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Polish Brigade awarded highest Dutch military honour for WWII heroism

One of Prince Bernhard’s last wishes granted

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

THE HAGUE - A Dutch military honour which has not been awarded since 1952, will be bestowed on the First Polish Independent Parachute Brigade (Samodzielna Brygada Spadochronowa), to recognize its wartime efforts to help liberate the Netherlands. Survivors and other representatives will receive the Military Willem’s Order from Queen Beatrix on May 31. The Queen is the Grand Master in the Order.

The MWO honour, established in 1815, is the highest Dutch military award for bravery in war. In 1952, during the Korean War, the government of Socialist Premier Willem Drees decided to stop awarding the WMO. The order will be awarded sixty years after Queen Wilhelmina had nominated the Polish Brigade for the WMO. A resurrected Committee Bravery Awards endorsed the 2004 proposal.

The Brigade played a pivotal, but largely unheralded role in the Allied airborne invasion of the Netherlands in September 1944. The Polish soldiers distinguished themselves especially in the Battle of Arnhem, part of the ultimately failed Operation Market Garden. British commander Montgomery blamed the failure in part on the Brigade, and its leader Major-General Stanislaw F. Sosabowski. The Poles in various areas contributed to the Liberation of the Netherlands in April and May, 1945, frequently at great sacrifices to themselves. Montgomery however, continued his disdain for Sosabowski and blocked efforts to honour the Polish soldiers with any Allied decorations.


During the final planning of Operation Maket Garden, which assigned a role for the Poles, Sosabowski had expressed his misgivings about the viability of the airborne invasion. Montgomery who hatched the plan, also had dismissed criticism of the plan by other Allied commanders. After the Operation Market Garden failed, British Lt.-General Browning requested that Sosabowski be removed and that a younger, more cooperative officer assume the command. It was left to the Polish President-in-exile, Raczkiewicz, to inform Sosabowski of the move. The letter gave no reasons for his dismissal, and it was clearly written under British pressure.

After WWII had ended, Sosabowski remained in England and pursued a number of occupations; including a stint as an ordinary labourer in an electronics factory. In 1960, he published his memoirs, Freely I Served. Stanislaw Sosabowski died in September 1967.

For years, Dutch Prince Bernhard and others unsuccessfully lobbied for the cause of the Polish allies. In 2004 statements by Prince Bernhard, the former commander of the Dutch Homeland Security Forces (BS), called it ‘extremely neglectful’ that the role of the Polish Brigade never officially was acknowledged according to military traditions.


Rehabilitation of the Poles was one of the last wishes of the Prince, the father of Queen Beatrix. The public statements made by Prince Bernhard shortly before his death in December 2004, finally drove the point home with officials. To set things right after sixty years, the Dutch government as an exception set aside the 1952 decision by the Drees cabinet and reinstated the 1946 WMO nomination by then Queen. Wilhelmina herself was a Grand Master of the Order, as were such dignitaries as Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, U.S. President F.D. Roosevelt, and then Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower. Over 6,000 people have been awarded the Militaire Willemsorde, many of them posthumously.

Sosabowski attended many of the official Airborne Commemorations at the war cemetery in Oosterbeek. At the May 31 ceremony, Queen Beatrix will present his heirs with the Bronze Lion, the second-highest award for military bravery.

In 1945, the Brigade was attached to the Polish 1st Armoured Division. The Division had been successful in liberating towns in Flandres, such as Passchendaele and Ghent, and the Dutch city of Breda. In the winter of 1944/1945, it was stationed south of the Great Rivers near Moerdijk and early in 1945, the Division helped liberate parts of eastern and northern Netherlands, especially in Overijssel, Drenthe and Groningen, and the towns of Emmen, Coevorden and Stadskanaal. In April 1945, the 1st Armoured Division entered Germany. On May 6, it seized the naval base in Wilhelmshaven. There the Division ended the war and was joined by the 1st Independent Parachute Brigade. The Division handled occupation duties until 1947, when it was disbanded.

The last person awarded the MWO - in 1955 - is Capt. J. Anemaet, a former member of the Special Troops attached to the UN contingent in the Korea conflict. Two other Dutch soldiers were honoured posthumously for their acts during the Korean War: the Commander of the Dutch contingent, Lt.Col. Marinus P.A de Ouden (40) and Johan F. Ketting Olivier (29), a soldier in the NDVN, the Dutch Detachment United Nations.