Polish 1st Armored Division
The Polish 1st Armored Division truly began as the 10th Mechanized Brigade in 1939. Known as the "Black Brigade" for its distinctive black-leather uniform jackets, it was in fact Poland's only major mechanized unit at the time of the German invasion. Heavily outnumbered and outgunned, the 10th Mech Brigade gave an excellent account of itself during the September Campaign. Covering the retreat of Army Krakow and participating in counteroffensives in the Lwow area, Maczek and his men proved themselves more than a match for the Germans. After the fall of Poland, many of the officers and men escaped into Hungary and Romania, to later go further on to France. Luckily for the Allied cause, General Stanislaw Maczek, the able commander of the 10th Mech, was among them.
In France, they reformed, but that reformation was a slow and frustrating process fully hampered by the arrogant attitude of the French government who, at this point, viewed the Poles as "losers." (One must stop at this point and recall the performance of the French Army in 1940...) In spite of this, the newly formed Polish mechanized forces did see action late in the French campaign. In one incident, they even covered the retreat of a much larger French unit, only to watch the French unit subsequently surrender to the Germans! After the disastrous French Campaign, many of the members escaped to Great Britian. Again, among them was Stanislaw Maczek.
In Great Britain, the Poles once again reconstructed their armored unit, although this time with the resulting strength of a division. Renamed the Polish 1st Armored Division, General Stanislaw Maczek once again took command. Over the next four years, the division trained and prepared to face the nazis once again. Thanks to American vehicles like the Sherman tank, and lovable jeep, the new 1st Armored Division was now a fully modernized and potent force. Despite the new name and formation, the Division retained the old traditional pre-war regimental insignia. All members were also eventually required to wear a blackened left epaulette as a symbol of honor towards the original 10th Mech Brigade of the 1939 September Campaign
In late July 1944, following the Normandy Landing, the 1st Division was dispatched to France to operate as a part of the 1st Canadian Corps. With the battle for Normandy in its final stages, the Americans to the south, and the British and Canadians to the north, the bulk of the nazi army was threatened with destruction. Regardless, the Germans forces were putting up furious resistance. Beginning on August 7, Polish and Canadian forces began driving south to link up with Gen. Patton's Americans and complete the encirclement of the German forces.
On August 19th, advance elements of the Polish 10th Mounted Rifles regiment linked up with the Americans to the South, precariously closing the ring around the Germans. Still at this point in time, the nazis were desperately trying to escape the trap. During this deadly "race", elements of the Polish 1st Armored division seized a hill called "the Mace" (due to its shape) which overlooked the few remaining roads the nazis were using to escape. By seizing and occupying these heights, the Poles had put themselves in a very precarious position - nazi units were actually on either side of the hill. By seizing this position, and vowing to hold it at all costs, the Poles began what was to later be known as "The Battle of Falaise Gap".
Low on fuel, the Poles dug in their tanks on the heights and prepared to defend.
Desperate to escape the onrushing Allies, nazi forces--including the fanatical SS LAH and SS Hitler Youth Divisions, savagely attacked the heights. The Poles, even when running low on ammunition, threw back every assault! Meanwhile, Polish radio operators from their hilltop position, directed the fire of Canadian and Polish artillery batteries on the masses of retreating nazis in the valley below.
The result was a huge victory: 50,000 Germans were captured, another 10,000 died trying to escape the trap. The Poles alone captured over 5,000 prisoners. In recognition of their valor, Canadian troops later christened the hilltop with a sign that simply, yet majestically proclaimed: "A Polish Battlefield."
Even Winston Churchill acknowledged the steadfastness of the Polish 1st Armored Division when he likened their participation in that battle to a "cork in a bottle".
(the Germans being trapped in "a bottle" with the Poles as a "cork" which would not budge)
After the Normandy Campaign, the 1st Polish Armored Division drove on across Belgium helping liberate numerous towns and villages. The next major action of the Division took place at a city called Breda in Holland. The Germans had planned to turn Breda into a fortress and defend it to the last, yet General Maczek was able to outmaneuver his opponent and force the Germans to retreat without leveling the city. In the final stages of the war, the Poles formed the outside flank of the Allied advance into Germany in 1945. Their final action was the battle of Wilhelmshaven. The Poles captured the city and received the surrender of almost the entire German navy!
Click here to view the divisional Operation Report from 13 August 1944
Despite their steadfast commitment to the Allied cause, and despite almost six years of fighting the nazis, Poland was handed over to Stalin and the Soviet Union at the War's conclusion.
(Bear in mind that the Communist Government of the Soviet Union bears the responsibility for the deaths of an estimated 700,000-1 million Poles during the years 1939-56.)
Polish soldiers who returned to Poland were at best mistreated, and at worst executed for being "Anti-Communist". They were even denied the right to march in the postwar victory parades in the West for fear of offending Stalin. There, the vast majority of them remained - in the West, not daring to return to their beloved Homeland, and sorely missed families.
Thankfully, the Polish spirit remained unbroken, and in the early 1990's the Polish democratic government based in London since 1940, was allowed to return to Poland. Sweeping changes had taken place in Eastern Europe, some say those sweeping changes can be directly credited to Poland's stubborn spirit to resist oppression, and to fight for freedom. World War Two had finally ended for Poland.