General Stanisław Maczek and the 1st Armoured Division
According to his superiors Maczek had a natural gift of command (...), being at the same time a model, qualified officer with a broad tactical and operational expertise. (…) An excellent pedagogue and trainer. He attracts people.
The Polish military headquarters treated the motor unit as an experiment and an attempt to respond to establishing great armoured troops in Germany and in the USSR.
On 1 September 1939 the “Kraków” Army wing was attacked from Slovakia by 22nd Armoured Corps headed by General Ewald von Kleist. The Poles skilfully defended themselves and survived until the 10th Cavalry Brigade arrived. Its aim was to hold the enemy back in the mountain gorges, to maintain the Myślenice–Dobczyce line and shield the whole “Kraków” Army. Disproportion was crushing. Only 7 thousand defenders equipped with 42 tanks and tankettes faced almost 40 thousand Germans with their 500 tanks and armoured vehicles.
Having disproportionately small forces , Maczek organised the defence in a way that allowed to make as much use of the lay of the land as possible. He masked the weakness of his troops with mobility, they defended themselves and even counter-attacked. Maczek described his tactic as fighting with a fist instead of individual fingers. Thus, he was able to shield the “Kraków” Army.
After the fighting in the Island Beskids ceased, the 10th Cavalry Brigade continued the battle. Despite fatigue and shortages of equipment the soldiers fought, following the rule “hit and jump back”. Thus, not allowing to get fragmented, they delayed the enemy’s attack on Rzeszów and Lviv, and they even went into offensive actions near Zboiska. Such an attitude encouraged soldiers from other Polish troops, while Germans, especially those from the 4th Light Division, which, among German units, suffered the greatest losses in equipment, would speak of the brigade with respect, and nicknamed them Die Schwarze Brigade (the “Black Brigade”).
Interned soldiers had no intention to spend the war in captivity. Already in September 1939, the first officers left the camp: major Franciszek Skibiński, cavalry captain Stanisław Maleszewski and captain Ludwik Stankiewicz. Equipped with forged documents, they reached France by rail, via Yugoslavia and Italy, to France. Others followed their footsteps. Colonel Maczek joined them there a month later.
Soon the Polish consulate in Budapest started to organise transports of people to France, including the soldiers of the 10th Cavalry Brigade. The route most often lead via Budapest, border crossings in Barcs, Split and then by ships to France.
At the time when Maczek’s soldiers made attempts to get out of the Hungarian internment camps, the Polish government in exile constituted in France. The reconstruction of the Polish army began - land forces were formed in the Coëtquidan military base in Bretagne, where Polish soldiers and volunteers would gather.
Apart from the infantry division, they also decided to set up the Light Mechanised Division, where Stanisław Maczek was the commander. Entrusting the command in him and his general nomination were the expression of appreciation for his attitude in the 1939 campaign. The unit was organised in the south of France, near Avignon. It was a painstaking work at first, due to the shortages of the armoured equipment and weapons.
The works accelerated only in May 1940, when the Third Reich invaded France. The restored 10th Armoured Cavalry Brigade consisting of some 3 thousand soldiers was moved near Paris, where it collected the lacking armament. It was sufficient for less than 2 thousand people who landed in the frontline zone in Champagne. The brigade’s battles, which lasted for a week – from 10 to 18 June – consisted in protecting the retreating French divisions. On the night of 16/17 June, the brigade attacked Germans in the town of Montbard. They succeeded in occupying it, but Germans managed to blast the bridge on the Burgundy Canal, which made the retreat impossible. Because of the lack of gas, the remaining tanks and cars had to be destroyed. About 500 soldiers equipped in hand arms were now to force their way through on foot, in groups of 5–10, to the south, to reach the zone not occupied by the Germans, and then further on, to England.
After the evacuation from France, Polish soldiers set up the 1st Polish Corps in Scotland. Its task was to patrol the seaside. Since 1941 General Władysław Sikorski had been making attempts to transform the corps into the Polish armoured division. Insufficient number of privates made it more difficult. The situation improved a little already in 1942, when Poles released from the labour camps in the USSR, as a result of a covenant signed in August 1941 between the Polish and Soviet governments started to come to the British Isles.
Lack of equipment, which was distributed to the British troops fighting on battlefronts and to the USSR, under the lend-lease agreement, was another obstacle. Despite this, in February 1942, a decision was taken to form the 1st Armoured Division. The time limit for its full battle readiness was set on May 1944.
Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery dedicated the 2nd Canadian Corps, which included the 1st Armoured Division, to break the enemy’s defence, to win Falaise and its surrounding hills. Thus he intended to block the way back for the German 7th and 5th Armoured Army. However, the plan did not take into account the enemy’s strenght and did not stipulate the protection of the Eastern flank of the Polish division. The division’s baptism of fire was devastating. The enemy would not retreat, while the allied air force erroneously bombed the Polish and Canadian positions.
After replenishing the losses on 14 August 1944, the second attack was launched. After 6 days Falaise was occupied. The only way of retreat for the Germans was a several kilometers’ corridor leading to the towns of Trun and Chambois. The task of closing was entrusted to the 1st Armoured Division. General Maczek’s soldiers on 19 August took Chambois and the complex of Mont Ormel hills. Thus, as Montgomery described it, Germans were fenced as if in a bottle, where Polish armoured division soldiers were the cork. Over the next two days the Poles suppressed fierce attacks of the overwhelming German forces – those attempting to escape the encirclement and those who attacked from the outside. Fights were fierce. The injured were deprived of help and the captives were exposed to the fire shoot by the fighters. There were shortages of supplies and ammunition. Despite this, Poles managed to maintain the position.
Bloody fighting in Normandy did not suppress the fighting spirit of the Polish armoured division soldiers. After the enemy was fragmented, they rushed to chase them. Tanks and carriers were heading East at the pace of 60 km a day. The enemy was not able to stop this attack. Even the bridges destroyed by the Germans did not pose any problem – new bridges were built instead. Such a success was possible thanks to the work of Polish sappers and quartermasters who continuously supplied the fighting troops with fuel, ammunition and food supplies. After the liberation of Abbeville and St. Omer, the division rushed towards Belgium and liberated Ypres, Tielt, Ghent and some smaller towns on their way. Particularly fierce battles were for Ruiselede. In September 1944 the Poles crossed the Belgian-Dutch border.
The liberation of Breda, an important transportation hub, was one of the most spectacular achievements of the 1st Armoured Division. After two days’ fighting the city was liberated on 29 October 1944. A brave action, without using heavy artillery and aircraft support, not only brought liberty to Breda but also saved it from serious destruction. The streets filled with enthusiastic residents of the city.
Breda experiences in an indescribable way its first moments of liberty – General Maczek recollected. – Real carnival – streets full of cheering residents, flowers and festivals and shop windows with banners reading in Polish: “Thank you Poles”.
In mid-November 1944 the front stopped. The division, which spilled so much blood was given the task of watching a 25-kilometres’ frontline on Meuse. It was peaceful until the mid-December.
As a result of the news of the German offensive in the Ardennes, the Polish armoured division soldiers were mobilised. The Dutch people, especially those in the north of the country were severely affected by the winter hunger (Hongerwinter) of the turn of 1944 and 1945. Retreating Germans emptied the country of all its food supplies. Thus civilians were freezing and starving. Polish soldiers, especially those accommodated in private houses, shared their military food provisions. Preserves and bread were accepted with gratitude and helped to win the affection of the Dutch people.
In the early afternoon of 8 April 1945 the first units of the 1st Armoured Division crossed the pre-war German borders. The enemy's resistance and the damage caused by the Nazi, especially on floodplains, made the march difficult. The Poles were moving towards the Kriegsmarine base in Wilhelmshaven.
Maczek's soldiers liberated two camps – for Dutch political prisoners near Westerbork and Stalag VI C Oberlangen. The liberation, on 12 April, of Oberlangen, was a very emotional experience as among the prisoners there was female 1728 participants of the Warsaw Uprising, Home Army soldiers.
After the fierce fights on 5th May, the garrison of ca. 34 thousand soldiers laid down their arms. The Poles overtook a huge number of weapons, among others 3 cruisers, 18 submarines and 94 fortress cannons. The capitulation of the commanders of Wilhelmshaven defence was accepted by Colonel Antoni Grudziński, Deputy Commander of the 10th Armoured Cavalry Brigade. The war was over.
After the end of the war, the 1st Armoured Division was directed to occupational tasks in a British-controlled zone. Poles supervised the Northern part of the Lower Saxony (Aschendorf-Hummling, Meppen and Lingen districts. Town of Haren (renamed Maczków) became the place where Polish soldiers and POWs settled.
However, the majority of them decided to stay in abroad. Because of the post-war shifting of borders, hometowns of many of them were now located on the territories taken over by the USSR.
Others, having experienced the cruelty of the Soviet regime during the Second World War, were afraid of repression. They had to overcome numerous barriers – linguistic, social, mental ones - and they were gradually becoming a part of those countries in which they came to live. Only a few returned to Poland.
Marriages to Belgian or Dutch women helped Polish ex-soldiers to adapt to their new life. In Breda itself there was formed a colony of ca. 300 Polish veterans. They never forget though their origins.
Stanisław Maczek, after the end of the war, took over the command of the 1st Polish Corps and then of the Polish Corps of Adjustment and Deployment. The unit aimed to prepare for the civilian life those soldiers who decided to stay outside Poland. For his activity, the communist authorities deprived him of citizenship. In the Netherlands, he was considered a hero.
After having settled permanently in Edinburgh, to be able to support his family and provide care for his sick daughter he worked as a laborer, a shop assistant and a bartender. He regained his Polish citizenship only in 1989. General Maczek died in December 1994 at the age of 102. He was buried in the Polish military cemetery in Breda.
In 2018 his monument was unveiled in Edinburgh, and in the spring of 2019 an alley dedicated to him was opened in the local park, The Meadows and Bruntsfield Links, near the place where he lived.
Since 2019 the story of Stanisław Maczek and his soldiers has been presented by a mobile exhibition developed by the Polish History Museum.
In 2020 a new Museum devoted to General Maczek is going to be opened in Breda.
Texts by: Wojciech Kalwat, Michał Kopczyński, Robert Kostro
Photographs selected by: Sebastian Pawlina