General Stanislaw Sosabowski (born 6 May 1892) was the man credited with the formation and training of the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade. He had already seen action when he commanded the “21st Children of Warsaw” infantry brigade in 1939 fighting the Nazis to free Poland from this terror. The brigade was captured by the Germans in the Battle for Warsaw, and the General was taken to a temporary prisoner of war camp from where he escaped and made his way to France. This Brigade’s sole purpose was to parachute into Warsaw, at a future given date to help the Armia Krajowa (Home Army), defeat the Germans, and save Warsaw.
In June 1944 the Brigade received its Regimental Colours, a gift from the Polish Women of Warsaw, secretly made and consecrated in November 1942 in a Warsaw Polish Church.
Polish re-enactors, Living History Group 'First to Fight' ready for Arnhem
As the war progressed, the allied troops were fighting in mainland Europe, and the Brigade was briefed for three drops: the 1st drop was to be near Paris; the 2nd drop in Northern France; and then in Belgium. However, each of these three operations was cancelled at the last minute. For political and logistical reasons, the Brigade would not be permitted to help their countrymen in the Warsaw Uprising of August 1944.
The Brigade and Major General Sosabowski are widely associated with their huge role in Operation 'Market-Garden', which would prove to be one of the largest failures of WW II. The operation was cancelled more than once at the “eleventh hour” for various reasons – for example, poor weather conditions and poor communication. General Sosabowski had many disputes with allied commanders for he could foresee the problems associated with the plan. He was called belligerent, uncooperative, bad tempered, unprofessional, and he was known to be undiplomatic at times which did little to endear him to his superiors. He had an antagonistic relationship with Lieutenant General Browning because he felt that Browning was always interfering, whilst Browning did not like Sosabowski’s stubbornness.
When France fell to the Nazis in 1940, Sosabowski who was involved with an artillery training school there, was ordered to leave for England with the 4th Infantry Division. He sailed on the frigate “Abderpol” which docked in Plymouth and they were met with volunteers from the Red Cross. Shortly after their arrival in Plymouth, they boarded trains bound for Glasgow, where they were very warmly welcomed by the locals. The question was what to do with these soldiers now established in Scotland? They were left to languish, with no plan of how to deploy them and discipline as well as low morale were a huge problem. The Brigade was reinforced by volunteers from Polish army units, formed in the USSR, and evacuated through the Middle East. Other volunteers came from many other different countries.
In February 1941, 20 soldiers from Sosabowski’s troops were sent to do a four-week training course at an airborne training centre in Cheshire – The Ringway Airfield (now the site of Manchester International Airport). On completion of the course, the men were awarded a silver diving eagle qualification badge which was numbered on the reverse side and etched with the words “Tobie ojczyzno” (For you my Country). It was noticed that the men who had completed this course and returned to Scotland were totally changed – they had pride in themselves, were confident and disciplined. When he saw the changed men, Sosabowski decided to form a Polish Airborne Brigade, with the agreement of the Polish Command.
Sosabowski established his airborne training centre in Leven, on an old Scottish estate, called Largo House, and he himself took full part in the training to become a parachutist. The official designation of the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade was on 23 September 1941 and, on no account, were they to be put under British Command. The previous name for this brigade was 4th (Polish) Cadre Rifle Brigade, but General Sikorski ordered the name to be changed to that of the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade. The soldiers wore the standard British army uniform, which included the parachute helmets, to which the Poles stencilled the Polish Eagle insignia in yellow. Their Battledress jacket lapels sported dove-grey kites (in the shape of diamonds), outlined in yellow with silver parachutes. Their berets were grey, whilst the British 1st Airborne Division sported red ones.
The assault course established at Levens on the Largo House estate was nicknamed “Monkey Grove”, and part of the course equipment was a purpose-built tower, which was a copy of the version already tried and tested in Poland prior to WW II. Other allied troops received basic training here under Polish supervision.
In 1944, the Brigade numbered 3,100 men when it was eventually equipped with all the items issued to the British Parachute units. The Brigade comprised different elements, for example, infantry, gunners, Military Police, and engineers.
Sadly, the Highest Level of Command, which comprised Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin in particular, prevented the Brigade’s objective becoming a reality. They were to be part of the 1st Allied Airborne Division, with its newly-promoted commander Major General Stanislaw Sosabowski. In June 1944, it was agreed that the Brigade would carry out one allied operation following the Normandy invasion, after which they would be free to return to Poland as and when they were needed. The Brigade was placed under the command of Major General Urquhart.
The aftermath of this ill-fated operation was that British commanders needed a scapegoat to hide their own failings – the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade with Major General Sosabowski proved to be the perfect candidate. Field-Marshall Montgomery wrote to CIGS stating “the Poles fought very badly, and the men showed no keenness to fight”. He further declared “he did not want the Poles under his command” , and suggested “they should join the other Poles in Italy”.
Browning requested Sosabowski’s removal from command and, on 9 December 1944, the Polish President-in-Exile, Wladislaw Raczkiewicz, under pressure from the British, wrote to inform him he was relieved of his post. No reason was given for the dismissal. Major General Urquhart, on the other hand, expressed his admiration and thanks to the Polish Independent Parachute Brigade. In a letter, dated 2 October 1944 addressed to the Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Forces in Great Britain, he described those elements of the Brigade that had managed to cross the Rhine as “…..welcome additions to our already hard-pressed forces ….. (they) at once came into action and gave us valuable assistance”. The letter concludes by “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”.
To quote Buckingham (2004), "The scapegoating of Sosabowski and his men was a spiteful, unwarranted and unforgiveable slur on a competent and conscientious commander, whose only crime was to refuse to play the Whitehall game to Browning's satisfaction, and upon a courageous body of men, whose only failing was an inability to walk on water."
The treatment of Major General Sosabowski was considered by most Poles of the Brigade and British Airborne veterans to be a great injustice to him as they were well aware of the courage and valour of the Polish Parachute Brigade and their leader. In 1945, the Brigade became part of the Polish 1st Armoured Division and was involved in occupation duties in northern Germany until 30 June 1947 when it was disbanded. Most of the Brigade’s soldiers remained in England. The present day successor to the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade is the Polish 6th Air Assault Brigade.
400 Poles from the Brigade are remembered on a memorial in the centre of Driel, and those killed lay in a well-cared for cemetery in Oosterbeek managed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC).
In 2006, a memorial (above) adjacent to the already-mentioned memorial in Driel, and funded by the 1st British Airborne Veterans is in memory of Major General Sosabowski.
In May 2006, 61 years after WW II, the Brigade was awarded the Netherlands Military Order of William for its distinguished and outstanding acts of bravery, skill and devotion to duty during Operation Market Garden.
Major General Sosabowski remained in England after the war, and one of his occupations was that of a labourer in an electronics factory. In 1960, he published his memoirs “Freely I Served”. He died in September 1967 associated with heart problems, and is buried in Warsaw.
A Film was made about him and the Polish Independent Parachute Brigade, and had its premier at the Polish Embassy in London on 12 February 2013, entitled “A Debt of Dishonour”.
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