By Ted Rajchel
On May 8, 1945 (V-E Day) the world celebrated victory in Europe, and on May 8th we remember those who fought to preserve the freedom that we now enjoy.
The United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union provided most of the Allied Forces during World War II, but few people realize that the fourth-largest contributor was Poland. After being overrun by Nazi Germany in 1939, Poland relocated its government to London, but never surrendered. Instead, hundreds of thousands of Polish Army, Air Force, and Naval personnel continued to fight until he war ended in 1945, giving Poland the distinction of being the only nation to combat Germany throughout the entire war in Europe.
Poland was also the only nation to fight Nazi aggression on every front, including engagements in Poland, Norway, France, England, The Netherlands, Belgium, North Africa, Italy, and Nazi Germany’s Western and Eastern fronts.
During the Battle of Britain, Polish pilots accounted for nearly one sixth of all German planes shot down. The all-Polish Kosciuszko Squadron downed 126 German planes—more than any other Royal Air Force Squadron. Nine of the squadron pilots became aces, and five were awarded the RAF Distinguished Flying Cross. Ultimately, Polish pilots destroyed least 900 hundred German planes, 190 V-1 flying bombs and 1,000 German tanks.
The Polish Navy served in the North Sea, North Atlantic, Mediterranean, Dunkirk, and Normandy. Prior to the final battle and sinking of the German battleship, Bismarck, the Polish destroyer, Piorun, was the first warship to sight it.
After signaling Bismarck’s position, Piorun, attacked the huge battle ship. In Normandy the 1st Polish Armored Division blocked the last escape route for the German 7th Army from the “falaise pocket.” Their heroic two-day stand played a decisive role in destroying German resistance in Normandy and in hastening the liberation of France.
Across the continent in Italy, the Battle of Monte Cassino caused over a quarter of a million casualties. After three unsuccessful allied assaults, the summit was finally taken by the Polish 2nd Corps, which then continued north, concluding its Italian campaign with the liberation of Bologna.
During the campaign on Germany’s Eastern front, 10 divisions of the 1st and 2nd Polish armies, fighting alongside Soviet troops, pushed the Nazi forces back to the center of Berlin. The 1st Polish infantry division celebrated their victory by raising Polish flags over the victory column and the Brandenburg Gate.
In one of the best-kept secrets of the war and post-war era, Polish mathematicians working in Warsaw before the start of the war, solved Germany’s secret military code and duplicated the enigma machine that generated it. The solution and working enigma machine were then delivered to England where they were used for decoding Nazi messages throughout the war, making possible the Normandy landings and saving tens of thousands of American lives.
As the Iron Curtain fell across Europe, after the end of the war, Poland was swept behind it and under the heel of Joseph Stalin—a dictator as cruel as Adolf Hitler was. The freedom the Poles had helped gain for their neighbors was not to be theirs until solidarity and free elections in 1989.
Because of lingering Nazi propaganda, Allied military secrets and cold war animosities, Polish contributions toward victory in World War II went largely unrecognized. Even though many decades have now passed since the war ended in Europe, but it is still not too late to acknowledge the efforts of everyone who helped win it.
Colonel Francis “Gabby” Gabreski, Polish Ace Fighter Pilot and American Hero During World War II
Colonel Gabreski, a Polish-American fighter pilot born in Oil City, Pennsylvania on January 28, 1919, was the top American fighter pilot ace in Europe during World War II. He was called back to the United States Air Force during the Korean War and became a jet fighter ace.
To become an ace, one needs to shoot down five enemy aircraft. He was a career officer in the United States Air Force with more than twenty-six years of service to his country. Both of his parents had emigrated from Poland to Oil City, PA in the early 1900s.
Grabeski was one of the Air Force’s most accomplished leaders. In 1944 Gabby led his squadron in long fighter sweeps over the beaches of Normandy. Three weeks later he surpassed Eddie Rickenbacker’s World War I record and on July 5th scored his 28th victory, making him America’s leading ace. He also had three victories on the ground for a total of 31 planes to his credit.
With this, Gabreski’s victories and 193 missions, he earned a leave back to the States. He was a great American hero. In addition to commanding two fighter squadrons, Gabreski had six command tours at group or wing level, including one on combat in Korea, totaling over 11 years of command and 15 overall in operational fighting assignments.
Colonel Gabreski had accumulated over 5,000 hours flying time, with 4,000 hours of this being jet time. He ended a distinguished air force career after more than 26 years of service to his country. He retired from the U.S. Air Force and worked in the aviation industry as President of the Long Island Railroad. He lived for many years as “America’s Greatest Living Ace.” He passed away on January 31, 2002.
Lt. Colonel Matt Louis Urban
Polish American World War II hero and Medal of Honor winner, Lt. Colonel Matt Urban (August 25, 1919 to March 4, 1995), was a United States Army Infantry officer, who served with distinction in the European and African theater of operation in World War II. He scouted, led charges up front, and performed heroically in combat on several occasions, even after being wounded.
He was awarded over a dozen combat decorations by the army. In 1990 Urban was awarded the Medal of Honor by President James Carter who said, “Matt Urban is the greatest soldier in American history. His actions are a reminder to America what freedom really means. It is of soldiers like Lt. Colonel Urban that victories are made.” He was awarded four other combat decorations—belatedly for acts of heroism in combat in France and Belgium in 1944.
The Guinness Book of World Records in 1998 considered Urban to be the United States Army’s most combat decorated soldier of World War II. Lt. Colonel Urban, with 29 medals during 20 months, is the most decorated soldier in U.S. history. He had three more medals than war hero Audie Murphy. During his combat actions, he is mentioned in 10 separate acts of bravery that span practically the entire Normandy campaign. It was during that campaign that the Germans named him “the ghost”—no matter how many times they thought they had killed him, he always came back to fight them again in another place. A sergeant later said, “one of the craziest officers suddenly appeared before us, yelling like a madman and waving a gun in his hand…He got us on our feet, though, gave us back our confidence and saved our lives.
Lt. Colonel (then Captain Urban) distinguished himself by a series of bold heroic actions, exemplified by singularly outstanding combat leadership, personal bravery, and tenacious, devotion to duty, during the period of June 14-September 3, while assigned to the 3rd battalion, 60th infantry regiment, 9th infantry division. On June 14th Captain Urban’s company, attacking at Renouf, France, encountered heavy enemy small arms and tank fire.
The enemy tanks were raking his units positions, inflicting heavy casualties. Urban, realizing his company was in danger of being decimated, armed himself with a bazooka. He brazenly exposed himself to enemy fire, destroying enemy tanks with his bazooka. His company then moved forward and routed the enemy.
Later that day, Captain Urban was wounded in the legs by direct fire from a tank gun. He refused evacuation and continued to lead his company until they moved into defensive positions for that night.
Early the next day, still in the attack near Orglandes, France, Captain Urban, badly wounded, directed his company in another attack. He was again wounded, suffering from three wounds, one serious, he was evacuated to England. In mid July while recovering from his wounds, he learned of his unit’s severe losses in the hedgerows of Normandy. He voluntarily left the hospital and hitchhiked his way back to his unit near St. Lo, France. His unit had jumped off in the first attack of “Operation Cobra” still limping, Captain Urban retook command of his company. His valor and actions reflect the utmost credit on him and uphold the noble traditions of lthe U.S. Army.
References: (1) Gilbert J. Mros, Columbia Heights, is a retired electrical engineer and member of the Lomianki, Poland-Columbia Heights, Minn; (2) “Gabby” Gabreski—Biography of Polish American Ace in WW2 and Korea. (3) Lt. Colonel—Polish-American WW2 Hero.