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Polish 1st Armoured Division sign

The Mace ~ Closing the Falaise Gap

By Jonathan Forsey

The men of General Maczek’s 1st Polish Armoured Division wore their winged hussar helmet emblems with pride. As an army-in-exile, they burned to avenge Poland’s humiliating defeat in 1939 and use their modern British supplied equipment to exact revenge upon their foes.

The Poles were committed to the struggle in Normandy in August 1944 and had already learned of the risks in confronting the hard-pressed Germans, the 2nd Armoured Regiment suffering significant losses after throwing itself vigorously at positions held by the 12. SS-Panzerdivision near St Aignan-de Cramesnil.

The Poles were aware of the plight of the German forces trapped in a corridor between the advancing Allied armies and the opportunity that existed for the encirclement and destruction of the disorganized, but still formidable, formations hemmed in by the Allies and by Hitler’s reluctance to allow retreat of any sort. To them fell the honour of closing the gap and linking up with US forces to complete the encirclement.
Polish Shermans
Falaise Gap

1st Armoured Division was ordered to close the gap on 17 August, to set off at 2am the following morning. The 2nd Armoured Regiment carried the men of the 8th Infantry Battalion on the hulls of their Shermans, so eager to set off that they did not re-supply with fuel and ammunition. These troops converged on Chambois, via an unplanned detour to les Champeaux and a successful brush with support elements of 2. Panzerdivision. They were joined by the Cromwells of the 10th Mounted Rifle Regiment, whilst the 24th Lancer Regiment headed to Trun, still held by the Germans.

The German forces in the pocket were struggling eastward, anxious to escape the trap, with a dozen of the twenty trapped divisions still capable of some form of coherent movement, among them the 1., 10. and 12. SS-Panzer and the 2. and 116. Panzerdivisions. These forces had been pounded from the air and by artillery, but they were desperate to escape. They were aware that the Poles heading from the North and the US 90th Infantry Division heading from the south were struggling to link up.

General Maczek divided his command, sending the 1st and 2nd Armoured Regiments under colonels Stefanewicz and Koszutski respectively, the Podolian, 8th and 9th Infantry Battalions and anti-tank guns toward the high ground east of Chambois, whilst 24th Lancers and the mechanized infantry of the 10th Dragoon Regiment headed for Chambois itself. 

The Poles in Chambois, supported by the 10th Mounted Rifles, linked up with the men of the US 90th Division’s 359th Regiment. The other force, heading for the high ground, drove German defenders off the high ground, securing the prize of a long ridge that dominated the surrounding countryside. The infantry were joined by the supporting Shermans, which laboured up the steep hill sides, to take the crest.
Polish attack

Hill 262 (Mont Ormel), christened ‘Maczuga’ - “the Mace” by General Maczek for its resemblance to the ceremonial Polish weapon, afforded the Poles an excellent position on 19 August.

The position was not perfect, however. The Poles on “The Mace” amounted to 1500 infantry and 80 tanks, but were short of food, water and ammunition. Expected supply columns from the Canadian Corps, within which the Poles operated, had failed to arrive. At 1pm on 19 August German troops trapped in the pocket began flooding the road from Chambois to Vimoutiers, with more moving around the hill to the north. The Poles rapidly became cut off and surrounded, effectively isolated behind German lines.

Divisonal Command Cromwell IV tank They were not without teeth. Observers had access to their own Divisional artillery and thanks to Captain Sévigny of the 4th Medium Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery, the artillery of their parent Corps. The bunched German troops and vehicles presented a perfect target, with salvoes of heavy shells and direct fire from the Polish Shermans smashing the German forces until the smoke from burning vehicles obscured all possible targets.

Colonel Koszutski, as senior officer, instructed his men to prepare the Mace for all-round defence, holding the north face. They waited for the Americans coming up from the south, but waited in vain, as these troops had been halted at Chambois. On the morning of 20 August, the Poles had to fight off a sudden and vicious attack on the north face by tanks and panzergrenadiers.

These men came from outside the pocket, men of the 2. SS-Panzerdivision, conducting a counter-offensive as ordered by General Model on 18 August. They had not expected to find hill 262 in enemy hands. Battle raged until 10.30 am, the Poles restoring the position at great cost.

More German forces succeeded in establishing positions on the adjoining Point 239 in order to bring the crest of the Mace under direct fire. Polish efforts to drive this force off failed, with the loss of 5 Shermans. The Poles came under accurate artillery and mortar fire. Poor weather hampered Allied air operations just when the Poles needed help and left them isolated on the battlefield.  

From 12pm, German assaults from forces outside the pocket and the desperate troops trapped inside it continued without rest. Assaulting SS Grenadiers hauled their way up the steep slope, only to be thrown back by the fire of the Polish Shermans. German losses mounted, but by 7pm assaulting infantry and tanks succeeded in breaking into the north-eastern sector, driven out only when men of a mortar platoon acted as infantry and threw them back.

To the south of the position, Meindl’s tough paratroopers had succeeded in forcing the Poles back from their positions above the Vimoutiers road. They lost a battalion in the process, but allowed thousands of the trapped troops to escape, mostly on foot, including General Kurt Meyer of 12. SS-Panzerdivision and General Hausser of 7th Army.

Polish Armoured Recce Cromwells
Colonel Koszutski had been wounded during the day’s fighting and faced a grim situation, with his units having suffered 30 per cent casualties, low on ammunition and supplies. The wounded crowded every available piece of shelter on the ridge and over 800 German prisoners sat unguarded in a small field.

Fortunately for the Poles, the night passed without any assault, though these were resumed with greater fury the following morning on 21 August. The last reserve, a troop of Crusader AA tanks, used their twin 20mm cannon to devastating effect. Many remaining troops had run out of ammunition, some resorting to throwing rocks. A failed re-supply effort by US aircraft had resulted in supplies being dropped several miles away.

View into the Falaise Pocket from "The Mace" (Montormel)

Photo from: http://www.battlefieldsww2.50megs.com  

The exhausted troops faced the end, when the German assaults slackened. Sherman engines were heard and these belonged to the men of the Canadian Grenadier Guards who were soon among the defenders on the Mace, witnessing scenes of terrible carnage and the gratitude of the Polish Troops. The Poles had held and the greater part of the German troops in the Falaise pocket had been eliminated as a result.

The fury of the battle had been unusual by the standards of Normandy, the Poles losing some 325 casualties during the fighting. General Maczek could celebrate a victory for his men, but in the knowledge that the same time they had courageously fought, the men and women of the Polish Home Army who had risen in Warsaw were forced to surrender amidst the ruins of the Polish capital. The victory of the army-in-exile therefore had an added poignancy, coming as it did at a time of great loss.

Fielding the 1st Polish Armoured Division in Flames Of War...


Keegan, Six Armies in Normandy, Penguin Books 1983
Barbarski & Hadler, Polish Armour 1939-45, Osprey Vanguard 30, 1982.
Zaloga & Hook, The Polish Army 1939-45, Osprey MAA 117, 2001

Last Updated On Thursday, April 24, 2008 by Wayne at Battlefront