Cannock Chase, in Staffordshire, is a remnant of a medieval Royal hunting-forest. Covering 26 square miles, the Chase is today the largest surviving area of lowland heathland and pine forest in the Midlands and designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Here, along a quiet lane, you will find a memorial stone to the murder of Polish prisoners of war in the Second World War. Each year, in dwindling numbers, older members of the Polish community (who settled here in the 1940’s) attend a commemorative event along with former colleagues from the British armed forces and various dignitaries. Speeches are made, wreathes are laid and a bugler plays the Last Post.
The stone itself was brought here from the Katyn Forest. In the spring of 1940, Stalin’s NKVD (security police) massacred Polish citizens, whom they taken prisoner during the joint Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland the previous year. When German forces invaded the USSR in 1941, they uncovered a mass grave at Katyn Forest, near Smolensk, of around 4,500 Polish military officers. The exact number of those killed at Katyn has never been confirmed, but with the discovery of bodies at other sites nearby the total is now believed to have been up to 22,000. The Soviets denied involvement, blaming the Germans. Finally, in 1990 Soviet President Gorbachev admitted Soviet involvement in the Katyn massacre. Documents were later handed over to Poland revealing that Stalin had directly ordered the killing of these Polish army officers – most of whom were reservists – doctors, lawyers, scientists and businessmen in daily life. This mass liquidation of the intelligentsia was an attempt to wipe out any future opposition in Poland.
Even today, it is still a sore point in relations between Russia and Poland, with no common agreement on the legal description of the crime. Film Director Andrzej Wajda (whose father perished at Katyn) premiered his film about the massacre in Warsaw on 17th September, 2007, an anniversary of the Soviet Union’s attack on Poland in 1939. In April 2010, an aircraft carrying Polish President Lech Kaczyński, with his wife, other politicians and high-ranking army officers crashed near Smolensk, killing all 96 on board. They were on their way attend a memorial ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the Katyn murders.
The Katyn Memorial here was erected by the Anglo-Polish Society in 1979, when several thousand people attended its inauguration. John Mellor, a member of the group, described it as follows; “It took us all a lot of effort. At first, the Home Office wouldn’t give us permission to erect a memorial, but then Staffordshire County Council gave us permission to have this site. We couldn’t get a serving British Army Officer to attend the event but then we got Lord St Oswald to come along and put on his uniform. We weren’t allowed to have a military band, but luckily Lord St Oswald had his own, so he brought it along…”
On the sides of the concrete plinth that holds the stone, the names of the three prisoner-of-war camps which held the victims are inscribed: Kozielsk, Starobielsk and Ostaszkow. Quite near to this Katyn memorial is the site of the Deutscher Soldatenfriedhof – the cemetery which contains the bodies of all German servicemen who died in the UK during both world wars, built by the German War Graves Commission