Canadians have a particularly close relationship with the Polish Armoured Division that fought as part of the 1st Canadian Army throughout much of WW II. Many Polish veterans, unwilling to return to their country while it was under Soviet control, settled in Canada and this strengthened the connection.
The Polish Armd. Div. was formed out of elements of the army that escaped from Poland and reassembled in France during the winter of 1939-40. Polish troops, serving under French command, fought in Norway and in the Battle of France.
When Paris was declared an open city and rumours of an imminent surrender reached the Polish commander, General Wladyslaw Sikorski, all units were ordered to try to escape to Britain. Gen. Stanislaw Maczek’s 10th Mechanical Cavalry Brigade, which became the core of the Polish Armd. Div., lost three quarters of its tanks in battle with the Germans before disengaging and withdrawing toward the coast. Maczek donned a disguise and reached Scotland via North Africa.
Polish soldiers arriving in England in the aftermath of the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940 were quickly dispatched to Scotland where they became a colourful and welcome part of the wartime scene. A large number of officers, but relatively few other ranks, made it to Britain so plans to recruit Poles from North America were implemented. Units remained under strength until Poles released from Soviet prisoner of war camps were allowed to form a Polish corps to fight in Italy or join their comrades in Scotland.
While the Polish army regrouped and trained, veterans of the Polish air force and navy who reached Britain were plunged into the conflict. Polish squadrons played a distinguished role in the Battle of Britain and Poles made up 12 per cent of the effective strength of Fighter Command during the critical month of September 1940. Polish destroyers, sent to join the British fleet at the outbreak of the war, assisted in the Dunkirk evacuation and carried out escort work as part of the Royal Navy’s 5th Destroyer Flotilla.
The Polish Armd. Div. reached its authorized strength in 1944, but it was evident it would enter battle without enough reinforcements available to replace casualties.
The division was organized along standard British lines with armoured and infantry brigades, each of three battalions, together with reconnaissance, artillery and anti-tank regiments, plus a motorized infantry battalion; 14,000 men and 240 tanks.
The Polish Armd. Div. arrived in France on the last day of July, which was also the first day of the 1944 Warsaw uprising. The Polish Home Army seized control of the city on the assumption that the Soviet Army, whose spearheads were just a few miles away, would maintain pressure and force a general German retreat. It quickly became evident that Stalin was quite prepared to let the Germans destroy Warsaw and the anti-communist home army. On Aug. 3, the guns of the Red Army fell silent. Appeals from Churchill to intervene or at least allow Allied aircraft to deliver supplies to the besieged city–using Soviet controlled airfields–were denied with Stalin insisting that “the Soviet government does not wish to associate itself either directly or indirectly with the adventure in Warsaw.”
The British press and the BBC carried regular bulletins from Warsaw as well as commentary on the situation. For the men of the Polish Armd. Div. the constant question was: “What news of Warsaw?”
First Cdn. Army was told that the Polish Armd. Div. would come under command in time for Operation Totalize, set for Aug. 8, 1944. The Poles had just arrived in Normandy and so there was little time to get acquainted. Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds met Maczek and his staff officers for the first time on Aug. 4 and had one more brief discussion with them before Totalize began. The Poles used British liaison officers to improve communications, but Simonds quickly learned that the Poles could not be controlled in the same way a British or Canadian division could be.
There was more than a language barrier at work. The Canadian historian and armoured theorist Roman Jaramowcyz argues that Maczek was “a modern tank officer” who found Simonds’ operational plans too restrictive. On the eve of Totalize, Maczek protested that the frontage of less than a 1,000 yards allowed no room for manoeuvre and would give German anti-tank guns concentrated fields of fire. Simonds refused to alter his plans, insisting that the armour could only function in the open country south of Caen in a set-piece battle with full air and artillery support.
Maczek’s fears were realized on the afternoon of Aug. 8 when his leading armoured regiment lost 26 tanks in a few minutes. The Germans, firing from the small woods that dotted the landscape, caught the Poles in a deadly crossfire. This bottled up elements of the division that were supposed to maintain the momentum of the attack. The Polish Armd. Div. was also hampered by the disastrous “short bombing” of the United States 8th Air Force that caused scores of casualties and the loss of ammunition and equipment.
By nightfall, the Polish had made little progress and orders to continue could not be carried out. The next morning the division launched an attack on a broader front and experienced its first real success.
However, 12th SS battle groups quickly counterattacked and destroyed scores of the flimsy Sherman tanks. Elements of the Polish Armd. Div. were less than a mile from Point 140 where the British Columbia and Algonquin regiments were being systematically destroyed. However, the Poles could not advance further.
It is impossible to exaggerate the inadequacy of Allied armour in such situations. The great strengths of the Sherman tank were its mechanical reliability and speed, the great weaknesses were a high profile, armour plate so thin it could easily be penetrated by any German anti-tank gun and a 75-mm main gun that was ineffective at ranges beyond 500 yards.
After Operation Totalize, the Poles, who had lost 66 tanks, hastened to copy the experiments of the more experienced regiments that had begun to wire and weld additional tank tracks to their hulls in the hope of deflecting hits and avoiding destruction.
Simonds was either unaware of the depth of this problem or determined to ignore it. As a corps commander he could not allow his men to focus on reasons for failure. He had to plan for success and employ the resources available to him. At a commanders conference held just before launching his second armoured Blitzkrieg–Operation Tractable–Simonds was highly critical of the performance of both armoured divisions. He accused them of every known sin under the sun, including lack of drive. He was especially disappointed in the Poles and for Tractable, the massive daylight attack of Aug. 14, he paired the veteran 2nd Cdn. Armd. Bde. with 4th Div. This left the Polish Armd. Div. to form “a firm base.”
The decision gave the Poles time to recover from their first battle and from the ordeal of a second short bombing–this time by the Royal Canadian Air Force–that inflicted more than 200 casualties.
When the order to cross the River Dives and advance toward Trun was received on Aug.15, the Polish Armd. Div. was ideally situated to launch an end run around the main enemy resistance.
Maczek embraced the new orders that were well suited to his ideas about employing an armoured division. The Polish Armd. Div. was organized into battle groups and quickly formed a bridgehead across the Dives.
The Polish and Canadian advance to Trun was slowed by battle groups of the 85th, 21st and 12th SS divisions, which were busy holding the northern edge of the Falaise Pocket. Simonds decided to leave Trun to 4th Armd. and ordered Maczek to take Chambois and link up with the Americans in closing the gap.
The Poles, after two days of continuous combat, were to work their way across the grain of some of the most rugged terrain in Normandy. The hills in this beautiful part of France rise steeply from the river valleys and the only good roads run north-south.
Maczek decided to send one battle group to Chambois and then block the exits by seizing the high ground at Mount Ormel-Coudehard, a hill the Poles would come to call the Maczuga or mace after its appearance on the contour maps.
Unfortunately the commander of the regiment who was to lead the advance to Chambois did not communicate his intentions clearly to the guide supplied by the French resistance. The Koszutski battle group moved due east to a village called Les Champeaux astride the main Trun-Vimoutiers highway, the German escape route to the River Seine. This small force, one armoured regiment and an infantry battalion, had penetrated deep into the German rear areas where it was repeatedly attacked by Royal Air Force Spitfires and Typhoons whose pilots had been briefed to bomb and strafe all movement in an area known to be occupied by the enemy. Despite casualties from friendly fire, the battle group disrupted the German retreat and helped to stem the counterattack by 9th SS Panzer Div.
While Koszutski’s men fought their isolated battle, the rest of the division worked its way to Chambois and the Maczuga.
On the afternoon of Aug. 19, while Canadians were fighting for control of St-Lambert-sur-Dives, the Polish 10th Dragoons in “heavy hand-to-hand battles” fought its way into Chambois and linked up with American infantry from 90th Div. On the maps at corps and army headquarters the gap could now be marked closed, but on the ground exhausted Polish, Canadian and American soldiers had to cope with an enemy that still included thousands of men determined to break the ring and fight their way north.
During the early hours of Aug. 20, senior German officers inside the pocket set about organizing groups of men for one last attempt at a breakout to coincide with a two-pronged attack by II SS Panzer Corps from the north. The Luftwaffe made a major effort to drop supplies and ammunition and while little of it landed within German lines the operation helped morale. Lead groups crossed the Dives during the night, but the main breakout occurred shortly after dawn when thousands of shouting desperate men surged forward.
Once across the river and the Trun-Chambois highway, the Germans were faced with the Polish positions on the Maczuga.
The main road ran over the saddle of the ridge between the two Point 262s held by the Poles. Isolated bands of German soldiers moved forward under constant artillery and machine-gun fire.
On the crest of Mount Ormel, Captain Pierre Seveigny, the forward observation officer for 4th Medium Regt., directed the fire of the 4.5-inch guns that sent 100-pound shells crashing down on the enemy. The battle that raged around Mount Ormel reminded one Pole of “medieval days, when the defence of the battlefield was organized by placing camps in a tight quadrangle. The densely wooded hills were extemely difficult for observation. As a result…German tanks could approach unnoticed, almost up to our positions. This was demonstrated by a Panther and a Sherman facing one another barrel to barrel at a distance of a few metres, both burned…. The Maczuga and Chambois were practically cut off…. All attempts to evacuate our wounded failed.”
There were German prisoners everywhere. Some could be handed over to the Americans, but they, too, were cut off when the enemy recaptured the road into Chambois. Simonds ordered the Canadians to break through to the Poles and the Grenadier Guards. With their machine-guns firing almost continuously, they opened up a line of communication allowing ammunition, food and medical supplies to reach the Maczuga. The British Columbia Regt. broke through to the southern spur of Mount Ormel on the evening of Aug. 21, while a battle group of 1st Hussars tanks and Highland Light Infantry used a full artillery barrage to help them advance toward Chambois. “Hours of bloody fighting” were required to reach the village, but by nightfall the gap was finally closed.
The Poles alone captured 6,000 prisoners and destroyed 70 tanks, 500 vehicles and more than 100 artillery pieces. Their own losses in the four days were 1,400 killed and wounded. The roads through Trun, Chambois and St-Lambert were lined with the wreckage of two German armies. Operational research teams counted 3,043 vehicles, including 187 tanks and self-propelled guns in the area they called the Shambles. Most had been destroyed by artillery and anti-tank guns or had been abandoned by their crews when forward movement became impossible.
The Allies had won a very great victory and could now pursue the broken remnants of the Wehrmacht and SS back to Germany.
If anyone had prophesied that the German army in the west would be destroyed less than three months after the Normandy invasion began on June 6, 1944, they would have been dismissed as a dreamer. With the dream fulfilled, generals, journalists and historians began to argue that the victory was incomplete. They sought to second- guess the decisions that delayed the closing of the gap, but let us leave such speculation to the armchair experts. We should, instead, celebrate the heroism, the endurance and the achievement of the Allied soldiers who won the battle.
And let us be sure and remember the Polish soldiers who fought with such courage while their countrymen and capital city were systematically destroyed. They are not forgotten in Normandy where the Polish War Cemetery is maintained by the French government and the memorial museum on the crest of the Maczuga is maintained and staffed by the citizens of nearby villages.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine, on January 1st 2000.