A Polish Reunion in Normandy, Part III
In August 1944 Major General Stanislaw Maczek’s Polish 1st Armored Division was assigned to the Canadian First Army in its drive to clear the Caen-Falaise plan, and as the Germans began frantically attempting to escape the trap of the Falaise gap, they joined with the Canadians to help close it.
In August 1944 Mount Ormel (on the map it is called Hill 262) became the scene of one of the bloodiest and most dramatic battles of the Normandy campaign.
Situated a few kilometers northeast of the town of Chambois, it became occupied on August 19 by a Polish task force consisting of two tank battalions, two infantry battalions, and an anti-tank unit – in all some 1,500 infantrymen and eighty tanks. [See You Command, November 2013 and You Command Solution, March 2014 issues]
Also on Mount Ormel that day was my friend, Zbigniew Mieczkowski, and members of the tank unit that had taken a wrong turn at the road junction near the farm with the white horse early that morning.
By that date what has been called the Argentan – Falaise Gap, but which in reality could now have been called the Trun-Chambois gap, had been reduced to six miles and was rapidly closing on the fleeing Germans of the 7th Army and the 5th Panzer Army.
Gen. Maczek had noted the importance of Mount Ormel and had ordered its capture as a means of cutting off the retreating Germans.
The Polish task force was in possession of a commanding strip of land along the northern part of Mount Ormel. Long and rather narrow, it ended in a bulbous head that dominated the valley of the Dives River, as well as one of the only highways from the pocket still open, the D-16 road from Chambois to Vimoutiers, which ran across Mount Ormel. The Poles quickly nicknamed it Maczuga, the Polish word for Mace, for its resemblance to the bludgeon-like, two-headed weapon of ancient times. The area they occupied encompassed approximately two square kilometers.
The Poles promptly attacked a German column massed on the ground in the valley of the Dives below – the last escape route to the east. As they fled, the Germans were relentlessly harassed from the air and on the ground. They came in a seemingly endless mass of what had once been a strong, cohesive force. Now, they were simply fleeing east anyway they could: on foot, riding on vehicles, using any means possible to escape the rapidly closing Allied trap between the once peaceful villages of Trun and Chambois, both of which now lay in ruins. As they did so, the Poles relentlessly fired upon them from the heights of Mount Ormel.
There were unrivaled scenes of death and carnage from the gauntlet of fire from the Mace and from Allied air and artillery bombardments. These attacks left vehicles burning and clouds of billowing black smoke. There were hundreds of dead Germans strewn everywhere in the valley, many horribly mangled. Cut down in droves, their corpses drifted in the Dives and choked country lanes in what would forever be known as “the Corridor of Death.”
In an effort to keep their escape route open, the Germans struck back with a succession of furious counterattacks. Some desperately clawed their way up the steep slopes of Mount Ormel with fixed bayonets in suicidal assaults into the teeth of the Polish fire. Others attacked from the area of the D-16 highway. Eventually the Poles were surrounded.
Violent battles for the Mace raged until August 21, as elements of the 1st SS Panzer Corps launched one counterattack after another to disrupt the Polish attacks on the valley of the Dives, and capture Mount Ormel. No description of hell could have exceeded what took place over that period on and below Hill 262.
The 2d SS Panzer Division, which had already escaped the pocket, was rushed back to attack the Poles from the rear. Many were captured and herded into makeshift POW compounds.
The Poles were unable to evacuate their wounded and the savagery of the fighting prevented the Canadians, who had occupied Chambois, from driving up the D-16 and relieving them.
By the night of August 20, the depleted Poles had been pressed back to the top of the Mace and were in desperate straits. Not only had they suffered heavy losses but they were nearly out of water, food, and ammunition. As they braced for yet another suicide attack on August 21 the commander of the 1st Armored Regiment, Lt. Col. Aleksander Stefanowicz, one of hundreds of Polish wounded, grimly addressed his men, saying:
Gentlemen, everything is lost. I do not believe the Canadians will manage to help us. We have only 110 men left, with 50 rounds per gun and 5 rounds per tank … Fight to the end! To surrender to the SS is senseless, you know it well. Gentlemen! Good luck – tonight we will die for Poland and civilization. We will fight to the last platoon, to the last tank, then to the last man.
The following morning the Germans resumed their attacks from two directions and succeeded in penetrating the Polish positions. A suicidal attack was rebuffed by the remnants of an infantry battalion supported by Stefanowicz’s tanks that used tracer ammunition in their machine guns to set fire to the grass that killed some of the wounded attackers. It turned out to be the final German effort as gradually the attacks diminished, and then stopped.
As this was taking place, at noon a Polish reconnaissance regiment made contact with Mount Ormel’s defenders, only to have to withdraw after being mistakenly fired upon. About an hour later Canadian grenadiers that had fought for five hours along the D-16 highway from Chambois made contact with the Poles.
The astonished Canadians could only marvel at how the Poles had held so valiantly against elements of thirteen German divisions – six panzer, one parachute, and six infantry. Polish losses were 325 killed and an estimated 1,000 wounded. German losses were enormous.
The amazing stand by the Poles on Mount Ormel prevented an untold number of Germans from fleeing the pocket. The carnage was everywhere: dead Germans and Poles, and a scrap heap of burning and destroyed tanks and armored cars that were scattered across the Mace.
In a touching tribute, Canadian engineers erected a sign on the pinnacle of Mount Ormel, which read simply: “A Polish Battlefield.”
In the final installment next month, the story of the Polish reunion on the bloody Mace forty years later.