Polish Armoured Divisions Post 1939 Part I

In 1941, the Polish-Soviet military convention permitted the formation of the `Polish Army in Russia’ under General Wladyslaw Anders. This decision launched one of the epic odysseys of modern warfare, worthy of Xenophon’s `Ten Thousand’. Polish refugees and deportees who had withstood the rigours of Stalin’s Arctic camps or of Siberian exile drifted into the collecting centres at Buzuluk on the Volga and at Yangi-Yul in Uzbekistan, and in March 1942, after endless obstructions by the Soviet authorities, crossed into British-controlled Persia. From there, the civilians were transferred to safety in India or Africa; the young men and women of military age were sent to Palestine for training. Many Polish Jews (Corporal Begin among them) opted to stay in Palestine, eventually to fight their British protectors and to launch the state of Israel. But the merger of the main body of Anders’s Army with Kopan’ski’s Brigade produced the `Second Corps’ which moved on to Cairo and joined the British Army in North Africa. In the next three years, fighting in the ranks of Montgomery’s Eighth Army, the Second Corps covered itself with glory-at Tobruk (1942), at Monte Cassino (1944), and at Bologna (1945).

Meanwhile, the Polish `First Corps’ of General Marian Kukiel was stationed in Scotland. At first, an excess of officers and too few men caused difficulties; and the island of Bute (known to the Poles as `the island of snakes’) was incongruously designated as a Polish political detention district. Later, through re-equipment and recruitment, five full divisions emerged. The Polish Parachute Brigade, under BrigadierGeneral Sosabowski, took part in the ill-fated landings at Arnhem. The First Polish Armoured Division of General Maczek played a crucial role at the Falaise Gap in the break-out from the Normandy beaches, and ended the War accepting the surrender of Wilhelmshaven.

No one can question the fact that the Polish Armed Forces, in total some 228,000 men under arms by 1945, set an outstanding example of duty and sacrifice in the Allied defeat of Nazi Germany. No Pole who loves his country can fail to honour their memory.

The unfortunate German-Polish War did not put an end to the Polish armoured forces. Many Polish soldiers having escaped to France, one ‘brigade polonaise’, with two battalions of R-35 tanks, was raised with them from April 1940 onwards. They fought gallantly during the French disaster and a number of them were, once again, evacuated to England. They formed, via an Army Tank Brigade and a reborn 10th Cavalry Brigade, the nucleus of an armoured division. Created in the spring of 1942, with Covenanter then Crusader III tanks, and later with Cromwell and Sherman tanks, the 1st Free Polish Armoured Division fought in Normandy, Belgium, Holland and Germany. Another Polish armoured brigade, formed in 1943 from personnel saved from Russian camps, had been engaged on the Italian front and later expanded into the 2nd Polish Armoured Division (2nd Warszawska Armoured Division). Both units were demobilised after the war.

Polish Soldiers

Some 100,000 Polish soldiers managed to evade capture and escaped through Romania, Hungary, and the Baltic states. Many eventually made their way to France and joined the Polish government-in-exile, which was headed by General Władysław Sikorski. Meanwhile, as early as May 1939, Polish and French officials had discussed the feasibility of forming military units manned by some of the half million Polish immigrants then living in France. By May 1940, the reconstituted Polish army in France had some 84,500 troops organized into two infantry divisions and a mechanized brigade. In addition, the Podhale Rifle Brigade fought in Norway and at Narvik, and the independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade was formed in the Middle East.

During the 1940 France Campaign, the Polish 1st Grenadier Division was destroyed fighting in Lorraine. The 2nd Rifle Division escaped into Switzerland, and its soldiers were interned there for the remainder of the war. Only some 30 percent of the Polish army managed to escape to Britain, where it again reconstituted and formed the Polish I Corps. That unit eventually consisted of the 1st Armored Division, the 4th Infantry Division, and the 1st Independent Parachute Brigade. The parachute brigade’s most celebrated battle was its doomed jump into Arnhem to support the British there in Operation MARKET-GARDEN in September 1944.

1st Armored Division History

The Polish 1st Armoured Division (Polish 1 Dywizja Pancerna) was an Allied military unit during World War II, created in February 1942 at Duns in Scotland. At its peak it numbered approximately 16,000 soldiers. It was commanded by General Stanisław Maczek.

The division was formed as part of the I Polish Corps In the early stages the division was stationed in Scotland and guarded approximately 200 kilometres of British coast.

Normandy

By the end of July 1944 the division had been transferred to Normandy. The final elements arrived on August 1 and the unit was attached to the First Canadian Army. It entered combat on August 8 during Operation Totalize. The division twice suffered serious bombings by Allied aircraft which accidentally bombed friendly troops, but yet it achieved a victory against the Wehrmacht in the battles for Mont Ormel, and the town of Chambois. This series of offensive and defensive operations came to be known as the Battle of Falaise in which a large number of German Wehrmacht and SS divisions were trapped in the Falaise pocket and subsequently destroyed. Maczek’s division had the crucial role of closing the pocket at the escape route of those German divisions, hence the fighting was absolutely desperate and the 2nd Polish Armoured Regiment, 24th Polish Lancers and 10th Dragoons supported by the 8th and 9th Infantry Battalions took the brunt of German attacks trying to break free from the pocket. Surrounded and running out of ammunition they withstood incessant attacks from multiple fleeing panzer divisions for 48 hours until they were relieved.

Falaise pocket

In accordance with the 1943 directive of the Combined Chiefs of Staff, the 1st Polish Armoured Division was not used in Operation Overlord but held in reserve. The division had struggled to reach its full establishment, and in 1943 Sosnokowski had stripped the infantry regiments in Scotland to fill it. On 1 August, the strength of the 1st Armoured Division was 13,000 officers and men, equipped with 381 tanks, 473 artillery pieces and 3,050 vehicles. 56 Its commander was General Maczek, who had led an armoured unit in Poland in September 1939 and in France in 1940. The insignia of the division was the helmet and Husaria eagle wings, which had been worn on the shoulders of the Polish soldiers who, under King Jan Sobieski, had stopped the Turks at the gates of Vienna in 1683 and saved Christendom in Europe. The division was nicknamed `The Black Devils’. On 1 August, the day on which the Warsaw Uprising was launched, the 1st Armoured Division crossed the Channel. It was placed under the 1st Canadian Army, commanded by Lieutenant-General Henry Crerar, and its objective was to assist in trapping the bulk of the German armies at Falaise.

Operation Totalise was the name given to the drive by the II Canadian Armoured Division, commanded by Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds, and the 1st Polish Armoured Division towards Falaise to cut off the German retreat to the Seine. It was launched on 7 August and began disastrously when the American bombers dropped their bombs on the Polish and Canadian front lines, killing 315 men. Attempts on the ground to alert the bombers to their error by throwing yellow smoke grenades came to nothing because the Americans were using yellow flares to mark their target.

A Canadian Spitfire pilot, after vainly trying to divert the first two waves of Fortresses that were bombing the gun lines, deliberately shot down the leader of the third wave to the accompaniment of tumultuous applause from the scattered, frightened soldiery below. The crew baled out.

Operation Totalise failed in the face of fierce resistance by the SS Hitlerjugend Panzer Division.

On 13 August, Operation Tractable opened with an attack by the Canadians towards Falaise and a drive by the Poles on the left flank towards Thun. Again American bombers bombed the allied positions, this time in the rear, causing 391 casualties. The Poles succeeded in breaking through the German defences and, on 15 August, the Polish reconnaissance regiment, the 10th Mounted Rifles, reached and secured a crossing over the river Dives near Jort. Further south the American army had reached Argentan. A Polish participant, Ryszard Zolski, recalled the tempo of the battles:

Falaise will be remembered as the most murderous battlefield of the invasion, where the might of the German Army clashed with the armies of America, England, Canada and Poland – where the Germans were determined to fight – not counting the cost, even to the last man. My God, how they fought – bravely and with determination, until at the end, hardly recognisable as human at all, only tattered remnants of clothing, flesh of men and horses, jumbled up with smashed armour, tanks and the like. Attack from the air, bombing, rockets, machine guns, together with our artillery, grenades and armour of every sort, finally annihilated their mighty army, and halted their retreat. Falaise – one of the most costly battles of the war, both in men and armament.

Maczek now split his limited forces: on 17 August he ordered the 24th Lancers, 10th Mounted Rifles and 2nd Armoured Regiment to advance towards Chambois, while the remainder of the division occupied a vital piece of high ground, Mont Ormel, also known as Hill 262 and `The Mace’.

The Poles had mixed fortunes on the road to Chambois, when the 2nd Armoured Regiment ended up in Les Chameaux, a few miles from Chambois, because their French guide had become disorientated in the dark. It was fortuitous because at Les Chameaux the Poles found and destroyed the rearguard of the 2nd Panzer Division before turning towards their target. On the way when they encountered a German motorised column in the dark:

The Germans halt their units and allow our column to pass. They even post a German soldier to regulate the traffic. He should be able to discern the American Shermans and those large white stars on the tanks and on my carriers. But it is still totally black. We just ride in front of the German column.

The 2nd Tactical Air Force flew sortie after sortie as Chambois `was delivered to the flames . . . The roads leading to it and the side streets were jammed with German armour already alight or smouldering, enemy corpses and a host of wounded soldiers.’ The Poles took so many prisoners that they struggled to spare enough men to guard them. On 19 August, the Poles linked up with the 90th United States Infantry Division. Lieutenant George Godrey noted of the Poles: `They were excellent fighters and very cold-blooded.’

The main body of the Poles was on `The Mace’, so nicknamed by Maczek because of its shape. This high, wooded escarpment overlooked the Chambois-Vimoutiers road along which the German forces were trying to escape eastwards under allied artillery fire. The Polish force expected an early reinforcement by the Canadian 4th Armoured Division under Major-General George Kitching, as they were rapidly running out of food and ammunition, despite receiving a limited resupply by a parachute drop, and they asked the Canadians to speed up their relief. Kitching, however, refused to do so and was sacked by Simonds. Then on 20 August, elements of Der Führer Regiment of the 2nd SS Panzer Division and of the 9th SS Panzer Division Der Hohenstaufen mounted an assault directly on the Mace: `Every combination of tactics was used: conventional infantry assaults, combined panzer and grenadier, unsupported Panther attacks, savage bombardments or no barrage at all.’ Second Lieutenant Tadeusz Krzyzaniak commented on the fighting:

Where are we? Where are they? In fact I know very well. THEY are in front of us, WE behind. At the same time, THEY are behind us, WE in front. Then it’s the opposite. Everywhere explosions, and everywhere blood: the blood of horses, the blood of others, and my blood.

All day the battle raged, with high casualties among both the attacking SS formations and the Polish defenders. Finally, on 21 August, the Canadians reached the beleaguered Poles and Ed Borowicz noted their reaction:

On the top of Hill 262 stands Lieut. Col Nowaczynski, the battalion commander, with the commander of the Canadian tanks, staring in silence at the battlefield. Over the khaki uniforms, at the emerald-blue lance pennons of the dead soldiers of the 8th Battalion, the disfigured faces, jutting jaws and teeth in deathly smiles, human parts – torsos, legs, bloodied stretchers, pieces of an anti-tank gun, and nearby a barrel of a broken mortar in the convulsive grip of a dead gunner. In the middle of a few blackened, smoking Shermans, on their turrets hangs a leaning torso, half scorched hands lying listlessly.

Tomasz Potworowski and a friend visited the scene a few days later and observed: `Already by then the Canadian sappers charged with clearing the mess had erected a sign on the “Mace” which read: “A Polish Battlefield.” Polish losses up to 22 August were 325 killed and 1,116 wounded or missing: this was 10 per cent of the division’s strength. Sosnkowski telegraphed his troops from London: `Your sacrifices will enable the rights of Poland to be established on an indestructible foundation.’ The Germans left behind 50,000 dead and 200,000 taken prisoner in the Falaise Pocket.

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1 thought on “Polish Armoured Divisions Post 1939 Part I

  1. “The 2nd Rifle Division escaped into Switzerland, and its soldiers were interned there for the remainder of the war.”

    Their escape is an interesting story in its own right!

    Like

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