POLAND – Tanks Pre-WWII

After the First World War, Poland was revived as an independent state by grouping together the territories previously occupied by Germany, Russia and Austria. The. new Polish national army came into being soon afterwards from a nucleus formed by a Polish corps which had been organised in France. Interest in armoured vehicles soon appeared, when units of the Polish Army were sent for training periods with the French Army. One regiment of tanks, equipped with Renault FT machines, arrived in Poland in June 1919 and one of its battalions took part in the Russo-Polish conflict of 1919-20, which soon took a quite different form from the former entrenched type of warfare which had prevailed on the Western front. In Poland, small mechanised forces, combining armoured cars with motorised infantry and truck- drawn artillery, were often engaged in deep raiding parties.

The Russo-Polish War was ended by a peace treaty in 1921, and the Polish armoured forces were reorganised along French lines. While the armoured cars were given to the Cavalry, the tanks became part of the Infantry and were established into a tank regiment with three battalions.

Between 1923 and 1930, most of the activities of the Poles in the tank development field were concentrated on continuous attempts to improve the Renault FT tank. One of the first stages in this direction was by substituting new laterally flexible tracks – designed by S. Kardaszewicz – which were composed of twelve steel cables fitted with steel grousers. Although the speed was increased to 12kmh (7.5mph), the Kardaszewicz tracks were not accepted as standard and a similar fate occurred to another pattern with steel plates introduced by an officer of the 1st Tank Regiment. Later, it was decided to up-date the Renault FT, at least as far as armament was concerned, by fitting it with a newly designed turret carrying both a 37mm gun and a coaxial 7.92mm Browning machine-gun. Some other redesigns were to increase the performance to I3kmh. A number of Renault FT tanks were also rebuilt into specialised variants including smoke producer tanks and radio/command tanks.

From late 1924 onwards, numerous conferences were held by the Polish military authorities on the subject of constructing a domestic heavy tank capable of a break- through role as well as infantry support missions. A light tank was also considered as a replacement for the Renault FT. Despite opposition from the Chief of the Infantry branch, the KSUS department drew up a specification for a new tank. Dated 1925, this specification requested a weight of 12tons, an armament composed of a gun with a maximum calibre of 47mm, complemented by one heavy and one light machine-gun, all-round vision equipment and an electrically started engine which could drive the tank at a speed of 25kmh, with a range of action of 200-250km. The go-ahead was given for a competition between the Polish S. A. B. E. M. S. and ‘Parowoz’ companies and a Czech firm, for the design of a so-called WB-10 tank. Sophisticated designs and even prototypes were submitted by the competitors, but trials conducted with them revealed that they were not acceptable. The WB-10 project was therefore terminated with- out further development.

In 1928, there appeared in Great Britain the two-man Vickers Carden-Loyd Mark VI tankette, a truly outstanding design which attracted a great deal of attention. This tiny tracked armoured vehicle could be either used as a machine-gun carrier or as a light tractor, and it was sold to numerous foreign states in one form or another. Poland purchased one sample from Vickers-Armstrong Ltd and soon went on to produce a domestic development based upon a similar formula. Designated TK. 1, the Polish tankette was a 1.75ton, 2-man vehicle powered by a Ford motor. Through an intermediate model, the TK. 2, further development led to the somewhat heavier TK. 3 which was accepted as the production model. The TK. 3 became the first armoured tracklaying vehicle manufactured in quantity in Poland. It was produced under the parentage of the state-run PZI institute, and orders for 300 machines were fulfilled from 1931-32 onwards. A TK. 3 was demonstrated in Yugoslavia as a competitor for the Czech Skoda S-1 (MU 4/T-1) tankette but no order was placed for it.

By the late twenties, little progress had been made in procuring new equipment. Several foreign tanks, such as the Czech wheel-and-track KH. 50, the French Renault FT M. 26/27 (with Citroen-Kegresse trackwork) and the Renault NC. 1 (NC. 27) had been demonstrated in Poland but no procurement programme had been planned. The year 1930 was however marked by a significant event: the infantry tank regiment, the cavalry armoured car squadrons, and the artillery armoured trains, were all combined into an independent branch of the service. With a new internal organisation including two tank regiments, one armoured car group, and two armoured train groups, this was called the Bron Pancerna. The need for a more powerful armoured vehicle – the tankettes being incapable of an actual combat role – forced Poland to turn her attention to a further Vickers product, namely the Vickers-Armstrong Six-ton tank, (Vickers Mark ‘E’), which was soon to gain a worldwide reputation for a whole decade. In fact, between 1930 and 1939, Vickers-Armstrong Ltd sold over 190 machines of that type (tanks and tractors) to foreign countries – Bolivia, Bulgaria, China, Finland, Greece, Japan, Portugal, Russia and Thailand (Siam) – but the largest order came from Poland with a total of 50 (other sources give 38) tanks with either the single and twin turret arrangement.

The fact that the Vickers-Armstrong Six-ton tank was well within the capacity of the Polish technology, and as it offered some potential for further development, the PZI design bureau was entrusted with the study of a homemade copy. Subsequently PZI produced the 7 TP, a 9ton twin turreted tank which was to be a considerable step forward in design over the Vickers original. At first, the Armstrong-Siddeley engine of the Six-ton was re- placed by a licence-built Saurer 6-cylinder diesel engine which developed 110hp, so making the Polish 7 TP the first diesel-powered tank to reach production status. The 7 TP armour was also 4mm thicker than the Six-ton armour. The first 7 TP to be built by PZI left the works in 1934 and production continued at a slow tempo up to I939.

Around the mid-thirties, the question of designing tanks in Poland had become a very controversial matter. Two schools of thought were in opposition: the first one defended the launching of domestic design and production programmes while the second one, represented by the Chief of the Armoured Force himself, considered this as a waste of time and money which could be better spent in purchasing well-proven foreign tanks.

One of the favourite fads of certain tank designers between the mid-twenties and the mid-thirties were the multi-turret tanks, relying on several guns and machine- guns to be able to fire simultaneously on different targets. While Germany and Japan more or less investigated the three-turret formula, only Britain and Russia translated it into fact with their A. 9 and T-28. As late as 1936, Poland also dallied with the formula and drew up her 20/25 TP project of which three alternatives were proposed. The first one came from the government-owned BBT design bureau and was to have a weight of 23tons, a crew of seven and an armament composed of one 40mm (or 75mm) gun with three machine-guns, two of them being located into front sub-turrets. Maximum armour thickness was specified at 50mm. The second one, issued by the KSUS Committee, explored a diesel-engined 22ton tank, with a crew of six, a 35mm thick armour and the same armament as for the BBT variant. The third and last edition of the 20/25 TP project was a proposal from the PZI concern which put forward a design for a 7man, 25ton diesel-powered tank with an armour up to 80mm; being already outmoded since its design stage, the whole project was cancelled. It would have been a waste of money, and of limited Polish industrial resources.

Surprisingly enough, the development of the tankette concept had been continued in Poland over the years, through progressive steps. In 1933, the TK. 3 had given rise to the TKS, slightly heavier than its parent. Powered by a Polski-Fiat motor, the TKS had armour protection capable of withstanding small calibre AP bullets, embryonic forms of optical equipment consisting of a periscope and a sighting telescope and a strengthened suspension. This newly patterned tankette had been put into production in 1934, with an order for 390 vehicles. Following the lines already taken by Vickers-Armstrongs Ltd with their Carden-Loyd Patrol Tank (I932), the next stage in the Polish tankette development emerged during 1934. It was a turreted midget tank designated TKW, of which only a few prototypes were constructed. An ultra- light self-propelled gun, fitted with a 37mm Bofors anti-tank gun mounted in the front plate, was designed on the basis of the TKS and became known as the TKS-D. A small number of such vehicles were constructed in 1936 but the design was rejected after trials. The TK series was finalised as the TKF; this variant was powered by a Polski-Fiat engine and carried two machine-guns, one of which was capable of anti-aircraft fire. In 1936 also, it was decided to investigate the possible adaptation of either the Danish Madsen or the Swiss Solothurn 20mm cannon for this type of vehicle but the trials conducted with these foreign weapons proved to be very deceptive and a homemade weapon of this calibre was eventually conceived. The Polish 20mm FK cannon was ready in 1938 and its mounting on TK. 3 and TKS tankettes started in 1939 after suitable modifications of the vehicles. Only a few were so modified when the war broke out and brought to an end further Polish armoured fighting vehicle development.

When trying to find further successful foreign designs, Poland had turned her interest to the United States where, by 1928, J. Walter Christie introduced his fast tank chassis which utilised a new coil spring suspension acting on pivoted arms. Considerable interest in this Christie fast tank had been shown by the United States, Russia, Poland and later – via the Russian BT – by Great Britain. Orders for nine machines – five for the United States, two for Russia and two for Poland – of the newly developed Model 193I had been accepted by the firm run by J. Walter Christie, the US Wheel Track Layer Corporation, of Linden, New Jersey, USA. However, Poland defaulted to take delivery of her two samples which were later purchased by the US Army to supplement the five machines originally ordered.

Polish interest in Christie tanks was to resume in 1936 when BBT drew up plans for a wheel-cum-track fast tank of its own but based upon the American design as far as the suspension system and the twin purposes running gear were concerned. The Polish version of the Christie tank was to mount the same Bofors turret and 37mm gun as the last Polish version of the Vickers Six-ton tank and be powered by an American La France V-I2 cylinder motor developing 210hp. A prototype, designated the 10 TP, was actually built in I938 and undertook trials. It was contemplated as the main equipment for the four mechanised cavalry brigades foreseen in the modernisation programme of the Polish Army, which had been laid down in I936-7.

Some time later, a start was made on another project along the same lines but intended to run on tracks only. This 14 TP, as it was known, was to have increased armour to that of the 10 TP and therefore a greater weight. As far as the maximum speed was concerned, this would have been greatly reduced in comparison with its parent, the 10 TP which could run on wheels at a speed of 75kmh. Neither the 10 TP nor the 14 TP, of which the uncompleted prototype was destroyed in September 1939, reached production status. Such an unfortunate fate for these tanks which showed so much promise would probably not happened if the development of a Polish-made Christie tank had begun as early as 1932-3, on the basis of the 193I machine which had been ordered then rejected.

While the production of the modified twin turret model 7 TP was proceeding slowly, it was decided to introduce a single version carrying a Bofors gun (the turret being manufactured by this same concern). This variant appeared in 1937, but the production was restricted by the difficulties of making armour plates and of procuring the turrets from Sweden. Afterwards, in 1939, some quibbles about its unsuitable armour thickness brought PZI to evolve a heavier variant with an improved engine, welded armour thickened up to 40mm in front, a strengthened suspension, wider tracks and a turret with a rear overhang which could accommodate both transmitter and receiver radio sets. The up-armoured 7 TP, which now weighed 11 tons, did not have time to go beyond the prototype or, at best, pre-production stage.

Meanwhile other tanks were under development at the PZI design bureau in the form of two ultra-light tanks which came into being on a common basis, namely the Pzlnz. 130 and the Pzlnz. 140. The former was a variant developed specifically as an amphibious tank and consequently was fitted with a rudder and a three-blade propeller for steering and propulsion in water. Prototypes of both models were constructed in 1936-37, using the same Pzlnz. 425 6-cylinder engine as a power plant. Contemplated for standardisation as the 4 TP, the Pzlnz. 140 was fitted with a turret which could accommodate a 20mm FK light automatic cannon and a coaxial 7.92mm machine-gun, while the amphibious Pzlnz. 130 was intended to be fitted with the same turret but carrying only either one or two machine-guns. At one time, it was hoped that the 4 TP (Pzlnz. 140) would be amenable to a 37mm gun armament but this project was abandoned. Both models were tested during the autumn of 1937 and showed some promise but also revealed defects such as overloading of the suspension and, for the Prlnz. 130, a lateral instability when swimming. From the purely military point of view, it was evident that such ultra-light tanks would be below an acceptable level of fighting capability because they were too thinly armoured and too lightly armed. In consequence no preparations for quantity production of these models were undertaken and the final fate of both prototypes is unknown. Two self-propelled gun projects, designed along the same lines, were also dropped.

With the political crisis which arose between Poland and Germany over the question of Danzig, it became vital to complete the mechanisation programme of the mid-thirties. In 1937, two horse cavalry regiments had already been converted – on paper – into motorised units, and the 10th (Motorised) Cavalry Brigade had been raised. This was later followed by a second large unit of this type. The formation of eight independent tank battalions was also considered, but if the weak point of the motorised brigades was the lack of suitable tanks, there were no tanks at all for the independent battalions. As a stop-gap measure until a range of new tanks could be produced, the Polish Armament Ministry decided to spend a French military loan granted in 1936 for the purchase, amongst other military equipment, of the complement for two tank battalions. Purchase of the S-35 was negotiated, but since this tank was not available for export orders, 100 light tanks of the R-35 type were ordered in April 1939. By August 1939 however, only one battalion, deducted from the French orders in production, had been received.

With the advent of the Second World War, Poland had 169 7 TP tanks, 50 Vickers Six-ton tanks, 53 Renault R-35 tanks, 67 Renault FT tanks, 693 TK and TKS tankettes and 100 armoured cars. Of course the Bron Pancerna was greatly outnumbered by the German Schnelle Truppen which were able to line up no less than 3,195 tanks (1,445 PzKpfw. I, 1,226 PzKpfw. II, 98 PzKpfw. III, 2II PzKpfw. IV and 2I5 PzBfw), supplemented by a number of formerly Czech PzKpfw. 35 (t) and PzKpfw. 38 (t), organised into 6 regular panzer divisions, 1 provisional improvised division and 4 light divisions. The famous Blitzkrieg tactics – combining an armoured sword-thrust at a vital point and deep sweeping actions with air dive bombing attacks – propounded by General H. Guderian, was employed for the first time and completely decimated the Polish armies in three weeks. Strangely enough, the R-35 battalion was not engaged in action, and on 17 September 1939, was evacuated to Rumania.

The unfortunate German-Polish War did not put an end to the Polish armoured forces. Many Polish soldiers having escaped to France, one ‘brigade polonaise’, with two battalions of R-35 tanks, was raised with them from April 1940 onwards. They fought gallantly during the French disaster and a number of them were, once again, evacuated to England. They formed, via an Army Tank Brigade and a reborn 10th Cavalry Brigade, the nucleus of an armoured division. Created in the spring of 1942, with Covenanter then Crusader III tanks, and later with Cromwell and Sherman tanks, the 1st Free Polish Armoured Division fought in Normandy, Belgium, Holland and Germany. Another Polish armoured brigade, formed in 1943 from personnel saved from Russian camps, had been engaged on the Italian front and later expanded into the 2nd Polish Armoured Division. Both units were demobilised after the war. When Poland was re-established as a state closely allied with Russia, the new Polish armoured forces received Soviet patterned tanks which were later built by Poland herself.

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Rokitna

Polish cavalrymen, in Austrian-Hungarian uniforms, fighting under Austrian-Hungarian orders. Although the cavalry charge near Rokitna was militarily unimportant, it held great symbolic meaning. Due to a misunderstanding, the 2nd Squadron of Uhlans launched an attack without infantry support. The cavalrymen were able to cross three lines of trenches but could not take control. As a result, only a very few Uhlans returned to their own lines.

On 13 June 1915, on the Eastern Front, Polish cavalrymen, fighting under Austria’s orders, but fired by Poland’s national aspirations, won a victory over the Russians at Rokitna. Nine days later, Austrian troops retook the most important of the East Galician cities, Lemberg, and were poised to cross into the Russian province of Volhynia. On the Polish front, the German army was making continuous gains: on July 18 more than 15,000 Russians were taken prisoner at Krasnostaw.

At the outbreak of the Great War, two Polish Legions were formed within the Austro-Hungarian army. They eventually increased to three brigades that participated in a series of important campaigns in the years 1914 to 1916. When the soldiers refused to swear loyalty to Germany, the Polish Legions were disbanded.

Units of the 2nd Brigade of Piłsudski’s Polish Legions were deployed in support of the Austro Hungarian 42nd Division at the village of Rokitna near Czerniowice (Chernovtsy), Bukovina. The 42nd Infantry Division tried to take village, but were rebuffed by the Russians entrenched there.

Russian counterattacks threatened the 42nd Division positions. It was decided that the second and third squadron of Uhlans under command of Rotmistrz Dunin-Wąsowicz would attack Rokitna at noon to relieve the pressure on the 42nd Division.

Dunin-Wąsowicz personally lead the charge. After crossing muddy terrain near Rokitnianka River, he placed 3rd squadron in reserve and attacked with the 2nd. In fifteen minutes the Polish Uhlans forced two lines of enemy trenches, creating great chaos and casualties amongst Russians soldiers. Despite the Polish determination, the cavalry charge was in vain due to insufficient infantry support. Out of 64 Polish Uhlans from 2nd squadron – only six survived.

Major battle scene shot for Polish independence film

The Charge of Rokitna, a Polish Legions cavalry charge against Russia in World War I, was re-enacted on Tuesday, 15th  August 2017, during shooting for a new movie to mark Poland’s independence.

The scene, the largest battle scene in the movie, is key to the Legions film which is due for release on 5 October 2018, ahead of Poland’s centenary of independence on 11 November 2018.

 

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Jasna Góra

The defence of the Pauline monastery of Jasna Góra against the Swedes, in November–December 1655. The engraving commemorates the miraculous intervention by the Blessed Virgin Mary to protect the monastery, which housed an icon of the Black Madonna, supposed to have been painted by St Luke the Evangelist (the icon dates from the fifteenth century). The failure of the siege marked a turning-point in the Swedish invasion, helping bring about a massive nationwide uprising, uniting all social classes against the invaders. In fact, of the comparatively small besieging force, only some 450 were Swedes. Most – around 1,000 – consisted of Polish troops who had defected in the early stages of Charles X’s invasion. This has done nothing to detract from the potency of the legend, which has helped to make the monastery the most celebrated religious site in Poland.

After the Thirty Years’ War ended in 1648, tensions remained high between Catholics and Protestants in Eastern Europe. The 1655-60 Second Northern War was one of the major aftershocks, pitting King Charles X Gustav’s Protestant Sweden against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth under King John II Casimir Vasa. Poland was supported by the Haps- burg monarchy, and while the duchy of Brandenburg-Prussia initially supported Poland, it switched sides twice during the war. By war’s end Prussia had become a sovereign state.

In 1655 the commonwealth was already at war with Russia on its eastern border when Sweden invaded from the west. Lithuania almost immediately broke away from Poland and allied with Sweden. The mixed Swedish and German mercenary forces of Charles X then swept through and occupied what was left of Poland and forced John II into exile in Hapsburg Silesia. Poles refer to the Swedish invasion and occupation as the Deluge.

By late November 1655 the monastery at Czçestochowa was the only fortified position in Poland that had not been captured. Charles X sent a mixed force of 2,250 Swedes and Germans and 10 light cannon under General Burchard Müller von der Lühne to finish the job. Jasna Gora also housed a number of valuable ecclesiastical treasures the Pauline monks were loath to let fall into Protestant hands. As a precautionary measure they replaced the Black Ma- donna with a copy and moved the original to the monastery at Glogowek for safekeeping.

Led by Augustyn Kordecki, the prior of the monastery, some 70 monks prepared to defend Jasna Gora. Kordecki had purchased 60 muskets and an extensive quantity of ammunition and hired 160 professional soldiers. Joining them were about 80 volunteers, mostly members of the szlachta, or Polish nobility. Mounted on the defensive walls were some 18 light cannon and a dozen heavier 12-pounders. Thus at the start of the siege while the attackers outnumbered the defenders 7-to-1, the Poles significantly outgunned the Swedes.

After several futile attempts to negotiate surrender, Müller began the siege on November 18. The superior Polish artillery held the attackers at bay, and on the 28th a nighttime sortie by the defenders destroyed two Swedish guns. At month’s end the Swedes received reinforcements of 600 men and three light guns. On December 10 more reinforcements arrived, including another 200 men, four 12-pounders and two 24-pounders. The Swedes now had proper siege artillery and a 10-to-1 advantage in men.

For a month the monastery withstood almost constant shelling. The Poles continually fired back, inflicting high casualties on the poorly entrenched Swedes. Additional Polish sorties killed more attackers and destroyed more guns, including one of the 24-pounders. The other 24-pounder exploded in position when it malfunctioned. Running low on ammunition and rations and surrounded by a hostile countryside in the midst of winter, Müller finally withdrew on December 27. The Swedes and Germans had suffered several hundred casualties, the Poles only a few dozen. Jasna Gora had held out, and Polish morale soared. After his return from Silesia in January 1656, John II held an April 1 ceremony in the cathedral at Lwow, entrusting Poland to the protection of the Virgin Mary and proclaiming her the patron and perpetual queen of Poland. By 1660 the Poles had driven out the Swedes, mopping up the Deluge.

A century later Jasna Gora was subjected to another major siege, after a 1768 revolt by the Bar Confederation of the szlachta against the Russian-dominated Polish crown. During the revolt a group of nobles under Casimir Pulaski defended Jasna Gora against a 1770-71 siege by a much larger Russian force that ultimately prevailed. Pulaski managed to escape but was forced out of Poland. Several years later he turned up in Paris where U. S. ambassador Benjamin Franklin recruited him for the Continental Army as a brigadier general and America’s first cavalry commander. Pulaski was killed during the 1779 siege of Savannah.

The Deluge, an 1886 novel by Nobel Prize-winning Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz, is a fictionalized account of the Second Northern War, its closing chapters devoted to the siege. Jasna Gora Monastery remains Poland’s most important pilgrimage site, as well as a major tourist attraction, with visitors numbering in the thousands on a typical day. The rebuilt defensive bastions appear much as they did in 1655, although no physical evidence of either the 1655 or 1770-71 sieges remain. For Poles Jasna Gora is hallowed ground twice over.

Battle of Klushino

 

There were some large-scale and decisive field battles in the wars of the Baltic theater (Orsza, Klushino, Dirschau, Warsaw, Kliszow, etc.), but they do not provide a clear test of the superiority of Mauritsian line tactics-this is true even of many of Gustav II Adolf ‘s battles-in part because terrain was often too broken to facilitate line tactics, troops lacked the drill to master more than the most elementary firing systems, and because commanders still preferred to trust to cavalry action to decide the final outcome. At Kirchholm and at Klushino Polish husarz cavalry routed much larger forces of Swedish and Scots musketeers and pikemen. Except in Swedish and mercenary forces pikes were not much used-janissary, haiduk, and strelets infantry largely dispensed with them. To substitute for pike protection musketeers were often deployed behind field fortifications or in a wagenburg.

The battles of Kokenhausen and Kircholm illustrate the devastating effects a well-timed, precisely aimed Husaria charge could have against even a much larger enemy. The two engagements also illustrate the marked superiority the concerted heavy cavalry charge had during this time over Western cavalry still trained in the caracole. However, it is important to note that neither victory would have been attained were it not for the close coordination of infantry, artillery, and cavalry required to create the perfect conditions for the Husaria to strike effectively. Luckily for the Husaria, during the early 17th century the Polish army was fortunate to have been led by a series of truly brilliant battlefield tacticians. In fact, just four years after Kircholm at the Battle of Klushino in 1610, Stanislaw Zolkiewski, despite being outnumbered five to one, skillfully used his Husaria to defeat a Muscovite army of 30,000 under the command of the tsar’s brother.

For the Husaria, their crucial role in such spectacular victories as Kircholm, Klushino, and Chocim solidified their importance as the Polish army’s elite arm. The latter battle in particular, which saw them man the ramparts at times alongside the infantry, earned them a reputation as universal soldiers that could fill any battlefield role when needed. Not surprisingly, the Husaria’s success and prestige, coupled with their noble pedigree and the fact that they were the only purely Polish (and Lithuanian) unit in the army, soon fostered a regimental culture and tradition markedly different from any other unit in the Commonwealth or indeed in Europe.

Sieges were more common than field battles and until the beginning of the eighteenth century the capture of enemy strongholds was considered a more important campaign objective than attriting or destroying enemy field armies. Until the mid-17th century, when some Baltic coast cities were refortified with trace italienne works, most for tresses were old curtain-wall stone fortresses and not very large (with the exceptions of Ivangorod and Smolensk), or, as in Muscovy and Lithuania, palisade or ostrog-style wooden fortresses with high towers. One would suppose both types to be more vulnerable to bombardment than the trace italienne, except that the heavy rains and early freezing of the ground made it difficult to dig trenches to bring siege guns close enough to the wall. Guns were more often moved and positioned behind shifting gabion lines than through trench approaches and behind fortified redoubts. 2 Rain and frost also complicated mining. Gunnery skills before the mid-seventeenth century appear to have been low; there may have been gunners of good eye who knew from experience or intuition how to point a piece, but there was little evidence that knowledge of the principles of scientific gunnery had spread far into Eastern Europe. Although the Muscovites followed the Ottoman practice of acquiring great numbers of heavy bombard-style guns (Russ. stenobitnye pushki, Turk. balyemez), these do not seem to have guaranteed success in besieging enemy castles and fortresses, so that the Muscovites were usually forced to fall back on lobbing incendiary shot over the fortress walls to start fires within and then taking the walls by storm assault.

A spectacular and decisive example of betrayal by mercenaries switching sides in mid-battle occurred at Klushino in 1610 when Vasilii Shuiskii was betrayed by De la Gardie’s Swedes, whose pay was in arrears. This threw open the road to Moscow to the Poles.

By the time the commonwealth was giving Charles IX cause to question his invasion of Livonia, things were starting to fall apart on the eastern frontier once again. Ivan the Terrible may have been a nightmare in life, but in death he was a catastrophe, a fact that Muscovy’s long border with the commonwealth turned into yet another war.

Ivan IV, in one of his many fits of pique, allegedly struck his eldest son with a staff during a fierce argument, killing him. Whatever the true cause of Ivan Ivanovitch’s death, it left the tsar’s half-witted son as the only heir. Fedor I took the throne in 1584, ushering in a period of utter chaos that came to be known as the Time of Troubles.

The sickly Fedor carried on with the help of his chief minister, Boris Godunov, who was proclaimed tsar upon Fedor’s death in 1598. But without unimpeachable legitimacy, and facing a state that had been in decline since the Livonian War, Godunov struggled against resistance to his rule. Ironically, his greatest threat came from a corpse: a series of three pretenders claiming to be Dmitry, a son of Ivan the Terrible who had supposedly died in 1591, bedeviled the stability of Muscovy.

When Godunov died in 1605, he had failed to defeat the “first Dmitry,” whose followers placed him on the throne and then murdered him in 1606 for marrying a Pole and filling the capital with unsavory foreign influences. Vasilii Shuiskii, a boyar, or Russian aristocrat, was elevated to tsar, his first order of business being the destruction of no less than two other Dmitrys and their enthusiastic followers. Bedlam reigned in Muscovy.

From Sigismund III’s perspective, the situation was delicate. The commonwealth was already at war with Sweden, after all. But the troubles in Moscow were drawing in Poles and Lithuanians who had devoted themselves to one or another of the Dmitrys and who now, thanks to increasing Russian consternation and xenophobia, were being killed in the chaos. The first Dmitry had been a Catholic and therefore was seen by Orthodox Russians as an interloper backed by Poland, a largely Catholic nation. Matters in Muscovy were taking an ugly sectarian direction.

Driven by this, as well as the signing of a new Russo-Swedish alliance, Sigismund opted for war against Muscovy in 1609. Chief on his list of priorities was Smolensk, the mighty fortress near Muscovy’s border with Lithuania, the conquest of which would place the commonwealth in an ideal bargaining position. He began siege operations against it in 1609, the year before his hetman Stanislaw Zolkiewski won his spectacular victory at Klushino against enormous odds. Matters took a decisive turn when a group of boyars in Moscow, having defeated Vasilii Shuiskii, elected Sigismund’s son Wladyslaw as tsar.

Smolensk, along with Danzig, Poland’s largest city, was one of the most heavily fortified places in Europe. Between 1595 and 1602, the Russians had undertaken the modernization of the city’s defenses, embarking on one of the grandest construction projects in European history. The result was a stronghold that Sigismund, with 22,000 men and some thirty heavy guns, could not take in less than two years.

But take it he did, opening all Muscovy to invasion. In one of the most notorious chapters of Russian history, a garrison of Poles occupied Moscow until 1612. Although they were ultimately starved into submission by an angry populace, the event served as the high-water mark of Poland’s interminable fight against Muscovy.

The Battle of Klushino, part of the Polish-Muscovite War of 1609–1619, served to highlight the strengths of Polish-Lithuanian tactics. But as dramatic as Zolkiewski’s victory was, it could do little to help shape events in a decisive manner in this part of the world where war had become endemic.

This was a part of the world where perpetual war was all but unavoidable. To begin with, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, created to ensure the safety of its citizens in a volatile region, lay near the epicenter of a four-way grudge match for control of the Baltic world. Moreover, dynastic complexities and the rivalries they invariably sparked locked the commonwealth in power struggles that paid little heed to borders. Religion, an inflammatory issue in Early Modern Europe, also played a role in fueling conflict, as predominantly Catholic Poland found itself surrounded by Orthodox and Protestant powers.

Then there was the nature of Eastern Europe itself, a vast, sparsely populated region that dissipated the best efforts of invaders, ensuring that wars rarely, if ever, ended decisively. Finally, there was Muscovy—the tsars of which proved most dangerous of all to Poland for their unyielding desire to gain access to the Baltic and command the vast, almost fluid, frontier that separated the two countries. Its control ensured the upper hand in this tumultuous part of the world.

Cavalry played an important role in battle and campaigning. The Poles won cavalry victories over the Swedes at Kokenhausen (23 June 1601), Reval (June 1602), Kirchholm (27 September 1605) and, over a much larger Russo-Swedish army, at Klushino (4 July 1610), although at Klushino the firepower of the Polish infantry and artillery also played a major role. At Kirchholm and Klushino, the mobility and power of the Polish cavalry, which attacked in waves and relied on shock charges, nullified its opponent’s numerical superiority and the Poles were able to destroy the Swedish cavalry before turning on their infantry. Exposed once the cavalry had been driven off, the Swedish infantry suffered heavily. At Kircholm, they lost over 70 per cent of their strength. This was a powerful reminder of the need to avoid an account of European military development solely in terms of improvements in infantry firepower. Similarly, on 8 July 1659 at Konotop, Russian cavalry were heavily defeated by steppe cavalry: the Crimean Tatars allied with Hetman Vyhovsky of the Ukraine and the Cossacks. The Russians lost largely due to poor reconnaissance and generalship: they let their main corps get lured into a swamp.

Polish cavalry tactics influenced those further west, not least thanks to commanders such as Pappenheim who had served in Poland. Aside from providing a warning about the customary emphasis on infantry, these battles also suggested that the novel military techniques that are held up for particular praise, were of only limited value. At Klushino, the Swedish force was largely composed of mercenaries familiar with conflict in Western Europe, while one of the commanders, Jakob de la Gardie, had served under Maurice of Nassau.

The Battle

The ability of Polish-Lithuanian troops to defeat western troops, when Zolkiewski led a small army of 5,556 hussars, 679 cossack horse, 290 petyhorcy (the Lithuanian equivalent), 200 infantry and two small field guns to victory at Klushino on 4 July 1610 against a combined Muscovite-Swedish army with a massive numerical advantage. Żółkiewski took his small army on a forced march at dead of night through difficult forested terrain to arrive just before dawn at the Muscovite-Swedish encampment. The Muscovites, led by Vasilii Shuiskii, numbered some 30,000 if the numerous peasant auxiliaries are included; of this, perhaps 16,000 were strel’tsy, pomest’e cavalry and mounted arquebusiers. The Swedes, led by Christoph Horn and Jakob de la Gardie, who had spent two years in Holland learning the art of war from Maurice of Nassau himself, were largely composed of French, German and British mercenaries, some 5–7,000 in all: on their own they possibly outnumbered the Poles Żółkiewski enjoyed the advantage of surprise, but his plan of an immediate attack on the two enemy camps before they awoke was thwarted. As the Poles emerged from the forest, they had to negotiate a palisade and a small village before reaching the enemy camps. At first light, as Żółkiewski’s men smashed gaps in the palisade and set fire to the village, the Muscovites and Swedes began to deploy. The battle which followed was a dramatic demonstration of the effectiveness and endurance of the Polish cavalry. Żółkiewski directed his first assault against the Muscovite horse on his right. With no possibility of a flanking attack, he sent Zborowski’s hussar regiment, no more than 2,000–strong, in a direct attack on the hordes of Muscovite horse. Samuel Maskiewicz, who took part, described how:

The panic-stricken enemy … began to stream out of their encampments in disorder; … the Germans were first to form up, standing in their usual fieldworks, on boggy ground by the palisade. They did us some damage, by the numbers of their infantry armed with pikes and muskets. The Muscovite, not trusting himself, stationed reiters amidst his formation, and drew up the common folk, a numberless horde so great that it was terrifying to observe, considering the small number of our army.

Some units charged into the mass of Muscovite horse eight or ten times:

for already our arms and armour were damaged and our strength ebbing from such frequent regrouping and charges against the enemy … our horses were almost fainting on the battlefield, for we fought from the dawn of a summer’s day until dinner-time, at least five hours without rest– we could only trust in the mercy of God, in luck and in the strength of our arms.

The hussars were seriously hampered by the palisade, which had only been partially demolished: the gaps were only large enough for ten horses to pass through in close order; this prevented them attacking in their usual extended formation and the steady fire of the foreign infantry, protected by the palisade, was causing heavy casualties. The Muscovite horse, however, was beginning to crack. Vasilii Shuiskii asked de la Gardie to support it with his cavalry. As the reiters advanced, however, the hussars exposed the caracole as a useless parade-ground manoeuvre:

they handed us the victory, for as they came at us, we were in some disorder, and immediately, having fired their carbines, they wheeled away to the rear in their normal fashion to reload, and the next rank advanced firing. We did not wait, but at the moment all had emptied their pieces, and seeing that they were starting to withdraw, we charged them with only our sabres in our hands; they, having failed to reload, while the next rank had not yet fired, took to their heels. We crashed into the whole Muscovite force, still drawn up in battle-order at the entrance to their camp, plunging them into disorder.

As the Muscovite cavalry fled, Żółkiewski turned on the Swedes. His hussars, many of whose lances were shattered, had little chance of defeating the ‘Germans’ unsupported. At this point, however, Żółkiewski’s small force of infantry and the two guns, which had become bogged down in the forest, arrived to rescue the situation. As the infantry and the cannon shot gaps in the palisade and inflicted casualties on the foreigners, Żółkiewski sent in Jüdrzej Firlej’s company, whose lances were still intact, against ‘the whole foreign infantry … standing in battle-order, protected by stakes, beside their camp … Firlej broke this infantry, having attacked it with courage. We … supported him; … having broken our lances, we could only join the attack with our sabres in our hands.’ As the rest of the foreign cavalry was driven from the field, accompanied by de la Gardie and Horn, the infantry took refuge in their camp. Abandoned by their commanders and by the Muscovites, individuals and groups began to slip over to the Poles. By the time Horn and de la Gardie returned to the battlefield, it was too late; they were forced to negotiate an honourable surrender. Many of the foreign mercenaries entered Polish service; de la Gardie led the Swedes and Finns to Novgorod.

Russian historians have frequently explained the outcome of Klushino as the result of foreign treachery. This is a travesty of what happened. Polish and foreign accounts agree that it was the Muscovite horse which left the battlefield first, and it was the foreigners who felt abandoned. If Klushino demonstrated anything, apart from the inadequacy of the pomest’e cavalry, it was that western methods were no magic elixir. Foreign mercenaries had been involved in Muscovy from the start of the Time of Troubles. De la Gardie had instructed Muscovite troops in western methods, especially pike tactics, and there were native Muscovite units of mounted western-style arquebusiers, officered by foreigners, at Klushino. Yet if western-style tactics certainly improved the defensive capacity of the Muscovite infantry, they could not win the war. For that, cavalry was still the decisive arm in eastern Europe. Pike and shot alone could not produce a military revolution in the east.

Eastern Onslaught

WINTER 1943/44–AUTUMN 1944

By incredible efforts and courageous fighting the German Army managed to slow down the Russian offensive on the central sector of the Eastern Front. Throughout July Army Group Centre was withdrawing steadily through Poland. Its weary soldiers had been forced back towards Kaunas, the Neman River and Bialystok. The last of the German infantry units capable of retreating along the Warsaw highway over the Vistula at Siedlce was undertaken and assisted by the crack Waffen-SS division Totenkopf and the Luftwaffe’s Hermann Göring Division. The whole German position in the east was now crumbling, and any hope of repairing it was made almost impossible by crippling shortages of troops. German infantry divisions continued desperately trying to fill the dwindling ranks. However, by the end of July the Red Army was already making good progress towards the Polish capital, Warsaw. On 7 August 1944 the Soviet offensive finally came to a halt east of Warsaw. Feldmarschall Model sent Hitler an optimistic report telling him that Army Group Centre had finally set up a continuous front from the south of Shaulyay to the right boundary on the River Vistula near Pulawy. The new front itself in Poland stretched some 420 miles and was manned by thirty-nine divisions and brigades. Although the force seemed impressive the German Army was actually weak; the divisions were under-strength, and were thinly-stretched. With these, the Germans were compelled to hold large areas along the Vistula River, which included Warsaw. What made matters worse was the fact that they faced a Russian force that was a third of the total Red Army. To the Germans, Warsaw possessed great strategic importance due to the vital traffic arteries running north-south and east-west, which crossed into the city. The Germans knew that if they wanted to keep control of the Eastern Front, they must hold onto the city at all costs.

As news reached Warsaw that the Russians were approaching, the Polish Home Army rose against the German forces in what became known as the Warsaw Uprising. In the north of the city the 4th and 19th Panzer Divisions, together with the Herman Göring Division, saw extensive action in trying to repulse the uprising. While the fighting raged inside the capital, north of the city Soviet troops had already made some impressive gains by pushing the 2nd Army towards the Narew River. Fortunately for the German troops the Red Army were too exhausted and the offensive ground to a halt.

But the lull in Poland was not mirrored elsewhere. In the north, Soviet forces were already in East Prussia threatening the German forces in that area by reaching the Baltic and cutting off Army Group North. In southern Poland the 1st Ukrainian Front captured Lemberg, while Romania fell to the 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian Fronts. Soviet forces had also penetrated Hungary, and its powerful armoured forces soon reached the capital, Budapest. On 20 August, the 2nd Ukrainian Front broke through powerful German defences, and the Red Army reached the Bulgarian border on 1 September. Within a week, Soviet troops arrived along the Yugoslav frontier. On 8 September, Bulgaria and Romania then declared war on Germany. It seemed that nothing but a series of defeats now plagued the German Army during the summer of 1944.

In a radical effort to stem the series of setbacks, General Heinz Guderian, Chief of the General staff, proposed that thirty divisions of Army Group North, which were redundant in Kurland, be shipped back to the Homeland so they could be resupplied and re-strengthened to reinforce Army Group Centre in Poland. Hitler, however, emphatically refused Guderian’s proposal.

As a consequence of Hitler’s negative response, by October Army Group North was, as predicted, cut off, leaving 4th Army with only four weak corps to defend East Prussia against the full might of the Soviet forces. In Army Group Centre the 3rd Panzer Army and 4th Army were holding tenaciously to a weak salient in the north, while to the southwest, along the Narew River, the 2nd Army was still holding the river line. Army Group A had dug a string of defences from Modlin to Kaschau, with the 9th Army positioned either side of Warsaw along the Vistula. The 4th Panzer Army had dug in at Baranov and was holding positions against strong Russian attacks. The 17th Army had fortified its positions with a string of machine gun posts and mines between the Vistula and the Beskides, while the 1st Panzer Army was holding the area of Kaschau and Jaslo.

For the remaining weeks of 1944 the German Army defended Poland with everything it could muster. The bulk of the forces left to defend the frontlines were exhausted and undermanned. With reserves almost non-existent the dwindling ranks were bolstered by old men and low-grade troops. Struggling to find more manpower, convalescents and the medically unfit were also drafted into the ranks into what were known as ‘stomach and ear’ battalions because most men were hard of hearing or suffered from ulcers. Poland it seemed would be defended at all costs, despite the age and quality of the soldiers that manned the lines.

WINTER 1944/45–MAY 1945

The year 1944 ended with the German Army still fighting on foreign soil trying desperately to gain the initiative and throw the Red Army back from its remorseless drive on the German frontier. But despite the skill and determination shown by the German soldiers in late 1944, most of them were aware that 1945 would be fateful – the year of decision.

In January 1945 along the Vistula Front hope dawned among some of the more fanatical commanders of the German Army. The strongest of the forces deployed along the Vistula against the Russians were in Army Group Centre. Its battle line ran more than 350 miles. However, each division that was placed on the front lines was perilously under strength and would not be able to contain a Russian attack for any appreciable length of time. On 13 January 1945 the Soviet offensive opened up and soldiers and Panzer crews from the 4th Panzer Army bore the brunt of the attack on the Vistula. Almost immediately the army was engulfed in a storm of fire. Across the snow-covered terrain Red Army troops and massive numbers of armoured vehicles flooded the battlefield. By the end of the first day the battle had ripped open a breach more than twenty miles wide in the Vistula Front. The 4th Panzer Army was virtually annihilated. Small groups of German soldiers tried frantically to fight their way westwards through the flood of Red infantry and tanks.

As the whole German military campaign in the east began collapsing it was proposed that all German forces located between the Oder and Vistula rivers be amalgamated into a new army group named ‘Army Group Vistula’. SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler was to command the new army group. German soldiers together with elite formations of the Waffen-SS were supposed to prevent the Soviets from breaking through. However, the once mighty German Army was now suffering from an unmistakable lack of provisions. By January 1945, the problems had become so critical that even children and old men were being thrown into what was now being called the last bastion of defence for the Reich. In Army Group Vistula the German Army could no longer function properly.

There was no contact between units on the battlefield, battalions were out of touch with their companies, and regiments had no link with their divisions. Successive blows by the Red Army began to tear apart Himmler’s Army Group and send scattered German formations reeling back westward towards the Oder or north-westwards into Pomerania. As the whole front began withdrawing both the 9th Army and 2nd Army’s right wings lost contact with each other. In a drastic measure to restore the disintegrating situation General Weiss, commanding the 2nd Army, tried to stabilise the front on the Vistula between the town of Thorn and Graudenz. But still Soviet forces were overwhelming many German positions and pushing back Hitler’s exhausted forces.

Despite the best efforts of the German Army to bolster its dwindling ranks on the Eastern Front, nothing could now mask the fact that they were dwarfed by the superiority of the Red Army. It was estimated that the Russians had some six million men along a front which stretched from the Adriatic to the Baltic. To the German soldiers facing the Russians, the outcome was almost certain death. They were well aware that what they had done in Russia and the occupied territories had caused the Red Army to exact a terrible revenge.

As the Nazi empire was sheared off piece by piece, Dr Josef Goebbels, the Reich’s propaganda chief, begun to switch from terror-mongering to reassuring the population that victory was just around the corner. However, in an atmosphere of near panic, stirred up by refugees and their stories of Russian atrocities, there was little to console them. Many stories had already reached the German front lines as to how the Red Army had raped and murdered women. The widespread panic among the civilians was causing the German command many problems, especially with supply and troop movements. In some areas the roads had become so congested with civilians and soldiers that many miles were brought to a complete standstill.

Out on the battlefield, the realisation among troops that they might lose the war was seldom admitted openly; but most of the soldiers already knew that the end would come soon. Troops were not convinced by their commanders’ encouragements especially when they were lying in their trenches subjected to hours of bombardment by guns that never seemed to lack shells. Poorly armed and undermanned, infantry and Panzer divisions were exhausted shadows of their former selves.

The last great offensives that brought the Russians their final victory in Eastern Europe began during the third week of January 1945. Marshal Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front surged into Silesia after the capture of Radom and Krakow. On the night of 27 January, the German divisions of the 17th Army pulled out of the region towards the Oder River. The principal objective of the Red Army during late January 1945 was for an all-out assault along the Baltic to crush the remaining under-strength German units that had formed Army Group North. It was these heavy, sustained attacks that eventually restricted the German-held territory in the north-east to a few small pockets of land surrounding three ports: Libau in Kurland, Pillau in East Prussia and Danzig at the mouth of River Vistula. It was here along the Baltic that the German defenders attempted to stall the massive Russian onslaught with the few weapons and men they had at their disposal. Every German soldier defending the area was aware of the significance if it were captured. Not only would the coastal garrisons be cut off and eventually destroyed, but also masses of civilian refugees would be prevented from escaping from the ports by sea. Terrified civilians eager to board the next ships to the homeland queued night and day until the next vessel came in. They were so desperate to leave that they stood out in the open, enduring constant bombing and strafing by low-flying Russian aircraft, whose presence was now unchallenged in the sky.

For the next several weeks thousands of civilians risked their lives in order to escape from the clutches of the Red Army. Even to the end of March 1945, as Soviet troops fought their way into the outskirts of Gdynia, the German Navy continued rescuing many refugees before the Russians could get to them. German soldiers too, even remnants of elite Waffen-SS units, found themselves faced with a similar experience. Thousands of dishevelled troops streamed towards the coast, mingling with countless numbers of terrified women and children. Just along the coast in Danzig, the Russians stormed the ancient Teutonic city, smashing into the rear of fleeing German troops who were making their way desperately along the Vistula estuary. To the German soldiers that saw Danzig fall, it marked a complete disaster along the Baltic. Russian soldiers, however, saw Danzig as a way of exterminating Teutonic culture, which had long since been despised. All over the city, they blew up old buildings, set alight churches and randomly executed groups of soldiers that had not raised the white flag of surrender, but had fought on until they ran out of ammunition.

Elsewhere along the Baltic coast isolated areas of German resistance continued to fight on, but still they had no prospect of holding back the Russians. Hitler made it quite clear that Army Group Kurland was not to be evacuated. To the Führer, Kurland was the last bastion of defence in the east and every soldier, he said, was to ‘stand and fight’ and wage an unprecedented battle of attrition. In fact, what Hitler had done in a single sentence was to condemn to death some 8,000 officers and more than 181,000 soldiers and Luftwaffe personnel. Those soldiers who managed to escape the destruction of Army Group Kurland retreated back towards the River Oder or returned by ship to Germany.

On other parts of the Eastern Front fighting was merciless, with both sides imposing harsh measures on their men to stand where they were and fight to the death. Since September 1944, Hitler had appreciated the importance of holding the city of Breslau from the approaching Red Army and declared it a fortress. As with other towns and villages lining the approaches to the Homeland, Breslau’s infantry formations consisted mainly of old men and young boys who were poorly-equipped and hastily trained for combat. Four months later in January 1945, the city was still poised for the arrival of the Russians. By February, the sound of approaching Russian guns brought the city to panic stations. It was the 269th Infantry Division, withdrawing in the face of the massive Soviet advance, that was given the objective of forming the main defence of Breslau.

To test the defenders of Breslau, the Red Army launched a series of probing attacks into the city. Four Soviet divisions then carried out a furious assault that penetrated Breslau’s defences. Volkssturm, Hitlerjugend, Waffen-SS and various formations from the 269th Infantry Division put up a staunch defence with every available weapon they could muster. As the battle raged, both German soldiers and civilians were cut to pieces by Russian fire. The Red Army drive was so powerful and swift that by 14 February the city was cut off and isolated, miles behind the Russian front.

During these vicious battles, which continued into May 1945, after Berlin had fallen, there were many acts of courageous fighting. Cheering and yelling, old men and boys of the Volkssturm and Hitlerjugend advanced across open terrain into a barrage of machine gun and mortar fire. By the first week of March, Russian infantry had driven back the defenders into the inner city and were pulverising it street by street. Lightly-clad Volkssturm and Hitlerjugend were still resisting, forced to fight in the sewers beneath the ravaged city. Almost 60,000 Russian soldiers were killed or wounded trying to capture the city, with some 29,000 German military and civilian casualties. When Breslau finally capitulated, the Red Army was bitter and vented its anger against the civilians.

As the massive Russian forces pushed ever westward, the German Army, along with the Waffen-SS, Luftwaffe, Volkssturm and Hitlerjugend formations, withdrew under increasing pressure nearer and nearer to the Homeland. With every defeat and withdrawal came ever-increasing pressure on the commanders to exert harsher discipline on their weary men. The thought of fighting on German soil for the first time resulted in mixed feelings among the men. Although the defence of the Reich automatically stirred emotional feelings to fight for their land, many soldiers were quite openly aware that morale was being completely destroyed. They had all received a message from the Führer telling them to fight to the death, and they no longer had the manpower resources or strength to wage a bloody war of attrition. More young conscripts began showing signs that they did not want to die for a lost cause.

Conditions on the Eastern Front were miserable not only for the newest recruit, but also the battle-hardened veteran who had survived many months of bitter conflict against the Red Army. The cold harsh weather during February and March prevented the soldiers digging trenches more than a few feet deep. But the main problems that confronted the German Army during this period of the war were shortages of ammunition, fuel and vehicles. Some vehicles in the divisions could only be used in an emergency and troops were strictly prohibited from using them without permission from the commanding officer. The daily ration on average per division was for two shells per gun. Thousands of under-nourished civilians, mostly women and slave labourers, were marched out to expend all their available energy to dig lines of anti-tank ditches. For the benefit of the newsreel camera, which was intended somehow to help bolster the morale of the troops, Hitler made a secret visit on 13 March 1945 to the Oder Front. In fact, Hitler did not meet one ordinary soldier at the front and was surrounded by well-armed SS guards. During his brief war conference on the terrible situation faced by his Army, he gave a formal speech on the necessity of holding the positions. He told General Busse, commander of the 9th Army, to use all available weapons and equipment at his disposal to hold back the Russians.

However, nothing could stop the Red Army’s drive. Out on the Vistula Front, German troops were now barely holding their wavering positions that ran some 175 miles from the Baltic coast to the juncture of the Oder and Neisse in Silesia. Most of the front was now held on the western bank of the Oder. In the north the ancient city of Stettin, and in the south the town of Küstrin, were both vital holding points against the main Russian objective of the war – Berlin.

By late March, the situation in Army Group Vistula had become much worse. Not only were supplies dwindling, but rations too were becoming so low that some soldiers were beginning to starve. In the ranks rations were more abundant: most days each soldier received an Army loaf and some stew or soup, which was often cold and not very appetising. But the main problem was the lack of clean drinking water. As a result of this, many of the soldiers suffered from dysentery.

The bulk of the Vistula front was manned by inexperienced training units. Some soldiers were so young that in their rations they were handed sweets instead of tobacco. More experienced soldiers observed that the Soviets were playing with them like ‘cat and mouse’. Sitting in their trenches, cowering under the constant Soviet shelling, almost all of the men seemed fixated on one thing: ‘the order to hurry up and retreat.’

Despite all its weaknesses on the Vistula Front, the German Army could still be a formidable opponent. Both young and old alike fought together to hold some kind of line in the face of the massive Russian onslaught.

In the last months of the war on the Eastern Front, German infantry divisions tried their best to form some kind of defensive line along an increasingly shrinking front. Exhausted and demoralised skeletal units that had been fighting for survival in previous weeks were now fully aware of the impending defeat in the east. Yet the German General Staff was still determined to fight at all costs, even if it meant throwing together unfit or badly depleted regiments and battalions.

In late March 1945, east of Berlin, German infantry and Panzer troops were compelled to hold the front against superior Soviet artillery and aviation. The German soldier had neither the manpower nor the weapons to hold the Russian onslaught, in spite of determined resistance along some sectors of the Front.

The Eastern Front, over which the German soldier had marched victoriously into heartlands of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, was now no more than 100 miles from the Reich capital. Between Berlin and the River Oder was a motley assortment of German soldiers, Waffen-SS, Volkssturm, Hitlerjugend and Luftwaffe troops preparing for the final onslaught of the Russian Army. When the final attack began on the River Oder on 16 April 1945 the German soldier was overwhelmed within days, and was slowly beaten back to the gates of Berlin. It was here that the German soldier fought out the last days of the war in the east until he was either captured or destroyed.

The Siege of Smolensk 1632-33

Mikhail Shein surrendering to the Poles in Smolensk

Smolensk War: Smolensk Voivodeship, showing in red the disputed territory.

Diplomatic maneuvering in Stockholm and the Crimea completed Russia’s war preparations. Gustaphus Adolphus had recently intervened in the Thirty Years War as an ally of the Protestant princes and consequently welcomed Russia’s proposed attack on Poland, hoping that it would secure his Livonian flank. Negotiations with the Tatars, although less smooth, finally resulted in the Khanate’s promise of neutrality.

Confident that Russia was ready, Filaret made his final choice for war when he learned of the sudden death of King Zygmunt III in April 1632. A Poland distracted by the quarrels and intrigues of an interregnum, Filaret reasoned, would be more vulnerable than ever. Accordingly Moscow ordered the concentration of the troops of foreign formation and commanded the cavalry troops to “ready themselves for service, assemble supplies, and feed their horses.” Voevody (district military leaders) and namestniki (provincial viceroys) were ordered to cooperate with the recruiting officers who would shortly arrive to verify the musters of the local nobility. All those processes required time. At last, by August the Muscovite state had at its disposal 29,000 troops and 158 guns. Overall command rested with the aged boyar Mikhail Borisovich Shein. Shein’s qualifications for his post were his close association with Filaret (the two men hand endured Polish captivity together), his prestige as a hero of the Smuta and his intimate knowledge of the fortress of Smolensk (as commandant of the garrison there during the Polish siege of 1609–11).

A nakaz, an instruction issued in the name of the tsar, spelled out for Shein the general objectives of the war and the overall strategy he was to follow in their pursuit. Russia’s goals were in fact modestly limited to the reconquest of the territories that had been lost to Poland in 1618. Russia’s forces were supposed to capture Dorogobuzh and as many other frontier outposts as they could, as quickly as possible. Simultaneously, they were to issue proclamations calling on the Orthodox subjects of the Poles to rise in rebellion. Then they were to move briskly to invest and take the important town of Smolensk, some 45 miles southwest of Dorogobuzh. Possession of Smolensk was critical to Muscovy’s plan for the entire campaign. The lands Russia wanted to reacquire lay roughly within the oval described by the Dniepr river to the west and Desna to the east. Smolensk was located on the Dniepr at the northern end of the oval, less than 30 miles from the headwaters of the Desna.

The war began splendidly for the Muscovites. By mid-October 1632, Dorogobuzh and twenty other frontier forts were in Russian hands. On October 18, Shein and the main army arrived at the outskirts of Smolensk and prepared to besiege it.

To seize Smolensk was, however, no easy matter, for the town was protected by series of daunting natural and man-made obstacles. The core of the city was ringed by a wall almost 50 feet high and 15 feet thick. Thirty-eight bastions furthered strengthened this defense. Although those fortifications had been considerably damaged during the 1609–11 siege, the Poles had recently devoted great attention to their repair. They had augmented them by erecting a five-bastion outwork to the west of the city (known as King Zygmunt’s fort), which was furnished with its own artillery and subterranean secret passages to facilitate sorties and countermining. To the north the city was defended by the Dniepr and to the east by a flooded marsh. The southern side of the city consequently offered the most promising approach for an assault, but here the Poles had build a strong, palisaded earthen rampart. The garrison, under the Polish voevod Stanislaw, was also relatively strong, comprising 600 regular infantry, 600 regular cavalry, and 250 town Cossacks. Stanislaw could rely on the townspeople to man the walls in a pinch and could also enlist the services of several hundred nobles of the local levy, who, armed and mounted, had taken refuge within the town of Smolensk at the news of the Muscovite advance.

Smolensk thus confronted Shein with formidable military problems: a resolute garrison, strong fortifications, and natural obstacles. Shein’s troop dispositions were commendable for prudence, economy, and foresight. He recognized that the same natural obstacles (the Dniepr, the flooded marsh) that protected the Poles to the north and east also hemmed them in, serving as natural siege works. That made a complete set of lines of countervallation unnecessary. Shein therefore deployed his troops to achieve three purposes: the possession of all tactically significant positions, such as patches of high ground around the city; the protection of his own lines of communication, supply, and retreat; and defense against potential relief columns. He ordered Colonel Mattison to occupy the Pokrowska Hill due north of the town of Smolensk on the opposite side of the Dniepr. The site was clearly the one most suitable for the emplacement of artillery batteries. Due west of the city Shein stationed the formations of Prince Prozorovskii. Prozorovskii, whose back was to the Dniepr, enclosed the rest of his camp with an enormous half-circle of earthworks (the wall alone was over 30 feet high). His purpose was both to menace the Polish ramparts on his right flank and to serve as the first line of defense against any Polish army of relief coming from the west. Between Prozorovskii and the walls of Smolensk, Shein placed van Damm’s infantry and d’Ebert’s heavy cavalry. Colonel Alexander Lesly, Colonel Thomas Sanderson, and Colonel Tobias

Unzen, in command of the main body of Russian forces (almost nine thousand men) positioned themselves along the perimeter of the enemy’s palisades to the south. To the east Karl Jacob and one thousand Russian infantry of new formation formed a screen behind the flooded marsh. Two and a half miles farther east, in a pocket formed by the bend in the Dniepr, was Shein’s own fortified camp. Shein’s camp protected not only the army’s wagon trains and magazines, but also two pontoon bridges the Muscovites had erected across the Dniepr to secure communications with Dorogobuzh, where the reserves of food were stockpiled.

Those arrangements were certainly intelligent, yet Shein from the beginning was incommoded by a lack of artillery. Heavy rains in the late spring and early summer of 1632 had turned the roads to mud. In the interests of surprise, Shein had decided to advance on Dorogobuzh, leaving most of his heavier guns behind. Thus the Muscovites had only seventy mostly light artillery pieces on hand in October. The rest of the field artillery was not delivered to Shein until the end of the year. It took until March of 1633 (five months into the siege) for the Russians to drag the nineteen heavy siege guns from their arsenal in Moscow to Shein’s camp on the Dniepr. Part of the delay resulted from the massive size and weight of the siege pieces: more than 450 wagons were required to carry the guns, the shot, and the powder to the theater of war; the two largest guns fired projectiles weighing about 200 pounds.

Without heavy guns, and siege pieces in particular, Shein was unable to effect a close blockade of Smolensk. The Poles profited hugely from this. News of the siege of Smolensk reached Warsaw by early November. Within two weeks the Diet appropriated money to put a 23,000-man crown army into the field. In the meantime the Grand Hetman of Lithuania, Prince Krzysztof Radziwill, mustered elements of the separate Lithuanian army and advanced on Smolensk himself. Although Radziwill did not have enough troops to raise the siege unaided, he was able to bring Smolensk some succor. By means of two night operations in March of 1633 he broke through Shein’s lines and delivered food, munitions, and more than a thousand reinforcements to the beleaguered town. That, however, was the limit of Radziwill’s capability. Thereafter he withdrew from the city and engaged in guerrilla attacks on the Muscovite camps. Those attacks were more annoyances than serious threats.

By April the Russians had demolished the earthen ramparts the Poles had constructed south of the city. Shein now trained his guns on the walls of Smolensk itself in the hope of achieving a breach. Simultaneously he ordered that two mines be dug: one west from the camp of Jacob; and one northwest from Lesly’s position to the Malaclowski gate. By mid-July, Muscovite gunners had reduced one section of wall almost 100 feet broad to rubble, while Lesly’s sappers, under the direction of chief engineer David Nichol, had succeeded in implacing in another section a gigantic bomb of twenty-four powder kegs. On the appointed day the mine went off with such concussive force that tons of rock and timber were catapulted into the ranks of the Muscovite soldiers, who had been assembled too close to the wall for safety. In addition to the hundreds of casualties inflicted on the infantry, the blast also took the lives of thirty miners, who had been unable to scramble out of the tunnel in time. Still worse, Shein was not even able to exploit the 400-foot breach the mine had created, because the Polish defenders improvised hasty (but nonetheless substantial) barricades from the debris. The Russians consequently had no choice but to break off their attack.

They never got a chance at a second assault. In part as a response to the gravity of the military emergency, the Polish and Lithuanian magnates in Warsaw had composed their differences and had chosen the son of the deceased monarch as Poland’s new king. On August 23, 1633, King Wladyslaw IV arrived at Smolensk at the head of 23,000 men. From that point on the campaign was an unbroken litany of Muscovite military disasters.

On September 7 Wladyslaw launched diversionary attacks against both Mattison and Prozorovskii that made possible the conveyance of still more men and supplies into Smolensk. On September 21, despite Russian countermeasures, the Poles succeeded in smashing Mattison’s defensive works to the north and west. Believing that the Pokrowska hill was now untenable, Shein ordered it evacuated.

The siege of Smolensk had effectively been lifted. The Muscovite army was now split in two; almost 10 miles separated Shein from the isolated detachments still holding positions west of Smolensk. The destruction of van Damm, d’Ebert, and Prozorvoskii was now Wladyslaw’s top priority. On the night of September 27 the Poles began a series of nonstop assaults. Powerless to resist the pressure and aware that certain of his foreign troops had already deserted to the enemy, in early October Shein ordered Prozorovskii to abandon his enormous fort and retire to the main Russian camp downriver. This retreat entailed leaving tons of guns, powder, and supplies behind. Prozorovskii tried to blow up this military equipment prior to his departure, but a sudden downpour unfortunately extinguished the fuses and delivered his arsenal to the Polish king intact.

Augustus II Friedrich Wettin

August II Grand-Duke of Saxony and King of Poland shaking hands with the King of Prussia in 1728. By 1756, friendship between the two nations was history. – Source: de Silvestre, Dresden, Wikipedia

In 1674, after a divided election, one of the best Polish military commanders, Jan Sobieski, was elevated to the throne. He rebuilt the army, signed a treaty with France, and planned to subjugate Prussia and to strengthen the Polish position in the Baltic region. The magnates, however, were more interested in Ukraine. The Commonwealth returned to an anti-Turkish alliance with the Habsburgs. In 1683 a military expedition led by Jan III Sobieski saved Vienna, which had been besieged by the Ottomans. As a result of this new war with the Turks, Poland recovered its three lost southern provinces in 1699. The king, however, died in 1696, disliked by the nobles, who opposed the royal family’s plans to introduce a hereditary monarchy in Poland.

Not only was the 1697 royal election divided, but for the first time a candidate from a clear minority became king. Most nobles voted for Prince Conti of France, but the Elector of Saxony, Augustus II Friedrich Wettin, supported by a smaller group of nobility, came to Poland with his army and took power. Saxony was blossoming under his government, and he impressed the Polish nobles by converting from Lutheranism to Catholicism. He had ambitious plans and intended to realize them using Poland as a springboard.

Augustus wanted to strengthen royal power in the Commonwealth and to gain Livonia and Courland for his family as a hereditary property. He promised several monarchs various Polish territories in exchange for their support. In 1700 Saxony joined a Russian-Danish anti-Swedish coalition to recover Livonia, taken from Poland by Sweden in the seventeenth century. Formally, the Commonwealth did not participate in the Great Northern War of 1700-1721, but most of its operations took place on Polish territories and devastated them. In 1704 Charles XII of Sweden ejected Augustus from Poland and put the palatine of Poznań, Stanisław Leszczyński, on the Polish throne. In 1706 Augustus, defeated in Saxony, renounced all claims to the throne, but his supporters in the Commonwealth fought together with Russian armies against the Polish supporters of the Swedes and Leszczyński. In 1709 Charles XII suffered a major defeat at Poltava in Ukraine. The Swedes were subsequently driven from the Commonwealth, controlled now by the Russians.

Augustus returned to Poland and tried to ensure his absolute power, which led to a conflict with the nobility. Russias tsar, Peter the Great, mediated the dispute, dictated a settlement, and forced both sides to accept it in 1717 during the so-called Silence Sejm, when none of its members dared to utter a word. Augustus renounced his absolutist aspirations and sent his Saxon troops back to Saxony; the army of Lithuania was reduced to 6,000 men and that of Poland to 18,000. The nobility was guaranteed its former privileges, including the liberum veto. Although Russia took Livonia, its troops stayed in the Commonwealth, which now became a Russian protectorate.

During the Great Northern War, Polands territories were devastated by the Russian, Swedish, and Saxon armies, which lived off the land. Poor harvests in 1706. 1708 and the Great Plague, which raged until 1711, completed the destruction. Lithuania alone lost about one-third of its population.

In 1733 Augustus II was succeeded on the Polish throne by his son, Augustus III. Russian armies intervened against the candidacies of Portuguese Prince Emanuel and Stanisław Leszczysski, and won the War of Polish Succession. The new king rarely visited the Commonwealth, left it in the hands of his favorites, and subordinated Polish interests to the Wettin dynastic interests. Russia, supported by Prussia, in turn guaranteed what was called the Golden Freedom of the Polish nobility.