Polish Independent Women’s Battalion, Emilia Plater (Combatants/Military Personnel)


The first all-female Polish infantry unit. Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, and as a result of the Sikorski-Maisky Agreement of August 18, 1941, Polish citizens who had been interned in the Soviet Union following the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland in September 1941 were granted amnesty and a Polish army was formed under the command of General Wladyslaw Anders. Polish women internees were eager to serve in this army, in part due to their difficult living conditions. Soviet authorities initially objected to the recruitment of women but relented when General Anders argued that Soviet army itself consisted of many women.

General Anders favored creating a volunteer Polish women’s corps based on the model of the British women’s auxiliary service. Women recruits were to receive basic and specialized training. Due to epidemics of typhus, malaria, and dysentery ravaging the personnel of the new Polish army, the main emphasis was placed on nursing. Women also produced newsletters, entertained troops on stage, taught literacy, and were employed as telephone operators.

Between September 1941 and August 1942, 4,667 Polish women in uniform were evacuated by land and sea to the western front in Europe via Central Asia and Iran (Biegun 1992, 48). The Polish Women’s Auxiliary Service in Great Britain employed approximately 6,700 women (Saywell 1985, 103) and functioned akin to the Free French in cooperation with the British Auxiliary Territorial Service.

The Emilia Plater Independent Women’s Battalion, consisting of volunteers from among young women left behind in the USSR, was founded on June 3, 1943, in Sel’tse near Moscow. Ironically, the battalion, named after Emilia Plater, an active participant in the 1830-1831 insurrection directed against Russia, was intended to fight alongside Soviet troops. Battalion veterans were called Platerowki, a name often applied to all Polish military women who served on the eastern front.

Initially attached to the lst Tadeusz Kosciuszko Polish Division, the battalion swore its oath alongside the division on July 15, 1943. The battalion was directly subordinated to the lst Polish Corps on August 19, 1943, and to the 1st Polish Army on July 17, 1944. Unlike auxiliary female units of Great Britain and the United States, the battalion was not governed by special military regulations. Its commanders and deputy commanders were men, while its political officers were women: Halina Zawadzka, Irena Sztachelska, and Ludwika Bobrowska.

As of August 18, 1943, the battalion consisted of a command element, one fusiliers company, two infantry companies, one machine gun company, a company of handheld anti-tank grenade launchers, and six platoons—mortar, reconnaissance, signals, medical, engineer, and logistics.

By late 1943 one transport platoon was added. The battalion’s strength at the time was 691, including 48 officers, 163 noncommissioned officers, and 480 enlisted personnel (Cottam 2003, 150). Troop strength fluctuated, however, as the battalion provided basic training to women subsequently assigned elsewhere.

The alleged inability of some personnel, especially teenagers, to keep up with the very intensive training was used as a pretext to gradually transform the battalion from a first-line combat unit to one assigned mainly sentry and military police duties, which the women carried out in an exemplary fashion. Yet the organizational structure was maintained and members successfully took part in all major combat training exercises alongside male soldiers. It would seem that senior commanders were reluctant to expose women soldiers to the very heavy losses suffered by Polish troops alongside the Russians. One third of the 1st Polish Division was wiped out in the Battle of Lenino in the Smolensk region.

Only the Fusiliers Company took part in the Battle of Lenino, serving in auxiliary capacities such as sentry and police duties, administration of first aid, and escorting German POWs. The battalion as a whole remained at Sel’tse until early January 1944, at which time it was transferred to Smolensk. Two months later the battalion was based in Ukraine. After several additional moves, on October 12, 1944, the battalion was ordered to transfer to Praga, a suburb of Warsaw located on the Vistula River’s eastern shore. Here the battalion was charged with guarding military and civilian property. On December 16 all detached sub-units returned to the battalion. Finally, on January 17, 1945, following the liberation of Warsaw, the first group of the battalion crossed the frozen Vistula and on March 21 the battalion became directly subordinated to the Polish general staff. Its duties in Warsaw were the same as in Praga.

About 70 members of the battalion were killed during the war (Cottam 2003, 150). In May 1945 it had roughly 500 members, representing a small percentage of the total number of Polish women serving on the eastern front, with estimates ranging widely from roughly 8,500 to 14,000 (Cottam 2003, 151). These numbers include some former members of the battalion who, like Emilia Gierczak, had been appointed platoon (or company) commanders in all-male units because many of the Polish male soldiers were not suitable to be officers.

On May 25, 1945, the battalion was disbanded in Warsaw, and on July 23, 1945, the discharged Platerowki were issued a complete uniform and two towels. Some of them secured employment in military institutions and about fifty became pioneer farmers in Platerowka, a village named after them in the newly acquired Western territories. On June 20, 1993, a commemorative plaque dedicated to the Platerowki (women soldiers of the 1st and 2nd Polish Armies formed in the USSR) was unveiled. The ceremony took place in the Cathedral of the Polish Armed Forces in Warsaw.

The following are selected prominent members of the battalion:

Halina Bielawska-Pietkiewicz. Lieutenant-colonel and former commander of the officer cadet corps in the infantry officer school in Ryazan.’ She was third in her division to be promoted and her decorations included the Cross of Valor.

Helena Jablonska. Second lieutenant. As a private serving with the Fusiliers Company, she had been wounded in the Battle of Lenino. She was awarded the Virtuti Militari, the highest Polish military decoration, and the Cross of Valor.

Aniela Krzywon. She served as a private with the Fusiliers Company and was killed in the Battle of Lenino. She is the only Polish woman soldier awarded Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest Soviet military decoration.

Janina Wolanin. Major (Ret). She served as commander of a mortar company in the 3rd Polish Division. She was wounded three times, and was awarded the Virtuti Militari and the Cross of Valor.

Next post:

Previous post: