10th mounted rifles regiment
- 10th armoured cavalry brigade
1st armoured regiment
2nd armoured regiment
24th lancers regiment
10th dragoons’ regiment
- 3rd rifle brigade
Podhale highland rifle battalion
8th rifle battalion
9th rifle battalion
1st independent HMG squadron
1st field artillery regiment (self-proppeled)
2nd field artillery regiment (towed)
1st anti-tank regiment
1st light anti-aircraft regiment
The First Polish Armoured Division draws its roots from the 10th motorized cavalry brigade (10. Brygada Kawalerii – 10. BK), formed in 1938 in Poland. It constituted a response to the german armoured formations, taking into account the very limited military spendings Poland could afford. The motorized brigade, strong of 3.000 men and reinforced by a couple of “extra” units, was an acceptable compromise, offering a fire power and a mobility hitherto new in Poland and this at a reasonable cost.
September 1939 – Fighting in Poland
The German aggression on September 1st, 1939, found the 10. BK lends to combat. Deployed in the mountains on the southern border, it was committed with some battalions of territorial defense against the bulk of 22. German Korps. The effective exploitation of the geographical advantages, associated with excellent training and quick reaction capability, initially made it possible to limit the German advance: during the first four days, in spite of his superiority, the enemy had not progressed more than 10 km…
The quickly deteriorating situation on other frontline sectors forced the 10. BK to be moved back from September 6th on. The brigade retreated in good order, establishing defensive strongpoints in Nowy Wisnicz (september 7th) and Lancut (september 9th), before passing the San river. On september 14th, it was committed around Lwow and managed to successfully counter-attack the german forces which approached the city. It rejected the enemy off Zboiska, untill the Soviet invasion, on September 17th, thrown away any chance of resistance.
In the afternoon of September 19th, on order of polish army headquaters, colonel Maczek crossed the Hungarian border with 1.500 men and all the weapons, while asking his soldiers to join France by small groups in order to continue the fight.
June 1940 – Fighting in France
During the winter ’39-40, many Polish soldiers managed to escape the often weakly-guarded Hungarian or Rumanian camps where they were interned. In spite of the difficulties of the journey through all Europe, a great number of veterans of the 10. BK succeeded in arriving in France.
In accordance with the military conventions between France and Poland, soldiers who have been successful to join France constituted a Polish army in exile. Maczek and his officers staff of the 10. BK received the mission of creating an armoured brigade. The surge of volunteers and veterans made it possible to perform the organization and the training. However, in spite of all efforts made by Maczek and his officers, the brigade had not been supplied with any modern tank when Germany launched its offensive on May 10th, 1940, and it is finally on the rush that its training on heavy equipment was carried out. Even without its battalions of tanks, the brigade was placed on June 6th under the command of the 4th Army Group, with the order to cover the flank of the 8th Corps.
June 12th, the brigade was launched on the Champagne front, where it took part in the fight around Champaubert – Montgivroux. June 13th, it covered the retreat of 20th and 45th ID. Driven back in Romilly, it suffered important losses. From June 15th, it covered 240th DLI drive on Dijon.
Pushing south in an attempt to cross Loire before German Panzers, Poles gained a transitory tactical success in Montbard, while managing to capture the city. However, running short on ammunition and out of gasoline, Maczek issued orders to drive back from the city and destroy equipment. Once more, as at the end of the campaign in Poland, it disbanded his unit, asking his soldiers to reach ports and try to escape to Greant- Britain.
1940 – 1944 – Exile in Great Britain
After the collapse of France, Great Britain was the last place in Europe that could gather polish hopes to continue the fight. Initially relegated to the monitoring of scottish coasts, the veterans of Maczek units were however in the center of the concerns of the government of Sikorski, who wished to organize an armoured unit worthy of this name. Lobbying and pressures on the British government ended up being paying, and, the so much awaited authorization for the creation of the First Polish Armoured Division was granted on February 17th, 1942.
After having raised administrative obstacle, organization process came up against the material difficulties related to the difficult military situation of Great Britain. Because of the lack of available tanks, division accepted in priority support equipment – trucks, scout cars, as well as obsolete tanks. This situation improved gradually with the wire of time.
The second obstacle, which proved more handicapping, was the limited quantity of recruits available. In spite of enlisting volunteers from all countries, polish division never had sufficient manpower to answer the “theoretical status” of an armoured division. The situation, particularly alarming in the services (supply, workshops, medical), will be solved by the recourse to veterans, but the problem of manpower was to remain permanent, and the replacement of wounded or killed soldiers remained very delicate.
At the end of 1943, a last reorganization conferred on the Polish unit its final two-brigade form, then the first armoured division received its final equipment – Sherman and Cromwell tanks.
August 1944 – Fighting in Normandy
The First Armoured Division was unloaded in Arromanches on August 1st, 1944. One week later, the 8th, it was deployed in the south of Caen to take part in the second phase of the operation “Totalize”.
Even before the beginning of the attack, the rear echelon of the division was bombed by mistake by an American air raid, which inflicted tens of casualties. Then, armoured regiments were caught under heavy fire from enemy anti-tank guns, skilfully dissimulated. The initial dash was brutally broken, and, by the end of the day, polish division deplored the loss of 26 tanks for a disapointing progress…
Attack was resumed the following day, and division advanced few kilometers deeper on the line Cauvicourt – Soignolles – Saint-Aignan. Although a charge of the 1st armoured regiment managed to reach Rouvre river, the attack failed to break the deep german defensive system. Having failed to reach Falaise, Totalize was stopped the following day.
It is the following operation of 2nd Canadian Corps, Tractable, which made it possible for the 1st Polish armoured division to spearhead the decisive breakthrough. 10th PSK, with supporting Dragons and anti-tank guns, advanced on August 15th towards Dives river. A detachment led by lieutenant Maksymowicz succeeds in locating a ford at Jort. Immediately, this breach get exploited by the armoured regiments, which then moved towards Trun, on the German back.
Reorganized in two columns, Polish division progressed then into Chambois, to carry out the junction with the Americans. On August 19th, task force Stefanowicz reached hill 262 (“the Mace”), cutting the roads of German retreat. On its right flank, task force Zgorzelski (24th Lancers, 10th Dragons, 10th PSK) succeeds in entering Chambois, where it was joined in the evening by Capt. Waters, from US 90th infantry division.
The Falaise gap, closed by the junction of the Poles and the Americans in Chambois, was still to be defended against german attempts to break the ring of allied division surrounding them. Counter-attacks followed one another with eagerness, endengering polish defensive lines. On hill 262, counter-attack of 2nd SS-PanzerKorps managed to open a breach but could not submerge the positions of the Stefanowicz task force.
The Falaise pocket was definitively closed on August 21st. Polish armoured division was victorious, but at a terrible price – on 87 tanks arrived on the “Mace” in the afternoon of august 19th, more than half have been destroyed. First polish armoured division deplored 330 killed, more than 1.000 wounded, 120 MIA, that is 20% of its fighting force.
Autumn 1944 – From the Seine to the Maas
After the integration of all available reserves to fill undergone losses, Maczek tanks sprang on August 31st in direction of Belgium. On the way, they freed Abbeville (ironically, the city where french and british representatives had met on September 12th, 1939 to decide not to help Poland…), then St-Omer.
The First Armoured Division crossed Belgian border on September 6th, then expelled the last Germans off Ypres in the evening – for this action, Prince Charles, Régent of Belgium, will grant the 9th battalion the title of “Rifles of Flandres”. In the following days, division will continue its way, freeing Roulers and Thielt, before being stopped the 9th on the Ghent canal. Between August 31st and September 9th, it had traversed nearly 470 km!
Once in Ghent, division got the task of seizing the territory north of the city, to the mouth of the Scheldt. A task force was detached to clean the districts still held by the Germans, while the 10th armoured brigade turned enemy positions, passing by Lokeren and St Niklaas, then skipping back towards north. Joined by the 3rd infantry brigade, it crossed dutch border close to Hulst September 15th. After a first aborted attempt, the Hulst-Axel canal was crossed 19th, and polish division managed to drive the German forces back towards the coast, capturing the port of Terneuzen.
After securing territory North-East of Ghent, the 1st polish armoured division was attached to the 1st British Corps and directed towards Turnout. On the left flank of 49th ID, it launched its attack on September 29th. The following day, it captured Merxplas, then crossed the Dutch border again. German resistance was strong, and fight developped furiously around Baarle-Nassau up to October 6th; at that date, the division was put to rest and refit.
It is only October 26th that the 1st Polish armoured division was attacking again, with the objective to reach Hollands Diep, the estuary of Maas. It progressed very quickly and managed to cross the Breda – Tilburg road the following day. From there, the 10th brigade of cavalry circumvented Breda from northern side, while the 3rd rifle brigade carried out a similar movement from the south. This fast and strong operation prevented the Germans from reinforcing defenses of the city, and Breda was released the 29th without any sustainable damages.
Maczek soldiers progressed then towards left bank of the Maas. German defenses were well established, and the flat, open ground, cut by Mark canal and Wilhelmina canal, endangered any progression. After having established a bridgehead on the Mark canal on November 3rd, division reached the Maas the 5th. However, heavy fighting will continue until the fall of last German strongpoint at Moerdijk, the 9th. The following day, having fulfilled its mission successfully, the polish armoured division was relegated to a purely defensive role.
1945 – Fighting in Germany
Division spent 1944-45 winter in Netherlands, with responsibility to prevent any ennemy infiltration on the southern bank of the Maas. Slowdown of military operations allowed to integrate and train new recruits. This additionnal manpower was critical to refurbish division ranks, that have been seriously depleted by previous campaigns. Reinforcements arrived from training facilities in England, and Polish prisonners previously forced in the Wehrmacht were also enlisted. During this winter break, division deplored the death of second lieutenant André Poniatowski, going down from the Marshal of Empire, killed on January 22nd when fighting to push back a German incursion.
The First polish armoured division entered combat only once British have the Rhine forced. It received orders to clear the Dutch-German border area up to the North Sea. It left Breda on April 7th, crossed the Maas at Gennep the following day then the Rhine the 8th. It entered action on April 9th, organized into two task forces.
The 3rd rifle brigade progressed north, to secure the left flank of the division. Between April 11th and 13th, it occupied the area between Emmen and Ter Appel. It freed the camp of Oberlangen, where were held women soldiers of the Polish National Army who had been taken prisonners after the fall of Warsaw uprising in August 1944. April 15th, it forced the last canals held by the Germans and captured Winschoten. On its right side, the 10th armoured cavalry brigade progressed northeastern. It penetrated in Germany then advanced along Ems river to the Küsten canal. Three attempts were launched before this obstacle being forced April 19th; the cavalry brigade advanceed then on Papenburg.
Reunited again, First polish armoured division captured Posthausen, on Leda river, April 25th. Its advance was then slowed down by the omnipresence of marshes, and it is only with the capture of Stickhausen, May 1st, that it could launch its last attack on Wilhelmshaven. May 5th, the port of Kriegsmarine surrendered, offering more than 200 ships and vessels to the Poles. Capitulation of Third Reich occurred on May 8th. For Maczek and his men, it was the end of a six year fight and the beginning of a new odyssey.
After a few more weeks spent in the area of Wilhelmshaven, First polish armoured division was given an occupation zone between the Dutch border and Oldenburg. Its mission consisted in keeping order. It also had to take care of polish refugees and prisoners of war which flowed to it per thousands.
At conferences of Teheran then Yalta, Churchill and Roosevelt had generously given up Eastern Europe to Stalin, and Poland was yielded to the Soviets. Whereas presenting the bill for lend-lease equipment to polish governement in exile, British governement obeyed the demands of communists and prevented Poles from participation in the victory parade of 1946…
The First Armoured Division was dissolved in 1947. Demobilized, the few of its soldiers who turned over to Poland was often persecuted for their “anticommunism”. The great majority choosed to remain in exile.
It is the case of Maczek. Not belonging to the British army, he could get any retirement from british government and became barman in Edinburgh. He died there on December 11th, 1994, when 102 years old. He lived long enough to witness the fall of the iron curtain and the departure of russian troops stationed in Poland. He is buried in Polish War Cemetery in Breda, Netherlands, among his men fallen during the ’44-45 automn.
With its headquaters in Swietoszow, close to the German border, the 10th Polish armoured cavalry brigade holds today the living tradition of Maczek troops.