Praetorium Honoris

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Hill 262

The Falaise Pocket as seen from Hill 262

Kowalski was looking out over the valley, he imagined that it was a very pretty place in normal times. These were not normal times, now there were columns of smoke from burning vehicles rising into the summer sky. The roads and fields were also choked with dead people and dead animals. He dragged on his cigarette again, a bad habit he had acquired only recently. It helped with the stench, which was unavoidable. In later years pilots flying high above the battlefield would remark upon the smell. The smell of death.

Exhausted Polish soldiers of the 2nd Polish Armoured Regiment

Kowalski was sitting on an empty ammo crate and staring at a knocked out German halftrack in front of him, near the crest of Hill 262. His tank had knocked out this very same halftrack and killed the infantrymen riding in it. It had been a damned hard fight, the Germans were desperate to escape from the trap into which the Amis and Tommies had pushed them. The 1st Polish Armoured Division was the "cork in the bottle" as Field Marshal Montgomery had put it.

Of course the problem is that the cork didn't really seal that "bottle," the Germans were moving Heaven and Earth to get their remaining forces over the ridges near Mont-Ormel. The Americans held Chambois and had been ordered to halt there, rather than collide with the advancing First Canadian Army, to which Kowalski's division was attached.

His regiment was in Battle Group Zgorzelski, which consisted of his own 1st Polish Armoured Regiment, the 9th Infantry Battalion, and a company of anti-tank guns. The terrain was rough - narrow winding rows with steep embankments heading up into the hills near Coudehard.

Situation on 19 August

After they had seized that town, they sent the infantry up the hill, to take the high ground, from there they could see the Germans, being pounded by air and artillery, as they advanced like mad men, trying to break through. The infantry were hard pressed, so the tanks climbed the hills to take the Germans in the rear and support the infantry.

Then everything went straight to Hell.

Situation on 20 August

The remnants of six Panzer Divisions hit the advancing forces. The Canadians had a unit cut off in St Lambert-sur-Dive, parts of Kowalski's regiment were cut off in Coudehard and most of two Polish battle groups were surrounded on Hill 262 north. The Germans were attacking with the frenzy of desperation. The Poles had elements of two SS Panzer Divisions, the 9th SS "Hohenstauffen" and 2nd SS "Das Reich," in their rear.

As night fell, the fighting got even more desperate.

Looking west from Mont-Ormel

At one point Kowalski's tank was separated from the rest of the squadron. Alone, they were down to only a few rounds for the main gun and maybe fifty rounds for the tank's two machine guns.

"If worse comes to worse boys, we'll dismount and fight the Nazis with our personal weapons. Hell, we'll throw rocks at the bastards. The Hun bastards need to be taught again how hard a Pole can fight." Sierzant Jasinski was only half joking, his blood was up.

With practically their last round, they'd destroyed a halftrack which had come tearing up the track, all guns blazing. A single round from the main gun had stopped the vehicle cold. As the infantry and crew bailed out of their vehicle, Kowalski's machine gun and the coaxial gun had ripped them to pieces.

They had stayed in their tank all night. The moans of the German wounded had faded to nothing by sunrise. With that, the battle was over. The last Germans had either died under Polish guns or had managed to slip away further to the south where the Polish guns could not reach.

When the fighting had moved on, when there were no targets left to engage, and no ammunition to engage them with anyway, the crew of Jasinski's tank dismounted. They were exhausted from two days of fighting around Hill 262.

Kowalski had lit a cigarette and wandered down to look at the destroyed German halftrack. Then he noticed something about one of the dead men around the vehicle. The man's face was untouched. Kowalski recognized him.

He sat down hard on a nearby discarded ammunition crate. When his cigarette was finished, he lit another. As he stared at the dead German, his tank commander came up to him and put a hand on his shoulder.

"You fought well Kowalski, I'm glad you're in my tank. But tell me son, what is so interesting about that dead German? You've been staring at him for quite some time now."

"I think I know him," was all Kowalski could say.

"Know him, how do you know a German soldier? Are you sure..." Jasinski broke off.

"I get it now. You were one of the guys who got swept up into the German Army in 1943, weren't you?"

"Yes, I was with them for over a year. I fought with them on the beaches in Normandy until the Yanks captured me. Are you going to turn me in?"

"No laddie boy. Many Poles did whatever they could to get to the West after the country was overrun by the Nazis and the Communists. Kapral Wiśniewski was actually in their Navy for a while. When his Schnellboot was sunk in the Channel, the Tommies fished him out of the water and turned him in to our government in London. He convinced them to let him enlist in the Polish forces in exile. You're not alone in your story."

Kowalski simply nodded, he was glad Jasinski understood, he liked these men and wanted to stay with them. But he continued to stare at the dead German.

"Go, check the man's identity disk, just so you'll be sure," Jasinski prodded him.

So Kowalski went over to the body, the face sure looked like the man he'd known in his platoon on D-Day. He had been in a different defensive position so he had no way of knowing what had happened to him.

Rather than check the man's identity disk, he pulled the man's paybook from the left breast pocket of his tunic and opened it. The photo matched the dead man, and there was his name, "Willi Georg Schreiber." Yup, he knew the man.

Kowalski muttered, "I guess his war is over. Mine is just beginning."

"Godspeed Willi, you were a good man, for a German. Let's go Sierzant, there is nothing for me here."

With that the crew mounted up and moments later the big Sherman rumbled back to their designated rally point.

The Falaise pocket was considered closed by the evening of 21 August. Tanks of the Canadian 4th Armoured Division had linked up with the Polish forces in Coudehard, and the Canadian 3rd and 4th Infantry Divisions had fully secured St. Lambert and the northern passage to Chambois. Both Reynolds and McGilvray place the Polish losses on the Maczuga (Polish:bludgeon club cudgel) at 351 killed and wounded and 11 tanks lost, although Jarymowycz gives higher figures of 325 killed, 1,002 wounded, and 114 missing—approximately 20% of the division's combat strength. For the entire operation to close the Falaise pocket, Copp quotes from the 1st Polish Armoured Division's operational report, citing 1,441 casualties including 466 killed in action. McGilvray estimates the German losses in their assaults on the ridge as around 500 dead with a further 1,000 taken prisoner, most of these from the 12th SS Panzer Division. He also records "scores" of Tiger, Panther and Panzer IV tanks destroyed, as well as a significant quantity of artillery pieces. (Source)

Author's Note:

The war isn't over, we'll rejoin Sergeants Brandt, Wallace, and Fitzhugh soon. Their units played their roles in driving the Germans into the Falaise "Cauldron," but their parts in the Battle of Normandy have ended.

On to Paris!


  1. Good choice on the maps to illustrate how the breakout progressed, Poles were really hammered. Losing 20% of COMBAT strength......not like there was a ready supply line able to provide replacements like the Brits or Yanks had. Looking forward to these postings Sarge, thumbs up!

  2. History books like to show neat front lines of troops but in reality often units are intermingled friend with foe, as shown on map above... Poles were well supported by corps heavy artillery fires on call by radio. Germans threw their best SS units still available to dislodge them from hill 262, but failed.
    This was probably biggest victory of Polish army in the war, the importance of sealing Falaise pocket dwarfing even taking Monte Cassiono and opening road to Rome...
    I can only imagine those men grimly exacting their revenge on occupiers of their fatherland, especially with news of Warsaw uprising and German atrocities there...
    French would have their uprising in Paris quickly releived and having happy ending. Warsaw, not so...

    1. Poland's history is replete with tales of unbelievable heroism and bitter defeats. WWII saw both.

      I'm glad to have the Poles on the side of freedom.

    2. The more I learn about the Poles, the more I am furious at my world history teachers for constantly denigrating them. Most all of my world history teachers, from public school to college, until, at a community college, one teacher opened my eyes and un-sheepified me.

      The bad teachers always point out the Pole's political system pre-war. Not telling us that Poland spent many years previous not existing as a country, then existing as a country, then not existing.

      And they always focus on the Polish Airborne in Marketgarden as 'Look how stupid the Poles are' but don't focus on Montgomery's over-reaching plan. Or the fighting spirit of the Poles, who lifted the Siege of Vienna, held back the Germans during their invasion in 1939 (almost stopping it several times) and getting shafted by the Soviets during their invasion (and the followup Katyn Forest massacres) and all the uprisings in various Polish towns against the Germans, and the shoddy way the Poles were treated by the Soviets during the Cold War.

      Seriously, to survive all they did, the hearts of the Poles must be 10 times larger than normal men.

    3. Agreed Beans. A proud and noble history. There are not a lot of countries I want visit anymore, but Poland is on the list.

  3. I was struck with a thought that I've seen this before, this battle. Just like it. Race to the hill, race to take it, to hold it, because he who controls the hill controls the destiny of the battle. And waves of enemy troops thrown furiously upon it trying to dislodge the defenders. And the defenders shooting to their last shot, almost losing but managing to hold. And the enemy slipping away after a shattering defeat.

    Then it hit me.

    Gettysburg. The fight around Little and Big Round Top.

    History really does repeat itself. Same horrifying casualties to the attacker. The Defender whittled down. Defending units out of place, not able to achieve their objectives. The Enemy melting away.


    Interesting that the plans for the English just stopped. The Poles carried out their part, but the rest of the Commonwealth armies got stopped hard. Which reminds me of 'The Lost Battalion' of the US 77th Division in the Argonne, where, yes, again, the troops sent to take a hill are supposed to be supported by other troops (in this case French) who don't achieve the same success, leaving the forlorn hope alone and deep in German country.

    Which reminds me of the old adage "No plan survives contact with the enemy" and the other one that roughly states "The enemy has a say-so in the battle" or something like that.

    Again, excellent job of capturing the emotional feel of the battle.

    1. There are some accusations about the British getting a case of the slows. Given the casualties they had taken so far, and the dearth of available replacements, I now understand their caution. Most just want to pile on to Montgomery without regards to facts or circumstances.

      Battles for the high ground tend to be rather vicious, don't they?

      Wasn't their a hill involved in 1066 at Hastings? (Yes, that's rhetorical.)

    2. Just a small one. Practically a model.

      But for once the hill-top defenders lost. And rightly so!

    3. They were outfoxed by a superior tactician!

  4. You really should consider a second career as a history teacher...just saying...

    1. He wouldn't be allowed by most systems to teach.

      Now, an online high school or something, where the politics aren't nearly as leftish...

    2. Suz - That was always a dream of mine. Depends very much on the school about what one is "allowed" to teach. But the standard of teaching history has always been somewhat shaky. I was reduced to screaming rage in junior high school over a history teacher who insisted on referring to the Japanese as "Japs." When I was sent to the principal's office, he got me calmed down and later chastised that particular teacher. Who was not good at her job at all. The principal was a WWII veteran, flew B-24s as I recall. Good man that.

    3. Beans - It depends a lot on the state. Some are so far left that the kids grow up thinking Guevara was a hero, and not a brutal, murderous, scum-bag Communist piece of filth. IMHO.

      Some states aren't as bad, but a lot of them seem to be sliding left, which is why public schools have such a bad reputation.

  5. This is his way of teaching history. A most excellent skill, desperately needed for today's ignorant youth (and their parents).
    Community/Junior colleges may be a vehicle for your skills.
    John Blackshoe

    1. It's something to consider, should I decide to have a third career!

  6. I guess the Poles were in a unique position. Perhaps some free French to who might’ve been in a German unit.

    To find one of your former comrades that you maybe even had to kill.

    Not all German soldiers were fanatical Nazis.

    I had a good friend in Germany who was my photography mentor. He ran the army photo lab and allowed us to use the Leitz enlargers.

    He was drafted in 1939 and talked about marching into Paris.

    He was then sent to Norway at Narvik.

    And he then went to the Eastern front

    He never would tell me why but he ended up in a Soviet Gulag for 10 years.

    The only reason he stayed alive he was that he was a diesel mechanic and of some use to the Russians

    90% of the Germans in those gulags never came back.

    I suspect he was at Stalingrad.

    I was thinking about the French and maybe you have some thoughts on this?

    The French who were in SS units were volunteers whereas most of the Poles in Wehrmacht positions were there involuntarily.

    1. A lot of German troops spent long stretches of time in the gulags, many until 1955, ten years after the war was over. Why? They invaded the Soviet Union, they murdered hundreds of thousands of people. Not all of them did, of course not, but the Russians didn't care. To them the Germans were all Nazis and were all guilty.

      More than a few of the French sympathized with the Nazis, there were a lot of extreme right-wingers in French politics before the war.

      Remember, all draftees are there involuntarily. Many of them people in Alsace and Lorraine were considered to be German by the Germans, and French by the French. Europeans used to be very tribal in their loyalties. In some ways they still are.

    2. I remember visiting Strasbourg when I was in the army. Strasbourg was only maybe an hours local train ride? And it was a fascinating place.

      So much architecture you would consider German and two distinct white faces there. The more pale Nordic and the darker Mediterranean

      I realize I am appearing sympathetic to all those Germans who were imprisoned but a visit to Russia in 1992 was an eye-opener

      In every major city there is a very large cemetery dedicated to the “great patriotic war”

      And outside Leningrad you see all of these magnificent palaces that the Nazis burned to the ground when they left.

      I always thought that the communists wanted to forgo their past but in the 50s they taught all of these craftsman the ways of the 16th century and rebuilt these Palaces.

      There’s a mass cemetery outside Leningrad/St. Petersburg that has hundreds of thousands of people in it

      Of course there are those like my friend Willy who were trapped between the Nazis and the communists

    3. A great many Germans were caught between the Nazis and the Communists, many paid an awful price for the sins of others.

  7. I know I've said it before, but I like your story and the way you write it.
    For a good history curriculum, wee Hillsdale College and the courses on line by Victor Davis Hanson...
    Wonder how much the war in Europe would have been shortened if the Falaise Gap had been completely closed off?

    1. For example Market Garden could have succeeded without pair of SS Pz-Div doing R&R at Arnhem...

    2. Tom - The "what ifs" of history, a favorite topic of mine for late night musing.

    3. Paweł - Yup, the 9th and 10th SS were in that pocket, they lost their vehicles but had a sold cadre to rebuild on. Closing the pocket might have had a ripple effect at Arnhem. Then again, without all the personnel they lost, we might have been over the Rhine without the need for Market Garden. I find the "what ifs" endlessly fascinating.

  8. Many of the neighbourhoods and even families in border regions like Silesia, sudetenland or Alsace-Lorraine were much intertwined between Germans and neighbouring nations. German tended to consider them "german by default" increasingly so as war went on and manpower demands were growing...
    Waffen-SS recruited heavily in Western Europe, hoping to create sort of anti-cimmunist international. Entire divisions were created, like Wiking and Charlemagne (last one was involved in final stand in Berlin...)
    Germans never offered that chance to Slavic populations, though they recruited some Caucasus tribesmen and Tartars for irregular units.
    Regarding the high ground, it has become kinda memetic since Star Wars ROTS, but great many battles hinged on the well-timed taking of those. Reno and Benteen managed to do so at Little Bighorn as opposed to Custer who seemingly kept charging downhill until surrounded... Oh and as someone mentioned earlier, Gettysburg is classic example.
    Soviets took great pride in artistic hertiage of Russia, and took pains to rebuild whatever Germans torched. Plus the palaces of Tzars were kept to remind people of the ruling class living in luxury off toil of the workers and peasants...
    Poland after the war similarily took pains to rebuild entire Warsaw from scratch, after it was demolished worse than Hiroshima.
    I was history major when studying, but never finished the studies. Figured out I would end up teaching kids and that was not my cup of tea, being introvert and all...

    1. Yup, German by default is a good way to put it. Also many European countries had Fascist parties, not just Germany and Italy. Leon Degrelle and the Rexists in Belgium are a good example. Degrelle was a die hard Nazi and continued to voice his support of Hitler long after the war, he lived in Spain.

      The high ground has provided certain advantages in warfare for millennia.

      Warsaw was a complete ruin at the end of the war, lots of people have no idea. Rebuilding it shows the spirit of the Polish people, you guys might go down, but you never surrender!


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