Golden Journal No. 34:
The September 1939 German-Soviet invasion dismembered the Polish state in a scant 30 days. The swiftness of the campaign, and the overwhelming nature of the German-Soviet victory, obscures the size and power of the Polish war machine. Poland produced its own tanks, aircraft and artillery, with new weapons in the pipeline that matched the best designs of the Great Powers.
Those included modern new tanks, to be built by the rapidly-expanding Polish industrial base. These disappeared from history after the German invasion, with the machinery carted off and the factories destroyed (sometimes before the machinery was carted off, as the German occupiers were often as mindless as they were destructive). Many of the designers who’d drafted the new vehicles were also carted off as slave laborers and died in German chains.
I wanted to look more closely at this Polish effort, and at the tanks that would have armed the Bron Pancerna had Hitler waited another year or two before unleashing his barbarism on the world. That’s the theme of our Golden Journal No. 34 Bron Pancerna: Polish drawing-board armor.
Poland built a light tank, the 7TP, based on the British Vickers Six-Ton tank (also the model for the Soviet T-26). It carried a 37mm gun in its latest iteration, but the builder, Warsaw’s Ursus Tractor Works, could not make the turrets and these had to be imported from Bofors in Sweden. The new factories arising in the Central Industrial Region would be capable of rolling armor plate into the desired shapes, or casting turrets and upper hulls, and the Polish Army hoped to take full advantage of these new capabilities.
A licensed copy of the Somua S.35 cavalry tank would, the Poles hoped, be the first tank built by the new industrial complex. The Polish Army asked to buy 100 of them from Somua, using the arms-purchase credits granted Poland in the 1936 Rambouillet Accord, plus a license and machine tools to produce more of them in Poland.
The S.35 suited the Polish Army’s maneuver-oriented doctrine, derived from the experiences of the Polish-Soviet War of the early 1920’s. But the French were unwilling to sell the advanced tank, offering instead the cheaper and far less capable Renault R.35. The Renault machine was much too slow for Polish needs (as was the 7TP), but the offer was accepted as better than nothing (since it was, after all, funded with other peoples’ money).
A new version of the 7TP, which we’ve called the 9TP (the official Polish name was “Enhanced 7TP,” which is tough to fit on a 2/3-inch playing piece), offered an improved engine and chassis plus welded rather than bolted armor. That saved weight which could be applied to better protection. While two prototypes were constructed, the claims of a well-known online encyclopedia that production models arrived in time to fight outside Warsaw appear to be (surprisingly) not true.
While the 9TP had better fighting qualities than its parent, Ursus Tractor Works still depended on Bofors to fabricate the turrets. The next new Polish tanks would have been built in a new factory in Lublin that could produce everything (or at least obtain it from a Polish subcontractor), and hopefully prevent the bottlenecks that slowed the 7TP project.
The 10TP was a new design based on an American example, the Christie M1931 fast tank that could travel on tracks or wheels. It was a 13-ton light tank, with the same Bofors turret and 37mm cannon as the 7TP and 9TP, but much faster in keeping with Polish doctrine. It would have had no better protection than the 7TP, though more than the Soviet BT series of fast tanks, similarly reverse-engineered from the Christie model. The Poles had no model or drawings from which to work, which resulted in chief designer Rudolf Gundlach’s team producing a tank that was slower than the Christie model, but much better-protected. The Polish tank could not be driven on wheels, unlike the Christie and BT versions, and the weight savings allowed for extra armor.
The Polish Army placed orders even before the prototype was ready, for four battalions’ worth of tanks that would equip the new motorized cavalry brigades, while the 7TP supported the infantry. But the prototype wasn’t ready until January 1939 - Gundlach also oversaw the higher-priority Enhanced 7TP project - and production approval only came in the summer of 1939. No tanks had been built by the time the Germans invaded.
And even before the 10TP had begun testing, the design team started work on a replacement, the 14TP cavalry tank. From the start it was intended to only have tracks, not wheels, and carry a much more powerful engine to allow thicker armor and a heavier gun. The new tank would have a Polish-designed, long-barreled 47mm Model wz. 39 gun and be powered by a licensed version of the same Maybach HL108 liquid-cooled engine that drove the early models of the German Panzer III and IV. Maybach dragged out the licensing talks, probably at the Nazi government’s instigation, and the prototype had been completed but not begun testing when the Germans invaded. Ursus workers apparently destroyed it before the Germans could take it.
On paper, the 14TP was an impressive blend of firepower, speed and protection. At only 14 tons it’s questionable how it could have provided superior fighting qualities to the 23-ton German Panzer III. More than likely, it would have weighed considerably more than 14 tons, and that’s the answer we’ve accepted for our variant.
The final Polish tank in our set is even more powerful: the 25TP “heavy” tank. A design competition opened in 1937 yielded five finalists, including multi-turret tanks carrying a 40mm automatic anti-aircraft gun or an 81mm mortar. We’ve selected the only model to actually receive approval for a prototype, drafted by 34-year-old Edward Habich who had worked on the 9TP project and designed the TKS tankette. Habich’s tank would have carried a 75mm main gun derived from an anti-aircraft cannon, plus three machine guns. It had a crew of four or five, and a notably small turret.
Habich’s tank would have thick armor, and use a new-model V-12 300 horsepower diesel engine. This last seems unlikely to have delivered the expected speed, but the Poles had begun negotiations to license a 550-horsepower version that was probably intended for this tank. The team had completed a wooden mock-up when the Germans invaded, but had not built a prototype yet.
Such a tank could not have been ready to meet the Germans in September 1939, but had they waited a year it would have delivered a shock equal to that of the Soviet T-34’s first appearance on the battlefield.
And that’s what we’ve got in our Golden Journal No. 34. It’s going to be fun.
The Golden Journal is only available to the Gold Club (that’s why we call it the Golden Journal). It’s free when we first offer it, but then it’s $9.99 afterwards. We print enough of them to handle initial demand and a few extras, but once they’re gone we won’t reprint them – there’s just no profit in a company as small as Avalanche Press keeping a $9.99 item perpetually in stock. If you want your Polish tanks, the time to grab it is now.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published zillions of books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and his dog Leopold, who is a good dog.