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Posted on May 13, 2007 in Carlo D'Este, Front Page Features

The Valiant Poles – Pt 4

By Carlo D'Este

Proceeding south for a mile or so, we came to yet another unmarked intersection. Somewhere nearby, he said, was a farmhouse with a white horse chalked into a large stone. Just before first light his unit had come upon the farm and to their amazement found hundreds of exhausted Germans resting in the fields. These men were part of the last remnants of the German Seventh Army and were fleeing eastward toward the River Seine to escape the jaws of the rapidly closing Allied forces converging on a point between the villages of Turn and Chambois. Seeing this mass of Germans, the Poles came charging into the farm with the guns of their Shermans blazing. A large number were killed or wounded. The rest fled; among the bits and pieces of gear they left behind, the Poles found the distinctive striped pants of six general officers.


We drove into the farm and parked. Zbig, who spoke excellent French, knocked on the door of the ancient farmhouse. We were greeted by an elderly couple in their 80s who turned out to be the original owners of the farm. When Zbig explained he was one of the Poles who had liberated their farm forty years earlier we were immediately invited inside. For the next half hour or so, with my tape recorder rolling, we sat in their kitchen, its walls black with soot and with flypaper hanging from the ceiling, while they told us their ordeal, and how they had fled the Germans and hid in the fields. We were given homemade wine and treated as honored guests. It was an unforgettable experience, made even more poignant by the story told by these simple but ever so dignified French peasant farmers.

A short time later, as the shadows began to darken the skies over Normandy, we came to yet another intersection where Zbig’s unit had mistakenly taken a wrong turn, a turn that eventually led them to the high ground of Mount Ormel-Coudehard forty years earlier. The reason they had taken this wrong turn was that the road sign pointed in the wrong direction. Forty years later that same sign was still pointing in the wrong direction!

On their maps the Mount Ormel terrain feature had the unique shape of a mace, hence the name the Poles gave it: Maczuga. As we stood atop Mount Ormel, Zbig related how his small force fought and survived furious German counterattacks that came from all directions. (Note: the story of the Mace and the battle of Mount Ormel is admirably recounted in John Keegan’s classic Six Armies in Normandy.) By the time Zbig finished his harrowing tale night had fallen over what, from August 19 to August 22, 1944, was called “A Polish Battlefield.”

Canadian historian Terry Copp has written an excellent account of this savage battle for survival and retribution:

"The Poles alone captured 6,000 prisoners and destroyed 70 tanks, 500 vehicles and more than 100 artillery pieces. Their own losses in the four days were 1,400 killed and wounded. The roads through Trun, Chambois and St-Lambert were lined with the wreckage of two German armies. Operational research teams counted 3,043 vehicles; including 187 tanks and self-propelled guns in the area they called the Shambles. Most had been destroyed by artillery and anti-tank guns or had been abandoned by their crews when forward movement became impossible." (1)

During our remaining days in Normandy we visited the Polish military cemetery at Urville-Langannerie, just off the main Caen – Falaise highway, where 650 Polish soldiers are buried. Originally, many of the Polish dead were collected and buried by local villagers in places where they fell. For years the locals lovingly tended these graves. Eventually the French donated land for this Polish cemetery. On the stone wall outside the gates is emblazoned the distinctive emblem of the 1st Armored Division, while along an iron fence are the badges of each of its regimental and service units.

The distinctive division emblem of the 1st Armored Division
was created to represent modern Polish horsemen-knights.

During our final day in Normandy we attended a solemn high Mass and dedication on Mount Ormel. Hundreds of elderly former Polish soldiers, dignitaries, priests and high-ranking members of the Catholic Church gathered to remember the dead and to commemorate the battle that ended forty years earlier. For some two hours everyone stood in the broiling, near-90 degree sun as Mass was recited and speech after speech delivered. Some speakers droned on for what seemed an eternity. Mercifully, the event ended before anyone died of heatstroke! That evening the battle for Mount Ormel was re-created in the form of a giant fireworks display that lit up the valley and the Corridor of Death below, while over a loudspeaker came a narration of the battle.

To have been fortunate enough to be present during a unique and often heartrending week of festivity and solemn ceremony, and to have gained an understanding of the Polish experience in Normandy, was a never-to-be-forgotten experience.   


1. Terry Copp, “Our Polish Comrades,” Legion Magazine, Jan-Feb., 2000. A copy of this article can be found here.

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1 Comment

  1. Great piece, indeed there is too little attention and credit given to the Polish effort during the war. Hopefully this changes in the years to come.