Belgium and the Netherlands
After the Allied armies broke out from Normandy, the Polish 1st Armoured Division pursued the Germans along the coast of the English Channel. It liberated, among others, the towns of Saint-Omer, Ypres, Ghent and Passchendaele. A successful outflanking manoeuvre planned and performed by General Maczek allowed the liberation of the city of Breda without any civilian casualties (October 29, 1944). The Division spent the winter of 1944-1945 on the south bank of the river Rhine, guarding a sector around Moerdijk, Netherlands. In early 1945 it was transferred to the province of Overijssel and started to push along with the Allies along the Dutch-German border, liberating the eastern parts of the provinces of Drenthe and Groningen with towns such as Emmen, Coevorden and Stadskanaal.
In April 1945 the 1st Armoured entered Germany in the area of Emsland. On May 6 the division seized the Kriegsmarine naval base in Wilhelmshaven, where General Maczek accepted the capitulation of the fortress, naval base, East Frisian Fleet and more than 10 infantry divisions. There the Division ended the war and was joined by the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade. It undertook occupation duties until 1947, when the division was disbanded, it and the many Polish displaced persons in the Western occupied territories forming a Polish enclave at Haren in Germany which was for a while known as “Maczków”. The majority of its soldiers opted not to return to now Soviet occupied Poland and stayed in exile.
The Germans resisted the Allies strongly on their own territory but slowly and surely the Allies advanced, and the Polish objective was altered to the important German naval base at Wilhelmshaven. From 19 to 29 April, the Poles fought hard to advance, as the terrain proved ideal for defence since it was extremely marshy with a thin layer of peat covering the tracks along which the tanks and armoured vehicles had to pass. The obvious routes that the Poles had to advance along meant that the Germans knew precisely where to place their defences.
The Germans were collapsing on all fronts and Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin on 30 April. On 6 May, Maczek attended a meeting between General Simonds and a German delegation led by General Erich von Straube. Simonds made it clear that only unconditional surrender was on offer. The 1st Polish Armoured Division was given the honour of occupying Wilhemshaven, and Colonel Antoni Grudzinski, second in command of the Polish 10th Armoured Brigade, noted the reaction of the Germans to this news:
An officer on my staff, a former student at Gdansk Polytechnic, translated every sentence into German. When the words ‘Polish Division’ were uttered by the translator, and as if by inattentiveness repeated, it seemed the Germans whitened and unease flashed in their eyes. I enquired if they understood – ‘Jawohl’ – they replied. I gave a sign that they might leave. But, a thought passed through my mind, ‘This is for September 1939’.
The Poles took control of Wilhelmshaven and accepted the surrender of 19,000 German officers, including a general and an admiral. Three cruisers, 18 submarines, 205 battleships and support vessels plus a vast array of artillery and infantry weaponry were taken into Polish custodianship. The division had lost 304 officers and 5,000 other ranks since August 1944. Despite all that Poland had suffered at the hands of the Germans, Maczek maintained strict discipline to ensure that the Poles did not take reprisals. This, despite the fact that the division had liberated a concentration camp at Oberlangen full of emaciated women POWs, members of the AK who had surrendered after the collapse of the Warsaw Uprising and had been held there without the protection of the Geneva Convention. On 19 May, General Anders visited Wilhelmshaven and Maczek had prepared for the visit by ordering the German population to sew Polish flags using white sheets and the red portion of the Nazi flags. The result was an impressive array of Polish flags on 25-feet-high posts shimmering along the avenue where the division marched past Anders.
Organization during 1944-45
10th Armoured Cavalry Brigade (10 Brygada Kawalerii Pancernej) – Col. T. Majewski
1st Polish Armoured Regiment (1 pułk pancerny) – Lt.Col. Aleksander Stefanowicz
2nd Polish Armoured Regiment (2 pułk pancerny) – Lt.Col. S. Koszustki
24th Polish Lancers Regiment (Armoured; 24 pułk ułanów im. Hetmana Żółkiewskiego) – Lt.Col. J. Kański
10th Polish Dragoons Regiment (10 pułk dragonów zmotoryzowanych) – Lt.Col. Władysław Zgorzelski
3rd Polish Infantry Brigade (3 Brygada Strzelców) – Col. Marian Wieroński
1st Polish Highland Battalion (1 battalion Strzelców Podhalańskich) – Lt.Col. K. Complak
8th Polish Rifle Battalion (8 battalion strzelców) – Lt.Col. Aleksander Nowaczyński
9th Polish Rifle Battalion (9 battalion strzelców flandryjskich) – Lt.Col. Zygmunt Szydłowski
1st Polish Independent HMG Squadron (samodzielna kompania ckm.) – Maj. M. Kochanowski
Divisional Artillery (Artyleria dywizyjna) – Col. B. Noel
1st Polish Motorized Artillery Regiment (1 pułk artylerii motorowej) – Lt.Col. J. Krautwald
2nd Polish Motorized Artillery Regiment (2 pułk artylerii motorowej) – Lt.Col. K. Meresch
1st Polish Anti-Tank Regiment (formed in 1945 from smaller units) (1 pułk artylerii przeciwpancernej) – Major R. Dowbór
1st Polish Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment (1 pułk artylerii przeciwlotniczej) – Lt.Col. O. Eminowicz, later Maj. W. Berendt
10th Polish Mounted Rifle Regiment (10 pułk strzelców konnych) (amoured reconnaissance equipped with Cromwell tanks) – Maj. J. Maciejowski
HQ, Military Police,
engineers (saperzy dywizyjni) – Lt.Col. J. Dorantt
signals (1 batalion łączności) – Lt.Col. J. Grajkowski
administration, military court, chaplaincy, reserve squadrons, medical services.
885 – officers and NCOs
15,210 – soldiers
381 – tanks (mostly M4 Shermans)
473 – artillery pieces (mostly motorized)
4,050 – motor cars, trucks, utility vehicles, artillery carriers.