DESIGNATION: Polish 1st Armored Division
ACTIVATION: November 25, 1942
CAMPAIGNS: Normandy, France, Holland
The Polish 1st Armored Division descended directly from the 10th Cavalry Brigade, which was raised, along with the 10th Mounted Rifles Regiment and the 24th Lancers Regiment, after Poland became independent in 1918. By the eve of the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, it had been reorganized as the 10th Mechanized Brigade, the only such brigade in the Polish army. The unit was known as the “Black Brigade” for the long, distinctive black leather uniform coats worn by its men. Mobilized on March 15, 1939, the 10th Mechanized gave an excellent account of itself, screening the withdrawal of Army Krakow and participating in counteroffensives in the Lwów area. Outnumbered and outgunned, and with their country collapsing around them, Brig. Gen. Stanislaw Maczek, the unit’s commander, crossed into Hungary on September 20, 1939, with what remained of the brigade. The exiles then made their way to France to continue the fight.
The French agreed to organize the 35,000 Poles who had escaped from Poland, along with 45,000 Polish conscripts recruited in France, into a separate Polish army of four infantry divisions, a mountain brigade and a tank battalion. By the spring of 1940, they had equipped two infantry divisions and an independent brigade and had even provided two battalions of Renault R-35 light tanks to reconstitute the 10th Mechanized Brigade.
The unit fought in May-June 1940 on the Marne, at Lagarde, Altviller and Montbard and took part in some of the most intense combat of the campaign. By June 19, it had lost 75 percent of its personnel and all its tanks. General Maczek ordered the survivors to escape, but of the 80,000 Polish troops in France at the beginning of the German invasion, only 19,000 were evacuated to Great Britain.
The Polish 1st Armored Division was formed in Scotland on November 25, 1942, and manned by survivors of the 10th Mechanized Brigade and other Polish volunteers. The unit was composed of an armored brigade, an infantry brigade, a reconnaissance regiment and support units. The 10th Armored Brigade comprised the 1st and 2nd Armored regiments, the 24th Armored (Lancer) Regiment and the 10th Motorized Infantry Battalion. The 3rd Infantry Brigade was organized around the Polish 1st Highland Infantry Battalion and the 8th and 9th Infantry battalions. The 10th Polish Mounted Rifle Regiment was responsible for providing reconnaissance for the division. Support units consisted of the 1st and 2nd Field Artillery regiments, the 1st Anti-Tank Artillery Regiment, the 1st Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, and divisional engineers and signals. Over the next two years, the division trained in Scotland while it was being fully modernized with American and British equipment.
During the Normandy campaign, the Polish 1st Armored Division fought as part of the 21st Army Group, First Canadian Army, II Canadian Corps. The Poles landed in Europe in the first week of August and moved to the front lines immediately, taking part in Operation Totalize, the Canadian thrust toward Falaise, where it made slow progress and was counterattacked repeatedly. On August 14 the division was ordered to the southwest to close the Falaise Pocket. Racing ahead of the combined British and Canadian forces, the division bypassed Falaise and seized the Chambois road junction and Hill 262 on August 19. For the next three days, the Poles, running short of ammunition and fuel, were counterattacked repeatedly by German units desperate to break out of the trap. On August 21, the division finally linked up with the U.S. 90th Infantry Division coming up from the south. The next day, the badly battered Poles, having suffered some 2,000 casualties and lost more than 100 tanks, were withdrawn from the front to reorganize. The division was able to make up some of its losses through an influx of Polish-born Wehrmacht soldiers, who willingly exchanged their field gray uniforms for British battledress emblazoned with a Polish shoulder title.
The 1st Polish Armored Division played a key role in the Allied victory at Falaise, which inflicted a major loss on the German army and sped the Allied drive across France. Some 42,000 Germans were captured at Falaise, while another 5,000 to 10,000 were killed trying to break out of the pocket. The Poles alone captured more than 5,000 prisoners. In recognition of their valor, Canadian troops later christened Hill 262 with a sign that read: “A Polish Battlefield.” Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, noting the steadfastness of the Polish 1st Armored Division during the battle, remarked that the Allies had caught the Germans in a bottle and the Poles were the cork.
The Poles renewed offensive operations on August 28, crossing the Seine River in the Neufchâtel sector three days later and advancing swiftly to the northwest, crossing the Somme, taking Abbeville, occupying Hesdin, then marching on Cassel. On September 6, they entered Belgium and took Ypres, before continuing their advance toward Antwerp. Two days later they captured Thielt, taking 3,000 German prisoners, and the next day were at Ghent. By September 20, the Poles had reached the banks of the Scheldt and a week later arrived at the Dutch border northeast of Antwerp. Attached to the Canadian I Corps, the division resumed its drive south of the Meuse and entered Breda on October 29, then fought on the south bank of the Meuse and on the Lamarck Canal. On November 8, it took Moerdijk and was then withdrawn from the front lines. In April 1945, the Poles attacked once again, advancing to within 20 kilometers of Wilhemshaven. With the end of the war in Europe, the division was sent to Great Britain and disbanded.
Despite fighting the Germans in Poland, Norway, France, the Middle East, Italy and northwest Europe, Poland was handed over to the Soviet Union at war’s end. Polish soldiers who returned to Poland were executed or imprisoned by the Soviets. Those who remained in the West suffered the indignity of being denied the right to march in the postwar victory parades for fear of offending Josef Stalin. Like most Polish soldiers who fought with the Allies, Maczek and the men of the 1st Armored Division chose to remain in the West after the war, unable to return to their homes and families.
Originally published in the June 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.