Poland Early 18th Century – The Reign of Anarchy I



Augustus II of Poland.



17th Centruy Polish Dragoons

By the last quarter of the seventeenth century it was becoming obvious to all that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a very different kind of political unit from all the surrounding states, and that it did not lend itself to the conduct of the kind of policies they were pursuing. Commentators referred to it as ‘the Polish Anarchy’. It was also evident that this curious polity was an expression of a culture which was growing increasingly alien to that of the rest of Europe.

At one level, Polish society differed little from that of other countries, and fed on the same literary and cultural canon. There was nothing particularly exotic about magnates such as the Treasurer of the Crown Jan Andrzej Morsztyn (1620-93). A gifted writer, he effortlessly wrote short erotic poems and aphorisms, religious and lyrical verse, and made fine translations of Corneille and Tasso. Stanisław Herakliusz Lubomirski (1642-1702), son of the rebellious Marshal Jerzy Lubomirski, spent two years on a grand tour before starting on a political career which was to culminate in his appointment to the office of Marshal by Jan III in 1676. He was a brave soldier and a discriminating patron of the arts, and in 1668 he married Zofia Opalińska, a bluestocking with a passion for music and mathematics: together they covered every conceivable interest from engineering to astrology. He wrote Italianate comedies as well as some of the best seventeenth-century religious verse in Polish, dissertations on current affairs and a treatise on literary taste, and translated a number of foreign works.

These and other magnates patronised the arts and studded the towns and the countryside with palaces and churches in a synthesis of the Baroque style that owed much not only to Italy and Austria but also to France and the Netherlands.

If Renaissance architecture suited the style and thought of the Poles of the sixteenth century, the Baroque might have been invented for those of the seventeenth. It awakened a degree of sensual appreciation of form, ornament and luxury which found immediate satisfaction in and complemented the increasing contact with the East. This fed on war just as well as on peacetime trade. Ottoman armies believed in comfort and splendour, and as a result the booty could be spectacular. ‘The tents and all the wagons have fallen into my hands, et mille autres galanteries fort jolies et fort riches, mais fort riches, and I haven’t looked through all of it yet,’ wrote a triumphant Jan III to his wife from the Turkish camp outside Vienna a few hours after the battle.

By the early 1600s the Polish cavalry had adopted most of the weapons used by the Turks as well as many of their tactics. The hetmans used the Turkish baton of command, and the horse-tails which denoted rank among the Turks were borne aloft behind them too. The Poles also dressed more and more like their foe, and even the Tatar habit of shaving the head was widely practised on campaign. So much so that on the eve of the Battle of Vienna the King had to order all Polish troops to wear a straw cockade so that their European allies should not take them for Turks, from whom they were all but indistinguishable. With Sobieski’s accession to the throne, military fashion invaded the court and became institutionalised. This ‘Sarmatian’ costume became a symbol of healthy, straightforward patriotic Polishness, while French or German clothes were equated with foreign intrigue.

The Poles also had a feeling for the beauty of Islamic art, which was not generally appreciated in western Europe. Eastern hangings replaced Flemish tapestries and arms joined pictures on the walls of manor houses. At the Battle of Chocim, Jan Sobieski captured a silk embroidery studded with ‘two thousand emeralds and rubies’ from Hussein Pasha which he thought so beautiful that he wore it as a horsecloth for his coronation. A few years later he gave it as the richest gift he could think of to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who put it away and wrote it down in his inventory as ‘una cosa del barbaro lusso’.

Turkish clothes suited Baroque architecture, and servants were dressed up accordingly. Wealthy szlachta often kept captive Tatars or janissaries at their courts, but they also dressed their Polish pages as Arabs and their bodyguards as Circassian warriors. This taste was carried so far that religious music was provided in Karol Radziwiłł’s Baroque chapel at NieświeŻ by a Jewish orchestra dressed as janissaries.

There had never been any sumptuary laws in Poland and the tendency to show off was unrestrained. Money still had no investment role in the minds of most Poles, and all surplus went into movable property of the most demonstrable kind. Inventories made on the death of members of the szlachta are illuminating. A poor gentleman would be found to possess a horse or two, fine caparisons and horsecloths, saddles, arms and armour, a small number of rich clothes, jewellery, perhaps some personal table-silver, a few furs and lengths of cloth, and little in the way of money. Inventories of country houses and castles reveal the same pattern. Jewellery, clothes, silver, saddlery, arms and armour, cannon, uniforms for the castle guard, furs, lengths of cloth, Turkish, Persian and Chinese hangings, banners, tents, horsecloths and rugs, Flemish tapestries and pictures are listed. Furniture hardly figures, except where it is made of silver.

The Polish magnate’s coat was a tradable item, so stiff was it with gold thread. Every button was a jewel, the clasp at his throat and the aigrette on his fur cap were works of art. The French traveller Verdum noted that Jan III wore 200,000 thalers’ worth of jewels on a normal day, and that on a great occasion his attire would be worth a considerable proportion of his (by no means negligible) weight in gold. Urszula Sieniawska, whose inheritance was being disputed by a number of relatives in 1640, left no fewer than 5,000 diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires in her jewel case. Maryanna Stadnicka, wife of the Palatine of BeŁz, left 8,760 pearls. In 1655, when they looted the Lubomirskis’ Wiśnicz, the Swedes required no fewer than 150 carts to carry away the booty. Many collections were so vast that the looting made only a slight impression. The inventory of żółkiew, one of the Sobieski family seats, drawn up after Peter the Great had personally looted it in 1707, still lists upwards of seven hundred oil paintings in the castle.

These castles were also full of people, on the principle that the more there were surrounding a man, the more important he was. Poor relatives and landless friends, the sons of less wealthy henchmen and clients of one sort or another would form a court around a magnate. On top of this, he would employ teachers for his children, musicians, whole corps de ballet, jesters and dwarfs, chaplains, secretaries, managers and other officers. After that came servants, stable staff, kitchen staff, falconers, huntsmen, organists, castrati, trumpeters, units of cavalry, infantry and artillery. The fashion for show attendants meant that there were dozens of hajduks, wearing Hungarian dress, pajuks, in Turkish janissary costume, and laufers in what looked like something out of Italian opera, covered in ostrich feathers. These attendants had no purpose beyond standing about or running before the master when he rode out. The numbers were impressive. When Rafał Leszczyński’s wife died in 1635, he had to provide mourning dress for just over 2,000 servants—and neither cooks nor kitchenmaids were included, as they were not seen. Karol Radziwiłł’s army alone amounted to 6,000 regular troops.

The heads of great houses took themselves seriously, and much of this splendour was dictated by a feeling of self-importance. When Karol Radziwiłł’s intendant commented that he lived better than the King, the characteristic reply was: ‘I live like a Radziwiłł—the King can do as he likes.’ Every major event in the life of the family was treated with pomp, and ceremonies were constructed round it. When a child was born, the artillery fired salutes and occasional operas were staged. When the master returned from the wars, triumphal arches were erected and fireworks let off.

It was more than mere show—it was a style of behaviour which introduced ritual into every action and translated its significance into visible activity. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the practice of religion as it developed in the seventeenth century, partly under the influence of the taste of the faithful, partly as a result of the Church’s continuing policy of bringing every aspect of the life of the Commonwealth within its own ambit, if not actually under its control.

Control was not something that could be effectively exerted over the likes of Karol Radziwiłł, who summed up his attitude in a letter to Anna Jabłonowska in 1764: ‘I praise the Lord, believe not in the Devil, respect the law, know no king, because I am a nobleman with a free voice.’ A man whose ideal was the cult of unbounded liberty did not take easily to having, for instance, his sexual freedom restricted by laws even more nebulous than those of the Commonwealth. The hold on society which the Church did have was based on a juxtaposition of life and ritual which succeeded in making religion into an integral part of every person’s regular activities. The leaders of the Counter-Reformation insisted on the inseparability of the Church as an institution from the Commonwealth as an institution, of piety from patriotism. They were largely successful in that they bred the notion in the average Pole that the Catholic Church ‘belonged’ to him in much the same way as the Commonwealth did. Churches were used for sejmiks and for the sessions of local tribunals. National commemorations and holidays were fused with religious feasts. The priesthood became for the poorer nobility much what the civil service or army were in other countries—the only noble profession and a refuge for upper-class mediocrity.

Outward signs of the faith were encouraged in every way. The cult of the Virgin and of the saints, which had died away during the Reformation, made a triumphant comeback. Every town, village, institution, guild and confraternity was provided with a patron. Pictures of the Virgin before which miracles allegedly took place were ‘crowned’ and declared to be miraculous. The solemn coronation of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa took place on 8 September 1717 before 150,000 faithful. By 1772 there were a staggering four hundred officially designated miraculous pictures of the Virgin, each one a centre of pilgrimage and a recipient of votive offerings of jewellery, money, tablets and symbolic limbs.

From the purely religious sphere, the ritual spread into every other. When a man of substance died, a huge architectural folly, a castrum doloris, would be erected in the church as a canopy for his coffin, and this would be decorated with symbols of his office and wealth, his portrait and coat of arms, and with elaborate inscriptions in his honour. The ritual included the old Polish custom of breaking up the dead man’s symbols of office and, if he were the last of his family, shattering his coat of arms. Neighbours, friends, family, servants and soldiers would pay their last respects in more or less theatrical ways, while congregations of monks and nuns sang dirges and recited litanies. The funeral of Hetman Józef Potocki in 1751 took two weeks, for six days of which 120 pieces of cannon saluted continuously (using up a total of 4,700 measures of powder). Over a dozen senators, hundreds of relatives and entire regiments congregated in Stanisławów to pay their last respects in the church which was entirely draped in black damask, before a huge catafalque of crimson velvet dripping with gold tassels, decorated with lamps, candelabra, Potocki’s portrait, captured standards, pyramids of weapons and other symbols of his office and achievements.

This Sarmatian lifestyle was a unique growth, produced by cross-pollenation between Catholic high Baroque and Ottoman culture. Everything about it was theatrical, declamatory and buxom. It was inimical to the bourgeois ethic of thrift, investment, self-improvement and discipline which was beginning to dominate western Europe, and as a result it was condemned, even by Poles of later centuries. At its worst, sarmatism was absurd and destructive, encouraging as it did outrageous behaviour and an attitude that bred delusion. But it did permit what was possibly an irreconcilable collection of people to reach a kind of harmony. As Jan III’s English physician Bernard Connor commented: ‘It is certain had we in England but the third part of their liberty, we could not live together without cutting one another’s throats.’

And it helps explain how the Commonwealth was able to go on functioning, in a kind of parallel world, along lines that defied logic. The delusional condition it created was an essential ingredient in the survival of a polity whose constitution had broken down and which should have imploded or been conquered by one of its increasingly powerful neighbours.

The election that followed the death of Jan III in 1696 was a fiasco. The principal candidates were the King’s son Jakub; François Louis de Bourbon, Prince de Conti; and Frederick Augustus Wettin, Elector of Saxony. Jakub Sobieski was rapidly eliminated from the contest by the intervention of Saxon troops. On 27 June 1697 the szlachta assembled on the election field voted overwhelmingly for the Prince de Conti, and the Primate proclaimed him king. On the same evening a small group of malcontents elected Frederick Augustus, who marched into Poland at the head of a Saxon army. On 15 September, while the Prince de Conti was sailing into the Baltic, Frederick Augustus was crowned in Kraków by the Bishop of Kujavia, as Augustus II of Poland. At the end of the month the Prince de Conti came ashore only to discover that he had been pipped at the post. His supporters were not keen to start a civil war, so he re-embarked and sailed back to France. It was the first time that a deceased monarch’s son had not been elected to succeed him; that the successful candidate had been debarred from the throne by military force; and that the new incumbent was also the ruler of another state.

The twenty-seven-year-old Augustus was nothing if not picturesque. Universally known as Augustus the Strong and described by one of his subjects as ‘half bull, half cock’, he could break horseshoes with one hand, shoot with astonishing accuracy, drink almost anyone under the table, and fornicate on a scale which would be unbelievable if he had not left platoons of bastards to prove it. He was not a stupid man, and he intended to turn the Commonwealth into a centralised monarchical state. Like Jan III, he saw war as the surest way to gain prestige and a free hand to carry out his plans.

In 1698 the Livonian nobleman Johann Patkul, who had been forced to flee his province by the occupying Swedes, turned up at the court of Augustus II with an appeal for help from the Livonian nobility. Although they wished to rejoin the Commonwealth, Augustus saw an opportunity of acquiring the province for himself. Soon after, he met Tsar Peter I (later known as Peter the Great), who was on his way back to Russia from western Europe, and in the course of an all-night drinking bout the two men planned a joint war against Sweden. Augustus suggested to his uncle King Christian V of Denmark that he join them and take Bremen and Werden from Sweden as a reward. In 1699 an agreement was signed between Peter I, Frederick IV of Denmark (who had succeeded his father Christian V) and Augustus II. Augustus was not allowed to enter into such treaties as King of Poland. It was therefore an alliance of Muscovy, Saxony and Denmark that went to war on Sweden the following year.

The allies had made a mistake in thinking that they could easily defeat the eighteen-year-old Swedish king, Charles XII. This callow youth was endowed with inhuman energy, reckless bravery and a faith in his own destiny that was soon echoed in the popular myth that he was invulnerable. He made short shrift of the Danes, beat off the Saxon army attempting to take Riga, and then turned on the Russians, whom he drubbed at the Battle of Narva. Augustus decided it was time to sue for peace.

Charles XII would have none of it and demanded that the Poles dethrone Augustus if they did not wish to be invaded. The Commonwealth was not technically at war with anyone, and the problem of how to deal with the situation was aggravated by profound internal divisions. In 1702 the Sapieha family placed Lithuania under Swedish protection, and in April Charles XII entered Wilno. The Lithuanian rivals of the Sapieha appealed to the Tsar, and Muscovite troops moved into the Grand Duchy in support. But Charles XII had already moved into Poland in pursuit of Augustus. Incensed by this invasion, the szlachta who assembled in a rump Sejm at Lublin in 1703 called for war with Sweden. The following year those loyal to Augustus II voted to ally with Muscovy against Sweden. At this point Charles XII met Stanisław Leszczyński, Palatine of Poznań, an intelligent man of twenty-seven for whom he developed a great esteem, and arranged for him to be elected king by some eight hundred szlachta assembled for the purpose. There were now two kings of Poland, neither of them with much of a following or an army, and they were being swept along by Peter I and Charles XII respectively in a contredanse which took them twin-stepping around the Commonwealth, until Charles had the idea of invading Saxony. There he finally pinned down Augustus and extorted his abdication of the Polish throne. Stanisław I was king.

Charles decided that the time had now come to take on Peter I. He laid his plans with Stanisław and with Ivan Mazepa (originally Jan Kolodyński), a former page to Jan Kazimierz who had served Peter I loyally as Ataman of the Cossacks on the Russian side of the Dnieper. Their independence was being eroded by Muscovite rule and they dreamt of reuniting Ukraine. An alliance against Russia was formed, on the basis of an independent future for Ukraine in alliance with Poland. But on 8 July 1709 Charles XII and Mazepa were routed by Peter at Poltava.

The war was over, and Augustus II re-ascended the Polish throne, a little wiser but incomparably worse off for the events of the last ten years. When he and Peter had planned the Northern War on that night in 1698, he had been the stronger partner. After ten years of bungling he was little more than the Tsar’s client, dependent on his support and protection. There was no clear way out of the predicament for him or for the Commonwealth, as the power balance in eastern Europe had altered dramatically during those ten years.

Poland Early 18th Century – The Reign of Anarchy II


Polish army throughout the 18th century, by Karol Linder.


Sweden had been wiped out as a significant power by the débâcle of Poltava. Turkey was decisively defeated (Hetman Feliks Potocki’s victory at Podhajce in 1697 was the last Polish-Tatar battle), and by the Treaty of Karlowitz in January 1699 the Commonwealth regained Kamieniec and the whole of left-bank Ukraine. France, despairing of its potential allies in the east—Turkey, Sweden and Poland—shifted its theatre of confrontation with the Habsburgs to Spain and Italy. Distracted by the War of the Spanish Succession, the Habsburgs had failed to take advantage of the recent Northern War.

Prussia on the other hand had taken full advantage of the opportunities on offer to strengthen its military and diplomatic standing. On 18 January 1701 Frederick III, Elector of Brandenburg and Duke of Prussia, had dubbed himself ‘Frederick I, King in Prussia’: he could not call himself King of Prussia, since Prussia was not a kingdom, or King of Brandenburg, since that was part of the Holy Roman Empire. The subterfuge caused much mirth in the courts of Europe.

In similar vein, in 1721 Peter I of Muscovy took the title of Emperor of All the Russias. Nobody laughed at this. The recent wars had shown that Russia was not only a growing power, but also that it was strategically unassailable. And Peter had made it clear that he would be playing an active part in the affairs of Europe by extending his sphere of influence westward, into Poland.

The Sejm of 1712 had reached deadlock on reforms proposed by Augustus II, whereupon he brought in troops from Saxony. This rallied the opposition, which in 1715 formed a confederation to resist him. Peter I offered to mediate. With some reluctance, the offer was accepted, and a Russian envoy arrived in Warsaw—accompanied by 18,000 troops who were to keep order. The ensuing Sejm of 1717 was known as the Dumb Sejm. It sat in a chamber surrounded by Russian soldiers, the deputies were forbidden to speak, and the Russian mediator forced his solution on it, couched in the Treaty of Warsaw.

This laid down, amongst other things, that Augustus II could keep no more than 1,200 Saxon Guards in Poland. The Polish army was fixed at a maximum of 18,000 men and the Lithuanian at 6,000, which was deemed sufficient since Moscow arrogated to itself the role of protector, and promised to leave a Russian force in the Commonwealth. Augustus II, who wanted these troops out at any cost, secretly offered to cede Peter some border provinces in exchange for a withdrawal. A lesser man might have accepted, but Peter refused and went on to publish Augustus’s proposals with the degree of indignation befitting the protector of the Commonwealth’s territorial integrity.

On 1 February 1733 Augustus II died of alcohol poisoning in Warsaw. His last words were: ‘My whole life has been one un—interrupted sin. God have mercy on me.’ He had hoped to ensure the succession of his son Augustus to the Polish throne, but this seemed unlikely since Stanisław Leszczyński, whose daughter had married Louis XV of France, was expected to stand for election and to win easily. Russia, Prussia and Austria signed an agreement to throw their combined strength behind the young Saxon, who had already promised to cede Livonia to Russia if elected.

The 13,000 who assembled for the election voted unanimously for Leszczyński, who had travelled to Warsaw incognito. In Paris Voltaire composed an ode of joy, but Russian troops were already on the move. On 5 October 20,000 of them assembled 1,000 szlachta outside Warsaw and forced them to elect Augustus of Saxony. Five days later France declared war on Austria and started the War of the Polish Succession. King Stanisław’s supporters gathered in confederations all over the country and the city of Gdańsk raised a sizeable army on his behalf. Two years of sporadic fighting ensued, but France made peace, having got what she wanted from Austria in Italy. Stanisław was given the Duchy of Lorraine as a consolation prize by his son-in-law, and Augustus III ascended the Polish throne.

The Commonwealth had effectively ceased being a sovereign state in 1718 with the imposition of the Russian ‘protectorate’. It had also virtually ceased to function as a political organism. The Sejm was not summoned between 1703 and 1710, the years of the Northern War, which meant that no legislation was passed and no state taxes could be levied. When the Sejm did sit again, it was hardly more effective. Of the eighteen sessions called under Augustus II, ten were broken up by the use of the veto. The King had tried to impose stronger government, but his policies were poorly thought out. He had an unfortunate conviction that a show of strength by the Saxon army was a necessary prelude to any change, and this had the effect of provoking resistance even in those who would otherwise have agreed with him. In the last years of his reign he did manage to gain the support of a group of magnates and szlachta, but their programme for reform was cut short by his death in 1733.

His son Augustus, Poland’s new monarch, was obese and indolent: he would spend his days cutting out bits of paper with a pair of scissors or else sitting by the window taking potshots at stray dogs with a pistol. He also drank like a fish. Augustus III reigned for thirty years. He spent only twenty-four months of that time in Poland, feeling more at home in Saxony. Yet he was not as unpopular with the szlachta as might have been expected—he never made the slightest attempt to curtail their prerogatives and increase his own. Only one Sejm completed its session under his rule, the army dwindled to half its theoretical size, and all visible signs of nationwide administration disappeared.

This state of affairs favoured the magnates, or rather the dozen or so men who stood at the pinnacle of wealth and power, who had turned into something approaching sovereign princes. It was to the courts of the leading families and not to the royal court at Warsaw or Dresden that foreign powers sent envoys and money. The Potocki, Radziwiłł and similar families involved half of Europe in their affairs and their activities were monitored at Versailles and Potsdam, at Petersburg and Caserta. The marital intentions of the young Zofia Sieniawska were a case in point.

The only daughter of Adam Mikołaj Sieniawski, Hetman and Castellan of Kraków, and of ElŻbieta Lubomirska, Zofia was a formidable heiress. In 1724 she married Stanisław Doenhoff, Palatine of Polotsk, no pauper and also the last of his line, who died four years later. Every family in Poland produced a suitor in the hope of coffering her fortune. Louis XV was quick to realise what was at stake, and the young widow was invited to Versailles, where she might be married to the Comte de Charolais, a Bourbon in search of a throne; Augustus II tried to monitor her suitors; the Duke of Holstein wanted her for himself; the Habsburgs threw their influence behind the Duke of Braganza, for whom they had royal ambitions; and St Petersburg sent ambassadors and money to influence her choice. The interest in the widow was well-founded. In 1731 she settled for the poorest of all her suitors, Prince August Czartoryski, turning his family into the most powerful in Poland over the next hundred years.

The power of these families rested on a combination of wealth and control of their lesser peers, and reflected a growing disparity between rich and poor. The figures for the Palatinate of Lublin provide an example of the dramatic change in the distribution of land over the previous two hundred years. In the 1550s, 54 per cent of all land owned by the szlachta was in holdings of under 1,500 hectares, but by the 1750s only 10 per cent was in such medium holdings. In the 1550s only 16 per cent was in estates of over 7,500 hectares, but by the 1750s over 50 per cent was accounted for by these. The large estates grew larger, the small ones smaller, with the result that by the mid-eighteenth century about a dozen families owned huge tracts of land, another three hundred or so possessed lands equivalent to those of the greatest English or German landlords, and as many as 120,000 szlachta families owned no land at all. The remainder owned small estates which provided little more than subsistence for the family and its dependants.

The ravages of war, outdated methods, lack of investment and the continuous downward trend in agricultural prices condemned these to a vicious circle. Between 1500 and 1800 average yields increased by 200 per cent in England and the Netherlands, by 100 per cent in France, and by only 25 per cent in Poland. Inventories dating from this period show that even in such well-ordered areas as Wielkopolska small estates were in a condition of decrepitude, with buildings falling down, implements worn out and livestock depleted.

The underlying problem was not limited to Poland, and affected the whole of Central Europe, where the old property relationship between landowning lords and tenant peasants proved a formidable obstacle to the adoption of more profitable capitalist solutions. This would have entailed emancipating and at the same time expropriating the peasants, who would then have been in a position to enter into regular contractual relations with the landowners. But the upheaval involved would have been ruinous to both parties. As a result, the only means open to the landowner of intensifying production was to exploit his tenants to the limit, and their only option was a passive participation in this process of their own enserfment.

There was technically no such thing as a serf in the Commonwealth. No peasant belonged to anyone; he was his master’s subject only insofar as he had contracted to be in return for a house and/or rent-free land. Every peasant, however abject, was an independent entity enjoying the right to enter into any legal transaction. Since, however, the relevant organs of justice were controlled by the land—owners, his rights often turned out to be academic. By the seventeenth century the landowners in effect exercised almost unlimited power over their tenantry. How far they were inclined or able to abuse this power varied greatly from area to area, depending on the morality of the master rather less than on the level of education and determination of the peasant. Unlike in Germany, Hungary and almost everywhere else in Europe, let alone Russia, there were no peasant revolts in Poland after the Middle Ages, and no organis—ation to track fugitives. Confrontation with the landlord took place in the courts, such as they were. But the peasant of the 1700s was caught in a poverty trap which impaired his ability to stand up for whatever theoretical rights he had, and he was a poor successor to his forebears.

The most pauperised segment of the population were the Jews, who had been profoundly traumatised by the massacres perpetrated by the Cossacks in 1648 and the Russians in the 1650s. Jewish communities found it difficult to revive economically in a climate of mercantile stagnation which also exacerbated conflicts with Christian merchants, while their institutions ceased to function properly. The palatines who supervised the finances of the kahals in their provinces had done so only sporadically during the decades of war and unrest, with the result that venality and nepotism became characteristic features of their affairs. When a royal commission did eventually look into the kahal finances, it was discovered that most of the communities were on the verge of bankruptcy as a result of massive embezzlement and eccentric banking operations with the Jesuits. The whole Jewish state within the state had to be wound up in 1764 as a result.

The overwhelmingly destitute masses of Polish Jewry lived in an increasingly hostile environment, and it was out of this that Hasidism was born. This was a mystical ecstatic cult, rejecting painful realities and offering a spiritual palliative that attracted vast numbers of the poorest Jews in the teeming provincial shtetls of the Commonwealth. It was founded in Podolia by Izrael ben Eliezer (1700-60), also known as Baal Shem Tov, a charismatic who preached that since God was everywhere He should be worshipped in every thing and every action, even in eating, drinking and dancing. The joyful ceremonies he encouraged appealed to the poorest Jews but drew the ire of orthodox rabbis. They had also had to contend with the heresy of Shabbetai Zevi, who had proclaimed himself Messiah in the 1660s, and acquired a sizeable following. It was the son of one of his disciples who caused the greatest ructions in the Jewish community. Jakub Frank (1726-91) in turn proclaimed himself Messiah and decreed that Poland was the Promised Land. His following grew rapidly. Orthodox rabbis invoked the law to curb the heresy, which turned it into a public issue. The Bishop of Lwów staged a public debate between Talmudic experts and the Frankists, with the Jesuits as adjudicators. To the delight of the Jesuits, Frank succeeded in confounding his accusers and then announced that he and his sect would convert to Catholicism. Frank was baptised in 1759 with the King himself standing godfather, and all the converts were ennobled.

These outbursts of fervour stemmed from the psychological and material Babylon from which there seemed to be no possibility of escape. The depressed shtetls and the stinking Jewish slums of the larger towns were an eyesore which struck all foreign travellers. Yet they were only the darkest spots on a grim landscape of decrepitude and poverty, a poverty made all the more stark by the occasional evidence of fabulous wealth, and by the quantity of new building on a spectacular scale.

A new kind of grand country residence came into existence, no longer defensive but outward-looking and palatial, often modelled on Versailles or one of the great residences of minor German sovereigns. Craftsmen such as Boule, Meissonier, Caffiéri and Riesener in Paris were flooded with orders from Poland. But this magnificence and patronage did not correspond to any deeper artistic or intellectual revival. These buildings were an incidental excrescence, not connected to any informed taste or vision. The Branicki Palace at Białystok contained a theatre with four hundred seats, equipped with one Polish and one French troupe of actors and a corps de ballet, but while the stables held two hundred horses, the library boasted no more than 170 books. Hetman Branicki was not the man to repair the constitution.

The szlachta still believed wholeheartedly in the principles on which the Polish constitution had been founded: personal freedom, representation, accountability, independence of the judiciary, and so on. They knew that the constitution was malfunctioning, but believed that, with some justification, to be the fault of the magnates and of high-handed behaviour by successive kings, who naturally tended to try to turn the Commonwealth into a centralised monarchy. All attempts at reform which issued from the crown or the Senatus Consulta included some measure that would strengthen the central authority, and that ensured their rejection by the szlachta. They had developed an almost obsessive fear of absolutism and an attendant defensiveness with respect to their gloried prerogatives. In the last decade of the seventeenth century and the first of the eighteenth, they had mooted the idea of holding a ‘mounted Sejm’, that is to say appearing at Warsaw in the ranks of the levée en masse in order to challenge the magnates of the Senate on a more equal footing, but this proved too difficult to arrange. Faced with even the slimmest threat to their rights and immunities, they wielded their weapon of last resort, the veto.

The single deputy’s power to block the will of the Sejm by registering his objection derived from the principle that consensus must be reached for legislation to have real force. Its use to invalidate decisions reached by a majority was technically legal though contrary to the spirit of the law. It was first used in 1652, but was not invoked again for seventeen years, and not for another ten after that. It was not until the period between 1696 and 1733 that it became endemic to parliamentary life, and that was a feature of the level to which this had sunk.

Those who made use of the veto tended to be obscure deputies from Lithuania or Ukraine, usually acting on behalf of a local magnate or a foreign power. The device was so convenient to these that in 1667 Brandenburg and Sweden agreed to go to war if necessary ‘in defence of Polish freedoms’ (i.e. to stop the Poles from abolishing the veto), and over the next hundred years the same clause was contained in virtually every treaty made between the Commonwealth’s neighbours.

While many lamented the abuse of the right of veto, they stood by the right of their fellows to exercise it, just as during the Reformation ardent Catholics had refused to allow the persecution of people guilty of sacrilege. It was first and foremost a question of liberty. The phenomenon of the veto, normally viewed as a baffling aberration and the ultimate symbol of the Commonwealth’s political impotence, did serve a specific purpose, that of preventing it from becoming an absolutist monarchy, which it could easily have done in the period of instability and war at the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries. As far as the szlachta was concerned, absence of government was preferable to arbitrary government. And many had come to see government as unnecessary anyway.

When the Commonwealth had imploded under the combined assault of the Cossacks, Tatars, Swedes, Brandenburgers and Muscovites in the 1650s, the szlachta had held regional sejmiks to deal with essential local issues. This form of administration turned out to be not only more efficient, but also more accountable and less costly than central government. As a result, local land sejmiks, sejmiki ziemskie, and law and order sejmiks, sejmiki boni ordinis, became favoured instruments of local administration, responsible for electing judges, officers of the law and commanders of the militia; collecting taxes, raising troops and nominating functionaries.

Since life could go on normally without a national Sejm, the szlachta felt justified in proclaiming its dispensability. People began to believe that anarchy, in its literal sense of ‘no government’, was something of an ideal state, particularly as it denied the crown and the magnates the instruments through which to pursue their sinister aim of curtailing the szlachta’s liberties. This was particularly relevant in times of war and instability such as the first decades of the eighteenth century, when a central Sejm might invoke national emergency to bring in pernicious legislation.

The Commonwealth therefore continued in a state of suspended animation, with no central administration beyond that which could be paid for from the king’s personal revenue, and no organ of government other than the Senatus Consulta, which had no writ. Its internal and external affairs were as much the business of Russia, and to a lesser extent of Prussia and Austria, as its own. The three powers looked on its territory more and more as a sort of noman’s-land. Russia moved her troops about it as though it were a training ground, while Prussian and Austrian armies took short cuts through it, in times of war even setting up depots and garrisons in convenient Polish towns.

Augustus II of Poland (1670-1733)


“Friedrich Augustus. Elector of Saxony (1694-1733); king of Poland (1697-1704; 1709-1733).” A member of the Wettin dynasty and an elector of the Holy Roman Empire (Saxony), Augustus was elected king of Poland in 1697, after deeming that Warsaw was worth a Mass, converting to Catholicism, and agreeing to permit extraordinary privileges to the szlachta, even beyond the broad powers the nobility already enjoyed. In time this deal fatally weakened the monarchy within Poland. In foreign policy, however, Augustus enjoyed an independence his Vasa predecessors never had. This was facilitated by his personal control of a separate Saxon Army of 26,000 excellent troops, along with a discrete diplomatic service and bureaucracy. Together, these resources permitted him to conduct diplomacy and even war without consulting the szlachta in Poland or the Sapiehas in Lithuania. In 1699 Augustus forged an aggressive alliance with Peter I of Russia and Fredrik IV of Denmark that aimed to take advantage of the immaturity and inexperience of the new Swedish king, Karl XII. He immediately besieged Riga, launching the Great Northern War (1700-1721). Like the other members of this rapacious anti-Swedish alliance, Augustus greatly underestimated Karl XII. He and they all paid a heavy price for that mistake: Augustus’ Polish territories were invaded by Swedish armies. He lost and fled Warsaw in early 1702. Augustus subsequently was soundly defeated and lost most of his army at Kliszow (July 8/19, 1702). After recruiting over the winter, he took to the field with a new but undertrained and poorly equipped force, only to be smashed again by the Swedes at Pultusk (April 10/21, 1703). Augustus was expelled from Poland in favor of Stanislaw I in 1704, when the “Warsaw Confederation” that opposed him was supported by armed Swedish intervention. Civil war ensued in Poland, in which Augustus had support from the “Sandomierz Confederacy” of anti-Stanislaw nobles. This drew Karl back into Poland, where he completely defeated Augustus and his Polish allies in two small but sharp battles. Early in the new year Augustus lost again at Fraustadt (February 2/13, 1706). That opened the door to a Swedish invasion of Saxony and the fall of Dresden and Leipzig. Their fall compelled Augustus to agree to the Treaty of Altranstädt (September 13/24, 1706), renouncing his claim to the Polish throne. What saved Augustus was no effort of his own but the disastrous decision by Karl to invade Russia, which resulted in decisive defeat of the Swedish army at Poltava (June 27/July 8, 1709). That catastrophe, along with Karl’s wasted years spent in Ottoman exile, permitted Augustus to reopen the Polish war with Stanislaw I. With help from Tsar Peter, Augustus was restored to the Polish throne in 1709. He held onto it through the remaining years of the Great Northern War and afterward, until his death in 1733.

The battle of Fraustadt (February 1706) was next to the battle of Narva the greatest Swedish victory in the Great Northern Wart. A Swedish army of 10 000 men commanded by Carl Gustaf Rehnsköld attacked and almost annihilated a two times larger Saxon-Russian army near Poland’s western border. The Swedish war effort in Poland was before the battle seemingly close to a complete collapse because the Swedish main army led by Charles XII had their hands full in the east. But thanks to Rehnsköld’s victory at Fraustadt and Charles XII’s encirclement of the Russian main army in Grodno the campaign instead ended in a complete Swedish triumph. Before the year was over would Saxony sue for peace and accept Stanislaw Leszczynski as Polish king. The Swedish army could thereafter direct all its effort on defeating the last remaining enemy, Russia.

The battle itself, which according to the Swedish calendar happened 3 February, but according the Gregorian calendar (used by the Saxons) 13 February and according to the Julian calendar (used by the Russians) 2 February, have often been called a Swedish variant of Hannibal’s pincer movement in the battle of Cannae 216 BC. But the battle was actually planned by Rehnsköld as a frontal attack in which the Swedish numerical inferiority would be countered by thrusting through the enemy line with cold steel weapons before the enemies superior fire power could make an impact. Circumstances in the battle resulted however in the cavalry wings moving around obstacles and attacking the Saxon’s flanks in classic Hannibal style. In any way the battle ended with a total victory for the Swedish army. Over 7 000 Saxons and Russians were killed and just as many were captured. The Swedes only lost 400 men.

Australians at D-Day


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.

Towards Warsaw

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.

Panzers into Warsaw

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.

Warsaw Airlift I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Soviet missions

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

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

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

Warsaw Airlift II

‘Warsaw Return’ David Stiling (AGAvA)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. 1586 (Polish Special Duties) Flight

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

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

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

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


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

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

20 August 1944

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 October 1944

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

Navigator Alan McIntosh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The USAAF provide a grand spectacle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A German sentry watches the same event

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

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

H. Stechbarth