The Valiant Poles – Pt 4
This is the final article in four-part series about the largely unknown contribution of the exile Poles in World War II.
General Stanislaw Maczek, leader
of the 1st Polish Armoured Division
In August 1984, my wife and I traveled to Normandy as guests of the veterans of the Polish 1st Armored Division. Before boarding a Channel ferry from Dover to Calais we were hosted in London by our sponsor, a former Polish soldier. He lived in a posh section of Holland Park in an enormous mansion. He had an amazing story to tell. After the battle of Normandy, the 1st Armored Division advanced along with other units of the British 21st Army Group toward the German border. In the autumn cold and mud, the Allies hit a brick wall and were unable to advance into Germany and end the war in 1944. The Poles fought a series of bloody battles in and around the border city of Aachen. One day our host, an infantryman, spotted a badly wounded soldier lying in the mud, more dead than alive. He gently placed the wounded soldier in his jeep and took him to a nearby aid station, assuming he would probably die there – and promptly forgot about the incident.
Fast forward to the early 1950s. Like so many other stateless Poles, our host never returned to Communist Poland after the war and instead began to carve out a new life for himself in England. One day he received a telephone call from a complete stranger who asked to meet later that day at the Dorchester Hotel on Park Lane. Once there, the stranger identified himself as another former Polish soldier presently living in Canada and said: “Do you know who I am?” Our friend said no, he hadn’t a clue. “I am the man whose life you saved at Aachen in 1944 and I’ve come to reward you.” The Canadian Pole had become a very wealthy businessman and explained it had taken him years to track down the man who had saved his life. The reward he bestowed was the British franchise for a fast growing, profitable product. Over the years our friend became very wealthy simply because of his small act of kindness.
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We arrived in Normandy in a rental car and joined our host and several other Polish veterans at a hotel in Thury-Harcourt, a pleasant town on the Orne River, south of Caen. The first of the ceremonies took place on a Sunday in Falaise, the scene of very bloody fighting in August 1944. This ceremony was attended by French and Polish dignitaries and was followed by lunch at a local restaurant. The main event of the reunion was to take place later that day in the old Roman city of Argentan, thirteen miles south of Falaise. Another of our new friends was nicknamed “Zbig”. He had carved out a very successful life in England after the war and owned his own business in London. My wife was not feeling well and he suggested she ride in his more comfortable Rover automobile rather than our rental car — a decidedly un-plush Volkswagen Rabbit. “Follow me,” he said, and took off like the proverbial bat out of hell. Zbig seemed to think he should break the land-speed record for automobile travel from Falaise to Argentan. I had to drive at speeds approaching or exceeding 80 mph in an effort to keep the Rover in sight. Arriving in Argentan I promptly lost them. To make matters worse, I had absolutely no idea where the restaurant was situated and, wondering what sort of mess I had gotten myself into, by sheer luck spotted the Rover a few blocks ahead and, breathing a sigh of relief, followed it to our destination.
Poles know how to fight and they also know how to party. The reunion dinner was a raucous affair with endless courses of food, drink, toasts – and tears. Many of those present had not seen one another in forty years. My wife and I were the only Americans present and were warmly welcomed into a friendly new family.
We spent several more days in Normandy, and on one of them Zbig asked if we would like to accompany him on a quest to retrace his movements in 1944 during Operation Totalize. He had been a young cadet officer assigned to the lead tank of an armored battle group that had been assigned the mission of establishing blocking positions in the rolling farm and hill country east of Falaise around the village of Chambois. On one of the hottest days of the year we set off from a farm village that looked no different in 1984 than it had in 1944. Zbig’s memory proved to be remarkable. Mile after mile we arrived at places he remembered passing. During the afternoon we came to an unmarked crossroads and there he described how his unit had stopped at this intersection to look at their maps to determine where to go next. From the west suddenly came a column of German tanks and vehicles fleeing the Allied trap. The Germans thought the Poles were a friendly unit. It was their first and last mistake. The Poles wiped out the column in a brief but fierce firefight.
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