White Knights
Poland’s Air Forces in Third Reich/Great Pacific War
By David Meyler
November 2012

The new Polish republic of 1918, after almost 125 years of foreign domination, was created in a virtual power vacuum. The four empires formerly dominant in eastern Europe — Germany, Austria, Russia and Turkey — had disappeared. Turkey had been sheared of almost all its non-Turkish provinces (except for parts of Armenia and Kurdistan), and was involved in a vicious war with Greece. The Austrian empire had been chopped up into four units, the republics of Austria and Czechoslovakia, and the monarchies of Hungary and Yugoslavia. Germany had been reduced to a state of military, economic and industrial impotence, and was wracked with a virtual civil war between left and right-wing extremists. A soviet republic had been established in Russia, but was engulfed in brutal civil war.

For much of the previous century, Polish nationalism had been expressed through armed revolt, and the new state under Marshal Josef Pilsudski had a strong militaristic leaning. There were some Polish nationalists who wished to go back to the borders held before the first partition of Poland in the 1772, which included territory in eastern Germany, the Baltic states, Belarus and Ukraine. Polish military glories of the grand medieval past served as an inspiration (note the military units named in honour of heroes such as Boleslaw Chobry and Stefan Batory). Pilsudski himself, under the Austrians, had led a Polish army of exile against the Russians. Many other leaders had served in the former imperial German and Russian armies, or with General Haller's Polish corps in the French army. A fledgling air force was established in 1919 under army control, with equipment and airmen from the French, German and Russian air services of the 1914-18 war.

A myth is born. Outmoded PZL P.7 caught on the ground, 1939.

The Russian civil war almost immediately spilled over into Poland, and open war broke out over Ukraine and Belarus. In a series of wide-ranging campaigns, marked by rapid advances and retreats completely unlike the static trench warfare of western Europe, the Poles surged forward, only to be driven from Ukraine right back to Warsaw. Here, in 1920, the overextended Red Army was narrowly but decisively defeated. The Poles were also involved in a low-intensity but still nasty war on their western frontier against assorted German Freikorps (ad hoc military units formed out of World War I veterans, with a mixed monarchical and fascist membership).

The domestic situation was also filled with tension and political factionalism, including the assassination of the republic’s president in 1922. In 1926, Pilsudski staged a coup and established a military junta under his direction, although the parliament continued to play a minor role. After his death in 1935, the military remained in effective control under Marshal Eduard Rydz-Smigly. Poland played a risky game of power politics during the 1920s and '30s, alienating Lithuania over the city of Vilnius and participating in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia with Nazi Germany.

With the catastrophic defeat of 1939, we have tended to lose sight of the rise of Polish influence in the period of relative calm between 1927 and 1933. The Polish army underwent a massive modernization plan. By 1933-34, the republic possessed one of the largest and most modern armies in the world, with a tank force of several hundred vehicles (larger than Britain or Germany). The air force was the first in the world to be equipped exclusively with all-metal monoplane fighters (the PZL P7a), at a time when most other air forces still depended on biplanes. The bomber force was based on the PZL P23 Karas. For its class and speed (it was faster than many contemporary fighters), the Karas carried a relatively heavy bomb payload of 700kg. Both the P7 and P23 were native Polish designs.

The Elk’s snout. Nose gunner of a PZL P.37 Los.

But this rise in Polish prestige could not be sustained. In part it was illusory. As both Germany and Soviet Russia began to recover their former power during the 1930s, they began to exert pressure on Polish territory once again. Poland attempted but failed to create a Baltic bloc, based on itself and including Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland as a kind of counter-weight to Soviet power.

The cost of military expansion to the relatively undeveloped Polish economy was high. All funds spent on defence between 1935 and 1939 represented just one-tenth of the total budget Germany spent on its Luftwaffe in 1939 alone. Polish equipment, tactics and strategy had been geared to fight a one-front war against the Soviet Union of the 1920s, in the relatively undeveloped areas of eastern Poland. With the unexpectedly rapid rise of Nazi Germany, the Poles found themselves incapable of re-arming for a war against the Germans.

By 1939, the Polish air force had fallen far behind the Luftwaffe in numbers and, to a lesser degree, in technology. The Poles in Third Reich/Great Pacific War still warrant a 2-4 TAC (using the Karas as its icon), twice the strength of most other minor air forces. The P11c, the replacement for the P7, was clearly outmatched by the German Messerschmidt Bf109E, although the Polish plane was more manoeuvrable. On the other hand, the P38b was an excellent design, among the top medium bombers then in service.

Beware of flying carp. A PZL P.23B Karas.

Polish equipment at the time of the German invasion included:


Hopelessly obsolete, the P7a soldiered on in three front-line squadrons and supplied reserve aircraft to most fighter squadrons — a high-wing open cockpit monoplane, two machine guns, 300 km/h.

PZL P11c

The P11 equipped 12 of Poland's 15 fighter squadrons, and a number of earlier P11a's were used in training and reserve units. In general appearance and armament the P11 was similar to the P7, but with enclosed cockpit and more powerful engine with speed of 370km/h.

PZL P23B Karas (Carp)

A low-wing monoplane with three machine guns, bomb load of up to 700kg, top speed of 330km/h, the Karas was the primary Polish light attack bomber. An advanced design for the early 1930s, it was obsolete by 1939.

PZL P37B Los (Elk)

A twin-engined, low-wing monoplane design, medium bomber with front glazed nacel, it carried three machine guns, 2580 kg bombs and top speed of 445 km/h. The Elk was one of the most advanced medium bombers of its day.

RWD14B Czapla (Heron)

A high-wing monoplane, open cockpit two-seater, armed with two machine guns, 160kg bombs, and with a speed of just 247 km/h. Originally designed as a light bomber, the Czapla had been largely relegated to a reconnaissance role, although some attack squadrons still operated the plane.


This high-wing monoplane was the primary reconnaissance aircraft along with the Czapla, and was also used as a naval attack plane. It was an open cockpit two-seater, armed with two machine guns, up to 160kg bombs or a torpedo in the attack version, with a top speed of 195 km/h.


A high-wing monoplane, unarmed single-seater, with a top speed of 170 km/h, the RWD8 was used in the vital if unglamorous role of army liaison, an especially crucial task considering the poor state of wireless communications in the Polish army. Flying against German Messerschmidts, RWD8 pilots had to be among the bravest in the Polish air force.

The frontline air force had 129 P11c (plus 43 of the earlier P11a in reserve), 30 P7a (75 reserves), 118 P23 Karas (85 reserves), 36 P37 Los (30 reserves), 49 R-XIII (95 reserves) and 35 RWD14 Czapla (20 reserves). Each army and some of the individual divisional groups (a very rough equivalent to a corps) were each given their own air support element.

The central command meanwhile had control of the independent fighter and bomber brigades. This was meant to allow flexibility in aerial operations, giving local commanders access to immediate air support while the high command could use its concentrated force for major offensives. In practice, army commanders proved reluctant to expend their own air units and usually requested support from the Bomber Brigade, and the resulting delays meant little effective support could be provided. Of the total 220 tons of bombs dropped by the Polish air force during the September campaign of 1939, less than 20 tons were delivered by army air support units. Eventually most of the independent air units were concentrated into a centralized force.

Polish PZL P.11c prepares for take-off.

The German myth that the Polish air force had been largely wiped out on the ground on the first day, though widely believed then and after — making for effective propaganda — was untrue. The more modern aircraft had been withdrawn to secret airfields before the invasion and those aircraft lost were largely of little military value. For the first week, September 1-7, Polish air units maintained a cohesive resistance, but thereafter order began to break down.

The fate of the Fighter Brigade serves as an example as to what happened to Polish air units in general. On September 8, the opening day of the Bzura offensive (the one major Polish counter-attack against the German armored drive on Warsaw), only 16 out of 40 interceptors had fuel. On the 9th, all units were moved to the more secure region of Volhynia in eastern Poland, but that expended all fuel reserves and no operations could be made on the 10th. The high command then changed its mind again, and on September 11 ordered the brigade back to Lublin, and again that left no fuel for operations. On September 14, the fighters were back in Volhynia. Then, on September 16 and 17, the brigade was re-organized into two new fighter wings in Warsaw and Krakow with, combined, 46 P11c's and eight P7's (used for reconnaissance). But limited fuel supplies allowed for only a few sorties. Thus, for the whole of the Bzura offensive the Polish ground units involved had virtually no air cover. German air superiority was unchallenged.

A herd of elk prepare for inspection, 1939.

The offensive broke into two parts: From September 8 to 12 the Poles (the Poznan and Pomorze armies, under the direction of General Kutrzeba, commander of the Poznan Army) smashed the German 30th Division (September 9-10), but did not have the mobility, even with the support of two cavalry brigades, to effectively exploit the gap. From September 13 to 18, Kutrzeba’s divisions fought a desperate battle to break out back to Warsaw to escape an impending German encirclement. On September 9, Kutrzeba had requested fighter cover with the commander of the fighter brigade, but with fuel expended relocating the planes this proved impossible to carry out.

On the whole, any kind of Polish air support was exceptional. The Germans, in addition to special ground attack squadrons equipped with Henschel Hs123 biplanes and Ju87 dive bombers, after September 10 also committed three medium bomber wings — KG1, KG4 and KG26 (about 300 medium bombers) — to the battle. Key targets were bridge crossings, river fords, road junctions and troop columns. In the climatic battles during September 16 and 17, the Luftwaffe flew uninterrupted low-level attacks. It was an unprecedented use of air power, something the Poles had no hope of matching.

For a brief few days, Kutrzeba's offensive had wrested the initiative from the Germans. The Eighth Army's advance to the east was halted in its tracks. The Tenth Army had to break off its assault on Warsaw and turn its force around 180 degrees. The assault into the Polish capital would not be resumed until September 25. In that respect, the Polish attack over the Bzura River did achieve one of its objectives in taking the immediate pressure off the Warsaw garrison. However, Kutrzeba had fatally underestimated the speed with which the German motorized forces could react, and the overwhelming impact of the Luftwaffe.

A PZL P.24 on the flight line.

On October 5, the day Poland capitulated, the air force had lost 327 aircraft, while 94 to 98 machines with their crews escaped to Romania. The Luftwaffe lost 285 aircraft in combat, with another 279 heavily damaged and written off as irreparable. Polish aircrew in air-to-air combat had shot down over a hundred German aircraft, while losing less than that. The remaining Polish losses were result of anti-aircraft fire, or aircraft destroyed on the ground. The remnants of Polish air units flew to Romania after September 18. From there more than 8,000 Polish pilots assembled in France, with two fighter groups in active service by the time of German invasion in May 1940. After the collapse of France, a Polish Air Force was re-established in Britain. Nos. 320 (Poznanski) and 303 (Kosciuszko) Squadrons (fighters) took part in the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940. Polish pilots claimed 203 enemy aircraft destroyed (about 7 percent of the RAF total), with 29 Polish pilots killed. Other crew served in Bomber Command.

Exiled Polish aircrew also saw extensive service with the Red Air Force. By 1943, a fighter squadron had been established and expanded into the 1st Warsaw Fighter Regiment. By the end of 1944, a Polish Flying Corps was operating in support of the 2nd Polish Army.

Order of Battle

Polish Air Force High Command Aviation Reserve, September 1939

Fighter Brigade:

  • III/1 Dyon (Wing) (111th and 112th Pursuit Squadrons, equipped with 11 P11c fighters each)
  • IV/1 Dyon (113th and 114th Pursuit Squadrons, each with 11 P11c)
  • 123rd Pursuit Squadron (unattached unit, equipped with ten PZL P7a fighters)

Bomber Brigade:

  • II/2 Dyon (21st and 22nd Attack Squadrons, both equipped with 11 PZL P23B Karas light bombers)
  • VI/6 (64th and 65th Attack Squadrons, each with 11 P23B Karas)
  • 56th Attack Squadron (unattached, 11 P23B Karas)
  • X/1 Dyon (211th and 212th Bomber Squadrons, equipped with nine PZL P37B Los medium bombers each)
  • XV/1 Dyon (216th and 217th Bomber Squadrons, each nine P37B Los)


  • 16th Reconnaissance Squadron (seven Lublin R-XIIID reconnaissance aircraft)
  • Nr. 4 and Nr. 13 Liaison Flights (each with three RWD8 aircraft)
  • Transport Squadron (nine Fokker F-VII aircraft)

Army Karpathy (Div. Gen. K. Fabrycy) Air Support Detachment:

  • 31st Attack Squadron (11 P23B Karas)
  • 56th Reconnaissance Squadron (seven R-XIIID)
  • Nr. 5 Liaison Flight (three RWD8)

Army Krakow (Brig. Gen. A. Szylling) Air Support Detachment:

  • III/2 Dyon (121st and 122nd Pursuit Squadrons, both with ten PZL P11c)
  • 24th Attack Squadron (ten P23B Karas)
  • 23rd Reconnaissance Squadron (seven RWD14B Czapla)
  • 26th Reconnaissance Squadron (seven R-XIIID)
  • Nr. 3 Liaison Flight (three RWD8)

Army Lodz (Div. Gen. J.K. Rommel) Air Support Detachment:

  • III/6 Dyon (161st Pursuit Squadron with 12 P11c
  • 162nd Pursuit Squadron with ten P7a)
  • 32nd Attack Squadron (11 P23B Karas)
  • 63rd Reconnaissance Squadron (seven RWD14B Czapla)
  • 66th Reconnaissance Squadron (seven R-XIIID)
  • Nr. 10 Liaison Flight (three RWD8)

Army Modlin (Brig. Gen. E. Krukowicz-Predrzymirski) Air Support Detachment:

  • III/5 Dyon (comprised only the 152nd Pursuit Squadron, ten P11c)
  • 41st Attack Squadron (ten P23B Karas)
  • 53rd Reconnaissance Squadron (seven RWD14B Czapla)
  • Nr. 11 Liaison Flight (three RWD8)

Army Pomorze (Div. Gen. W. Bortnowski) Air Support Detachment:

  • III/4 Dyon (141st and 142nd Pursuit Squadrons, both equipped with 11 P11c)
  • 42nd Attack Squadron (11 P23B Karas)
  • 43rd and 46th Reconnaissance Squadrons (each seven R-XIIID)
  • Nr. 7 and Nr. 8 Liaison Flights (each three RWD8)

Army Poznan (Div. Gen. T. Kutrzeba) Air Support Detachment:

  • III/3 Dyon (131st and 132nd Pursuit Squadrons
  • 11 and ten P11c respectively)
  • 34th Attack Squadron (seven RWD14B light bombers)
  • 33rd Reconnaissance Squadron (seven R-XIIID)
  • Nr. 6 Liaison Flight (three RWD8)

Army Pruzy (Div. Gen. S. Dab-Biernacki) Air Support Detachment:

  • Nr. 1 and Nr. 2 Liaison Flights (each three RWD8)

Naval Air Support Command:

  • 1st Torpedo/Navy co-operation squadron (ten R-XIIID floatplanes, two RVIII seaplanes)
  • 1st Training Squadron (five land-based R-XIIID)
  • Naval Liaison Flight (three land-based RWD8)

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