Polish Airborne at the Battle of Arnhem

Poles Apart - The Polish Airborne at the Battle of Arnhem

In September 1944 three Airborne Divisions were parachuted into the Netherlands in an attempt to seize and hold bridges. The British 1st Airborne Division was to land near Arnhem and secure the bridges across the Lower Rhine. The US 101st Airborne Division was to drop near Eindhoven and the 82nd Airborne Division near Nijmegen.

The intention was that XXX Corps of the Second British Army would link up with the Airborne forces and launch an armoured assault across the captured bridges into Germany. The 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade, under the command of General Sosabowski, was to support the British at Arnhem. The operation was given the name Market Garden.

Polish Parachute Brigade

After the fall of France to the Germans in June 1940 the Polish forces fighting in France made their escape to Britain. They were sent to Scotland and given the task of helping to defend the country against a threatened German invasion. In September 1941 a Polish Parachute Brigade was formed. Almost 400 Polish soldiers had qualified as paratroopers at the British training school in Manchester. The intention was that the Polish Parachute Brigade would be used for operations in Poland.

In March 1944 the British requested that the Polish Parachute Brigade be released for operations on the Continent. After much discussions and negotiation the Polish government-in-exile in June 1944 agreed to the use of the Brigade without any pre-conditions.

The Polish Parachute Brigade began moving from Scotland to the English Midlands on June 29...they began operational training on July 8. It must be stressed that all of the Polish paratroop units had led separate existences in Scotland...Apart from learning to jump from a Dakota, the soldiers had now to learn to function as a cohesive unit. [pp. 70-71]

On 8 July 1944 a training jump went wrong. Two Dakotas collided when airborne and 26 Polish paratroopers were killed. They are buried in the Polish Air Force war graves plot at Newark, England.

On 1 August 1944 the Polish Home Army began an Uprising against the Germans in Warsaw. The Polish asked the British for permission to send part of the Parachute Brigade to Warsaw: it was refused.

Operation Market Garden

General Sosabowski expressed his concerns to his British counterparts about the proposed Operation Market Garden. He thought that:

  • The British underestimated the strength of German forces in the area.
  • If the Allies could see the strategic advantages of flanking the Ruhr so would the Germans: they wouldn't allow it.

In response to being told that the drop zone at Arnhem would be 10km from the bridge General Sosabowski said:

We had lost the one indispensable element an airborne operation needs: surprise! (p. 82)

The plan for capturing the bridges at Arnhem was:

  • D-Day 17 September - British 1st Parachute Brigade would seize the bridges.
  • D+2 19 September - Polish Parachute Brigade would land at drop zone south of the bridges and then the Poles would cross the bridges to link up with the British 1st Airborne Division

General Sosabowski restated his concerns as to how the Poles would get across the river and join the 1st Airborne Division. He was assured the British would be holding the bridges.

Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Frost the British 2nd Para Battalion secured the north end of the bridge at Arnhem. Several attempts to capture the southern end failed. The intended Polish drop zone was now full of SS Panzer troops and their armoured vehicles. On D+2 the Polish Parachute Brigade were unable to take off for the Netherlands due to bad weather. They were given a new drop zone further west in fields outside Driel. On 20 September the Polish Parachute Brigade drop was again called off due to fog in England.

By the morning of the 21 September the Germans had retaken the north end of the bridge at Arnhem. The Polish Parachute Brigade finally took off on the 21st and parachuted onto their drop zone at Driel.

In Driel over 950 paratroopers had managed to assemble within an hour of the drop. Despite the crushing news that the ferry was gone, getting across the river was General Sosabowski's predominant thought. (p. 146)

General Sosabowski received orders to get across the river as quickly as possible in order to support the 1st British Airborne Division holed up in Oosterbeek. The British would supply rafts although they had to build them first.

The German General Bittrich had received orders that the paratroopers in Driel were to be attacked and destroyed. The Polish fighting off the German attacks found themselves low on ammunition. The British in Oosterbeek were in a desperate situation but how could the Poles cross the river without boats or rafts?

In the early hours of 24 September the British provided some boats although they were smaller than the Poles had anticipated. By 04.00 most of the Polish 3rd Battalion were across the river. As dawn broke and with the river under German fire the crossing was called off.

Twilight revealed the cost of the Polish Parachute Brigade's bloody attempt to reach the north bank of the Neder Rijn (Lower Rhine)...The 3rd Battalion had managed to muster almost 100 men, but was short of Bren guns and had only one Piat with them. Together, the Headquarters and Signals Companies had...less than 20 men. (p. 210)

The 3rd Battalion moved to their assigned positions in the town of Oosterbeek past the bodies of fallen British paratroopers. In Driel General Sosabowski had a meeting with General Horrocks commander of XXX Corps. Horrocks told him that one battalion of the Wessex Division would cross the river that night and the rest of the Poles should cross where they had crossed the previous night. This was all going to be discussed at a meeting at 43rd Division's HQ.

General Sosabowski attended the meeting and listened in dismay to what was proposed.

Crossing one British battalion and the remains of the Polish Brigade will change nothing. This is without an objective. I propose the crossing of an entire division...[The Germans] don't have any reserves...however, they are strong and have tanks. This plan helps neither the British 1st Airborne Division nor us...This is an unneccesary sacrifice of soldiers. (p. 224)

The British told General Sosabowski to carry out his orders or they would find someone else who would. 

The Poles were due to cross the river during the early hours of 25 September. At 22.45 on the 24th the Polish 2nd Battalion crossing was cancelled and the Poles were asked to give their boats to the Dorsets. At 01.00 the Dorsets still waited for more boats. Their crossing was a failure. Operation Market Garden was at an end, the British 1st Airborne Division was to be evacuated. Orders were given that the evacuation would take place during the early hours of 26 September. 

On 26 September at 09.00 the Polish paratroopers left Driel to march to Nijmegen. The Poles had lost almost 400 men. The Polish Parachute Brigade had returned to barracks in England by 15 October. 

Operation Market Garden was a failure.

A bloody defeat for the Allies, it achieved only the creation of a 100-km corridor to nowhere in Holland. Montgomery's ambitious plan to try to end the war by Christmas had resulted in Hitler's last victory on the Western Front. (p. 289)

Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade

Photo: A plaque on the Polish Armed Forces Memorial, at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, England, describes how the brigade was formed. (4 Sep 2010)

Relieved of Command

General Sosabowski was informed by General Kopanski, Polish Chief of Staff, that the British had suggested he be removed from command of the Polish Parachute Brigade. At a meeting with the Polish President, Wladyslaw Rackiewicz, General Sosabowski was advised that the Poles had to comply with this request. On 27 December 1944 General Sosabowski stood before his Brigade for the last time before Lieutenant Colonel Jachnik took command. On 10 July 1947 the Polish Parachute Brigades' standards were placed in the Sikorski Museum in London.

General Sosabowski published a book about the Brigade and also his memoirs.

  • Najkrotsza Droga (The Shortest Way) 1956 - a history of the Brigade. Revised and translated into English in 1960 as Freely I Served.
  • Droga Wiodla Ugorem (The Way Wound Through Desolation) 1967

General Sosabowski died in London on 25 September 1967. His ashes are buried in the Powazki Cemetery in Warsaw.

Poles Apart - The Polish Airborne at the Battle of Arnhem

Author - George F. Cholewczynski
ISBN - 0962761354
Publisher - Sarpedon Pub, 1993.
Book Availability - Amazon (UK) - Amazon (US) - Bookfinder.com

Related Material

Related Posts

Photographs

This page was added on 12 September 2013. Updated on 16 September 2013.