Three weeks ago, I wrote an article about the brave last stand of a unit of Polish soldiers near the town of Wizna in the opening days of World War II. The story you are about to read is another little known testimony to the toughness and resolve of that country’s fighting men, perhaps the most underrated ally to contribute to final victory over Nazi Germany and who, for three days in August, found another one of its units outnumbered and facing overwhelming odds.
It begins with the last of the Polish 1st Armored division being offloaded into the Normandy area on August 1st. This unit, commanded by General Stanislaw, was mainly comprised of Poles who previously fought in France before being driven out by the Germans in 1940. Like the other allied soldiers forced from the continent, they yearned for the day to strike back. When the 1st Armored was formed at Duns, Scotland in February 1942, the men immediately set about honing themselves into a fine edge with a zeal that perhaps was only rivaled by one other country’s homesick warriors. France. Along with them, Poles became part of new brigades or divisions, which combined into larger corps-sized outfits. In the case of the 1st Armored, it formed part of the 1st Polish Corps as its only division, the rest being made up of regiment and brigades.
With 16,000 men, 380 tanks and 470 artillery and anti-tank pieces, the division teemed with firepower. Its intended role was to be a kind ‘shock’ outfit, using mobility to race through or around enemy defenses. Attached to the first Canadian Army, it entered combat as part of Operation Totalize, a two-phase offensive to break through German defenses south of the city of Caen on the eastern flank of the Allied armies and push inland to arrive at high ground north of the city of Falaise. If it worked, the German front would collapse and avenues of retreat would be blocked.
Totalize kicked off on the evening of August 7th. Under a rolling barrage, the First Canadian Army plunged into the German defenses. Fighting was close quarters, costly and sometimes confusing, but the attack began to dig the Germans out and push them back.
The Polish 1st Armored slammed into the tanks from the 12th SS Panzer Division, which managed to slow its advance to a crawl and bring it under its first criticism for not pressing the attack aggressively, probably due to the inexperience of its leaders.
After a lull and resupply, the offensive started again and the brutal slog towards Falaise continued with both sides incurring heavy casualties. On the 11th, the offensive was halted again near Falaise with discussions of what to do next. A commander was relieved and a new offensive, called “Operation Tractable,” started on August 14th. The goal again was Falaise, along with nearby towns of Chambois and Trun included to shut down the massive retreat starting to form near them.
1st Armored, suffering from hundreds killed and wounded and dozens of tanks lost in the previous fighting, stood ready and willing to spearhead the renewed drive. Even after suffering more casualties from “friendly fire,” errant bombs from dropped by some 800 aircraft to start the operation, the division roared into battle with its Canadian brothers. And two days later, on the 16th, Falaise fell to the Canadians after heavy fighting, leaving just Trun and Chambois to be taken.
On the 17th, with the two towns close by, General Maczek split his force into three groups, each consisting of an armored regiment and infantry battalion. One headed to cut off Trun, which was taken by the Canadians on the 18th. The second positioned itself to cut off Chambois and shrink the miles-wide gap down to a pocket of just a few hundred yards, which forced the fleeing Germans to veer toward a nearby ridge known as Hill 262 to the Allies and Mont Ormel to the French. For the Poles of the 1st armored regiment and 9th Infantry battalion starting to take up position on its northernmost peak on the 19th, it was destined to be called “Maczuga” (The Mace), after the ancient weapon which bore a similar shape.
Looking out over the valley, the soldiers beheld a sight seldom seen in history. An entire army roving along the valley floor at what seemed a slug’s pace. Vehicles of every sort maneuvered by the thousands past bodies and burning hulks spurting columns of black smoke, which formed into a giant cloud above which Allied fighter bombers circled like vultures.
Seeing a hated enemy so exposed was too great an opportunity to pass up, and spotters quickly radioed coordinates to artillery batteries. A few moments later, soldiers listened to a steady stream of shells begin streaking overhead to impact out upon the plain. Geysers and flashes followed by thunderous reports spoke of the carnage being reaped upon metal and flesh alike. Add to that renewed strikes by fighter-bombers and the pocket seemed to be boiling in giant flames.
The escape route through Falaise gap disappeared.
Field Marshal Walter Model, overall commander of German forces in Normandy, realized the gravity of what he faced. What was left of the German 7th Army as well as elements of the 5th Panzer army were now trapped in the pocket. It was due to fresh intelligence telling him Mont Ormel was now in Allied hands, and unless it could be reclaimed, the few hundred yards width of the Falaise gap would remain shut permanently.
Model ordered a counterattack from within and outside the pocket. On the 20th, the Germans charged the ridge with army and SS infantry. Fighting raged often at arm’s length with small arms and hand grenades. Panzers moved up the ridge and were engaged often at pointblank by Shermans until they were stopped.
At one stage, the Germans managed to seize the southern peak of 262 as more men and Panzers rushed the hill’s defenders. They managed to reopen some of the gap for a few hours until Poles regrouped and launched a withering counterattack to close it. Casualties mounted on both sides but neither relented, and as the sun started to set, Mont Ormel became aglow with gunfire and explosions from German artillery, trying to dislodge its tenets which hunkered in foxholes and waited for the next assault.
Just like at Wizna nearly five years before, the Poles suddenly found themselves running out of ammunition and worse, surrounded. Yet, like that tragic battle, none were giving up. They kept fighting as darkness fell and called never-ending barrages down upon the enemy-held portion of the ridge, as well as the plain itself, still keeping the pocket shut. Meanwhile, fellow Canadian forces struggled to fight their way through the stranglehold on the site, but fell short as they bumped into the same units trying to take the ridge.
At one point, Lieutenant Colonel Aleksander Stefanowicz, himself wounded earlier in the day, addressed his men:
“Gentlemen. Everything is lost. I do not believe the Canadians will manage to help us. We have only 110 men left, with 50 rounds per gun and 5 rounds per tank… Fight to the end! To surrender to the SS is senseless. You know it well. Gentlemen, good luck! Tonight we will die for Poland and civilization. We will fight to the last platoon, to the last tank, then to the last man.”
Sporadic fighting continued through the night. Both sides held their positions until morning when, despite low clouds, an airdrop was attempted to resupply the Poles. On the hill itself, scouting units set out amid artillery bombardment to try and find any Allied unit nearby. At 1100 hours, a final desperate assault was launched by the Germans to dislodge the Poles, only to meet with heavy casualties. Then, the southern peak was abruptly abandoned and the last Germans fled before a new threat-the Canadians sweeping the last vestiges of Germans aside and breaking through to relieve the beleaguered defenders. And at that moment, the proud remnant of the 1st Armored’s battlegroup stood silent and triumphant overlooking the Falaise gap, where at one time over 150,000 men had been trapped. Over the next few days, the Poles would see them surrender by the tens of thousands after leaving some 10,000 dead rotting along roads, paths and fields that marked the beginning of the end for the German armed forces in France.
As the curtain fell, it is ironic that men whose country had been the first to fall under the heel of Nazi evil played out the final act. For three days, these fearless men had stuck like a dagger in the throat of the Germans at a cost of over 350 killed and 1,000 wounded, with 11 tanks destroyed.
In return, they had killed some 1,500 hundred enemy on and around the ridge, as well as countless more out on the plain. They had withstood a concoction of SS, Army and even Parachute infantry assaults, as well as Panzers of every sort. These insurmountable odds they overcame with a combination of courage and the most precious commodity of all… time. What’s more, this action unbeknownst to them at the time, gave another gift soon to be realized by the allies.
The road to Paris lay open.
(Featured Image Courtesy: Photobucket. Maps Courtesy: Wikimedia)