nd Polish Corps in the Middle East, under British command. Eventually, the relations between the Polish government-in-exile and the Soviet Union were broken off after Germans publicized the findings on the Katyn Massacre.

During the Polish Army’s evacuation led by General Anders, Berling deserted along with two other officers to join the Red Army. On 20 April 1943, Anders degraded all three and expelled them from the army. On 25 July 1943 the field court confirmed the expulsion and sentenced the deserters in absentia to death and loss of public rights for ever. The court’s decision stated: “the accused deserted from the Polish Army, in Court’s opinion in order to join the Soviet Army, ie. to serve the country which has as one of its goals the end of existence of the independent Polish state by means of incorporating its territory.”

In 1943 the Polish Army in the USSR (“Polish People’s Army”) was created, a formation of Polish Armed Forces in the East. Berling was nominated to be the commander of its first unit, the 1st Tadeusz Kościuszko Infantry Division, and was promoted to general by Stalin himself. He became the deputy commander of the Polish Army in the USSR on 22 July 1944.

On 1 August 1944, the underground Polish Home Army, being in contact with and loyal to the Polish government-in-exile in London, began the 63-day long Warsaw Uprising, in an attempt to free the city from the occupying German forces before the Red Army could secure the capital. With his own army stopped on the Vistula River and facing Warsaw itself, and without first consulting his Soviet superiors, Berling may have independently issued orders to engage the German enemy and to come to the aid of the Polish resistance. But it was a small landing without any tactical support from Berling or other Soviet units that could not make a difference in the situation of Warsaw. Yet this behaviour may have caused Berlings’ dismissal from his post soon after. He was transferred to the War Academy in Moscow, where he remained until returning to Poland in 1947 where he organized and directed the Academy of General Staff (Akademia Sztabu Generalnego). He retired in 1953.

Marshall Michał Żymierski (1890-1989)

During the First World War he served in the Polish Legions, then in the Polish Army from 1918. He was appointed to the rank of General of Brigade (in 1924), but in 1927 he was sentenced to imprisonment and stripped of his rank. After leaving prison he established ties with the communist movement, and from 1944 he was the supreme commander of Polish Army (in the east). In 1945 he received the rank of Marshall of Poland. Until 1949 he was also the Minister of National Defence in the government established under the auspices of the communists. He died in Warsaw on 15th Oct. 1989. He was decorated, amongst others, with Virtuti Militari – 1st and 5th class, the American League of Merit – 1st class, the French Honorable League – 5th class and with the highest Soviet medal: the Order of Victory.


A committee of Polish Communists formed in Moscow on January 1, 1944, as an alternate government-in-exile to the official Polish government- in-exile formed by the London Poles. The official reference for “Lublin Poles” was “Polish National Council of the Homeland (KRN).” The KRN moved to Chelm in Red Army-liberated eastern Poland on July 22, 1944. On December 31, 1944, the KRN was formally established in Lublin and unilaterally recognized as the Provisional Government of Poland by the Soviet Union. It was not recognized by the Western Allies. At the end of the war a compromise was arranged, over vehement objections from the London Poles, that admitted a power-sharing or joint government dominated by the Lublin committee but including some members of the original, non-Communist government-in-exile. That agreement was subsequently abrogated as the Communists took full control of Poland with definitive military, political, and diplomatic backing from Moscow.



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