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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the Polish contribution to UK war effort in World War Two.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of the summer of 1939 was designed to annihilate and destroy Poland and the Polish nation. [Interruption.]
The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of the summer of 1939 was designed to destroy and annihilate the Poles. On
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 Force and 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.
We have a Polish community in Coventry. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will talk about Polish heroism at Monte Cassino, because that was quite a battle, and casualties were very high among Polish troops.
I will come on to Monte Cassino shortly.
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
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”.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour for giving way and for his wonderful speech. Has he had the opportunity to visit the National Memorial Arboretum in my county of Staffordshire, which has a statue of a Polish soldier at Monte Cassino, as well as three other statues of Polish servicemen? The statue was unveiled about 10 years ago in a fitting memorial to the huge contribution made by Polish forces during the second world war.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and near neighbour for mentioning that. 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.
Will my hon. Friend add to that list of Polish contributions to the second world war three mathematicians whose work helped to make the breaking of Enigma possible, which ended the war earlier by at least two years?
I have a little section on that later in my speech.
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
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on his tremendous speech. In Suffolk, we are aware of the contribution made from Norfolk and Suffolk by the Polish air force in support of the war effort. On that point—a good one about the failure of the Attlee Government to recognise the contribution of the Polish community, army and air force in the war—next year, 75 years on from VE-day, we could help to put right that wrong by better recognising the Polish contribution to the war effort?
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. 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?
Dziękuję. As the hon. Gentleman knows, my paternal grandfather was Polish; he served in the Polish merchant navy, which is what brought him to the UK. I would love to work with the hon. Gentleman on creating a lasting memorial to all the Poles who contributed so much. My grandfather, Mięczyslaw Bagniçki, was very proud to be Polish to his fingertips. Equally, he thought the UK had given him a wonderful life; he brought up his children here, had a career and was incredibly grateful for everything that Britain and the Queen had done for him. A lasting memorial would be very appropriate.
We Poles have to stick together. I would be delighted to work with the hon. Lady and anybody else who is cognisant of the unique contribution of Poles to our country, and who wants to demonstrate to the 1 million Poles living in the United Kingdom that we value them, cherish their contribution to our country and are determined to work together to remember these things, even in the modern age. We may be leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe. It is very important to remember that Poland will continue to be an important ally for us in NATO.
The hon. Gentleman has done an excellent job detailing the contribution made across the services in every year of the war. That often is not appreciated, although it certainly is in my constituency, which houses the Polish social and cultural organisation POSK, to which all Members are welcome. I thought he was a little sectarian by talking about the Attlee Government; I am sure he would pay tribute to that Government for passing the Polish Resettlement Act 1947, which was the first mass migration Act that enabled citizenship for about 200,000 Poles who fought in the war.
I very much acknowledge that, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that I was not trying to make a party political point. I deliberately said “Attlee Government,” rather than “Labour Government,” but I acknowledge his point about their subsequent achievements to protect the rights of Polish people to remain and settle here.
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
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.
At the beginning of my hon. Friend’s speech he referred to the terrible pact between Hitler and Stalin that paved the way for the second world war. I think he also ought to make some reference to the fact that when the underground army rose up in 1944, and we wished to supply them with air drops and munitions, the Russians refused to allow our transport aircraft to operate from their bases to help support the Poles in that uprising. I know that my hon. Friend is mainly concerned with the Polish contribution to the effort in Britain, but we should not forget those people in Poland who saved the remnants of families such as mine from extermination by hiding Jewish people at the risk of their own lives.
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.
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.
The hon. Gentleman is speaking with his customary force and eloquence. He is right to say that those living in west London might immediately have that understanding, but does he agree that we need to ensure that that acknowledgment is felt throughout our country? In my constituency, I have been pleased to go along to Polish days where I have been at pains to emphasise that. We need a way of ensuring that everyone in our country can fully understand the sacrifice of those brave Polish airmen and women.
That is an excellent point. It is almost as if I had asked the hon. Gentleman to ask that question, but it has been a long time since I have been in the Whips Office. That is an important point. I will talk about Scotland particularly, in a moment.
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
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
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.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski on securing the debate and on his excellent and moving speech. It is a great honour to follow Stephen Pound and his wonderful speech.
I want to contribute for two reasons. First, because RAF Tangmere in my constituency played such a pivotal role during the battle of Britain, and secondly, to thank the Polish pilots, many of whom took to the skies to defend our country and fight for theirs. Their efforts in the second world war were vital and must never be forgotten.
RAF Tangmere and Westhampnett was the most southerly RAF fighter command base during the battle of Britain. It played an historic role in the defence of our country during our darkest hour over the summer of 1940. Many of “the few”, as they became known, including revered pilots such as Douglas Bader and Billy Fiske, flew from Tangmere. The Polish 302 and 303 Squadrons did not fly from Tangmere, but today their contribution has been marked by the Tangmere Military Aviation Museum, which stands on the site of the old RAF airfield.
Last summer the museum held an exhibition focused solely on the contribution made by Polish and Czech air crews: their pilots and their highly skilled crews who came to our country to fight the Nazis after their homelands had been invaded and occupied. More than 4,000 people visited the exhibition over a six-week period, and I was very pleased to meet veterans who had served, and several young people from Poland who were keen to research the roles that their grandfathers and uncles had played in world war two.
The hon. Lady refers to young people attending, but does she agree with me that although it is exceptionally important that the generations would we represent here are made aware and reminded of the bravery and sacrifices that were made, it is even more important that future generations remember it so that the mistakes of the past are not repeated?
I completely agree, and that means that this debate and the continuation of memorials, exhibitions, museums and celebrations will always be important for future generations.
The Imperial War Museum records that 145 Polish men fought alongside our pilots during that fateful time, and that period they destroyed 204 enemy aircraft. The people of Britain owe their liberty in part to their heroism. I am proud that in Chichester we play our part in continuing to remember them. As many Members have mentioned, Poland’s contribution to our war effort goes far beyond the battle of Britain. The Nazi occupation of Poland was one of the most brutal of the war. Poland was carved up with Stalin under the German-Soviet non-aggression pact and the German-occupied zone became known as the General Government, which was placed under the control of Hitler’s lawyer, a ruthless Nazi called Hans Frank, who was later hanged at Nuremberg.
Although divided, occupied, brutalised and stripped of their identity, the Poles fought on and continued to resist, and 1943 saw the heroic Warsaw uprising by the Jewish community. Later in 1944, the entire population of Warsaw did the same in a heroic effort to liberate their capital city from the Nazi tyranny.
I thank the hon. Lady for recognising the Jewish efforts in the war. In September 1939, there were 150,000 Jews serving in the Polish army in that campaign. Many went to fight in the Polish Free Army in France and in the United Kingdom. Just as many fought as partisans and in the Warsaw uprising. My own grandfather, Maksymilian Sobel, fought on the German front as part of the Polish army on the eastern front and commanded the independent motor battalion during the battle of Dresden. I want to put that on the record.
Order. A couple of people have come in late and I have been flexible and allowed them to intervene, but coming in pretty much halfway through the debate pushes the envelope, so may I remind all hon. Members to please attend from the beginning of the debate? We all run slightly late, but to come in halfway through and expect to speak is, as I say, pushing the envelope, however good the contribution might be.
The heroism of the two uprisings by the Polish are the greatest acts of resistance against tyranny that the world has ever seen. It is an enduring stain on the record of the Soviet Union’s wartime history that Stalin ordered his troops encircling Warsaw to do nothing while the Nazis put down the uprising and destroyed much of the city.
It is important to highlight the cruel fact that the majority of the Nazi death camps were built in Poland. Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor and Majdanek were all in Poland. Those camps are believed to be where 3 million people were murdered. Over the course of the war, Poland lost 6 million of its citizens, half of whom were Jewish. We remembered them on international Holocaust Memorial Day this year in Speaker’s House, where I was proud that a Chichester choir performed the holocaust opera, “Push”, to Members of both Houses of Parliament.
There can be no doubt whatever that Poland played a huge part in the war effort both in the UK and in resisting at home. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham for securing the debate and I assure him that in Chichester we will never forget the bravery of our Polish friends and allies.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. May I first thank Daniel Kawczynski for obtaining it? He said that he found some Polish words challenging. In the area that I come from, we have a strong tradition of service with the Polish during the second world war, and if we added the Polish language to Ulster Scots, he would really be challenged. As an Ulster Scot, I will try not to say anything in Polish because it will all come over the wrong way.
I am something of a history buff—my boys would say that I am more of a history geek. On the years when I am able to take a holiday, I read perhaps eight biographies or history books, and I have recently enjoyed learning more about the Battle of Britain, during which the Poles truly excelled. Right hon. and hon. Members have spoken of memorials across the United Kingdom. The first such memorial was built by Ards and North Down Borough Council, with some crowdfunding and working with For Your Freedom and Ours, to celebrate 100 years of Polish independence, as well as the Royal Air Force and Polish Air Force centenaries. A permanent monument has been erected at the Cenotaph in Newtownards, in the middle of Strangford. It was unveiled by the daughters of Polish airmen who were stationed in Ballyhalbert and who met and married local girls and raised their children there.
We have a strong association with Poland in the constituency that I am privileged to represent. That is why there is such interest in the Polish Air Force in particular and its marvellous contribution. The monument is dedicated to the memory of the Polish airmen who lost their lives in the Battle of Britain and other theatres of the second world war. It is in remembrance of 303 Squadron and 315 Squadron—Polish fighter squadrons that were stationed at RAF Ballyhalbert—and all the members of the Polish forces buried in Northern Ireland. The sacrifices and courage of the Polish Air Force during the second world war were instrumental in our victory. Many have said it, and I can say it in all honesty because I know what happened and the contribution made in my constituency. Indeed, Air Vice Marshal David Niven informed us at the memorial unveiling that the Battle of Britain might well have ended very differently without the practical knowhow and courage of the Polish Air Force station in Ballyhalbert. The contribution was significant, and made a big difference. As we leave the EU, the bonds that bring us together through military service and now NATO will last well beyond Brexit. Other hon. Members have said it, and it will not change. The people of Ards and Strangford will always have a soft spot in their hearts for the Polish people, and the memorial is testament to that fact. I am pleased that it is in my constituency.
The Eastend residents association ran an eight-week programme funded by the Housing Executive and council, with the group For Your Freedom and Ours, which gave an in-depth history of the Polish Air Force in Strangford. The group’s membership ranged from teenagers to pensioners, and all who were involved in the programme thoroughly enjoyed it. From talks to tours of areas of significance, the project was truly inspirational. It culminated in the unveiling of the Polish Air Force memorial. It raised awareness among many people in the borough of the role played by the Polish Air Force in the Battle of Britain. I know that my parliamentary aide enjoyed reading a book on the Polish spy Christine Granville, or Krystyna Skarbek, who worked for British intelligence throughout the war. The author of that book, which is tipped to become a Hollywood film, came to an Eastend residents association event.
History records the part played by the Polish Air Force in the war effort, and it has been tremendous to see that history coming to life in my area so many years after the events of the second world war. In late 2018, a Polish consulate finally opened in Northern Ireland, and it was wonderful to see the ambassador playing a leading role in the ceremony to unveil the memorial. It was a tremendous reminder of the strong bond between the Polish people and us. There are some 30,000 Polish people living in Northern Ireland and, excluding those from the Republic of Ireland, Scotland and England, the Polish community is the largest immigrant community in Northern Ireland—far above others. We have a strong relationship. The bonds remain strong, and we have a lot to be thankful for, which is why I am thankful for today’s motion, which seeks to recognise the part played by the Polish in our ultimate victory. We owe them so much.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Pritchard. I thank my hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski for securing this important debate.
The United Kingdom is indebted to the Polish service personnel who fought in various campaigns on the ground, in the air and at sea during world war two. Their assistance proved invaluable to the allied war effort. Polish navy vessels and sailors augmented the British fleet. Polish service personnel served proudly, not only alongside the Royal Navy but with the Royal Air Force. It is worth noting that 5% of pilots in the Battle of Britain were Polish and it is said that they were responsible for at least 12% of total victories. 303 (Polish) Fighter Squadron was recognised as the most successful of any allied squadron and four Polish officers were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
I have to declare a personal interest in the contribution of the Polish people in supporting the British Army. My late uncle Frederick Kaiser, commonly known as Freddie, was born in Ruda Śląska, Poland, on the Germany-Poland border, and had to leave his homeland at 17 years of age, when war broke out in 1939—never to see his mother again. Uncle Freddie fought in the Polish Army and was injured in the Ardennes forest in Belgium, where he suffered shrapnel wounds to both legs. He was more fortunate than one of his fellow soldiers, who died that day in the bunker they shared. Uncle Freddie was flown to a Polish Army hospital at Invergordon in Scotland and, once recovered, he was based at the Castle Army Camp in Johnstone, Renfrewshire, which I understand housed an infantry battalion. That was one of many camps throughout Scotland where members of the Polish Army were hosted.
Major P. R. Reid MBE MC, in his Colditz trilogy, acknowledges the assistance of the Polish people and the Polish Red Cross with his research. His accounts of world war two include references to the collaboration between British and Polish service personnel. In the final book, “Colditz: The Full Story”, Major Reid records the numbers of the various contingents interned in the castle, listing approximately 222 members of the Polish military, and notes the successful escape by a Polish serviceman in 1941. Although my uncle was not subjected to the rigours of internment in a prisoner of war camp in Germany, it is believed—although he never spoke much at all about the events of the war—that he may have suffered a similar or perhaps worse fate at an earlier stage in his life, having been held in a Siberian prisoner of war camp and freed when the Russians changed sides.
While he was based at Johnstone, Uncle Freddie met and fell in love with my mother’s sister Margaret—so there is a good-news story. They married in August 1947. Like many Polish service personnel, he chose to stay in the United Kingdom. He entered coal mining, first at Holdsworth pit in Patna, East Ayrshire. Then, as many miners did, he moved to Leicestershire in 1964, to continue work at Bagworth colliery near Coalville. He was simply taking his family there for continued work, having exchanged the dangers of conflict for the risks of the mining industry.
Freddie Kaiser passed away in 1988 but fortunately, prior to his passing, managed to visit his former homeland and family. He has one remaining sister, Elfryda, aged 91. To this day Scotland still has close ties with the Polish community. Our shared history is reflected in places of worship and recorded on memorials, such as at St Simons Church in Glasgow, the Polish war memorial at the Royal Air Forces Association Club in Prestwick and the recently refurbished Invergordon Polish war memorial. I trust that the UK Government will also continue to remember the contributions not only of those such as my uncle who served and survived, but of the countless Polish lives lost so that we might live.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. My hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski mentioned the attitude of the Attlee Government to Stalin. I am very pleased that last week we did not show that same attitude to the Russians. At the Council of Europe we stood up with the Poles to try valiantly to prevent the Russians from coming back. We may have lost, but it was a fight worth having.
My hon. Friend also mentioned—I think prompted by my intervention—the role that the Poles played in intelligence. He mentioned the three mathematicians—he gave their names, so I will not repeat them—who helped valiantly to crack Enigma and shorten the war by at least two years. That illustrates an important point: that Poland had the largest intelligence service in the second world war. It covered many countries right across Europe, and beyond. It was responsible for a number of activities, including guiding the allied landings in Morocco and Algeria. Just think of that: the Polish intelligence force guided those allied landings.
In 1943, the British intelligence service received more than 10,000 messages from Polish intelligence—an enormous number. More importantly, the Polish intelligence force managed to capture a complete V2 rocket and send details of it back to the UK so that we could analyse them and help to prevent that rocket from creating any more devastation. That is a fantastic achievement for any intelligence service, and we should pay full tribute to it. We have spoken about the experience of the pilots, and we should not forget those Polish fighter pilots who served alongside Bomber Command and helped it to deliver what it was supposed to deliver to Germany.
The UK holds the records of many Polish personnel, and has freely made them available. They are more than just a symbol of Poland; they are a virulent symbol of the real sacrifice that was made by the Polish people during the second world war. If we can do something with them to make them more available and prominent, I will happily join that campaign to ensure that it happens.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, and I congratulate Daniel Kawczynski on securing the debate. As he is the first ever Polish-born Member of this Parliament, the debate is on a matter of great personal importance to him, and he always speaks with great passion about his Polish heritage. I must look into joining the all-party parliamentary group on Poland.
I hope I can complement the hon. Gentleman’s contribution, and those of other hon. Members, by providing a Scottish perspective on the Polish contribution to the UK effort during the second world war. One fact that caught me a little by surprise was that most Polish soldiers who were stationed in the United Kingdom during the war were based in Scotland. Initially, around 17,000 Polish troops were sent to Scotland, where they set up camp temporarily in Biggar, Crawford, Douglas and Peebles, and the First Polish Army Corps was quickly formed under the command of Generals Stanisław Maczek and Marian Kukiel. Polish soldiers later went on to establish more permanent bases in Fife, Angus and Perthshire, and by 1944 around 26,500 Polish soldiers were based in Scotland.
Those men were tasked with defending a stretch of the east coast between Arbroath in Angus and Burntisland near my constituency in Fife. They built anti-invasion defences at places such as Lossiemouth and Tentsmuir—locations that were seen as being at risk of invasion from German-occupied Norway. The remains of those defences are still visible at Tentsmuir forest to this day.
Polish naval forces worked alongside the Royal Navy throughout the war, strengthening our sea defences immeasurably. On the day that Germany invaded Poland,
In the RAF, squadrons 304, 309, 307 and 315 were located at airfields in Scotland. Between 1941 and 1943, Polish Spitfire pilots were trained at operational training units located near Grangemouth in Stirlingshire and St Andrews. Edinburgh University supported Polish soldiers to continue their studies while in Scotland, and as a result the Polish School of Medicine was born. That faculty operated between 1941 and 1949 and was the only Polish institution of higher education in the world during the war years—a great testament to the continuing effort made by Polish soldiers in those years.
Dunfermline in my constituency was home to the headquarters of the 7th Brigade Cadre, and for the past few years the Defend Fife event has commemorated the history of world war two through battle re-enactments, film, music and dance. In 2017 the Defend Dunfermline world war two festival was themed around the special relationship between the people of Dunfermline and the Polish soldiers who helped to protect our town during the war. Last year festival volunteers unearthed confidential maps and plans drawn up by the allied Polish armies to enforce roadblocks, checkpoints and positions created by the Dunfermline Home Guard. Delivered by social enterprise Forth Pilgrim Ltd, the festival aimed to attract up to 5,000 people, reflecting the importance placed on the local contribution of the Polish community to the war effort by the people of Dunfermline and Fife. This year the theme is air raids on the firth of Forth and the Polish navy in Rosyth. I look forward to celebrating the contribution made by Polish soldiers during the war in my home town with the people of Dunfermline. I am sure that the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham would be made very welcome should he wish to join us.
A few lasting markers have been left across Scotland, and one that caught my eye is the statue of Wojtek the bear that stands in the Princes Street gardens. Wojtek was a 230 kg Syrian brown bear who became the mascot of Polish II Corps. He was made a corporal to secure him passage on a British troop ship bound for the Italian campaign. Beloved by his human comrades in arms, Wojtek learned to drink beer—I think Polish soldiers do that sometimes—smoke cigarettes, and carry artillery shells, which was a role he performed during the Battle of Monte Cassino. Wojtek became a local celebrity in his new home of Hutton in Berwickshire, but in 1947 he was re-homed in Edinburgh Zoo where he lived until his death in 1963. He was regularly visited by Polish veterans.
As we know, after the war many Poles settled in the UK. The Polish Resettlement Act 1947 was Parliament’s first ever legislation for mass immigration, offering British citizenship to hundreds of thousands of displaced Polish troops. According to our national records, in 2017 around 99,000 Polish residents were still living in Scotland.
We in Scotland are particularly proud of our connection with our Polish population, both past and present. That is evident in events and monuments that we continue to hold dear to this day, commemorating what the Poles did for us during the war and the way they have been part of the fabric of our society ever since. I welcome this opportunity to add to that celebration of Polish nationals in the UK. We must continue to talk about their legacy and educate the generations to come so that their efforts and contribution are never forgotten.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, and I thank Daniel Kawczynski for highlighting this important issue. That he has done so not just now but on a number of occasions shows the importance of this debate to him, particularly because members of his family were murdered by the Nazis. Those included the hon. Gentleman’s great uncle, whose daughter and wife were also killed and placed in the grave that he had dug. I pay tribute to him and to all the hon. Gentleman’s family who played a role in the second world war.
In June 1940 the Polish Government in exile in the UK signed an agreement with the British Government to form an independent Polish army, air force and navy in the UK. Some 5% of the Polish army were involved in the battle of Britain, numbering 145 in total, but they were responsible for 12% of the victories and the 303 Polish Squadron was recognised as the most successful allied squadron. Twenty-nine Polish pilots lost their lives in the battle of Britain, and four Polish officers were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. By the end of the war, 19,400 Poles were serving in the RAF and other commands. During the war, 2,408 Polish airmen were killed, and 300 Polish squadron, serving in the Bomber Command, suffered the highest number of deaths of any Bomber Command in the second world war. Of the 4,000 Polish personnel who served in the Polish navy during the war, 450 lost their lives. Of course, the Enigma code breakers shortened the war by at least two years. Their contribution is hugely recognised and should continue to be so.
As always, the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham made a significant contribution. He mentioned the role of 303 Squadron, the navy and the contribution of soldiers at the battle of el-Alamein. He also discussed the interesting issue of heritage. We must not forget the contribution of those airmen, soldiers and naval personnel who served in the war. It is important for us to be reminded of that.
My hon. Friend Paula Sherriff made an intervention on celebrating the contribution of Polish people here. A number of others, including John Howell, made similar contributions. It would be fitting to have a memorial; perhaps an everlasting one. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the records that have been kept, which could form the basis of that. I ask the Minister to look at those requests.
We must remember the huge role played in Birmingham by Polish servicemen, particular airmen. The role of 303 Squadron has been well recognised in relation to the Spitfires, which were built in Erdington in Birmingham. Many based themselves in Erdington and are still there. However, we sometimes forget the engineers who serviced the Spitfires. As the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham said, the people who came here were hugely skilled, and those who serviced and repaired the Spitfires were hugely important to the service, because the sooner they were serviced and back in operation, the bigger the contribution they could make. We sometimes forget those people on the ground who worked in engineering, but they must be recognised.
My hon. Friend Stephen Pound, who made a fabulous contribution, was heroic and passionate as he always is. Every word he said was meant. What he said about General Anders needed to be said, and he did so passionately. We must recognise and remember the sacrifices of the Polish solders. He mentioned the orthodox Christians, the Jewish Polish contribution and the general contribution made by Christians, which was phenomenal and deserves recognition.
I am grateful to my friend Mr Mahmood for giving way. May I add one more name to that list? General Sosabowski was in command of the 1st Independent Parachute Brigade, which fought so gallantly at Arnhem. We keep remembering the contribution of Poles to British victories. That was not a British victory, but no one contributed to it more gallantly than the Poles, the parachutists and those who came in the gliders, in that fateful battle at the Arnhem bridge.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, who is also my friend. That shows the determination of the Polish soldiers and personnel who fought in the war to treat it as their own as they defended Poland. The courage of the Polish soldiers has been recognised across the Chamber, and it must continue to be recognised and understood.
Gillian Keegan made a good contribution relating to her constituency. She talked about how important it was for the Polish community to play a role in the fighting, which again reminds us of the great sacrifices they made. My friend Jim Shannon pushed the sacrifices and contributions made in Northern Ireland, particularly in the Navy. Bill Grant spoke of the contribution made by his family, which must be recognised.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North said, many people changed their names after the war to integrate. Some might have felt that necessary, but it is now time for people to re-establish those names and recognise their heritage. The hon. Member for Henley mentioned the work of the intelligence services in capturing the V-2. It was a devastating weapon, so it was a phenomenal achievement by the Polish personnel serving with us in the second world war to get hold of it, reverse-engineer it and see what it did.
Douglas Chapman talked about the contribution made in Scotland, particularly to the Navy. As we look across the United Kingdom, we see that people in every single area know where the Polish servicepeople made a contribution, and that is recognised to this day. We must now really push that recognition forward.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury and the hon. Member for Henley mentioned the creation of a permanent memorial. Will the Minister look at how such a memorial can include a real learning element so that schoolchildren and other people can visit and understand the heritage of those who came here and the support they gave us? While we had much support from the Commonwealth, with people coming across to help during the second world war—my maternal great-grandfather served in Burma—which was gratefully received, the particular contribution made by the Polish people was much welcomed.
Mr Pritchard, I thank you on behalf of us all for chairing our debate. I genuinely commend my hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski on once again securing a debate on the vital contribution made by Poland to the allied victory in the second world war. I have no hesitation in again paying tribute to all those who served so bravely. I would also like to reflect on the strength of our partnership with Poland today.
Polish service personnel served with distinction in world war two on land, at sea and in the air. They fought in some of the most pivotal battles of the war. At Monte Cassino 75 years ago, it was, as we have heard, the Polish army that broke through Nazi defences and paved the way for US forces to secure Rome. The Poles paid a very heavy price for that victory, with almost 1,000 soldiers killed and 3,000 injured. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend Mr Ellwood, paid tribute to the fallen in May when he visited the scene of the battle as part of the 75th anniversary commemorations.
The Polish navy played a significant role, as we heard in the remarkable speech by Stephen Pound, in protecting the Atlantic convoys and supporting the D-day landings. Last month in Portsmouth, the Polish Prime Minister joined Her Majesty the Queen, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the leaders of 14 other countries in remembering those who took part in the D-day landings.
Who could forget the 16 Polish squadrons that served in the Royal Air Force, making up the largest foreign contingent? Their bravery helped to turn the tide of the war at a critical moment. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, head of RAF Fighter Command at the time, later wrote:
“Had it not been for the…Polish squadrons and their unsurpassed gallantry, I hesitate to say that the outcome of the Battle would have been the same.”
Arguably the most famous squadron, 303 Squadron, was stationed at RAF Northolt. In March last year, when he was Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend Boris Johnson visited the Battle of Britain bunker there with his Polish counterpart Jacek Czaputowicz to pay their respects.
There is a special House of Commons link with the Poles who fought in the Battle of Britain. There was only one serving RAF officer in the House of Commons at the time, Squadron Leader Robert Grant-Ferris, later Deputy Speaker and then Lord Harvington. After the Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill asked him to move the Loyal Address—in Church House, because our Chamber had been bombed. Harold Nicolson came up to him and said, “I have the perfect poem for your speech,” but he found it only the day after the opening of Parliament. That poem was Thomas Gray’s 18th-century prophecy, which forecast flight and, some might argue, the Battle of Britain. It says:
“The time will come, when thou shalt lift thine eyes
To watch a long-drawn battle in the skies,
While aged peasants, too amazed for words,
Stare at the flying fleets of wond’rous birds,
England, so long the mistress of the sea,
Where wind and waves confess her sovereignty,
Her ancient triumphs yet on high shall bear,
And reign the sovereign of the conquered air.”
Robert Grant-Ferris kept that poem—the best speech he never made—in his pocket for the rest of his life. Every time he told the story, he paid tribute to the Polish pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain. May that poem be a tribute to Polish pilots. After 75 years, I am delighted that I, the son of an RAF officer, have been able to read it into the record of the House of Commons.
I have little time, so I will skip over many things that I would like to say about the strong relationship between the United Kingdom and Poland today. We work on many levels, and when we do, we look back 75 years and beyond at the marvellous relationship between our countries. I wish to leave time for my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham to say a few more words, so I will just say to all Poles that we in this House offer them our appreciation. To the generations of Poles before them, who fought bravely alongside the UK and our allies to rid Europe of the Nazis, we all offer our deep and enduring gratitude. To our Polish allies and friends today, I reaffirm our commitment to our vibrant modern partnership.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for his words, particularly that moving poem. I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in this important debate, members of the Polish diaspora who are in the Gallery, and the many Poles around the United Kingdom who are watching on television.
When we go to Warsaw on parliamentary delegations, we do not go just to the Polish Parliament and the Senate. We take hon. Members to the Warsaw Rising Museum, so they can see for themselves, through films and photographs, the complete destruction of the city. Some 95% or 96% of Warsaw was destroyed in 1944. Adolf Hitler was so enraged, even at the end of the war, that the Poles were determined to push out the Nazis that he said that he wanted Warsaw to be completely expunged from the map of Europe.
Warsaw was absolutely obliterated in 1944, but despite the terrible oppression of the communists, the Poles rebuilt the city. Today, Poland has the fastest-growing economy in Europe at 4.6% per annum. It is becoming an economic engine in the Visegrád group and in central and eastern Europe.
Poland will be an important partner for us as we pull out of the European Union. Whatever our views on the European Union—Stephen Pound and I have polarised views—we will need strong, strategic, bilateral partners that are also in NATO and members of the European Union. Warsaw will be one of our most important interlocutors as we continue to engage with the European Union and work together for the common benefit of our continent. I thank everybody for coming, and I thank you, Mr Pritchard, my Shropshire neighbour, for the professional and kind way in which you have chaired the debate, as always.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the Polish contribution to the UK war effort in World War Two.