|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|
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)
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!