20 Princes Gate, Knightsbridge, London SW7 1PT
Thursday 22 February 2018
The first thing to say about this interesting place is that it is in rather a fine setting: the terrace was built as the area became important at the time of the Great Exhibition, so it overlooks Hyde Park across the road. It is part of the terrace that includes the Iranian Embassy, so we all saw it on our TV screens in 1980.
The house is a handsome one, and it is stuffed full of interesting material about the Polish nation and its complex history, particularly but not only in the period of the Second World War. Indeed, if I have a criticism of this excellent museum, it is that the various stages in the history of Poland are not set out in chronological order, but happen somewhat randomly in the various rooms: so, for example, material related to Louis XV's Polish wife is mixed with 20th century exhibits, and so on.
We were guided round expertly by Kris Nowakowski, who told us the story of Wojtek, the bear who joined the Polish army in 1942. Wojtek's image adorns the front hall, alongside the remains of the 178th Luftwaffe plane shot down by the amazingly successful 303 Squadron.
The history of Poland is told in several of the rooms. During the long period of Partition between the three great Empires of Russia, Prussia and Austria Hungary, the Austro-Hungarians were willing to arm Polish militias, mostly with out-dated guns. Polish troops also carried curved sabres, reminding us that they had helped to defend Vienna against the Turks
During the wars against Napoleon, the Poles sided with France (or, you might say, fought against Russia) and it was a Polish regiment of Lancers which actually broke an English Square at Albuera in Spain in 1811.
In one of the rooms at the back of the house, we saw General Sikorski's desk and other memorabilia. Poles trapped by the hand-over of their territory to Stalin escaped in their thousands, and some, including women, became carpet-makers in Afghanistan, before reaching Western Europe and joining the struggle against Fascism.
Tartar regiments had been formed in earlier years, with standards that look more oriental than European, and a Koran on which to swear allegiance.
We saw a small case about the Polish experience of Hitler's appalling camps but, of course, other museums specialise in this period of history. On the other hand , there was information about Polish revolutionaries' earlier experiences in Siberia.
During the 1930s, when an Anglo-Polish Treaty was being signed, ships for the Polish navy were also being built,. for example in Cowes, on the Isle of Wight. On 30 August, 1939, 5 Polish Destroyers sailed to Scotland and joined the allied navies. One of them was closely involved in the hunt for the Bismarck. On 2 September, five submarines left Gdansk, but two of them made the mistake of heading to Sweden where they were interned, since Sweden took its neutrality seriously, except when it came to supplying iron ore to Germany. Two went into Tallin, and Estonia interned them, but the Ozel (Eagle) escaped after the crew overpowered the guards, later releasing them. One of the rooms displayed the enormous battle pennant flown by Polish ships.
We saw a portrait of Paderewski, the great pianist and President of between-wars Poland, as well as some information about Copernicus who, in the 15th century, demonstrated the movement of the planets around the sun.
But then it was back to the Second World War, with plenty of material about the Italian Campaign, and especially the great battle for Monte Cassino. A bundle of letters to a soldier from his wife, stuffed into his breast pocket, stopped a bullet. And we saw the civic diploma from the City of Bologna, liberated by the Poles.
Upstairs again, there were huge war paintings, as well as signed photographs of King George VI and Churchill. Cases showed Polish war inventions, including mine detectors and anti-tank guns, though the Museum does not have a German Enigma machine, that other example of Polish skill and forethought. Information about the Polish cavalry was also here.
On a landing was the radio transmitter used to communicate with the Polish resistance, and we saw some photos and stories from the Warsaw Rising of August 1944
The Polish forces were, of course, involved with the Invasion of Europe, their 1st Armoured Division landing on D-Day+4.
They were involved in the terrible fighting around the Falaise Gap, and then went on through Belgium and the Netherlands, picking up several diplomas from liberated cities, before they took the German surrender at Wilhelmshaven
After the war, a Polish Government in exile continued to exist in London throughout the years of effective Russian occupation, but the freeing of Poland in the 1980s meant that this was no longer necessary. But the Polish community on Britain has a long and proud heritage, which this museum preserves well.