1st Polish Armoured Division
Original Polish text written by Basia Brzezińska
Jan Brzeski was born in Rytro on January 10, 1923. His grandfather had fought in the January Uprising, and his father was the founder and president of the Rifle Association in Rytro. Jan attended the local seven-year primary school.
THE SECOND WORLD WAR
When World War II broke out, 16-year-old Jan had been a member of the scouting team of the Polish Scouting Association for years. His first task was to observe enemy planes appearing over Rytro. He then received an order to evacuate to Lwow but, encountering a German patrol, he returned to Rytro, walking 160 km.
Inspired by his older brother Wincenty, he decided to go to the West with him to join the Polish army organized by General Sikorski in France. In February 1940, in the freezing cold, through snow-covered Beskid Sądecki and Slovakia, they reached Hungary on foot. There, Jan and Wincenty found themselves under the care of the Red Cross. Their next stopover was Yugoslavia. From Split, a Polish ship took the Brzeski brothers to Marseille with several dozen compatriots.
The loud singing of the Marseillaise during the mooring of the ship and the meeting with the French military representatives was the achievement of their goal after so many hardships. These were events that were indescribable and remained in their memory for life. At the Marseille-Carpiague camp, he was given ID number 1414 and was assigned to the 9th Motorized Heavy Machine Gun Regiment C.K.M.
In May 1940, the German front moved quickly, breaking French resistance. Jan, being the youngest member, was given the regimental banner. At one point, when it was necessary to leave the quarters quickly, he left the banner behind the rafters of the French cottage where they had spent the night. It is possible that it remains there unnoticed to this day.
Jan and his unit evacuated across the English Channel to Liverpool. He ended up in a military camp in Scotland, where he joined his brother Wincenty once again. In order to be able to fight side by side with him, he asked to be transferred to the 14th Jazłowiec Lancers Regiment.
The next year and a half, until mid-1942, they spent in eastern Scotland, in the port of Dundee on the North Sea. There, Polish soldiers fortified the waterfront, built bunkers, and patrolled the coast. Jan was trained in the operation of motor vehicles.
In February 1942, General Maczek received an order from the Commander-in-Chief appointing him commander of the 10th Armoured Division. The 14th Cavalry Regiment was included in the armoured division. The first serious training for the positions of future drivers and mechanics took place on cars and old Covenanter tanks. Over time, tanks of a newer type, the Crusaders, were delivered. These were light and manoeuvrable, suitable for quick maneuvers in the field.
On the training grounds of southern England, the Poles practised with the British, Canadians and French. Cooperation with various units increased their combat efficiency. After the training came the delivery of new tanks - American Shermans. Jan recalls that the hardest work at that time was cleaning all the elements of the tank from a thick layer of protective varnish used for sea transport. Jan was assigned to a tank squadron as a driver. The crew of the Sherman tank consisted of five people: the commander, the turret gunner, two drivers and the radio operator, who was also the ammunition man.
BATTLE OF FALAISE
On June 6, the invasion, called Operation Overlord, was launched. The 1st Polish Armoured Division was assigned to the second echelon. The desire to meet the enemy to settle scores with him was irresistible. They were fully prepared in terms of equipment and armament.
The countless number of ships sailing in proper formation and the warships guarding their safety created a scene full of war horror. They safely reached the shores of Normandy on July 3 or 4, 1944.
885 officers, 15,210 non-commissioned officers and soldiers, 381 tanks, 473 guns and 5,060 motor vehicles of various purposes of the Division became part of the 2nd Canadian Corps. On August 5, this Corps was given the task of attacking the rear of the German 7th Army. Their attack came off with the great support of the British Air Force and a great deal of artillery.
The 2nd Regiment moved on. General Maczek rushed straight through the German lines, with lit lanterns, not caring about masking his movement at all. The confusion was indescribable. On August 19, the full German retreat began. The 2nd Armoured Regiment made a stand and their bullets were tearing the Germans apart.
The fighting was hard and persistent, and on August 20 it was successful. As General Montgomery put it, "The Germans were like in a bottle, and the Polish division was the cork with which we closed them."
This battle is known as the Battle of Falaise, and the bloody fight for hill 262, Mont Ormel, called "Maczuga", is especially remembered by Poles. The British media reported that of the battles in Normandy, no other battlefield had presented such a picture of hell, destruction and death as the one that stretches north of Chambois.
In order to reach Falaise after the battle, huge bulldozers had to pave the way, removing the wrecks of German Tigers, Panthers, Ferdinands, Shermans and Cromwells. After the Battle of Falaise, the 1st Polish Armoured Division, as an independent column, began to pursue the German troops. Within 9 days, it covered a distance of 400 km, fighting numerous battles with the retreating enemy and taking over more cities.
At all crossroads of the combat route there were signs “Priority for Poles. Jan participated in the liberation of Breda. There he lost a tank after driving down a pit lined with anti-tank mines. However, the crew was not seriously injured. They initially felt a terrible rumble and shock. They were splashed with something hot. It was oil from the gearbox that separated the front gunner from the driver. The explosion was so strong that the bolts holding the gunner's seat were ripped off. They were very lucky. They were badly battered, but no one died. Jan had blisters on both legs and felt severe pain for a long time.
Jan spent a lot of time among the local Dutch population. In his memoirs, he emphasizes the hunger that was hard on the Dutch, and above all, the great cordiality and help that the Poles found there. The City Council of Breda granted honorary citizenship to the entire Division headed by General Maczek.
When the Division entered Breda, the inhabitants were overcome with a frenzy of joy. All the houses were decorated with Polish flags, and often the houses had the words "Thank you, Poles" in Polish.
In the spring of 1945, the Division moved towards the Rhine. Jan covered the infantry and sappers who were building crossings for troops heading towards the port city of Wilhelmshaven.
The 1st Polish Armoured Division, with the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and the 4th Canadian Armoured Division, were tasked with capturing this German naval base.
The fighting was very hard and lasted several days. The attack was carried out in difficult terrain with numerous depressions, canals, rivers, and floodplains. Preparations for the final assault on the outer ring of the city's fortifications were interrupted by the news of the fall of Berlin.
The defenders of Wilhelmshaven surrendered, and the capitulation of the fortress was accepted by Colonel Grudziński. Two admirals, one general, 1,900 officers and 32,000 soldiers were taken prisoner. Three cruisers, eighteen submarines, twenty other units, 94 fortress guns, 159 field guns, 560 heavy machine guns, 40,000 rifles, 280,000 artillery shells, 64 million rounds of small arms ammunition, stockpiles of mines and torpedoes, and food supplies for 50,000 people for 3 months.
After the end of hostilities, Jan and his platoon were delegated to a town near Oldenburg to perform guard and patrol duties in the occupied territories in the English zone. He was then transferred to Essen. There, his platoon handed over combat equipment, dealt with internal service at the base, supplies, food delivery and patrol duty. The next stop was Hanover and guard service in the POW camp for German officers taken prisoner.
BACK TO POLAND
In 1947, together with his brother Wincenty, Jan decided to return to Poland. Their father had encouraged them to do so. In retrospect, Jan did not view this decision positively. It was a mistake. He had not taken note of the political situation in the country, did not realize what consequences would result from it and how they would be treated by the communist regime.
On reaching the railway station in Rytro, Wincenty and Jan looked out through the open door of the freight car. The whole family was standing and waving at them. Brothers Józek and Antek ran to help them unload. There was a great welcome at home and a lot of joy that God had allowed them all to meet after all their war experiences. Unfortunately, their father had already been arrested. Jan started his first job as a truck driver at the construction of a dam in Rożnów. However, after the intervention of the Security Service, he was quickly dismissed as a socially insecure element.
After all, he had spent several years in the west under the capitalist system, so he could, for example, blow up this strategically important object, as suggested by the people's authorities. After the war, soldiers fighting in the west were persecuted by the communist authorities in Poland. They were considered spies, they had problems finding employment. They were often interrogated and imprisoned by the Security Services. This also happened to Jan.
In recent years, Capt. Jan Brzeski often visited his relatives in Belgium. Jan still actively participates in the celebrations on the trail of glory of the 1st Polish Armoured Division in Poland, Belgium, France and the Netherlands. He also meets with young people, telling them the history of the Polish army.
For his combat achievements he was awarded many Polish, Allied and veterans' medals. Two years ago he was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta. He also received the Badge of Honour of the 80th Anniversary of the 1st Polish Armoured Division.