Fight continues to honour war hero's name on anniversary of Operation Market Garden
Ceremonies marking the 78th anniversary of Market Garden are set to climax this weekend, bringing an end to a week of services commemorating the largest airborne operation of WWII.
Risky from the outset, it envisioned 30,000 Allied troops being successfully dropped up to 65 miles behind German lines in the Netherlands, thereby bypassing the Siegfried Line.
Ground forces from the XXX Corps of the British Second Army would then sweep up to capture Eindhoven, Nijmegen, and Arnhem, and bridge crossings would be consolidated.
Success, it had been promised, would shorten the war by six-months. However, the operation was thwarted by bad weather, stubborn German resistance, poor communications and a reckless attitude to the intelligence that had been gathered.
Quickly unravelling with disastrous consequences, although some objectives were reached, Market Garden ultimately failed in its primary ambition to secure a bridgehead over the Rhine that would open the road to Berlin.
Looking to cover their tracks, British top brass then shifted the blame onto General Stanisław Sosabowski, commander of the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade.
Speaking to TFN, Professor Hal Sosabowski, the general’s great-grandson, said: “From the moment my great-grandfather disembarked in Plymouth with 2,000 other Polish soldiers, one wonders if the British knew what to do with them.”
Left beleaguered by the bleak Scottish weather and a gnawing sense of despair as to the direction of the war, Sosabowski rallied this collection of Polish soldiers to form the 2nd Cadre Rifle Brigade. Soon, though, this was transformed into a parachute elite after Sosabowski came to the realisation that the quickest way to liberate his native Poland would be from the air.
“Once they became a viable resource to the British,” says Professor Sosabowski, “they were effectively subordinated to the first airborne.”
This crack Polish unit trained intensively, strongly motivated by the idea of one day dropping over Warsaw to free their country from the Nazis.
Instead, they found themselves part of Market Garden. From the beginning, Sosabowski warned that this venture would end in failure – but as the only Polish face in a sea of American and British commanders, he found his objections swiftly overruled.
“He’d always said that the whole point of using parachutes and gliders was for their element of surprise,” says Professor Sosabowski, “yet for Market Garden the majority of his unit were not parachuted in until three days after its beginning.”
Moreover, says Professor Sosabowski, what limited intelligence had been made was roundly ignored. “If the Allies could recognise the significance of the bridge at Arnhem, then it is unbelievable to think that the Germans did not.”
Despite evidence that the highly regarded 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions were stationed in the area, the Allies simply chose to overlook this. Guided by the assumption that the Germans would collapse, high command did not heed the warnings of the Polish general.
“Like everyone in our family,” says Professor Sosabowski, “he had a reputation for being direct and forthright. This approach is likely not to have endeared him to the British.”
Additionally, it seems almost certain other factors came into consideration. “He spoke imperfect English, and on top of that, he was a soldier’s soldier – he hadn’t come from the officer class, he had worked his way up. He was fundamentally different from Lieutenant-General Browning and Field Marshal Montgomery.”
With such clashing personalities in the mix, the Pole’s queries were routinely side-lined. “Either way he could not win – if Market Garden had been a success he would have been forever labelled a naysayer. If it failed, he would be seen as being one of those ‘told you so’ people. He was swimming against the tide,” says Professor Sosabowski.
As Market Garden unfolded, the XXX British Corps immediately ran into difficulty linking up with the paratroopers that had already been deployed. Days after most Allied paratroopers had landed, Sosabowski’s own men were sent in near Driel, chiefly to cover forces that were retreating.
In accordance with all known facts, the Poles fought bravely and with distinction – a point underscored by the Polish flags hung each year around Driel, Arnhem and suchlike on each anniversary.
“It is a matter of record that Montgomery said in early October of that year that he wanted to award Poles medals,” says Professor Sosabowski. “But then a week later he wrote a cipher declaring that the Poles had shown no keenness to fight, especially if it meant risking their own lives.
“This is ironic given that it was them that were charged with saving units that were in retreat. To say they were not willing to fight is outrageous.”
General Sosabowski’s fractious relationship with Browning had come to a head. Played by Gene Hackman in the epic war film A Bridge Too Far, one scene has the Pole jumping out of a Dakota and saying, ‘God Bless Field Marshal Montgomery’. The truth though, could not be more different.
For Sosabowski, the worst was yet to come. Having served his purpose, Browning wrote a confidential letter dated November 20th, 1944, requesting his demotion. Sosabowski, complained Browning, “had proven extremely difficult to work with” and “proved himself incapable of appreciating the urgent nature of the operation.”
Browning concluded that Sosabowski had been “argumentative and loathe to play his full part.” Addressed to The War Office in Whitehall, the letter was nothing if not a malevolent stab in the back.
Shifted to Inspector of Salvage and Disposal to the rear of the war’s theatre, it marked a spectacular fall from grace that was compounded further when, following the war, he was not awarded a General’s pension.
Given the betrayals he faced, it was as if Sosabowski personified Poland’s wartime treatment at the hands of the Allies.
Not wishing to return to Communist Poland – where he would have certainly faced persecution under the new political system – he instead settled in England where he found employment at CAV Electrics.
“Despite that, he remained curiously sanguine,” says Professor Sosabowski. “He would say, if he was asked to do it all again, then he would without hesitation. I think it’s true what they say that the real heroes don’t bemoan their fate.”
Remaining active in Polish circles (he helped co-found the Polish Airborne Association for veterans), he led a strange double life from that point onwards. “During the week he was just Stan the Storeman to his friends at work,” says Professor Sosabowski, “but then at the weekends, in the Polish clubs, he would again transform into General Sosabowski among his brothers-in-arms.”
Passing away in London in 1967 from heart trouble, two-years later his remains were flown back to Warsaw where he was interred at the esteemed Powązki Military Cemetery. “He would have been prosecuted in Communist Poland had he been alive,” says his great-grandson, “but dead men can’t talk so he was allowed a military burial back in Poland."
Although richly decorated, the harm to his character has continued to mar his legacy. Gradually, history is correcting itself.
In 2006, Dutch TV aired a programme in which it laid bare the larger-than-thought contribution that Sosabowski’s unit had made to Market Garden. Moreover, in 2012 Britain’s 1st Airborne Major Tony Hibbert made an impassioned YouTube appeal to give Sosabowski the credit he deserved.
“After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Poles found out the truth,” says his great-grandson. “The Dutch have recognised this as well. It’s not about medals, they’re just trinkets after all, but a simple retraction of the accusations that were levelled towards him would be greatly appreciated.”