The March to Germany
From 23rd until 28th August 1944 the 1st Polish Armoured Division had been ‘pulled from the line’ and held in reserve while they re-equipped and took stock that 325 ‘brothers in arms’ had been killed including 21 officers and a further 1,002 wounded. The German destruction at the Falaise Gap and subsequent withdrawal from Normandy signalled the start of the mechanized chase through northern France for which the Polish 1st Armoured Brigade and the 10th Mounted Rifle Regiment (10 Pulk Strzelców) and 10th Armoured Cavalry Brigade (10 Brygada Kawalerii Pancernej) had been rehearsing in Britain. Northern France was perfect tank country and a ‘tankers’ operational preference to the ‘bocage’ country that had bogged down the US forces in Normandy.
In late August the US forces were on the outskirts of Paris and had crossed the river Seine while the citizens of the beautiful city had risen up against the German occupiers. The 1st Polish Armoured Brigade were placed under the control of the Canadian Army whose task was to clear the left flank which was made up of the Channel ports, remnants of the German defences and the VI sites. Pas de Calais had been part of one of the greatest deception plans ever created through Operation Fortitude /Bodyguard to convince German forces this was the true location for the invasion and that the Normandy landings were a diversionary side-show. However, northern France is intersected with numerous rivers and canals making natural obstacles for the advancing army, which the German forces used to great effect in slowing the Allies advance.
After resting the 1st Polish Armoured Brigade was moved to Elbeuf after two days of marching in mud and rain along roads unsuitable for armour to a location just south of Rouen, the ancient capital. On 29th August 1944 they crossed the River Seine at Elbeuf over a temporary bridge nicknamed ‘Warsaw Bridge’ with the 10th Mounted Rifle Brigade operating as the main vanguard reconnaissance patrols ranging forward of the main division.
Initially the 1st Polish Armoured Brigade acted as a wedge into the German western lines with the Canadian Army initially operating towards the rear of the ‘wedge’. With orders to move into the Somme area, the division liberated Amiens and on 1st September pursued the collapsing Germans towards Abbeville and over a nine day period covered some 400Km liberating St. Ômer, Ypres and the difficult battle for Roulers with the capture of prisoners and equipment enroute. To slow the advance, the German army stubbornly defended woodland and hills while systematically destroying all bridges in their path. Although a number of counter-attacks made by units led with Panzeri> Mk III & IV, the Poles fought hard for every kilometre gained, took on well dug in infantry supported by embedded anti-tank guns and the devastatingly effective Panzerfaust in their defensive positions.
The retreating German army were being forced into a pocket along the coast where evacuation by sea through the heavily fortified port of Dunkirk to Antwerp became an option. While the 3rd Rifle Brigade were left to occupy Roulers, Wasilewski the commanding officer of the 10PSK ordered all combat worthy tanks to be ready for the push for Thielt where they met stiff resistance with heavy mortar and anti-tank fire from the town (McGilvray, 2006). A column of Panzer Mk III & IV tanks were observed moving east towards Krommendijk while 2nd Squadron probed the southeast of the town and moved towards Poelbergmolen. Thielt was cleared of increasingly isolated Germans by the evening of 8th September 1944. A column had escaped to the northeast towards Altre and had been observed by the pursuing Poles. Lieutenant-Colonel Koszutski’s Dragoon Squadron was sent to attack the column with the 1st Tank Regiment in support to contain the column, which was destroyed like being in a shooting gallery and likened to Chambois – Mont Ormel carnage. The combined operation around Thielt between the 24th Uhlans, 8th Polish Rifle Battalion (8 Batalion Strzelców) captured 12,000 prisoners and six anti-tank guns with other equipment and ordinance left in the field of action.
Further to the north the 1st Polish Armoured Division was stalled by the destruction of the bridges over the Ghent canal. Operations were cancelled and the troops taking the opportunity to rest and re-equip. This delay enabled the German 59th and 712th Infantry Divisions to dig-in and heavily defend the canal between Bruges to Hansbeke.
While both armies ‘stood-off’ with the canal between and swapped barrage fire and much larger strategy was being revealed. Operation Market Garden had been designed to leapfrog into Germany via Holland, but it would leave behind a large pocket of troops in the Schelde estuary. The 1st Polish Armoured Division were ordered to the Ghent area to operate alongside the 4th Canadian Armoured Division and the 10PSK were moved to cross the Lys canal between Thielt and Vive Saint Bavon Beynze sector where they eventually met up with 15th Scottish Division (McGilvray, 2006) to contain this pocket. The 1st Polish Armoured Division entered Ghent on 11-12th September where the German forces despite low levels of ammunition used the canal network to supreme effect in defence and slowing the Poles clearing the city. 10 PSK sent out smaller scouting units to gain intelligence and pick up stragglers from the 59th Infantry Division trying to slip through the pickets and harboured tanks. Again, progress had stalled with the destroyed crossings over the d’Moerwaart Canal and sustained mortar fire.
Ghent: Re-supplied September 1944
On 15th September General Maczek ordered a re-grouping to keep the unit mobile in ‘chase operations’ and not bogged down (Barbaski, 1982; McGilvray, 2006) in order to attack the port at Terneuzen. Fighting along the Axel-Hulst canal was intense with a two-pronged attack. Lieutenant-Colonel Skibinski led on formation into the St. Paul’s area and the 10th Polish Dragoons Regiment (10 Pulk Dragonów) covered the right flank towards St. Nicholas. Heavy defensive action with anti-tank traps on the Drie Hoefijzers – Koewacht rail line and flooded farmland made the action difficult. The fight for Axel was tough with high casualties. British Cromwell tanks plus the light Sherman’s were no match for the German tanks and operated using night cover and artillery barrages where possible. Axel and Hulst fell by 19th September after a bloody fight with counter attacks inflicting heavy casualties on the Poles. Terneuzen was entered on 20th September. About a brigade of German troops were in barges stuck fast on the sands of the Middelplaat about 2.5Km to the northeast and the 1st Tank Regiment were ordered to fire upon and destroy before the tides enabled their escape. The 1st Polish Armoured Division spent several days ‘mopping up’ and clearing pockets of resistance in the Axel-Hulst area. General Maczek restructured the 10 PSK to spread combat experienced ‘tankers’ throughout the division by collapsing the anti-aircraft units and transferring personnel since the Luftwaffe no longer presented a major threat.
The Belgian campaign was over.
Click here for information on the Dutch Campaign
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