Major-General Stanislaw F. Sosabowski
Unit : Headquarters, 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade Group
Awards : Krzyz Waleczynch
Born on the 6th May 1892, the 52 year old Stanislaw Sosabowski was a highly experienced soldier, having first been conscripted into the 58th Infantry Regiment of the Austrian Army, where he became a corporal and fought the Russians throughout the First World War. After the Armistice had been signed, he became a regular officer in the Polish Army. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, he was in command of an infantry brigade that played a central role in the defence of Warsaw. The city soon fell and Sosabowski was taken prisoner, though he quickly escaped and spent some time working with the Polish underground. However shortly after, he made his way to France while it was still defended by British and French troops. He was appointed deputy commander of the 1st Infantry Division, and later the 4th Rifle Division. After Dunkirk he was evacuated to Britain and in September 1941, at his own request, was allocated the task of raising the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade in Scotland. Sosabowski was promoted to Major-General in June 1944, equal to that of Roy Urquhart, and was therefore qualified to be a commander of an entire division rather than just a brigade. However the Polish system of promotion was based upon ability and length of service, regardless of the post one occupied; unlike the British system where rank was directly related to the position held.
Sosabowski was regarded as a hero by the Polish soldiers under his command, and he was greatly liked and respected by a number of British subordinates. However it has been well documented that he could be very stubborn and argumentative towards his superiors if they held differing views to his, and it was chiefly this that led to his eventual downfall.
During the early stages of the war, his Brigade was responsible only to Polish command and the government-in-exile, based in London, and their sole purpose was to ready themselves for the time when they would be parachuted into Poland to assist in the liberation of their homeland. However, as the war developed it became increasingly clear that this plan was unrealistic, and with the Allied invasion of Europe looming, there was a lot of pressure for the Brigade to come under British rule. In 1942, Lt-General Browning offered Sosabowski command of a new airborne division if he would surrender control of the Brigade, but he refused as he wished to stay loyal to the original purpose of his unit. Naturally, he viewed the liberation of his homeland as his priority, though he was not adverse to helping elsewhere so long as the end goal remained. Further pressure followed until a settlement was at last reached in June 1944. It was agreed that the Brigade would carry out one Allied operation following the Normandy Invasion, after which they would be free to return to Poland at an appropriate juncture. The Brigade was incorporated into the 1st Allied Airborne Army, and placed under the command of Major-General Urquhart.
This dispute led to a deterioration in relations between Sosabowski and Browning, who had originally been on good terms with each other. Sosabowski did not welcome constant interference from Browning, who in turn did not take kindly to the Pole's aggressive resistance. As the time of Market Garden approached, Sosabowski did very little to endear himself to fellow commanders with his undiplomatic views on suggested operations. He was justifiably appalled by the plan for Operation Comet, but certainly gained no friends when he requested that Urquhart put his orders in writing so that he would not be held responsible for the disaster that would surely follow. He told Browning that "This mission cannot possibly succeed", and felt it would be suicide to attempt it using only the 1st Airborne and the Poles. His objections to the plan were supported by other officers, notably Brigadier Hackett. He and Sosabowski knew that the Germans could react very violently if you threatened a delicate area, and they were convinced that Comet was too tall a task for a single airborne division and that it would result in a complete disaster. Both men also observed the naivety of the air planners, who were not overly insightful when it came to landing airborne troops in the best position to achieve their objectives. During the briefing for Comet, Hackett remembered a typically fanciful plan being presented, and Sosabowski saying in his 'lovely deep voice', "But the Germans, General, the Germans!". Such protests played a part in the operation being cancelled in favour of Market Garden.
Everyone was much happier with the proposal for Market Garden, even Sosabowski, though he still had grave reservations. He believed that Arnhem was the clear gateway into Germany, and would therefore contain a far higher enemy presence than British intelligence believed. Though his prediction proved to be true, it is not entirely accurate because the SS Panzer Divisions were only moved into the region by chance, and the German commanders did not realise the significance of Arnhem. Sosobowski was aghast when he discovered that the drop zones were 7 miles from the Bridge, and that the landings would take place over a period of three days. He was adamant that "an airborne operation is not a purchase by instalments". Furthermore, he was not pleased that his paratroopers would drop south of the river, while the gliders carrying his vehicles and heavy equipment would land north of it. Particularly because he was told that if the Bridge had not been captured when he arrived, then he would be expected to take it. The prospect of doing so without the element of surprise, three days into a battle, and from only one side of the river with no vehicles or anti-tank guns, was quite horrifying to him. Sosobowski wished to register his opposition to the plan more strongly than he did, but felt unable to do so as his position was becoming increasingly isolated. At the conclusion of the briefing for Market Garden on the 12th September, Urquhart asked if there were any questions. Sosabowski wanted to say something about this "impossible" plan, but felt he couldn't. He later remarked "I was unpopular as it was, and anyway who would have listened?"
By Tuesday morning, Sosabowski was growing increasingly concerned over the fate of the 1st Airborne. With radio communications sporadic and vague at best, all he knew was that British troops held the north end of Arnhem Bridge, however this information was out of date and he did not know whether this was still the case. News of this was quite important to him because the Brigade was to drop a mile south of the Bridge and it would be their objective. From his own deduction, he knew that if the troops only held one side of the Bridge, then it stood to reason that the other side was heavily defended by the Germans. If this proved to be true then he would have to capture the southern end and move men over the Bridge to reinforce John Frost's men. His grim view that this might result in the Poles having the fight of their lives was perhaps a little melodramatic, but what was of genuine concern was the possibility that the British no longer held the Bridge. If this was so then his Brigade would drop in extremely hostile territory and be completely cut off from the 1st Airborne. However it all proved to be immaterial because fog descended over the airfields and the Polish paratroopers were unable to take off. Nevertheless their gliders were and they flew to out Arnhem. In one of the gliders was Sosabowski's personal jeep, which ran into a German patrol after landing. The driver was wounded and captured, and inside the Germans found a suitcase bearing the name of Sosabowski. Propaganda broadcasts boasted that the Polish General had been killed, though he was still in England at the time.
On Wednesday morning, the plan changed. Urquhart had managed to arrange for the Polish drop zone to be moved to Driel, south of the Rhine and the Oosterbeek Perimeter, and he left orders for Sosabowski to use the Driel-Heveadorp ferry to bring his Brigade over the river. As this was a completely different area to the one that Sosabowski had prepared himself for, he needed time to make a fresh plan and ordered that the lift be postponed for 3 hours. Eventually satisfied, he and his men were in their planes and taxiing down the runway when a halt was called. Much to Sosabowski's annoyance, other airfields were engulfed in fog and their planes were unable to take off. The lift was postponed once more for 24 hours.
These cancellations made Sosabowski very anxious. Not wishing to blindly drop his Brigade into a slaughter, he prepared notes of protest to Lt-Generals Brereton and Browning, Commander and Deputy Commander of the 1st Allied Airborne Army. He even issued an ultimatum to Brereton, threatening that unless accurate information was provided on the status of the 1st Airborne, then the Brigade would refuse to take off. A reply was soon received to the effect that Sosabowski knew more about the situation than Brereton. But at 04:30 on Thursday, Urquhart managed to confirm that the Driel-Heveadorp ferry was in British hands, and this was of some comfort to Sosabowski.
Just after 5pm on Thursday, the Poles jumped over Driel. Sosabowski was full of praise for the pilots who delivered his Brigade, who in spite of poor weather conditions and heavy anti-aircraft fire had managed to drop them as well as they had ever achieved during training. Slowly descending to the ground, Sosabowski saw a Dakota crashing after being hit by anti-aircraft fire, both of its engines on fire. When he had landed, he ran for cover and saw the body of one of his men with the top of his head neatly sliced off by shrapnel. Shortly after he met a Dutch girl, Cora Baltussen, and proceeded to interview her whilst calmly eating an apple. He asked for various details, namely the positions of the Germans and the location of the ferry. He was quite furious when she informed him that the ferry was no longer in operation. "How can it have gone in just a few hours?" he said.
After the Poles had dropped, Major-General Urquhart's Polish liaison officer, Captain Ludwik Zwolanski, volunteered to swim the Rhine and inform Sosabowski of the 1st Airborne's plan to retake Westerbouwing, where the ferry crossing was located, to enable the Poles to safely cross the river in improvised boats (wheel-less Jeep trailers) that the Royal Engineers were preparing. Zwolanski crossed successfully and gave his report, but unfortunately the attempt to capture Westerbouwing failed and due to difficulties in the conversion only one raft was ready at the specified time. News of this reached the Polish Brigade from Lieutenant David Storrs of HQ Royal Engineers, who had crossed the Rhine in a dinghy. The efforts of the Poles to affect a crossing had resulted in two American dinghies being produced and a search for the rubber boats that were amongst their equipment, which were unfortunately still on the drop zone. Sosabowski waited several hours for the boats to be produced, but when they did not come and dawn approached he had little choice but to withdraw his force on the riverbank back to Driel. The Poles took no chances, and having experienced retreats in both their homeland and France, they took care to make holes in hedges and cut away any barbed wire that could hinder them should they have to fight.
On the following morning Sosabowski sent a four-man patrol in the direction of Nijmegen, riding on airborne folding bicycles. Meanwhile he had acquired a ladies bicycle and used it to carry out an inspection of his Brigade, which prompted men of the 8th Company, in the process of digging foxholes and dugouts, to ask if he had a permit for such a manner of travel. Whilst he was in the western sector of Driel he heard the sound of armoured cars approaching and naturally assumed them to be German. However using his binoculars he soon identified them as being British, and so immediately ordered that the anti-tank mines be removed from the road. The four scout vehicles, commanded by Captain Wrottesley of No.5 Troop, C Squadron, the 2nd Household Cavalry, had been able to break through the German defences north of Nijmegen under the cover of fog, and they encountered the Polish bicycle patrol soon a few hours before arriving at Driel. Not long after they were joined by Lieutenant Arthur Young's No.2 Troop.
A short time later Driel was attacked from several directions by German armoured cars, forcing several positions to be abandoned while others were overrun. The attack was halted, but the Poles were low on ammunition and German numbers were increasing. Sosabowski asked the British cavalrymen to intervene on their behalf, but they refused as their vehicles were too lightly armoured to be used in such a way and they also pointed out that their radios could contact both the 1st Airborne Division and Nijmegen, and so were too valuable to risk. Sosabowski persisted and said that the Polish Brigade was in danger of being overrun and that if this was the case then the inaction of the armoured cars would certainly be questioned. Persuaded by this argument Lieutenant Young went forward, led by Sosabowski on his bicycle, and the presence of this vehicle and the fire from its 2-pounder and Bresa machine-gun forced the Germans to pull back, although a part of Driel was still held by the Germans.
On Friday morning, Urquhart
sent Lieutenant-Colonels Charles Mackenzie and Eddie Myers across the river to
contact Sosabowski and inform him that rubber boats were being prepared by the
1st Airborne to bring approximately 200 Polish soldiers over the river that night.
Mackenzie impressed upon him the desperate need for reinforcements of any
number, but Sosabowski shook his head as there were no proper means of getting
his men across. Myers, the commander of the 1st Airborne's engineers,
suggested a cable be laid across the river so that the dinghies could be
ferried back and forth, and he left to discuss this with the Polish engineers.
Unfortunately due to various problems only 50 men were ferried to the other
side that night. The current was too strong for the cable to be held, and the
improvised raft that the Polish engineers had laboured upon sank as soon as it was placed in the water because two
heavy oak doors had been incorporated into the design. Another attempt was made by the Poles on the following night, using proper
assault craft that Sosabowski had pleaded with XXX Corps to send forward, but
the crossing was similarly ineffective.
On Sunday morning, Lt-General Horrocks, the commander of XXX Corps, met Sosabowski and they discussed what should be done. Both were in favour of trying to reinforce the 1st Airborne rather than withdrawing them, and Horrocks declared that he wanted to put a battalion over close to the 1st Airborne that night, carrying supplies, and then shortly after put a whole Brigade across the river, several miles downstream for what would have likely been an unopposed landing.
Later that morning, the two men met again at the Valburg Conference, where the principal commanders on the spot met to work out a plan. The atmosphere didn't so much take on the appearance of a conference, but more that of a court-martial. Sosabowski sat on a chair opposite Browning, Horrocks, and Major-General Thomas of the 43rd Wessex Division, all seated behind a desk. The British commanders were clearly dissatisfied with Sosabowski's seemingly troublesome conduct throughout the operation, and didn't so much ask for his thoughts on what should be done, but told him what would happen and what he would do. Horrocks said that a battalion of the Dorsets, followed by the Polish 1st Battalion, would be put across the river, near to the 1st Airborne's positions at Westerbouwing. Sosabowski was understandably dismayed that a battalion had been removed from his command without his consent, or indeed his selection. He could sense from the atmosphere what was happening, but stood up and spoke through an interpreter to try and clearly impress upon the British officers that he had examined the German defences himself and believed that a crossing where they suggested would result in the troops landing amongst the German positions, in the strongest part of their defence. He said that he could see that German strength was only in the area of the fighting, and suggested that a crossing of the entire 43rd Division and his own Brigade, several miles downstream, would yield far superior results. However the British commanders were not interested in anything he had to say and Thomas merely restated his orders. This made Sosabowski angry and he rose to his feet once more, now speaking English by himself and becoming more fluent as his anger rose, insisting that the crossing they proposed would lead to the destruction of both the Dorsets and his 1st Battalion. He declared "I am General Sosabowski. I command the Polish Parachute Brigade. I do as I like". Horrocks abruptly ended the conference by telling him that "You are under my command. You will do as I bloody well tell you", and added that if Sosabowski did not like his orders then he would find another commander who did. The operation went ahead that night, and though the Poles were not sent across, Sosabowski's fears over the fate of the Dorsets proved to be entirely accurate.
Browning, who had not said a word in Sosabowski's defence, drove him back to Nijmegen for lunch on Sunday. On the way, Sosabowski noticed that there didn't seem to be any boats in evidence, north or around Nijmegen. Browning told him that there were almost no boats this far forward along the column. Sosabowski snapped and demanded to know what kind of army conducts a major operation over large rivers without a forward supply of boats. Captain Jan Lorys, one of Sosabowski's staff officers, said that daring to criticise the British generals in this way was probably the final nail in his coffin.
Lt-General Horrocks was quite keen to try another assault, as was Sosabowski, but the XXX Corps commander was dissuaded in doing so by both Browning and Major-General Thomas. Sosabowski later wrote that he blamed Browning for being the chief pessimist in the final stages of the battle. He felt that since British armour and other heavy equipment had finally arrived in strength in Driel, a final assault from the southern bank to relieve the 1st Airborne could have worked and should have been attempted. He believed that the battle was not lost at this point and victory could have been snatched from defeat. Sosabowski was quite astonished that Browning did not use his influence to urge the XXX Corps commanders towards this, and wondered how different the situation might have been if Montgomery had been present on that last day.
Sosabowski's dissent cost him greatly after the battle. To try and deflect blame away from their own failings, British commanders ensured that the Polish Brigade became a convenient scapegoat. Montgomery wrote to CIGS and reported that the Poles "fought very badly and the men showed no keenness to fight", and he declared that he did not want them under his command and suggested they be sent to join other Poles in Italy. Lt-General Browning submitted a long report to CIGS on Sosabowski's performance, before and during the battle. He charged him with being "difficult to work with", "unable to adapt himself to the level of a parachute brigade commander", and "quite incapable of appreciating the urgent nature of the operation and continually showing himself to be both argumentative and loath to play his full part in the operation unless everything was done for him and his brigade." Though the last of those statements is complete nonsense, there is certainly some merit in that accusation he was difficult to work with. While undoubtedly possessing a highly developed military mind, Sosabowski was quite temperamental and scarcely made any effort to win the favour of the British commanders, though when all said and done, such pleasantries are completely beside the point. It is possible that he was unsuitable to be a parachute commander. Such operations always involve a high element of risk, and it could be argued, due to his violent opposition to proposed airborne drops, that he was not prepared to run this gauntlet as other equally capable airborne officers were, and therefore could have been too cautious a man for parachute operations.
Browning requested that Sosabowski be removed from his command and that a younger, more cooperative man replace him. On the 9th December 1944, the Polish President-in-exile, Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz, wrote to Sosabowski and informed him that he was relieved of his post. The letter gave no reasons for his dismissal, and it was clearly wrote under British pressure as the President was seemingly apologetic for the necessity of his action on account of Sosabowski's meritorious past with both the Parachute Brigade and the Polish army.
Sosabowski remained in England after the war and pursued a number of occupations; once as an ordinary labourer in an electronics factory. In 1960, he published his memoirs, Freely I Served. After experiencing heart trouble, Stanislaw Sosabowski died in September 1967. He was laid to rest in Warsaw.
See also: Lt-Col Mackenzie, Lt Dyrda.
Offsite link: The Sosabowski Family Website, http://stanislaw-sosabowski.wikiverse.org/
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