On the 19th August the 1st Polish Armoured Division had just managed to close the ‘Falaise Gap’ through which the surviving remnants of the German Army in Normandy were attempting to escape. Major Stefanowicz advanced his detachment of tanks and infantry onto Hill 262, Mont-Ormel, overlooking the Chambois-Vimoutiers road. On reaching the top they discovered the spectacle of the mass German retreat proceeding in the valley below them. They were soon adding to the general carnage.
The position held by the Poles suddenly became of critical importance, the Germans were desperate to take it. Units from 2nd S.S. Panzer Corps, who had already escaped from the pocket, were ordered back to take the hill. Now the Poles were alone and surrounded, waiting for the Canadian tanks to break through to support them, they faced wave after wave of German attack.
Canadian Artillery forward observer Captain Pierre Sévigny had been attached to the Polish Armoured Brigade. His guns, located further back, were to play a crucial role in defending the isolated outpost and he left a vivid account of the engagement:
The Polish major called his officers together and spoke to them all in French, for my benefit:
“Gentlemen,” he said, “the hour is grave. The brigade is completely isolated. The enemy is still fighting: his only escape routes are those you see to the right and to the left. There is nobody except us who can stop them: that is what we shall try to do! Surrender is out of the question! As Poles! This is what I propose to do: the infantry will hold the lower ground and will withdraw to the higher ground only in the last resort, the tanks will remain here in the little wood with engines stopped to save petrol. My Command Post will be in this old house where we are now (Boisjos Manor House).”
Addressing me, he asked:
“Can you lay down fire from your guns right round the hill?”
I replied in the affirmative. Everybody shook hands and we went to our posts. I zeroed in my guns on four points where I expected enemy attacks. That way they would later be able to fire with accuracy whenever they were wanted.
The night began. The men were calm. They did not know how grave the situation was. About midnight there was firing near the crossroads we had already shelled. Once again I gave the order: “Five rounds per gun!” We heard explosions and the cries of the wounded. However, firing broke on the left, then on the right. The enemy was attacking everywhere at the same time. At the foot of Coudehard hill there was bloody, hand-to-hand fighting all night. We lost many men and all we had for the wounded was a little iodine.
Sunday, August the 20th
Daylight came: it was absolutely essential for us to reorganise and contract our defence perimeter. All attacks had been repulsed but our losses during the night had been considerable. And it was still going on! Fortunately our dominating position ensured that we could not be surprised…! We fired without ceasing, the machine-guns and rifles grew red hot!
In the end the enemy pulled back but he still threatened the right. Attention! He was about to pass the first two points I had pre-ranged. I quickly gave the order to my signaller. The shells fell, the Boches were thrown back in disorder!
A lull. We were not short of things to trouble us: the major had been hit in the chest by a shell splinter. We had exhausted our rations, there was scarcely half a bottle of water left per man; ammunition was scarce! Suddenly, over on our left, we heard the sounds of numerous tanks moving! The Canadians! At last! We looked for the green flares. Nothing! We came down to earth: they were German tanks advancing on us.
The major then decided on a bold manoeuvre. The best defence was still attack: and we set off to meet the enemy with twelve tanks! We soon saw the silhouettes of sixteen, enormous, German tanks, Tigers! The battle began and within three minutes of the start we had lost six tanks to one of theirs!
Only the artillery could save us! Crouching in a hole I used a portable radio to send orders to my signaller to relay to the guns. And I waited: had I studied my map thoroughly enough? Had I marked the targets well enough? Would the guns fire in time?
The steel monsters were still coming, firing with all their weapons. I saw the sparkling of their machine-guns: their 88s whistled over my head. What were our gunners doing? The leading tank was only 500 metres away…, 400 now, 300, 250, 200! It was all over! I no longer dared look! Yet, I looked again: 150 metres, 100 metres. I dived into the bottom of the hole, pressing my face to the earth, not daring to move. Death would come to me in seconds, of that I was sure…. Instinctively, I murmured a prayer….
Then, suddenly, a hurricane, rolls of thunder, the ground trembling! Death? Life? Could it be possible? Was this help? Our guns were firing! What I was hearing were our shells! And there, in the hole, I laughed and cried! Stupidly I raised my head, but only for an instant! We were saved! With unparalleled accuracy and at a prodigious rate of fire, unknown till then, a cloud of shells burst over the enemy.
The Boche hesitated. Five tanks were burning like haystacks. My gunners had orders to fire all their ammunition! The attack was broken: the Germans retired, pursued by the Poles who destroyed another three tanks! How I congratulated my men on the fine work they had done!
… Nevertheless the attack was soon renewed. Our losses mounted constantly…. but now I could not believe my eyes: the Boches were advancing towards us singing, “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles”! We let them come to within 50 yards, then we mowed down their ranks…. More waves followed…. When the fifth came we were out of ammunition. The Poles charged them with the bayonet!
During that day we suffered eight attacks like this! The enemy was exploiting our weakness, but what fanaticism he showed! One of the wounded near me looked like a child: I read the date of birth in his paybook: April, 1931! He was thirteen years old. How horrible!
We took prisoners. Some of those from the Wehrmacht were of Polish birth. They were asked if they would join us: anyone who accepted was given the rifle and paybook of one of the dead! They were unexpected, precious reinforcements. The S.S. and those whose paybooks showed that they had taken part in the invasion of Poland in ’39 received no mercy!
About 6 o’clock the attacks ceased. The battlefield was a scene from a nightmare! On the flanks of the hill thousands of corpses made a veritable rampart. We had been forced back to the top of Hill 262. Around the wood, which was about 600 metres long and 300 metres across, now filled with the wounded, we had dug trenches which were to be held at all cost! Aircraft tried to drop supplies to us but all the containers fell behind enemy lines.
At nightfall that Sunday evening the major called his officers together: out of sixty only four were fit to fight, three lieutenants and myself, all the others, including the major himself, were more or less seriously wounded. Lying in terrible pain on some straw, the Polish major found the strength to pull himself upright and give his instructions. I will never forget his words:
“Gentleman, all is lost. I do not think the Canadians can relieve us. We have no more than 110 fit men. There is no food and not much ammunition: five shells per gun and fifty rounds per man! That is very little…. even so, fight on! It would be useless to surrender to the S.S., you know that! I give you my thanks: you have fought well. Good luck, gentleman, this night we will be dying for Poland and civilisation!”
Canadian tanks finally broke through to relieve them on the 21st August.
The whole account can be read at BBC People’s War, it is an extract from “Dans la tourmente de la guerre”, by M. l’abbé Marcel Launay, published in France.
The Balance-sheet of this fearful confrontation:
The Poles, who went into this fight with eighty-seven Sherman tanks against all the remaining weaponry of the German Seventh army surrounded on the plain of Tournai – Aubry – St-Lambert, lost 325 dead, 16 of whom were officers, 1,002 wounded and 114 missing. Eleven tanks were destroyed.
The Germans had about 2,000 killed, 5,000 taken prisoner, including a general, six colonels and 80 officers. They left on the battlefield 55 tanks, of which 14 were Panthers and 6 Tigers, 44 guns and 152 armoured vehicles, 359 vehicles of all types were destroyed.