History With Snark – Vol 1, Issue 7

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

100px-e6b3a2e898ade7acace4b880e8a39de794b2e5b8abe79a84e6a899e8aa8c

 

*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.

Advertisements

History With Snark – Vol 1, Issue 2

Welcome back to History With Snark!  This week is the series’ first actual issue; if this is your first time reading History With Snark, the first issue may be found here:

https://knightssemantic.wordpress.com/2016/04/15/history-with-snark-vol-1-issue-1/

polandball

This week will cover Poland!  This nation was perhaps one of the most unfortunate during World War II, suffering not only the initial Nazi invasion, but further invasion, resistance, massacres, and occupation even after the war.

While there was a long history of the Polish nation, the state of Poland as we know it today is relatively new — founded in 1919 and formed out of German land.  Don’t feel any sympathy for Germany, though: this land was inhabited by ethnic Poles, and the Germans had been ruling over them for some time.  The Second Republic of Poland was not merely land stolen by the Poles, though the Germans who annexed Poland in the 19th century may have thought otherwise.

In 1919, just four months after it was reconstituted, the newborn state of Poland found itself under attack from none other than the Soviet Socialist Republics of Russia and Ukraine (Lenin was very intent on expanding the Soviet Union by force; this was by no means new or unique to Stalin).  The decisive (and incredibly unlikely) Polish victory at the Battle of Warsaw in 1920 checked Lenin’s plans for expansion and secured Poland’s sovereignty for another nineteen years.

Poland used this opportunity to rebuild: railways, roadways, and political freedoms were the new trend until the 1930s, where an authoritarian government whose motives were to “curb corruption” came into power.  It seems like this change did not do much to prepare the Poles for what came next.

On September 1, 1939, Hitler’s Panzers invaded Poland.  The Nazi regime in Germany had already taken the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia (and had in fact invaded and annexed the rest of the country) and the infamous Anschluss united Germany and Austria in an underhanded display of politics.  Poland was another piece of the German world that needed to be united under the banner of the Third Reich, whether they liked it or not.  Poland had expected such an invasion and withdrew (most of) its troops from the border, choosing instead to concentrate their forces on defending inner Poland.  The Blitzkrieg swept through practically unopposed by either the absence of Poles or the far lower quantity and quality of Polish forces.

On September 17, the Soviet Union, at Hitler’s invitation, invaded an already-doomed Poland from the east.  By October 6, Poland had capitulated and its territory was split between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany — conditions for Jews and other minorities were terrible in both halves (many large concentration camps such as Auschwitz were located in Poland, rather than within what was perceived as a brilliant inner Reich that should not have to hold such horrors).  The Polish Home Army relocated to London, where they continued to work with the British government and resistance forces within occupied Poland.

Sixteen Polish air squadrons had major participation in the legendary Battle of Britain, particularly the infamous 303 Polish Fighter Squadron, helping to stave off Nazi invasion and perhaps even avert the ultimate conquest of National Socialism.  But Poland still belonged to the Soviets and the Nazis, and ethnic Poles were still being harshly treated.

The Poles did not stop there.  The underground state knew that something was up in that Auschwitz place, and an officer by the name of Witold Pilecki volunteered to intern himself in Auschwitz using falsified documents in order to gain intelligence and organize resistance within the camp.  He formed a secret resistance group in the camp dedicated to improving morale, distributing food and clothing, and most importantly receiving news of the outside world for the prisoners.  His organization even managed to “set up intelligence networks and train detachments to take over the camp in the event of a relief attack by the Home Army, arms airdrops or an airborne landing by the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade based in Britain.” (Shamelessly plagiarized from Wikipedia)  None of these relief efforts would ever come, of course.  While Pilecki managed to establish communication with London, they refused to even believe his stories of Auschwitz, discarding them as exaggerations, and they found his suggestions of storming the camp, airdropping soldiers or even guns for the prisoners to be logistically impossible.  In 1943, he escaped Auschwitz with stolen Nazi documents and continued the resistance outside the camp, keeping his identity as a Polish army officer secret.  He participated in the fateful Warsaw Uprising (expounded upon below) and later went on to spy for the true Polish government in the communist-controlled puppet state of Poland.  They later ordered all their men to withdraw as tensions between the government-in-exile and communist government worsened, but he elected to remain in Poland.  He collected information on how the Soviets were persecuting people in Poland, but was captured, tortured, and executed in 1948 for spying on behalf of foreign imperialists.  Good for you, Soviets.  I’m sure some cyka is proud.

“But… but…,” an astonished reader begins. “Russia changed sides in 1941 because the Axis stabbed them in the back, right? So the Poles would have a new an unexpected ally who already had a large army in Poland to help retake it from the Nazis!”

If any of you thought that before (or God forbid after) you read the story of Witold Pilecki, you would be miserably wrong.

In 1944, an uprising began in the streets of Warsaw, Poland.  Men, women and children began fighting against the Nazi occupation in entirely one-sided guerilla and street warfare.  The iconic Stahlhelm, a symbol of Nazi military superiority, became a trophy among the fighters, a symbol that there was one less German oppressing Warsaw.  The mass upheaval was coordinated with the Soviet advance toward Warsaw, with the thought that the Red Army would come assist the Free Polish and drive off the Nazi invaders for good.

No such thing happened.  The Soviets set up checkpoints around Warsaw instead, disarming or even exchanging fire with Polish resistance fighters who were on their way to Warsaw.  The resistance in Warsaw was not a communist resistance, and to that end it had to be exterminated, even if the Nazis did it for them, which they did.  By the end of the fighting, Warsaw had literally been reduced to rubble, and the resistance forces surrendered.  Despite assurance that only members of the Home Army would be treated as POWs, and the civilians would be treated as… well, civilians, the Nazis deported the entire population of Warsaw, 16% of whom were sent to labor camps and 10% of whom were sent to extermination camps.  That’s a total of 150,000 Polish civilians.  The remaining population were distributed across Poland and released.  85% of buildings were entirely destroyed, either as a result of the fighting or the pre-planned destruction of Poland (Hitler had dreamed of turning Warsaw into a German city and later a military base. No, I have no idea why the heck he was set on turning Poland into a “German city.” He wanted to turn Moscow into an artificial lake, though, so we can’t say he wasn’t just loopy.)

In early 1945, the “Big Three” (Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Josef Stalin) convened near Yalta (in Crimea) to discuss the future of Europe after an Allied victory.  It was at this conference that the map was drawn where Britain, America, France and the Soviet Union would occupy different zones of Germany.  Poland was a subject of discussion, since Stalin had sort of committed war crimes and annexed half the fricking country.  In one of Churchill’s less-fine moments, he remarked:  “Poor Neville Chamberlain believed he could trust Hitler. He was wrong. But I don’t think I am wrong about Stalin.”

The agreement literally allowed Stalin to keep the half of Poland he conquered in 1939, leaving the half taken by Germany to be a “free” state (it was only swallowed up by communism, joined the lovely Eastern Bloc, and… oh, have you heard of the Warsaw Pact?).

Well… uh.  There were hundreds of thousands of Poles fighting for the British to free their homeland, and it had just been signed over to Stalin.  The other side was gifted with the promise of “democracy.” Thirty Polish soldiers committed suicide upon hearing how their homes had been transferred to the Soviets. Many Poles refused to even return to Poland, and the communist government began mass persecution of Poles who did not see at their level, along with targeted atrocities against any veteran of the Polish Home Army.  Whaaaatever. It’s all good.  At least, in 1991 it became good… or better, at least.

 

So it’s alright, little, unassuming, innocent Polandball. I know the kind of horrors you’ve seen in the last century, no matter how much the other Countryballs laugh at you.  I recognize your World War heroes who died resisting oppression from the Nazis and the Communists. Your people will remain among my favorite.

polandball

DISCLAIMER: NO, THERE WAS NO POLISH CAVALRY FIGHTING PANZERS.

However, in the battle for Moscow, a regiment of Mongolian horsemen attacked a Nazi division. They were entirely wiped out and the Nazis did not even sustain an injury.

This is why we have mechanized cavalry.

History With Snark – Vol 1, Issue 1

Hello and welcome, all!  This is the pilot issue (or first issue, or prologue, or so on) to my weekly series, History With Snark.  Like all pilot episodes, this will contain little humor and merely attempt to sell to you the idea of watching a series that is actually very different from what you just saw, by breaking all accepted television (or writing) traditions and conventions.  With no further ado, let us begin.

The title says it all.  History will be explored through a harsh, laconic, and often darkly humorous lens that tends to portray the past with an overwhelming degree of snark.

I know that at least one reader will ask just was this “snark” is.  It certainly did not exist in the English language in 1995.  Here, I defer to the illegitimate child of Oxford and Merriam-Webster, the Urban Dictionary, which states that snark is a:

Combination of “snide” and “remark”. Sarcastic comment(s).

Well, that was not so hard, was it? Simple contractions. Perhaps I ought to spell it “sn’ark.”

With that question out of the way, I can already anticipate your next: “What can I expect from this clearly derisive series that intends to do away with any amount of respect that history ought to receive?”  Well, dear reader who likely never asked that, I am glad you asked!  In this series, we (or I) will laugh at the folly of the Trojans, make light of the losses at Agincourt, and question just how the world did not arrive at electricity sooner.  I will attempt to humor you by mocking Panzer designs, and probably get myself banned from writing another issue after I complain about the ineffectiveness of Hitler’s strategy and propose better solutions to the European Front (you didn’t actually think I was going to propose solutions to the other question, did you?).

(To break more academic conventions,) I would like to say in closing, thank you for reading this much.  Next week will promise a glance at the First World War through the ever-fogged lens, for history is never objective and my glasses need cleaning.  Tschüss!