No Greater Ally
Contributor: John Radzilowski
Review Date: 17 Apr 2012
Full Title: No Greater Ally: The Untold Story of Poland's Forces in the Second World War
Kenneth Koskodan's recent book No Greater Ally is a worthy summary of the Polish contribution to Allied victory in World War II. The book is based on secondary sources and on a limited number of first-hand interviews of Polish combatants. These are supplemented with photos (some from private collections of the veterans themselves) and a limited number of maps.
This book would be useful for anyone not well versed in the history of Poland in World War II. It chronicles the Polish war effort on several fronts, with special attention paid to the Polish forces in the West and the Polish underground Armia Krajowa (AK) which battled the Nazis throughout the occupation. The chapters cover the material sequentially but not chronologically which might be confusing to some readers, though the nature of the Polish effort, often dispersed often several theaters, is not easy to describe in a linear narrative.
The strength of the book is the quotes from the Polish veterans that Koskodan interviews. These add a great deal to the book and the author should be commended for preserving the memories of these often overlooked heroes.
The problem with No Greater Ally is that falls between two stools. It is not comprehensive to be a scholarly history and is often too brief in its descriptions - the first person interviews notwithstanding - to hold the interest of most general readers. The history of Polish contribution to the Allied victory over Nazi Germany is not so much "untold" as ignored. There are scores of English language accounts (not to mention libraries of literature in Polish) that could have added to the depth of this book. Any American or English reader who wants to learn about it surely can, though the dominant paradigm of most military histories of World War II simply ignores the Polish role which is politically uncomfortable for many in the West who still hold to the rosy wartime view especially where it comes to the Soviet role. (Recently this paradigm has come under significant scrutiny, especially in Timothy Snyder landmark book Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin.)
Koskodan's book gives the reader only limited insight into the strategy and tactics used by Polish forces during the war, often relying on outdated views of key campaigns. For example, the author characterizes the Polish use of cavalry in 1939 as an example of backward stubbornness without recognizing the practical problems of motorizing units the Poles faced. To mobilize a single division to German standards would have required a motor pool the size of the country's entire stock of civilian vehicles. Moreover, the Polish army was less cavalry heavy than the U.S. Army in 1939 and had a more robust tank force than Italy, a country with a well-developed automotive industry. The actual combat record of the Polish cavalry in 1939 was of the highest order, belying the notion of backwardness. In other parts of the book, there are similarly limited discussions of Polish commanders' dispositions a problem made worse by the absence of virtually any maps.
Many of the most intensive battles - Mokra, Monte Cassino, Falaise - are covered in a rather pedestrian way enlivened mainly by the first person quotes. John Keegan's classic Six Armies in Normandy, for example, provides a more gripping description of the Polish stand at Falaise. There are also several small but significant omissions that also mar the book. For example, there is no mention of Polish resistance to the Soviet invasion of Poland on September 17, 1939. Aside from the Polish success in decoding the German Enigma Code in the 1930s, there is little else on Polish intelligence operations. The Polish Navy's role is mostly overlooked as is the Polish role in the Norwegian Campaign of 1940. The Polish underground effort is highly complex but even so the account here is disappointingly thin and the descriptions very general with no sense given of the importance of the Polish efforts in tying down German forces, gathering intelligence, and interdicting supplies to the Eastern Front. Struggles against Ukrainian nationalist forces as well as Soviet partisans are also overlooked. An even more puzzling omission is the failure to discuss the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, which while less strategically important than the larger Warsaw Uprising of 1944 is nonetheless a critical chapter in Poland's wartime history. The Jewish participants of the Ghetto Rising were surely Polish combatants, especially the Zionist-Revisionist Betarim who had close contacts with the Polish Right and the AK. Many leaders of Ghetto struggle were posthumously awarded medals for valor by the Polish armed forces.
No Greater Ally is a worthy first book by an up-and-coming author that will be a handy read for those totally unfamiliar with the critical role Poland played in the European theater of World War II, but both historians and the avid World War II history reader still await a truly magisterial English language history of this subject.
University of Alaska Southeast
Please also check out C. Peter Chen's review of No Greater Ally.
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General Douglas MacArthur at Leyte, 17 Oct 1944