Re-Arming Poland’s Artillery
By Mike Bennighof, PhD
The Polish Army went to war in 1939 facing a German enemy with more troops, more tanks and more aircraft. Adding to the disparity, those troops wielded more firepower, particularly in their artillery regiments.
A German first-line infantry division fielded 48 artillery pieces in its artillery regiment: 36 105mm light howitzers, in three battalions of 12 guns each, and a dozen 150mm howitzers in their own battalion. The 105mm piece was an outstanding weapon, and came in models suitable for towing by horse teams (with large wooden wheels) or a motorized prime mover (with smaller rubber tires).
A Polish infantry division’s light artillery regiment had almost as many weapons, but they were far less capable: 24 75mm rapid-fire field guns in two battalions and a dozen 100mm light howitzers in a third battalion. The division also commanded a “heavy” artillery battalion with three long-range 105mm howitzers and three heavy 155mm howitzers.
The Treaty of Versailles limited the German Army in many ways; among them, it could not field any artillery of greater than 105mm caliber. That had the foreseeable and inevitable result of the Germans adopting the 105mm howitzer as their standard light field piece. Once they had thrown off the Versailles limits, the 150mm howitzer became the standard medium piece.
“The situation of the German Army,” Gen. Joseph Maurin, the French inspector general of artillery, told France’s Superior Council of War in 1936, “can be explained by the fact that it began at zero. We have major quantities of the 75, and moreover this gun proved itself from the beginning to the end of the Great War.”
The Polish 6th Light Artillery Regiment on parade with its 75mm guns, 1934.
French doctrine emphasized firepower, and the high rate of fire of “Madame Soixante-Quinze” - twice that of 105mm pieces - made her the choice of French generals during the inter-war years. While it’s true that budgetary concerns would have made it difficult to impossible to replace the 5,600 75mm guns in the French arsenal, that doesn’t tell the full story. The French generals preferred their rapid-firing light field gun, and given the choice - as they were in 1936 - they declined to ask for a replacement.
The Poles were aware that the Germans had abandoned the light field gun, but like their French allies the Poles had a huge stockpile of perfectly good weapons they could not easily discard. Poland still had 1,230 75mm M1897 field guns in service in September 1939, with 150 more in reserve plus another 466 formerly Russian 76.2mm field guns re-lined to accept the same 75mm rounds.
Unlike their French allies, the Poles were not satisfied with the tried-and-true 75mm cannon. Polish doctrine put maneuver at the forefront, and the Poles desired a more powerful piece for their light artillery battalions. Polish defensive doctrine called for rapid counter-attacks against an enemy advance, and the Polish generals wanted a field piece that could deliver a heavier explosive load, do so over a greater range, and loft its shells over intervening forests and hills unlike the flat-trajectory 75mm gun.
An abandoned Polish 100mm Model 1919 howitzer.
A Polish light artillery regiment nominally had three battalions: two armed with 75mm Model 1897 field guns, and one with Czech-designed 100mm Skoda howitzers. By the late 1930’s a transition had begun, and in the 30 regular light artillery regiments twenty of them had the older standard of two 75mm battalions and one with 100mm howitzers, while the other ten had been re-equipped with one 75mm battalion and two with 100mm howitzers. Eventually all of the 75mm guns would have been replaced.
That arsenal of 75mm pieces still had some life in it, and the Poles looked to find a new role for the light guns outside the artillery. Testing on a new mount to allow rapid training so the gun could be used for anti-tank fire went very well. If the 75mm gun could be transitioned into an anti-tank and infantry direct-support role, then the Army could retain its firepower even as the gun was replaced in the field artillery regiments of the infantry divisions.
The Polish Army began steps to replace the 75mm pieces in the field artillery regiments by the mid-1930’s. Judging by the orders placed for new guns, the intent appears to have been to equip each regular field artillery regiment with two battalions of 100mm howitzers, one of longer-range 105mm howitzers, and one of 155mm howitzers. That would give a Polish division the same firepower as a German one, at least on paper. In practice the German 105mm was a superior weapon to either Polish piece and the 150mm weapon vastly better than the outdated Schneider 155mm.
Some of the 75mm pieces would have gone to anti-tank batteries, where they also would be used as infantry-support guns, but most of them would be allotted to 30 newly-created reserve artillery regiments of three battalions (36 guns) each, one of which would form part of each reserve infantry division. Only three such regiments were mobilized in September 1939.
The new Zaklady Poludniowe artillery factory in the Central Industrial District’s newly-built factory city of Stalowa Wola (“Steel Will”) began manufacturing the French-designed Schneider 105mm Model 1929 howitzer in 1937, and began assembling parts for the Skoda-designed 100mm Model 1928 howitzer in 1939, from parts manufactured at the slightly older Polish artillery plant at Starachowice. The Zaklady Starachowickie works began producing the 100mm howitzer in 1928, and the Polish Army had a large number of the very similar Model 1914/19 left over from Austro-Hungarian stocks that were modernized to the same standard. In all the Poles had about 900 of them in September 1939; that should have been sufficient for all of the regular regiments to field two battalions but the re-organization was not yet complete.
The Poles acquired either 100 or 104 of the 105mm Schneider cannon from France, and by September 1939 the Army had received another 36 or 40, with 44 more incomplete or undelivered (there were 140 total available in 1939, but whether the first four built in Poland are counted in the first or second grouping varies among sources, since the parts for them came from the Schneider Works). Those 184 pieces would have equipped 15 battalions, enough for only half of the divisions. In practice 90 of the 140 available guns went to the infantry divisions and the remainder were retained in army-level long-range artillery battalions. In addition to the new Schneider guns, the Poles had at least 70 more of the older and less capable Model 1913, which still served in the same role in 1939.
Polish gunners fire a Schneider 155mm Model 1917.
The standard Polish heavy howitzer in 1939 was the 155mm French Schneider Model 1917. This was an excellent weapon for its time, and remained France’s standard heavy howitzer as well. In September 1939 the Polish Army had 341 of them on hand, including 44 manufactured under license at Zaklady Starachowickie, which was delivering six new weapons per month.
Polish military intelligence soon provided details of the new German 150mm sFH18 howitzer introduced in 1934, and these alarmed the Polish generals. The Schneider 155mm had a maximum practical range of 8,000 meters, while the German piece could fire effectively out to 10,600 meters. The Polish Army needed a new heavy weapon, and after balking at the cost of a new Czech-designed howitzer from Skoda the Poles decided to design their own with Swedish assistance.
Only two prototypes of the new 155mm wz. 40 howitzer existed in September 1939. Field trials began in January 1938, and the weapon was accepted for production in November 1938. The prototypes had a barrel made by Bofors in Sweden with the rest of the components coming from domestic producers. Zaklady Starachowickie had not finished setting up the production line when the Germans attacked, likely due to difficulties acquiring the needed machine tools from Bofors to produce the barrel.
The new weapon presented another problem: it weighed more than five times as much as the 100mm howitzer and nearly three times what the German 150mm howitzer massed. A dozen Belgian Draft horses might not have moved it. Polish prime movers could barely drag it along during field tests; a new, far more powerful tractor would have to be acquired. That lack of mobility would likely have limited to weapon to army-level support battalions had it entered serial production in time to reach the field in 1939.
Polish efforts to re-arm their artillery regiments were well underway in 1939, something overlooked by many Western historians. They could not field modern weapons as good as the Germans wielded, but no one else could in 1939, either. A Polish infantry division re-armed to the planned standard would still have been out-classed by its German counterpart, but would have boasted greater firepower than a British or French division of the time.
Poland, like France, retained many heavy pieces in its army-level reserve artillery battalions and this presented a problem in 1939. The Polish Army had no corps-level organization, and the army commands could barely keep track of the divisions for which they were responsible, let alone the support battalions. A great deal of Polish artillery firepower therefore had little to no impact in the September Campaign.
Distributing more of these batteries to the divisions to help complete the re-armament plan would have brought them into action more frequently, and given the Polish infantry greater staying power against the Germans. It wouldn’t have been enough to turn back the invaders by itself.
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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 over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold approves of this message.