Operation Scalene

This was the Allied movement of some 75,000 non-communist Polish troops, following an agreement between the Free Polish government-in-exile and the Soviet authorities, from the USSR to the Middle East to become the core of Generał dywizji Władysław Andersís so-called Anders Army (later Polish II Corps) for service with the British 8th Army in North Africa and Italy (March/August 1942).

When they invaded eastern Poland on 17 September 1939, the Soviets declared that the Polish state, whose western part had been invaded by Germany in 'Weiss' (i) on 1 September, no longer existed, which effectively terminated Soviet/Polish relations. About 325,000 Polish citizens were then deported from Soviet-occupied Poland to the USSR in 1940/41. As a result of British mediation and pressure, Polish/Soviet diplomatic relations were re-established in 1941 after the German 'Barbarossa' invasion of the Soviet Union. An agreement of 30 July 1941 between the prime minister of the Polish government-in-exile, Władysław Sikorski, and Soviet ambassador to the UK, Ivan M. Maisky, then led to the Soviet agreement to the invalidation of the territorial aspects of the pacts it had agreed with Germany and thus to the release tens of thousands of Polish prisoners of war held in Soviet camps. The Soviets also granted what they termed 'amnesty' to many Polish citizens, and from these two sources of manpower a military force was formed. A Polish/Soviet military agreement was signed on 14 August, and sought to specify the political and operational conditions for the existence of a Polish army in the USSR. Iosif Stalin agreed that this force would be subordinate to the Polish government-in-exile, but be deployed on Eastern Front.

On 4 August Sikorski, who as a generał dywizji was also the Free Polish military leader, named Generał brigady Władysław Anders, just released from the Lubyanka prison in Moscow, as commander of the new army. Generał brygady Michał Tokarzewski-Karaszewicz began the task of creating the new Polish army in Totskoye on 17 August, where on 22 August Anders announced his appointment and issued his first orders.

The full organisation of the new formation began in the Buzuluk area, and recruitment began in the NKVD camps for Polish prisoners of war. By the end of 1941 25,000 men, including 1,000 officers, had been recruited, and these constituted the strength of the 5th, 6th and 7th Divisions. In the spring of 1942, the new army’s organisational centre was relocated to Tashkent area and the 8th Division was established.

The recruitment process had to overcome many obstacles. There was an acute shortage of Polish officers, as a result of the Katyn massacre, which was unknown to the Poles at the time; the Soviets did not want citizens of the Second Polish Republic who were not ethnic Poles, such as the Jews, Belorussians and Ukrainians, to be eligible for recruitment; the new military formations and units were not provided with adequate supplies and a proper logistical support infrastructure; and a number of Soviet administrators of the camps in which Poles were being held interfered with the release of Polish inmates despite the authorisation which had already been give.

Faced with their extremely severe, and still deteriorating, strategic situation in 1942, the Soviets were unable to provide adequate food for the growing Polish army, which was sharing its limited provisions with the also growing group of Polish civilian deportees.

After the 'Countenance' Anglo/Soviet invasion of Iran, on 18 March 1942 Stalin agreed that part of the Polish formation could be relocated to Iran, and the soldiers were then transferred across the Caspian Sea to the port of Pahlavi in Iran. Eventually all the soldiers and civilians were allowed to leave the USSR for British-controlled territories.

More Polish men (civilian as well as military), women and children were transferred later in the summer of 1942 through to the end of August, by ship and by an overland route from Ashgabat in Turkmenistan to the railhead at Mashhad in Iran. As part of the overland movements, many thousands of Polish ex-prisoners walked from the USSR’s southern border areas to Iran. Many of these died as a result of cold, hunger and exhaustion. About 79,000 Polish soldiers and 37,000 Polish civilians were thus able to exit the USSR. The Anders Army was then transferred to British control and, under the control of the Middle East Command, passed through Iran, Iraq and into Palestine, and many then joined the Polish II Corps.