Scottish-Polish coexistence during the dark days of WWII
This story is not about the horror of war, or technical details of aircrafts used by Polish pilots. Neither is it a tale of the Polish battalions stationed in Scotland, nor the towns they liberated around Europe. This is simply a story about everyday life in Scotland during the war – the lives of Scottish civilians and the thousands of Polish soldiers located in camps around the country.
In 1939 Poland got between the hammer and anvil of Nazi Germany and the USSR’s armies. After the initial defeat, the Polish Army did not stop fighting. Polish soldiers made the difficult journey to rejoin the army being recreated in different parts of Europe. The ones from the part of Poland occupied by Germany usually escaped through Hungary and Romania to France. The ones from the ‘Russian’ part, after the horror of the Gulags in the USSR, were allowed to join the Polish army that was being formed in the Middle East (more about USSR-Middle East-UK journey can be found in the story of Soldier Bear Wojtek). Under the agreements between the UK and Poland, made on 19 June 1940, many of the Polish Soldiers were evacuated to Great Britain to be eventually relocated to Scotland.
Before they were prepared to fight again and before they were sent back to the continent to get involved in countless battles ‘For Your Freedom and Ours’, they spent months, sometimes years in Scotland. During that time, in addition to their military training and the duty of defending Scottish soil, they had their normal life: they worked, created beautiful pieces of art, partied, fell in love…
Altogether about 38 000 Polish men from units formed in France and the Middle East, along with naval and air force personnel came to Scotland. This is how a new chapter in the book of Scottish-Polish history began.
‘Strangers’ – Imperial War Museum link
In July of 1940, Scottish people did everything to make the Polish soldiers feel welcome, not only by cheering them on in the streets of Glasgow where they were arriving. Canteens, temporary camps and even free public transport were organised for them by the city and a number of different organisations. Local people invited the Poles to their homes, which created a genuine atmosphere of hospitality. Glasgow Lord Provost, Patrick Dollan, who was strongly interested in the Polish case, was an important inspiration to Scottish people. His work was rewarded with a nickname given him by the Poles – “Dollański”.
The first weeks of living side by side gave a rather mixed impression of the Poles. Lots of them came from the ‘cadre’, administrative or training formations from France, with a high proportion of officers. The large number of very elegant senior officers equipped with cigarette holders, briefcases and most shockingly, Eau de Cologne provided a rather peculiar image of the Polish army in working class Glasgow, in times of food rationing and air raids.
Soon the Poles were moved to their tented camps in Lanarkshire (Crawford, Douglas, Biggar).
Below is a fragment from the extraordinary book ‘For Freedom Your and Ours‘ by Allan Carswell, written on the occasion of the exhibition in the Scottish United Services Museum in Edinburgh Castle (now the War Museum) in 1993.
Here they had to contend with the vagaries of the Scottish climate: the late summer of 1940 was very wet in Scotland, or at least it seemed that way to the Poles who were living under canvas and watching their equipment turning green with mould. They were also unfamiliar with practices of British military cooks, who were quickly sent away, the Poles preferring to cook their own rations. British uniforms and equipment also began to arrive and the training began. For soldiers who took a very definite pride in their appearance, the British uniform came as a shock. Tailors were soon busy virtually remaking them to provide more acceptable fit.” (1)
Despite these rather humorous difficulties, recognizable military formations began. During the next months of coexistence, undeterred by language and religious barriers, remarkably close links were established between the Poles and Scots.
In October of the same year, the Polish Army took over the defence of a large section of the east coast between Burntisland and Montrose. New camps in Cupar and Forfar were established. The HQ of the 1st Polish Corps, as the Polish Army in Scotland was called these days, was at Moncrieff House near Perth. Many large country houses and estates were used to provide training, engineering and medical facilities. Poles also constructed necessary defensive fortifications. When all infrastructure was ‘singing and dancing’ the Soldiers settled down to the boring routine of the Scottish defence forces. We know how important the defence duty was, but one can easily imagine that patrolling the beaches and manning the pill boxes were quite frustrating for an army that was simply bursting to fight.
The continued presence of the Polish Army in the east of Scotland naturally led to further contacts between Scots and Poles. The spread of camps, training schools and head quarters brought the Poles to almost every community in Fife, Perthshire, Forfar and Angus. Shortages of agricultural labour caused by the war also resulted in the Polish troops helping with the harvest in many local farms. The influx of thousands of foreign soldiers had a dramatic impact on local life, and the spirit of a shared cause, combined with much goodwill, soon began to overcome the barriers of language and unfamiliarity. A feeling of admiration for the Poles’ obvious commitment to the war, as well as a sympathy for their plight as exiles, grew among the local people. This showed itself in many ways, from the simple hospitality of Scots families inviting Polish soldiers into their homes, to exchange of gifts, both personal and more formal. The Polish soldiers usually had little to give to Scots friends as tokens of their appreciation, so a thriving cottage industry grew up in the Polish camps which produced brooches, plaques and other simple gifts. Official presentations between towns and local Polish units were on grander scale. Pieces of engraved silver were common gifts from town like Biggar in Lanarkshire or Cares in Fife. As individual Polish units developed regimental identities, many were presented with standards or trumpet banners from Scottish towns and cities. The regiments returned the honour by incorporating various Scottish devices, like thistles or lions rampart, into their badges. Some units organised pipe bands, claiming an association between Scottish bagpipes and those once common in certain regions of Poland.”(1)
Some of gifts mentioned above were quite spectacular pieces of art and a few of them still feature at a number of sites in Scotland.
One of the examples is the mosaic panel picturing St Andrew looking out for a Polish soldier. It was created for the St Andrews town hall in 1942. It was designed and made by soldiers based in Fife. You can read more about the mosaic and the stories associated with St Andrews in an article written by the great Scottish artist of Polish origin, Jurek Putter (the article will be published soon).
It is worth a mention that in these days, Poles were very religious folk. During a period of over a century, when Poland was erased from the maps of Europe, the Roman Catholic Church often played the role of the last bastion of free Poland – the means of maintaining the national tradition. It is not a surprise then that many of the gifts were located in churches.
One interesting gift was a highly artistic and sophisticated example of recycling. The copy of the famous icon ‘Our Lady of Ostrobrama’, created by 2/Lt Albin Bratanek, was a gift from the 3rd Polish Parachute Battalion that was stationed in Falkland Palace (2). No one would ever guess just by looking at it that had been made of corn beef tins, shells and cartridge cases!
The text of the official act of transfer of the image says:
We the Polish Paratroops of the 3rd Battalion offer to you, the People of Falkland a picture of Our Lady of OSTROBRAMA in souvenir of our stay in Falkland and as a token of gratitude for all your kindness you have shown us when stationed amongst you.
This picture must be kept for ever in the chapel of Falkland’s Palace.
May it cement the friendship of both our Nations.
FALKLAND A. D. 1944.
Apart from the icon, Poles have been remembered here for filling the chapel every Sunday with beautiful singing.
Another fascinating piece of art is the set of stained glass windows in ancient Kirk in Dalmeny (St Cuthbert’s Church) commissioned by one of the soldiers of the 10th Motorized Cavalry Brigade (a brigade of tanks, not horses) formed in Douglas. The three beautiful pieces show Holy Mary, Saint Theresa and Saint Margaret (3). We don’t know anything about the window’s generous benefactor as he decided to remain anonymous. We know that the person who designed and built them was the Scottish artist, Lalia Dickson.
A smaller, beautifully designed and crafted stained glass window of great significance can be also found in Galashiels, in the Church of our Lady and St Andrew’s. It is an artwork of renowned artist and educator Lt. Adam Bunsch (4), soldier of the 1st Armoured Division of general Maczek. Bunsch, in addition to being the designer of over 200 unique stained glass windows that can be found in churches around Poland and the UK was also a painter, playwright and print maker. His works are an amazing multimedia record of the extremely difficult and interesting times in which he happened to live.
The Sanctuary lamp in the picture above was made by craftsmen of the tank company of the 1st Corps Recce Group, based in Perth. It was a gift for St John the Baptist’s Church on Melville St. The Lamp is a great example of wrought work in brass and bronze. It is crafted in the form of a band of finely wrought Polish eagles. A ball suspended from the base bears the inscription “Polonia Semper Fidelis” (5).
Another ‘gift’ is a memorial erected by the 1st Motor Ambulance of Polish Forces in remembrance of its stay in Scotland in 1944. It was placed in the grounds of the Roman Catholic church in Linlithgow. (6) For anyone who ever had the chance of visiting the Polish countryside, the look of the memorial immediately brings the memory of kapliczka – a small shrine commonly built near churches and roads. One can easily imagine that the soldiers, in choosing this design, meant to bring a bit of Polish traditional landscape back into Scotland.
The number of all the gifts, plaques and memorials is truly quite impressive. They themselves could be the subject of a Master’s Degree if not a PHD dissertation. The ones mentioned above are a small sampling to convey the feeling of the spirit they were built in – friendship and appreciation of Scottish hospitality (7).
Culture, love and Polish glamour.
Scotland was suddenly full of thousands of foreign soldiers with exceptional manners; they kissed hands, had great dancing and singing skills, and wore dashing uniforms. It is easy to imagine how all of this affected the Scottish lasses. Neal Asherson mentions a figure of 2500 Polish-Scottish marriages that took place in that period. He does not mention any figures regarding broken hearts or new born babies (8). The sure thing is that personal relationships became very important in Polish-Scottish coexistence and lead to big changes in Scotland’s war time and post war social and cultural life.
The most lasting contacts, though, were undoubtedly more personal. The Polish soldiers were far from home, in a strange remote country, whose language and customs few of them could understand. Most had left their families and homes at a time of great crisis, and few had any real idea of how they were faring under enemy occupation. Also, their military duties in Scotland, although important, were less than fulfilling for an army whose homeland and families were suffering so much. The long hours spent watching the North Sea horizon for a German invasion fleet encouraged a spirit of melancholy which soon took root among a people whose national soul was unashamedly romantic. This, combined with the charm and exceptionally elegant manners of most of the Poles, found many friends in Scotland.
Among these admirers were many local women and soon liaisons, engagements and finally marriages became commonplace. These Scottish brides had to overcome a number of problems – not least of the language, it was not uncommon for newly married woman to be incapable of pronouncing their husband’s surname. The status of women at that time also meant that by marrying a foreigner they automatically lost their British citizenship. This literally made them aliens in their own country and required them to report regularly to the local police station. This situation continued until 1946.
Many couples also had to overcome a degree of local prejudice: for some Scots it was all very well having the Poles in your midst as ‘Gallant Allies’ but quite a different matter if they wanted to marry your daughter or sister, and one day take her away to a remote and foreign country. This being Scotland, the prejudice could also take on religious form, as Poles were almost exclusively Roman Catholic.
In order to promote better links between the communities, various influential Scots and Poles decided in 1941 to form a Polish-Scottish Society. This proved to be extremely popular and local branches appeared in almost every town where Polish troops were stationed. Although it tended to be rather serious in tone, with a strong emphasis on educational and cultural activities, it achieved a good deal. The Society set up clubs and canteens where Poles could go when off duty and organized classes in English and Polish, as well as in the history and culture of both countries. It also organized classes for the Scots wives and fiancées of Polish soldiers, in which they were taught the language, history and even cooking of Poland, all in preparation for the day when they would return with their husbands to Poland.
Other organisation, such as the British Council and the various churches, also arranged cultural and social activities for the Poles. Exhibitions, recitals and concerts featuring the work of Polish artists and musicians serving in the forces were also organised throughout the Scotland. They were particularly appreciated because of the disruption caused to Scotland’s cultural life by war. A number of newspapers and magazines also appeared in both Polish and English, including a bilingual magazine, appropriately entitled The Clasps of Friendship.”(1)
The bitter episode
This idyllic image does not fairly represent the situation, though. There were thousands of foreign men in the country, and that always brings some problems. Scots being considered by Poles as ‘kind of English’ and Poles called by Scots ‘kind of Russian’ – was a good enough reason to fight. The battles between the Poles and the Black Watch became famous. The Polish-Scottish climate changed depending on the political situation during the war. Alliance with the USSR was quite difficult to accept for soldiers, who after experiencing the Gulags knew exactly what Russian “friendship” meant. Also, occasional jealousy of ‘Polish glamour’ did not help.
The real problems started after the war. Despite the fact the Polish Army was involved in the conflict from its very beginning on 1 September 1939, until the very last day, Poland was the only country that absolutely lost in this war. As a consequence of the Yalta conference (now often called Western Betrayal) and agreements between Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt, post-war Poland was relocated a few hundred miles west and became a communist state. You can imagine the disappointment and frustration experienced by all Polish soldiers who bled and fought ‘For Your Freedom and Ours’ and in the end did not have a free home to go back to. Many ‘homes’ happened now to be deep within USSR land. Every soldier coming back from the UK faced the risk of being persecuted, jailed or even executed for being part of the democratic British Army. At the same time, Poles were were refused the military pension in the UK. They were now seen as potential communist spies and so were not allowed to carry out any important roles in governmental organisations or the army. Many of them had to take low qualified jobs to earn a living. The classical example was General Maczek – the great hero of WWII who became a bartender.
Soldiers that stayed in Scotland became inconvenient guests. Traditionally anti-communist, many of them had seen the real face of communism in soviet work camps. Their attitude did not correspond to the rather socialist spirit of Scotland. Most Scots found it impossible to believe that Uncle Stalin was responsible for the Katyń massacre or the many other horrors that matched the German Death Camps in scale and in terror. Additionally, the extremely difficult economic situation in post war Scotland did not encourage keeping tens of thousands foreign soldiers in the country. The anti-Polish, anti-Catholic movement lead by Edinburgh councillor John Cormack was also strong and loud. Their co-existence became more and more difficult…
Luckily this dark period did not last for too long, and never ultimately managed to erase the strong positive impression Scotland made on the Polish soldiers. The hospitality of Scots towards Poles is highlighted in every single book covering the subject, every single interview with an ex-serviceman and the huge number of memorials of gratitude the Poles left around Scotland.
To conclude, perspectives from two people whose lives happen to be part of this story. Their words summarise the non-military aspects of Scottish-Polish life in the years of WWII.
One of the General Maczek’s soldiers, Capitan Mieczkowski said:
The British treated us very differently from French. (…) They were calm, self-possessed, kind and cheerful. Ladies treated us with sandwiches and chocolates and cups of tea. The manner in which they cared for us was a delight and contrasted strongly with that messy, petrified French. The Scots were even more friendly and that friendship continues to this day. The relations with the civilian population were uncommonly friendly.(9)
An elderly Scottish lady wrote in her letter to the Herald in 2006:
Nobody has mentioned one important reason for welcoming Poles, but perhaps only ladies in their late seventies know it. They can all dance like Fred Astaire.(10)
And recall the words of the soldiers of the 3rd Polish Parachute Battalion and their gift to the Falkland Palace:
We the Polish Paratroops of the 3rd Battalion offer to you, the People of Falkland, a picture of Our Lady of OSTROBRAMA in souvenir of our stay in Falkland and as a token of gratitude for all your kindness you have shown us when stationed amongst you.
This picture must be kept for ever in the chapel of Falkland’s Palace.
May it cement the friendship of both our Nations.
Polish Forces in Defence of British Isles 1939-1945 essay The Polish Army as part of Defence Forces of Scotland 1940-1945 Zbigniew Wawer and Andrzej Suchcitz ISBN 0-95432-170-7
(1) For Freedom Yours and Ours. Poland Scotland and the Second World War Allan Carswell ISBN 0-948636-54-8
(8) Scotland and Poland Historical Encounters, 1500-2010” essay Brothers and Sisters for a’ that‘ Neal Asherson ISBN 978-1-906566-27-2
(9) The soldiers of General Maczek in World War II Zbigniew Mieczkowski Warsaw-London 2004 ISBN PL 83-914145-8-2
(10) The Herald 30 August 2006
PSH A Scottish Welcome, Polish Soldiers After WW2 – film – link
PSH Stories of people that shaped our shared heritage – podcasts – link
Black Isle Heritage Memories – Hermione Protheroe listen
(2,4,5) Register of WWII Polonica by Rober Ostrycharz
(4) Website dedicated to the work of Adam Bunsch (POL)