The Polish contribution to the liberation of the Netherlands (1944-1945)
After Normandy, the Western Allies debated which strategy to follow in order to push back the Germans. The Americans were advocating a ‘broad front’ approach, whereas the Britsh were in favor of a ‘small’ front to punch through enemy lines and head for the industrial heart of Germany, the Ruhrgebiet. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Head Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) in Europe, decided for the British endeavor. The recently promoted (September 1944) Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery received the prioritized military means to conduct his military strategy. He devised a plan named Operation Comet, which was not well received by the Allies. The operational planning assumed that Germans were not putting up a severe resistance. Furthermore, the plan called for a moderate amount of airborne troops. Overall, the British planning was too optimistic for the Americans to proceed with the execution phase.
After the cancellation of Operation Comet, Montgomery quickly came up with a new plan, Operation Market Garden, which included solutions to the American criticism of Comet. The new operation was adopted on 12 September 1944 and envisaged a large role for the parachute soldiers of the FAAA, who should take the bridges over the Dutch rivers (Market) and defend them until relieved by ground forces (Garden). Approximately 35,000 American, British and Polish airborne troops were to be dropped over the Netherlands. The Polish commander, Sosabowski, was restricted in his actions by a national caveat that was agreed upon between the British and Polish government. The Poles were destined to liberate their own country, but should be withdrawn from action, if the casualties surpassed 15 percent of the Brigade.
It is important to note that the Warsaw uprising was already taking place (1 August – 2 October 1944) and the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade was eagerly awaiting deployment in their home country. Nevertheless, they first had to fight at Arnhem before the Poles could be taken there. It was also in their advantage to make sure the Allies defeated the Germans in Western Europe. A rapid advance in Germany meant that Sosabowski’s brigade could be parachuted over Poland and join the Armia Krajowa in their struggle to fight the Germans. The Polish brigade was to be dropped as an incohesive group near Arnhem. A small contingent of 150-170 soldiers was dropped with the British at Oosterbeek on 19 September 1944, while Sosabowski landed with 1,003 men at Driel on 21 September 1944.
The original drop zone, the village of Elden, could not be reached, because the area was still in hands of the enemy. Clearly, the operational planning of the British did not leave enough room for unforeseen circumstances. Consequently, failure of capturing one objective meant negative effects for the Polish fighting elements. In addition, the rest of his brigade was dropped on 22 September near Grave. Not only was the entire brigade dispersed over three locations, Sosabowski lacked anti-tank weapons at Driel to neutralize the incoming German armored threat. The Germans responded quickly to the Polish landing at Driel. They were shocked by the sudden appearance of fresh troops in the conflict and committed around 2,500 reserves to neutralize the Polish threat. Without knowing at that time, the Polish were preventing these reserves from attacking the British, thus enlarging the survival rate for British soldiers.
While the fighting continued at Oosterbeek, a conference was organized at Valburg between the military leaders to discuss how to deal with the present situation. The British general Ivor Thomas proposed that a small contingent (one battalion) were to cross the Rhine and evacuate the allied presence at Oosterbeek. Sosabowski opposed, he wanted to bring more soldiers in, and try to save the battle. The discussion culminated in an explosion when it was decided that one of Sosabowski’s battalion had to cross the Rhine. Sosabowski severly protested. From his point of view the British were making decisions regarding Polish lives, as if they were fully part of their military structure. They did not treat the Polish allies as equal, but considered them more or less like auxiliary forces. This hierarchical approach of the British generals frustrated Sosabowski, who wanted to direct Polish troops into battle on his terms.
Furthermore, the Polish general had to think about his national caveat, no more losses than 15 percent of the brigade. Any attempt to get one battalion across (30% of Sosabowski’s Brigade) would endanger his future fighting ability in Poland. From the British perspective, the Polish general was simply guilty of insubordination by protesting to go to Oosterbeek, not being aware -or ignoring- the arguments of the Polish general. He was ordered to go and was able to deliver 200 Poles, to support the British at the Oosterbeek perimeter. With the arrival of the Polish soldiers, the Germans experienced a change of the fighting atmosphere. The combat became aggressive and grim, which was different than the more courteous approach by British troops. After the evacuation of the Allied troops north of the Rhine, the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade was shipped back to Great Britain.
After the first Polish liberators entered the Netherlands, Maczek’s armored division entered the same country on the 20 October 1944 during Operation Pheasant. The Western Allies wanted liberate the Southern part of the Netherlands by clearing all the German troops out of the province of Noord-Brabant. The Garden element of Operation Market Garden -a month earlier- liberated the eastern part of the North-South axis of the cities Den Bosch and Eindhoven. As a result, it was decided to liberate the western part of that axis, to prevent the Germans from counter-attacking the fragile salient, stretching from Eindhoven to Nijmegen. The Polish 1st Armored Division was initially tasked to cut off any German movement in eastern direction. However, in the night of 27-28 October 1944, Polish reconnaissance elements of the 1st Polish Armored Division discovered that the North-Eastern part of the city of Breda was not well-defended.
The Germans were clearly expecting attacks from the south, but responded di
rectly to halt the Polish advance from the North-East. Consequently, the movement of German troops to halt the Polish reconnaissance regiment enabled other units of the 1st Polish Armored Division to enter the town from the South, via Bavel and Ginneken. Maczek did not have to resort to artillery support for his troops, which was quite unusual for the Anglo-Saxon liberators. The main reason had to do with the speed in which the city of Breda was taken. During the war, it was common to provide heavy fire support in situations where the German defense proved to be tenacious. However, this was not the case in Breda. Furthermore, the Polish general chose to expose his troops to the German defense forces in the city, based on the conviction that enough cities had unnecessarily been destroyed; and that local population had already suffered greatly from artillery fire. Maczek and some of his men received the Distinguished Service Order from Field-Marshall Montgomery for their brave
capture of Breda and operations south of the Meuse river. Ironically, the ceremony to honor the Poles was almost two months after the same Montgomery mentioned that the Polish Parachute Brigade ‘performed very badly’.
After the liberation of Breda, the 1st Polish Armoured Division continued its advance after the winter, in April 1945. Via Tilburg, Den Bosch, Reek and Gennep, the Poles crossed the Rhine near Goch and proceeded northwards to the Netherlands again. Being the eastern flank of the Canadian 2nd Division, they liberated towns in the Achterhoek and Twente regions. On 6 April 1945, they received orders to support Belgian Special Air Service units in Coevorden. From this city they liberated towns and villages to the East of the North-South axis Wildervank-Coevorden (Emmen, Ter Apel, Stadskanaal and Veendam).
In this area, the Poles were notified on 18 April 1945 that a women prisoners of war camp existed in Germany, close to the Dutch border. The 1,726 female prisoners in Stalag VI C Oberlangen appeared to be captives from the Warsaw Uprising. The Germans chose to place the camp near the Dutch border, in order to subdue the incentive for the prisoners to escape to Poland. The 1st Polish Armoured Divison received their last marching orders, after the liberation of the Polish women. The final assignment consisted of advancing towards Wilhelmshaven, where the Kriegsmarine surrendered to the Polish forces on 8 May 1945.
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