Battle of Wizna

Wladyslaw Raginis (1908-1939) – Captain of Polish Army, military commander during the Polish Defensive War of 1939 of a small force holding the Polish fortified defense positions against a vastly larger invasion during the Battle of Wizna.

Between September 7 and September 8 was fought the “Battle of Wizna. It is often known as “the Polish Thermopylae” – a reference to the 300 Spartans who bravely held off an enormous Persian army in Ancient Greece.

Polish historian Leszek Moczulski claims that between 350 and 720 managed to defend a fortified line from around 40,000 German troops. For three days they defended the fortified line and they managed to postpone the encirclement of Independent Operational Group Narew that was fighting nearby.

Captain Wladyslaw Raginis was the hero of the battle and the commanding officer of the Polish troops. He swore that he would hold position and fight Germans as long as he was alive. Fighting for 3 days without rest or sleep they started losing the battle. In the end, Captain Raginis told his troops to surrender and he committed suicide by throwing himself on a grenade.

On September 3, Polish troops were attacked from the air, but their own aircraft could not fight back. The Podlaska Cavalry Brigade was operating in the area, but after multiple attacks on its flank on the night of September 4, it received an order to retreat toward Mały Płock and cross the Narew River.

On September 7, scouts of General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst’s 10th Panzer Division captured a village near Wizna. Polish scouts from the mountain rifle division suffered losses and were forced to retreat to the southern bank of the Narew. Polish engineers managed to blow up the bridge and because of that, the Germans faced difficulties to cross the river. In the night patrols of German soldiers managed to cross the river but were repelled with great casualties.

In Polish culture, the Battle of Wizna is known as the Polish Thermopylae because of the small number of Polish soldiers who fought against a great number of German soldiers.  Here are the statistics:

Polish forces:

720 men (20 officers)

Six 76 mm guns

42 MGs – machine guns

2 URs – antitank rifles

German forces:

42,200 men

350 tanks

657 mortars, guns and grenade launchers

Aircraft support

The area of the village of Wizna was fortified to shield the Polish positions in the south and guard the crossing of the Narew and Biebrza rivers. The 5.5 mile (9 km) line of defenses along the high riverbanks passed between the villages of Kołodzieje and Grądy-Woniecko, with Wizna in the center. In addition, the most important road, Łomża–Białystok, passed through Wizna. However, this defensive line was poorly fortified. If broken, an enemy would have access northwards to Warsaw. The construction of the main fortifications began only in April 1939.

By September 1, the Poles had built six heavy bunkers with reinforced concrete domes weighing 8 tons each, two lightweight concrete bunkers, and eight machine gun pillboxes protected by sandbags or earthworks. Four more bunkers were still in the construction stage when the war began.

The average thickness of the bunker walls was nearly 5 feet (1.5 meters). They were also protected by steel plates nearly 8 inches (20 cm) thick, which no Wehrmacht cannon could pierce at that time.

In addition to the bunkers, anti-personnel and anti-tank barriers were erected and many trenches and ditches were dug. To flood this area in order to create additional difficulties for an adversary, the plan was to destroy the dams on the Narew and Biebrza rivers. However, a record dry summer and low water levels prevented that from happening.

Despite their unfinished state, the Polish bunkers were of excellent quality. The fortifications were located on hills, which gave them a large radius of sight and many opportunities for shooting.

Raginis was not only outmanned 60:1 but also had to deal with an extremely formidable foe: General Heinz Guderian. Guderian was one of Germany’s best commanders, known for his infiltration tactics, where strong points on a heavily defended front would be bypassed with special combat teams.

Polish engineers destroyed the only bridge over the Narew, thereby temporarily stopping the Germans. German infantry patrols crossed the river and attempted to advance to Giełczyn, but suffered heavy losses.

On September 8, German General Heinz Guderian received an order to advance through Wizna towards Brześć. The next morning, his troops invaded the Wizna area and were combined with the “Lötzen” Brigade and 10th Panzer Division.

The Poles were vastly outnumbered. German planes dropped leaflets ordering them to surrender, in an attempt to unnerve them and avoid combat. They stated that most of Poland was already under their control, and that “further resistance would only prove futile.” Just when all hope was lost, Raginis found the means to bolster the courage of his men. He swore that he would never leave his post alive, no matter the consequences. Inspired and ready to accept their fate, the soldiers were now prepared to leap into the jaws of death.

The Germans proposed a truce and attempted to force the Poles to surrender, including through threats to shoot their captured comrades if they did not end their resistance. Soon after, the Germans conducted an aerial and artillery bombardment. The Polish artillery was forced to retreat to Białystok. After the bombing, the Germans attacked the northern flank of the Polish troops.

Two platoons of Polish troops were attacked from three sides, but the Germans suffered losses. After strong artillery fire, the Polish commander of the Giełczyn area, First Lieutenant Kiewlicz, received an order to burn the wooden bridge over the Narew and retreat to Białystok. Some of his troops managed to escape from the German encirclement, and joined the forces of General Franciszek Kleeberg in Białystok.

At the same time, the southern Polish fortifications were surrounded and could not repel a tank attack. They did not have anti-tank weapons at their disposal but, hiding in the bunkers, the Poles could still fire at enemy infantry.

Despite this, by 6:00 PM the Polish troops in the trenches and field fortifications had been forced to retreat to the bunkers. German tanks managed to cross the line of defense and advance to Tykocin and Zambrów. However, the German infantry suffered heavy losses and could not follow the armored units.

Lt. Col. Tadeusz Tabaczyński was unable to send his troops to the aid of Raginis, although he was less than 19 miles (30 km) away from him in the fortified area of Osowiec. On September 8, Marshal Edward Śmigły-Rydz ordered the 135th Infantry Regiment, which made up the reserves of Wizna and Osowiec, to retreat to Warsaw.

By the time this order reached the troops, it was too late. The troops on the Wizna line were surrounded. Assaults on the fortifications around Wizna continued. On September 10, German troops using artillery and tanks destroyed all but two of the Polish bunkers. Regardless of the large number of dead and wounded troops, those in the remaining bunkers continued to resist.

In order to force the Poles to stop the resistance, Heinz Guderian demanded that Raginis cease-fire and surrender, threatening to shoot prisoners of war otherwise.For a while, resistance continued.

Eventually Captain Raginis, badly wounded but still in command of what was left of his forces, ordered his men to lay down their arms and surrender. However, true to his oath, he refused to surrender. After his men left the final bunker he committed suicide by throwing himself onto a grenade.

Several dozen Polish soldiers were taken into captivity. The rest fell in battle. Many civilians were murdered in Wizna, and Poland would suffer terribly under Nazi occupation. Polish soldiers fulfilled their oath until the very end. The heroic struggle against overwhelming odds is nowadays one of the symbols of the Polish Defensive War of 1939 and is a part of Polish popular culture.

Although the Polish units were almost entirely composed of conscripts mobilised in August 1939 rather than professional soldiers, their morale was very high. After the war, Guderian had trouble explaining why his Corps was stopped by such a small force. In his memoirs, he attributes the delay to his officers “having trouble building bridges across the rivers”. During the Nuremberg Trials, he remarked that Wizna was “well-defended by a local officer school.”

The resistance of Raginis’ soldiers slowed the advance of the Germans for three days, but could not prevent the occupation of Poland. Even so, the feat of Raginis’ troops is one of the symbols of Poland’s struggles in World War II.

Official Polish losses are unknown. According to various estimates, about 40-70 Polish soldiers survived, some of whom were captured. In his diaries, Guderian estimated German casualties at 900 people, at least 10 tanks, and a number of armored vehicles.

While even though nearly all the men in this famous last stand were killed in battle, the message it sent was one of great valor and bravery. These brave men kicked off one of the bloodiest segments in human history with an act of selflessness. They showed that there is value in setting an example, in creating a legend: in slowing the advancement of evil, even if it comes at the cost of your own life.

Though the engagements on the Narew were intertwined and all equally effective, it is often only the defence of Wizna that receives any popular attention. Perhaps because of the circumstances of Wladyslaw Raginis’ death, it is portrayed as a heroic last stand: Poland’s Thermopylae. Indeed, the memorial at the bunker site consciously echoes the Greek epitaph with the words `Go tell the Fatherland, Passer-by, that we fought to the end, obedient to our duty.’ The heroism of Raginis and his men, their determination and self-sacrifice, is undoubted, particularly as they were effectively abandoned to their fate by their superiors. Whether they appreciated it or not, the crossings on the upper Narew were crucial to the success of Guderian’s plan to drive further east towards Brest, and the few days’ delay that were inflicted upon the Germans there were of vital assistance to the wider Polish withdrawal southward.

However, the more breathless claims attached to the Wizna story are rather harder to justify. Wizna alone did not – as some accounts suggest – halt the 40,000 men of the German 3rd Army in their tracks; that accolade must be shared with the men who defended Lomza and Nowogrod further to the west. Neither did the battle last for three days. Though the Germans first arrived at the river on the 7th, there was evidently little genuine combat in the sector until the morning of the 10th, when the assault on the fortifications began in earnest. It is perhaps telling in this regard that contemporary German sources give Wizna very little mention, beyond complaining of the `weak bridgehead’ there and the resulting slow progress. To them, it seems, it was little more than a skirmish during the frustrating wait to cross the river.

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