Warsaw Airlift I

American Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress aircraft leaving Warsaw and heading East after air drops on September 18.
(Wisła river visible as well as Wilanów Palace gardens in upper left part of image).

Air routes used for the airlift.
Black: Allied flights from Italy.
Black broken line: Later egress routes used back to Italy.
Blue: USAAF route

The Warsaw Airlift of 1944 is one of the great unsung sagas of the Second World War. In theory it had three participants – the Soviets, Americans, and British. In reality, only the British and their partners made a significant contribution. Soviet warplanes, which had been flying over Warsaw in late July, disappeared from the skies after the outbreak of the Rising and failed to reappear for the best part of six weeks. American planes, which were supposed to fly out from England in August, did not manage to take off until mid-September, and then only once. As a result, it was RAF squadrons operating from Italy which assumed the overwhelming brunt of the missions. They did so at a juncture when RAF Bomber Command was regularly pounding targets on the Baltic coast not far from Warsaw. On two nights at the end of August, for example, nearly 200 Lancasters from Britain attacked Königsberg, suffering only 7.5 per cent losses.

Warsaw lay 1,311km (815 miles) from the RAF base at Brindisi in Apulia. The chosen route to Poland took the form of an elongated lozenge with Brindisi at the southern end and Warsaw at the northern tip. The planes took off in the evening over the Adriatic, crossed the Croatian coast in the last rays of the setting sun, overflew the Danube in Hungary in darkness, and climbed north-east over the Carpathians before approaching Warsaw from the east over Soviet-held territory. The return journey, which brought the fliers back to Brindisi in midmorning after twelve to fourteen hours in the air, was spent in large part over Germany and Austria. It descended from the Austrian Alps into full daylight over Italy.

The airmen faced manifold dangers. They had no fighter escort, and had nothing but their own guns to ward off German planes sent up in ground-controlled interception areas. They were fully visible crossing the Adriatic coast in both directions, and a Luftwaffe night-fighter training centre near Cracow presented a constant hazard. Visibility over Warsaw was severely limited by clouds of smoke, whilst their approach run, which was made at only 45 metres (150 feet) and at a mere 200kmh (125 mph), made them specially vulnerable to ground fire. Electric storms were a common summer occurrence over the Alps and Carpathians. Pilots frequently reported instances of St Elmo’s fire, when blue flames trailed from wingtips and propeller blades.

The aircraft most usually employed in the Warsaw Airlift was the Consolidated B24 Liberator. It had more speed and payload than the Boeing B17 Flying Fortress and a greater range than the Avro Lancaster. Its four Pratt and Whitney double-banked radial engines were boosted by a super-charger. They permitted a payload of 51/2 tons and a cruising speed of 210 mph. Fully loaded with 2,300 gallons of fuel and with twelve parachute-controlled containers in the bomb racks, take-off had to be undertaken overweight. The modern electronic equipment included a GEE box (a navigational radio-triangulation system) and a radio altimeter. Armament consisted of ten 0.5 in heavy machine guns. There was a crew of ten.

205 Group RAF in Italy, commanded by Maj.Gen. Durrant, consisted of five wings: three RAF and two South African Air Force. In the summer of 1944, the RAF’s 334 Special Operations Wing was attached to the newly formed ‘Balkan Airforce’, whose principal task was liaison with Yugoslavia. It included 148 and 624 Squadrons RAF, each equipped with fourteen Halifaxes, and the independent (Polish) 1586 Special Duties Flight with ten aircrews flying a mixture of Halifaxes and Liberators. 2 Wing of the SAAF consisted of 24, 31, and 34 Squadrons, all equipped with Liberators.

The first flight to Warsaw had been undertaken on 4–5 August by 1586 SDF accompanied by seven Halifaxes of 148 Squadron. It provided a grim warning of things to come. The orders mentioned drops in the Kampinos and Kabaty forests; and senior officers were unaware that four Polish crews had secretly volunteered to fly directly over Warsaw. On return, one Polish Liberator made a miraculous crash-landing on two engines with no undercarriage, stopping ten yards short of the sea. But five RAF planes were lost, and only two successful drops were made. Senior RAF commanders intervened, and flights were suspended.

At this point, the Warsaw Rising forced itself onto the agenda of Allied planners who were meeting at Naples to discuss the landings on the French Riviera:

The Polish Question was on [Churchill’s mind] as he contemplated the beauty of Naples Bay and the slopes of Vesuvius from his quarters at the Villa Rivalta . . . He was expecting Marshal Tito for discussions on the situation in Yugoslavia. It was 12 August, and Churchill must have sensed that Warsaw could expect no help from Moscow. He agreed with Field Marshal Smuts that the airlift was of little military value. Gen. Mark Clark of the US Fifth Army in Italy could not understand the reasoning of the Combined Chiefs in supporting the operation, and Churchill wondered whether the latest news from Warsaw could mean much in the long run. Nonetheless, he sent off another signal to Stalin . . .

Churchill discussed the matter again with Air Marshal Slessor. The RAF commander reiterated his conviction that the Russians would not drop supplies in Warsaw. The only feasible way to assist the AK adequately was for the US Eighth Airforce to fly the aircraft from Britain. The planes would have to land at Russian bases to refuel, as had been arranged for their bomber offensive. But the Polish appeal, of course, had been made to the British, not to the Americans. Churchill weighed the matter up carefully, knowing that the Russians would not help, and came to a painful decision. Help must be sent, he declared, even at the risk of heavy losses.

As a result, 205 Group was ordered to maintain a regular supply line to Warsaw. In actual fact, 1586 SDF, 148 and 178 Squadrons RAF, and 31 Squadron SAAF had already made several extra flights to Poland, presumably on their own account, or on their local commander’s responsibility. In all, they took off from Brindisi for Warsaw on 4, 8, 11–18, and 20–28 August, on a total of nineteen nights.

The supplies which reached the Home Army were not inconsiderable. Early in September, General Boor acknowledged receipt of 250 PIAT antitank weapons, 1,000 Sten guns, 19,000 grenades, and 2 million rounds of ammunition.

But the losses were horrendous. Air Marshal Slessor calculated that one bomber was lost for every ton of supplies delivered. The sacrifices of 1586 SDF were particularly severe. On 1 August they had just completed a tour of duty and were due for a period of rest. Only five aircraft and five air crews were available. By the end of the month, only of those five crews survived.

Appeals were equally directed to the USAAF, and the possibility of using high-flying American B-17 Flying Fortresses based in Ukraine was under discussion for several weeks. After many delays, an inter-Allied system code-named Frantic had begun to operate in June 1944, Stalin having been sweetened with the gift of a top-secret Norden bombsight. Using Poltava, Mirogrod and a nearby fighter base, massive fleets of up to 200 US planes were able to shuttle back and forward between the USSR and either Italy or Britain. On each leg, they dropped huge bomb-loads on pre-arranged targets in the Reich or in German-held territory. In July and August 1944, their main destinations were in Romania, though two were in Germany, and three were in German-occupied Poland.

A report about one of these flights appeared in The Times on 8 August:

Heavy bombers of the 8th Air Force from England have attacked a German aircraft plant at Rahmel, 10 miles NW of Gdynia in Poland, and have landed safely at American bases in the Soviet Union. The bombers were escorted throughout by P51 Mustangs . . . No airplane was lost . . . Today’s attack was the twentieth operation in which Eastern Command bases have figured.

The headline ran ‘Poland Bombed by U.S. Airforce’. It would have been read in conjunction with another piece immediately below headed ‘Furious Fighting in Warsaw: More Ground Gained by Patriots’. Ordinary readers must have drawn the obvious conclusion. If the Allies were bombing Gdynia, the bombing of German positions in Warsaw could not be far behind.

During these operations, the Americans frequently reported incidents of ‘friendly fire’. It was assumed that Soviet anti-aircraft gunners had standing orders to fire on any unauthorized flights. But that was only part of the explanation. On 15–16 June, Soviet Yak fighters had attacked two American F-5 reconnaissance planes, damaging one and destroying the other.

On 18 September 1944, a huge fleet of Flying Fortresses of the US 8th Army Air Force flew from Britain to supply Warsaw, and continued on to the Soviet base at Poltava. It was the first and last time that Western supplies reached Warsaw on this route. A later TASS report described the shuttle flight as ‘one of the largest ever to land in Russia.’ When the Flying Fortresses passed over Warsaw around 2 p.m., they certainly created a grand spectacle. They were accompanied by sixty fighter escorts. The sky was a perfect blue. The planes were in wide-spaced formation, flying at a great height ‘as if on parade’. The silver fuselages glinted in the sun. The engines left multistranded spirals of white vapour trails. A rhythmic roar shook the buildings far below, punctuated by the popping of AA guns. Suddenly, the sky was filled with a mass of multicoloured parachutes, slowly descending, swaying in the breeze. On either side of the barricades, German troops and insurgents watched in amazement. The American report was optimistic:

Three combat wings (110 B-17s) dispatched to drop supplies at Warsaw. Three a/c returned early. All formations dropped on Primary [target] visually. Approximately 1284 containers dropped with fair to excellent results. 105 a/c landed at Russian bases. Flak: moderate. E/A Opposition: nil. Claims: nil. Losses: 2 B-17s, cause unknown.

In reality, over 80 per cent of the 1,284 containers fell into German-controlled districts. There were no parachutists. And there were no more Frantic missions to Warsaw.

Meanwhile, the RAF flights from Italy continued. They had been grounded in early September by bad weather and by tests on a new bombsight that would be effective from a much higher altitude. Twenty aircraft were ready to take off from Amendola and Brindisi on 10 September:

A sense of duty kept the Polish crews going. They were an extraordinary collection of men of all types and ages . . . One flyer who came from Balkan Airforce HQ was RAF Air Commodore [Raiski]. . . . [He] had fought against the Bolsheviks as a young pilot in 1919[–20]. Now he was on the same flight as a Group, who had been deputy commander of the Polish Bomber Brigade in September 1939. They all shared the hazards of the Warsaw flights with a former airline pilot, an assistant professor of psychology from Warsaw University, a high school teacher, an Argentinian and a Canadian of Polish origin. One inexperienced navigator . . . was briefed for his first trip to Warsaw, neatly packed his few belongings, wrote a letter to his parents in Poland, drafted a will, took off, and never returned. One gunner on a Polish Liberator had been released from a maximum security prison at the outbreak of the war. On a homeward flight over the Balkans, he leaned out of a gun turret entrance, joking with the rest of the crew, and inadvertently touched the traversing switch. The turret swung round and broke his neck.

Throughout August, Churchill and to a lesser extent Roosevelt strove to persuade Stalin to give landing rights in the USSR to Allied flights heading for Warsaw. Stalin’s responses were uniformly hostile. Roosevelt’s interest was, at best, lukewarm. Churchill’s message to Moscow on 12 August was phrased in strong language:

We have practically no news from you, no information on the political situation, no advice and no instruction. Have you discussed in Moscow help for Warsaw? I repeat emphatically that without immediate support, consisting of drops of arms and ammunition, bombing of objectives held by the enemy, and air landing, our fight will collapse in a few days . . . I expect from you the greatest effort in this respect.

This was countered by the extraordinary dressing-down of the US Ambassador in Moscow mentioned earlier. But Churchill persisted. On the 18th, he told Eden to check out the technical feasibility of the overflights, and he appealed to Roosevelt for joint action. Their message to Stalin, which Roosevelt drafted, was deliberately mild in tone. It started: ‘We are thinking of world opinion’. And it ended, ‘The time element is of the greatest importance.’ It did not evoke a definite reply. What was worse, at the next round Roosevelt casually told Churchill: ‘I do not see what further steps we can take at the present time which promise results.’ Churchill was roused to undisguised anger. He proposed a draft message which commented less than diplomatically on Stalin’s earlier replies. ‘Our sympathies are aroused for these “almost unarmed people” whose special faith has led them to attack German tanks, guns and planes,’ he said; also ‘the [Warsaw] Rising was certainly called for repeatedly by Moscow Radio’; and ‘we propose to send the aircraft unless you directly forbid it.’ This time, the President refused to join in. September arrived; and the question of using the Frantic system was unresolved.

Air Marshal Slessor received orders that flights to Warsaw must not stop. So on 21/22 September, a mixed group of RAF and SAAF tried once more. This time, exceptionally, they all returned safely to base. But the cloud cover over Warsaw was so thick that the pilots could not find their targets. No confirmation of success was received. Then the dead-moon period set in. Flying was off. Slessor did not receive replacement aircraft.

The loss of an aircraft was always a dramatic event. In the last couple of months, the Varsovians had seen several crashes. One Liberator came down in the City Centre, killing the Canadian crew. Another came down in the lake in the Paderewski Park in Praga. The sole survivor was taken prisoner by the Soviets.

Yet the aircrews’ lonely ordeals were something which only they themselves could witness:

Capt. Erich Endler [SAAF] had used more fuel than his inexperienced crew had allowed for. He had made his drop, and was already over the northern border of Yugoslavia before he was aware of his dangerously low fuel level . . . There was no hope of putting a big aircraft down in the dark safely. There was nothing to do but to bail out, and the pilot gave the order. The co-pilot, Lt. Chapman and RAF Pilot Officer Crook jumped, landed safely, and fell into enemy hands. From the ground, they saw their aircraft, its engine dying, rapidly lose height and crash into the towering crags of the Alps.

Air force losses are calculated in various ways. But one calculation reckoned that 306 planes departed from Britain or Italy for Warsaw, and that forty-one were lost: two US, seventeen Polish, and twenty-two RAF and SAAF. Losses totalled 13.3 per cent. Losses on the run from Italy to Warsaw reached 31 out of 186 aircraft, or 16.7 per cent. This compares with the raid on Nuremberg on 30/31 March 1944, which is sometimes claimed to have been the RAF’s ‘darkest hour’, where losses totalled 11.8 per cent.

Allied aircraft dropped a total of 370 tons of supplies in the course of the two months of operations, but the airlift proved to be ineffective and could not provide sufficient supplies to sustain the Polish resistance, which finally succumbed on 2 October 1944. An estimated 360 airmen and forty-one British, Polish, South African and American aircraft were lost during the `Warsaw Airlift’.

 Soviet missions

Of course, one has to wonder whether Stalin ever saw one hundredth part of the mountains of paper that were addressed to him. But even if he did see these reports, it is difficult to imagine what possible use he could have made of them. For he had created a vast informational machine, which produced such an indigestible macédoine of fantasies, falsehood, and occasional facts that it was quite incapable of rendering a recognizable picture of outside reality. No one who read Telegin-style summaries could conceivably have been moved to recommend active support for ‘the Londoners’. For which reason, the last paragraph of the last page of Telegin’s report of 25 September was underlined by someone in Moscow in thick pencil:

Please give instructions on the following question. To what extent, in the coming days, is it a necessity to render assistance to the insurgents with arms, ammunition, and food-stuffs. The position of the insurgents is really acute, and they cannot reckon on any aid from anyone other than the Red Army. In order to supply the aid within maximum limits, it is necessary for the Front to release 500 tons of B-70 aviation fuel and 2,000 freight parachutes and to transport ex-enemy weapons from our central stores including rifles, machine-guns, and rocket-launchers . .

On the night of 13 September 1944, Soviet aircraft commenced their own re-supply missions, dropping arms, medicines and food supplies. Initially these supplies were dropped in canisters without parachutes which lead to damage and loss of the contents – also, a large number of canisters fell into German hands. Over the following two weeks, the Soviet Air Forces flew 2,535 re-supply sorties with small bi-plane Polikarpov Po-2’s, delivering a total of 156 50-mm mortars, 505 anti-tank rifles, 1,478 sub-machine guns, 520 rifles, 669 carbines, 41,780 hand grenades, 37,216 mortar shells, over 3 million cartridges, 131.2 tons of food and 515 kg of medicine.

Warsaw Airlift II

‘Warsaw Return’ David Stiling (AGAvA)

Commission of a Halifax of 1586 Squadron based in Brindisi, Italy in August 1944.

No. 1586 (Polish Special Duties) Flight was first formed at RAF Derna, in Libya on 4 November 1943, equipped with a mix of Consolidated Liberator lll and Handley Page Halifax II/S special duties aircraft. After many months of flying support missions to Poland, first from Tunis in North Africa in December 1943, the Polish flight was transferred to Campo Casale near Brindisi, Italy. From there it flew operations over occupied Europe undertaking special duties including partisan supply drops and agent insertion.

When the Warsaw Uprising began on 1st August 1944, No:1586 Polish Flight had only 6 crews and 8 aircraft remaining. Most of the aircraft were battered and not suitable for long, dangerous missions and replacement Halifax’s ferried in by British crews from Algier were already in a bad shape. In addition, most of the crews were young and inexperienced, while the rest had almost completed their tour, sometimes even their second or third. Thus, when the time called for greatest effort to help the fighting in Warsaw, 1586 Flight was heavily depleted. The Battle of Warsaw would last 63 days and take a terrible toll of the Polish bomber crews.

Typical of future missions was the first mission in support of Warsaw when all of the available crews, seven in total, were tasked with a supply drop mission to Warsaw on the 4/5th August 1944. Taking off shortly before 20.00hrs on the 4th, a combined flight of three Liberators and eleven Halifax’s took off from Camp Casale near Brandisi. Seven of the aircraft were crewed by members of 1586 Special Duties Flight and as they headed for Warsaw, their orders were changed. Warsaw was extremely heavily defended by severe anti-aircraft artillery as well as an abundance of German night fighters. Therefore, orders were changed mid flight by Air Marshall John Slessor who ordered instead that their supplies be dropped to the Polish Home Army in Southern Poland 30km north of Krakow. However, four of the Polish crews decided to ignore the changed orders and continued to fly onto Warsaw. The need and desire to support Warsaw had tragic consequences with the loss of five Halifax’s shot down, another crash landing at Brandisi, all aircraft badly shot up and only three Polish bombers successfully dropping their loads.

As a result, Air Marshal Sir John Slessor suspended all the flights to Warsaw. Only after constant Polish protest did he change his decision before Polish crews recommenced supply mission to Warsaw.

Many of the flights had been ordered to carry out sortie’s regardless of weather conditions or the opposing enemy forces. Taking off at night, often in poor weather, flights took off and over the Yugoslav coast, fog would stretch from the ground to 6,000 feet. Without navigational aids and unable to get fixes from ground observation, navigation was often made by star ‘fixes’. In addition, heavy flak was often experienced over Yugoslavia and the Danube and especially after crossing the Carpathian mountains. Flying over Poland, enemy night fighters were a continual and lethal threat and accounted for many of the bombers. Those left would fly on, guided by the distant red glow over Warsaw where fires were blazing in every district of Warsaw, the only dark spots being areas occupied by the German forces. Descending, the bombers would make their approach at heights of 700ft. Everything would be smothered in smoke, through which the city flickered in ruddy, orange flames that lit up the night sky and illuminated the bombers. The enemy flak was so intense, the bombers would then descend as low as they could, often 70 or a 100 feet above ground, often having to dodge obstructions such as the Poniatowski Bridge in their desperation to avoid the flak. Losses were often catastrophic. Typical of these raids was one on the 20th August when a flight of Halifax’s attacked Warsaw at low level and only one returned with five others lost.

Those aircraft that got back to base were always more or less damaged by flak or fighters, and ground crews were greatly overworked. Taking off in the early evening, many of these flights lasted eleven hours and during the dramatic events supporting Warsaw, their efforts and those of the aircrew were nothing short of heroic with many ground crew working for 20 hours a day, struggling to keep as many a/c operational as possible. In August, there were 97 flights to Poland including 80 to Warsaw. Perhaps the biggest indicator of the sacrifice made by the Polish crews was the fact that few crews completed as many as three sorties over Warsaw and that only two crews survived the whole two months period.

My painting captures a moment when the clients Father, who was a Halifax wireless operator, met the sole surviving Halifax crew that returned from a mission to Poland as dawn broke. His Father spoke of greeting the crew as they stood on the runway at Brindisi as they described their harrowing experiences flying at low level avoiding the enemy night fighters and the constant, lethal flak on their long flight and the realisation that they had lost so many of their fellow crews.

Halifax B.Mk.II Series IA
Unit: 1586 Special Duty Flight, RAF
Serial: GR-V (JP180)
Crew: F/O Jan Dziedzic, F/S Henryk Golegiowsli, F/O Antoni Blazewski, P/O Stanislaw Kelybor, F/S Jerzy Koper, F/S Stefan Kulach, Sgt.Jozef Zubrzycki, F/O Stefan Czekolski. Campo Casale, April 1944. LAPG-built aircraft.
Liberator B.Mk.III (B-24D-20-CF)
Unit: 1586 (польское) Special Duties Flight, RAF
Serial: GR-T (BZ949, ex 42-64026)
On the night of 6th January 1944, while returning from a mission to Poland the aircraft hit a mountain at Villa Castello when attempting to land at Grottaglie in Italy. The whole crew of: F/Lt Witold Paszkiewicz, F/Lt Tadeusz Domaradzki, F/Sgt Zygmunt Dunski, F/Sgt Franciszek Olkiewicz, F/Sgt Stefan Magdziarek, Sgt Piotr Halick, Sgt Jozef Marchwicki and Sgt Julian Bucko was killed.
Liberator B.Mk.IV (B-24J-45-CF)
Unit: 1586 (польское) Special Duties Flight, RAF
Serial: GR-S (KG890, ex 44-10395)
Early July 1944. Crew of F/Lt Szostak. The aircraft had the ventnil and nose turrets removed (the latter replaced with the ‘greenhouse’ nose), and the factory-fitted Consolidated A-6a tail turret was replaced with a lighter Boulton-Paul one. 29 mission markings were applied under the cockpit. Although the aircraft was recorded in documents as the GR-S, it is difficult to see in available photos whether the aircraft letter was really applied on the side of the fuselage in the first days of August. The aircraft was shot down near Bochnia early in the morning on 15 August 1944 while returning from a supply drop mission to Warsaw, killing the entire crew: F/Lt Zbigniew Szostak, F/U Stanislaw Daniel, W/O Stanislaw Malczyk, W/O Tadeusz Dubowski, W/O Jozef Bielicki, F/Sgt Wincenty Rutkowski and F/Sgt Jozef Witek.

No. 1586 (Polish Special Duties) Flight

No. 1586 (Polish Special Duties) Flight was first formed at RAF Derna, in Libya on 4 November 1943, equipped with Handley Page Halifax II special duties aircraft. The origin of the unit was the remnants of 301(Polish) Squadron after disbandment by the Polish HQ due to lack of staff and trained crews. The remaining crews and aircraft formed C Flight of 138 Squadron, which was temporarily renamed as 301 Squadron Special Duties Flight, RAF, before becoming 1586 Flight. That’s why initially all Halifaxes bore NF code markings, later changed to the GR of 301 (Polish) RAF Sqn.

Missions flown by the flight included partisan supply drops and agent insertion, but also missions over the capital city Warsaw during the uprising of August 1944, with supplies for those brave citizens, who had taken up arms against the occupation.

The flight was disbanded on 7 November 1944 at RAF Brindisi to resume operations as No. 301 (Polish) Squadron, RAF.

The second main aircraft type used by the unit was the Liberator. There were three aircraft, directly converted for supply missions from Mk IIIs (American B-24D), and altogether some fifteen Mk VI and GR Mk VIs (B-24J in USA). Conversion included nose turret removal and adaptation of the B-24D nose glazing, more suitable for the drop observer. The glazing was, however, taller as the fuselage floor part of the J-variant’s nose section was positioned lower than in the D. This, in profile, is the most distinguishing difference between 1586 Flight Mk III and Mk VI Liberators, and causes much confusion and mistakes in models.


Pilots of 1586 Special Duties Flight, based at Brindisi, experience moments of hope and weeks of despair

The Warsaw Rising broke out on 1 August 1944, between four and five in the afternoon. For us, listening to the loudspeakers, the only vital question was: Warsaw is fighting – when do we fly to help them? . . . The announcer was finding it difficult to keep his voice properly calm and impersonal . . . I looked round: every face was set and stern. . . . We were to take off at midnight. Stan, my tail gunner, rapped out a curse, banging the table with his fist and went out, slamming the door. Of course our flight was unimportant. Just as everything not taking place in Warsaw was unimportant.

20 August 1944

We had been ordered to carry out the sortie regardless of weather conditions. So, though the met. forecast was exceptionally despondent, we took off . . . Sure enough, right from the Yugoslav coast fog stretched from the ground to 6,000 feet. Fog was hardly the word for it – water vapour or steam would be more appropriate. We had no ground-based navigational aid; I tried map reading . . . but we finally flew on solely with star ‘fixes’.

We had similar weather all the way until over Poland we saw a Jerry fighter shoot down one of our Halifaxes. (There had been a lot of flak over Yugoslavia and the Danube.) We pushed on and got a decent ‘fix’ by the time we reached the Pilitsa River. After that we flew on guided by the distant glow . . .

We dropped to some 700 feet, got through a very dense barrage [near Sluzhev] over the Vistula. Fires were blazing in every district of Warsaw. The dark spots were places occupied by the Jerries. Everything was smothered in smoke through which ruddy-orange flames flickered. It was terrible and must have been hell for everybody down there.

The German flak was the hottest I have ever been through, so we got down to just 70 or 100 feet . . . The flicks in the Praga and Mokotov suburbs kept us constantly lit up – there was nothing we would do about it. We nearly hit the Poniatovski Bridge as we cracked along the Vistula: the pilot hopped over it by the skin of his teeth.

Our reception point was Krashinski Square. So, when we passed the [Kerbeds] iron-girder bridge, we turned sharp to port and made ready for the run-in. The whole southern side of the Square was blazing and wind was blowing the smoke south, much to our satisfaction. We dropped the containers and knew we had made a good job.

It was time to clear out. The pilot came down still lower, keeping an eye for steeples and high buildings. The cabin was full of smoke, which got into our eyes and made them smart. We could feel the heat . . . We ripped along the railway line leading west [to Prushkov and Skiernievitse]. Some flak from an anti-aircraft train tried to hit us, so we let go some bursts. We had a breathing space until flicks near Bohnia picked us up again, and the flak got uncomfortably close. We passed over the crashed bomber in the foothills, which was now burning itself out. (Five Halifaxes that had taken off with us never returned.) The Home Army people signaled that a supply was received on Krashinski Square at the time we noted in our logbook. So we knew that at least our flight had not been in vain.

2 October 1944

As we were climbing out of our bombers one day after an op., an aircraftman came up and told me [the news]. Stanley was just behind me. He’s what you’d call a Warsaw cockney with all a cockney’s affection for his city. He stopped short and dumped his ’chute on the ground. He just stood there, turning his head from side to side helplessly . . . He shuffled off without a word. Later, he came up to me in the Ops. Room as I was studying the maps. His eyes were sunken and lifeless. ‘Sir, what’s the use?’ he asked in a hoarse, unfamiliar voice. ‘What’s the use, sir?’ He pressed his face against the [window] and looked out through the panes where the drops of mist were trickling down like tears..

Navigator Alan McIntosh

‘For the RAF and SAAF squadrons of No. 205 Group operating from bases in the Foggian Plain, the call to assist the Balkan Air Force squadrons came out of the blue.’.

In the forenoon of 13 August, 205 Group air crews were told that a maximum effort was to be flown against an unknown target that night. 2,300 gallons of fuel were to be taken on by each aircraft, and would be topped up for extreme range at Brindisi where the operational briefing would take place. Normally the fuel load for a target in northern Austria used around 1,800 gallons.

The target only became known at Brindisi, when, on entering the briefing room, the aircrews sighted a wall covered with international modified polyconic maps, extending from floor to ceiling. A red line extended from Brindisi at the bottom to Warsaw at the top. A sobering revelation for those about to go out into the night.

The briefing officer was Lieutenant George Z. His briefing was a model: compelling, honest, accurate, comprehensive, in a situation in which the aircrews needed to know the political, military, and tactical situation of the Polish Home Army in Warsaw; the German army in Warsaw; the Red Army sitting on its hands across the Vistula at Praga; and the advance of the Red Front.

For accuracy, a low-level drop was essential: height not above 500 feet, speed not above 150 m.p.h. Target maps and photographs were available. Three aligning points (Mokotov in the south, the Old City in the centre, and the Citadel in the north) were given. Take-off time for 178 Squadron was 19:45; estimated time on target 01:30. The twilight was critical for returning aircraft, which would have little chance of survival in daylight over enemy territory extending from Albania to the Baltic Sea.

At the start of the operation in support of the Warsaw Uprising, RAF aircrews were issued with blood chits. They were silk with a Union Jack on the obverse and something along the lines of ‘This chap is a British officer. Return him in good shape and in working order and you will be rewarded’ – on the reverse side, the same in Russian. Since for the Warsaw operations we were briefed to give nothing other than number, rank, and name, if we fell into Russian hands (the same as if captured by the Germans) the blood chits were ominous rather than comforting. After difficult, protracted high-level negotiations, the Russians agreed to allow a free passage route over Russian-held territory; for specifically agreed missions.

Warsaw was burning: not in the manner of fire storms which British and Polish Bomber Command aircrews remember, but as a great city in which a land battle to destruction is going on. Approaching at low altitude in the darkness, it was as if the city was covered by an inverted fish-bowl inside which the night was a dull red. Individual fires and gun flashes showed up as bright sparks; flak streamed across the area or burst above the dome amidst the coning searchlight. Inside the red dome, aircraft were seen in silhouette against the fiery city as they made their low-level dropping run.

That night, 13/14 August, over Warsaw, my crew sighted a four-engined aircraft, lower than our own, silhouetted against the fires of the city. It was in a nose-down attitude as if coming in to land, very low, and engaged in a gun battle with a German light flak battery and a nearby searchlight. It could only be one of the Halifax aircraft of 1586 (Polish) Special Duties Flight flown from Brindisi five and a half hours earlier. Almost certainly the aircraft had already dropped its load of arms and ammunition and its crew was now joining the land battle while they still had something left to give. Such was the spirit of the Polish aviators who flew in support of the Warsaw Uprising.

On my crew’s last sortie to Warsaw (night of 10/11 September 1944) we were engaged by Russian AA fire and Russian night fighters along much of the two-and-a-half hour route. Disenchanted by this, our South African pilots and Australian navigator, at about 12,000 feet and outside gun-range from Lublin, rapidly decided that if we survived the drop on Warsaw and were fated to be shot down on the way home, it would be by the enemy and not by our Russian ‘friends’. On climbing away from Warsaw, therefore we followed the direct route through enemy territory, rather than putting our Russian blood chits to the test. Some crews of our force were not so lucky.

With the benefit of hindsight, one wonders what our masters knew (and how much they chose to tell) about our Russian ‘Allies’.

The USAAF provide a grand spectacle

On 18 September something extraordinary happened; a large American air flotilla, the first we had seen since the fighting started, appeared overhead. The Flying Fortresses, over 100 planes, were flying at a very high altitude and were thus out of reach of the intense anti-aircraft fire. The countless specks which appeared behind them turned out to be parachutes. Ignoring the danger, people were coming out of the cellars and climbing the heaps of rubble to get a better view of the spectacle in the sky. Their faces beaming with hope and joy, they were embracing one another and crying with relief. As the multicoloured parachutes came closer, somebody shouted, ‘Our commandoes are landing!’ – but unfortunately he was wrong, they were supplies. Having dropped their cargo, the planes landed on the other side of the River Vistula, on Soviet-controlled territory. Since by now only a small part of the city remained under our control, three-quarters of the eighty tons of supplies dropped from such a great height fell into German hands. Had the help come a few weeks earlier, the outcome of the Rising might have been very different. Now it was too late.

Our daily paper, the Warsaw Courier, wrote: ‘Stalin had planned the total destruction of Warsaw a long time ago. A vibrant city with a long democratic tradition would have been a source of constant irritation in his vast totalitarian empire. Only when he saw Warsaw almost razed to the ground did Stalin decide to throw a few sackfuls of food to the dying few, an empty gesture designed to deceive world opinion.’

In his memoirs, General Boor colourfully presents the progress of this drop:

We had awaited the American air expedition with growing impatience. It had been announced and then retracted so many times because of unfavourable atmospheric conditions. At last during the night of 17th and 18th September the BBC announced that the expedition was imminent. We waited tensely for the morning broadcast. If it ended with the song ‘Just Another Mazurka’, the expedition was going to take off. If ‘The March of the Infantrymen’ was played out, we would meet with delay yet again.

This time, however, ‘Just Another Mazurka’ ended the broadcast and a radio message arrived immediately afterwards, informing us that we should expect the expedition between 11 and midday.

It was a sunny day with good weather. A clear sky.

Of course, the inhabitants of Warsaw knew nothing of the imminent help, so the sight of American aircraft flying overhead, appearing unexpectedly over the city, provoked indescribable joy. The bombers flew extremely high, leaving behind them a trail of white specks. They were parachutes.

The Germans opened a barrage of anti-aircraft fire, which, however, did not reach the machines.

Warsaw lived through moments of indescribable enthusiasm. Everyone except the ill and the injured poured out of the cellars. They deserted their basements, and teemed into streets and courtyards. They assumed from the start that this was the arrival of the Parachute Brigade. A soldier standing not far from me observed the sky through binoculars. Suddenly he shouted loudly:

‘Oh my God, the Germans are shooting them all!’

One of the officers tried to calm him down, explaining that they were not parachutists, but only containers with arms and supplies.

‘But I can see their legs waving in the air clearly through the binoculars,’ the soldier insisted.

No doubt, the Germans were under the same erroneous impression, because they alerted their units.

A German sentry watches the same event

Today, in our command post, we were treated to a scene that most of us have only witnessed in the newsreels. Around 13.55 a fleet of American and British planes appear, at a height of around 1,000 metres, parading at first in twos and threes. There must be about fifty to sixty of them (I get to forty-four and then lose count). There is a mass of them up there, as when a huge flock of birds takes to the wing. Then we realize that something is falling from the planes, it seems directly above us. Parachutes are opening! The alarm is raised and a clatter of gunfire begins. Some claim to have seen men, limbs and hands. So, it’s a paratrooper landing at last, like the one in the west? Most unlikely here. The ’chutes descend, and I see black ones, green, yellow, and white . . . Oh, they are supply pods!

. . . Inside the others is German ammunition. Oh, how decent they are. The Americans are bringing the supplies that we left in our haste in the west, and they are delivering it to us in Warsaw, by plane!

H. Stechbarth

Poland – Resurrection, 1918–26 Part I

Józef Piłsudski, Chief of State (Naczelnik Państwa) between November 1918 and December 1922

1920 Map of Poland

‘An independent Polish state should be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations, which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea, and whose ­political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant.’

President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, 8 January 1918

The resurrection of Poland simultaneously occurred on both a military and a political dimension, driven in large part by two charismatic revolutionaries. In the military realm, Józef Piłsudski, scion of a wealthy Polish–Lithuanian family, provided the main impetus for the re-creation of an independent Polish Army. In the political realm, Roman Dmowski, product of a Warsaw blue-collar family, worked to develop a sense of Polish nationalism at home and lay the groundwork for international recognition of a Polish state. However, neither Piłsudski nor Dmowski could have achieved much success unless fate had thrown them an unusually fortunate set of international circumstances. As long as Imperial Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary were strong, Poles could not hope to regain their freedom. However, the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914 set in motion a sequence of events that would eventually incapacitate all three of Poland’s occupiers.

Both Piłsudski and Dmowski spent their youth in the Russian-occupied region of Poland, but later relocated to the Austrian-occupied region in the decade prior to the outbreak of the First World War. From the beginning, Piłsudski followed the path of violence and hoped to lead another armed insurrection against Russian rule. He rejected any idea of co-operation with the Russians, regarding it as tantamount to collaboration. Consequently, young Piłsudski quickly ran afoul of the Russian police and spent five years in Siberian exile. After his exile, Piłsudski became involved in socialist politics and joined the Polish Socialist Party (Polska Partia Socjalistyczna or PPS), while simultaneously engaging in underground revolutionary activities. By 1904, Piłsudski was able to gather some like-minded individuals and formed a paramilitary unit within the PPS. In contrast, Dmowski believed that armed rebellion was doomed to failure and considered some degree of co-operation with the Russians as essential if Poles were ever to achieve any kind of local autonomy. Since the Russians did not look kindly on Poles forming political organizations, Dmowski was forced to found his National Democratic Party (known as endecja) as a covert organization. When revolution in Russia spread to Poland in 1905, Piłsudski and Dmowski found themselves on opposite sides. Dmowski formed a militia that worked with the Russians to suppress the rebellion, which helped to foster permanent enmity with Piłsudski. Furthermore, Piłsudski’s preference for armed rebellion led to a split in the PPS.

Following the failed 1905 Revolution, Piłsudski relocated to Austrian-controlled Kraków with his remaining confederates while Dmowski joined the Russian Duma as a Polish delegate. The Austrians regarded Piłsudski as useful and allowed him to form several small Polish paramilitary organizations, which could be used to conduct sabotage and terrorist-style raids into the Russian-controlled region of Poland. Hauptmann Włodzimierz Zagórski, an ethnic Pole serving in the Austro-Hungarian General Staff, served as primary liaison between the Austrian military and Piłsudski’s paramilitaries. Piłsudski had a tendency to resent professional military officers, since he lacked their training, and his methods seemed more like gangster tactics. In September 1908, Piłsudski led a successful raid near Vilnius which robbed a Russian mail train of about 200,000 rubles; Piłsudski used the funds to expand his covert organizations. Piłsudski’s long-term vision was to create a pool of armed and trained Poles who could be used to eventually fight for Polish independence. However, the Austro-Hungarian Army was not keen on subsidizing international train robberies and thereafter tried to keep Piłsudski on a short leash. Nevertheless, by the time that Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914, Piłsudski had a solid cadre of Polish insurgents, which he wanted to march into Poland to instigate an anti-Russian rebellion. Without asking permission from the Austrian authorities, Piłsudski launched his own invasion with 400 troops on 6 August and occupied the city of Kielce a week later. As soon as the Austrians discovered this unauthorized military action, they demanded that Piłsudski’s troops be incorporated into the Austro-Hungarian Army; after three weeks of dithering, which he used to gather more recruits, Piłsudski agreed. He began forming the Polish Legions, three brigade-size units that would fight on the Eastern Front in 1914–16. In order to keep close control on Piłsudski, Hauptmann Zagórski was made chief of staff of the Legions.

Poles have tended to exaggerate the actual accomplishments of the Polish Legions, but there is no doubt that Piłsudski was able to amass a cadre of veteran soldiers who would become the backbone of Poland’s armed forces for the next three decades. It is also true that the Legion officers were a picked lot; they were well-educated men who were also intensely patriotic and loyal to Piłsudski. For example, Kazimierz Sosnkowski, chief of staff of the Legions’ 1st Brigade, had been with Piłsudski since his PPS days and was a scholar who could speak seven languages. Władysław Sikorski, a university-trained engineer with a reserve commission in the Austrian Army, played a major role in training the Legions’ nascent officer corps. Another rising star in the Legions was Edward Rydz-Śmigły. Meanwhile, Dmowski worked within the Russian political system, trying – and failing – to gain any concessions to Polish autonomy in return for support in the on-going war.

While agreeing to work with the Austrians, Piłsudski saw this as only a temporary measure and continued his own plans to build a military apparatus that could achieve Polish independence by force. Shortly after agreeing to form the Legions, he established the covert Polish Military Organization (Polska Organizacja Wojskowa or POW), which was intended to conduct subversion and propaganda behind Russian lines in Poland. When the Germans occupied Warsaw in August 1915, the POW came out into the open and formed its first battalion. At this point, Piłsudski hoped to disband the foreign-controlled Legions and expand the POW into a Polish Army under his command. However, neither Germany nor Austria-Hungary were interested in allowing an independent Polish Army and the POW battalion was integrated into the Legions. Although Russia was clearly losing the war by 1916, the Central Powers were also beginning to run out of infantry replacements and decided to seek greater Polish participation by issuing a decree that promised to create a new Kingdom of Poland after the war was won. However, Piłsudski could see that these were empty promises and that Germany would not allow true Polish independence. After the February Revolution in 1917 and the abdication of the tsar, the Germans were eager to transfer troops west to fight the Allies. Piłsudski’s Polish Legions had grown to nearly a corps-size formation and Austria-Hungary agreed to transfer these troops to German command. However, Piłsudski refused to serve under German command, as did many of his troops (the so-called ‘Oath Crisis’), so he was jailed and his troops scattered. Zagórski had urged the legionnaires to take the oath, which blackened his name in the eyes of many of Piłsudski’s acolytes. Other Poles, including Władysław Sikorski, either joined the German-organized Polnische Wehrmacht (Polish Armed Forces) or the Austrian-organized Auxiliary Corps. Before his arrest, Piłsudski appointed Edward Rydz-Śmigły as the new head of the POW, which went underground again.

Meanwhile, Dmowski had recognized that tsarist Russia was losing the war and he went to England and France in 1917 to espouse the idea of Polish autonomy. On 15 August 1917, in France, Dmowski created a new Polish National Committee aimed at rebuilding a Polish state, which included the famed pianist Ignacy Paderewski. Within a month, the French recognized the committee as the legitimate representatives of Poland and promised to help form a Polish volunteer army in France to support the Allies. The Allied governments released expatriate Poles in their own armed forces and encouraged recruitment overseas, particularly in Canada and the United States. Generał Józef Haller, one of the brigade commanders in the Polish Legions, managed to escape to France in July 1918 and he seemed the perfect leader for the Polish expatriate army being formed. Haller’s so-called ‘Blue Army’ was slowly trained and equipped by the French, but did not see any combat on the Western Front until July 1918. When the Armistice was announced in November, Haller had two well-equipped divisions under his command, with three more divisions and a tank regiment forming. The French were also training Polish pilots, in order to form seven aviation squadrons. Haller’s Blue Army was loyal to Dmowski’s Polish National Committee in Paris. Dmowski and Paderewski also helped to steer opinions in the Allied camp towards favouring the restoration of a Polish state after the war was concluded. President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points clearly enunciated this aspiration in January 1918, although there was little discussion about Poland’s potential borders.

While the Allies were defeating Imperial Germany, Piłsudski was cooling his heels in Magdeburg fortress for 16 months, with his deputy, Kazimierz Sosnkowski. When revolution in Germany forced Kaiser Wilhelm II to abdicate, the caretaker government released Piłsudski and allowed him to leave by train for Warsaw. Although the Germans attempted to coerce Piłsudski into making various pledges, he refused to make any concessions. The Regency Council, established by the Germans, held residual civilian authority in Warsaw. Recognizing the need for military advice, the council selected Colonel Tadeusz Rozwadowski, an Austrian-trained artilleryman, to organize an independent Polish military force. When Piłsudski arrived in Warsaw on 10 November 1918, he was met by only a few members of the POW. Nevertheless, the next day Piłsudski managed to browbeat the council into appointing him as commander-in-chief of the Polish armed forces and to dismiss Rozwadowski. He then began forming a national government – making him a de facto military dictator. Aside from his titles, Piłsudski was only able to cobble together a force of about three infantry regiments (9,000 troops) under his command. In contrast, the Ober Ost (German Army in the East) had over 80,000 troops in Poland (mostly from General Erich von Falkenhayn’s 10. Armee, 10th Army), but their military discipline was collapsing. Piłsudski met with the local German commander and negotiated an agreement, whereby the German Army would leave the area within ten days in return for no harassment by the Poles. Piłsudski’s troops eagerly began disarming the evacuating German troops, acquiring large stocks of weaponry and ammunition. A similar process occurred in southern Poland, where Austrian troops were also disarmed. Thus when the Armistice ended the First World War on 11 November 1918, the new Polish republic found itself with two groups claiming to be the legitimate government of Poland: Dmowski’s in Paris and Piłsudski’s in Warsaw. Five days later, Piłsudski announced the re-creation of an independent Polish state, to be known as the Second Republic. Surprisingly, Italy was the first country to recognize independent Poland.

It is important to note that Piłsudski and Dmowski had radically different visions for the new Poland; the former intended to create a socialist-tinged, secular and multi-ethnic state with expanded territorial buffers to help defend against future German and Russian aggressions. In contrast, Dmowski wanted to build a homogenous state based upon a Catholic, ethnic Polish majority. He regarded the inclusion of minorities (Czechs, Germans, Ukrainians, White Russians, Jews) as a dangerous liability who might provide grounds for Poland’s neighbours to seek future border adjustments. These two competing visions were never reconciled in the Second Republic.

As Austrian, German and Russian authority evaporated in eastern Europe, the political situation became extremely fluid. In particular, the German evacuation left a vacuum in the eastern borderlands, which the Poles referred to as Kresy Wschodnie. Ukrainian nationalists seized part of Lwów and proclaimed a republic – which immediately sparked conflict with local Polish militiamen. In Wilno, Lithuanian nationalists were agitating to claim that city for themselves, as well. Czechs and Romanian troops also were mobilizing to seize contested border areas. Meanwhile, the Western Allies – particularly Britain – sought to impose limits upon the new Polish state by proposing the so-called Curzon Line, which would deprive Poland of both Lwów and Wilno. Piłsudski simply ignored this unsolicited proposal and mobilized as many troops as possible to fight for the eastern border regions. However, the Polish Second Republic was in poor shape from the outset, having suffered significant damage to its infrastructure after four years of fighting during the First World War: cities and towns had been looted or burned, industrial production was negligible, the agricultural situation was grim and about 450,000 Poles had died in the war. Before evacuating, the Germans sabotaged much of the rail network in Poland and destroyed 940 train stations. Poland was even stripped of horses, which made it difficult to form cavalry units. Furthermore, there were no arms industries in Poland because the occupying Germans and Russians had not wanted the risk that they might be seized by Polish rebels. Nevertheless, Piłsudski was able to rally just enough troops to relieve the Ukrainian siege of Lwów, but his forces were still too badly outnumbered by the Ukrainian nationalists to achieve more. Yet, Piłsudski and many Polish nationalists – aside from Dmowski’s faction – were committed to recovering Kresy for the Second Republic, ensuring further bloodshed.

In addition to committing forces to secure Galicia from the Ukrainians, Piłsudski also encouraged an anti-German revolt in Poznań, which began in late December 1918. Thousands of ethnic Poles in the disintegrating German Imperial Army defected to the rebels, providing them a solid core of trained soldiers, but there were still enough residual German troops in Pomerania to contest control of the region for six months. The rebels formed a separate Polish military formation known as the Greater Poland Army (Wojska Wielkopolska), which was able to amass nearly 90,000 troops by early 1919. In response, the Germans formed Freikorps and border units (Grenzschutz Ost) to launch vicious counter-attacks against the Polish rebels.

In Warsaw, Piłsudski faced great difficulty in organizing a re-born Polish Army (Wojsko Polskie), which was a hodgepodge force from the beginning. The veteran troops had been trained and fought under Austrian, German and Russian command, so there was no common doctrine. Weapons and equipment came from a variety of sources and there was a persistent shortage of ammunition. Thousands of patriotic volunteers also flocked to the colours, including many Lithuanians. Nevertheless, Piłsudski only had 110,000 troops under his control at the start of 1919, which was inadequate to deal with multiple border conflicts. It was not until March 1919 that the Polish government was sufficiently organized to introduce conscription. However, only 100,000 rifles and 12,000 machine guns were available, so foreign military aid was essential to build a more effective military force.

The year 1919 began badly for the Second Republic. Officers loyal to Dmowski attempted a coup against Piłsudski in Warsaw, but this effort quickly failed. The Czechs took advantage of Piłsudski’s pre-occupation with Galicia and internal politics to seize the Silesian border town of Teschen (Cieszyn), which actually had a Polish majority. In the north-west, German forces recaptured some territory lost to the Greater Poland Army. In Galicia, the Ukrainians went on the offensive and nearly retook Lwów, with the outnumbered Poles hanging on by their finger-nails. General Tadeusz Rozwadowski, Piłsudski’s bête noire, played a major role in the defence of Lwów. Hard-pressed, the Polish garrison in Lwów was forced to employ female troops in the front line. The fighting around Lwów was also noteworthy because local Jews sided with the Ukrainians and even formed armed militia units – which would not be forgotten by the Poles. Further north, the Soviet Red Army occupied Minsk and then began tentative probes towards eastern Poland. However, the Red Army was still heavily committed countering a White Russian offensive in southern Ukraine led by Anton Denikin and could not immediately commit large forces against Poland. Even with this caveat, within three months of its re-creation, Poland found itself involved in three major wars against the Germans, Russians and Ukrainians and two hostile border disputes with the Czechs and Lithuanians. The only saving grace was that the popular Ignacy Paderewski returned to Danzig via a British cruiser and agreed to become Piłsudski’s prime minister and foreign minister, which helped to prevent a Polish civil war between opposing factions. Piłsudski blocked Dmowski’s efforts to join the government and instead insisted that he serve as Poland’s primary delegate at the Versailles peace conference. Dmowski worked assiduously with the French to get Haller’s Blue Army transported to Poland and to secure material assistance for Poland’s war effort. Indeed, Dmowski’s diplomacy quickly provided great benefits for Piłsudski when the first elements of Haller’s 65,000-man Blue Army reached Poland in April 1919. Furthermore, French diplomatic pressure on the Ukrainians helped limit their advance while Polish forces were still outnumbered. Haller’s army was sent directly to Galicia, where it spearheaded a counter-offensive. Ultimately, Piłsudski’s forces emerged victorious and the Ukrainian-Polish War ended in July 1919, with Lwów in Polish hands. Furthermore, the important oil refinery at Drohobycz, south-west of Lwów, would provide the Polish Second Republic with vital hard currency. Likewise, the Greater Poland Army managed to hold on to Pomerania and the region – including the so-called ‘Polish Corridor’ – until the Allies awarded the region to Poland in the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919.

Poland – Resurrection, 1918–26 Part II

Top left: Polish FT tanks of the Polish 1st Tank Regiment during the Battle of Dyneburg, January 1920. Below left: Polish and Ukrainian troops in Kiev, Kiev Offensive (1920) Khreshchatyk, 7 may 1920. Top right: Polish Schwarzlose M.07/12 MG nest during the Battle of Radzymin,August 1920. Middle: Polish defences with a machine gun position near Miłosna, in the village of Janki, the first on the right from the rifle – Jerzy Krępeć, decorated with the Cross of Valor (polish Medal of Honor), battle of Warsaw, August 1920. Bottom left: Russian prisoners on the road between Radzymin and Warsaw after the attack of the Red Army on Warsaw. Bottom right: Polish defensive fighting positions on Belarus, Battle of Niemen, September 1920.

5 stages in the Polish–Soviet War

In early 1919, the Anglo-French made tentative efforts to assist the Polish Second Republic, with both Britain and France sending military missions to Warsaw. The French were sympathetic to Poland and sent 1,500 military personnel to train Piłsudski’s army. In addition to the 276 artillery pieces that arrived with Haller’s Blue Army, the French also delivered 350 additional 75mm guns and stocks of ammunition in August 1919. However, the British military mission accomplished very little, even according to its head, Brigadier Adrian Carton de Wiart. Although Carton de Wiart was sympathetic to the Poles, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George was not. Lloyd George was himself ignorant about conditions in eastern Europe and was influenced by the opinions of two close foreign policy advisors: Sir Lewis Namier and Edward H. Carr. Namier was born a Polish Jew in south-east Poland, but emigrated to England prior to the Great War and anglicized his name. In 1919, Namier became a member of the British delegation at Versailles and he quickly adopted a hostile attitude towards Dmowski’s nationalism and Poland’s border claims. Carr, a Cambridge historian, was also part of the British delegation at Versailles and he became quite enamoured of the Soviet Union, which also caused him to oppose Polish territorial claims. Even though British military forces were still on Soviet territory and supporting the Whites, Lloyd George sought a way to end that commitment and he was eager to develop new trade relations with the Soviets. Despite suggestions at Versailles the Poland should gain Upper Silesia and the southern part of East Prussia, Lloyd George and his protégés opposed this, as well as Piłsudski’s efforts to acquire Galicia and Wilno – which were dubbed ‘imperialistic’. Paderewski’s acquiescence to British demands caused great political strife in Poland, which led to his resignation. Although some English politicians, such as Winston Churchill, were still viscerally opposed to the Soviet Union, they were unwilling to offer substantive military assistance to the Poles. Even the attempted delivery of a few dozen surplus aircraft and surplus German rifles led to protests from English trade unions, which delayed shipment of the meagre arms aid that was authorized. German railroad workers worked to impede arms shipments to Poland across their territory and Czechs also blocked shipments. Consequently, British military aid to Poland in 1919 was negligible. In contrast, Italy provided the Polish government with a monetary loan and delivered a vital shipment of heavy artillery pieces to Danzig in June 1919.

Nevertheless, by spending 49 per cent of Poland’s national budget on his military, by early 1920 Piłsudski had managed to assemble a nominal force of nearly 200,000 men under arms. He even had an armoured regiment with 120 French-made FT tanks and an air arm with about 200 aircraft. Although there was a shortage of trained pilots, foreign volunteers made up some of the deficiency; enough American pilots arrived to form a complete squadron, known as the Kościuszko Squadron. In Paris, Dmowski directed the Polish Military Procurement Mission to purchase very large quantities of ex-German weapons as scrap and send them to Poland, although much of this equipment was worn out. Emboldened by his new armament, Piłsudski was determined to resolve the question of Poland’s eastern borders by force, whether or not the Anglo-French approved. Denikin’s forces had been defeated and the Red Army was now shifting massive forces to its western border to crush Poland. Piłsudski unwisely chose to strike first and took personal command of the Ukrainian Front, while Władysław Sikorski took command of the Lithuanian–Byelorussian Front. By forging an alliance with the defeated Ukrainians, Piłsudski managed to capture Kiev on 7 May 1920. However, a Soviet counter-offensive in June threatened to crush Piłsudski’s over-extended forces and he was forced to withdraw westwards in haste. By early July, the Red Army had seized Vilnius and was pushing towards Warsaw. At this point, the Anglo-French realized that a Bolshevik advance into central Europe was now a distinct possibility and authorized an enlarged military mission, headed by General Maxime Weygand. Allied military aid trickled in to Poland, but no more credit would be offered to Piłsudski’s government to purchase additional equipment. British diplomats impotently demanded that the Red Army stop its advance at the Curzon Line, which was blithely ignored. On 24 July 1920, the Red Army crossed the line and captured the city of Białystok, 175km north-west of Warsaw.

Anticipating a rapid military victory over the Poles, the Soviets took steps to establish a puppet government in Białystok, dubbed the Provisional Polish Revolutionary Committee or Polrevkom. Since Felix Dzerzhinsky (who was also head of the Cheka, secret police) was head of the Polrevkom, there could be little doubt for Piłsudski and his associates what their fate would be if they lost. However, the population of Białystok, which was 75 per cent Jewish, did not relish remaining under Polish jurisdiction and many were enthusiastic about the prospect of communist rule. Furthermore, as Polish historian Halik Kochanski noted, ‘the Polish–Soviet War had an enormous effect within Poland. It reminded the Poles that the Russians, whether tsarist or Soviet, brought repression and subjugation’.

When the Anglo-French failed to provide effective diplomatic or military support, the Poles were left to fend off the Soviet offensive towards Warsaw on their own. Piłsudski lacked the training or experience to plan and co-ordinate the movement of multiple armies in a mobile campaign, so General Tadeusz Rozwadowski was brought back from Paris to serve as head of the Polish General Staff. As the saying goes, ‘victory has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan’, so it has been difficult to accurately gauge who planned the Polish counter-attack, although it is more likely that it was the product of careful staff work, rather than amateur improvisation. In any case, the Polish Army mounted a brilliant counter-offensive which inflicted a catastrophic riposte against the Red Army in the battle of Warsaw. Sikorski’s 5th Army launched a carefully timed pincer attack into the enemy’s flank, spearheaded by tanks, which encircled one Soviet army and threw the rest into chaos. By carefully husbanding their remaining airpower, the Poles were able to gain air superiority around Warsaw and use aircraft to bomb and strafe the enemy. The Red Army’s best units were shattered and routed. Contrary to popular perception that the battle of Warsaw was won primarily by Polish cavalry, only about 5 per cent of Piłsudski’s combat forces were mounted troops. Instead, the Poles fought a modern battle, winning through use of combined arms tactics that properly meshed air operations with infantry, tanks, artillery and cavalry. Shortly after the victory at Warsaw, four Polish air squadrons repulsed the Soviet 1st Cavalry Army’s push towards Lwów by relentless bombing and strafing attacks. As the shattered Red Army retreated in disorder, pursued by the Poles, Lloyd George demanded that Polish forces cease their pursuit at the Curzon Line. Piłsudski ignored him. Instead, in the subsequent Treaty of Riga, the Soviet Union was forced to concede much of Kresy to Poland. Victory had not come cheap to Poland, which suffered over 170,000 military casualties in its eastern border conflicts in 1918–20.

The Polish Air Force (Lotnictwo Wojskowe or LW) also played a significant role in the defeat of the Ukrainians and Russians, by maintaining air superiority over the main battlefields. Flying a mix of Austrian, French, German and British aircraft, the LW flew a total of 5,172 combat sorties during 1918–20 and demonstrated a clear superiority over their Soviet opponents. Indeed, the Poles had an easier time finding skilled pilots (often from abroad) than the Bolsheviks, since most of the tsarist-era Russian pilots opted to join the White forces.

Despite the fact that Poland had regained its independence through the efforts of its own soldiers, the Anglo-French allies subsequently fabricated a false narrative that claimed that Poland owed its existence to their efforts at Versailles and their last-minute military aid. While President Wilson’s Fourteen Points and Dmowski’s diplomacy at Versailles set the stage for international recognition of the reborn Polish state, independence itself was achieved solely through Polish military success. Both Lloyd George and Churchill convinced themselves that Poland owed its independence to their good offices, while ignoring what Polish armies actually achieved in the field in 1919–20. By March 1921, Poland had achieved a tenuous peace and two years later the League of Nations recognized the new Russo-Polish border.

While Piłsudski had been focused on the Russian threat, yet another conflict had been developing in Upper Silesia, which possessed a large Polish population. Germany intended to keep this region, with its heavy industry and coal mines, despite Polish nationalist agitation. German forces easily crushed one Polish uprising in August 1919 and a second in August 1920, resulting in thousands of casualties. The Polish POW formed paramilitary units in Upper Silesia to counter German repression and German Freikorps units swarmed into the region, leading to frequent clashes. Once the Russo-Polish War had been resolved, Poland asked the League of Nations for a plebiscite, to determine the fate of Upper Silesia. In February 1921 the League decided to send a small Allied peacekeeping force to Upper Silesia to monitor the plebiscite and keep order. Prior to the plebiscite, the German government sent in thousands of citizens from outside the region, which skewed the results in favour of Germany. In response, the Polish politician Wojciech Korfanty organized a successful third revolt, which seized much of the eastern portion of Upper Silesia and held it against German counter-attacks. French peacekeeping forces allegedly did little to stop the Polish attacks, since the French government wanted to weaken post-war Germany as much as possible. However, Britain’s leadership was of a different mind and rushed two infantry brigades to the region so it could separate the two warring sides.24 Surprisingly, Korfanty’s rebels held onto the eastern part of Upper Silesia and the League eventually recognized this area as legally part of Poland. Yet while Poland gained valuable iron and coal mines in Upper Silesia, they were virtually indefensible since they were too close to the new border.

The Polish Second Republic desperately needed a period of peaceful stability to organize itself, but this proved elusive due to political in-fighting, an anaemic economy and the persistent concern about another Soviet invasion. Independence had unleashed a cacophony of political voices across the country, each of which demanded some representation in the Sejm and the Senate. Aside from national defence, there were those who thought priority should go to agricultural reforms, while labour groups wanted to focus on driving down unemployment. Poland held its first free legislative elections in November 1922, which resulted in no clear victory for any faction, so the result was a weak coalition government. Significantly, the Bloc of National Minorities (BMN), representing Germans, Jews and Ukrainians in Poland, won the second largest majority in the election. Gabriel Narutowicz, a moderate, was elected president. Piłsudski reverted to strictly military duties, becoming Chief of the General Staff. Two days after the transfer of power, President Narutowicz was assassinated by a right-wing fanatic. In turn, Stanisław Wojciechowski, an ally of Piłsudski, was elected president of Poland and Sikorski became prime minister. Roman Dmowski led an anti-Piłsudski faction in the Sejm, intent upon limiting his powers, but Piłsudski ensured that Dmowski and his right-wing nationalists were frozen out of the government. Nor did it help the new government that the Polish economy was in terrible shape due to hyperinflation and that the primary trade partner was a resentful Germany, which started a tariff war with Poland in 1925. Amazingly, Prime Minister Władysław Grabski’s government managed to partly stabilize the economy within two years by the introduction of a new currency (the złoty) and by stimulating coal production to earn export income. Efforts were also made to develop domestic industrial production (particularly steel and chemicals) and repair national infrastructure, although the bulk of the economy remained focused on agriculture. Unemployment was also very high – up to 12.7 per cent in 1925 – which created further social unrest. In Kraków, Polish Army troops were called in to crush a strike led by Piłsudski’s own PPS; between 30 and 40 strikers were killed.

Due to the threat of another Soviet invasion, Poland was obliged to maintain a very large peacetime army, with over 250,000 troops. Furthermore, Sikorski created the Border Protection Corps (Korpus Ochrony Pogranicza or KOP), of six brigades, to protect the eastern borders. While this force was sufficient to deter another Soviet invasion, it also deprived the cash-strapped military of funds for modernization. Seeking allies and aid, the Poles turned to France, which agreed to sign a defensive military alliance with Poland in February 1921. The French pledged mutual military collaboration in case of an attack by a third party, by which they meant Germany, not the USSR. In addition, France provided Poland with a loan of ₣ 400 million for rearmament and in return, Poland promised to purchase all its arms from France. However, Britain’s efforts to prop up Weimar Germany served to undermine Poland’s security situation. At an international conference at Locarno, Switzerland in 1925, Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Belgium pledged to respect the new borders in Western Europe, but the question of eastern borders was left unresolved. Piłsudski was livid about the Locarno Treaty and stated that it meant that Poland’s borders were not regarded as inviolate by the Anglo-French.

In reaction to Locarno and the worsening economy, Piłsudski became disenchanted with the democratic experiment in Poland and plotted with former legionnaire officers to overthrow the civilian government. Piłsudski regarded the civilian government as too weak and divided to deal with the myriad of serious problems facing the country. The final straw may have been a rumour that the civilian government was about to cut the army by one-quarter as part of a fiscal austerity plan, which Piłsudski believed would compromise Poland’s national security. On 12 May 1926, Piłsudski led a military coup against the government of President Wojciechowski. Although he was able to enter Warsaw with about 3,000 troops, the government held its ground in the Belwedere Palace, surrounded by a loyal infantry regiment. A number of loyalist officers, including Generał Tadeusz Rozwadowski and Generał Stanisław Haller, urged the president to resist and wait for loyal troops from outside Warsaw to arrive. When the government refused to capitulate, scattered fighting broke out in the capital between loyalist and rebel troops for two days. General Rozwadowski ordered Generał Brygady Włodzimierz Zagórski’s aviation group, which remained loyal to the government, to bomb the rebels – which they did. However, Piłsudski was able to rally more troops to his side, including two regiments sent by Edward Rydz-Śmigły. In the face of further bloodshed, the legitimate government decided to surrender on the morning of 15 May. A total of 821 Polish soldiers and 478 civilians were killed or wounded in Piłsudski’s two-day coup – a rather bloody affair.

Piłsudski established an authoritarian regime dubbed the Sanacja (Moral Renewal) and moved quickly to crush his opponents. Most of the senior officers who supported the legal government were arrested and imprisoned, while prominent ex-legionnaires such as Sikorski and Józef Haller had their military careers terminated. Kazimierz Sosnkowski, once Piłsudski’s right-hand man, had not been informed about the coup and after hearing of it, he attempted suicide. Poland had few General Staff-trained officers at this point, but many were cashiered after the coup. General Zagórski simply disappeared after a year in incarceration – possibly liquidated. On the other hand, the officers who had sided with Piłsudski – such as Edward Rydz-Śmigły – were rewarded with positions of greater responsibility in the Sanacja regime. Piłsudski’s coup imposed an authoritarian regime upon Poland which deepened already wide chasms in the body politic and created irreversible fissures in the Polish officer corps, between pro-Piłsudski and anti-Piłsudski officers. Later, about 30 senior officers – mostly from the Polish General Staff – were retired early. In essence, Piłsudski’s coup was a de facto purge, which sidelined many of Poland’s most able military officers in favour of men personally loyal to him. In order to provide the appearance of a civilian government, Piłsudski engineered the election of Ignacy Mościcki, a former chemistry professor, as the new president, so he could focus on foreign affairs and the military. Far from stabilizing Poland, Piłsudski’s Sanacja regime was unable to prevent the economy from sliding into a state of near-collapse by 1927, which was only rescued by a timely emergency loan from France.

Piłsudski decided to allow free parliamentary elections in 1928, but this galvanized the opposition, which included the nascent communist party. The Sanacja regime could not gain a majority at the ballot box and was forced to work with other parties – but compromise was not in Piłsudski’s lexicon. When the opposition began to gel into a real anti-Sanacja coalition known as the Centrolew, Piłsudski opted for repression against them in the 1930 election cycle. Heavy media censorship was imposed and opposition candidates harassed and ultimately arrested, including Wojciech Korfanty, who had gained part of Upper Silesia for Poland. Prominent Poles, such as Ignacy Paderewski, condemned the coup and the resulting Sanacja regime. Rather than saving Poland, the Sanacja regime served to destroy any hope for real political co-operation and the country slid into a republic in name only; this was not the country that Polish patriots had struggled and sacrificed for decades to achieve.

Piłsudski’s charisma and determination – along with the sacrifices of many of his soldiers – had laid the groundwork for a resurrected Polish state. Unfortunately, like many revolutionaries, Piłsudski was imbued with a pig-headed inability to compromise or work with other strong personalities, which deprived the nation of some of its best talent. His tendency to hold grudges against those who opposed him – or favour those who supported him – meant that the Second Republic was skewed towards the views of one man. Poland needed Dmowski, Korfanty, Sikorski and Paderewski as much as it needed Piłsudski, but the man at the top of the pyramid decided that only he was essential. Due to Piłsudski’s authoritarian inclinations, the Polish Second Republic was undermined by a fractured political system which left it particularly vulnerable to the machinations of its neighbours. Furthermore, Piłsudski’s desire to expand Poland’s borders led to the creation of friction with all its neighbours and left large numbers of resentful non-Poles within its borders, thereby providing the casus belli for future conflicts.

Battle of Kirchholm 1605

The Battle of Kircholm, one of the major battles in the Polish-Swedish War, was fought on September 27, 1605, (or the 17th according to the Old calendar then in use in Protestant countries). The hussars launched a devastating charge against the enemy which ended the battle in the decisive victory of the Polish-Lithuanian forces. It is remembered and celebrated to this day as one of the greatest triumphs of the Polish Hussars.. The battle was decided in all of 20 minutes!

On the eve of battle Swedish forces and that of the Commonwealth assembled near the town of Kircholm (which is about 18km SE of current day Riga, Latvia). The Swedish forces under the command of Charles IX numbered 10,800 men and 11 cannons, and were reinforced by several thousand German and Dutch mercenaries, as well as a few hundred Scots, greatly outnumbering the Commonwealth forces.

The Polish-Lithuanian army, led by the Great Hetman Jan Karol Chodkiewicz, consisted approximately of 1,300 infantry, that is, 1,040 pikemen and 260 musketeers, in addition to 2,600 cavalry, and only 5 cannons. Incidentally, the Polish Crown refused to finance its army, the funds having been obtained from the personal fortune of Chodkiewicz.

Even with numerical superiority the Swedes were at a severe disadvantage. Their troops were less well-trained (though armed with pistols and carbines), had a poorer breed of horses, and were tired after having marched throughout the night in torrential rains.  Other the other hand, the Polish-Lithuanian forces were well-rested, confident that their cavalry was superbly trained and were heavily armed with lances.  Most came from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and about 200 from the Polish Crown, the remainder of which were either mercenaries or close personal allies of Chodkiewicz.  Among these forces were also a small number of Tatars and Polish-Lithuanian cossack horses used mostly for reconnaissance.

The Swedish soldiers were deployed in a checkboard formation in which infantry assembled into 7 or 8 widely spaced blocks, with intersecting fields of fire while the flanks were covered by Swedish and German cavalry, and cannons positioned ahead of the cavalry. In contrast, the Polish-Lithuanian forces were deployed in the traditional format: the left wing, commanded by Dabrowa, was significantly stronger, while the right wing under the leadership of Pawel Jan Sapieha consisted of a smaller number of Hussars while at the centre were 300 Hussars led by Chodkiewicz, as well as a powerful formation of reiters dispatched by the Duke of Courland. 

Despite the 1:3 disadvantage of Chodkiewicz forces, he used a feint to lure the Swedish forces from their high position. Thinking that the Commonwealth forces were retreating, the Swedish army was ordered to attack and began to give chase, spreading out their formations as they advanced. This is precisely what Chodkiewicz had planned and at the precise moment, the Commonwealth infantry launched a full-blown attack on the approaching enemy. At this point the Hussars assumed battle formations and charged on the Swedish left flank. At the same time about 300 Polish-Lithuanian Hussars charged the Swedish infantry in the centre  to prevent them from interfering with their cavalry action on both of their flanks. Chodkiewicz then ordered his left wing and all reserves to attack the opposing right flank of the enemy.

The Swedish reiters were driven back on both wings and the infantry in the centre was attacked from three sides simultaneously. The Swedish forces turned and ran off in a panic, their whole army having collapsed. It was at this point that the Swedes had suffered their heaviest casualties. Defeat was devastating and complete. Swedish forces had lost more than half, and perhaps as much as two-thirds of their men. Their largest number of losses occurred while retreating in the dense forests and marshes: 8,000 dead or wounded, and 500 captured. The Poles and Lithuanians were fierce warriors and spared few opponents. Commonwealth losses were only about 100 dead and 200 wounded, though the Hussars had lost many of their trained battle horses. That they suffered fewer casualties was largely due to the incredible speed of their victories, not to mention that their horses had also been a shield and protection to the riders.

The Swedish king henceforth abandoned the siege of Riga, relinquished his control of northern Latvia and Estonia, made a complete withdrawal and sailed back to Sweden across the Baltic Sea.  Irregardless, the Commonwealth was not capable of exploiting their victory to the fullest owing to the limited financial resources at hand. There was not enough money for military supplies, and for incidentals such as food and fodder for their horses, nor to replace the many horses killed in battle. As a result their military campaign faltered.  In 1611 a truce was signed, but by 1617 war broke out again and four years later Gustavus Adolphus, the new Swedish king, succeeded in retaking the city of Riga after a brief siege.

First Polish-Swedish War for Livonia, (1600–1611)

Long an area of contention among Sweden, Poland, and Russia, the Baltic became the locus of fighting yet again when Sweden invaded and occupied most of Estonia and Livonia in 1600. They were halted by the Poles at the fortress city of Riga, where Herman Jan Karol Chodkiewicz (1560-1621) launched a counterattack, driving the Swedes out of most of Livonia with victories at Dorpat (Tartu) and Revel (Tallinn), but failing to secure complete control over the disputed region.

Then, in 1604, Charles IX (1550-1611), the newly declared and ambitious Swedish king, landed a fresh army of 14,000 in Estonia and marched on Riga to try his fortunes against Chodkiewicz. The two armies met at the battle of Kirchholm, where the Poles mustered only some 3,500 men-although 2,500 of them were horsemen in Poland’s heavy cavalry, hailed as the best in Europe. They mounted a savage, reckless charge that swept the Swedes from the field and themselves forever into Polish history. They not only won the battle, they came very close to capturing Sweden’s warrior king himself, and Polish chroniclers would soon be claiming that the bodies of some 9,000 Swedish soldiers littered the abandoned battlefield. Afterward, the war fizzled, and continued only in sporadic fighting until ended by truce in 1611.

Polish-Lithuanian Forces

Polish-Lithuanian Constitutional development ground to a halt. The extreme libertarian position of the nobility was not redressed. The great Rokosz of 1606-9 ended in a stalemate. The King could do nothing to enlarge his powers. The problem of the succession was not resolved. Although Zamoyski failed to limit the succession to certain named candidates, so, too, did all subsequent attempts to arrange it vivente rege. The elections of 1632 and 1648 were unmemorable. The great officers of state were awarded lifelong tenure. Finance remained firmly in the purview of the nobility.

Some changes were made in military organization. Although the traditional use of massed cavalry brought some success, particularly at Kirchholm in 1605 and at Klushino in 1610, the prestige of the Swedish example led to important modifications designed to increase the army’s firepower. In 1618, the kwarta tax was doubled in order to support improved gunnery, which in 1637 was organized in a separate Corps of Artillery with its own General. The army was divided into two separate formations. One, the so-called ‘National Contingent’, included regiments of Hussars, Cossacks, and Tartars, and was drawn from private retinues and from the noble ‘comrades-in-arms’. The other, the Foreign Contingent, included the regiments of infantry, dragoons, and rajtars, and was freely recruited ‘by the drum’, that is, by colonels who paid and equipped the men themselves. The over-all size of the infantry was much increased, the traditional ‘Hungarian-style’ regiments armed with muskets and halberds being supplemented with new and larger ‘German’ regiments of musketeers and pikemen. In peacetime, the standing army made up of the Royal Guard, the Registered Cossacks, and the Kwarciane numbered some 12,000 men. In wartime, it could be quadrupled without difficulty. Much work was done on fortresses especially at Zamosc in the Italian style, at Danzig, Brody, and Wisnicz in the Dutch style, and at Kudak on the Dnieper by the French engineer, Beauplan. A school of theoretical writing flourished, associated with the names dell’Aqua, Freytag, and Siemienowicz. In Stanistaw Zolkiewski (1547-1620), Crown-Hetman from 1613, Jan Karol Chodkiewicz (1560-1621), Lithuanian Hetman from 1605, and Stanislaw Koniecpolski (1593-1646), Field Hetman of the Crown from 1618 and Grand Hetman from 1632, and Stefan Czarniecki (1599-1665), the Republic saw its most brilliant generation of field commanders. The Royal Fleet, never of much significance, was liquidated in 1641.

Further reading: Norman Davies, God’s Playground: A History of Poland, 2 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982); O. Halecki (with additional material by A. Polonsky and Thaddeus V. Grommada), A History of Poland, new ed. (New York: Dorset Press, 1992); W. F. Reddaway, et al., eds., The Cambridge History of Poland, 2 vols. (reprint, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1971).

Polish Armour 1939

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.

Armoured Trains

Almost as soon as Poland was established as a nation in 1919, the new Polish army started to accumulate a number of types of armoured train with which to defend its exposed borders. The trains were initially used to take troops and heavy armament to any particular front or locality as and when required, for it was impossible to post troops to cover every potential border crossing point, especially on the wide plains of the eastern Polish frontier with the Soviet Union. In time some of these early armoured trains were withdrawn and replaced by more formal designs intended specifically as armoured trains rather than merely a collection of protected railway wagons.

Typical of these new equipments was the Pociag Pancerny nr 11 (PP nr 11) and named ‘Danuta’. When complete this train consisted of two armed wagons, an accommodation and control wagon equipped with radio, and an armoured locomotive. To these could be added two flat-bed wagons, one at the front and one at the back, which had no function other than to protect the train proper from the possible effects of mines laid under the tracks and fired by wheel pressure, Thus, from the front, such a train would comprise a flat-bed wagon, one of the two armed wagons, the control carriage (also armoured), the armoured locomotive, the other armed wagon, and the second flat-bed wagon. The armed wagon was a four-axle design with two axles at each end. At the ends were two circular turrets, one mounting a 100-mm (3.94-in) howitzer of Austro-Hungarian origins and the other a 75-mm (2.95-in) gun, A small central turret mounted a 7.92-mm (0.31-in) machine-gun.

The ‘Danuta’ was but one of many Polish armoured trains still in service in 1939 when the Germans invaded. Each of the Polish armoured trains had its own name, usually of a Polish folk or national hero such as ‘Paderewski’, ‘Grozny’, ‘General Sosnkowski’ or Marszalek’. To these were added a number of improvised trains that were hurriedly formed in 1939, usually by simply adding steel plates to existing railway rolling stock. No two examples of these armoured trains appear to have been alike other than the fact that they nearly all had two-turret wagons somewhere in their formation. Again, no two of these twin-turret wagons were identical in design although most had one 100-mm (3.94-in) turret and one 75-mm (2.95-in) turret with a machine-gun of some form or another in the small central turret. There were also a number of smaller twin-axle wagons with single turrets having 75-mm (2.95-in) guns and firing ports or small turrets for machine-guns. To add to the number of types in service there were also small wagons with their own truck-type engines carrying a small machine-gun turret. Typical of these was the ‘Tatra’ which mounted a Hotchkiss machine-gun.

One Polish innovation was the adaption of railway wagons for the carriage of light tank, often as part of armoured trains. These could carry either the light Renault M1917 tank or the little TKS tankettes that were little more than machine-gun carriers.

For all their gun power and degree of design sophistication, nearly all the Polish armoured trains lacked one key weapon and that was some form of anti-aircraft armament. In 1939 this proved to be a serious drawback for in the face of Luftwaffe air supremacy the Polish armoured trains were either unable to move or were attacked when they attempted to do so, Many of them were destroyed by air attack and the few left were taken over by the Germans, at first for internal security duties but later in the Soviet Union on anti-partisan operations.


In just five weeks of bitter fighting during the summer of 1944, Rokossovsky’s troops stormed over 450 miles and were within reach of Warsaw. The Polish capital looked a tempting prize for Stalin as a culmination of Operation Bagration’s remarkable success, but his summer offensive was beginning to lose momentum. Rokossovsky’s 1st Byelorussian Front was at the very limit of its supply lines; ammunition and rations were exhausted, as were his men.

Rokossovsky, at this stage, enjoyed a 3:1 superiority in infantry and 5:1 in armour and artillery. He had at his disposal nine armies: one tank army, two tank corps, three cavalry corps, one motorised corps and two air armies. Against this, Field Marshal Walter Model’s 2nd Army could muster barely five under-strength panzer divisions and one infantry division, while the battered 9th Army had just two divisions and two brigades of infantry.

In many ways, Hitler’s defence of Warsaw echoed that of Minsk. The eastern approaches of the Polish capital were protected by a 50-mile ring of strongpoints. The only difference was that, this time, Model had sufficient mobile reserves with which to parry Rokossovsky’s armoured thrusts. He had gathered his wits and, more importantly, sufficient men with which to thwart Rokossovsky’s oncoming tide. Model’s defences coalesced around his panzer divisions with around 450 tanks and self-propelled guns. Over the next week, things would start to go badly wrong for Rokossovsky and his men would experience their first major setback.

Rokossovsky’s Lublin–Brest Offensive was conducted from 18 July to 2 August 1944 as a follow-up to Bagration and to support General I.S. Konev’s Lvov–Sandomierz Offensive by tying down German forces in central eastern Poland. It culminated in the major tank Battle of Radzymin. To the north of Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front, Rokossovsky’s 8th Guards, 47th and 69th Armies supported by the 2nd Tank Army, and the Polish 1st Army struck from the Kovel area toward Lublin and Warsaw, thereby making Army Group North Ukraine’s position untenable.

It seemed appropriate to Stalin that eastern Poland should be liberated as part of Byelorussia, as that is how Hitler had treated it. For administrative purposes, parts of German-occupied Poland had been lumped in with western Byelorussia. When Hitler divided prostrate Poland with Stalin in 1939, he also annexed the region south-west of East Prussia (Wartheland) to the Reich, while the Reichkommissariate of ‘Ostland’ (an area incorporating Minsk and the Baltic States) and ‘Ukraine’ governed parts of eastern Poland, and the ‘rump’ in the middle was run as the Generalgouvernement.

In mid-1944 north of Warsaw, Model turned to Heinrich Himmler’s Waffen-SS for assistance in stabilising the front. The remnants of the 1st SS and 2nd SS Panzer Divisions had been shipped west after their mauling in the Kamenets–Podolsk pocket to re-equip and prepare for the anticipated Anglo-American landings in France. However, the tough 3rd SS and 5th SS Panzer Divisions remained in Romania and Poland rearming.

The 3rd SS was notified to move north as early as 25 June, but the disruption to the rail networks and roads meant that it took two weeks to get to north-eastern Poland. Arriving on 7 July, it found the Red Amy was already striking toward the Polish city of Grodno, threatening the southern flank of Army Group Centre’s 4th Army and the northern flank of the 2nd Army.

Deployed to Grodno, the 3rd SS were given the task of creating a defensive line for the 4th Army to retire behind. Spectacularly, the division held off 400 Soviet tanks for eleven days before withdrawing south-west toward Warsaw. Joined by the Hermann Göring Panzer Division at Siedlce, 50 miles east of the Polish capital, they held the Red Army for almost a week from 24 July, keeping open an escape corridor for the 2nd Army as it fled toward the Vistula. Three days later, the Red Army threw almost 500 tanks to the south and by 29 July it was at the very suburbs of Warsaw.

The 5th SS arrived in western Warsaw on 27 July and trundled through the troubled city to take up positions to the east. The next day, Stalin ordered Rokossovsky to occupy Praga, Warsaw’s suburbs on the eastern bank of the Vistula, during 5–8 August, and to establish a number of bridgeheads over the river to the south of the city.

As instructed, the Soviet 2nd Tank Army and 8th Tank Corps attacked westward along the Warsaw–Lublin road toward Praga. About 40 miles south-east of Warsaw, in the Garwolin area, the 2nd Tank was opposed by two advanced battalions of Genera Fritz Franek’s 10,800-strong 73rd Infantry Division. Holding the north bank of the Swidra River, they were backed up by the Hermann Göring Panzer Division 12 miles east of Praga.

In addition, four panzer divisions (3rd SS, 5th SS, 4th and 19th Panzer) which were poised to counter-attack now defended the approaches to the Polish capital. The men of 19th Panzer were veterans of the Eastern Front, having fought on the central and southern sectors from June 1941 to June 1944, before being shipped to the Netherlands for a refit. Hasso Krappe, an officer with 19th Panzer, recalled the fighting around Warsaw, ‘Over the next two weeks the battles centred on the region north of Warsaw [between the Bug, Narev and Vistula], and on the Varka, which has gone down in military history as the “Magnushev Bridgehead”.’

Franek’s division had endured a rough time during its career, having taken part in the invasions of Poland, the Low Countries, France and Greece before entering the Soviet Union via Romania. It fought at Nikolayev, Cherson, Sevastopol and the Kuban bridgehead. Suffering heavy losses near Melitopol, the 73rd Infantry was withdrawn only to be trapped by the Red Army in Sevastopol in May 1944 and re-formed in June in Hungary under Franek.

Franek’s men and the Hermann Göring bore the brunt of the powerful attacks launched by two Soviet Tank Corps. Garwolin was partially captured during the night of 27/28 July and the 73rd fell back. Despite the presence of elements of 19th Panzer and the Hermann Göring, by noon on 29 July the Soviet 8th Tank Corps had secured Kołbiel and Siennica. About 26 miles from Warsaw at Minsk Mazowiecki, Lieutenant General N.D. Vedeneev’s 3rd Tank Corps broke the German defences, and at Zielonka, General Franek and some of his staff were captured.

Brest-Litovsk fell to Rokossovsky on 28 July and with his troops at Garwolin, three German divisions tried to escape toward Siedlce, south-east of Warsaw. They were surrounded between Biała and the river and crushed, with 15,000 killed and just 2,000 captured. In Moscow, Stalin and his commanders were very pleased with Rokossovsky’s efforts and on 29 July he was nominated a Marshal of the Soviet Union.

Captured German documents showed that the 5th SS Reconnaissance Unit was deployed near Minsk Mazowiecki; units of the Hermann Göring and the 73rd Infantry were holding the Cechowa and Otwock sector of Warsaw’s outer defences; 19th Panzer was defending the approaches to Praga and the 3rd SS were in the Okuniew and Pustelnik suburban areas.

When the 2nd Tank Army’s 16th Tank Corps struck toward Otwock along the Lublin road, the 19th Panzer counter-attacked with forty panzers and an infantry regiment but were unable to hold, and by the evening the Soviets were a mere 15 miles from Warsaw. They were now poised to assault the key defences of Okuniew. The 8th Tank Corps opened the attack, only to be stalled by determined German air and artillery fire.

In the meantime Vedeneev, bypassing German defences, drove them from Wołomin and Radzymin, just 12 miles north-east of Warsaw, where he took up defensive positions along the Dluga River. Having outstretched his supply lines and outrun the rest of the Soviet 2nd Tank Army, Vedeneev was in a dangerously exposed position. The 39th Panzer Corps was in the area and the panzer divisions were coming together in the direction of Radzymin-Wołomin.

Rokossovsky’s forces were quick to react to this threat and attempted to alleviate the pressure on Vedeneev with a diversionary attack. At dawn on 31 July, followed by heavy air and artillery bombardment, the Soviet 8th Tank Corps threw themselves at the Germans who fell back toward Okuniew. The 5th SS counter-attacked in a westerly direction with fifty panzers from Stanislawów, in an effort to link up with the Hermann Göring and 19th Panzer, who were fighting a tank battle with the Soviets at Okuniew and Ossow.

The 5th SS were repulsed and on the evening of 31 July the Soviets took Okuniew, but could not budge the enemy from their strongpoint at Osos. North of the Soviet 8th Tank Corps, the 3rd Tank remained unsupported and, like the 16th Corps, endured a day of heavy attacks from German armour, artillery and infantry. The commander of the Soviet 2nd Army was in an impossible position; his units were enduring heavy casualties; he was short of supplies and his rear was under threat.

Rokossovsky simply could not fulfil his orders to break though the German defences and enter Praga by 8 August – it was simply not possible. On 1 August, at 1610 hrs he ordered the attack to be broken off just as Model launched his major counter-attack. On 2 August, all Red Army forces that were assaulting Warsaw were redirected. The 28th, 47th and 65th Armies were sent northwards to seize the undefended town of Wyszków and the Liwiec River Line. Crucially, this left the 2nd Tank Army without infantry support. This situation was compounded when the 69th Army was ordered to halt while the 8th Guards Army under Vasily Chuikov ceased the assault, to await a German attack from the direction of Garwolin.

Model began to probe the weak spot in Rokossovsky’s line between Praga and Siedlce. His intention was to hit the Soviets in the flank and the rear, and soon, to the north-east of Warsaw, the 39th Panzer Corps was counter-attacking the 3rd Tank Corps and forcing it back to Wołomin. The 3rd SS, Hermann Göring and 4th and 19th Panzer Divisions struck south into the exposed Soviet columns.

The Hermann Göring’s 1st Armoured Paratroop Regiment launched their attack from Praga toward Wołomin on 31 July, heralding the much larger effort to halt the Red Army in its steps before Warsaw. From the south-west, along the Warsaw–Wyszków road attacking toward Radzymin, came the 19th Panzer, while from Wyszków the 4th Panzer acted in support.

The next day, from Węgrów pushing toward Wołomin, came the panzers of the 5th SS. At the same time the 3rd SS was launched into the fray from Siedlce toward Stanislawów with the intention of trapping those Soviet units on the north-eastern bank of the Dluga. General Nikolaus von Vormann, appointed by Guderian to command the 9th Army and bringing up reinforcements from the 2nd Army’s reserves, also launched a counter-attack. Using men of the 5th SS and 3rd SS attacking from the forests to the east of Michałów, he drove the Soviet 8th Tank Corps from Okuniew at 2100 hrs on 1 August and linked up with 39th Panzer Corps from the west.

By 2 August, the 19th followed by 4th Panzer were in Radzymin and the Soviet 3rd Tank Corps was thrown back toward Wołomin. The following day, the Hermann Göring Panzer Division rolled into Wołomin. Pressed into the area of Wołomin, Vedeneev was completely trapped. Attempts by the 8th Guards Tank Corps and the 16th Tank Corps to reach him failed with the former suffering serious casualties in the attempt.

After a week of heavy fighting, the Soviet 3rd Tank Corps was surrounded; 3,000 men were killed and another 6,000 captured. The Red Army also lost 425 of the 808 tanks and self-propelled guns they had begun the battle with on 18 July. By noon on 5 August the Germans had ceased their counter-attack and the battle for the Praga approaches had come to an end. Two German divisions had to be transferred south to deal with the Soviet threat there.

Vedeneev’s corps was destroyed and the 8th Guards Tank Corps and the 16th Tank Corps had taken heavy losses. The exhausted Soviet 2nd Tank Army handed over its positions and withdrew to lick its wounds.

Post-war Communist propagandists cited the Battle of Radzymin as evidence that the German counter-attack prevented the Red Army from helping the Warsaw Uprising. Stalin clearly did not hold Vedeneev responsible. He remained in charge and the 3rd Tank Corps was honoured by being designated the 9th Guards Tank Corps in November 1944. It was not until 25 August that Rokossovsky would inform Stalin that he was ready to have another go at Warsaw.

After such heavy fighting north-east of the Polish capital, it is easy to see why Stalin saw the Polish Home Army’s Warsaw Rising as of little consequence to the overall strategic scheme of things. General Tadeusz Bór-Komorowsky, commander of the underground Polish Home Army, ordered his men to rise up against the German occupation of Warsaw on 1 August. Two days later, Stanislaus Mikołajczyk, who had been appointed prime minister by the exiled Polish government in London, gained an audience with Stalin in the hope of getting help for the Warsaw Rising. Stalin showed little faith in the Home Army’s fighting capabilities:

What is an army without artillery, tanks and an air force? They are even short of riles. In modern warfare such an army is of little use. They are small partisan units, not a regular army. I was told that the Polish government has ordered these units to drive the Germans out of Warsaw. I wonder how they could possibly do this, their forces are not up to that task.

Rokossovsky was ordered to go over to the defensive and watched the Germans systemically crush the Poles for two whole months. Likewise, the Red Air Force, which was just 100 miles away, did very little. At Kraków, the capital of the Generalgouvernement, the Wehrmacht garrison was 30,000 strong, twice that of Warsaw, which had a much bigger population. In addition, there were some 10,000 armed German administrators in the city. As a result, there was no secondary Home Army rising in Kraków.

Just 12.5 miles south of Warsaw, Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army crossed the Vistula on 1 August at Magnuszew. He held onto his tiny bridgehead despite determined counter-attacks. By the 8th, the bridgehead contained three Soviet corps. Holding the northern shoulder of the bridgehead and preventing the Soviets from expanding it was a Volksgrenadier Brigade and a battalion of panzers, while to the south were the 17th Infantry Division.

General Zygmunt Berling’s Soviet-trained Polish 1st Army had reinforced Rokossovsky during the spring of 1944. This was, in fact, the second Polish army to be formed in the Soviet Union and was the military wing of the so-called Union of Polish Patriots, which had come into being with Stalin’s approval in 1943. The earlier army of General Władysław Anders had managed to slip Stalin’s grasp in 1942, getting itself redeployed to fight with the British in the Middle East and Italy.

Berling was ordered to cross the Vistula at Puławy on 31 July on a wide front to support other elements of the Soviet 69th and 8th Guards Armies crossing near Magnuszew. Two Polish divisions gained the west bank on 1 and 2 August, but by the 4th they had suffered 1,000 casualties and were ordered to withdraw. They were then assigned to protect the northern part of the Magnuszew bridgehead.

When Berling joined Rokossovsky he had 104,000 men under arms, comprising five infantry divisions, a tank brigade, four artillery brigades and an air wing. Many recruits who were former POWs from 1939 saw it as a way of getting home, although Stalin kept them on a tight political leash. Berling, like Rokossovsky, was a career soldier having served with the Austrian and Polish armies. The fact that Stalin had spared him and that he had not stayed with Anders made him appear a turncoat to many of his countrymen. Berling was also given the onerous task of endorsing Stalin’s lie that Hitler had perpetrated the massacre of Polish officers in Katyn Forest.

When Poland was partitioned by Stalin and Hitler under the Non-Aggression Pact, 130,000 Polish officers and men immediately fell into the hands of the Red Army (although, in total, some 250,000 soldiers were eventually moved into the Soviet Union as POWs). Stalin had a long memory and a score to settle with the Poles (in 1920 they had defeated the Red Army), and he also wanted to destroy the basis for any future opposition to the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland, which would act as a buffer against post-war Germany. Stalin had acted swiftly and brutally.

He rounded up every Polish officer in his part of pre-war Poland (now the western Ukraine and western Belorussia) and in early 1940 he ruthlessly organised their slaughter. In April–May 1940, 15,000 Polish officers and policemen were evacuated from camps at Kozielsk, Starobielsk and Ostachkov and turned over to the NKVD in the Smolensk, Kharkov and Kalinin regions. With Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, the Polish government in exile signed an agreement with Moscow – the provisions included raising a Polish army in the Soviet Union. However, of the 15,000 Polish officers held by the Soviets, only 350–400 reported for duty. Like the kulaks and Red Army officers before them, the Polish officer class had been ruthlessly butchered.

Stalin’s duplicity in his treatment of Poland and the Polish Army knew no bounds. In December 1941, Generals Wladyslaw Sikorski and Anders plus the Polish ambassador met with Stalin to discuss the whereabouts of approximately 4,000 named Polish officers who had been deported to Soviet prisons and labour camps. Stalin initially claimed rather disingenuously that they had escaped to Manchuria. He then changed tack, suggesting they had been released, adding, ‘I want you to know that the Soviet government has not the slightest reason to retain even one Pole’. What he meant was ‘even one living Pole’.

Hitler announced that he had found the mass grave of up to 4,000 Polish officers in the forest of Katyn, near Smolensk, in April 1943. The Germans continued to dig, unearthing an estimated 10,000 bodies, and Hitler set up a Committee of Inquiry which ‘proved’ the Poles had been shot in 1940 by Stalin’s NKVD. The Soviets dismissed the claim as propaganda, calling it ‘revolting and slanderous fabrications’.

Hitler’s discovery had strained Soviet–Polish relations even further, allowing Stalin to undermine the validity of the Polish government in exile in London as a prelude to establishing a Communist government in Warsaw. As far as Stalin was concerned, Poland came within his sphere of influence and he had every intention of it remaining so. On retaking Smolensk, Stalin set up his own commission which stated categorically that the men had been killed in 1941 while road-building for the Germans.


On the morning of 2 August 1944, Rokossovsky went to view the Polish capital and got a good indication of the Polish Home Army’s efforts, recalling:

Together with a group of officers I was visiting the 2nd Tank Army, which was fighting on that sector of the front. From our observation point, which had been set up at the top of a tall factory chimney, we could see Warsaw. The city was covered in clouds of smoke. Here and there houses were burning. Bombs and shells were exploding. Everything indicated that a battle was in progress.

Why did Rokossovsky not try for a bridgehead at Warsaw if the Red Army had established footholds at Magnuszew, Puławy and on the upper Vistula near Sandomierz? To have done so would have been far tougher than in the Radom region, way to the south. Sandomierz had cost them dearly, plus Stalin saw Warsaw as anchoring the Germans’ line on the Narev and Bobr and, in turn, East Prussia and knew they would fight bitterly to defend this. Without the Baltic States secured, Hitler could strike from East Prussia against the flank and rear of the Red Army once it was advancing beyond the Vistula.

Also, by now Rokossovsky was facing twenty-two enemy divisions, this included four security divisions in the Warsaw suburbs, three Hungarian divisions on the Vistula, south of Warsaw, and the remains of six or seven divisions which had escaped from the chaos of Belostok and Brest-Lotovsk. At least eight divisions were identified fighting to the north of Siedlce, amongst them two panzer and three SS panzer or panzergrenadier divisions. Stalin was waiting in the wings with his own Polish government and armed forces.

Marshal Zhukov blamed Polish leader Bor-Komorowski for a lack of co-operation with the Red Army:

As was established later, neither the command of the Front [Rokossovsky] nor that of Poland’s 1st Army [Berling] had been informed in advance by Bor-Komorowski, the leader of the uprising, about forthcoming events in Warsaw. Nor did he make any attempt to co-ordinate the insurgents’ actions with those of the 1st Byelorussian Front. The Soviet Command learned about the uprising after the event from local residents who had crossed the Vistula. The Stavka had not been informed in advance either.

In light of Rokossovsky’s efforts to the north-east and south-east of Warsaw in the face of the tough Waffen-SS, this is largely true.

In Warsaw, General Reiner Stahel’s 12,000-strong garrison included 5,000 regular troops, 4,000 Luftwaffe personnel (over a quarter of whom were manning the air defences) and the 2,000-strong Warsaw security regiment. Wehrmacht forces in the immediate area numbered up to 16,000 men, with another 90,000 further afield. Army Group Centre was to have a limited role in fighting the Warsaw Rising. General Vormann, commanding the 9th Army, sent 1,000 men to Praga to help hold the Poniatowski Bridge. An additional three battalions were also sent to help to assist the Hermann Göring Division in clearing a way through the city to the Kierbedz Bridge.

With the Wehrmacht fully tied up fending off Soviet attacks, it was left to the reviled SS to stamp out the Polish rising, involving military police units and SS troops under SS-Standartenführer Paul Geibel supported by factory and rail guards. Geibel also managed to scrounge four Tiger tanks, a Panther tank, four medium tanks and an assault gun off the 5th SS to strengthen his forces. A motley battle group under SS-Gruppenführer Heinz Reinefarth, supported by thirty-seven assault guns and a company of heavy tanks, was also assembled to crush the Polish Home Army in Warsaw.

SS reinforcements included SS-Brigadeführer Bratislav Kaminski’s hated Russian National Liberation Army Brigade. Kaminski supported SS-Oberführer Oskar Dirlewanger’s Anti-Partisan Brigade. This consisted of two battalions of criminals, three battalions of former Soviet POWs, two companies of gendarmes, a police platoon and an artillery battery. Additionally, Colonel Wilhelm Schmidt supplied men drawn from his 603rd Regiment and a grenadier and police battalion.

All the forces in Warsaw were placed under SS-Obergruppenführer Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, who had been overseeing the construction of defences on the Vistula near Gdańsk. He was the nemesis of partisan forces in the east. Von dem Bach-Zelewski was soon to find that both Kaminski and Dirlewanger’s men were atrociously disciplined. Their brutality in Warsaw was to horrify even the battle-hardened SS, and von dem Bach-Zelewski thought they were the lowest of the low, remarking, ‘The fighting value of these Cossacks was, as usual in such a collection of people without a fatherland, very poor. They had a great liking for alcohol and other excesses and had no interest in military discipline.’

On 5 August 1944, Dirlewanger and Kaminski’s troops counter-attacked the brave Polish Home Army. For two days, they ran amok. After the war, the German officers involved disingenuously laid the blame firmly on the shoulders of Kaminski and Dirlewanger.

On 19 August the Polish Home Army’s efforts to fight its way through to those forces trapped in the Old Town came to nothing and it was clear they would have to be evacuated to the city centre and Żoliborz district. About 2,500 fighters withdrew via the sewers, leaving behind their badly wounded. It was now only a matter of time before the SS crushed resistance in the city centre and cleared resistance between the Poniatowski and Kierbedz Bridges.

To ward off a wider encircling movement by the Red Army to the north, Model deployed the 4th SS Panzer Corps with the 3rd SS and 5th SS moving into blocking positions. From 14 August, the Soviets attacked for a week but the SS successfully held off fifteen rifle divisions and two tank corps. Also in mid-August, Model relinquished his command of Army Group Centre and hastened to France to take charge from Günther von Kluge in a vain attempt to avert the unfolding German defeat in Normandy.

Stalin’s great offensive that had commenced in Byelorussia on 23 June 1944 had all but ended by 29 August. By the 26th, the 3rd SS had been forced back to Praga, but a counter-attack by them on 11 September thwarted another attempt to link up with the Polish Home Army. It was the 3rd SS and 5th SS who had the dubious honour, along with Stalin, of consigning Warsaw to two months of bloody agony.

From 13 September, the Red Air Force spent two weeks conducting 2,000 supply sorties to the insurgents. The supplies were modest, including 505 anti-tank rifles, nearly 1,500 sub-machine guns and 130 tons of food, medicine and explosives. By the time Berling’s Polish 1st Army was committed for the battle for Praga, time was running out, with Żoliborz under attack by elements of the 25th Panzer Division and just 400 insurgents left holding a narrow strip of the river.

Berling recklessly threw his men over the river at Czerniaków, but tragically could make no headway against determined German resistance. He landed three groups on the banks of the Czerniaków and Powiśle areas and made contacts with Home Army forces on the night of 14/15 September. His men on the eastern shore attempted several more landings over the next four days, but during 15–23 September those who had got over suffered heavy casualties and lost their boats and river-crossing equipment.

On 22 September, Berling’s men were ordered back across the Vistula for a second time. There was hardly any Red Army support and out of the 3,000 men who made it across just 900 got back to the eastern shores, two-thirds of whom were seriously wounded. In total, Berling’s Polish 1st Army losses amounted to 5,660 killed, missing or wounded, trying to aid the Warsaw Uprising.

After sixty-two days of fighting, and having lost 15,000 dead and 25,000 wounded, the Polish Home Army surrendered in Warsaw on 2 October. Up to 200,000 civilians had been killed in the needless orgy of destruction. After the surrender, 15,000 members of the Home Army were disarmed and sent to POW camps in Germany, while up to 6,000 fighters slipped back into the population with the intention of continuing the fight. However, the vengeful Himmler expelled the rest of the civilian population and ordered the city be flattened.

Crushing the Poles had been a pointless exercise which cost Hitler 10,000 dead, 9,000 wounded and 7,000 missing. It was clear from the fatalities outnumbering the wounded that no quarter had been given. However, German morale was given a much-needed boost, which had them believing their feat of arms, rather than Stalin, had halted Rokossovsky at the very gates of Warsaw.

Rokossovsky would not occupy the Polish capital for another six weeks, leaving Hitler triumphant before Warsaw. It was to be his last real victory of the war.

At the height of the fighting on the Eastern Front in 1944, 63 per cent of Hitler’s divisions and 70 per cent of his manpower were tied up fighting Stalin’s Red Army. It also accounted for 57 per cent of all his panzers and assault guns, 71 per cent of all guns and mortars and 51 per cent of all operational aircraft. The other two active fronts in France and Italy accounted for just 30–35 per cent of Hitler’s total combat strength.

Despite holding the Red Army before Warsaw and crushing the Polish rising, it was hard to see how Hitler’s Wehrmacht could survive the twin calamities of Byelorussia and Normandy. The enormous loss of manpower urgently needed addressing. While German industry worked wonders reconstituting the shattered panzer formations thanks to Albert Speer’s weapons factories, new infantry divisions were also desperately required. In autumn 1944, Hitler ordered the creation of almost eighty Volksgrenadier divisions. These had fewer infantry battalions and heavy weapons than regular infantry divisions, but issuing them with more sub-machine guns and assault rifles than usual compensated for this.

Initially thirty-five skeleton divisions were refitted and another fifteen new ones created. To the OKW’s displeasure, for propaganda purposes Hitler insisted on naming them Volksgrenadiers (People’s Grenadiers) and placing them under the auspices of the SS. The German Replacement Army was soon gathering men from disbanded army units and convalescing in hospitals, as well as surplus Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine personnel. Old men and teenagers previously considered unsuitable were also rapidly conscripted.

There was constant competition between the army, Waffen-SS and Luftwaffe for resources that created a wholly unnecessary duplication of effort. The OKW would have preferred that all available men were used as combat replacements for existing army units, rather than creating new ones. The army had struggled to gain control of Göring’s twenty-two weak Luftwaffe field divisions in late 1943. By which time the damage was done, as they were standing units and the men could not be transferred. Himmler’s Waffen-SS controlled another thirty-eight elite divisions, which operated outside the army’s chain of command.

The creation of the Volksgrenadier units caused Allied intelligence some confusion, as Hitler’s home guard was known as the Volkssturm. This resulted in the firepower of the Volksgrenadier divisions being greatly underestimated. They were sent to fight on both the Eastern and Western Fronts. However, fifteen divisions were assigned to Hitler’s Ardennes Offensive. Guderian would rather have seen them and the re-formed panzer divisions all sent east to hold the Oder, but it was not to be.