Polish resettlement camps revisited
Alan Crosby learns how the Polish troops who fought bravely in the Second World War were settled in camps once the conflict had ended
At the end of the Second World War, many of the Polish Allied Forces who had fought under British command refused to return to their home country, behind the Iron Curtain.
Poland was now a communist country and the Polish forces argued that despite all that had happened to Poland during the war, one occupier (Nazi Germany) had simply been replaced by another (the Soviet Union).
To repay its debt to the Poles, Britain agreed to resettle the Polish soldiers and their families and the Polish Resettlement Act, passed in 1947, gave them civil rights. These forces were temporarily housed in disused army bases by the National Assistance Board to await employment and demobilisation. Conditions within the camps were often extremely basic, with no gas, electricity, or running water.
One such camp was on Thursley Common in south-west Surrey, between Godalming and Farnham. The site had been acquired by the War Office in 1922 and, known as Tweedsmuir Camp, was used as a military rest and recreation facility until 1939. From 1942, it became an adminstrative and transit camp for Canadian soldiers who had fought in Europe and were being repatriated on medical or psychological grounds. The last Canadian soldiers left Tweedsmuir in February 1947 and the camp was immediately taken over by the Polish Resettlement Corps, which was responsible for the 115,000 demobilised Polish soldiers who had fought with Britain and the Allies. The camp housed Polish soldiers and their families until it finally closed in 1957.
In 2011, the trustees of the Rural Life Centre at Tilford, near Farnham approved a new project dedicated to the displaced Polish Allied Forces, who were stationed and demobbed in Surrey between 1946 and 1949. The project, which was the brainchild of brothers Wies and Zen Rogalski, took two years to complete and led to the creation of a permanent exhibition dedicated to this diaspora, a booklet describing Tweedsmuir Camp and a DVD featuring interviews with members of the displaced community describing their experiences in the camps. There’s also a website based on the exhibition which gives a vivid depiction of the lives of the residents, supported by wide-ranging archival research( tweedsmuirmilitarycamp.co.uk). The project also established a new Polish archive at the Surrey History Centre in Woking, which can be accessed by the public.
The project, financed by the Heritage Lottery Fund, was supported by volunteers from the Rural Life Centre as well as individuals with Polish roots in the county.
The exhibition was opened in August 2012 by the Polish Consul and the Military Attaché from the Polish Embassy in London as part of a special Polish Day at the Rural Life Centre and was attended by local people as well as some former residents of Tweedsmuir Camp.
For Wies and Zen, the project had personal significance as they were born in Tweedsmuir Camp and lived there with their parents Mikolaj and Stanislawa. As part of the Rural Life Centre’s Outreach Programme, Wies Rogalski ( firstname.lastname@example.org) presents talks on this hidden history of Surrey. He spent the first six years of his life at Tweedsmuir and is happy to share his experiences with those who would like to learn more about this unique piece of local history.
Everyone is welcome to visit the exhibition at the Rural Life Centre in Tilford, which includes some artefacts donated by the Polish community. The booklet and DVD of this history is on sale in the centre’s shop and all of the proceeds are used to help maintain the centre’s permanent exhibition.
Conditions within the camps were often extremely basic
The Rural Life Centre exhibition captures the experiences of the Poles who lived at Tweedsmuir Camp after the war