Alan Wooding travelled to the Netherlands as the guest of Liberation Route Europe and Europe Remembers where he learned of the little known Polish involvement in some of the key battles while understanding why the Poles were unable to return to their homeland following the Second World War armistice.
When King Willem-Alexander struck the liberation bell with a hammer in front of thousands of onlookers along the seafront at Terneuzen on Saturday 31 August, it not only marked the 75th anniversary of Dutch liberation from Nazi occupation, but it started a year of significant celebration in the Netherlands.
With three veteran aircraft piloted by members of the Royal Dutch Airforce and a flotilla of Dutch Naval vessels passing close by, several ageing veterans representing Britain, Canada, the USA, Norway and Poland were warmly greeted by the now bearded Dutch king and Queen Maxima.
They were joined by Belgian King Philippe and Queen Mathilde in a joyous celebration on the banks of the Scheldt Estuary which, back in September 1944, witnessed one of the toughest battles faced by the advancing Allies – and in particular the Poles – but their triumph finally allowed supplies to be brought by sea once more into the strategic Belgian port of Antwerp.
Led by General Stanislaw Maczek, the 1st Polish Armoured Division succeeded in clearing a path all the way from the towns of Middelburg and Goes to the city of Breda and then on towards the German port of Wilhelmshaven.
Meanwhile at the Battle of Arnhem on the banks of the River Rhine, Operation Market Garden ended in failure after bullish British Field Marshall Bernard 'Monty' Montgomery blamed the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade and General Stanisław Sosabowski in particular for the disaster.
With Sosabowski demoted and made a scapegoat for the failure, it was later acknowledged that it was in fact Montgomery and Lieutenant-General Frederick Browning who had under-estimated the task in hand due to superior and unexpected German numbers as depicted in the film A Bridge Too Far. Thanks to the Dutch resistance movement, Sosabowski had been able to warn Montgomery that two SS Panzer Divisions were still in the operations area but despite this, Monty insisted that Market Garden proceeded as planned.
However Sosabowski's bravery was finally acknowledged while his two grandsons – one having been blinded in military action – received a posthumously-awarded Bronze Lion (the Netherlands' highest honour) while the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade received the Military Order of William (the Militaire Willemsorde) from Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands at a special ceremony at The Hague back in May 2006.
Sadly Sosabowski passed away in September 1967, aged 75, having never been able to return to his native Poland due to Soviet occupation, although he did manage to get his wife and son to leave and they lived in West London.
Our tour began on the Scheldt in the province of Zeeland where we visited the small Liberation Museum at Nieuwdorp where we were welcomed by its owner and director Stef Traas who opened it in 2005. However what wasn't obvious at first glance was that behind the original wooden fronted museum building was an enormous group of new constructions which are hurriedly being finished by a handful of volunteers in readiness for a Royal opening in just eight weeks time.
"Our volunteers range from 11 to 85-years-old," explained Stef who said that the new building was the result of a €7million grant from the Dutch lottery fund. The museum's extensive grounds now includes a lake and bridge plus various items of military hardware including tanks and heavy artillery.
We were also shown around by former staff officer and military historian Wouter Hagemeijer who focused on the Polish forces at the Battle of the Schedlt and who also accompanied us on a tour of the eastern Zeeuws-Vlaanderen area which was liberated in late 1944. He also explained that over 600 Allied aircraft had been shot down over Zeeland while on the ground, the British losses numbered 6700, Canada's 4100, the USA's 1135 while the Poles lost 630 men.
Crossing Gydnia Bridge, the site of heavy fighting in the Dutch polders for control of the Axel Canal, we then headed to the province of Brabent and first to a Commonwealth War Graveyard and then onto the 'Dilemma Maze' at Bergen-op-Zoom before heading to Breda where we stayed at Hotel Mastbosch for the evening.
We learned more about the maze (which will remain in place between the British and Canadian cemetraries for 12 months) and of Brabant Remembers from Caroline Belt, the maze itself telling the stories of 75 life-changing personal war tales from 75 different locations in the province – https://www.brabantremembers.com/?lang=en
It was in Breda the following morning that we were joined by 73-year-old Lieutenant-Colonel (retired) Frans Ruzczynski, the son of one of a Polish liberator and chairman of the still under construction General Maczek Museum. He guided us through the town, visiting various historic monuments and also on an interesting battlefield tour.
It was then on to the Gelderland province and the magnificent Hartenstein Airborne Museum at Oosterbeek after which we were joined by Arno Baltussen who explained Westerbouwing – the River Rhine crossing point – and the town of Driel where General Sosabowski and his Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade acted so bravely.
On our final day, after spending the night at the Fletcher Hotel Doorwerth-Arnhem, we travelled north to Emmen where we visited a remarkable museum created by jovial 50-year-old Erik Zwiggelaar. It's called ‘Ergens in Nederland 1939-1945’ which translates as 'Somewhere in the Netherlands 1939-1945’.
Erik explained that he started his museum as an eight-year-old boy who found a box containing bullets. Meanwhile 42 year later he has amassed one of the most amazing collection of military objects and paraphernalia together with uniforms from all of the European armies. "I go to various sales and flea markets to add to my collection while people often bring me things they've found in their attics," he said.
He then accompanied us across the German border to the village of Oberlangen where the Nazis created a collection of 15 labour camps located alongside a single straight road on open moorland. The first camp was opened in 1933 to hold Germany's communist sympathisers while once the Second World War started in 1939, the other camps were opened at regular intervals to house Poles, French and Italians… but it was the Russian prisoners who bore the brunt of the Nazis' cruelty.
"The Russian prisoners were simply worked to death," explained Erik. "Unlike the other prisoners, these had come from the Russian front and they were never even fed – they were simply starved to death. There's a mass grave site just up the road which is said to hold thousands of Russian bodies, but it has never been properly excavated," he added.
General Maczek and his 1st Polish Armoured Division – the Dutch liberators
Learning of a major event in European history, Alan Wooding retraces the steps taken exactly 75 years ago by the heroic members of the 1st Polish Armoured Division – or 'Black Division' – who played a special role in ridding northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands of Nazi occupation.
With their own country in ruins following Germany's occupation during the early years of the Second World War, several decades later a remarkable story has unfolded regarding the bravery shown by a special group of Poles who banded together to form the 1st Polish Armoured Division.
As the war raged on and with many Polish people continuing their fight for freedom back in their homeland, it was in 1942 here in Great Britain that hundreds of escaped Nazi labour camp prisoners together with Polish refugees (including children) and a few of their regular soldiers joined together to form a special armoured force which became known as 'The Black Division'.
With many of Poland's great cities in ruins, it was in August 1944 under the command of General Stanislaw Maczek that 'The Black Division' – feared by the enemy for its ferocity – fought alongside the British, American and Canadian troops through Normandy and Belgium before playing a major role in liberating the Dutch in the final days of the war in the Netherlands.
However the Poles' first duty back in June 1943 was to defend the Scottish coastline in case of a predicted German invasion. However 12 months on, the growing 1st Polish Armoured Division – now comprising 15,210 men and 885 officers – were moved to southern England and were equipped with 381 tanks and 473 pieces of heavy artillery.
In France, the Poles were tasked with breaking through the German defences in the Caen-Falaise region and while Polish soldiers had entered the battle on 8 August, just ten days later in the Chambois region, they closed the ring and surrounded the German 5th Panzer Army.
The enemy then attacked the Polish positions but to no effect and less than a month later the Black Division had entered Belgium, liberating Ypres and Tielt before regaining the city of Ghent. Ten days after that they were in the Netherlands and by 16 October, the city of Breda had been liberated, the Dutch civilians posting notices in their windows saying: "Thank you Poles”.
The battles continued all the way across northern Europe to the strategic German seaport of Wilhelmshaven where on 5 May 1945, the Black Division captured three Nazi cruisers and 18 submarines.
After Germany’s final capitulation on 20 May 1945, the 1st Polish Armoured Division losses numbered 975 men but as the Russians now occupied their homeland, the Poles were unable to return which meant they became spread throughout the other countries of western Europe.
General Maczek took responsibility for another Polish division based in Scotland while the 1st Polish Armoured Division gained a new commander in General Klemens Rudnicki and for two years, they occupied a base in northern Germany. However the Black Division did return to England in June 1947 where it was finally disarmed and demobilised while Maczek himself returned to the city of Breda were he died in 1994, aged 102 years.
** With special thanks to Gert-Jan Jacobs of Liberation Route Europe and Europe Remembers for arranging this 'In the footsteps of the Poles – From Axel to Ter Apel’ visit and to fellow travellers Tim Williamson, Piotr Kalusa, Malgorzata Bos-Karczewska, Pawel Moskalewicz, Hubert Koziel and Jakub Butyrowski for their friendship and enjoyable company.