Saturday, 1 October 2016

Flames of War: Polish Mountain Infantry - The History

After a lengthy break from painting Polish for my Flames of War collection one infantry force that I have always wanted to have done is the Polish Mountain Infantry.

Poland gets a bad wrap from the start of World War II, their collapse under Nazi and Communist tidal waves of troops was precipitous and complete! Their reliance on Cavalry, an outdated airforce and gratuitous opportunities given to foreign war correspondents left Polands reputation in tatters... the fact that the Polish army was never outfought, only out marched and out manoeuvred was conveniently brushed under the carpet. In the 60's and 70's the Soviets were STILL using these same propaganda events concerning Tanks and Polish cavalry as proof that the armys high command were idiots and did not really care for their troops.

Well, one particular branch of the Polish army that covered themselves in glory (well, kind of and sort of... and to some degree) were the Polish mountain troops. These, along with the cavalry, were considered the elite of the army and the bloody month of September would prove it.

The 2nd Podhale Rifles marching through Sanok on parade in 1936

Now, other than my deep rooted obsession with Poland's military forces of 1939 I also have another reason for having a particular interest in the Polish mountain troops... and that is my girlfriend! When one visits Poland and talks to people (about history) you very VERY quickly realise that there are no families in Poland that the war didn't touch.

My girlfriends family are Gorale, which is to say they are all part of the mountain clans of South Polands Tatra and Beskide mountains. Roxi's grandfather (a fine upstanding Goral of a man!) fought with the 6th Podhale Rifles and his name was Lance Sergeant (Plutonowy)Wladyslaw Kozina.

Pan (Mr) Kozina was a career soldier. If we cast a quick glance across his uniform we can determine some things about his career based on the insignia shown.

Podhale Regimental Orchestra taken in Sanok in 1936
The three stripes on his epaulettes show his rank as being Lance Sergeant, whilst if we look at his collar we can see the habitual Polish zig zagging that every man and his dog had BUT here we can also see firstly the edelweiss flower and swastika badge that was called the Mountain Cross which all mountain trained troops were allowed to sport and behind this is a harp badge which indicates that he was also a musician in the regimental orchestra.

Mountain Rifles Orchestra on parade

Looking at his chest we can see that other than the Podhale Rifles regimental decoration he has two medals proper. He has been awarded the Russo Polish War medal (a conflict that occurred between 1918 - 1921) and also the 10 Years of Independence Medal which was only awarded to combatants that had fought for Poland in conflicts aimed towards independence but not including the Russo-Polish War. My suspicion is that he was engaged fighting Ukrainian Nationalists of Stepan Bandera's ilk (he was a bit later on though). So, we know he fought about the time of the First World War and he was still in Uniform in 1939. What happened then?

Lance Sergeant Kosina with his son Zbigniew from his first pre-war marriage

We don't know too much about Lance Sergeant Wladyslaw Kosina except for the fact that he spent a lot of September running for his life, eventually fleeing from the Soviets and heading for the Hungarian border. We also know that he had to hide his medals. The Soviets were already known for executing any Pole they found who had evidence of having fought the Reds before.

Wladyslaw and Zbigniew again

He survived the war, returning to Poland soon after the surrender and living in hiding until wars end. He became a music tutor, running a local band and he joined that most militaristic of industries; the railways.

Pre-war photo of the family men!

The uniform of the Polish Mountain troops took a lot of inspiration from local custom outfits of the Gorale highlanders and you can see the sensibilities of this sub culture when you compare the clan wear and the regimental uniforms.

Traditional Gorale taking part in a parade in the '30's

Gorale highlanders in their rather more militaristic uniforms...
we can see where they got their hat ideas from though right?

So, how were the Mountain troops organised?

Well, they were ostensibly organised along normal infantry regimental lines with each regiment comprising 3 brigades of 3 companies of 3 platoons of 3 sections each, with a variety of Machine Gun companies and Light and heavy artillery, engineers, bicycles, Cavalry, Anti aircraft and on occasion anti tank assets being held under divisional command.

Each battalion would also field a separate support weapons company with HMG's and mortars in as well.

A TO&E of a mobilised Polish Infantry Division of 1939. The mountain infantry would follow this structure although there is a record of 3 artillery batteries being equipped with WWI vintage 65mm Howitzers

Now, how about deployment?

Well the Polish Mountain Troops were mainly collected around the south with a couple of different organisational groupings:

The main grouping of the mountain trained troops was in the Karpaty army which positioned along the Slovakian and Southern German border areas.

Karpaty Army's main assets were based around the 2nd and 3rd Mountain Brigades, The Carpathian National Defence Half Brigade and the 2nd Regiment of the Border Defence Corps (KOP) from around the Wilno area and a motley collection of National Defence Brigades.

The 21st Mountain Division - Originally conceived as an integral part of Karpaty Army started the war attached to the Bielskie Operational Group, a part of Army Krakow, responsible for holding the line Cieszyn to Bogumin in the Zaolzie area, and was deployed along with the 1st Independent Mountain Brigade.

Mountain Rifles marching with a wreathe in their independence celebrations.

The 21st Mountain Division comprised the 3rd & 4th Podhale Rifle Regiments, the 202 Reserve Infantry Regiment, 21st Light Artillery Regiment (1x Squadron of 12x 75mm field guns and 2x Squadrons of 12x 100mm Howitzers), 21st Heavy Artillery (2x Batterys of 3x 155mm Howitzers), 21st Sapper Battalion, 21st Motorised Artillery Battery 'A' (an AA unit equipped with 4x 40mm Bofors in four platoons), a divisional Cavalry Squadron and a Cyclist Company

The 49th Hutsul Rifles Regiment of the 11th Infantry Division. Despite not being nominally a Mountain Infantry Division, about half of the regiments of the 11th Inf Div hailed from the Karpaty and Beskides such as these guys sporting thier traditional Hutsul Caps.

The 22nd Mountain Division was not fully mobilised at the start of the war, and despite initially being considered a part of the Karpaty army ended up fighting with Armi Prusy (the General Reserve army) and was comprised of the 2nd, 5th and 6th Mountain Infantry Regiments (Podhale Rifles). The 22nd Light Artillery Regiment, the 22nd Heavy Artillery Battalion. The 22nd Battalion of Engineers, the 22nd Motorised AA Artillery Battery, a squadron of organic cavalry and of course a motley collection of smaller units such as a taczanka HMG company, a signals company and a bicycle company as well as HQ units.

The situation as it occurred over the 1st to 3rd September in the south for Karpaty Army.
Its in Polish BUT the blue is German, the red is Polish and the green is the Slovaks.
DP - Infantry Division
pp - Infantry Regiment
BK - Cavalry Brigade
ppKOP - Border Defence Corps Regiment
bON - National Defence Battalion
German & Slovak
DP - Infantry Division
DLek - Light Division
DPanc - Armoured Division
Korpus Armijny - Army Corps
Korpus Pancerny - Armoured Corps
The large arrows with arrowheads show directions of movement whilst the red bows with the block ends show the blocking positions that Polish formations in order to repel the German pursuit... and those little crosses? Well those are where full on battles happened.
 Between the 1st and 2nd of September the division defended  a line in the area of Cieszyn from the attacks of the German XVII Army Corps under General Werner Kienitz. By the evening of September 2nd it was decided to attempt a concentric attack on the flanks of German Colonel Heinrich von Vietinghoff's 5th Panzer Division. Unfortunately due to poor communications and confusion the attack was not able to be carried out and instead the division was ordered to fall back on Wadowice during which it was attacked by German 5th columnists causing a portion of the division to panic and flee.

The situation in the south over the 3rd and 4th of September
New Legend Entries
pUl - Cavalry Regiment (Uhlans)
GO - Operational Group
BG - Mountain Brigade
psk - Mounted Rifle Regiment

Following relentless pressure they steadily fell back to defensive line after defensive line winning many of their battles especially notable being the battles of Krzywoczka and Mogilany along the Dunajec on the 4th to the 5th September. Blowing bridges on river lines the division eventually joined the 6th Infantry Division, another formation that continued to receive a good kicking from the Wehrmacht until, finally surrounded on 16th September 1939 and by then reduced to less than 4000 combat troops they collapsed.

The situation in the south over the 5th and 6th of September showing the final collapse of a coordinated and mutual defence and the start of the headlong flight to Lwow... and that 'Oswiecim' up on the upper left frame edge? Well that's Auschwitz-Birkenau!

Due to the speed of the German advance and the precipitous collapse of Polish units in the field the 22nd Mountain Division was quickly overrun and dispersed with the result that the constituent units of the 22nd Mountain Division was found fighting in the ranks of many other local units.

Now, I was intending to do a full on analysis of all of the fighting that these organisations went through but frankly there is just far too much for me to do without intending to publish a book suffice it to say that the mountain troops were excellent at laying ambushes until finally the German ability to move at speed overtook them precipitating their final collapse and their flight to Lwow or the Hungarian border...

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