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The 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade was formed in Leven, Scotland, on the 23rd September 1941, as The Polish Parachute Brigade.  It had been 4 (Polish) Cadre Rifle Brigade, but this was changed following a statement of requirement by Gen Sikorski, Commander-in-Chief, Free Polish Forces.  Its first Commanding Officer, was the famous (then) Col. Stanisław Sosabowski. The all-volunteer Brigade was constituted from free Polish officers and men who had escaped from Nazi-held Poland, either: through France, after having been deported to Siberia or Ukraine by the Russians and then through Turkey or Iran, or, as in some cases, as volunteers captured as former (forcibly) conscripted prisoners from the Wehrmacht. Their dedicated aim was to achieve the freedom of their country lost in 1939.

The Polish Brigade wore standard British uniforms, including the rimless parachute helmets onto which the Poles stencilled their own eagle insignia in yellow. On their battledress jacket lapel points they wore dove-grey kites (diamonds) outlined in yellow trim with silver parachutes. Their beret was again grey - in contrast to the maroon colour of the 1st British Airborne.

The Brigade remained stationed in Leven, Scotland and was Headquartered at Largo House (a stately home requisitioned by the army). An assault course nicknamed the 'Monkey Grove' (Malpy Gaj) was set up in the grounds there, with static jumps practised from a purpose built jump tower (a version of this had already been tested in Poland during the 1930s). Under Polish supervision other Allied troops also received basic parachute training, such as the French Free Forces.  Each paratrooper also had to attend a four week training course at Ringway Aerodrome (now Manchester Airport). On completing the course the silver diving eagle qualification badge was awarded, numbered on the reverse and marked – “Tobie Ojczyzno” (‘For You My Country’).

The Brigade gradually grew in strength, until in 1944, it reached 3,100 men and was equipped (eventually) with equipment matching that issued to British parachute units.  It formed up the various elements, infantry, gunners, military police, and engineers, and brigaded accordingly.  Upon formation, the primary purpose of the Brigade, under the command of the Commander in Chief of the Polish Forces in Exile, was to reinforce the eventual uprising of the Polish Underground Army (the AK) against the Germans. The operational plan was to parachute into Warsaw at precisely the right tactical moment relieving the AK and defeating the Germans.  Allied high echelon political circumstances dictated that this was not to be.  Agreements at the highest level, Churchill, Roosevelt, and more importantly, Stalin prevented the Brigade from being employed for what they had volunteered – the freeing of their beloved Poland.


Command of the Brigade was moved from the CinC of the Free Polish Forces to the (US led) 1st Allied Airborne Army in June/July 1944, and it was then fully mobilised.  This, of course, meant that the first priority was no longer Warsaw, but wherever they were directed in the North West Europe theatre of operations. The Brigade, with great sorrow,  also said goodbye to the many friends it had made in Scotland, and in July, moved to Cambridgeshire/ Lincolnshire -centring on Peterborough/Stamford areas of eastern England – closer to British 1st Airborne elements (a Headquarters was at Wansford).  After a number of aborted missions, the Brigade was finally briefed on Operation Market-Garden – a joint Airborne and ground assault to open up the gateway to Germany’s industrial heartland the Ruhr- involving 35,000 airborne troops - more than at Normandy and shorten the war by six months.

The Brigade was placed under the command of Gen R E Urquhart, the CO of the 1st British Airborne Division. The main elements of the Brigade, initially, were to land south of the Arnhem Bridge, cross it and establish defensive positions on the outskirts of the town. This element was allocated 114 Dakota aircraft. The remainder of the Brigade consisting mainly of the anti-tank battery was to land on the northern side of the Rhine together with the 1st British Airborne Division, in 45 Horsa gliders eventually making rendezvous when the town was taken.

The 17th September 1944 was D Day for Operation Market Garden and the first 10 Polish gliders landed with minimal opposition. The Polish troops joined up the 1st British Airborne Division (and fought alongside their Red Bereted comrades to the end). On September 18th the remaining 35 gliders landed but their arrival was met with strong opposition and, only 3 out of 10 six-pounder anti-tank guns remained operational. The Polish survivors again joined the 1st British Airborne Division either as replacement gunners or as infantry.

Due to bad weather in England the Brigade’s parachute lift did not take place, much to the annoyance of Gen Sosabowski, who had previously expressed his reservations about the operation to his superiors. On September 21st a message arrived from Gen. Urquhart with revised orders. The Brigade was to land at Driel, a small village south of the Rhine, cross using the ferry, and join the by now hard pressed 1st British Airborne Division on the northern bank. Accurate information about the situation at Arnhem was scarce, but it was obvious that something had gone majorly wrong.

At 04.30 on September 21st, Gen. Sosabowski received official confirmation that the ferry remained in British hands. In the afternoon of the same day, the 114 Dakotas took off from various airfields in England. The flight across was uneventful, with only one plane damaged. The mood of the paratroopers was serious, but they were happy that the waiting was over and that finally, they were to meet the Germans in combat. At 17.20 the drop took place, in sunshine and on target. Men descending by parachute immediately came under fire, from the north and from the east. Luckily, casualties were light.  However, to the great dismay of Gen. Sosabowski almost one third of the Brigade’s strength was missing!

This was subsequently explained later in the after-action reports – soon after take-off a radio message was sent to all aircraft by Air Transport Command ordering them to return to England. 41 pilots turned back. Those Polish paratroopers who had dropped moved to the river bank in preparation for the crossing. Patrols sent to find the ferry reported that there was no ferry! It had been disabled by German action.

In the evening of September 21st 1944, a summary of the situation of the Polish Brigade was as follows:

  • the main body of the Brigade remained south of the river;
  • the anti-tank battery, with various elements of other units, was already fighting alongside the 1st British Airborne Division on the northern bank;
  • about one third of the Brigade had returned to England;
  • a group with ammunition, and other vital equipment was still in the Eindhoven area;
  • a further element including the 75mm Light Battery was still in England awaiting orders.

Units on the river bank dug in and took up defensive positions, whilst fighting patrols were sent east and west along the river to bring back boats. That night, Captain L. Zwolanski, a Polish liaison officer, swam the river with news from Gen Urquhart, radio communication being unavailable. The situation was: the limited British parachute units that had gained the bridge at Arnhem had been isolated, and forced to surrender after taking heavy casualties, and expending all their ammunition on the 21st September. The rest of 1st Airborne Division (including Div HQ), was now surrounded on three sides by elements from, SS Panzer Divisions, and battle groups from both Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe troops, and were taking fire from heavy artillery. The Divisional position now at Oosterbeek was under continuous attack from German armour, and its defensive perimeter was contracting daily in an attempt to maintain a solid “line”. The only gap was to the south and the Rhine itself – a no man’s land, swept by enfiladed German fire.

Urquhart’s orders were, however, for Sosabowski to cross the river and, join his beleaguered Division. To aid the Brigade’s river crossing operation, Urquhart had arranged for rafts and boats, and an attack that same night on the he northern flank as a diversion. All night the Poles waited but no rafts arrived and no attack was made – the defending British troops were just too exhausted after 4 days and nights of continuous fighting. With dawn approaching Gen Sosabowski decided to move the Brigade to Driel proper and, deploy into more effective defensive positions. In the morning the Germans did start a tentative counter-attack at Driel, but were easily repulsed. The main objective, however, to get across the river and reinforce the British perimeter - as quickly as possible - had not yet started.

The patrols had, by that time, come across 2 boats and 4 2-person dinghies and the first Polish crossing started later that night. There were no oars only spades and rifle butts, and since the craft were constantly under fire they were all sunk of holed by daylight. In all, only 52 men got across. The following day, September 23rd , the promised supply of larger 12 men boats arrived. Their arrival had been delayed on the roads, and the heavy boats had then to be dragged across dykes and slippery terrain before they reached the river bank.  This crossing attempt started at 02.00 on September 24th.  German heavy mortar and artillery fire was directed at the assembly and embarkation areas, possibly located by sound, whilst parachute flares lit the boats on the river, allowing accurate machine gun fire. As a result only 153 out of 250 men made it across before first light.

The local terrain near Driel is dominated by high ground to the north.  Every Polish tactical movement was almost immediately spotted by German OPs, with artillery and mortar fire duly delivered causing many casualties. On the night of September 24th a Battalion of Dorset’s, from XXX Corps, also tried to cross but, only 130 men actually managed it - and even then they found it difficult to locate and join with Urquhart’s men. The following night September 25 orders came from the Airborne Corps Commander for a complete withdrawal of all troops from north of the Rhine.  Gen Sosabowski’s brigade south of the Rhine had done all that was possible to join their comrades on the other side. Those Grey Berets north of the river had fought courageously alongside those in Red, some survivors of the Brigades anti-tank artillery passing back across into territory held by their comrades.

Throughout the operation the Brigade maintained a bridgehead opposite the British perimeter in Oosterbeek. This strategic position enabled the Allied forces to reach the Rhine’s bank, When the retreat was ordered, this further enabled the remnants of 1st Airborne to pass through in relative safety to the reception centres at Nijmegen. The Brigade’s signallers made another significant contribution, maintaining a radio link between the Bde HQ in Driel, and their Section in the woods at Oosterbeek. From the night of 21/22 September until the withdrawal, this link was assessed as essential, due to the almost complete failure of the British communications and, was used by Corps, the Dorset’s and Gen. Dempsey, to maintain a link with Div HQ in Oosterbeek.

Major General Urquhart expressed his admiration, and forwarded his thanks to the Brigade, in a letter dated 2 October 1944 addressed to the Commander- in- Chief of the Polish forces in Great Britain, describing those elements of the Brigade who crossed the Rhine as “….welcome additions to our already hard pressed force ….(they ) at once came into action and gave us very valuable assistance..” The letter then ends “.… the losses sustained both before and during the evacuation were heavy. It may however be of satisfaction to know that these losses were not in vain and that the name of the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade will be linked to that of the 1st British Airborne Division in connection with the memorable battle at Arnhem….”.  In the biiter fight in the woods of Oosterbeek and the defence of Driel the Brigade had lost 23% of its fighting strength, amounting to some 400 casualties – they are remembered in a memorial in the centre of Driel and those killed lay in a well tended section the CWGC Cemetery at Oosterbeek. 

The Allied command recrimination’s which followed the defeat at Arnhem saw General Sosabowski unfairly pilloried, and, lose the command of his beloved Brigade.  In the years that followed there was no need for rehabilitation in the eyes of the troopers who followed him into Op Market-Garden, but recently (September 2006) saw the erection of a memorial (adjacent to that of the Brigade, in Driel) to the General, funded by 1st British Airborne veterans.   Additionally, it should be noted 61 years after WW2, the Brigade was awarded the Netherlands Military Order of William (May 2006) for its distinguished and outstanding acts of bravery, skill and devotion to duty during Operation Market-Garden.

Despite the Allied victory over the Germans in 1945 and, the “liberation” of Poland by the Red Army, Poland was not free – the yoke of German tyranny was replaced by that of Soviet.  Such was the Russian position in the post-war Allied hierarchy that the British Labour government bowed to pressure from Stalin in 1946 to omit the Polish Free Forces from the Victory Parade in London held in June (the Russians had their own Poles!).  For the Brigade, it had no Poland to go to.  It was attached to the Polish 1st Armoured Division, and undertook occupation duties in Northern Germany until 30th June 1947 when it was disbanded.  Either by staying in Britain, moving to the British Commonwealth or by moving to the US, the majority of its soldiers stayed in exile.

Brigade Order of Battle: September 1944

  • Brigade HQ CO: Maj.Gen S. Sosabowski
    • Deputy Brigade CO: Lt.Col. S. Jachnik
  • 1st Parachute Battalion CO: Lt.Col. M. Tonn
    • 1st Parachute Company
    • 2nd Parachute Company
    • 3rd Parachute Company
  • 2nd Parachute Battalion CO: Lt.Col. W. Ploszewski
    • 4th Parachute Company
    • 5th Parachute Company
    • 6th Parachute Company
  • 3rd Parachute Battalion CO: Maj. W. Sobocinski
    • 7th Parachute Company
    • 8th Parachute Company
    • 9th Parachute Company
  • Airborne Anti-tank Battery CO: Capt. J. Wardzala
  • Airborne Engineer Company CO: Capt. P. Budziszewski
  • Airborne Signals Company CO: Capt. J. Burzawa
  • Airborne Medical Company CO: Lt. J. Mozdzierz
  • Transport and Supply Company CO: Capt. A. Siudzinski
  • Airborne Light Artillery Battery CO: Maj. J. Bielecki


If you would like to try out your Polish follow this link for Polish words of Command.

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General Stanislaw Sosabowski

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General Sosabowski reviewing the Brigade.
Wansford, England,
December 1944

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Polish Paratroopers Emplaning

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Polish Paratroopers

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Field Marshal Montgomery inspects the Brigade

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1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade Memorial,
Driel, Holland

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The Roll of Honour at the Polish Memorial



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