Was General Sikorski a victim of the Katyn massacre?

General Sikorski inspecting Polish army during his last journey (Near East, 1943).

Geneva, May 1939: Ivan Maisky at the League of Nations headquarters.
Geneva, May 1939: Ivan Maisky at the League of Nations headquarters.

Müller knew Harold (Kim) Philby before World War II and he renewed their contacts when Philby was sent to Washington as a British intelligence officer to cooperate with the FBI and CIA [3, p. 112-113]. In his journal, under the date of January 8, 1950, Heinrich Müller noted the conversation he had with Philby regarding what happened on Gibraltar on July 4, 1943.

Philby was in charge of security for the Gibraltar area at that time. In Philby’s opinion, Stalin wanted General Sikorski’s death [3, p. 114]. As the chief of the British counterespionage for the Iberian Peninsula, Philby could easily find out the date of Sikorski’s visit to Gibraltar on his way from the Near East to London. In his version of events, the Soviets arranged for Maisky, their ambassador to London, to fly back via Gibraltar, and to be there at the same time as General Sikorski.

Harold “Kim” Philby was responsible for the security in the Gibraltar area
Harold “Kim” Philby was responsible for the security in the Gibraltar area

Philby believed that Sikorski was dangerous for Stalin. He told the former chief of the Gestapo that Maisky’s passenger list included two professional assassins [3, p.115]. As Müller recalls, the British, except for Philby’s treasonable activities, had no direct connection with the murder of Sikorski.

According to Philby, Churchill had been “tipped off” that this would happen, but “he was so frightened about the possible rupture with Stalin over the death [of] Polish officers that he said nothing by way of warning.” Therefore the occasion for ambassador Maisky’s prophecy to be fulfilled had come. On March 31, 1941, in a conversation with the Czechoslovakian legate to the Soviet Union, Zdenek Fierlinger, Maisky stated that he “can guarantee that General Sikorski will never enter Warsaw again” [1, p. 297].

On the left: Harold “Kim” Philby during his final years living in Soviet Russia. On the right: A special commemorative stamp released by the Russian Postal Service after Philby’s death.
On the left: Harold “Kim” Philby during his final years living in Soviet Russia. On the right: A special commemorative stamp released by the Russian Postal Service after Philby’s death.

Also, Marek Kaminski finds it very possible that the most interested in putting Sikorski to death among the anti-Nazi coalition was Stalin [1, p. 295]. Stalin’s politics were always focused on the ultimate weakening of the legal Polish government. According to Kaminski, in the first half of February 1943, after the capitulation of the German General Field Marshal Friedrich Wilhelm Paulus’ army, Stalin decided – after finding the most convenient moment – to break diplomatic relations with the Polish government [1, p. 274]. He didn’t have to wait long for that moment.

On April 13, 1943, a Berlin radio station aired an announcement about the German army discovering near Smolensk mass graves of murdered Polish officers. Gen. Smorawinski was found among the corpses. As the official Russian radio announcement aired on April 15 confirms, Soviet Russia was dismayed. On the same day, at 11 AM, a cabinet meeting was held in Prime Minister Sikorski’s office. It was decided that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would approach the Russian embassy to ask for an explanation, and the International Organization of the Red Cross would be asked by the Polish minister of defense to start an investigation of the matter. At noon the same day, Sikorski and minister Edward Raczynski met at 10 Downing Street with Churchill. Anxious that the news about the massacre might be true, Churchill noted that Bolsheviks could be cruel. He also warned: “There are things, although true, which should not be publicized without waiting for the right moment. It would be a mistake to reveal them all of a sudden” [2, p. 224]. Nonetheless, Gen. Sikorski warned that the Polish government would be forced to voice its opinion in the matter of the German revelations.

The chief of Gestapo, Heinrich Müller
The chief of Gestapo, Heinrich Müller

On April 17, 1943, the Polish government turned to the Red Cross, asking the organization to investigate the alleged Katyn massacre [5, p. 254]. The Germans did the same a day earlier. Not earlier than April 20, Soviet Russia was asked to explain what happened to the Polish officers. In that situation, the British, in an effort to cover up for the Soviet murderers, tried to convince the Polish government to be silent and withdraw their note to the Red Cross. Gen. Sikorski’s response to the British officials’ persuasion was: “Our politics is honesty to our allies. Russia has power on her side, we have justice. I would not recommend the British to side with brutal force and rape of justice. For these reasons, I refuse to withdraw the Polish démarche to the International Red Cross” [2, p. 229]. Meanwhile Stalin, taking advantage of the situation, in a letter to Churchill, accused the Polish government of cooperation with Hitler and pronounced breaking diplomatic relations with Poland. The letter was handed to Churchill on April 23 by ambassador Maisky, who took the occasion to share his imperialistic opinions with the British prime minister, mentioning the stupidity of a nation of 20 million that was provoking a 200-million-citizen empire. On the next day, Churchill wrote a long letter to Stalin defending Poles and asking him not to break diplomatic relations with the Polish government. But Stalin’s answer was negative. As it was noted by Jacek Tebinka, in other circumstances, the price for keeping diplomatic relations could have been a compromise in establishing Polish eastern border. At the beginning Stalin didn’t consider that the Katyn massacre would be ever discovered. But as soon as it was revealed, it was too late to repair Polish – Soviet relations [compare: 5, p. 255]. On April 25, 1943, Vyacheslav Molotov handed over to ambassador Tadeusz Romer a note regarding breaking the diplomatic relations between the Soviets and the Polish government.

On May 1, 1943, William Averell Harriman spoke with Gen. Sikorski. Harriman, the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union at that time, was critical about the telegram addressed to the Red Cross referring to the Katyn massacre [6, p. 102]. He believed that sending the telegram, might have had a catastrophic impression in Moscow. Sikorski stated then that sending the telegram, when he was ill, was a mistake and he hoped to repair the situation. He also expressed his concerns about the Soviet expansion hurting the smaller nations of central Europe. Harriman shared his worries, but facing the upcoming election, he couldn’t support such ideas openly. In that time, before the Teheran conference, Harriman believed that when the Soviet Army took over Poland and her neighbors it would be too late for negotiations [6, p. 104]. William Averell Harriman considered Gen. Sikorski the only Polish statesman able to negotiate with Stalin [6, p. 102-103].

Any action against the Polish government-in-exile would be successful if the government had not dismissed German accusations right away. Soviet diplomacy skillfully played with the news of the massacre, trying to weaken Sikorski’s position in world politics. His physical removal was just a next step.

From 19 – 23 July 1943, a key conference regarding Poland’s eastern border was held in the Foreign Office. On July 23, Anthony Eden and other high officials decided to send to ambassadors of the United Kingdom in Moscow and Washington a set of documents regarding obligations of Great Britain to Poland in the matter of the Polish-Soviet border. The set contained documents presenting the Russian standpoint and explaining the position of the London officials in the conflict. The above-mentioned set of documents did not contain the secret protocol, which was added to the pact signed on August 25, 1939.

On July 26, 1943, Churchill met Polish president Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz. During the meeting, Churchill spoke about the need of rebuilding a strong and independent Poland. He believed that most probably the Red Army would liberate Poland. He also told the president he couldn’t guarantee anything regarding future Polish borders, stating: “I have never promised and I will never give my political support to any shape of the Polish eastern border” [5, p. 267]. The British ambassador to the Polish government, Owen O’Malley, who was also present during the conversation, noted the fact that Stalin’s expansion reached terrains ethnically not Russian. Two days later, on July 28, the Secretary of State of Great Britain in the Middle East, Richard Casey, in a conversation with the Soviet Admiral Charlamov, got to hear that: “Soviet Russia fights to regain the old borders of the Czar’s Empire” [5, p. 267]. Old Russian imperialism had many followers in Soviet Russia.

At that time, the Foreign Office believed that the root of evil of the conflict of Sikorski’s government with Russia was the problem of the Polish-Soviet border. On July 15, 1943, the ambassadors of the United Kingdom and the U.S.A. informed the Soviets about their need to meet Stalin. But Stalin avoided such a meeting for another month, finding excuses in being on the battlefield. Not earlier than August 11, the ambassadors of the U.K. and the U.S.A. in Moscow, Archibald Clark Kerr and Admiral William Standley, finally saw Stalin. Both ambassadors appealed to the Russian leader to agree to evacuate Polish citizens from Soviet Russia. The action was supposed to improve Polish-Russian relations. Standley declared then that the problem of European borders should be solved after the war in the form of a peace treaty. Stalin and Molotov listened to the ambassadors, but they did not give any commentaries.

To be continued…

Selected bibliography:
1. Kaminski Marek Kazimierz, Edvard Beneš kontra gen.
Wladyslaw Sikorski, Wydawnictwo Neriton, Instytut Historii PAN, Warszawa 2005.
2. Kukiel Marian, General Sikorski, Zolnierz i Maz Stanu Polski Walczacej, Instytut Polski i Muzeum im. gen.
Sikorskiego, Londyn 1970.
3. Heinrich Müller, Gregory Douglas, Müller Journals: 1948-1950 the Washington Years, Volume 1, Bender Publishing, San Jose, 1999.
4. Szafran Czeslaw, Kontrowersje wokol katastrofy gibraltarskiej, in: Moszumanski Zbigniew, Zuziak Janusz [Editors], General Wladyslaw Sikorski, Szkice historyczne w 60. rocznice smierci, Wyd.
Adam Marszalek, Torun 2004.
5. Tebinka Jacek, Polityka brytyjska wobec problemu granicy polsko-radzieckiej 1939 – 1945, Wydawnictwo Neriton, Instytut Historii PAN, Warszawa 1998.
6. Wandycz Piotr, Harriman a Polska, „Zeszyty Historyczne” nr 79, s. 88-115, Paryz 1987.

By Józef Kazimierz Kubit
Translation: Kasia Miszta


Was General Sikorski a victim of the Katyn massacre? Part I