This study deals with the Polish participation in the liberation of Western Europe and specifically of the Netherlands. A total of more than 500,000 Polish combatants fought on all European fronts, including Poland, during the Second World War. About one third, approximately 150,000 soldiers, were active throughout Southern- and Western Europe during the conflict. They fought in illustrious battles, such as Narvik, the Battle of Britain, Tobruk, Monte Cassino, Falaise, and Arnhem. Furthermore, they also contributed to the liberation of various cities in the Southern and Eastern parts of the Netherlands; a
role which is lesser known to the general public. The actions of the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade and its commander General Stanisław Sosabowski received more attention through films like A Bridge Too Far, but even this only showed a mere glimpse of the Polish contribution to the Second World War. Although this group of Polish combatants was the most familiar, their effort in the war was gravely underestimated by Western historians, until recently.
The common negative perception of this group formed the framework through which all Polish fighters on the Western front were portrayed. The main reason for this inaccurate and damaging view had to do with information that was based on a memorandum from Field-Marshall Sir Bernard Montgomery that was sent to his superior Sir Alan Brooke. The document stated that Polish forces fought badly during the Operation Market Garden campaign. In 2006, a rectification of the Polish contribution took place. The Dutch government showed their recognition for the valiant effort made by these continental European soldiers in the liberation of the Netherlands. The direct motive for the Dutch government’s sudden change of heart was a combination of good research journalism, pressure from Members of Parliament and Prince Bernhard. The mixture of these factors influenced the government to take action, and resulted in the belated meriting of the Polish veterans of the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade. On 31 May 2006, the ‘Militaire Willemsorde der vierde klasse’ was given to the 6th Polish Air Brigade, the successor of Sosabowski’s parachute brigade.
Another Polish unit that also helped liberate the Netherlands, the 1st Polish Armored Division, already acquired recognition in 1944 for their valiant contribution to the war effort. Ironically, this recognition was bestowed upon them by the same Montgomery who
wrote very negatively about Sosabowski’s brigade. Furthermore, the Dutch government also honored the commanding officer, General Stanisław Maczek, and several other Polish soldiers with decorations in 1946. Maczek even was granted a membership, as a grand officer, in the ‘Orde van Oranje Nassau’. Although the combatants of the 1st Polish Armored Division were highly appreciated as liberators just after the war, the current knowledge of their actions is mainly restricted to the areas in the Netherlands that were liberated by this unit. In contrast to Sosabowski’s Brigade, Maczek’s Division is lesser known to the general Dutch public.
This research concentrates on retrieving knowledge regarding the Polish participation in Western Europe during the Second World War. The aim is to provide an overview of the military characteristics that were demonstrated by the Polish forces, with a special focus on the Netherlands.