Sunday, September 20, 2009

Never say die -- Poland in World War II

One of the more interesting aspects of the Second World War was the refusal of the defeated anti-Axis powers to stay defeated.

This was evident from the very beginning of the crisis, when the Czechs set up a government in exile, but the Czechs were a small country and I'm not sure that their resistance made a big difference.

But Poland was a different story. While outnumbered and outclassed by the German war machine, the Poles were still a major European country and their refusal to accept that their 1939 defeat was final was an important factor in later events. Indeed, large formations of Polish troops in corps and army size were on the front lines on the last day of the war, just as they were on the first. Their example may very well have inspired other countries to do the same. As their homelands fell, ships, pilots and troops from Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Yugoslavia and Greece fought on. This testifies to how odious these people found the Nazi regime.

In game terms it manifests itself in the variety of units and nationalities depicted. I think my first real exposure to this was in the game Afrika Korps. The famous cover of that game highlights all the different nation's that fought against the Germans -- Jews, French, Poles, Indians, South Africans, Australians and New Zealanders. Driving the point home even more was Anzio, which had most of the above and added Canadians, Americans and Brazilians!

The Axis had their helpers, too, which I saw in the old Stalingrad game, but the Finns, Romanians, Hungarians and Italians somehow didn't seem as important or integrated into that war effort. They were weaker units and in the case of the Finns off in their own corner.

In contrast the non-British Allied units in Afrika Korps and Anzio were every bit as good as the Brits and in Anzio, actually outnumbered the British units. As a teen-ager who didn't know a lot yet about World War II this was an eye-opening revelation. That the situation could also be complicated was illustrated by the Italian units in Anzio, who fell into three groups -- the original Fascist army which mostly surrenders when the Allies land at Salerno, Mussolini's reorganized Fascist troops and the Italian troops that join the Allies. This prompted a lot more and deeper reading by the teen me back then as I was curious what brought about this state of affairs.

Which brings us back to the Poles. Before I was a wargamer I had read a little bit about World War II. I especially remember a series of books that was called How and Why that was popular back then. These were color illustrated books on all sort of topics from science to arts. But I enjoyed the history ones the most. But there was one on World War II that had a striking illustration showing some Polish troops on horseback and wagons being strafed by Stukas. They really seemed hapless.

But a few years later, as I started playing wargames I found out that they were not so hapless after all. Polish troops showed up early and often in World War II wargames and I started to develop an appreciation for their stalwartness in the face of defeat. By high school I knew enough to appreciate that my French teacher, a gentleman named Kozacko, had a hell of a story to tell ,even though he never told it. But I heard from other teachers that he was a World War II veteran and like many, he was unable to return home after the war because of the Soviets. Some of the other kids thought Mr. K was rather odd and he wasn't all that popular. Frankly, I don't think he was the best teacher. But I knew that he'd seen a lot and he always had my respect.

History is a neglected subject these days. The pressures of school testing mean that teachers spend most of their time on English and math, so I don't think today's kids are getting a firm grounding in history. They will have to find out about it themselves. That's one reason why I have been thrilled by the whole Axis & Allies line of games -- despite their limitations as history. Because of A&A some people will be exposed to enough history to whet their appetite for more. The Axis & Allies miniatures lines don't just include troops and tanks from the big powers like the US, UK, USSR, Germany and Japan. There are Dutch warships, Azad Hind collaborators, Hungarian tanks, American Buffalo soldiers and yes, Polish cavalrymen. With luck wondering what the story is behind that piece will provoke a new generation to discover the fascination of history.


  1. Here's the Afrika Korps cover you mention.

    The Poles fought bravely. Their airmen are particularly famous in England. There's a large Polish war memorial in Ruislip near me.

    A friend at school's father fought in the resistance in Warsaw. He was a hard unsmiling man and beat his son but never spoke about the war.

  2. How do you keep a people down? You 'never' let them 'know' their history.

    The 7th Cavalry got their butts in a sling again after Little Big Horn, fourteen years later, the day after the Wounded Knee Massacre. If it wasn't for the 9th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers, there would of been a second massacre of the 7th Cavalry. Read, and visit site/history,