First to Fight
At 04:48 on 1 September 1939 the German Battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on the Polish garrison of Westerplatte on the outskirts of Danzig, thus beginning the Polish Campaign and unleashing World War II. Soon afterwards, code-named Operation WHITE, the German forces crossed the border with Army Group North driving south from Pomerania and East Prussia with the main assault by Army Group South launched from Silesia, tasked with enveloping the Polish Forces along the Western frontier and then onto Warsaw. The Poles were outnumbered in all aspects with their 26 Divisions and 12 Brigades facing an assortment of 50 German Divisions including 6 Panzer, across two army groups.
The Polish Armoured forces comprised of 3 light tank battalions, largely equipped with 95 Polish 7TP tanks, 35 previously purchased British Vickers tanks, some recently delivered French R35s and 55 Renault FT-17s, some of which had seen service in the Polish-Soviet war (1919-1921). In addition several hundred lightly armoured TK/TKS tankettes were deployed amongst the infantry divisions and cavalry brigades, supported by some 10 armoured trains.
The Poles had two motorised armoured formations (with plans for more to follow), the 10th Cavalry Brigade and the Warsaw Armoured Brigade. The former was commanded by Colonel S.Maczek (later commander of the 1st Polish Armoured Division). Maczek’s Brigade (reserve unit of Army Krakow) engaged the Germans around Krakow, taking advantage of the mountainous and hilly terrain and managed to hold off German attacks, before falling back into Hungary, where it was interned.
The Warsaw Armoured Brigade was commanded by Colonel Stefan Rowecki. At the outbreak of war, the Brigade was rushed into service although not fully operational. Largely equipped with Tankettes and British made Vickers light tanks, it was seconded to the Army Lublin. Following various engagements their final battle was on 16 September, around the town of Tomaszow Lubelski. The unit suffered heavy losses and was shortly afterwards disbanded on 20 September with those remaining crossing into Hungary. Veterans from both Brigades, including Maczek, eventually made their way to Great Britain to form the nucleus of the 1st Armoured Division. However Rowecki stayed in Poland and in 1942 he became the commander of the main Polish resistance movement, Armia Krajowa (AK-Home Army) until he was arrested in June 1943. In August 1944, he was executed by the Germans.
The Poles main plan was to deploy their forces close to the Western border, forward of major rivers to shield their mobilization and to allow for an eventual withdraw Eastwards avoiding major battles. This strategy of defensive manoeuvre had been used against the Russians in the Polish-Soviet war but the Poles completely underestimated the speed and power of the German mechanized assault supported by air superiority. Also even with the announcement of the Molotv-Ribbontrop Pact, the Soviet-German non-aggression agreement signed on 23 August, Poland’s eastern frontiers were left largely unguarded, as the threat was still perceived as coming from the West.
Allied support from Great Britain and France was severely miscalculated and had minimal impact on the campaign. By May 1939 both countries had pledged support for Poland. On the 7 September the French launched a half-hearted attack into the Rhine area, known as the Saar Offensive. The French advanced, 5 miles, largely unopposed into German territory before a withdrawal was ordered to the Maginot Line, due to the implementation of their defensive strategy. Furthermore the Allies had pressurised Poland into initially restricting full mobilisation due to the misplaced view that it would speed the outset of war as experienced during the First World War. This resulted in the mobilisation of only two-thirds of Poland’s forces by the time Germany attacked.
The Polish Military leadership, under Marshall Edward Rydz-Sigly, had not reckoned on the pace of the German attacks and deployed to block the drive on Warsaw. Despite some local Polish successes, the Germans continued their advance on Warsaw and a gap developed between the Polish armies. The order was given to fall back over the Vistula. A counter attack was launched on the Burza which put the German assault on Warsaw on hold. However the Polish counter-attack at the Burza was unsustainable and the Germans seized the opportunity to encircle the Polish formations resulting in the destruction of two Polish armies. The attack on Warsaw resumed and by 13 September the city was surrounded and surrendered on 27 September.
On 17 September the Red Army started its invasion of Eastern Poland. German forces had not been alerted to the Soviet action and over the next few days adjusted their positions to match the boundary lines agreed by the pre-war Molotv-Ribbontrop Pact. Everywhere the Polish military situation was disintegrating. The Polish High Command now ordered all surviving units to retreat into Romania with the aim of preserving as much of the Polish Army as possible. There was no national capitulation with Polish elements fighting on until the last battle at Kock on 6th October.
Overall the Polish armoured forces, deployed as infantry support, acquitted themselves well during the campaign and were able to score a number of significant, although local, successes. Of the 2500 German tanks deployed, some 674 were knocked out during the campaign (217 were total write-offs). Although a majority of these losses were due to Polish anti-tank guns, a significant number had been put out of action by Polish armoured vehicles and their crews.
As the world observed the fast moving campaign in Poland, the name ‘Blitzkrieg’ was coined by Time Magazine, an American publication, in an article on 28 September. This journalistic shorthand was to describe what many saw as the revolutionary use of fast moving powerful armoured formations, closely supported by aircraft, to achieve rapid victory.
The rallying call was to France and the formation of a new Polish Army. Some 35,000 troops reached France (some escapees made their way to Syria setting the seed for the formation of the Polish 2nd Corps). Camps were established in Western France with Coetquidan in Brittany as the main base. There was initial optimism that as well as four infantry Divisions a large armoured force could be created. However due to supply and time limitations the creation of a Polish Light Armoured Division was agreed, to be commanded by Maczek, recently appointed to Brigadier - General. Progress was slow and resources, particularly vehicles, limited
On the 10 May, after the many months of "The Phoney War" (October 1939 to April1940) on the Western Front, German forces invaded Holland and Belgium, as part of Operation GELB. In accordance with their advance planning, French Armies and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) advanced into Belgium. However this was a feint as the main German attack was moving undetected through the densely forested Ardennes area. On 13 May the German Panzer Divisions forced the Meuse at Sedan and along with other bridgeheads, broke out and raced westwards. Despite Allied resistance, the Panzers had reached the English Channel trapping the Allied armies fighting north of their line of advance. The BEF were able to consolidate their defenses, especially around the Dunkirk perimeter and with the fortuitous panzer halt order issued by Hitler, were able to evacuate 330,000 British & Allied soldiers (Operation DYNAMO 27 May to 4 June) although with the loss of all their vehicles and heavy weapons. The Polish Forces in France initially played no part in these battles.
On the 5 June the Germans commenced Operation ROT, with the aim of destroying the remaining French Armies. The initial German assaults across the Somme and Aisne faced heavy resistance, but by mid-June the Germans had made headway.
Maczek realized that an operational Division was now impossible to achieve, so only a brigade size force was feasible. The 10th Cavalry Brigade was created consisting of one tank regiment with two armoured battalions (the 1st equipped with the Renault 35 and the 2nd with the Renault 40) a motorised cavalry regiment of two battalions and various supporting units. Forced to deploy by the French the Brigades first encounter was at Champaubert on 12 June. Although enjoying some success the Poles were constantly harassed by enemy armour and aircraft. Various engagements followed but resulted in a withdrawal towards Loire as the French Armies collapsed. Due to chronic shortages of both fuel and ammunition, most of the vehicles and equipment were destroyed on 17/18 June. The survivors dispersed into smaller groups, ordered to make their way to unoccupied coastal areas of which about 19,000 were evacuated to Great Britain. An armistice was agreed on 22 June. Mazcek reached Britain via Marseilles, Algeria, Morocco and Lisbon onto London. For a second time in a year, work on establishing a Polish Army-in-exile began.
The Poles were based in Scotland and in October 1940 the Polish 1st Corps, was established, using the surviving elements evacuated from France. In the same month the 1st Tank regiment was formed and was expanded to form the 16th Tank Brigade in September 1941. This was followed by the formation of the Polish 1st Armoured Division on 26 February 1942 commanded by General Maczek, consisting of 10th Armoured Cavalry Brigade, 16th Armoured Brigade and various other Divisional support units including Recon, Signals, Engineers and Transport.
During 1943, following the new British pattern, when one armoured brigade became the standard in an armoured division, the 1st Polish Armoured Division’s armoured brigade was designated as the 10th Armoured Cavalry Brigade. Following extensive training the Division was mobilized on 19 March 1944, embarking for France at the end of July. Attached to General Montgomery’s 21st Army Group, which largely consisted of the First Canadian Army and the British Second Army. Divisional strength peaked at around 16,000 men and 400 tanks.
The division landed in France between 29 July and 4 August, moving to its assembly area around Bayeux. The Division then took up position on the start line for the forthcoming offensive, south of Caen on the eastern side of the main highway to Falaise.
The division's first major action was as part of the Canadian Operation TOTALIZE which was launched south of Caen on the 7 August with the Poles attacking on the left flank, the following day. By 10 August the offensive had stalled in the face of heavy German resistance. A few days later another offensive, Operation TRACTABLE, made progress towards Falaise. The Canadians continued their attacks with the aim of linking up with US forces advancing from the south, following the failed German offensive at Mortain, and trap the enemy in the Falaise area. On 16 August Polish armour and infantry occupied the summit of Mount Ormel, dominating the surrounding countryside and controlling the German escape routes from the Falaise pocket. Because of its shape this position was nicknamed Maczuga (Mace). The Poles found them- selves attacked, both by enemy forces trying to escape from the trap, and elements of the 2nd SS Panzer Division, outside the encirclement, trying to force an escape route through the Polish defenders. In desperate fighting the Polish infantrymen and tank crews were able to resist all these assaults. This was a major feat of arms by the Poles. On the evening of 19 August Polish and American soldiers met at Chambois sealing the pocket.
Following their defeat in Normandy, surviving German forces fled towards the German border with the Allies in hot pursuit across France and into Belgium.
The port of Antwerp had been captured by the 11th Armoured Division on 4 August, largely intact. Unfortunately the Germans still held the approaches to the port along the River Scheldt which prevented its use to relieve the severe logistic problems the Allied armies were experiencing. Therefore both banks would have to be cleared. To break German resistance on the north bank of the Scheldt it was decided that it was going to be necessary to clear the area south of the River Maas of enemy forces and the Division was one of the units assigned to 1st British Corps (part of 1st Canadian Army) to conduct this operation. By mid-September the Division attacked in the direction of the port of Terneuzen, capturing it on 20 September. Regrouping into defensive positions it was tasked to take Breda with its ultimate objective to drive to the Maas and capture the bridges at Moerdijk. Resistance was stiff and the countryside favoured the defense. Both weather and terrain hampered the Polish attack with a battlefield riven by canals and dykes. On 29 October the Poles captured Breda.
The Division pushed on towards the line of the River Mark - Mark Canal. Every effort to establish bridgeheads over the Mark was furiously resisted by elements of the German 15th Army. It was not until 5 November that the Mark was crossed. Over the next three days the division fought its way forward, only to find, on reaching the Maas, that the Moerdijk bridges had been dropped.
The approach of winter brought major operations to a halt. However minor actions and patrolling (but still deadly) kept the division active. At about this time there was a major re-equipping of the Division. Like the other standard armoured divisions in 21st Army Group (Guards Armoured, 7th Armoured, 11th Armoured and 4th Canadian) the Poles had been equipped with Sherman Mk Vs and Sherman Fireflies with their 17 pdr guns. Many of these types in Division were now replaced by Sherman Mk IIAs with 76mm guns, the only 21st Army Group armoured formation to be so re-equipped.
Although not involved in repelling the German offensive in the Ardennes, the Poles were involved in heavy fighting in December. As a result of Canadian concerns, the Division attacked the Fallschirmjager garrison at Kapelsche Veer on the southern bank of the Maas but without success. It was not until January that the Canadians took the position.
On 14 April 1945 the Division stood on the Dutch-German border for its final offensive of the war, reaching the River Ems near the German border on April 18.
By 19 April the division had completed its task of clearing north-east Holland and was advancing towards north-west Germany. Following the surrender of all German forces on 4 May 1945 in north-west Europe, with the ceasefire declared for 08.00 hours on 5 May, Lieutenant- General Simonds (Canadian 2nd Corps) gave the Poles the honour of accepting the German surrender of the port and garrison of Wilhelmshaven. This was duly carried out both efficiently and without incident. The division went on to form part of the British occupation forces in Germany (British Army of the Rhine, previously the 21st Army Group) until being disbanded in 1947.
As a consequence of the coming to power of a Communist regime in Poland, many veterans of the division decided not to return home. Many established new lives abroad especially in Great Britain where the Polish Resettlement Corp (PRC) was established until final demobilisation and disbanded in 1949.The collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe (1989) however, finally enabled the survivors of the 1st Polish Armoured Division to receive due recognition of their exploits from their homeland and to return home.