2nd Lieutenant Henryk Gałązka, Podhale rifle battalion
In May 2010, George Gałązka, the son of a polish veteran from the 1st Polish armoured division came to visit Normandy. Naturally, his steps led him to the Memorial of Montormel.
We are glad to publish today a short account of the life and deeds of his father, as George wrote for us.
Henryk Gałązka, 1947 Corporal Cadet Officer Henryk Galazka was just 20 years old when he fought on Hill 262 in August 1944. He was a member of 3rd Company, Podhale rifle Battalion, which he had joined three and a half years before in Scotland. Henryk survived the battle and the subsequent campaign. He eventually settled in the UK with his wife he met along the way!
Henryk had a comfortable pre-war childhood in south west Poland. He was one of four children of a businessman living in Krakow. In early 1939, aged 15, he and Moszek, his elder brother, were sent to school in southern England.
Six months later the brothers anxiously followed the news of the attacks on Poland and their aftermath. They could only speculate about what had happened to their family (they would later discover that their father and brother survived, but their mother and sister did not). Fortunately, they were able to continue their schooling.
In February 1941, when Henryk was 17, both brothers joined the Polish Army, enlisting in the Batalion Strzelcow Podhalanskich. This unit, together with other Polish land forces under British command, was based in Scotland.
The brothers spent more than three years in Scotland. Polish forces were initially used for coastal defence on the east coast and subsequently organized for an offensive role with the creation, in February 1942, of the 1st Polish Armoured Division.
The BSP became one of three infantry battalions which made up the infantry brigade of the Division. Henryk was to stay with the BSP for 6 years, while Moszek transferred to the Division’s field artillery in 1943 and to its 1st Anti-Tank Regiment in May 19441.
At the end of July 1944 both brothers landed in Normandy with the Division.
The Division first went into action on 8 August as part of the Allied thrust south from Caen (Operations Totalise and Tractable). This advance culminated in the battle to close the “Falaise Gap”.
Identity card, Henryk Gałązka, 1947 The BSP was one of the units on Hill 262 (North) during the period 19 –21 August. Initially it was positioned at the southern end of the hill and then, on 20 August, it moved to the northern end overlooking Boijos.
Henryk later described looking down from the hill and seeing Germans running from cover to cover as they bypasssed the position in their escape to the east. He also spoke of the grim sight of German POWs on the hill hit by incoming fire from their own side.
During the three days fight, the BSP suffered 90 casualties (of these 24 were killed, missing or died subsequently of wounds), equivalent to ca.12% of its strength. Half of this total occurred on 21st August as a result of the last desperate German attacks that morning2.
From the end of August 1944 until March 1945 the BSP was part of the advance through France, Belgium and Holland and in almost continuous contact with the enemy.
In April 1945 it was part of the attack across the Dutch border into northern Germany. Its campaign ended at the German coast west of Wilhelmshaven on 4 May 1945.
Henryk was in the front line throughout, except for a few weeks in October 1944 following a mortar wound to the head received in Belgium.
Reflecting on his experiences, he said that his single most frightening experience had actually happened in his first days of action, during Operation Tractable, when Allied heavy bombers mistakenly dropped their loads on Polish and Canadian units. The BSP lost 7 dead and numerous wounded as a result.
Halina Gałązka in Germany, 1946/47 The 1st Polish Armoured Division’s thrust into Germany yielded an unexpected prize. On 12 April 1945 a patrol encountered a POW camp at Oberlangen. There they discovered 1700 women members of the Polish underground Armia Krajowa (“Home Army”) from the Warsaw uprising!
One of the inmates of the camp was Halina, Henryk’s future wife, whose father (a Polish army captain) had fallen into Soviet hands in September 1939 and is now confirmed to have been a victim of the Katyn massacre of April 1940. Halina, her sister and mother lived in Warsaw through the German occupation. She participated in the Warsaw uprising which started on 1 August 1944 and was taken into German captivity when it collapsed on October 3rd, 1944.
In September 1945 Halina joined a Polish ATS Battalion which was working with the 1st Polish Armoured Division in north west Germany. As a result, Henryk and Halina met and, in November 1946, married.
Henryk continued to serve in Germany until October 1947, latterly as a platoon commander with 4 Company, BSP.
Henryk became one of about 100,000 Polish servicemen under British command who settled in the UK after the war. In 1948 Henryk and Halina moved to London where they lived for the rest of their lives and brought up two sons. Henryk had a successful career in the supermarket industry. He died in 1998. Halina died in 1978.
1Part of Moszek’s unit was on Hill 262, but it seems most likely that he was in action nearby at the time of the encirclement. Moszek also survived the 9 month campaign through northern Europe, serving throughout in the
1st Anti-Tank Artillery Regiment. Like Henryk he continued to serve in Germany until 1947 and then settled in the UK, where he married and brought up a daughter. He worked all over the world for various international organisations. He died in 1998.
2During the 9 month campaign, total BSP casualties were consistent with other Allied infantry formations. Of the thousand men who served in the battalion during the period, more than 60% were either killed, missing or wounded.