The Allied landing in Normandy on June 6, 1944, was an important moment for Britain and the United States, who saw it as the beginning of an all-out offensive against Nazi Germany from the west. For the French serving alongside them, it offered the prospect of liberating their country from German occupation. For another contingent, the exiled men of Maj. Gen. Stanislaw Maczek’s Polish 1st Armored Division, it revived the distant hope that Western Allied forces might yet liberate their long-suffering country before the Soviet army did.
When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, then-Colonel Maczek’s 10th Motorized Cavalry Brigade had been the only fully mechanized unit in the Polish army. Reorganized in France, the 10th Brigade fought with distinction until that country was overrun in June 1940. Resurrected once more on British soil, in 1942 the unit was expanded to division strength, with 885 officers, 15,210 enlisted men, 381 tanks, 4,050 other military vehicles and 473 artillery pieces. By the time they returned to France, Maczek and his men were eager to resume the fight.
The Germans were happy to oblige. For six weeks they had stalled the American advance in the hedgerow country of Normandy’s Cotentin Peninsula, while British units were repeatedly stymied in a series of violent tank battles around Caen. Then, on July 18, St. L fell to the American 29th Infantry Division, and on July 25 Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley’s First Army launched Operation Cobra, an offensive that broke free of the hedgerows. On that same day, German armored forces facing the British, depleted through weeks of steady attrition, were forced to abandon Caen. But Adolf Hitler ordered the Germans to strike back on August 7, hoping to eliminate 11 American divisions before Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr.’s newly activated Third Army could begin its follow-up offensive. Thanks to a stubborn defense by the 30th Infantry Division at Mortain, the German counteroffensive was halted by August 12-and, as both U.S. and British forces continued their advances, the Germans found themselves overextended and vulnerable to entrapment between two Allied pincers.
Joining the British advance on August 8 was the Polish 1st Armored Division. The division was a component of Lt. Gen. Guy G. Simonds’ II Canadian Army Corps of the Canadian First Army, under Lt. Gen. Henry D.G. Crerar. The Poles made gradual progress southward on the western side of the Caen-Falaise road, along the II Corps’ right flank. Then, on August 14, Simonds’ II Corps began Operation Tractable, a renewed effort to take Falaise. The Polish 1st and the Canadian 4th Armored divisions were given the task of breaking through German lines in order to cut off enemy supply lines and road junctions. They advanced only three miles on the first day before the Germans-reinforced by the arrival of SS-Standartenführer (Colonel) Kurt ‘Panzer’ Meyer and his 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend-counterattacked south of Cramesnil and threw the Poles back.
On August 15, the Polish 1st Armored Division was transferred to the eastern flank of the II Canadian Corps. That maneuver, which would put it at the forefront of the corps’ advance, involved crossing formations of another division while engaged in battle-no mean feat under the circumstances. The Poles had to break through enemy defenses at the crossings on two rivers, the Laizon and the Dives. The Canadian 4th Armored Division was supposed to make a parallel advance toward Trun but failed to do so, thus exposing the Polish right flank to enemy attacks. In consequence, the 4th Armored Division’s commander was relieved of command.
Meyer spent the 15th conducting an organized withdrawal to the Laizon, covered by the German 85th Infantry Division. The Canadians broke through and scattered the 85th Division, but the 12th SS Panzer again managed to stop their advance and, by the morning of August 16, was still holding the line three miles south of Falaise. The 12th SS was by then down to only 11 tanks, a dozen 88mm anti-tank guns and 300 infantrymen. Later that day, the Canadians finally took Falaise.
A great opportunity now presented itself to the Allies. Patton’s Third Army had broken out of the hedgerow country and was driving toward the Seine River, to the south of the German Seventh Army. With the Canadian occupation of Falaise to the north, a pocket was forming in which the Seventh Army-and perhaps all of German Army Group B-could be trapped if Patton’s troops turned north to link up with the Canadians.
The Allied supreme commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, had his misgivings, however. He was concerned that poor communications might result in the converging British and American forces trading fire with each other. Bradley, now commanding the U.S. Twelfth Army Group, agreed; Patton did not. ‘Although Patton might have spun a line across the narrow neck,’ Bradley later explained, ‘I doubted his ability to hold it. Nineteen German divisions were now stampeding to escape the trap. Meanwhile, with four divisions George was already blocking three principal escape routes through Alenon, Sees and Argentan. Had he stretched that line to include Falaise, he would have extended his roadblock a distance of 40 miles. The enemy could not only have broken through, but he might have trampled Patton’s position in the onrush. I much preferred a solid shoulder at Argentan to the possibility of a broken neck at Falaise.’
Although Eisenhower and Bradley were unwilling to risk a head-on collision with the British, they did commit one division to block the German escape route. On the night of August 16, the 90th Infantry Division, situated at Le Bourg St. Leonard, was released from the Third Army’s XV Corps and assigned to a provisional corps to assist in closing the Falaise pocket.
The Germans were now becoming increasingly alarmed by the gravity of their situation. On the afternoon of August 16, Field Marshal Günther Kluge, commander of German forces in the West, returned to his headquarters at La Roche Guyon. He had been visiting the Falaise area when his radio truck was disabled, leaving him out of contact with his headquarters for several hours. Since Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had been strafed and wounded by an Allied fighter on July 17, Kluge had also been in personal command of Rommel’s Army Group B in Normandy. Fully alerted to the danger there, Kluge now ordered the army group to withdraw, which it began to do that night. The German escape route included two vital crossroads-Trun and Chambois-and two bridges of high load-bearing capacity at their disposal at Chambois and St. Lambert.
On August 17, the British commander in chief, General Bernard Law Montgomery, ordered the Canadian 4th and Polish 1st Armored divisions to advance through Trun and take Chambois. At the same time, the 90th Infantry Division was returned to the control of the V Corps of the First Army, with which it had entered combat back in June. The Polish 1st Armored and American 90th Infantry divisions had embarked on separate courses that were to converge at Chambois.
‘The weather created particular difficulties on the battlefield,’ wrote Polish Major Wladyslaw Zgorzelski in his diary, ‘battledress proved very uncomfortable in the day’s heat under the blazing sun. Clouds of dust raised by hundreds of tracked and wheeled vehicles from dry soil covered the countryside, penetrated into eyes and parched throats. (The) most pitiful sight was that of the dispatch riders covered in dust, with black faces, swollen eyelids and reddened eyes. There was no water, so locally made cider was tried but found out to be a poor substitute.’ As the Poles advanced, they were assailed by the stench of swollen German corpses, scattered everywhere and decomposing under the blazing sun.
The Polish 1st Armored Division advanced along two roads. The eastern column drove through Bout-du-Haut, Vendeuvre, Barou, and Hills 259, 258 and 240, while the western column moved through Rouvers, Sassy, Jort, Morteaux, Couliboeuf, Hill 159, Louviers-en-Auge and Hill 137. On the evening of August 17, the brigade commander, Colonel Thadeusz Majewski, ordered Major Zgorzelski to form a battle group to seize the high ground south of Louviers-en-Auge and Le Mesnil Girard, secure an observation point over the Trun Valley and destroy escaping enemy columns. The battle group consisted of the 10th Dragoons (a motorized cavalry regiment), the 24th Lancers (a regiment of M-4 Sherman medium tanks) and two anti-tank batteries.
At 4 a.m. on August 18, the Poles’ forward elements moved out, only to be bogged down in large irrigation ditches that cut across their path. After daybreak, local guides helped the Poles find their way around the obstacles to firm ground. Zgorzelski was now pressed for time, since his reconnaissance elements had already reported enemy movement from Trun on the road to Vimoutiers.
The Dragoons reached their objective first. From the high ground, they had a grandstand view of enemy units proceeding eastward. They quickly took up positions and opened fire with automatic weapons and anti-tank guns into the marching columns. Initially, the Germans were surprised and thrown into confusion, but soon infantry detachments, supported by tanks and self-propelled guns, were attacking the Poles. By that time, 20 tanks of the 24th Lancers had reached the high ground to the left of the Dragoons and joined the fight. The Germans directed their main effort against the 24th Lancers’ positions, exposing their left flank to the Dragoons. Long-range fire from Panther tanks knocked out several of the 24th Lancers’ tanks, but their Sherman Fireflies, armed with 17-pounder anti-tank guns, proved a match for the Panthers. In spite of heavy mortar fire support, the infantry attack broke down under the 10th Dragoons’ flanking machine-gun fire, and the Germans withdrew to the south. The swiftness with which the Poles secured the high ground enabled them to hold it with very low casualties.
While his tanks shelled Trun, Zgorzelski was told that units of the French 2nd Armored Division should be somewhere in the area, although a search for them brought no results. Instead, a regiment of the Canadian 4th Armored Division appeared, having heard the Poles’ recent engagement and moved toward the sound of the guns. Later that day, Zgorzelski received new orders to take Hill 137 and await supplies there. ‘High time, too,’ he remarked, ‘because by now, we were scraping the bottom of our ammunition racks and fuel tanks for our armor.’
The Polish troops secured Hill 137 at 11 p.m., but they slept on empty stomachs that night. Zgorzelski later learned that Germans who had crossed the Allied supply routes had attacked his support column, inflicting heavy losses and delaying the arrival of supplies until morning.
‘Now our division had to move in leap-frog fashion to alternatively secure immediate objectives with two battle groups,’ Zgorzelski wrote,’so that a reasonable degree of tactical cooperation between the battle groups and coordination of artillery support and binding up of supplies could be endeavored, while, at the same time, liaison with the neighboring division was maintained.’
General Maczek formulated a plan for cutting off the German retreat routes. First, a task force, consisting of two armored regiments and three infantry battalions from his division’s eastern group, was to capture and hold Mont Ormel, a complex consisting of Hills 262 North and 262 South, which the Poles referred to as the Maczuga (mace) because the hills’ map contours resembled that weapon. The western battle group would seize and hold the crossroads at Chambois. Divisional artillery would provide fire support for both groups, while the 10th Mounted Rifles and the divisional Reconnaissance Regiment (equipped with Cromwell tanks) were to be held in reserve.
The force originally assigned to take Mount Ormel was led by Major Aleksander Stefanowicz and was made up of his 1st Armored Regiment and two infantry companies of the Polish Highland Battalion. The second battle group included the remainder of the Highland Battalion and the 9th Infantry Battalion. After engaging units of the II SS Panzer Corps, the second column reached Mont Ormel at 5 p.m. The Polish Highland and 9th Infantry battalions joined it at 7. The second battle group had initially been given Chambois as its objective, but in view of the unexpected mix-up that caused it to move on Mont Ormel instead, Maczek gave Zgorzelski’s force-comprising the 10th Dragoons, 24th Lancers and two anti-tank batteries of the western group-the task of capturing Chambois at all costs.
Trun fell to the Canadians on August 18, leaving the Germans with a 10-mile-wide escape corridor. At midnight, Field Marshal Walther Model relieved Kluge of command. Kluge wrote a letter to Hitler, explaining that the ‘failure of the armored units in their push to Avranches and the consequent impossibility of closing the gap to the sea’ had been preordained by the American and British ‘wealth in matériel,’ and urged the Führer to end the war. He then departed for Germany, but near Metz Kluge committed suicide by swallowing potassium cyanide.
To secure his shrinking escape route, Model ordered two vital areas to be held. The first was the high ground at Mont Ormel. The other objective was Hill 240 at Ecorches and the Chambois crossroads. At that point, the weather suddenly changed in the Germans’ favor: A low cloud ceiling limited Allied aerial activity. Just as the Polish eastern battle group reached Mont Ormel, units of the II SS Panzer Corps arrived, counterattacked and secured Hill 262 South, on which its tanks then took up positions to cover the flow of retreating troops. Other German units secured the bridge at St. Lambert, northwest of Chambois, and managed, in spite of heavy losses, to keep that river crossing open.
There were two other gaps at the Germans’ disposal-one between Champosoult and Vimoutiers, and another between Chambois and Le Bourg St. Leonard. The American 90th Infantry Division was poised to advance from Le Bourg St. Leonard, but due to a misunderstanding in the directives issued by the U.S. Army headquarters and the weakening of the pincer effort to reinforce Patton’s thrust toward the Seine, it was not until August 19 that the 90th Division’s 359th Infantry Regiment got its orders to move on Chambois. During that two-day delay, elements of the German Seventh and Fifteenth armies and Kampfgruppe (battle group) Eberbach poured through Chambois.
Such was the situation as the Polish 1st Armored Division drove a wedge into the German line of retreat from the north. The II SS Panzer Corps responded by debouching from its assembly area east of Mont Ormel, hoping to cut off the exposed arm of the Polish pincer. The result was a chaotic series of attacks, counterattacks, ambushes and surprise encounters, with the opposing forces often outflanking each other or becoming intermixed. The Polish supply lines became overextended and vulnerable to attack by Panther or Tiger tanks of the SS Panzer units.
Early on August 19, troops of the Polish western battle group were alerted and resupplied with ammunition and gasoline. They ate breakfast and moved on Chambois at 11 a.m. The ground was unsuitable for tanks, so the 10th Dragoons went first, with their anti-tank guns and Universal carriers well to the front. Sounds of battle were coming from all directions. Major Stefanowicz’s eastern battle group surprised the Germans and captured Hill 262 North around noon. From there, the Poles opened fire on a large German column heading from Chambois to Vimoutiers and destroyed it.
Another German column was moving parallel to the Polish route of advance, but the terrain limited visibility, and neither force sent out reconnaissance patrols. The Germans were avoiding any unnecessary contact in their haste to escape from the trap, while the Poles wanted to avoid any delay in reaching Chambois. By sheer luck, another German column had just passed through Chambois before the Poles arrived, enabling the latter to enter the town without opposition or delay.
‘Our patrols began meeting enemy infantry who, in a state of complete exhaustion, were giving themselves up in great and increasing numbers, thus causing us considerable administrative problems and waste of time,’ Zgorzelski reported. Meanwhile, Hawker Typhoons strafed Chambois and set it on fire, raising clouds of black smoke.
‘We reached Hill 124, which was being held by the 10th Mounted Rifles and the Divisional Reconnaissance Regiment,’ Zgorzelski continued. ‘The ground to the south of that hill was unsuitable for tanks. Their commander decided to hold the hill, from which he could support our attack along the Vimoutiers-Chambois road. The regiment took a two-up formation for the attack-1st Squadron, under Captain Zbigniew Giera, to the left; 2nd Squadron, under Lieutenant Zbigniew Kintzi, to the right of the road; the 3rd Squadron, under Major Zgorzelski, behind the 2nd Squadron. The 4th Squadron and the regimental headquarters were to follow on the road. The 24th Lancers were to cover the 1-kilometer gap to the west between us and the 10th Mounted Rifles. Anti-tank guns were left on Hill 124.
‘The attack started at 1845,’ he wrote, ‘by shelling with mortars and machine gun fire laid on the edges of the town, in which some enemy movements were seen. The roads and streets were blocked by debris and a variety of enemy transport so that our machine guns and anti-tank guns could not pass and had to bypass the buildings on either side. In fact, as it appeared later, no heavy weapons nor tanks could pass through the built-up area and only foot soldiers could do any good in those circumstances. The enemy defended themselves in farmsteads, hedges and orchards, but the speed of the Dragoons’ attack took the defenders by surprise. In the town center, some 40 paratroopers hiding in the castle keep were taken prisoner. Stray German soldiers, wounded or in a state of shock, were aimlessly walking the streets, their medical center destroyed by artillery shelling. Sporadic fighting, short but violent, erupted here and there.
‘A squad was allocated the job of sorting out the mounting problem of POWs and enemy wounded,’ Zgorzelski concluded, ‘while the main body set up the defense of the southern outskirts of the town. The Poles soon joined forces with the Americans coming from the south with the 2nd Battalion of the 359th Infantry of the 90th Division, under Major Leonard Dull.’
The 90th Division, commanded by Brig. Gen. Raymond S. McLain, had been fighting its way toward Chambois for several days. By the end of August 18, elements of the division had taken Hill 137, Hill 129, Ste. Eugénie, Bon Menil and Fougy in spite of determined enemy resistance. The 2nd Battalion of the 359th Infantry (2/359) had just relieved the 1st Battalion at Le Bourg St. Leonard when the Germans counterattacked. At one point, the division’s second-in-command, Brig. Gen. William G. Weaver, was caught in a house with American tanks on one side and Germans on the other, each trying to shoot the other from around the corners. The Germans were ultimately driven off, and ‘Wild Bill’ Weaver emerged unscathed. He later told his aide, Lt. Col. Eames L. Yates, that he had directed American tank fire by observing German movements through the blown-out corners of the building.
On August 19, General Weaver ordered the 2/359 to take Chambois. Company G, commanded by Captain Laughlin E. Waters, advanced through Fel, supported by tanks of the French 2nd Armored Division. After the Americans forded the Dives River, however, the French departed-they did not want to advance uphill through an apple orchard with no knowledge of what lay ahead. Waters set up a skirmish line and proceeded alone to reconnoiter the ground. He reached the road to Chambois and observed the objective, then saw ‘an individual, wearing what appeared to be a British uniform, come from the north and walk into the middle of the road.’ After some hesitation, Waters emerged from the grass and introduced himself. ‘Fortunately, his English was better than my Polish, so we were able to identify ourselves to each other,’ Waters later said. The Pole was Major Zgorzelski. ‘There,’ Waters recalled, ‘amidst all the action, Maj. Zgorzelski and I exchanged salutes and greetings in the name of our respective countries and commanding generals….The major and I coordinated our plans, and the Polish 10th Dragoons moved off to the northeast.’
Waters returned to Company G and led it in a wheeling movement to clear Chambois and link up with Companies E and F on the west side of town. Only light resistance was encountered, and soon the three companies were setting up defensive positions-E to the southwest, F to the northwest and G to the east and southeast of the village.
‘We were greeted by the Americans with the joy of a child,’ wrote General Maczek of the linkup, ‘and at every contact their men filled our pockets with candy and cigarettes. An American of Polish descent approached me and told me in a broken Polish learned from his parents that he ‘just had to meet the Polish general.’ His language was poor, but he did not have to assure me that his heart was Polish.’
Once their initial jubilation was over, the Polish officers, together with Dull and Waters, settled down to work out the disposition of their troops for the night. That involved a 90-degree change in the Polish defensive line from its original orientation, toward Moissy and St. Lambert. The 10th Dragoons and 24th Lancers were to man the northern sector, including the road to St. Lambert. The American-defended southern sector would include the Dives River and the bridge. The eastern outskirts were covered by one company and a platoon of machine guns.
The Germans were soon attacking Mont Ormel and Chambois. At that point, after retreating for days without a break, harassed by Allied aircraft and artillery, their units were losing their organizational structure. The infantry, armor and artillery units that hurled themselves at the Poles and Americans had been formed into ad hoc Kampfgruppen-battle groups consisting of the remnants of any units that could be mustered on the spot.
Just after midnight, small-arms fire broke out on the Polish left flank, soon joined by bursts of artillery. Germans advanced through Moissy and over its undefended bridge until the bridge collapsed, forcing them to abandon their heavy equipment. The German infantry proceeded toward Hill 262 South, only to come under fire from Polish and Canadian artillery. The waves of troops that followed them, seeing what was happening to their comrades, took to the Dives Valley or through the Gouffern woodland toward the American sector.
Before dawn on August 20, German troops moved silently under cover of darkness and early mist toward the Polish outposts. Suddenly, firing broke out and they stormed the Polish defenses with fixed bayonets, supported by self-propelled (SP) guns. The Poles opened fire with automatic weapons, and the Germans retired, leaving their dead behind. Soon another wave of German troops, supported by Tiger tanks, tried to overrun the Polish positions. The attack was well prepared, but the German tanks had to fire over the heads of the infantry, and in so doing, their 88mm shells failed to strike the Polish front-line elements. The Poles’ 6-pounder anti-tank guns had insufficient penetrating power to do much harm to the Tigers’ thick armor, but the German infantry suffered such heavy losses that they again withdrew. At that point, the Germans abandoned frontal assaults, but another force, supported by three SP guns, stormed the Polish right flank and succeeded in breaking through a portion of the 3rd Squadron’s sector. Hand-to-hand fighting broke out, and only by a determined counterattack and generous use of hand grenades were the Poles able to regain the lost ground.
The Polish left flank, next to the American right flank, also came under assault by SS infantry, backed by three SP guns. American flanking fire destroyed the SP guns, and the SS men found themselves caught in a cross-fire. A large number of Germans were captured, including a medical doctor with his orderlies, who were immediately put to good use, mainly tending to wounded prisoners. Further German attacks failed except for one occasion, when a strong SS group surprised the Allied left flank, broke into the perimeter and took a number of Americans prisoner. Amid the confusion of the fighting, however, the GIs managed to escape in the darkness and soon rejoined their unit.
In view of the serious situation developing in the neighboring sector, Zgorzelski sent the Americans one squadron of the newly arrived 24th Lancers. They regrouped their defenses in light of the previous night’s experience. ‘The enemy maintained pressure at a number of points and continued to pour troops through St. Lambert,’ Zgorzelski reported. ‘A specially designated battle group from the Canadian 4th Armored Division failed to capture the bridge in that locality, with the result that the enemy troops maintained their eastward movement, thus cutting across our supply lines leading from the north. At the same time, the American supplies were also cut off. We were running short of ammunition and particularly of much-needed mortar shells.
‘On top of all other problems, the POWs presented another difficulty,’ Zgorzelski said. ‘By August 20, we held over 800 of them. We were all short of rations. At times we feared that the prisoners might mutiny and break out. That would not have been too difficult, particularly during the night if they had wanted to do so, seeing that there were more prisoners than captors. It seemed, however, that they did not particularly want to do so. Weapons and ammunition taken from the captured enemy were quickly distributed among the Dragoons, whose own ammunition was practically exhausted. I was relieved to hear from the prisoners that the Germans were running short of ammunition, too.’
Although both the Americans and Poles were cut off from their supply lines at various times during the fight for Chambois, the Poles suffered most from logistical problems, so they began turning prisoners over to the 359th Infantry. ‘We in turn would march them back with our prisoners, of whom we were taking quite a number,’ noted Captain Waters, although the 2nd Battalion had established a prisoner cage in the center of Chambois until they could move them back.
On August 20, Zgorzelski thought, ‘Chambois took on the air of a besieged fortress. Our tanks, well hidden behind the thick walls of the buildings, pointed their guns menacingly, ready to greet the oncoming foe.
‘Suddenly,’ he continued, ‘a multiple-gun mortar salvo landed in the middle of the town square, where the prisoners were herded. The prisoners panicked, but were soon quieted by men of the 1st Squadron. Enemy mortars continued shelling the town, setting some houses on fire as well and a German ammunition truck, which burned in a series of explosions, sounding as if the enemy had broken through and were fighting inside the town perimeter. Now the German artillery started shelling the center of the town, leaving our defenses intact. Gradually, German aggressive activity was gaining in strength. The signs of something brewing were coming from the direction of St. Lambert and the Gouffern woods. Major Dull reported ‘tanks threatening the American sector,’ and asked for help. I quickly sent him four tanks with 17-pounder guns and regretted that we had only troops of anti-tank guns left with the 10th Mounted Rifles. A great help to the Americans was our artillery observer, who could call and direct our divisional artillery fire as well as that of some corps Royal Artillery regiments. A low cloud ceiling stopped all tactical air support on that day.
‘Soon after that incident, our sector came to life,’ Zgorzelski continued. ‘Enemy infantry were making use of natural cover as well as the abundant vehicles in their advance toward us. That was soon stopped. In view of the distance of about 1 kilometer, the only effective weapons were the 17-pounder guns which scored hits on a few of the enemy tanks. The enemy gave up his efforts in that direction and continued to move northeast from us, toward Hill 262 South.’
The Germans, aided by the uneven and covered ground in front of them, repeatedly assaulted the 2/359, and the Poles designated two infantry battalions and two tank companies to assist them. ‘It was a matter of holding on for an hour or so, until the relief came,’ wrote Zgorzelski. ‘It seemed that only 15 enemy tanks supported their infantry attack, and half of them were knocked out by the 24th Lancers’ tanks. Nevertheless, the enemy attacked in wave after wave, inflicting heavy losses on our neighbors, and succeeded in destroying five American tanks. The relief coming from the south had a dual task. Not only was the hard-pressed Major Dull’s ‘garrison’ to be relieved, but also the right wing of the attacking German force had to be attacked and destroyed. That soon came to pass. German troops, exhausted by the repeated attacks, were practically run over by the two American battalions and their 30 tanks. The enemy lost all their men and equipment.’
As weather permitted, Allied aircraft struck at German vehicles along the road, forcing them into fields where many became bogged down. German troops and vehicles assembling in the Gouffern woods came under fire from the 90th Division’s 105mm and 155mm artillery, which was being directed personally by its artillery commander, Brig. Gen. John Devine.
Throughout August 20, Company E of the 359th fought off attacks by German troops, tanks and a battery of towed 20mm cannons, which were silenced by the company’s mortars. Sergeant John D. Hawk was manning a light machine gun when a German shell knocked out his weapon and wounded him in the right thigh. Hawk secured a bazooka and with another soldier helped drive the enemy tanks back into the woods. During a lull in the fighting, he reorganized two machine-gun squads and directed his platoon to assemble parts from two damaged machine guns into one functional weapon. When a subsequent German armored assault drove Hawk’s troops back from their position, the 2nd Battalion managed to get two M-10 tank destroyers through Chambois to engage the enemy, but the terrain prevented them from getting a clear shot at the panzers. Ignoring his painful wound, Hawk climbed to an exposed position on a knoll to direct their fire; then, when he discovered that nobody could hear him above the din of battle, he ran through a hail of enemy gunfire to the nearest M-10 and told its crew to correct the range. The tank destroyers knocked out two German tanks and drove off a third, along with its accompanying infantry. Hawk then directed the M-10s’ fire into the nearby woods until the Germans-about 500 in number-emerged to surrender. On July 13, 1945, Sergeant Hawk was awarded the Medal of Honor for his courage, initiative and ingenuity at Chambois.
On the other side of the town, the Poles observed German armor trying to bypass their right flank, trading occasional long-range shots with their tanks but avoiding any head-on confrontations. The columns were heading toward Hill 262 on Mont Ormel, between Frenée and Coudehard.
Early in the morning of the 21st, aircraft dropped some tank ammunition to the Poles, but much of it missed the target. In addition, a Polish supply column ran into some retreating Germans and was captured. The Polish 1st Armored Division’s shortages persisted until the afternoon, when ample amounts of food, gasoline, medical supplies and tank ammunition finally came from the Americans. Early the next morning, the British 11th Armored Division got machine-gun and mortar ammunition to the Poles, but by that time the fight for Chambois was over.
The battle had cost the Polish 1st Armored Division 1,290 troops killed, 3,820 wounded and 22 missing in action. Although anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 Germans had managed to escape across their remaining crossing at St. Lambert before the Falaise salient closed completely on August 21, 10,000 had been killed and 50,000 taken prisoner. In addition, nearly all of their tanks and artillery pieces had been left behind. On the 20th anniversary of Falaise, former President Dwight D. Eisenhower commented, ‘No other battlefield presented such a horrible sight of death, hell and total destruction.’
The German army in France never fully recovered from the losses it suffered at Falaise. And now, too, the road to Paris lay open to the Allies. For Maczek and the men of his 1st Polish Armored Division, the battles of Chambois and Hill 262 represented their greatest victory in the West-and long-overdue revenge against the Germans. After the battle, General Crerar sent the following telegram to Maczek: ‘First Canadian Army is very proud because of the fact that Polish Armored Division is a part of us. If in the future we all continue to fight as at the present time, the mutual celebration of final victory should not be much delayed.’ General Simonds, who delivered the message, added that ‘The Battle of Chambois decided the fate of the war in Normandy as well as that of the entire French Republic.’
Hill 262 came to be known to the Canadians as the ‘Polish Battlefield.’ In Chambois, the grateful inhabitants erected a commemorative monument in the town square with a plaque showing the names of the commanders of the participating Polish and American units. A large-scale relief model was also put on display, showing the course of events during that battle, and a commemorative plaque was placed in the local church, citing the units that fought in the town.
This article was written by Jon Guttman and originally appeared in the September 2001 issue of World War II magazine.
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