By William Stroock

Polish Major General Stanislaw Macze, commander of the 1st Polish Armoured Division stood tall and watched as General Guy Simonds, II Canadian Corps, delivered very harsh news to the half dozen German generals and admirals of the 1st Parachute Army, General Erich Straub commanding.

“You have not come here to negotiate with us; you are here to listen to the terms of unconditional surrender.”

Simonds then read off a list of German locales and the units that would be occupying them, naming cities and Allied units. He then came to Wilhelmshaven and informed Straub that the great city would be occupied by the Polish 1st Armoured Division.

Straub and his retinue were stunned at the thought of German territory being occupied by Poles.

For Maczek and his countrymen who recalled the grim defeat of the Polish Army at the hands of the Germans in 1939, it was a proud moment.

A few days after the meeting, the men of the 1st Polish Armoured Division marched through the streets of Wilhelmshaven in a parade-ground formation. The “Black Devils,” as the Germans had nicknamed them, made a great procession of world-weary and battle-hardened tankers.

As they passed the reviewing stand, they presented eyes right to their commanding officer, General Maczek. Billowing 25 feet in the air above the pridefilled men of the division flew red and white banners emblazoned with the Polish eagle. These Polish banners had been crafted from Nazi banners by the people of Wilhelmshaven on Maczek’s orders.

For Maczek, Wilhelmshaven’s surrender and occupation was the culmination of six years of hard work and the final leg of a journey that began in September 1939. Born in 1892, in Ukraine, Maczek was a career soldier, serving not only in the Polish army, but also the Austrian Habsburg Army during the Great War. He had commanded a battalion in the Russo-Polish War of 1920 and a cavalry brigade during the German invasion of Poland.

As the Polish military and state collapsed in the wake of the German-Russo invasion, Maczek led his brigade into Hungary, where they were interned by the Hungarian government. Maczek and thousands of his men managed to make their way out of Hungary to reform in France. The Polish 10th Cavalry Regiment fought in the Battle of France only to evacuate to Britain after France surrendered.

Maj. Gen. Stanislaw Maczek led the 1st Polish Armoured Division—dubbed the “Black Devils”— before and through the end of the war.
Maj. Gen. Stanislaw Maczek led the 1st Polish Armoured Division—dubbed the “Black Devils”— before and through the end of the war.

In less than a year Maczek and his brigade had fought losing campaigns already stretched resources toward the Polish exiles. With thousands of vagabond Polish soldiers floating around Britain, the Imperial General Staff organized the Polish 16th Armoured Brigade. As he had decades of experience and commanded armored forces in Poland and France, Maczek was the obvious choice to command the new brigade.

Though under-manned and equipped, the Polish 16th Armoured Brigade was a fact in the British order of battle. In the autumn of 1940, the General Staff stationed the Poles in Scotland on invasion alert, where they existed in a kind of limbo. They fell under the command of the Polish government in exile, led by General Władysław Sikorski, but were beholden to the British for their very existence.

Though they were twice exiled, Maczek and his men were lucky. Thousands in the Polish officer corps had been murdered by the Soviets in Katynwood. Hundreds of thousands more—soldiers captured by the Soviets, or simply Poles distrusted by Stalin— were shipped to labor camps above the Arctic Circle, some as far away as Kamchatka on the Soviet Pacific coast.

After the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Stalin was desperate for manpower and, after an agreement with Sikorski’s government, released hundreds of thousands of Poles. The newly liberated prisoners then made their way to special camps set up for Polish army recruits in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

In this endeavor the Poles were on their own.

The journey from the Siberian labor camps to the Polish army camps was an odyssey all its own. Most of the Poles coming out of the Soviet Union went through Iran and into the British Middle East. Here they were organized into the Polish II Corps, or “Anders Army”—so named after General Władysław Anders, its commander, and would see extensive action in North Africa and Italy.

Those Polish forces and refugees who made it to Britain were welcomed by the Churchill government. Serving under the Commonwealth Forces Treaty, Sikorski’s government had absolute sovereignty over Polish forces; Sikorski was both the president and commander-in-chief, but his relationship with the British was at times difficult. Sikorski and his government-in-exile were themselves a fellow Allied power, more or less equal to Britain. However, to the British, and later the Americans, Poland was just another country conquered by the Nazis.

With Polish II Corps taking shape in the Mediterranean, Sikorski was keen to form a Polish I Corps in Britain that would be based on a Polish armored division, and he began lobbying for its formation in November 1941. Winston Churchill, who was always up for anything with a spirit of adventure and romance, lent his support to the idea of such a Polish force.

The Imperial General Staff, however, was leery. Where were they to find the equipment and men for such an endeavor? Stalin did like the idea of a Polish formation independent of himself and the Americans and British were heavily vested in keeping Stalin happy.

The Poles, of course, regarded him as a bitter enemy.

Equipped with British uniforms and weapons, Polish soldiers run an obstacle course at one of their training camps in Britain.
Equipped with British uniforms and weapons, Polish soldiers run an obstacle course at one of their training camps in Britain.

A directive issued by Sikorski on February 16, 1942, formed the division. It was to be organized along contemporary British lines and would comprise the 10th Cavalry Brigade, the 16th Armoured Brigade, and the Corps Reconnaissance Regiment, with Maczek as General Officer Commanding; the newly formed Polish 1st Armoured Division remained in Scotland to train, equip, and receive soldiers. Badly under-equipped, its predecessor in November 1940 only had 48 tanks. At one point the division had only 125 tanks in its inventory, mostly older Valentine and Crusader models. Sikorksi personally appealed to Churchill, who duly ordered the Imperial General Staff to treat the Polish 1st Armoured Division as it would any Commonwealth Force.

The Polish 1st Armoured Division was also badly undermanned as the tens of thousands of Poles making their way out of Russia were mostly earmarked for Polish forces in the Mediterranean; few Polish soldiers actually made their way to England.

Facing a chronic manpower shortage throughout 1942 and 1943, Sikorski looked for innovative ways to make up the shortfall. At first he ludicrously appealed to the patriotism of the large Polish community living in America. Having fled Poland to begin with, few Polish-Americans were interested returning to fight for the “Motherland.”

In 1943, Sikorski looked to North Africa for personnel. The Germans had absorbed several thousand Poles into their own army, many now languished in American POW camps. Getting the Americans to release Poles in the German army was difficult, though Sikorski managed to get a few.

Manpower shortages were exacerbated by an early directive issued by the Polish staff stating that, “The Polish Army is a Christian army.” In 1939, more than three million Jews lived in Poland, so this directive excluded thousands of potential recruits. In 1942 Sikorski managed to remove 8,000 troops from Anders’ Army for Polish I Corps. Still, not until March 1944 would the division be fully staffed.

There was also the matter of organization. Originally, the Polish 1st Armoured Division was to have two armored brigades. Sikorski planned to take one and form a second armored division. However, the Imperial General Staff, after lessons learned in the North African desert, decided that one armored and one infantry brigade was the ideal makeup for a Commonwealth division. The British insisted that the Poles adhere to their guidelines. Seeking to assert his independence, Sikorski initially refused, but ultimately acquiesced as he barely had the manpower to fill out one armored division, much less two.

Whatever its size, the Black Devils fought under a banner based on the old Polish Hussars insignia: a plumed iron helmet flanked by the giant wings of a Polish Hussar. These were the heroes of Polish lore—armored knights led by national hero Jan Sobieski, defending the faith against the Islamic hordes of Istanbul.

Sobieski won his greatest victory at the head of the Hussars relieving the Siege of Vienna in 1683. This was powerful imagery showing the Polish military was down but not out.

During the two-and-a-half years between its formation and its arrival in Normandy, the Polish First Armoured Division trained, first in Scotland, beginning in 1943, and then in England. The Poles were not ignorant of the art of soldiering. In fact, with thousands of veterans of the fighting in Poland and France in their ranks, the Polish 1st Armoured Division was among the most experienced in Britain.

Thousands of Polish soldiers attended special schools. Officers attended staff colleges and staff rides. But while individual units, battalions, companies, and the like were well trained and ready for action, the division itself only maneuvered as a whole twice before going to Normandy.

Maczek climbs aboard his Cromwell tank during training in England. The Poles were equipped with both British and American tanks and other vehicles.
Maczek climbs aboard his Cromwell tank during training in England. The Poles were equipped with both British and American tanks and other vehicles.

The Polish 1st Armoured Division trained throughout June of 1943, with Maczek conducting several wargames pitting one brigade against another, and later a division-wide maneuver against the French 2nd Armored Division. After these exercises, the Imperial General Staff moved the Poles to Aldershot and then London as a precursor to moving them to France.

The Poles were now ready—fully manned and equipped. The ancient Valentine tanks were gone. In their place stood 154 M4 Shermans of various types, 59 Cromwells and 33 M3 Stuart light tanks.

The Black Devils came ashore during the first week of August 1944 and were assigned by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery to the Canadian First Army and the afore mentioned II Corps, commanded by Canadian Lt. Gen. Guy Simonds.

As the first elements of the division landed on August 1, in Warsaw the Home Army rose up against the Nazi occupation.

Then, as the division prepared to go into battle, on August 6 General Maczek issued his “order of the day,” which said, in part, “Let the Germans pay heavily in blood for the privilege of fighting you.”

As part of the Canadian First Army (Lt. Gen. H.D.G. Crerar commanding), the 1st Polish Armoured Division was assigned an integral part in Operation Totalize. Conceived by Simonds, Totalize was an attempt to push south through German defenses and cut off the German Seventh Army west of the Seine. The attack would happen in two phases, each on a two-division front.

In the first phase, two Canadian divisions would push down the Caen-Falaise Road. In the second phase, Maczek would take his division down the right side of the road with the goal of clearing several villages and eventually taking high ground to the south. The Poles were to advance down the Route Nationale against several fortified targets. From north to south these were the village of Estres la Campagne, Hill 140, and, to the east, the village of Cauvicourt while, further south, lay Hills 170 and 159.

In his official report, Maczek describes his task thusly: “To by-pass the 51 (Highland) Division. To attack and seize the area of Hills 170 and 159, N [north] of Falaise, and from there to carry out recce [reconnaissance] patrols in the arc made by the Falaise-Argentan (included) and the Mont-Boint (1446)-Condesur-Ifs (1952) rds (excluded).

Maczek noted several problems. First, Normandy was so crowded that just getting from the staging area around Caen to the front was difficult. Of Simonds’ plan for Totalize, Maczek wrote, “The ops resembled the West Front fighting the war of 1918,” though he did note that he would have air support and “more liberty of action.” That is, Simonds sought to simply punch his way through German defenses and did not allow for mobility.

Dotted with small villages, farms and woods, the ground greatly favored the German defenders which, he noted “was very cunningly exploited by the enemy,” adding, “With his perfect camouflage, it made a great difference to us.”

Champing at the bit to pay back the Germans for what they had done to their country, Polish troops made a good account of themselves in battle. Here, a Polish Cromwell moves through St. Lambert, between Trun and Chambois, during the Falaise campaign.
Champing at the bit to pay back the Germans for what they had done to their country, Polish troops made a good account of themselves in battle. Here, a Polish Cromwell moves through St. Lambert, between Trun and Chambois, during the Falaise campaign.

Maczek began the attack with his 10th Armoured Brigade while the 3rd Infantry Brigade protected the east, or left, flank. At the same time, the recon regiment stood guard on the division’s right flank and maintained liaison with the Canadians.

At 2:30 a.m., the division moved out of its encampment near Bayeux through roads congested with Canadian forces moving in both directions. The Black Devils rode past the detritus of battle, knocked-out tanks, smoke, and summer dust kicked up by troop movements.

As the 10th Armoured Brigade was getting into position, forward elements were accidently hit by flights of American B-17s, suffering 44 casualties as a result. Despite these setbacks, the Polish 10th Armoured deployed for attack. The brigade advanced on a two-regiment front, with the 2nd Tank Regiment on the left, advancing south-southeast, and the 24th Lancers on right, advancing due south. Mazcek held the 10th Recon Regiment in reserve.

The Poles were going up against elements of the elite 12th SS Panzer Division (Hitler Youth), in this case the ad-hoc panzer grenadiers of Kampfgruppe (Battle Group) Waldmüller reinforced with various artillery and anti-tank detachments. Overall commander of the 12th SS Panzer was Kurt Meyer, an excellent armored officer who had fought in France and Russia. They had already gone up against the Canadians and exacted a heavy toll in a series of defensive actions and counterattacks.

By this time in the war, however, Meyer was down to a few thousand effectives and only a few dozen vehicles. That said, subsequent actions in Totalize, and in the later Operation Tractable, showed that he was still a formidable enemy.

After the previous day’s fighting against the Canadians, Kampfgruppen Waldmüller deployed in an L-shaped wood south of Cramesnil and east of Gaumesnil. Hans Waldmüller arrayed his armor, Tigers and Mark IV tanks, in the southern end of the wood and his deadly 88mm anti-tank guns in the wood’s west end.

American B-17s attacked Waldmüller’s position but were wholly ineffective. This was so on the previous day as well, when General Meyer noted that, “The final bomber waves flew over the vigorously attacking Kampfgruppe Waldmüller without dropping a single bomb on an armored vehicle.”

The Poles advanced right into the teeth of the German defenses. On the right, the 2nd Polish Lancers came under heavy fire from Waldmüller’s tanks, only finding relief when their own artillery fell on the German held wood. Wrote Meyer, “Attack after attack collapsed in front of us.”

With the Lancers halted and exposed, Waldmüller sent tanks against their left flank.

Maczek ordered the 10th Dragoon Regiment forward; these engaged and drove off the counterattacking Germans. Here the Poles’ attack halted for the night and the wood was still in German hands.

A heavily camouflaged motorized German column—either advancing or retreating—is photographed passing through a Norman village in August 1944.
A heavily camouflaged motorized German column—either advancing or retreating—is photographed passing through a Norman village in August 1944.

Maczek noted that his men destroyed six German tanks and knocked out several guns in exchange for an appalling 57 tanks knocked out of action. The next day, Maczek moved the 3rd Infantry Brigade forward, leaving the 10th Armoured Brigade to fall back and lick its wounds.

Meyer was unimpressed with the Poles: “Our opponents did not launch a single concentrated attack against us,” he said.

Maczek was highly critical of Allied air support and artillery: “The enemy was not sufficiently neutralized by our own Air Force and artillery, so that the brigade could attack without heavy losses.”

Several objectives remained. These were the village of St. Sylvain, followed by Soignolles, bracketed on the east by la Bu sur Rouvres and on the southeast by Estrees la Campagne. The 3rd Infantry brigade spent the next day maneuvering against German forces in St. Sylvain. The brigade advanced on a two-battalion front and was pinned down by enemy fire coming from St. Sylvain.

Polish forces gradually worked their way around St. Sylvain’s flanks and entered the town that night. The next day, Maczek pushed the 3rd Infantry Brigade forward against German positions in the villages of Soignolles and Estrees la Campagne. True to form, a company of 10-15 Tiger tanks counterattacked.

Learning from the bloodbath before Cramesmil, Maczek advanced an antitank battery forward with the 3rd Brigade and Polish anti-tank guns threw the Tigers back. One battalion each established itself just east the village. Here, too, the Germans counterattacked but, stiffened by the anti-tank guns, the Poles repelled these as well. On the night of August 11, the 3rd Canadian Division relieved the Poles.

In operations around St. Sylvain, the Poles destroyed seven German tanks and took 80 prisoners. Altogether, during Operation Totalize, the division suffered 656 casualties and lost 57 tanks. Of these, nine were lost before St. Sylvain.

Before Totalize, Maczek insisted that morale was “good.” With better performance around St. Sylvain, Maczek wrote, “I must stress that the morale of the units, as well as other services, is even better than good.” So, while the first phase of the battle was a disaster for the Poles, the second saw success. Most importantly, morale was high.

Meanwhile, General Walter Model’s Seventh Army was in danger of being enveloped and destroyed by the British encroaching from the north and the Americans from the south. Desperate, Model ordered Seventh Army to retreat east through the rapidly closing Falaise Gap.

Appreciating that an opportunity presented itself to cut off and destroy a German army, on August 12, Montgomery ordered the Canadian First Army to make another push south against Falaise with the goal of closing the gap. As the Canadians rolled south from Caen, the Americans would drive north from Argentan, link up with the Canadians, and trap the German Seventh Army in what would become known as the “Falaise Pocket.”

The Poles were one of several armies that converged on the Germans trying to escape through the Falaise Gap.
The Poles were one of several armies that converged on the Germans trying to escape through the Falaise Gap.

Operation Tractable, as conceived by Simonds, was similar to Totalize, with II Crops advancing on a two-division front.

Simonds deployed the Canadian 3rd Division on the right and Polish 1st Armoured Division on the left.

Maczek’s overall objectives, as assigned by Simonds, were the crossing of the Dives River and the seizure of the town of Trun, along with Hills 159 and 259. Maczek described the ground as “flat and cut up with many small plantations and bushes.”

This was excellent ground for the Germans. This area was occupied by the 1st SS Panzer Corps, which was trying to hold the Falaise Gap open for the retreating German Seventh Army. The Black Devils would again be going up against the German 85th Infantry Division and the elite-but-depleted 12th SS Panzer Division, which Kurt Meyer described as “a poor remnant.”

Indeed, Meyer had only his two Kampfgruppen to deploy against the Poles; these amounted to 300 men, 20 tanks, and assorted anti-tank batteries. Meyer based his defense on Hill 159, overlooking the Dives.

With German forces trickling through the Falaise gap, on August 17, Maczek sent the 3rd Rifle Brigade forward in two regimental columns, with the 10th Rifle Regiment ahead of both, skirmishing and reconnoitering German positions.

The first obstacle was the river Dives and the villages of Jort and Vendeuavre, where the Poles encountered ferocious German resistance at the river but seized the right crossing at Vendeuavre.

The 10th Mounted Rifles attacked Jort and took the town in especially heavy night fighting in which one squadron held the right flank against German panzer counterattacks while the other cleared the village. The Poles knocked out a half-dozen guns and three tanks, taking 120 prisoners.

With the crossings in Polish hands, Maczek ordered the 3rd Rifle Brigade to hold and consolidate the crossing points. Meyer wrote, “From this point on, the Polish 1st Armoured Division did not have a cohesive combat formation in front of it.” The road to Trun and Chambois was open for the Allies, but German strongholds in Barou and Morteaux would have to be dealt with first. The Falaise Pocket could be closed. Maczek understood the opportunity before him as well as Meyer and acted quickly.

Having already seen the carnage brought about by Simonds’ massed armor tactics, Maczek did the opposite. He formed his four regiments into battlegroups, each supported by a battalion and, if available, an anti-tank battery. Each battlegroup Maczek hoped would pack enough firepower to deal with German armor, and at the same time be nimble enough for opportunities to maneuver. He was rejecting Simonds’ long, lumbering, mechanized columns in favor of smaller, maneuverable armored battle groups.

Once out of hedgerow country, Sherman tanks of the 10th Armoured Cavalry Brigade roll in support of the 2nd Canadian Division during Operation Tractable.
Once out of hedgerow country, Sherman tanks of the 10th Armoured Cavalry Brigade roll in support of the 2nd Canadian Division during Operation Tractable.

Maczek pushed the 10th Armoured Cavalry Brigade southeast toward the village of Barou, advancing in two columns, with the 24th Lancers and 10th Dragoons on the right and the 2nd Tank Regiment with the 8th Rifle Battalion on the left.

The left column drove on and took Barou by 9 p.m., but their follow-up advance was held up German by fire out of the village of Morteaux. The brigade hunkered down in around and Barou and made ready for the further operations.

Maczek made the 10th Cavalry Brigade’s objectives for the next day Hills 159 and 259, directly to the south. At the same time, he sent the 10th Mounted Rifle Regiment on a reconnaissance east-southeast toward Trun. These reported German units moving east toward the town. The 10th Armoured Cavalry Brigade attacked on a wide front, seizing both hills and Noury en Auge along the main road. The stage was now set for a dash against Trun.

The first task was to take Chambois to the southeast. Doing so would isolate Trun and facilitate a link-up with the Americans working their way north. Maczek assigned the task to the 2nd Tank Regiment under Lt. Col. Stanisław Koszutski; the regiment set off on August 18.

General chaos struck a blow against the 2nd Tank Regiment when the Poles made a serious a map-reading error due to the similar sounding French names. Rather than advance southeast toward Chambois, Koszutski went east toward Champeaux. For several hours the regiment was lost and out of contact with the rest of the division and actually behind enemy lines.

After moving 18 kilometers east, Koszutski realized his error and that night worked his regiment south. In a hilarious incident, the regiment was waved through a German roadblock by a traffic controller who halted two approaching German columns to facilitate the Poles’ movement.

At his headquarters, Maczek actually feared that Koszutski’s “lost” regiment had been destroyed by the Germans, so he dispatched the 1st Rifle Battalion to locate and assist Koszutski, but the relief battalion could not find Koszutski and the 2nd Tank Regiment.

When Maczek finally reestablished contact with Koszutski’s battlegroup, the Colonel reported that he was running low on supplies as his own logistics could not find him and, in fact, lost several trucks to Allied bombers which, owing to the fact they were out of their assigned area, mistook them for Germans. Maczek was furious with Koszutksi and went out of his way to mention the bedraggled colonel several times in his report on this phase of the battle.

In the meantime, Maczek pushed the 10th Mounted Rifle Regiment toward Chambois. One kilometer north of the village they encountered German infantry supported by anti-tank guns. Under heavy fire, the regiment’s commander sensibly pulled back.

Maczek then sent the 10th Armoured Cavalry Brigade against Chambois, where it joined the battle. With the 2nd Tank Regiment momentarily “lost,” and the 10th Armoured Cavalry Brigade engaged before Chambois, Simonds ordered Maczek to make a dash east for Hill 262. The Poles dubbed it “the Maczuga,” their word for mace, due to the hill’s resemblance.

Vehicles of the 24th Polish Lancer Regiment move into position during the battle to cut off the German retreat at Falaise.
Vehicles of the 24th Polish Lancer Regiment move into position during the battle to cut off the German retreat at Falaise.

Maczek assigned the mission to the 10th Dragoons and 24th Lancers under a Major Zgorzelski. They had several obstacles to overcome before even reaching Hill 262— Hill 137 and the villages of Coudehard and Frênée. The 24th Lancers led the attack on Hill 137 and reported it taken by mid-afternoon. In conjunction with this effort, the 10th Dragoons attacked Coudehard at the base of Hill 262. Here, they engaged a force of German Panther tanks before taking the town.

Back at Hill 137, the Lancers passed off control of the hill to the 10th Dragoons and pushed on to the south in the direction of Frênée. Maczek sent the 10th Mounted Rifle Regiment to reinforce the former.

The 10th Dragoons then pushed south toward Chambois. They fought their way into Chambois proper and, after several hours of house-to-house combat, pushed the Germans out of the village.

This stroke gave the Poles control of the road leading north to the town of Ormel and Hill 262. At the end of the day. the 10th Dragoons linked up with the American 90th Division coming up for the south. Most of the German Seventh Army was now sealed inside the pocket. The 2nd SS Panzer Corps had managed to escape entrapment, but the 1st SS Panzer Corps was surrounded in the pocket.

Panic ensued at Seventh Army headquarters. General Model ordered the 2nd SS Panzer Corps to halt and attack southwest to reopen the gap. Maczek was well aware that among the units in the 2nd SS Panzer Corps was the 2nd (Das Reich) Division, which he had battled in Poland in 1939. Maczek said, “In these extremely hard conditions began the crisis of the battle.”

That is, the struggle to keep the gap closed against repeated German assaults. Maczek reorganized his division for defense against German counterattacks in a line running from Hill 262 in the north to Chambois in the southeast.

The division was exposed, as it had outstripped the Canadian 3rd Division on the north; but the Black Devils’ success had left the division vulnerable, with its elements deployed by Maczek in four separate groups. The 1st Tank Regiment, 8th Rifle battalion and an anti-tank battery remained on Hill 262. In the center lay the 24th Lancers. And in the south, based at Chambois, were the 10th Mounted Rifle Regiment and the 10th Dragoons.

The north positon on Hill 262 and the south position on Chambois was strong, but in the center the 10th Dragoons and 24th Lancers were on flat ground and dangerously exposed. And a torrent of German steel was coming. Wrote Maczek, “The whole burden of the battle this day…was borne by the 1st Polish Armoured Division.”

The Germans attacked that night, with the main blow being delivered by the German LXXXIV Army Corps, under General Otto Eifeldt, and including the 9th and 21st SS Panzer Divisions. They hit the 10th Mounted Rifle Regiment around Chambois. The Poles stopped the first effort, with the 3rd Squadron mounting an armored counterattack that drove the Germans away from Chambois.

Throughout the night the Germans probed the 10th Mountain Rifle Regiment’s positions but did not break through. At dawn, Eifeldt launched a desperate frontal assault on Chambois. In the daylight, the Poles made mincemeat of the German armor. Caught out in the open, German infantry surrendered en mas, including the 84th Corps’ commander, General Eifeldt.

Their camouflage turned into a flammable covering, German vehicles burn after being hit by Polish weapons and Allied warplanes while trying to flee the Falaise killing zone.
Their camouflage turned into a flammable covering, German vehicles burn after being hit by Polish weapons and Allied warplanes while trying to flee the Falaise killing zone.

The Poles held the Germans advancing north against Chambois. The battle now shifted to Hill 262 where the 2nd SS Panzer Corps tried to rescue their trapped comrades. The Polish battle group commander on the north side of Hill 262 wisely held his fire, allowing German columns to advance past the waiting guns of his Sherman tanks.

On Hill 262, dozens of Shermans from the 1st Tank Regiment then poured fire into the Germans as they tried to escape along the main road. In his account of the Poles in Normandy, a historian described a scene of destruction: “The German columns came to a standstill under the persistent Polish fire. In panic men abandoned their equipment, setting fire to whatever would burn, cars, tanks, and other vehicles. Then they took to their legs to save themselves. The bodies of men and horses strewed the road.”

Canadian Colonel Pierre Sévigny was with a company of Sherman tanks on Hill 262 when the fighting began and saw the main crossroads come under fire as the Germans were attempting to pass to the north. “I gave the order: ‘Fire!’” he said “Sixteen guns opened up simultaneously: 20 salvos were fired. Their 100 lb. shells fell on the heaving mass. What a massacre! The gun-layers did their work beautifully! I saw numerous vehicles burst into flames, terrified horses trapped in their harnesses, men trying to flee….”

It was at this point that the German 2nd Panzer Corps entered the fight from the north. Two divisions—the 2nd and 9th SS Panzer—attacked the Poles, driving their patrols south. After the initial onslaught, the Poles retreated up the slopes of Hill 262 and, in Sévigny’s words, turned it into “a fortified castle.”

To the west, the 9th SS Panzer actually broke into the 10th Armoured Brigade’s headquarters, which had to pull back to the west. In the south, a German hammer blow fell on Chambois, but this was stopped by the 10th Dragoons and 24th Lancers, who then counterattacked in the morning.

The battle continued throughout the day of the 20th, with the Poles fighting on three widely separated groups surrounded by swarming German troops desperate to break through to the north. By the end of the 20th, the Poles on Hill 262 were exhausted and low on ammunition. Only the late arrival of the Canadian 4th Armoured Division prevented Hill 262 from falling into German hands.

Throughout August 21, the Germans kept the pressure on the Polish 1st Armoured Division. Maczek wrote, “The enemy still tried to break through in different directions, but it was obvious the crisis had passed. There were no organized actions, but only isolated efforts by separate groups.”

With the Germans broken, and liaison established with the Canadian 4th Armoured Division, with a supporting artillery brigade available, Maczek judged the Black Devils to be in a strong position. On the evening of the 22nd, a message arrived from General Crerar ordering Maczek to withdraw to the northwest.

Overall, the Poles suffered 1,441 men killed, wounded, and missing during the Battle of the Falaise Gap. They took considerable booty, including more than 3,500 prisoners and 55 German tanks destroyed or captured. The Black Devils left behind a macabre battlefield, where one could walk on bodies without touching the ground. Remarked the Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Forty-eight hours after the closing of the gap, I was conducted through it on foot, to encounter scenes that could be described only by Dante.”

Much fighting remained. Maczek would lead his division across Belgium and the Netherlands, where they would liberate the city of Breda. Here the Dutch regard the Black Devils as liberators and Maczek a national hero.

In 1994, after 50 years of exile at the hands of the Polish communist government, Maczek was buried in Breda’s Polish military cemetery—which was now free of both Nazi and communist domination.

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