'Something hit my back. I immediately thought I had been hit by shrapnel and started to pray.'
The men of the Polish 4th Infantry Division arrived in Plymouth from France on 21 June 1940 exhausted, worried but still defiant. Their homeland had been defeated by Germany and the Soviet Union across September 1939, while France, which had raised the Polish army they were part of, lay crushed. The division was led by the iron-willed Colonel Stanisław Sosabowski and it had been in training when the Germans invaded. A decorated veteran of the Austro-Hungarian army, Sosabowski was also a hero of Warsaw’s defence in the September 1939 campaign. Avoiding capture after the Polish capital’s surrender, he had made a daring escape from occupied Poland to France, which was where he was given command of the unit.
Moved to Leven in Fife, Scotland, the division was reduced in size when the bulk of its non-commissioned men were transferred to the Polish 1st Rifle Brigade. Sosabowski’s response was to form an elite parachute brigade with his remaining personnel – a decision that was deemed vital for Poland’s national interest after the USSR was invaded by Germany and her Axis partners in June 1941. The Poles knew that Stalin would seek to impose some form of Soviet control over their county should the Red Army push the Germans back. But if an elite parachute formation supported by Britain was landed in Poland, preferably Warsaw, then the underground Home Army (Armia Krajowa, AK) could align with it and, working together, win the government-in-exile an opportunity to establish itself on Polish soil. This would enable the Poles to re-assert their sovereignty and help check Stalin’s ambitions, or so the theory went.
And while the use of military parachutists was still in its relative infancy, Sosabowski’s decision tapped into the experience Poland had already developed in this field. Several jump towers had been built across the country in the 1930s, while a military parachute school had been established just before the war’s outbreak. In addition, top Polish instructors had reached Britain and were soon passing on their knowledge at the British Army’s parachute training centre at Ringway air base, close to Manchester. Sosabowski soon threw his men into an exhaustive physical exercise programme to toughen them up, while a jump tower was built at Leven to help them practise landings. The Poles also attended courses at Ringway but proper training jumps were irregular due to the shortage of aircraft, which meant special attention was paid to any lessons learned during full exercises. Progress was rapid and the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade (IPB) was officially born on 23 September 1941.
One of Sosabowski’s priorities was to foster good working relations with the British, particularly the commander of the 1st Airborne Division, Maj General Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning (later Lt General and Deputy Commander of the 1st Allied Airborne Army). Browning had a strong First World War record, but his practical experience of parachuting and modern warfare was minimal. His skills lay in the subtle and often unforgiving game of army politics and in securing support for large parachutist formations, a concept that still had its many detractors. Browning was also keen to achieve overall command of the IPB and he made no secret of this, leading to several awkward conversations with Sosabowski. Nonetheless, overall relations between the Poles and the British were first class and Sosbowski stressed this years later in his memoirs Freely I Served (1960). ‘At all levels we made lots of friends, not only with the British Army but also with the Royal Air Force,’ he recalled.
In the meantime, the IPB was struggling with a manpower shortage. Fortunately, an important boost in numbers came when Stalin released thousands of Poles rounded up by the USSR across 1939-1941.* This so-called ‘amnesty’ for Poles in Soviet captivity had not been an altruistic move; reeling under the hammer blows of Operation Barbarossa in the summer of 1941, the Soviet Union was keen to secure British supplies and assistance. However, Britain still backed the Polish cause and supported calls for the normalisation of diplomatic relations between the USSR and Poland.
*Poland was divided between the Germany and the USSR under secret protocols first outlined in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Massed deportations occurred in the Soviet-controlled regions, with around 1 million Poles being rounded up and deported into the USSR.
Britain also pressed for the release of Poles in Soviet captivity and championed Poland’s desire to create an independent army from among those freed in order to fight on the Eastern Front. Illustrative of his desperation at this stage, Stalin agreed to these propositions. The Polish army was duly formed and, along with its dependent civilians, came to number around 115,000 persons. The Poles eventually requested this force be transferred to British-controlled Persia, a task completed across the spring and summer of 1942. This allowed for the release of men urgently needed to fill the rosters of Poland’s forces elsewhere, primarily units based in Britain. The remaining personnel, numbering around 40,000, were formed into the Polish II Corps that would go on to fight in Italy.*
*See the Masters of Monte Cassino feature in this section for further details on this’ remarkable force.
One of those freed from Soviet servitude was Antoni Fedorowicz. His father had worked for the Polish state as a forester, which was enough for the entire family to be arrested and deported east. His grandmother and uncle died soon afterwards because of the brutal conditions, although his two sisters, who had married and taken different surnames, managed to slip through the net. Fedorowicz tried twice to enlist with the Polish Air Force on reaching Persia but was turned down on each occasion due to an ear condition. Looking for an alternative that at least involved some of the glamour surrounding aircraft, he decided to join the IPB. The brigade’s ranks were soon filled out with the arrival of men like Fedorowicz and it eventually comprised three infantry battalions with mortar teams and anti-tank squads in support. There were other units too, including a medical company and a supply group.
Ready to fight
Britain was facing its own manpower shortage by early 1944 and the IPB looked extremely attractive as a unit that could be easily integrated with British parachute forces. Formal requests were made for the Polish government-in-exile to place the IPB under Browning’s command, approaches that were resisted as the Poles knew the Red Army would shortly be approaching Poland’s pre-war borders. It wanted the IPB readied for its primary role: to be dropped into Warsaw at the most opportune time. But British pressure continued to grow, with Whitehall arguing that all parachute formations were needed for the opening phase of the northwest European campaign. In recognition of this, and to reiterate their support for the Western Allies’ goals, the Poles agreed. On 6 June, D-Day itself, the IPB was released for use in one major deployment, after which it would revert back to its independent status. Few at that time could have predicted the stunning success the Red Army was about to achieve with Operation Bagration and the implications this would have for Poland and Warsaw in particular.
The IPB’s battle flag, made at great risk in the Polish capital and smuggled out of the city to Britain by spring 1944, was officially presented at a parade in mid-June. This flag was a direct link to Warsaw, and it was complemented with a flag given to the brigade by the British Parachute Regiment and a pennant made by the ladies of Fife, their adoptive home. Sosabowski’s promotion to major general had also just come into effect. The IPB was ordered to leave Scotland at the start of July for barracks in the English midlands, where the bulk of the Allied airborne army was being mustered. The Poles were sad to depart Scotland, a country they had come to love, with many also leaving behind Scottish wives and long-term girlfriends.
However, there was no time for sentimentality as all units were placed on high alert, although the call to arms kept being postponed. Peter Stainforth, then a young officer in the 1st Parachute Brigade, 1st Airborne Division, counted 17 warnings to prepare for action between D-Day and the eventual drop on Arnhem. The reason for this was simple: the early successes after D-Day had quickly descended into a series of giant slogging matches between German and Allied ground forces. These battles did not require the presence of parachutists, whose primary raison d’etre was to inject the element of surprise onto the battlefield until larger, heavier-equipped formations came up in support.* Conversely, after the Normandy breakout, the speed of the advance was so rapid that it made no sense to drop parachutists.
*Despite difficult weather conditions, the drift of parachutists away from the drop zones and confusion on the ground, Operation Tonga by the British 6th Airborne Division in Normandy just before the D-Day landings was successful in this regard, with bridges captured or destroyed and an important enemy gun battery at Merville damaged.
At the start of August, news filtered through that the AK had risen up in Warsaw as the Red Army neared the city’s hinterland. The moment for which the IPB was created had arrived. The Polish government-in-exile requested British assistance to drop the brigade on Warsaw, but Britain refused and cited several reasons for doing so. Firstly, almost all transport aircraft available for parachute drops had been earmarked for a northwest European operation likely to occur at short notice. Secondly, even if the transport aircraft were available, it would have taken at least several days to transfer the IPB to the Italian airfields from where it would be flown to Warsaw. Thirdly, it soon transpired that there was no drop zone large enough for a formation of the IPB’s size to land en masse. Finally, German air defences were extremely dangerous; a drop into Warsaw would risk serious to extreme casualties, particularly for those in the gliders – a grim truth that the Poles would shortly discover at Arnhem. However, there was another, unvoiced concern. Britain was unwilling to antagonise Stalin or be seen to threaten the workings of the ‘Big Three’ alliance. Having broken relations with the government-in-exile in 1943,* the Soviet Union was busy promoting the Polish communist Workers’ Party as an alternative authority within Poland. Many British politicians and high-ranking civil servants worried that even talk of inserting the IPB into Warsaw would be seen by Stalin as a provocation against the USSR.+
*A decision spurred by Poland’s refusal to believe the Germans had committed the massacre of Polish officers, NCOs and members of the intelligentsia in the Katyn Forest, near Smolensk. The Poles’ response was egregious in Stalin's eyes because they clearly saw the crime for what it actually was – a Soviet atrocity.
+In part, the British policy of placating Stalin was made under a naïve assumption that he could be brought on side as a genuine ally willing to honour his commitments. This artificial edifice – built up by propaganda since 1941 – started to teeter when he refused to grant British, South African and Polish aircraft access to Soviet-controlled airspace and airbases after conducting supply missions to Warsaw..
The Poles must share some of the fault as well; they were unable to give the British a fixed timeframe for a possible uprising and, with it, an opportunity to prepare and plan. The sudden request to remove the IPB from the Allied airborne roster and fly it to Warsaw also came at a moment when British, Commonwealth and Empire forces were heavily engaged on all fronts in Normandy, Italy, India/Burma, and in the skies over Germany. In addition, the enemy’s V1 flying bombs had started to fall on London and other English cities, while it was also known that V2 strategic missiles were nearing operational deployment.* Warsaw could only command so much British attention and Polish High Command was not oblivious to this. It accepted that circumstances had rendered the IPB’s introduction into Warsaw a pipe dream. Nonetheless, the pain, despair and frustration of hearing about the capital’s reduction cut deep for the IPB. ‘Can you imagine our bitterness and inner defeat?’ Sosabowski later asked.
*Vital intelligence on this had been was passed o Britain by Poland during Operation Most III, or Wildhorn III, whereby the AK supplied schematics and parts of the strategic missile gathered at great risk from a test site near Sarnaki, now in northeast Poland. The first V2 was launched against Paris on 8 September, with a pair of V2s then launched the same day against London. One of the missiles landed on Chiswick, killing three.
Race to the Reich
It would be fair to say that the speed of the Normandy breakout, the liberation of Paris, and the race into the Low Countries from August into September 1944 took the Allies almost by as much surprise as it did the Germans. But with supply lines stretched to the limits – particularly in the vital delivery of petrol – and with the speed of the advance slowing in response, which approach would be taken to maintain Allied momentum? After much debate, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery secured the backing of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander. He had formulated an uncharacteristically daring plan to flank the Germans via the Netherlands with a two-pronged attack that would soon be codenamed Operation Market Garden. In simple terms, Market, the airborne phase, called for the US 101st ‘Screaming Eagles’ and the 82nd Airborne to secure bridges at Eindhoven, Grave and Nijmegen. At the same time, the British 1st Airborne Division, led by Maj General Robert ‘Roy’ Urquhart, would clear Arnhem and capture the town’s bridge over the Nederrijn (Nether Rhine). D-Day for the operation was set for 17 September.
As soon as the paratroopers started landing, British XXX Corps would begin its advance northwards towards the Nederrijn in the Garden phase, with planners estimating its vanguard units would reach Arnhem on D-Day +2. The IPB was scheduled to drop south of the Arnhem Bridge on 19 September, just as XXX Corps started its final approach. It would then cross the Nederrijn and deploy east of Arnhem to offer flank protection. Separately, the unit’s anti-tank squadron would arrive in two phases via the British landing zones west of Oosterbeek on 18 and 19 September. Much depended on the Germans making a half-hearted, confused response and Sosabowski warned against complacency, but the British – convinced they would be facing second-rate opponents manning third-rate positions – gave his arguments short shrift. Sadly, Sosobowski’s worst fears were realised almost immediately at the start of battle; German resistance proved much tougher than expected, with many of their forces turning out to be veterans from battle-hardened SS formations. Another failure was the breakdown in 1st Airborne’s radio and signals in the opening phases.
By the morning of D-Day +1, 18 September, very little was known about 1st Airborne’s progress. Joining the British as planned that day was the first part of the Polish anti-tank contingent who arrived at the landing zones almost without incident and brought with them some 6-pounder guns. Accompanying them was the party responsible for working with British headquarters, including liaison officer Captain Ludwik Zwolanski. The team soon had their guns limbered up and moving towards Oosterbeek. The road on which they travelled was dotted with British and German corpses, a reminder – if any was needed – that this was no exercise. Arriving at 1st Airborne Division HQ at the Hotel Hartenstein, they were ordered to set up positions close to Utrechtseweg. Apart from a battalion led by Lt Colonel John Frost, which was now locked in an epic struggle to hold the north end of Arnhem Bridge, the drive into the town had faltered. Worse still, the British perimeter and landing zones were starting to come under enemy pressure.
The rest of the IPB was readied for action on 19 September. However, the weather was terrible for flying as thick fog blanketed the airfields and refused to clear. The drop was called off in what was to be the first of many cancellations. Sosabowski vividly recalled the bitter frustration: ‘Men cursed loudly, repetitively, venomously. Others screwed their faces near to tears with disappointment.’ But a breakthrough in the weather had occurred further to the south, which allowed the day’s glider lift to get underway, including those carrying the second part of the Polish anti-tank squadron. Unfortunately, several enemy radar stations were still operational in the besieged port towns on the Channel coast and these were able to forward warnings of the lift to German High Command. Anti-aircraft units already being rushed towards Oosterbeek were alerted, while the Luftwaffe also organised a response as it was still able to launch stinging attacks if delivered at exactly the right time and place.
Nearing the landing zone, the fields of Johannahoeve farm, the Poles realised they were in serious trouble when heavy ground fire and bursts of shrapnel from flak shells ripped into their wooden craft. However, no one was expecting a flight of Messerschmitt fighters to suddenly roar into attack and shred some of the gliders with cannon fire. To make matters worse, German ground forces were also making a concerted attack to seize the landing zones. Casualties were heavy and Peter Stainforth, who was in charge of a troop attached to C Company, 2nd Battalion, noted the hellish conditions in his memoirs Wings of the Wind. ‘[Enemy aircraft] came down again and again to rake those gliders that got down safely and the crews worked frantically to unload jeeps and guns. The Germans on the northern end of the landing zone joined in with machine guns and mortars, and counter attacked.’ Only three Polish anti-tank guns were brought out of the maelstrom, their teams and other survivors sent to joint their compatriots at Oosterbeek.
Realising that 1st Airborne would be unable to punch its way through to Arnhem, Allied planners sought a desperate solution to establish a link-up between the banks of the Nederrijn, just south of Oosterbeek. A new plan was quickly formulated and one that would depend on the IPB. In the early hours of 20 September, Sosabowski was informed that his men would now drop near the village of Driel, near the south bank. Here the Poles would wait for the Driel-Heveadorp ferry, which was said to be in British hands. They would then be shuttled to the north bank and join the battle to maintain 1st Airborne’s perimeter at Oosterbeek. The maps and aerial photos the Poles had familiarised themselves with were now packed up and emergency meetings called to assess the new terrain. However, the fog remained in place, which led to another cancelled take-off. Those in command were fearful of mid-air collisions, a very real danger and one the Poles had tragically experienced some months beforehand when two Dakotas collided on a training flight for the loss of all on board.
With more time to consider the plan, nagging doubts crowded Sosabowski’s mind: were the British absolutely sure that the ferry, the most critical part of the equation, was in 1st Airborne’s hands? The British liaison officer, Stevens, informed Sosabowski early on 21 September that the ferry was secure according to the latest signal from Urquhart’s HQ (communications, albeit temperamental, had now been established). Urquhart was either misinformed or, in his desperation for tangible support, was being economical with the truth as a British reconnaissance patrol had inspected the ferry the night before and that was all. By dawn 21 September, the boat was noted as missing and presumed sunk by the enemy. In fact, the ferry had been allowed to drift downriver by its captain who had feared the Germans would utilise it for their own purposes.
Unaware the mission was dangerously compromised, 114 Dakotas finally took off at 2 pm on 21 September in poor weather, carrying the bulk of the IPB towards Driel. Soon after take-off, and fearing the weather conditions would lead to accidents, controllers decided to issue a recall order. Transporting almost one third of the men, 41 aircraft received this signal and returned to base. Only around 950 parachutists would now be available to Sosabowski. The IPB arrived over the drop zone at 5 pm under intense flak that was soon taking its toll. Steady nerves were needed to maintain formation in such conditions. ‘Those young American pilots kept perfect station in spite of the sight of flaming torches of hit planes plummeting to earth,’ Sosabowski wrote.
As soon as the signal was made, the ‘stick’ of parachutists would stand up, get in order and then, burdened with equipment, hook up their lines and wait. After what felt like an age, the jump light would turn green and the jumpmaster would haul the aircraft’s door open. Each parachutist would then shuffle forward, face the flat rush of air and leap – his line automatically pulling the parachute open just seconds after making the jump. There had been less time for formalities in the fatally-stricken Dakotas as their crews called for emergency bail outs. With immense skill and bravery, they then held the aircraft straight and level. This allowed the parachutists to jump, but often at the sacrifice of their own lives because the aircraft’s subsequent loss of height and position made it impossible for the crew to bail out or align their machines for a crash-landing. Sosbowski witnessed one such scene as he drifted down on his jump: ‘Looking up, I saw with horror a Dakota with flames pouring from both engines; yet I noticed too that the plane kept on a steady course and paratroopers still came out in order out of the door.’
Hundreds of parachutists were now floating down towards the open fields near Driel. They could hear the angry buzz of small arms fire and see lazy arcs of tracer bullets rising up to meet them. A small number of enemy units were on the ground and had to be immediately tackled. The Poles’ superior training and skills enabled them to swiftly neutralise these opponents, and the number of casualties at this early stage was minimal. Meanwhile, Antoni Fedorowicz’s jump had not gone according to plan. Now a signalman, the radio he carried was his most essential piece of kit. Fedorowicz would jump with it attached to a rope that he would let down as the ground loomed near, ensuring his precious cargo reached terra firma undamaged. ‘But I had forgotten my gloves and the rope slipped through my fingers and burnt my hands. I couldn’t keep a grip on the set,’ he recalled. The radio fell to earth and was destroyed on impact. Fedorowicz landed well despite this inauspicious start and together with his close friend, Private Nowak, headed off to find the right assembly point.
As his brigade formed up, Sosabowski established a command post in a nearby apple orchard. Here he was informed about the recall order and told that Urquhart’s HQ had yet to acknowledge Polish radio calls. A reconnaissance patrol was also sent out to discover the ferry’s status. In the meantime, Cora Baltussen,* a Dutch civilian, had plucked up the courage to meet her newly-arrived liberators and was almost dumbfounded to discover that they were Poles and not British. Baltussen spoke English and she was soon taken to meet Sosabowski who asked her about the ferry. Somewhat bemused, she replied that it had gone. Disappointed with Baltussen’s news, Sosabowski had the IPB move to Driel as intended. The reconnaissance patrol returned and confirmed that the ferry was indeed missing. Ominously, their efforts to attract British attentions on the north bank had been rewarded with an unhealthy dose of German machine gun fire.
*See the endnote on Baltussen’s importance to the brigade.
Now headquartered in an old farmhouse, Sosabowski began to assess the situation and what his men could achieve given the circumstances. He was interrupted by the arrival of Captain Zwolanski, liaison officer to 1st Airborne, who had swum the Nederrijn naked in order to reach his comrades. He reported that the British had noted the IPB’s arrival with great relief and stressed that the situation at Oosterbeek was now desperate, with heavy fighting underway around the perimeter. He added that Urquhart was having rafts prepared to get the Poles across and he bravely volunteered to swim back across the Nederrijn that night to deliver Sosabowski’s confirmation. Unfortunately, the rafts proved to be desperate affairs; lacking material, British engineers had tried to convert ammunition trailers into boats, which promptly sank on being placed in the water. Those Poles who had been sent by Sosabowski to await the arrival of these ‘rafts’ returned disappointed to Driel as dawn started to break.
The enemy had not been idle while the IPB formed up, and an increase in the volume of German artillery and mortar fire throughout the morning of 22 September signalled their preparations for a counter attack. The Poles wisely got on with fortifying their positions. Antoni Fedorowicz’s unit had been ordered to take cover in an orchard when enemy mortar rounds started to fall. Disaster struck: a shell fragment tore into Private Nowak’s stomach, leaving him mortally wounded and crying out for morphine. Fedorowicz pressed himself into the earth when ‘something hit my back. I immediately thought I’d been hit by shrapnel and started to pray’. He scrabbled around to see how bad the wound was. There was nothing wrong – the object that struck him was merely an apple shaken from its tree. Nowak was taken away, while Fedorowicz, although devastated at his close friend’s fate, continued with his duty.
With shells falling all around, Sosabowski thought it was high time that a link-up was achieved with XXX Corps. It was meant to be advancing into the area shortly and a party was sent out to make contact. In the meantime, the supply company had busied itself by gathering containers that had fallen astray in the IPB’s initial landings. It reported finding three dinghies for use by aircrews if forced to crash-land at sea. Sosabowski now decided to tour his troops and inspect their positions by borrowing a lady’s bike. As the Poles cheered their commander and his unusual mode of transport, a British recon troop from XXX Corps arrived. Led by Lieutenant Arthur Young, the unit from the Household Cavalry comprised three armoured cars that had been lucky to avoid engaging the Germans in the nearby village of Elst. The troop had communications equipment that allowed Sosabowski to inform XXX Corps commander Lt General Brian Horrocks of the IPB’s situation and to report the ferry as missing.
But with good news soon came bad: the Germans now started to attack in force, supported by half-tracks and possibly PzKw II tanks, although evidence for the latter is uncertain. The Polish general raced over to the British armoured cars and asked for help. Lieutenant Young was hesitant at first, noting his task was to maintain radio contact with the 43rd (Wessex) Division that was now spearheading the advance of XXX Corps. Sosabowski stressed the grave danger Driel could be in – now was not the time to explain job descriptions! Young readily agreed and the Pole hopped onto his bike, shouting that he would lead the way. It was probably the strangest means by which a general entered the fray in the Second World War; Sosabowski on a lady’s bike as an aide ran beside him, struggling to keep up. Behind both came the British armoured cars primed for action. Approaching a nearby orchard, one of the vehicles sighted a German half-track and fired its two-pounder gun. To emphasise their presence, the British also blasted away with a heavy machine gun and it was enough to persuade the enemy to pull back.
Sosabowski had gained some breathing space, although the Germans continued to make probes, each of which had to be vigorously fought off and added to the IPB’s growing casualty list. This included the IPB’s most unusual recruit, the American volunteer 2nd Lieutenant Richard Tice. He had been mortally-wounded at Baarskamp Farm when a unit of German troops announced they wanted to surrender, came in close to his position and then suddenly opened fire. Tice had volunteered to join the IPB before the USA’s entry into war despite having no Polish ancestry or, at the beginning, any fluency in the Polish language. He turned down Sosabowski’s later offer of a transfer to US Army, despite its better pay and opportunities for promotion. Tice cited the important role Tadeusz Kościuszko had played during the American War of Independence and a debt he felt towards Poland because of this.
With the IPB’s perimeter holding, Sosabowski attempted to catch some badly-needed sleep. He was about to drop off when aides woke him: two British officers, Colonel Mackenzie (Urquhart’s chief-of-staff) and Lt Colonel Myers (the chief engineer) had just arrived after crossing the Nederrijn by dinghy. The pair informed Sosabowski that the British pocket at Oosterbeek was in danger of collapse and that reinforcements were desperately needed. They suggested a line be extended between the banks of the river and a ‘shuttle service’ be set up using the dinghies in Polish hands and some that could be supplied by the British. Sosabowski agreed and ordered one of his companies to prepare for the crossing that night. Here it should be noted that most of these dinghies were two-man affairs, which meant the number of Poles likely to cross was never going to be that many.
River of blood
Sherman tanks from XXX Corps reached Polish positions as evening approached. They were closely followed by an advance guard of British infantry from 43rd Division and two DUKW amphibious vehicles stocked with supplies. Unfortunately, these machines proved too heavy for the soggy terrain and sank deep into the mud when driven down towards the Nederrijn. The Germans had also beefed up the number of men and heavy machine guns on either side of the Oosterbeek pocket and were soon ‘firing at anything that was put into the water’, according to Fedorowicz. By 3 am, when the operation was called to a halt, only one boat in the shuttle service was left afloat. Just over 50 Poles had made it across, while several were dead and many others wounded. The men that reached the perimeter were collected at Oosterbeek church and sent straight into the battle, fighting mainly alongside the Air Landing Brigade. By now the dead of both sides littered the town’s gutted houses, streets and wooded areas. The ferocity was such that Germans called the Oosterbeek perimeter ‘der Hexenkessel’, or the Witches’ Cauldron.
As night turned to day, enemy fire on Polish positions remained heavy and constant. A British liaison officer from XXX Corps arrived and informed Sosabowski that the Poles were expected to try another effort at crossing the Nederrijn. Boats of a somewhat dubious quality were eventually supplied, although their arrival had been ponderously slow. At around 3 am, with precious hours already lost, Polish paratroopers lugged these boats over the mudflats and down to the Nederrijn’s south bank. Keeping a close watch, the Germans sent up flares and began strafing the river again, spilling still more Polish blood. Sosabowski watched the horror unfold from a point near the Driel dyke that was also under heavy fire. It was clear his men were caught in a death trap and, while some boats were managing to cross, too many troops were being struck down to make the operation viable.
The Polish general raced down to the river bank and ordered his men retire. Despite the fearsome losses, about 200 Poles made it across. Peter Stainforth noted the scene from the British perspective. ‘The river was lit up by parachute flares from the German lines and under fire the whole time. Many of the Poles drowned, but the timely reinforcement provided by this gallant band of two hundred eased a critical situation and was greatly encouraging to the exhausted division.’ These soldiers were also thrown straight into the battle, with the Poles making a particular impression at the crossroads of Utrechtse Weg/Station Weg. Here the street fighting was especially fierce and, at many points, no quarter was given or expected.
Following the bitter frustrations of the night before, Sosabowski was pleasantly surprised by the arrival of XXX Corps’ commander Lt General Horrocks on the morning of 24 September. Both men discussed the tenuous situation of 1st Airborne, with Sosabowski suggesting that the 43rd Division and the Poles attempt to cross the Nederrijn several miles downriver from Driel, where enemy opposition would be less strident. Later that day, Sosabowski met Horrocks for a second time at a conference near Valburg, five miles south of Driel. Other top staff present included Maj General Ivor Thomas, commander of the 43rd Division, and Browning who had arrived near Nijmegen on 21 September, transporting his HQ in 38 gliders.* Entering a large tent, the British sat on one side of a conference table and motioned for Sosabowski to sit opposite. Something rather odd was going on as they had already requested Sosabowski's English interpreter Jerzy Dyrda be removed from attending, which the Polish general had refused to accept.
*Critics have subsequently argued that many of these gliders would have been better utilised for bringing in fighting units, supplies or equipment.
Sosabowski was now informed that one of his battalions was to be seconded to Thomas’ command and would follow the 4th Battalion of the Dorset Regiment in another attempt to cross at the same site where the Poles had already lost so many men. Sosabowski was unhappy about this and made his views known, for although his brigade was seconded to the British, it remained an independent unit of a sovereign nation and protocol dictated that permission be sought before making a transfer of this nature. However, Sosabowski set this point aside and instead tried to emphasise just how dangerous the plan was. Again he proposed an effort be made to cross the Nederrijn further downriver. In response, Maj General Thomas simply reiterated the initial orders. This was unacceptable for Sosabowski. He was the only general present to have seen the crossing point and the level of German response. But instead of seeking his advice, he was being blatantly ignored.
Sosabowski now rose to his feet and, speaking in English, tried once more to emphasise the futility of trying to cross at the same place for a third time. He stressed that the fate of the entire Arnhem campaign hung in the balance if no alternatives were sought. ‘[For] eight days and nights not only Polish soldiers but also the best sons of England are dying there in vain, for no effect,’ he later reported himself as saying. The British generals remained stony-faced, while Horrocks called the meeting to a close: ‘The conference is over. The orders given by General Thomas will be carried out.’ Looking back, Dyrda realised the British generals had intentionally angered his commander. ‘This strange conference,’ he later wrote, ‘was only intended to provoke him … They could [then] argue that Sosabowski's well-known independence and unyieldingness made it impossible to organise an efficient help for the airborne forces on the northern bank of the Rhine.’
Browning had remained sombrely quiet at Valburg and the historian Buckingham argues that he, Horrocks and Thomas knew that the 1st Airborne was going to be evacuated the next night anyway. On 23 September, General Miles Dempsey, the commander of 2nd Army (of which XXX Corps was a part), extended permission for these men to authorise an evacuation of 1st Airborne if they deemed it necessary. That this decision was made shortly afterwards is evident with the sealed envelopes that a Dorsets officer and Lt Colonel Myers took over during the crossing on 24 September. These orders notified Urquhart that an evacuation would start on the night of 25 September.
So why did the British generals want to send over the Dorsets and the Poles in force just before an evacuation? The argument often advanced is that the extra men were needed to stave off the perimeter’s imminent collapse and possibly, just maybe, keep Oosterbeek in play. Buckingham pours cold water on this theory: ‘[This argument] misses the point that there were simply not enough boats to get sufficient troops across the Rhine to make a difference in the time available. It is therefore difficult to avoid the conclusion that Horrocks, Browning and Thomas kept the evacuation decision to themselves for 36 hours while they went through the motions to avoid being blamed for the failure of Market Garden.’ Sosabowski was not informed of the evacuation order at Valburg and seemed unaware of it when he wrote his post-war memoirs as it is not mentioned. Indeed, one suspects he probably went to his grave not knowing this extremely important detail.
After the conference, Browning invited Sosabowski for lunch at his Nijmegen HQ. Leaving Dyrda at the junior mess, the Polish general returned an hour later in an excited state. Still upset from the treatment he had just experienced, Sosabowski was shocked when Browning admitted the operation that night would probably fail because there was not enough crossing equipment to hand. In addition, the Englishman confessed that the available boats were already struggling to get through the heavy traffic on the road leading through Nijmegen, a problem compounded by the Germans irregularly cutting this arterial route. For Sosabowski it was the final straw and he urged more be done. ‘I fear that my forthrightness hurt Browning’s feelings, for he quickly indicated the end of our conversation,’ he wrote. One shred of good fortune for the Polish general on his return to brigade headquarters was the arrival of those troops affected by the recall order on 19 September. They had been dropped at Grave on 23 September and managed to hitch lifts all the way to Driel.* Comparatively fresh, Sosabowski decided the new arrivals would follow the British over the river.
*Browning’s mention of gridlock appears strange in light of this fact. During their conversation, Sosabowski had also noted that ambulances had managed to reach Driel to take away some of his wounded. However, the Germans did indeed cut the main road on which the Allies depended on several occasions. This included a segment between Veghel and St. Oedenrode for a 24-hour period starting on the night of 24-25 September. Nonetheless, one still wonders why the British Army, knowing that it would be crossing terrain latticed with canals and rivers – including the Lower Rhine rivers of course – had such a paucity of boats to hand.
Later that night, it was discovered that there were not enough boats available for both the Poles and Dorsets to cross simultaneously. It was decided the Dorsets would go first, with the Poles handing over their vessels and remaining in support. DUKWs had also been supplied. Unsurprisingly, the effort quickly descended into a bloodbath, with the Dorsets discovering what the Poles had already learnt from bitter experience: that the boats were hard to control, sluggish in the strong currents and offered no protection whatsoever from incoming fire. ‘Wounded soldiers were sent screaming downstream and unmanned craft drifted, circled and sank. The Dorsets took a horrible beating that night,’ Sosabowski wrote. Many of the boats, including the DUKWs, missed the landing site and instead drifted into German positions. Their occupants were sometimes able to resist, but only for a short while until being overwhelmed.
The crossing was promptly halted and it was now decided to initiate the evacuation of the Oosterbeek pocket in an operation that someone with a sense of gallows humour had codenamed 'Berlin'. In charge of transportation were newly-arrived Canadian engineers, equipped with boats powered by outboard motors. A heavy downpour started on the evening of 25 September, making the movement of British and Polish troops retreating to the river’s north bank less susceptible to being detected. There was also a barrage of heavy artillery supplied by XXX Corps and a series of fake wireless transmissions to give the impression that the perimeter was still being held. While many parachutists had to swim the Nederrijn, including most of the Poles, the Canadians were responsible for the bulk of the evacuation and they worked bravely under fire until the first light of dawn. It was largely due to their sterling efforts that Operation Berlin was a success, with almost 2,250 British servicemen and 160 Poles reaching the safety of the south bank.
The cost of Arnhem and Oosterbeek had been enormous: out of almost 12,000 men deployed, 1,485 were killed, with just over 6,500 captured. One third of the latter were wounded, many badly so.* The Poles are included in these figures. At a unit level, the IPB had been badly mauled, with 23% of its officers and 22% of its other ranks listed as casualties. In total, it lost 97 men killed; 219 wounded; and 120 listed as missing, primarily taken prisoner, although some had evaded capture.+ Despite the IPB’s efforts and sacrifice, Sosabowski faced a series of calculated insults from Browning soon afterwards. Reporting to the Englishman’s HQ, he was kept waiting in an office for such a long time that, tired and exhausted, he fell asleep in an armchair. ‘Perhaps the delay was due to the preoccupation with everyone preparing new plans,’ Sosabowski pondered. Regardless, it was shoddy behaviour for a commander not to at least spend a few minutes with one of his senior officers, especially one who had just returned from the thick of the fighting.
*These figures do not include XXX Corps’ casualty figures listed for Arnhem/Oosterbeek. It later reported 25 dead and 200 captured or missing, mostly men from the Dorsets.
+Hundreds of men managed to hide and reach Allied lines as part of Operation Pegasus, or they reached safety in dribs and drabs much later. Others were captured in these attempts.
Sosabowski was eventually told the IPB would protect the Revenstein-Herpen-Neerloon area along the Meuse River. However, the brigade would come under the command of 157 Brigade, 52nd Lowland Division. Sosabowski protested that he would be taking orders from a brigadier and not from someone at least of his own rank. ‘Such orders are not given in any army and I could not tolerate it,’ he wrote. Browning swiftly relented, which led Sosabowski to later wonder why these decisions had been made in the first place. ‘He [Browning] knew – or should have known – my nature very well, and he must have realised that I would react strongly to being ordered around by a brigadier.’ But that was precisely the point: Browning had the full measure of Sosabowski and the Pole’s protestations would be used as further ammunition for what was about to come.
The battle’s wake
On 7 October, the IPB was taken out of the line and allowed to return to Britain for a well-earned rest. But it soon discovered that with defeat came recrimination; its reputation was tarred and its commander cited as a source of failure during the battle for Arnhem/Oosterbeek. In a letter dated 17 October, Montgomery wrote to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), Alan Brooke, criticising the IPB’s performance and demanding Sosabowski be replaced. How he could have formed this opinion, given that he was nowhere near Driel during the campaign, remains unclear. But Montgomery’s criticism was nothing compared with the near-libellous nature of Browning’s assessment. He too raised doubts over the capability of the IPB in a letter dated 20 November to the deputy CIGS, Lt General Sir Ronald Weeks. He also added that Sosabowski was unfit for command. ‘This officer [Sosabowski] proved himself to be quite incapable of appreciating the urgent nature of the operation, and continually showed himself to be argumentative and loathe to play his full part.’
Yet these are words from an officer who, like Montgomery, had never been near Driel during the fighting. In addition, Browning had disregarded key intelligence and underestimated his enemy; accepted drop zones too distant from Arnhem Bridge, the main target; acquiesced to just one drop at Oosterbeek on the starting day of the operation, when the element of surprise was at its greatest; and failed to voice concerns about XXX Corps’ lack of pace and its need to reach the Nederrijn almost regardless of the cost. Buckingham is scathing of Browning’s performance, particularly after XXX Corps arrived in his vicinity. ‘Browning appears to have decided that the arrival of XXX Corps absolved him of any responsibility towards them [1st Airborne and the IPB], and he turned his attention to securing quarters befitting his status in Nijmegen,’ he wrote.
Dovetailed with this, Sosabowski was unable to reconcile the arrival of XXX Corps with the lack of subsequent effort. ‘It is incredible to me that Browning, Chief of British Airborne, despite the shortage of river-crossing equipment did not persuade Horrocks, Dempsey and Montgomery to have a final go,’ he wrote in his memoirs. ‘We were so near victory at that time; at long last, troops and heavy equipment were up to the Neder Rhine [Nederrijn]. It only needed one final effort by units south of the river, and I am sure they would have streamed across to the relief of 1st Airborne.’ Sosabowski was overly-confident in his assessment; too much time had been lost and the enemy was now too strong around Oosterbeek. In addition, it would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find a suitable place for the necessary tanks and heavy equipment to cross and do so unmolested by the enemy. Time for 1st Airborne had run out or was extremely close to running out by 25 September.
But what if the answer to Browning’s apparent lethargy can be viewed through the prism of Buckingham’s assertion that he and the other British generals already knew Oosterbeek was going to be evacuated anyway? What if the crossing ordered on the night of 24 September really was a case of going through the motions? Both questions provoke an unsettling conclusion: the Dorsets, so nearly joined by the Poles, were sacrificed in order to save face, avoid blame, and create the excuse that every effort had been made to assist 1st Airborne. Given their collective failings – the primary reason for the defeat at Arnhem – it was in the interests of Thomas, Horrocks and particularly Browning to have Sosabowski blamed and shamed to deflect possible attention away from their own lacklustre performances.
Browning requested that Sosabowski be replaced, with the British government soon making a formal request to this effect. Desperate to maintain their ally’s haemorrhaging support, the Polish government-in-exile acquiesced, with Sosabowski relieved of his command just after Christmas 1944. For the men of the IPB it was an earth-shattering blow and some threatened to go on hunger strike. They were dissuaded by Sosabowski, who stressed that this desperate form of protest would be a futile gesture. The historian Janusz Piekalkiewicz noted that Sosabowski’s request for a court of enquiry where he might clear his name had already come to naught. His fate had been sealed and there was nothing more to be done. The IPB went on to join the British army in Germany at the close of the war and was eventually demobilised in 1947. Most of its men settled in the UK, their sacrifices all but forgotten by the wider British public. Sosabowski also made his home in England and was joined by his wife and son once the war ended. However, his fortunes took a turn for the worse after losing the bulk of his savings through poor investment decisions. He took a manual job at an electrics assembly plant in Acton, London, to make ends meet.
Sosabowski was more than happy to take part in reunions and anniversary celebrations as and when they came around. Peter Stainforth was once invited to a IPB function and met Sosabowski who he described as a ‘courteous and charming man’. As Polish etiquette dictates, it was not long before the toasts began. ‘As the evening progressed and the drinks flowed, my rank increased from captain, to major, then to colonel!’ Sosabowski’s memoirs Freely I Served were published in 1960 to much interest. Later on, with the release of historical reappraisals like Cornelius Ryan’s widely-read A Bridge Too Far (1974),* the IPB slowly took its rightful place in the story of the Arnhem campaign. Sadly, Sosabowski was unable to witness the fruits of this, dying in 1967. His remains were interned in his beloved Warsaw in 1969.
*Used as the basis for a blockbuster film of the same name in 1977.
For the British soldiers who fought at Arnhem and Oosterbeek, the bravery and sacrifice of the Poles and their commander was never in doubt. On a plaque next to their memorial for Sosabowski erected at Driel in 2006 there is a message from them: ‘The British veterans of Arnhem have raised this memorial to record their enduring admiration for an inspiring commander, a fearless fighter for freedom and a great Polish hero.’ The Netherlands held a recognition ceremony for the IPB in the same year, with Queen Beatrix formally presenting the brigade the Militaire Willemsorde and a posthumous Bronze Lion to Sosabowski.
But more important than the medals, awards and statues has been the gratitude of the Dutch people. Each year, without fail, they remember the sacrifices of those who fought and died in Operation Market Garden, including the Poles. And Dutch children are taught about these men, some of whom, like Antoni Fedorowicz, were not much older than they during the battle. Left bloodied and bruised on the banks of the Nederrijn, the IPB’s bravery underlines the importance of sacrifice – a notion so easily scoffed at today – not just for one’s country, but also for the lives and freedoms of others oppressed by murderous tyranny. And with this very much in mind, surely it is now time for Britain to formally reassess the performance of the IPB and the treatment meted out to Sosabowski?
Endnote: Cora Baltussen and many others from Driel would go on to help the IPB during the battle. She knew first aid and helped care for the Polish wounded. Baltussen dedicated her life to social work after the war and also strove to have the bravery of the IPB formally recognised by the Dutch government. This was rejected for two reasons. Firstly, it was claimed that an award could be misconstrued as ‘politicisation’. Secondly, Dutch bureaucrats noted that the awarding of battle honours for the Second World War had officially ceased in 1952. Critics claimed these excuses obfuscated the truth: that the Netherlands was fearful of upsetting the USSR by recognising the IPB’s sacrifices. Along with many others, Baltussen continued to lobby for formal recognition, particularly after the collapse of communism. She was sometimes called the 'mother of the Brigade' because of her refusal to give up. In December 2005, just three weeks after Baltussen’s death, the IPB’s role was finally recognised by the Dutch government, with the announcement that the Militaire Willemsorde, the Netherlands’ highest military honour, would be awarded to the brigade in 2006
Buckingham, William F., Arnhem 1944 (Tempus Publishing, 2004)
Cholewczynski, George F. Poles Apart: The Polish Airborne at the Battle of Arnhem (Sarpedon Publishers, 1993)
Farrar-Hockley, Anthony, Airborne Carpet: Operation Market Garden (Ballantine's, 1969)
Filipow, Krzysztof and Wawer, Zbigniew, Passerby Tell Poland…, (Arkady Warsaw, 1991)
Hempel, Andrew, Poland in World War II, an illustrated military history (Hippocrene Books, 2000)
Kershaw, Robert, It Never Snows in September (Ian Allen Publishing, 2008)
Piekalkiewicz, Janusz, Arnhem 1944 (Ian Allen, 1976)
Powell, Geoffrey (writing under the pseudonym of Tom Angus and semi-fictionalised in places), Men at Arnhem (Corgi, 1976)
Marek Stella-Sawicki and Marek, Garliński and Jarek, Mucha, Stefan (editors) First to Fight: Poland’s contribution to the Allied Victory in WWII (the Polish Ex-Combatants Association of Great Britain under licence from MSS Consulting, 2009)
Ryan, Cornelius, A Bridge Too Far (Hodder, 2007)
Sosabowski, Stanisław, Freely I Served (William Kimber, 1960)
Stainforth, Peter, Wings of the Wind (The Falcon Press, 1952)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Arnhem (retrieved 2/9/2015)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Berlin_(Arnhem) (retrieved 2/9/2015)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanis%C5%82aw_Sosabowski (retrieved 2/9/2015)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1st_Independent_Parachute_Brigade_(Poland) (retrieved 2/9/2015)
The author would also like to thank Antoni Fedorowicz and Peter Stainforth for their recollections and correspondence.
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