Soviet advance on Warsaw II



The panic of the 13th had also brought forward the day for starting the great encircling sweep from the Wieprz. Pilsudski had left the capital to take charge of the Strike Force on the 12th. He was horrified at the state of his men’s equipment. He described the men of 21st Division as being ‘practically naked’, but felt that morale was not too low. His anxiety was heightened by the bad news from Warsaw and he decided to launch his attack on the 16th. On 15 August tension mounted as news came through that Budenny was having things all his own way in the south and was approaching Lvov. On the 16th only the beginning of three days dawn to dusk strafing and bombing by up to 19 Polish aircraft (200 sorties) restricted his progress. Ammunition exhausted, the planes literally attempted to plough through the Red Cavalry formations.

On 16 August the pent-up Strike Force sliced through the Mozyr Group. To their amazement they encountered practically no resistance. All day Pilsudski drove them on, motoring among the forward units, but they seemed to be chasing a phantom enemy. The advance covered 45 miles in 36 hours but Pilsudski was far from reassured. He took precautions: ‘I ordered the 2nd Division of the Legion to form a reserve to my advance troops, for I felt that we were menaced by mysteries and traps on all sides.’ Perhaps the Soviet armies were waiting to encircle his puny Strike Force. It is to Pilsudski’s credit that he kept his nerve and ordered his spearhead onwards over the empty uplands. On 17 August his forward troops met 15th Division, leading a sortie of the Warsaw garrison, at Minsk Mazowiecki. So, when Pilsudski returned to Warsaw on the 18th, he was beginning to gain some confidence in the success of his daring maneuver, which had covered 70 miles in three days.

In Warsaw itself the mood was still one of anxiety. It was hard to believe in success while there were still so few prisoners and captured guns and before there had been much hard fighting. Besides this, Sikorski was still heavily outnumbered and in a difficult position. For the Fifth Army had kept on advancing during 17-18 August, almost in­viting the Soviets to crush is by sheer weight of numbers. But before the Bolsheviks could assemble their strength to deal with Sikorski, the effect of Pilsudski’s dramatic advance began to be felt. The Soviet commanders became aware that they would have to withdraw or be encircled.

Soviet armies run for home

‘Withdrawal’ is too orderly e description of the Soviet retreat. The swift Polish advance produced panic and near collapse. On the night of the 18th, Tukhachevski, at his Minsk HQ 300 miles from Warsaw, knew that he would have to save what he could and ordered a general retreat. The 3rd and 15th Armies cut and ran for the ever-closing gap between the Strike Force and the East Prussian border. They left 4th Army and Kavkor embroiled with Sikorski and too far committed to reach safety. The 3rd and 15th Armies covered 15 miles a day and, brushing off the pursuing Poles, managed to break out before the ring was closed. The more southerly 16th Army and the Mozyr Group fragments did not get through so easily and the siege artillery destined for Warsaw was lost. Moving through Wegrow, Bielsk and Bialystok they were heavily engaged by the Polish Fourth Army and 1st Legionary Division of the Strike Force (19­22 August). Still recognisable formations, they emerged on the eastern side of the ring after heavy losses.

The Soviet 4th Army and Kavkor at least seemed fairly ‘in the bag’ but the latter tried to carve a way out. Ghai marched his men by night hoping to slip by the Poles through the forests and lakelands. In the early hours of 21 August he evaded a strong force of Polish cavalry which would not engage in the darkness. On the 22nd he was cornered by four divisions at Mlawa but broke out after a fierce night attack. On the 23rd he was faced with Sikorski’s Volunteer Division. In the fighting on the Wkra its student soldiers had earned the title ‘la terreur de la Russie’ but it was no match for Kavkor at Grabow. The Red Cavalry broke through but were mauled by the Polish Siberian Brigade at Chorzele. On 24 August they caught up with the Soviet 53rd Infantry Division and fought on for another two days. But ammuni­tion gave out and the Red Cavalry were bundled across the frontier into East Prussia where they were disarmed and interned. Still escorting 2,000 prisoners and 11 guns they crossed the frontier singing the ‘Internationale’ which proved that it took a lot to break morale in ‘the Golden Horde of Gay-Khan’. The 4th Army did not reach East Prussia and surrendered, unit by unit, in Poland.

The Battle of Warsaw was described by Viscount D’Abernon as the 18th decisive battle in the history of the world. It certainly worked a remarkable change in the fortunes of the combatants. When it started the Polish cause was despaired of all over Europe. When it ended Tukhachevski’s five armies had lost two-thirds of their strength (Polish figures were 231 guns, 1,023 MGs, 10,000 vehicles and 66,000 prisoners with 44,000 interned) and the boot was firmly on the Polish foot. The Poles made no mistake in applying that boot. Pilsudski ordered Sikorski south for the long-awaited reckoning with Budenny and the loathed Konarmiya. It was caught in the Zamosc ring at Komarow and, in one of the most extraordinary battles of the twentieth century; lines of Polish lancers rode, at the charge, into a mass of Cossack cavalry­men on 31 August. The lancers had the better of it and, together with other units, made Budenny exercise every ounce of his fierce courage and determination before he was able to save the battered Konarmiya from complete annihilation.

In the north Pilsudski prevented Tukhachevski from rallying long and turned him out of Poland as fast as he came in. Poland regained her former border territories—even Lithuanian-occupied Vilna. This defeat had a lasting effect on the development of Soviet Russia. The attempt to ex­port revolution on the bayonets of the Red Army was abandoned and the international flavor of the revolution was replaced by a concern more for its success in Russia. So the Battle of Warsaw protected Europe from the advance of Communism for 20 years and made the Soviet leaders put away their hopes for the immediate spreading of the revolution. The war was followed by an October armistice and then the Treaty of Riga (March 1921) which secured Poland’s eastern frontier until 1939.

Breaking of Soviet ciphers

According to documents found in 2005 at Poland’s Central Military Archives, Polish cryptologists broke intercepted Russian ciphers as early as September 1919. At least some of the Polish victories, not only the Battle of Warsaw but throughout the campaign are attributable to this. Lieutenant Jan Kowalewski, credited with the original breakthrough, received the order of Virtuti Militari in 1921.

The war’s misleading lessons

Although it had such momentous results the Polish-Soviet War was fought in an unusual and even outdated fashion. It has been suggested that the great mobility of both sides showed that the power of defense was waning, that static trench warfare had already given way to the war of maneuver. Indeed Sikorski is credited with carrying out the first Blitzkreig-style attack using mobile columns with lorries and armored cars. In fact, the freedom to maneuver which both sides enjoyed in Poland was more the result of inadequate equipment and training than a major change in the character of warfare. Neither side possessed weapons in such quantity that they wielded the firepower of Western Armies. Hurried training and poor equipment meant that neither side had the firepower to stop a cavalry charge unless it was occupying a prepared position.

Both sides had unusual and amateur methods of warfare. An Allied observer with experience of the Western Front described a Polish divisional attack as ‘like nothing on earth’—he was amazed that the division concerned started two hours late on a front of only one company and had been given an objective as much as 7 ½ miles distant (he was even more surprised that it actually got there). This makes Pilsudski’s ability to plan and execute a daring counter­attack even more impressive. One must give a little credit too to Weygand, who insisted on written orders and urged the bringing up of reinforcements from the south. With Polish generosity Pilsudski said that he had learned more about war from Weygand in a fortnight than he had acquired in six years campaigning, but the Frenchman modestly disclaimed any credit for the success of a plan which was peculiarly Pilsudski’s own.

List of battles of the Polish-Soviet War by chronology:

  1. Soviet “Target Vistula” offensive (January-February 1919)
  2. Battle of Bereza Kartuska (February 9, 1919: the first battle of the conflict)
  3. Operation Wilno: Polish offensive to Wilno (April 1919)
  4. First Battle of Lida (April 1919)
  5. Operation Minsk: Polish offensive to Minsk (July-August 1919)
  6. Battles of Chorupań and Dubno (July 19, 1919)
  7. Battle of Daugavpils: joint Polish-Latvian operation (January 3, 1920)
  8. Kiev Offensive (May-June 1920)
  9. Battle of Wołodarka (May 29, 1920)
  10. Battle of Brody (29 July – 2 August 1920)
  11. Battle of Lwów (July-September 1920)
  12. Battle of Tarnopol (July 31-August 6, 1920)
  13. Battle of Warsaw (August 15 1920)
  14. Battle of Raszyn, Battle of Nasielsk, Battle of Radzymin (August 14-August 15, 1920)
  15. Battle of Zadwórze: the “Polish Thermopylæ” (August 17, 1920)
  16. Battle of Sarnowa Góra (August 21-August 22, 1920)
  17. Battle of Zamość (August 29, 1920) – Budyonny’s attempt to take Zamość
  18. Battle of Komarów: great cavalry battle, ending in Budyonny’s defeat (August 31, 1920)
  19. Battle of Hrubieszów (September 1, 1920)
  20. Battle of Kobryń (1920) (September 14-September 15, 1920)
  21. Battle of Dytiatyn (September 16, 1920)
  22. Battle of Brzostowica (September 20, 1920)
  23. Battle of the Niemen River (September 26-28 1920)
  24. Battles of Obuchowe and Krwawy Bór (September 27-September 28, 1920)
  25. Battle of Zboiska
  26. Battle of Minsk (October 18, 1920)

The standard text on the 1920 Russo-Polish War is White Eagle, Red Star: the Polish-Soviet War 1919-1920 by Norman Davies, although I prefer The Battle for the Marchlands by Adam Zamoyski for the military detail.

The various commanders wrote on the campaign, but The march beyond the Vistula by M. Tuchachevski is more by way of protracted excuse and Year 1920 and its climax: Battle of Warsaw during the Polish-Soviet war, 1919 – 1920 by Jozef Pilsudski is a spirited rebuttal of Tuchachevski rather than a history of the campaign itself. My English copy has nice maps and the French version has some detailed notes from the Polish Military History Bureau as well.

Flight of Eagles: a story of the American Kosciuszko Squadron in the Polish-Russian War 1919-1920 by Robert Karolevitz and Ross Fern is a nice tale and there are several other books on this famous unit.

City fights for freedom: the rising of Lwów in 1918-1919 by Rosa Bailly is a look at the fighting around L’viv/L’vov/Lwów entirely from a Polish perspective.

Coverage of this war is better in French than English. The Pilsudski, Tuchachevski and Bailly works are all in French, but there is also La Campagne polono-russe de 1920 by Wladyslaw Sikorski, which covers the 1920 campaign as a whole only in general terms but has wonderful detail for the fighting in perhaps the most vital spot in the Battle of Warsaw (where the author commanded). La Pologne en lutte pour ses frontières: 1918-1920 by Adam Przybylski is a small book, but is unusual in giving details of the fighting against the Soviets prior to 1920. L’Aigle blanc contre l’etoile rouge by Saint-Dizier is OK, but La Manoeuvre libératrice du maréchal Pilsudski contre les bolchéviks, août 1920: étude stratégique by Général Camon and L’Offensive militaire de l’etoile rouge contre la Pologne by Capt Charles Kuntz are very old and not terribly useful. La Guerre polono-soviétique: 1919-1920 collected by Céline Gervais is a series of academic papers which I found mostly quite dull. Finally, the journals Revue de Paris and Revue de cavalerie both contain a number of eye-witness accounts of the fighting, unfortunately concentrating almost exclusively on the cavalry (which is hardly surprising for the second).

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