The destruction of the Ostrogothic Kingdom of King Ermanaric in 370 CE (in modern day Ukraine) by the ferocious and nomadic Huns under Atilla’s grandfather (or greatuncle) was one of the seminal events of the first millennium, and second only to the founding of Christianity in the 1st Century CE. The ripples of the the Ostrogothic Kingdom’s destruction completely tore apart the fabric of social order in Europe, initiating the so-called “Dark Ages”. For nearly fifty years prior, the Hunnic horse archers raided Germanic, Gothic, and Slavic settlements and were unstoppable versus the infantry based armies of those nations. King Ermanaric’s suicide due to his impotence against the Huns, the first non Indo European steppe culture to move west, was a signal that the latest incursions were permanent and not mere raiding parties. “The Great Migration” westward began out of fear of the Huns.
For the next 100 years, the Huns so terrified the Germanic tribes that they fled westward and southwards. The Visigoths, Bulgars and Avars moved south into the corrupt and beset Eastern Roman Empire. The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes took to their boats and invaded the Romano-Celtic Island of Britain. The Alans, Burgundians, Alemanni, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Suebi, Langobards, Friisi, and Franks invaded the dying and dilapidated Western Roman Empire. Into the vacuum of Eastern Europe left behind by the Germanic tribes, moved not the Huns, but the Slavs.
The Slavs were primarily an agricultural people that lived from the Volga in the East to the Danube in the West. They formed the slaves, lower classes, and levies of the Hunnic, Germanic, and Gothic kingdoms in which they served, with a few independent but isolated tribal groups. As the Vandals, Burgundians, and Goths migrated from the fertile river basins of the North German Plain, they were replaced by the Sclavian Slavs, specifically the Wend, Sorb, Polans and Vistula tribes, with many refugees from the now defunct kingdoms displaced by the Huns. In the 5th century, the Huns under the Attila conquered south and west of the Carpathian Mountains which left the Slavs north of the Carpathians free to consolidate their new lands.
The Polans tribe gradually dominated the area. In the mid-10th century, the looming spectre of conquest from the Turkic nomads from the east or the Christian Caroliginian Empire in the west convinced the Piast leaders of the Polans tribe that they had to join the family of Christian nations to the west in order to survive. In 966, Miezko I Piast converted to Christianity in order to marry the Czech princess Dobrawa, whose country converted one hundred years before. On 14 April 966, Miezko and Dobrawa were married, and their land was converted, its people baptized, and the country consecrated by the Church (not to mention recorded by the Vatican bureaucracy) as Poland, the “Land of the Polans”.
In 1648, Bohdan Khmelnitskiy’s Zaporozhian Cossacks revolted against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and with their Crimean Tartar allies began the end of the Commonwealth’s “Golden Age”. In 1652, the Cossacks and Tartars defeated the Crown Army at the Battle Batih, and Khmelnitskiy ransomed the Polish and Ruthenian prisoners from the Tartars and massacred them, eliminating the Commonwealth’s most experienced soldiers. With the cream of the Commonwealth’s army dead at Batih, Russia invaded the Commonwealth in 1654. With the Commonwealth fighting for survival in the east against the Tartars, Cossacks, and Russians, Sweden invaded from Pomerania to the northwest. Swedish King Charles X Gustav planned to break up the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, reduce the Duchy of Lithuania to a Swedish protectorate, and make good his claim to the Polish crown.
The Swedes brought fire and sword to parts of Poland and Lithuanian that had not known war for 200 years. The victorious Swedes slaughtered, raped and plundered Poland’s most populous and prosperous provinces. They ravaged Royal Prussia, Sieradz, Poznan, Mazovia, and Greater and Lesser Poland whom all quickly fell to the advancing Swedes. The capital of Warsaw was taken and sacked in September 1655, the ancient capital of Krakow in October, and King Jan II Casimir fled to Silesia in November. Lithuania dissolved the Union. The Swedish and tide swept over the Commonwealth, and this period of Polish history is known as “The Deluge”.
On 8 November 1655, a small Swedish army, of about 4000 mostly German mercenaries and Polish Protestants under Swedish General Burchard Müller von der Lühne, approached the town of Czçestochowa, a prosperous merchant town on the border of Lesser and Greater Poland. But Czçestochowa’s riches weren’t just temporal; they were also spiritual. On a hill overlooking the town, the Pauline monastery of Jasna Góra, “the Hill of Light”, housed Catholic Poland’s most sacred relic: The Black Madonna of Częstochowa. Legend has it that The Black Madonna was originally painted by St. Luke the Evangelist on the Holy Family’s cedar table top. The sacred icon was eventually presented to Constantine the Great in 326, and made its way from Constantinople through Hungary and Ukraine and eventually to Poland in the 14th century. With the widespread destruction of Catholic churches, icons, and relics during the Thirty Years’ War still fresh in the minds of the monks, they decided to defend the monastery against the Swedes.
A turncoat Polish noble, Count Jan Wejchard of Wrzeszczewicz, demanded that the monks turn the monastery over to him for “protection”, then after refusal tried to intimidate them with Müller’s approaching army. Father Augustyn Kordecki, the Prior of Jasna Góra responded, “It is better to die worthily, than to live impiously.” The monks also promised to denounce him and sanction any uprisings in his lands. The Count of Wrzeszczewicz’s men ravaged the monastery’s possessions outside the walls, and the Count hastened to the Swedes with encouragment to attack immediately. However, Müller was a professional and a veteran of the Thirty Years War, and standing at the foot of the hill looking up toward Jasna Góra, he respected its numerous artillery, thick bastions, and strong position.
In 1616, the reforms of King Sigismund III Vasa included the construction of walls and bastions to protect Polish Catholicism’s most holy site. Sigismund’s defensive improvements turned the monastery into a fortress, and were validated by the harsh lessons of the Thirty Years War. It 1655, the monastery was well stocked with cannon and powder, and Kordecki purchased 60 muskets to arm the 70 monks prepared to defend the monastery against the Swedes. Kordeki also hired 160 mercenaries and they were joined by 20 szlachta, or petty gentry, led by Piotr Czarniecki and Stephan Zamoyski, and 60 other local townspeople and peasants, who sought refuge in the monastery. Just before the siege, 12 cannon with crews, provisions and cattle, arrived from Krakow, sent by Stanislaw Warszycki, the First Lord of Wawel Castle. The monastery’s defenders were still woefully outnumbered by the approaching Swedish army, but Kordeki’s stronghold was well supplied and more importantly had a considerable advantage in artillery, both in quantity and quality. The monks’ cannon were simply larger, heavier, and more numerous. In an attempt to avoid the otherwise inevitable bloody and tough assault, Müller demanded the monks’ surrender in a letter to the Prior. Father Kordeki wrote later, “It was no longer the hour to write, but to take up arms… We answered by the muzzles of our cannons…”
The first Swedish assault on 18 November 1655 was savagely repulsed by the monks and the defenders of Jasna Góra, so much so that night Müller asked for a truce. The next day the Swedes hid their cannon in the town in preparation for another assault. The monks bombarded the town with incendiaries to destroy the town’s winter stores of grain so they couldn’t be used by the Swedes, and remove any cover for the Swedish artillery. The fires in the town forced the Swedes into the streets and fields where they were again easy targets for the Polish gunners. Müller again attempted to negotiate with Kordeki, this time pointing out that the entire country had surrendered to the Swedes, no Polish army was coming to relive the monastery, and his victory was inevitable. Kordeki refused. The Swedes settled in for a siege and began digging trenches at night. With preparations complete, on Sunday, 21 November, the Feast of Our Lady, Müller again presented demands. After making Müller wait all day while the monks celebrated mass and processed the Blessed Sacrament inside the walls, Kordeki answered with a simple negative.
The infuriated Swedes launched a three day assault on the monastery. There was hard fighting but the decision was never in doubt. Swedish attempts to burn down the monastery with incendiaries were met with organized firefighting efforts by the monks. Also, singing by the monks in the sanctuary during the assaults both demoralized and enraged the Swedes. On the night of 28 November, Piotr Czarniecki, the commandant of Krakow led a surprise sortie against the battered Swedish lines. Czarniecki and his men snuck out of the monastery, made their way through the Swedish trenches, and attacked the Swedish camp from the rear. They killed many officers in their tents, including Müller’s artillery commander, and destroyed two cannon, though at least one account says they were captured and brought back to the monastery. The confusion and fires in the Swedish lines caused by the sortie provided further targets and more Swedes fell to Jasna Gora’s gunners. For the loss of one man, Czarniecki inflicted dozens of Swedish casualties. Czarniecki’s sortie and the failure of the latest assault convinced Müller that he needed reinforcements and especially heavier cannon to take the fortress, which he requested from Arvid Wittenberg, the commander of the Swedish army that just seized Krakow.
While Müller waited, he continued his information war against the monks. He knew Kordeki read every proposal for their surrender to the entirety of garrison. Müller repeatedly stated that he’d respect the Catholic relics, allow the garrison amnesty, and, to provide a stick for the carrots, warned the garrison that further resistance only encouraged revenge against them and their families. Kordeki’s transparency initially worked against the Swedes. The Swedish actions in the previous year were well known, and the Poles had no reason to believe Swedish attitudes regarding Catholicism and the Commonwealth had changed. Nonetheless, the Swedish propaganda began to wear on the garrison, especially when it was delivered by respected Polish figures, such as the Prior of Wielun or Polish nobles who had previously fought the Swedes.
In the beginning of December, word was given to Kordeki that several of the garrison planned to defect. Kordeki immediately addressed the garrison and expelled the traitors. To prevent another such crisis in faith, the mercenaries were given an advance on their pay, and the defense reorganized. Older and more trustworthy monks were given charges to look after and dual command of each bastion was given to a noble and a monk. During this time, Müller threatened the lives of two monks who were hostages, unless the monastery capitulated. Unfortunately for the captured monks, the Swedes attempted to reposition their cannon and informed the garrison that if they interfered, the captives would be hung. Unwilling to risk the sanctity of the garrison for the monks lives, Kordeki ordered his guns to fire. Alternating bouts of fighting and negotiating continued, but Kordeki and Jasna Góra’s defenders were mostly resolute, if at times wavering in the face of overwhelming Swedish force.
On 10 December, Müller’s reinforcements arrived, including two 24 pound cannon, which inflicted significant damage on the northern bastion. But before they could create a breach, another sortie on 14 December, this one led by Stephan Zamoyski, destroyed a redoubt and one of the 24 pounders. Zamoyski sortied again on the 20th, collapsing a mine the Swedes were digging and killing the miners, destroying two more cannon, and massacring isolated Swedish detachments in the trenches. During the raid a cannonball devastated a tent where several Swedish officers were dining, killing all of the revelers. The Swedes suspended operations for two days to recover from the chaos caused by Zamoyski. Buoyed by the success, recent news of Polish victories, and the rumor of a Tartar army coming to the aid of the Commonwealth against their mutual enemies, all talk of capitulation among the garrison ended.
After the rejection of Christmas truce, Müller launched his largest, and final, assault on the monastery Christmas Day. During this climactic battle, both Swedish and turncoat Polish sources reference divine intervention: a “lady of a menacing countenance”, whom the Swedes referred to as a “witch”, who roamed the walls and used both blinding light and uneven fogs to sow terror and misdirect the aims of Swedish gunners. Swedes also spoke of a “venerable old man” clad in a “white mantle” who “swiped from the air” Swedish projectiles, and whose sword fell dead any Swedish soldier it pointed upon. Whether divine intervention or not saved Jasna Góra is a matter of faith, but both sides certainly believed at the time that the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Paul interceded on the Poles’ behalf. What cannot be disputed is that the final attack, and the siege, came to an effective end when the remaining 24 pound cannon malfunctioned and exploded. The explosion was most likely caused by a reused cannonball, which had previously hit the walls and rolled back down the hill. Reusing cannonballs was a common practice, and this one was probably cracked, and when it was re-fired, the crack in the projectile expanded and destroyed the barrel.
Unable to take the monastery by force, Müller attempted one last chance to save face: he offered to lift the siege for 60,000 thalers. Kordeki replied that he would have accepted the offer in November, but in December he needed the money to repair the damage done to the monastery by the Swedish guns. Müller lifted the Siege of Jasna Góra on 27 December, after he learned of nearby Polish victories by Colonel Gabriel Wojniłłowicz, which rendered his position untenable.
The monastery at Jasna Góra was the only significant fortress in the Commonwealth not to fall to the invaders during the Deluge. Its successful defense galvanized Commonwealth resistance against the Swedes, Cossacks, Russians, and traitorous Poles and Lithuanians. Father Kordeki and his defenders saved the heart of Polish Catholicism, although its most sacred icon, The Black Madonna of Częstochowa, was spirited away and hidden in a nearby monastery prior to the enemy’s arrival, with a copy remaining during the siege. The icon was quietly returned after the victory. The new Commonwealth resistance was not entirely due to the victory. The tide of the war began to change in December 1655 with the King’s and Wojniłłowicz’ victories, the death of Lithuanian traitor Janusz Radziwiłł, the arrival of Tartar host, and the beginning of a New Russo-Swedish war in Livonia. Nonetheless, across the Commonwealth, Poles, Lithuanians, Ruthenians, and Belorussians rose up to fight the invaders, inspired by the victory. The Count of Wrzeszczewicz was seized and beaten to death by “peasants armed with rods”. Most significantly, the victory at Jasna Góra gave impetus to the establishment of the Tyszowce Confederation on 29 December and consolidation of various uprisings into new armies under the remaining Grand Hetmans. On Sunday, 1 April 1656, King Jan II Casimir gave the Lwów Oath at Easter Mass, proclaiming the Blessed Virgin Mary perpetual Queen of Poland, and announced “Poland, if thou fightest for Mary, thou shalt be terrible to the followers of Hell.”
By 1658, Swedish forces were thrown out Poland, and would not return until the Great Northern War forty years later. King Charles X Gustav of Sweden died of pneumonia in 1660.
Toward the end of the Age of Enlightenment, the game changed. Though Enlightenment principles were celebrated in the salons of Europe, the aristocracy and their power structures were too entrenched to torment radical change. It took the revolt by Britain’s thirteen North American colonies, an ocean away from the Empire’s power base in England, to show that governance by Enlightenment ideals was possible. It also took a little over a decade of war and a failed experiment called the Articles of Confederation, before the disciples of the Enlightenment could look upon the countries of the world for a success story. The American Revolution, the adoption of the US Constitution, and the impending inclusion of amendments protecting individual rights sent shock waves throughout the world where small aristocracies still held most of the power. Just the idea that all men are equal in the eyes of the law was a radical notion that directly resulted in bloody revolution in many countries. America’s “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” not only inspired the “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” in France, but also the “For Our Freedom and Yours” of Poland. But whereas France’s revolution devolved into an internal bloodbath, Poland’s was relatively peaceful, at least internally.
In the late 18th century, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was ripe for constitutional revolution. The Commonwealth was the only country in Europe who already enjoyed “democracy of the nobility” where all nobles, no matter their wealth and status, were equal in the eyes of the law (if only in theory). Still, it was not beyond the realm of belief to take this concept to the next logical step and apply this equality under the law to all citizens. Furthermore, the super wealthy magnates, and their foreign backers, had sabotaged the political process to the Commonwealth’s detriment, through the abuse of the ”liberum veto”. The abuse was so obvious, and the corruption so blatant, that reform was obviously needed, and desperately desired by the rest of the szlachta (petty nobility), the burghers, merchants, peasants, and clergy. Finally, the Russian, Prussian, and Austrian Empires sensed the weakness, and encroached on Polish territory — partitioning off pieces of the country in 1772. In the Commonwealth, rule by the super wealthy aristocracy and their elected King was obviously not working.
In 1784, after the end of the American Revolution, Continental Army general and godfather of the US Army Engineer Corps, Tadeusz Kościuszko, returned to his Polish homeland. His arrival sparked the action necessary for Commonwealth to pass the Constitution of 1791 — the “world’s second oldest constitution”, and a near mirror of the US Constitution with the Bill of Rights. (Though the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was adopted in France in 1789, it was not a governing document; the new French Constitution wasn’t passed until September 1791). Unfortunately the autocratic and aristocratic Empires of Austria, Prussia, and Russia could not abide a nation of free men on their borders. They invaded, overwhelmed, and partitioned Poland a second time just a year later. Tadeusz Kościuszko led an uprising against Russia in 1794, and though initially successful, the country was again overwhelmed. The great empires of Eastern and Central Europe were tired of the rebellious Poles. Kościuszko’s rebellion saved the French Revolution by diverting resources from the victorious First Coalition campaign against the French which allowed the French revolutionaries just enough breathing room to reorganize and call the mass levy. The “Polish Question” needed a permanent answer.
On 24 October 1795, the foreign ministers of the three empires assembled in St Petersburg and formally dismembered the remains of the newly formed Commonwealth of Poland. There would be no Polish rump state as there had been for the previous two partitions. Poland was to be wiped from the map of Europe. They found that a Polish rump state served only to inspire revolution and give sanctuary to radicals. Finally, the subversive Polish culture was to be eradicated. The three foreign ministers abolished all Polish institutions, divided up the country, and declared the official suppression of Polish language and culture.
Poland would not exist as a state again until after the First World War, 123 years later.
In 1599, Charles IX Vasa of Sweden replaced his uncle the elected Polish-Lithuanian King Sigismund III on the Swedish throne in a civil war among the House of Vasa thus ending the short lived Polish-Lithuanian-Swedish Personal Union. Though the Polish and Lithuanian nobility had no desire to make good Sigismund claim to the Swedish throne, they did covet Swedish lands in Livonia and Estonia if only for increased access to ports on the Baltic Sea. To keep the Commonwealth occupied so it did not interfere with Imperial Russia consolidating power at the height of the Russian Time of Troubles, Tsar Boris Godunov financed the Swedes fighting against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Russian gold allowed the much smaller, but highly centralized Swedish monarchy to field larger armies than the massive Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Commonwealth’s wartime finances relied on the generosity of the nobles unless the Polish Sejm (parliament), voted unanimously (the infamous Liberum Veto) for a new tax, which almost never happened. After initial success in the Polish-Swedish War of 1600, funds ran out and the Polish commander Jan Zamoyski fell ill, leading to his second, the Grand Hetman of Lithuania, Jan Karol Chodkiewicz, to take command. But Zamoyski’s departure meant that the war in the eyes of the Sejm became a local matter. Chodkiewicz fought on paying for his army out of his own personal fortune.
Flush with Russian gold, Charles IX of Sweden invaded Estonia and Livonia in 1605 and erased the previous half-decade of Zamyski’s gains. That summer, Charles laid siege to Riga, the southernmost and largest port in Swedish Livonia on the Baltic Sea. Chodkiewicz gathered his army, including a contingent from the Duchy of Courland, and advanced to relieve Riga. Charles turned to meet the threat and the two armies met outside the village of Kircholm on the Dvina River (in Latvia today) on 27 September 1605.
Charles’ 11,000 strong army greatly outnumbered Chodkiewicz’ 3,600 men, and had nearly double the cannon, 11 to 6. The Swedish army deployed on the slopes of a steep hill in a checkerboard formation of alternating lines of offset infantry squares and cavalry blocks. This formation allowed the pistol and carbine armed Swedish reiters the space for a caracole, where one line of reiters gallops forward, fires, withdraws, then is replaced by the next line and so on, while allowing support from the infantry to the flanks. The formation also allowed the space for the cavalry lines to move to cover the army’s flanks from light cavalry attack, an almost inevitable Lithuanian tactic. Chodkiewicz cavalry heavy army deployed in the “Old Polish Order” with a significantly reinforced left flank. Most of Chodkiewicz’ cavalry were the famed Polish Winged Husaria, whose charges decided battles.
Chodkiewicz could not attack such a strong position so he feigned a retreat and the impetuous Charles advanced to give chase. Moving downhill, the first line of infantry and the second line of cavalry moved out of support from their brethren behind them. Moreover, the unwieldy infantry blocks and squares became disorganized in the march to the bottom of the slope. Seizing the advantage, Chodkiewicz small army turned and attacked.
The Courland arquebusiers and reiters, and the Polish haiduks, tough land owning infantry armed however they came, usually with poleaxes and arquibuses, in the center fixed the first line of Swedish infantry. The husaria of the center and right charged the Swedish reiters in the second line whose caracole formations simply didn’t provide the mass necessary to stop the densely packed, lance tipped mailed fist of a Husaria charge. The defeated second line of cavalry retreated through the Swedish third line of infantry causing chaos, which was exploited by Chodkiewicz’ main assault: the charge of nearly 1000 Polish and Lithuanian Husaria massed on the Polish left.
The charge of the Polish left under the command of Tomasz Dąbrowa galloped through the right flank of the fixed or defeated first two Swedish lines. Their charge struck through the confusion of the Swedish infantry in the third line, and crashed into the reiters of the fourth line, overrunning the Swedish cannon in the process. The devastating charge left the destruction of the Swedish army in its wake. If the routing infantry and their cavalry brothers passing through them weren’t enough to convince the fourth line to take flight, the fluttering pennants, soaring wings, and phalanx of lowered lance tips charging forward at full tilt certainly did. The fourth line broke immediately. Charles attempted to salvage the situation with his cavalry reserve, but they were met head on by Chodkiewicz’ husaria reserve, and routed. The isolated infantry of the fixed Swedish first line were subsequently surrounded and massacred.
The greatest damage to the Swedish army was done in the pursuit, and Chodkiewicz’ Husaria, and the Duke of Courlands reiters savaged the Swedish army all the way back to Riga. The Poles and Lithuanians spared few Swedes or their mercenaries that day. At the cost of one hundred Polish killed and two hundred wounded, Charles lost nearly 8000. The siege of Riga was lifted, and Charles IX Vasa took ship back to Sweden.
The Battle of Kircholm was a triumph of the Husaria and one of the most lop sided victories of the Early Modern Era. Unfortunately the battle wasn’t decisive. Chodkiewicz was nearly bankrupt and could barely afford to maintain his estates, much less his army. The Commonwealth’s curiously libertarian nobility in the Sejm refused to allocate funds for Chodkiewicz to continue the reconquest of Livonia and Estonia. Without assistance from the rest of the Commonwealth, Chodkiewicz could not capitalize on his stunning victory at Kircholm. Nonetheless, Chodkiewicz fought subsequent Swedish incursions to a standstill until a truce was signed in 1610, ending the Polish-Swedish War of 1600.
During the Polish-Soviet War immediately following the First World War, Marshal Pilsudski stripped the Southern Front in the Ukraine of many Polish units to prepare for the upcoming Battle of Warsaw. In mid-August, 1920, the Communists of Semyon Budyonny’s 1st Cavalry Army broke through the front and threatened the Polish city of Lwów (now part of the Ukraine). The remaining Polish forces of the Southern Front streamed back to Lwów to hold the city.
On 18 August, 1920, 500 mounted Polish volunteers from Lwow under Captain Bolesław Zajączkowski were sent to reinforce the Polish soldiers that were withdrawing in the face of Budyonny’s 1st Cavalry Army, known simply as the “Konarmiya” or “Horse Army”. As they approached the village of Zadwórze, they received fire; the unit they were looking for was destroyed there the day before. The victorious Communists were the lead elements of the Red 6th Cavalry Division and were happy to see more Poles to kill before they resumed their advance.
Before the Communists could form, Zajączkowski ordered his men on line, and charged the village. They took the train station, but could not seize the entirety of the village. The village of Zadwórze became a vortex for the Red Cavalry, as the Communists committed more and more of the division to break the Polish resistance at the train station. Zajączkowski’s men fought off six successive cavalry charges from their stronghold in the station over the next six hours, while continuing to fight for the rest of the village. With dusk fast approaching and ammunition dangerously low, Zajączkowski ordered what remained his command to fall back to Lwów.
On the way out of the village, Zajączkowski’s men were strafed and bombed by three Communist airplanes, which broke up his formation. Zajączkowski gathered what men he could, and made a last stand in a lineman’s hut just on the outskirts of the village. In the dark, the Poles and Communists battled with bayonets, rifle butts, sabers, and fists. Just after midnight on 18 August, 1920, the hut was overrun, and the last of Polish defenders were dead, or had escaped. The seriously wounded Zajączkowski killed himself rather than be captured and endure the inevitable torture and execution at the hands of the Communists. Of the Zajączkowski’s original 500 men who attacked Zadwórze that morning, only 12 reached Lwów.
The 11 hour battle for Zadwórze consumed the entire 6th Cavalry Division, and held up the advance of the Konarmiya toward Lwów for more than a day. Zajączkowski’s stand gave time for the Polish defense of the city. Not only was Lwów saved, the Budyonny became fixed in front of the city, and could not extricate the Konarmiya quickly enough to ride northwest to affect the decisive Battle of Warsaw.
The Battle of Zadwórze was nicknamed “The Polish Thermopylae” after the Greek stand against the Persians 2400 years before.
(The Poles seem to have an obsession for the Greek Battle of Thermopylae. Zadwórze is one of at least six battles throughout Polish history known as “The Polish Thermopylae”)
The invasion of Poland in 1939 was not the walkover portrayed by German National Socialist propaganda, particularly in the air where the Polish air force was portrayed as destroyed on the ground. Poland’s small air force consisted of 400 obsolete planes, but number of flight hours made its pilots some of the best trained in world. The Luftwaffe suffered 900 planes shot down by the Poles before the German 5:1 superiority overwhelmed them. Towards the end of the campaign, thousands of pilots and ground crew escaped to Great Britain or France.
In August 1940, the RAF’s Air Marshal Dowding didn’t want to use the Polish squadrons because their lack of English language skills prevented their effective integration into his early warning system. So for the first 45 days of the Battle of Britain the Polish pilots, dozens of whom were aces and double aces, spent their time learning the proper English language procedures for coordinating with the Sector Control Centers and other fighters in the air.
However, on 30 August 1940 during a training flight over Kent, 303 Squadron RAF encountered a German bomber raid enroute to the airfield at Eastchurch, and one of the Polish pilots attacked. The pilot, a veteran of both the Polish and French campaigns, was frustrated with the RAF’s insistence on more training, and used the time honored tactic of not understanding the radio commands of his British instructor pilot. He shot down a German Bf110 and broke up the formation. Bowing to the inevitable, Dowding made 303 Squadron operational the next day.
303 Squadron was nicknamed the “Kosciuszko Squadron” after the Polish patriot and engineer who fought in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. 303 Squadron was formed on 28 July 1940 from pilots of the former 111 “Kosciuszko” and 112 “Warszawa” squadrons of the Polish Air Force. They were equipped with older Hawker Hurricane fighters, unlike many British squadrons which were equipped with far superior Supermarine Spitfires. Nonetheless, in the first seven days of September, 303 Squadron shot down 43 German planes for only six planes shot down and three pilot losses. The RAF refused to believe the numbers until the British sector commander came down to fly with them on 8 September. They scrambled four times, and shot down five more German planes without loss.
One victory that day was a Bf 109 that the Polish pilot chased over the tree tops. Out of ammunition, the Pole flew just above his target. The German pilot looked up, saw the fuselage of the Hurricane less than a meter from his canopy and instinctively dove away… straight into the ground. (The real life inspiration for Goose’s Polaroid scene in Top Gun? You know, “foreign relations”.) Impressed with their aggressiveness, dedication, technical and tactical expertise, and their “lust for contact”, the RAF never doubted the Poles of 303 Squadron again.
145 Polish pilots in five squadrons took part in the Battle of Britain, by far the largest contingent after the British. In early September, when the Germans had bombed Fighter Command’s airfields almost into submission, British Secretary of State for Air, Sr Archibald Sinclair noted, the RAF had “only 350 pilots to scramble, of which nearly 100 were Poles.”
The scarlet scarves of 303 Squadron would go on to shoot down 126 German planes in six weeks with the loss of only 13 pilots. This was the largest number of any of the 66 RAF fighter squadrons that fought in the Battle of Britain. Sgt Josef Frantisek, a Czech member of 303 Squadron who fought for the Poles after his country was given away by Neville Chamberlain in 1938, had the most kills of any pilot in the Battle of Britain with 18.
Pic notes: Note the cavalry czapka in the center of the 303 “Kosciuszko” Squadron emblem. The 13 stars around the outside of the red and white stripes was Kosciuszko’s heraldic device which he adopted after the American Revolution. (It was also a medal for gallantry in the Republic of Poland between 1919-1939). Also note the traditional Polish “war-scythes” on the emblem. “War-scythes” were made by uprighting normal scythe blades to make a form of fauchard. “Uprighting the scythe” was the traditional sign that the Poles were going to war. (You can’t harvest grain with an uprighted scythe; you can only harvest Germans, Russians, Swedes, Turks, and Communists.) The war-scythe is also a symbol for Polish independence, and “scythemen”, “Kosynierzy” in Polish, are roughly equivalent to “minutemen” in American culture. That was particularly appropriate during the Battle of Britain when the pilots had only a few minutes to get airborne to engage the Luftwaffe.
At the end of the First World War, three great empires collapsed in Eastern Europe: Germany, Austro-Hungary, and Imperial Russia. Out of that chaos, two states, of many, arose: the Republic of Poland and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was born in the “Red” October Revolution of 1917 sparked by the initially successful then disastrous Brusilov campaign of 1916. By 1918, Russia was out of the war, and locked in its own brutal civil war between the Anti Bolshevik or “White” armies, and the Bolshevik Socialist i.e. Communist, “Red” armies. In 1919, Vladimir Lenin’s victorious Red Army invaded the newly independent Republic of Poland, formed from the pieces of the Central Powers at the end of World War One. Lenin’s intent was to spread the Communist International (COMINTERN) to a defeated Germany, which was ripe for Communist revolution.
The Polish-Soviet War was the last of an era, with the first glimpses of the next. Trenches, inexperienced peasant militias, armored trains, massed artillery barrages and vast sweeping maneuvers by hordes of lance and saber wielding cavalry coexisted with airplanes, tanks, armored cars, motorized infantry, and highly experienced professional soldiers. By mid-1920, the Red Army, under the brilliant 27 year old Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, was poised for a final offensive to capture Warsaw. Warsaw’s fall would end the war and allow Tuchachevsky a clear path to Berlin. Standing in his way was the massively outnumbered remainder of the Polish Army under Marshal Josef Pilsudski.
The advancing Red Army had five million men, Pilsudski had but one million under arms.
Pilsudski knew that his forces could not win in a protracted attritional fight: the Soviets were too many. Only a bold counterattack could disrupt the Bolshevik offensive. Pilsudski planned to make a stand along the Vistula River with Josef Haller’s “Blue Army” reinforced by almost the entire population of Warsaw. The “Blue Army” was named so because they were Poles whom fought for France in the First World War and wore old blue French uniforms. Among the Blue Army was a division of Polish-American volunteers recruited from recent immigrants to the United States. Pilsudski’s plan was for Haller to fix Tuchachevsky in front of Warsaw, as the Red cavalry to the north of the city inevitably took the path of least resistance and raced west on the North German Plain. General Wladyslaw Sikorski’s Fifth Army held the shoulder. Below the city to the south, Pilsudski secretly organized a 20,000 strong “Strike Force” under Gen Edward Smygly-Rydz, for the counterattack.
On 12 August 1920, Tuchachevsky arrogantly launched his armies directly at Warsaw. Despite bitter hand to hand fighting in the trenches against overwhelming odds, and much to the surprise of the French and British observers, Haller held the Wkra/Vistula River lines. The Soviet Cossacks and cavalry raced west as expected, which caused great panic, but they completely overextended themselves. Even worse for the Soviets, the Red cavalry victoriously galloped further away from the important battle in front of Warsaw.
On 14 August, Sikorski counterattacked north of city (in probably the first use of “blitzkrieg” style combined arms breakthrough tactics), cutting off the cavalry to the west and occupying Tuchachevsky’s reserves. Two days later, Pilsudski launched his coup d’eclat – Smigly-Rydz’s cavalry, tanks, and armored cars tore into the Soviet flank, as they were occupied fighting for the city and containing Sikorski. The Polish counterattack threw the Red Army into chaos. Unleashing his division commanders to operate independently in the breakout, the Poles tore deep into the Soviet rear areas. They captured the vital fortress city Brest-Litovsk, 70 miles behind the lines. In order to prevent the complete encirclement and destruction of the Red Army, Tuchachevsky ordered a general retreat. As the Communists withdrew, Pilsudski ordered a general offensive, but it was superfluous: Haller, Sikorski, and the population of Warsaw had already surged forward. The Communist retreat turned into a rout on 18 August.
The COMINTERN was stopped at the Polish border and the Red Army, with its commissars and secret police, wouldn’t advance that far west for another 25 years. The Miracle on the Vistula spared vulnerable western and central Europe, severely weakened by four years of the First World War, from Communism, an ideology so heinous that it is responsible for 150,000,000 deaths and untold suffering by billions.
Had the Poles failed at the gates of Warsaw in August of 1920, we would be living in a different, and darker, world today.
“For our freedom and yours” – The motto of Polish revolutionaries and unofficial motto of Poland
In early 15th century Eastern Europe, the Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem, better known as the Teutonic Knights, relentlessly expanded under the guise of “crusade” along the Baltic coast into the Christian Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The effort reached a high water mark on the field between the towns of Grunwald and Tannenburg on 15 July 1410. 39,000 Poles, Lithuanians, Czechs, Russians, Ruthenians, Bohemians, Tatars, and Wallachians faced 27,000 Teutonic Knights, their retainers, mercenaries, and crusading knights from across Europe, including England, France, and the German and Italian states. Although the Polish-Lithuanian troops were more numerous, only the knights of Poland and a few other small contingents were of the same standard of discipline, training, and armor as the Teutonic Knights.
The Knights formed for battle in the morning, but were forced to stand in the hot sun all day because King Wladyslaw Jagiello, the commander of the Allied army, had his men wait in the trees as he heard three masses in spiritual preparation for the battle. The battle finally began in the afternoon when both sides were on the field. The weary and parched Teutonic Knights under Grand Commissar Kuno Von Lichtenstein, on the Knights’ left, charged the fresh Lithuanian and Tatar light cavalry under Lithuanian Grand Duke Witold on the Polish right… and promptly routed them. The Knights assumed they won the battle and began pursuit. The heavy warhorses of the Knights, however, couldn’t catch the lighter but faster horses. Most of the pursuing knights never returned and thus missed the real fighting. They couldn’t help defeat the much more heavily armed Poles. Despite the collapse of the Polish and Lithuanian right, no breakthrough was had: three companies from Smolensk fought to the death and heroically prevented the remaining Knights from getting behind the Polish lines.
The main battle was between the Teutonic right under Grand Master Ulrich Von Junginenen (pictured above in Jan Matejko’s painting, in the large white cape) and the Polish left wing under King Wladyslaw Jagiello (in the painting, the king is in the silver armor on the hill on the right) and his tactical commander Zyndram of Maszkowice (the bearded knight next to Ulrich in the picture who lead from the front in the Western tradition).
Unlike the Grand Master, who charged with his knights, the King directed the battle from a hilltop in the eastern tradition. After the initial thundering clash by both sides in which they crashed into each other at full speed, the battle stalemated into a churning meat grinding mass, which favored the more heavily armored and trained Teutonic Knights. The melee included one of the most famous knights of the age: Jan Zizka, a Czech mercenary who would become famous as a battle lord during the Hussite rebellion of 1414 (in the scale armor above the Royal Banner about to kill a German knight).
The Battle of Grunwald was not only one of the largest of the Middle Ages, it was also the last of the true knightly battles. It was the last battle where might made right. Strength of arm, whether wielding sword, axe, spear, hammer, or mailed fist, won the day — Not technology, but intestinal fortitude. Archers? Mere splotches on the ground where they were trampled underfoot. Cannon? Noisemakers abandoned after the merest hint of a mounted warrior. Amazingly brilliant tactics? Defeat is more crushing if you look your foe in the eye and rip out his soul. For hours, the battle was a swirling melee. As the shadows became long in the early evening, the Teutonic Knights managed to bring down the Royal Banner of Poland by knocking over Marcin of Wrocimowice (holding the banner in the picture above) which was the traditional medieval sign of victory. But for the Allies, this was a fight for national survival, and chivalric ritual would not interfere with military efficacy, so they fought on.
Sensing the Knights were finally committed, King Wladyslaw launched his coup de d’eclat: a three pronged attack that decided the battle. First, he sent most of personal bodyguard charging into the mass to fix the Knights. This charge was made by the crème of Polish knighthood, fresh and eager for battle after watching their comrades fight for hours. This august host included the greatest knight of the early 15th century – the folk hero Zawisza Czarny — Zawisza the Black Zawisza was a knight so renowned for his honor, loyalty, and reliability, 600 years later the Polish Boy Scouts’ motto is still “Rely on him as on Zawisza”. (He is pictured just above Jan Zizka with black hair and black armor couching a lance).
Once the Knights were fixed by the new attack, the King unleashed a hammer blow into the flank of the Teutonic host: 3000 unarmored Polish peasants armed with scythes, axes, and clubs, whom hid in the woods for most of the battle. They were fiercely anti-German and had suffered the worst under the decades of Teutonic raids and “conversion”. The peasants gave no quarter, and although a single knight could fight off six or seven peasants, they couldn’t do the same for ten or twelve.
As devastating as the charges by Wladyslaw’s personal guard and the mass of furious peasants were, the real killing blow came most decisively from Duke Witold who returned to the battle in spectacular fashion after rallying most of the Lithuanians from the routed right wing (Witold is featured prominently above clad in red holding the sword aloft).
The painting “The Battle of Grunwald” by Jan Matejko depicts the moment of the three charges that broke the Teutonic Knights. It more specifically depicts the death of Grand Master Ulrich to a Polish peasant’s spear (pictured next to Ulrich). According to legend, Ulrich’s last words were, “Damn these flies!” The 10,000 manacles the Teutonic Knights brought to use on the Allies that night were used on themselves instead. The Teutonic Knights never recovered from the defeat and the Union of Poland and Lithuania became the super power of Eastern Europe for the next 300 years.
The late 16th and early 17th centuries were the Golden Age of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. During this time, the Commonwealth was a “republic of nobles” with the gentry, known as the “Szlachta”, able to vote for their king. The nobility and gentry of the Commonwealth differed from many other nations in Europe with the Szlachta making up about 10% of the population, the upper and most of the middle classes, compared to 2%, or just the upper classes, across the rest of Europe. In the first decade of the seventeenth century, the elected king of the Commonwealth was Sigismund III Waza, from the Swedish royal house of Vasa. The Commonwealth throne was just a step to attaining his true objective, regaining the Swedish throne. In 1605, Sigismund III saw his chance to increase the Commonwealth’s power at the expense of his troubled neighbor, Muscovy. Sigismund planned to incorporate it into the Commonwealth with Poland and Lithuania, or at least place his son on Muscovy’s throne. The might of the three most powerful nations in Eastern Europe would be enough to seize the Swedish crown, turning the Baltic into a Commonwealth lake under Wasa rule.
With the death of Ivan the Terrible in 1589, Muscovy entered the Time of Troubles, specifically the “Dmitriad” or the time of the three false Dimitris who vied against Boris Godunov and Vasili IV Shuysky for the title of Tsar of all Russians. The Time of Troubles greatly weakened Muscovy. In 1609, Sigismund just finished putting down a nobles’ rebellion, and with his power consolidated, he made no attempt to hide his next target – Moscow. Sigismund III invaded Muscovy after the weakened Vasili IV made an alliance with Sweden to oppose the inevitable Commonwealth invasion.
In September, 1609, Sigismund III invested the Muscovite fortress at Smolensk with the help of Russian boyars supporting Dmitry II. But Smolensk, the gateway to Moscow, was well defended, well-armed, and well supplied. The siege continued all winter. In the spring of 1610, Vasili IV dispatched an army under his younger brother Dmitry Shuysky and Swedish general Jacob De la Gardie.
Shuysky commanded about 48,000 Russian troops and 11 cannon, supported by De la Gardie’s 5,000 Flemish, French, German, Spanish, Scottish, and Swedish mercenaries. Sigismund sent 12,000 Commonwealth troops, including 5500 of the famed Polish winged Husaria, under Hetman (warlord) Stanisław Żółkiewski to intercept them. Żółkiewski’s scouts found Shuysky’s 8,000 strong advanced guard at the villages of Tsaryovo and Zaymishche. The Muscovites fortified the town to secure their lines of communication against raids by the Commonwealth’s cavalry heavy army. Żółkiewski attacked and trapped the Muscovites in the fort. Żółkiewski left 6,000 men, which included most of his infantry and some cavalry, to isolate the Muscovites. On the evening of 2 July under the cover of a heavy rain, Żółkiewski slipped away with the bulk of his cavalry, his cannon, and some supporting infantry. Confident in the power of the Husaria, he silently galloped off to strike the overwhelming numbers of the Muscovite main body while they were strung out on the march.
The next night, Polish scouts spotted their adversaries in two fortified camps about five miles from the town of Kłuszyn, one for Shuysky’s Russian troops and a separate for De la Gardie’s mercenaries. Żółkiewski sent a spy with a letter to the mercenary camp offering them better pay to switch sides. Taking advantage of the bad weather, Żółkiewski attempted to sneak his army around the Russian camp to strike at them the next morning from behind when they resumed the march.
De la Gardie got wind of the letter and ended any conspiracy to switch sides en masse, but the letter’s damage was already done. The mercenaries’ military efficacy was greatly diminished by the prospect of greater pay in the service of what was thought to be a superior Commonwealth force. They fragmented on national lines: some switched sides, some refused to fight, some fought half heartedly, while others honored their contracts fully.
Żółkiewski’s hussars were spotted strung out on a narrow and muddy trail attempting to infiltrate behind the Russian camps. With his movement uncovered and unable to immediately attack, Żółkiewski consolidated his army opposite Shuysky’s camps. He rested his men who had been on the march for almost 48 hours straight, and cleared some obstacles from the future battlefield.
Formed in the dark, both armies faced each other as the sun rose on 4 July 1610. 30,000 of Shuysky’s Russians occupied their center and left, with De la Gardi’s foreign mercenaries on the right. They frantically reinforced fence lines and dug redoubts as Żółkiewski’s 5,500 Husaria supported by 1000 Cossacks on their left cantered forward. The masses of Russians in the redoubts and behind the fence lines were enough to prevent an outright charge by the Husaria, who resorted to the caracole tactic to break the lines, albeit one specifically suited to the Husaria.
In a traditional caracole, the dense mass of riders moved forward slowly. At pistol range the front rank discharged their firearms, and then made way for the next rank to do the same while they went to the rear and reloaded. Thus the cavalry formation either moved forward or backwards slowly by rank while maintaining continuous fire. A Husaria caracole differed and was more akin to the ancient Cantabrian Circle. The Husaria would leave their lances behind and charge forward. At pistol range they’d quickly turn and fire their brace, and then continue to move out of the way. They moved to the rear as the next unit followed up. The movement never stopped and the circle flowed seamlessly. Once at the back end of the circle, they’d pull their carbines and repeat the process. Once the carbine circle was completed, the Husaria charged with their lances, with the hope that the firearms broke up the dense formations, leaving them vulnerable to their terrible charge. As their lances shattered on the Russians, if no break out immediately occurred they’d then turn, and pull their sabers. The momentum of the charge carried them back out of the enemy formation. The Husaria would then retire to reload their pistols and carbines, and begin the maneuver again. The Husaria caracole required immense discipline and exquisite horsemanship just to maintain the timing. At any given moment there were at least four groups of Husaria in the caracole: one moving forward, one charging, firing, or fighting, one retiring, and one reloading. Some Husaria completed this maneuver 8-10 times over the course of the day.
The reinforced hedges and fence lines blunted the worst of the Husaria charges, but the continuous Polish caracoles gave the impression that the Commonwealth’s numbers were much greater than they were. For next five hours, the Husaria caracoles smashed against the Russian defenses of the center and left, while the Cossacks fixed the reluctant mercenaries on Shuysky’s right. The Husaria’s discipline, armor, and firepower were offset by the greater Russian numbers.
The turning point of the battle was a counterattack by Russian reiters (Muscovite boyars equipped as German or Swedish riders) in the center. Sensing the Husaria’s charges diminishing, Shuysky ordered his still fresh reiters forward against the exhausted Poles. The reiters began their own traditional caracole with their pistols, in front of the beleaguered, but still solid, Russian defensive lines. The Poles rushed at the chance to fight the Russian riders. The Husaria abandoned their caracole and charged the exposed Russian reiters with their lances and sabers. The Russians quickly broke in the melee. The routing Muscovite reiters did what the Husaria could not, break the Russian lines. As the defeated reiters pushed their way back through the Russian defenses, the Husaria victoriously followed, and Shuysky’s center collapsed.
Seeing the Russian center break, De la Gardi withdrew back to his fortified camp with men guarding his flank in the woods at the edge of the battlefield. Shuysky and his shattered center withdrew to the Russian camp, while the left held strong. However the timely arrival of the Commonwealth cannon and infantry, which had marched all night after being left behind by the cavalry, were deployed against the remaining Russian lines. (In the haste to form the battle lines in the predawn darkness, Shuysky left his 11 cannon in his camp.) The Commonwealth infantry and cannon broke the Russian left, and the Husaria followed them back to the Russian camp. The Russians routed through the camp and prevented Shuysky from rallying his troops. They abandoned their fortified camp. The exhausted Cossacks and Husaria could not pursue far though, and many looted Shuysky’s extravagant camp and its wagon loads of valuables.
Żółkiewski’s army could not take the remaining mercenary camp with force. De la Gardi’s mercenaries had a much higher ratio of harquebusiers and much better training than the Stuysky’s Russians. Żółkiewski’s men were exhausted and disorganized. So under a flag of truce, he offered the mercenaries the same deal as before, and many switched sides. The remainder were given free passage out of the country on their word never to take up arms against the Commonwealth again.
Żółkiewski took the captured banners and prisoners back to the fort at Tsaryovo and Zaymishche which prompted its defenders to surrender. The Commonwealth victory at Kłuszyn did not however convince Smolensk to surrender. While Sigismund III maintained the siege at Smolensk, his son Wladyslaw IV Wasa advanced on Moscow with the Żółkiewski’s reinforced army. On 3 August they arrived at the gates of Moscow to find that the Russian boyars overthrew Tsar Vasili IV Shuysky. For the next three weeks, the boyars negotiated with Prince Wladyslaw IV and Hetman Żółkiewski.
In return for electing Wladyslaw the new Tsar, the boyars demanded that Muscovite territory remain intact and the Commonwealth would respect Russian social and political institutions, e.g. the rights of the boyars and the Orthodox faith. And finally, as Tsar of “The Third Rome”, Wladyslaw would have to accept the Orthodox faith.
Wladyslaw IV agreed. On 27 August 1610, he was elected Tsar of all Russians. On 3 September, Tsar and Grand Prince Vladislav Zigimontovych of all Russia triumphantly entered Moscow at the head of Hetman Stanislaw Żółkiewski’s Husaria and occupied the Kremlin.
Unfortunately, the Wasa dynasty in Muscovy was short lived. Wladyslaw sent his father the agreement, and Sigismund rejected it outright, despite it securing Muscovy’s support for the Commonwealth. Sigismund wanted to Catholicize Muscovy, which the Russian boyars would never agree to. Furthermore, he refused to abandon the siege of Smolensk. Smolensk had been part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which had only been lost to Muscovy in the last century. It was the key to any advance on Moscow. With Smolensk in Commonwealth hands under Lithuanian control, the heartland of Muscovy would be open to invasion at any time, and Muscovite politics easy to influence. Moscow would be at the Poles’ and Lithuanians’ mercy. The permanent loss of Smolensk would keep the notoriously finicky Russians in line, and secure Muscovy for the upcoming campaign for the Swedish throne. However, Sigismund didn’t understand that the boyars understood this also. They would never stop fighting while Smolensk was in foreign hands.
Sigismund’s rejection of Wladyslaw’s agreement infuriated the Russian boyars, and turned them against the Commonwealth. Smolensk fell in 1611, but the boyars refused to sign a peace treaty. Tsar Wladyslaw IV and his army were unwelcome foreigners whose control extended little beyond Moscow and the Kremlin. In late 1611 Tsar Wladyslaw departed Moscow never to return, and the Commonwealth troops were trapped in the Kremlin. After a brutal siege in which there were reports of cannibalism among the Commonwealth’s troops, the Russians retook the Kremlin in November of 1612. In 1613, the boyars chose Shuysky’s 16 year old cousin, Mikhail Romanov, as the new Tsar. Tsar Mikhail Romanov ended the Time of Troubles and the Romanov Dynasty ruled Imperial Russia for the next 300 years, until the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.
Wladyslaw IV would eventually be elected, as had his father, king of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He would reign for the next 38 years through what remained of the Commonwealth’s Golden Age, until The Deluge began in 1648. He was one of Europe’s most beloved and successful rulers, though as King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, and not as Tsar of all Russians.
Ever since the Red Army arrived on Polish soil in 1944, the Soviets raped, looted, and murdered their way across the country. The largest Polish underground resistance movement, the Home Army, turned from fighting German socialists to fighting Russian socialists. At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Churchill made the same mistake Chamberlain did seven years previously and trusted a dictator. Stalin broke every pledge he made at Yalta, including allowing free elections in Poland, and power sharing between the American, French and British backed Polish Government-in-Exile and the Soviet puppets, the Polish Communists. The Soviet secret police, the NKVD, arrested any Pole even tangentially associated with the Polish Government-in-Exile or the Home Army. The detainees were placed in repurposed Nazi camps. Those that survived the torture, starvation, neglect, and interrogations at these camps were packed into cattle cars and sent east to the gulags, where most were never heard from again.
NKVD Special Camp No.10 near the town of Rembertów outside Warsaw was a former German labor camp for Soviet POWs. In May 1945, No. 10 was the final stop in Poland before prisoners and detainees disappeared into the Siberian wilderness. Since the camp was visible from the town of Rembertów, the guards ordered the prisoners around in rudimentary German to disguise from the townspeople that the prisoners were Poles. The ruse didn’t work, and the townspeople worked with the Home Army to free the prisoners. Many of the prisoners were high ranking Home Army and Exile leaders, and the next scheduled transport was 25 May.
Disguised as Polish Communist Army soldiers, Home Army soldiers under Captain Walenty “Młot” (The Hammer) Suda reconnoitered the camp. The raid to free the prisoners was tasked to Lieutenant Edward “Wichura” (The Gale) Wasilewski and his reinforced platoon of 44 heavily armed fighters.
On the night of Saturday 20 May 1945, the townspeople of Rembertów along with some prisoner’s relatives brought the guards some booze, and threw a party in the town for the camp commandant. With most of the guards and camp administration drunk, Suda executed a textbook raid on Special Camp No. 10 with security, breach, and assault groups. The raid was a complete surprise. The only casualties were three Home Army wounded, and 40 prisoners killed when they were caught in a field trying to escape into the woods. In less than 25 minutes, 100 sick and wounded prisoners were spirited away in two trucks, while somewhere between 800 and 1400 Polish prisoners escaped through Suda’s breach.
The Raid on Rembertów escalated the Polish resistance to the Soviets to an all-out civil war between Polish Communists and the Soviet Union and the “Cursed Soldiers” of the Home Army and the Polish people. Prison raids were a favorite tactic. For the next 18 months, 150,000 Home Army and resistance partisans fought two million Red Army soldiers, 50,000 NKVD agents, and 30,000 Polish communist militia. The Poles fought on alone without any support from their former allies in the West. The last of the Cursed Soldiers were killed or deported by October, 1946.