Monday, October 30, 2006

In praise of the Poles

Looking over my limited but happy collection of books, I ran across a page on the Polish Army in Italy and had a giggle remembering my first contact with the Polish military. The Polish 1st Armoured Division once almost caused me to have a wreck.

On 29 OCT 44 they liberated Breda, NL with zero civilian casualities. This is the gift to that town that caused the almost-crash too many moons ago (hey, you're driving around and out of the corner of your eye you see something that tells your over-historied brain "Achtung, Panzer!"). But here is why I take today to praise the Poles. They fought in Northern Europe and Italy with great honor, only to have no place to go. So few know their story. I'll steal some from Wikipedia linked above.
By the end of July 1944 the division has been transferred to Normandy. Last elements arrived on August 1 and the unit was attached to First Canadian Army. It entered combat on August 8 during the Operation Totalize. The division twice suffered serious bombings by Allied aircraft yet it achieved a brilliant victory against the Wehrmacht in the battles for Mont Ormel, 262 Hill and the town of Chambois. This series of offensive and defensive operations came to be known as the Battle of Falaise in which a large number of German Wehrmacht and SS divisions were trapped in a huge Chambois pocket and subsequently destroyed. Maczek's division had the crucial role of closing the pocket at the escape route of those German divisions. Hence the fighting was absolutely desperate and the 2nd Polish Armoured, 24th Polish Lancers and 10th Dragoons supported by the 8th and 9th Infantry Battalions took the brunt of German attacks trying to break free from the pocket. Surrounded and running out of ammo they withstood all the incessant attacks of multiple fleeing panzer divisions for 48 hours until they were relieved.
After the Allied armies broke out from Normandy, Polish 1st Armoured Division pursued Germans along the coasts of the English Channel. It liberated, among others, the towns of Ypres, Ghent and Passchendale. A successful outflanking manouevre planned and performed by gen. Maczek allowed liberation of the city of Breda without any civilian casualties (October 29, 1944). It spent the winter of 44-45 on the south bank of the river Rhine, guarding a sector around Moerdijk in the 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 1st Armoured entered the Reich in the area of Ems. On May 6 the division seized the Kriegsmarine naval base in Wilhelmshaven, where gen. Maczek accepted the capitulaton 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.
The majority of its soldiers were not able to return to Poland and stayed in exile.
So, what retirement plan did they get? What "rights" did they demand from their government? Wait. They didn't have a government.

Why did they fight? Did they fight and die for nothing? Looking at the modern Poland that few of they have ever seen, I would say, no - but their direct impact is only to the morale, and tradition they gave the new nation few knew. In the end, they mostly served for each other and their honor. Sounds about right. Must have been enough. Should be enough. Mmmmm. Benchmark and ponder. I'm clearing datum.

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