The Poles at Driel

On 21st September the tanks of  the XXX Corps stood at the southern bank of the river Waal but they were still unable to cross the river. Both bridgesacross the Waal in Nijmegen, the road-bridge and the railway-bridge, were still in German hands. The Germans also controlled the area between both bridges and the Rhine bridge in Arnhem had not yet been captured by the British. The troops of General Frost, who had become injured, had to give up in the night from Wednesday to Thursday.

At Oosterbeek ColonelUrquhart kept urging for reinforcements especially by the Polish Brigade because his situation had meanwhile become critical. In spite of the exceptionally unfavourable weather conditions it was decided to fly the Polish Brigade into the scene of battle.

Despite the overcast skies, at 14:00 hrs. 114 aeroplanes took off with 1,560 soldiers of the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade on board. The dropping started at 17:18 hrs. Only 72 out of 114 aeroplanes were able to execute the order. Instead of 1,568 only 1,003 Polish soldiers were dropped. Forty-one aircraft were ordered to abort the lift due to bad weather conditions and to return to their British bases. Among these were the 1st Battalion, part of 3rd Battalion and a company of the Engineering Corps. A damaged Dakota dropped its paras over Belgium on the way back.

The Germans received the paras with machine-gun fire and mortars. Five soldiers died while landing and 36 got injured. Eleven German soldiers were taken prisoner during the first encounter. After having reached the banks of the river Rhine it turned out that there was neither a ferry nor any other vessel. The enemy was at the other side of the river.

At 22.30 hrs.Captain Ludwik Zwolański reported to the Brigade Commander General Sosabowski. The brigade’s liaison officer Zwolański was assigned to the British Airlanding Brigade. He had swum across the Rhine and brought news of the situation of the British Airlanding Division. The British losses already amounted to 40% of the original strength. Moreover, he carried a message from General Urquhart: the British Engineering Corps was to build rafts to ferry the Poles across to Oosterbeek.

Friday, 22nd September. The day was still young when a British sapper arrived from across the river and brought the news that the rafts had nearly been finished.

Accompanied by liaison officer lt.-col. Stevens and Captain Zwolański he then crossed the river by dinghy so as to report at the British Headquarters. At 03:00 hrs. Sosabowski ordered his troops to go to Driel. This village had already been cleared from enemies.

The circumstances in this village were suitable for organising the resistance to German attacks. The promised rafts have never arrived. At approximately 14:00 hrs. Colonel Charles B. Mackenzie, the Chief-of-staff of the 1st Battalion Division, together with lt.-col. Edward C.W. Meyers, chief engineer, reported at Sosabowski. They brought with them the order to cross the river that very night.

The 8th Polish Company was guided towards the river at 23:00 hrs. Only 5 rubber dinghies were available. Up to midnight on both embankments 11 Polish soldiers died and 23 got wounded. Till 03:00 hrs. of  23rd September the engineers led 52 paratroopers across the river. The dinghies crossed 6 times until all of them were shot to pieces by the Germans. The engineers lost 15% of their men. The Poles who had been hauled over took up position around the Transvalia manor house near the Benedendorpsweg at Oosterbeek. From the early morning onwards Driel was under heavy German machine-gun fire. The Polish field hospital was also hit, hence there were casualties among those already wounded and the medical personel.

In the course of  22nd  September the Poles fought off some German attacks. In the afternoon some tanks and infantry approached. These were XXX Corps of General Horrocks. Contrary to the tanks protected by the Poles, the armoured cars took part in the defence of Driel.

On 23rd September, the Brigade’s Holiday, the defence of  Driel was continued. The Chief-of-staff of the Polish Brigade succeeded in reaching the 130th  Infantry Brigade’s Headquarters – part of 43rd Wessex Division – at Homoet. There he had been promised 18 boats in order to cross the Rhine and sufficient firing support for the protection while crossing. At 16:45 hrs. the rest of the brigade was dropped near Grave. These were the 564 Poles who had had to return to England 2 days earlier. The following evening they arrived at Driel. During the dropping 20 paras received slight up to severe injuries.

After midnight 14 boats were delivered to the brigade, however, without any engineers. As promised, the British artillery fired upon the Germans, but with little result.

During the night the rest of the 3rd Battalion and other units were taken across. In all 153 men reached the 1st British Airborne Division. They were brought into action about 600 metres south of the Hartenstein. The next day the Poles moved towards the Stationsweg. Up to and including 23rd September the brigade had to mourn the loss of 11 soldiers killed in action and 59 wounded soldiers.

On Sunday morning 24th September, Lieutenant-General Horrocks came to Driel. He  discussed the situation with Sosabowski. The 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade was placed under the command of  Major-General Ivor Thomas, Commander of  the 43rd Infantry Division. Later that day at Valburg it was decided to cross the river that same night with the 4th Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment, part of the 130th British Infantry Brigade and the remainder of the Polish Parachute Brigade.

At 21:00 hrs. the battalions moved towards the banks of the river. During the night, now and again, new boats arrived. Finally, around 02:00 hrs. some 15 FB3 assault boats had been delivered plus 4 rowers and 12 ferrymen. The crossing finally started at midnight. First the Dorset Battalion crossed the river. They were to occupy the strategic Westerbouwing bluff. Many of them drawned. Just over 50% of the men reached the other side. The aimed target, the Westerbouwing, could not be captured. In the meantime most boats had sunk. The crossing of the Poles had then to be cancelled for lack of boats. That day 2 Polish soldiers died and 10 got wounded.

The German bombardment continued the whole day and night of  25 – 26 September. At Oosterbeek in the meantime Polish paratroopers fought shoulder to shoulder with their British comrades against the advancing Germans. The Polish artillerists lost their last anti-tank guns and continued fighting as infantrists. The Poles at Driel were also under German fire that same day.

Around midday the staff of the Polish brigade was informed about the planned evacuation of men of the 1st Airborne Division during the night to come.

Under cover of a heavy artillery bombardment of  the XXX Corps the soldiers started to withdraw towards the river. Part of the Poles reached the Rhine banks but the Poles of the 8th  Company had not been warned by the British and were taken prisoner by the Germans.

The crossing had to be stopped at 06:00 hrs. Only 20% of the British Airborne Division could be taken across the river to the southern bank.  Twenty-eight Polish soldiers died, 45 got injured. About 120 Polish soldiers were taken prisoner by the Germans.

Because of heavy German artillery fire the exodus of the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade from Driel towards Nijmegen started on Tuesday morning 26th September at approx. 09:00 hrs. By trucks the brigade was transported to the surroundings of Neerloon-Ravenstein-Herpen, approx. 25 km. south of Nijmegen. The brigade was ordered to guard and, if necessary, to defend the airfield and the bridges in this area. During the last days of fighting some 15 soldiers were killed in action and 25 got wounded.

The brigade sticked to this post till 6th October. Then the brigade was transferred to a British basis and left Ostende by ship to the British port Tilbury on 10 and 11 October.

During the battle in the Netherlands the losses amounted to 97 Poles killed in action or died because of their injuries, 218 got wounded and 120 found to be missing (some of the latter group had never been found, others had been taken POW). All together that amounted to 23% of the Brigade’s original strength.

The contribution of the Poles to the battle as a part of the 1st  British Airborne Division was as follows. Units of anti-tank guns had been involved in the Battle of Arnhem and they also took active part in the Oosterbeek sector. Numerous German units were withdrawn from other scenes of battle. The Poles covered the retreat of the remnants of the British Airborne Division.

Under British pressure Major-General Sosabowski was dismissed as commander of the brigade on 9th December 1944. The British army leadership could not stomach that Sosabowski dared to critisize  some wrong decisions of the British during the operation ‘Market Garden’. From then Lieutenant-Colonel Stanisław Jachnik, then Colonel Jan Kamiński and finally Lieutenant-Colonel Antoni Szczerbo-Rawicz were in command.

Since May 1945 the1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade had been part of the British occupying forces in Germany. On 19th May 1947 the brigade was dissolved. The brigade’s standard, together with another 26 standards of Polish units, had been housed in the General W1. Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum in London.