Wladyslaw Raginis (1908-1939) – Captain of Polish
Army, military commander during the Polish Defensive War of 1939 of a small
force holding the Polish fortified defense positions against a vastly larger
invasion during the Battle of Wizna.
Between September 7 and September 8 was fought the “Battle
of Wizna. It is often known as “the Polish Thermopylae” – a reference to the
300 Spartans who bravely held off an enormous Persian army in Ancient Greece.
Polish historian Leszek Moczulski claims that between 350
and 720 managed to defend a fortified line from around 40,000 German troops.
For three days they defended the fortified line and they managed to postpone
the encirclement of Independent Operational Group Narew that was fighting
Captain Wladyslaw Raginis was the hero of the battle and the
commanding officer of the Polish troops. He swore that he would hold position
and fight Germans as long as he was alive. Fighting for 3 days without rest or
sleep they started losing the battle. In the end, Captain Raginis told his
troops to surrender and he committed suicide by throwing himself on a grenade.
On September 3, Polish troops were attacked from the air,
but their own aircraft could not fight back. The Podlaska Cavalry Brigade was
operating in the area, but after multiple attacks on its flank on the night of
September 4, it received an order to retreat toward Mały Płock and cross the
On September 7, scouts of General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst’s
10th Panzer Division captured a village near Wizna. Polish scouts from the
mountain rifle division suffered losses and were forced to retreat to the
southern bank of the Narew. Polish engineers managed to blow up the bridge and
because of that, the Germans faced difficulties to cross the river. In the
night patrols of German soldiers managed to cross the river but were repelled
with great casualties.
In Polish culture, the Battle of Wizna is known as the
Polish Thermopylae because of the small number of Polish soldiers who fought
against a great number of German soldiers.
Here are the statistics:
720 men (20 officers)
Six 76 mm guns
42 MGs – machine guns
2 URs – antitank rifles
657 mortars, guns and grenade launchers
The area of the village of Wizna was fortified to shield the
Polish positions in the south and guard the crossing of the Narew and Biebrza
rivers. The 5.5 mile (9 km) line of defenses along the high riverbanks passed
between the villages of Kołodzieje and Grądy-Woniecko, with Wizna in the
center. In addition, the most important road, Łomża–Białystok, passed through
Wizna. However, this defensive line was poorly fortified. If broken, an enemy
would have access northwards to Warsaw. The construction of the main
fortifications began only in April 1939.
By September 1, the Poles had built six heavy bunkers with
reinforced concrete domes weighing 8 tons each, two lightweight concrete
bunkers, and eight machine gun pillboxes protected by sandbags or earthworks.
Four more bunkers were still in the construction stage when the war began.
The average thickness of the bunker walls was nearly 5 feet
(1.5 meters). They were also protected by steel plates nearly 8 inches (20 cm)
thick, which no Wehrmacht cannon could pierce at that time.
In addition to the bunkers, anti-personnel and anti-tank
barriers were erected and many trenches and ditches were dug. To flood this
area in order to create additional difficulties for an adversary, the plan was
to destroy the dams on the Narew and Biebrza rivers. However, a record dry
summer and low water levels prevented that from happening.
Despite their unfinished state, the Polish bunkers were of
excellent quality. The fortifications were located on hills, which gave them a
large radius of sight and many opportunities for shooting.
Raginis was not only outmanned 60:1 but also had to deal
with an extremely formidable foe: General Heinz Guderian. Guderian was one of
Germany’s best commanders, known for his infiltration tactics, where strong
points on a heavily defended front would be bypassed with special combat teams.
Polish engineers destroyed the only bridge over the Narew,
thereby temporarily stopping the Germans. German infantry patrols crossed the
river and attempted to advance to Giełczyn, but suffered heavy losses.
On September 8, German General Heinz Guderian received an
order to advance through Wizna towards Brześć. The next morning, his troops
invaded the Wizna area and were combined with the “Lötzen” Brigade and 10th
The Poles were vastly outnumbered. German planes dropped
leaflets ordering them to surrender, in an attempt to unnerve them and avoid
combat. They stated that most of Poland was already under their control, and
that “further resistance would only prove futile.” Just when all hope was lost,
Raginis found the means to bolster the courage of his men. He swore that he
would never leave his post alive, no matter the consequences. Inspired and
ready to accept their fate, the soldiers were now prepared to leap into the
jaws of death.
The Germans proposed a truce and attempted to force the
Poles to surrender, including through threats to shoot their captured comrades
if they did not end their resistance. Soon after, the Germans conducted an
aerial and artillery bombardment. The Polish artillery was forced to retreat to
Białystok. After the bombing, the Germans attacked the northern flank of the
Two platoons of Polish troops were attacked from three
sides, but the Germans suffered losses. After strong artillery fire, the Polish
commander of the Giełczyn area, First Lieutenant Kiewlicz, received an order to
burn the wooden bridge over the Narew and retreat to Białystok. Some of his
troops managed to escape from the German encirclement, and joined the forces of
General Franciszek Kleeberg in Białystok.
At the same time, the southern Polish fortifications were
surrounded and could not repel a tank attack. They did not have anti-tank
weapons at their disposal but, hiding in the bunkers, the Poles could still
fire at enemy infantry.
Despite this, by 6:00 PM the Polish troops in the trenches
and field fortifications had been forced to retreat to the bunkers. German tanks
managed to cross the line of defense and advance to Tykocin and Zambrów.
However, the German infantry suffered heavy losses and could not follow the
Lt. Col. Tadeusz Tabaczyński was unable to send his troops
to the aid of Raginis, although he was less than 19 miles (30 km) away from him
in the fortified area of Osowiec. On September 8, Marshal Edward Śmigły-Rydz
ordered the 135th Infantry Regiment, which made up the reserves of Wizna and
Osowiec, to retreat to Warsaw.
By the time this order reached the troops, it was too late.
The troops on the Wizna line were surrounded. Assaults on the fortifications
around Wizna continued. On September 10, German troops using artillery and
tanks destroyed all but two of the Polish bunkers. Regardless of the large
number of dead and wounded troops, those in the remaining bunkers continued to
In order to force the Poles to stop the resistance, Heinz
Guderian demanded that Raginis cease-fire and surrender, threatening to shoot
prisoners of war otherwise.For a while, resistance continued.
Eventually Captain Raginis, badly wounded but still in
command of what was left of his forces, ordered his men to lay down their arms
and surrender. However, true to his oath, he refused to surrender. After his
men left the final bunker he committed suicide by throwing himself onto a
Several dozen Polish soldiers were taken into captivity. The
rest fell in battle. Many civilians were murdered in Wizna, and Poland would
suffer terribly under Nazi occupation. Polish soldiers fulfilled their oath
until the very end. The heroic struggle against overwhelming odds is nowadays
one of the symbols of the Polish Defensive War of 1939 and is a part of Polish
Although the Polish units were almost entirely composed of
conscripts mobilised in August 1939 rather than professional soldiers, their
morale was very high. After the war, Guderian had trouble explaining why his
Corps was stopped by such a small force. In his memoirs, he attributes the
delay to his officers “having trouble building bridges across the rivers”.
During the Nuremberg Trials, he remarked that Wizna was “well-defended by a
local officer school.”
The resistance of Raginis’ soldiers slowed the advance of
the Germans for three days, but could not prevent the occupation of Poland.
Even so, the feat of Raginis’ troops is one of the symbols of Poland’s struggles
in World War II.
Official Polish losses are unknown. According to various
estimates, about 40-70 Polish soldiers survived, some of whom were captured. In
his diaries, Guderian estimated German casualties at 900 people, at least 10
tanks, and a number of armored vehicles.
While even though nearly all the men in this famous last stand were killed in battle, the message it sent was one of great valor and bravery. These brave men kicked off one of the bloodiest segments in human history with an act of selflessness. They showed that there is value in setting an example, in creating a legend: in slowing the advancement of evil, even if it comes at the cost of your own life.
Though the engagements on the Narew were intertwined and all
equally effective, it is often only the defence of Wizna that receives any
popular attention. Perhaps because of the circumstances of Wladyslaw Raginis’
death, it is portrayed as a heroic last stand: Poland’s Thermopylae. Indeed,
the memorial at the bunker site consciously echoes the Greek epitaph with the
words `Go tell the Fatherland, Passer-by, that we fought to the end, obedient
to our duty.’ The heroism of Raginis and his men, their determination and
self-sacrifice, is undoubted, particularly as they were effectively abandoned
to their fate by their superiors. Whether they appreciated it or not, the
crossings on the upper Narew were crucial to the success of Guderian’s plan to
drive further east towards Brest, and the few days’ delay that were inflicted
upon the Germans there were of vital assistance to the wider Polish withdrawal
However, the more breathless claims attached to the Wizna
story are rather harder to justify. Wizna alone did not – as some accounts
suggest – halt the 40,000 men of the German 3rd Army in their tracks; that
accolade must be shared with the men who defended Lomza and Nowogrod further to
the west. Neither did the battle last for three days. Though the Germans first
arrived at the river on the 7th, there was evidently little genuine combat in
the sector until the morning of the 10th, when the assault on the
fortifications began in earnest. It is perhaps telling in this regard that
contemporary German sources give Wizna very little mention, beyond complaining
of the `weak bridgehead’ there and the resulting slow progress. To them, it
seems, it was little more than a skirmish during the frustrating wait to cross
Kanał is a Polish war film directed by Andrzej Wajda. The
second installment in Wajda’s War Trilogy—preceded by A Generation (1954) and
followed by Ashes and Diamonds (1958)—Kanał tells the story of a company of
Home Army resistance fighters using the city’s sewers to evade capture by the
Nazis as their defensive position collapses during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising.
In late July 1944, during World War II, the advancing Red
Army had reached the eastern suburbs of Warsaw, Poland’s capital city. The
close proximity of the Russians prompted the Polish government in exile in
London to order its Home Army (Polish: Armia Krajowa or AK) of resistance
fighters to mount an uprising against the German occupation. By liberating
Warsaw prior to full Russian involvement, the Poles hoped to bolster claims to
national sovereignty before the Soviet-backed communist Polish Committee of
National Liberation could assume political control of the country. Stalin, of
course, had other ideas. Avid to annex Poland after Hitler’s defeat, he
betrayed the Polish resistance by ordering his armies to halt on the eastern
banks of the Vistula River and not advance into the city to aid the Poles. This
allowed the Germans time to regroup and destroy the Polish resistance, which
fought for 63 days with light arms and little outside support (1 August–2
October 1944). It is estimated that the AK suffered some 22,000 casualties
(16,000 killed and 6,000 wounded) and 150,000 to 200,000 civilians died. Arthur
Koestler called the Soviet refusal to support the uprising “one of the major
infamies of this war which will rank for the future historian on the same
ethical level with [the Nazi extermination of] Lidice” (Koestler, p. 374).
After the war Warsaw native Jerzy Stefan Stawiński (1921–2010)—who served as an
AK company commander during the Uprising—published “Kanał” (Polish for channel
or sewer) in the Polish literary journal Twórczość [Creativity]: a story based
on his own, bitter experiences during the doomed struggle that he soon turned
into a film script. After Stalin died in 1953, his successor, Nikita
Khrushchev, relaxed censorship and other forms of political repression.
“Khrushchev’s Thaw” spilled over to Poland and the other Soviet client states,
making a film on the Warsaw Uprising politically feasible. Even though “Kanał”
refrained from indicting Russian complicity in the defeat of the Uprising,
Poland’s Soviet-dominated political leadership did not want it made. In the
words of the film’s eventual director, Andrzej Wajda, “The authorities must
have realized that society would be against the movie, and would regard it as
the communist voice on the subject of the Warsaw uprising … It preferred not to
make any film on the subject of the Warsaw Uprising, even one with a point of
view they could accept as their own” (quoted by James Steffen, n.d.). Submitted
to the government for vetting, the script was also deemed insufficiently
heroic. Eventually the film was made because Tadeusz Konwicki, a member of the
screenplay commission and an official of Kadr, a new film studio, lobbied
behind the scenes on its behalf.
Kanał was made by P. P. Film Polski at Kadr Studios and on
location in Warsaw in 1956. Some of the above-ground scenes were shot in the
studio, but most were filmed on location at ruins that had not yet been
demolished after the war. Scenes that comprise the film’s first 45 minutes were
shot at Cecilia Sniegocka Street and in an adjacent park in the Solec district,
a mile northeast of Mokotów, and the 10-minute closing sequence was shot
beneath Kamienne Schodki [Street of Stone Steps] and on Miadowa and Długa
Streets in Warsaw’s Old Town. For the scenes in the sewers, Wajda and his crew
constructed an elaborate replica of the sewers, and Wajda’s director of
photography, Jerzy Lipman, provided the evocatively eerie noir-like chiaroscuro
lighting for those episodes.
During the final days of the Warsaw Uprising (late September
1944), Lt. Zadra (Wieńczysław Gliński) leads a beleaguered platoon of 43 AK
soldiers and Warsaw civilians in retreat to south-central Warsaw. The composer
Michał (Vladek Sheybal) gets in touch with his family, who are elsewhere in the
city. Panicked, she shares that the Germans are in her building and are coming
to take her, and then she is cut off. The next day, Officer Cadet Jacek “Korab”
(Tadeusz Janczar) happens upon the second-in-command, Lt. Mądry (Emil
Karewicz), in bed with a local messenger girl. After apologizing, the officers
go to battle against the Germans. While they hold them off, Korab is shot and
wounded while cutting the guide wire of a Goliath tracked mine (a remote-controlled
miniature tank full of explosives) with a shovel. With his platoon now down to
27 and covered on all sides by the Germans, Zadra is commanded to take to the
sewers in order to retreat. Stokrotka (Polish for “Daisy”) (Teresa Izewska), their
guide, asks Zadra to permit her to help Korab. Zadra gives his consent but
Stokrotka and Korab soon get separated from the group. Korab’s injuries have
weakened him, and he is forced to rest before climbing up to the street.
Stokrotka then directs them toward the river, and they see rays of sunlight
ahead. Korab, extremely weak and near blind, is unable to see that the pair’s
exit is blocked by metal bars. Stokrotka confesses her love for Korab while
they rest and regroup. Meanwhile, the rest of the group gets lost, as they
haven’t had Stokrotka to guide them. Zadra attempts to command Sgt. Kula
(Tadeusz Gwiazdowski) to move the troops forward, but they refuse. Zadra and
Kula lose all of their men except the mechanic, Smukły (Stanislaw Mikulski).
The men who have not followed Zadra and Kula get lost again and eventually end
up dead or captured. Zadra, Kula, and Smukły encounter a sewer exit but it is
booby-trapped by German grenades. Smukły is only able to disarm two of the
three grenades; the third one explodes, killing him. Zadra and Kula finally
come up from the sewer to an abandoned and bombed-out part of the city. When
Kula admits that he left the other men behind, Zadra kills him and returns to
the sewers to find them.
Released in Poland on 20 May 1957, Kanał was a punishing but
ultimately cathartic experience for those who had lived through the terrible,
tragic events it depicts. In the words of film critic and Warsaw Uprising
survivor Stanislaw Grzelecki, “The tragedy of the people who believed to the
very end that the fight they had undertaken [was] right has found disturbing
expression in Wajda’s film. The drama assumes a shape of a metaphor, all the
more meaningful because its ordinary heroes have been, for many years, forced
into the shadows, into silence, to endure the mudslinging, false accusations
and slander” (Grzelecki, 1957). Other Polish critics, not as understanding as
Grzelecki, initially panned the film for its unheroic grimness. Kanał was
screened in competition at the 10th Cannes Film Festival (May 1957), where it
shared the Special Jury Prize with Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and
received rave notices from French film critics, international recognition that
prompted a more positive reassessment at home. Released in the United States in
1961, the film briefly ran in a few art house cinemas. Bosley Crowther found
Kanał as “dismal, dark and depressing a drama of events in World War II as this
reviewer has yet witnessed” (Crowther, 1961).
Reel History Versus Real History
The plot of Kanał is fictional but the general story it
tells about the final days of the Uprising is historically very accurate. As
depicted in the film, by the end of September 1944, German forces had retaken
most of the city. AK fighters were holding out in five isolated pockets,
including an area within the suburb of Mokotów that was less than a mile long
and half a mile wide, defended by about 2,750 insurgents. On 24 September 1944
German forces mounted an offensive against the Mokotów pocket from the south.
Over the next three days of heavy fighting, the Polish defense perimeter shrank
to just a few blocks as advancing Germans executed wounded soldiers, even
hospital personnel. On 26 September 9,000 civilians fled Mokotów during a two-hour
early afternoon cease fire. That evening, as depicted in the film, some 800
resistance fighters and civilians, many wounded, started evacuating through the
sewers and headed for the city center, about two miles due north (Mokotów fell
the next day and the Germans captured some 1,500 remaining fighters and 5,000
civilians). As also represented in the film, some AK fighters (actually about
150) headed in the wrong direction and unwittingly climbed out of the sewers at
Dworkowa Street, in German-held territory half a mile to the southeast of
Mokotów; 120 of them were captured and summarily executed. A monument now
stands there in their memory. Actual conditions in the sewers were every bit
horrific as the film shows. In his review of the film (cited earlier),
Stanislaw Grzelecki observed, “I followed the same underground road from
Mokotów to the centre of town as Jerzy Stawiński, and I, like he, spent
seventeen hours in the sewers. I saw and experienced enough to state that
Wajda’s film is telling the truth.”
The battle of Prostki took place during the Second Northern War and was a decisive victory of Polish-Lithuanian forces numbering 10,000 men (mostly regular cavalry) supported by 2,000 Tatars and led by hetman Wincenty Gosiewski over a Swedish-Brandenburg army of 6,500 regulars (nearly half of them infantry) reinforced by 800 Lithuanian-Polish cavalry of prince Boguslav Radziwill and led by prince Georg Friedrich von Waldeck. The battle was portrayed in the Polish movie “Potop” from 1974.
Wincenty Korwin Gosiewski
After the retreat of combined Swedish-Brandenburg armies
from Warsaw in 1656, the Polish commanded decided to spare no expense in
attacking the territories of Ducal (Polish) Prussia, which despite being a
Polish fief had allied itself with the Swedish King. One of the objectives during this campaign
was to completely destroy Prussian territory to force Frederick Wilhelm’s
mindset in co-operating with the Swedish invader. A victorious battle against a combined
Swedish-Brandenburg-Prussian army conducted under the command of Field Hetman
of Lithuania, ‘Wincenty Gosiewski’, during the Prussian campaign in the time of
the Swedish-Muscovite Deluge on Poland in 1654-1660. The Polish-Lithuanian army
was composed of Lithuanian units, Crown units (Poles), pospolite ruszenie
(general levy) and tartars. The whole army was counted at about 12-13,000 men,
most of it cavalry including about 2,000 tartars. Enemy forces under the
Swedish General Waldeck were counted at much lower; 2,500 cavalry, 1,000
Prussian infantry (general levy) and 6 artillery pieces, as well as about 800
cavalry under the command of the traitor, Boguslaw Radziwill. Other Swedish
commanders in the area heard of the approach of the Polish-Lithuanian army,
(namely General Walenrodt and Colonel Josiass Waldeck), who would supply an additional
2,000+ infantry. Total forces were then were around 5,500 men, the bulk of
which was Brandenburg infantry.
Gosikewski arrived at Prostek on the right bank of the river
Elk and decided to immediately attack the Brandenburg forces, after which he would
completely destroy any more advancing formations. He also sent the tartars for
a preliminary confrontation with the forces of Wallenrod.
The Lithuanian units used the old trick of ‘feinting
retreat’ (which worked so well at Kircholm, and by the tartars so many hundreds
of years ago), against the Prussian infantry, which fell for this maneuver and
moved across the river to the right side of the bank. Gosiewski’s army
surrounded the Prussian infantry, attacked, and their formations broke. Much of
the infantry was forced back into the river, either drowning or being killed
however a few units together with some artillery pieces managed to escape back
to the other side of the bank. The Lithuanians and Tartars immediately charged
after them capturing their base of operations very quickly. After this,
together with some Tartars then moved to attack the 800 cavalry under Radzwill,
which they managed to attack from behind and flanks. Most of his cavalry was
killed, only a few successfully retreated the rest were captured, including
Prince Radziwill himself. The battle ended at 2pm with a successful attack on
the formations of General Waldeck which were almost completely defeated. The
rest of the army moved to attack the retreating infantry formations of
Wallenrodt which was exhausted by a long march when retreating being continuously
attacked by Tartar units.
Total Swedish-Brandenburg losses in this battle amounted to about 5,000 men (over 75% of the entire army), whilst Polish-Lithuanian army losses amounted to no more than around 200-250 dead. The defeat was so great that the population of Ducal Prussia demanded that Frederick Wilhelm sign a treaty with the Poles immediately, however it never came to that. Whilst this was a great victory, proving that the Polish-Lithuanian army was again a competent force, though victories continued to be on/off affairs, it would be an uphill battle to ride the enemy from the country which had entrenched itself so completely.
PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Stanislaus I Leszczynski (backed by
France, Spain, and Sardinia) vs. Augustus III (backed by Russia and Austria)
PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Poland, Rhineland, Italy, and Austria
DECLARATION: October 10, 1733
MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Succession to the Polish throne
following the death of Augustus II
OUTCOME: After an Austrian victory in the decisive Battle of
Bitonio, the supporters of Stanislaus yielded to the supporters of Augustus
III, who became king of Poland. In addition, the war led to a redistribution of
Italian territories and inflated Russia’s influence over Poland.
APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: In
Poland-pro-Hapsburg forces: 30,000 Russians, 10,000 Saxons; pro-Stanislaus
forces: large but unknown number of Poles and a small French reinforcement of
1,950. In the Rhineland-no estimates for the large French invasion force or the
overall Hapsburg resistance. In Italy-40,000 Spanish and 30,000
French-Sardinian troops; 50,000-60,000 Hapsburg forces. CASUALTIES: At least
50,000 Frenchmen killed or wounded overall and more than 30,000 Austrians.
Overall figures for other belligerents were not tabulated, although the Spanish
lost 3,000 men at Bitonto alone. TREATIES: Treaty of Vienna, November 18, 1738.
On 1 February 1733 Augustus II died of alcohol poisoning in
Warsaw. His last words were: ‘My whole life has been one un—interrupted sin.
God have mercy on me.’ He had hoped to ensure the succession of his son
Augustus to the Polish throne, but this seemed unlikely since Stanisław
Leszczyński, whose daughter had married Louis XV of France, was expected to
stand for election and to win easily. Russia, Prussia and Austria signed an
agreement to throw their combined strength behind the young Saxon, who had
already promised to cede Livonia to Russia if elected.
The 13,000 who assembled for the election voted unanimously
for Leszczyński, who had travelled to Warsaw incognito. In Paris Voltaire
composed an ode of joy, but Russian troops were already on the move. On 5
October 20,000 of them assembled 1,000 szlachta outside Warsaw and forced them
to elect Augustus of Saxony. Five days later France declared war on Austria and
started the War of the Polish Succession. King Stanisław’s supporters gathered
in confederations all over the country and the city of Gdańsk raised a sizeable
army on his behalf. Two years of sporadic fighting ensued, but France made
peace, having got what she wanted from Austria in Italy. Stanisław was given
the Duchy of Lorraine as a consolation prize by his son-in-law, and Augustus
III ascended the Polish throne.
The Commonwealth had effectively ceased being a sovereign
state in 1718 with the imposition of the Russian ‘protectorate’. It had also
virtually ceased to function as a political organism. The Sejm was not summoned
between 1703 and 1710, the years of the Northern War, which meant that no
legislation was passed and no state taxes could be levied. When the Sejm did
sit again, it was hardly more effective. Of the eighteen sessions called under
Augustus II, ten were broken up by the use of the veto. The King had tried to
impose stronger government, but his policies were poorly thought out. He had an
unfortunate conviction that a show of strength by the Saxon army was a
necessary prelude to any change, and this had the effect of provoking
resistance even in those who would otherwise have agreed with him. In the last
years of his reign he did manage to gain the support of a group of magnates and
szlachta, but their programme for reform was cut short by his death in 1733.
His son Augustus, Poland’s new monarch, was obese and
indolent: he would spend his days cutting out bits of paper with a pair of
scissors or else sitting by the window taking potshots at stray dogs with a
pistol. He also drank like a fish. Augustus III reigned for thirty years. He
spent only twenty-four months of that time in Poland, feeling more at home in
Saxony. Yet he was not as unpopular with the szlachta as might have been
expected—he never made the slightest attempt to curtail their prerogatives and
increase his own. Only one Sejm completed its session under his rule, the army
dwindled to half its theoretical size, and all visible signs of nationwide
When Poland’s King Augustus II (1670-1733) died on February
1, 1733, Austria and Russia supported the succession of his son Frederick
Augustus (1696-1763), elector of Saxony, to the throne. Most Poles, and
certainly the major Polish nobles, preferred Stanislaus I Leszczynski (1677-1766),
who, as the father-in-law of Louis XV (1710-74), had the backing of both France
and Spain. In fact, Stanislaus had been the Poles’ king once already for a
brief five years after the Swedes, back in 1704, helped to depose Augustus in
the Second (or Great) NORTHERN WAR-temporarily as it turned out. In any case,
the Polish sejm (Diet, or parliament), consisting of some 12,000 delegates, on
September 12 elected Stanislaus king.
This the Hapsburgs’ ally, Russia, could not abide, and
quickly dispatched an army 30,000 strong toward Warsaw. With the approach of
the Russians, both Stanislaus and most of the Diet’s delegates fled, the king,
pursued by Russian and Saxon troops, to Danzig. Meanwhile, the Russians
occupied the city and forced a rump parliament of some 3,000 to declare
Frederick Augustus as Poland’s new king, Augustus III, on October 5, 1733.
In response to the mobilization of the Russian army, France
had formed anti-Hapsburg alliances with Sardinia on September 26 and Spain on
November 7. They declared war on Austria on October 10. With some dispatch, Don
Carlos (1716-88), the Spanish infante (heir apparent), led a Spanish army of
40,000 across Tuscany and the Papal States to Naples, defeated the Austrians at
Bitonto on May 25, 1734, conquered Sicily, and was crowned king of Naples and
Sicily (25 years later, he would become Spain’s Charles III). The French war,
however, did not proceed so smoothly. After overrunning Lorraine when they
invaded the Rhineland, the French were effectively checked in southern Germany
by the Hapsburg forces; the French-Sardinian forces invading Lombardy could not
manage to take Mantua, and the small French contingent sent by sea to relieve
the Russian siege of Danzig failed miserably.
Danzig fell in June 1734, but by then Stanislaus had escaped
to Prussia. Although the Poles organized the Confederation of Dzikow in
November 1734 to support his cause, they were no match for the Russians and
Augustus. Worse for the Poles, the Spaniards and the Sardinians fell to
bickering, fracturing the Italian campaign of 1735. Worried that the British
and the Dutch might join the fighting as Hapsburg allies, the French made a
hasty, halfbaked peace with Austria on October 3, 1735, which was followed by
the definitive Treaty of Vienna on November 18, 1738. Don Carlos was allowed to
retain Naples and Sicily but he had to give the Hapsburgs both Parma and
Piacenza, which he had inherited in 1731, and to renounce his claims to
Tuscany. Stanislaus renounced the Polish throne and was compensated for this
with the dukedom of Lorraine. Augustus III was recognized as the rightful
Siege of Danzig
The Siege of Danzig was the Russian encirclement (February
22 – June 30, 1734) and capture of the Polish city of Danzig (Gdańsk) during
the War of Polish Succession. This was the first time that France and Russia
had met as foes in the field.
The Polish king Stanislas Leszczynski had fled after the
Russian capture of Warsaw, and after failing to find support in Poland.
Stanisław entrenched with his partisans (including the Primate and the French
and Swedish ministers) to await the relief that had been promised by France. On
February 22, 1734, a Russian army of 20,000 under Peter Lacy, after proclaiming
August III the Saxon at Warsaw, proceeded to besiege Danzig.
On March 17, 1734, Marshal Münnich superseded Peter Lacy,
and on May 20 the long-expected French fleet appeared, consisting of three
ships of the line and two frigates, including the 60-gun Fleuron and the 46-gun
Gloire. The fleet went on to disembark 2,400 men on Westerplatte. A week later,
this force attempted to storm the Russian entrenchments, but failing to do so,
and following the arrival of a Russian fleet under admiral Thomas Gordon on
June 1, was finally compelled to surrender. The Russian fleet, consisting of
the 100-gun ship Peter I and II and the 32-gun frigates Russia and Mitau had
had a previous encounter with the French ships, in which the Mitau was
captured. Danzig capitulated unconditionally on June 30, after sustaining a
siege of 135 days, which cost the Russians 8,000 men. Danzig had suffered
considerable damage and had to pay reparations.
Disguised as a peasant, Stanisław had contrived to escape
two days before. He reappeared at Königsberg, whence he issued a manifesto to
his partisans which resulted in the formation of a confederation on his behalf,
and the dispatch of a Polish envoy to Paris to urge France to invade Saxony
with at least 40,000 men. In the Ukraine, Count Nicholas Potocki hoped to
support Stanisław by joining up with a force of some 50,000 guerillas operating
in the countryside around Danzig. However they were ultimately scattered by the
While Russian seafarers had been discovering new lands,
Russia’s seamen had been asserting the power of Russian ships of the line in
the Baltic. In 1734 the fleet assisted Russian land forces in the siege of
Danzig, where a claimant to the Polish throne, Stanislav Leshchinsky, supported
by King Louis XV of France, had been in hiding. In opposition to the French,
Russian Empress Anna ordered that August III be made King of Poland. The French
delayed arming their fleet and were able to dispatch only three ships of the
line and two frigates. In May of 1734 a total of eighteen hundred French
soldiers disembarked near Danzig while their ships lay at anchor nearby,
The Russian fleet left Kronstadt on May 15 under Admiral
Thomas Gordon, who had his flag on the 100-gun ship Peter I and II. For
reconnaissance the admiral sent out the 32-gun frigates Russia and Mitau. Ten
days later the frigate Mitau, commanded by Captain Pyotr Defremery, was taken
unawares by the French 60-gun Fleuron and 46-gun Gloire. At the insistence of
the French, Cap-tain Defremery came on board the Fleuron and was then arrested.
The Russian frigate Mitau, left without its captain, was seized. Admiral
Gordon, meanwhile, arrived at Danzig with the fleet on 1 June. Having failed to
repulse the reinforcements, the French surrendered on 13 June. Leshchinsky
escaped from Danzig, the town was occupied by Russian troops and the French
gave up their frigate the Brilliant. The dispute over the Polish throne ended
in favour of August III.
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).
In the war that began on 1 September 1939 air power played a crucial role from the start. The Germans considered a massive opening attack on Warsaw, but bad weather forced them to attack alternative targets. The Luftwaffe’s most important contribution in the Polish campaign lay in quickly gaining air superiority; the Poles were skilled opponents, but they possessed obsolete aircraft which were no match for those of the Germans.
Luftwaffe bombers struck particularly at cities and transportation links, which thoroughly disrupted the Polish mobilization. A small number of Luftwaffe aircraft directly supported the drive of the German panzer forces which completely broke the Polish army apart in the first week of the campaign. Close air-support strikes were mostly successful; however, one Wehrmacht battalion, bombed for several hours by the Luftwaffe, suggested that courts martial might be in order.
Attempts were made to intercept German Dornier Do 17 reconnaissance aircraft which violated Polish airspace from the spring of 1939. Fighter units were ordered in July 1939 to establish fighter posts (‘ambushes’) along the routes of the reconnaissance aircraft flights. 1 Pulk Lotniczy organised posts along the border with East Prussia, a total of 2 sections. Dywizjon III/I used airfields near Bialystok and Grodno, and Dywizjon IV/1 near Suwalki. Aircraft of 2 Pulk organised posts at Wieluri, Czltstochowa and Zawiercie along the Western border. Aircraft of 4 Pulk provided posts near Bydgoszcz, while 3 and 5 Pulk maintained aircraft at readiness at their permanent airfields. During July the aircraft were scrambled many times to intercept and visual contact was sometimes established with German aircraft, but due to the high altitude at which the Dorniers operated, and their superior speed with respect to the P11c fighters, none was ever shot down, and at the end of July these posts were abandoned. Also at the same time Soviet reconnaissance aircraft violated Polish airspace, but there is no written record of any contact with Polish interceptors.
In the early hours of 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, spearheaded by a total of almost 2,000 Luftwaffe aircraft, nearly half of which were bombers. By 27 September the Polish campaign was concluded. It had apparently proved the ‘invincibility’ of the Luftwaffe, which had completely overwhelmed the poorer-armed and less modern Polish Air Force, had given copy-book support to the German ground forces, and had clearly been the supreme factor in such a quick victory. Yet the cost had not been light. Against fierce but hopeless opposition in the air and from the ground, the Luftwaffe had lost at least 750 men and nearly 300 aircraft, with a further 279 aircraft counted as overall strength losses due to serious damage. The Polish Air Force, with less than 800 aircraft on 1 September, had sustained a loss of 333 aircraft in action. Considering that the gross strength of the Luftwaffe at the end of August 1939 was hardly more than 4,000 aircraft of all types – perhaps only half of which could be truly regarded as first line ‘attack’ machines – the loss rate during some three weeks of the Polish campaign, against ill-prepared and inferior opposition in the context of aircraft, gave serious pause in the minds of the more perceptive Luftwaffe heads of staff. Replacement of such casualties quickly was virtually impossible; such resources were simply not available immediately. With France and the Low Countries already designated as ‘next’ on Hitler’s agenda for conquest, the querulous doubts in many Luftwaffe chiefs’ minds prior to the Polish venture now assumed a level of deep concern.
This concern was exacerbated by the knowledge that Germany now had Britain and France as declared enemies. Only men like Göring or other Hitler-sycophants could believe that the Luftwaffe was fully prepared for any long-term aerial assault or struggle; the force was still in its adolescence, and had been built on the narrow platform of tactical air power. Its aircraft were too standardised in role to be capable of undertaking every possible task that would present itself during any sustained aerial conflict. The quality of its air and ground crews was never in question; all were peacetime-trained and thoroughly professional, while among the Staffeln and staffs was a hard core of combat-tested veterans of both the Spanish Civil War and the Poland campaign. Its aircraft presented a mixed picture. The standard fighter was the angular Messerschmitt Bf 109, on a par or clearly superior to almost any other fighter in the world in 1939. Its stablemate Bf 110 two-seat Zerstörer (‘destroyer’) was the apple of Göring’s eye for the moment, but within a year would demonstrate forcibly its unsuitability for the ‘escort fighter’ role imposed upon its unfortunate crews. Of the frontline bombers, the already notorious crooked-wing Junkers Ju 87 dive-bomber was basking in the limelight of apparently deserved fame for its large contribution to recent operations, yet it too would reveal its feet of clay when faced with determined fighter opposition in the months ahead. Of the other bombers the porcine Heinkel He 111 and slender Dornier Do 17 predominated, both twin-engined, medium-range designs of relatively mediocre performance, and poorly armed for self-defence. Only the emerging Junkers Ju 88 offered slight hope of improved bomber performance, although even this excellent design was not intended for long range operations. The one great omission from the Luftwaffe’s offensive air strength was a truly heavy, long range bomber. The only design projected for filling this gap was the troublesome Heinkel He 177, which was conceived in 1938 but did not commence operations until August 1942.
Notwithstanding the eventual failure of many of the 1939 Luftwaffe’s operational aircraft types, the contemporary morale of the German air crews and their upper echelon staffs was very high. The rapidity with which Poland had been vanquished appeared to suggest that the Blitzkrieg tactical war was a sure-fire key to victory, an opinion echoed in the staff rooms of many of the Allied services of the period. If there were doubts about the future efficacy of the Luftwaffe they existed mainly in the minds of individual senior officers and strategists; no such gloomy thoughts pervaded the ranks of the firstline Staffeln. The high casualty rate against relatively ‘soft’ air opposition during the Polish Blitzkrieg was mostly attributed to inexperience on the part of younger air crews, a modicum of sheer bad luck, or simply the exigencies of war. There lingered no lack of confidence in men or machines. If there were any queries among the Luftwaffe crews these pertained to how they might fare against the French air force and, especially, the British Royal Air Force when the inevitable first clashes occurred over the Western Front. Led or commanded by veterans who had fought the Allies in the air during the 1914–18 war, all the young Luftwaffe crews had been trained and inculcated with the fighting traditions created by the now-legendary names in German aviation annals. Inbred in that tradition was an almost unconscious respect for the fighting qualities of the Engländer – would they now acquit themselves against the contemporary generation of RAF fliers with the same courage and honour as their forebears …?
Thus far the war has been, in the air, a strange one. It has been strange in several ways. People had expected the Blitzkrieg to break in full fury in the west, but as yet no thunderbolt has fallen there. Poland felt its impact and crumpled under the stroke, though conditions there seemed, prima facie, unfavorable for the successful conduct of a lightning war. The course of the conflict has not, in fact, followed the book. There have been a number of surprises. In the operations at sea, for example, it was confidently expected that aircraft, not the submarine, would be the chief danger to maritime commerce. The airplane, we were told, would harry and dragoon belligerent and neutral shipping in the narrow waters into which the busy lanes of ocean traffic converge. Actually, the air arm has not been particularly effective at sea, though British aircraft have taken a hand with some success in hunting the submarine. That, however, had been foreseen.
Certainly the achievements of the German air force in Poland fulfilled the expectations of the most sanguine adherents of the blue sky school. In conjunction with the mechanized ground forces it dominated the situation from the first. The lists were set for a tourney between the old order of warfare and the new. Germany’s strength lay in her possession of the most modern instruments of mechanical destruction. Poland was, in comparison, a nineteenth century Power. Her cavalry was her pride. One could imagine her gallant horsemen galloping with Jeb Stuart or Sheridan in Virginia. Indeed, her great masses of cavalry might have thundered their way to victory in the still more appropriate setting of the medieval era. As it was, they were a sheer anachronism. Confronted by armored cars and tanks, hammered by high explosive from the air, they were only flesh for the slaughter. The twentieth century won all along the line. The Polish defeat was a tragedy, but an inevitable one.
German intelligence had estimated the front-line strength of the Polish air force at some 900 aircraft. In fact on 1 September the figure was nearer 300, made up of 36 P37 `Los’ twin-engined medium bombers, 118 single-engined `Karas’ P23 light reconnaissance bombers and 159 fighters of the PZL P11c and P7 types. Light gull-winged monoplanes, with open cockpits and fixed undercarriages, they had been an advanced design in the early 1930s but were now hopelessly outclassed by the Luftwaffe’s modern aircraft. Neither the PZL P11c nor the P7 could get high enough to intercept the high-flying Do17 reconnaissance aircraft.
On the opening day of hostilities, however, the German attack came in at low level, aiming to knock out the Polish air force on the ground. The Luftwaffe failed to achieve its objective as during the last days of peace the Polish air force had dispersed its aircraft to a number of secret airfields. On the morning of September 1 not one Polish squadron remained at its pre-war base. As a result only 28 obsolete or unserviceable machines were destroyed at Rakowice air base.
At first the methods by which she won it were, apart from the fact that the aggression itself was utterly unjustified, fair enough in themselves. Herr Hitler had announced to the Reichstag on September 1 that he would not war against women and children. He was speaking, it will be noted, less than four weeks before the time when women and children were to be slaughtered and mutilated in Warsaw. “I have ordered my air force,” he said, “to restrict itself to attacks on military objectives.” Replying to President Roosevelt’s appeal that civilian populations be spared the horrors of air bombardment, he defined his attitude to this question in terms which, coming from another, would have presaged the waging of a humane and chivalrous war: ” . . . that it is a humanitarian principle to refrain from the bombing of non-military objectives under all circumstances in connection with military operations, corresponds completely with my own point of view and has been advocated by me before. I, therefore, unconditionally endorse the proposal that the governments taking part in the hostilities now in progress make public a declaration in this sense. For my own part, I already gave notice in my Reichstag speech of today that the German air force had received the order to restrict its operations to military objectives.”
That the German air force did confine itself more or less to military objectives in the opening phase of the war is supported by a certain amount of independent evidence. Mr. H. C. Greene, the correspondent of the London Daily Telegraph, reported in that journal from Cernaŭti on September 10 that military objectives such as bridges, roads, railways and aerodromes had been aimed at almost exclusively, though terrible losses had fallen on the civil population as a result of the attacks. On September 6, Mr. Butler, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, stated in reply to a question in the House of Commons that the information in the British Government’s possession showed that the German bombing attacks had in general been directed against objectives serving a military purpose and not indiscriminately against the civil population; but he also was careful to add that the latter had at the same time suffered heavy casualties. Soon, however, evidence began to accumulate that other than military objectives were being attacked and that, in fact, methods of terrorization were being adopted by the German Luftwaffe.
It is true that one must always accept with caution reports from belligerent sources concerning excesses or outrages committed by the enemy. There is inevitably an element of propaganda in such reports. Further, newspaper correspondents on the spot are apt to be impressed by what is told them and are not in a position usually to know or state the other side of the case. Some of the Polish announcements were certainly examples of exaggeration, excusable, no doubt, but still unreliable. For instance, a communiqué of September 2 stated that individual farms and farmers had been bombed — a somewhat improbable occurrence. On the other hand, it is even more improbable that the reports from many quarters about the ruthlessness of the German air force were entirely devoid of foundation. We have, in fact, unbiased evidence sufficient to convict without any need for dependence on ex parte testimony.
Unquestionably, there were numerous instances of bombing objectives which by no possibility could be termed military. Among them was that of the village of Tomaszow, which was the victim of “a particularly vicious bombing” according to a message to the Times of September 11 from its special correspondent on the Polish frontier. Other instances were attested by Dr. Oskar Zsolnay, a Hungarian official trade delegate who had been in Lwów and who described in a Budapest paper a large number of bombing raids on that city, nearly all of them directed against non-military objectives. Some of the most important evidence was supplied by the American Ambassador to Poland, Mr. Biddle, who on September 8 furnished the State Department with particulars of cases in which non-military targets had been attacked: they included his own villa, more than ten miles outside Warsaw, a sanatorium, a refugee train, a hospital train and a hut for Girl Guides. “It is also evident,” he added, “that the German bombers are releasing the bombs they carry even when they are in doubt as to the identity of their objectives.” Again, on September 13, Mr. Biddle reported that the village to which he had then moved and which was, he said, “a defenseless open village” had been attacked by German bombers. On September 20 the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Information said in the House that reports from the British Ambassador to Poland supported the evidence of Mr. Biddle on the bombing of open towns.
One may perhaps feel some hesitation in accepting without reservation the statement in the Polish communiqué of September 15 that the bombardment of open towns by German aircraft had “assumed the character of a systematic destruction of all built-up areas or cities without any connection with military operations,” but there can be no reasonable doubt about the fact that a great number of non-military objectives were bombed. Beyond question many villages were deliberately attacked and a number of them destroyed. In Warsaw itself the Belvedere and Lazienki Palaces, the Seym (Parliament) building, the Soviet and Rumanian Embassies, the Latvian Legation, a number of churches and some hospitals had been wholly or partly demolished from the air even before the intensive bombardment from air and ground began on September 25. The final state of the city was still more tragic. The correspondent of a Danish newspaper who visited it after the surrender reported that scarcely a house was undamaged and in several districts, especially the suburb of Praga, not one house was left standing. The devastation was due in part to artillery fire, but the bombs of the aircraft contributed very materially. Inevitably the losses suffered by the civil population were heavy in the extreme. It is perfectly clear that if the Germans did in fact attempt to bomb only military objectives, they failed in that attempt most lamentably. The more likely explanation is that no such attempt was made. The city was bombed indiscriminately, subjected, in fact, to a display of Nazi Schrecklichkeit. The destruction was intended as an object lesson. “I should like the gentlemen of London to see what a city looks like when it has been through what Warsaw suffered,” said the German wireless announcer on October 4. “These gentlemen ought to see what might happen in their own country if they persist in their mad warmongering.”
The fiction that only military objectives were bombed was kept up in the German reports. A communiqué issued by the High Command on September 25 stated: “Important military objectives in Warsaw were successfully attacked in power-dives by German aircraft.” It is a sufficient commentary upon this to record that when Warsaw asked for an armistice on September 27, 16,000 soldiers and 20,000 civilians lay wounded in the hospitals. There is little doubt, indeed, that Warsaw was subjected to a bombardment, from ground and air, of which the purpose was psychological, or more bluntly, to terrorize. That particular type of bombardment is nothing new in the practice of German arms. It was tried on many occasions in the Franco-German War of 1870-71. At Strasbourg, for instance, the civilian quarters of the city were shelled by siege batteries in order to “induce the inhabitants to compel the governor to surrender the fortress.” The effect was simply to stiffen the determination of the garrison and the inhabitants to resist.
Exactly the same tactics were employed at Warsaw nearly seventy years later, and the same effect was produced; the morale of the city was unbroken, for it was lack of ammunition and supplies, not loss of courage, which finally made surrender inevitable. Methods of frightfulness defeat their aims when used against a determined people. Herr Hitler announced in his speech on September 19 that the British blockade might force him to make use of a “weapon by which we [Germany] cannot be attacked.” The fresh resort to Schrecklichkeit here foreshadowed, whether it referred to the poison gas or to bacteriological warfare or merely to massed attack from the air on cities, will not effect its object. On that point there can be no doubt whatever.
The major role which the German air force played in the conquest of Poland is no proof that it will achieve similar successes in the west. Poland was, in comparison with Germany, very weak in the air. That her air force, was able to resist as well as it did testifies to the gallantry of its personnel. It is the more regrettable that its achievements were magnified by some absurd propaganda. The statement in a communiqué of September 3 that 64 German machines were brought down on that day for the loss of 11 Polish machines was entirely unbelievable. The announcement a little later that Berlin had been bombed was no less unconvincing. There is no escape from the conclusion, on the known facts, that Poland was wholly outclassed in the air.
Soviet Operations in Eastern Poland
The Soviet operations in eastern Poland had been anticipated in the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Stalin’s delay in attacking Poland was in part due to uncertainty over the reaction of the Western Allies, the unexpectedly rapid pace of the German advance, the distraction of military operations in the Far East and the time needed to mobilise the Red Army. Besides the dramatic events in Poland, Stalin was preoccupied with the undeclared war between the Soviet Union and Japan, which culminated in the decisive Soviet victory at Khalkin Gol in September 1939. An armistice was signed with Japan on 15 September, and Soviet intelligence correctly reported that German formations were already operating east of the proposed Soviet-German demarcation line. As a result, Stalin was forced to act sooner than planned.
The decapitation of the Soviet officer corps by the purges of 1937 and 1938 hindered a major military operation of this scale. The Red Army general staff estimated it needed several weeks to fully mobilise. The German advance had proceeded much more quickly than the Soviets had anticipated, forcing a hasty commitment of the ill-prepared Red Army to secure the spoils of the treaty agreement. The Red Army had expected the German operation to be an updated version of the First World War pattern: a series of border clashes until both sides mobilised and deployed their main forces for decisive battle. They had overlooked the possibility that Germany would strike from a fully mobilised posture against their smaller and only partially mobilised opponent. The planning was already well in place as the Red Army general staff had prepared plans in 1938 for intervention under various scenarios during the Munich crisis.
The Red Army was organised into two fronts and deployed no less than 25 rifle divisions, 16 cavalry divisions and 12 tank brigades with a total strength of 466,516 troops. The Red Army’s tank forces sent into Poland actually exceeded the number of tanks and armoured vehicles of the Germans and Poles combined, amounting to 3,739 tanks and 380 armoured cars. The Red Air Force was also committed in strength, totalling about 2,000 combat aircraft. Fighters, consisting mainly of I-16 and I-15bis, made up about 60 per cent of the attacking force, along with medium bombers such as the SB accounting for another 30 per cent of the force. The remainder of the combat elements were army co-operation types like the R-5 biplane.
Polish defences had been stripped bare in the east. Normally the border was guarded by the Border Defence Corps (KOP) with about 18 battalions and 12,000 troops along the Soviet frontier. These forces were little more than light infantry with very little in the way of artillery support. Furthermore, many of the units had been ordered westward as reinforcements, leaving only a token force behind. The force ratio was ludicrously one-sided, roughly one Polish battalion per Soviet corps.
Red Army mobilisation was chaotic at best. Due to the upcoming harvest, it was difficult to fill out the units with their usual supply of war-mobilisation trucks from the civilian sector. As a result, Soviet formations, even tank brigades, seldom had even half of their table-of-organisation in support vehicles. There was also a shortage of spare parts for most types of vehicle including tanks. Although the Red Army order of Battle presents the picture of a conventionally organised force, in fact, the Soviet formations were often deployed in a haphazard fashion, loosely configured as regional groups. Indeed, there are substantial disparities in the historical records about which units participated and under which command, due to the haste under which the operation was prepared. As a result of their belated and haphazard mobilisation and the almost non-existent opposition they faced, the Red Army relied on its cavalry and armoured forces to sweep rapidly into Poland. Horse-mechanised groups were created with tank brigades supporting cavalry divisions.
There was considerable confusion on the Polish side when news of the Soviet invasion first began to filter through. At first there was some hope that the Soviets might be intervening to aid Poland, a delusion that was quickly exposed when word arrived of armed clashes. Nevertheless, the high command on the evening of 17/18 September ordered that the KOP and other units along the frontier were not to engage Soviet forces except in self-defence or if the Soviets interfered with their movement to the Romanian bridgehead. However, the order was not widely received. Instead the commander of the KOP, Brigadier-General W. Orlik-Ruckemann, ordered his troops to fight. Skirmishes between the KOP and Red Army units took place all along the frontier, especially near several of the major cities such as Wilno and Grodno, and along the fortified zone in the Sarny region. The heaviest fighting, not surprisingly, took place in Galicia in south-eastern Poland, since regular Polish army units were gravitating towards this sector near the Romanian frontier.
Galicia was one of the few areas where there was any significant aerial combat between the Polish air force and the Red Air Force. This occurred mostly on the first day of the Soviet invasion, as the surviving Polish air force units had been ordered to escape into Romania. Surviving Polish fighters had been subordinated to the Pursuit Brigade, which was headquartered near Buczacz to the south-east of Lwow. During the first contacts on 17 September, Polish fighters downed an R-5 and two SB bombers, and damaged three further Soviet aircraft. The following day the Pursuit Brigade was evacuated to Romania taking with it 35 PZL P. 11 and eight PZL P. 7 fighters; the last remnants of the combat elements of the Polish air force. A number of Soviet aircraft were lost in subsequent fighting, mostly to ground fire. According to recently declassified records, only five aircrew were killed during the fighting, attesting to the relatively small scale of Soviet air losses in this short campaign.
In spring 1787 Catherine the Great of Russia set off on an
imperial progress through her southern dominions. As she drifted down the
Dnieper greeted by crowds of subjects lined up along the banks by her minister
Prince Potemkin, King Stanisław Augustus left Warsaw to greet her on the Polish
stretch of the river. On 6 May the imperial galley tied up at Kaniów, and the
King came aboard. With the formal greetings over, the two monarchs, who had
last met as lovers nearly thirty years before, retired for a tête-à-tête.
They emerged after only half an hour, and the assembled
courtiers and diplomats sensed all was not well. The Empress entertained the
King lavishly, but declined to go ashore for a ball he had arranged in her
honour. Stanisław Augustus was mortified, and not just because his feelings
were hurt. He had come to Kaniów to propose an alliance in Russia’s forthcoming
war against Turkey. The Commonwealth would contribute a substantial army and at
the same time fend off potential belligerent moves by Prussia and Sweden, in
return for which it would acquire Moldavia and a Black Sea port. Apart from
permitting the Commonwealth to raise and test an army, participation in such a
war would have eased the tensions building up in Warsaw and strengthened the
King’s position. Catherine’s rejection of the plan left him without a policy at
a critical moment and played into the hands of his opponents.
While the King had bowed to the conditions imposed by Russia
after the partition in 1772, many had refused to reconcile themselves to this
state of affairs and his seemingly docile acceptance of it. By the late 1780s
there was a growing feeling, particularly among the younger generations brought
up on Rousseau’s pre-Romantic ideas on the rights of nations, that the time had
come to shrug off the protection and the restrictions imposed by Russia, which
stood in the way of almost any attempt at reform or modern—isation. A group of
magnates, including some members of the Familia, Ignacy Potocki, Stanisław
Małachowski, Michał Kazimierz Ogiński, Stanisław Potocki and malcontents such
as Karol Radziwiłł, who called themselves ‘Patriots’, began to stir up
opposition to the King’s collaborationist policy.
Those who had believed in anarchy as a blessed state had
seen their argument demolished by the partition. As they looked around, at
states such as Russia and Prussia which expended two-thirds of their revenue on
the army and appeared more and more to be driven by a philosophy of military
success (even their monarchs wore uniform), most felt that Poland’s only hope
of survival lay in abandoning the glorious liberties of the Commonwealth and
turning it into an efficient modern state with an adequate army.
Prussia, which had just entered into an alliance with
England and Holland aimed at checking Russian expansion, made it clear that the
Commonwealth could count on military support were it to sever its connection
with St Petersburg. With Russia engaged in wars against Turkey and Sweden, and
with Prussia making friendly overtures to Poland and striking hostile attitudes
at Russia and Austria, it looked as though the menacing concert of the
Commonwealth’s neighbours had fallen into discord.
The Sejm which assembled in 1788 under the marshalcy of
Stanisław Małachowski, which would be known as the Great Sejm, was dominated by
the Patriots. It promptly voted an increase in the army, which was placed under
the control of a Sejm commission. The conduct of foreign policy was vested in
another such commission. In January 1789 the Sejm abolished the Permanent
Council which had been ruling the country since 1775 and prolonged its own
session indefinitely. In March it imposed a tax on income from land of 10 per
cent for the szlachta and 20 for the Church, the first direct taxation ever to
have been imposed on either.
The Patriots encountered little opposition. The King’s
supporters were in disarray. Conservative and pro-Russian members were
intimidated by events, which had taken on an ominous significance in the light
of the revolution which broke out in France in the summer of 1789. On the night
of 25 November 1789 Warsaw was illuminated for the twenty-fifth anniversary of
the coronation of Stanisław Augustus, which many feared might act as a
provocation to the mob. While the rabble in the streets confined itself to
abusive lampoons, a real revolution was being prepared in other quarters. In
September 1789 the Sejm had appointed a commission under Ignacy Potocki to
prepare a new constitution for the Commonwealth.
Debate on the question of reform had grown progressively
more radical and was now dominated by two political thinkers of substance,
Stanisław Staszic and Hugo Kołłątaj. Staszic (1755-1826) was a priest of
plebeian origin who had been befriended by Józef Wybicki and promoted by
Andrzej Zamoyski. He had travelled through Germany to Paris, where he became a
friend of Buffon, whose Histoire Naturelle he translated and published in
Poland, and thence to Rome, where he lost his faith. On his return to Poland he
devoted himself to political writing. Later, in 1800, he would found the
Society of Friends of Learning with a fortune he had built up in business, and
in 1815 publish a seminal work on the geological formation of the Carpathian
Mountains, while working on a verse translation of the Iliad.
Staszic was a republican who believed in the sovereignty of
the Sejm, but realised that a nation surrounded by despotic states must have a
strong executive, and he therefore argued for a hereditary monarchy. He saw the
nation as a ‘moral entity’ consisting of all the citizens of the Commonwealth,
whether they were szlachta or peasants, townspeople or Jews, and believed that
all citizens should subject their individual will to its greater good.
Hugo Kołłątaj (1750-1812) was of a very different stamp. He
had studied at the Jagiellon University and in Italy, where he became a priest,
and subsequently worked on the Commission for National Education. He showed his
organisational skills when he was given the task of reforming the Jagiellon
University, whose Rector he became in 1782.
As the Great Sejm convened, he formed a political pressure
group known as ‘the Forge’ with the aim of promoting reform of the whole
system, or a ‘gentle revolution’, as he put it. In A Few Anonymous Letters to
Stanisław Małachowski (1788) he addressed the Marshal and the assembling Sejm.
‘What then is Poland?’ he taunted them. ‘It is a poor, useless machine which
cannot be worked by one man alone, which will not be worked by all men
together, and which can be stopped by a single person.’ Like Staszic, he
demanded a strong hereditary monarchy, the supremacy of the Sejm and the
extension of the franchise. It was he who composed the memorandum presented to
the King by the representatives of 141 towns, dressed in black like the États
Généraux in Paris the previous year and led by Jan Dekert, on 2 December 1789.
A commission was set up to devise a system of representation for the towns, and
several hundred tradesmen were ennobled.
As soon as he realised the strength of the movement behind
the Patriots, Stanisław Augustus shifted his position and began to work with
them. He invited Ignacy Potocki, Kołłątaj and Małachowski to join him in
drawing up a new constitution. They worked in secret, with the King’s secretary
Scipione Piattoli editing the drafts. When the final draft was ready a wider
group of reformists was invited to discuss it before the final wording was
Their project entailed the abolition of so many traditional
rights and liberties that it was bound to encounter fierce opposition in the
Sejm. They therefore prepared what amounted to a parliamentary coup. The
support of the people of Warsaw was assured by a municipal law of 18 April 1791
giving seats in the Sejm to twenty-two representatives of major towns. Another
law passed at the same time disenfranchised landless szlachta.
A date was chosen when many deputies and senators would
still be on their way back to the capital after the Easter recess, and as a
result, on 3 May 1791 only 182 deputies were present in the chamber, a hundred
of them in on the secret. Outside, purposely mustered crowds surrounded the
Royal Castle expectantly. The proposed constitution was passed overwhelmingly,
after which the King was carried shoulder-high by the populace to the church of
St John, where the Te Deum was sung.
The document which became law on 3 May 1791 was a pragmatic
compromise between the republicanism of Potocki, the radicalism of Kołłątaj and
the English-style constitutional monarch ism of the King. The opening clauses
were purposely anodyne. Catholicism was enshrined as the religion of state,
although every citizen was free to practise another without prejudice; the
szlachta was declared to be the backbone of the nation; the peasantry was
piously acknowledged as its lifeblood; all the privileges bestowed by Piast and
Jagiellon kings remained inviolate. Hidden deeper in the thicket of print lay
the substance. The throne was to be dynastically elective as it was under the Jagiellons,
and since Stanisław Augustus had no legitimate children, Frederick Augustus of
Saxony was designated as the founder of the new dynasty. The Sejm became the
chief legislative and executive power in the Commonwealth, and voting was to be
conducted by strict majority. Both the veto and the right of confederation were
abolished. The government of the country was vested in the king and a royal
council to be known as the Guardians of the National Laws. This was to include
the Primate of Poland, five ministers and two secretaries, all appointed by the
king for a period of two years. The king could direct policy, but no act of his
was valid without the signature of at least one of the ministers, and they were
answerable directly to the Sejm.
The constitution was hardly revolutionary in itself: it was
the commissions and other organs it set up which were to carry through the real
reforms. Under the slogan ‘The King with the People, the People with the King’,
and aided by a barrage of propaganda emanating from Kołłątaj and his assistants
there set to their work transforming the country. An economic constitution was
to cover property relationships, the protection of labour, investment, the
establishment of a national bank and the issue of a paper currency. Kołłątaj
began work on plans to turn all labour-rents into money rents for the peasants,
while the King and Piattoli began discussions with the elders of the Jewish
community with a view to emancipating and integrating it.
The events in Poland were hailed far and wide. Political
clubs in Paris voted to make Stanisław Augustus an honorary member. Condorcet
and Thomas Paine acclaimed the constitution as a breakthrough, while Edmund
Burke called it ‘the most pure’ public good ever bestowed upon mankind. For the
same reasons, they alarmed Poland’s neighbours. The Prussian minister Count
Hertzberg was convinced that ‘the Poles have given the coup de grace to the
Prussian monarchy by voting a constitution much better than the English’, and
warned that the Poles would sooner or later regain not only the lands taken
from them in the partition, but also Prussia.
The fall of the Bastille in Paris two years before had
caused fear in St Petersburg, Potsdam and Vienna, and the fact that what was
viewed by their rulers as a second beacon of revolution had ignited in Warsaw
induced a state of panic. They felt threatened by the revolutionary presence in
their midst, if only because a steady trickle of runaways from all three
countries flowed into Poland in search of new freedoms.
A year before the passing of the constitution, in March
1790, Poland had signed a treaty with Prussia, where Frederick II had been
succeeded by Frederick William II. The immediate object was to make common war
on Austria, from which Poland intended to recapture Galicia (as the Austrians
had named their slice of Poland), but it also guaranteed Prussian military
support if Poland were attacked by her eastern neighbour. Prussia then demanded
that Poland give up Gdańsk, which was already cut off from the rest of the
country by a Prussian corridor, in return for which Polish traffic on the
Vistula would be granted customs-free passage. England, which was behind the
Polish-Prussian alliance, and whose fleet was expected in the Baltic in the
autumn, urged Poland to agree, but there was opposition in the Sejm.
In February 1791 the Emperor Joseph II was succeeded by
Leopold II, who took a conciliatory line towards Prussia, but the international
situation nevertheless remained favourable to Poland. Leopold and his Chancellor
Kaunitz both believed that the passing of the constitution, far from being a
threat, would probably prevent revolution in Central Europe.
Before the constitution was a year old, however, the inter
national situation changed once more. On 9 January 1792 Russia signed the Peace
of Jassy with Turkey and began to pull troops back from the southern front. On
14 February, at the first general election since its passing, the sejmiks
throughout Poland voted overwhelmingly to endorse the constitution, to the dismay
of the disenfranchised landless szlachta and conservatives who mourned the
liberties of the Commonwealth, and much to the fury of Catherine, who had paid
out fortunes in bribes to persuade them to reject it. In March she began moving
her troops towards Poland. At the beginning of the month the Emperor Leopold
died and was succeeded by Francis II. In April, revolutionary France went to
war against him and Prussia. A few days later, on 27 April, Catherine sought
out a number of Polish conservatives such as Seweryn Rzewuski, Feliks Potocki
and Ksawery Branicki, who formed a confederation in St Petersburg. It was not
proclaimed until 14 May in the border town of Targowica, under the slogan of
defence of Polish ‘glorious freedoms’ against the ‘monarchical and democratic
revolution of 3 May 1791’. Four days later the confederates crossed the border
at the head of, or rather in the baggage of, 97,000 Russian troops.
Against these veterans of the Turkish wars, the Commonwealth
could field only 45,000 untried recruits. Frederick William of Prussia, who had
written to Stanisław Augustus in May 1791 professing his ‘eagerness’ to
‘support the liberty and independence of Poland’, refused the appeal for help
in June 1792, and the Polish forces went into action on their own. One corps,
under the King’s nephew Józef Poniatowski, won a battle at Zieleńce, another
under Tadeusz Kościuszko fought a fine rearguard action at Dubienka. But there
was no real hope of stemming the Russian advance.
Stanisław Augustus tried to negotiate directly with
Catherine, offering to bring Poland back within the Russian hegemony and to
cede his throne to her grandson Constantine. Catherine demanded that he join
the Confederation of Targowica. The King and his advisers, desperate to find a
way out which could guarantee the integrity of the Commonwealth and the
survival of the constitution, decided to bend to her will.
This act of humility was of little avail. In November, after
the defeat of his armies by the French at Valmy, the King of Prussia demanded
areas of Poland as compensation for his efforts to contain Revolutionary
France. A second partition was agreed between Russia and Prussia, and signed in
Petersburg on 3 January 1793. Catherine helped herself to 250,000 square
kilometres, and Frederick William to 58,000. The Commonwealth now consisted of
no more than 212,000 square kilometres, with a population of four million.
Wielkopolska and most of Małopolska, the ethnic and historic heartlands of
Poland, had gone, leaving a strange elongated and uneconomic rump. Even this
was to be no more than a buffer state with a puppet king and a Russian
As with the first partition, Catherine insisted that the
arrangement be ratified by the Sejm, to be held at Grodno in Lithuania rather
than in the potentially explosive Warsaw. At first Stanisław Augustus refused
to cooperate, but he was eventually browbeaten and blackmailed into going, and
as he left his capital all hope and will to fight deserted him.
The Russian ambassador carefully selected candidates for the
Sejm and used everything from bribery to physical assault in order to ensure
their election. But once they had assembled at Grodno, some proved less than
cooperative, in spite of the presence of Russian troops in the chamber who
would drag out recalcitrant deputies and beat them up. At one stage, a battery
of guns was trained on the building. After three months of stubbornness, the
Sejm bowed to the inevitable and ratified the treaties.
The King returned to Warsaw. But it was the Russian
ambassador that governed and Russian troops who policed the country. There was
little possibility for action by patriots and most of them went into voluntary
exile, some to Vienna, Italy and Saxony, others to Paris. Kościuszko was
hatching a plan for military action based on a French victory against Prussia
and Austria. Kołłątaj and Ignacy Potocki were thinking in terms of a national
rising by the masses.
Catherine was unconsciously creating the perfect conditions
for a revolution. She started by reducing the Polish army to 12,000 and
disbanding the rest. Some 30,000 able-bodied fighting men were made redundant,
and these patriotic vagrants were drawn to Warsaw, creating the revolutionary
mob on which every upheaval depends. The way in which Poland had been carved up
virtually precluded what was left from supporting itself. Cities had been cut
off from their agricultural hinterland and trading patterns disrupted. Economic
activity came to a virtual standstill, and in 1793 the six largest Warsaw banks
declared insolvency. The country had to support a 40,000-strong Russian
garrison and pay stringent customs dues imposed by Prussia. Thousands of
unemployed cluttered Warsaw. The army was the focal point of discontent. When,
on 21 February 1794, the Russians ordered a further reduction and the arrest of
people suspected of subversive activity, revolution became inevitable.
On 12 March General Madaliński ordered his brigade into the
field and marched on Kraków. Émigrés flocked back to Poland, and on 23 March
Kościuszko arrived in Kraków. The following day he proclaimed an Act of
Insurrection. He assumed dictatorial powers, took command of the armed forces
and called on the nation to rise, delegating the conduct of the administration
to a Supreme National Council with emergency powers. When the Insurrection was
over all power was to be handed back to the Sejm.
From Kraków Kościuszko marched north. At Raclawice on 4
April he defeated a Russian army with a force of 4,000 regulars and 2,000
peasants armed with scythes. On 17 April the Warsaw cobbler Jan Kiliński raised
the standard of revolt in the capital. After twenty-four hours of fighting the
Russian troops abandoned the city, leaving 4,000 dead on the streets. On the
night of 22 April the city of Wilno rose under the leadership of Colonel Jakub
Jasiński, a fervent Jacobin, and several of the adherents of the Confederation
of Targowica were lynched. But while Jasiński wrote to Kościuszko that he would
prefer ‘to hang a hundred people, and save six million’, the dictator would
have none of it. There had also been some lynchings in Warsaw, but Kościuszko
put a stop to that when he reached the capital.
The Insurrection could hardly arouse optimism in the more
settled sections of the population, and there remained uncertainty as to its
real political nature. While the King remained in his castle, untouched by the
mob and ostensibly recognised by the leaders of the Insurrection, a number of
Jacobins waited in the wings to seize control. Kołłątaj, who had taken over the
Treasury, implemented a number of revolutionary measures. He introduced graded
taxation and issued paper currency as well as silver coinage, underwritten by
confiscated Church property. Kościuszko’s proclamation, issued at Polaniec on 7
May, granting freedom and ownership of land to all peasants who came forward to
defend the motherland, was a provocation to landowners.
Some magnates declared for the Insurrection and the King
donated all his table-silver to the cause, but the majority of the szlachta
were cautious, and most made sure their peasants never received the message of
the Polaniec manifesto. It was only in the cities that large numbers came
forward, and in Warsaw the Jewish community formed up and equipped a special
regiment of its own under the command of Colonel Berek Joselewicz, the first
Jewish military formation since Biblical times.
Kościuszko, who had marched out to meet the advancing
Prussian army under King Frederick William, was outnumbered and defeated at
Szczekociny on 6 May. On 15 June the Prussians entered Kraków. In July a
combined Russo-Prussian army of 40,000 besieged Warsaw, but Kościuszko used a
combination of earthworks and artillery to repel it, and after two months of
siege the allies withdrew. Wilno fell to the Russians in mid-August, but a week
later the Insurrection broke out in Wielkopolska and a corps under General
Dąbrowski set off from Warsaw in support. He defeated a Prussian army near
Bydgoszcz, then marched into Prussia.
The situation became hopeless when Austrian forces joined
those of Prussia and Russia. Having extracted a pledge of neutrality from
Turkey, Catherine ordered Suvorov’s army to move against Poland from the
south-east. Kościuszko marched out to head him off, but was isolated from his
supporting column and beaten at Maciejowice on 10 October. His defeat would
have been no great blow in itself, but he was wounded and captured, along with
other Polish generals.
The capture of Kościuszko induced political instability. The
need for compromise badly affected the choice of his successor as
commander-in-chief, which eventually fell on a Tomasz Wawrzecki. The Russians,
who had been intending to retire to winter quarters, now decided to push home
their advantage and on 4 November Suvorov attacked Warsaw. He had little
difficulty in taking the eastbank suburb of Praga. Only four hundred of the
1,400 defenders survived, while the mainly Jewish population was butchered as a
warning to Warsaw itself. The warning carried weight, and the army withdrew,
allowing Warsaw to capitulate. On 16 November, Wawrzecki was surrounded and
captured, and the Insurrection effectively came to an end.
Russian troops once again entered Warsaw, soon to be
relieved by Prussians, as the three powers had decided to divide what was left
of Poland between themselves and the capital fell to them. A new treaty of
partition was signed in 1795, removing Poland from the map altogether. The King
was bundled into a carriage and sent off to Grodno, where he was forced to abdicate,
and the foreign diplomats accredited to the Polish court were ordered to leave.
The Papal Nuncio, the British minister and the chargés d’affaires of Holland,
Sweden and Saxony refused as a protest against the unceremonious liquidation of
one of the states of Europe. Their embassies were also crammed with fugitives
seeking asylum. It took the three powers more than two years to sort out the
mess, and it was not until January 1797 that they were able to agree a treaty
finally liquidating the debts of the King and the Commonwealth, after which
they signed a protocol binding themselves to excise the name of Poland from all
future documents, to remove any reference to it from diplomatic business and to
strive by every means for its oblivion.
Mainly out of spite to the memory of his mother, Tsar Paul
celebrated Catherine’s death in 1797 by freeing Kościuszko and other Polish
prisoners, and inviting the ailing Stanisław Augustus to St Petersburg. Over
the next months the Tsar repeatedly discussed with him plans to resurrect the
Polish Commonwealth, and when the King died on 12 February 1798 Paul gave him a
state funeral, personally leading the mourning.
It was not, however, the cranky behaviour of Paul that
ensured the survival of the Polish cause. Stanisław Staszic had written that
‘Even a great nation may fall, but only a contemptible one can be destroyed,’
and the Poles did not see themselves as contemptible. They needed only to
brandish the political testament of the dying Commonwealth, the constitution of
3 May, to claim their right to the esteem of other nations.
During the summer of 1939 the Polish air force found itself dealing with repeated violations of its airspace by photoreconnaissance Do17s of the Luftwaffe, and the experience of the P11c, the principal Polish fighter, was not encouraging. Unable to reach either the speeds or the altitudes of the German intruders, the P11c was clearly obsolescent by this time, and the intruders were able to evade the Polish fighters’ attempted interceptions virtually at will. In preparation for the conflict which by this stage was widely anticipated, the Polish Air Force had been reorganized in the spring, with around a third of the available fighters concentrated around Warsaw and the remainder allocated to the various armies. By the end of August most of the operational aircraft had been dispersed to concealed airfields in preparation for the assault, which duly began before dawn on September 1. Because of heavy fog on the opening day of the war, German plans were changed, with the intended mass attack on Warsaw postponed in preference to raids against airfields and other tactical targets. Flying low to locate the airfields, the bombers of Luftflotte 4, allocated to the advance against Kracow in the south, gave the defending fighters a chance at interception.
Built by the Pánstwowe Zaklady Lotnicze (National Aviation Establishment) and first flying in August 1931, the PZL P.11 was the descendant of a series of clean monoplanes designed by Zygmunt Pulawski, incorporating a unique gull wing that was thickest near the point where four faired steel struts buttressed it from the fuselage sides. When the first PZL P.1 flew on September 26, 1929, it thrust Poland to the forefront of progressive fighter design. In 1933 Poland’s air force, the Lotnictwo Wojskowe, became the first in the world to be fully equipped with all-metal monoplane fighters as the improved P.6 and P.7 equipped its eskadry. When the production P.11c, powered by a 645-horsepower Škoda-built Bristol Mercury VI S2 nine-cylinder radial engine, entered service in early 1935, it still rated as a modern fighter, with a maximum speed of 242 miles per hour at 18,045 feet and a potent armament of four 7.7mm KM Wz 33 machine guns, although its open cockpit and fixed landing gear were soon to become outdated. By 1939 the P.11c was clearly obsolete, and efforts were already under way to develop a successor to replace it within the year. Poland did not have a year, however—on September 1, time ran out as German forces surged over her borders.
A morning fog over northern Poland thwarted the first German air operation, as Obltn. Bruno Dilley led three Junkers Ju 87B-1 Stukas of 3rd Staffel, Sturzkampfgeschwader 1 (3./StG 1) into the air at 0426, flew over the border from East Prussia and at 0434—eleven minutes before Germany formally declared war—attacked selected detonation points in an attempt to prevent the destruction of two railroad bridges on the Vistula River. The German attack failed to achieve its goal and the Poles blew up the bridges, denying German forces in East Prussia an easy entry into Tszew (Dirschau). The “fog of war” also handicapped a follow-up attack on Tszew by Dornier Do 17Z bombers of III Gruppe, Kampfgeschwader 3 (III./KG 3).
Weather conditions were better to the west, allowing Luftflotte 4 to dispatch sixty Heinkel He 111s of KG 4, Ju 87Bs of I./StG 2, and Do 17Es of KG 77 on a series of more effective strikes against Polish air bases near Kraków at about 0530, Rakowice field being the hardest hit. Assigned to escort the Heinkels was a squadron equipped with a new fighter of which Luftwaffe Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring expected great things: the Messerschmitt Me 110C-1 strategic fighter, or Zerstörer.
The Me 110 had evolved from a concept that had been explored during World War I but which was only put into successful practice by the French with their Caudron 11.A3, a twin-engine, three-seat reconnaissance plane employed as an escort fighter in 1918. The strategic fighter idea was revived in 1934 with the development of the Polish PZL P.38 Wilk (Wolf), which inspired a variety of similar twin-engine fighter designs in France, Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, Japan, and the United States.
Göring was particularly enthralled by what he dubbed the Kampfzerstörer (battle destroyer), and in 1934 he issued a specification for a heavily armed twin-engine multipurpose fighter capable of escorting bombers, establishing air superiority deep in enemy territory, carrying out ground-attack missions, and intercepting enemy bombers. BFW, Focke-Wulf, and Henschel submitted design proposals; but it was Willy Messerschmitt’s sleek BFW Bf 110, which ignored the bombing requirement to concentrate on speed and cannon armament, that won out over the Fw 57 and the Hs 124. Powered by two Daimler Benz DB 600A engines, the Bf 110V1 was first flown by Rudolf Opitz on May 12, 1936, and attained a speed of 314 miles per hour, but the unreliability of its engines required a change to 680-horsepower Junkers Jumo 210Da engines when the preproduction Bf 110A-0 was completed in August 1937.
Although more sluggish than single-seat fighters, the Bf 110A-0 was fast for a twin-engine plane, and its armament of four nose-mounted 7.9mm MG 17 machine guns and one flexible 7.9mm MG 15 gun aft was considered impressive. Prospective Zerstörer pilots were convinced that tactics could be devised to maximize its strengths and minimize its shortcomings, just as the British had done with the Bristol fighter in 1917. The Bf 110B-1, which entered production in March 1938, was even more promising, with a more aerodynamically refined nose section housing a pair of 20mm MG FF cannon. Later, in 1938, the 1,100-horsepower DB 601A-1 engine was finally certified for installation, and in January 1939 the first Messerschmitt Me 110C-1s, powered by the DB 601A-1s and bearing a new prefix to mark Willy Messerschmitt’s acquisition of BFW, entered service. By September 1, a total of eighty-two Me 110s were operating with I Gruppe (Zerstörer) of Lehrgeschwader (Operational Training Wing) 1 (I(Z)./LG 1) commanded by Maj. Walter Grabmann, and I Gruppe, Zerstörergeschwader 1 (I./ZG 1) under Maj. Joachim-Friedrich Huth, both assigned to Luftflotte 1; and with I./ZG 76 led by Hptmn. Günther Reinecke, attached to Luftflotte 4 along the Polish-Czechoslovakian border.
Intensely trained for their multiple tasks, the Zerstörer pilots, like those flying the Stuka, had been indoctrinated to think of themselves as an elite force. Therefore, the Me 110C-1 crewmen of the 2nd Staffel of ZG 76 were as eager as Göring himself to see their mettle tested as they took off at 0600 hours to escort KG 4’s He 111s. To the Germans’ surprise and disappointment, they encountered no opposition over Kraków.
During the return flight, 2./ZG 76’s Staffelführer, Obltn. Wolfgang Falck, spotted a lone Heinkel He 46 army reconnaissance plane and flew down to offer it protection, only to be fired at by its nervous gunner. Minutes later Falck encountered another plane, which he identified as a PZL P.23 light bomber. “As I tried to gain some height he curved into the sun and as he did I caught a glimpse of red on his wing,” Falck recalled. “As I turned into him I opened fire, but fortunately, my marksmanship was no better than the reconnaissance gunner’s had been, [for] as he banked to get away I saw it was a Stuka. I then realized that what I had thought was a red Polish insignia was actually a red E. I reported this immediately after landing and before long the colored letters on wings of our aircraft were overpainted in black.”
As the Stukas of I./StG 2 were returning from their strike, they passed over Balice airfield just as PZL fighters of the III/2 Dywizjon (121st and 122nd Eskadry), attached to the Army of Kraków, were taking off. By sheer chance one of the Stuka pilots, Ltn. Frank Neubert, found himself in position to get a burst from his wing guns into the leading P.11c’s cockpit, after which he reported that it “suddenly explode[d] in mid-air, bursting apart like a huge fireball—the fragments literally flew around our ears.” Neubert’s Stuka had scored the first air-to-air victory of World War II—and killed the commander of the III/2 Dyon, Kapitan Mieczyslaw Medwecki.
Medwecki’s wingman, Porucznik (Lieutenant) Wladyslaw Gnys of the 121st Eskadra, was more fortunate, managing to evade the bombs and bullets of the oncoming trio of Stukas and get clear of his beleaguered airfield. Minutes later, he encountered two returning Do 17Es of KG 77 over Olkusz and attacked. One went down in the village of Zurada, south of Olkusz, and Gnys was subsequently credited with the first Allied aerial victory of World War II. Shortly afterward, the wreckage of the other Do 17E was also found at Zurada and confirmed as Gnys’s second victory. None of the German bomber crewmen survived.
In spite of the adverse weather that had spoiled its first missions, Luftflotte 1 launched more bombing raids from East Prussia, including a probing attack on Okacie airfield outside Warsaw by sixty He 111Ps of Lehrgeschwader 1, escorted by Me 110Cs of the wing’s Zerstörergruppe, I(Z)./LG 1. As the Heinkels neared their target, the Polish Brygada Poscigowa (Pursuit Brigade), on alert since dawn, was warned of the Germans’ approach by its observation posts, and at 0650 it ordered thirty PZL P.11s and P.7s of the 111th, 112th, 113th, and 114th Eskadry up from their airfields at Zielonka and Poniatów to intercept. Minutes later, the Poles encountered scattered German formations and waded in, with Kapral (Corporal) Andrzej Niewiara and Porucznik Aleksander Gabszewicz sharing in the destruction of the first He 111. Over the next hour, the air battle took the form of numerous individual duels, during which Kapitan Adam Kowalczyk, commander of the IV/I Dyon, downed a Heinkel, and Porucznik Hieronim Dudwal of the 113th Eskadra destroyed another.
The Me 110s pounced on the PZLs, but the Zerstörer pilots found their nimble quarry to be most elusive targets. Podporucznik (Sub-Lieutenant) Jerzy Palusinski of the 111th Eskadra turned the tables on one of the Zerstörer and sent it out of the fight in a damaged state. Its wounded pilot was Maj. Walter Grabmann, a Spanish Civil War veteran of the Legion Condor and now commander of I(Z)./LG 1.
In all, the Poles claimed six He 111s, while the German bombers were credited with four PZLs; their gunners had in fact brought down three. Once again, Göring’s vaunted Zerstörer crews returned to base empty handed. When the Germans sent reconnaissance planes over the area to assess the bombing results at about noon, Porucznik Stefan Okrzeja of the 112th Eskadra caught one of the Do 17s and shot it down over the Warsaw suburbs.
As the weather improved, Luftflotte 1 struck again in even greater force, as two hundred bombers attacked Okecie, Mokotow, Goclaw, and bridges across the Vistula. They were met by thirty P. 11s and P.7s of the Brygada Poscigowa, which claimed two He 111Ps of KG 27, a Do 17, and a Ju 87 before the escorting Me 110Cs of I(Z)./LG 1 descended on them. This time the Zerstörer finally drew blood, claiming five PZLs without loss, and indeed the Poles lost five of their elderly PZL P.7s. One Me 110 victim, Porucznik Feliks Szyszka, reported that the Germans attacked him as he parachuted to earth, putting seventeen bullets in his leg. The Me 110s also damaged the P.11c of Hieronim Dudwal, who landed with the fuselage just aft of the cockpit badly shot-up; two bare metal plates were crudely fixed in place over the damaged area, but the plane was still not fully airworthy when the Germans overran his airfield.
For most of September 1, the Me 109s were confined to a defensive posture, save for a few strafing sorties. For the second bombing mission in the Warsaw area, however, I. Gruppe of Jagdgeschwader 21 was ordered to take off from its forward field at Arys-Rostken and escort KG 27’s He 111s. The Me 109s rendezvoused with the bombers, only to be fired upon by their gunners. When the Gruppenkommandeur (Group Commander), Hptmn. Martin Mettig, tried to fire a recognition flare, it malfunctioned, filling his cockpit with red and white fragments. Mettig, blinded and wounded in the hand and thigh, jettisoned his canopy—which broke off his radio mast—and turned back. Most of Mettig’s pilots saw him head for base, and being unable to communicate with him by radio, they followed him. Only upon landing did they learn what had happened.
Not all of the Gruppe had seen Mettig, however, and those pilots who continued the mission were rewarded by encountering a group of PZL fighters. In the wild dogfight that followed, the Germans claimed four of the P.11cs, including the first victory of an eventual ninety-eight by Ltn. Gustav Rödel. The Poles claimed five Me 109s, including one each credited to Podporuczniki Jerzy Radomski and Jan Borowski of the 113th Eskadra, and one to Kapitan Gustaw Sidorowicz of the 111th. Podpolkovnik (Lieutenant Colonel) Leopold Pamula, already credited with an He 111P and a Ju 87B earlier that day, rammed one of the German fighters and then bailed out safely. Porucznik Gabszewicz was shot down by an Me 109 and, like Szyszka, subsequently claimed that the Germans had fired at him while he parachuted down.
In addition to challenging the waves of German bombers and escorts that would ultimately overwhelm them, PZL pilots took a toll on the army cooperation aircraft which were performing reconnaissance missions for the advancing panzer divisions. Podporucznik Waclaw S. Król of the 121st Eskadra downed a Henschel Hs 126, while Kapral Jan Kremski shared in the destruction of another. After taking off on their second mission of the day to intercept a reported Do 17 formation at 1521 hours, Porucznik Marian Pisarek and Kapral Benedykt Mielczynski of the 141st Eskadra spotted an Hs 126 of 3.(H)/21 (3 Staffel (Heeres), Aufklärungsgruppe 21, or 3rd Squadron Army of Reconnaissance Group 21), attacked it and sent it crashing to earth near Torun. The pilot, Obltn. Friedrich Wimmer, and his observer, Obltn. Siegfried von Heymann, were both wounded. Shortly afterward, two more P.11cs from their sister unit, the 142nd Eskadra, flew over the downed Henschel, and one of the Poles, Porucznik Stanislaw Skalski, later described what occurred when he landed nearby to recover maps and other information from the cockpit:
The pilot, Friedrich Wimmer, was slightly wounded in the leg; his navigator, whose name was von Heymann, had nine bullets in his back and shoulder. I did what I could for them and stayed with them until an ambulance came. The prisoners were transferred to Warsaw. After the Soviet Union invaded Poland on 17 September, they became prisoners of the Russians, but were released at the end of October. When they were interrogated by the highest Luftwaffe authorities, Wimmer told them of my generosity. The Germans, who later learned that I had gone to Britain to fight on, said if I should become their prisoner, I would be honored very highly.
The observer, von Heymann, died in 1988. . . . I tried to get in touch with the pilot for three years. The British air attaché and Luftwaffe archives helped me to contact Colonel Wimmer. I went to Bonn to meet him in March 1990, and the German ace Adolf Galland also came over at that time. In 1993, Polish television went with me, to make a film with Wimmer. Reporters asked why I did it—why I landed and helped the enemy, exposing my fighter and myself to enemy air attack. I was young, stupid and lucky. That is always my answer!
I came back late in the afternoon and I had to land on the road close to a forest—Torun aerodrome had been bombed already. I then gave [General Dywizji Wladyslaw] Bortnowski, commander of the Armia Pomorze, the maps that I had captured from the Hs 126, which gave all the dispositions and attack plans of German divisions in Pomerania. He kissed me and said this was all the information his army needed.
On the following day, Skalski came head on at what he described as a “cannon-armed” Do 17 in a circling formation of nine and shot it down, then claimed a second bomber minutes later. Dorniers were not armed with cannon; but Me 110s were, and Skalski subsequently recalled that the Poles were completely unfamiliar with the Zerstörer—nobody had seen them in action until September 1. Moreover, I/ZG 1 lost a Bf 110B-1, its pilot, Hptmn. Adolf Gebhard Egon Claus-Wendelin, Freiherr von Müllenheim-Rechberg, commander of the 3rd Staffel, being killed, while his radioman, Gefreiter Hans Weng, bailed out and was taken prisoner of war (POW). Skalski’s “double” was the first of four and one shared victories with which he would be officially credited during the Polish campaign. Later, flying with the Royal Air Force, he would bring his total up to 18 1/2, making him the highest-scoring Polish ace of the war.
Although Poland was overrun in three weeks, its air force occasionally put up a magnificent fight, though its efforts were rendered inconsistent by poor communications and coordination. Polish fighters were credited with 129 aerial victories for the loss of 114 planes, and many of the pilots who scored them would fight on in the French Armée de l’Air and the Royal Air Force.
The fall of Poland terminated the career of the PZL P.11c, but only marked the beginning for the Me 110, which, after a further run of success, finally met its nemesis in the form of the Hurricane and Spitfire. Relegated to fighter-bomber and photoreconnaissance duties after the Battle of Britain, the Zerstörer would undergo a remarkably productive revival as a night fighter.
Poland’s main front-line fighter in September 1939 was the PZL P11c. Obsolete in comparison with the German Me109s, it nevertheless gave a good account of itself before Poland fell.
Poland was first in the firing line. Early in the morning of September 1 a force of about 120 Heinkel He111s and Dornier Do17s, escorted by Messerschmitt Bf110 fighters, were reported by Polish ground observation posts to be heading for Warsaw. The Luftwaffe had made giant strides since the first German pilots went into action with the Condor Legion in 1936. It now possessed 3652 first-line aircraft comprising 1180 medium twin-engined bombers (mostly He111s and Do17s), 366 Stuka dive bombers, 1179 Me109 and Me110 fighters, 887 reconnaissance aircraft and 40 obsolescent ground-attack Hs123s. Transport was provided by 552 Ju52s, and there were 240 naval aircraft of various types. For the Polish campaign the Luftwaffe deployed 1581 of these aircraft.
German intelligence had estimated the front¬ line strength of the Polish air force at some 900 aircraft. In fact on 1 September the figure was nearer 300, made up of 36 P37 `Los’ twin-engined medium bombers, 118 single-engined `Karas’ P23 light reconnaissance bombers and 159 fighters of the PZL P11c and P7 types. Light gull-winged monoplanes, with open cockpits and fixed undercarriages, they had been an advanced design in the early 1930s but were now hopelessly outclassed by the Luftwaffe’s modern aircraft. Neither the PZL P11c nor the P7 could get high enough to intercept the high-flying Do17 reconnaissance aircraft.
On the opening day of hostilities, however, the German attack came in at low level, aiming to knock out the Polish air force on the ground. The Luftwaffe failed to achieve its objective as during the last days of peace the Polish air force had dispersed its aircraft to a number of secret airfields. On the morning of September 1 not one Polish squadron remained at its pre-war base. As a result only 28 obsolete or unserviceable machines were destroyed at Rakowice air base.
The first air combat of WW2 took place during this action when Captain M Medwecki, commanding officer of III/2 Fighter `Dyon’ was shot down by a Ju87 soon after he took off. Another pilot, Lieutenant W Gnys attacked the Ju87 and later shot down two low-flying Dornier 17s – the first Polish kills. Warsaw too was attacked by Luftwaffe bombers and the first to be shot down, a low-flying He111, was destroyed by Lieutenant A Gabszewicz.
A more spectacular victory occurred later that day during a running air battle above Warsaw. Second Lieutenant Leopold Pamula shot down a He111 and a Ju87 but ran out of ammunition when the fighter escort came down on the P11s. Pamula rammed one Me109 before parachuting to safety. In the same battle Aleksander Gabszewicz had his P11 set on fire and had to bale out. On his way to the ground he was shot at by a fighter, an event experienced by other parachuting Polish pilots as the battles continued.
Despite the inferiority of the Polish fighters, they achieved at least a dozen victories on the first day of WW2, although they lost 10 fighters with another 24 damaged. This gave the Polish pilots some confidence. Even with their outmoded aircraft they seemed able to cope with the Germans. Their pilots found that one good method of attack was to dive head-on where a tail-chase was more or less out of the question. This collision-course tactic unnerved the German bomber pilots and was most effective in breaking up formations and inflicting damage on the Heinkels and Dorniers. The Polish fighter pilots unexpectedly found the twin-engined Me110s more dangerous than the single-engined Me109s. The first German kill of WW2 was in fact scored by a 110 pilot, Hauptmann Schlief, who shot down a P11 on September 1.
By mid-September German pincers from north and south had closed around Warsaw. Then on September 17 the Red Army intervened from the east, destroying the last Polish hopes. Warsaw surrendered on September 27 and the last organized resistance collapsed in the first week of October. Despite the obsolescent equipment of the Polish air force, and its inferiority in numbers, it had inflicted heavy damage on the Luftwaffe, which had lost 285 aircraft with almost the same number so badly damaged as to be virtually noneffective. Polish fighter pilots were officially credited with 126 victories, which indicates modest claiming by them, for Polish anti-aircraft fire claimed less than 90, leaving an unclaimed deficit of some 70 aircraft. The last German aircraft shot down by a Pole in this campaign was claimed on September 17 by Second Lieutenant Tadeusz Koc. The highest-scoring Polish pilot was Second Lieutenant Stanislaw Skalski, with 6 1/2 kills. The highest-scoring German, and Germany’s first `ace’ of WW2, was Hauptmann Hannes Gentzen, who scored seven victories in a Me109D.
A total of 327 aircraft were lost by the Polish Air Force. Of these 260 were due to either direct or indirect enemy action with around 70 in air-to-air fighting; 234 aircrew were either killed or reported missing in action. One of the chief lessons learned by the German bomber force operating over Poland (and as the RAF bombers were soon to discover) was that they were susceptible to fighter attack. The immediate requirement, therefore, was for the bombers to have heavier defensive armament and additional armor protection for their crews.
When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Stanislaw F Skalski was in his early 20s. and a regular Polish Air Force officer, flying PZL fighters with 142 Squadron. On the second day of the war, he destroyed two Dornier 17s, and by the end of the brief Polish campaign was the top-scoring fighter pilot with 6 1/2 victories. He escaped to England, and joined 501 Squadron RAF in the Battle of Britain, scoring four victories. In June 1941 he was made a flight commander in 306 Polish Squadron and shot down five more German aircraft. He received the British DFC, having already won the Polish Silver Cross and Cross of Valor. He then had a spell as an instructor before commanding 317 Squadron in April 1942, winning a bar to his DFC.
In 1943 he led a group of experienced Polish fighter pilots into the Middle East, flying Spitfire IXs attached to 145 RAF Squadron. This ‘Fighting Team’ or ‘Skalski’s Flying Circus’ as it was also called, operated during the final stages of the Tunisian campaign, Skalski adding three more personal kills. He was then given command of 601 Squadron – the first Pole to command an RAF fighter squadron. He received a second bar to his DFC as well as the Polish Gold Cross before returning to England.
As a Wing Commander in April 1944 he commanded 133 (Polish No 2) Fighter Wing, flying Mustangs, raising his score to 19 victories when he forced two FW190s to collide on June 24. He ended the war as a gunnery instructor, decorated additionally with the British DSO. Returning to Poland after the war he was imprisoned by the Russians; and, following his release, drove a taxi in Warsaw.
Friedrich Augustus. Elector of Saxony (1694-1733); king of Poland (1697-1704; 1709-1733).
On 8 January 1706 a Swedish army of between 18,000 and
20,000 men left Blonie. `My soldiers have enjoyed their winter quarters in
summer’, declared their enigmatic King, so it was `only right that they should
take the field in winter’. Covering nearly 200 miles in 16 days (five being
rest-days), by 24 January the Swedes stood on the south bank of the River
Niemen opposite Ogilvie’s force in Grodno.
Six days later Augustus left that town at the head of some
5000 Saxon cavalry and Russian dragoons. By 5 February he was in Warsaw, where
he waited for a further body of horsemen to join him from the south, which
brought his force up to around 8000. With it he intended falling upon the rear
army of about 12,000, which was quartered west of Poznan’.
To his west, from Silesia, Rehnskjöld anticipated the advance of
a considerable `Saxon’ army under the command of LieutenantGeneral Johann
Matthias von der Schulenburg (1661-1747). This was Augustus’s `mysterious
project’, which had cost him so much money and was designed to procure `great
and sure success’ by crushing Rehnskjöld between two armies. After that the
victorious Saxons would take Charles too from the rear, while Ogilvie held him
Schulenburg’s force is variously computed as between 16,000
and 22,000 strong, with a cavalry component of 2000-5000. One-third of his
infantry was Russian, and other units of the foot were battalions comprising
French, Swiss and Bavarian deserters and prisoners of war. According to
Stepney, this army consisted mainly `of troops newly raised’.
But there was no victory for Augustus. He was at Kalisz,
some four days’ march away, when Schulenburg and Rehnskjöld clashed at
Fraustadt (Wschowa), near the Silesian-Polish border, on the morning of 14
February. It was another disaster for our hero, and a bloody one.
Stepney’s account, based upon letters from Silesia, was sent
to London on 20 February. He described how the Saxon left wing `began the
attack with some success, but their horse being soon routed, the foot suffered
extremely, being abandoned in a plain’. The Muscovites `made a valiant defence
and orderly retreat’ for over an hour; but finally they were `so warmly plied,
that hardly any of the 6000 escaped’, since Rehnskjöld had `resolved to give
them no quarter’.
The Saxons `shifted something better by retiring to a
village’. The Swedes surrounded it and set it on fire, and seven or eight
battalions surrendered there. In all, `the whole body of foot’ was lost with
all its baggage and artillery: perhaps 7000 infantry died and 6000 to 8000
became prisoners. However, only 100 of 5000 cavalry and dragoons were slain
`upon the spot’; the rest had fled.
Raby sent his own version of events that same day, along
with a copy of Rehnskjöld’s letter, to his wife. `Nous n’avons perdu de nos
braves Soldats qu’un fort petit nombre’, wrote the Swede of his light losses of
400 dead and 1400 wounded. `Dieu m’a specialement conserve”, he added, `ayant
eu un cheval tue’ sous Moy’.
Schulenburg lost more than a horse shot from under him. Raby
reported that he was held responsible for the disaster, in `that he would take
it upon him to attack the Swedes, when his King was with 6000 men within four
days march of him’. The expectation was that `his best fate will be keeping M
Patkul company in prison’.
After Fraustadt, Augustus retreated south-eastwards from
Kalisz towards Cracow. Peter was `now absolutely disgusted at the repeated
misfortunes of his ill-fated ally’, contended Whitworth. Despite `all the money
he had given the King (which is near 1,600,000 roubles) he had brought nothing
but bad luck’, while Muscovy was `drained of men and money’. The Tsar was
`resolved to shut up his purse-strings’.
In the east Charles tried to engage Ogilvie in Grodno, but
the weather thwarted him. At the beginning of April the Scot led the remains of
an army depleted by privations southwards. By the time Charles could cross the
thawing Niemen, Ogilvie had a four-day start. Struggling through the Pripet
marshes, the Swedes pursued their foes as far as Pinsk, which they reached on 4
May. There Charles called off the chase, and the Muscovites staggered on to
Kiev. Although Peter’s main army was saved, the Russians had `abandoned all
Courland and Lithuania with the same precipitation as they took possession’,
Charles stayed at Pinsk until early June 1706, both to rest
his troops and to harry Augustus’s supporters. Then his army tramped
south-westwards to Luck, the capital of Volhynia, a region almost untouched by
war. Arriving there in mid-June, the Swedes replenished themselves and their
horses from the abundant grain stocks; for their next trek would be lengthy.
Charles `had forborne several times to invade Saxony, when
all the reasons both of war and politics should have engaged him to it’ and
despite `having destroyed their army and having the country at his mercy’. This
was how the Swedish ambassador in Berlin expressed matters to Raby in April.
Possibly he was preparing the political groundwork.
Following the allied victory over the French at Ramillies in
May 1706, the envoy returned to the issue of removing Augustus as a player. He
argued that it was in England’s interest to recognize the puppet Stanislaw
instead, since as King of Poland he `could not be able to do anything to
disturb the allies’. If Augustus remained upon the throne, then once the Swedes
withdrew `he’d begin his old play again, for he was a prince that would not be
quiet’. He would revamp `his old project’ of making the Polish throne
hereditary `and joining Saxony to it’. Then Augustus would marry his son to
Emperor Joseph’s daughter, and if `the Austrian family should be extinct’ in
the male line, `by this match his son might pretend to the greatest part of the
hereditary country and to be chosen Emperor’. Then, concluded the envoy,
Augustus `would be more to be feared than the French King and have as great (at
least) a power’.
Whether or not the Swedish sovereign endorsed such political
arguments, he had settled by now upon a solution by the sword. On 17 July 1706
Charles marched out of Luck. Having crossed the Bug and the Vistula he teamed
up with Rehnskjöld’s force north of Lodz on 16 August. A week later he forded
the Warta. Passing full circle through his old base of Rawicz, Charles led his
army across the Oder at Steinau (north-west of Breslau) on 2 September, and
four days later the Swedes entered Saxony.
`Their march goes straight to Dresden’, hazarded Stepney
from Vienna. Eberhardine fled to her father’s, while Augustus’s mother and son
left for Magdeburg. The few Saxon troops remaining in the Electorate melted
away into Thuringia. The general population, recalling Swedish ravages from the
Thirty Years War, were on the move too, with their effects.
`This attempt in Saxony is only to put a speedy end to the
war in Poland’, maintained the Swedish envoy in Vienna; Charles had no
intention of disturbing the Empire, `provided they do not molest him in his
present undertaking’. Stepney hardly anticipated any Imperial interference with
the activities of the Swedish King. For `as near as I can perceive, the princes
on all sides are in awe of the lion’ and fear that the slightest `remonstrance’
might provoke him `to fall upon them’. Ironically, only Augustus would be
molesting the Swedes, and he was desperately trying to avoid just such an
After Fraustadt, Augustus retreated to Cracow; we know
little of what he did there. On 24 April the visiting Plantamour (now in
Augustus’s service) told Raby in Berlin that `the King diverts himself very
well’. He was `under no apprehensions of the Swedes’, and had more of the
Polish nobility with him `than before the unfortunate battle of Schulenburg’s’.
He also retained 6000 men in Saxony and at present had no fear of a Swedish
invasion of his Electorate.
In late July Whitworth reported that Augustus had retired
from Cracow to Hungary. On 18 August the envoy told London that the
Elector-King was marching towards Grodno with the Crown Army and 7000 Saxon
horse, a `good part whereof, he has insensibly drawn from his Electorate by
small troops’ since Fraustadt.
In fact Augustus was currently about 80 miles east of
Grodno, in Nowogro’dek. His close adviser (Referendarius) Georg Ernst Pfingsten
left that town on 16 August bearing a letter to Charles. This expressed the
Saxon’s wish that the two cousins might fully reconcile their differences.
Besides this missive, Pfingsten carried a set of principal and subsidiary
instructions (Haupt- und Nebeninstruktion) for use at a conference with Swedish
representatives. These made clear that the surrender of the Polish crown was
only to be agreed to as a last resort, in order to prevent the invasion of
Saxony. If the negotiations broke down, Augustus expected the Regency Council
to defend the Electorate by all possible means.
Pfingsten only reached Dresden on 1 September; given a
Swedish army on the march in western Poland, this was probably not excessive.
But it also meant that Augustus’s negotiating position was already shattered.
When the Saxon Privy Council met on the morning of 2 September, the Swedes were
crossing the Oder and only a few days off from invading Saxony. Moreover, the
panic and disorder in the Electorate precluded any possibility of armed
Charles was in possession of Augustus’s letter on 4
September, two days before he crossed the Saxon frontier. His answer would come
better from the sword of an occupying power, than the pen of a negotiator.
Therefore, it was not until 12 September that the Swedes consented to receive
Pfingsten and the Geheimrat Anton Albrecht Baron von Imhoff at Charles’s
temporary headquarters in Bischofswerda, about 20 miles east of Dresden. This
proved to be the one and only `negotiating’ session.
The Saxon plenipotentiaries received their powers from the
Privy Council and not from Augustus. It made little difference to the Swedish
terms. Their first and unalterable condition remained Augustus’s renunciation
of the Polish crown, and his recognition of Stanislaw as the legitimate King of
Poland. All attempts by the Saxons to evade this point shattered against the
rock of Charles’s obstinacy.
The Saxons endeavoured to obtain a Swedish withdrawal from
the Electorate as a quid pro quo for accepting Augustus’s abdication. They
argued that Saxony could not sustain such a large force, particularly the
numerous Swedish cavalry, and generously suggested Brandenburg as a more
congenial site (`dort gebe es fette Quartiere’). However, they were foiled here
as well. As a Swedish diplomat phrased it, occupation of the Electorate would
be the very means whereby `Saxony should be put out of condition for the future
to assist King Augustus with men and money’. Occupation would also increase
pressure upon Dresden to ratify and execute the peace treaty.
Once Pfingsten and Imhoff had conceded abdication and
occupation, they capitulated down the line: on Patkul’s handover, the release
of the Sobieskis and abrogation of Augustus’s treaties with the Tsar. Satisfied
with the results, Charles removed his brooding presence from Bischofswerda the
next day, and on 15 September he crossed the Elbe at Meissen. Six days later he
reached the castle of Altranstädt, situated a few miles west of
Leipzig, where he would maintain his headquarters throughout the Swedish
On 24 September 1706 the two Saxon plenipotentiaries arrived
there. Together with Piper and Cederhielm for Sweden, and two shadowy
representatives of King Stanislaw I of Poland, they signed the 22 articles of
the Treaty of Altranstädt. For the moment its provisions were academic, since
strict secrecy had successfully shrouded the negotiations.
Charles had not wanted any publicity to interfere with his
subjugation of Saxony. Nor had Augustus courted it, since his position was far
more precarious. He had ostensibly made peace with his Swedish cousin and
voided all treaties with his ally Peter. Yet currently, he was surrounded by
thousands of Russian cavalry, who under his leadership were aiming to destroy a
This refers to the Swedish massacre of probably over 8,000
soldiers of the Saxon army and supplementary Russian troops allied with
Augustus II Wettin during and after the Battle of Fraustadt (present-day
Wschowa) on February 13, 1706. Simultaneously, the Swedish army enforced a
blockade of the distant city of Grodno during January-March 1706, where about
23,000 Russian troops were left without assistance, and in effect, suffered
some 17,000 casualties in the city and during its evacuation.
The Battle of Fraustadt was one of the greatest Swedish
victories of the Great Northern War, which opened the road to Saxony to Charles
XII and even resulted in the short-lived abdication of the King of Poland
Augustus II. At Fraustadt, the Swedish forces of Karl Gustaf Rehnskjöld were outnumbered
by the Saxon-Russian troops of Johann Matthias von Schulenburg by two to one
(three to one in infantry). The Saxon troops were, in fact, composed of French,
Bavarian, Swiss, and Saxon soldiers. Deployed between two villages, the allied
army was believed by the commanders to be impregnable to a cavalry attack. Yet,
the Swedish horsemen attacked both flanks and, having beaten them, pressed on
the centrally deployed troops, massacring them. Of roughly 18,000 Saxon-Russian
troops, over 8,000 were killed. Historians cannot agree as to whether several
hundred Russians were killed in cold blood after the battle.
About one month prior to the Battle of Fraustadt, in the
distant city of Grodno (today in Belaurus), the Swedish forces managed to cut
all supply lines to the Russian garrison in the city. The Russian troops
numbering about 23,000 men, under the command of a Scottish general Fd. Mar.
George Ogilvy and Gen. Nikita Ivanovich Repnin were left without provisions,
assistance, and the necessary cavalry to either break through or withhold the
blockade. The Polish-Lithuanian king, Augustus II left the area, heading for
central Poland, taking with him all cavalry (even the Russian dragoons). In
effect, about 8,000 Russian soldiers died of famine and disease, before Oglivy
decided to evacuate the city on March 22. Historians claim, that another 9,000
were killed during the retreat.
Frost, Robert I. The Northern Wars. War, State and Society in Northeastern
Europe 1558-1721. New York: Longman, 2000.