South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 10 April 2006 was fellow-member Mr Witold Jarmolowicz, whose topic was Poland in World War 2. In his introduction, our speaker explained that he would include details of his own personal experiences in his talk.

In August 1939, he was a 12-year old boy living with his family on their farm some 28 km from the Lithuanian border. He gave us a brief account of Poland's relations over the centuries with that country. Poland and the three small Baltic states were unfortunately situated in an area surrounded by three major European powers, Prussia (later Germany), the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russia, which did not allow for a peaceful existence for these smaller states! Boundaries changed frequently. The city near the Jarmolowicz farm, Vilna (or to the Lithuanians, Vilnius), which was at the end of World War 1 the capital of Lithuania, had been incorporated into Poland in 1922 and this, not surprisingly, caused strained relations between the two countries.

On 23 August 1939, Germany and Russia concluded a non-aggression pact which included a secret additional protocol which defined their spheres of interest in the event of the Polish Republic ceasing to exist. This included the division of Poland between the two states. Two days later, Poland signed a treaty of military assistance with Great Britain. As a result of the former, Hitler ordered his forces to attack Poland on 1 September 1939 and World War 2 started. On 17 September the Jarmolowicz family left their farm and travelled to Lithuania in two horse-drawn wagons, joining the streams of refugees. They were left in peace for a while but the Germans invaded Russia in June 1941.

On 14 July 1941 the Jarmolowicz family was given two hours to pack. They were taken by lorry to the railway station, where they boarded a train made up of cattle trucks which was to be their home for the next 28 days. The toilet was a hole in the floor of the truck. Their daily rations were two buckets of soup and, a necessity for Russian train travel, two buckets of hot water per cattle truck. Before leaving, the family had been separated from Major Jarmolowicz who was sent to a prisoner of war camp.

The train trundled on through European Russia to the Ural Mountains, where it stopped next to a lake. The passengers were given 45 minutes to wash themselves. On into Siberia and, as they neared the Chinese border, trucks were detached from the train at various stations and families were allocated to communal farm managers - to be used as farm labour. Winter had arrived and temperatures plummeted. In the north a temperature of 52 degrees Celsius below zero was recorded!

Our speaker described the execution of some 15 000 Polish army officers and other influential civilians, mostly educated people, by the Russians. These came largely from the Kozelsk POW camp and others in the same area. Each prisoner was killed with one bullet, using German weapons and ammunition, and buried in communal graves near the village of Katyn. This atrocity was for many years attributed to the Germans but was in fact perpetrated by NKVD (later KGB) members on the orders of one Nikita Khrushchev - who led the Soviet Union after the death of Joseph Stalin.

Hitler's invasion of Russia on 22 July 1941 resulted in a change of fortune for the Poles in Russia who had survived. There were, however, frustrating delays. Polish/Soviet diplomatic relations were restored on 30 July 1941 and it was agreed that a Polish Army would be formed in Russia as soon as possible and that all Poles in Russia would be released from captivity. The Polish army was commanded by General W. Anders, who had held a commission in the Imperial Russian Army in WWI. He was faced by daunting problems but proved equal to the challenge. The rations supplied to the Polish troops were insufficient as these were being shared with the Polish civilians. There were too few weapons - some troops trained with wooden "rifles" - and the army was initially based in places where many of the men weakened by their ordeal in POW camps died of malnutrition, typhus and pneumonia. Russian attempts to use individual divisions at the front and to reduce the authorized strength of the Polish army were rejected.

In March 1942, the Russians agreed to move the Polish army to Yangi Yul near Tashkent. Gen. Anders visited Stalin who agreed to his request that 40 000 Poles including women and children be evacuated to Persia (now Iran). After some agonizing delays, Genl Anders succeeded in evacuating 70 000 Poles from Russia. The trip was anything but a holiday. Many hardships were suffered and, for many, the journey was a via dolorosa with many hardships.

Mr Jarmolowicz described his experiences on the journey to Persia. After a 34-hour boat journey across the Caspian Sea, the Poles were dumped on a beach, disinfected and given new clothes. Typhoid claimed many lives. After some time in Persia, they moved to Palestine, where his parents served in the Polish Army and Mr Jarmolowicz became a cadet at a military school.

A Polish Army Corps was set up, consisting of the 3rd Carpathian and the 5th Kresy Divisions, both with only two brigades, and an armoured brigade with support formations. After lengthy training, this force was transported to Italy where it joined the Britisth 8th Army. In the meantime, Stalin attempted to keep the Polish Jews in Russia but Gen. Anders succeeded in helping many of them to escape with the Polish troops. Some of these later served in the Jewish Brigade and many settled in Palestine.

The Poles first went into battle at Monte Cassino in May 1944, the final battle. Gen. Alexander warned Gen. Anders that he must expect heavy casualties in the coming battle. The latter replied that Poles serving in the German army would desert and join the Polish Army! And so it was - deserters and also Poles captured in battle joined the 2nd Polish Corps and replaced the heavy casualties suffered. So successful were the Poles in this "recruiting" activity that they ended the war with an Army Corps of two strong infantry divisions and an armoured division, going from a total of 55 000 to 120 000 men! (Polish troops had earlier fought in the Western Desert at Tobruk and elsewhere. The Carpathian Brigade which was the one involved later went to Palestine where it formed the basis on which the 3rd Carpathian Division was formed.)

The Polish troops distinguished themselves. Monte Cassino was captured by them and the red and white flag of Poland was the one that was raised there. They fought with 8th Army in heavy battles at Ancona and elsewhere and captured Bologna. Our speaker gave details of some of their achievements.

Mr Jarmolowicz also gave some brief details of the Polish involvement on other fronts. After the fall of Poland in 1940, a number of Polish divisions and air force squadrons were formed in France. These were evacuated to the UK and to French North Africa and Syria when France collapsed in 1940. The Syrian Poles formed the Carpathian Infantry Brigade.

One division marched straight over the border into Switzerland where they were interned. An agreement was reached between the Polish government in exile and the Swiss whereby the Poles continued training, with the proviso that they would come under Swiss command in the event that the Germans invaded Switzerland.

A brigade of Poles fought in Norway. A large number of Polish squadrons were formed and these served in the RAF's Fighter, Bomber and Coastal Commands with considerable distinction. The Polish 2nd Armoured Division fought in NW Europe as part of the Canadian 1st Army. It formed the "plug" which closed the Falaise Gap in Normandy, thus surrounding the German Army at the crucial stage of the Normandy breakout. A parachute brigade fought with distinction at Arnhem under Gen. Sosabowski.

The Polish navy consisted of a number of destroyers and escort vessels and served in the Atlantic and Mediterranean.

A large underground army exited in Poland and our speaker described the tragedy of the Warsaw Rising. Stalin had encouraged the White Army (as this force was known) to rise in support of the Russian Army which, at the time, was approaching Warsaw. Once the uprising was in full swing, Stalin callously held his armies back and let the Germans destroy Warsaw and crush the uprising. He even went as far as to forbid his western allies from using Russian airfields in their air supply missions. These were flown by Polish, South African and RAF aircraft operating in horrendously difficult circumstances from Italy. Losses were enormous and eventually the RAF was pulled out of the relief effort, leaving the Poles and South Africans to carry on. The gallantry of the SAAF crews taking part in these near-suicidal missions is today still remembered and honoured in Poland.

Some 500 Polish children came to South Africa in 1943. After being quarantined on board the ship for two weeks in Port Elizabeth, they were allowed ashore and were sent to Oudtshoorn, where they remained until 1947. Half of them settled in South Africa and the rest returned to England to be re-united with their families. The speaker showed us the Siberian Cross which was awarded to those who had suffered so much in Siberia in the dark years of 1940 to 1944.

Mr Jarmolowicz described a visit by Polish soldiers to Durban in the Mauritania. There was an outbreak of typhoid on board so they were taken to Pietermaritzburg. Here a Polish soldier painted a portrait of Gen. Smuts which was presented to the City of Pietermaritzburg where it hangs in the City Hall. Another soldier carved a chess set for Gen. Smuts. This is now in the SA National Museum of Military History in Johannesburg. The speaker praised the generous educational benefits provided to the Poles in so many countries.

Most of the Poles in Western Europe remained in the UK, some emigrating to Canada, Australia and South Africa. Our speaker went to England where he trained in the textile industry and then went to Canada. He found the Canadians to be "unfriendly", returned to England and then came to South Africa. He then described his career in South Africa.

Maj. Tony Gordon thanked the speaker for a wonderful talk on a topic which to many was unfamiliar and presented him with the customary gift.



The Annual General Meeting of the Cape Town Branch was held on 10 April 2008 before the lecture by Mr Jarmolowicz and the following members were elected to the committee for 2008:

Chairman: Mr Derek O'Riley (Tel: 021-6892300)
Vice-Chairman: Mr Johan van den Berg (Tel: 021-9397923 / 082-5790386)
Secretary: Mr Ray Hattingh (Tel: 021-5316781 / 021-5131758)
Treasurer/Scribe: Mr Bob Buser (Tel: 021-6891639 / 021-6899771)
Members: Maj. Tony Gordon (Tel: 021-6714500), Cdr. Mac Bisset (Tel: 021-6866309)



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Remember the series on the Border War to be broadcast on kykNET (DSTV, Channel 105) from Sunday 6 July 2008 at 20:30.



Bob Buser: Treasurer/ Scribe
Phone - Home: (evenings) 021 689 1639; Office: (mornings) 021 689 9771
Email: or

Ray Hattingh: Secretary
Phone: 021-5316781 / 021-5131758

South African Military History Society /