On the night of 5/6 June Bomber Command conducted precision attacks on ten German coastal artillery batteries near the beaches where Allied troops were to land. Each battery was targeted by approximately 100 heavy bombers, and all four Australian heavy bomber squadrons took part in the operation. No. 460 Squadron dispatched 26 aircraft, which were evenly split between attacking the batteries at Fontenay-Crisbecq and St Martin de Varreville. No. 466 Squadron provided 13 aircraft to the raid on batteries at Merville-Franceville Maisy, 14 aircraft from No. 463 Squadron struck Pointe du Hoe and No. 467 Squadron dispatched 14 against batteries at Ouistreham. The RAAF squadrons did not suffer any losses. Many Australian aircrew posted to British units also participated in this attack, and 14.8 percent of the 1,136 Bomber Command aircraft despatched were either part of RAAF squadrons or were flown by Australians.
Australians posted to RAF units also landed paratroopers in Normandy and took part in diversionary operations. On the night of 5/6 June several Australian airmen served in heavy bombers that dropped “window” chaff in patterns that, on German radar, simulated the appearance of convoys headed for the Pas de Calais region of France. Other Australians served in aircraft that dropped dummy paratroopers and jammed German radar. One Australian pilot posted to No. 139 Squadron RAF took part in “intruder” bombing raids against targets in western Germany and the Low Countries that sought to divert German aircraft away from Normandy. Australian aircrew also served aboard the transport aircraft of No. 38 Group RAF and No. 46 Group RAF, which flew the British 6th Airborne Division from the UK to Normandy on the night of 5/6 June. About 14 percent of the transport aircraft in No. 38 Group were piloted by Australians, though the proportion of Australians in No. 46 Group was much lower. There were no completely Australian aircrews in either group.
Australian aircrew supported the fighting on 6 June. No. 453 Squadron was one of 36 Allied squadrons that provided low-altitude air defence for the invasion fleet and landing force. Many of the squadron’s pilots flew several sorties during the day, though they did not encounter any German aircraft. No. 456 Squadron also formed part of the force that provided air defence for the invasion area at night. In addition, about 200 Australian pilots were spread across the dozens of RAF fighter and fighter-bomber units that supported the landings. A small number of Australian aircrew also served in RAF reconnaissance units and 2TAF’s light bomber squadrons, which also saw combat over France on D-Day. The three Australian squadrons assigned to Coastal Command flew only a small number of sorties on 6 June as few German submarines or E-boats put to sea.
About 500 RAN personnel served on board RN ships involved in the operation. While most formed part of the crew of RN warships, several Australian officers led flotillas of landing craft and others commanded individual craft. For instance, Sub-Lieutenant Dean Murray commanded a force of six RN Landing Craft Assault that landed soldiers of the British 3rd Infantry Division at Sword Beach. Hudspeth also took X20 across the channel to mark the edge of Juno Beach during the landings there; he received his third DSC for completing this mission. Some of the warships with Australian crew members that supported the landings were HMS Ajax (which had three RANVR officers on board), Ashanti, Enterprise, Eskimo, Glasgow, Mackay and Scylla. Australian members of the Merchant Navy also participated in the D-Day landings, though the number of sailors involved is not known.
Few of the Australian Army officers attached to British units landed on D-Day. Major Jo Gullett, who was the second in command of an infantry company in the 7th Battalion, Green Howards, came ashore on Gold Beach as part of the invasion force. In his memoirs, Gullett described the landing as “easily the most impressive occasion of my life”. He subsequently led a company of the Royal Scots until he was wounded by German machine gun fire on 17 July. Most of the other Australian officers served in staff positions; for instance Lieutenant Colonel Bill Robertson was the chief of staff of the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division when that unit arrived in Normandy and was later posted to the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division where he served in the same role. Vincent came ashore on 7 June and served with XXX Corps, 7th Armoured and 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Divisions during the campaign.
Due to the lack of a nominal roll or other records listing the Australians who took part in the D-Day landings, it is not possible to determine the exact number involved. However, it has been estimated that about 3,000 Australian military personnel and merchant seamen participated in the operation. The total number of Australians killed on 6 June was 14, of whom 12 were RAAF airmen and two were members of the RAN.
A single thought also dominated the minds of the men of 3rd Panzer Division: reach the Vistula at Graudenz. The drive was relentless. Any panzers which broke down were abandoned by the wayside, their crews left to repair them on their own. The enemy offered little resistance. Polish troops simply raised their hands as the German armour rolled past them – the panzers didn’t even stop to round up prisoners. Elsewhere, a short burst of fire from a panzer’s machine-gun prompted Polish soldiers to emerge from their hiding places and surrender.
Across the Tucheler Heath, the scrubland, copses, marshes and lakes between Bromberg and Danzig, the German Army was rounding up the remnants of the ‘Corridor Army’ – the Army of Pomorze. Just north of Schwetz artilleryman Emil Falckenthal watched as infantry razed the village of Skarszewy to the ground after Polish troops offered stubborn resistance. Upwards of 300 Poles fell into German hands, but some escaped, setting a farm ablaze as they withdrew. In a stable seventy cows bellowed in fear, straining at their leashes as the flames ripped through the building. Falckenthal and his comrades braved the acrid smoke to save what they could, but only the pigs could be rescued. ‘Everything else burns, perishing in the searing flames,’ he wrote. That afternoon the artilleryman reached the edge of Grupa Dolna, opposite Graudenz. From a hillside cemetery, the gunner could see the Vistula valley laid out before him and there, just three miles away, the towers of Graudenz – now in German hands after 21st Infantry Division had marched in almost unopposed – twinkling in the sunlight. The bridge over the Vistula still stood, only partially demolished by the Poles; three of its huge iron-arch spans had collapsed into the river. And right in front of the artillerymen, the red steeple of the church at the Polish Army’s exercise ground in Grupa itself, where 20,000 enemy soldiers were now trapped.
A few miles upstream, the Army of Pomorze was making a final desperate attempt to force the Vistula near Schwetz. Having brushed past 23rd Infantry Division, a cavalry column, accompanied by infantry and vehicles, moved along the left bank in the direction of a dam, hoping to use it to cross the Vistula – unaware German infantry had beaten them to it. As the Poles moved through a field, German heavy machine guns opened fire from little over a mile’s range. Some men gave themselves up instantly, some made a dash for the dam, most were mown down. The sandbanks leading to the Vistula were littered with dead Poles; a makeshift ferry, crammed with fleeing troops, suffered a direct hit from a German field gun. A few Polish troops took shelter in a farmhouse, from where they took a heavy toll of an infantry company. Only when the farmhouse was ablaze and the building surrounded did fourteen Poles emerge and raise their hands. 3rd Panzer spent the rest of the day clearing out the scrub on the Vistula’s left bank. By the day’s end, 450 prisoners had been brought in, 100 vehicles captured and the cavalry regiment had ceased to exist. A few miles to the north a Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft found two regiments of ulans, the fabled Polish cavalry, and another cavalry brigade trying to make for the Vistula. Bombers soon appeared over the heath and tossed their bombs. The cries of wounded horses and men echoed around forests, cavalry squadrons galloped between the trees, scores of riderless horses ran around wildly. The principal road across the heath, from Tuchel to Schwetz, was littered with the detritus of a destroyed army. It was, one Unteroffizier recalled, ‘a depressing, fateful scene. Baggage wagons are piled up in chaotic heaps, their horses dead next to them, still in their harnesses, mountains of ammunition piled up as well as countless guns, bayonets, gasmasks, all manner of equipment hastily discarded.’ Guderian’s men began to round up Polish prisoners, thousands of them, plus innumerable field guns and other military equipment. That evening, gunner Emil Falckenthal examined the exhausted, expressionless faces of weary prisoners, sat in a circle around their officers. A dejected young lieutenant who spoke a little German shook his head. ‘I do not understand the reason behind this war,’ he confessed. ‘Of course, it’s wonderful to fight for something great – to give up your life for high ideals, but that’s not the case in Poland any more. So we can’t fight any more – we must lose. Poland will cease to exist!’
Heinz Guderian spent the evening with the men of 3rd Panzer, convinced the fighting in the Corridor was all but over. His passion for the tank, for armoured warfare had been vindicated. His men had boundless confidence in their weapon. But there was a dark cloud. Britain and France were now involved. ‘A new world war is beginning,’ the panzer General wrote to his wife. ‘It will last a long time and we must stand our ground.’
The infantry of Eighth Army, protecting the left flank of the thrust on Warsaw, were a good day or two behind the panzers and motorised divisions. Now, in the early afternoon of the fourth, the foot soldiers began to arrive on the Warthe between Lodz and Kalisz. Conrad von Cochenhausen climbed between the gravestones up a hill to the north of the town of Sieradz. Through his binoculars the Generalleutnant looked eastwards across the valley of the Warthe, the last major natural obstacle between his 10th Infantry Division and the industrial metropolis of Lodz, thirty miles to the northwest. The view through the binoculars was far from encouraging. To be sure, the enemy was silent – there was no movement in his positions on the far bank of the Warthe. But the terrain was formidable. From Sieradz, the ground sloped gently to the river, which had been spanned by rail and road bridges until the Poles had blown both up. The Warthe here was nearly 200ft wide, its waters flowing freely, if not violently. And beyond them the Poles were obviously dug in on a dam which dominated the marshy, flat east bank of the Warthe. Further east still a smattering of bunkers and a forest where the enemy would clearly be lurking. All in all, thought Cochenhausen, you could not imagine more difficult terrain to attack over.
A few miles south of Sieradz, an Oberleutnant and his men in 17th Infantry Division marched wearily through the burning sand on the dust tracks. The terrain was monotonous, the few cottages they passed filthy. And now, in the distance, basking in the sunshine of late afternoon, the village of Stronsko, its red-brick church towering over the surrounding copses. With the setting sun, the men rested in a forest of pine and birch trees which offered welcome shade. Field kitchens began serving the evening meal. Artillery began firing sporadically at the right bank of the Warthe. Through binoculars, the men could see the Poles digging in. The men moved up to the river’s edge during the bright moonlit night, hastily digging slit trenches to protect themselves should the Polish artillery open up. But the Warthe valley was bathed in a milky-white fog as dawn approached. The enemy remained silent.
Shortly before 8am on the fifth, the German guns opened fire on a twenty-mile front straddling Sieradz as three divisions attempted to storm the Warthe behind a wall of steel and iron. Ten miles north of Sieradz, Wolf Oeringk and his 24th Infantry Division comrades moved towards the river near the village of Glinno, where pioneers were already at work ferrying infantry across the Warthe in inflatable boats. The river here split into four arms – some could be forded, some could not. Polish shells hissed and fizzled as the infantry crossed the first arm by boat. The men struggled through muddy, marshy terrain before reaching the next arm, which they waded through, and the third. The Landsers sank to their knees in mud, holding their rifles high. Then the final arm, the widest, only passable in boats, and then only two or three men at a time. Machine-gun fire kept the Poles pinned down, while two German rifle platoons cowered on the steep far bank, unable to move. Oeringk watched as the enemy troops attempted to wipe out the tiny German bridgehead – and promptly fell under a hail of machine-gun bullets. And above the Warthe, on the high ground on the right bank, tall, dark clouds of smoke rose above Glinno.
It took Wolf Oeringk barely thirty minutes to cross the Warthe. It took Conrad von Cochenhausen’s men nearly five hours to subdue the Polish troops dug in on the right bank. The Generalleutnant and his staff had planned the assault down to the finest detail: artillery would pound the bunkers and dug-outs close to the water’s edge, then switch to the enemy’s rear defences. There was nothing to be done about the terrain. Marshes and swamps restricted the attack to a strip of land barely 300 yards wide. The Poles poured withering fire on this narrow strip, but once 10th Infantry finally got a foothold over the Warthe, it quickly rolled up the Polish defences, even seizing an enemy battery still firing. A good half dozen miles beyond the river, the advancing Landsers found enemy infantry and artillery columns decimated by German howitzers, pounding away from the left bank. The battle for Warthe was over.
After a rest, Wolf Oeringk’s Feldwebel ordered his men on to the east. It was dark now, but fires on both sides of the Warthe lit the way down an endless, sandy road. ‘The air is mild and filled with the smell of burning,’ Oeringk recorded in his diary. ‘The awful reality of this war strikes us – coupled with the expectation that at any moment we could be shot out of the darkness.’ There are still Polish soldiers everywhere, he thought. But then came the comforting howl of German shells racing over the marching men’s heads. At the day’s end the infantry entered Glinno. The village was still ablaze.
While Eighth Army’s infantry battered its way across the Warthe, 1st Panzer Division was rolling into Petrikau – to Poles Piotrkow Trybunalski – a town of 15,000 residents sixty miles south of Lodz, while the rest of the division struck onwards to the north. For the first time, the German armour ran into Polish tanks; at least half were shot-up, the remainder took to their heels. The defenders of Petrikau, however, proved more stubborn; they continued to offer resistance beyond dusk as the Landsers cleared out the town house by house. That night, with the remnants of the elite 19th Division streaming back towards Warsaw having been routed around Petrikau, Johann Graf von Kielmansegg’s column of panzers rounded up countless Polish troops, startled by the Germans’ rapid advance. Suddenly, a truck, its headlights on full beam, nervously edged out of a side road. Seeing the panzers, its occupants jumped out and tried to flee; all were captured, including the divisional commander – a Brigadier General Kwaciszewski – and his entire staff. ‘A good capture at the end of a good day,’ Kielmansegg observed succinctly. But then, the general no longer had a division to command. ‘Who was not taken prisoner and what did not fall into our hands as booty, what did not lie dead on the battlefield, were merely the shattered remnants,’ the German staff officer recorded.
Poland’s 19th Division no longer existed; her 29th was still battle-worthy and still a threat to 1st Panzer. Roused just before dawn on 6 September, Johann Graf von Kielmansegg grabbed his steel helmet and carbine as cries of ‘Naprzod, naprzod’ – forward, forward – filled the air south of Petrikau. He continued:
We take up position in a rather deep ditch on the edge of the estate and hear, or rather feel, for the first time what it means to be under direct machine-gun fire. There’s a slight whizzing, whistling or singing, the shaking of the striped blades of grass and bushes, the rustling of branches, all this causes new, but brief sensations.
The fighting reached its climax around the village of Milejow, as the Poles swept out of the forests and copses which had shielded them from the Luftwaffe’s prying eyes on the fifth and fell upon 1st Panzer’s right flank, bound for Petrikau. ‘Every man defends himself exactly where he is,’ Kielmansegg wrote. Staff officers, infantry, engineers, panzer crews, artillerymen, all were thrown into the battle, which dragged on throughout 6 September and into the seventh. The Polish attacks first halted, then turned about. The enemy, Kielmansegg observed, ‘disappears in the direction whence he came, leaving behind countless dead, many prisoners and considerable material, among it a complete battery. In places, so many Polish dead lie in the smallest area that even veterans of the World War say that they have rarely or never seen anything like it.’32
The scenes were identical behind 1st Panzer’s route of advance. Everywhere ‘a scene of desolation’ one soldier recalled. ‘Burned-out houses and ruined farms, weapons, vehicles and horse-drawn carts abandoned by the roadside. And everywhere, the dead. Horses, men, their bodies bloated, distorted, covered by flies, the smell unbearable.’
Such was war, mused XVI Corps’ commanding officer Erich Hoepner – der alte Reiter, the old cavalryman. ‘It’s rather interesting here,’ he wrote to his wife, ‘but it’s not always nice. We oldies didn’t expect to have to go to war again – now we must get used to it once more.’ Erich Hoepner very quickly ‘got used to it’. After six days’ relentless advance, his corps, spearheaded by 1st Panzer Division, was within touching distance of the Polish capital. ‘Without enemy resistance I could be there in two hours,’ he boasted.
The enemy already stood at the gates of Krakow. Scenes in the great mediaeval city were chaotic. Its citizens were leaving by any means they could after a German air attack. Polish troops entering the city found those inhabitants who had stayed behind plundering the department stores. The Helwetia chocolate factory had also been raided; bars were handed out to soldiers as they marched hurriedly through Krakow. As the first German armour rolled into the city’s suburbs on the sixth, the last Polish troops pulled out to the southeast. The road to Weliczka, eight miles from the heart of Krakow, was ‘a picture of misery’, one Polish officer recalled. The withdrawing troops had been attacked by the Luftwaffe. So hasty had been the retreat there had been no time to bury the corpses of soldiers and cadavers of horses. When a single German aircraft appeared over the small town of Brsesko, on the main road to Rzeszow, all form of order and discipline disintegrated. Drivers abandoned their cars and trucks and took shelter in homes. The town was completely clogged with traffic. When the aircraft eventually disappeared, the drivers gingerly returned to their vehicles; their officers horsewhipped them for deserting the column.
Northeast of Krakow, the relentless advance of 5th Panzer Division through the valley of the Vistula brought the armour to the town of Staszow. Townsfolk lined the streets in silence as the panzers rolled past. ‘They were told that these colossuses had just enough power to trundle past the Führer’s dais in the parades in Berlin,’ Heinz Borwin Venzky gloated. ‘Someone had told the Polish soldier that the stupid Germans had only fixed armour to their foremost panzers, the rest were merely cardboard dummies which they could easily withstand.’ For half an hour 5th Panzer’s armour thundered through Staczow. An exhaust backfired; the inhabitants fled from the streets terrified, before tentatively returning when they realised there was nothing to fear.
The sun continued to beat down on the gravel roads of Pomerania. Wednesday 6 September was another glorious day in the Corridor. The beige Mercedes roaring along the main road between Tuchel and Schwetz once again left an impenetrable cloud of dust behind it. The car came to a stop outside the village of Plewno where Heinz Guderian was waiting for it. A radiant Adolf Hitler climbed out. ‘My dear general, what you and your men have achieved!’ he greeted the panzer man. ‘My faith in the panzer divisions was always boundless!’ Guderian glowed with pride. He ran through the deeds of his Corps to the Führer, then accompanied Hitler to his Mercedes to begin a tour of the front. Soldiers and Volksdeutsche applauded and crowded around the car. Smiling, Hitler raised his hand. The jubilation ceased. The men fell silent. ‘Soldiers! You have put Berliners’ minds at rest,’ he declared. ‘The Poles won’t get to Berlin. What has been fought over with German blood remains German.’
A dozen miles away, Generalleutnant Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg had drawn up a panzer regiment and armoured reconnaissance cars from his 3rd Panzer Division along the main road from Schwetz to Graudenz. Geyr was anxious. His men were not lining the road merely to greet Hitler; they were there for their Führer’s protection. ‘There were still armed Poles everywhere – in the bushes on the road which the Führer drove down,’ he recalled. One of his ordnance officers dragged a Polish soldier from the undergrowth shortly before Hitler was due to arrive.
The Führer was still enthralled by his tour of the battlefield. The road from Plewno to Schwetz was littered with wrecked Polish batteries. ‘Our dive bombers did that?’ he asked Guderian. ‘No, our panzers,’ the General told him. As the motorcade approached the left bank of the Vistula, the outlines of the towers and steeples of Kulm, half a dozen miles to the south, were clearly visible. ‘In March last year I had the privilege of greeting you in your birthplace,’ the panzer General told his Führer. ‘Today you are with me in mine.’
Shortly before mid-day, Hitler’s Mercedes turned on to the road to Graudenz. The Führer stood up to acknowledge the soldiers lining the route. He stopped briefly to greet 3rd Panzer’s commander with an earnest handshake. ‘General von Geyr, your division has achieved wonderful things.’ Geyr told him his men had merely done what had been asked of them. ‘No,’ Hitler insisted, ‘it has done more than its duty.’
The motorcade continued towards Graudenz to the strains of a regimental band. Hitler asked Guderian about casualties. Just 150 dead and 700 wounded in the four divisions under his command, the general responded. And for that his Corps had destroyed perhaps three enemy infantry divisions and a cavalry brigade, and taken thousands of prisoners and captured hundreds of guns. The Führer was astonished; his regiment alone had suffered far heavier casualties in the Great War. The few losses, Heinz Guderian explained, were due to the potency of his panzers. ‘Tanks are a life-saving weapon,’ he declared. He neglected to mention the Poles barely possessed any…
It was around 11pm when the Führer returned to his train and stepped into the command wagon. Nikolaus von Vormann had spent the day in the carriage monitoring the latest reports from the front, feeding the relevant ones to Hitler such as news of the fall of Krakow. The Führer’s first concern, however, was not for the East, but the West. What was happening on the Western Front? he asked breathlessly. ‘Nothing new,’ Vormann responded rather flippantly. ‘The Potato War continues.’ The officer was equally smug about the state of affairs in the East. The German Army was on the verge of encircling large Polish formations in front of Warsaw and had already left the Army of Poznan ‘hovering in thin air’. Poland’s leaders could no longer direct their armies. ‘All that’s left is a rabbit hunt,’ von Vormann declared. ‘Militarily, the war is decided.’ Hitler stared at his liaison officer, took Vormann’s hands in his, shook them heartily and left the carriage without saying a word.
On the Westerplatte, Henry Sucharski was still strapped to a bed in his bunker. His men were still being pounded daily by German bombs and shells – and they were still holding out. The incessant bombardment had inflicted few casualties, but it had wreaked terrible destruction on the peninsula. ‘Enemy artillery fire literally ploughed the land, overturned trees, the men in the guard posts were thrown up in the air like feathers,’ one junior officer wrote. Shrapnel and lumps of concrete were blown into the mess, serving as a makeshift hospital, exacerbating the wounds of already-injured men, while the Westerplatte’s sole doctor struggled to care for them without the aid of an operating table or even bandages.
The uninjured were barely any more able to defend the peninsula. ‘The barracks are unrecognisable after all the damage,’ one young officer recorded in his diary. ‘In the cellar, soldiers lie along the walls, overly tired, the wounded on stretchers. The only light comes from a candle. Hygiene is beneath all contempt, the air is awful.’ At night there was no hope of sleep. Random bursts of gun and machine-gun fire every few minutes kept the defenders awake.
By mid-morning on Thursday, 7 September, it had become too much for the men of the Westerplatte. Shortly before 10am, the white flag was raised for the second time over the depot. On this occasion, it would not be hauled down.
After days of sobbing and uncontrollable shaking, Henryk Sucharski had recovered some of his composure. He summoned his men in front of the wrecked barracks. The troops were reluctant to surrender. ‘Someone will still rescue us here,’ they pleaded with their major. ‘We can endure for one more day.’ For the first time, the major told his men about the plight of their comrades, that the Germans were at the gates of Warsaw, that Poland was being overrun. There was a brief prayer for the fifteen dead, followed by a soldier’s hymn, ‘Peaceful calm, comrade’. And then Henryk Sucharski crossed the German lines to capitulate.
To the Germans, Sucharski appeared ‘utterly exhausted’, his men ‘scruffy, extremely sullen and demoralised’. The peninsula had cost the Reich nearly 400 casualties, but its defenders were treated with respect. As the garrison marched into captivity, German soldiers stood stiffly to attention and saluted.
After five days almost continually retreating, the anonymous Polish reserve officer who had originally set off towards Auschwitz now found himself with three men and a field canteen near the village of Radomysl Wielki, a good sixty miles east of Krakow. Once again the Germans were there first. Artillery shells began crashing down on the village and reports reached the exhausted men that German armour had taken the village. The officer turned north, aiming for Szczucin, eighteen miles away on the right bank of the Vistula. ‘There was no leadership,’ he recalled. ‘Everyone acted on his own initiative.’ The Polish Army was disintegrating around him. The men were demoralised; they threw away their guns. Horses collapsed out of exhaustion. In the sandy terrain the field guns became bogged down. The officer overheard a sergeant complain: ‘I can’t force anyone to go on any more; each man does what he wants because none of this makes any sense. The men have nothing to eat and no ammunition to continue to fight with.’ Later that day, Thursday, 7 September, the reservist was captured by 5th Panzer Division.
For a week, the armour of 1st and 4th Panzer Divisions had punched through the heart of Poland down the road to Warsaw. Now, with barely seventy miles to go to the Polish capital, their paths separated: 4th Panzer would head on to Warsaw, its comrades would smash their way through to the Vistula to the south of the city, thwarting any relief of – or escape by – its garrison. Although their objectives differed, the methods of the two panzer divisions’ leaders were identical: relentless pursuit. ‘Forward to the Vistula!’ demanded Major Walter Wenck, 1st Panzer’s operations officer. ‘What remains behind, remains behind. As long as we have the strength, the enemy will be attacked.’ Generalmajor Georg-Hans Reinhardt expected his men ‘to be first to reach the enemy’s capital. We have not merely hit the enemy, but driven him back in confusion in front of us. But still we have not reached our objective. Our objective is Warsaw. Forward to Warsaw!’
Reinhardt’s men began the day in the town of Bedkow, seventy miles from Warsaw. By mid-morning, they had already reached the objective for the day, Czerniewice, fifty-five miles from the capital. The armour was now on the highway to Warsaw. The pace of the advance accelerated. The Pole wasn’t resisting now. He wasn’t retreating. He was fleeing. By early afternoon, 4th Panzer had rolled through Rawa Mazowiecka, eight miles down the road to Warsaw; the town had been flattened by the Luftwaffe to clear the way. By nightfall, Reinhardt was in Babsk, forty miles from his objective. That evening, one of his men surveyed the scene on the road to Warsaw. The world was aflame. ‘As far as the eye can see, every village is burning, every farm, even the smallest haystack, near and far,’ he wrote. ‘The flames hiss and crackle, whoosh towards the night sky. A shower of sparks shoots up when a roof collapses, crashing down, or a house wall caves in. There’s an acrid, stinging smell of burning and thick clouds of smoke spiral across the sky.’
In the forests and copses around Tomaszow Mazowiecki, 1st Panzer Division was enjoying little of its neighbour’s success; the terrain and the enemy conspired against it. ‘Our exhaustion is probably already so great that it could hardly be endured any longer under normal circumstances,’ Johann Graf von Kielmansegg wrote. ‘Here, with the fulfilment of victory at hand, we barely notice it.’ If 7 September had been relatively frustrating for 1st Panzer, Friday the eighth passed by in a blur of Polish place names as the division rushed to cross the Vistula south of Warsaw. At 7.35am Nowe Miasto, thirty-seven miles from the Vistula; forty minutes later, Mogielnicka, twenty-nine miles from the river; by 10am, Grojek, fifteen miles; and at 11.15 Chynow, just five miles from Poland’s great artery. ‘The road presents a picture of a flight in panic,’ Kielmansegg wrote. He continued:
The road is strewn with all kinds of abandoned pieces of equipment, including steel helmets, rucksacks, coats and gas masks. Vast quantities of ammunition, left loose or packed in boxes, have been thrown out of cars. At times we have to stop to clear the road of all this material so we can continue. The closer we get to the Vistula, the more vehicles are left on the road, especially field kitchens and panje wagons loaded with all kinds of things. Most of the horses haven’t been unharnessed and have dragged the carts into the fields to graze. Among torn sacks of rice and flour there’s an open medical case with valuable surgical equipment. Loaves of bread in their hundreds, countless brown cubes of ground coffee, all covered with dust and dirt, mostly crushed by vehicles driving over them – it’s impossible to give the slightest inkling in words of this Polish road of flight.
The number of prisoners grew by the hour. ‘The deprivation and horror of the last few days is clearly etched upon their faces,’ the staff officer observed. ‘For them, the war is over.’
In the early afternoon, near the town of Gora Kalwaria, 1st Panzer arrived at the Vistula. The bridge had already been destroyed by the Germans and Poles in turn; the withdrawing Poles had also destroyed the final floating bridge before being wiped out or taken prisoner. Motorcyclists thrust into the water with inflatable boats and forged a weak bridgehead on the east bank of the Vistula.
On September 8, 1939, one week into the Nazi invasion of Poland, German armoured troops reached the gates of Warsaw. The Polish government and High Command had left the city but a determined garrison awaited the enemy invader and the Poles were able to stave off two consecutive German attempts to take the capital by armoured attack. Thus began a siege that would last for three weeks and subject the Warsaw Army of over 100,000 and the civilian population of over one million to a ruthless campaign of aerial bombardment and heavy artillery shelling, causing thousands of casualties and widespread destruction. It was a hopeless battle that could only end in defeat and on September 27 the Polish garrison capitulated. The photos of the first penetration by tanks and infantry of the 4. Panzer-Division taken on September 9 became standard repertoire of German propaganda publications on the Blitzkrieg in Poland.
Map of initial ground attacks on Warsaw. Poles-blue, Germans-red.
Pz II Ausf C of 4th Panzer Division, destroyed by Polish troops at Grójecka St. Warsaw 1939.
The advance of 4th Panzer Division was no less relentless, no less exhilarating that Friday. The panzers passed through burning villages and destroyed bridges, leaving Polish stragglers behind in the copses and forests. And everywhere, the remnants of a defeated opponent. ‘Panic must have broken out among the enemy,’ Willi Reibig concluded. ‘Each man looked to save himself in a wild flight. Were they so filled with fear in the face of our panzers? All the better then if they’re already shaken morally, we’ll have easier battles. Bits of equipment, field kitchens, baggage wagons, cases of ammunition, guns, rifles and ammunition lined our route of advance in large quantities. Between them, bomb craters on the left and right of the road.’ Another road sign. Warszawa 70 kilometres. ‘We’ll soon achieve that,’ Reibig was convinced. Tenth Army commander von Reichenau now decided it was time ‘to pluck the enemy capital like a ripe fruit’ before the enemy could respond. The men of 4th Panzer Division would soon learn that Warsaw’s fruit left a bitter taste.
In his headquarters in the heart of the Polish capital, the commander of the city’s defensive zone, General Walerian Czuma ordered Warsaw be turned into a fortress. Here at the walls of the great city the ‘ravaging of Polish soil comes to an end’. In a rousing order of the day, he continued: ‘We have taken up a position, from which there can be no more steps back. The enemy can receive just one answer now: “Enough! Not one step further!”’
Warsaw’s inhabitants and troops built makeshift barriers from overturned trams, removal vans and furniture, then took up position behind them, or in cellars, or rooftops, or at the windows of tenement blocks. And then they waited for the enemy to come.
Around 5pm, the first German tanks appeared, the armour of 35th Panzer Regiment. The panzers rolled through the ‘ugly’ suburbs of Ochota – four miles from the city centre – then Rakowiec, three miles from the heart of Warsaw. ‘Everyone went into the heart of Warsaw proudly and confident of victory,’ Reinhardt recalled. Everyone went in expecting Warsaw to be an ‘open’ city – undefended. But then the defenders opened fire. Standing with a pair of binoculars at an anti-tank gun position, Colonel Marian Porwit watched as ‘an unequal duel of fire raged – so heavily in our favour that the German panzers no longer moved.’ Even so the barricades which had been hastily erected were no match for the armour’s firepower, Porwit observed. ‘They shot up in flames like matches.’ But the defenders grew in stature. ‘The first burning panzer and destroyed vehicles calm us down, and the soldiers, seeing the excellent results of their weapons and their leaders, gain trust and believe that they do not have black devils in front of them,’ one Polish officer recorded. Heinrich Eberbach, 35th Panzer Regiment’s commanding officer, ordered his armour off the main road and through allotments to avoid the barriers ‘but even there our panzers are shot at from four-storey houses, from skylights, windows and cellars, and from behind more barricades’. As the sun went down over Warsaw, Eberbach reluctantly called off his attack and returned to the road bridge where his attack had begun barely two hours earlier.
After dark, state radio broadcast Walerian Czuma’s order of the day. Lieutenant Colonel Waclaw Lipinski, head of the Polish General Staff’s information section, added his own postscript. ‘Warsaw will be defended to the last breath and – if it falls – the enemy will have to step over the corpse of the very last defender,’ he declared. Now the hour had come for Varsovians to demonstrate their love for their motherland. ‘Looking around, the Polish soldier should see only calm faces,’ the officer continued. ‘He should be accompanied by the blessings and smiles of women and when he goes into battle, a cheerful song should sound.’
Panzer grenadier Bruno Fichte spent the night quartered between a sanatorium and houses on the edge of Warsaw. Polish artillery shells rained down on the homes as smoke rose from their chimneys. ‘I went into the house,’ Fichte recalled. ‘It was full of women and children. I asked them to please go down into the cellar and not make fires any more.’ The women begged for a warm drink for their children; Fichte fetched warm milk and coffee. His actions were not entirely magnanimous; he wanted to spare the panzers the constant shelling. ‘Nevertheless, they treated me like their saviour and kissed my hands.’ Fichte and his comrades spent the night re-fuelling, stocking up on ammunition, eating, sleeping, all untroubled by the Poles. In Warsaw ‘hundreds of barricades shot up like fungi after a rainstorm’ as the garrison prepared for the enemy to renew his thrust into the capital. But to what end? schoolteacher Chaim Kaplan asked himself. ‘The streets are littered with trenches and barricades. Machine-guns have been placed on the roofs of houses and a barricade has been set up in the entrance to my apartment block, just beneath my balcony,’ he recorded in his diary. ‘If there’s fighting in the streets then there won’t be one stone standing on top of the other in the walls in which I live.’
With the first rays of light on Saturday morning, a ten-minute artillery barrage was unleashed upon the main route of advance into the city centre. And then, at 7am, the regiments of 4th Panzer Division moved off in two groups through the outskirts of Warsaw, closely followed by infantry. Bruno Fichte peered up at the tall tenement blocks looming over the narrow Warsaw streets with a sense of foreboding. But it was only when the advance was well under way that the Poles showed themselves. ‘Terrible fire descended upon us. They fired from the roofs, threw burning oil lamps, even burning beds down on to the panzers. Within a short time everything was in flames.’
In Wolska Street in the suburb of Wola, little more than one mile from the centre of the Polish capital, Colonel Marian Porwit watched as a column of panzers edged nervously along. There was a blast from a trumpet and a barrage was unleashed upon the advancing enemy. ‘German soldiers jumped out of their panzers on fire, but could find no cover in the narrow street,’ Porwit wrote. ‘Fuel tanks were set on fire. The panzers and German vehicles were on fire.’ Vehicles following behind the first panzers tried to avoid the melee, but instead ran up the pavements and blocked the road.
The city, 35th Panzer Regiment’s commander Heinrich Eberbach observed, was defending itself ‘with courage born of desperation’. A first then a second barricade was passed, but at terrible cost to man and machine. ‘The infantry must fight house by house and clear them out,’ wrote Eberbach. ‘Bursts of machine-gun fire, hand grenades from above and out of cellars, blocks of stone hurled down from the roofs, make things difficult for them.’ Inside his panzer, Willi Reibig heard machine-gun fire clatter against the armour. ‘Gun and machine-gun fire sprays out of the houses,’ Reibig recorded in his diary. ‘An infantry gun is brought to the front by a platoon, and its shells fire directly into the houses. We slowly gain ground. But around me it has already become damned hot.’ Over the headphones, there was a cry: ‘Eagle in front.’ A knocked-out panzer partially blocked the road, but not to prevent Reibig squeezing past. By now, Reibig has passed through four barricades. ‘Suddenly, a devastating blow,’ he recalled. ‘I throw up the hatch, an artillery hit on one of the panzers following us. Polish artillery lays down shot after shot on the road and in front of the barricade.’
It was, one Feldwebel – a platoon commander in 36th Panzer Regiment – observed, as if ‘all hell broke loose. In front of us one shell landed one after another rapidly.’ The Feldwebel scanned the streets through his panzer’s optics: two Panzer IIs to the rear were ablaze; a Panzer III to the side was struck by an anti-tank shell. A smoke canister exploded, shrouding the street in a grey-black mist, under which the German armour fell back; the attack had been called off. ‘We continued through dingy backyards,’ the Feldwebel continued. ‘Our panzer thundered past the corners of houses and grazed walls. Bricks clattered and scraped against our iron hull. All of a sudden, I saw a civilian who jumped out of a corner made a brief movement with his arm. A pineapple hand grenade flew towards us, without causing any damage. He didn’t get around to throwing a second one.’
One panzer got as far as Warsaw’s central station, then was forced to fall back. Heinrich Eberbach watched as panzer after panzer was shot-up, until his vehicle too fell victim to the furious Polish fire. By mid-morning, 4th Panzer’s assault on the capital had ground to a halt. Its commander, Georg-Hans Reinhardt, decided the battle was ‘hopeless’ and ‘with a heavy heart’ broke off the attack mid-morning and pulled his panzers back to the edge of the city. His division stuttered out of Warsaw under a hail of Polish artillery shells; damaged and abandoned panzers lined the main road. Exhausted crews assembled, minus their armour, at the jump-off point where the attack had begun with such high hopes five hours earlier.
A shell-shocked Heinrich Eberbach returned on foot. ‘At first the number of panzers appearing is terrifyingly low,’ he recorded. His regiment had moved off with 120 vehicles at dawn; by mid-afternoon, just fifty-seven were still combat-worthy. The panzers of brigade and regimental commanders had been knocked out, two company commanders had been killed. And yet Eberbach’s men were buoyant. ‘The combat spirit of the troops was unshaken even though the attack on the city was repulsed,’ the panzer commander reported. ‘Everyone knew that time worked for us. Their resistance cannot last long after the other divisions arrive.’
Intelligence reports suggested 4th Panzer Division had run into elements of as many as five divisions. Its commander reported in person to his immediate superior XIV Corps’ commander Gustav von Wietersheim in the small town of Nadarzyn, fifteen miles southwest of Warsaw’s centre. The picture Reinhardt painted was black: a brigade and regimental commander had come back on foot, knocked-out panzers, too few infantry, too little artillery support. The attack on Warsaw could not be carried with the means at his disposal, he told Wietersheim. And at any rate, what was the use of seizing a city ‘of little value militarily’, Reinhardt argued.
In the centre of Warsaw, Colonel Marian Porwit walked past still-smouldering panzers. The city was deserted, save for its defenders and German dead. The inhabitants were still in hiding, several hundred of them in the cellars of the Akademicki Cathedral. ‘Someone told me that fear and unease ruled there because the sound of battle had reached the shelter and asked me to say a few reassuring words,’ Porwit recalled. With the sun going down and with no sign of a renewed German assault, the officer found time to visit the cathedral. ‘A large crowd gathered around me, and when I told them of the defence against the German attack, the destroyed panzers and the enemy’s bloody losses, there was delight.’ Varsovians would enjoy a few days’ respite from the foe. For to the west of the city that very day Polish troops had unleashed an offensive. Perhaps they might save the capital. And the nation.
American Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress aircraft leaving Warsaw and heading East after air drops on September 18. (Wisła river visible as well as Wilanów Palace gardens in upper left part of image).
Air routes used for the airlift. Black: Allied flights from Italy. Black broken line: Later egress routes used back to Italy. Blue: USAAF route
The Warsaw Airlift of 1944 is one of the great unsung sagas of the Second World War. In theory it had three participants – the Soviets, Americans, and British. In reality, only the British and their partners made a significant contribution. Soviet warplanes, which had been flying over Warsaw in late July, disappeared from the skies after the outbreak of the Rising and failed to reappear for the best part of six weeks. American planes, which were supposed to fly out from England in August, did not manage to take off until mid-September, and then only once. As a result, it was RAF squadrons operating from Italy which assumed the overwhelming brunt of the missions. They did so at a juncture when RAF Bomber Command was regularly pounding targets on the Baltic coast not far from Warsaw. On two nights at the end of August, for example, nearly 200 Lancasters from Britain attacked Königsberg, suffering only 7.5 per cent losses.
Warsaw lay 1,311km (815 miles) from the RAF base at Brindisi in Apulia. The chosen route to Poland took the form of an elongated lozenge with Brindisi at the southern end and Warsaw at the northern tip. The planes took off in the evening over the Adriatic, crossed the Croatian coast in the last rays of the setting sun, overflew the Danube in Hungary in darkness, and climbed north-east over the Carpathians before approaching Warsaw from the east over Soviet-held territory. The return journey, which brought the fliers back to Brindisi in midmorning after twelve to fourteen hours in the air, was spent in large part over Germany and Austria. It descended from the Austrian Alps into full daylight over Italy.
The airmen faced manifold dangers. They had no fighter escort, and had nothing but their own guns to ward off German planes sent up in ground-controlled interception areas. They were fully visible crossing the Adriatic coast in both directions, and a Luftwaffe night-fighter training centre near Cracow presented a constant hazard. Visibility over Warsaw was severely limited by clouds of smoke, whilst their approach run, which was made at only 45 metres (150 feet) and at a mere 200kmh (125 mph), made them specially vulnerable to ground fire. Electric storms were a common summer occurrence over the Alps and Carpathians. Pilots frequently reported instances of St Elmo’s fire, when blue flames trailed from wingtips and propeller blades.
The aircraft most usually employed in the Warsaw Airlift was the Consolidated B24 Liberator. It had more speed and payload than the Boeing B17 Flying Fortress and a greater range than the Avro Lancaster. Its four Pratt and Whitney double-banked radial engines were boosted by a super-charger. They permitted a payload of 51/2 tons and a cruising speed of 210 mph. Fully loaded with 2,300 gallons of fuel and with twelve parachute-controlled containers in the bomb racks, take-off had to be undertaken overweight. The modern electronic equipment included a GEE box (a navigational radio-triangulation system) and a radio altimeter. Armament consisted of ten 0.5 in heavy machine guns. There was a crew of ten.
205 Group RAF in Italy, commanded by Maj.Gen. Durrant, consisted of five wings: three RAF and two South African Air Force. In the summer of 1944, the RAF’s 334 Special Operations Wing was attached to the newly formed ‘Balkan Airforce’, whose principal task was liaison with Yugoslavia. It included 148 and 624 Squadrons RAF, each equipped with fourteen Halifaxes, and the independent (Polish) 1586 Special Duties Flight with ten aircrews flying a mixture of Halifaxes and Liberators. 2 Wing of the SAAF consisted of 24, 31, and 34 Squadrons, all equipped with Liberators.
The first flight to Warsaw had been undertaken on 4–5 August by 1586 SDF accompanied by seven Halifaxes of 148 Squadron. It provided a grim warning of things to come. The orders mentioned drops in the Kampinos and Kabaty forests; and senior officers were unaware that four Polish crews had secretly volunteered to fly directly over Warsaw. On return, one Polish Liberator made a miraculous crash-landing on two engines with no undercarriage, stopping ten yards short of the sea. But five RAF planes were lost, and only two successful drops were made. Senior RAF commanders intervened, and flights were suspended.
At this point, the Warsaw Rising forced itself onto the agenda of Allied planners who were meeting at Naples to discuss the landings on the French Riviera:
The Polish Question was on [Churchill’s mind] as he contemplated the beauty of Naples Bay and the slopes of Vesuvius from his quarters at the Villa Rivalta . . . He was expecting Marshal Tito for discussions on the situation in Yugoslavia. It was 12 August, and Churchill must have sensed that Warsaw could expect no help from Moscow. He agreed with Field Marshal Smuts that the airlift was of little military value. Gen. Mark Clark of the US Fifth Army in Italy could not understand the reasoning of the Combined Chiefs in supporting the operation, and Churchill wondered whether the latest news from Warsaw could mean much in the long run. Nonetheless, he sent off another signal to Stalin . . .
Churchill discussed the matter again with Air Marshal Slessor. The RAF commander reiterated his conviction that the Russians would not drop supplies in Warsaw. The only feasible way to assist the AK adequately was for the US Eighth Airforce to fly the aircraft from Britain. The planes would have to land at Russian bases to refuel, as had been arranged for their bomber offensive. But the Polish appeal, of course, had been made to the British, not to the Americans. Churchill weighed the matter up carefully, knowing that the Russians would not help, and came to a painful decision. Help must be sent, he declared, even at the risk of heavy losses.
As a result, 205 Group was ordered to maintain a regular supply line to Warsaw. In actual fact, 1586 SDF, 148 and 178 Squadrons RAF, and 31 Squadron SAAF had already made several extra flights to Poland, presumably on their own account, or on their local commander’s responsibility. In all, they took off from Brindisi for Warsaw on 4, 8, 11–18, and 20–28 August, on a total of nineteen nights.
The supplies which reached the Home Army were not inconsiderable. Early in September, General Boor acknowledged receipt of 250 PIAT antitank weapons, 1,000 Sten guns, 19,000 grenades, and 2 million rounds of ammunition.
But the losses were horrendous. Air Marshal Slessor calculated that one bomber was lost for every ton of supplies delivered. The sacrifices of 1586 SDF were particularly severe. On 1 August they had just completed a tour of duty and were due for a period of rest. Only five aircraft and five air crews were available. By the end of the month, only of those five crews survived.
Appeals were equally directed to the USAAF, and the possibility of using high-flying American B-17 Flying Fortresses based in Ukraine was under discussion for several weeks. After many delays, an inter-Allied system code-named Frantic had begun to operate in June 1944, Stalin having been sweetened with the gift of a top-secret Norden bombsight. Using Poltava, Mirogrod and a nearby fighter base, massive fleets of up to 200 US planes were able to shuttle back and forward between the USSR and either Italy or Britain. On each leg, they dropped huge bomb-loads on pre-arranged targets in the Reich or in German-held territory. In July and August 1944, their main destinations were in Romania, though two were in Germany, and three were in German-occupied Poland.
A report about one of these flights appeared in The Times on 8 August:
Heavy bombers of the 8th Air Force from England have attacked a German aircraft plant at Rahmel, 10 miles NW of Gdynia in Poland, and have landed safely at American bases in the Soviet Union. The bombers were escorted throughout by P51 Mustangs . . . No airplane was lost . . . Today’s attack was the twentieth operation in which Eastern Command bases have figured.
The headline ran ‘Poland Bombed by U.S. Airforce’. It would have been read in conjunction with another piece immediately below headed ‘Furious Fighting in Warsaw: More Ground Gained by Patriots’. Ordinary readers must have drawn the obvious conclusion. If the Allies were bombing Gdynia, the bombing of German positions in Warsaw could not be far behind.
During these operations, the Americans frequently reported incidents of ‘friendly fire’. It was assumed that Soviet anti-aircraft gunners had standing orders to fire on any unauthorized flights. But that was only part of the explanation. On 15–16 June, Soviet Yak fighters had attacked two American F-5 reconnaissance planes, damaging one and destroying the other.
On 18 September 1944, a huge fleet of Flying Fortresses of the US 8th Army Air Force flew from Britain to supply Warsaw, and continued on to the Soviet base at Poltava. It was the first and last time that Western supplies reached Warsaw on this route. A later TASS report described the shuttle flight as ‘one of the largest ever to land in Russia.’ When the Flying Fortresses passed over Warsaw around 2 p.m., they certainly created a grand spectacle. They were accompanied by sixty fighter escorts. The sky was a perfect blue. The planes were in wide-spaced formation, flying at a great height ‘as if on parade’. The silver fuselages glinted in the sun. The engines left multistranded spirals of white vapour trails. A rhythmic roar shook the buildings far below, punctuated by the popping of AA guns. Suddenly, the sky was filled with a mass of multicoloured parachutes, slowly descending, swaying in the breeze. On either side of the barricades, German troops and insurgents watched in amazement. The American report was optimistic:
Three combat wings (110 B-17s) dispatched to drop supplies at Warsaw. Three a/c returned early. All formations dropped on Primary [target] visually. Approximately 1284 containers dropped with fair to excellent results. 105 a/c landed at Russian bases. Flak: moderate. E/A Opposition: nil. Claims: nil. Losses: 2 B-17s, cause unknown.
In reality, over 80 per cent of the 1,284 containers fell into German-controlled districts. There were no parachutists. And there were no more Frantic missions to Warsaw.
Meanwhile, the RAF flights from Italy continued. They had been grounded in early September by bad weather and by tests on a new bombsight that would be effective from a much higher altitude. Twenty aircraft were ready to take off from Amendola and Brindisi on 10 September:
A sense of duty kept the Polish crews going. They were an extraordinary collection of men of all types and ages . . . One flyer who came from Balkan Airforce HQ was RAF Air Commodore [Raiski]. . . . [He] had fought against the Bolsheviks as a young pilot in 1919[–20]. Now he was on the same flight as a Group, who had been deputy commander of the Polish Bomber Brigade in September 1939. They all shared the hazards of the Warsaw flights with a former airline pilot, an assistant professor of psychology from Warsaw University, a high school teacher, an Argentinian and a Canadian of Polish origin. One inexperienced navigator . . . was briefed for his first trip to Warsaw, neatly packed his few belongings, wrote a letter to his parents in Poland, drafted a will, took off, and never returned. One gunner on a Polish Liberator had been released from a maximum security prison at the outbreak of the war. On a homeward flight over the Balkans, he leaned out of a gun turret entrance, joking with the rest of the crew, and inadvertently touched the traversing switch. The turret swung round and broke his neck.
Throughout August, Churchill and to a lesser extent Roosevelt strove to persuade Stalin to give landing rights in the USSR to Allied flights heading for Warsaw. Stalin’s responses were uniformly hostile. Roosevelt’s interest was, at best, lukewarm. Churchill’s message to Moscow on 12 August was phrased in strong language:
We have practically no news from you, no information on the political situation, no advice and no instruction. Have you discussed in Moscow help for Warsaw? I repeat emphatically that without immediate support, consisting of drops of arms and ammunition, bombing of objectives held by the enemy, and air landing, our fight will collapse in a few days . . . I expect from you the greatest effort in this respect.
This was countered by the extraordinary dressing-down of the US Ambassador in Moscow mentioned earlier. But Churchill persisted. On the 18th, he told Eden to check out the technical feasibility of the overflights, and he appealed to Roosevelt for joint action. Their message to Stalin, which Roosevelt drafted, was deliberately mild in tone. It started: ‘We are thinking of world opinion’. And it ended, ‘The time element is of the greatest importance.’ It did not evoke a definite reply. What was worse, at the next round Roosevelt casually told Churchill: ‘I do not see what further steps we can take at the present time which promise results.’ Churchill was roused to undisguised anger. He proposed a draft message which commented less than diplomatically on Stalin’s earlier replies. ‘Our sympathies are aroused for these “almost unarmed people” whose special faith has led them to attack German tanks, guns and planes,’ he said; also ‘the [Warsaw] Rising was certainly called for repeatedly by Moscow Radio’; and ‘we propose to send the aircraft unless you directly forbid it.’ This time, the President refused to join in. September arrived; and the question of using the Frantic system was unresolved.
Air Marshal Slessor received orders that flights to Warsaw must not stop. So on 21/22 September, a mixed group of RAF and SAAF tried once more. This time, exceptionally, they all returned safely to base. But the cloud cover over Warsaw was so thick that the pilots could not find their targets. No confirmation of success was received. Then the dead-moon period set in. Flying was off. Slessor did not receive replacement aircraft.
The loss of an aircraft was always a dramatic event. In the last couple of months, the Varsovians had seen several crashes. One Liberator came down in the City Centre, killing the Canadian crew. Another came down in the lake in the Paderewski Park in Praga. The sole survivor was taken prisoner by the Soviets.
Yet the aircrews’ lonely ordeals were something which only they themselves could witness:
Capt. Erich Endler [SAAF] had used more fuel than his inexperienced crew had allowed for. He had made his drop, and was already over the northern border of Yugoslavia before he was aware of his dangerously low fuel level . . . There was no hope of putting a big aircraft down in the dark safely. There was nothing to do but to bail out, and the pilot gave the order. The co-pilot, Lt. Chapman and RAF Pilot Officer Crook jumped, landed safely, and fell into enemy hands. From the ground, they saw their aircraft, its engine dying, rapidly lose height and crash into the towering crags of the Alps.
Air force losses are calculated in various ways. But one calculation reckoned that 306 planes departed from Britain or Italy for Warsaw, and that forty-one were lost: two US, seventeen Polish, and twenty-two RAF and SAAF. Losses totalled 13.3 per cent. Losses on the run from Italy to Warsaw reached 31 out of 186 aircraft, or 16.7 per cent. This compares with the raid on Nuremberg on 30/31 March 1944, which is sometimes claimed to have been the RAF’s ‘darkest hour’, where losses totalled 11.8 per cent.
Allied aircraft dropped a total of 370 tons of supplies in the course of the two months of operations, but the airlift proved to be ineffective and could not provide sufficient supplies to sustain the Polish resistance, which finally succumbed on 2 October 1944. An estimated 360 airmen and forty-one British, Polish, South African and American aircraft were lost during the `Warsaw Airlift’.
Of course, one has to wonder whether Stalin ever saw one hundredth part of the mountains of paper that were addressed to him. But even if he did see these reports, it is difficult to imagine what possible use he could have made of them. For he had created a vast informational machine, which produced such an indigestible macédoine of fantasies, falsehood, and occasional facts that it was quite incapable of rendering a recognizable picture of outside reality. No one who read Telegin-style summaries could conceivably have been moved to recommend active support for ‘the Londoners’. For which reason, the last paragraph of the last page of Telegin’s report of 25 September was underlined by someone in Moscow in thick pencil:
Please give instructions on the following question. To what extent, in the coming days, is it a necessity to render assistance to the insurgents with arms, ammunition, and food-stuffs. The position of the insurgents is really acute, and they cannot reckon on any aid from anyone other than the Red Army. In order to supply the aid within maximum limits, it is necessary for the Front to release 500 tons of B-70 aviation fuel and 2,000 freight parachutes and to transport ex-enemy weapons from our central stores including rifles, machine-guns, and rocket-launchers . .
On the night of 13 September 1944, Soviet aircraft commenced their own re-supply missions, dropping arms, medicines and food supplies. Initially these supplies were dropped in canisters without parachutes which lead to damage and loss of the contents – also, a large number of canisters fell into German hands. Over the following two weeks, the Soviet Air Forces flew 2,535 re-supply sorties with small bi-plane Polikarpov Po-2’s, delivering a total of 156 50-mm mortars, 505 anti-tank rifles, 1,478 sub-machine guns, 520 rifles, 669 carbines, 41,780 hand grenades, 37,216 mortar shells, over 3 million cartridges, 131.2 tons of food and 515 kg of medicine.
Commission of a Halifax of 1586 Squadron based in Brindisi, Italy in August 1944.
No. 1586 (Polish Special Duties) Flight was first formed at RAF Derna, in Libya on 4 November 1943, equipped with a mix of Consolidated Liberator lll and Handley Page Halifax II/S special duties aircraft. After many months of flying support missions to Poland, first from Tunis in North Africa in December 1943, the Polish flight was transferred to Campo Casale near Brindisi, Italy. From there it flew operations over occupied Europe undertaking special duties including partisan supply drops and agent insertion.
When the Warsaw Uprising began on 1st August 1944, No:1586 Polish Flight had only 6 crews and 8 aircraft remaining. Most of the aircraft were battered and not suitable for long, dangerous missions and replacement Halifax’s ferried in by British crews from Algier were already in a bad shape. In addition, most of the crews were young and inexperienced, while the rest had almost completed their tour, sometimes even their second or third. Thus, when the time called for greatest effort to help the fighting in Warsaw, 1586 Flight was heavily depleted. The Battle of Warsaw would last 63 days and take a terrible toll of the Polish bomber crews.
Typical of future missions was the first mission in support of Warsaw when all of the available crews, seven in total, were tasked with a supply drop mission to Warsaw on the 4/5th August 1944. Taking off shortly before 20.00hrs on the 4th, a combined flight of three Liberators and eleven Halifax’s took off from Camp Casale near Brandisi. Seven of the aircraft were crewed by members of 1586 Special Duties Flight and as they headed for Warsaw, their orders were changed. Warsaw was extremely heavily defended by severe anti-aircraft artillery as well as an abundance of German night fighters. Therefore, orders were changed mid flight by Air Marshall John Slessor who ordered instead that their supplies be dropped to the Polish Home Army in Southern Poland 30km north of Krakow. However, four of the Polish crews decided to ignore the changed orders and continued to fly onto Warsaw. The need and desire to support Warsaw had tragic consequences with the loss of five Halifax’s shot down, another crash landing at Brandisi, all aircraft badly shot up and only three Polish bombers successfully dropping their loads.
As a result, Air Marshal Sir John Slessor suspended all the flights to Warsaw. Only after constant Polish protest did he change his decision before Polish crews recommenced supply mission to Warsaw.
Many of the flights had been ordered to carry out sortie’s regardless of weather conditions or the opposing enemy forces. Taking off at night, often in poor weather, flights took off and over the Yugoslav coast, fog would stretch from the ground to 6,000 feet. Without navigational aids and unable to get fixes from ground observation, navigation was often made by star ‘fixes’. In addition, heavy flak was often experienced over Yugoslavia and the Danube and especially after crossing the Carpathian mountains. Flying over Poland, enemy night fighters were a continual and lethal threat and accounted for many of the bombers. Those left would fly on, guided by the distant red glow over Warsaw where fires were blazing in every district of Warsaw, the only dark spots being areas occupied by the German forces. Descending, the bombers would make their approach at heights of 700ft. Everything would be smothered in smoke, through which the city flickered in ruddy, orange flames that lit up the night sky and illuminated the bombers. The enemy flak was so intense, the bombers would then descend as low as they could, often 70 or a 100 feet above ground, often having to dodge obstructions such as the Poniatowski Bridge in their desperation to avoid the flak. Losses were often catastrophic. Typical of these raids was one on the 20th August when a flight of Halifax’s attacked Warsaw at low level and only one returned with five others lost.
Those aircraft that got back to base were always more or less damaged by flak or fighters, and ground crews were greatly overworked. Taking off in the early evening, many of these flights lasted eleven hours and during the dramatic events supporting Warsaw, their efforts and those of the aircrew were nothing short of heroic with many ground crew working for 20 hours a day, struggling to keep as many a/c operational as possible. In August, there were 97 flights to Poland including 80 to Warsaw. Perhaps the biggest indicator of the sacrifice made by the Polish crews was the fact that few crews completed as many as three sorties over Warsaw and that only two crews survived the whole two months period.
My painting captures a moment when the clients Father, who was a Halifax wireless operator, met the sole surviving Halifax crew that returned from a mission to Poland as dawn broke. His Father spoke of greeting the crew as they stood on the runway at Brindisi as they described their harrowing experiences flying at low level avoiding the enemy night fighters and the constant, lethal flak on their long flight and the realisation that they had lost so many of their fellow crews.
No. 1586 (Polish Special Duties) Flight
No. 1586 (Polish Special Duties) Flight was first formed at RAF Derna, in Libya on 4 November 1943, equipped with Handley Page Halifax II special duties aircraft. The origin of the unit was the remnants of 301(Polish) Squadron after disbandment by the Polish HQ due to lack of staff and trained crews. The remaining crews and aircraft formed C Flight of 138 Squadron, which was temporarily renamed as 301 Squadron Special Duties Flight, RAF, before becoming 1586 Flight. That’s why initially all Halifaxes bore NF code markings, later changed to the GR of 301 (Polish) RAF Sqn.
Missions flown by the flight included partisan supply drops and agent insertion, but also missions over the capital city Warsaw during the uprising of August 1944, with supplies for those brave citizens, who had taken up arms against the occupation.
The flight was disbanded on 7 November 1944 at RAF Brindisi to resume operations as No. 301 (Polish) Squadron, RAF.
The second main aircraft type used by the unit was the Liberator. There were three aircraft, directly converted for supply missions from Mk IIIs (American B-24D), and altogether some fifteen Mk VI and GR Mk VIs (B-24J in USA). Conversion included nose turret removal and adaptation of the B-24D nose glazing, more suitable for the drop observer. The glazing was, however, taller as the fuselage floor part of the J-variant’s nose section was positioned lower than in the D. This, in profile, is the most distinguishing difference between 1586 Flight Mk III and Mk VI Liberators, and causes much confusion and mistakes in models.
Pilots of 1586 Special Duties Flight, based at Brindisi, experience moments of hope and weeks of despair
The Warsaw Rising broke out on 1 August 1944, between four and five in the afternoon. For us, listening to the loudspeakers, the only vital question was: Warsaw is fighting – when do we fly to help them? . . . The announcer was finding it difficult to keep his voice properly calm and impersonal . . . I looked round: every face was set and stern. . . . We were to take off at midnight. Stan, my tail gunner, rapped out a curse, banging the table with his fist and went out, slamming the door. Of course our flight was unimportant. Just as everything not taking place in Warsaw was unimportant.
20 August 1944
We had been ordered to carry out the sortie regardless of weather conditions. So, though the met. forecast was exceptionally despondent, we took off . . . Sure enough, right from the Yugoslav coast fog stretched from the ground to 6,000 feet. Fog was hardly the word for it – water vapour or steam would be more appropriate. We had no ground-based navigational aid; I tried map reading . . . but we finally flew on solely with star ‘fixes’.
We had similar weather all the way until over Poland we saw a Jerry fighter shoot down one of our Halifaxes. (There had been a lot of flak over Yugoslavia and the Danube.) We pushed on and got a decent ‘fix’ by the time we reached the Pilitsa River. After that we flew on guided by the distant glow . . .
We dropped to some 700 feet, got through a very dense barrage [near Sluzhev] over the Vistula. Fires were blazing in every district of Warsaw. The dark spots were places occupied by the Jerries. Everything was smothered in smoke through which ruddy-orange flames flickered. It was terrible and must have been hell for everybody down there.
The German flak was the hottest I have ever been through, so we got down to just 70 or 100 feet . . . The flicks in the Praga and Mokotov suburbs kept us constantly lit up – there was nothing we would do about it. We nearly hit the Poniatovski Bridge as we cracked along the Vistula: the pilot hopped over it by the skin of his teeth.
Our reception point was Krashinski Square. So, when we passed the [Kerbeds] iron-girder bridge, we turned sharp to port and made ready for the run-in. The whole southern side of the Square was blazing and wind was blowing the smoke south, much to our satisfaction. We dropped the containers and knew we had made a good job.
It was time to clear out. The pilot came down still lower, keeping an eye for steeples and high buildings. The cabin was full of smoke, which got into our eyes and made them smart. We could feel the heat . . . We ripped along the railway line leading west [to Prushkov and Skiernievitse]. Some flak from an anti-aircraft train tried to hit us, so we let go some bursts. We had a breathing space until flicks near Bohnia picked us up again, and the flak got uncomfortably close. We passed over the crashed bomber in the foothills, which was now burning itself out. (Five Halifaxes that had taken off with us never returned.) The Home Army people signaled that a supply was received on Krashinski Square at the time we noted in our logbook. So we knew that at least our flight had not been in vain.
2 October 1944
As we were climbing out of our bombers one day after an op., an aircraftman came up and told me [the news]. Stanley was just behind me. He’s what you’d call a Warsaw cockney with all a cockney’s affection for his city. He stopped short and dumped his ’chute on the ground. He just stood there, turning his head from side to side helplessly . . . He shuffled off without a word. Later, he came up to me in the Ops. Room as I was studying the maps. His eyes were sunken and lifeless. ‘Sir, what’s the use?’ he asked in a hoarse, unfamiliar voice. ‘What’s the use, sir?’ He pressed his face against the [window] and looked out through the panes where the drops of mist were trickling down like tears..
Navigator Alan McIntosh
‘For the RAF and SAAF squadrons of No. 205 Group operating from bases in the Foggian Plain, the call to assist the Balkan Air Force squadrons came out of the blue.’.
In the forenoon of 13 August, 205 Group air crews were told that a maximum effort was to be flown against an unknown target that night. 2,300 gallons of fuel were to be taken on by each aircraft, and would be topped up for extreme range at Brindisi where the operational briefing would take place. Normally the fuel load for a target in northern Austria used around 1,800 gallons.
The target only became known at Brindisi, when, on entering the briefing room, the aircrews sighted a wall covered with international modified polyconic maps, extending from floor to ceiling. A red line extended from Brindisi at the bottom to Warsaw at the top. A sobering revelation for those about to go out into the night.
The briefing officer was Lieutenant George Z. His briefing was a model: compelling, honest, accurate, comprehensive, in a situation in which the aircrews needed to know the political, military, and tactical situation of the Polish Home Army in Warsaw; the German army in Warsaw; the Red Army sitting on its hands across the Vistula at Praga; and the advance of the Red Front.
For accuracy, a low-level drop was essential: height not above 500 feet, speed not above 150 m.p.h. Target maps and photographs were available. Three aligning points (Mokotov in the south, the Old City in the centre, and the Citadel in the north) were given. Take-off time for 178 Squadron was 19:45; estimated time on target 01:30. The twilight was critical for returning aircraft, which would have little chance of survival in daylight over enemy territory extending from Albania to the Baltic Sea.
At the start of the operation in support of the Warsaw Uprising, RAF aircrews were issued with blood chits. They were silk with a Union Jack on the obverse and something along the lines of ‘This chap is a British officer. Return him in good shape and in working order and you will be rewarded’ – on the reverse side, the same in Russian. Since for the Warsaw operations we were briefed to give nothing other than number, rank, and name, if we fell into Russian hands (the same as if captured by the Germans) the blood chits were ominous rather than comforting. After difficult, protracted high-level negotiations, the Russians agreed to allow a free passage route over Russian-held territory; for specifically agreed missions.
Warsaw was burning: not in the manner of fire storms which British and Polish Bomber Command aircrews remember, but as a great city in which a land battle to destruction is going on. Approaching at low altitude in the darkness, it was as if the city was covered by an inverted fish-bowl inside which the night was a dull red. Individual fires and gun flashes showed up as bright sparks; flak streamed across the area or burst above the dome amidst the coning searchlight. Inside the red dome, aircraft were seen in silhouette against the fiery city as they made their low-level dropping run.
That night, 13/14 August, over Warsaw, my crew sighted a four-engined aircraft, lower than our own, silhouetted against the fires of the city. It was in a nose-down attitude as if coming in to land, very low, and engaged in a gun battle with a German light flak battery and a nearby searchlight. It could only be one of the Halifax aircraft of 1586 (Polish) Special Duties Flight flown from Brindisi five and a half hours earlier. Almost certainly the aircraft had already dropped its load of arms and ammunition and its crew was now joining the land battle while they still had something left to give. Such was the spirit of the Polish aviators who flew in support of the Warsaw Uprising.
On my crew’s last sortie to Warsaw (night of 10/11 September 1944) we were engaged by Russian AA fire and Russian night fighters along much of the two-and-a-half hour route. Disenchanted by this, our South African pilots and Australian navigator, at about 12,000 feet and outside gun-range from Lublin, rapidly decided that if we survived the drop on Warsaw and were fated to be shot down on the way home, it would be by the enemy and not by our Russian ‘friends’. On climbing away from Warsaw, therefore we followed the direct route through enemy territory, rather than putting our Russian blood chits to the test. Some crews of our force were not so lucky.
With the benefit of hindsight, one wonders what our masters knew (and how much they chose to tell) about our Russian ‘Allies’.
The USAAF provide a grand spectacle
On 18 September something extraordinary happened; a large American air flotilla, the first we had seen since the fighting started, appeared overhead. The Flying Fortresses, over 100 planes, were flying at a very high altitude and were thus out of reach of the intense anti-aircraft fire. The countless specks which appeared behind them turned out to be parachutes. Ignoring the danger, people were coming out of the cellars and climbing the heaps of rubble to get a better view of the spectacle in the sky. Their faces beaming with hope and joy, they were embracing one another and crying with relief. As the multicoloured parachutes came closer, somebody shouted, ‘Our commandoes are landing!’ – but unfortunately he was wrong, they were supplies. Having dropped their cargo, the planes landed on the other side of the River Vistula, on Soviet-controlled territory. Since by now only a small part of the city remained under our control, three-quarters of the eighty tons of supplies dropped from such a great height fell into German hands. Had the help come a few weeks earlier, the outcome of the Rising might have been very different. Now it was too late.
Our daily paper, the Warsaw Courier, wrote: ‘Stalin had planned the total destruction of Warsaw a long time ago. A vibrant city with a long democratic tradition would have been a source of constant irritation in his vast totalitarian empire. Only when he saw Warsaw almost razed to the ground did Stalin decide to throw a few sackfuls of food to the dying few, an empty gesture designed to deceive world opinion.’
In his memoirs, General Boor colourfully presents the progress of this drop:
We had awaited the American air expedition with growing impatience. It had been announced and then retracted so many times because of unfavourable atmospheric conditions. At last during the night of 17th and 18th September the BBC announced that the expedition was imminent. We waited tensely for the morning broadcast. If it ended with the song ‘Just Another Mazurka’, the expedition was going to take off. If ‘The March of the Infantrymen’ was played out, we would meet with delay yet again.
This time, however, ‘Just Another Mazurka’ ended the broadcast and a radio message arrived immediately afterwards, informing us that we should expect the expedition between 11 and midday.
It was a sunny day with good weather. A clear sky.
Of course, the inhabitants of Warsaw knew nothing of the imminent help, so the sight of American aircraft flying overhead, appearing unexpectedly over the city, provoked indescribable joy. The bombers flew extremely high, leaving behind them a trail of white specks. They were parachutes.
The Germans opened a barrage of anti-aircraft fire, which, however, did not reach the machines.
Warsaw lived through moments of indescribable enthusiasm. Everyone except the ill and the injured poured out of the cellars. They deserted their basements, and teemed into streets and courtyards. They assumed from the start that this was the arrival of the Parachute Brigade. A soldier standing not far from me observed the sky through binoculars. Suddenly he shouted loudly:
‘Oh my God, the Germans are shooting them all!’
One of the officers tried to calm him down, explaining that they were not parachutists, but only containers with arms and supplies.
‘But I can see their legs waving in the air clearly through the binoculars,’ the soldier insisted.
No doubt, the Germans were under the same erroneous impression, because they alerted their units.
A German sentry watches the same event
Today, in our command post, we were treated to a scene that most of us have only witnessed in the newsreels. Around 13.55 a fleet of American and British planes appear, at a height of around 1,000 metres, parading at first in twos and threes. There must be about fifty to sixty of them (I get to forty-four and then lose count). There is a mass of them up there, as when a huge flock of birds takes to the wing. Then we realize that something is falling from the planes, it seems directly above us. Parachutes are opening! The alarm is raised and a clatter of gunfire begins. Some claim to have seen men, limbs and hands. So, it’s a paratrooper landing at last, like the one in the west? Most unlikely here. The ’chutes descend, and I see black ones, green, yellow, and white . . . Oh, they are supply pods!
. . . Inside the others is German ammunition. Oh, how decent they are. The Americans are bringing the supplies that we left in our haste in the west, and they are delivering it to us in Warsaw, by plane!
‘An independent Polish state should be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations, which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea, and whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant.’
President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, 8 January 1918
The resurrection of Poland simultaneously occurred on both a military and a political dimension, driven in large part by two charismatic revolutionaries. In the military realm, Józef Piłsudski, scion of a wealthy Polish–Lithuanian family, provided the main impetus for the re-creation of an independent Polish Army. In the political realm, Roman Dmowski, product of a Warsaw blue-collar family, worked to develop a sense of Polish nationalism at home and lay the groundwork for international recognition of a Polish state. However, neither Piłsudski nor Dmowski could have achieved much success unless fate had thrown them an unusually fortunate set of international circumstances. As long as Imperial Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary were strong, Poles could not hope to regain their freedom. However, the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914 set in motion a sequence of events that would eventually incapacitate all three of Poland’s occupiers.
Both Piłsudski and Dmowski spent their youth in the Russian-occupied region of Poland, but later relocated to the Austrian-occupied region in the decade prior to the outbreak of the First World War. From the beginning, Piłsudski followed the path of violence and hoped to lead another armed insurrection against Russian rule. He rejected any idea of co-operation with the Russians, regarding it as tantamount to collaboration. Consequently, young Piłsudski quickly ran afoul of the Russian police and spent five years in Siberian exile. After his exile, Piłsudski became involved in socialist politics and joined the Polish Socialist Party (Polska Partia Socjalistyczna or PPS), while simultaneously engaging in underground revolutionary activities. By 1904, Piłsudski was able to gather some like-minded individuals and formed a paramilitary unit within the PPS. In contrast, Dmowski believed that armed rebellion was doomed to failure and considered some degree of co-operation with the Russians as essential if Poles were ever to achieve any kind of local autonomy. Since the Russians did not look kindly on Poles forming political organizations, Dmowski was forced to found his National Democratic Party (known as endecja) as a covert organization. When revolution in Russia spread to Poland in 1905, Piłsudski and Dmowski found themselves on opposite sides. Dmowski formed a militia that worked with the Russians to suppress the rebellion, which helped to foster permanent enmity with Piłsudski. Furthermore, Piłsudski’s preference for armed rebellion led to a split in the PPS.
Following the failed 1905 Revolution, Piłsudski relocated to Austrian-controlled Kraków with his remaining confederates while Dmowski joined the Russian Duma as a Polish delegate. The Austrians regarded Piłsudski as useful and allowed him to form several small Polish paramilitary organizations, which could be used to conduct sabotage and terrorist-style raids into the Russian-controlled region of Poland. Hauptmann Włodzimierz Zagórski, an ethnic Pole serving in the Austro-Hungarian General Staff, served as primary liaison between the Austrian military and Piłsudski’s paramilitaries. Piłsudski had a tendency to resent professional military officers, since he lacked their training, and his methods seemed more like gangster tactics. In September 1908, Piłsudski led a successful raid near Vilnius which robbed a Russian mail train of about 200,000 rubles; Piłsudski used the funds to expand his covert organizations. Piłsudski’s long-term vision was to create a pool of armed and trained Poles who could be used to eventually fight for Polish independence. However, the Austro-Hungarian Army was not keen on subsidizing international train robberies and thereafter tried to keep Piłsudski on a short leash. Nevertheless, by the time that Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914, Piłsudski had a solid cadre of Polish insurgents, which he wanted to march into Poland to instigate an anti-Russian rebellion. Without asking permission from the Austrian authorities, Piłsudski launched his own invasion with 400 troops on 6 August and occupied the city of Kielce a week later. As soon as the Austrians discovered this unauthorized military action, they demanded that Piłsudski’s troops be incorporated into the Austro-Hungarian Army; after three weeks of dithering, which he used to gather more recruits, Piłsudski agreed. He began forming the Polish Legions, three brigade-size units that would fight on the Eastern Front in 1914–16. In order to keep close control on Piłsudski, Hauptmann Zagórski was made chief of staff of the Legions.
Poles have tended to exaggerate the actual accomplishments of the Polish Legions, but there is no doubt that Piłsudski was able to amass a cadre of veteran soldiers who would become the backbone of Poland’s armed forces for the next three decades. It is also true that the Legion officers were a picked lot; they were well-educated men who were also intensely patriotic and loyal to Piłsudski. For example, Kazimierz Sosnkowski, chief of staff of the Legions’ 1st Brigade, had been with Piłsudski since his PPS days and was a scholar who could speak seven languages. Władysław Sikorski, a university-trained engineer with a reserve commission in the Austrian Army, played a major role in training the Legions’ nascent officer corps. Another rising star in the Legions was Edward Rydz-Śmigły. Meanwhile, Dmowski worked within the Russian political system, trying – and failing – to gain any concessions to Polish autonomy in return for support in the on-going war.
While agreeing to work with the Austrians, Piłsudski saw this as only a temporary measure and continued his own plans to build a military apparatus that could achieve Polish independence by force. Shortly after agreeing to form the Legions, he established the covert Polish Military Organization (Polska Organizacja Wojskowa or POW), which was intended to conduct subversion and propaganda behind Russian lines in Poland. When the Germans occupied Warsaw in August 1915, the POW came out into the open and formed its first battalion. At this point, Piłsudski hoped to disband the foreign-controlled Legions and expand the POW into a Polish Army under his command. However, neither Germany nor Austria-Hungary were interested in allowing an independent Polish Army and the POW battalion was integrated into the Legions. Although Russia was clearly losing the war by 1916, the Central Powers were also beginning to run out of infantry replacements and decided to seek greater Polish participation by issuing a decree that promised to create a new Kingdom of Poland after the war was won. However, Piłsudski could see that these were empty promises and that Germany would not allow true Polish independence. After the February Revolution in 1917 and the abdication of the tsar, the Germans were eager to transfer troops west to fight the Allies. Piłsudski’s Polish Legions had grown to nearly a corps-size formation and Austria-Hungary agreed to transfer these troops to German command. However, Piłsudski refused to serve under German command, as did many of his troops (the so-called ‘Oath Crisis’), so he was jailed and his troops scattered. Zagórski had urged the legionnaires to take the oath, which blackened his name in the eyes of many of Piłsudski’s acolytes. Other Poles, including Władysław Sikorski, either joined the German-organized Polnische Wehrmacht (Polish Armed Forces) or the Austrian-organized Auxiliary Corps. Before his arrest, Piłsudski appointed Edward Rydz-Śmigły as the new head of the POW, which went underground again.
Meanwhile, Dmowski had recognized that tsarist Russia was losing the war and he went to England and France in 1917 to espouse the idea of Polish autonomy. On 15 August 1917, in France, Dmowski created a new Polish National Committee aimed at rebuilding a Polish state, which included the famed pianist Ignacy Paderewski. Within a month, the French recognized the committee as the legitimate representatives of Poland and promised to help form a Polish volunteer army in France to support the Allies. The Allied governments released expatriate Poles in their own armed forces and encouraged recruitment overseas, particularly in Canada and the United States. Generał Józef Haller, one of the brigade commanders in the Polish Legions, managed to escape to France in July 1918 and he seemed the perfect leader for the Polish expatriate army being formed. Haller’s so-called ‘Blue Army’ was slowly trained and equipped by the French, but did not see any combat on the Western Front until July 1918. When the Armistice was announced in November, Haller had two well-equipped divisions under his command, with three more divisions and a tank regiment forming. The French were also training Polish pilots, in order to form seven aviation squadrons. Haller’s Blue Army was loyal to Dmowski’s Polish National Committee in Paris. Dmowski and Paderewski also helped to steer opinions in the Allied camp towards favouring the restoration of a Polish state after the war was concluded. President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points clearly enunciated this aspiration in January 1918, although there was little discussion about Poland’s potential borders.
While the Allies were defeating Imperial Germany, Piłsudski was cooling his heels in Magdeburg fortress for 16 months, with his deputy, Kazimierz Sosnkowski. When revolution in Germany forced Kaiser Wilhelm II to abdicate, the caretaker government released Piłsudski and allowed him to leave by train for Warsaw. Although the Germans attempted to coerce Piłsudski into making various pledges, he refused to make any concessions. The Regency Council, established by the Germans, held residual civilian authority in Warsaw. Recognizing the need for military advice, the council selected Colonel Tadeusz Rozwadowski, an Austrian-trained artilleryman, to organize an independent Polish military force. When Piłsudski arrived in Warsaw on 10 November 1918, he was met by only a few members of the POW. Nevertheless, the next day Piłsudski managed to browbeat the council into appointing him as commander-in-chief of the Polish armed forces and to dismiss Rozwadowski. He then began forming a national government – making him a de facto military dictator. Aside from his titles, Piłsudski was only able to cobble together a force of about three infantry regiments (9,000 troops) under his command. In contrast, the Ober Ost (German Army in the East) had over 80,000 troops in Poland (mostly from General Erich von Falkenhayn’s 10. Armee, 10th Army), but their military discipline was collapsing. Piłsudski met with the local German commander and negotiated an agreement, whereby the German Army would leave the area within ten days in return for no harassment by the Poles. Piłsudski’s troops eagerly began disarming the evacuating German troops, acquiring large stocks of weaponry and ammunition. A similar process occurred in southern Poland, where Austrian troops were also disarmed. Thus when the Armistice ended the First World War on 11 November 1918, the new Polish republic found itself with two groups claiming to be the legitimate government of Poland: Dmowski’s in Paris and Piłsudski’s in Warsaw. Five days later, Piłsudski announced the re-creation of an independent Polish state, to be known as the Second Republic. Surprisingly, Italy was the first country to recognize independent Poland.
It is important to note that Piłsudski and Dmowski had radically different visions for the new Poland; the former intended to create a socialist-tinged, secular and multi-ethnic state with expanded territorial buffers to help defend against future German and Russian aggressions. In contrast, Dmowski wanted to build a homogenous state based upon a Catholic, ethnic Polish majority. He regarded the inclusion of minorities (Czechs, Germans, Ukrainians, White Russians, Jews) as a dangerous liability who might provide grounds for Poland’s neighbours to seek future border adjustments. These two competing visions were never reconciled in the Second Republic.
As Austrian, German and Russian authority evaporated in eastern Europe, the political situation became extremely fluid. In particular, the German evacuation left a vacuum in the eastern borderlands, which the Poles referred to as Kresy Wschodnie. Ukrainian nationalists seized part of Lwów and proclaimed a republic – which immediately sparked conflict with local Polish militiamen. In Wilno, Lithuanian nationalists were agitating to claim that city for themselves, as well. Czechs and Romanian troops also were mobilizing to seize contested border areas. Meanwhile, the Western Allies – particularly Britain – sought to impose limits upon the new Polish state by proposing the so-called Curzon Line, which would deprive Poland of both Lwów and Wilno. Piłsudski simply ignored this unsolicited proposal and mobilized as many troops as possible to fight for the eastern border regions. However, the Polish Second Republic was in poor shape from the outset, having suffered significant damage to its infrastructure after four years of fighting during the First World War: cities and towns had been looted or burned, industrial production was negligible, the agricultural situation was grim and about 450,000 Poles had died in the war. Before evacuating, the Germans sabotaged much of the rail network in Poland and destroyed 940 train stations. Poland was even stripped of horses, which made it difficult to form cavalry units. Furthermore, there were no arms industries in Poland because the occupying Germans and Russians had not wanted the risk that they might be seized by Polish rebels. Nevertheless, Piłsudski was able to rally just enough troops to relieve the Ukrainian siege of Lwów, but his forces were still too badly outnumbered by the Ukrainian nationalists to achieve more. Yet, Piłsudski and many Polish nationalists – aside from Dmowski’s faction – were committed to recovering Kresy for the Second Republic, ensuring further bloodshed.
In addition to committing forces to secure Galicia from the Ukrainians, Piłsudski also encouraged an anti-German revolt in Poznań, which began in late December 1918. Thousands of ethnic Poles in the disintegrating German Imperial Army defected to the rebels, providing them a solid core of trained soldiers, but there were still enough residual German troops in Pomerania to contest control of the region for six months. The rebels formed a separate Polish military formation known as the Greater Poland Army (Wojska Wielkopolska), which was able to amass nearly 90,000 troops by early 1919. In response, the Germans formed Freikorps and border units (Grenzschutz Ost) to launch vicious counter-attacks against the Polish rebels.
In Warsaw, Piłsudski faced great difficulty in organizing a re-born Polish Army (Wojsko Polskie), which was a hodgepodge force from the beginning. The veteran troops had been trained and fought under Austrian, German and Russian command, so there was no common doctrine. Weapons and equipment came from a variety of sources and there was a persistent shortage of ammunition. Thousands of patriotic volunteers also flocked to the colours, including many Lithuanians. Nevertheless, Piłsudski only had 110,000 troops under his control at the start of 1919, which was inadequate to deal with multiple border conflicts. It was not until March 1919 that the Polish government was sufficiently organized to introduce conscription. However, only 100,000 rifles and 12,000 machine guns were available, so foreign military aid was essential to build a more effective military force.
The year 1919 began badly for the Second Republic. Officers loyal to Dmowski attempted a coup against Piłsudski in Warsaw, but this effort quickly failed. The Czechs took advantage of Piłsudski’s pre-occupation with Galicia and internal politics to seize the Silesian border town of Teschen (Cieszyn), which actually had a Polish majority. In the north-west, German forces recaptured some territory lost to the Greater Poland Army. In Galicia, the Ukrainians went on the offensive and nearly retook Lwów, with the outnumbered Poles hanging on by their finger-nails. General Tadeusz Rozwadowski, Piłsudski’s bête noire, played a major role in the defence of Lwów. Hard-pressed, the Polish garrison in Lwów was forced to employ female troops in the front line. The fighting around Lwów was also noteworthy because local Jews sided with the Ukrainians and even formed armed militia units – which would not be forgotten by the Poles. Further north, the Soviet Red Army occupied Minsk and then began tentative probes towards eastern Poland. However, the Red Army was still heavily committed countering a White Russian offensive in southern Ukraine led by Anton Denikin and could not immediately commit large forces against Poland. Even with this caveat, within three months of its re-creation, Poland found itself involved in three major wars against the Germans, Russians and Ukrainians and two hostile border disputes with the Czechs and Lithuanians. The only saving grace was that the popular Ignacy Paderewski returned to Danzig via a British cruiser and agreed to become Piłsudski’s prime minister and foreign minister, which helped to prevent a Polish civil war between opposing factions. Piłsudski blocked Dmowski’s efforts to join the government and instead insisted that he serve as Poland’s primary delegate at the Versailles peace conference. Dmowski worked assiduously with the French to get Haller’s Blue Army transported to Poland and to secure material assistance for Poland’s war effort. Indeed, Dmowski’s diplomacy quickly provided great benefits for Piłsudski when the first elements of Haller’s 65,000-man Blue Army reached Poland in April 1919. Furthermore, French diplomatic pressure on the Ukrainians helped limit their advance while Polish forces were still outnumbered. Haller’s army was sent directly to Galicia, where it spearheaded a counter-offensive. Ultimately, Piłsudski’s forces emerged victorious and the Ukrainian-Polish War ended in July 1919, with Lwów in Polish hands. Furthermore, the important oil refinery at Drohobycz, south-west of Lwów, would provide the Polish Second Republic with vital hard currency. Likewise, the Greater Poland Army managed to hold on to Pomerania and the region – including the so-called ‘Polish Corridor’ – until the Allies awarded the region to Poland in the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919.
Top left: Polish FT tanks of the Polish 1st Tank Regiment during the Battle of Dyneburg, January 1920. Below left: Polish and Ukrainian troops in Kiev, Kiev Offensive (1920) Khreshchatyk, 7 may 1920. Top right: Polish Schwarzlose M.07/12 MG nest during the Battle of Radzymin,August 1920. Middle: Polish defences with a machine gun position near Miłosna, in the village of Janki, the first on the right from the rifle – Jerzy Krępeć, decorated with the Cross of Valor (polish Medal of Honor), battle of Warsaw, August 1920. Bottom left: Russian prisoners on the road between Radzymin and Warsaw after the attack of the Red Army on Warsaw. Bottom right: Polish defensive fighting positions on Belarus, Battle of Niemen, September 1920.
5 stages in the Polish–Soviet War
In early 1919, the Anglo-French made tentative efforts to assist the Polish Second Republic, with both Britain and France sending military missions to Warsaw. The French were sympathetic to Poland and sent 1,500 military personnel to train Piłsudski’s army. In addition to the 276 artillery pieces that arrived with Haller’s Blue Army, the French also delivered 350 additional 75mm guns and stocks of ammunition in August 1919. However, the British military mission accomplished very little, even according to its head, Brigadier Adrian Carton de Wiart. Although Carton de Wiart was sympathetic to the Poles, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George was not. Lloyd George was himself ignorant about conditions in eastern Europe and was influenced by the opinions of two close foreign policy advisors: Sir Lewis Namier and Edward H. Carr. Namier was born a Polish Jew in south-east Poland, but emigrated to England prior to the Great War and anglicized his name. In 1919, Namier became a member of the British delegation at Versailles and he quickly adopted a hostile attitude towards Dmowski’s nationalism and Poland’s border claims. Carr, a Cambridge historian, was also part of the British delegation at Versailles and he became quite enamoured of the Soviet Union, which also caused him to oppose Polish territorial claims. Even though British military forces were still on Soviet territory and supporting the Whites, Lloyd George sought a way to end that commitment and he was eager to develop new trade relations with the Soviets. Despite suggestions at Versailles the Poland should gain Upper Silesia and the southern part of East Prussia, Lloyd George and his protégés opposed this, as well as Piłsudski’s efforts to acquire Galicia and Wilno – which were dubbed ‘imperialistic’. Paderewski’s acquiescence to British demands caused great political strife in Poland, which led to his resignation. Although some English politicians, such as Winston Churchill, were still viscerally opposed to the Soviet Union, they were unwilling to offer substantive military assistance to the Poles. Even the attempted delivery of a few dozen surplus aircraft and surplus German rifles led to protests from English trade unions, which delayed shipment of the meagre arms aid that was authorized. German railroad workers worked to impede arms shipments to Poland across their territory and Czechs also blocked shipments. Consequently, British military aid to Poland in 1919 was negligible. In contrast, Italy provided the Polish government with a monetary loan and delivered a vital shipment of heavy artillery pieces to Danzig in June 1919.
Nevertheless, by spending 49 per cent of Poland’s national budget on his military, by early 1920 Piłsudski had managed to assemble a nominal force of nearly 200,000 men under arms. He even had an armoured regiment with 120 French-made FT tanks and an air arm with about 200 aircraft. Although there was a shortage of trained pilots, foreign volunteers made up some of the deficiency; enough American pilots arrived to form a complete squadron, known as the Kościuszko Squadron. In Paris, Dmowski directed the Polish Military Procurement Mission to purchase very large quantities of ex-German weapons as scrap and send them to Poland, although much of this equipment was worn out. Emboldened by his new armament, Piłsudski was determined to resolve the question of Poland’s eastern borders by force, whether or not the Anglo-French approved. Denikin’s forces had been defeated and the Red Army was now shifting massive forces to its western border to crush Poland. Piłsudski unwisely chose to strike first and took personal command of the Ukrainian Front, while Władysław Sikorski took command of the Lithuanian–Byelorussian Front. By forging an alliance with the defeated Ukrainians, Piłsudski managed to capture Kiev on 7 May 1920. However, a Soviet counter-offensive in June threatened to crush Piłsudski’s over-extended forces and he was forced to withdraw westwards in haste. By early July, the Red Army had seized Vilnius and was pushing towards Warsaw. At this point, the Anglo-French realized that a Bolshevik advance into central Europe was now a distinct possibility and authorized an enlarged military mission, headed by General Maxime Weygand. Allied military aid trickled in to Poland, but no more credit would be offered to Piłsudski’s government to purchase additional equipment. British diplomats impotently demanded that the Red Army stop its advance at the Curzon Line, which was blithely ignored. On 24 July 1920, the Red Army crossed the line and captured the city of Białystok, 175km north-west of Warsaw.
Anticipating a rapid military victory over the Poles, the Soviets took steps to establish a puppet government in Białystok, dubbed the Provisional Polish Revolutionary Committee or Polrevkom. Since Felix Dzerzhinsky (who was also head of the Cheka, secret police) was head of the Polrevkom, there could be little doubt for Piłsudski and his associates what their fate would be if they lost. However, the population of Białystok, which was 75 per cent Jewish, did not relish remaining under Polish jurisdiction and many were enthusiastic about the prospect of communist rule. Furthermore, as Polish historian Halik Kochanski noted, ‘the Polish–Soviet War had an enormous effect within Poland. It reminded the Poles that the Russians, whether tsarist or Soviet, brought repression and subjugation’.
When the Anglo-French failed to provide effective diplomatic or military support, the Poles were left to fend off the Soviet offensive towards Warsaw on their own. Piłsudski lacked the training or experience to plan and co-ordinate the movement of multiple armies in a mobile campaign, so General Tadeusz Rozwadowski was brought back from Paris to serve as head of the Polish General Staff. As the saying goes, ‘victory has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan’, so it has been difficult to accurately gauge who planned the Polish counter-attack, although it is more likely that it was the product of careful staff work, rather than amateur improvisation. In any case, the Polish Army mounted a brilliant counter-offensive which inflicted a catastrophic riposte against the Red Army in the battle of Warsaw. Sikorski’s 5th Army launched a carefully timed pincer attack into the enemy’s flank, spearheaded by tanks, which encircled one Soviet army and threw the rest into chaos. By carefully husbanding their remaining airpower, the Poles were able to gain air superiority around Warsaw and use aircraft to bomb and strafe the enemy. The Red Army’s best units were shattered and routed. Contrary to popular perception that the battle of Warsaw was won primarily by Polish cavalry, only about 5 per cent of Piłsudski’s combat forces were mounted troops. Instead, the Poles fought a modern battle, winning through use of combined arms tactics that properly meshed air operations with infantry, tanks, artillery and cavalry. Shortly after the victory at Warsaw, four Polish air squadrons repulsed the Soviet 1st Cavalry Army’s push towards Lwów by relentless bombing and strafing attacks. As the shattered Red Army retreated in disorder, pursued by the Poles, Lloyd George demanded that Polish forces cease their pursuit at the Curzon Line. Piłsudski ignored him. Instead, in the subsequent Treaty of Riga, the Soviet Union was forced to concede much of Kresy to Poland. Victory had not come cheap to Poland, which suffered over 170,000 military casualties in its eastern border conflicts in 1918–20.
The Polish Air Force (Lotnictwo Wojskowe or LW) also played a significant role in the defeat of the Ukrainians and Russians, by maintaining air superiority over the main battlefields. Flying a mix of Austrian, French, German and British aircraft, the LW flew a total of 5,172 combat sorties during 1918–20 and demonstrated a clear superiority over their Soviet opponents. Indeed, the Poles had an easier time finding skilled pilots (often from abroad) than the Bolsheviks, since most of the tsarist-era Russian pilots opted to join the White forces.
Despite the fact that Poland had regained its independence through the efforts of its own soldiers, the Anglo-French allies subsequently fabricated a false narrative that claimed that Poland owed its existence to their efforts at Versailles and their last-minute military aid. While President Wilson’s Fourteen Points and Dmowski’s diplomacy at Versailles set the stage for international recognition of the reborn Polish state, independence itself was achieved solely through Polish military success. Both Lloyd George and Churchill convinced themselves that Poland owed its independence to their good offices, while ignoring what Polish armies actually achieved in the field in 1919–20. By March 1921, Poland had achieved a tenuous peace and two years later the League of Nations recognized the new Russo-Polish border.
While Piłsudski had been focused on the Russian threat, yet another conflict had been developing in Upper Silesia, which possessed a large Polish population. Germany intended to keep this region, with its heavy industry and coal mines, despite Polish nationalist agitation. German forces easily crushed one Polish uprising in August 1919 and a second in August 1920, resulting in thousands of casualties. The Polish POW formed paramilitary units in Upper Silesia to counter German repression and German Freikorps units swarmed into the region, leading to frequent clashes. Once the Russo-Polish War had been resolved, Poland asked the League of Nations for a plebiscite, to determine the fate of Upper Silesia. In February 1921 the League decided to send a small Allied peacekeeping force to Upper Silesia to monitor the plebiscite and keep order. Prior to the plebiscite, the German government sent in thousands of citizens from outside the region, which skewed the results in favour of Germany. In response, the Polish politician Wojciech Korfanty organized a successful third revolt, which seized much of the eastern portion of Upper Silesia and held it against German counter-attacks. French peacekeeping forces allegedly did little to stop the Polish attacks, since the French government wanted to weaken post-war Germany as much as possible. However, Britain’s leadership was of a different mind and rushed two infantry brigades to the region so it could separate the two warring sides.24 Surprisingly, Korfanty’s rebels held onto the eastern part of Upper Silesia and the League eventually recognized this area as legally part of Poland. Yet while Poland gained valuable iron and coal mines in Upper Silesia, they were virtually indefensible since they were too close to the new border.
The Polish Second Republic desperately needed a period of peaceful stability to organize itself, but this proved elusive due to political in-fighting, an anaemic economy and the persistent concern about another Soviet invasion. Independence had unleashed a cacophony of political voices across the country, each of which demanded some representation in the Sejm and the Senate. Aside from national defence, there were those who thought priority should go to agricultural reforms, while labour groups wanted to focus on driving down unemployment. Poland held its first free legislative elections in November 1922, which resulted in no clear victory for any faction, so the result was a weak coalition government. Significantly, the Bloc of National Minorities (BMN), representing Germans, Jews and Ukrainians in Poland, won the second largest majority in the election. Gabriel Narutowicz, a moderate, was elected president. Piłsudski reverted to strictly military duties, becoming Chief of the General Staff. Two days after the transfer of power, President Narutowicz was assassinated by a right-wing fanatic. In turn, Stanisław Wojciechowski, an ally of Piłsudski, was elected president of Poland and Sikorski became prime minister. Roman Dmowski led an anti-Piłsudski faction in the Sejm, intent upon limiting his powers, but Piłsudski ensured that Dmowski and his right-wing nationalists were frozen out of the government. Nor did it help the new government that the Polish economy was in terrible shape due to hyperinflation and that the primary trade partner was a resentful Germany, which started a tariff war with Poland in 1925. Amazingly, Prime Minister Władysław Grabski’s government managed to partly stabilize the economy within two years by the introduction of a new currency (the złoty) and by stimulating coal production to earn export income. Efforts were also made to develop domestic industrial production (particularly steel and chemicals) and repair national infrastructure, although the bulk of the economy remained focused on agriculture. Unemployment was also very high – up to 12.7 per cent in 1925 – which created further social unrest. In Kraków, Polish Army troops were called in to crush a strike led by Piłsudski’s own PPS; between 30 and 40 strikers were killed.
Due to the threat of another Soviet invasion, Poland was obliged to maintain a very large peacetime army, with over 250,000 troops. Furthermore, Sikorski created the Border Protection Corps (Korpus Ochrony Pogranicza or KOP), of six brigades, to protect the eastern borders. While this force was sufficient to deter another Soviet invasion, it also deprived the cash-strapped military of funds for modernization. Seeking allies and aid, the Poles turned to France, which agreed to sign a defensive military alliance with Poland in February 1921. The French pledged mutual military collaboration in case of an attack by a third party, by which they meant Germany, not the USSR. In addition, France provided Poland with a loan of ₣ 400 million for rearmament and in return, Poland promised to purchase all its arms from France. However, Britain’s efforts to prop up Weimar Germany served to undermine Poland’s security situation. At an international conference at Locarno, Switzerland in 1925, Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Belgium pledged to respect the new borders in Western Europe, but the question of eastern borders was left unresolved. Piłsudski was livid about the Locarno Treaty and stated that it meant that Poland’s borders were not regarded as inviolate by the Anglo-French.
In reaction to Locarno and the worsening economy, Piłsudski became disenchanted with the democratic experiment in Poland and plotted with former legionnaire officers to overthrow the civilian government. Piłsudski regarded the civilian government as too weak and divided to deal with the myriad of serious problems facing the country. The final straw may have been a rumour that the civilian government was about to cut the army by one-quarter as part of a fiscal austerity plan, which Piłsudski believed would compromise Poland’s national security. On 12 May 1926, Piłsudski led a military coup against the government of President Wojciechowski. Although he was able to enter Warsaw with about 3,000 troops, the government held its ground in the Belwedere Palace, surrounded by a loyal infantry regiment. A number of loyalist officers, including Generał Tadeusz Rozwadowski and Generał Stanisław Haller, urged the president to resist and wait for loyal troops from outside Warsaw to arrive. When the government refused to capitulate, scattered fighting broke out in the capital between loyalist and rebel troops for two days. General Rozwadowski ordered Generał Brygady Włodzimierz Zagórski’s aviation group, which remained loyal to the government, to bomb the rebels – which they did. However, Piłsudski was able to rally more troops to his side, including two regiments sent by Edward Rydz-Śmigły. In the face of further bloodshed, the legitimate government decided to surrender on the morning of 15 May. A total of 821 Polish soldiers and 478 civilians were killed or wounded in Piłsudski’s two-day coup – a rather bloody affair.
Piłsudski established an authoritarian regime dubbed the Sanacja (Moral Renewal) and moved quickly to crush his opponents. Most of the senior officers who supported the legal government were arrested and imprisoned, while prominent ex-legionnaires such as Sikorski and Józef Haller had their military careers terminated. Kazimierz Sosnkowski, once Piłsudski’s right-hand man, had not been informed about the coup and after hearing of it, he attempted suicide. Poland had few General Staff-trained officers at this point, but many were cashiered after the coup. General Zagórski simply disappeared after a year in incarceration – possibly liquidated. On the other hand, the officers who had sided with Piłsudski – such as Edward Rydz-Śmigły – were rewarded with positions of greater responsibility in the Sanacja regime. Piłsudski’s coup imposed an authoritarian regime upon Poland which deepened already wide chasms in the body politic and created irreversible fissures in the Polish officer corps, between pro-Piłsudski and anti-Piłsudski officers. Later, about 30 senior officers – mostly from the Polish General Staff – were retired early. In essence, Piłsudski’s coup was a de facto purge, which sidelined many of Poland’s most able military officers in favour of men personally loyal to him. In order to provide the appearance of a civilian government, Piłsudski engineered the election of Ignacy Mościcki, a former chemistry professor, as the new president, so he could focus on foreign affairs and the military. Far from stabilizing Poland, Piłsudski’s Sanacja regime was unable to prevent the economy from sliding into a state of near-collapse by 1927, which was only rescued by a timely emergency loan from France.
Piłsudski decided to allow free parliamentary elections in 1928, but this galvanized the opposition, which included the nascent communist party. The Sanacja regime could not gain a majority at the ballot box and was forced to work with other parties – but compromise was not in Piłsudski’s lexicon. When the opposition began to gel into a real anti-Sanacja coalition known as the Centrolew, Piłsudski opted for repression against them in the 1930 election cycle. Heavy media censorship was imposed and opposition candidates harassed and ultimately arrested, including Wojciech Korfanty, who had gained part of Upper Silesia for Poland. Prominent Poles, such as Ignacy Paderewski, condemned the coup and the resulting Sanacja regime. Rather than saving Poland, the Sanacja regime served to destroy any hope for real political co-operation and the country slid into a republic in name only; this was not the country that Polish patriots had struggled and sacrificed for decades to achieve.
Piłsudski’s charisma and determination – along with the sacrifices of many of his soldiers – had laid the groundwork for a resurrected Polish state. Unfortunately, like many revolutionaries, Piłsudski was imbued with a pig-headed inability to compromise or work with other strong personalities, which deprived the nation of some of its best talent. His tendency to hold grudges against those who opposed him – or favour those who supported him – meant that the Second Republic was skewed towards the views of one man. Poland needed Dmowski, Korfanty, Sikorski and Paderewski as much as it needed Piłsudski, but the man at the top of the pyramid decided that only he was essential. Due to Piłsudski’s authoritarian inclinations, the Polish Second Republic was undermined by a fractured political system which left it particularly vulnerable to the machinations of its neighbours. Furthermore, Piłsudski’s desire to expand Poland’s borders led to the creation of friction with all its neighbours and left large numbers of resentful non-Poles within its borders, thereby providing the casus belli for future conflicts.
The Battle of Kircholm, one of the major battles in the Polish-Swedish War, was fought on September 27, 1605, (or the 17th according to the Old calendar then in use in Protestant countries). The hussars launched a devastating charge against the enemy which ended the battle in the decisive victory of the Polish-Lithuanian forces. It is remembered and celebrated to this day as one of the greatest triumphs of the Polish Hussars.. The battle was decided in all of 20 minutes!
On the eve of battle Swedish forces and that of the Commonwealth assembled near the town of Kircholm (which is about 18km SE of current day Riga, Latvia). The Swedish forces under the command of Charles IX numbered 10,800 men and 11 cannons, and were reinforced by several thousand German and Dutch mercenaries, as well as a few hundred Scots, greatly outnumbering the Commonwealth forces.
The Polish-Lithuanian army, led by the Great Hetman Jan Karol Chodkiewicz, consisted approximately of 1,300 infantry, that is, 1,040 pikemen and 260 musketeers, in addition to 2,600 cavalry, and only 5 cannons. Incidentally, the Polish Crown refused to finance its army, the funds having been obtained from the personal fortune of Chodkiewicz.
Even with numerical superiority the Swedes were at a severe disadvantage. Their troops were less well-trained (though armed with pistols and carbines), had a poorer breed of horses, and were tired after having marched throughout the night in torrential rains. Other the other hand, the Polish-Lithuanian forces were well-rested, confident that their cavalry was superbly trained and were heavily armed with lances. Most came from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and about 200 from the Polish Crown, the remainder of which were either mercenaries or close personal allies of Chodkiewicz. Among these forces were also a small number of Tatars and Polish-Lithuanian cossack horses used mostly for reconnaissance.
The Swedish soldiers were deployed in a checkboard formation in which infantry assembled into 7 or 8 widely spaced blocks, with intersecting fields of fire while the flanks were covered by Swedish and German cavalry, and cannons positioned ahead of the cavalry. In contrast, the Polish-Lithuanian forces were deployed in the traditional format: the left wing, commanded by Dabrowa, was significantly stronger, while the right wing under the leadership of Pawel Jan Sapieha consisted of a smaller number of Hussars while at the centre were 300 Hussars led by Chodkiewicz, as well as a powerful formation of reiters dispatched by the Duke of Courland.
Despite the 1:3 disadvantage of Chodkiewicz forces, he used a feint to lure the Swedish forces from their high position. Thinking that the Commonwealth forces were retreating, the Swedish army was ordered to attack and began to give chase, spreading out their formations as they advanced. This is precisely what Chodkiewicz had planned and at the precise moment, the Commonwealth infantry launched a full-blown attack on the approaching enemy. At this point the Hussars assumed battle formations and charged on the Swedish left flank. At the same time about 300 Polish-Lithuanian Hussars charged the Swedish infantry in the centre to prevent them from interfering with their cavalry action on both of their flanks. Chodkiewicz then ordered his left wing and all reserves to attack the opposing right flank of the enemy.
The Swedish reiters were driven back on both wings and the infantry in the centre was attacked from three sides simultaneously. The Swedish forces turned and ran off in a panic, their whole army having collapsed. It was at this point that the Swedes had suffered their heaviest casualties. Defeat was devastating and complete. Swedish forces had lost more than half, and perhaps as much as two-thirds of their men. Their largest number of losses occurred while retreating in the dense forests and marshes: 8,000 dead or wounded, and 500 captured. The Poles and Lithuanians were fierce warriors and spared few opponents. Commonwealth losses were only about 100 dead and 200 wounded, though the Hussars had lost many of their trained battle horses. That they suffered fewer casualties was largely due to the incredible speed of their victories, not to mention that their horses had also been a shield and protection to the riders.
The Swedish king henceforth abandoned the siege of Riga, relinquished his control of northern Latvia and Estonia, made a complete withdrawal and sailed back to Sweden across the Baltic Sea. Irregardless, the Commonwealth was not capable of exploiting their victory to the fullest owing to the limited financial resources at hand. There was not enough money for military supplies, and for incidentals such as food and fodder for their horses, nor to replace the many horses killed in battle. As a result their military campaign faltered. In 1611 a truce was signed, but by 1617 war broke out again and four years later Gustavus Adolphus, the new Swedish king, succeeded in retaking the city of Riga after a brief siege.
First Polish-Swedish War for Livonia, (1600–1611)
Long an area of contention among Sweden, Poland, and Russia, the Baltic became the locus of fighting yet again when Sweden invaded and occupied most of Estonia and Livonia in 1600. They were halted by the Poles at the fortress city of Riga, where Herman Jan Karol Chodkiewicz (1560-1621) launched a counterattack, driving the Swedes out of most of Livonia with victories at Dorpat (Tartu) and Revel (Tallinn), but failing to secure complete control over the disputed region.
Then, in 1604, Charles IX (1550-1611), the newly declared and ambitious Swedish king, landed a fresh army of 14,000 in Estonia and marched on Riga to try his fortunes against Chodkiewicz. The two armies met at the battle of Kirchholm, where the Poles mustered only some 3,500 men-although 2,500 of them were horsemen in Poland’s heavy cavalry, hailed as the best in Europe. They mounted a savage, reckless charge that swept the Swedes from the field and themselves forever into Polish history. They not only won the battle, they came very close to capturing Sweden’s warrior king himself, and Polish chroniclers would soon be claiming that the bodies of some 9,000 Swedish soldiers littered the abandoned battlefield. Afterward, the war fizzled, and continued only in sporadic fighting until ended by truce in 1611.
Polish-Lithuanian Constitutional development ground to a halt. The extreme libertarian position of the nobility was not redressed. The great Rokosz of 1606-9 ended in a stalemate. The King could do nothing to enlarge his powers. The problem of the succession was not resolved. Although Zamoyski failed to limit the succession to certain named candidates, so, too, did all subsequent attempts to arrange it vivente rege. The elections of 1632 and 1648 were unmemorable. The great officers of state were awarded lifelong tenure. Finance remained firmly in the purview of the nobility.
Some changes were made in military organization. Although the traditional use of massed cavalry brought some success, particularly at Kirchholm in 1605 and at Klushino in 1610, the prestige of the Swedish example led to important modifications designed to increase the army’s firepower. In 1618, the kwarta tax was doubled in order to support improved gunnery, which in 1637 was organized in a separate Corps of Artillery with its own General. The army was divided into two separate formations. One, the so-called ‘National Contingent’, included regiments of Hussars, Cossacks, and Tartars, and was drawn from private retinues and from the noble ‘comrades-in-arms’. The other, the Foreign Contingent, included the regiments of infantry, dragoons, and rajtars, and was freely recruited ‘by the drum’, that is, by colonels who paid and equipped the men themselves. The over-all size of the infantry was much increased, the traditional ‘Hungarian-style’ regiments armed with muskets and halberds being supplemented with new and larger ‘German’ regiments of musketeers and pikemen. In peacetime, the standing army made up of the Royal Guard, the Registered Cossacks, and the Kwarciane numbered some 12,000 men. In wartime, it could be quadrupled without difficulty. Much work was done on fortresses especially at Zamosc in the Italian style, at Danzig, Brody, and Wisnicz in the Dutch style, and at Kudak on the Dnieper by the French engineer, Beauplan. A school of theoretical writing flourished, associated with the names dell’Aqua, Freytag, and Siemienowicz. In Stanistaw Zolkiewski (1547-1620), Crown-Hetman from 1613, Jan Karol Chodkiewicz (1560-1621), Lithuanian Hetman from 1605, and Stanislaw Koniecpolski (1593-1646), Field Hetman of the Crown from 1618 and Grand Hetman from 1632, and Stefan Czarniecki (1599-1665), the Republic saw its most brilliant generation of field commanders. The Royal Fleet, never of much significance, was liquidated in 1641.
Further reading: Norman Davies, God’s Playground: A History of Poland, 2 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982); O. Halecki (with additional material by A. Polonsky and Thaddeus V. Grommada), A History of Poland, new ed. (New York: Dorset Press, 1992); W. F. Reddaway, et al., eds., The Cambridge History of Poland, 2 vols. (reprint, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1971).