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.