The forgotten heroes of Normandy
In a small French square, Cahal Milmo joins the Poles - forgotten heroes of Normandy
Monday 07 June 2004
When Stefan Barylak came to the small Normandy town of Potigny in 1929, he did so as an outsider - the seven-year-old son of impoverished Polish labourers seeking work in the surrounding iron mines.
On a summer's day in 1944, he came back. This time as the liberator of his adopted hometown - known locally as "the French Warsaw" - in the wake of the D-Day landings at the heart of a column of tanks manned by men from the land of his birth.
Mr Barylak, 82, did not change his routine yesterday. He got up and conducted his morning inspection of what he calls "mes amis" - the graves of his friends and comrades from the 1st Polish Armoured Division who are buried in a dedicated cemetery just a few miles from Potigny. Then he attended a ceremony in the town to commemorate the role of Poland's soldiers in Operation Overlord, a memory that he has been keeping alive. "I lived here," he said. "I came back here with the liberation. It's my job to make sure those who never left are honoured."
It was by pure coincidence that the Polish armoured division, 17,000 men who had fled Hitler's invasion of their country in 1939 by escaping to Britain, became the liberators of Potigny as they fought across Normandy from the D-Day beaches beside the Canadian army. But for its inhabitants, no more appropriate force could have ended the German occupation. By the end of the 1930s, the influx of Polish immigrants to this small town of neat brick-built houses had been so large that Poles made up 60 per cent of the population.
Mr Barylak, a silver-haired grandfather with a hint of a Polish accent, said: "I was 17 when the war broke out. A friend and I decided immediately that we wanted to join up, to fight to liberate Poland with the Allies.
"But it did not happen that way. France herself was defeated so we had to flee to England. We built a force and it was a great privilege to come back and help set Potigny free. It was my homeland, where I had built my life. When I reached my home, I found my father. I was 22. It was a precious moment."
While the battles fought by their American, British and Canadian allies are at the forefront of popular memory of D-Day, the role of the Polish force - the fourth largest - has been, at times, overlooked.
Under the command of General Stanislaw Maczek and equipped with 380 American Sherman tanks, the 1st Armoured Division played a vital role in a ferocious battle just to the south of Potigny at the town of Falaise. The Allies had managed to cut off a large number of German regular army and SS divisions but it fell to the Poles to close the pocket, a task which they performed despite being low on ammunition and facing multiple counter-attacks by better-armed opponents. The Poles lost more than 500 men.
The reunification of Mr Barylak and his father after D-Day was part of a wider embrace between the Polish soldiers and the population of Potigny, who by the outbreak of the war had helped to turn the region into a big producer of iron and steel.
Mr Barylak, who has dedicated himself to preserving the memory of his comrades by tending daily to the Polish war cemetery in nearby Urville, where 613 of his colleagues are buried, said: "I was injured later in the war. I was hit after we entered Belgium, but I came back. Potigny was my home. We were proud of what we helped to build. We were proud to get rid of the enemy. Of course, we did not reach Poland itself. We had to settle for our French Warsaw."
The émigré community in Potigny, which saw its last mine close in 1988, has now been established for more than four generations and is more French than Polish in outlook. None the less strong links remain; a bakery produces Polish specialties, and the population turned out in force to witness the unveiling of a plaque by Poland's President, Aleksander Kwasniewski. An honour guard of veterans was enthusiastically awarded a spontaneous rendition of "Stolat" or "One more hundred years", a traditional greeting song.
It has long been a courtesy among the French to laud the D-Day veterans as honorary Frenchmen. The same courtesy was extended by the naturalised Poles of Potigny yesterday. Genevieve Najuszwsky, 70, who was 11 when the D-Day landings took place, said: "I came from Poland but I am French. For what they did, I know that is how these men are also considered here."
But among some of the veterans who attended the short ceremony in the small town square, a sense lingered that, while the extraordinary endeavours of their comrades had justly been long celebrated, they had been cheated by history.
One former tank crewman, originally from Lodz, said: "Many of us had no chance to fight Hitler when he invaded. Then, after the war, the Communists took over and it was embarrassing to them that we had fought alongside capitalists. For a long time, it was only in places like Potigny that our dead comrades were recognised."
Some 20 miles to the north, on the coast at Arromanches, a glittering cast of 17 heads of state, whose presence brought much of north-east Normandy to a halt, were preparing to recognise the contribution of the one million men who poured ashore in the first days of Operation Overlord with the full pomp of an international pageant.
But in an unremarkable square in rural France, it fell to Mr Kwasniewski to give a nod towards past silences. "For these Polish soldiers, the battle for Normandy was a baptism of fire. Some never saw an independent Poland. We owe them great thanks for their profound sacrifice."
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