The Valiant Poles – Pt 3
This is the third article in four-part series about the largely unknown contributions of the exile Poles in World War II.
When we think of the World War II western Allies that fought Germany and Italy we tend to focus on the Big Three: the United States, Great Britain, and Canada. Perhaps less well known is that when the Declaration of United Nations was signed in Washington on January 1, 1942, it united twenty-six nations in the war against Japan and the Axis. One of those signatories was Poland. During the remaining years of the war, another nineteen nations signed on, including: Mexico, most of the nations of South America, France (after its liberation), the Philippines, and on Jan. 16, 1943, Iraq (i). The inclusion of Poland was largely symbolic; however, to the thousands of its young men and women scattered in Britain and other nations, it offered a banner under which they united to fight the evil that had taken over their nation.
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This month my focus is on the Polish 1st Armored Division. Formed in Scotland in early 1942 under the aegis of the Free Polish commander-in-chief, Gen. Wladyslaw Sikorski, the division was commanded by Brig. Gen. (later Maj. Gen.) Stanislaw Maczek, a tough, battle-tested, highly regarded soldier who had been drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I. Maczek fought on the Italian front in the Great War as an NCO, was promoted to lieutenant, and eventually commanded a battalion in an alpine regiment. In World War II, as the 1st Armored’s only commander, Maczek was one of the truly outstanding Allied division commanders.
The first mission of the new division was to guard 125 miles of the Scottish coastline — hardly what its volunteers signed up to do. Like most of the exiles they came initially from occupied Poland via Hungary, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, Spain, Portugal and Roumania. The Germans called them “Sikorski Tourists.” The division had trained hard for two years and by the summer of 1944 its 16,000 men were ready for combat. In July, it crossed the English Channel and was assigned to General H.D.G. Crerar’s First Canadian Army, part of Montgomery’s 21 Army Group.
In early August, the nearly two-month stalemate in Normandy came to an end. Soon after Omar Bradley’s First Army and Patton’s Third Army broke loose in western Normandy, Montgomery launched Operation Totalize on August 7. Totalize was a large-scale offensive southeast of Caen to secure Falaise and eventually link-up with U.S. forces that had turned the corner at Avranches and were operating virtually unopposed on the plains of southern Normandy. One of the lead divisions of the spearhead Canadian II Corps was the Polish 1st Armored.
From its outset, Totalize was one of the bloodiest battles of the Normandy campaign and the fighting on the Caen-Falaise plain was exceedingly difficult. Every mile of ground gained came at a high cost. While the Canadians and Poles were advancing slowly south, the Germans had, on Hitler’s direct orders, unwisely attempted to split American forces by attacking U.S. positions in the west at Mortain, where they were solidly rebuffed, leaving both German flanks dangerously exposed. With Patton about to encircle them, what remained of the German army in Normandy was desperate to withdraw toward the River Seine or be trapped and annihilated – and the Allies were equally determined to stop them(ii).
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Although Montgomery made a determined effort to close what had become a gap between the Canadians in the north and Patton in the south, his real objective lay to the east, where he hoped to block the only escape route still left open to the Germans: a valley between the small farming villages of Trun and Chambois. To carry out this mission he sent the Poles to establish blocking positions farther east. The lead Polish element, a tank brigade, took a wrong turn in the dark along the largely unmarked country roads and, by mistake, ended up east of Chambois on commanding high ground known on the map as Hill 278. Called Mount Ormel by the French, the Poles soon nicknamed it “The Mace.”
To their amazement, the Poles saw that the valley below their position was filled with thousands of weary German soldiers attempting to escape the Allied trap before it completely closed. They were the last remnants of what had once been Germany’s Army Group B.
Thus began one of the most desperate and least known battles of the Normandy campaign. The valley and the hills astride Mount Ormel became a charnel house of dead Germans and burned, broken and smashed equipment, earning it the grisly designation of the Chemin du Couloir de la Mort, the road of death. The Poles were badly outnumbered and soon surrounded. Their losses mounted and all radio contact with their Canadian higher echelon was lost. Nevertheless, this rapidly-dwindling force of valiant Polish soldiers wrought a terrible toll upon their enemy as the Germans launched one furious counterattack after another in an attempt to dislodge them from Mount Ormel. Each attack was repulsed. By the third day of combat the Poles were desperately low on food, water, ammunition and men. The Polish commander, himself wounded, summoned those of his officers who still survived and said, "Gentlemen, all is lost. I do not think the Canadians can come to our rescue. We have . . . no food and very little ammunition . . . (but) there is no question of surrender. Tonight we shall die." The next day another furious battle was fought and still the Poles grimly held on to their precarious positions astride The Mace as the guns of their Sherman tanks cut down massed Germans in a scene of indescribable carnage that lasted until a Canadian tank force finally rescued the beleaguered Poles at literally the last possible minute.
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