The invasion of Poland by German forces on 1 September 1939, the action which began
the war in Europe, was to have direct consequence for East Lothian. After the collapse
of Poland under the weight of a combined attack from Germany and, from 17 September,
the Soviet Union, what units of the Polish armed forces were able to escape, sought
exile in France. The fall of France in June 1940 proved a bitter blow to the Poles,
who lost their closest ally. However, having pledged to fight on, the Poles left
France; by 18 July 1940 almost 17,000 had arrived in Britain.
During the initial few months in Scotland, the Polish troops shared the problems
of lack of weapons and equipment faced by all units in Britain. However, eventually
they organised and equipped themselves, forming new units in anticipation of the
time when they would return to continental Europe and liberate their homeland.
Having experienced firsthand the German blitzkrieg tactics of rapid armoured attacks,
the Polish Army appreciated the great importance of armoured units and the use of
tanks in modem warfare. It was also realised that if Poles were to play a significant
part in the invasion of Europe, the army in Scotland would have to include an armoured
formation. In consequence, in February 1942 the 1st Polish Armoured Division was
established, with General Stanislaw Maczek as its Commanding Officer. Many of the
units which were part of the division were based in East Lothian. In March 1942 the
10th Mounted Rifles (an armoured regiment), part of the 10th Armoured Cavalry Brigade,
arrived in Haddington where it would stay for about 14 months. Until the summer of
1942 the regiment was equipped with only a few old Polish light tanks and it was
only later that a few Valentine tanks were issued.
During their time at Haddington the 10th Mounted Rifles were given thorough training,
the instructors being sent on courses to English training centres, and also received
more modem tanks in the form of Covenanters and then Crusader Mk. Ill Cruiser tanks.
Much of the training took place up on the Lammermuir Hills, which provided the vast
space needed for tank manoeuvres and training in the techniques of mobile armoured
warfare which it was hoped would be put to good use after the invasion of Europe.
Mrs. Mary Stenhouse, a schoolchild living in the valley now occupied by the Whiteadder
Reservoir, recalls Polish tanks training in the vicinity: Polish soldiers tried to
make tanks climb walls or dry-stane dikes. The devastation was unreal. As they came
towards us the noise of the tank tracks on tarred roads could be heard miles away
like thunder. They practised shelling on Mayshiel and Faseny and our father had sometimes
to meet us from Kingside School as it was very frightening for two little girls.
In February 1943 the 10th Mounted Rifles were presented with a flag and also a scroll
bearing the signatures of the members of the Haddington branch of the Scottish-Polish
Society. These presentations were made to commemorate the stay of the unit in Haddington.
In May 1943 the 10th Mounted Rifles finally left Haddington for training grounds
The story of the Polish forces in East Lothian is not, however, limited to ground
units. No. 307 Squadron operated from Drem between November 1943 and March 1944 with
Mosquito night fighter aircraft and No. 309 Squadron also flew from Drem, with Hurricane
and Mustang fighters for day defence from April to November 1944. There were also
great numbers of Polish aircrew under training at East Fortune, an experience which
cost many of them their lives.
Mr. Edward Sanetra was one of the Polish airmen who flew from East Fortune, as a
test pilot for No. 289 Squadron, an anti-aircraft co-operation unit. Mr. Sanetra,
a Sergeant in the R.A.F., received the Air Force Cross and was mentioned in dispatches
as well as receiving special honour from Poland, in recognition of his wartime service.
However, the story of the Polish forces in East Lothian is not simply a catalogue
of the units based in the county. The links which were forged at that time between
the Poles and the local inhabitants are a more enduring indication of the Polish
wartime presence. The Poles, with their exemplary manners and unusual accents, proved
irresistible to many local girls and the marriages which took place resulted in many
Polish servicemen settling in East Lothian, and the extensive Polish community, now
fully integrated into Scottish society, is a continuing reminder of those dark days.
More formal links were created with the establishment in April 1941 of the Scottish-Polish
Society, designed to promote better relations between the Polish servicemen and the
Scottish communities in which they were based. The activities organised by the various
branches were quite 'high-brow' in nature, with educational and cultural activities.
The society proved popular.