Welcome back, esteemed readers, to a seventh issue of History With Snark! We’ve come a long way… or, well, I have. I’ve been unfortunately too busy to continually find the obscure to give to you, but today is your just-before-Christmas treat!
Today, I want to talk about another hero of the Polish Army (maybe that’s Volume 1’s theme… Germany and Poland), General Stanisław Maczek (stah-nyee-swav mah-chek)*. Maczek was the commander of Poland’s only armored division during World War II, never losing an engagement in the 1939 invasion of Poland.
Maczek was born in Austrian-controlled Poland in 1892 and studied Polish philology at Lwów University. During this time he was part of the Polish Rifleman’s Association, where he acquired basic military skills. At the outbreak of World War I, Maczek was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army. He was deployed to the Italian Front and gained experience in mountain combat — the only Polish commander to do so during the war. Initially an NCO, he was a lieutenant by the war’s end. With the formation of the Republic of Poland, he left the Austrian army and joined the Polish Army. He fought in the Polish-Ukrainian war with distinction, leading a motorized unit under the 4th Infantry Division. The idea was taken from the Germans during World War I… Given what came next, though, it seems like they should have taken the idea for tanks instead.
By the outbreak of WWII, Maczek was a full colonel and commander of the 10th Motorized Cavalry Brigade, armed with only light tanks, tankettes (which are kind of like sports cars for tanks but not nearly so high-performance), and eight heavy cannons. On the first day of the war, the brigade faced the entirety of the XVIII Army Corps and managed to protect the southern flank. He soon battled the 2nd and 9th Panzer Divisions and the 3rd Mountain Division, though he had the assistance of a few border guard battalions (you know, the guys who keep the Mexicans out?). Maczek used the terrain to his advantage — unlike most of his opponents, he had fought in the Alps in the last war and already had valuable combat experience. He translated this infantry skill into his current situation with tanks and reduced the Blitzkrieg’s pace to less than ten kilometers per day. Compare that to France, where Rommel achieved 322 kilometers in a day. To be fair to these Germans, they were not Rommel… but Maczek was certainly not French. His brigade was ordered to retreat as the entire northern sector collapsed.
Maczek continued operating in western Poland, covering for other units to escape to the interior. When the Soviet Union invaded Poland on September 17th, this operation was abandoned and he was ordered to cross into Hungary (Hungary was aligned with the Axis but neutral until November 20, 1940). By the end of the September 1939, the brigade had lost half of its men, but it had not been defeated in battle and is considered the only Polish unit that did not lose a single battle during the invasion.
Maczek traveled to France with several other Polish units, forming a Polish Army-in-exile in France to defend it from the Reich. Here, he was promoted to brigadier general and given command of a military camp in northern France. He wrote a detailed report on his experiences with the Blitzkrieg and gave suggestions on how to defeat it, but the French did not read the report and provided Maczek with obsolete vehicles — months after he arrived. When Germany invaded by going around the useless Maginot Line (seriously, using Belgium to replace your fortifications? I thought that failed in the first war.), Maczek was provided with all the equipment he asked for and immediately deployed. Because they had no time to learn how the new tanks worked, Maczek took only his best men and formed the 10th Armored Cavalry Brigade (named after the original), leaving the rest to train with their new equipment. The brigade was assigned to the 4th Army in northeast France, near Reims. They were ordered to cover the 4th Army’s left flank, but their size and weaker tanks hindered their effectiveness and they were forced to withdraw. Maczek’s brigade attacked the German-held city of Montbard with great success, but the French defense had already collapsed. Perhaps if they had read Maczek’s report, they would have successfully repelled the German attack. Stranded in the open and out of fuel, the brigade destroyed their vehicles and retreated on foot. Some of them joined resistance groups in France and Belgium, but Maczek and many of his men made their way to London to join the other Poles that had assembled there.
The British government, skeptical of the Poles’ usefulness, had planned to use their army as the Scottish line of defense — that is, to defend Scotland after England and Wales fell. Maczek’s arrival changed these plans and Władysław Sikorski, the commander of the Polish army-in-exile, convinced the British government to provide Maczek with the newest tanks, including the legendary Churchill and M4 Sherman. Maczek was still held in reserve, but this was because the British intended to use him as a powerful weapon in the upcoming Normandy invasion. Maczek’s 1st Polish Armored Division arrived in the end of July, 1944 (after the initial danger of landing had passed — why waste your best men before they even reach shore?) and was attached to the First Canadian Army. Maczek tore through German lines, achieving victory after victory. In one daring battle, the 1st Polish Armored Division surrounded and destroyed fourteen SS and Wehrmacht divisions. He went on to liberate large portions of Belgium and, at no small cost to his own forces, liberated the Dutch city of Breda without any civilian casualties. For this, the people of Breda created a petition that resulted in Maczek being made an honorary citizen of the Netherlands. It was his division that accepted the surrender of Wilhemshaven, a massive German naval base. Two hundred vessels were capture along with the entire garrison.** The Poles remained part of its occupation force until 1947. At the close of the European Theater, he was promoted to major general and received command of all Polish forces under the British military.
Oh, and just in case you thought Polish people were allowed to get happy endings: after the war’s end, the People’s Republic of Poland (Russia) stripped Maczek of his citizenship, forcing him to stay in the UK. The United Kingdom, for their part, did the right thing and denied Maczek combatant rights or a pension. The great general was forced to take up work as a bartender in a hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland, just to pay bills and take care of his chronically-ill daughter. Despite this, he still had a strong relationship with the people of Breda, and when the mayor of Breda heard of Maczek’s situation, he made an appeal to the Dutch government to give the man a pension. The government quickly came to a decision and awarded Maczek a secret allowance appropriate for his rank. On top of this, the public held a fundraiser to get him enough money to cover his daughter’s medical costs. Despite him never serving until the Dutch flag, it was they who cared for him most.
Because of the tensions of the Cold War, the government of the Netherlands could never publicly reveal that they were paying a former general of the Polish Republic: Communist Poland would have been outraged. In addition to this, it would call into question Britain’s failure to deliver a pension to one of their own officers.
In 1989, the last Prime Minister of Communist Poland issued a public apology to Maczek and in 1994 the Republic of Poland presented him with their highest honor, the Order of the White Eagle. It didn’t acknowledge all the crimes of the Communist regime, but it’s a good step.
On September 11, 1994, Stanisław Maczek died in Edinburgh. He was 102. Per his last wishes, he was laid to rest in Breda, next to the fallen soldiers of the 1st Polish Armored Division. The division and its commander are still remembered every year on Liberation Day in Breda.
Okay, so maybe he got a happy ending.
Emblem of the Division
*I’m not going to attempt to guess the emphasized syllables in his name, though I feel as if they’d be on the second and first syllables, respectively.
Polish is a West Slavic language, relating more to Czech and Slovak more than Russian. Although it was traditionally an important diplomatic language between Central/Eastern Europe, after the Second World War the dispersion of Poles led to many speakers in places like Britain and United States. Poles constitute the largest Slavic ethnicity in the States, though until 1918 the Polish state did not exist and most Polish immigrants were classified as Prussian, Austrian, or Russian.
Two notable Polish-Americans are Kazimierz Pułaski and Tadeusz Kościuszko, who led Patriot armies in the Revolutionary War. Any place in America named Pulaski is named for him. Kościuszko returned to Europe, where Napoleon soon created a tiny puppet-state of Poland that Kościuszko detested. After Napoleon’s fall, he attempted to create a Polish state with Tsar Alexander, only to discover that the Tsar’s planned “Poland” was even smaller than Napoleon’s, and he left for Switzerland — you know what, I’ll make him the subject of next week’s issue.
**Wilhemshaven is still a German naval base today, and it operates a pretty cool museum with some warships on display, discussing German naval history from the 19th century-onward. If you’re interested in naval history and happen to have that kind of money. I know I don’t.