FREELY I SERVED – Review by Mark Barnes

Autobiographies have many purposes. They allow us a window into the lives of the great and the good where we learn how it was to be that person. Sometimes they can be exercises in self justification and not really serve the writer well in the long run. They are, for some, an opportunity to make a wad of cash. They can be a pack of lies. This superb book is a chance for the author to set the record straight. It does a good job and goes some way to restoring the reputation of a thoroughly decent soldier. While his career is genuinely interesting and his passion and patriotism shine through, the real meat is about Market-Garden and his relationship with British generals.

I have to take us back to A Bridge Too Far where I was first introduced to the author. Cornelius Ryan gave himself the task of telling as much of the story of the battle that was then available and it must inevitably be the case that the full story of the Polish story was not the easiest to tell and became lost in the bigger picture. I haven’t read Roy Urquhart’s account of the battle, but in it, so General Sosabowski says, he makes comment about the difficulties created by the Pole’s attitude. We know for definite that ‘Boy’ Browning had no time for him and that Monty got rid of him after the battle. So, getting a chance to read his side of the story is potentially refreshing.

The book was first published in 1960 and it appeared at a time when the old world was pretty much in place. Poland was still under the Soviet boot and the war was not that long in the past and most of the major actors in this story were still alive and kicking. You cannot help but draw the conclusion that Sosabowksi was as frank as he could be and yet there was much more to say. In fact it seems like a case of what wasn’t said that makes the difference.

From all the accounts I have read, Sosabowski was an uncompromising patriot who would not allow his command to be used and abused when his one aim was to take part in the liberation of Poland. He was a tough and intelligent soldier with recent combat experience against the Germans and he had seen much of the often tedious and down right infuriating inner workings of armies at home, in France and in Britain. Armies can be strangled by bureaucracy and the machinations of personalities. Sosabowski never really had the patience for this reality. His role was heavily burdened by the state of affairs both in his own country and for the thousands of exiles in the UK. His outlook, narrow or otherwise was something the British, however sympathetic, could never have truly appreciated. He never got to grips with the people who mattered or the realpolitik of the whirlpool he was swimming in.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable and fast paced book written by one of the most fascinating characters of the story of the North-West Europe campaign. I warmed to him immensely and I don’t think it really needs hindsight to see that he was ill-served by his allies. His political masters were railroaded into shafting him and I have some sympathy with them. It would be a happier story had Poland been truly liberated at the end of the war, but it wasn’t and, for me, one of the saddest sights of recent years was the line of Polish graves at Oosterbeek, which illustrate the tragedy of post war politics.  Britain went to war for Poland and yet the Poles were barred from marching in the great London victory parade of 1946 to appease Moscow. How this must have hurt men of the calibre and stout heart of Stanislaw Sosabowski. He ended up taking menial jobs within the boundaries of the Polish West London community, where he died in 1967. It isn’t fair, but life does that a lot, doesn’t it?

This ranks as one of my favourite personal accounts of the war. We know he is being polite and using a big slab of tact, but it’s all here; written or otherwise. The translation is excellent and I hope the author was pleased with the efforts of his two anonymous friends. They served him well. I feel a need, now, to read Roy Urquhart’s book. None of them are new, and so much more information is available, but the foundation of the Market-Garden story is built on these works and all budding historians of the operation should read them. Self included.

By Mark Barnes for War History Online

The Memoir of the Commander 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade 1941-1944
By Major General Stanislaw Sosabowski
Published by Pen & Sword Military
ISBN: 978 1 78346 261 2

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.