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General Stanisław Sosabowski

The First Independant Parachute Brigade Group at the Battle of Arnhem

by Stan Sosabowski

The First Independent Polish Parachute Brigade Group at the Battle of Arnhem by Stan Sosabowski (with grateful thanks to J J Lorys whose account in the Album “ General Sosabowski ” forms the basis of this history.)
The 1st Independent Parachute Brigade was formed in Scotland in 1941 by its Commanding Officer the then Col. Stanisław Sosabowski (later Major General). The Brigade consisted of Polish officers and men who had come to Britain from many countries, their one aim being to continue the struggle started in 1939 for the freedom of their country. The Brigade gradually grew in strength until in 1944 it reached approximately 2500 officers and men. The primary purpose indeed the sole purpose for its formation was to reinforce the expected uprising of the Polish Underground Army (the AK) against the German occupiers. The firmly held belief was that it would be parachuted into Warsaw at the right moment ! Political circumstances – real politic - dictated otherwise. The Poles were unaware that they were used by the Allies and that their dream was just a pipe dream. Arnhem 1000 km to the West was about to replace Warsaw! The Brigade was placed at the disposal of Gen. Eisenhower in June 1944, was mobilised in July and then became part of the 1st Allied Airborne Army, briefed for operation Market-Garden – a joint Airborne and Land assault to open up a gateway to Germany’s industrial heartland involving 35000 men, more than at the Normandy landings. The Brigade was placed under the command of Gen R E Urquhart the CO of the 1st British Airborne Division. The main portion of the Polish Brigade was to land south of the Arnhem Bridge cross the bridge and establish defensive positions on the outskirts of Arnhem. This portion was allocated 114 Dakota aircraft. The remainder of the Brigade consisting mainly of the anti-tank battery was to land on the northern side of the Rhine together with the 1st British Airborne Division and for this they had 45 Horsa gliders. On September 17th Operation Market Garden commenced and the first 10 Polish gliders took off and landed with minimal opposition. The Polish troops joined the 1st British Airborne Division and fought alongside their comrades to the bitter end. On September 18th the remaining 35 gliders took but their arrival was greeted with strong opposition and only 3 out of 10 anti-tank guns remained operational. The survivors again joined the 1st British Airborne Division. Due to bad weather the parachute lift did not take place. On Sept 21 a message arrived from Gen. Urquhart with new instructions. The Brigade was to land near Driel, a small village on the south side of the Rhine, cross the river by ferry and join the 1st British Airborne Division on the northern bank. News about the situation at Arnhem was scarce but it was obvious that something had gone wrong. At 04.30 on September 21 Gen. Sosabowski received confirmation and assurances that the ferry was held by British units. In the afternoon of September 21 all 114 Dakotas took off from various airfields in England. The flight was uneventful - only one plane was damaged. The mood of the paratroopers was serious but they were content that the waiting was over. At about 17.20 the drop took place in sunny weather on target. Men descending by parachute immediately came under fire, from below, from the north and from the east. Luckily it had little effect and casualties were light. To the great dismay of Gen. Sosabowski almost one third of the Brigade’s strength was missing! (Their fate was explained only later: after take-off a radio message was sent to all aircraft by Air Transport Command ordering them to return to England? 41 pilots turned back and landed in England). The Polish paratroopers who had made it moved to the river bank in preparation for the crossing. Patrols sent to find the ferry reported that there was no ferry; it had been put out of action. In the evening of September 21 a summary of the situation of the Polish Brigade was as follows -

  • the main body of the Brigade was south of the river;
  • the anti-tank battery with various elements of other units was fighting alongside the 1st British Airborne Division on the northern bank;
  • about one third of the Brigade had returned to England;
  • a group with ammunition and other vital equipment was in the Eindhoven area
  • a second group mainly the Field Artillery Battery was still in England awaiting orders.

Units on the river bank took defensive positions while patrols were sent east and west along the river to find and bring back boats. That night Captain L. Zwolanski a liaison officer swam across the river with news from Gen Urquart. It was tragic! The 1st Airborne Division was completely trapped, surrounded on three sides by top German SS Panzer Divisions, troops and heavy artillery. Its position was being pounded continuously by the German armour and the defence perimeter was shrinking each day. The only “gap “was on the south side and the Rhine itself – a no man’s land controlled by German firepower. But Urquart’s orders were for Sosabowski to cross the river and join the beleaguered Division and orders are orders. To help the Poles Urquhart was to arrange for rafts and that same night attack the northern flank as a diversion. All night the Poles waited but in vain - no rafts arrived and no attack was ever made - the British troops were just too dammed exhausted. With approaching dawn Gen Sosabowski decided to move the Brigade to Driel and organise defensive positions. In the morning the Germans started a tentative counter offensive on Driel to dislodge the Poles but were easily held back. The main objective – to get across the river and help save the British as quickly as possible - hadn’t yet started! A patrol had by that time come across 2 boats and 4 2-person dinghies and the first Polish crossing started later that night. There were no oars only spades and since the craft were constantly under fire by dawn they had all been sunk of holed. In all 52 men got across. The following day the promised supply of larger 12 men boats came. Their arrival was delayed and the heavy boats had first to be dragged over dykes and slippery terrain. Thus the crossing only started at 02.00 on September 24th Heavy mortar and artillery fire was directed at the assembly and embarkation areas while flares on parachutes lighted up the boats on the river and machine gun fire and with tracer bullets accompanied their movement. As a result only 153 out of 250 men made it across before dawn. It was no picnic on the Driel side either. The terrain is completely dominated by the high ground on the northern side and every movement was immediately punished by artillery and mortar fire. On the night of September 24th a Battalion of Dorset’s tried to cross but only 130 men actually managed it and even then they were unable to join up with Urquart’s men. The following night September 25 orders came for a complete withdrawal of all the troops from the north (there really weren’t that many left capable of withdrawing) Gen Sosabowski’s brigade had done all that was possible to join their comrades on the other side. Throughout the operation the Brigade had held a bridgehead opposite the British perimeter in Osteerbeek. This strategic position enabled the Allied land forces to reach the Rhine, albeit some 6 days too late. More important still, when the retreat was ordered it enabled the remnants of the 1st Airborne Division to come back to safety through this area. Another contribution was made by the Polish Signal Corps which established a radio link between the Polish HQ in Driel and the Polish Section in Osterbeek. This was achieved on the night of 21/22 September and maintained until the withdrawal. This radio link was very important in view of the complete failure of the British communications equipment. The link was used by the Airborne Corps, the Dorset’s and Gen. Dempsey to communicate with the British. Major General R.E. Urquart OB DSO in a letter dated 2 October 1944 and addressed to the Commander- in- Chief of the Polish forces in Great Britain expressed his appreciation of the Polish Brigade whilst they were under his command. He states that the Polish troops who landed on the first 2 days as well as the men ferried across the river were “..welcome additions to our already hard pressed force ..(they ) at once came into action and gave us very valuable assistance..” The letter then ends “… the losses sustained both before and during the evacuation were heavy. It may however be of satisfaction to know that these losses were not in vain and that the name of the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade will be linked to that of the 1st British Airborne Division in connection with the memorable battle at Arnhem”.

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Authors: Hal Sosabowski & Stan Sosabowski
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