The Siege of Smolensk 1632-33

Mikhail Shein surrendering to the Poles in Smolensk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Augustus II Friedrich Wettin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PZL P. 37 Los

The Los (Elk) was a world-class attack bomber and Poland’s most formidable air weapon of World War II. It arrived in only limited quantities but nonetheless performed heroic work throughout a hopelessly lopsided campaign.

The amazing P. 37 Los had its origins in the experimental P.30 civilian transport of 1930, which failed to attract a buyer. That year a design team under Jerzy Dabrowksi conceived a modern bomber version of the same craft and proffered it to the government in 1934. A prototype was then authorized, first flying in 1936. The P. 37 marked a pinnacle in medium bomber development for, in terms of design and performance, it was years ahead of contemporary machines. This was a sleek, all-metal, low-wing monoplane employing stressed skin throughout. Although relatively low-powered, its broad-chord wings permitted amazing lifting abilities, and it could hoist more than 5,000 pounds of bombs aloft-the equivalent of half its own empty weight! No medium bomber in the world-and few heavy bombers for that matter-could approach such performance. The Los entered production in 1937, and the first units became operational the following year. The government originally ordered 150 machines, but resistance from the Polish High Command, which viewed medium bombers as expensive and unnecessary, managed to reduce procurement by a third. Meanwhile, other countries expressed great interest in the P. 37, with Bulgaria, Turkey, Romania, and Yugoslavia placing sizable orders. A total of 103 machines were built.

By the advent of World War II in September 1939, the Polish air force could muster only 36 fully equipped P. 37s. Several score sat available in waiting but lacked bombsights and other essential equipment. Nonetheless, the Los roared into action, inflicting considerable damage upon advancing German columns. When the outcome of the fight became helpless, around 40 surviving machines fled to neutral Romania and were absorbed into its air force. Within two years these fugitives were reconditioned and flown with good effect against the Soviet Union.

Dimensions: wingspan, 58 feet, 8 inches; length, 42 feet, 4 inches; height, 16 feet, 8 inches Weights: empty, 9,293 pounds; gross, 19,577 pounds Power plant: 2 x 925-horsepower Bristol Pegasus radial engines Performance: maximum speed, 273 miles per hour; ceiling, 19,685 feet; range, 1,616 miles Armament: 3 x 7.7mm machine guns; up to 5,688 pounds of bombs Service dates: 1938-1939

Brygada Bombowa

In the spring of 1939 a new concept for the application of aviation into a conflict was established. Within this plan it was determined that a large force of bomber aircraft should be formed. Specific guidelines, which modified this plan, were not published until July 1939. The bomber group (later named Brygada Bombowa) was given the following tasks, in accordance with the guidelines as they then stood.

# intervening operations at the battlefield and close rear, against human forces of the enemy # attacking enemy aviation, most of all bombers and fighters, at airfields

# attacking railway and road transport of the enemy

# reconnaissance of the targets of bomber aviation operations will be generally carried out by the discretionary aviation of the Wodz Naczelny, using mostly army reconnaissance aviation.

Brygada Bombowa was formed virtually at the outbreak of war and included the following air units:

# X (210) Dywizjon Bombowy with:

# 11 (previously 211) Eskadra Bombowa – 9 PZL P. 37B Los

# 12 (previously 212) Eskadra Bombowa – 9 PZL P. 37B Los

# XV (215) Dywizjon Bombowy with: # 16 (previously 216) Eskadra Bombowa – 9 PZL P. 37B Los

# 17 (previously 217) Eskadra Bombowa – 9 PZL P. 37 Los

# II (112) Dywizjon Bombowy Lekki with:

# 1 (previously 21) Eskadra Bombowa – 10 PZL P. 23B Karas

# 2 (previously 22) Eskadra Bombowa – 10 PZL P. 23B Karas

# VI (11/6) Dywizjon Bombowy Lekki with:

# 4 (previously 64) Eskadra Bombowa – 10 PZL P. 23B Karas

# 5 (previously 65) Eskadra Bombowa – 10 PZL P. 23B Karas

# 55 Samodzielna Eskadra Bombowa – 10 PZL P. 23B Karas

Final evacuation of the Brygada Bombowa to Rumania took place on 17-18 September 1939. During the operations Karas crews dropped some 61 tonnes of bombs, and shot down at least 7 Bf 109s, while Los crews dropped 119 tonnes of bombs, and shot down three Bf 109s and an He 111.

PZL Aircraft (Panstwowe Zaklady Lotnicze)

Polish aircraft manufacturer; founded in 1928 as the Polish National Aircraft Establishment, it was chartered to manufacture both airframes and engines. Its airframes were PZLdesigned, but most of its engines were license-built Bristol designs. Several PZL (Polish Skoda) engine designs were run, but it is not known that any were put into production.

The chief designer of PZL airframes, Zygmunt Pulawski, produced a series of fighters from 1929 to 1936 that were world-class in their early years, partly because they were high-wing monoplanes when much of the world’s air forces still used biplanes. Designated P. 1 through P. 24-the P. 1 being the first fighter of indigenous Polish design-they featured gull wings and all-metal construction. The P. 24 was the first with an enclosed cockpit. Pulawski continued to refine the aerodynamics of his aircraft, but these fixed-gear fighters were not competitive with the new generation of German fighters they faced in 1939.

The P. 1 first flew on 29 September 1929, the P. 6 in August 1930, the P. 7 in October 1930, the P. 11 in August 1931, and the P. 24 in May 1933. The P. 24F had a 297 mph maximum speed at 13,945 feet and was the last of the series.

The differences between them were minor except that each made use of the most powerful engine then available, the largest being the Gnome-Rhone 14N 07 of 970 shp. Armament was two small-bore machine guns throughout production until the P. 24, which added two 20mm cannons in the wings. The P. 7 was still in service with the Polish air force when the Germans invaded in 1939. Other users were the Romanian (license-built by IAR), Albanian, Bulgarian, Greek, and Turkish air forces. Total production of the fighter series comprised approximately 500, about 200 for foreign customers.

The P. 38 Wilk, a twin-engine low-wing two-place multirole fighter powered by inverted air-cooled V-8 engines of PZL manufacture, first flew in May 1938 with the Ranger SGV-770B engine and in January 1939 with the intended PZL engines. Maximum speed was 289 mph. PZL built several advanced prototypes, including the P. 43, a single-engine low-wing all-metal three-place reconnaissance and attack fixed-gear monoplane; the P. 27, a twin-engine midwing all-metal three-place bomber; and the P. 44, a twin-engine low-wing all-metal 14-passenger transport with a twin-fin tail, designed to replace the DC-2 and Lockheed 10 and 14 airliners in Polish service.

The Warsaw Ghetto I


‘Stroop,’ hissed Heinrich Himmler like a snake down the telephone line from Berlin, ‘you must at all costs bring down those two flags.’

SS-Brigadeführer Jürgen Stroop straightened himself, his gloved hand tightening around the receiver in anger.

‘Zu befehl, Herr Reichsführer,’ he snapped back stiffly, before replacing the telephone in its cradle. Walking a few hundred yards from his command post to the ‘front line’, Stroop narrowed his blue eyes and stared up at a tall building in Warsaw’s Muranowski Square. Black smoke was drifting across the sky from the many burning buildings, but in the breaks between each gust Stroop could make out the two flags that had Germany’s second most powerful man in a rage. Two young Jewish boys who had fearlessly braved the German gunfire had erected the flags the day before. One was the red and white Polish national flag, the other the banner of the Jewish resistance organization known as ZZW (Jewish Military Union). It consisted of a blue Star of David on a white background, today’s Israeli flag. Stroop, personally appointed by Himmler to crush the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt, pulsed with fury. He knew the power of flags. ‘It reminded hundreds of thousands of the Polish cause, it excited them and unified the population of the General Government, but especially Jews and Poles,’ he wrote afterwards. A flag was worth a hundred machine guns in a situation like this. Stroop would topple those flags, just like he would crush the Jews who had had the temerity to make a stand against the Third Reich. The ragtag army of Jewish ‘terrorists’ who had already managed to throw the Germans out of the ghetto would be utterly destroyed. This was Stroop’s almost pathological determination. That he was also fighting women and children made no impression on him in the slightest. With such cold-hearted warriors, Himmler prosecuted his destruction of the Jews.

The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest of the many ghettos created for the Jews by the Germans. A tiny part of the Polish capital that measured only 1.3 square miles had been fenced and walled off and housed between 300,000 and 400,000 people in squalid, overcrowded conditions. Disease and malnutrition had already killed thousands before the Nazis decided to reduce the population dramatically by shipping tens of thousands of inmates east under Aktion Reinhard. SS-und-Polizeiführer Odilo Globocnik, Nazi police leader in the Lublin district of the General Government, had been ordered to progressively clear the ghetto, assisted by the head of the SiPo and SD in Warsaw, SS-Standartenführer Ludwig Hahn.

Globocnik’s surname gave away his non-German origins. Born in Trieste in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1904 to parents of Slav origin, Globocnik served in the Austrian and Yugoslav armies before becoming a member of the banned Austrian Nazi Party. To say that Globocnik was a fanatical Nazi would have been an understatement, and he served time in prison for his political beliefs and activities, which endeared him to Himmler. A key player in the German takeover of Austria in 1938, Globocnik was rewarded by promotion to Gauleiter of Vienna, a position he utilized to both persecute Jews and enrich himself. Caught by SS investigators with his hand in the till in 1939, Globocnik was convicted of foreign currency speculation, dismissed from his position and reduced to a corporal in the Waffen-SS. Sent to the front in Poland, Himmler ensured that his old friend was rapidly reinstated as a top Nazi leader less than a year later, when he appointed Globocnik SS-Brigadeführer and assigned him to Lublin province as Higher SS and Police Leader. Himmler placed him in charge of the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto and a series of other major Jewish population centres, and Globocnik excelled at these tasks.

The aristocratic SS-Oberführer Ferdinand von Sammern-Frankenegg, who had been in command of the Warsaw area since 1941, commanded Grossaktion Warschau on the ground, as the Germans termed the ghetto clearances. Globocnik maintained overall charge from a safe distance.

The turning point for the ghetto inhabitants occurred on 18 April 1942, when the SS began a process of executing inmates it deemed ‘undesirables’ before commencing with its clearance of the ghetto. On 22 July, the head of the Judenrat, or Nazi-appointed Jewish Council, Adam Czerniakow, was called to a meeting headed by the German ‘Resettlement Commissioner’ SS-Sturmbannführer Hermann Höfle, where he was informed that mass deportations to camps in the east would commence shortly. Czerniakow, feeling that he was helpless to protect his people from what looked to be an increasingly homicidal Nazi programme, committed suicide rather than cooperate and was replaced by Marc Lichtenbaum. It made no difference to Höfle’s timetable. Over eight weeks during the summer of 1942, cattle trains left the ghetto railway collection point twice daily, carrying between 5,000 and 7,000 people on each occasion east to camps, primarily the extermination centre known as Treblinka II. The SS recorded that a total of 310,322 Jews were ‘evacuated’ from the ghetto when this action ended on 3 October 1942. Although the population of the ghetto was greatly reduced, the Germans planned a second round of deportations for later in the year, and it was at this point that some of the more militant Jews decided to act.

The Jewish Combat Organization (ZOB) was formed in October 1942 with the intention of resisting further deportations. Led by an idealistic 24-year-old named Mordechai Anielewicz, its members were under no illusions as to their fate should they rise up against the SS police state. But they felt that they had nothing to lose, as the news filtering back from the eastern camps suggested that the Germans were murdering the evacuees. The ZOB received some weapons, ammunition and supplies from the well-organised Polish Home Army, a non-Jewish national resistance movement that was heavily supported by Britain. But the weapons were nowhere near plentiful enough for the ZOB to be considered a serious threat to the Germans. The ZOB only had 220 committed fighters in Warsaw, who were armed with a miscellany of handguns, grenades, rifles and home-made Molotov cocktails.

Anielewicz divided the ghetto into sectors, sending his small number of fighters to garrison each one. So short were they of arms that each sector only had three rifles, and within the entire Warsaw Ghetto the ZOB possessed just two land mines and one sub-machine gun with limited ammunition. More weapons would be smuggled into the ghetto once the revolt started, some were captured from the Germans and a few were even manufactured in secret arsenals, but the ZOB would remain vastly outnumbered and outgunned by the Germans throughout the revolt.

A second ghetto resistance organization, the right-wing ZZW, received large quantities of arms, ammunition and supplies from the Polish Home Army’s affiliated National Security Corps (PKB), and on several occasions the Home Army would launch attacks on German forces that were assaulting the ghetto, trying to take some of the pressure off the ZOB and ZZW forces inside the walls that were resisting bravely. One PKB unit led by Henryk ‘Bysty’ Iwanski even fought inside the ghetto. Many of the resisters would be young women, who, the Germans noted grimly, fought as fiercely as their menfolk.

Himmler, who visited Warsaw in January 1943, ordered that the numerous armaments factories that had been established inside the ghetto, along with their Jewish labourers and machines, should be transferred to Lublin. The process began early on the morning of 18 January, when the temperature was minus 20°C. Grey army trucks loaded with 200 SS and 800 Ukrainian and Latvian SS auxiliaries roared into the centre of the ghetto. The round-up was timed to catch the 35,000 Jewish slave labourers on their way to work in the factories. The SS fired indiscriminately into the crowds before beginning to corral large numbers of people preparatory to marching them to the railhead. The sudden Nazi Aktion caught the Jewish resistance organizations completely off-guard. Trying to recover, they broke out their meagre supply of weapons or armed themselves with pipes, sticks and bottles. The Germans soon had long columns of Jews being herded towards the train depot when Anielewicz’s fighters suddenly opened fire. Whilst the stunned SS reacted to completely unexpected Jewish resistance, another group of SS stormed a building where a ZOB commander, Yitzhak Zuckerman, and forty of his fighters were holed up. Zuckerman had placed two armed lookouts in the large building’s foyer and they carefully took no notice as the SS swaggered through the main door and started for the staircase. Suddenly, one of the lookouts pulled out a revolver and shot two of the Germans in the back. The rest of the SS men, shocked and suddenly wrong-footed by this act of resistance, retreated from the building in some disarray, with the rest of Zuckerman’s fighters in pursuit. One more SS man was wounded in the intense gunfight that followed.

At Gestapo headquarters, there was considerable consternation. The Aktion was a complete failure, the Germans only managing to snatch 5,000 Jews instead of the 50,000 they had planned. Von Sammern-Frankenegg was humiliated. The Germans were aware that Poland’s resistance organization, the Home Army, numbered over 380,000 well-armed personnel, and throughout the occupation they feared what would happen if it rose against Nazi rule. The fear was that this sudden resistance by Jewish ‘terrorists’, as the SS labelled them, could spread to the non-Jewish Polish population. The Home Army was indeed watching events in Warsaw with interest, and was impressed by the bloody nose that a handful of poorly armed Jewish fighters had managed to inflict on Hitler’s ‘master race’. But the Home Army would refuse all entreaties to join in with the ghetto rising, preferring to wait until events favoured them – that is, until the Red Army arrived close to the Polish capital, an event that in January 1943 was judged to be a long time off. The Jewish leadership demanded weapons and ammunition to supplement what they had bought or manufactured, and in February the Home Army gave the ZOB fifty pistols and some hand grenades.

The ZOB organised itself for the defence of the Warsaw Ghetto. The problem for the fighters was that the ghetto was not contiguous; rather, since the mass deportations of 1942, large areas were empty of people and businesses. The ghetto was now divided into three separate parts, separated by depopulated zones. The ZOB split into three regiments, one for each sector, with the regiments subdivided into squadrons of varying sizes. Nine squadrons under the command of Anielewicz garrisoned the large centre ghetto, eight under Zuckerman the area of the Tobbens and Schulz armaments factories, and five under Mark Edelman in the smaller Brushmaker’s District on the western edge of the centre ghetto. In total, the ZOB fielded about 500 fighters.

During the daytime, the fighters joined the other ghetto Jews in labouring in the big German armaments factories that had been established inside the ghetto, while at night they practised fighting techniques and gathered supplies. Such was the dire shortage of weapons that at this stage only one-in-ten of the fighters actually had a firearm. Messages were sent again to the Polish Home Army asking for more weapons, whilst teams went around the ghetto collecting old bottles and burned-out light bulbs to be converted into Molotov cocktails. Drainpipes were cut up and converted into rudimentary grenades and a trickle of guns were bought off the Polish black market and smuggled into the ghetto.

The ZOB and ZZW had also conducted some house-cleaning. They had executed those members of the quisling Jewish Ghetto police that remained, and also any Gestapo or Abwehr intelligence agents that had infiltrated the ghetto, a number that sadly also included a member of the Judenrat.

The Jewish resistance leaders knew that the Germans would return and avenge their loss of face, as well as try to round up the workers they demanded. So it was essential that the fighters construct bunkers from which to mount a prolonged defence of the ghetto. Anielewicz criticized the bunker mentality of many of his co-leaders, and instead pressed that the Jews use the upper storeys and roofs of tall residential buildings to dominate the Germans. His argument prevailed and ZOB units took post high up over the streets, as well as helping to construct bunkers and tunnels down below.

Von Sammern-Frankenegg was under considerable pressure from his superiors to get on with clearing the ghetto. Perhaps overconfident of his troops’ ability to complete the task, and with little combat experience of his own, von Sammern-Frankenegg decided to break into the ghetto on 19 April and complete the task that he had been set. On the morning of 19 April, the ZOB and other Jewish resistance groups were on high alert after word had reached them of German troops massing near the ghetto entrances. This time the Jews would not be taken by surprise. From their posts on the edge of the Brushmakers’ District, Jewish lookouts reported an awe-inspiring and terrifying sight. Hundreds of SS troops were forming up into companies, the ring of their jackboots on the streets was loud and portentous, while behind them came a fleet of army trucks, a couple of tanks, some armoured half-tracks, light artillery pieces and motorcyclists. The Germans clearly meant business. Even further back, the lookouts reported SS ambulances and field kitchens setting up. Communications trucks with tall radio masts were also observed. For the handful of Jewish fighters it was a terrible moment – these poorly armed civilians, with only the most rudimentary training, were about to face highly disciplined and motivated SS troops who outnumbered them many times over and had an awesome array of support weapons available. As the lookouts watched and listened to the crunch of marching boots, the growl of diesel and petrol engines and the squeal of tank tracks on city roads, the SS started singing. The Nazi Party anthem, the Horst Wessel song, carried into the ghetto – the sound of death approaching.

The SS assault commenced at precisely 6.00am – though perhaps the word ‘assault’ is a little misleading. Maybe von Sammern-Frankenegg thought that a show of force would cow the Jews into submission, for the 1,000-man SS column came on in parade ground formation, marching six abreast. What the SS didn’t realize was that they were marching straight into a trap. The walling in of the ghetto actually created problems for the Germans when it came to storming the place, for it meant any attacking force would have to be funnelled through one of the gates into the ghetto. The Jewish resistance leaders realized that they could turn this to their advantage, and they stationed most of their fighters and weapons to cover these gates. They had also buried in the roads home-made Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) that could be set off electrically. Once the SS had been permitted to advance through the gate and down the main street, lined on each side by tall buildings, the IEDs were detonated with devastating results. Several SS men were literally blown to pieces and the explosions and flying shrapnel wounded many. From the tall buildings, the Jews unleashed heavy fire. The Germans were stuck inside a man-made canyon, and any movement forwards or backwards attracted fire. About 500 yards away, near the north end of Cordial Street, an identical battle was soon raging. The SS also attempted to breach the ghetto wall on Muranow Street, while yet more SS tried to get onto Zamenhof Street, the main route to the railway terminus where the Jews would be loaded onto trains and shipped east. Four Jewish units defended Zamenhof Street, determined to prevent any more of their people from being sent out of the ghetto by train.

Cordial Street was swept by Jewish fire, and grenades were hurled down at the SS. In desperation, von Sammern-Frankenegg only made things worse by ordering forward reinforcements, which simply increased the number of targets for the Jewish fighters. German casualties mounted. Fighters on Zamenhof Street even managed to knock out a German tank with firebombs and explosive charges.

Von Sammern-Frankenegg watched his force being poleaxed by the Jews from the safety of a nearby hotel balcony. This sort of thing wasn’t supposed to happen to the SS. Moving inside, he walked up to the tall, lean officer whom Himmler had sent to find out what was going on.

‘We can’t get into the Ghetto,’ said von Sammern-Frankenegg, shaking his head with disbelief as he spoke. SS-Brigadeführer Jürgen Stroop curled his lip in disgust at his colleague’s defeatist attitude. ‘What are your casualties?’ Stroop enquired.

‘Twelve dead at the last report. The Jews have also wrecked a panzer and burned out two half-tracks,’ replied von Sammern-Frankenegg in a low voice.

A few minutes earlier, Stroop had been on the phone with von Sammern-Frankenegg’s superior in Krakow, SS-Obergruppenführer Friedrich-Wilhelm Kruger. Kruger was furious with the aristocratic von Sammern-Frankenegg’s desultory performance and talked of having him arrested for impugning the honour of the SS.

‘I’m assuming command,’ snapped Stroop coldly to von Sammern-Frankenegg. ‘Mobilize all forces at once.’ Stroop was cut from very different cloth to von Sammern-Frankenegg, and had the personal confidence of not just Kruger but Heinrich Himmler himself.

Born into a strict, even fanatical, Catholic family in 1895, Stroop had served as a combat soldier during the First World War. He received the Iron Cross 2nd Class for bravery in 1915, and after the war took a job in a land registry. He joined the Nazi Party in 1932 and was soon commissioned in the SS, working in Münster and Hamburg. During the German occupation of the Sudetenland in 1938, Stroop, by now an SS-Standartenführer, continued to impress his superiors. In Poland in 1939–40, Stroop commanded the notorious Selbstschütz in Poznan, where the unit committed numerous atrocities. Between July and September 1941, Stroop commanded an infantry regiment of the 3rd SS Division Totenkopf on the Eastern Front, being awarded the Clasp to his Iron Cross 2nd Class and the Infantry Assault Badge. Promoted to SS-Brigadeführer on 16 September 1942, Stroop commanded the SiPo and SD of the Higher SS and was Police Leader in Russia South, later becoming SS and Police Leader in Lvov in February 1943. It was from this post that Himmler selected the 48-year-old Stroop, who remained a virulent and extremely vocal anti-Semite until his death, to suppress the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt.

The Warsaw Ghetto II

Although Jewish fighters had successfully beaten off von Sammern-Frankenegg’s ill-coordinated assaults, they remained extremely short of arms and ammunition. Further appeals were made to the Polish Home Army, but they only offered to help evacuate Jewish fighters from the ghetto and have them join up with Home Army units in the forests around Warsaw. This was something that the fighters had no intention of doing at this stage of the battle.

Stroop reorganized the units that he inherited from von Sammern-Frankenegg and put together a fresh assault during the afternoon of 19 April. To liquidate the ghetto, Stroop had at his disposal 36 officers and 2,054 men from several parts of the Third Reich’s armed services. The main assault forces consisted of Waffen-SS troops from two training units. These men had received about a month’s training, though their NCOs and officers were all seasoned combat veterans. SS Panzer Grenadier Training Battalion III Warschau numbered 444 men and supplied replacements to the 3rd SS Panzer Grenadier Division Totenkopf. The 386-man SS Cavalry Training Battalion Warschau (part of the 8th SS Cavalry Division Florian Geyer) was well armed and ideologically conditioned for the task at hand. The Ordnungspolizei (Order Police) provided two small units for the operation: 1st Battalion, SS Police Regiment 22 (97 men) and 3rd Battalion, SS Police Regiment 23 (137 men). The regular German Army was also involved in the battle, providing a light flak battery and two combat engineer units. Perhaps the most feared of the units that Stroop deployed were the 337 men of the Trawniki 1st Battalion, an auxiliary SS unit composed mostly of Latvians, many former Soviet prisoners-of-war noted for their barbarity towards the Jews. Trawnikis staffed concentration camps under regular SS officers and NCOs and had a well-deserved reputation for violence and murder. Stroop was particularly pleased with his Trawnikis, noting that they couldn’t speak Polish, so they could not communicate with the Jews.

Stroop’s men assaulted the gate area at the intersection of Zamenhof and Goose Streets. This time, instead of blindly marching into the ghetto, Stroop ordered a careful advance, with units covering each other as they moved forward by rushes. The idea was to deal with one strongpoint at a time, then move on to the next, street fighting as they went.

Before the troops went in, Stroop ordered a short artillery barrage, causing a serious distraction that allowed his forward units to move into position unmolested. The Germans then erected a temporary barricade out of hundreds of mattresses taken from a warehouse on the corner of Goose and Cordial Streets. By now the Jewish fighters had opened up a heavy fire, and grenades and Molotov cocktails soon set the barricade on fire, the SS retreating with one man wounded. In their fury, some SS entered the ghetto hospital and began shooting the patients in their beds.

It was during that first day that two Jewish boys climbed up on to a tall building in Muranowski Square and hoisted the Polish national flag and the Star of David banner of the ZZW. The flags managed to fly for four days, despite repeated German efforts to capture the building upon which they flew, the flags clearly visible to the rest of the Polish population in Warsaw. It was a call to arms to all Poles, regardless of their religion. The last thing Himmler wanted was the non-Jewish Poles joining in the revolt against the harsh German occupation of their country.

Stroop had discovered, much to his shock and disgust, that the Germans who were supposed to have managed and overseen the armaments factories inside the ghetto had actually allowed the Jewish workers a great deal of autonomy in running the concerns. This meant that in the months leading up to the uprising, Jews had access to chemicals for manufacturing explosives, and even army clothing and equipment. Large amounts had been stolen and cached ready for use when the rebellion broke out. ‘The managers knew so little of their own enterprises that the Jews were able to produce arms of every kind,’ wrote an amazed Stroop to Himmler, ‘especially hand grenades, Molotov cocktails, etc., inside these shops.’

The factories and enterprises became strongpoints during the uprising, the Jews setting up resistance bases and continuing to manufacture weapons and explosives during the course of the struggle.

Stroop changed his tactics, deploying units separately through previously defined fighting zones. In this manner, the Germans ‘combed out’ each sector of the ghetto, killing or rounding up Jewish fighters as they went. The fighters were forced from their positions on the rooftops to the basements, bunkers and sewers. The fighters, largely composed of young Jews aged between 18 and 25, kept popping up to fight. Some decided to fight their way out of the ghetto. The SS recorded one incident where a group climbed from a sewer basin in Prosta on to a truck and escaped with the vehicle. The group, which numbered thirty to thirty-five people, was well armed. One fighter threw two hand grenades while the rest, armed with carbines, pistols and one light machine gun, climbed on to the truck and drove off. The Germans never recovered the truck or apprehended the fighters.

The SS closed off the sewer system to try and prevent Jews from escaping into the rest of Warsaw, and then attempted to flood the system. But the Jews managed to blow up the turn-off valves, defeating Stroop’s attempt to drown them beneath the city.

During 20 and 21 April, following bitter fighting, the SS gained control of most of the residual ghetto. The basement and sewer bunkers that the Jews had constructed were large and well-equipped, with enough space for entire families to shelter. Some had washing and bathing facilities, toilets, arms and munitions storage bins and food stocks for several months. SS and army troops stormed one bunker after another, using maximum force and causing maximum destruction and casualties.

Resistance in the factory complexes was also fanatical. One particularly difficult strongpoint was located inside the Army Quartermaster’s Office. SS troops tackled it on 18 April by bringing forward Wehrmacht combat engineers armed with flamethrowers. Artillery was also used against the building. But the Jewish fighters inside wouldn’t give up, the whole edifice eventually being burned to the ground on 19 April with the fighters still inside.

After five days of fighting, the ghetto was badly damaged, many buildings were on fire or already gutted shells, the rattle of small arms echoing down the ruined streets, the occasional thump of a grenade or IED booming across the city. The Germans discovered that flamethrowers were particularly effective at dealing with Jewish positions. Stroop was under considerable pressure from above to contain the revolt and crush all resistance as quickly as possible. The whole episode was becoming an embarrassment for the SS, and particularly for Himmler. They all knew that only a few hundred poorly armed Jews were running rings around the much-vaunted SS. Even the regular army was starting to make disparaging comments about the fighting abilities and leadership of the SS. More than one was comparing what was occurring inside the Warsaw Ghetto to the monumental battle for Stalingrad, coining the name ‘Ghettograd’.

Although the Germans managed to overrun Cordials Street, they were met by heavy resistance off Muranowski Square on the ghetto’s northern edge. The building where the flags flew became a ‘fort’ to Stroop. Trying to take it cost Stroop one officer killed and fifty-two men wounded. Stroop changed tactics and decided to concentrate his efforts on capturing the smallest part of the ghetto, the Brushmaker’s District. When the SS tried to storm through the main gate, the Jews detonated a huge IED that they had buried there, killing and wounding many SS. The Germans pulled back in some disarray.

On 22 April, following days of bitter fighting, Stroop offered the Jewish fighters surrender terms, which they disdainfully rejected by opening fire on the two SS officers who came forward under a white flag to offer them. They remained under no illusions about what would happen to them if they fell into German hands, regardless of Stroop’s attempts to trick them into giving up. Stroop, with Himmler breathing down his neck, and aware of how his predecessor von Sammern-Frankenegg had fallen from grace, urged on his troops to complete the destruction of the ghetto with renewed brutality. The fate of von Sammern-Frankenegg would stand as a stark warning of the consequences of failure before Himmler. Just two days after Stroop’s surrender offer to the ghetto defenders, von Sammern-Frankenegg was court martialled for ineptitude and accused of ‘defending Jews’, an interesting charge considering that he had been responsible for shipping over 250,000 of them east from Warsaw for ‘resettlement’. Found guilty, von Sammern-Frankenegg was transferred to a frontline anti-partisan unit and later killed in an ambush in Croatia in September 1944.

On 22 April, after reorganizing his men, Stroop launched another attack on the Brushmaker’s District, but the defending Jewish units concentrated all of their firepower on the SS force. Stroop was rapidly becoming disillusioned with combat operations. It was clear that the Jews were using the kinds of tactics that the Soviets had utilized so successfully at Stalingrad against the overwhelming manpower and firepower of the German Sixth Army. The Soviets called it ‘hugging the enemy’, conducting very close-quarters street fighting where the Germans could not use their support weapons or aerial superiority without fear of hitting their own men, and simultaneously draining away the Germans’ numerical strength and morale. Stroop quickly determined that to continue to launch conventional attacks on the various sectors of the ghetto would only result in ‘Ghettograd’ and his probable removal from command.

Himmler was also growing increasingly nervous about the revolt. On 23 April, he ordered Stroop to clear the ghetto with ‘the greatest severity and ruthless tenacity’. This was good news for Stroop as it freed him from any concerns about causing damage to the city and its infrastructure. He quickly formulated a fresh plan and telephoned Kruger in Krakow. ‘I have therefore decided,’ said Stroop, ‘to embark on the total destruction of the Jewish quarter by burning down every residential block, including the housing blocks belonging to the armament enterprises.’ Kruger approved.

Stroop’s new method for ending the revolt was to burn down all of the houses and buildings inside the ghetto using flamethrowers and to dynamite basements, cellars and sewers in an effort to eradicate what both sides termed ‘bunkers’. Massive fires swept through the ruined ghetto streets, with many Jews perishing in the flames or being shot down by German troops as they fled the conflagrations.

The sewer system proved difficult to capture. SS, Police or Wehrmacht troops entering sewers were often met by heavy fire. The Germans resorted to hurling smoke grenades down open manholes in an attempt to force the Jews out. In a more coordinated effort, 193 sewer entrances were opened at the same time and smoke bombs thrown in. Many of the ghetto fighters suspected gas and fled to the centre of the ghetto, while explosives or gunfire killed numerous others.

After a few days the ghetto was reduced to a pile of smoldering ruins. It looked as though it had been carpet-bombed by aircraft. On 27 April, Stroop ordered a large, well-coordinated mopping-up operation. A force of 320 German and Latvian SS, two tanks and some half-tracks managed to clear out most of the remaining pockets of resistance around Muranowski Square. But the Germans continued to be ambushed from behind, often by Jews dressed in captured SS uniforms, which made the Germans very nervous and hesitant. One tank was knocked out in an ambush and the Jews managed to hold out until nightfall before either being killed or retreating.

Whilst the fighting continued, the German destruction policy had netted results. Thousands of Jews fled the fires and were rounded up by the SS for immediate transportation to the east. By 2 May, Stroop was able to report to Kruger that he had apprehended a total of 40,237 Jews.

On the same day, the Germans assaulted Mark Edelman’s position. Army engineers managed to blow a way into the large bunker. Taking charge, Edelman organized its defence. The fighting lasted for seventy-two hours, with seven German casualties reported. Half of the Jewish fighters were killed and the rest managed to escape. On 6 May, the Germans withdrew from the vicinity and Edelman and the survivors moved to another bunker on Pleasant Street, a vast underground complex that had been carefully constructed over the space of a year. Here, Mordechai Anielewicz and 300 ZOB and ZZW fighters were holed up. The bunker was soon completely surrounded by the SS. Many of the fighters, including Anielewicz, killed themselves with poison on 8 May to avoid capture, while Edelman and a handful of survivors somehow made it out and escaped apprehension and death.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising officially ended on 16 May 1943. The occasion was marked when Stroop personally pushed the plunger to trigger explosives that the SS had rigged in Warsaw’s Great Synagogue. With the synagogue’s symbolic destruction, Stroop could report to Himmler that Jewish resistance in Warsaw had been brought to an end. The SS and Wehrmacht had destroyed a total of 631 ‘bunkers’ throughout the ghetto. With typical Teutonic efficiency, the SS collected and catalogued all the weapons that they had captured or recovered after the battle. It was not an impressive haul, considering the doggedness of the resistance that the Germans had encountered. Of course, many weapons were not recovered, being buried under collapsed buildings, destroyed by fire or taken out of the ghetto by the surviving fighters. The SS listed just seven Polish, one Russian and one German rifle captured, along with fifty-nine pistols of various makes, several hundred hand grenades, Molotov cocktails and home-made explosives. The SS also recovered 1,240 German uniforms that the resisters often used to travel around the ghetto during the fight or to launch ambushes against the SS.

The destruction to the centre of Warsaw was staggering – just eight buildings were left intact after the uprising. Sporadic resistance continued and it was not until 5 June that the last shots were exchanged between the remnants of the ghetto fighters and German forces.

For those Jews who were captured or remained in the ghetto at the conclusion of the uprising, their fate was transportation to camps in the east. Over 13,000 ghetto inmates had perished during the uprising and 50,000 were herded onto cattle trains and shipped out. Of 7,000 Jews who had been transported to Treblinka II on 19 April, shortly before the uprising started, many would be involved in fomenting a fresh revolt that occurred in the camp on 2 August 1943. According to SS records, the Germans lost seventeen men killed during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and 101 wounded, though these figures may be on the conservative side.

The non-Jewish Polish population of Warsaw, with some notable exceptions in the Home Army, did not rise up in support of the ghetto fighters. ‘The Polish population by and large welcomed the measures taken against the Jews,’ alleged Stroop in his official report to Himmler. How much truth there was in Stroop’s statement cannot be ascertained. It was certainly true that Poles had killed Jews en masse under German encouragement earlier in the occupation. At Radzilow, Polish peasants had murdered 800 Jewish inhabitants. And at nearby Jedwabne, the entire Jewish population had been herded into the only synagogue and burned alive. It had been fear of a Polish-led pogrom that had first fired the ghetto Jews into forming self-defence militias. But though most Poles passively watched the events of 1943, they would rise up in Warsaw in 1944, with tragic consequences.

Stroop records that a total of 265,000 ghetto Jews were transported from Warsaw to Treblinka between 22 July and 12 September 1943,24 closing the ghetto. Himmler was pleased with Stroop’s leadership during the operation to liquidate the ghetto and he was awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class.

For the major perpetrators, justice for the uprising came in many forms. The Polish underground instituted the British-sponsored Operation Bürkl in October 1943, deliberately targeting Franz Bürkl, a senior Nazi official in the General Government, who was cut down by assassins from the Polish Home Army in Warsaw. As mentioned, Ferdinand von Sammern-Frankenegg was killed in an ambush in Croatia by Yugoslav partisans in 1944. Odilo Globocnik committed suicide in May 1945 to avoid war crimes charges. Jürgen Stroop, the man who had orchestrated the crushing of the uprising with the utmost brutality, was arrested by the US Army in 1945 and subsequently handed over to the Poles. Stroop was hanged in Warsaw in March 1952, totally unrepentant to the end. Another Warsaw Ghetto administrator, SS-Hauptsturmführer Franz Conrad, whom the ghetto inmates had nicknamed ‘The King of the Ghetto’ as he had consistently enriched himself by stealing valuables off the Jews, was also hanged by the Poles in Warsaw in 1952. But by and large the SS and Trawnikis who did the actual killing either didn’t survive the war or managed to reintegrate into post-war society and never faced prosecution. The brave and determined stand of the Warsaw Jews showed the world that the Jews were not prepared to submit to destruction without a fight, and the fight had both alarmed and deeply unsettled the Germans. But the Germans also learned many valuable lessons from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, lessons that they would put to good use when it came to liquidating the other major Jewish ghettos.

Polish Submarines

WILK CLASS (1929)

Wilk (12 April 1929)

Builder: Normand

Rys (22 April 1929)

Builder: Loire

Zbik (14 June 1931)

Builder: CNF

Displacement: 980 tons (surfaced), 1250 tons (submerged)

Dimensions: 257960 x 19940 x 13990

Machinery: 2 Normand-Vickers diesel engines, 2 electric motors, 2 shafts. 1800 bhp/1200 shp = 14/9 knots

Range: 7000 nm at 7.5 knots surfaced, 80 nm at 4 knots submerged

Armament: 6 x 550mm torpedo tubes (4 bow, 1 twin trainable external mount), total 10 torpedoes, 40 mines, 1 x 100mm gun, 1 x 40mm AA gun

Complement: 54

Notes: These submarines were larger versions of the French Saphir class. The Rys and the Zbik were interned in Sweden in September 1939, returned to Poland at the war’s end, and were scrapped in 1951 and 1954. The Wilk escaped to Britain in September 1939, became a training vessel a year later, and returned to Poland after World War II. It was scrapped in 1951.

ORZEL CLASS (1938)

Orzel (15 January 1938)

Builder: De Schelde

Sept (17 October 1938)

Builder: Rotterdamse

Displacement: 1100 tons (surfaced), 1650 tons (submerged)

Dimensions: 275970 x 22900 x 13940

Machinery: 2 Sulzer diesel engines, 2 electric motors, 2 shafts. 4740 bhp/1100 shp = 20/9 knots

Range: 7000 nm at 10 knots surfaced, 100 nm at 3 knots submerged

Armament: 12 x 550mm torpedo tubes (4 b o w, 4 stern, 1 x quadruple external trainable mount), total 20 torpedoes, 1 x 105mm gun, 1 x twin 40mm AA gun

Complement: 60

Notes: These submarines were designed by the Nederlandsche Verenigde Scheepsbouw Bureaux in `s-Gravenhage, in cooperation with a team from the Polish Navy. They incorporated many features of the earlier Dutch O. 16, including the external trainable mount. The hulls were entirely welded, and all controls were hydraulically operated. The Orzel escaped the German invasion of Poland to the United Kingdom and was mined in the North Sea on 8 June 1940. The Sept escaped and was interned in Sweden until the war’s end, when it returned to Polish service until it decommissioned on 15 September 1969

The Polish Navy two U-class submarines:
ORP Dzik – (ex HMS P52)

ORP Dzik (Boar) was a U-class submarine built by Vickers-Armstrong at Barrow-in-Furness. She was laid down on 30 December 1941 as P-52 for the Royal Navy, but was transferred to the Polish Navy during construction. Launched on November 11, 1942, ORP Dzik was commissioned into the Polish Navy on December 12, 1942. Her name meant “Wild Boar” in Polish.
24 May 1943 Near Cape Spartivento, ORP Dzik fired a 4 torpedo salvo and damaged the Italian oil tanker Carnaro (8357 Brutto Register Tonnage). After the attack, two Italian corvettes dropped over 60 depth charges.
21 Sep 1943 ORP Dzik fired torpedoes in Bastia harbour, Corsica, France and sank the German tanker Nikolaus (6397, former Greek Nicolaou Ourania) and the German tug Kraft (333 Brutto Register Tonnage).
8 Jan 1944 ORP Dzik sank the Greek sailing vessel Elleni (200 Brutto Register Tonnage) with gunfire off Lesbos Island, Greece in position 39.37N, 25.43E.
ORP Dzik destroyed or damaged 18 surface ships both German and Italian with a total tonnage of 45,080 tons. She participated in Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily, and also engaged enemy surface ships with her 76 mm cannon three times and the crew boarded two enemy ships. The ORP Dzik earned the Jolly Roger.
In July 1946, the Polish Navy decommissioned her and returned her to the Royal Navy.
In 1947, the ship was transferred to the Royal Danish Navy. She sailed as HDMS U-1 and was later renamed to HDMS Springeren. She was returned to the Royal Navy in April 1958 and scrapped.
ORP Sokół – (ex HMS Urchin)

ORP Sokół (Polish: Falcon) was a U-class submarine (formerly HMS Urchin) built by Vickers-Armstrong at Barrow-in-Furness. Shortly after launching in September 1940 she was to be commissioned by the Royal Navy as HMS Urchin, but instead was leased to the Polish Navy due to a lack of experienced submarine crews. A sister boat to Dzik, both boats operated in the Mediterranean from Malta, where they became known as the “Terrible Twins”.

Shortly after her trials, the boat was handed to her Polish crew, in accordance with the Polish-British Military Alliance and amendments of 18 November 1939 and 3 December 1940. On 19 January 1941 the Polish banner was raised and the boat, commanded by Commander Borys Karnicki, was moved to Portsmouth. There she spent half a year patrolling the Bay of Biscay off the French port of Brest. In September she was moved to Malta, where she was attached to the 10th Submarine Flotilla. She took part in the naval runs on the Italian ports of Taranto and Naples. She also escorted numerous convoys in the Mediterranean. On 28 October of that year, Sokół achieved her first victory by heavily damaging the Italian auxiliary cruiser Città di Palermo. On 2 November in the Gulf of Naples she sank the 2,469-ton transport ship Balilla, with her sister HMS Utmost. On 19 November of the same year, she forced the anti-submarine nets and entered the port of Navarino, where she damaged the Italian destroyer Aviere. She was attacked by Italian torpedo boats and destroyers, but all of the depth charges missed and Sokół managed to escape from the harbour, sinking an additional transport steamer (5,600 tons) with three torpedoes. On 12 February 1942 she boarded and then sank the Italian wooden merchant schooner Giuseppina (362 tons) in the Gulf of Gabes.
On 17 April while in the port of Malta, she was heavily damaged by a German air raid and was forced to return to the shipyard in Blyth to receive repairs. By mid-1943 she had returned to the Mediterranean, where she continued to harass enemy shipment off the coasts of Italy, Northern Africa and in the Adriatic. On 12 September she rammed and sank the fishing vessel Meattini (36 tons). She took part in the allied blockade of the naval bases in Naples and Pula. Off the coast of the latter port, transferred by the Italians to Nazi Germany, Sokół sank a munitions transport (probably the 7,095-ton SS Eridania) and three days afterwards on 11 November the Italian schooner Argentina (64 tons). Between 4 November 1943 and 25 February 1944 she operated in the Aegean from the naval base in Beirut. Among the ships sunk in that period were two transport ships, four schooners and one cutter. In March 1944 both of the “Terrible Twins” left Malta for Great Britain where they were attached to the Dundee-based 9th submarine flotilla. After an additional four patrols off the coast of Norway, in the spring of 1945 she was designated as a training ship and was used by the Royal Air Force for training naval bomber pilots.

Altogether, during her wartime service Sokół sank or damaged 19 enemy vessels of about 55,000 tons in total. All of the commanding officers of the boat, (Lieutenant Commander Karnicki, Lieutenant Commander Koziołkowski and Captain Bernas) were awarded the Virtuti Militari. The full patrol records of the ORP Sokół are stored at the National Record Office, Kew, England.

TYPE 207 (1962)

These boats were very slightly modified versions of the earlier Type 201 class with upgraded sensors. To protect against the corrosion problems of the earlier boats, the first five vessels hulls received a coating of special zinc paint; the next four used a different, corrosion-resistant steel; and the U-1 and U-2 were new hulls built from magnetic steel incorporating all of the original machinery and basic equipment of the original U-1 and U-2. The U-4 through the U-8 were broken up between 1975 and 1977 and the U-1 and U-2 in 1993. The U-9 and U-10 became museum ships in 1993; the U-11 was modified as a target vessel that same year and became a museum ship in 2003; and the U-12 became a sonar trials b o a t in 1993 and was stricken in 2005. The Danish boats had small changes to suit local requirements and were decommissioned in 2003-2004. The Norwegian boats were classed as Type 207 and were built of magnetic high-tensile steel to endow them with deeper diving limits, and they had other minor variations from the German boats. The Stadt was scrapped in 1989; the Kinn was sunk as a target in 1990; the Ula was renamed the Kinn in 1988 and scrapped with the Utsira in 1998; the Utstein became a museum ship the same year; the Sklinna was scrapped in 2001. The Uthaug, the Utvaer, and the Kya were transferred to Denmark between 1989 and 1991 as the Tumleren, the Saelen , and the Springeren , and Denmark also received the Kaura for spare parts. They were decommissioned in 2004. The Skolpen, the Stord, the Svenner, and the Kunna were transferred between 2002 and 2004 to Poland as the Sep, the Sokol, the Bielek , and the Kondor, and Poland also received the Kobben for spare parts. The Polish boats remain in service.

PROJECT 613 [NATO WHISKEY] (1951)

Design work on this class began immediately after World War II as a medium submarine to replace the earlier S and Shch types. Detailed examination of German Type XXI boats strongly influenced the final design, which incorporated, in a less pronounced form, the figure-eight midsection and distinctive stern contours of these boats. There were many detail variations between different series of these submarines, mainly in the exact number and disposition of the guns. Large numbers of these boats were modified for special missions or experiments. Many also went to fleets within the Soviet sphere of influence: 5 to China (in addition to the 21 assembled there from Soviet-supplied components), 8 to Egypt, 2 to Bulgaria, 14 to Indonesia, 4 to Albania, 4 to Poland, 4 to North Korea, and one each to Cuba and Syria. By the early 1980s about 60 boats of the 215 built in the Soviet Union remained in service, and 18 still existed 10 years later.

Poland (four vessels, 1962–1986, retired)
ORP Orzeł (292)
ORP Bielik (295)
ORP Sokół (293)
ORP Kondor (294) – 10 June 1965 raising of the banner, 30 October 1985 lowering of the banner.

PROJECT 641 [NATO FOXTROT] (1958)

This class of long-range submarines was developed to replace the earlier Project 611 type. Like the Project 633 type, they were equipped with a substantially more advanced sonar outfit and could dive deeper than their precursors. In addition to the 17 boats built for export, 2 submarines were transferred to Poland in 1987 and 1988 as the Wilk and the Dzik . All the boats, both Soviet and foreign, were discarded in the 1990s.
ORIGINAL KILO (PROJECT 877)

ORP Orzeł (291) is a Polish Navy ‘Project 877E’ (Kilo-class) submarine. She is the third Polish submarine to bear the name Orzeł.
The boat was built by the Shipyard Krasnoe Sormovo in Gorky and was commissioned on 29 April 1986 at Riga. On 13 June of the same year Orzeł was transferred to Gdynia where she was named on 21 June. The submarine was assigned to the 3rd Flotilla based in Gdynia.

 

Tanks Against Forts at Różan

Captain Collin received the attack order just before noon on September 5. It was quite brief. His company was instructed to capture two old forts dating from World War I on the western outskirts of the small town of Różan in northern Poland. The mission was clear and did not require much elaboration. Instead, Collin could instruct his platoon commanders. In addition to Lieutenants Parow and Schnelle, who both were platoon commanders in Collin’s company, two more platoons, commanded by Lieutenants Friese and Stöhr, were attached for the mission.

From positions northwest of Sielun, situated approximately 5 km from Różan, Collin’s company and the battalion it formed part of would attack. The attack would unfold along the road to the west of Sielun and Różan. After crossing a creek, the battalion would advance to a point west of Różan, where Collin’s company would turn left and attack two forts numbered 2 and 3 by the Germans.

After instructing his subordinates, Collin mounted a tank. The regiment had been in action from the very first day of the war and had suffered losses; several tanks had either been knocked out by enemy fire or suffered breakdowns. Usually, Collin commanded from a specifically designed command tank based on the Panzer I chassis. A fixed super-structure had replaced the revolving turret to accommodate a radio operator and sets for receiving and transmitting radio messages. In the original Panzer I, the interior was so crammed that only a receiving set could be accommodated. Such a limitation was, of course, wholly unacceptable to a commander, but it had sufficed for basic training and the Panzer I had been envisaged for such purposes. However, Collin’s command tank had been damaged and taken to a workshop. He thus chose to lead from a Panzer II, whose vexed commander had to climb into a Panzer I.

Like Collin’s normal command tank, the Panzer II had a crew of three, including the commander. The driver was positioned forward in the hull in both vehicles, but the tasks to be performed in the turret differed. In the Panzer II, the commander had to aim the gun in addition to his other duties. The radio operator doubled as loader of the 2-cm gun. This was far from ideal, but the small size of the Panzer I and Panzer II precluded better solutions.

Favorable fall weather had characterized the previous days. Except for some mist at dawn, visibility had been very good and the ground remained dry. Good weather reigned on September 5 too, when Collin’s company began to move south. The commanders saw the sun ahead as they moved with their heads up through the turret hatches. They proceeded somewhat cautiously, perhaps remembering the debacle near Mława on the first day of the war.

After advancing slightly more than 1 km, Collin’s company reached higher ground, where a halt was ordered. He observed the terrain closely through his field glasses. No sign of the enemy was seen, but fires were evidently raging in Różan. The church had been spared up to now, but Collin saw the flames reach it. Some of the villages closer to Collin’s company were also ablaze.

While Collin considered what might lie ahead, he also glanced at the flanks. To the right, he could see tanks from Captain Hoheisel’s company move forward into positions in line with his. Hoheisel’s unit was also mainly equipped with Panzer Is and IIs, supplemented by a few heavier tanks. Crackling voices in the headphones interrupted Collin’s thoughts. The battalion commander, Major von Gersdorff, had called for Hoheisel, but as all the company commanders used the same frequency, Collin overheard the conversation. The problem discussed was the poor reconnaissance, which meant that it was not clear where the creek ahead could be crossed. After a brief conversation, von Gersdorff decided to send the heavy tanks—Panzer IIIs and IVs—forward to reconnoiter the creek, which was difficult to see due to its wooded banks.

Perhaps the Germans had hoped to reach the creek undetected, but the large dust clouds created by the tanks would almost certainly arouse the suspicion of the Poles. No fire was directed at the Germans, but the dust must have been visible from a great distance. To make matters worse, the German commander began to despair as no ford had been found, and thus the entire attack might stall.

It was too early to call off the attack. As they were not fired upon, the German commanders dismounted from their tanks and reconnoitered the creek on foot. Collin instructed Second Lieutenant Stöhr to guard the flank with his platoon while the search for a ford proceeded. Despite their efforts, the Germans could not find a suitable ford, but there was perhaps still one chance. Collin believed the creek could be crossed at a particular spot provided the muddy banks were reinforced. The tankers quickly had to stand in as lumberjacks. Armed with axes, they attacked the trees along the creek. The heat and sunshine made them sweat as the strenuous work proceeded, but after one hour they had reinforced the banks sufficiently to allow the tanks to cross the water barrier.

The men were allowed a rest before the tanks crossed, while some of the officers crossed the creek on foot and approached a haystack to observe the terrain ahead. Major von Gersdorff, Captain Hoheisel and Captain Collin could clearly see the landscape in front of them. They saw the two windmills that marked the entrance to the town on their maps, thus concluding that they were on the right track. Forts number 1 and 2 were supposed to be located close to the windmills, according to the information available to the German officers. When looking to the left, they could also see infantry from the SS-Regiment Deutschland advancing towards Różan. Artillery shells began to explode around the windmills.

Major von Gersdorff issued attack orders. Collin’s company would attack on the left wing. There was still time for Collin to personally instruct his platoon commanders, except Stöhr, whose flanking mission had taken him too far away. At the haystack, Collin gave the necessary orders and pointed out the targets that could be seen from there.

Supported by the tree trunks, Collin’s tanks negotiated the muddy banks and took up positions south of the creek, waiting for the final attack order. They did not have to wait for long. At around 2 p.m., the order “Forward!” was heard in the headsets. The drivers revved the engines, which roared loudly. The squeaking sound from the tracks indicated that the attack had begun. The terrain ahead was rather open, but undulating. The tankers had to navigate carefully to avoid exposing their vehicles unnecessarily.

The German formation successfully reached a position west of the forts they were to capture. They stopped here as buildings, haystacks and vegetation might have been concealing Polish defenders. There were no friendly forces ahead of the German tanks and so there was no risk of fratricide as they opened fire against suspected targets. Collin tried to observe the effectiveness of the fire, but it was difficult to judge if it had had the intended effect. Unfortunately, Collin’s gun malfunctioned. Evidently dust had caused some part of the mechanism to jam.

Suddenly Collin was ordered to attack immediately. The intractable gun had not yet been attended to; armed only with a machine gun, Collin moved forward with the other tanks in his company. Very soon, a Polish antitank gun opened fire on the German left flank. Lieutenant Schelle immediately ordered his gunner to return fire. The dull and yet sharp sound from the gun revealed that a 7.5-cm shell left the barrel. The exploding shell threw up earth, stones and debris, but, as is common in war, it was difficult to know with certainty what effect the bursting shell had resulted in. Schelle remained stationary and continued to fire while the other tanks thrust forward.

Soon, von Gersdorff countermanded the attack order. Instead, Collin was to disengage and attack further south. Such a maneuver was not uncomplicated, but Collin managed to assemble his company and set it in motion southwards. The tanks crossed the northernmost of the two roads that ran west from Różan. At that moment, they took fire from Polish positions closer to the town.

Lieutenant Parow drove past Collin and took up a firing position. Collin watched as Parow fired three or four rounds before ordering his driver to continue forward. With the malfunctioning gun pointing straight forward, Collin’s tank began to move, but almost immediately Collin saw a shell hit the turret of Parow’s tank. Collin had hardly grasped what had happened before four men bailed out of the stricken tank and took cover. Another shell hit Parow’s tank within a second. Collin drove closer to the damaged tank to identify the men who had abandoned it. He first saw the loader, then the radio operator. Slightly later, he saw Private Köhler bandaging a bleeding man who Collin recognized as Private Boehlke. At this moment, Collin realized that Parow had been killed.

The sight of Parow’s damaged tank, as well as the men who had abandoned it, paralyzed Collin. Köhler, who attended the wounded Boehlke, had the presence of mind to wave Collin forward as his tank was in the line of fire of the Polish antitank weapons. Despite this, Collin remained numb until he had somehow absorbed the sight of Parow’s tank and the four crewmen. Not until then could he bring himself to order the driver forward, thereby continuing the attack past the second of the two roads from Różan.

Suddenly, an NCO from the SS-Regiment Deutschland and a few of his men jumped aboard the tank. Collin warned them against this, but they took no notice of his advice; instead, the NCO asked Collin to close the hatch so he could obtain an unobstructed field of fire. “Madmen but brave,” Collin and the radio operator, Guhl, said to each other.

An extended period of firing and short movements followed. Collin cursed the machine gun that malfunctioned. Guhl provided some consolation by handing Collin a lit cigarette, and the driver, Dörfle, offered him schnapps from his hip flask. Subsequently, Collin realized that the SS-NCO had disappeared. Guhl believed that he had been hit.

Collins finally passed fort 3 and approached fort 4, which meant that he and several other German tankers reached a point where they could look down into the depression where the river Narew flowed. They could see the road bridge and the open terrain on the eastern side of the river. Collin opened the turret hatch and found an SS-lieutenant on his tank. Except for four other SS-men on board a Panzer IV, no other infantry seemed to have accompanied Collin’s tanks.

Collin’s thoughts were abruptly interrupted by Polish fire. Despite the crammed interior of the tank, Collin ensured that the SS-officer came into the protection afforded by the thin armor of the Panzer III. The exhausted infantry officer was offered a cigarette and some schnapps. Unfortunately, he became entangled in the cable to Collin’s headset and pulled it off. Collin had hardly managed to get his equipment in order before another order crackled in the headphones; his company was ordered to attack towards Różan, northward along the river—a mission he deemed unsuitable.

It was quite late, and the sun had begun to set. It was so low that Collin was blinded when he turned his face west. Despite the poor visibility, the attack would continue. Collin’s company proceeded, passing an obstacle, but then Polish antitank weapons opened up at long range. Fortunately for Collin, the Polish fire was short. He turned the turret clockwise, but suddenly he heard the SS-officer behind him moan. The officer was being squeezed by the revolving turret basket. At that same moment, the engine coughed and died. Collin was nearly overwhelmed by his rising fears, but he and his crew managed to connect the reserve fuel.

The battalion commander, Major von Gersdorff, drove along side Collin’s stationary tank and shouted, “Why don’t you move?” A moment later, Collin’s driver started the engine and received orders from Collin to drive towards the dust cloud surrounding the other tanks. He objected as the dust made visibility very poor; at most, the driver would accept moving forward at a very slow pace. Collin urged him on and said that he would give the driver ample warning of obstacles as he could see more easily from his position in the turret. The tank resembled a drunken elephant staggering forward, but the attack was effectively aborted. Collin had to drive hard to catch up with his platoons, which headed east. Thus the German unit passed along the Polish forts, which began to fire at the flank of the tanks.

Collin finally caught up with one of his light platoons, but he had no idea where to find the rest of his company. He saw a few heavy tanks, but he did not know whether they belonged to his company or another. There was also a risk of friendly fire as the dust accumulated on the tanks to such an extent that the white crosses of the German tanks were hard to see. Collin’s fears were soon realized, but not as he had anticipated; one of the heavy German tanks opened fire on German infantry, but the shell did not hit. Collin raised his fist and drove in front of the muzzle of the other tank to stop it from firing.

At this stage, Collin and his company had again reached the two roads running west from Różan, which clearly showed that they were heading back. The dust made it impossible to see Parow’s damaged tank, but Collin could at least see the battalion commander’s tank driving down into a depression and disappearing. Collin ordered one of his platoon commanders, Lieutenant Stöhr, to follow the battalion commander. One moment later, the ground shuddered as artillery shells exploded around the tanks. The tanks increased their speed in an attempt to escape north.

When Collin let his eyes drift to the right, he suddenly saw something that made him doubt the accuracy of his senses—German tanks formed up as if they were on a peacetime parade. Collin tried to make them move by using the radio, but this was met without any apparent success. The tanks finally assumed a formation better-suited to the realities of war and proceeded to the area where the creek could be forded.

As the evening became ever darker, Collin reached the creek and realized how exhausted he was after more than five hours of uninterrupted action. Gradually, he came to realize that the battalion had suffered dearly. Some of the light tanks were towed by their heavy brothers, but eleven tanks that had been hit were left behind. Additionally, some that had suffered mechanical breakdowns or had become stuck in difficult terrain remained behind. Those still capable of moving forded the creek in the light from burning houses. Some exhausted SS-infantry rode on the tanks.

After crossing the creek, the battalion created a hedgehog defense, but it soon received orders to move to the area west of Sielun, from where the attack had begun. Collin found the path to the staging area far too winding—his tank was very low on fuel—but eventually they reached it. When the arduous journey had been completed, the officers gathered and discussed the casualties and the pointlessness of the attack while the men bivouacked. Food was offered, but few of the officers and soldiers had much of an appetite after the depressing experience. The exhausted tankers were sent to some barns to sleep, while the baggage men defended the area during the night.

The Battle of Różan featured but one of the many examples of a German army that went into war without being properly prepared. At Różan, light tanks attacked fortifications, while the coordination between tanks, infantry and artillery was very poor. In this particular case, the Panzer division had been formed at very short notice by putting together components from the Army as well as the SS. This did not facilitate coordination, but Army divisions also suffered from shortcomings.