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The Newly Established Polish Air Force and the Polish Bolshevik War

The legacy of the three partitions of Poland in the late 18th century by Prussia, Russia and Austria posed many unique challenges to the newly resurrected Polish State in 1918.

Aside from three different government legal systems, two different rail gauges, on Polish lands and ravaged by World War 1, Polish men had served in three different militaries. This resulted in ethnic Poles often facing and fighting each other across the battlefield when German or Austro-Hungarian forces battled the Russians on the eastern front. Their lives were sacrificed for the countries which had destroyed Polish independence and subjugated the population.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

With the autumn of 1918’s collapse of the German and Austrian empires, a Polish Regency Council was formed on October 7, 1918, which declared the establishment of an independent Polish State. Immediately, a number of spontaneously improvised military units arose throughout the country. On November 11, 1918, Józef Pilsudski, returned to Warsaw from German captivity and declared himself the commander in chief of the Armed Forces and the National Leader, until a civilian leader was found.

With the end of hostilities and the evacuation of Austrian and German forces from declared Polish territories, there was a race to acquire by negotiation, occupation or armed conflict, abandoned aircraft, airfields, parts, weapons and engines. In addition to obtaining these resources from the occupying power, the Poles were in competition with the new countries forming from the ashes of the old empires. Many of the aircraft, although some fairly modern, however, were worn out or damaged with need of maintenance and repair.

Fig. 2A service branch called Lotnictwo Wojskowe (Army Aviation), under the command of former Austrian colonel Lassowski was established in December 1918. There were more pilots than planes for them to fly. Some pilots had served in the air forces of the three partitioning power, gaining considerable experience as pilots and ground crew, along with combat experience. The top Austro-Hungarian ace, for example, was Godwin Bromowski from Wadowice, who had 35 confirmed kills. Though with different flying experiences and tactics they could have aided Poland in organizing an air service, leading squadrons or work on staff operations during the various border disputes with Germany, Lithuania and Czechoslovakia and the wars with the Ukrainians and later the Bolsheviks.

An inventory of aircraft on January 16, 1919, indicated that 237 aircraft had been captured from the three occupying powers. Only 185 were serviceable and many engines and parts were purchased from Germany, which was barred from having an air force. The 237 aircraft were divided up into 45 different types of fighters, bombers, trainers and observation aircraft were acquired this way, resulting in a logistical supply and training nightmare. The Poles had seized Austrian Albatros D-III and D-V fighters, Fokker D-VII and D-VIII from Germany. A Polish aviation corps had been established after the February Revolution of 1917 (Kerensky) in Russia, using French Nieuport and SPAD fighters. After the Bolshevik Revolution (Lenin) of November 1917, German troops disarmed the Polish forces and interned the troops. These joined the Polish Air Service following the end of the Great War. With the end of hostilities and the disarray in Central Europe, various Russian, Austrian and German planes were seized. Other planes were bought as countries reduced their arms. The LW purchased Ansaldo A.1 Balilla fighters from Italy, Bristol F2B and Sopwith Camel fighters from Great Britain, along with Spad XIII fighters from France, among others. Bomber/reconnaissance aircraft included De Havilland DH 9s from Great Britain, Breguet 14s from France and LVG C 5.

Obviously, maintenance and repair facilities were badly needed to build, rebuild, repair and test these aircraft and engines. Several were captured, including Lawica airfield and repair shops near Poznan. It was captured from German troops after a short 20-minute skirmish, becoming one of the most important air facilities during the early days of Poland’s struggle for survival. Mokotow airfield and repair facilities near Warsaw was abandoned by the departing Germans and heavily utilized. Former Austrian airfields and repair facilities such as Rakowicz (near Kraków), Lewandowska (near Lwów) and Hureczko (near Przemysl). The last two were important because they could have just as easily been occupied by the Ukrainian forces during the 1918-1919 battles for the Eastern borderlands. All these facilities, along with several more, immediately began repairing, test flying and returning to service engines and aircraft for use in the coming conflicts. Some also conducted pilot training for new LW pilots.

Fig. 3

Fig. 3

From 1918 to 1920 the LW conducted military operations against Ukrainian, Russian, German and Lithuanian forces, mainly to settle border location disputes and thus reclaim Polish territories lost during the partitions. The early operations were against Ukrainian forces threatening Lwów. The Austrians, who had always played both sides against each other, favored the Ukraine as the Empire was imploding. In early November 1918 Polish forces in the south commenced operations against Ukrainian forces which had cut off Lwów and its majority Polish population from central Poland. The early occupation of the Lewandowska airfield gave a slight advantage to the Poles. The first Polish operational sortie was flown on November 5 (the WW1 ceasefire was still almost a week away). A single plane attack by an LW Brandenburg C.1 was successfully made on the Ukrainian controlled Persenkowka railway station in Lwow, which was freed from the enemy on November 22. Keeping the rail link open to Polish forces in Przemysl was a priority, especially when the Ukrainians launched a counter-attack in March 1919. During the siege Polish observation planes shot down two Ukrainian aircraft and on April 29, Lt. Stec, flying a Fokker D-VIII, scored the first ever LW dog fight victory by downing a Ukrainian Nieuport. Overall, though, little air-to-air combat took place in the war, as most missions were reconnaissance, bombing and ground attack.

In the Northern theater (Lithuanian-Byelorussian front), the situation was much the same. Bolshevik pilots, flying former Czarist aircraft purchased from France during WW1 were active, but exhibited a reluctance to engage in air-to-air combat. Bolshevik forces were pushed back and Wilno was liberated on April 19, 1919, by a combination of Polish, Lithuanian and Byelorussian forces. The offensive continued and the Bolsheviks had to abandon Minsk.

To distinguish Polish aircraft from those of her enemies, a standardized marking had to be selected and applied to the aircraft. First was a red and white shield (Fig. 1), next a white square with a red “Z” in the middle was tried (Fig. 2). Finally, a red and white checkerboard was selected. It had been the personal marking of former Austrian fighter pilot Lt. Stefan Stec (Fig. 3). This insignia, with little modification (Fig. 4), is still carried by Polish military aircraft today.

Fig. 4

Fig. 4

During the two conflicts the LW operated small numbers of aircraft, often less than 20 at each front. Acquiring war supplies was a problem with communist leaning agitators in Great Britain and Italy disrupted the loading of aircraft and other material on ships bound for Poland. The German military evacuating Danzig (Gdańsk) sabotaged port facilities and unsympathetic Czech rail workers interfered with shipments to Poland. This may have been due more to territorial disputes on the Polish Czech border rather than Communist sympathies. Interestingly enough, Fokker D-VII fighters were purchased from Germany, although delivery was very slow, along with aircraft engines which were delivered with fewer delays. Of course, the Germans were trying to unload their “forbidden” Air Force.

However, help was on the way from France. In the latter part of the war after the first Russian revolution and America’s entry into the war, on June 4, 1917, French President Poincare established a Polish Army to be equipped, trained and led by the French, until trained Polish higher officers could take over. While basically an infantry force, plans were made to establish a modern air force and a tank regiment. The pilots were from various sources, Poles in French service, Poles in a Russian Expeditionary Corps sent to France early in the war, even a few defectors from the Imperial German Air Corps. Poles from America were introduced to the air service, but only a small number became pilots. I had the pleasure to interview the son of a volunteer who became an observer/gunner (Fig. 5). The French eventually organized seven squadrons and supporting services. Many of the positions were filled by “contracted” Frenchmen, to be replaced by the Poles who “shadowed” the French. Sent to the Lwów area, the “Blue Army”, commanded since October 1918 by General Józef Haller, brought 101 new aircraft. They started offensive operations on May 14, 1919, securing Lwów on May 27. The LW flew about 160 sorties, dropped 16,000 lbs. of bombs, expended 12,000 rounds of machine gun ammunition and took 100 photographs. Often flying at tree top level, the LW lost three aircraft shot down and three damaged. The French high command, which still had control over the 80,000-man Blue Army, ordered a withdrawal of that Army to Poland’s frontier with Germany. The Allies had not fought against the Ukrainians in the Great War, so Allied troops could not fight them.

While not attached to the Blue Army, the first group of American volunteer pilots, arrived in Poland in the spring of 1919. They were disguised as enlisted members of the Typhoid Relief Mission under Hoover. Rather than forming a distinct unit, they were amalgamated to the 7th Fighter Squadron in Lwów. Captain Meriam C. Cooper, a veteran of the US Army Air Corps, had gone to Poland to assist in the Hoover typhoid mission in late 1918. Upon his return to Paris, he contacted Major Cedric S. Fauntleroy, a volunteer in the French Air Forces’ 94th Aero Squadron, aka as the Lafayette Escadrille. Fauntleroy joined the Army Air Corps when the Americans began to arrive “Over There”, and stayed in Europe after his discharge. Fauntleroy and Cooper found some other adventurous pilots and they presented themselves to Maestro Ignace Paderewski. Since the only Polish Uniforms available were from the Blue Army, this became their uniform. Eventually 17 Americans served in the Kościuszko Squadron, to repay the debt.

Fig. 5

Fig. 5

In 1942, Lieutenant Colonel Fauntleroy presented souvenirs and memorabilia to the PMA (or the Museum and Archives of the Polish Roman Catholic Union as it was then known). Among the items is his French aviator uniform, helmet and goggles, a drawing and a copy of “Colonel Fauntleroy and his Squadron” written by Meriam Cooper, translated into Polish and published in Chicago in 1922 by the Faunt-Le-Roy, Harrison and Company.

In the book, we have a description of the previously mentioned drawing (Fig. 6)
“After the American Christmas celebration, a delegation of Polish NCOs came and invited the co-founders to their celebration. As a present they gave him a sketch with the likeness of Kosciuszko and addressed to: ‘Our Beloved Commander, as a Souvenir of the Christmas Holyday spent in free Poland in Lwów, December 1919, the NCOs of the 7th Squadron named in honor of Kosciuszko.’

The artist showed Polish planes flying above Lwów, which was shown as a large city with big cupolas and high towers, thousands of buildings Next was drawn the ocean, and on the other side of the ocean one saw the Statue of Liberty, next to it a small village, surrounded by fields and forests. We smiled to ourselves, seeing that our soldier artist envisioned New York as a small village, next to Lwów.

By the autumn of 1919, the Ukrainian leader, Symen Petlura offered a truce to the Poles, proposing a joint effort against the Bolsheviks. This eventually took place in the spring of 1920. A large Bolshevik force was assembled to threaten Ukraine. Polish pilots saw some of this activity and the Polish cryptological service was able to decipher messages sent over radio. (This salute to the Polish codebreakers was kept quiet prior to World War 2, so as not to warn Poland’s enemies regarding their capabilities. Of course during the Communist Decades, very little was presented about the 1920 war. It wasn’t until recently that the Code breakers were named and honored showing that the pre-World War 2 Enigma project was in a line of Polish Military Intelligence successes).

With the end of winter, a large Bolshevik Army again posed a threat to Ukraine, but a preemptive strike by Polish forces, supported by a few Ukrainian divisions, was launched by Pilsudski on April 25, 1920. These attacks captured Kiev and forced the Bolshevik forces across the Dnieper. The use of rail transport assisted the rapid movement of LW ground support assets and one squadron actually used the Kiev airfield as a forward base by May 8. However, a massive Bolshevik counter attack north of the Pripet marshes and Budyenny’s cavalry Army south of the marshes drove back the Poles to the Wisła river in the north and threatened Lwów again in the south. The LW suffered severe losses in carrying out their missions of slowing down the Red advance, performing reconnaissance and engaging the Bolshevik air arm. The Poles were down to 20 planes, but a shipment of Bristol F2B fighters arrived from Britain in time to raise the LW strength up to about 80 aircraft.

On August 14, an offensive, initiated by Marshal Pilsudski and finalized by his chief of staff, General (and former Austrian Field Marshal) Tadeusz Rozwadowski, exploited a gap between two Bolshevik armies on the northern enemy force and completely unhinged their offensive. LW aircraft mercilessly attacked the Bolsheviks chasing them back east towards Wilno and forcing some to retreat north, where they were interned in East Prussia by the Germans. The southern arm of the Bolshevik offensive was unable to support the northern arm, due to a fierce last ditch Polish stand before Lwów. The LW, including the 7th “Kościuszko” Squadron, had only an average of 16 available aircraft, but attacked the Horse Army of Budyenny for three days. From August 16 to 18 nearly 18,000 lbs. of bombs and 27, 000 rounds of ammunition were unleashed on the Red Cavalry causing carnage and terror among the troopers! In addition to the most modern destruction of the early 20th century, the Horse Army was defeated on August 30th at the battle of Komarów, where the last great cavalry battle on European soil took place. When the Bolsheviks could stand it no more, they retreated back east.

The LW contributed successfully to the Polish victory in 1920, especially in air reconnaissance and observation. Polish forces seem to have had the greater advantage in this area than their enemies. “Dog fighting” as seen on the Western Front of World War 1, and evoking images of the Red Baron and Allied heroes, did not happen here. It is evident in the fact that the Poles shot down four Bolshevik and three Ukrainian machines. The “Bolos” shot down 3 LW airplanes in air to air engagements, with another 34 lost to ground fire. Ukrainian ground defenses accounted for eight more LW losses. Some air combat took place between Lithuanian and German forces with the LW.

The Battle of Warsaw, or “The Miracle on the Wisła” is rated as the 18 most decisive battle in chronological order. Considering that it not only saved Poland but quite likely all of Central and Western Europe from a Communist takeover, its importance might rank higher as more historians study the conflict

Glenn Cekus

Fig. 6

Fig. 6

Notes:
Belcarz, Bartłomiej and Pęczkowswki, Robert White Eagles The Aircraft, Men and Operations of the Polish Air Force 1918-1939, 2001, Hikoki Publications Great Britian
Photos:
pg 18 (Fig.3) shipping planes by train (Fig. 4) The large eye is the emblem of the Observor’s School in Poznan and Bydgoszcz
pg 19 (Fig.2) Second Polish Air Force Insignia
Cynk, Jerzy B. The Polish Air Force at War The Official History Vol. 1 1939-1943 1998 Schiffer Military History Altglen, PA
Photos pg 27 (Fig.1) First Polish Air Force Insignia
Polish Museum of America Archives:
(Fig. 5) Jan Kostecki (3rd from left with moustache) standing with other trainees/graduates of the French Air Forced Observer’s Course. Courtesy of his son, Don Kostecki. Donated in 1918
(Fig. 6) The drawing presented to LTC Fauntleroy by the NCOs and Mechanics of the 7th Squadron commemorating the first Christmas in a Free Poland and the city of Lwów

Comments(2)

  1. Reply
    Małgorzata Kot says:

    Congratulations Glenn and sincere thank you for your knowegde, time and dedication!

  2. Reply
    Glenn Cekus says:

    Mr. Jan Lorys, also extremely knowledgeable in Polish military history and a PMA employee, also contributed much important information to this article. Thank you, Jan.

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