This is the NNR front line – the place where Scotland’s coast is growing fastest, pushing eastwards into the North Sea. On average, Tentsmuir Point has expanded by nearly five metres each year for more than two centuries. It’s a process that has been happening at different rates for millennia.
That’s why the former island where Mesolithic people made use of the Tentsmuir and Morton coast for fishing and hunting thousands of years ago is now several kilometres inland. Why a stone put near the shore to mark a boundary between salmon fishing areas a few centuries ago is now deep in the forest. Why the seals that haul out on Abertay Sands now need to peer back inland, over the beach and towards the trees, to glimpse the line of large concrete blocks laid close to the tide’s edge just under 80 years ago.
The blocks – some of which are also in the forest – are ‘tank traps’. Installed here in 1940 as part of coastal defences against Nazi invasion, they’re now the most striking reminder of the work of the Polish troops who were based at Tentsmuir during the Second World War. Together with thousands of their compatriots based elsewhere, these ‘Polish Corps’ soldiers played a crucial part in the Allied war effort. That included being tasked with the defence of the whole of Fife and Angus.
Highlands home and away
The first Polish troops at Tentsmuir were part of a battalion named after Podhale, the southernmost region in Poland. Sometimes called the ‘Polish Highlands’, the region includes part of the Tatra Mountains. On clear days, Polish soldiers at Tentsmuir could look north to see one fringe of the Scottish Highlands. Maybe, as Norwegian special troops training in the Cairngorms said at that time, those mountains reminded some of them of home and strengthened their resolve as soldiers.
A photograph in the archives of the Imperial War Museum makes the international importance of the Polish work at Tentsmuir obvious. It was taken on Wednesday, 23 October, 1940, just over a year after Germany had invaded Poland, goading Britain and France to declare war. So the Polish soldiers fighting for the allies here and beyond were exiles, committed to freeing their homeland – and the whole of Europe – from Nazi domination.
The picture shows lines of them being inspected by an illustrious trio of leaders. To the fore is Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister. Two days earlier, he had made a radio broadcast to the people of France, now also occupied by the Germans: “Remember,” he said, “we shall never stop, never weary, and never give in, and that our whole people and empire have bowed themselves to the task of cleansing Europe from the Nazi pestilence and saving the world from the new Dark Ages.”
At Churchill’s side is General Wladyslaw Sikorski – already a national Polish hero before WWII and now Commander-in-Chief of the country’s armed forces in the west. Just behind is General Gustaw Paskiewicz, commander of the soldiers at Tentsmuir.
His story reveals some of the turbulence of the times that both he and his troops had experienced before and during the war. A soldier in the Imperial Russian Army before the Russian Revolution, Paskiewicz then became an officer in the Polish army. When Germany invaded, he escaped to Romania, then reached France. When that country fell in May 1940, he fled to Britain, becoming a commander in the Polish Armed Forces in the west.
He was able to go back to Poland after the end of the war in Europe in 1945. General Sikorski never returned home, dying in a plane crash off Gibraltar in the summer of 1943. Churchill became famous as one of the most charismatic leaders in British wartime history.
And for a short part of that history, they were here – those leaders and exiles, whether world-renowned or – in the case of the troops – mostly anonymous, helping the struggle to defend Scotland and liberate Europe. Little remains to show where the Polish brigade lived and worked here; just some footings of buildings and a few carvings on concrete and stonework in the forest, some with names of Polish towns.
But in this place where Scotland’s most dynamic coastal edge looks east across the grey North Sea, there are still stories to be told from not so long ago; proud memories held in the blocks of stone.
This is the fifth in a series of six blogs about some surprising historical and archaeological connections to our NNRs, contributed by writer and broadcaster Kenny Taylor. If you’ve missed his earlier blogs you can catch up with them here:
Why not visit Tentsmuir NNR yourself to see the remains of the Second World War built by the ‘Polish Corps’ moving inland with the shifting sands as well as the many natural treasures there.