Tweedsmuir as a Polish Refugee Camp (1947 to 1960)

(From "Living in Tweedsmuir Camp - 1948 to 1957" / First published in 2003, held at the History of Thursley Society. A Book by Wies and Zen Rogalski)

Chapter 1: The Odyssey

After WW11 Tweedsmuir Camp was home to about sixty families, including our own from 1948 to 1957 and, by some administrative quirk, dependants of Polish ex-servicemen and women who felt unable to return to communist Poland until the camp was dismantled in the late 1950s/early 1960s.

Like most of the people in the camp, our parents had survived a long and tortuous journey to Surrey. It started with the Soviet invasion of Eastern Poland on 17 September 1939, took them to the Middle East, Italy, Scotland, and then to Witley Camp in Surrey, where they first met and decided to marry, before settling in Tweedsmuir Camp. It must have been strange to the local English community in the surrounding villages to see a virtually self-contained, alien enclave in the heart of the Surrey countryside.

Our aim in writing this document is to record, as best we can, the reasons and facts behind our existence in Surrey and to share some reminiscences about life in the ‘Polish Dependence Camp – Tweedsmuir, Surrey’ as it was referred to by the Military after the Second World War. But first a little history.

Fig. 1.1: Anna Rogalska (Maiden name Raczynska). Our father's mother.
In September 1939 our dad (Mikolaj) was in the Polish Army with 6 Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battery, seeing action at Tarnow-Deblin, South Eastern Poland. Following the Russian occupation of Eastern Poland he was deported as a Prisoner of War to Siberia, where he was tried in a makeshift court which resulted in him being sentenced to be detained in a so called ‘corrective camp’, where he was held until 1942. He was one of thousands who were treated in the same manner. Many years later, when we asked the whereabouts of his family, our dad explained that he was unsure and told us that although after WW11 he had endeavoured to link up with his parents and five brothers and sisters through organisations such as the Red Cross and The Salvation Army, his efforts had proved fruitless. As a consequence he speculated that they must have perished during the Russian invasion, either in Siberia, or in his beloved Poland. After his death in 1986, we also tried to find evidence of our father’s family, but to no avail. Nevertheless, we do possess a photograph of his mother Anna Rogalska (Fig. 1.1), maiden name Raczynska, and are of the opinion that some family lineage from our father’s side must exist.

Fig. 1.2: Walenty Burczy. Our mother's father, who died en route to the former USSR in 1939.
Whilst defending Hitler’s invasion from the west, the stretched Polish armed forces had little chance against the classic ‘stab in the back’ from the Soviet Red Army from the east. After the fall of Poland’s eastern territories, the Soviet Union embarked on systematic ethnic cleansing of these regions. The destiny of these people was to be taken to one of the numerous concentration camps dotted around the northern territories of Siberia. Once there, they were put to work in forests, logging and preparing timber for use in construction; they worked hard for measly rations. This was the fate of our mother (Stanislawa), whose maiden name was Burczy, her mother (Magdalena), her brother (Jan) and his family, and three sisters. Many did not survive the journey, and so it was with our mother’s father, Walenty Burczy (Fig. 1.2), who died en route to the USSR. He was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in the expanse of the former Soviet Union.

Anna and Walenty’s photographs are the only records we have of the grandparents we never knew.

Fig. 1.3: Movement of Polish people to the USSR, the Middle East, and subsequently to various theatres of war. (Click Fig. 1.3 for enlarged map)
The Polish people held by the Russians in concentration and corrective camps at the start of the Second World War, would probably have perished there if it were not for a strange twist of fate that history sometimes delivers. In response to Germany’s invasion of the USSR, the Soviet’s signed the Anglo-Soviet Mutual Assistance Pact with Britain. This pact saw the USSR change sides in the war, now making the ‘Red Army’ an integral part of the Allies against Hitler.

The Polish Government in Exile, now based in London, took advantage of these developments and raised the question of the estimated 1 million Polish citizens forcibly deported into exile by the Soviet Union beween 1939 and 1941.

At the Polish-Soviet Convention that followed, the discussions concluded that exiled Polish civilians of military age, and men in particular, would be permitted to form a Polish Army which would leave the USSR and fight alongside the Western Allies. Upon his release, our dad joined the reformed Polish Armed Forces which were being organised in 1941-1942 on the former Soviet territory. He enlisted in the Polish Army at Buzuluk Camp on 22 December 1942 and was posted to 11 Anti-Aircraft Battery. Together with the Polish Army units he crossed the Soviet-Iranian border and was evacuated to Iran, where he came under British command with effect from 1 April 1942. Via Iraq, dad was transferred to Palestine, arriving there on 23 May 1942. On the reorganisation of the Polish Army in the Middle East, he was transferred to 3 Light Anti-Aircraft Artillery Regiment, 3 Carpathian Infantry Division, 2 Polish Corps, 8 British Army on 11 June 1942. From there he was transferred to 16 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery (renamed 2 Light Anti-Aircraft Artillery Regiment on 24 June 1945), 2 Warszawska Armoured Division, 2 Polish Corps, 8 British Army on 18 January 1945.

Fig. 1.4: Our dad in a photograph on the back of which he wrote, "First day out of Russia, Iraq - 1942". Thin faced and wearing highly polished shoes provided for him by the Allies.

His army record shows that between 1942-1943, he served in Iran, Iraq, Palestine and Egypt, and that between 1943-1946 in Italy (“Europe’s soft underbelly”, as Churchill named it) where, among other theatres of war, he was involved in the Battle for Monte Cassino; a battle in which many of his colleagues died and he was wounded.

Polish civilians, mostly women, children and those too old for military service, were permitted to ‘tag along’ with the newly mobilised Polish Army, and evacuated to the Middle East. Apart from two of her sisters, who remained in the former USSR and returned to Poland after the war, our mother’s family left Russia under these circumstances. Jan, mum’s brother, joined the Polish Army, and together, the Burczy family left Russia for good with thousands of other civilians and army personnel.

Fig. 1.5: Our mother's one year Polish passport in Teheran, issued on 9 June 1943. Just prior to its issue, mum fell ill with typhoid. When in England, she explained that the typhoid epidemic claimed the lives of many Polish civilians, servicemen and women, among them her mother. (Click Fig. 1.5 for enlarged image)

Upon their arrival in Iran as civilians, where recruitment to the newly formed Polish Army continued, mum and her older sister Genia wanted to join up immediately. Their plans were scuppered, however, when mum fell ill with typhoid which caused her to lose weight and her hair, as shown in the photograph on her one year, 1942, Polish passport (Fig. 1.5). However, after some care and attention from medical staff and her sister Genia, who visited her field hospital bed with fresh fruit and rations, mum managed to recover. Unfortunately, our grandmother Burczy, who was also struck down by the disease, did not.

After our mother’s recovery, she was ready to join the army but as she was technically too young for the forces she had to add a few years to her age in order to enlist. She believed that joining the army was the only option open to her for it would save her life and perhaps guarantee a future. They enlisted in the Polish Army under British command on 15 August 1942. Our mum was posted to the Rallying Company of the Polish Women’s Auxiliary Service. On the reorganisation of the Polish Army in the Middle East, she was transferred to 375 Mobile Unit, 2 Polish Corps Headquarters, 8 British Army on 12 January 1943.

Fig. 1.6: Teheran, Iran 1943. Our mother, aged 20, in 317 Transport Corps, sitting on a 'Dodge' truck mudguard.
One year later, on 26 January 1944, she was posted to serve with 317 Transport Company (Polish Women’s Auxiliary Service), 2 Polish Corps, 8 British Army. Her military record states that between the years of 1942 and 1944, she had served in Iran, Iraq, Palestine and Egypt, and that from 1944 to 1946, in Italy.

The end of the war for the Eighth Army came about in Italy. The ‘spoils of war’ were discussed by the victorious powers in Yalta in 1945. There it was agreed that Poland would become a ‘Soviet satellite’ and that its eastern border was to be moved some 200 miles to the west. For the Polish servicemen and women, who fought alongside the Allies, this was a travesty. For a start it did not deliver a ‘free Poland’, something the Polish Army ‘in the West’ was fighting for all along and it also meant that many of the soldiers now had no home to return to. At first the British Government tried to persuade them to return to Poland, but the soldiers saw injustice in this and refused. In 1946, Ernest Bevin reported that all Polish servicemen and women, who felt they could not return to their homeland, were to be granted passage to Britain to form the Polish Resettlement Corps (PRC).

Whilst our mother and her sister Genia chose to settle in Britain, her brother Jan and his family decided to make their home in Chicago, America. Although our ‘American’ uncle and aunty have since passed away, we continue to have strong links with our cousin Edward Burczy and his wife Erica. Our records show that dad arrived in the United Kingdom on 1 September 1946 and mum on 26 July 1947.

In the first instance, all Polish servicemen and women landed in Scotland. From there they were transferred to various military camps around Britain. Some, for example, were moved to camps in Wales, some to camps in Huntingdonshire, now known as Cambridgeshire, and others like our parents to Witley Camp in Surrey.

Fig. 1.7: Our mother and father during the time they were courting. We understand this photograph was taken at the YMCA situated off the old A3. The site still stands.

Witley Camp was sited on the old A3 near Witley Village and it was there that the Polish servicemen and women, who eventually came to live in Tweedsmuir, were “released from the Polish Resettlement Corps to the reserve for the purpose of employment”. The camp in Witley was where our mother and father first met in 1947. They subsequently married in St Edmund King and Martyr Catholic Church, Croft Road, Godalming, Surrey.

Fig. 1.8: Godalming 1947. Our parents' wedding day on 25 October.
In October 1999, one month after our mother’s death, we visited St Edmund King and Martyr Church for no other than nostalgic reasons. Having introduced ourselves to the parish priest, he kindly allowed us to view the church interior and our parents’ marriage entry in the parish records. It was fascinating to see the names of witnesses to the marriage ceremony; names of people who lived with us in Tweedsmuir Camp, like Mr and Mrs Keler who moved to Australia in the mid 1960s.

Since Witley Camp was to have been demolished by the end of the 1940s, mum and dad began their married life in Tweedsmuir Camp (designated a families' camp in 1948), near Thursley, Surrey, England.

Zen was born in 1948 in Diddington Camp Polish Army Hospital, St Neots, Huntingdonshire (now Cambridgeshire), and Wies in 1950 in St Luke’s Hospital, Guildford, Surrey.