It was 29 October 1944 and the people of Breda were celebrating. They were finally free after suffering years of occupation under Nazi Germany. Their liberators were the soldiers from the Polish 1st Armored Division led by General Maczek. While most people know that British, American, and Canadian troops were involved in the liberation of Holland, few know that the Poles also played a major role in the last days of WWII in Holland.
- Follow in the footsteps of the Polish liberating force through Holland.
- Discover the extraordinary part that the Polish troops played in Operation Market Garden.
- Experience the special ties between Breda and its Polish saviors.
Polish liberating forces in Holland
How the Polish troops ended up in Holland is a special story. Nazi Germany’s occupation of Poland lit the fire of resistance in many Polish people who wanted to fight for freedom. Emigrant children, refugees from labor camps, escaped war prisoners, and soldiers who managed to escape after the fall of Poland were brought together to form the Polish 1st Armored Division in Great Britain in 1942. In August 1944, the troops entered the war, fought in Normandy and then advanced through Belgium to Holland. They engaged in heavy fighting during the Battle of the Scheldt and suffered great losses during the Battle of Kapelsche Veer in West Brabant around New Year’s Eve 1944. They were not the only Polish unit fighting the Germans in Holland. Their compatriots in the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade were sent into action as part of the Allied Forces’ attack on the occupying German forces during Operation Market Garden.
The liberation of Breda
The Polish 1st Armored Division liberated Breda from the German occupiers on 29 October 1944, and the people of the city welcomed the soldiers with joy. After suffering years of occupation, citizens welcomed their liberators with open arms, posting notes with the Polish translation of ‘Thank you Poles’ in the shop windows.
Breda remains grateful to the Poles to this day. Traces of the Polish forces can still be found when strolling through the city. One such example is the German Panther tank at the Wilhelminapark that was donated to the people of Breda by the Polish 1st Armored Division in 1945. It now commemorates the special relationship between Poland and Breda.
Breda was not the only city liberated by the men of the Armored Division. They advanced all the way to East Groningen via Germany, liberating several cities along the way. In Emmen and Made, monuments still stand in commemoration of the bravery of the Poles in their fight to liberate Holland.
Polish paratroopers during Market Garden
On 21 September 1944, the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade under General Stanisław Sosabowski was dropped over Driel. Their orders? To support the British 1st Airborne Division north of the Rhine.
The mission experienced its fair share of problems, especially since the Polish parachute section was delayed due to bad weather conditions. Some of the transport planes carrying 500 Polish paratroopers were turned back but some of the aircraft did not receive the message that the mission had been aborted and flew on. Even under heavy fire from German anti-aircraft guns, they managed to drop the Polish soldiers. To make matters even worse, the ferry to cross the Nederrijn near Driel had been destroyed. In the days that followed, a number of Polish troops managed to cross the river in rubber dinghies while sustaining heavy enemy fire. Those who managed to get across went to reinforce the exhausted British forces at Oosterbeek. However, the situation soon proved untenable and, in the night of 25 September, the British and Polish soldiers withdrew from Oosterbeek and crossed the Rhine.
Despite their courageous action, the Allies wrongfully accused the Polish General Sosabowski of causing Operation Market Garden’s failure. It was not until after his death that he received the recognition he so richly deserved. More than one hundred Polish soldiers died in the offensive, and the National Monument on the Polenplein in Driel commemorates those who fell. At De Polen van Driel Information Center, you can discover the whole story of the men who persevered so bravely despite the many obstacles they faced.
Holland’s biggest Polish cemetery
More than 160 soldiers from the Polish 1st Armored Division and 1st Independent Parachute Brigade were laid to rest at the Pools Militair Ereveld (Ettensebaan 30, Breda), Holland’s biggest Polish cemetery. Stanisław Maczek, the commander of the Polish Armored Brigade, also lies here. He passed away in 1994 at the age of 102, and his last wish was to be buried with ‘his’ soldiers.