January 2020 meeting: Post-war childhood in a resettlement camp

On 13 January, a large audience braved the rain to hear Dr Hubert Zawadzki explain the history of the reluctant exiles in Polish resettlement camps in Oxfordshire and the Cotswolds, 1946 to 1970.

During World War II the government-in-exile of occupied Poland was based in London, and many Poles fought alongside the Allies. Following the Yalta conference in February 1945, the frontiers of Poland were drastically redrawn, and the Soviet Union installed a puppet communist government. Many Polish servicemen decided not to return.

From 1946, they could join the Polish Resettlement Corps, a unit of the British Army set up to help them prepare for civilian life in Britain. They, and if possible their families, were housed in former military camps, ill-adapted to the harsh winter of 1946-7.

From 1947 support was provided under the Polish Resettlement Act, including dedicated schooling for children, and training of adults for civilian jobs.

Hubert’s family were housed in a Nissen hut in Springhill Lodges camp (near Chipping Campden), with a coke stove and no running water. There was a communal kitchen, providing, for example, a soggy mash of cornflakes in hot milk. Initially there were misunderstandings: Hubert was nearly refused entry to the local primary school because he didn’t know the word ‘horse’ in English, and his mother initially took ‘public house’ to mean dom publiczny (i.e. brothel). Gradually matters improved: the camps became thriving communities with their own churches and festivals. A group photo survives of Hubert (in an unconventional white suit) on the occasion of his first communion. Most ex-servicemen became happily integrated into life in Britain, for example as doctors, or skilled labourers in post-war reconstruction, and gradually families moved out of the camps into their own housing.

Traces or ruins remain of many of the camps, including Springhill and, in Oxfordshire, Checkendon. There are commemorative plaques at Northwick Park (now a business centre) and Fairford. There is an excellent website with a list of all the camps, and many stories and photographs: polishresettlementcampsintheuk.co.uk

On 10 February Dick Richards will talk about the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.