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The Knights of Saint Barbara
by Stan Biernacik
Polish American Journal, May 1995

Saint Barbara, the patroness of the Polish Artillery, must surely be proud of the fine accomplishments and the war-time performance of the fighting men who have entrusted their fate into her care.

In peace-time her feast was celebrated by the units of the Polish Artillery in special observances to honor her name. During the war, her intercession was frequently sought by the gunners who trusted that their saint will protect them against the enemy and save her soldiers from all harm.

In the history of armed warfare, artillery always played a very decisive, if not a crucial, role. Without the support of the destructive and protective fire provided by the guns of the artillery units, the fighting infantrymen would have a very difficult task to move forward and to accomplish their objectives.

During the First and Second World Wars, the value of the artillery support was well-recognized and fully appreciated by military commanders. In the early stages of World War II, the heavy pieces of artillery had to be drawn by teams of six to ten horses, which slowed them down and considerably lowered their mobility. Later, World War II produced much progress in the area of field artillery. Lighter cannons were pulled by specially-designed trucks, while others were self-propelled by being mounted on tanks.

1st POLISH ARMORED DIVISION. The important part played by the artillery during the Second World War could easily be proven by the fact that the 1st Polish Armored Division, which fought in Normandy in 1944, was effectively assisted by the fire power of four regiments equipped with 473 pieces of artillery. Commanding the divisional artillery during the Invasion of Europe was Colonel B. Noel. In charge of the 1st Motorized Regiment was Lt. Col. J. Krautwald, while Lt. Col. K. Maresch led the 2nd Motorized Regiment. The 1st Anti-tank Regiment and the 1st Anti-aircraft Regiments were commanded by Maj. R. Dowbor and Lt. Col. O. Eminowicz, respectively.

During the crucial Normandy action in the area of Caen-Falaise, where several German divisions were surrounded and later destroyed, the Polish Division, assisted by the effective fire of her artillery regiments, frustrated all German attempts to penetrate her lines and prevented Nazi troops from escaping to the east. The heroic stand of Polish Armored men resulted in a total encirclement of Nazi troops and in the closing of the "Falaise Gap," their only escape route.

During the course of the action, Poles took 5,200 prisoners. including a Nazi general, Otto Von Elfeldt. German military equipment captured by the Polish division by August 21, 1944 in that important battle area, consisted of 55 tanks, 44 artillery pieces, 38 armored vehicles, 152 horse-drawn wagons, plus a variety of weapons and supplies.

POLISH CONTRIBUTION. It would be hard to make some estimate as to the contribution of the divisional artillery towards the war-time victories of the Polish Armor, but it will also be fair to state that the well-trained units of the 1st and 2nd Motorized, the Anti-tank and the Anti-aircraft Artillery Regiments contributed greatly to the battle successes of one of the finest Allied armored units which fought the Nazis during World War II—the 1st Polish Armored Division.

The Division was formed in Scotland in 1942 under the command of Gen. Stanislaw Maczek, a seasoned armored warfare expert whose military career began during the First World War while serving as an Austrian army officer. Officers in charge of the Divisional artillery were pre-1939 commanders, all well versed in the aspects of modern use of their weapons. Those on the lower levels of command were mainly younger officers, many of them the 1940 graduates of the "Centre des Ecoles d'Artillerie," at Coetquidan, France. While the junior officers possessed less field training, their more recent knowledge, along with the familiarity of the up-to-date methods employed by the Allied artillery, compensated for their lack of practical experience. These younger officers, after escaping from Poland following the 1939 war, joined the resurrected Polish forces on the French soil and were trained in the art of war on French 75mm guns. "The 75mm" was a fast and a very effective artillery piece, which was initially pulled by a team of six horses and early in 1940 was greatly improved and motorized. In the history of artillery science, the 75mm gun is always mentioned as one of the finest weapons of its kind and as a prototype for all modern artillery.

After the fall of France in June of 1940, the Polish artillery units were once more revived on the friendly British Soil. Now in England, which refused to surrender to Hitler, the Polish artillery was equipped with British 4.5 howitzers and deployed during the "quiet" 1940-42 war years along the eastern coast of Scotland. Their task was to guard the north sea beaches of Scotland against the threat of German invasion. The "4.5" was an excellent short-range weapon. It was mobile and very accurate. The Howitzer was also well-suited and probably designed for the support of infantry.

DIVISION FORMED. In April of 1942, General Maczek received orders from General W. Sikorski, commander-in-chief of the Polish Armed Forces Abroad, to form the first Polish Armored Division. It was at that time that the 1st and the 2nd Motorized Artillery Regiments were created. The newly-organized regiments were equipped with the British 25-pound medium range guns, without a doubt the finest field artillery pieces designed and built during the Second World War. Twenty-five pounders were fast and efficient. They were easy to handle and provided the Armored Division with an excellent weapon suitable for the modern warfare. The guns of the 1st Artillery Regiment were mounted on American-built Sherman tanks, while those of the 2nd Regiment were propelled by enclosed trucks.

During the military action in northern Europe in 1944, which followed the Invasion of Normandy by the Allied Armies, the effective and dependable artillery earned a very high praise from divisions commander General Maczek. The artillerymen gained also
a well-deserved respect from all other units, which during the action could always count on the support and the protection from their comrades who manned and operated the "twenty-five pounders."

Whether ordered to support—with their fire—the advancing infantry, "softening" the enemy lines or destroying tactical objects on the enemy side, the artillery always answered the call. Under the protective fire of the artillery, the engineers felt safe, while building pontoon bridges across the canals in Holland, and the Infantry, supported by the guns of Artillery regiments, could advance with confidence, being sure that shells which whistled over their heads would always land on their intended targets.

During the entire 1944-45 war in Europe, the artillery of the first Polish Armored Division served well their country, their allies, and their commander. Their countless sacrifices, their dedication to duty, and their field experience played an important role in assuring the successes and the numerous military victories for the Polish Division. The Division, which fought in World War II on the side of the Western allies, made a very significant contribution towards the defeat of the Nazi armies in Europe and helped to assure peace for the entire world.

FIRST TO FIGHT. "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.

Poland, ironically the first country invaded by Hitler, was not invited to attend the V-E commemoration in England. All but a few Polish airmen under British command attended the ceremonies. Allied commanders felt inviting Poles to the historic occasion would upset their then Allies, the Russians, which, as history revealed, had its own set of plans for Poland.

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 be a certain paradox in the history of the Polish nation. Though always a part of Western civilization, at the end of World War II—as 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 as 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.

The late Stan Z. Biernacik, of Hamburg, New York, was 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.
 


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