Polish Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade

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Uniform of soldier of Polish Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade
SBSK insignia
Upload of Polish Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade in Alexandria for its trip to Tobruk

Polish Independent Carpathian Brigade (Polish Samodzielna Brygada Strzelców Karpackich, SBSK) was a Polish military unit formed in 1940 in French Syria composed of the Polish soldiers exiled after the Invasion of Poland in 1939 as part of the Polish Army in France. It was commanded by General Stanisław Kopański.

The division fought with distinction in the North African theatre of World War II, notably during the Siege of Tobruk. In 1942 it formed the backbone of the 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division.

History[edit]

In December 1939 Polish commander-in-chief Gen. Władysław Sikorski decided that a Polish unit in the French territory of Levant be created. On 12 April 1940 the brigade was officially formed in Syria, with Col Kopański as its commander. The main base of the brigade was established in Homs and the new unit instantly entered the ranks of the French Armée du Levant. As a unit specializing in mountain warfare, the brigade was thought of as a Polish addition to Allied plans for landings in the Balkans. It was modelled after the standard French mountain infantry brigade, with two infantry regiments (of two battalions each), artillery regiment, reconnaissance regiment (mounted and motorized), signals, engineers and a staff. Although new recruits arrived on a daily basis (mostly evacuated from Poland through Romania, Hungary, Greece and Yugoslavia), the brigade did not reach the planned numbers of 208 officers and 6840 soldiers and NCO's.

After its capitulation and the annulment of all France's pacts with Poland and the United Kingdom, the commander of the Armée du Levant General Eugène Mittelhauser decided to support the new Vichy government of Philippe Pétain while the Poles were ordered by Sikorski to leave French territory. On 30 June 1940 the brigade defected to British controlled Palestine, where it joined the British forces stationed there. Initially composed of 319 officers and 3,437 soldiers, it was soon reinforced[clarification needed] to roughly 5,000 men. Among the distinctive features of the unit was a high morale of the soldiers, all of whom were volunteers. In addition, roughly 25% were well educated, a thing uncommon in European armies of the time.[citation needed]

Based in Latrun, the brigade was equipped with British weapons, reinforced and trained. In October 1940 it was moved to Egypt, where it undertook garrison duties. Among other tasks it guarded Prisoner-of-war camps and prepared the fortification of Alexandria. However, as Poland was still formally at peace with Italy, it could not have been sent to the front. On 12 January 1941 the reorganization along the British regulations ended and the unit was renamed to Polish Independent Brigade Group. It was modelled after a British motorized infantry brigade and was then moved to the port of Haifa, from where it was to be transported to Greece. However, before the first of the detachments had been embarked on the ships, the Battle of Greece ended as the Germans overran that country.

On 30 April 1941, during the offensive of Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps, the brigade was moved near to the front at the fort of Mersa Matruh, where it spent the next 10 weeks strengthening defensive positions.[1] It was then withdrawn to the El Amiriya camp near Alexandria, and on 18 August 1941 the first convoy of the brigade's units left for besieged Tobruk. Transported in seven convoys, between 21 August and 28 August the brigade took over the westernmost perimeter of the allied defences and took part in what became known as the Siege of Tobruk. Overnight on 9 December, during Eighth Army's Operation Crusader which was to raise the siege, the Polish brigade seized the strategically important Madauar Hill, town of Acroma and broke through to the British 8th Army, thus ending the siege. Due to their impact on the battle, the Polish soldiers were awarded with a prestigious title of the Tobruk Rats by their Australian comrades in arms.

On 13 December the Carpathian Uhlan Regiment was detached while the remainder of the brigade was attached to the XIII Corps of the Eighth Army and took part in the attack on the Axis Gazala defensive line on 15 December. Rommel made a fighting withdrawal to defensive positions around El Agheila but a counterattack by him on 21 January 1942 led to the armies once more facing each other at the Gazala position by early February. On 17 March 1942 the brigade was withdrawn from the front to the El Amiriya camp and then back to Palestine. There it was joined by the Polish forces of General Władysław Anders evacuated from the USSR and was reformed into the 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division. The brigade officially ceased to exist on 3 May 1942.

Throughout its existence it lost 156 killed in action (including 127 in the Siege of Tobruk), 15 missing in action and 467 wounded.

Order of battle[edit]

1941–1942[edit]

The intended number of men at arms was 348 officers and 5326 soldiers and NCOs.[2] However, the brigade did not reach it prior to being sent into battle. Each infantry battalion was composed of four rifle companies, each in turn composed of three rifle platoons and staff company (signals, AA, mortars, engineers and recce). The artillery initially composed of a mixture of French equipment and British Ordnance QF 18 pounder guns. By June 1941 all pieces of artillery were replaced with Ordnance QF 25 pounder. Despite the uniformity in equipping the artillery sub-units, they received the traditional Polish names of "Light Artillery", "Heavy Artillery" and "Mounted Artillery".[2] Around that time also the anti-tank battalion was created, with four batteries, each consisting of four pieces of artillery.[2]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Stefan Baluk, 'Poland at Arms' 1990, p.141
  2. ^ a b c Stanisław Kopański (1961). Wspomnienie wojenne 1939-1945 (in Polish). Warsaw: Bellona. p. 423. ISBN 83-11-07819-X.