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Polish women soldiers in Gullane

October 23, 2013

 

One of the great pleasures of wasting an idle hour looking at archive film is the electric jolt of surprise that causes you to fall off your chair.

In my case it was this clip of around 100 female Polish soldiers drilling somewhere in Scotland in 1943. It is silent, black and white, a bit long for a short at 11 minutes, and nothing to tell you where or why someone bothered to film them in the first place.

The first clue was in the name “Marine Hotel” at the side of the building where the women flock to at the end of the parade. Beryl Robinson’s very good history of the building shows that it is now the Scottish Fire Services College and is pinpointed here by the Britain from Above project.

The Marine was requisitioned at the start of the war as was Greywalls Hotel and Archerfield House, either of which could have been the starting point for the march.

POLISH_WOMEN crop 1They then move to the sand dunes and the beach via the same route we use today. It looks better in colour and should be familiar to those who saw all the aerial shots of this year’s British Open at Muirfield.  There is much more buckthorn now.

The film is unusual in that it shows women soldiers. It is extraordinary because it shows them as individuals in detailed close up. It seems likely they were PWSK support troops gaining basic combat training.

They look like they’re having fun playing soldiers in the sand dunes. No live firing apart from the occasional smoke bomb.But it might well have been for real. Polish troops were deployed en masse in Scotland for a reason. If a Nazi invasion had materialised, much of the blood spilled to defend Scotland would have been Polish blood. This contribution is recognised in the Great Scottish Tapestry:

Three Polish airmen were killed fighting fires during the Clydebank blitz in 1941 when the sailors on the Polish destroyer Piorun delivered constant barrages of anti-aircraft fire.

As the war progressed, Polish troops trained in Scotland formed the armoured spearhead which routed German tank formations at Falaise, the key battle of Normandy.  Sosabowski’s parachute brigade played a prominent role in the ill-fated assault on Arnhem.POLISH_WOMEN_TROOPS_1859_02_417

In later years the relationship soured. Stalin continued to deny the horrendous Soviet massacre Poland’s military and civilian élite at Katyn and he resisted British offers of help to relieve the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.  This was crowned by the biggest betrayal in the eyes of many Poles – Churchill’s ceding of Poland to Soviet influence at the Yalta conference.

So this drill and day out at seaside marks the end of an era of innocence. Curiously, Gullane beach also had another reminder from October 1939 when chivalry was still alive. Spitfires from nearby Drem and Turnhouse shot down the first German raiders over British airspace. The sailors and airmen from both sides were buried with full military honours as British Pathé recorded.POLISH_WOMEN crop2

The wreckage from one of the Luftwaffe aircraft was buried in the Gullane dunes and lay there for nearly 60 years before being recovered.

A fishing boat rescued the survivors including Uberleutnant Sigmund Storp who gave the skipper his gold ring for saving his life. Their families later became friends. British Pathé and other newsreels recreated this a few days later, wrongly moving the site of the ditching westwards from Gullane to Port Seton.

Most of the Polish troops in Britain were of course men. Another Pathé film, more typical of the propaganda effort to boost morale, shows them in dancing mode.

This account of the Polish women soldiers in Gullane is necessarily incomplete so please leave a comment below if you can shed further light. There will be many mothers and grannies within its frames……

Update

Hooray! Many thanks to filmmaker and historian Marianna Bukowski  for identifying the actual film made from the Gullane footage. Stirring martial music encourages women to join up. It is much shorter for the edit – out goes the Marine Hotel but one of the cameramen (there must have been two) stays in. From his uniform, he might be American. By 1943 the USA was the lead player in Allied propaganda films with plenty of ideas, people and equipment.

It is on the VWojtekSolidierBear YouTube channel which has a great range of similar clips, including some of Polish WAAFs, and Polish soldiers at a camp in Scotland in 1940 in which the commentator places Glasgow in England!

The film has now  also received some coverage on the BBC.

Further reading 

From Golfers to Firefighters…where hope is unbroken: the story of Gullane’s Marine Hotel transformed to the Scottish Fire Services College by Beryl Robinson, Gullane and Dirleton History Society, 2005. The Fire College is now facing closure.

For more falling-off-the-chair moments, please see my post on the British Pathé blog

Time for scran in the Marine Hotel

Time for scran in the Marine Hotel

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. Charlie Laidlaw permalink
    October 24, 2013 11:36 am

    Great piece!

  2. James Joseph Styles permalink
    October 25, 2013 5:22 pm

    Interesting piece on Polish women soldiers in Scotland. The pictures are worth a thousand words and encourage further study into that period and place!

    J. J. Styles

  3. Oliwia W. permalink
    December 2, 2013 9:06 am

    It’s great when I find pieces about Polish soldiers during World War II outside of Poland, especially if they’re about women soldiers (it’s sadly a widely overlooked and underappreciated part of history).
    But, I just wanted to ask what you meant exactly when you wrote “They look like they’re having fun playing soldiers in the sand dunes.”? The training undergone by the volunteer women of the PSK was quite real. Although they were a non-combat auxiliary service (as nearly all women’s military services were during that time), they were still expected to know how to use basic weapons (mostly rifles and light machine guns, grenades, smoke grenades, etc), trained in basic maneuvers and drilled just like any other soldier. The film depicts something that was very far from just “playing war”.

  4. December 2, 2013 2:04 pm

    Thank you, Oliwia
    You make a fair point. The reality of war is always grim. Soldiers tend to make whatever they can of rare opportunities for a bit of humour or fun.
    It is abundantly clear that these PSK soldiers enjoyed this training exercise and being filmed. That is what makes this footage so extraordinary. Who knows what they faced the next day or in the future…..

  5. Michael Piotrowski permalink
    January 13, 2014 4:51 pm

    My Dad never forgave Churchill for what he saw as a betrayal of the Polish to the Russians. My Dad never returned to Poland but remained free and became a Naturalised British Citizen. He died before the end of the Cold War. He served with the Polish Commandos during the War and fought alongside Allied Forces at Anzio and Monte Cassino amongst other places

  6. February 9, 2014 11:16 am

    Fascinating, we had two thousand of these troops plus Wojtek on our farm in Berwickshire until 1947.

    • February 9, 2014 12:00 pm

      Thanks, Aileen – must have been a busy farm then!

      • February 9, 2014 12:42 pm

        It was commandeered as DP camp, but it was formally RAF station for Winfield Aerodrome, then returned to farm in 1948.

  7. Dave Walkingshaw permalink
    August 16, 2014 5:40 pm

    Didn’t know anything about this despite living just down the road from here from 1955 until 1960,(dragged kicking and screaming off to Edinburgh to live). My dad trained at the fire school after he came out of the navy.
    So good to see the beach as I remember it. I used to have a .303 bullet so someone had live ammunition down there.
    Thanks for posting this.

  8. March 30, 2015 11:47 pm

    Reblogged this on recherchenorthcote and commented:
    Fascinating , thank you

  9. July 15, 2015 10:36 am

    Excellent work!
    I am about to embark on producing a website with before and after photos of polish troops in notable locations in scotland and invite anyone with photos to pass them to me for inclusion. josephwsmith@hotmail.com

Trackbacks

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