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Bron Pancerna
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
October 2012

Trapped between two much larger enemies, both long proven to be hostile, Poland relied on its soldiers to maintain the state's fragile existence. Poland had been partitioned before, and only armed force could keep it from happening again. This force needed to be as modern, and as mobile, as possible. Tanks seemed to provide an answer to this problem.

Tanks had been used in the war against the Soviets, but had shown little promise. During the 1930s, armored vehicles took lower priority than the army's proud cavalry regiments, but slowly this began to change as Poland looked to establish modern armed forces. The tanks used against the Soviets had all been scrapped or cast aside by 1939, and the oldest tanks in the Polish inventory were 102 Renault FT-17 light tanks acquired in the early 1920s. The Poles modified them with new turrets, engine and tracks in an effort to keep them in service, but they were no match for German vehicles.

The Poles, drawing heavily on French thinking, saw the tank as having two roles: breaking through fortified lines, and supporting infantry. In 1925 the Polish Army ordered a design for a 12-ton tank for the breakthrough role, armed with a 47mm gun in a turret and a speed of 15 miles per hour. Two Polish companies and one Czech firm submitted prototypes, but none of them met the specifications and the project foundered.

In 1928, the Poles acquired an example of the British-made Vickers Carden-Lloyd two-ton tankette, a two-man armored vehicle armed with a machine gun. It seemed perfect for the infantry support role, and the Poles ordered copies from the state-run PZI arsenal. As with the Browning .30-caliber machine gun and the 81mm Brandt mortar, the Poles did not bother to pay license fees and over 300 TKS tankettes rolled off the production line. Three hundred more of an improved version, the TK-3, followed.


The sincerest form of flattery: a Polish TKS tankette.

 
Poland set up a separate Armored Branch ("Bron Pancerna" in Polish) in September 1930, and the next year ordered modern tanks from Britain, 50 of the widely-exported Vickers Type E-38 with a single turret and 47mm gun, and a dozen with twin turrets each housing a machine gun. The Poles liked their new British machines, and continuing their merry defiance of international patent law - made plans to produce an improved version at home.

Their "seven-ton tank" or 7TP, manufactured at PZI, had a diesel engine (a pirated Polish-made copy of the Swiss Saurer engine) to make fires less likely and improve fuel efficiency. It was not quite as fast as the Vickers. Placed in production in 1934, the first 40 models built had twin machine-gun turrets despite universal opinion that the gun-armed Vickers was the much superior tank. However, no Polish firm could roll armored plate into the shapes needed for a proper turret. After desperate attempts, the Poles finally struck a deal with the Swedish firm of Bofors for turrets complete with a high-velocity 37mm gun. This tank went into production in 1937, and a new version with a better turret and welded armor replaced it in on the assembly in 1939.

By the time war erupted, Poland had 95 of these 7TPjw, their most effective tanks, with production limited by Bofors' inability to provide more turrets and Polish industry still unable to copy the technology. The machine-gun versions (known as 7TPdw) could not be re-armed with the more modern weapon, despite an urgent desire for this improvement. The Poles knew they needed a more effective main battle tank, and they needed more of them than their own factories could produce.

In 1936, France extended a large credit for modernizing the Polish forces, and Poland laid out an ambitious program to expand the army. The Poles greatly admired and wanted to acquire France's best tank, the Somua S35 cavalry tank. With good armor protection, speed and a 47mm gun, the S35 was probably the world's best tank at the time. The Polish military commission asked for 100 of them, plus machine tools and a license to make more of them at PZI.

The French were unwilling to trust Polish attitudes toward license payments despite a settlement in Brandt's long-running lawsuit against Poland. The French Army desired every S35 for its own forces, and so offered instead the smaller, less capable Renault R35 light tank. Though disappointed, the Poles saw no alternative and ordered 100 of them in April, 1939. To soften the blow of rejection, the French diverted 50 of them from orders for their own forces and these arrived in the summer of 1939 to be formed into the 21st Light Tank Battalion.


Polish Vickers tank on parade.

 
Poland also opened talks with Britain's Royal Arsenal about the Matilda II infantry tank, and one sample arrived in Poland in August 1939. Nothing apparently came of this before fighting began.

The 7TPjw with improved armor was much better than the German PzKw II, but inferior to their PzKw III and PzKw IV. It was equivalent to the Soviet Union's most common tank, the T-26 also an unlicensed copy of the Vickers. The Poles realized they needed a better tank, and balked at obtaining the S35 and unable to copy it (for Somua had, wisely for their part, refused to part with a sample tank), made efforts to design their own medium tank. Or, as was the way of the Polish Army of the 1930s, steal one.

The Poles had obtained a sample of the American Christie T3, and just as the Soviet Union copied it for their BT series of fast tanks, so did the Poles attempt to use it as the basis of their own 10TP fast tank. Only one prototype had been built in 1939, as the same problem of turret production that limited the expansion of PZI's 7TP output plagued this project as well. The one prototype carried a Bofors turret from a 7TP, but the production version was to have a 47mm gun if a turret could be made. The 10TP, powered by a copied (of course) American-made La France gasoline engine, was much faster than other Polish vehicles, making 31 miles per hour, but much slower than the Soviet versions.

A version with thicker armor, the 14TP, had a diesel engine copied from the German Maybach that powered the Wehrmacht's medium tanks. The one prototype also had a Bofors turret with a 37mm gun, but this was for trials purposes only and it also would have had the bigger gun and turret in practice. Neither project progressed past the single prototype before Poland's collapse.


Poland's armored fist: a battlion of 7TPjw, August 1939.

 
The August 1939 mobilization provided two mechanized brigades, one organized under the Bron Pancerna and one under the cavalry. Each had one light tank company (with Vickers tanks) and two of tankettes, plus two regiments of motorized infantry and supporting artillery and engineer contingents. The cavalry brigades each had one company of tankettes, as did eight of the 30 infantry divisions. The best tanks formed two battalions of 7TPjw and one of R35, all three of which were held at the high command's disposal along with two companies of aged FT-17 light tanks. Like all Polish troops, they fought very hard during the September campaign. But divided into very small units rather than concentrated for maximum effect, they could do little to blunt the German assault. Many Polish tankers escaped to Hungary and Romania, and would form the cadres for Polish exile tank units under both British and Soviet sponsorship.

In Third Reich Poland can build one weak 2-5 armor unit if it survives the first two years of the war an unlikely proposition. Had some of the resources spent on Poland's huge cavalry establishment been diverted to the Bron Pancerna instead, and had the Poles managed to pilfer the means to cast effective turrets, this could have been a very different story. Poland lacked a doctrine for employment of large armored formations but certainly had plenty of forward thinkers like Stanislaw Maczek who could have forged one given the material with which to work.

Therefore, it's an unlikely variant given Polish love for horsed cavalry, but Daily Content was never meant to be reasonable. As a pre-war variant for Polonophiles everywhere, remove the two 2-4 cavalry units from Polish At Start forces and replace them with one 4-5 armor unit in the At Start forces, and another in the Force Pool. Download the new counters here.