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The Scots at War Trust

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Entry: The Poles and Scotland  

There is so much written today about immigration and ethnic minorities that we often succumb to the resentful, self-righteous response of prejudice. What is forgotten is that these islands have in the past absorbed peoples from many other nations. They came to conquer, to work or to shelter from tyranny and prejudice. In the 20th century one of the most important groups to arrive were the Poles. Look at any Scottish area telephone directory and you will see the proof of what was to be described as “the Peaceful Invasion”, for the number of Polish names will speak for themselves. (1) Few today however appreciate the extraordinary story that lies behind those names and the chances of history that brought them to Scotland in the first place, how they were received and the reasons why so many of them stayed.


On 1st September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Seventeen days later, Soviet troops crossed the Polish Border from the east “to protect their fellow Slavs”. After an heroic fight on two fronts, the Polish Government crossed the border into Romania, and there its members were interned. During these dramatic events a number of Poles escaped across the Rumanian, Czech and Hungarian borders and eventually joined the Polish Forces in France.


Other Poles were captured by the advancing Soviet Army and were taken as forced labour to Siberia and Northern Russia. Scotland was to play a part in the future of both of these groups.


The Poles in France formed and trained, clothed in French uniforms and armed with outdated French weapons. Some Polish units were sent to the defence of Norway and were at Narvik with the British and French in the spring of 1940. (2) In May 1940 when Germany attacked France, Polish Forces prepared to defend Paris. With the fall of France some of the Polish troops crossed into Switzerland and were interned. Others escaped from French ports to Britain. Many of these men, with a number of women and children, desperate, traumatised and exhausted, were sent to Scotland.


Scotland was no stranger to Poland, and vice versa. Over many centuries there had been a strong tradition of Scottish – Baltic trade in timber, coal, food, cattle and raw materials. Many of the business and military innovators in Poland were of Scottish origin dating back as far as the 15th century. And yet Scotland in 1940 was still a small, traditional and introverted nation where the Protestant work ethic remained strong, coupled with a fierce pride and a staunch left wing political tradition in the industrialised areas. All of these aspects would play a part in how the refugee Poles were received and welcomed.   


Those Poles who arrived in Britain in the first wave by the late spring of 1940 were in the main of military age with few incumbrances by way of families. A disproportionate number were Officers. By far the majority had nothing except what they stood up in. They spoke little or no English, let alone Scots, but they were fiercely anti-German and all they asked was a chance to fight back and avenge the attack on their country.


By April 1940 8,678 members of the Polish Air Force were already in France and Great Britain (3) and these, in spite of initial difficulties, soon joined the order of battle and fought in the skies over Britain. But it was the influx in the early summer of 1940 of large numbers of Polish soldiers, unformed and disorganised, that caused the authorities most difficulties. With invasion imminent it was essential that these men be moved away from the south coast as quickly as possible and that they join the war effort in whatever way was possible, given that they were technically refugees and were not in any way  “under command” of the British.


While it may all have seemed at the time to be an organisational nightmare, the British and Polish authorities in exile acted with commendable determination. On 3rd August 1940 the Anglo-Polish Agreement for the Polish Armed Forces was signed and plans were at once put in hand to deploy Polish manpower in the Allied cause. Many of the new arrivals had initially been temporarily housed on racecourses and other open spaces in the South East of England, but it was not long before they were moved north and into Scotland.


The choice of Scotland was not a matter of chance and three factors played an important part in this decision. Firstly, with the signs that invasion was a matter of weeks away it was essential to organise the defence of the south coast as quickly as possible, removing those who could be trained to fight at a later date behind the immediate area of danger. Secondly, the Polish Forces had to be given time to recover, form, and be equipped and trained, and Scotland offered the facilities and space to do this. Thirdly, a gap had been created in the British Order of Battle by the loss of the 51st (Highland) Division at St Valery. To replace it the home based duplicate Territorial Division, the 9th (Scottish) Division, was simply renamed the 51st and, as a consequence, there were serious shortcomings in Scottish home defence.


The Poles who came north in the late summer and early autumn of 1940 were   resilient and determined but totally unprepared for what lay ahead. For most of the first winter they lived in tented camps or built there own timber quarters from scratch. Organised into military units, men were sent to the east coast to build coastal defences in East Lothian, Fife, Aberdeenshire and Moray, and the concrete blocks that still survive along the Scottish shores stand as memorials to their work.


These men were received in Scotland with sympathy and hospitality and no small amount of amazement.  Scots empathy with the natives of an invaded country and Celtic natural hospitality soon overcame the suspicion of strange uniforms and an equally strange language. The Poles themselves contributed substantially to surmounting these barriers. Their efforts with the language and the Scots accent, largely self taught, enabled them to begin to communicate with the local communities and it was soon found that the newcomers were not only good looking but had an engaging charm and impeccable manners. Their grooming was immaculate and they even wore aftershave. Scots lassies had seldom seen the like before. (4)


It was soon appreciated that the Poles had much more to offer than manual labour and charm and that in their ranks were experienced soldiers, skilled men and professionals all of whom were determined and impatient to fight in whatever way they could. One of the groups that were identified were a number of Polish Doctors and Medical Students. In the summer of 1940 almost 300 of these Doctors were sent to the University of Edinburgh to gain experience in British methods. Language however proved to be a major obstacle and with the agreement of the Polish Government in exile and the Court of the University of Edinburgh the Polish School of Medicine was founded at the University on 22nd March 1941 under Professor A. Jurasz who was appointed Dean of the Faculty. (5) The University provided accommodation and facilities for teaching and research but the teaching was by Poles, in Polish and accorded to the standards laid down by Polish law. The establishment of this Medical School was considered by Poles to be a major boost to their moral and an enormous source of pride and the far seeing and generous gesture by Professor Sydney A. Smith the Dean of Medicine and Sir Thomas Holland, Vice Chancellor and Principal, was a major step in cementing future professional relationships between Scotland and Poland. At the inauguration ceremony in the McEwan Hall the University Organist played Elgar, Chopin, Paderewski and Purcell, and an Honorary Degree was conferred on President Raczkiewicz. Those present were however cautioned, “ In the event of an  “Alert” sounding during the Ceremony, members of the audience who wish to leave the hall are asked to do so as quietly as possible”. The realities of war were ever present.


It was events on the German-Soviet border that were to change the lives of so many Poles then living and training in Scotland. On  22nd June 1941 Germany attacked the USSR in Operation Barbarossa and through a twist of fate Poland and the Soviet Union became allies. The Polish-Soviet Agreement on full military cooperation followed in July, surviving Polish citizens were released by the Soviets and a Polish Army began to be formed in the USSR. The following year that army was evacuated and taken under British command in the Middle East. Having fought with considerable distinction in the Italian Campaign many of these men came to Britain and to Scotland at the end of the war providing a second wave of Polish migration.


In the meantime the Polish military structure in Scotland grew larger, more sophisticated and more efficient. Poles could be seen in Cupar, Leven, Milnathort, Auchtermuchty, Crawford, Biggar, Douglas, Duns, Kelso, Forres, Perth, Tayport, Lossiemouth, Arbroath, Forfar and Carnoustie. The 1st Polish Armoured Division was formed by General Maczeck in 1942 at Kelso and Duns, the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade was formed in Fife, a Polish Commando Unit was raised, there was a Polish School of Engineering at Irvine, Polish Military Hospitals at Edinburgh and Glasgow and at Dupplin and Taymouth Castles, a Polish Staff College, a Polish Artillery School and a Polish Record Office. All in all, during the Second World War the Poles comprised the largest European community in Great Britain. At its height there were in the region of 60,000 Polish soldiers, 15,000 airmen and 30,000 civilians, and large numbers of these were stationed in Scotland at one time or another.


The Polish Air Force Squadrons, numbered 300 to 309, and 315 to 318, also played their part in the defence of Scotland and several trained and fought from these shores. (6) Being stationed in the Western Isles in itself provided yet another challenge to the Poles who, having mastered English, discovered that the local people only understood Gaelic. They lived in hastily built Nissen huts and even tents through terrible northern Scottish winters.


Summing up their loneliness, George Glebocki of 304 (Slaski) Squadron wrote from Benbecula in 1944, “ Our quaint little isle, inhospitable and unfriendly as it seemed at first has many hidden charms. As if nature herself in recompense for bad weather and rain, wanted in the rare moments of respite, to stun and intoxicate us. Morning rose like many others, bathed in misty drizzle. A new flight was already hovering somewhere out over the icy Atlantic, tracking German U-boats, waging a cunning and ingenious war against the inventive skill of German engineers, and against the U-boat Schnorkel. An almost hopeless war. So many flights endured in vain in this terribly difficult struggle. So many hundreds of hours of torture, vomiting, engines and crews dying in wild, devilish burst of squalls, in the cruel clutch of icing 500 feet over the raging Atlantic. Till finally one morning in the grey dawn “X”, for X-Ray, from our Squadron reported that he was attacking a streak of smoke ahead of him. A flame growing from the water. He knew that it was the first and probably the last chance for attack. The explosion and the plume of foam blotted out the scene. When the water settled there was on the spot of the attack an ever-widening patch of shiny oil. That was all. Hundreds of flying hours for an attack lasting a few seconds.  Night again lengthens and at last the wind falls. Slowly we leave the mess. This solitude on the island, this desertedness, this overlooking of all our work. The uncertainty of our fate and our morrow, and the wrong done against the living body of our nation, against all that is holy to us. What is the aim, the essence of this war? The wind catches our words and tosses them into space. We do not know whether it is the wind or the rain, or whether tears flow over our cheeks”. (7) Slavonic and Celtic melancholy had a lot in common and this extract goes a long way to explaining why the Polish “invasion” was never considered  “hostile”.


In the course of the war, the Poles, organised, trained and battle ready, began to leave Scotland for the campaign in North West Europe in which they played a distinguished part. (8) The Polish Parachute Brigade which had been formed and trained in Scotland under Major General Stanislav Sosabowski landed at Arnhem. Through no fault of their own they were too late to have the impact that the Poles so dearly wanted against the Germans but they nevertheless proved themselves to be the valiant and stoic fighters they had always promised to be. (9)


When they left, the Poles were sorely missed in Scotland, not only by the ladies who they had charmed, but also by Scots in general. In the grey Scottish wartime days they had provided colour, class and style and they had added a whole new dimension to traditional Scottish society. Few really expected them to return at the end of the war but force of circumstances was to change that, and with it Scottish attitudes to the Poles.


In April 1943 Polish-Soviet relations broke down when the Germans announced the discovery of a mass grave in the forest of Katyn, near Smolensk, containing the bodies of 4,000 Polish Officers murdered by the Soviets. Then, in early 1945, some of the details of the Yalta Agreement began to emerge. Many Poles could not return to their homes as a result of boundary changes and the establishment of a Soviet sphere of influence over Poland. Polish service men and women coming back in triumph from North West Europe and Italy found themselves with no home to return to and having received a welcome in Scotland for almost five years, resolved to stay. They were to receive a rude awakening.


The “Poles go home” campaign in the context of the Polish contribution to the Second World War is one of the most controversial of its time. Even now it is difficult to discuss it objectively. The campaign was orchestrated primarily by the Trade Union Movement and elements of the Labour and Communist parties. In Scotland it was particularly prevalent in the mining areas of Fife where in 1940 the Poles had been made so welcome. However it was perceived in 1945 that they threatened jobs and livelihoods and that they, the Poles, were being disloyal   to the Communist ideal by not returning to assist the Communists in the reconstruction of their own country. This was a view genuinely and sincerely held by many Labour leaders. (10) Nevertheless the hurt and intense emotions that the campaign provoked amongst Poles can never be underestimated.


Those Poles who had arrived in 1940 were now joined in Scotland by those who had joined the Free Polish Army in the Middle East and some of those who had been interned in Switzerland. There were thus effectively three groups who had come to the United Kingdom by the end of the war. Some did return to Poland, or to areas that as a result of boundary changes were now in the USSR, but rumours soon got back about their treatment and many were warned by their relatives in coded letters not to risk returning.


With the USSR being one of the victorious Allies, the Communist Government in Poland demanding the return of its citizens and the reluctance of Poles to return, the British authorities were faced with a considerable dilemma. To avoid insulting the USSR the decision was taken not to permit the Poles to march in the Victory Parade in London. Forced repatriation seems to have been ruled out at a very early stage but the existence on British soil of thousands of formed but now stateless troops posed very difficult problems. The answer was the raising of the Polish Resettlement Corps in 1946. Those Poles in Scotland simply ceased to be servicemen and became civilians overnight. Many were given basic assistance to find a job but the choices were often well below their skill levels even in areas where they posed no threat to British Trade Union members.  In the industrialised areas of Scotland the Campaign was particularly effective in marginalising the incomers. Thus the Poles, resilient as ever, went into forestry, farming and market gardening. Some became bus drivers, teachers (11) or set up in business on their own. Few however were able to go into mining and heavy industry.


The formation of the Polish Resettlement Corps also brought an end to Polish hopes for the reversal of the terms of Yalta and freedom from the Soviets for their country. Some had hoped that the British would understand the dangers that the USSR posed and that Poland would be reoccupied by force. Many Poles believe that they were betrayed in this respect, but with the benefit of hindsight it is difficult to see how in 1945 the freedom that Poland craved could be achieved by war with the USSR.


Romantic notions gave way to practicalities. A number of Poles left Scotland shortly after the war and made very successful lives for themselves in Canada, USA and Australia. Those who stayed maintained a low profile until the worst of the “Poles go home” Campaign had abated and simply became absorbed and accepted in Scottish society. They retained however both their pride and they humour. They formed Polish Clubs, they frequented Polish Churches and they celebrated Polish holidays and Saints’ Days. A very large number married native Scots and some changed or adapted their Polish surnames to blend in with their adopted country.


Few of the first generation of Poles who came to Scotland during and shortly after the war now survive and the torch of their story is carried by their children and grandchildren. Set against the backdrop of World War, international politics and human endeavour the Polish-Scottish relationship remains a very special one but it is the human stories of welcome, hospitality, charm, humour, determination, fearlessness, perceived betrayal and stoic resignation that shine through.



1.      Ian Hay, Peaceful Invasion, Hodder and Stroughton Ltd., London 1946.

2.      Johan Waage, The Narvik Campaign, George G.  Harrap & Co. Ltd., London 1964, pp. 166 – 209.

3.      Destiny Can Wait, The Polish Air Force in the Second World War, William Heinemann Ltd., London 1949, p. 18.

4.      Dr Diana M. Henderson (Editor), The Lion and the Eagle, Polish Second World War Veterans in Scotland, Cualann Press, Dunfermline 2001.

5.      Polish School of Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, Oliver and Boyd Ltd., Edinburgh, 1942, p. 23.

6.      Ken Delvine, The Source Book of the RAF, Airlife, England, 1994, p. 149.

7.      Mike Hughes, Hebrides at War, Cannongate, Edinburgh, 1998, pp.68 – 71.

8.      Witold Bieganski, Poles in the Battle of Western Europe, Council for Protection of Monuments of Struggle and Martyrdom, Warsaw, 1971.

9.      Marek Swiecicki, With the Red Devils at Arnhem, MaxLove Publishing Co. Ltd., London, 1945.

10.  Oral evidence of Tam Dalyell MP, Scots at War Trust Seminar, Edinburgh, 2nd November   2000.

11.  The author was taught by the inspirational Mr C Wimbor at Hawick High School in the 1960s.


Dr D M Henderson

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