During the early days of June 1944, the greatest armada in the world’s history of military warfare was assembled by the Western Allies in the English Channel ports, awaiting orders to launch an all-out offensive against Adolph Hitler’s “Festung Europa,” the “Fortress of Europe.”
Powerful combat units, landing crafts, and the air support of British and United States Air Forces stood ready and waiting for the command to move.
The English weather, however, refused to cooperate. The waters of the English Channel turned dangerously rough and stormy. Heavy rain and dense fog, which spread from the coast of England to the beaches of France, made the crossing appear almost impossible.
At the headquarters of the Allied Military Command established in Southern England, supreme commander of the expeditionary forces General Dwight D. Eisenhower and the commander of the Allied land forces, British General Bernard Law Montgomery, were agonizing over the decision when to unleash the troops under their command, and when to proceed with the execution of the strategic plans for the long-awaited “Operation Overlord.” Allied strategy envisaged a full-scale assault on the heavily fortified German positions, established on Hitler’s orders along the Northern coast of France. Inclement weather conditions, which prevailed in Southern England at the time, were not the only obstacle hampering their decision. There was also a very strong political aspect of the case which seriously affected the ultimate decisions of the men in charge.
The Balkan Front
During the Allied Conference held in Teheran, November 29, 1943, participants United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister of England Winston S. Churchill were pressured by Russian Marshal Joseph Stalin to open a second front at the earliest possible date. Such action, according to Stalin, would draw some of the German Panzer divisions to the West and bring some relief to war-weary Russian defenders.
During the conference, Churchill expressed his own ideas of engaging German forces in Europe by opening the “Balkan Front.” This plan envisaged the transfer of some of the Allied units fighting in Italy, which would land in the area of Yugoslavia and later in Austria-and attack what was considered the German “soft underbelly’—the weakest area of the Nazi defense system. Additionally, such an Allied drive would be assured full success by the expected support from the well-organized Polish Home Army and from many strong partisan groups, many of which by 1944 would be well established in Eastern European countries. A victory in Eastern Europe, Churchill thought, would have also driven a wedge between German forces and isolated the units fighting on the Russian front from their homeland in Europe.
Stalin Has His Way
According to Lord Moran, Churchill’s personal physician who was present at the Teheran Conference, Stalin’s reply to Churchill’s military plans were formulated in one sentence: “If we are here to discuss military matters, then Russia is only interested in Overlord,” the opening of the second front in France. Marshal Stalin’s opposition to Churchill’s idea was based, without doubt, on his plans to enforce Russian hegemony over the countries of Eastern Europe once Nazi Germany was defeated.
President Roosevelt, who at the time was highly impressed by Stalin’s personality and his military accomplishments, sympathized with him, and felt that in order to preserve Allied unity, the United States and England should follow Stalin’s suggestion and open the second front in France. Judging now, after almost a half-century long Cold War and the enslavement of Eastern European countries by Communist Russia which followed the cessation of hostilities in Europe in 1945, it is safe to say that the tragic and costly post-war events could have been avoided if sounder political wisdom had prevailed during the Allied Conference in 1943.
The three leaders of the Allied nations made their decision in Teheran, now it was left to the military commanders to follow their instructions.
The Allied Armada
On June 4th, 1944, supreme headquarters of the Allied expeditionary forces in England received a message from the British Army Meteorologist section, headed by Air Force Captain James A. Stagg. The message read: “Good weather for 24 to 36 hours.”
Upon receiving the favorable report, Eisenhower ordered “OK, we’ll go.” His fateful words uttered at 4:15 a.m. on June 5th, 1944 set in motion the powerful Allied military crusade against Hitler’s Europe. General Eisenhower’s command to his troops launched “Operation Overlord,” and sent across the English Channel the greatest amphibious assault force ever assembled in the entire history of military warfare This long-planned D-Day operation involved some 150,000 armed men from the United States, England and Canada, who were supported by tens of thousands of Polish, French, Czech and other Allied troops.
To transport their combined military forces across the English Channel toward German-occupied French beaches ode named Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha, and Utah-some 900 warships were used. They ranged from PT boats to twenty-six battleships and heavy cruisers. Two hundred and twenty-nine Land-Ship Tanks (LSTs) and 3,372 land crafts completed the Allied assault force.
In Southern England, 163 air bases with 11,000 aircraft formed the support units for the expeditionary land forces, and 124,000 hospital beds stood ready for the casualties. To soften the enemy defenses, over 5,268 tons of bombs were dropped by Allied planes on German-held position in Normandy.
The Best Made Plans...
In the early hours of June 6th, 1944, against the advice of British Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, who feared a wholesale slaughter, three airborne divisions were sent to Normandy. The operation included 16,000 Americans and 8,000 British Airborne troops of the U.S. 82nd and 101st divisions an the British 6th Parachute division. The soldiers of the airborne divisions fought gallantly but suffered heavy losses. Two months after their landing, General Richard N. Gale, commander of the British 6th Airborne division, wrote a letter to his men in which he said: “We have fought for ground and gained all we fought for; all we have gained by skill and guts we have held with courage and determination.”
His words equally applied to the men of the 82nd and 101st American divisions who valor and sacrifices contributed in great measure to the Allied victory in Normandy.
Following the establishment of several beachheads in Normandy, the Allied progress was slowed down by strong and unexpected opposition from Nazi forces. In one of his notes, the supreme commander Eisenhower wrote: “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Harve area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold ... the troops, the Air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame is attached to the attempt, it is mine alone.” (Michael E. Hasken, editor World War II).
In fact, many things went wrong on D-Day:
“The paratroopers were badly scattered; scores of gliders were shot down or lost on the way; on Omaha Beach, the invaders ran into unexpected enemy strength and were slaughtered in the water and on the beach; heavy seas slowed operations along the beaches,” said James McGregor Burns, author of Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom.
Guts and Determination
The few initial failures did not, however, deter the Allied commanders who did not sway away from their plans to achieve a complete and decisive victory over the Nazi forces.
The Allies faced a powerful and well-trained German force of seasoned troops. They were commanded by General Gerd Von Runsted and, at the time of the invasion, by the “Desert Fox”—General Erwin Rommel. The Atlantic Wall-the German Maginot Line, was built along the Northern coast of France on the orders of Hitler. This massive steel and concrete structure was erected to protect the German defenders and to prevent the invaders from establishing a beachhead on French soil. At the same time, a massive German counterattack would throw the enemy back to the sea. The beaches were strengthened by steel piles, stakes armed with mines and slanting gates connected with barbed wire.
While awaiting the invasion, the German commanders were never sure as to the exact point where the Allied troops would land. The prevailing opinion of Nazi commanders assumed the assault to take place in the area of Pas de Calais, the nearest point in France from the Southern coast of England.
By June 6th, 1944, General Rommel had at his disposal fifty-five infantry divisions in France, thirty of them were battle-ready and the rest of them consisting of new recruits and prisoners from the Russian front, who had volunteered to serve with the Germans. Some of the units were dispersed throughout France, but about a dozen of first class infantry divisions were deployed on the Normandy coast. The core of the German defense was formed, however, by the eleven Panzer divisions, which were well-equipped and possessed formidable fighting power.
At the end of May 1944, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, commander of Army Group B in Normandy, was confident that his troops could successfully defend their positions and eventually defeat the Allied invasionary forces. However, as reinforcements arrived for the American, English and Canadian troops, the fate of the battle was beginning to turn in favor of the Allies.
In the first ten days after D-Day, half a million men crossed the English Channel to reinforce their comrades on the battlefields. On the 4th of July, 1944, General Eisenhower reported to President Roosevelt that the millionth Allied soldier had landed in Normandy.
The Allied progress was still slow, but the troops were gaining ground and inching ahead. Gradually, the American troops from the South and British troops from the North began to create and encircling-pincer movement to trap German divisions positioned around the French cities of Caen and Falaise. The Second British Army and the First Canadian Army pressed from the North, aiming to link with the units of the First and Third American Armies moving from the South. By August 16th, the Battle of Falaise Pocket began.
Composed of the Fifth Panzer Army, the Seventh Army and Panzer Group Eberbach fought desperately to prevent their encirclement and to keep open the escape route toward the East. On August 7th, the Canadian First Army commanded by Lt. General. H.D. Crerar, opened a powerful drive South-Operation Totalize-in order to link with General George Patton’s U.S. Third Army. Despite the great strength of the Allied forces and the bombardment by 500 flying fortresses, the Germans held on.
On August 14th, Montgomery resolved to continue the Canadian Armored drive in an attempt to advance toward his main target of the city of Falaise. On that day, eight hundred British bombers dropped 4,000 tons of bombs on the enemy positions, some of them missing their targets, but permitting the Canadians to take the ground they wanted.
As a result of the devastating air raids and of the slow and steady advance made by the Allied units, the “Falaise Pocket,’ which held embattled German troops, began to shrink. The narrowing neck of the pocket, in the vicinity of the village of Chambois was becoming much harder to pass through and to escape the encirclement.
On August 18th, General Montgomery ordered the First Polish Armored Division to move forward and to complete the encirclement by closing the German escape gap. The Polish Division was already in action since August 8th as part of the Second Canadian Corps, commanded by General Guy Simmonds. The First Armored was formed and trained in Scotland by Polish General Stanislaw Maczek, a seasoned expert in the art of armored warfare, whose exploits dated back to the Russo-Polish War in 1920.
His men were a rare assembly of volunteers from all parts of the world. Most of them escaped from occupied Poland, other came from France and other European countries. A good number of “Sikorski’s Tourists” or the “Schwartze Brigade” as Hitler called them, hailed from as far as the North and South American continents.
Though Maczek’s men represented a vast diversity of backgrounds, they all had one common goal in mind: they were there to join the Polish armed forces so that they may fight their dreaded enemy and take revenge on Hitler.
In its full strength, the First Armored Division counted 885 officers, and 15,210 non-commissioned officers and enlisted men. The battle equipment of this powerful Polish battle force was made up of 381 tanks, 473 artillery pieces and 4,050 military vehicles. To execute General Montgomery’s orders of August 18th, the Polish armored columns moved swiftly in the direction of their assigned targets against a strong opposition by German defenders. Still, they managed to clear all obstacles laid in front of them by the enemy.
Spearheading the drive, Tank Platoon Commander John Karcz was ordered to enter the French village of Chambois, occupied by the Germans. Late on August 19th in the distance, Karcz noticed what he thought was an enemy column. ‘Me helmets of the soldiers in front looked German, but at closer range and before he ordered his men to fire, Karcz found out they were Americans!
There was much rejoicing and celebration, as the men of the 395th U.S. Infantry Regiment of the 90th Infantry Division, ran across the fields to join their Polish comrades in arms. The time was almost 6:00 p.m. and the name of the American officer was Captain H.E. Waters—the Falaise Gap was now closed and the German escape route now sealed.
But the battle was not over yet.
No Time For Burying The Dead
In his diary, Sec. Lt. Karcz recalls the historic encounter with the Americans and Capt. Waters. In the following words: “He ran toward me and lifted me in the air as if I had been a child.” (John Keegan, “Six Armies in Normandy”). Since they were temporarily separated from their main forces, the Americans decided to place their unit under Polish command and to fight alongside the Polish armored men.
For the next three days, trapped and encircled German troops launched several desperate counterattacks at the Polish-held positions in the area of Chambois. But the Poles fought back and thwarted every enemy attempt to escape their fate and to avoid total destruction. Major Wladyslaw Zgorzelski, whose fighting group consisted of the 10th Dragoons Regiment of Sherman tanks (Motorized Cavalry, 24th Lancers Regiment) and two anti-tank batteries, captured the village of Chambois and was ordered by General Maczek “To hold it at all costs.” Zgorzelski wrote in his diary:
“The weather created particular difficulties on that battlefield. Battledress proved very uncomfortable in the day’s heat under the blazing sun. Clouds and dust, raised by hundreds of tracked and wheeled vehicles from dry soil, covered the countryside and penetrated into the eyes and parched throats, while drinking water was in short supply. (The) most pitiful sight was that of the dispatch riders covered in dust, with black faces, swollen eyelids and reddened eyes. There was no water, so locally-found cider was tried but found to be a poor substitute. The most burdensome thing one had to endure was the stench of the swollen German corpses decomposing quickly under the blazing sun. Their bodies were scattered everywhere on the fields—in the hedges and amongst the buildings. Continuous fighting left no time for burying the dead.”
Fortunes of War
The Battle of Chambois reached its peak with a suicidal German infantry assault on August 21st. In that attack, Polish armored units suffered heavy losses in the personnel and equipment but again succeeded in frustrating all enemy attempts to penetrate their lines.
By late afternoon of that day, August 21st, the bulk of the German Seventh Army Surrendered. Although, during the action in the fields of Normandy some of the German units managed to escape the Allied trap, 10,000 had been killed and 50,000 were taken prisoner. Their tanks, artillery, and vast military equipment were left behind. The Allied loses were also heavy but not comparable to those suffered by the enemy.
The battle casualties of the first Polish Armored Division alone amounted to 1,290 dead, 3,820 wounded and 22 missing in action. When the Battle of Normandy was over, First Canadian Army Commander General Crerar sent the following telegram to General Maczek:
“First Canadian Army is very proud because of the fact that (the) Polish Armored Division is a part of us. If in the future we all continue to fight with equal determination and as well as at the present time, the mutual celebration of final victory should not be much delayed.”
General Guy Simmonds, who delivered the message as commander of the Canadian II Corps, added his own words:
“I am deeply pleased that the excellent accomplishments of the 1st Polish Armored Division received these words of recognition on the part of the Commander of the Army.”
The importance of the latest Allied victory, which opened the routes for the drive across France, Belgium, Holland and finally into Germany, was stressed again by Crerar in a message that stated:
“The Battle of Chambois decided the fate of the war in Normandy as well that of the entire French Republic.”
The Canadians later dubbed Hill 262 the “Polish Battlefield.” Marking the 20th anniversary of the of Falaise two decades later, former Allied commander Dwight D. Eisenhower would comment: “No other battlefield presented such a horrible sight of death, hell and total destruction.”
The Push Continues
The First Armored Division continued to fight on the side of the Allies, liberating Abbeville and St. Omer in France, Ypres, Ghent and Antwerp in Belgium, and Breda, Moerdijk and Teravel in Holland.
The Division’s ultimate moment of glory arrived on May 6th, 1945, when the units of the 10th Armored Cavalry Brigade, commended by Col. Anthony Grudzinski, captured Wilhemshaven, principal port of the German Navy, and accepted the surrendered of the entire German garrison, including 200 ships. Two days later, Germany surrendered.
“For Poles, however, the victory was not complete; unable to return to a Poland ruled by the Soviet-imposed government, Maczek and his soldiers became immigrants in the free world,” wrote Jon Guttman in the November 1992 issue of “World War II.”
First to Fight
Forty-seven years later, on the occasion of the celebration of the 75th anniversary of Polonia’s Armed Effort during World War I, held in Buffalo, N.Y., Colonel Marian Moraczewski, Attache Millitaire at the Polish Embassy in Washington, reviewing the post-World War II situation, aptly stated:
“There seems to he a certain paradox in the history of the Polish nation. Though always a part of Western civilization, at the end of World War II—a result of the Yalta Conference following the agreements concluded between Roosevelt and Churchill—Poland lost 26 percent of her pre-war territory and unwillingly became a part of the Communist sphere of influence.
“And all this happened in spite of the fact that Poles were the first to fight against Nazi Germany and contributed greatly to the defeat of Hitler,” he continued.
“It is a sad and strange paradox, indeed,” said the colonel. “A nation, that for a thousand years, fought to protect Western civilization, was abandoned after the Second World War by her former allies and was left at the mercy of the Soviet Union and the Communist system.”
Now that Poland has regained her political freedom and achieved full independence, the Polish nation is able to charter her own course among the free nations of the world. And today, the countless sacrifices of her sons and daughters of Poland, who fought in every theater of the world in the name of freedom and liberty during the entire World War II, no longer seem to be in vain.
Author Stan Z. Biernacik, of Hamburg, New York, is a Polish American Journal contributing editor. He served during the Invasion of Normandy as an officer of the 2nd Field Artillery Regiment, 1st Polish Armored Division.
The D-Day Invasion of
Poles Played A Crucial Role in Bringing
Nazi Germany to Its Knees
by Stan Z. Biernacik
Polish American Journal
June 1994. Reprinted June 2004
Polish General Stanislaw Maczek (left) visits with General Dwight D. Eisenhower in May 1944. As part of Poland’s military command organizing on Allied soil, Gen. Maczek formed and trained Poland’s First Armored Division in Scotland.
© 2016 POLISH AMERICAN JOURNAL
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