Poland is proud of its soldiers

Occupied by the Germans, on 9 April 1940 the French and British started their push to win back Narvik with the assistance of the remainder of the Norwegian armed forces. The Poles landed on 8 May.

Most of them were highlanders from Podhale, tough men. They marched with both anger and joy in their hearts as they had been given the opportunity to once again face their despised enemy that had occupied and destroyed their homeland, said Polish President Andrzej Duda in reference to the heroes of the Battle of Narvik.

He also spoke about the heroic acts of the Norwegians and he stressed that they were brothers in arms with Poles, adding that the battle was the first serious victory of the anti-Hitler coalition. He ranked Narvik alongside Poland’s greatest wartime accomplishments, such as Monte Cassino, Tobruk and the Battle of Britain. “Although it was tragic, it still brought pride and honour to the Polish soldier, who fought tirelessly for your freedom and for ours. Poland is proud of its soldiers, because their sacrifices provided us with the right to help make decisions about freedom and security in Europe,” Andrzej Duda said.

The President and the First Lady were accompanied in Norvik by the King of Norway, Harald V, who was visibly touched by the ceremony. The President placed a wreath at a statue honouring fallen Polish soldiers in the presence of Polish and Norwegian standard-bearers as well as an honour guard dressed in uniforms paying tribute to the Podhale legacy.

The 98-year-old corporal Ivan Vanje, the only survivor of the battle in 1940, also took part in the ceremony. At the time he commanded a heavy machine gun nest. He never met a Polish soldier in person, but he heard about their participation in the battle.

A defining characteristic of Narvic is the fact that the water in the surrounding fjords does not freeze and the city and port are connected to Sweden by rail (there are no tracks connecting the city to other parts of Norway however). To this day, Narvik is used to load Swedish iron onto ships. During the war, this raw material was extremely valuable to both the Allies and the Germans.

Occupied by the Germans, on 9 April 1940 the French and British started their push to win back Narvik with the assistance of the remainder of the Norwegian armed forces. The Poles landed on 8 May. Led by General Zygmunt Szyszko-Bohusz, 4,700 soldiers from the newly created Independent Podhale Rifle Brigade were sent to fight on the fjords in the far north.

They fought for another hill on the Ankenes peninsula, nestled among the fjords surrounding a strategic port. The Poles managed to inflicted significant damage to the rival German forces and they help seize the city of Narvik on 28 May. Unfortunately, the defeat of France meant that the intervention forces had to start their evacuation a few days later, which lasted until 8 June.

The Podhale highlanders lost 125 soldiers and 189 more were wounded. Three Polish battleships – “Grom” (Thunderclap), “Burza” (Storm) and “Błyskawica” (Lightening) – alongside three passenger ships used to transport military forces were used in the battles. The “Grom” was sunk by a German bomber on 4 May, with 58 crew members on board. There is now a roundabout in Narvik named after the Grom. In 1979 a statue was erected paying tribute to the Poles who died in the battle. It depicts a sailor aiming his torpedo at the Nazi flag.

In the near-by Håkvik there is a small Polish section with a large grave in which 66 soldiers are laid to rest alongside 31 other Poles who died in the last war to take place on Norwegian territory. Two weeks ago, the Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom Sites (ROPWiM) renovated the monument and plaque with names.

“Norwegians have less historical knowledge than Poles, but the locals know that Poles were here and that they fought,” says Elżbieta Borgsø, a member of the event’s organising committee. She has lived in Narvik since 1978 and tries to look after the Polish places of remembrance. A lot can be learned about Poles through the exhibition at the War Museum in Narvik.

“This is a sublime but also touching moment for me, because this was one of the battles during the Second World War that we won together with our allies,” the President said, referring to his participation in the ceremony. Several dozen people, including representatives of the local authorities and quite a few members of the Polish diaspora, came to the cemetery. It turns out that 120 Poles live in Narvik and the surrounding area, either permanently or temporarily. 

Piotr Falkowski