26 November 2013

The Volhynian cavalry brigade 1939 part 2

Cavalry tactics and doctrine

Cavalry tactics in the Polish army revolved around defensive operations - due to their equipment which had poor offensive capabilities but in the right defensive position could hold a proper defensive line.

The way the defense of a cavalry brigade was organized in the field was as follows:

At the very frontline there were forward guard posts - these were located 2-3km from the first line of defense. For this purpose the regiment detached either a full squadron or just a single platoon.

The main defensive position was between 500 and 1000 meters deep and held by cavalry companies. Each company divided its defensive position between its own squadrons so that it always had a squadron in reserve with which to plug gaps or to perform counter attacks.

A brigade had a pool of reserves that was meant to include 1 cavalry company, a squadron of pioneers, a squadron of bicycle troops and a "armoured unit" (company) of tankettes and armoured cars ear marked for counterattacks. The reserves were positioned about 1.5km behind the main line of defense.

Fully deployed the cavalry brigade was not suited for a drawn out battle in a fixed position. There was a realization that a mobile defense had its benefits but the at the same time the Polish command also realized that such a defense was only possible and effective against an opponent that was a lot less mobile. During the battles at Mokra and the surrounding area the Polish Volhynian cavalry brigade was fighting two separate Panzer divisions backed up by motorized troops. One part of the brigade that was never static though was the "horse artillery" company, equipped mainly with French 75mm artillery it was a highly mobile asset able to relocate and provide covering fire quickly.

Artillery fire from the 75mm horse artillery batteries had the following modes:

Blocking barrage: Fired when the enemy was massing and preparing for an attack on the front positions. The barrage was directed 500-1000 meters in front of friendly positions.

Fire led by observers: A combined fire from all batteries available and not tied up by any other objectives. This barrage was directed by forward observers in such a way to discourage the enemy from attacking or to halt an ongoing attack.

Prepared bombardment: Friendly artillery barrage aimed at enemy defensive positions, nests, forward observation posts and other such targets prior to a Polish attack. It was crucial that the artillery batteries had enough ammunition to provide effective bombardment, apart from the 75mm horse artillery batteries - other available long range artillery could also join.

Covering fire: Artillery fire used while friendly troops were attacking, with the means to prevent enemy flanking attacks or to destroy/shake up enemy positions just in front of the advancing friendly units.

Moving bombardment: A barrage that utilized both regular artillery shells as well as smoke rounds. The fire was landing 100-200 meters in front of advancing friendly troops - and was moved forward step by step in order to provide a protective wall. The close proximity of the barrage to friendly troops was intentional so that friendly infantry could overwhelm enemy positions before enemy soldiers could shrug off the effects of the bombardment and take up an active defense once again.


Cleansing fire: A bombardment aimed at enemy units that had abandoned or had been forced out of their defensive positions by friendly cavalry units in order to shatter them and make the mop up process for friendly troops easier. It was meant to destroy as much equipment and kill as many enemy troops as possible.

Horse artillery batteries were used both as direct and indirect artillery support throughout the September Campaign. A cavalry regiment often had a single battery at their disposal but the batteries could either be used to support the actions of a regiment or merged into a larger battery providing a more effective artillery support for the whole brigade.

While the cavalry brigade was seen as a defensive force, it was deemed perfect for the role of providing "delaying actions". The mobility of the cavalry allowed the force to break away from the enemy when needed and take up a new position farther away. Such actions would force the an enemy force to be constantly formed into a battle ready formation instead of a column, something that would slow the attack. Pockets of resistance were also meant to force the enemy to halt long enough to deploy their own artillery assets - and when this was done the cavalry was to withdraw once again.

The weakness of this combat style was that the cavalry could not really dig in for a long term engagement, and the tactics also relied upon keeping the fighting withdrawal moving in a single direction. This would in turn need terrain that favored such actions. In theory and in practice the cavalry regiments were to break up into two smaller forces. One of them would act as the speed bump, the second would organize the defense and act as a reserve. Once the enemy encountered the first half of the regiment combat would ensue and the advance would slow down, once the time was right the first half of the cavalry regiment would fall back behind the second line of defense and in turn become the new reserve and set up a new defensive position while the previous reserve now held the line.

While the regiment was jumping back, one defensive line at a time, the horse artillery battery was to maintain a steady artillery support. Horse artillery was to fire until the very last moment - and only mount up and move back towards the next line of defense when there was imminent danger of being overrun. When a cavalry brigade defended a wide frontline then two batteries were designated to provide fire support while a third battery was used as mobile fire support. Should the artillery be destroyed or run out of ammunition, the role of providing fire support for the infantry fell upon the shoulders of the heavy machinegun crews.

Heavy machineguns could never rival the effect of an artillery barrage, but when the fire from the heavy machineguns of a brigade were coordinated they could provide a devastating output. Heavy machineguns could operate both defensively and offensively depending on battlefield requirements.

Defensive fire from heavy machineguns has the main role of halting an enemy attack, and is fired at close range - like 600 meters. Fire from heavy machineguns was also fired, with the help of observers, at distances of 1200 and 1500 meters.

Heavy machineguns could also be used to cover a friendly attack, targets for this type of fire were known enemy positions or terrain features that were designated as objectives worthy of capturing. This type of fire did not mean to directly inflict large amounts of casualties, but rather pin down enemy troops and prevent them from reacting to the approaching friendly assault.

Since the Polish cavalry brigade was lacking in anti-aircraft artillery, having only 2 Bofors 40mm AA-guns at its disposal which were used to safeguard river crossings and other, for the cavalry brigade, deemed crucial areas. Instead much of the anti-aircraft effort directed from the ground was aimed at enemy observer planes to prevent the enemy from gathering information about troop movement. The cavalry brigade was also trained in moving at night to cover their troops movements - something which was used by many Polish units during the campaign.

The defensive position of Polish cavalry units was meant to be deployed in such a position so that terrain features would funnel enemy units down a predictable path - with flanking terrain making it impossible or very difficult for the enemy to move around the position. It was stressed that the troops should use any natural barrier at their disposal. In the case of the Volhynian cavalry brigade the position was a forest broken up with paths, open fields and dotted with villages - an area perfect for defensive operations and the tactics deployed by the cavalry.

In the front line the Polish cavalrymen awaited the enemy, armed with the wz.35 AT-rifle. The soldier armed with this rifle was categorized as "fighting in close combat" with the enemy as he was instructed to open fire when the enemy was very close. Heavy machinegun positions were located around 150-200 meters behind the frontline and were instructed for mainly target approaching enemy infantry.

200-300 meters behind the frontline the Polish wz.36 37mm AT guns were located. Their fire was directed either directly at the front of the approaching enemy, or from flanking positions.

Behind these positions the horse artillery and field guns were stationed. The guns were large and difficult to properly camouflage, but offered devastating anti-tank fire if fired directly at enemy vehicles. As the guns were difficult to turn on the spot they were often positioned in such a way so that they fired at approaching enemies from the front - and then limbered up and pulled the guns to the next line of defense when the enemy got too close.

Now, the entire brigade is set up in its defensive positions, and enemy units are spotted and approaching. The field and horse artillery was first to open fire, at around 700 meters - aiming at enemy tanks and armoured vehicles. The cavalry commander could, if needed - or if the situation favored such a thing - open fire with every single Anti-tank asset of his brigade at 300 meters. This included AT-rifles, 37mm AT-guns and 75mm artillery. Prepared in such a way, the brigade could hold its ground against an enemy tank force, however when the enemy tanks were accompanied by infantry things became harder and the brigade was to resort to the fighting withdrawal tactics already described.

The culmination of a defensive battle for the cavalry would be the night counterattack against the enemy tank force. Such a counterattack was to involve at least a full regiment. Attacking enemy tanks at night meant to disrupt the sleep and repair of the enemy tank crews - night fighting also meant that the tanks had a very hard time maneuvering and finding the enemy attacking them. Such raids were carefully planned and organized, and all units within the brigade were informed about friendly and enemy positions - and told where to be located in order to provide support or put up a defense against an enemy counterattack. Once enough destruction and mayhem had been wrought upon the enemy, the cavalrymen mounted up and returned to their own lines.


Preparing for battle at the Mokra defensive line


The Volhynian cavalry brigade was commanded by colonel Julian Filipowicz, he had taken over command in 1939 and the brigade had also been reinforced by the following units (the armoured unit as late as in in August):

11th infantry battalion,
82nd AA-battery "Type B",
21st armoured unit

The Volhynian cavalry brigade, as a complete fighting force, was made up of the following regiments on September 1st:

12th Regiment of PodolskichUhlans
19th Regiment of Volhynian Uhlans
21st Regiment of Nadwislanskich Uhlans
(All three regiments were made up of 4 squadrons and a heavy machinegun squadron)

2nd Regiment of mounted riflemen
(4 squadrons and a hmg squadron)

2nd company of horse artillery
3 batteries with 4 75mm guns each

11th infantry battalion
(3 companies and a hmg company)

21st armoured unit
(containing a squadron of TKS mg armed tankettes, and wz.34 armoured cars)

82nd Anti-aircraft battery "Type B"

8th squadron of Pioneers

A squadron of bicycle infantry

A squadron of Communication

The brigade was deployed at the flank of the "Lodz" army and their positions were also strengthened by the 4th Battalion belonging to the 84th infantry regiment/30th infantry division and by the arrival of the armoured train number 53 "Smialy" (Bold) under the command of captain Malinowski. The arrival of the train improved the artillery branch of the cavalry brigade as the train had both 75mm guns as well as howitzers. Finally the cavalry brigade received the 2nd platoon of aerial observers from the 66th flight squadron.

The Volhynian cavalry brigade and the units attached to this formation had as their main objective to secure the southern flank of the Lodz army, by cutting off the access towards the towns Klobuck and Brzeznica. It was also to delay the enemy from crossing the river Warta, and put up a fighting withdrawal in the direction of Radomsko. If needed it was to support the 30th Infantry division.

The towns and villages in the area were only garrisoned by Obrona Narodowa units (National Guards). 1 battalion of ON troops was stationed in Klobuck, and a single company in Krzepicach. Cavalry units belonging to the 7th infantry division were stationed in Rebiela-Krolweska. All these units were weak and lacked heavy equipment, they were not meant to put up a prolonged defense. Their task was to hold important areas until relieved by more capable units, they were simply unable to put up a delaying action as they lacked mobility and the weapons for such fighting.

On the opposite side of the border the German army was preparing itself for the invasion. Opposing the Polish cavalry brigade the Germans deployed the 1st and 4th Panzer division, supported by the 14th and 31st Infantry Division. The Polish command realized that the German force would attempt to cross the river Warta near Klobuck - and that would also mean that the main push of the German advance would strike towards that direction.

Orders received by high command at the end of August instructed the colonel of the Volhynian cavalry brigade, Julian Filipowicz: "To move out and take up forward positions at the edge of the forest. Should the enemy force be overwhelming, fight a delaying action in the direction of Brzeznica-Nowa. Attempt to lead the enemy so that a counterattack can be made with the help of the 30th infantry division."

What is quite interesting is how the brigade assets were broken up into smaller pockets of resistance upon their final deployment prior to the battle. Remember that the brigade had limited number of anti-tank guns, each regiment had 4 37mm AT-guns and a single battery of 75mm artillery. HMG's were on the other hand plentiful. Colonel Filipowicz distributed his troops so that each squadron had machineguns and anti-tank guns at their disposal. The following examples are given by the author:

Making up the reconnaissance party set up in advance positions was a squadron of bicycle infantry, two heavy machine guns and a platoon of tankettes.

Guarding the flank of the brigade on hill 216 was a squadron of cavalry with 4 heavy machineguns and 1 AT-gun. Smaller villages in the area were garrisoned and prepared for defense by squadrons with 2-4 heavy machineguns and 1 AT-gun each.

The main position was held by the 21st cavalry regiment, the 8th infantry battalion - supported by the horse artillery batteries and the armoured train nr 53 "Smialy. This position also had 3 AT-guns and 8 heavy machineguns.

Polish observers had taken up positions on nearby hills, and the artillery and AT-guns were instructed to fall back when needed to the next line of defense. The defense was also prepared so that at any time the entire - or at the veyr least half - of the horse artillery batteries could provide covering fire whenever needed. Additionaly much of the area in front of the defensive positions dubbed Mokra I / II / III were made up of open fields which would allow the defenders to spot and fire upon approaching enemy forces from well camouflaged positions.

Beside the massive forest and the villages, there were other natural obstacles on which the Polish defense relied, a small river and some swamps decreased the number of choices for an approach for the enemy. The armoured train was set up to patrol between the towns of Miedzno and Klobuck, this would have it remain close enough to provide artillery support for the Volhynian cavalry brigade. The train tracks themselves provided another obstacle for enemy vehicles, as the tracks ran across an 4-6 meter tall embankment and there was also a 2km long trench running near the tracks as they neared the train station at Miedzno.

All in all the Volhynian cavalry brigade was stretched so that it covered a frontage of 20km, which was far more than the recommended guidelines for defensive positions held by cavalry brigades. Despite this stretched frontage, there were gaps in the Polish defense. One 5km gap was located between the 19th and 21st cavalry regiments, another gap of 3km was located between the 21st cavalry regiment and the 8th infantry battalion. However, in the first case the gap was covered by a very thick and heavy forest region deemed impossible to traverse with tanks and vehicles. The second gap in the defensive line had a narrow path between the woods that led straight out into the fields in front of the defensive positions of Mokra I-III, an area that would be covered by flanking fire from AT-guns and horse artillery.

Colonel Filipowicz had to take the risk of stretching his troops this thin because otherwise there would be risk of having the brigade being flanked by enemy troops. This less than ideal deployment at least had the Polish troops holding every piece of valuable terrain and the brigade was being able to cover its own units.

The German plan was to capture the following locations in the given order: Olesno, Klobuck, Radomsko, Piotrkow-Trybunalski and while doing so tear open a gap of 18km in the Polish line. Furthermore both Panzer divisions were given different attack directions: the 4th Panzer division was to strike towards Piotrkow-Trybunalski while the 1st Panzer division was to attack towards Klobuck and attempt to capture the important river crossing over the Warta river.

The main opponent of colonel Julian Filipowicz and his Volhynian cavalry brigade would however in the end turn out to be the 4th Panzer division, which had at its disposal: 304 tanks, 36 armoured cars, 24 field howitzers, 8 light infantry guns, 12 medium mortars, 21 light mortars, 48 anti-tank guns, 12 AA guns, 24 HMG's and 108 LMG's. In comparison the Polish cavalry was tremendously outgunned and outnumbered.

Keeping in mind however German tank tactics developed by the end of the 30's based upon the theories of general Heinz Guderian tanks were to fire on the move. The fire from the tanks were mainly meant to kill infantry and crews, while the mass of the tanks themselves were to crush enemy guns beneath their tracks.
Whenever the terrain favored it, the tanks were to halt and open fire from stationary positions, adding to the slow traverse while driving cross country to begin with (12-20km/h) tanks were creeping forward slowly if they meant to fire with any kind of accuracy. This in turn posed a danger for the crews as the armour of the tanks was too thin to stop proper anti tank and direct artillery fire.

In order to minimize exposure to enemy fire and press home the advantage of being a moving target, the German tanks were to attack in three waves.

The first wave would race past all positions and set its sights on the enemy command posts and shattering units held in reserve thus creating chaos. The second wave was to attack artillery positions and finally the third wave was to attack frontline troops and infantry positions- This type of quick breach and priority of targets was meant to allow German tanks to quickly punch through enemy lines and strike from the rear. The weakness of this tactic was that it required good cooperation with friendly infantry.

At the start of the war, and during the Polish invasion, there was no direct communication between tank and infantry troops - and on top of that the tanks were often given such objectives that required them to detach themselves from the infantry. As tanks were operating best in open terrain, while infantry would suffer the heaviest casualties in such conditions posed a problem. In practice, the supporting German infantry was often left behind when the tanks moved out to attack - or it could even be so that the tanks attacked from a different direction than the infantry. The shared goal of both formation was the quick annihilation of enemy troops, tanks were to capture the terrain held by enemy while the infantry was to secure control over it when they arrived.

In the battle that would take part around Mokra, the German tank force was made up of  70% light tanks (PzI and PzII), very lightly armored tanks that were meant to race past two lines of enemy defenses to reach the rear of the enemy while being fired upon by direct artillery fire, anti-tank guns and anti-tank rifles as they moved through  enemy positions. One does not envy the Germank tank crews in this situation. During battles with tanks supported by infantry during the September Campaign it was noted by many Polish commanders that the quality of the supporting German infantry was low in comparison to other enemy infantry formations. The German infantry supporting the tanks at Mokra were described as "Soft and seemingly unprepared for any oppossition. They seem to have relied completely on the tanks making short work and of the enemy and were not as eager to fight nor had the same fighting spirit as their infantry brothers from other units". The observation of colonel Stanislaw Maczek, commander of the 10th motorized cavalry brigade was that there was a stark contrast between the infantry supporting the Panzers and the German mountain infantry for which he had a lot respect. It should be noted however, that the Gebirgsjäger infantry which colonel Maczek had in mind were also the elite troops of the German army taking part in the invasion of Poland.

....

Coming up in the final third part about the Volhynian Cavlary brigade will be the description of the 2-day battle of Mokra.




No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...