Polish Resettlement Corps to Civilianisation (1948 to 1949)

Adapted from Chapter 4 of a book called The Polish Community in Tweedsmuir Camp, Surrey after WWII, Zen and Wies Rogalski, published by The Old Kiln Museum Trust. The book is part of The Tweedsmuir Camp Exhibition at The Rural Life Centre, Tilford, Surrey, England. It is available from The Rural Life Centre, Amazon, Waterstones-on-line and other reputable book sellers.

Background to Civilianisation

The fact that the PRC was formed in Great Britain is arguably due to two main events. The first was a response by Winston Churchill on 27 February 1945 to the unease over political developments in eastern Europe. The British premier effectively offered the chance of settlement in Britain and the British Empire to individuals of Polish formations under British command who felt unable to return to their homeland. According to Keith Sword, this pledge, as it became known in Whitehall, “overshadowed all subsequent … efforts to limit the settlement of Poles in Britain.”

Churchill’s pledge caused confusion for Whitehall staff as it referred only to men in the Polish Forces who had seen action under British operational command. All other Polish servicemen who had fought only in Poland in the 1939 Campaign or who had been recruited in, but not left, Britain were considered ineligible to be included in the Corps. Neither could women in the auxiliary services nor civilians. In the end, however, an amicable compromise had to be found. In a publication called Polish Resettlement Corps: Procedure for Relegation, the WO made this statement:

Reckonable service will include only that service rendered with the Polish Forces under British Command, ie within the period 1 July 1940 to 15 August 1946. NO service is reckonable in the case of Poles who entered the Polish Forces after 31 May 1945.
This was followed by the creation of a separate unit for Polish women who had served in any one of the three services during the war. They were demobilised through the Polish Auxiliary Territorial Service/Polish Resettlement Section (ATS/PRS). ‘Section’ and not ‘Corps’ was the preferred common noun for the Auxiliary Services.

The second event was the British General Election of July 1945 in which Clement Attlee was unexpectedly elected as Prime Minister, leading a Labour Party that promised, among other social reforms, new housing, a ‘cradle-to-grave’ welfare system, and a national health service. These required bold steps, which wiped the domestic political slate clean and accepted the new European order as outlined at Yalta in readiness for the inauguration of new horizons for Britain. The outcome of the General Election, it could be argued, removed the largely stable and trusting relationship that had developed between Churchill’s coalition government and the Polish military and civilian hierarchy during the war.

Although the 1945 General Election results were known at Whitehall prior to their declaration on 25 July, the official pronouncement had to wait until after the votes from personnel in the British Forces abroad had been returned and counted. For the interim period a “Caretaker” Government, as James Chuter-Ede (Britain’s Home Secretary) called it in 1947, was installed. Winston Churchill remained Prime Minister until the King was advised by Clement Attlee that, as leader of the Labour Party, he could form the next government. At that point Attlee was the ‘prime-minister-in-waiting’. His Foreign Secretary was to be Ernest Bevin. One of Bevin’s immediate objectives during the interim period was to make it clear to his Foreign Office (FO) officials that he was anxious for Britain to establish working relations with the Polish Government of National Unity (PGNU) and that the undertakings of the Potsdam Conference, which started on 17 July and finished on 2 August 1945, were carried out. This was the final conference of the leaders of Great Britain, the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics before the Council of Foreign Ministers conducted conferences on the peace settlement between September 1945 in London, and June 1949 in Paris. Potsdam was the conference at which Clement Attlee took over as British Prime Minister from Winston Churchill as by then the 1945 General Election results had been announced.

It was within this context that, during the “Caretaker” government’s tenure, the FO made three recommendations following Bevin’s instruction, all of which were discharged before the 1945 election results were made public. The first was to establish an Interim Treasury Committee (ITC) for Polish Affairs. Its responsibility was to oversee the removal of the London based Polish Government from the national and international political scenes, and to attend to the needs of Polish orphans, disabled people and other refugees scattered around the world thus reducing the risk of a humanitarian disaster. The ITC was a civilian body, comprising both British civil servants and employees of the Polish Government in exile familiar with the administrative procedures of its departments. The second was to acknowledge the PGNU as the legal government of Poland. The third recommendation was to form a Polish Armed Forces Committee (PAFC). Its brief was similar to that of the ITC, but with respect to Poland’s Forces who had fought under British operational command. While so doing, the PAFC was also attempting to persuade all personnel of the Polish Armed Forces to repatriate.

All three recommendations were completed within 14 days of each other: on 5 July an announcement was made that diplomatic recognition had been transferred from the Polish Government in London to the PGNU in Warsaw; on 6 July the ITC first met, and on 19 July the PAFC first met.

These three initiatives were to have paved the way for transferring the administration of the ITC and the PAFC as “organs” of Polish civilians’ welfare, and Polish Forces’ welfare to the Warsaw authorities.

The process of repatriation, however, did not run smoothly. It was hindered by the refusal of the Polish Forces to accept not just the terms agreed at the three allied conferences of Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam, but also the de-recognition of the government, in whose name they had fought, for just over five years. Anxious for the repatriation programme to succeed, Britain persuaded the PGNU that together they should formulate an encouraging statement for the Polish Forces (stationed in Austria, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Middle East and Switzerland), advising them that they had nothing to fear upon their return to Poland. An agreed statement was signed on 4 February 1946. However, on 14 February the PGNU announced that it “no longer considered the land, sea and air formations in the west to be units of the Polish Forces.” Any airman, sailor or soldier, wishing to return to Poland would have to do so as an individual at Polish Consulates abroad; in effect, the Polish servicemen were to be treated as civilians and their citizenship called into question. At the same time, the Soviet FO had forwarded to the General Secretary of the United Nations a memorandum, alleging that “the presence of Polish troops on the Italian- Yugoslav border constituted a threat to peace in the region.” For the British this was becoming a diplomatic embarrassment, which had to be resolved. One of the first objectives was to establish how much it was costing to keep the Polish units.

When Lord Keynes, a leading economist of the day, demonstrated to Attlee in February 1946 that running the Polish Army alone was costing Britain £2.5 million per month, the Prime Minister immediately set up a Cabinet Polish Forces Committee (CPFC), which took over responsibilities from the Polish Armed Forces Committee (PAFC). The primary objective of the CPFC was “the disposal of (the) Polish forces.” Chairing the committee, which met for the first time on 4 April, was Hugh Dalton, Chancellor of the Exchequer. The fact that the Chair was a finance minister strongly implies that Attlee’s priority was to disband the Polish Armed Forces as cost effectively as possible. On 2 March Attlee made a statement to all his departments.

We cannot tolerate any longer the grave political embarrassment, or the financial commitment involved by our maintenance of these forces under arms. The problem must be tackled and all Ministers concerned must be ready to make a contribution to its solution.
This was to become the basis upon which the PRC was formed and the Polish Resettlement Act of 1947 conceived.

On 15 March 1946 Attlee and Bevin met senior Polish commanders many of whom, including Commander-in-Chief, General Władysław Anders, whose Polish II Corps was stationed at Ancona, Italy, wanted to retain the Polish Forces in tact. The Polish military leadership believed that this would give them the advantage of both bringing pressure to bear on Warsaw, and being ready for any conflict between West and East, which they believed was imminent. As the British side was aware of the Polish position, Attlee and Bevin wanted to make it clear that a decision had been made to disband the Polish Forces, and that a written statement to this effect would be circulated to the men. The Polish commanders protested. With the agreement of his Chiefs of Staff, Bevin then suggested that Anders be detained in Britain and not permitted to return to his troops unless he agreed to support British plans for the demobilisation of the Polish Forces. Anders agreed to comply. Senior Polish commanders’ protestations may have been the result of having knowledge of Operation Unthinkable, an offensive that would have included a combined American, British, German and Polish force against the USSR, regarding it as the only way to bring back independence to Poland. Due to the nature of Unthinkable, the Chiefs of Staff agreed to commit as little as possible to paper.

Five days later, on 20 March, Ernest Bevin relayed the situation as it was at the time to the House of Commons. He made it clear that he had discussed with the Polish Government of National Unity (PGNU) in Poland their declaration that they no longer regarded the units of the Polish Armed Forces under British command, as forming part of the Armed Forces of Poland, and advised the House that he had received “assurances from them (the PGNU) that it does not affect the conditions set out in the document which is being issued to the troops; that these conditions will still apply to all Polish troops returning from abroad; and that they will, as far as possible, deal with applicants for repatriation by categories rather than insist upon individual scrutiny by their consulates.” He added that he would be issuing an accompanying note translated into Polish, stating that “His Majesty’s Government regard the information set forth in the agreed document as satisfactory, and that they consider it to be the duty of all members of the (Polish) Forces to decide now to return to their own country.” To Attlee and Bevin’s disappointment, however, the documents had the opposite effect as members of the Polish Forces rebuffed them. There was disbelief and even anger that a British Cabinet Minister had the effrontery to advise them to return to Poland.

On 21 May the Foreign Secretary once again called a meeting with Polish senior officers, advising them of a plan that included Polish troops abroad being transported to Britain and the creation of a Polish Resettlement Corps) at this stage it was called the Industrial Settlement Corps). After his meeting with Anders, Bevin made a statement to the House of Commons on the following day, Wednesday, 22 May 1946, outlining the government's decision.