On 1st September 1939, Poland was invaded from the west by Germany. This is a relatively well-known fact. What is less well-known is that on 17th September 1939, Russia invaded Poland from the east.
Hitler and Stalin, on 23rd August 1939, had signed an agreement, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which agreed that neither would attack the other and they also agreed secretly to carve up Poland between them, along the line of the Narew, Vistula and San rivers. The Russians already had a non-aggression pact in place with Poland, which had been signed in 1932, but they chose to ignore it.
In 1939 many Jewish Poles and other ethnic and minority groups, who were being persecuted by the Nazis, started to move east to what they believed would be relative safety in the Russian-occupied Kresy (the eastern borderlands of Poland). For some, like my father, who moved east to Lwow in December 1939, it also gave them a possible opportunity of escaping to France and Britain, to join the Polish Army which was amassing there.
From the time of the invasion in September, the Russians, in an attempt to get rid of the Polish 'intelligentsia', started arresting Polish military personnel, officials and academics. Many of these were later found to have been murdered at Katyn in 1940. Estimates give the number murdered as between 21,000 and 22,000.
Then between 1940-1941 Russians started arresting entire families from the Kresy region. There were four mass deportations which took place during this time and it is estimated that up to 1.7 million people were arrested. My father was one of these. Those arrested were then deported to Siberia and taken to collective farms and Gulags, to act as slave labour for the Russians.
In 1941, despite their pact, Germany invaded Russia in Operation Barbarossa. There is evidence to show that Russia also had had plans to attack Germany. Obviously the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact had only been meant as a holding exercise! Germany's action against Russia convinced Stalin to join the Allies in their fight against the Nazis.
As a result of this, in 1941, the Polish government in exile, in London, was able to negotiate an 'amnesty' for the Polish deportees in Siberia, who were then released by the Russians and, under their own steam, made their way south to the southern USSR (now Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan) to join the newly forming Polish army under the command of General Wladyslaw Anders. My father joined this army in Tatischewo.
The surviving Polish Gulag prisoners arrived at the various recruitment centres in a horrendous state, suffering from malnutrition, exhaustion and diseases such as dysentery. Many had died on the way and others died after they had arrived at the recruitment centres.
The remit of General Anders and his staff was to help these soldiers to recuperate and regain their strength for what was to follow. As soon as possible the Poles started their army training. However Stalin's lack of support meant that this potential army was not supplied with adequate food or equipment and General Anders decided to get the Polish soldiers, and as many civilians as possible, out of Russia.
In 1942 the Polish soldiers crossed the Caspian Sea to Iran where they continued to recuperate and train. Now part of the 2nd Polish Corps, the soldiers continued their journey through Iraq, Palestine and Egypt. They finally landed in Italy in 1944, where they played a crucial role in the Allies’ Italian Campaign, most notably at the Battle of Monte Cassino.