The Polish 1st independent Parachute Brigade.

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.

Polish 6 Airborne Brigade soldiers check their weapons as they participate in training exercises with paratroopers from the U.S. Army's 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team at the Land Forces Training Centre in Oleszno near Drawsko Pomorskie, north west Poland May 1, 2014. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel
Polish 6 Airborne Brigade soldiers check their weapons as they participate in training exercises with paratroopers from the U.S. Army’s 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team at the Land Forces Training Centre in Oleszno near Drawsko Pomorskie, north west Poland May 1, 2014. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel.

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.

 Military William Order awarded to the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade.

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.

Polish Airbourne Forces at Arnhem 1944. I recommend the movie 'A Bridge Too Far'.
Polish Airbourne Forces at Arnhem 1944. I recommend the movie ‘A Bridge Too Far’.

 

15 thoughts on “The Polish 1st independent Parachute Brigade.”

  1. My thoughts exactly…

    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.

  2. An absolutely brilliant post Rich and so well put. The sacrifice of the Polish troops / airmen is one that should never be forgotten. I recently wrote a post on RAF Spanhoe, in which the American transport squadrons operated with these Polish paratroopers in a number of operations including market Garden. There were two tragedies that struck the Poles whilst here. Firstly, In July 1944, after 369 Polish paratroopers arrived for training as part of Operation ‘Burden’, a training flight near to RAF Wittering saw two C-47s collide over the Village of Tinwel. Twenty-six paratroops and eight crewmen were killed that day, the only survivor was Corporal Thomas Chambers who jumped from an open door. Eyewitness accounts told of “soil soaked in aviation fuel”, and bodies strapped to part open parachutes as many tried to jump as the aircraft fell. This tragic accident was a devastating blow to the Polish troops especially as they had not yet been able to prove themselves in combat and one that ultimately led to the disbandment of the section and reabsorption of the remainder into other units.

    Then during ‘Market Garden’, bad weather continually caused the cancellation of the Polish drops until September 23rd when good skies returned. During this time, the Polish troops had been loaded and unloaded so many times that it became too frustrating for one Polish paratrooper. Unable to cope with the stress and anticipation of operations, he fatally shot himself with his own gun.

    They were a very brave a dedicated group of troops who fought bravely for their and our country and for the freedom of the western world. Their reward, as you correctly say, was imprisonment or even death at the hands of their soviet ‘allies’.

    Too many people forget these events and the sacrifice the Polish airmen made. This is tragic and the sooner we show appreciation for them the better.

    As a side note, there is also, in the church of St Clement Danes (the RAF church) in central London, a memorial to the Polish airmen who fought in the air war. If. You get the chance do go, it’s a wonderful place right in the heart of London’s busy West End.

    1. My God Andy – that is truly terrible. Thank you for bringing it to the attention of this site. I knew that the Polish forces gave more than their fair-share to this country, I didn’t realise the details at times. I’m back in England now, and I am acutely aware of the strong, significant, and proactive Polish community in Swindon. I have tremendous respect for the Polish people, for the great sacrifice that they gave to us in The Battle of Britain, Tobruk, Monte-Casino, Arnhem, and post-war when we let them down. Thank you so much for mentioning the church of St Clement Danes (the RAF church) in central London, a memorial to the Polish airmen who fought in the air war. At least we have recognised a part of what this great nation did for us. Thank you Andy.

      1. A pleasure Rich. There is a photo in one of my earlier posts if you wish to have a look. I hope you have a good time with your dad, I’m site you’ll do something nice for the two of you. Have a great time!

  3. Thank you Andy, for bringing the Church of St Clement Danes to light. We, as a nation, have fallen short of our obligation, and respect for the Poles. I am sure that Pierre would support me in saying that we have fallen short of our obligation to the Canadians. Two nations that gave everything to the British Isles. Less that we gave to them. Shame on us.

    1. Another reason to leave the EC is that we can renew our ties with Canada, Australia and New Zealand, all dropped like a stone when seduced by Europe. I look forward to the same with India and Africa, who provided thousands of troops for both world wars. They like us more than we imagine.

      1. I can’t argue with that John. During World War I and World War II, (as I know you are well aware), soldiers from New Zealand fought alongside Australians. In recent years the Closer Economic Relations free trade agreement and its predecessors have inspired ever-converging economic integration (in Europe). Since Maastricht in 1993, we divorced ourselves from New Zealand, electing instead to have closer economic ties with Europe. Can we re-build an economic relationship with a nation that was so poorly let down by us? I guess we have to leave that question to the economists. I’m old enough to remember New Zealand Lamb and New Zealand butter. By God, I miss it. Thank you John, as always.

  4. My Bomber Command Dad said the Poles were “decent blokes”. It is to our eternal shame that the Poles were not allowed to march in the Victory Parade in London in 1945, for fear of offending Stalin.

    1. It’s hard to respond to that John. I feel that I am not qualified to give an appropriate answer. You, however, certainly are. The Poles were appallingly treated by the United Kingdom. It is time we all recognise the sacrifice that the Poles so willingly gave to this country.

  5. Amazing story. I think that there is a mix of arrogance and national pride that blinds us to the fact that WWII was not all an Anglo-American affair against the Axis. It amazes me how many Polish fought for us.

    There was an incident I saw in a documentary where a Polish pilot flying a Hurricane was shot down over the English coast and parachuted onto the beach. A member of the Home Guard started walking funnily towards him (side stepping and going back and fore) leading to the pilot thinking he was drunk. When the Pole tried to walk forward the Home Guard soldier fired his rifle at him with the bullet going over his head. The Pole stopped and put his hands up shouting “Polish! RAF!”

    The Pole tried to move again and once more the Home Guardsman fired over his head. When the two were finally close enough to hear each other speak the Pole was screaming at him he was Polish to which the old soldier said, ” I know but you’ve landed in a mine field. I had to shoot at you to stop you treading on a mine! “

  6. Great story Tony. I think I heard that but not in such personal terms. The Poles gave us their lives, their existence, their courage. We let them down – I think we can all agree as Englishmen, as proud Welshmen, as Men of Northern Ireland – we let the Polish down. Thank you for commenting on this post, more than any other. Dziękuję.

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