The British Paras are good. That’s a given. The French Paras are good. So too, are the German Fallschirmjäger. When we consider the continent of North America, the amazing 101st, and 82nd airbourne spring to mind. Equal to all of these ‘Special Forces’, and great allies of the NATO consortia, are the Polish Parachute brigade.
These guys are tough, professional, and respected by their counterparts. And they have a rich History.
The 1st (Polish) Independent Parachute Brigade was a parachute infantry brigade of the Polish Armed Forces in the West under the command of Major General Stanisław Sosabowski, created in September 1941 during the Second World War and based in Scotland.
Originally, the brigade’s exclusive mission was to drop into occupied Poland in order to help liberate the country. The British government, however, pressured the Poles into allowing the unit to be used in the Western theatre of war. Operation Market Garden eventually saw the unit sent into action in support of the British 1st Airborne Division at the Battle of Arnhem in September 1944. The Poles were initially landed by glider from 18 September, whilst, due to bad weather over England, the parachute section of the Brigade was held up, and jumped on 21 September at Drie on the South bank of the Rhine. The Poles suffered significant casualties during the next few days of fighting, but still were able, by their presence, to cause around 2,500 German troops to be diverted to deal with them for fear of their supporting the remnants of the 1st Airborne trapped over the lower Rhine in Oosterbeek.
The Brigade was originally trained close to RAF Ringway and later in Upper Largo in Scotland. It was finally based in Lincolnshire, close to RAF Spitalgate (Grantham) where it continued training until its eventual departure for Europe after D-Day.
The Brigade was formed by the Polish High Command in exile with the aim of its being used to support the Polish resistance during the nationwide uprising, a plan that encountered opposition from the British, who argued they would not be able to support it properly. The pressure of the British government eventually caused the Poles to give in and agree to let the Brigade be used on the Western Front. On 6 June 1944 the unit, originally the only Polish unit directly subordinate to the Polish government in exile and thus independent of the British command, was transferred into the same command structure as all other Polish Forces in the West. It was slotted to take part in several operations after the invasion of Normandy, but all of them were cancelled. On 27 July, aware of the imminent Warsaw Uprising, the Polish government in exile asked the British government for air support, including dropping the Brigade in the vicinity of Warsaw. This request was refused on the grounds of “operational considerations” and the “difficulties” in coordinating with the Soviet forces. Eventually, the Brigade entered combat when it was dropped during Operation Market Garden in September 1944.
During the operation, the Brigade’s anti-tank battery went into Arnhem on the third day of the battle (19 September), supporting the British paratroopers at Oosterbeek.
This left Sosabowski without any anti-tank capability. The light artillery battery was left behind in England due to a shortage of gliders. Owing to bad weather and a shortage of transport planes, the drop into Driel was delayed by two days, to 21 September. The British units which were supposed to cover the landing zone were in a bad situation and out of radio contact with the main Allied forces. Finally, the 2nd Battalion, and elements of the 3rd Battalion, with support troops from the Brigade’s Medical Company, Engineer Company and HQ Company, were dropped under German fire east of Driel. They overran Driel, after it was realised that the Heveadorp ferry had been destroyed. In Driel, the Polish paratroopers set up a defensive “hedgehog” position, from which over the next two nights further attempts were made to cross the Rhine.
The following day, the Poles were able to produce some makeshift boats and attempt a crossing. With great difficulty and under German fire from the heights of Westerbouwing on the north bank of the river, the 8th Parachute Company and, later, additional troops from 3rd Battalion, managed to cross the Rhine in two attempts. In total, about 200 Polish paratroopers made it across in two days, and were able to cover the subsequent withdrawal of the remnants of the British 1st Airborne Division.
On 26 September 1944, the Brigade (now including the 1st Battalion and elements of the 3rd Battalion, who were parachuted near to Grave on 23 September) was ordered to march towards Nijmegen. The Brigade had lost 25% of its fighting strength, amounting to 590 casualties.
In 1945, the Brigade was attached to the Polish 1st Armoured Division and undertook occupation duties in Northern Germany until it was disbanded on 30 June 1947. The majority of its soldiers chose to stay in exile rather than hazard returning to the new Communist Poland. (where the RAF is concerned: A total of 145 Polish fighter pilots served in the RAF during the Battle of Britain, making up the largest non-British contribution. By the end of the war, around 19,400 Poles were serving in the Polish Air Force in Great Britain and in the RAF). After the war, a number of Polish pilots, who had bravely fought for the RAF, were returned to Poland, to be exiled and in some cases, imprisoned or killed by the Soviet government.
Shortly after the war, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands wanted to award the Parachute Brigade and wrote the government a request. However, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Eelco van Kleffens, opposed the idea. He thought an award for the Poles would upset the relations with the ‘Big Three’ and harm national interests
More than 61 years after World War II, the Brigade was awarded the Military Order of William (31 May 2006) for its distinguished and outstanding acts of bravery, skill and devotion to duty during Operation Market Garden. The military order of William is the highest Dutch military award. Only eleven units have been awarded this honour, of which only 2 are non Dutch. The award is now worn by the 6th Airborne Brigade which inherited the battle honours of the brigade.
We, as a nation, owe a great thanks to the Polish people.
Poles provided crucial help to the Allies throughout the war, fighting on land, sea and air. Notable was the service of the Polish Air Force, not only in the Allied victory in the Battle of Britain but also the subsequent air war. Polish ground troops were present in the North Africa Campaign (siege of Tobruk); the Italian campaign (including the capture of the monastery hill at the Battle of Monte Cassino); and in battles following the invasion of France (the battle of the Falaise pocket; an airborne brigade parachute drop during Operation Market Garden and one division in the Western Allied invasion of Germany). Polish forces in the east, fighting alongside the Red army and under Soviet command, took part in the Soviet offensives across Belarus and Ukraine into Poland, across the Vistula and towards the Oder and then into Berlin. Some Polish contributions were less visible, and some even overlooked, most notably the prewar and wartime deciphering of German Enigma machine codes by cryptologists Marian Rejewski and his colleagues. The Polish intelligence network also proved to be of much value to the Allied intelligence.
Unlike in France, the Nazis did not set up a collaborationist government. Instead Poland was governed directly by a purely German administration known as the Generalgouvernement. This administration was in turn opposed by the Polish Underground State, which not only fielded one of the three largest partisan forces in existence. but was a rare example of an underground government, a phenomenon not witnessed in many other occupied countries.
Given that the Polish people have supported this nation, that they have given their lives for us, I believe that we, as a collective people should stop blaming them for taking our jobs, and recognise the significant sacrifice that they gave to Great Britain.