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Polish Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade:


Samodzielna Brygada Strzelców Karpackich – SBSK



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Formation and Development

On 12 April 1940, The Polish Independent Carpathian Brigade (Samodzielna Brygada Strzelców Karpackich, SBSK) was officially formed at Homs, in French Syria, with Colonel (later General) Kopański in command.  The unit was comprised of either exiled Polish troops or Free Polish citizens who had escaped prior to or after the fall of Poland in 1939.  

The unit, initially, formed part of French Army of the Levant (Armée du Levant), prior to the French capitulation, and was trained for mountain warfare.  It operated as a French mountain infantry brigade, with 2 infantry regiments (2 battalions each), artillery regiment, reconnaissance regiment (mounted and motorized), signals, engineers and a staff. Despite new recruits arriving daily - from Poland on an epic trail through through Romania, Hungary, Greece and Yugoslavia, the brigade never reached the planned French establishment of over 7000.  After the French capitulation, the commander of the Armée du Levant, General Eugène Mittelhauser, sided with the Vichy government and all Poles were ordered by General Sikorski to maintain the fight against Germany by leaving French territory. On 30 June 1940 the Brigade marched to Palestine, to join the British forces.

Based at Latrun, the Brigade now comprised 319 officers and 3437 soldiers and was re-equipped and re-trained by the British. In October 1940 it was moved to Egypt, where it undertook garrison duties. Amongst other tasks it guarded POW camps and prepared the fortifications at Alexandria. Now fully organised as a British motorized infantry brigade, on 12 January 1941, it was renamed as a Polish Independent Brigade Group.  However, as Poland was still formally at peace with Italy, it could not conduct combat operations – the Brigade was forced to wait for any enemy, which duly arrived in the shape of Rommel’s Afrika Korps.

With the arrival of the Afrika Korps in February 1941, the Brigade was finally capable of combat against a legitimate enemy.  The Brigade was keen to be committed to action and was moved to the front near the fort of Mersa Matruh and then to Sidi Baggush. However, after just over a month of limited operations, it was again withdrawn to the El Amiriya camp near Alexandria.   


The siege of Tobruk by a joint German/Italian force started on 11-th April 1941.  Australian forces (6 Div) under Gen Mackay, having captured Tobruk in January,  were in control of the “Fortress” and defensive screens (“red” & “blue” lines) around the town; the Fortress was built after the World War I by the Italians, but the improvised "red line" - a 50 km long barbed wire perimeter and machine-guns nests situated in concrete or rocky shelters and the second circle of defence, the "blue line"  was situated 3-4 km inside the "red line" with four forts: Parrone, Arienti, Solaro, Pilastrino, were key to the defence.  The perimeter was section into 3: west, south and east – each defended by a brigade formation with artillery support.  The defence of the western sector, was made more difficult by the loss of Medauar Hill (Hill 209 – on 30 Apr) which dominated the terrain and allowed artillery observation.  The Australian forces (9 Div Gen Morshead_ had made a good show of the defence of Tobruk – establishing strong defensive positions.  It remained a thorn in the Afrika Korps side, quite literally – being behind its lines and tying up considerable assets which could have been committed to the advance on Alexandria.

Australian troops continued to hold Tobruk through mid-1941, however the desire to have all Australian troops in North Africa under a single command prompted their withdrawal from the Tobruk Garrison in August.  They were to be replaced by a joint British/Polish/Czech force, under Gen Scobie (70 Div). The 18th August 1941 saw the first naval convoy, with the Carpathian Brigade's units, leave for besieged Tobruk. Transported in seven convoys, between 21 August and 28 August, the Brigade initially took over the southern sector, then seen as the most easily defensible – with many pre-prepared positions.

The Bde were opposite the Italian Armoured Division "Pavia" – and made continual sorties into Italian held areas.  These aggressive patrols –  many commanded by the well known intellectual and patriot, Adolf Bocheński, from the 2nd Battalion  – disrupted Italian communications and derived essential operational intelligence on Italian capability.  Difficulties with the naval evacuation of Australian forces saw elements of 9 Divs HQ, 2/13 and ½ of 2/15 Aus Inf Bn (under Col Burrows) effectively stranded in Tobruk, usefully they were attached to the Carpathian Bde– providing necessary local knowledge of the defences.

In October, however, the entire Bde (along with the Czechs – under Col Klapalek) was moved to the more dangerous westernmost perimeter – covering the 20km  “Gap” in the defences, opposite the strategic Ras El-Medauar, White Knoll and Twin Pimples positions – held by Italian and German forces.   Here the defensive line was more difficult, with only shallow slit trenches, under constant observation from the enemy.  Food and water could only be brought up under cover of darkness, and the lack of overhead cover made the heat intolerable.  The Bde were not only fighting an enemy they could see – enemy lines were in some cases only 200m away – but the elements as well. 

The Bde stayed 10 weeks in the “Gap”, again conducting aggressive patrolling (taking a number of prisoners) and small scale assaults.  Across this period nearly 40 members of the Bde were killed in action – it’s first significant losses, but, 2nd Lts Witkowski (Lancers) and Zgoła distinguished themselves in several night actions gathering vital intelligence on enemy defences.  The toll taken was difficult but morale within the Bde was improved massively by the visit of Gen Władysław Sikorski, commander of the Polish Forces.  He arrived aboard the British Destroyer – HMS Kipling – on 13/14th Nov and spent 36 hours with the Bde at Tobruk.  He visited a forward observation post of the 2nd Battalion at "the Gap" and paid his respects to the fallen at the field Cemetery within the Bde area. Before leaving he presented members of the Bde with gallantry medals won in the Siege and confirmed the promotions of others. The General’s visit, placing himself in considerable danger (behind enemy lines), meant so much, to the hard pressed men at the “Gap”.


In June Gen Wavell had launched the unsuccessful Operation Battleaxe - a land offensive intended to push the German/Italian line back and relieve Tobruk. The failure of Battleaxe led to the replacement of Wavell as C-in-C Middle East Command by General Claude Auchinleck. The Western Desert Force was reinforced and re-organised to form a two corps army designated the Eighth Army and commanded by Lieutenant-General Alan Cunningham. Auchinleck then launched a further major offensive, Operation Crusader, on 18 November.

At Tobruk  - on 20/21 Nov the Carpathian Bde launched a feint designed to allow British 70 Div to break out toward the advancing 30 Corps and disrupt the enemy rear.  The Bde attacked along the Derna Road and launched  an artillery strike on Ras El-Medauar.   70 Div were able to effectively destroy the Italian “Bologna” Div, but the German 21 Pz Div quickly stopped their advance.

Rommel achieved a number of early tactical success’ during the course of the battle.  His major armoured counterattack at Sidi Rezegh on 21 Nov nearly unhinged the entire operation – British 7 Armoured Division were roundly defeated.  After significant maneuvering on both sides and further tactical success by the Afrika Korps, the Germans and Italians were pushed back, but not before threatening the Egyptian border (25/6 Nov).

Attrition on both sides had come out in favour of the British and Commonwealth forces and on 25 Nov, after a further attack by 70 Div had been blunted by the Italian “Pavia” Division, the first link up the 8th Army (NZ elements of 13 Corps) was made by the Tobruk Garrison.  German forces, however, once more isolated the Tobruk Garrison and commenced an assault against the Polish positions on 26 Nov.  This was repulsed in short order, but with significant casualties on both sides – the siege continued.

The German withdrawal (toward Gazala) was observed from 7 Dec and overnight on 9 December, the Bde launched a determined assault (using the intelligence gleaned over their 10 weeks in the line) and seized Ras El-Medauar, White Knoll and the Twin Pimples positions, breaking through to the advancing British forces, after taking Acroma and a good deal of materiel and prisoners.  The Bdes defence of Tobruk was over.

 The  Carpathian Brigade’s heroic defence of Tobruk, in conjunction with their British Czech and most especially Australian comrades-in-arms – the over 100 days in the line had seen individual acts of bravery, aggressive patrolling and intelligence gathering, but not without loss, over 100 Polish soldiers had been killed in action and over 400 wounded.  The Poles, however, saw the compliment given by their Australian comrades as the most worthy – they were truly the “Rats of Tobruk” .


The Polish Independent Carpathian Brigade had expected to be given some well earned rest after the relief of Tobruk, but instead as a testament to their effectiveness in combat they were immediately attached to the XIII Corps of the Eighth Army and took part in the attack on the Gazala line.  Desperately short of transport, the Bde, which had been ordered forward, could only employ whatever it had at its disposal.  Using a mix of British, hastily repaired British and captured vehicles, the Brigade was brought forward on 14 Dec to join the New Zealanders and prepare a new attack for the early hours of 15 December. The attack went in at 03.00 taking the defenders by surprise. The two brigades made good progress and only narrowly failed to breach the line.  After consolidation of the line and renewed efforts on 16th Dec– including significant artillery attacks from the Bde’s Artillery, the Poles were able to push on and take their objectives.

The battle was over by 17th Dec – The Independent Carpathian Brigade captured 59 officers and 1634 men and large quantities of materiel: 10 heavy guns, 43 anti-tank guns, 3 anti-tank rifles, 87 heavy machine guns, 102 machine guns, 38 trucks and 12 light vehicles. An entire Italian Bersagliers Battalion, including its commander, surrendered.  Polish losses, however, totalled 25 killed in action, 94 wounded and 6 missing.

On 17 March 1942, the Brigade was withdrawn from the line, returning to El Amiriya and thence back to Palestine. There it was joined by the newly arrived Free Polish forces of General Władysław Anders recently evacuated from the USSR.  The Polish units were reformed as the 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division. The Independent Carpathian Brigade officially ceased to exist on 3 May 1942.

Throughout its existence, The Independent Carpathian Brigade lost 156 men killed in action (including 127 in the Siege of Tobruk), 467 wounded and 15 missing in action

The Independent Carpathian Brigade  - Order of Battle:

Note: after mid 1941 all Bde units were equipped with the British 25lber despite unit title.


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