February 9, 2014

A Polish Tank Ace

The Polish Armored Force

The Polish 7TP light tank.
The Polish 7TP light tank.

 When war came upon Poland, the Polish Army had a significant number of Armored Fighting Vehicles (AFV) though most of them were unsuitable for tank vs tank combat. 

In 1931 Poland purchased from Great Britain 38 Vickers Mk. E Type A, twin-turret, 6-ton., light tanks with a license to manufacture. Later, 22 of them were rebuilt to single-turret, Type B standard. The twin-turret variant was armed with machine guns, while the single-turret with a 47mm gun and a co-axial machine gun (MG). The Poles worked on the Vickers Mk. E and produced their own 7TP tank. A total of 132 of them were produced; 24 of the early twin-turret version and 108 of the single-turret version. The single-turret version was armed with a 37 mm gun and a co-axial MG. 

9,900 kg
4,60 m
2,27 m
17 mm (hull front), 15mm (mantlet)
PZLnż. 235 – 6-cylinder, 110 HP at 1,800 rpm
Max Speed:
32 km/h
150/130 km (road/off-road)
Main gun: 37mm wz. 37, Secondary armament: 1 X 7.92mm wz.30 machine gun
Main gun: 80 rounds, MG: 3,960 rounds in 330-round belts

The 1st and 2nd Light Tank Battalions were equipped with 49 7TP tanks each. Furthermore, the 12th and 121st Light Tank Companies were equipped with 16 Vickers Mk. E tanks each (10 single-turret, 6 twin-turret).

Apart from the Vickers and the 7TPs the Polish Army also had a number of French made tanks. In 1919 the first Polish armored unit, the 1st Tank Regiment, was formed in France equipped with 120 Renault FT-17 tanks. Of them, 75 were armed with a 37 mm gun, and the rest with MG only. In September 1939 102 FT-17 tanks were still serving, but they were of limited combat value. In July 1939 a number of Renault R-35 tanks arrived in Poland due to an order placed in April. Forty five machines were put into service with the 21st Light Tank Battalion. They didn’t take part in the fight and some of them escaped to Romania.

The TK/TKS tankettes

TK-3 tankettes on parade in Cieszyn
2. TK-3 tankettes on parade in Cieszyn (Teschen) in 1938.

The TK3/TKS tankettes formed the bulk of the Polish armored force with some 582 machines.

In the late 1920s the Polish Army became interested in the British Carden-Loyd Mk.VI tankettes. At that time the tankettes were multiple-purpose tracked vehicles and could be used as machine-gun or mortar carriers and artillery tractors. The vehicle satisfied the Poles and a small number was bought, together with a license for manufacturing them in Poland.

Working on the original vehicle the Poles produced the TK-3 light reconnaissance tank, better known as the TK. The TK had a crew of two (driver, gunner/commander), it was armed with a 7,92mm Hotchkiss wz.25 MG, it had a closed fighting compartment and it was protected by 3-8mm thick armored plates. Some 300 TKs were manufactured.

The TK was further upgraded with thicker armor, up to 10mm, new engine, better suspension system and other improvements. The new version was named TKS and some 282 machines were produced.

Later on it became obvious that the tankettes had to have a fighting chance against enemy AFVs. In August 1939 it was decided to arm 80 TKS and 70 TK3 with the FK model A 20mm cannon. It could penetrate a 25mm armor plate at 800m. By September 1, 1939 only 20 to 24 tankettes had been modified.

TKS armed with the 20mm cannon
3. TKS armed with the 20mm cannon.

The 71st Armored Battalion

In 1939 the Polish Army fielded twelve cavalry brigades. The Wielkopolska (Greater Poland) Cavalry Brigade was screening the southwestern flank of Army Poznan. The Brigade was commanded by General Roman Abraham.

The Wielkopolska Brigade was screening the southwestern flank of Army Poznan
4. The Wielkopolska Brigade was screening the southwestern flank of Army Poznan.

The Brigade was composed of the following units:
  • 15th Poznań Uhlans Regiment
  • 17th Wielkopolska Uhlans Regiment
  • 7th Wielkopolska Mounted Rifle Regiment
  • 71st Armored Battalion
  • 7th Wielkopolska Horse Artillery Regiment
  • 3rd Squadron of Pioneers
  • 7th Signals Squadron
The 55th Regiment was attached from the 14th Infantry Division and the II/68 Battalion was attached from the 17th Infantry Division.

The 71st Armored Battalion was commanded by Major C. Zolkiewicz and it was composed of:
  • the 2nd Reconnaissance Tank Squadron with thirteen tankettes
  • and the 1st Armored Car Squadron with seven armored cars.
The tankettes were nine TK and four TKS armed with the 20mm cannon and the armored cars were of wz.34 type.

Polish wz.34 armored car
5. A replica of the Polish wz.34 armored car.

The Bzura Counterattack

The Wielkopolska Brigade during the Battle of Bzura
6. The Wielkopolska Brigade during the Battle of Bzura.

The German invasion took the form of a giant pincer movement, aiming to annihilate the Polish Army before the Western Powers could intervene decisively.

Army Poznan was located between the pincers and did not face the German onslaught during the first days of the war. The 71st Armored Battalion even conducted small scale raids on the German soil.

The commander of Army Poznan General Tadeusz Kutrzeba proposed to attack the extended northern flank of the German Army Group South. However his proposals were dismissed by Marshal Rydz-Śmigły who was of the opinion that Army Poznan should be kept untouched for later. The tempo of the German advance was not expected by the Polish High Command. On September the 7th German tanks appeared in the suburbs of Warsaw. Army Poznan was in the danger of being cut off.

In light of the new situation Rydz-Śmigły authorized Kutrzeba to launch his flanking attack. Army Poznan attacked with three infantry divisions and two cavalry brigades; the Wielkopolska being one of them.

The Polish offensive started fairly well on September 9 and the next day the overextended German 30. Infanterie-Division was forced to withdraw. After the initial shock the Germans, with astonishing speed, managed to amass nineteen divisions and threatened Kutrzeba’s Army with encirclement. Kutrzeba concentrated his efforts to the goal of breaking out towards Warsaw.

The encirclement of Army Poznan at Bzura
7. The encirclement of Army Poznan at Bzura.

The 4th Panzer-Division

The 4th Panzer-Division was operating as part of Hoepner’s XVI Armeekorps (mot.) and together with the 1st Panzer-Division it had spearheaded the Germanadvance towards Warsaw. The Division was commanded by Generalmajor Georg-Hans Reinhardt and from September 12 the Ia Officer was Major (i.G.) Walter Reinhard. The Division was composed of:
  • 12. Infanterie-Regiment
  • 35. Panzer-Regiment
  • 36. Panzer-Regiment
  • 103. Artillerie-Regiment
  • 7. Aufklärungs-Abteilung
  • 49. Panzerabwehr-Abteilung
  • 79. Pionier-Bataillon
  • 79. Nachrichten-Abteilung

Tank strength of the 4th Panzer-Division
8. Tank strength of the 4th Panzer-Division on the first day of the war.

On September 7 advanced elements of the Division reached the outskirts of Warsaw and the next day the Division launched a tank attack against the city; only to lose half of its panzers in the streets of the Polish capital. Thereafter the Division adopted a defensive posture and waited the arrival of the infantry divisions. When the Bzura counterattack was launched the Division was ordered to head west and block the routes to Warsaw.

The 1st Light Division

Pz.Kpfw 35(t)
9. The Pz.Kpfw 35(t) was the most numerous tank of the Division.

The Division was commanded by Generalmajor Friedrich-Wilhelm von Loeper and the Ia Officer was Oberstleutnant Volkmar Schöne. Claus von Stauffenberg was serving with the Division. It was composed of:
  • 4th Mechanized Cavalry Regiment
  • 6. Kradschützen-Abteilung
  • 11th Panzer Regiment
  • 65th Panzer Battalion
  • 76th Artillery Regiment
  • 6th Reconnaissance Battalion
  • 41st Anti-tank Battalion
  • 57th Engineer Battalion
  • 82nd Signal Battalion

Tank strength of the 1st Light-Division
10. Tank strength of the 1st Light-Division on the first day of the war.

10,500 kg
25 mm (front)
Skoda T-11 – 6-cylinder, 120 HP at 1,800rpm
Max Speed:
34 km/h
190/120 km (road/off-road)
Main gun: Skoda A3 37mm, Secondary armament: 2 X 7.92mm type 37 machine guns
Main gun: 90 rounds, MG: 2,550 rounds

1st Light Division was at Tenth’s Army reserve initially. On September 2 at 05:00 hrs the Division crossed the Prosna River and entered Poland. The Division moved along the route Sołtysy – Wielun. The Division crossed the Warta River at Rychlocice on September 3. On September 6 the Division was in pursuit of retreating Poles towards Lask. During the Battle of Bzura the Division was sent west of Warsaw with the mission to:
  • clear the Kampinos Forest south of Palmiry
  • prevent enemy forces from Warsaw and Modlin establish contact with the retreating forces
  • deny the retreating forces access to Warsaw
The Division was badly mauled at Sierakow and was withdrawn. For the whole of the Campaign the Division reported the following losses: 8 Pz IIs, 77 Pz 35(t)s and 9 Pz IVs, but very few of them were total writeoffs. After the Campaign 1st Light Division was redesignated the 6th Panzer-Division.

The Achievements of Officer Cadet Corporal Roman Orlik

11. Orlik and his driver Bronisław Zakrzewski working on the track of a TKS tankette.

Officer Cadet Corporal Roman Edmund Orlik joined the 71st Armored Battalion on August 26, 1939, just four days before the German invasion. He had completed the two-year course at the School of Officer Cadets of Reserve for Armored Forces in Modlin and intended to study at the Warsaw Polytechnic but fate had other plans. Orlik took command of a half-platoon of tankettes, his own being armed with the 20mm cannon.

On September 14 Armies Poznan and Pomorze were in full retreat. Their intention was to reach Warsaw through the Kampinos Forest. The Wielkopolska Brigade was attempting to cross the Bzura River at the village of Brochów and came in contact with elements of the 4th Panzer-Division. During the fight a gun-armed tankette knocked out three German tanks. According to Polish historian Janusz Magnuski the tankette was commanded by Orlik. However, Corporal Roman Nawrocki in a letter has claimed that at Brochów Orlik was commanding an MG-tankette. The matter remains unclear.

On September 18 the Wielkopolska Brigade had crossed the Bzura and was crossing the Kampinos Forest. At a crossroad near the small village of Pociecha Orlik with his half platoon (one gun-armed tankette, two MG-armed) ambushed incoming enemy tanks. The small size of the tankettes made it easy for their crews to camouflage them. Three Pz.Kpfw. 35(t) tanks of 1st Light Division were destroyed. Orlik hit the first tank from a distance of 120m and advanced as close to as 60m to take out the third enemy tank. The German tank platoon commander Prince Wiktor IV Albrecht von Ratibor was killed.

the action at Pociecha
12. September 18, the action at Pociecha.

Still attempting to reach Warsaw the Wielkopolska Brigade took possession of the village of Sieraków during the night 18/19 September. Early in the morning German tanks of the 1st Light Division counterattacked. Orlik with his half-platoon was ordered to attack the enemy tanks. Making excellent use of the terrain Orlik knocked out seven Pz.Kpfw. 35(t) tanks. 

The action at Sieraków
13. The action at Sieraków.

For a brief period of time, midday on 19th until the morning on 20th, the Poles kept the Modlin – Warsaw road open. Orlik’s TKS entered Warsaw on September 20; probably the only tank of his Brigade to have done so. For his actions Orlik was awarded Poland’s highest military distinction the Cross Virturi Military Vth Class. After the war Orlik became an architect. He died in 1982. 

Bibliography & Internet Sources
Barbarski, Krzysztof. Polish Armour 1939-45. London: Osprey, 1982.
Feist, Uwe. Leichte Panzers in Action. Squadron/signal publications, 1974.
Forty, George. Tank Aces from Blitzkrieg to the Gulf War. Gloucestershire: Sutton, 1997.
Jentz, Thomas L. Panzertruppen vol. 1. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Military History, 1996.
Mitcham Jr., Samuel W. The Panzer Legions. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2000.
Sutherland, Jonathan. World War II Tanks and AFVs. Shrewsbury: Airlife, 2002.
Photos attribution

1. Rajmund Szubański: “Polska broń pancerna 1939”, via Wikimedia Commons
2. Szlakiem Józefa Piłsudskiego; Warszawa: Wydawnictwo “Ra”; 1939, via Wikimedia Commons
3., 11. KPN, via Wikimedia Commons
4. DA PAM No. 20-255 “The German Campaign in Poland”
5. Hiuppo, GFDL or CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
6. Apoloniusz Zawilski (1972) “Battles of Polish September”, via Wikimedia Commons
7., 13. http://www.openstreetmap.org/copyright, operational details: author
8., 10., 12. author
9. Mark Pellegrini, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

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