Generally people learn about the Axis and the Allies - Brits learn the war started with the War for Britain in 1940, Russians learn about the Great Patriotic War starting in June, 1941 and Americans learn of the war which started on December 7, 1941 with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Almost all of the time the Allies are defined as being Great Britain, the United States, France (despite having a collaborationist government in Vichy) and the Soviet Union. However, there were also multitudes of what are treated as “minor” members of the Western Alliance and included among them were the Czechs and the Poles, who served under British command.With respect to the enemy – generally everyone learns that the Axis was formed by Germany and Japan – with some mention of countries such as Vichy France, Romania, Spain, Turkey and the Balkans. However, the Axis originally was a triad – in which the Soviet Union formed one of the three linchpins. Thus the Soviet Union not only supported Nazi Germany, but actively participated in the attack on Poland and aided in the occupation of the Baltic States, had it not done so, the Second World War would have progressed at a different tempo and in a different fashion. In 1939 through 1941, had the USSR not been an active supporting participant in the German campaign, had it simply remained passive and not sent material support to Germany, the war would have progressed in a totally different manner. Had the Soviet Union been actively engaged in supporting the West at that time – had Germany lacked the foodstuffs, which were sent by Stalin at the cost of Soviet population – the US might have seen Pearl Harbor, but there would have been a different war in Europe.
However, for almost two years – August 1939 until late June 1941- one of the major members of the Axis was the Soviet Union, which had signed treaties with both Germany and Japan (as will be discussed later, this treaty with Japan would be of great concern for the US from VE Day [May 8, 1945] through VJ Day [August 1945] and would impact on how the USSR was treated by the US during the war).
The first step to the war itself was the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, which included a secret codicil with a specifically demarcated line on a map of Poland showing the zones of occupation, which is precisely how Poland was partitioned for two years. The war started on September 1, 1939 with Germany invading from the west; after which the Soviet Union invaded Poland on September 17, 1939. Nothing more straightforward could be said – Poland was invaded by two aggressors, and segments of the Polish Army and government evacuated to Rumania and then to France and Britain. Other segments were taken prisoner by the Germans, while those in or retreating to the east, which also included the Border Protection Corps, were taken prisoner by the Soviets. Poland found itself between a rock and a hard stone, between a hakenkreuz and a hammer and sickle (both four-cornered symbols).
This was all taking place far from London and Paris, and Great Britain and the US were more focused on what might be referred to as the German war – while the fact was that under Stalin, the accredited war correspondents in Moscow had less access to the front than they did during the Bolshevik invasion of Poland, and they included reporters who were clearly fellow travelers – Richard Lauterbach (TIME Magazine) and Edward Stevens (Christian Science Monitor) among them.
As the German Army moved west, rapidly conquering France (which was supported by British troops) and the Vichy government formed, as the Germans successfully moved forward, the British resorted to the “little boats” to bring their troops back. When large numbers did not make it and were taken prisoner, the Polish situation faded into the background, and the fate of ‘’unknown men’’ became less significant when local boys were being held POW.
Finally, on June 21, 1941 – some twenty months into the war – Germany invaded the USSR in Operation Barbarossa – and their forces swept ahead at a breathtaking pace, so much so that Moscow with all its government offices, its foreign legations and press corps were all moved into the depths of the Russian Federation in Kuybyshev. As rapidly as the Germans had swept across Poland and perhaps even more so, they swept across the Russian and Ukrainian fields. With no other option, with its capital about to fall, with Leningrad about to be encircled, the USSR negotiated – most speedily – with Great Britain and the US (which although not formally at war was participating in Lend Lease with Britain, allowing its pilots to fly with the British, etc.) – and became an ally of these countries. The USSR suddenly fled the bed it had made for itself – and in a total reinvention, which was supported by the Western Allies, presented itself as a victim.
Although an slight effort was made to release the Polish POWs, and some of the political prisoners who had been sentenced to the GULAG, as well as the deportees, the fact is that only small numbers of Polish citizens were able to make it to Jangi Jul where the Polish Army in Russia was being formed. Nonetheless, the Polish troops were formally creating a national army on Soviet territory, an army of soldiers whom Stalin had failed to defeat in 1920 and whom he had presumably hoped to destroy in 1939. Yet by August of 1941 by sheer circumstance, they were Allies.