Continuing from part 2…
In late evening hours of 16.6.1940, the brigade started its assault on the town of Montbard. They managed to catch the Germans by surprise and as a result, German losses were quite high. The resistance however gradually stiffened and the brigade did not manage to capture the bridge over the Burgundy channel. The Germans started in turn counterattacking in force and Polish losses mounted, forcing General Maczek to withdraw his forces from the town and to look for another way over the channel, south of Montbard. His goal was to get his unit across Loire, regroup and to join the defense of Paris. His recon forces however found out that not only is every bridge captured by the Germans, but that his forces are practically surrounded.
The fighting took heavy toll on the Polish soldiers. Of the original number, only around 500 men were left. The remnants of the brigade found their way southeast to a forest near the village of Moloy (north of Dijon), where they regrouped. Faced with critical lack of fuel and ammunition, Maczek ordered all of the remaining heavy equipment and cars of the brigade destroyed, seeing the only chance to break through the Germans in stealthy approach. It soon was discovered that a cohesive large column was too vulnerable and attracted German forces. Maczek therefore decided to split the unit in many small groups, effectively disbanding it as a fighting body. Small groups of soldiers were then ordered to try to find or fight their way to the unoccupied regions of France.
It would eventually take weeks to reach southern France. Most soldiers made it. There, they boarded ships and set off to Scotland, where they eventually met the rest of the Polish troops, that weren’t a part of the fighting brigade. These other Polish troops were evacuated to Scotland directly from the training camps without firing a shot in anger, so fast the French lines crumbled.
In the end, the French campaign of the Polish brigade was not successful. The Brigade was not properly trained, they lacked equipment, ammunition and fuel. General Maczek was not allowed by the circumstances to show his military talent and the improvised unit was swallowed by the chaos, caused by hasty French retreat. Only the capture of Montbard was deemed a successful part of the operation.
However, despite the tragic events, there were some humorous moments of the entire odyssey as well. The destination of most of the Polish soldiers was Marseille, from where they were to be evacuated. The situation was precarious and with the lightning German advances, it was decided that the Polish soldiers, while waiting for the evacuation, were to pretend to be civillians (wearing civillian clothing and such). One day, General Maczek finally appeared in Marseille, filled with about a hundred Polish soldiers in civillian clothing, pretending not to know each other. When the soldiers noticed him, all the hundred “civillians” immediately stood up as one man and saluted him, much to the confusion of the locals.
As was said above, a part of the 10th Cavalry Brigade that did not participate in the operations in France, was moved to Great Britain in June 1940. Under the command of Colonel Dworak, it was evacuated first to England and then to Scotland. Much to the dismay of the Polish troops, it was re-organized to fit the model of a British infantry brigade and recieved new designation: 2nd Rifle Brigade. These troops were in months that followed joined by the scattered remnants of Maczek’s men, including the General himself.
General Maczek arrived in Scotland in October 1940 and immediately took over the brigade command. As a bonus, he managed to recieve the approval to rename the unit back to its original name: 10th Armored Cavalry Brigade. All the regiments forming the brigade recieved their historical designations as well. The brigade was a part of the 1st Polish Corps, ordered to defend Scotland from a potential German invasion. Maczek’s soldiers were guarding the 200 kilometer strip between Montrose and Dundee.
In Summer 1941, the danger of invasion passed, as the entire nazi war machine did set its eyes on the Soviet Union. Therefore, it was decided to revive an older plan to create a Polish armored division. This division was to consist of the 10th Cavalry Brigade and 16th Armored Brigade. In October 1941, General Sikorsky confirmed the 10th Cavalry Brigade designation and – to continue the tradition of the “black brigade” – assigned a single black epaulet to each member as a symbol of the brigade.
Insignia of Corporal Franciszek Klimas of the (later) 1st Armored Division.
On 25.2.1942, 1st Armored Division was created under the command of General Maczek. It wasn’t just a name, it was the first real, complete, fully staffed armored division in the Polish army. Of course, the British were about as inviting as the French and Maczek had once again to fight British bureaucracy at every step, for every tank, gun and car – the British clearly did not trust the Polish troops and were not afraid of showing it. The situation was worsened early on by the fact that the Polish troops were arriving from France irregularily and organization was therefore complicated.
In April 1942, the Polish units, along with the staff, were moved to southern Scotland, to Melrose. Shortly after that, the commander of the Home Forces, General Bernard Paget inspected the Polish units. His conclusion was very positive, he especially noticed the anti-German zeal and the good level of training. This turned out to be very important, as it was this man, who was deciding who gets the new equipment in sufficient numbers and who does not. In Summer 1942, the new symbol of the division was approved: a black helmet with hussar wings in an orange shield, combining the elements of the past (the hussars) and the present (black/orange combination belonged to armored forces). It was painted on the vehicles and worn on the sleeves of the uniforms.
To be continued…