Tension between Poland and the Third Reich was already clear from the spring of 1939 and the intensity of flying at the Polish-German border rose on both sides. Poland’s access to the coast was of a special nature (see the map). Its peculiar character lay in the fact that Polish territory divided Germany in effect. The Pomeranian ‘corridor’ that belonged to Poland was located between the bulk of Germany and the territory of East Prussia. In fact the German demand for an ex-territorial motorway through Poland, and the Polish refusal, was one of the direct causes of the war.

Morski Dywizjon Lotnicyzy maintained a continuous combat readiness. New recruits were being trained, and then sent on specialist courses. At the same time a new system of long range reconnaissance was developed. It covered the area from the so-called Lawica Siupska in the west, up to the German port of Pilau (Pilawa) in East Prussia. Usually a few flights a day were flown, providing continuous monitoring of German shipping. These missions were flown by Lublin R-XIIIs, which carried out spying missions ‘by the way’. The Germans were not passive, either, frequently violating Polish airspace. In one case the Polish Lublin R-XIII G/hydro no. 714 performed the role of a fighter, successfully chasing away the German LZ-130 airship from Polish territory. In April 1939 the Dywizjon lost a Lublin R-XIII which crashed at Swarzewo. Usually at the beginning of May each year a three-aircraft Pluton Samolotow Towarzyszacych was detached from the unit at Puck, the aircraft being converted to wheeled undercarriage and subsequently moving to Rumia-Zagorze airfield. Another accident occurred during night flying on 19 May 1939 at 23:00 when a crew failed to locate the airfield and crashed into trees. The crew escaped unhurt, but the aircraft was written off. On 7 August 1939 one R-XIII patrolling its assigned sector observed a large passenger ship, identified as Hansesstadt Danzig. The pilot wanted to take a clear picture of the vessel, and approached it at a very low level. During a sharp turn it side-slipped and crashed into the sea. The Dywizjob thus lost the Lublin R-XIII ter/hydro no. 712. The crew was picked up by a boat from the German ship, and subsequently transferred to the police in the Free City of Danzig. Thus the modest inventory of Morski Dywizjon Lotniczy was reduced by two aircraft.

Pilots of the Danzig flying club mobilised on 24 August 1939, formed on the 31st of that month the Pluton Layznikowy Dowodcy L’ldowej Obrony Wybrzeza, led by ppor. rez. pit. Edmund Jereczek. The Pluton took over two civil RWD 13 aircraft, registered as SP-ATB and SP- BML. The Pluton was reinforced by R-XIII G/hydro no. 718 of Morski Dywizjon Lotniczy.

The main base of the naval aviation had been thoroughly reconnoitred by the Germans, so in the event of war it was assumed that the unit would be evacuated to the Hel Peninsula. After 30 August part of the storage facilities and Oddzial Obrony Ladowej moved to HeI. The aircraft stayed at Puck. On the morning of 1 September 1939, about 6:00 a. m., the first German bomber formation arrived over Puck. This consisted of some 20 Heinkel He Ills from KG 1 of Luftflotte 1. They attacked the base of the Dywizjon, the railway station, and a target ship anchored in the Bay of Puck. Four people were killed, and over a dozen wounded in the raid. The Dywizjon commander, kmdr. por. pil. Edward Szystkowski, was among the dead, passing command to kmdr. ppor. pil.. Kazimierz Szalewicz before he died. Immediate evaluation of the flying equipment to Hel was ordered, as there was no anti-aircraft defence left at Puck by that time. The aircraft were anchored along the Peninsula on the Bay side. The aircraft were left in full view, providing an easy target for enemy aircraft. The RWD-17W was an exception, being on land and hidden in woods. The Nikol A-2 amphibian was anchored in the naval port at Hel. The aircraft were only protected by artillery batteries located at the Peninsula. Against total air superiority, in terms of both quantity and quality, operational capabilities of the unit were largely limited even on the first day of the war. The situation grew worse with the death of the commander and the chaos caused by the unit’s evacuation. An idea to bomb the Schleswig Holstein battleship, anchored in Danzig, and shelling the Polish posts at Westerplatte was not put into life as most of the Lublin R-XIIIs were damaged in a raid by two Heinkel He 59s that took place on the evening of 2 September. The following day the Germans resumed raids, and as a result the strafed Lublins were sunk in the coastal shallows. Only the R-XIII G/hydro no. 714 survived the ordeal. The same day the Cant Z 506B left to travel inland, most ground crews of the unit were to fight alongside ground troops that defended the Peninsula. A surviving Lublin R-XIII was used for the first time on the evening of 6 September, when it flew an hour’s reconnaissance flight over the Bay of Gdansk. The crew consisted of por. pil. Jozef Rudzki and por. pil. obs. Zdzislaw Juszczkiewicz. The flight was uneventful, and activity of small enemy naval craft was detected. Following this successful flight the R-XIII no. 714 took off for another the next night. This time the aircraft, flown by the same crew, was armed with six 12.5 kg bombs, with which it would attack the Schleswig Holstein battleship at Danzig. Upon arrival it was found that the ship had left its previous location. The R-XIII crew noticed a night parade organised in Danzig by the Germans to celebrate the victory over the Polish posts at Westerplatte, the Poles attacked, bombing and then strafing the surprised Germans. Subsequently they returned without problem to their temporary base. These were the only combat missions flown by aircraft of Morski Dywizjob Lotniczy in September 1939. The following day the Germans made a revenge attack against Hel with Ju 87s of 4.1186 Tragerstaffel. During the raid the last serviceable R-XIII, no. 714, and the Schreck FBA 17HE2 were destroyed. Thus on 8 September the RWD 17W and Nikol A-2 were the only airworthy machines, with the exception of the aircraft of Pluton Lijcznikowy Dowodcy Lijdowej Obrony Wybrzeza. The above mentioned Pluton was merged into the Kompania Sztabowa on 1 September 1939 by the orders of Dowodca Lijdowej Obrony Wybrzeija, plk. Stanislaw Dijbek. Initially the aircraft of the Pluton were based at the commercial airfield in Rumia. That is where they were caught (together with two ‘Lot’ Polish Airlines aircraft) by the German raid on the first day of the war at 6:00 a. m. After the raid a Lublin R-XIII G/hydro reinforcing the Pluton arrived at Rumia. The raid did not cause major damage, but accelerated departure of the passenger aircraft inland. Another raid carried out by the Germans the same afternoon failed to inflict damage except for bomb craters. After 4 September the anti- aircraft defences left the airfield, so the Pluton commander ordered the observer’s machine gun of the Lublin R-XIII removed and mounted on a fixed base near the hangar. This provisional post shot down a Junkers Ju 87 on one of the following days, its crew becoming prisoners of war. The Pluton still remained unused. On 9 September the situation became difficult, when the airfield area came under direct enemy fire. The Pluton commander, ppor. pil. Edmund Jereczek, unable to contact his HQ decided to evacuate to the reserve airfield at Nowe Obluze north of Gdynia. Using a short- lived counter-attack by the Polish infantry as cover, the pilots started the engines of their aircraft, and took off straight through the open hangar doors (since the first raid on the morning of 1 September 1939 the aircraft were hidden in old flying club hangars at one side of the airfield). On 13 September plk. Dqbek ordered evacuation of both RWD 13s to Sweden. The Lublin R- XIII would fly to Hel with a report. At that time the nearby base at Puck was already in use by German aircraft. Both RWD 13s took off the same day at 12:30. Immediately after take-off the aircraft started to climb through clouds. When passing through these the pilots lost contact. Given this situation each undertook individual attempts to escape. The first RWD 13, SP- BML, flown by ppor. pil. E. Jereczek managed after flying over 450 km landed at Visborglatt on the island of Gotland. The crew was interned, and the aircraft impressed by the Swedes, who used it until 1952. The other RWD 13, SP-ATB, flown by szer. pil. Wadaw Zarudzki was forced to turn back due to problems with the engine. It landed back at Nowe Obluze airfield after an hour’s flight.

The last surviving aircraft. the Lublin R-XIII G/hydro no. 718, was going to fly on 17 September 1939 an evacuation flight and report to Warsaw. Flown by mat Stefan Czerwinski the aircraft took off that day at about 22:00. Soon after take-off the aircraft crashed into the sea for unknown reasons. The pilot was killed, while an unidentified infantry kapitan survived. The RWD 17, SP- BPB, surviving at the Hel Peninsula, was the last aircraft of the Polish aviation at the coast. It crashed on 30 September 1939 in the hands of ppor. pil. Juliusz Bilewicz during an attempt to fly to Sweden.

During the 1939 campaign the Polish naval aviation flew a total of 27 missions, including 3 combat sorties in a combined time of 13 hours 15 minutes. The activity of the naval aircraft was therefore negligible. This was due to several factors. The most important lay in the overwhelming superiority of the German air force, both in quantity and quality. The efforts of the few who continued in their resistance is all the more praiseworthy. Land fighting in defence of the Hel Peninsula involved some 300 soldiers of the Morski Dywizjon Lotniczy at Puck, led by the unit’s officers.


Luftwaffe 1939 Poland I


The Luftwaffe’s first day of air war began in confusion and fog. The thick white stuff blanketed almost the entire length of the thousand-mile front, thinner in some places but lying impenetrable in others. An early reconnaissance plane flew off to Warsaw, the intended victim of Goering’s plans for Operation Seaside, a mass bombing attack by the combined He.111 groups of both air fleets, and reported a ceiling of only six hundred feet over the Polish capital. The mission was scrubbed and the bomber crews stood down. The reconnaissance pilot reported the skies strangely empty of enemy fighters.

An even more critical mission was canceled in the north, where the weather was worst. The huge steel bridges spanning the Vistula at Dirschau had been selected for quick seizure by the secretly trained paratroopers of General Kurt Student’s elite Seventh Air Division. The spearhead of the Third Army needed the bridge at Dirschau in order to funnel its tanks, motorized infantry, and support elements across the river to link up with Fourth Army once the Corridor had been breached and the breakout from East Prussia accomplished. Capture of the bridge before the Poles could blow it was planned to coincide with the general advance at 4:45 A.M., but with the paratroopers already aboard the clammy interiors of the Ju.52s with engines ticking over, it was seen that an air drop was out of the question. The jump was called off, and the contingency plan substituted at the last minute. Fifteen minutes before H-hour, three Stukas were scrambled from Elbing and streaked for Dirschau, less than ten minutes away. Their mission was to bomb the approaches to the bridge on both sides of the river in an attempt to destroy the wires leading to the demolition charges placed beneath the spans. The Stukas were forced down to 150 feet, but even at this low altitude visibility was minimal. The bombs, a total of three 550-pounders and a dozen 110-pounders, would have to be delivered in a dip-and-run maneuver; there would be no repetition of the Neuhammer disaster. The Stukas reached the bridge area without being fired on and dropped their bombs. The attack was followed an hour later by a flight of Dorniers operating at higher altitude that made pinpoint accuracy impossible, and the best the pilots could report was that fires had been started in the town of Dirschau. Polish engineers stumbled through the craters fishing for the torn wires leading to the charges, and an hour after the Dorniers had droned away, the charges were reset and fired. The bridge rose into the air, then plunged into the river. This, the first Luftwaffe attack of the war, had gone for nothing.

As the morning wore on, visibility began to improve in the interior and the Fourth Air Fleet was able to launch its bombers against the major Polish air bases in the south. Reconnaissance pilots reported the fields in the clear, many of them packed with a variety of Polish aircraft. The bombers struck at a dozen fields that morning — Lvov, Katowice, Krosno and nine others. Hardest hit was the airdrome at Krakow, only fifty miles from the border. Sixty He.111s appeared over Krakow and carpet-bombed the field from twelve thousand feet. The Heinkel gunners stared into the sky, expecting an onslaught of fighters, but all they could see were the escorting Me.110s high overhead. The first strike was followed by a classic Stuka attack in group strength that saw thirty-odd JU.87s plunging down to unload thirty tons of bombs on hangars, shops and parked aircraft. Now the slender Do.17s raced across the field, streaming 110-pounders that tore up runways and scattered wreckage left by the others. The field at Krakow was turned into a smoking shambles and the Luftwaffe had not sustained a single casualty. Other strike groups returned from sorties to report similar results. Here and there isolated Polish fighters were seen, but no real opposition was encountered. Was the enemy to allow its air force to be destroyed on the ground without a fight? To air crews and senior commanders alike, the behavior of the Poles was puzzling, and even a little disquieting.

To the Polish army, outnumbered in any case by almost two to one, the absence of fighter cover to keep away the German reconnaissance planes perpetually buzzing overhead, and to drive off what followed, spelled doom. To meet the left wing of the German Tenth Army’s thrust toward the Warta River, the Polish commander in chief, Field Marshal Smigly-Rydz, ordered three thousand men of a cavalry brigade, plus supporting units, to drive westward toward the village of Wielun, twelve miles from the German frontier. A Luftwaffe reconnaissance plane, scouting the terrain for targets of opportunity, spotted the dust raised on Poland’s dry roads and flew back to base with the position marked on his map. Thirty minutes later, shortly before one o’clock in the afternoon, the slaughter began.

The Stukas fell on the struggling, two-mile-long column of men, horses and wagons before it could disperse into the fields and nearby woods. The sky rained bombs and the earth heaved with their heavy detonations. Animals and men were dismembered and wagons blown to splinters. The terrified horses bolted from the road, and many were cut down by machine-gun fire delivered by Stukas strafing at treetop level after they had unloaded their bombs. Dead and dying horses and wrecked vehicles piled up on the narrow road and in the ditches, blocking the way for those who frantically sought escape from the howling Stukas. What had been a tightly disciplined military brigade became a struggling, disorganized mob. The Stukas, bothered only by light flak coming from the town, dive-bombed at leisure, howling down to 2500 feet before pulling out and climbing back up to execute second and third parabolas of destruction. A hundred and twenty bombs were hurled on the defenseless Poles; then the JU.87s formed up and flew away. They were replaced by a fresh group, whose pilots hounded the survivors on the road and in the fields and in the town. When the Stukas had finished their work, thirty Do.17s of K.G.77 appeared over Wielun and unloaded on the fleeing cavalry squadrons. The Polish cavalry brigade had been wiped out, and not one Polish fighter had appeared during the hours of its destruction.

By late afternoon on the first day of war, the Luftwaffe had good reason to believe that the Polish air force had been destroyed on the ground. But this was not the case. The burning wreckage that littered the dozen airfields plastered by German bombers was not that of Poland’s first-line aircraft, but were the remains of old trainers and aircraft that were not immediately serviceable. Forty-eight hours before Poland was invaded, all of the airworthy fighters, bombers and reconnaissance planes had been moved to emergency airstrips and were being saved largely for the defense of Warsaw. Explained Major F. Kalinowski, “It seems quite naive of the Germans to have believed that during the preceding days of high political tension, and with their own obviously aggressive intentions, we would leave our units sitting at their peacetime bases … the Germans’ opening air blast completely failed in its purpose …”

Moreover, German Intelligence grossly overrated the strength of the Polish air force on the day war began; it numbered not 900 aircraft, but only 396, and of these but 160 were fighters. The Polish fighters, most of them PZL P.11s, were gullwinged monoplanes of a design dating back to 1931. Top speed at sea level was only 186 miles per hour, but at 18,000 feet, the P.11 could do 240 miles per hour, which was fast enough to catch German bombers flying at that altitude. The majority of P.11s were armed with only two light machine guns, but later versions carried four. It was not until late that afternoon that the P.11s were committed to battle in force.

A few minutes past 5:30 P.M. the first German bombers appeared over Warsaw — ninety He.111s of K.G.27, escorted by thirty-six Me.110s. Thirty P.11s climbed up to get at the Heinkels, but were bounced first by the Me.110s, and in the melee that followed, five of the P.11s were shot down. On the second day of battle, the light, maneuverable Polish fighters began to take the measure of the faster but clumsier Me.110s. In a duel over Lodz, sixty miles west of Warsaw, outnumbered P.11s shot down three Messerschmitts and lost only two of their own. Two days later, however, when the P.11s went for a bomber formation, they were bounced by Me.109s, which simply shot them to pieces; eleven Polish fighters were blown out of the sky. Polish survivors of these air battles would limp back home only to find that Stukas and Dorniers had been there first, leaving the runways cratered and the hangars and fuel dumps blazing. After the first forty-eight hours of war, the Luftwaffe hammering of communications rendered impossible any systematic defense. The telephone and teleprinter systems were gone, and interception became a matter of hazard. Spares were unobtainable, grounding one plane after another.

On September 3, with the German assault developing into a pincers movement deep inside the frontier, France and Great Britain declared war on Germany. Now, thought Field Marshal Smigly-Rydz, his allies would move quickly and overwhelmingly against the common enemy to relieve the irresistible pressure against his own beleaguered forces. Poland might yet be saved.

In the House of Commons, debate swayed back and forth over what form the initial strike by the Royal Air Force against Germany should take. It was suggested to Sir Kingsley Wood, the State Secretary for Air, that Bomber Command should be turned loose with masses of incendiary bombs to set ablaze the Black Forest. The suggestion was received with horror. “Are you aware,” Sir Kingsley said archly, “that it is private property? Why, you will be asking me to bomb Essen next!” Instead, ten twin-engine Blenheim bombers of No.107 and No.no Squadrons set off across the North Sea after lunch on September 4 in weather so bad they were flying in and out of clouds between fifty and a hundred feet over the water. The Blenheims reached Wilhelmshaven and attacked German warships lying in Schillig Roads. Three hits were scored on the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer, but all bounced off the armored deck without exploding. Five of the ten Blenheims were shot down by ship-and shore-based antiaircraft guns, one of them plunging in flames on top of the cruiser Emden. Fourteen Vickers Wellingtons from No.9 and No.149 Squadrons managed to reach the port of Brunsbüttel, but the flak was so hot and the visibility so poor that the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau lying there were in little danger. Neither was hit, but one of the Wellingtons was brought down in flames by antiaircraft fire, and another was bagged by one of the Me.109s of J.G.77 sent out from Nordholz to deal with the British incursion. Aside from these abortive — and costly — attempts to deal deathblows to the German fleet, the RAF dispatched bombers over Hamburg, Bremen, and the Ruhr. Not one plane carried bombs; they showered down leaflets instead. Such was the British government’s contribution to Poland during its hour of agony.

Four months prior to the German assault on Poland, the supreme commander of all French ground forces, General Maurice Gamelin, sixty-eight, had assured the Polish government that the French army would launch an offensive against Germany immediately after the war started. It was not until September 7 that the French army moved out of its own country and entered the Saar, using only nine out of the eighty-five divisions that were available. On a narrow front only fifteen miles wide, the French advanced timidly, averaging less than two thousand yards per day against almost no opposition. By September 12, the “offensive” halted after gaining five miles of ground and the capture of twenty deserted villages. The French troops were ordered to dig in where they were, that is, at the approaches to the sketchily built Siegfried Line. A few shots were exchanged, and some French soldiers were killed by mines and booby traps set by the Wehrmacht for looters in the abandoned towns, but that was all. Two weeks later, the French invaders were headed back to the underground security of the Maginot Line, without having drawn off a single soldier, airplane or tank from the battleground that was Poland.

Field Marshal Smigly-Rydz never forgave Gamelin for the lies the French general presented as truth when the Polish General Staff requested information as to what, exactly, France was doing to alleviate their nation’s plight. Wrote Gamelin on September 9: “More than half of our active divisions on the northeast front are engaged in combat … the Germans are opposing us with a vigorous resistance … the Germans are reinforcing their battlefront with large new formations … We know we are holding down before us a considerable portion of the German Air Force …” One wonders where Gamelin summoned the nerve to present all this, over his own signature, to the Polish commander in chief through the military attaché in Paris.

By the end of the first week of fighting, the Polish army no longer existed as an organized combat force. The swift-moving Panzers and motorized infantry sundered entire armies and corps again and again, until all that was left were pockets of stubborn resistance, one isolated from the other and all cut off from supplies or reinforcements. The Luftwaffe bombers had worked over Polish rail lines so thoroughly that no trains could run, and any transport that ventured onto the roads was quickly dealt with by Stukas and strafing fighters. Only once did the Wehrmacht find itself in serious trouble, and when it did, the Luftwaffe’s quick reaction proved decisive.

In its headlong dash to reach the gates of Warsaw by September 8, Reichenau’s Tenth Army Panzers outstripped the Eighth Army’s infantry divisions, trying vainly to maintain contact with the Tenth Army’s northern flank. Now it was a German force, four divisions plus supporting elements, that was in a pocket on the south side of the Bzura River, some sixty miles west of Warsaw.

Here was the opportunity the Polish commander of the Army of Poznan, General Kutrzeba, had been waiting for. When the Germans smashed across the frontier on September 1, Kutrzeba had deployed his infantry and cavalry in a defensive posture and waited to deal with the mechanized invaders as best he could. But the German spearheads bypassed his army on both flanks, leaving Kutrzeba poised to deliver a blow that had nowhere to land. With the heavy combat moving eastward, Kutrzeba began marching his men to the sound of the guns. Experience at such places as Wielun had shown that large formations could not survive under a sky dominated by German planes, so Kutrzeba wisely laid up by day, sheltering his men and horses deep in the woods, and moved only at night. Stragglers from regiments already shattered by the Germans appeared to add their numbers to the Army of Poznan, including a wary handful of cavalrymen whose brigade had been largely wiped out in a charge across the plains to take on a regiment of German tanks. By the time Kutrzeba’s army reached the village of Kutno, sixty-five miles west of Warsaw, its numbers had increased to approximately 170,000 men. Kutrzeba concentrated only his assault forces, dispersing the others between the Vistula and the Bzura in an area covering something like six hundred square miles of plains, forests, and lakes. Kutrzeba sent out cavalry and armored patrols and discovered that the German rear guard, which he greatly outnumbered was deployed just across the Bzura. On September 9, the Poles swarmed across the river and fell on the Germans. Hard fighting went on all during the night and into the next day. Polish cavalry and what few light tanks Kutrzeba had at his disposal cut deep wedges into the German line, and the Eighth Army’s 30th Infantry Division was especially hard hit. The commander of Army Group South, General Gerd von Rundstedt, got on the phone to General Kesselring and demanded immediate and overwhelming air support for the mauled German troops at Kutno. Kesselring knew exactly which call to make first: straight on to Richthofen and his Special Duty Group.


Luftwaffe 1939 Poland II


No other general was more current with the situation on the ground than Richthofen. When duty did not absolutely require him to be inside his command post, he was either up near the front with his specially equipped signals units — or he was over enemy territory in the cockpit of a Fiesler Storch doing personal reconnaissance. He had already been shot down once, on the first day of the war, by flak that crippled his light plane but left him unharmed. Richthofen had at his beck and call a reconnaissance squadron, two Stuka groups, a group of Me.110s, and a group of ground-attack planes that looked like updated versions of World War I fighters. Thus, like a surgeon or a master carpenter, Richthofen could reach for the right tool to do the job at hand.

The biplanes assigned to the air operations around Kutno were HS.123A-IS, built around a massive BMW 880-horsepower radial engine that provided a top speed of just over 210 miles per hour. But neither speed nor ceiling mattered with the Hs.123, which was meant to operate right down on the deck; five hundred feet was considered extreme altitude to the pilots who flew these ground-attack planes. The “Ein-Zwei-Drei,” as it was sometimes called, could carry a variety of armament: a pair of twin 7.9-millimeter machine guns firing through the propeller, or a pair of 20-millimeter cannon in pods under the wings, or underwing containers loaded with ninety-four small (4.4 pound) antipersonnel bombs, or four 110-pound high explosive bombs. Moreover, the HS.123s carried a small auxiliary fuel tank underneath the fuselage fitted with a special igniter so that it could be jettisoned with a napalmlike effect, a tactic borrowed from He.51 units operating with the Condor Legion in Spain. Originally designed as a dive-bomber and built by Henschel, the locomotive-makers, the solid Hs.123 could absorb more flak than any other Luftwaffe plane in service and still keep flying. Protected by the big radial engine in front, and with an armored headrest at the rear, Hs.123 pilots’ chances of survival when operating at zero altitude were better than most. The Henschels had proved themselves in Spain from 1937 onward, but in Poland they were a sensation.

The Hs.123 group, II/L.G.2, began the war with thirty-six operational planes, and after ten days of almost continuous action, thirty still remained. Richthofen threw them all against Kutrzeba’s assault forces late in the morning of September 11. The Henschels roared down on the Polish concentrations in a corridor thirty to fifty feet high separating the Poles from the Germans.

To Kutrzeba’s men, almost none of whom had been under air attack before, the next twenty minutes were like a nightmare in hell. The machine guns cut swaths in the ranks of men and horses; hundreds of the lightweight scatter bombs flamed and exploded; the heavier detonations of the 110-pounders tore gouts out of the earth, ripped through trees and flung jagged metal shards thudding into men and animals. Even when the last of the various missiles had been delivered, the 123s were not finished with their low-level attacks: the pilots discovered that when the BMW engine was pushed to 1,800 rpm, the resultant effect on the three-bladed, variable-pitch airscrew produced an ear-splitting and indescribable sound that was both inside and outside of the man subjected to it. Even hardened soldiers were unnerved, and ran in all directions to escape; horses simply went insane. The Henschels were followed by Stukas, which were followed by Dorniers and Heinkels pulled out of the battle for Warsaw, and they in turn were followed by cannon and machine-gun-firing Me.110s. The assault on the battered 30th Infantry Division was stopped cold, and the survivors of the day-long air attack began withdrawing across the river under the merciful cover of darkness. The wounded were, for the most part, brought back aboard whatever vehicles were left, and cavalrymen walked through the carnage left by Richthofen’s pilots’ putting pistol and rifle bullets into the heads of the wounded horses.

Dawn brought the return of the Henschels and a repetition of the horrors of the day before. The Army of Poznan was forced back into its twenty-by-thirty-mile enclave that became a Luftwaffe shooting gallery. The Poles replied with rifles, machine guns, and light flak, knocking down some of their tormentors, but the numbers thrown at the pocket from all around the compass were overwhelming. No square foot of that blasted area was safe. Recalled General Kutrzeba: “A furious air assault was made on the river crossings near Witkovice which, for the number of aircraft engaged, the violence of their attack and the acrobatic daring of their pilots, must have been unprecedented. Every movement, every troop concentration, every line of advance came under pulverizing bombardment from the air … The bridges were destroyed, the fords blocked, the waiting columns of men decimated … Three of us found some sort of cover in a grove of birch trees outside the village of Myszory. There we remained, unable to stir, until about noon when the air raids stopped. We knew it was only for a moment, but had we stayed there the chances of any of us surviving would have been slight.”

Kutrzeba tried to fight his shaken forces out of the trap and the hell of air attack, but found himself fenced in on all sides by the German Fourth, Eighth, and Tenth Armies, part of the latter having been ordered back from the siege of Warsaw to complete the encirclement of the Army of Poznan. On the sixteenth and seventeenth, the Luftwaffe delivered all-day attacks on the shrinking perimeter, and after that resistance was futile. Fifty thousand haggard Polish soldiers surrendered on the next day, and 105,000 gave themselves up on the day afterward. A few thousand of Kutrzeba’s men managed to escape through the German net before it was drawn too tightly, wading through marshes by night and hiding by day. But all the rest were either herded into captivity or lay mute in the fields and in the forests around Kutno.

At first light on the morning of September 17, Russian tanks and infantry rolled into Poland. The advance was swift and orderly against practically no opposition; what was left of the Polish army was penned inside Warsaw, surrounded by German armor at Modlin and in the Kampinoska Forest thirty miles north of the capital, while a pitifully small number of troops were still fighting desperately with their backs against the sea trying to hold Gdynia and Danzig, which the Poles called Gdansk. As agreed in Moscow three weeks earlier, the Red Army ground through Poland until it reached the partition line halfway across the country, a line running south from East Prussia past Brest-Litovsk and to the Carpathians. There the Soviets halted, waiting for the Wehrmacht to finish the kill; the carcass had already been divided.

The Wehrmacht used all its arms to methodically reduce the pocket of resistance on the Baltic. The area here is flat and featureless, except for a low ridge stretching seven miles inland from the sea. Initial advances across the hard sand were stopped by vicious and accurate Polish machine-gunning and heavy rifle fire. With no wish to incur needless casualties, the assault elements of the Third Army moved in its heavy artillery and began bombarding the area with high explosive. The fire was regulated by one of the German navy’s Heinkel reconnaissance planes that buzzed overhead, wirelessing back corrections. The small island of Westerplatte, lying in the sea just off Danzig, stubbornly resisted the shelling and the tentative infantry advances. During the shelling, Polish defenders took shelter in one of the huge steel-and-concrete bunkers that proved impervious to the guns the German artillery had at hand. The battleship Schleswig-Holstein anchored in the bay and opened up with its eleven-inch guns. The concrete was seared and pitted, but still the great dome of the bunker remained intact. Then Stukas were called in, and in the ensuing half hour succeeded where the battleship had failed. The 550-pound bombs delivered with stunning accuracy smashed through ten feet of reinforced concrete to mangle everyone inside. Those who had sought cover in trenches because there was no more room inside the bunkers counted themselves lucky. The Westerplatte fell, and in a gesture reminiscent of the nineteenth century, the German commander allowed his Polish counterpart to retain his sword as a Wehrmacht tribute to Polish courage. There now remained Warsaw, whose ordeal had lasted longer than that of any other city in Poland.

Trapped inside the beautiful old city were nearly a hundred thousand Polish troops. They were joined in trench-digging and in converting buildings to strongpoints by civilian men, women, and even children determined to defend the city to the last. On the day after the Russians crossed the Polish frontier, the leaders of the government and even Field Marshal Smigly-Rydz made their way out of the doomed country and sought temporary sanctuary in Rumania. Leaderless, Warsaw fought on.

The skies over the city were never free of German planes. All that was left to defend Warsaw was a spontaneously formed unit calling itself the Deblin Group, composed of older P.7s, what was left of the P.11s, and one example of a PZL P.24, which looked much like the others except for a closed cockpit. One of the instructors at the Polish air force training center at Deblin, a lieutenant named Szczesny, commandeered one of two pre-production P.24s, and with the help of an armorer, installed a pair of machine guns. Thus equipped, he attached himself to the Deblin Fighter Group. Lieutenant Szczesny and the plane’s designer had every reason to be proud of the P.24; he shot down one German bomber on September 14, and bagged another on the following day.

The almost continual air bombardment and shelling by German artillery — and some of the heavier pieces had been transferred away from the west to aid in the reduction of the capital — cloaked Warsaw in a perpetual cloud of smoke through which fires could be dimly seen. Richthofen complained of “chaos over the target,” of “aircraft nearly colliding in the act of bombing.” Only rarely were German pilots able to pinpoint their assigned military targets, and the city suffered indiscriminate bombing.

By mid-month, Goering considered that the situation in Poland was such that mass transfer of Luftwaffe units back to the west for rest and refitting was indicated. One group after another was pulled out and returned to home bases in Germany, leaving Richthofen, now in charge of winding up aerial operations over Warsaw, with less than half the bombers with which the Luftwaffe began the campaign. But, as events were to prove, it was all that he needed.

On the morning of September 25, a diluted version of Operation Seaside began. First over the city were swarms of Stukas, stacked up in groups several thousand feet apart, waiting their turn in line to scream down into the cauldron below. After two hundred-plus JU.87s had flung themselves at the city, the first heavy bombers appeared. Richthofen was loath to send them in; they were not the He.111s designed for the job, but thirty JU.52s fitted out for troop-carrying missions, and therefore were without bomb racks. The cargo doors were removed and crewmen used coal shovels to scoop up the loose thermite incendiary bombs, which were sown over the city by the ton. Sortie after sortie was flown until Warsaw floated in a sea of fire. Two of the lumbering Ju.52s. were shot down by Polish flak and fell into the inferno they had created. Attempts to battle the flames had to be abandoned; the rain of high explosive, totaling five hundred tons, had smashed water mains and choked the streets with rubble that had once been proud buildings. The pyre that was Warsaw blazed brightly, the flames visible in the nighttime sky fully ten miles away.

Surrender negotiations began the following morning, and on August 27 the capitulation was made formal. With Warsaw, so fell Modlin and the diehards still holding out in the forest of Kampinoska. Thus a nation of thirty-five million was delivered into the hands of her enemies. The cost to the Wehrmacht was relatively cheap: 10,761 killed in action, including 189 pilots and air crew. The Luftwaffe lost 285 planes, mostly victims of intense ground fire during the low-level operations that had been so effective.

The Afternoon at the Kahlenberg

Kahlenberg Mountain near Vienna on 12 September 1683




All reports agree that, on this day of blistering sunshine, there was a pause in the fighting at noon. It was a pause to recover breath, but the allied commanders were also determined not to weaken their position by pressing too far forward on their left before the right wing had begun to put pressure on the Ottoman defence. Concealed by the folding of the ground, and the thickness of woods, the pace of the Polish advance was difficult to estimate; it certainly appeared somewhat slow. But no one underestimated the importance of these troops, who were expected to come down the Alsbach, a tributary stream descending to the houses at Dornbach and ultimately to Hernals: a line of march which would bring the attack much closer to the main Turkish camp and to the Grand Vezir’s headquarters.

Some historians have blamed the Poles for their sluggishness, but it would be more helpful if evidence were found which explained why they were sluggish. Many Polish detachments were well behind the regiments of the left and centre already on the previous day, and can only have reached the upper ridges late in the evening, hungry and tired; there are no records which show how complete their preparations were during the night of 11th September. Even in the case of the German regiments put at John Sobieski’s disposal, it is known that they were in position on the Galitzinberg—well forward, and on the extreme right—by the time serious fighting began in this area, after midday; but it is not known whether they were already in position in the early hours of morning. Another possibility is that, when the council of war ended on the 11th Sobieski was by no means clear that the attack would begin at dawn, and therefore did not give positive instructions to his officers to make ready for action. The Turkish raids above Nussdorf, in conjunction with Lorraine’s purposeful itch to try and relieve Vienna without delay, altered the whole situation. But it took the King of Poland most of the morning, while fierce fighting continued on his left, to advance his right wing. He was already past his prime as an instinctive war-leader, a slow and very corpulent man who now lacked the energy to dominate a crisis on the battlefield; nor were the discipline and promptness of his aristocratic cavalry generals very marked, in spite of their many other military virtues.

Moreover, although it was a relatively simple matter to occupy the higher ground on both sides of the Alsbach, the descent of large numbers of men into the valley proved more arduous. Even then the greatest difficulty of all remained, to get them out of this narrow avenue of approach and reorganise them as a battle-formation, strong enough to meet a massive Turkish attack; the Turks were bound to try and interrupt and to crush the whole unwieldly manoeuvre. By one o’clock the Polish vanguard had reached Dornbach, where the woods and the slopes die away. They became visible to the forces anxiously waiting far away on their left. Shouts of joy and relief from the Germans saluted them, and dismayed the enemy. The heights on both sides of the Alsbach were in firm and friendly hands. From those on the left, the King himself directed operations, and he was in touch with the Franconian units and their leaders to his left. On the right Hetman Jablonowski commanded the Poles, some German infantry held the Galitzinberg, and a certain amount of support from artillery was assured. Fortunately the scattered Tartar forces still farther south were never a serious nuisance in this quarter. The future depended on the heroism and energy of the Polish centre under General Katski as it emerged from the narrower part of the Alsbach valley.

First of all select troops of volunteer hussars advanced. After a momentary success the Turks pushed them back, and then the conflict swayed uncertainly to and fro. It cannot be stated with any certainty whether the final result was determined by the steady refusal of these Poles on the lower ground to give up the costly struggle, or by the efforts of German foot soldiers coming down from the Galitzinberg, or by the extra forces which Sobieski threw in (aided by reinforcements of Austrian and Bavarian cavalry) from the heights on the left. After a fearful tussle the Turks gave way; their horsemen fled, and took shelter with the Turkish infantry and guns on a defensive position farther back. Sobieski now began to deploy his whole force on more level ground, having swung them slightly round so that they faced south-east. They were arranged in two lines, the intervals in the first being covered by contingents in the second. As before, Habsburg and Bavarian cavalry stood behind them on their immediate left. There were more Polish horsemen and dragoons on the right.

This achievement altered the whole face of the battle. The Polish wing of the army had caught up with the left and centre. It was a strong position, won after a hard-fought day. The great question, now, was whether to stop or to launch a further attack. Undoubtedly Lorraine himself wanted to press forward; and there is probably something in the famous story that when one experienced general, the Saxon commander Goltz, was asked for his opinion, he replied: ‘I am an old man, and I want comfortable quarters in Vienna tonight.’ Waldeck agreed. Sobieski agreed. They must have all based their hopes on signs of disorder and exhaustion in the enemy troops facing them. On one wing, the relieving army was two miles away from the walls of Vienna at their nearest point. On the other, it was a little more than two miles to Kara Mustafa’s headquarters in St Ulrich.

Preparations to mount an overwhelming attack were made along the whole front. At 3.20, in the fiercest heat of the afternoon the action began again on the left. The Turkish position here ran along the Vienna side of the Krottenbach (a stream reaching the Canal near Heiligenstadt) but soon turned to the south-west, where it faced first the centre of the Christian army, and then the Poles. The Turk’s resistance was ineffectual, and they soon began to withdraw rapidly to the left wing of Kara Mustafa’s defence. Some of the Habsburg troops at once made straight towards the nearest siegeworks of the city, others swung to the right. The same thing happened on the central part of the front: the Saxons, and then the troops of the Empire, pushed forward again—and swung to the right. The Poles had meanwhile thrown everything they had into their attack on the main armament of the Turks. For a short while the battle was doubtful; but the thrust of the Bavarian troops (under Degenfeld and Max Emmanuel himself), and then of other troops coming up from the more northerly sectors, weakened the flank of the Turkish position; the Poles finally plunged forward with their cavalry to sweep southwards. Here, other Turkish units made an obstinate stand; they had their backs to the River Wien, and when they finally gave way Kara Mustafa ran a real risk of being cut off by swift cavalry movements in his rear from any possible line of retreat. Meanwhile the bodyguards of the Grand Vezir resisted desperately when the Poles began to enter his great encampment from the west. On its northern side, Janissaries and other household troops were still fighting hard; the Franconians under Waldeck, and on his initiative, seem to have given Sobieski useful support in this final phase of the struggle. The total collapse of the Turks began, and when their soldiers still in the galleries and trenches in front of the Hofburg were instructed to come to the rescue of those in the camp, they fled. Kara Mustafa himself then retreated in perilous and disorderly haste, though he succeeded in taking with him the great Moslem standard, the Flag of the Prophet so vainly displayed on this bitter occasion, and the major part of his stock of money. Many other Turkish leaders and contingents had already left the battlefield several hours before; and so ended one of the most resounding of all Christian victories, and Ottoman defeats. By five-thirty the battle was over. Vienna was saved. The plundering began.

An Irish officer summarised the events of the day in his own terse way: ‘If the victory be not so complete as we promised ourselves it should, it proceeded only from the cowardice of our enemies, whom from morning till night we drove before us, beating them from post to post, without their having the courage to look us in the face, and that through several defiles, which had they any reasonable courage we could never have forced. The combat held longest where the King of Poland was, but that only added to his glory, he having beaten them with the loss of their cannon and their men; they have left us their whole camp in general, with their tents, bag and baggage, and time will tell us more particulars.’

Polish Revolutions


Battle at Miłosław, 1868 painting by Juliusz Kossak.

The central European nation of Poland spent much of its history between the 17th and 20th centuries struggling for the right to exist as an independent nation. Yet, throughout this period, the rebellious spirit of the Polish people was never completely eradicated. In a series of agreements negotiated in the late 18th century, the neighboring nations of Russia, Prussia, and Austria partitioned Poland, with each country adding parts of he country to its own territory. It was not until 1918, at the end of World War I, that Poland established its own independence, only to be invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union during World War II.

After the war, Poland became a Soviet satellite, although it was more tolerantly governed than was common. The Solidarity movement of the 1980s paved the basis for a turn toward democracy in the 1990s when the Soviet bloc was dissolved.

In 1807 France created the Duchy of Warsaw out of land it had taken from Prussia and enlarged the territory in 1809 by taking land from Austria. However, French expansion into Polish territories was halted in 1815 by the defeat of the French in the Napoleonic Wars. As part of the war spoils set out in the Treaty of Venice, Russia was granted control of the Kingdom of Poland. Initially, Czar Nicholas I allowed Poland to exist in a semi-autonomous state. However, in 1830, he made the decision to call up the Polish army to assist in his efforts to halt the move toward democratization in Belgium and France. His actions gave rise to a new wave of Polish nationalism, and a newly awakened sense of rebellion led to the first Polish revolution. The revolution was in large part a response to the French and Belgian revolutions and to the emergence of democratic socialism in Poland.

Hostilities began on the night of November 29, 1830, when a group of civilians attacked Belweder Palace. Their aim was to kill the first viceroy of Poland, the Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich Romanov. Constantine was the grandson of Catherine the Great of Russia. Ironically, Constantine had organized the Polish army and was a strong supporter of the Poles. He considered himself more Polish than Russian and had married a Pole, Johanna Grudzinska, in May 1820. In the confusion that accompanied the attack, Constantine managed to escape. Because he was hesitant to attack those whom he considered his own people, he refused to order his troops to counterattack.

Simultaneously with the attack on the palace, cadets from Warsaw Military College overwhelmed Russian forces along the Austrian and Prussian borders. The cadets captured a number of generals, executing those who refused to join the revolutionary movement. The revolution gained strength as it spread to Lithuania, where the revolt was spearheaded by Emilia Plater. Plater, who died a heroine, was representative of the many women who took up arms to fight for Polish independence. Convinced that victory was within their grasp, the revolutionary government expelled Russian garrisons, deposed the Romanov dynasty, and established its own government.

Ultimately, Russian forces, which initially outnumbered the Polish forces 10 to one, overwhelmed the Poles and Liths who were weakened by indecisive military leaders, and recaptured Warsaw in September 1831. Without mercy, Russia apprehended more than 25,000 prisoners and exiled them to Siberia. The leader of Polish romanticism, poet Adam Mickiewicz, was one of those sent into exile. Although he was not exiled, the composer Frédéric Chopin left Poland at this time but continued to express his despair over the Polish situation in his musical compositions.

After the war, the czar began the Russification of Poland with the intention of eradicating any remaining tendencies toward Polish nationalism. He was unsuccessful, however, and only caused Polish rebels to go underground as they waited for a new opportunity to rid themselves of the Russian invaders. A subsequent uprising in 1846 in the Free City of Kraków and in those cities along the Austrian border was halted by the quick and brutal action of Austria and her allies.

When Alexander II ascended to power in Russia in 1855, he exhibited more tolerance toward Poland and reinstated the semi-autonomous state that had existed before the first revolution. While the majority of the Polish people were delighted to regain some of the ground that had been lost, revolutionary groups stepped up their efforts to incite rebellion. When the government attempted to draft the rebels into the army, insurrections broke out in January 1863 and again spread into Lithuania and into what was known as White Russia.

This conspiracy that developed into the second Polish revolution originated at the School of Fine Arts and the Medical Surgical Academy in Warsaw in 1861. Most revolutionaries split along ideological lines into the radical Reds who seized control of the revolution through the Central National Committee and the more moderate Whites. Members of the Whites, generally the landowning and bourgeoisie classes, saw alliances with Britain and France as more likely avenues toward eventual independence than taking up arms against the powerful Russian government and military. Splinter groups also surfaced. When the revolt began, Poland was operating without an organized army and was forced to depend on guerrilla fighters to engage Russian forces.

By the mid-19th century, the Kingdom of Poland had become home to large numbers of Ukrainian peasants who did not share the Polish desire for independence. This lack of unity within Poland provided Russia with excellent opportunities to undercut Polish efforts toward independence. Among the Polish population, participation was widespread. Out of a population of some 4 million people, an estimated 200,000 individuals took up arms at some point in the second Polish revolution.

When Russian forces prevailed in May 1864, the czar was determined to wipe out all elements of Polish nationalism. Once the Russian administration was entrenched in Poland, all Polish children were required to learn Russian. The Roman Catholic Church, which was seen as instrumental in keeping Polish nationalism alive, came under close scrutiny. In order to exert its right to control Poland, the czar also confiscated a good deal of land and curtailed Polish autonomy. Even though the Poles had been defeated, the desire for independence had been roused in many young people, particularly university students. It was those individuals who kept Polish nationalism alive during the following decades.

Further reading: Biskupski, Mieczyslaw B. The History of Poland. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000; Davies, Norman. Heart of Europe: The Past in Poland’s Future. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001; Leslie, R. F., ed. The History of Poland Since 1863. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980; Naimark, Norman M. The History of the “Proletariat”: The Emergence of Marxism in the Kingdom of Poland, 1870–1887. New York: Colombia University Press, 1979.

Poland Pre-WWI

Polish Parade

circa 1939: A Polish infantry regiment standing to attention during a parade at night. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

The First World War proved to be the turning-point in modern Polish history. It smashed the three empires which held it captive (Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary) and created a power vacuum which a new state in eastern Europe could fill. The core of independent Poland was the former province removed from Russia by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (1918). To this was added territory from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles (1919) and from Austria and Hungary by the Treaties of St Germain and Trianon (1919 and 1920). The Polish government, however, considered the eastern frontier to be too restrictive; hence, in 1919, Poland launched an attack on the Soviet Union and captured much of the Ukraine, including Kiev. The Soviet army soon recovered and drove the invaders back to Warsaw, which was subsequently besieged. Poland now appeared to be in dire peril but, with French assistance, managed to rout the Russians and reoccupy western Ukraine, possession of which was confirmed by the Treaty of Riga (1921). To this substantial slice of territory was added Vilna, seized from Lithuania, and parts of Upper Silesia. Overall, Poland, with an area of 150,000 square miles and a population of 27 million, was one of Europe’s more important states.

Unfortunately, it was confronted by a series of desperate problems. The first was the mixed composition of its population. Poles comprised only two-thirds of the total; the rest included 4 million Ukrainians, 3 million Jews, 1 million Germans, 1 million Belorussians, and small numbers of Russians, Lithuanians and Tartars. The second problem was political instability. The constitution proved inappropriate to the ethnic structure since it provided for a centralized rather than a federal state. In theory, Poland was an advanced democracy, with guarantees of individual freedoms. Unfortunately, proportional representation encouraged the growth of small parties and prevented the formation of stable governments; altogether, there were fifteen cabinets between November 1918 and May 1926, an average lifespan of only five months. The whole situation was aggravated by a major economic crisis in which inflation led to the Polish mark sinking to a level of 15 million to the dollar. This inevitably hindered the task of reconstruction, promoting shortages and unemployment. This unstable period came to a dramatic end when, in May 1926, General Piłsudski led several regiments of the Polish army into Warsaw. He replaced the democratic government with an authoritarian regime which lasted, beyond his own death in 1935, until the eventual liquidation of Poland in 1939.

Piłsudski was already something of a national hero. He had organized the Polish legions which had fought for the country’s independence in the First World War. He had then become head of state between 1919 and 1922, leading the Polish offensive against Russia and organizing the defence of Warsaw in 1920. He had voluntarily stepped aside in 1922 into semi-retirement. Between 1922 and 1926, however, he watched with disgust the deteriorating political scene. At first he was not disposed to take drastic action because ‘If I were to break the law I would be opening the door to all sorts of adventurers to make coups and putsches.’ Eventually, however, he became convinced that direct action was unavoidable. His solution was a call for national unity and a common moral sense, to be promoted by a grouping called Sanacja.

Piłsudski’s achievements related mainly to the restoration of the Polish state after a century and a half of foreign rule. He strengthened the executive through his changes of 1926 and the constitution of 1935 (which he did not live to see), and made the administration more professional and efficient. He revived the morale of the army and, through a skilful foreign policy, strengthened Poland’s standing in Europe. On the other hand, his regime witnessed serious financial and economic problems. The Great Depression had a particularly devastating effect on Polish agriculture and, as elsewhere, caused a sudden spurt in industrial unemployment. Piłsudski resorted to an unimaginative policy of financial constraints and drastic deflation. But this only aggravated the problem, and even by 1939 Poland’s per capita output was 15 per cent below that of 1913. ‘Thus,’ observes Aldcroft, ‘Poland had little to show economically for 20 years of independent statehood.’

Piłsudski also showed serious flaws in his character. His rule became increasingly irksome as he himself became increasingly petty. Rothschild argues that Piłsudski’s best years were behind him and that he had become ‘prematurely cantankerous, embittered and rigid’. Overall, it could be said, he completely lost the will to temper discipline and constraint with progressive reform; his emphasis on continuity therefore precluded any possibility of meaningful change. Piłsudski was one of the few dictators to die before the general upheaval of 1939–40. The authoritarian regime which he had established continued for the next four years, but it became less personal and more ideological. The reason for this was that, cantankerous though he had been, Piłsudski proved irreplaceable; the likes of Slawek, Rydz-Smigly and Beck lacked his popularity and charisma. Faced with ever growing pressure from the right, the Sanacja after Piłsudski was forced to collaborate with Poland’s semi-fascist movements, since it lacked Piłsudski’s confidence to defy them. Whether Poland would eventually have become a fascist state is open to speculation, but it is interesting to note that its movement in that direction was due to the lack of leadership rather than to any personality cult. Polish ‘fascism’ therefore served to conceal mediocrity rather than to project personal power.

Piłsudski and his successors were faced with the problem of upholding the security of the new Polish state. This was given some urgency by the resentment of all her neighbours against Poland’s territorial gains. At first Piłsudski sought safety in an alliance with France and Romania in 1921. Gradually, however, the will of France to assist Poland grew weaker. In 1925 France signed the Locarno Pact which, alongside Britain, Italy, Belgium and Germany, guaranteed the 1919 frontiers in western Europe but not in the east. By the early 1930s Piłsudski felt that he could no longer depend upon France and therefore sought accommodation with the powers which threatened Poland; he formed non-aggression pacts with Russia in 1932 and Germany in 1934. After Piłsudski’s death, however, Poland slid towards destruction. There was a dreadful inevitability about the whole process: given Hitler’s policy of Lebensraum and Stalin’s determination to wipe out the memory of Brest-Litovsk, Poland did not stand a chance. According to Syrop, ‘It is clear now that once Hitler and Stalin had jointly decided to wipe Poland off the map, no Polish policy and no power on earth could avert disaster.’

Foreign Minister Beck showed courage in defying Hitler’s demands for a Polish corridor and was bolstered by the Anglo-French guarantee of March 1939. He clearly felt that Poland stood a chance of holding off Germany, as Piłsudski had fended off Russia in 1920. This time, however, Poland was crushed by Hitler’s Blitzkrieg. The Polish cavalry, which had triumphed over Soviet infantry, was now shot to pieces by German tanks and aircraft. By mid-September the western half of Poland had been conquered by the Nazi war machine. The Polish government transferred to the east, only to be trapped by Soviet troops who were moving into position to take up the territory agreed in the Nazi – Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. Poland was therefore at the mercy of her two historic enemies. Stalin proceeded to impose communist institutions in the east, while the German zone was divided in two. The north-west and Silesia were absorbed directly into the Third Reich and were immediately Germanized; Gauleiter Forster said that his intention was ‘to remove every manifestation of Polonism within the next few years’. The rest was placed under Governor-General Hans Frank, who stated that no Polish state would ever be revived. The German occupation of Poland was to prove more horrifying and destructive than that in any other conquered territory. Six million people died out of a total population of 35 million; many of these were Jews who perished in extermination camps set up at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Maidenek, Sobibor, Belzec and Treblinka. The Polish capital, Warsaw, was the only occupied city to be pulled apart, systematically, by ground demolition squads.

The devastation did not destroy the Polish national spirit and three resistance organizations had come into existence by mid-1941. The first was a government in exile under Sikorski which established an army abroad and integrated Polish servicemen into the American and British forces. The second was the underground Home Army (AK), the third the Polish Workers’ Movement (PPR), a communist organization led by Gomułka. At first there was co-operation between Sikorski and the Soviet Union but, as the Soviet victory over Germany became increasingly likely, Stalin did everything possible to weaken Sikorski and the AK. His task was made easier by the Yalta and Potsdam conferences of 1945. The Western Allies were, of course, unhappy about Poland falling under Soviet influence, but they were unable to prevent it. Hence, when recreated, Poland eventually became one of Stalin’s satellite states, with a regime which was far more systematically pervasive than Piłsudski’s had ever been. It was not until 1989 that the monopoly of the Communist Party was broken.

The Nature of the Polish Right Wing

Poland is rightly seen as the victim of the aggression of Europe’s two leading dictatorships in 1939. At the same time, however, Poland had itself become a dictatorship and had spawned a number of far-right parties. In this respect it followed an experience similar to that of Austria and Portugal. As in these countries, a distinction needs to be made between a conservative authoritarian establishment and semi-fascist minority groups which wanted to radicalize the right.

Authoritarian dictatorship is normally associated with Piłsudski. His assumption of power in 1926 was a reaction to the political chaos of the mid-1920s. He was in no sense a radical. His aim was to reconcile, not to radicalize. According to Rothschild, the purpose of the Sanacja was to form a ‘non-political phalanx of all classes and parties supposedly prepared to elevate general state interests above particular partisan and social ones’. This new order would be kept together by Piłsudski himself. Ironically, he did not resume the presidency in 1926, serving, instead, in the humbler capacity of Foreign Minister with two brief spells as premier. Yet no one doubted that ultimate power lay in his hands: ‘I am a strong man and I like to decide all matters by myself.’ To emphasize this point, he reduced the power of the legislature, arguing that ‘The Chicanes of Parliament retard indispensable solutions.’ He saw Western-style party political manoeuvres as highly destructive in Poland, since they had produced a parliament which was in reality a ‘House of Prostitutes’. He therefore broke the back of the party system and surrounded himself with loyal followers. Yet his dictatorship was never complete; his aim was not to set up a totalitarian state and a new political consciousness, but rather to depoliticize Poland and to create unity through heightened moral awareness. His successors were somewhat less restrained than Piłsudski and, in the words of Payne, ‘accentuated state control and authoritarianism’. Between 1935 and 1939 the authoritarian regime was becoming more involved in regulating the economy and mobilizing popular support behind a new government organization, the Camp of National Unity, or OZN. This took on several outward appearances of proto-fascism.

Even so, the post-Piłsudski governments were less radical than most other non-fascist dictatorships in Europe. More open to far-right influences were the minority movements such as the National Democrat Party; strongest in western Poland, this was violently anti-Semitic, strongly nationalistic and sympathetic to both Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, even though the latter was widely perceived as the national enemy. From this developed the even more extreme National Party (OWP) and Camp of National Radicalism (ONR). But the most explicitly fascist group was the Falanga, which was strongly influenced by the Spanish Falangist movement; it also had similarities to Codreanu’s Legion and Iron Guard in Romania.

As elsewhere, the traditionalist authorities were not prepared to tolerate the excesses of these minority groups and at various stages during the 1930s resorted to banning them. Even though they stood no chance of coming to power they did, nevertheless, provide a core for that section of the Polish population which was prepared to collaborate with the Nazis, especially in implementing their anti-Semitic policies.

Polish Insurgency I


Polish General Staff wore navy blue uniforms reminiscent of Napoleonic-era attire. Soldiers of each regiment wore uniforms in colours of their land.

On the night of 29 November 1830 a group of officer cadets broke into the Belvedere Palace to assassinate Grand Duke Constantine while another attacked a nearby Russian cavalry barracks. Everything went wrong. The Russians were alerted in time and the Grand Duke escaped the knives of the assassins. An attack on the Arsenal was more successful, with fatal consequences. Armed gangs roamed the streets lynching Russians and Polish collaborators, and, by mistake, two of the best Polish generals.

The Polish authorities moved swiftly to bring the situation under control and avoid confrontation with Russia. Prince Franciszek Ksawery Drucki-Lubecki, the Minister of Finance, took the initiative of coopting Czartoryski and other figures of standing to join him in a National Council. In an attempt to keep the army together and restore order the popular General Chłopicki was proclaimed Dictator on 5 December. He hoped to be able to deal with the whole matter as an internal Polish problem. He granted Constantine safe-conduct out of Warsaw, along with his court, his troops, even his police spies and political prisoners, and he despatched Lubecki to St Petersburg to negotiate.

But the Tsar refused to receive the Prince, and on 7 January 1831 sent him a note demanding unconditional surrender as a precondition to any negotiations. This inflamed patriotic fervour throughout the country. Talk of accommodation was branded as defeatist, and, seeing no other way out, Chłopicki resigned. The Sejm acknowledged a state of insurrection, and under pressure from below, on 25 January 1831 burnt its bridges by voting the dethronement of Nicholas as King of Poland. A new government was formed under Czartoryski with Michał Radziwiłł as commander-in-chief. The Kingdom of Poland had seceded from Russia.

In February a force of 115,000 Russian troops under General Diebitsch marched into Poland. The Polish army, consisting of 30,000 men, blocked his advance successfully at Grochów on 25 February. At the end of March General Jan Skrzynecki sallied forth and routed the Russian corps separately in the three battles of Wawer, Dębe Wielkie and Iganie, obliging Diebitsch to withdraw eastwards. The position of the Russian forces was parlous, with Diebitsch isolated and the Guard Corps on its way to reinforce him easy for the Poles to intercept. General Dwernicki had been sent with a small force to Volhynia to raise a revolt there, while Generals Chłapowski and Giełgud marched into Lithuania with the same intention. The Poles were well set to win the campaign. They called up reserves of 80,000, and with the Lithuanian and other contingents, they could count on up to 200,000 in total. The Russian forces in Poland numbered some 250,000, but the Polish soldier was more motivated and the officer corps more experienced. The insurrection also attracted valuable volunteers from abroad. Hundreds of Napoleonic officers took part, including General Ramorino, the son of Marshal Lannes (Marshal Grouchy wanted to come, but insisted on too high a rank). The next largest contingent were Germans, who also supplied over a hundred military surgeons, and there were volunteers from Hungary, Italy and Britain.

But none of those standing at the helm approved of the rising or believed in its chances of success. Czartoryski was convinced that the only solution was a diplomatic one. He sent missions to London, Paris and Vienna in order to secure support and finance, and to offer the throne of Poland to a Habsburg archduke or a member of the British royal family in return for assistance. The commander-in-chief, General Jan Skrzynecki, felt that the less blood was spilled before negotiations were resumed the better. He therefore dragged his heels and failed to intercept the Guard Corps. When this joined up with Diebitsch’s army, he was attacked and defeated on 26 May at Ostrołęka. Diebitsch died of the cholera epidemic raging in the Russian army, but Skrzynecki failed to exploit the situation. General Paskevich took over command of the Russian forces and prepared for a new advance.

In Paris, King Louis-Philippe made sonorous speeches hinting at French military support, and there was a moment when it looked as though Czartoryski’s diplomatic efforts might yield fruit. Events in Poland aroused strong international sympathy and engaged the poetic fancy. In Germany, this gave rise to a genre of Polenlieder. In America, Nathan Parker Willis wrote odes to Poland, while in England the young Tennyson wrote what he termed ‘a beautiful poem on Poland, hundreds of lines long’ (which was used by his housemaid to light the fire). In France, Delavigne, Béranger, Musset, Vigny, Lamartine and Hugo glorified the Poles’ struggle in verse. On 23 May 1831 the Aldermen and Council of New York made a strong declaration of support, while Boston offered standards for the Polish regiments. In Paris, James Fenimore Cooper started a Polish-American Committee to gather funds for the rising.

Given time, some of this feeling might have been brought to bear. But the lack of political determination at the top allowed Paskevich to seize the initiative. He marched westwards, bypassing Warsaw to the north, and swept round to attack it from its least defensible western side. Instead of delivering a flank attack on the moving Russian columns, Skrzynecki sent two army corps off in different directions to create diversions. On 6 September 1831 Paskevich attacked Warsaw. After two days of determined but costly fighting, the new commander General Krukowiecki capitulated and withdrew with the rest of his forces. The Poles still had some 70,000 troops in the field but these were dispersed around the country, and continued resistance seemed pointless. On 5 October the main army crossed the border into Prussia to avoid capture by the Russians, while other units sought refuge behind the Austrian cordon, followed by most of the political leadership.

Nicholas abolished the constitution of the Kingdom and closed down the universities of Wilno and Warsaw, along with the Warsaw Polytechnic, the Krzemieniec High School, the Society of Friends of Learning and other educational establishments. In exchange, Warsaw was endowed with a citadel from which Nicholas promised to bombard the city to rubble if there was any more trouble. General Paskevich was named Prince of Warsaw, and Russian generals and officials were given estates confiscated from Polish families.

Ten people, with Adam Czartoryski at the head of the list, were condemned to death by decapitation, and a further 350 to hanging (most of them had already left the country). While a generous amnesty was trumpeted to the world, 10,000 officers were sent off to hard labour or service as simple soldiers in Russian regiments in the Caucasus. Over eight hundred ‘orphans’ (children whose fathers had been killed or gone into exile) were taken from their mothers and given to Russian infantry regiments to bring up. In the Kingdom, countless families of minor szlachta were degraded and 3,176 had their estates confiscated. In the province of Podolia, 5,000 families of minor szlachta were dispossessed of everything, reduced to peasant status and transported to the Caucasus. A few years later 40,000 families of szlachta from Lithuania and Volhynia were conveyed to Siberia. Prince Roman Sanguszko, who was of Rurik’s royal blood and might have qualified for some respect, was sentenced to hard labour for life in Siberia and made to walk there chained to a gang of convicts. When his mother, a friend and former lady-in-waiting to the Empress, begged for leniency, she was told she could go too.

The fate of the exiles was less lurid but no more enviable. Some 8,000 senior officers, political figures, writers and artists found themselves consigned to a life of hopeless anticipation. Theirs was supposed to be a tactical withdrawal. To keep themselves in shape, many of the soldiers took service in the new Belgian army, and the French tried to pack as many as they could into a Foreign Legion created for the purpose. Others converged on Paris, which became a focal point of Polish political and cultural life. It was there, amid bitterness and mutual recrimination, that the next moves in the struggle to recapture Poland were planned and discussed.

Two principal groupings emerged: the Czartoryski party and the Polish Democratic Society. The first pinned its hopes on diplomacy. Adam Czartoryski, referred to even by his political opponents as the de facto king of Poland, lobbied British Members of Parliament and French Deputies, wrote memoranda and petitions, and maintained unofficial diplomatic relations with the Vatican and the Porte. He set up a network with offices in several capitals which sprang into frenetic activity whenever a crisis loomed in Europe.

The Democratic Society, whose nerve centre, the Centralizacja, was based at Versailles, was committed to starting a mass rising in Poland at the earliest possible moment. It also built up strong links with similar movements in other countries, such as Giuseppe Mazzini’s Young Italy; like the French in the 1790s, the Poles had begun to see themselves as universal champions of freedom, obliged to assist sister nations in their struggles, and thousands of them conspired, fought and died for the causes of others.

In 1837 the Russians uncovered the network the Centralizacja had carefully organised throughout the Kingdom and Lithuania, and cut a swathe through it with shootings, hangings and deportations to Siberia. The Democrats then shifted their activities to the less perilous Austrian and Prussian sectors, where they agitated throughout the 1840s, often playing on anti-manor sentiments in order to gain support among the politically passive peasantry.

A peasant rising was planned in both Galicia and Poznania for 22 February 1846. But premature action alerted the Austrian authorities, which reacted with speed and perfidy. They appealed to the Galician peasantry, explaining that the Polish lords were plotting a rising which would enslave them and offering cash for every ‘conspirator’ brought in dead or alive. There followed three days of mob violence in which bands of peasants attacked some seven hundred country houses, killing about a thousand people, few of them conspirators. On 4 March Austrian and Russian troops crushed the Socialist Republic which had meanwhile been proclaimed in Kraków and abolished the free status of the city, which was incorporated into the Austrian Empire. In Poznania the Prussian authorities arrested the entire leadership before the planned local rising had time to break out.

The revolutionary ardour of the Poles revived in the ‘Springtime of the Nations’ of 1848. In February of that year the Paris mob overthrew the regime of Louis-Philippe; three weeks later the barricades went up in Vienna and Berlin; by the summer there was hardly a state in Europe that had not been affected by disturbances. Poles were involved in all of these, as well as in events taking place in Poland itself.

Kraków and Lwów rose and proclaimed provisional revolutionary committees designated by the Versailles Centralizacja, which presented a list of demands for autonomy and the emancipation of the peasants. In the desperate straits in which it found itself the Austrian government had no option but to accept the fait accompli.

The Berlin mob had released from prison all the Polish conspirators arrested in 1846, and they went to Poznań to take control of the National Committee which had already formed there. The Berlin government was prepared to concede almost anything to weather the storm and therefore sanctioned the committee, promising ‘national reorganisation’ of the Grand Duchy of Posen along Polish lines. Attention then switched to Frankfurt, where the all-German Parliament assembled in a mood of pan-European liberalism. The fear that Tsar Nicholas would send in his troops to restore order in Central Europe prompted much talk of a common crusade to liberate Russian Poland and roll back the boundaries of tsarist autocracy.

Poles from all over Europe flocked to Poznania. Even Adam Czartoryski arrived from Paris, greeted along the way like a future king. In Poznania the National Committee had by now some 20,000 men under arms, commanded by Ludwik Mierosławski, and proceeded with a programme of local reforms.