Soviet War with Poland II


Command of Polish Regiment during Polish–Soviet war


Second phase of the Battle of Warsaw: Polish counterattack.

In the days preceding the Battle of Warsaw the Red Army had been victorious everywhere: it had armies poised to finish off Poland, invade Romania, and liberate Germany from capitalism, yet in only a week the fortunes of war would be completely reversed. Even as Tukhachevskii’s forces marshalled for the assault on Warsaw proper, Pilsudski personally drew up a plan, not merely for a counterattack, but for a complete and crushing counteroffensive. In the first week of August 1920, stubborn Polish rearguard actions and energetic counterattacks held up Tukhachevskii’s armies for six days, giving the battered Polish army just enough breathing space to regroup.

The battle opened on 12 August as the lead Soviet division attacked Warsaw’s eastern defenses head on. In savage fighting that day the Soviet attacks were finally beaten off. By the end of the day, because of Polish attacks, counterattacks, raids and successful defense of the eastern approaches to Warsaw, Polish morale and hope had been completely restored. The initiative passed to the Poles, spelling doom for the Red Army. One Soviet division commander later wrote: “The moment had come when not only individual units but the whole mass of the army suddenly lost faith in the possibility of success against the enemy. It was as though the cord which we had been tightening since the Bug had suddenly snapped.” That same day, in a cavalry raid into 4th Army’s rear, the Poles captured much of the 4th Army’s staff and only radio transmitter. The loss of the transmitter left the Kavkor and 4th Army out of contact with Tukhachevskii for days. They did almost nothing in the way of restoring communication, but just followed their old orders. Because of this break in communications, for several days afterward, Tukhachevskii, in Minsk in his special train, remained unaware that morale was at the breaking point and his plans for restoring the situation unviable.

Pilsudski’s plan was to attack Tukhachevskii’s forces in the left flank from the south through a huge gap between the Western and Southwestern Fronts. It worked to perfection taking Tukhachevskii completely by surprise. Three of Tukhachevskii’s armies, the 3rd, 15th, and 16th beat a hasty retreat suffering heavy casualties. By 22 August, Tukhachevskii’s forces had been utterly routed. The Western Front had lost some 5,000 killed, over 50,000 prisoners, and more than 200 artillery pieces. To avoid capture or annihilation, the Kavkor and the entire 4th Army except two regiments and its commander and some of the staff sought internment in East Prussia. The Poles succeeded in annihilating two Soviet rifle divisions. Tens of thousands more men deserted completing the collapse of the Western Front.

Prior to 13 August 1920, when Pilsudski unleashed his counteroffensive, the Red Army had been at its zenith. It was no longer the ragtag bunch of novices of early 1918, but a seasoned, practiced army. After the Battle of Warsaw and subsequent second surge by the Polish Army, the Red Army would not recover its confidence until after several years of peace and reform. Through a near fatal act of hubris Tukhachevskii had thrown away an army, one of the best prepared and trained armies the Red Army had managed to produce to that date. He had lost over 100,000 men. Of the twenty-one divisions he had started with only seven were fit for service when he retreated across the Niemen.

How the Red Army was denied its victory and crushed by a seemingly beaten army became the source of some controversy within and without the Red Army after the war. In truth, no one person can be held responsible for the debacle that overtook the Red Army; as an organization the army suffered from a number of problems at the time, especially regarding decision-making. The Konarmiia and 12th Army were supposed to have been transferred from the Southwestern Front to the Western Front, but Kamenev took two weeks from the time he explored the idea to make up his mind and give the appropriate orders, which were delayed in transmission and were then discussed between himself, Tukhachevskii and Stalin, and then between Tukhachevskii and Stalin. The high command appears to have been overwhelmed by the task of coordinating two fronts simultaneously and was distracted by Wrangel’s breakout from the Crimea. The renewed White threat necessitated a transfer of troops from the Polish operation to the Don. Another problem was that the fronts were rather wide apart which would have involved much travel time for the 12th Army and Konarmiia to make a difference in conditions on the Western Front. Both the Konarmiia and 12th Army were engaged in the advance on Lvov, making it somewhat difficult to disengage, and thus further delaying their transfer to the Western Front. Another problem was that some of Tukhachevskii’s orders to the RVS of the Southwestern Front were senseless and provoked discussion. The absence of a master plan for the whole Polish operation further complicated the work of the high command.

Having stopped and dug in on the Niemen, Tukhachevskii regrouped, absorbing some reinforcements and supplies in preparation for a hoped for return to the offensive. In two weeks he had recouped his losses numerically with the addition of new units and thousands of individual replacements. He even created a new 4th Army. Pilsudski struck first in great strength in what became the Battle of the Niemen which lasted from 20 to 28 September.

The Poles turned Tukhachevskii’s right flank at Grodno and the Lithuanian border after a few days of intense fighting. At first the Red 3rd Army fought well at Grodno against fairly even numbers, but after a few days its units could not keep up the fight and retreated. The retreat went badly but stopped temporarily at the old First World War Russian trenches. The Poles breached these on 2 October 1920 on their first try. The renewed retreat turned into a rout with the front for the most part falling apart.

The new 4th Army disintegrated with two infantry divisions in full flight and a cavalry division defected to the Poles. A third infantry division surrendered in toto. The 3rd Army became encircled and collapsed as an organized entity. The 14th, and 15th armies also retreated. The Battle of the Niemen led to a general advance by the Polish army all along the front.

The Southwestern Front also came in for a pounding in the Polish counteroffensive. From 30 August to 2 September 1920 the Konarmiia was surrounded after having been separated from the 12th Army which was supposed to cover its right flank. There was a major “pure” cavalry battle on 31 August between two brigades of Polish cavalry and elements of the Konarmiia’s 6th and 11th Cavalry Divisions. Both sides took heavy casualties. In its fighting retreat the 11th Cavalry Division lost 2,400 men and 3,000 horses, the 6th Cavalry Division lost sixteen of twenty squadron commanders; the 4th and 14th Cavalry Divisions fared about the same. The Konarmiia, despite its casualties and fatigue, broke out of the encirclement to fall back to the east with the 12th Army.

By the end of September, the Red Army had been pushed entirely off of Polish territory and was losing ground in the Ukraine. On 15 October the Poles took Minsk and advanced to within 90 miles of Kiev. According to historian Norman Davies, the severity of the punishment meted out by the Poles in the pursuit of the Red Army out of Poland, combined with the mutiny in the Konarmiia, desertions and food shortages in Soviet-controlled western Ukraine, caused Trotsky and Kamenev to give up their ideas of forming a new task force to go back into Poland. Total Red Army casualties in the war amounted to some 17,500 combat deaths, 17,400 noncombat deaths, 130,000 prisoners lost to the Poles, 40-50,000 men interned in Germany, and 102,000 seriously wounded and debilitated. On 18 October 1920 an armistice, sought by Pilsudski who had no illusions about retaking Kiev, went into effect. Peace terms, which granted Poland substantial areas of western Ukraine, were formally agreed to in early November 1920.

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