70 Years Ago This Month
By Douglas W. Jacobson
“The brigade will not surrender under any conditions.”
That order was given by Colonel Stanislaw Kopanski, commander of the fledgling Polish Carpathian Rifle Brigade on 19 June, 1940 in French held territory on the border between Syria and Lebanon. Kopanski had just learned of the capitulation of France and was ordered by General Eugene Mitterhauser, commander of the Armée de Levant in Syria, to disarm the Carpathian Brigade and support the new Vichy government of France. When Kopanski refused and issued his order, he was taken hostage by General Mitterhauser.
The Polish Carpathian Brigade was originally organized under orders from Polish Commander-in-Chief, Wladyslaw Sikorski in April, 1940 to support the French Army of the Levant (Armée de Levant) in Syria. The brigade was to be modeled after the standard French mountain brigades for eventual landings in the Balkans. The early recruits were Polish soldiers who had survived the September ’39 campaign and made their way out of Poland overland by way of Romania, Hungary, Greece and Yugoslavia. During May and early June of 1940 the brigade’s numbers grew as Polish and Greek ships brought additional Polish recruits from other locations around the Middle East. By 19 June the brigade was comprised of more than 3,500 soldiers and 300 officers. Morale was high and they were ready to fight. Then the French capitulated and Colonel Kopanski was taken hostage.
It didn’t last long. The decision to capitulate and support the puppet Vichy government was not universally popular among French commanders in Syria. In fact, several officers on Mitterhauser’s own staff openly criticized his decision and lobbied to support the Poles in their determination to continue the fight. One day after taking him hostage, Mitterhauser released Colonel Kopanski and the Carpathian Brigade defected to Palestine where it joined up with British forces.
Based in Latrun, the brigade was equipped with British weapons, trained and reinforced up to 5,000 soldiers. The brigade then moved to Egypt to fortify the port of Alexandria. By January of 1941 the brigade had developed into a fully functional motorized infantry unit, was re-named the Polish Independent Brigade Group, and moved to the port of Hafia.
During the offensive of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, the Polish Independent Brigade Group was moved to the front near Mersa Matruh and then to Sidi Baggush. In August, 1941 the brigade took over the western perimeter of Allied forces during the Siege of Tobruk. In December, after more than a month of intense fighting, the brigade seized the strategically important Madauar Hill and broke through to join up with the British 8th Army, finally ending the siege. As a result of their courage and tenacity in battle, the brigade was awarded the prestigious title of Tobruk Rats by their British and Australian comrades-in-arms.
Douglas W. Jacobson is the Polish-American author of the award-winning book, NIGHT OF FLAMES: A Novel of World War Two. Mr. Jacobson has been a frequent contributor to this newspaper and has written a second historical novel set in Poland in World War Two which will be released in May, 2011.