Kayak Eagle

Over the last few years, I have been pleasantly surprised by the number and reaction of mostly young polish men who, on seeing my kayak resting on a beach, have come to make my acquaintance. Invariably they have been friendly, courteous and engaging.
Those who know me, will know in part at least, the story of the eagle (adopted from Poland's Coat of Arms) on the front deck of my boat; put simply, it is my way of honouring the memory of my grandfather, Mietek Herman.
Tank Commanders of the 1st Polish Armoured Division, receive battle orders Falaise, 17th August 1944. Mietek Herman fourth from left.

Written by my father, for the BBC's archive of WW2 memories, this is Mietek's story:

A Polish Battlefield
My name is Mietek Herman; I am a sergeant commanding a Sherman tank in the 2nd Armoured Regiment, 1st Polish Armoured Division and today, August 17th, 1944 is my 31st birthday. We have just received battle orders - before dawn tomorrow we will move to close the gap at Chambois, the only escape route for the encircled German Divisions, to cut their supply lines and stop the withdrawal of troops and armour. But first we must capture a German position near Coudehard.

Mietek’s story continues:
“As we moved towards our objective, we had a clear run for the first few kilometres and then our scouts reported German tanks and anti-tank guns. We took up positions and opened fire but with little effect at 5 kilometres range. Under heavy fire, we had to get in closer and took many casualties. After a short, but fierce battle, we captured our objective just as darkness fell and the night sky was illuminated by the fires of the battle. We rounded up the prisoners and had just started to heat canned rations in billy-cans over primus stoves when the order was received to check fuel and ammunition — supplies had failed to arrive and we were low on both. Despite this, we were ordered to move out immediately, without food or rest from the day’s battles. Our plan was to get as close as possible to Chambois under cover of darkness. Carrying the 8th Light Infantry on our tanks and vehicles, our orders were “complete radio silence, no lights; tank column must not be broken and no firing except on order from the CO himself”’. Behind enemy lines, in total darkness and with no sleep, this was a nerve-racking journey. The Germans also had a similar plan — to escape under cover of darkness and as we moved down a narrow lane towards a crossroads, our scouts reported a German column approaching from the right. To turn 60 tanks and 20 other vehicles in such a narrow lane would have been courting disaster, we just had to press on. Then, a stroke of the greatest good fortune, the German traffic controller at the crossroads halted the German column and waved us forward. We will never know if he mistook us for a fellow German Division or had recognised us and wanted to avoid a disastrous close range encounter. That was not the only luck we had that night! Later we were fired on and took some casualties, but we held our fire and the enemy firing ceased. Again, the Germans must have concluded we were part of a retreating German Division.
As dawn broke on August 18th,we suddenly found ourselves looking upon an unexpected cluster of vehicles of the 2nd SS Panzer Division. All hell broke out; our tanks went into position and the infantrymen spread out and we opened fire with tanks and machine guns. German cars and trucks were on fire, people were running everywhere and the Germans seemed to be in a panic. They started to drop their guns and equipment and surrender. We took about 80 prisoners. Suddenly there was a roar of aircraft and we thought we were being attacked by Messerschmitts, perhaps 20 in all. Then we recognised they were Thunderbolts and we quickly lit flares to alert the pilots, but too late to avert the first attack. As the lead plane came in for the second attack, the pilot saw the signal and with a waggle of his wings quickly climbed, followed by the others. They circled for a while, probably making sure we really were Allied forces, wondering how we could be so far behind enemy lines. The narrow lanes and the dust from the dry roads had protected us and we took only a few casualties from the planes.

By now we were very tired, dirty and hungry, but morale was high and we pressed on to reach our objective at Chambois. My tank was in third position in the column as we slowly crawled forward through the narrow lanes. There was a heavy mist and as the sun rose we were dazzled by the reflections and had great difficulty scanning the horizons for enemy positions. Suddenly, I spotted an anti-tank gun, but before I could react there was a huge flash and my tank was rocked like a toy. I felt agonising pain in my leg and hand and there was blood everywhere — I feared I had lost a limb. I yelled through my microphone for the crew to get out and then half rolled, half fell out myself. The shell had pierced the armour plating of my Sherman, killing my radio operator instantly. Fortunately the tank had not caught fire and the other crewmen were alive. I had taken shrapnel wounds and the others carried me into a ditch. My tank was hit several times more before it finally burst into flames. This far behind enemy lines, there was no evacuation route for the wounded and I was pushed into a recovery tank from where I heard the rest of the battle with guns and explosions all around and every bump and jolt caused agonising pains to shoot through my body. Although I would take no further part in the fighting, the thought that I had two tanks and one anti-tank gun to my credit from the earlier battles was a consolation. I had no proper medical attention, but I was grateful to be alive.
We pushed on and eventually reached Chambois and took up positions near Hill 262, which General Maczek had christened ‘The Mace’. The next two days and three nights saw some desperate and bitter fighting as the Germans sought to prevent ‘The Gap’ from being closed*. On the 21st of August, the Canadians broke through from the other side and the gap was finally closed. On the 22nd of August 1944, I started my journey back to England and a new life. One year later, on August 22nd 1945, my son Michael was born.”

Footnotes:A full description of these battles can be found in John Keegan’s book ‘Six Armies In Normandy’. The chapter on the Polish Army concludes with the following, a fitting postscript to Mietek’s story:
“The Canadians’ diarist recorded that the scene they encountered when they relieved the Polish divisions was the most savage the regiment had ever encountered. The Poles had received no supplies for three days; they had several hundred wounded whom they had been unable to evacuate and they held some eight hundred prisoners. The road was jammed with burnt out vehicles, theirs and the enemy’s. There were corpses everywhere, unburied and dismembered. Amid these horrors, the Polish Commander received the Canadians shaking with emotion. His soldiers told long stories to the Canadians, who did not understand a word but roared with laughter all the same. During the next days, the bodies of 325 Polish soldiers killed in the battle of the Falaise Gap would be found makeshift graves near the positions where they had fallen. On the summit of The Mace, sappers of the Royal Canadian Engineers, in tribute to their comrades-in-arms, erected a makeshift signboard. It bore, in English, the simple inscription: ‘A Polish Battlefield’.”

Comments

MaryMaryQC said…
Horrific but humbling story.
You must be very proud of your grand father- did you ever meet him?
Will Herman said…
Hi Mary - Yes - like so many others, he was never able to return to Poland due to the Russian occupation of his home town (L'viv) and settled in Carlisle, where we visited regularly. Will