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The “Anders Army”

Image: Jadwiga in "Anders Army" uniform

The “Anders Army” refers to the Polish armed forces set up in the former Soviet Union in the period 1941-1942, named after its commander, General Władysław Anders. The army provided the bulk of the Second Corps of the Polish Armed Forces in the West which fought under British command in Italy.

At the outbreak of World War Two in September 1939 the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany dismembered Poland in a twin invasion agreed in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. About 200,000 soldiers of the Polish army who were in the newly occupied territory were taken prisoner by the Red Army. Among them were thousands of Jewish soldiers and officers. Two years later, in February 1940, hundreds of thousands of civilians – entire families and whole rural populations – were forcibly taken from these occupied territories, mostly on cattle trains, to various labour camps all over the Soviet Union.

Diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and Poland were re-established only when Nazi Germany reneged on its pact with its erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union, and attacked it on 22 June 1941 in Operation Barbarossa. An agreement between Stalin, Churchill, Eden and the Polish government-in-exile in London led by General Sikorski was signed on 30 July 1941 whereby all Poles held by the Soviet Union were to be freed so as to form an army to help the fight against Hitler. A military agreement of 14 August 1941 and the subsequent Sikorski-Mayski agreement of 17 August 1941, resulted in Stalin agreeing to declare all previous pacts with Nazi Germany to be null and void, invalidating the September 1939 Soviet-German partition of Poland and releasing tens of thousands of Polish citizens held in Soviet forced labour camps in a so-called "amnesty" (an unfortunate term which implied forgiveness of a crime). Stalin also agreed that this military force would be subordinate to the Polish government-in-exile based in London.

The Polish military leader in exile, General Sikorski, named General Władysław Anders as commander of the new army. Anders was at the time held at the infamous Lubyanka prison in Moscow and was accordingly released by Stalin on 4 August 1941 to organise the new army. The first commander on the ground, General Michał Tokarzewski, began the task of forming this army on 17 August in Soviet Central Asia, in the town of Totskoye (Orenburg Region), whilst awaiting the arrival of Anders, who issued his first orders as commander on 22 August 1941. Military formations began to be set up in the Buzuluk area of Orenburg Region. Recruitment of Polish citizens began in the labour camps run by the secret police (NKVD). By the end of 1941 about 25,000 soldiers (including 1,000 officers) had been recruited, forming three infantry divisions: the 5th, 6th and 7th. (Menachem Begin, a future Prime Minister of Israel, was among those who joined). The 8th Division was formed in spring 1942 when the formation was moved to Tashkent.

The recruitment process was hampered by significant numbers of missing Polish officers (presumed executed), disputes over whether non-ethnic Poles who had been citizens of the Second (interwar) Polish Republic were eligible for recruitment (i.e. specifically Jews, Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians), Soviet reluctance to provide transport, and Soviet refusal to allow volunteers to leave the USSR to join existing Polish armed forces in the west. Moreover, some Soviet labour camp administrators were unwilling to release Poles as they required their inmates to meet unchanged camp production quotas.

In the second half of 1942, during the big German offensive in the Caucasus, Stalin agreed that the Polish formation could be used on the Middle Eastern front in Persia (Iran). The “Anders Army” was transferred from Krasnovodsk across the Caspian Sea to the port of Pahlavi (today Bandar-e Anzali).

After their arrival in Persia, more men were added via the overland route from Ashkhabad in Uzbekistan to the railhead at Mashhad in Persia. The “Anders Army” thus passed from Soviet control to British control. It was renamed the Polish Second Corps and joined the Polish Armed Forces in the West.

About 41,000 combatants and 74,000 civilians - former Polish citizens – left the Soviet Union with the “Anders Army”, joining the British High Command in the Middle East, travelling through Persia, Iraq and Palestine.

When the “Anders Army” reached Palestine, most of the Jewish Poles left and joined Jewish veteran settlements there. It is said that Anders actually facilitated the release of Jewish soldiers from the Polish Army in Palestine, including Begin, because he did not particularly want them. (This mass release of Jewish soldiers was dubbed the "Anders Aliyah" and played an important role in the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.) In 2006 a memorial to the Anders' Army was erected on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.

1. About 30,000 soldiers from the Polish Army were executed by the Soviets in 1940 and 1941 in the Katyn forest near Smolensk. The graves were discovered by the Nazis in 1943 and when news of this broke it caused Polish-Soviet relations to deteriorate even more. Initially, the Soviets blamed the executions on the Nazis and it was not until the 1990s that Russian President Boris Yeltsin finally admitted Soviet guilt.

2. General Sikorski died on 4 July 1943 in a plane crash in Gibraltar. There are theories that it was not an accident, because Sikorski had refused to accept Stalin's claim that the Katyn massacre had been carried out by the Nazis.

3. According to a note from Beria (head of the Soviet secret police) to Stalin dated 15 January 1943, over 389,000 Polish citizens were freed as a result of the 1941 "amnesty". They included 200,828 ethnic Poles, 90,662 Jews, 31,392 Ukrainians, 27,418 Belorusians, 3,421 Russians, and 2,291 persons of other nationalities. Tens of thousands died from hunger, cold, heat, disease and exhaustion on their long journeys south from the Arctic labour camps.

4. During the two evacuations of the “Anders Army” from Uzbekistan (24 March-2 April 1942; and 10 August-1 September 1942), from Krasnovodsk across the Caspian Sea to Pahlavi (Persia/Iran), and also the smaller overland evacuations from Ashkhabad to Mashhad (in March and September 1942), about 115,000 people (including some 37,000 civilians, of whom about 18,300 were children) left the Soviet Union. The soldiers of the “Anders Army” went on to fight in many battles, including the one at Monte Cassino; the civilians, because they could not be repatriated, were forced to remain in foreign lands for the remainder of the war.

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