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Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, August 18, 2019

A Box of Polish

In August 1944 a small group of Poles were surrounded in an area just two kilometres across, cut off and running out of ammunition they were fighting to hold the Germans at bay, then the SS soldiers arrived. I am not talking of the betrayal in Warsaw, but the battle of Mont Ormel in Normandy.

As the Allied battle plan for Normandy unfolded, with the British holding the German’s attention, and grinding forwards, while the Americans swept through the weakened portion of France, the Falaise pocket began to form. As the sides of the pocket began to form the Germans began a retreat through the mouth of the pocket. The last evacuation route from the pocket was a single road that ran through a pass on the ridge line numbered Hill 262, and on past the nearby village of Mont Ormel. The points of the hill were split into 262 north and south (denoted by "n" or "s" after the hill number), with the road running between the two.  On the 19th of August the 1st Polish Armoured Division was launched across the opening of the pocket, with the aim of zipping it up and trapping the German 7th Army. They would be supported by the rest of the Commonwealth forces on the north side and the US forces approaching from the south. The initial attacks were a great success, with Polish forces penetrating all the way across the pocket and linking up with the US forces. However, the 4th Armoured Division ran into stiff resistance and was held up. The Germans were able to attack the Poles from both sides and clear the way to begin evacuating along the Mont Ormel road again. There remained one tiny thorn in the Germans side. 

Polish Sherman's driving past German POW's. Looks like a bit of an exchange is occurring between the Loader and Commander, and the POW's.
At the start of the attack a detachment was sent to capture Hill 262. It consisted of the 1st Armoured Regiment, the 9th Infantry Battalion, which was re-enforced by a battery of anti-tank guns. There were scatted groups of Germans to be rounded up, some put up a fierce fight, others collapsed immediately. This force split into three groups, two capturing the village of Coudehard and the Manor House of Boisjos, the final group wound its way up a very narrow track onto the top of Hill 262n. As the lead tanks filtered into position on 262n, they came into view of the road through the pass. After a short while two massive German columns approached from two directions, both aiming to use the pass to reach safety. The roads became crammed with a colossal traffic jam of all the Wehrmacht’s vast and varied weapons and equipment. Everything from Panther tanks to bicycles. Motor transport from across Europe were laid out below the guns of the Polish forces. A Canadian observer tank had accompanied the Polish onto the hill, and in the short lull between arriving and the German columns approaching the observer had registered his guns on the crossroads. The massed artillery and the direct fire of the Polish force annihilated the two German columns. The Canadian observer later recounted:
"Men trying to flee. Their efforts were in vain, a shell soon found them and I saw bodies flying through the air. Another shell lifted the turret from a tank; a tank nearby caught fire. Our machine-guns carried on the slaughter. Ten minutes later everything on the road was in flames. Ammunition exploded inside the vehicles, killing the occupants."

The devastation wrought by the opening ambush.
Return fire from the Germans was inaccurate and no casualties were suffered by the Polish forces, who rapidly set about expanding the German trench lines they had seized earlier into better defensive works, extending all the way around the position. It was none too soon, as realising their route out was blocked the Germans began to plaster 262n with Nebelwerfers. With dusk approaching and a massive smoke cloud from the burning German columns it was decided to await first light to attack and seize 262s.

Overnight Germans managed to surround and cut off 262n and the Polish forces. Upon learning of this, the Poles considered counterattacking but realised this would be risky, and so decided to hold on and do what they could to cut the road. While the broken ground made it possible for some Germans to escape, especially at night, the road was seriously dangerous, and utterly unusable during the day. This would severely hinder any attempts to evacuate from the pocket and would certainly prevent any equipment being evacuated. Outside of the pocket the Germans brought up re-enforcements to open the way. Starting at midday 262n was subjected to concentrated artillery bombardment from within the pocket. This was followed up by assaults at about 1400 that penetrated some 300m into the Polish lines. Bitter hand to hand fighting erupted. It took until 1900 for the Poles to restore their lines. In doing so nearly all the ammunition in the Poles position was used up.
The closeness of the fighting. Here a German Panther and Sdkfz 251 are knocked out almost on top of each other. The Sherman tank was also knocked out.
The next morning things were looking bleak. The Poles had around 110 men unwounded, and were down to around five shells per tank, and the infantry less than 50 rounds per man. Of the detachment’s officers only four were still unwounded, three Lieutenants and the Canadian Observer. There had been an attempt to resupply using aircraft, despite the terrible weather knowing the desperation the cargo planes had tried. All their efforts were for nought as the ammunition was scattered outside of the Polish box. Throughout the following morning there were several assaults, but all were fought off, using up the final drabs of the Polish ammunition.

At 1100 SS troops had infiltrated through a wooded area to the rear and were close to the units dressing station which they took under fire. At the same location was the POW cage for the Germans that had been captured over the previous days. At a range of 50 yards the Germans poured small arms fire into the position, killing around 20 of the POW's. A Pole attempted to climb a tree with a red cross flag but was shot in the hand. The fire continued despite the POW's yelling to their comrades to cease. Then the German infantry charged en-mass. The Polish defenders were literally down to sticks, stones and bayonets with not a round between them. They knew it was useless to try surrendering to the brutal killers of the SS, and so readied themselves for their final fight.
Two Polish soldiers on 262n.
Twelve streams of glowing tracers ripped out of the Polish position and tore into the SS ranks. These ploughs of light ripped through the German lines, like a finger of destruction the tracers were drawn through the German lines. In desperation, the two AA troops of the headquarters squadron had been brought up. Each troop consisted of six Crusader AA Mk.II tanks. Each tank was armed with twin 20mm Polsten guns. Each gun was fed from a 60-round drum. The ammunition load out was all HEI. The attacking SS were caught out in the open, and utterly obliterated. The rounds also set fire to the vegetation on that flank, quickly forming a roaring wall of flame.
Polish Crusader AA Mk.II's before the battle of Mont Ormel.
Shortly afterwards, at midday, the first Canadian tank reached the Polish outpost. The Canadians had been fighting bitterly for some five hours pushing forwards as fast as possible to reach the beleaguered Poles, finally the Pocket was closed.
Vehicle Collection Point after the battle of 262n.
Image credits:
ww2today.com and www.nam.ac.uk