A Polish Reunion In Normandy Conclusion
During one of our days in Normandy in 1984 Dr. Benamou escorted my wife and I into the infamous “Corridor of Death” just east of the village of Chambois. We parked in the village and walked along a path a short distance into the countryside while Dr. Benamou described what had occurred there forty years earlier that same month. Fragments of metal and detritus were still occasionally visible in the ground despite having been picked over for years by souvenir hunters. So much death and destruction took place there that it is unlikely it will ever be free of its remnants of death.
During one of my trips to Normandy some years earlier I had traveled to the area of the Falaise gap and came across a World War II Kübelwagen (the German equivalent of the American jeep) with a French license plate that had clearly been saved and restored. It was a visible reminder that war had once come to this now peaceful sector of Normandy.
In last month’s installment I briefly described the desperate battles fought by the Poles to fend off German counterattacks and impede the German escape from the corridor leading east from the village of Chambois. Since then I’ve come across a reference to what the Poles on the Mace thought was clouds of thin black smoke over the battlefield but which, in reality, turned out to be massive clouds of flies. On the day we visited the “Corridor of Death” it was difficult imagine that such horrific scenes could have existed.
Other than the great day of the Polish reunion in Argentan the highlight of our week in Normandy were the two trips we made to Mount Ormel, the scene of the final pivotal battle during the closing of the Falaise gap that, as noted last month, had been compressed into the Trun – Chambois gap.
The day we visited the farm with the image of a white horse in front with Zbigniew Mieczkowski, we ended our journey on Mount Ormel where Zbig showed us the Polish view of the Corridor of Death below and west toward the valley of the River Dives. He also showed us where the Poles had established a makeshift POW encampment for the hundreds of Germans who were captured during the three-day battle. As with most such now tranquil scenes in the postwar era, it was difficult to envision the hell Zbig and his comrades had once endured there.
From the summit of Mount Ormel one could easily see into the valley below where desperate German soldiers attempted to claw their way up through the thick undergrowth as the Poles above fought fired at often pointblank range to defeat their counterattacks.
The final event of our weeklong trip to Normandy occurred on one of the hottest afternoons of the summer. Assembled at the Memorial atop Mount Ormel were some one hundred or more Polish veterans, many members of the clergy of various denominations, and a large number of French dignitaries and senior officers. The temperature was in the 90s, yet the veterans were all dressed in suits and ties. As guests of the Poles we were accorded a place near the Memorial where the ceremony took place.
My wife was still feeling the effects of her weeklong bout with a tummy illness and any hope we had that the ceremony we were about to witness would be brief were soon dashed. It seemed to go on forever under a broiling sun, as one speaker after another spoke, mostly in French but some in Polish. We both marveled at how these men, none of them young anymore, withstood a marathon that had evolved into an ordeal that lasted close to two hours of prayers, speeches and more than one wreath-laying. We marveled that none fainted from heatstroke.
Of the many speakers, one was a senior French general who not only lavished praise on the Poles for their valor but also on Gen. Philippe Leclerc’s Free French 2d Armored Division, which was also a participant in the battle of the Falaise Gap.
One of the honored guests present that afternoon was a venerated hero of the Polish liberation movement, ninety-two year old General Stanislaw Maczek, the former commander of the Polish 1st Armored Division.
Despite the scorching heat there was no escaping that we were privileged to witness a very dramatic ceremony, filled with both remembrance and sorrow. As I had during our earlier visit to Mount Ormel with Zbig, I tried, but ultimately failed to be able to transform the scenes taking place that afternoon into what it must have been like for those veterans who had fought so valiantly: both those who survived, and those who lost their lives in one of the most savage small unit actions of World War II.
Although the somber ceremony ended in late afternoon, it was by no means the end of the day’s festivities. We remained on Mount Ormel until darkness fell, when there was a sound and light show that recreated the battle through a narrative on loudspeakers and fireworks from the valley of the River Dives.
As we made our way back to our hotel, my wife and I, although exhausted, realized that we had just witnessed a unique event that celebrated and remembered what had occurred on a once unremarkable French hill almost forty years earlier.
The Polish contribution to the Allied campaigns of 1944-45 have never been accorded the recognition I believe they deserve, and I consider it both a duty and an honor to play even a small part in helping to air their role. The battle for Mount Ormel may have been only a very small element of the great Normandy campaign but for soldiers like Zbigniew Mieczkowski, all of them exile volunteers who fought for a nation so brutalized by the Germans, it was a monumental achievement.
History should never forget what they did on Mount Ormel during three days in August 1944.