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.
They 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.
In later years the relationship soured. Stalin continued to deny the horrendous Soviet massacre of 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.
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……
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.
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