“This is a biography of one of the most undervalued commanders of the Second World War, General Stanisław Maczek, a soldier overlooked by most military historians in the West both because he was Polish and above politics”.(2)
With these words Evan McGilvray opens his book about Baca – the Shepherd, as his soldiers used to call him; an extraordinary leader and, for many, a hero and a liberator.
Very few people living in Scotland have ever heard about Baca, despite the fact his famous Polish 1st Armoured Division was trained and equipped in Scotland as part of the Polish I Corps (Polish Army based in Scotland), and despite the fact that after the war he settled in Edinburgh where he lived in Marchmont until his death at 102. Apart from a single book he published of his war memoirs ‘Od podwody do czolga’ (1), never translated into English, he left little to popular imagination.
So what great deeds made him such an extraordinary person?
Maczek should be remembered for his pioneering use of mixed armour and infantry units as well as the early use of commando-style units during the Polish border wars of 1918-1920. However, his work was ignored despite its obvious success. He should be also be recognised as being the saviour of the Normandy Campaign, which by August 1944 was seriously bogged down. It was feared that the German forces in Normandy might be able to flee over the River Seine and head eastwards to Germany. A magnificent, stubborn and costly stand by the Polish 1st Armoured Division during August 1944 prevented this happening, and the Normandy Campaign was able to succeed. This is yet to be credited to the Poles in imagination of the West. (…) (2)
After the success of the decisive closing of the Battle of Falaise and the Chambois pocket against German forces ten times the Division’s strength (later called the Polish Battlefield), referred to above by McGilvray, Maczek continued to spearhead the Allied drive across the battlefields of northern France, Belgium, the Netherlands and finally Germany, liberating Ypres, Oostnieuwkerke, Roeselare, Tielt, Ruislede and Ghent in Belgium. The scene of one his greatest victories was Breda in the Netherlands. Thanks to a smart outflanking manoeuvre, the Division freed the town after a hard fight but without a single loss to the civilians. In appreciation of this spectacular achievement 40,000 people from Breda petitioned successfully to make Baca an honorary Dutch citizen.
The Division’s finest hour came when its forces accepted the surrender of the German naval base of Wilhelmshaven, taking captive the entire garrison, together with some 200 vessels of Hitler’s Kriegsmarine.
In that part of Europe the Polish 1st Armoured Division is well remembered, and Maczek’s name is memorialised in the history of many towns. He and his Division’s efforts were again appreciated after the war when a Museum in his honour was founded in Breda. The towns of Abbeville, St Omer, Ypres, Breda and Ghent bestowed honorary citizenship to all soldiers of the Division. Many towns have streets named after General Maczek…
Before all of that could happen, the Polish 1st Armoured Division had to be formed. It wasn’t as obvious as it sounds, as after Poland was captured between the hammer and the anvil of Nazi Germany and Communist USSR in 1939, the Polish Army ceased to exist.
Polish soldiers made the difficult journey to rejoin the army that was being recreated in different parts of Europe. Eventually under agreements between the UK and Poland, many Polish Soldiers were evacuated to Scotland where they formed the Polish I Corps.
They had received an exceptionally warm welcome in Scotland. One of General Maczek’s soldiers, Capitan Mieczkowski said:
The British treated us very differently from the French. (…) They were calm, self-possessed, kind and cheerful. Ladies treated us with sandwiches and chocolates and cups of tea. The manner in which they cared for us was a delight and contrasted strongly with the messy, petrified French. The Scots were even friendlier and that friendship continues to this day. The relations with the civilian population were uncommonly friendly. (4) (More interesting details about this period can be found here) .
Initially, the British High Command wanted to use the recreated Polish Army solely for the defence of the Scottish coastline. The veterans of the Polish tank formations who arrived to the UK were absorbed into the Polish 2nd Rifle Brigade. Maczek was already a seasoned commander, and upon his arrival, the idea was abandoned and Polish Armoured Division was created.
After long training period at the Blairgowrie training ground (Perth and Kinross), in 1942 General Maczek formed the 1st Polish Armoured Division. Initially, Baca’s tanks served in defence of the Scottish coast between Montrose and the Firth of Forth. The Division had been equipped by the British authorities with state-of-the-art Churchill and M4 Sherman tanks in preparation for the Normandy landings.
Maczek’s life in Scotland after the war was exactly the opposite of what one would expect for a war hero who fought for the winning side. He was stripped of Polish citizenship by the new communist state of Poland, which had been seized by the Soviet Union. His homeland lost, he became a stateless exile. As a professional soldier, commander and leader, he was not prepared for civilian life in times of peace. Polish soldiers in the post-war UK were seen as potential communist spies; they were not allowed to play any role in government controlled organisations or businesses, including the army. In addition to that he was refused a military pension from the British Government. Despite all these setbacks he was never downhearted and is remembered as an always smiling and optimistic person. He led a quiet life and broughtup his family on his wages as a barman working in hotels. It was only the appreciation and generosity of the Dutch people that ensured a safe future for his disabled daughter.
Lieutenant General Stanisław Maczek died on 11 December 1994, at the age of 102. According to his last wish, he was laid to rest among his soldiers at the Polish military cemetery in Breda.
Years after his death, in 2013 a campaign in Edinburgh to recognise Maczek’s vital contribution to the UK and Allied Forces, in what became his home town, was launched. Speaking at the Launch at the New Club in Edinburgh’s Princes Street, Lord Fraser stated that the UK and Scotland in particular owe a debt of gratitude to the great General Maczek, and our lack of acknowledgement of him over nearly 60 years has not been honourable. In his speech Lord Fraser proposed a metal bench located in the Meadows, where Baca used to walk, with the General sitting on it, with room alongside for other people to sit.(3)
Coincidentally, the Polish word ‘maczek’ means ‘poppy’ in English, the symbol of remembrance associated with the area around Ypres in the First World War.
“This is the story of a man who changed history…”
Words: Jarek Gąsiorek
Photo at the top of article: Polish dispatch rider with a happy girl as a passenger, pausing in his journey through the Dutch city of Breda to return greetings of overjoyed townpeople, freed by the Poles from the German occupation on 30 October 1944. Note the 1st Polish Armoured Division regimental badge on his BSA M20 motorcycle fuel tank – Imperial War Museum, www.iwm.org.uk
General Stanisław Maczek commander of the 1st Polish Armoured Division in World War Two lived in this house from 1948-1994
General Maczek Museum in Breda
“This museum is dedicated to the brave men and women of the 1st Polish Armoured Division who, under command of general Stanislaw Maczek, liberated parts of our country from German occupation and oppression during 1944 and 1945. The Polish soldiers brought us freedom and nourishment and gave us the possibility to start the reconstruction of our country. On the other hand our liberators couldn’t liberate their own Poland and they had to accept that their country remained oppressed for fifty years.”
National Memorial Arboretum – Polish Armed Forces Memorial link
(1) Od podwody do czolga Stanisław Maczek 1961 (PL)
Stanisław Maczek – Od podwody do czołga. Cz.1. Audiobook
Stanisław Maczek – Od podwody do czołga. Cz.2. Audiobook
(2) Man of Steel and Honour: General Stanislaw Maczek. Soldier of Poland, Commander of the 1st Polish Armoured Division in North-West Europe 1944-45, Evan McGilvray ISBN 978-1-908916-53-2
(4) The soldiers of General Maczek in World War II Zbigniew Mieczkowski Warsaw-London 2004 ISBN PL 83-914145-8-2
Themes of Modern Polish History. Proceedings of Symposium on 28 March 1992 In Hounour of the Centary of General Stanisław Maczek. Edited by Peter D Stachura. The Polish social and Educational Society 1992
Generał Maczek i żołnierze 1 Dywizji Pancernej Juliusz L Englert, Krzysztof Barbarski Instytut Polski u Muzeum im. gen. Sikorskiego, Polska Fundacja Kulturalna, Londyn 1992
Mapa gen. Maczka w Szkocji (POL) – an article about Great Polish Map of Scotland. Amazing photos!
In which country is the world’s biggest map? – an article about Great Polish Map of Scotland on Polish Scottish Heritage website