30 November 2013

The Volhynian cavalry brigade 1939 part 3

The battle of Mokra, September 1-2nd and the night attack at Kamiensk September 3-4th.

The vanguard of the German 4th Panzer division crossed the Polish border aroun 5AM on the morning of September 1st, by 6AM they had captured the forward positions of the Polish National Guard battalion. Shortly after the Germans, covered by their own artillery, attacked the main positions of the Polish "Klobuck" battalion which after a fiece but short battle was forced to withdraw towards the town Klobuck.
Artillery bombardment rained down along the front while German motorcycle troops raced ahead and began capturing villages - driving refugees ahead of them.

Polish troops from the guard posts and front garrisons began withdrawing towards the first line of defense around height 268 in the east, chased by motorcycle troops and armoured cars. The German units were halted by 6:30AM when they came under anti-tank rifle fire. By 7AM the main German force arrived at the location and split into two columns, one moving towards Mokra and the other towards Rebielice-Krolewskie. The roads east were already packed with refugees that spread panic and grew i numbers with each village they passed - the civilians were heading towards the Polish defensive positions and would become a huge target for enemy airplanes and artillery. To prevent the civilians from reaching the Polish positions and jamming up the roads for the military, a patrol with a very energetic Polish officer was dispatched and managed to lead the civilian refugees down a different path along the flank of the defensive line.

The easy advance ended for the Germans by 8:AM when units from the 4th Panzer division composed of motorcycle infantry, motorized infantry and light tanks reached a small village called Lescyzna where the Polish defenders were aided by many manmade and natural anti-tank obstacles and repulsed the attack with the help of a mobile defense unit equipped with anti-tank guns, light and heavy machineguns.

German artillery was called in to annihilate the defenders, and German infantry attacked again thinking the Polish troops had been killed or pinned down - only to come under fire when the concealed Polish heavy machineguns opened fire at the distance of 300 meters from their foxholes which inflicted heavy casualties on the attacker who was forced to fall back.

The setback prompted the German troops to change their tactics, they now resorted to a methodical fine combing and capturing of the forest area piece by piece, focusing heavy artillery bombardment and calling in air support on specific location before overrunning it and then moving on.

In the meantime other units of the 4th Panzer division had located and exploited the gap between the Polish 19th and 21st cavalry regiments. German infantry supported by tanks managed to exploit the  weakness and divided the 19th cavalry regiment in two with their attack. More Luftwaffe bombers arrived at the scene, bombing the area and attempting to hit the train tracks, the biggest loss in this bombing run was part of the ammunition supply for the horse artillery company.
It is worth mentioning that amidst the combat Polish reconnaissance fighters were flying over the battlefield and revealed German movements and reported them to friendly troops. A large column of German tanks stretching from the German border all the way towards the flank of the Polish "Lodz" army was reported and caused parts of the Volhynian cavalry brigade units to regroup.  Cavalry units managed to strike back at the Panzers in the area and recaptured lost positions such as Rebielice-Krolewskie and the forest that the Germans had cleared earlier that morning. 30 Germans tanks were diverted to handle the situation around hill 258.6 west of Mokra at the edge of the forest. Colonel Filipowicz upon hearing about the approaching tanks ordered part of the reserves to join the battle in order to hold the line.

Combat raged from 10AM to 10:30AM along the Polish positions, after which the Germans broke off and regrouped. During this particular skirmish the Polish horse artillery was firing directly at the approaching enemy tanks which resulted in the destruction of two Panzers. The main fire support for the Polish defenders was enhanced by the arrival of the armoured train nr.53 "Smialy" (Bold). The train commanded by captain Malinowski had come under attack from German Stuka bombers at 10AM, the bombs missed the train but the shrapnel tore through the armor of the wagons, the train remained operational and joined in the barrage what combined with horse artillery and heavy machineguns  strafed an area where German trucks were unloading infantry and equipment. Despite the heavy fire the enemy managed to spread out and take up defensive positions. German ground forces broke off once again at around 11.30AM. For roughly an hour there was a break of combat actions on the ground.

But where the ground action had stopped the air attacks of the German Luftwaffe continued, Stuka Bombers made something like 15 sorties during September 1st in the strength of 9 to 26 bombers at a time. Bombing and strafing the positions of the Volhynian cavalry brigade and the columns of civilian refugees.

The Germans renewed their attack at 12:30PM - intensive artillery fire combined with bombing runs hit the 21st cavalry regiment hard. While the Polish cavalry was pinned down the 4th Panzer division deployed in two lines its entire 36th Panzer regiment and moved out to attack as soon as the friendly artillery stopped. The pause was enough for the Polish defenders to take up positions and the German approach was met by a combined defensive fire from every single anti-tank weapon available in that area. The Poles were once again supported by the indirect artillery fire of the armoured train nr 53 "Smialy" which fire with both howitzers and 75mm artillery. Once the enemy had closed in at 2500 meters the 75mm artillery on the train ceased to fire as the shells began cutting the treetops above friendly positions. The 100mm howitzers on the other hand provided surprisingly effective results, Karol Kulas who was commander of the first artillery platoon aboard "Smialy" remembers the action;

"The barrels of our guns lit up with the fire directed at the enemy, howitzer shells were spreading destruction. I saw German tanks being thrown into the air and falling down hard as shells exploded nearby. Those tanks did not move again".

Afterwards it was noted that the destructive power between the 75mm artillery and the 100mm howitzers vastly different. Where the 75mm shell had to score a direct hit in order to destroy an enemy tank, the destructive force of a 100mm howitzer shell destroyed a tank within 4 meters (in effect having a killing field of 8 meters across). Despite the heavy defensive fire the German units managed to tear through the Polish line, and a battle between individual platoons and German tanks commenced. During the fighting second-lieutenant Morawski from the 2nd squadron managed to destroy 3 enemy tanks with his AT-rifle. The Germans wanted to reach the horse artillery positions, but the Polish battery had taken up a "hedgehog" defense with artillery pieces covering a wide 180degree area and opened fire at 100 meters when the tanks came crashing through the lines.

The effect of the 75mm horse artillery was devastating, one of the guns managed to destroy 14 German tanks, though the battery lost two guns in the fighting. At the same time Polish anti-tank guns were firing at some armoured cars that had arrived at the scene, knocking them out at the distance of 500 meters. The battle and the chaos along the Polish defensive position of the 21st cavalry regiment raged for an hour before the Germans withdrew once again. The 21st and 19th cavalry regiments had held their ground, and troops from those regiments managed to take up new defensive positions at the edge of the forest, a crossroads inside the forest itself and at hill 216 - everything near Rebielice-Krolewskie.

The commanding officers of the German 4th Panzer division were now re-organizing the efforts of their units in an attempt to improve upon the badly coordinated attacks so far. The German re-organization was reported to Colonel Filipowicz who himself at 15:00PM ordered his units to regroup to face the future attack. The second and third horse artillery batteries had lost in total 5 guns during the fighting so far and had spent most of their ammunition supply - they were as such withdrawn from battle. Though the Volhynian cavalry brigade had been weakened by the loss of precious artillery assets the new defensive position was very strong - overlooking the train track.

Once again the Germans began their attack with an artillery bombardment and Stuka bombers. Approaching German forces were caught by flanking heavy machinegun fire and anti-tank guns as they were moving over an open field near the only remaining Polish horse artillery battery. The 1st horse artillery battery was still fully operational, but their situation was increasingly dangerous, enemy units had begun moving around its position. The artillery battery opened fire at 100 meters, instantly destroying a German tank and was then evacuated from the area towards the nearby village and defensive position called "Mokra I". The 1st battery, had by the end of September 1st destroyed 13 German tanks.

In front of the train tracks a fierce battle raged between the troops of the 4th Panzer division and 12th Regiment of the Podolski Uhlans. The Uhlans were stoically holding their ground despite heavy losses and the increasinly low supply of ammunition, a 37mm AT-gun was hauled into position and fired from behind the train tracks at the German tanks - soon destroying 7 of them. Two German tanks caught fire as they were attempting to cross the tunnel between the tracks, their burning husks blocked the road for the other tanks who had to turn back.

Colonel Filipowicz saw that the line was in a bad shape and ordered his last two reserves to join the battle, the 2nd regiment of mounted riflemen and the 21st armoured company (tankettes and armoured cars). The tankettes and armoured cars supported the main fighting force in a counterattack. The objective of the Polish armoured vehicles was to mainly sow confusion among the German lines, something that was achieved at the cost of 3 lost wz.34 armoured cars. The enemy had to withdraw from the fighting once again, having inflicted - but also sustained - heavy casualties.

On hour earlier captain Malinowski aboard armoured train nr.53 "Smialy" had received the news of  German armoured vehicles moving along the bank of the river and started moving the train to intercept the enemy. It turned out that if was a false alarm, and that the armoured units were in fact Polish tankettes. The train moved towards the crossroads which was reached at 16:30PM where it by accident stumbled upon the German 12th regiment of motorized infantry and 36th Panzer regiment. Not wasting any moment the Polish crew opened fire, focusing fast salvos at the tanks. The duel between the tanks and the train lasted 20-30 minutes during which the train never ceased fire from its artillery or machineguns - the field filled up with burning trucks and tanks - but the train itself also took 4 direct hits and German pioneers managed to blow up the tracks behind the train. Captain Malinowski feared that the train would take a hit to its ammunition supply and cause a chain reaction so he ordered the train to withdraw. The retreat was covered by platoon from the assault car that escorted the train and itself destroyed two tanks with the help of grenades.

During the retreat of "Smialy" another armoured train, nr.52 "Pilsudczyk" arrived and provided covering fire.

After the first day of battle, the casualties inflicted on the Volhynian cavalry brigade were as follows:
The 21st Cavalry Regiment, "Nadwislanskich", lost  15%
12th regiment of Podolski Uhlans lost 15%
The 21st armoured company lost 1 tankette and 3 armoured cars
The brigade had lost 3 anti-tank guns and 5 75mm horse artillery guns - including 9 limbers.

The exact casualty numbers of the 4th Panzer division are hard to estimate. Polish horse artillery gunners reported knocking out 10 tanks with indirect fire and around 33-35 tanks with direct fure during the day.

In the evening of September 1st, the Volhynian cavalry brigade abandoned its positions and moved to the next line of defense. Since noon the Polish brigade had been aware that the 1st Panzer division was moving on its flank as it had successfully cut itself a corridor between the "Lodz" and "Krakow" armies. The exposed flank caused the withdrawal of the National Guard battalion guarding Klobuck.

What remained of the Polish horse artillery was reorganized into the following units. 1st battery with 3 guns, 2nd and 3rd batteries with 2 guns each.

On September 2nd, the German 4th Panzer division began a much better coordinated and prepared attack, which moved methodically forward under the covering fire of friendly artillery. The attack began at 11.30AM and was led by the 12th motorized infantry regiment, Polish troops made a daring counterattack with tankettes and a infantry battalion of their own just as the German units began breaking through the lines. The attack did not halt the German advance, but slowed it down to a crawl as both forces engaged in a bitter close combat in the surrounding forests. The 19th cavalry regiment was waging heavy fighting with a mobile defense, keeping German infantry at bay with heavy machineguns and relocating every time the German artillery began shelling their positions. Despite their best efforts the Germans failed to fully breach the Polish lines and reach the rover crossing over the Warta river - which was the main objective of colonel Julian Filipowicz of the Volhynian cavalry brigade.

The fighting during September 2nd was bloody, and the infantry was badly bled. The German 12th motorized regiment and the Polish 11th infantry battalion in particular suffered the worst. At dusk the German attack ceased, and the Polish force withdrew behind the river Warta having achieved their goal of holding back the German advance for two days. Polish air reconnaissance was patrolling the skies during September 3rd and reported back on German movement

During the night between September 3rd and 4th the Poles organized a night attack, officers and NCO's were briefed at 22:00PM that the enemy was located in the town of Kamiensk. The attack on the enemy position would be performed by 4 groups of about 20 soldiers in each, roughly making up the strength of a company. Each group was to be commanded by a separate officer, and the entire force commanded by major Laczynski. The men were armed with pistols, carbines with bayonets, bottles filled with fuel and grenades. Their mission was to inflict as heavy casualties on living targets and equipment as possible and then fall back towards friendly lines. Enemy patrols and guard posts were to be left alone and bypassed so that the attack had maximum chance of taking the enemy by surprise.

The road to Kamiensk was marked on maps and the troops moved out. The code word used to identify friendly troops became "Macius", a word known to be hard for a German to pronounce correctly.

Silently, the town of Kamiensk was approached from the right, no patrols had been encountered on the way. Lieutenant Jozef Ostoja-Gajewski recalled the attack:

"I was the leader of our patrol, as we entered the village and passed the first row of buildings I was surprised by the complete silence. Moving past more buildings we didn't see a single German. I began thinking that either there were no Germans in the town at all, or they had not put anyone to stand guard. In any case the whole situation struck me as extremely strange, and I wondered about what to do. We kept moving. Some ten more steps, literally just in front of my nose someone fired a rifle. Some of my men jumped back, but I screamed "follow me" pointing with my pistol to show the intended direction. The startled German soldier ran into a nearby barn, leaving the barn door wide open behind him.

I ran up to the door and used my flashlight to see, inside the barn there was movement resembling an anthill. I emptied my pistol into the barn while an NCO threw a grenade inside. The explosion lit the straw on fire, and soon the entire building was ablaze. Germans were running out of the barn now, still wearing their pajamas and attempting to fasten their belts - they had not had the time to put their uniforms on.

Near the barn 4 tanks were parked near a fuel truck, one of the German crews managed to jump into their tank but they didn't manage to close the hatches and one of our soldiers threw a grenade inside. The tank exploded and burned violently, soon the fuel truck was on fire as well - a pillar of black smoke rose towards the sky. The other tanks too were soon taken out of action with bottles of fuel and grenades. The fighting lasted around 30 minutes before we broke off and retreated back towards our own lines - following the flares fired up into the sky signaling the direction for us. The panicking Germans fired at use but in the chaos we managed to get away suffering only a couple of wounded and one platoon commander who was missing in action."

During the fighting at Mokra the German tanks had been tasked with a quick capture of the crossing over the river Warta. This caused poor cooperation between German infantry and tanks, the German infantry also failed to shatter the two Polish regiments that made up the first line of defense at Mokra despite being provided with heavy artillery and air support. The position picked by colonel Julian Filipowicz for his cavalry brigade also made the German attack difficult and much time was lost fighting Polish units through the forests.
The German tactics changed on the second day of the battle, infantry units were now leading the attack supported by artillery and tanks - this proved to be a lot more successful in the given terrain. It is hard to tell if the change in tactics was caused by the heavy losses inflicted to the Panzers during the first day or whether it was a reaction to the battlefield. In the end the fighting delayed the German crossing of the river Warta for 48 hours.

The Volhynian cavalry brigade kept fighting, on September 6th it was used as the reserve of the Operational Group "Piotrkow" as the "Lodz" army commenced a general retreat eastwards.

On September 8th the brigade fought a battle against the German 10th infantry division at Wola Cyrusowa, a battle that lasted the entire day.

By September 12th the brigade was down to 60% of its original strength and was merged with two other cavalry brigades, Nowogrodska and Kresowa, creating a cavalry based Operational Group under the command of general Wladyslaw Anders. During that day the Volhynian cavalry brigade received its only true replacement unit, in the shape of a horse artillery battery.

The following day the Polish force attacked Minsk Mazowiecki, supported by two infantry battalions. Despite the support the Polish attack ended with a defeat. The result of the defeat was that the Volhynian brigade lost contact with the 12th Uhlan regiment of mounted riflemen and the 21st cavalry regiment which were both cut off by enemy troops. Failing to join up with the parent army these two units moved towards Warsaw and joined the defense of the capital there. The remainder of the Volhynian cavalry brigade, made up by the 19th cavalry regiment, 2nd regiment of mounted riflemen and the horse artillery was led 260km east.

On September 23rd the brigade was had its last units shattered and scattered, remaining remnant squadrons fought against the Soviet 99th infantry division near Jaworow on September 26th where the very last remnant of the brigade was lost. And thus ended a near month long action of the Volhynian cavalry brigade during the September campaign of 1939.


3 comments:

  1. Really interesting, thanks for the write-up

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  2. thanks for the articles . Truly, the Polish resistance in the first battles of WW2 was better than usual folklore of easy German victories. More the same with Western front of 1940, which saw good actions (despite more than less poor command). A note for me to reinforce that some French forces fought up to July 1940 and that the German victory cost then several hundred of thousand of casualties. Not really a quiet Sunday outing.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Glad that you guys found the articles interesting :-)
    More will follow in the near future when I start reading the next book.

    ReplyDelete

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