Polish platoon leader

 

20-year-old Second Lieutenant leads her male platoon

in a successful charge to capture a German stronghold

By K. Jean Cottam PhD
Canadian Historian
 
Emilia Gierczak, circa 1943 or 1944. Photo via Wikipedia.  

Emilia Gierczak. Also called Elka. (Born 1925, Poland; died in combat 17 March 1945, Kołobrzeg, Pomerania, Poland.) Second Lieutenant, Polish Army formed in the Soviet Union. Platoon commander, 10th Infantry Regiment, Poland, World War II.

Polish patriotism was an important element in Gierczak's upbringing. It was assumed that Gierczak's parents (Józef and Leontyna) had named her "Emilia" because the name was made famous by the legendary Emilia Plater, a leader in the Polish insurrection against Tsarist Russia of 1830-31. Her death in combat, was romanticized by the great nineteenth century Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz in his famous poem entitled the Death of a Colonel.

Similarly to her fellow Polish women officers, Gierczak was trained at the Infantry Officers' School in Riazan', Soviet Union. Her ambition was to study medicine after the war had ended.

At first Gierczak served in the famous "Emilia Plater" Women's Battalion, initially subordinated to the Polish "Tadeusz Kosciuszko" 1st Division created in the Soviet Union in 1943. She was among Battalion soldiers trained as line commanders of male companies and platoons in the various branches of service and front-line units of the new Polish Army (due to drastic shortage of Polish male officers, in part caused by the massacres of inmates of Soviet PoW camps for Polish officers in Kozel'sk (Katyn), Starobel'sk and Ostashkov, as well as the unsuitability for officer training of many of the Polish Army's male recruits.)

Gierczak distinguished herself during the fighting on the Pomeranian Rampart and fell in combat while leading a male assault group. Here is an eyewitness account of her death on 17 March 1945:

"She was charged with a difficult task — to capture a  stoutly defended building. She could have waited until it got dark to do this, but she didn't want anyone to think that she was afraid... She was never to learn that the mission was accomplished, for she was hit in the forehead as she moved up to embolden her men, who had earlier gone to ground, by stirring them to action by her personal example. So the devil himself took possession of the platoon! Henceforward, no obstacle could deter the men from avenging the death of their woman-commander!"

Gierczak's memorabilia, including her last letter to her mother, are on display in the Military Museum in Kołobrzeg, a seaside resort and port on the Baltic formerly known by its German name "Kolberg," where she was killed and which her platoon was instrumental in capturing. A street in Kołobrzeg as well as a number of schools and Polish scouting organizations have been named after her.

Bibliography

Cottam, K. Jean.  "Veterans of Polish Women's Combat Battalion Hold a Reunion." Minerva: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military, 4 (1986), 1-7.

Jagielski, B. "Było to w Kołobrzegu..." [This Happened in Kołobrzeg]. Żołnierz Polski [Polish Soldier, hereinafter referred to as ZP], 10 (11 March 1979), 14-15.

Kuliński, Rajmund. "Ponad historią legenda" [Legend Surpasses History]. ZP, 10 (11 March 1979), 10. Rychliński, Czesław. "Szły z nad Oki" [They Came from the Shores of the Oka River].  ZP, 11 (17 March 1945), 14-15, 18-19.           

Unger, Piotr M. "Ludowe Wojsko Polskie 1943-1945" [Polish People's Army, 1943-1945]. ZP, 4 (27 January 1980), 22.

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