Poland is a country that has seen so much war that when you consider everywhere else we have invaded, you feel vaguely confident that British forces must have seen a lot of action on Polish land or sea. Poland has had endless foreign military units moving through it, but very few of them have been ours, although we have had some conducting operations here.
We fought and lost a war against the Hanseatic League in 1470–74 with the Hanseatic port of Danzig (now in present-day Poland) taking a leading role in actions against us. During the Thirty Years War assorted British troops fighting for foreign rulers roamed parts of what is today Poland. Many of these reached high positions, with the Scot, Major General Sir David Drummond, being made governor of Stettin (now Szczecin in Poland). During the Napoleonic Wars, we took part in several operations linked to Danzig, then Prussian. In 1807, we sent ships to assist in the defence of Danzig against the French. The British sloop Falcon tried to help reinforcements get into the besieged city and the eighteen-gun Dauntless, dauntlessly tried to get 150 barrels of gunpowder into it, only, rather unfortunately, to run aground, and even more unfortunately, to do so next to an enemy battery, which not surprisingly shelled the ship until French grenadiers could capture her. Then in 1812, with Danzig occupied by the French, we tried something even more ambitious. Admiral Martin loaded a bunch of soldiers onto British and Russian ships and landed them near Danzig, behind French lines, in a daring manoeuvre.
After the end of the First World War, the Royal Navy was back in Danzig again, while the British Army got involved in its only major operations on Polish soil. Along with units from other Allied nations, our soldiers had the unenviable task of policing assorted plebiscites organised to decide the post-war frontier between Germany and Poland – unenviable because these were regions with mixed German and Polish populations where emotions could run extremely high about which side of the border people would finally be on.
The two major areas where we were involved were Upper Silesia and East Prussia. In East Prussia two British officers found themselves, under an atmosphere of pressure from both sides, in command of the local police. A battalion from the Royal Irish Regiment was also sent to help. When the plebiscite took place on 11 July 1920, most voters opted to be Prussian and the majority of the disputed territory went to Germany.
In Upper Silesia, the situation was even more tense. After a Polish uprising in the area against German control in 1919, an Allied commission including British representatives was sent to the area and a plebiscite took place on 20 March 1920. But the results were mixed and there was disagreement in the Allied camp over how to proceed. In the chaos and confusion, a second Polish uprising took place in August 1920 and a third in 1921. British troops were among the units struggling to bring peace and order to the area, which they eventually achieved. The Allies, however, could still not agree on how to divide the territory, but eventually agreed to hand the decision over to the League of Nations, which decided to hand the majority of Upper Silesia’s industrial heartland to Poland. It’s one of the ironies of history that everybody could have saved themselves the effort since the disputed areas were generally going to end up as Polish or Soviet territory after the Second World War anyway.
In the Second World War, the SOE conducted assorted operations in Poland and the RAF flew heroic missions to drop supplies to the fighters of the Warsaw Uprising before the city was crushed by the Germans.