Poland’s Bravest Sons
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
January 2013

With the fall of Poland, tens of thousands of Polish soldiers filtered their way to France to resume the fight against fascism. Hundreds of others headed south through the Balkans to the French colony of Syria, where they also began to organize as part of the Polish army in exile. When French resistance collapsed in mid-June 1940, the Polish army of over 50,000 hard-fighting exiles almost overnight was reduced to the single partially-formed brigade in Syria.

Gen. Wladyslaw Sikorski authorized the brigade in December 1939, to the dismay of French chief of staff Gen. Maurice Gamelin. The French wanted all Polish soldiers concentrated in France, and complained that they had neither the facilities nor the weapons available in Syria. Finally in the spring of 1940 they relented and turned over a former Foreign legion barracks near Homs. The Polish Carpathian Brigade officially joined the French Army of the Levant in April 1940, and late in the month several hundred Polish officers and soldiers arrived from internment camps in Romania. A steady stream came from Romania, the troops officially “escaping” from Romanian authorities eager to see responsibility for feeding and housing them sail away with them.

Polish volunteers muster in Homs, Syria.

Most of the soldiers who arrived at Homs had served in the 1939 campaign; a handful of Poles resident in Syria volunteered and several dozen Polish members of the Foreign Legion obtainde rleeases to join the brigade. Kopanski also accepted an Iranian who spoke no Polish but was eager to fight the Nazis. An ambitious program called for a five-battalion brigade of almost 7,000 men including artillery and engineers, but the unit had only reached about half that strength when France asked for an armistice in June. Few weapons beyond Lebel rifles had been issued, and the brigade was well short of its authorized allotments of horses, vehicles and artillery.

The French administration in Syria supported the new Vichy regime in France, and demanded the Poles disarm and enter an internment camp in Beirut. With the connivance of French Col. Rene de Larminat, the brigade’s liaison officer and a staunch anti-fascist, Col. Stanislaw Kopanski led his troops over the border into British-ruled Palestine. Several hundred die-hard Frenchmen came along as well.

The British inducted the brigade into their own service, reorganizing it along British lines as a standard infantry brigade. British weapons only came slowly, and at one point the British even asked the Poles to hand over some of the French-made anti-tank guns they had spirited out of Syria. British equipment only arrived in September 1940, along with a promotion for Kopanski to general. The next month the Poles moved up to Alexandria as Italian troops invaded Egypt, performing guard duty and coast defense. By December, strength was up to roughly 5,000 and the brigade officially became the “Carpathian Independent Brigade group.”

Earmarked for action in Greece in early 1941, Kopanski refused to let his battalions go into battle piecemeal, attached to British or Australian brigades. That delayed Polish deployment and probably saved the brigade from destruction. The Poles’ artillery and vehicles had already been loaded aboard ships but had not departed Alexandria when German mountain and panzer divisions crushed the Greeks and the Allied units sent to help them. The brigade disembarked and a few weeks later moved up to Mersa Matruh in western Egypt to protect the massive Allied supply depot there.

In June, British forces attacked Vichy French-held Syria and ordered the Polish brigade to move to the colony in support. Sikorski would not allow Polish soldiers to fight French ones, citing the centuries-old alliance between the two freedom-loving peoples, and ordered Kopanski to stay put. The British then selected the brigade to move to the besieged fortress of Tobruk to relieve part of the Australian garrison there.

For God and Poland. Mass is celebrated near Gazala; note the wide spacing in case of enemy artillery fire.

Over a week’s time in mid-August, seven nightly convoys brought the Carpathian Brigade into Tobruk. They replaced the 18th Australian Brigade, plus an Indian cavalry regiment and a British artillery regiment. The Diggers found the Poles to share their disdain for the English, and gleefully turned over their “bush artillery” and other heavy weapons to the Polish troops rather than send them to the fortress command as procedures demanded.

The Poles skirmished nightly with the Italian 17th “Pavia” Infantry Division, and held 20 kilometers with just four battalions (three infantry and one reconnaissance). Over the next several weeks Kopanski received two more to help flesh out his lines: an Australian infantry battalion and the 11th Czech Infantry Battalion. Polish troops spent almost their entire time in the line, much longer than Australian or British units had done.

The Allied Operation Crusader offensive broke through to the fortress in late November, with the Axis starting a withdrawal on 7 December. The Poles fought off an Italian attack, and went over to the offensive themselves on the night of the 9th, taking Medauar Hill in heavy fighting. Attached to 2nd New Zealand Division, they spearheaded the attack on the Gazala line on the 15th and 16th, breaking the Axis positions and starting the enemy on a rapid retreat.

Polish gunners turn their “bush artillery” on Medauar Hill.

The brigade’s artillery regiment assisted the South African assault on Bardia at the end of the year, but the rest of the brigade remained on defensive duties between Gazala, Tobruk and the Egyptian frontier. Losses could not be easily replaced and all four battalions were now well understrength. In March they headed back into Egypt, and from there went to Palestine again to join with other Polish exiles to form the 3rd Carpathian Infantry Division. But that’s another tale.

Kopanski’s brigade saw 110 days of action in the Tobruk front lines, longer than any other battalions at the time and almost as long as some of the original Australian defenders. Despite that long deployment, they were ready for offensive action at the siege’s end, something no other brigade of the garrison could achieve. They have to be counted as an elite unit, but a very fragile one: elite units by their nature suffer heavy casualties, and Polish replacements were hard to come by.

Kopanski’s headquarters, on the Gazala Line, December 1941.

Had the exodus of Polish soldiers from the Soviet Union been delayed by only a few weeks, the Carpathian Brigade would have seen action again in the Gazala battles of May 1942 — Kopanski and his men did not shy away from battle, even if their general demanded it on his terms. Since we already have rules for our Gazala game available in Polish, it’s only fitting that our surprisingly large base of Polish fans have a unit of their own to deploy in the game. Poland shall not perish, even in the desert.

The Carpathian Brigade is available as a 3 June Allied reinforcement in all scenarios. You can download the new Polish game pieces here.

Click here to buy Gazala now!