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Orders of the Day — War and International Situation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 29th September 1944.

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Photo of Colonel Harold Mitchell Colonel Harold Mitchell , Brentford and Chiswick 12:00 am, 29th September 1944

One reason why I intervene in this Debate is that I desire to say something of the part which our smaller Allies are playing in the war, and to make an appeal to this House not to overlook the claims of these people when questions affecting the post-war set-up of Europe are discussed. Yesterday, we heard from the Prime Minister an account of military events during the time that Parliament was in Recess, and what a thrilling story of success it was. I was particularly interested in what he had to say about the contributions of the smaller nations. Other speakers, yesterday and to-day, have dealt with many aspects of the situation in which the United Nations now find themselves. Perhaps I may be allowed to say something from personal observation of what the Poles, the Belgians and the Dutch have done during this present month. I was glad to hear the Prime Minister recall the reason for our entering the war. For some time there was a danger of that reason being clouded by more recent developments. We cannot over-emphasise the fact that we declared war on Germany as the result of her unprovoked aggression on Poland. I know that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has not spared himself in his efforts to bring about a better feeling between Russia and Poland, and there is, as the Prime Minister said, some improvement. All of us know how assiduous the Foreign Secretary is and we are grateful to him for his part in bringing about that improvement, and we may be sure that he will not relax his efforts before the goal has been reached. I certainly am not going to say anything which will stand in the way of achieving the unity towards which the British Government have been working.

Just before the fall of France in 1940 I made my first contact with the Polish Forces in France. They were then being re-formed by General Sikorski, at whose suggestion a little later I was appointed a Liaison Officer with the Polish troops and I have since been associated with them. I was present at the Polish Army's first muster in June, 1940, in Scotland immediately after the fall of France and I have been in close touch since that time with them. I have also had the opportunity of visiting Polish units in various parts of the Middle East. Soon after this House rose for the Summer Recess, at the request of General Kukiel, the Polish Minister of National Defence here in London, I spent some time with the Polish troops in the Low Countries. For obvious reasons I cannot tell the House exactly where they are now, or describe exactly what they are doing, but I can say that they have been in some of the hardest fighting and have acquitted themselves with great courage and remarkable heroism. It has been no easy task, for they have been up against some of the toughest soldiers the enemy has left, men fighting desperately for their lives, and I entirely agree with what the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. A. Bevan) said about the strength of the German resistance. Only by supreme skill and valour have these victories over the enemy been secured, and not always without loss.

I joined the Poles at Ypres when they were just beginning the stage in their advance which was to take them right through Belgium into Holland. I accompanied them on this advance and I saw how they surmounted all the obstacles in their path, and they were many in those countries of rivers and canals. I also learned a great deal about what they had done from the Normandy beach-head onwards. One morning after a successful operation I met General Maczek, the Polish Commander. An attack took place outside the village with Polish tanks which had caught a retreating German column and completely destroyed it—an unforgettable scene of destruction. The General, delighted at the outcome of the Polish Forces engagement of a few hours before, remarked "This is my revenge for Poland." He commanded the famous Polish Black Brigade which fought so well in 1939 against the Germans until forced over the frontier into Hungary. Many of these troops made their way back to France and he had seen what the enemy had done to his own country. All the troops shared this spirit. They are out to avenge the wrong perpetrated by Hitler and the Nazis against their country and they are glad of the opportunity of fighting side by side with us and with some of the finest units from the British Commonwealth. And I would like to pay a tribute to the excellent cooperation which exists between the Poles and the Canadians, with whom they are serving. These Poles are far too busy fighting to have time for political controversy. They have only one aim, the defeat of Hitler, for by that means they know that they will be able to liberate their country from the tyrant's yoke.

The morale of the Polish troops is very good indeed. I was deeply moved at one point. I saw a soldier sitting on top of his tank, writing. For a moment I hesitated about interrupting him. He looked up and smiled. When I spoke to him he replied in English and his answers were remarkable for their knowledge of news from Britain which he had learned from the radio. When I asked him where he was writing to he said "To Scotland." I found that he had maintained a steady correspondence with several families who had befriended him when he had been in that part of the United Kingdom. And here I make an appeal to the Government, All of us know that there are good reasons for withholding information that might be useful to the enemy, but is there any valid reason for not giving something more full than anything so far released about the exploits of the Poles since they first landed in Normandy? This course would bring considerable cheer to their countrymen everywhere. It would encourage not only those fighting in Italy but those of their race in exile and those who are still in their own country resisting the Germans so fiercely. It is a story of amazing heroism comparable with anything in their splendid history. I would ask the Ministers concerned whether they cannot do something in this direction. It would be a fine gesture to a gallant Ally.

I cannot speak of what is happening in any other sector than that in which the Polish troops are operating. But in those areas of Belgium and Holland which I have recently visited I found the Poles and the people of the liberated towns and villages getting on extremely well together. It was an amazing experience to enter places in both countries and see what joy the Poles brought by their victory. I saw people standing in the doorways of their homes, damaged only perhaps an hour before in the fighting, throwing flowers and handing fruit to the troops and cheering themselves hoarse. In one Flanders village I remember going into a shop to make a small purchase. The proprietor behind the counter said to me "We have had to billet our enemies, the Germans, again and again. We are very glad they have been driven out now. Perhaps you will send us a Polish soldier and we will be only too glad to give him a free billet." Just one other incident. There had been a fierce struggle for a small town in Flanders all day with bitter hand-to-hand street fighting. Finally, in the late afternoon, the Poles broke down the German resistance and gained possession of the town. Just after they entered the town I got into conversation with the owner of a small inn on the Market Place. He said to me: "I have waited four years for to-day. When my windows were smashed this morning by machine gun fire I wept for joy because I knew that liberation was near. "Pole and Belgian and Pole and Dutchman soon become friends. They appreciate that they are comrades in the same struggle.

My right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris), in his speech, paid a tribute to the work done by the French Maquis. I can give many examples of the similar way in which the Belgians and the Dutch were working against the Germans before our Forces arrived in their countries; there is no need to weary the House with what I have heard, but I will give one simple illustration. The Germans put stakes and posts in a field in one part of Holland in which they feared an air-borne landing. One farmer, who watched these traps being laid by day, pulled them up by night and then sold them back to the Germans, who solemnly replaced them. He did this three times and then the Germans abandoned the attempt.

Men, women and children in both of these countries performed similar small acts, which in the aggregate meant so much to us. Again and again these people have risked their lives to help the Allied Forces. The point I want to make is this. These people are acting with us as one in the effort to destroy Hitler. They have all suffered. They appreciate what we are doing for them now. When the fighting has ceased they will still look to us for support. They are small nations, smaller than others engaged in the struggle. They want nothing but an assurance of the right to live peaceably with their neighbours but they know that they cannot secure that right alone. They look to all the great Powers to keep their point of view in mind when the time for a settlement comes.