Born in 1892 in Austrian Poland, Stanislaw Maczek attended Lwòw University between 1910 and 1914, studying literature and philosophy.
He joined the Austrian Army during World War I and served on the Italian front. Following Austria’s collapse at the end of the war, Maczek joined the new Polish armed forces. Maczek served in the cavalry and helped to defend the city of Lwòw from Soviet incursions.
By the end of the Polish-Soviet conflict he had risen the rank of major and made the military his life’s career.
In 1937, he was promoted to the rank of Colonel and given the task of organizing Poland’s first fully mechanized unit, the 10th Mechanized Cavalry Brigade (also known as the Black Brigade on account of the black leather coats worn by its tankers).
In September 1939, this unit was assigned to Army Krakow in southern Poland. During the German invasion, Maczek led his unit to screen the retreat of Army Krakow. The brigade distinguished itself in numerous actions. Following the collapse of the “Rumanian Bridgehead” in the wake of the Soviet invasion, Maczek and many of his remaining men retreated across the Hungarian border and were interned.
In October 1939, Maczek escaped from Hungary and made his way to France. He was promoted to the rank of brigadier general and was charged with rebuilding a Polish mechanized force.
By May 1940, a new unit, the 10th Armored Cavalry, was ready for action under Maczek’s command. The unit contained many veterans of the Black Brigade who had followed their commander to France. The unit saw action in the invasion of France, and again found itself screening a retreat, this time of the French 4th army. Maczek’s men distinguished themselves at the battle of Montbard on 16 June 1940, but once again the fortunes of war left Maczek and his command fugitives and refugees.
Although some Polish soldiers were prevented from escaping by unsympathetic French authorities, Gen. Maczek and many of his men managed to escape to England.
In February 1942, Gen. Maczek was given command of the new 1st Polish Armored Division. Based in Scotland, Maczek was given the task of training a diverse group of recruits into an effective modern force. By D-Day, this division was ready for combat and was shipped to Normandy in July 1944 where it joined the Canadian 1st Corps. Maczek and his division played a critical role in the final stages of the struggle for Normandy.
In August 1944, British and Canadian forces drove from the north and Gen. George Patton’s Americans pushed from the south, threatening to trap the bulk of the German army in the west. In the face of fierce German resistance, Maczek executed a plan to cut the German bottleneck at Falaise.
On 18 August, elements of the Polish 1st Division linked up with Americans of the 90th Infantry Division and captured the high ground in the path of the main German escape route. Fierce resistance, however, meant that the U.S.-Polish breakthrough was isolated from the main body of the Allied force. From 18 to 20 August, the Poles and a regiment of the U.S. 90th held off desperate German attacks while directing Allied heavy artillery on to the retreating German columns. By the end of the battle for Falaise, the German army in France had been decimated. (Some of the German units faced by the Poles were the same ones they had faced in 1939.) F
Following the breakout from Normandy, Maczek’s division participated in the Allied advance with their Canadian comrades. The 1st Armored liberated the cities in of Ghent and Ypres in Belgium.
During the final Allied push beyond the Rhine, Maczek was assigned to capture the northern Dutch city of Breda. His skillful outflanking moves forced the German defenders to abandon the city without putting up major resistance, sparing the city and inhabitants from major destruction and loss of life.
On 3 May 1945, the division fought its way into the outskirts of Wilhelmshaven and two days later Gen. Maczek accepted the surrender of a large part of the German Navy headquartered in that city.
In May 1945, Maczek was assigned overall command of the Polish 1st Corps.
At the end of the war, Poland was given to the Soviet Union and Maczek and his men were left with few options. Facing persecution, imprisonment, and possible execution if they returned to their communist-occupied, homeland, many choose to stay in the west. Maczek’s service to the Allied cause was all but forgotten and he was left without a home or prospects for the future. After the war, the hero of Falaise worked as a waiter in a Scottish pub opened by one of his former sergeants.
Belated recognition came when Maczek was invited back to the city of Breda for the anniversary of its liberation in 1985 and given a hero’s welcome.
He died on the 11th of december in 1994 at the age of 102 and was laid to rest in the Polish military cemetery in Breda alongside his men who had fallen in the fight to free the city.