After Poland was left to Stalin, its soldiers built our Hydro scheme

Rats of Tobruk
LIFE AFTER THE WAR: Four Rats of Tobruk, who fought in Libya. Picture: Trove

On May 8, 1945, after six years of unimaginable horror, the world released its breath as Nazi Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allies.

But for the country whose annexation started the Western resistance against Hitler, the turmoil was only just beginning.

In Poland, the end of German occupation was the start of three decades of subjugation under the Red Army.

The country was subsumed into the Soviet Union, and the international community left its people to the mercy of Stalin.

After six years of fighting side-by-side with the Allies, enduring the unendurable, thousands of Polish soldiers found themselves with no home to return to.

They waited, stateless, 228,000 of them, in Britain.

But across the globe, their former brothers-in-arms were fighting for them to be able to come to Australia.

“The Australian Rats of Tobruk had fought alongside the Poles at the siege of Tobruk in 1941,” said the vice-president of the Polish Museum and Archives in Australia, Lucyna Artymiuk.

“They developed close friendships with these men, and they started lobbying the Australian government, saying these were good mates, good pals, they had fought together, and that they would make good Australians.”

“[The Rats of Tobruk] were very, very loyal to each other. It’s a lovely story that isn’t very well known.”

The battle of Tobruk was an eight-month ordeal on the frontline of Libya, with the “rats” – Australian, Polish, British and Indian soldiers – holding the Italians and Germans back from invading Egypt.

It’s little wonder the men who fought there formed a lifelong, intercontinental bond.

The Australian War Memorial describes the experience thusly: “For eight long months, surrounded by German and Italian forces, the men of the Tobruk garrison, mostly Australians, withstood tank attacks, artillery barrages, and daily bombings.

“They endured the desert’s searing heat, the bitterly cold nights, and hellish dust storms. They lived in dug-outs, caves, and crevasses. The defenders of Tobruk did not surrender, they did not retreat.”

The journey to Tasmania for the displaced Rats of Tobruk was long and convoluted.

They travelled from England to Fremantle, WA, and to Adelaide, Melbourne, and then, finally, to Launceston, Burnie, Devonport, and Hobart.

But at every stop, contingents of Australian Rats of Tobruk were there to greet them, Ms Artymiuk said.

“We’ve also read, in the archives, of the most serendipitous of occasions, where you have people meeting, who had fought alongside each other in Tobruk,” she said. “One of them was at Deloraine – a Polish officer and the Australian officer he took over from, recognising each other.”

A total of 750 Polish soldiers arrived in Tasmania between 1947 and 1948, half of all the Polish ex-service migration to Australia during the period.

They were all men, all single, all fit and healthy, and all employed to work for the Tasmanian Hydro-electric Commission.

The deal was this: newly arrived European ex-serviceman could earn Australian citizenship through one year of hard construction work, with most Poles despatched to Tasmania.

One-quarter of the total workforce that built the Tasmanian Hydro-electric Scheme were Polish ex-servicemen.

Camps sprung up at places like Tarraleah, Bronte Park, Butlers Gorge, Waddamana, Poatina, Trevallyn Dam, Wayatinah and Liawenee, to house the migrant workers.

The areas became known for their gigantic citizenship ceremonies, with the Tasmanian Poles held up in the national media as model new Australians.

Today, more than 3300 Tasmanians claim Polish ancestry.

“The [migrant men] set up the Polish community in Tasmania, setting up organisations, and community groups,” Ms Artymiuk said.

“Some of them married Australian women and stayed at the Hydro-electric Commission for the duration of their working lives.

“Some of them only had eyes for Polish women, and when Siberian deportees [Polish women who had been conscripted into forced labour camps by the Soviets and escaped during the war] arrived they got straight onto planes to Fremantle or New Zealand to find themselves wives.

“Another tragedy is that quite a few of the men remained bachelors for the rest of their lives.”

Some Polish migrants adjusted well to Tasmanian life, even if the booklet handed to them on arrival promising “happy lives under bright, sunny skies” was a little misleading as to the nature of the weather in the Central Highlands.

An article in The Advocate heralding the Polish arrivals on October 3, 1947, noted that 50 per cent spoke “some English”, but within weeks of their arrival local branches of the Rats of Tobruk Association had been established, and community spirit could be found in the migrant worker camps.

But any merriment was always bittersweet.

The Polish Museum and Archives, based in Melbourne, opened a new exhibition in August on the Polish Rats of Tobruk and their migration to Australia.

Ms Artymiuk said the tragedy of the Polish soldiers – their desperate fight in WWII for a free Poland that did not eventuate even after the armistice was signed – was at the forefront of the minds of those marking the exhibition launch.

“One of the songs that were sung was the March of the Carpathian Brigade – because the Carpathian Brigade was the unit that became the Rats of Tobruk,” she said.

“One of the key parts of the song is that they’re marching towards their homes and their hearts; they’re marching to Poland.

“And everybody basically had a tear in their eye because they knew that a lot of these men had to transplant themselves onto the other side of the world.

“They would never see their homeland again.”

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