Central and Eastern Europe

Commemoration of General Sosabowski and his 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade

By Beata Bruggeman-Sekowska

In September 1944, around 1,000 parachutists from the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade of General Sosabowski were dropped at Driel, the Netherlands. Every year, the heroic contribution of this brigade to the Market Garden operation is commemorated in Driel. But his presence is felt here every day thanks to the efforts of the Driel-Polen foundation and their information center. A bust of General Stanislaw Sosabowski is witnessing every day in post war Driel on a very unique location-  opposite and overlooking the house at Molenstraat 12 where in September 1944 the headquarters of Sosabowski and his Polish airborne troops were located.

But the way to the recognition of their heroism was a bumpy one. Polish liberators of the Netherlands in many cases were not able to get back to Poland which was occupied by the Soviet Union and communists and General Sosabowski ended up as a factory worker after war.

History

The 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade was formed by the Polish High Command in exile with the aim of its being used to support the Polish resistance during the nationwide uprising, a plan that encountered opposition from the British, who argued they would not be able to support it properly. The pressure of the British government eventually caused the Poles to give in and agree to let the Brigade be used on the Western Front. On 6 June 1944 the unit, originally the only Polish unit directly subordinated to the Polish government in exile and thus independent of the British command, was transferred into the same command structure as all other Polish Forces in the West. It was slotted to take part in several operations after the invasion of Normandy, but all of them were cancelled. On 27 July, aware of the imminent Warsaw Uprising, the Polish government in exile asked the British government for air support, including dropping the Brigade in the vicinity of Warsaw. This request was refused on the grounds of “operational considerations” and the “difficulties” in coordinating with the Soviet forces.]Eventually, the Brigade entered combat when it was dropped during Operation Market Garden in September 1944.

During the operation, the Brigade’s anti-tank battery went into Arnhem on the third day of the battle (19 September), supporting the British paratroopers at Oosterbeek. This left Sosabowski without any anti-tank capability. The light artillery battery was left behind in England due to a shortage of gliders. A small part of the brigade with Sosabowski was parachuted near Driel on 19 September, but owing to bad weather and a shortage of transport planes, the drop into Driel was delayed by two days, to 21 September . On 21 st  brigade arrived at the distant town of Grave, falling directly on the waiting guns of the Germans camped in the area. The British units which were supposed to cover the landing zone were in a bad situation and out of radio contact with the main Allied forces. Finally, the 2nd Battalion, and elements of the 3rd Battalion, with support troops from the Brigade’s Medical Company, Engineer Company and HQ Company, were dropped under German fire east of Driel. They overran Driel, after it was realised that the Heveadorp ferry had been destroyed. In Driel, the Polish paratroopers set up a defensive “hedgehog” position, from which over the next two nights further attempts were made to cross the Rhine.

Poles attempted the river crossing in small rubber boats under heavy fire. Even so, at least 200 men made it across the river and reinforced the embattled British paratroopers.

Despite the difficult situation, at a staff meeting on 24 September, Sosabowski suggested that the battle could still be won. He proposed that the combined forces of XXX Corps, under Lieutenant-General Brian Horrocks, and the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade should start an all-out assault on the German positions and try to break through the Rhine. This plan was not accepted, and during the last phase of the battle, on 25 and 26 September, Sosabowski led his men southwards, shielding the retreat of the remnants of the 1st Airborne Division. Casualties among the Polish units were high, approaching 40%, and were at least in part, the result of Lieutenant-General Browning’s decision to drop the paratroops just 7 kilometres from the bridge at Arnhem.

After the battle, on 5 October 1944, Sosabowski received a letter from Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, commander of the Anglo-Canadian 21 st Army Group, describing the Polish soldiers as having fought bravely and offering awards to ten of his soldiers. However, on 14 October 1944, Montgomery wrote another letter, this time to the British commanders, in which he scapegoated Sosabowski for the failure of Market Garden. Sosabowski was accused of criticising Montgomery, and the Polish General Staff was forced to remove him as the commanding officer of his brigade on 27 December 1944.

After World War II General Sosabowski could not return to Poland, which was occupied by the Soviet Union and communists. He had no retirement fund, so he was forced to work in the factory till his 75th birthday.

He died of a heart attack on September 25, 1967 in London, UK. In 1969, the general’s paratroopers, still faithful to their commander, brought his ashes to Poland, where they were buried – according to his will – at the Warsaw Military Cemetery in Powązki.

Driel-Polen Foundation, Cora Baltussen and recognition of Polish heroes

Thanks to the documentary ”GOD BLESS MONTGOMERY De vergeten Polen in de Slag om Arnhem” about Polish heroes by Geertjan Lassche the process of recognition of General Sosabowski and his Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade heroism started. Prins Bernhard called a well-known Dutch politician Hans van Baalen who started with Frans Timmermans and Mat Herben the procedures in Dutch parliament. In 2005 the Dutch parliament decided about the recognition of Polish heroes. The whole parliament, all members of parliament supported the notion and the special advisory committee supported it, too.

The dream of Cora Baltussen whose life work was to make sure that the Polish heroes will be recognized came true two weeks after she died. During the Battle of Arnhem on September 21, 1944, in Driel, she met the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade, led by the Polish general Stanislaw Sosabowski. As an employee of the Red Cross, she cared for the wounded. She was one of the founders of the Driel-Polen Foundation, which was established in 1945. Thanks to Baltussen, the village square of Driel was renamed Sosabowskiplein in 1949. She was also one of the initiators of the Surge Polonia monument. Baltussen kept in touch with the Polish liberators throughout her life and, from 1961, campaigned for the award of military decorations for them . She spoke on September 14, 2004 in the television program Netwerk about Sosabowski. In the same program Prince Bernhard also spoke about the rehabilitation of the Poles.

As a result of the decision of the Dutch parliament in 2006 Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands awarded the Military Order of William to the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade. The brigade’s commander, Sosabowski was posthumously awarded the “Bronze Lion”.

Hans told me ”It was the most beautiful, emotional and symbolic moment to witness in 2006 in the Binnenhof the recognition of General Sosabowski’s and his brigade bravery. There was this old gentleman, hero from Sosabowski’s Brigade and he witnessed awarding his Brigade the highest military award: the Military Order of William from the hands of Her Majesty Queen Beatrix. The grandchildren of General Sosabowski witnessed posthumously awarding his grandfather the highest award Bronze Lion, award intended for servicemen who have shown extreme bravery and leadership.”

Photo: Public domain Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=946161

Author: Beata Bruggeman-Sękowska is an award-winning international journalist, TV correspondent, author, chief editor of international journalism centre, Central and Eastern Europe Centre, board member and a sworn translator. She was born in Warsaw, Poland and has also Armenian blood and roots in Lvov, which is part of Ukraine. She has been living in Heerlen, the Netherlands since 2005.

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