Monday, September 19, 2016

How Did Sherman Tanks Compare to T-34 Tanks?

Tastes Great! Less Filling!

Sherman M4A2 T-34/85
A late-model Sherman M4A3, the mainstay of U.S. forces in Korea, moves down a road past a knocked-out North Korean T34/85,
  • Soviet T-34 tanks had advantages such as harder armor, harder shells that did not fragment as much upon impact, and a lower profile
  • Sherman Tanks were considered more reliable, and T-34 build quality was excellent in some areas and poor in others
  • The Red Army treated T-34s and Sherman tanks equally
  • The opinion of many who faced or worked in both tanks was that the T-34 was a superior weapon
The United States sent the Soviet Union a lot of equipment via Lend Lease, which was authorized by "An Act to Promote the Defense of the United States", (Pub.L. 77–11, H.R. 1776, 55 Stat. 31, enacted March 11, 1941). While the Soviets were not US allies when the Lend-Lease Act was signed, it later was expanded to cover the USSR. On Oct. 1, 1941, People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov, British Minister of Supply Lord Beaverbrook, and US Special Envoy Averell Harriman signed the First (Moscow) Protocol which extended Lend-Lease to the USSR.
Sherman M4A2 Detroit Tank Arsenal
The Chrysler Detroit Tank Arsenal.
The Soviets loved Lend Lease, and its quick termination in 1945, in fact, was one of the factors chilling relations between the Soviets and their former Allies. It since has become a matter of national pride whose World War II tanks were best and, more to the point, a hot topic of wargamers who want to know how to win their video games. We are not talking about the "best" tank of World War II, that's like arguing over which political party is better (and, truthfully, comparing these two tanks elicits similar reactions). The T-34 wasn't even the best Soviet tank of the war (though it was the most important). Let us instead simply compare the T-34 and the Sherman tank and see what we come up with.
Sherman M4A2 T-34/85
Soviet Sherman tank in Romania.
Beginning in the winter of 1943, the United States sent the Soviets about 7,000 tanks, about 1,386 of which were M3 Lees and 4,102 M4A2 Sherman medium tanks (hundreds were lost on the Arctic convoys). The Soviets used the tanks they were given and said: "Thank you very much." They put the American tanks into their units alongside their own tanks. Some interpret that as meaning that the Soviets loved the American tanks and perhaps thought they were better than their own tanks. We shall see.

Did the Soviets View American Tanks As Superior In General

An M3 with its Soviet crew. The one fellow can practically put his hand around the barrel, try that with a late-war tank!

The M3 Stuart and  Lee

First off, the Soviets did not like all American tanks in terms of battle-worthiness (though they were undeniably more comfortable than Soviet tanks). The Allies rushed to send whatever tanks it had in 1941, with the British sending the Matilda and the US sending its M3 Stuart. The Soviet hated that the M3 used gasoline (made it a fire trap, plus diesel was much more plentiful there) and the pitifully weak 37mm main gun. The Stuart was the main US tank at the time (it only began production in March 1941, the Lee later in the year), though, so the Americans sent 1,665 Stuarts and about the same number of Lees while they worked up other designs. Regardless of your view of the Sherman, note that the M3 came along after the T-34 (first produced in September 1940) and still is viewed today as being vastly inferior by virtually everyone.

The Soviets were desperate, so they used these weak tanks strategically. They put the Stuart and the Lee in secondary theaters, i.e., away from Moscow and Leningrad, such as at the Black Sea amphibious landings in the Caucasus during 1942. As always, the Soviets used what they were given (this may seem like a fine point, but the purpose of Lend-Lease was not to help the Soviets but to help the United States). The Soviets' own evaluation, though, was that the M3 tank was an inferior design even after the installation of a 75mm gun in the M3 Lee. Their conclusions about the M3 Lee:
  • Obsolete hull, too tall with insufficiently sloped armor;
  • Periscope that was adequate but basic, i.e., nothing special;
  • Limited traverse of the 75mm gun;
  • Lack of sights for machine guns;
  • Reliable engine, but with a design that led to an undesirable high profile;
  • Reliable transmission;
  • Good radiator design;
  • Good rubber-metallic track;
  • Good suspension;
  • Poor tracks for mud;
  • Poor access for repairs.
Basically, the Soviets thought that the Lee tanks had good basics in terms of suspension and other parts - typical good American engineering - but overall was a poor design for a modern tank. The Panzer IV was more than a match for them, let alone Panthers and Tigers. The Soviet nickname for Lee tanks was "Coffin for seven brothers." By 1944, putting them up against modern Wehrmacht tanks was suicidal.

The Soviet evaluation of the M3 begins ringing themes that are common to M4A2s as well. But, admittedly the M3 was no Sherman M4A2, we'll get to those below.

The M4A4

The M4A4 also got the big thumbs down from the Soviets. When a Soviet delegation visited Chrysler in late 1942 - a time of great crisis for the USSR - they reviewed the M4A4 and found it wanting. While clearly superior to the M3, which required higher octane gas and was not water-cooled, the Soviets considered the M4A4 worse than the M4A2 tank for the following reasons:
  • Large and unwieldy engine;
  • No improvement over the M4A2 in terms of armament and other factors;
  • No improvement in suspension;
  • Only a slightly better turret traverse mechanism.
Given the 30-cylinder Chrysler engine - 30 cylinders! - the Soviets said "Nyet" to the M4A4. Simpler is better in the field - something the Germans needed to learn, too.
Sherman M4A4
M4A4 Sherman tanks.
That leaves the M4A2, or "Sherman III" as it is known in England, as the only competitor to the T-34. We will do a comparison below. First, though, let's address the Guards unit argument.

Sherman Tank Use in Soviet Guards Units

Fans of the Sherman tank like to point out that the Soviets used Shermans in their Guards units, and that this means they viewed the Shermans as "superior" to their homegrown tanks. The Soviets liked to differentiate certain units with honorifics or evocative designations such as "Shock" Armies; on 18 September 1941, they began calling some units that had fought well "Guards" units, along with a related place name. The "Guards" designations were given to formations that distinguished themselves in battle, such as at Stalingrad, but they were not composed of either picked troops or equipment. The term Guards became a synonym for "elite," and even Hitler began to use the term, but that is a misleading association. Hearkening back to Imperial Russian formations, the term was useful as part of the Soviet strategy to motivate troops to fight for "Mother Russia," which was popular, as opposed to fighting for the Communist government, which was not quite as stirring. The clear implication and the perception of some later historians are that these units, therefore, had "better" armor. That is not accurate.
Soviet Sherman M4A2
1st Guards Mechanised Corps rides one of its Sherman tanks into Vienna.
Getting clear information about Soviet formations is tricky. A lot must be gleaned from "memoirs" written under the Soviet regime - there are no captured documents and former prisoners happy to share their knowledge in return for favors - but the designation "Guards" was not quite as "elite" as some like to think (and as some Soviet tankers from Guards units want to make it appear). People make too much of the Guards honorific. The Guard title was awarded to 6 tank Armies, 12 tank corps, 66 tank divisions, and many other units. By comparison, the entire US Army only had 90 Divisions in total, so the designation was not that special. It is often said that Guards units were used in important operations - but so were regular units, that's how they became Guards units and why the number of Guards units ballooned over time.
Soviet Sherman M4A2
Men of the 1st Guards Mechanized Corps gets off its tank a1-01 and take Maria Theresia Platz, Vienna.
True, Guards units tended to be larger than normal units, with extra battalions and so forth (at least as the war wore on). They had better morale (always nice to feel superior to your comrade units even if the pay is the same) and perhaps fielded better recruits simply due to the recruiting power of honorifics. Soviet tank divisions were smaller than German Divisions (at least on the force tables), and even a Guards Tank Corps was only roughly equivalent to a German tank division, so we are not talking about huge units here. Looking through Soviet orders of battle such as at Kursk, the Guards units are intermingled at random with other units - they were not like the US Army Rangers or German SS Divisions or Italian Blackshirts, controlled separately for unique operations. Some units, such as rocket launcher ("Guards Mortar") formations, automatically received the "Guards" designation simply because they were more valued. There is no evidence that Guards units, in general, received better equipment than other units, though they may have received different or more equipment at times - for instance, more automatic weapons.
Soviet Sherman M4A2
M4A2 (76) Sherman tanks of 1st Battalion, 46th Guards Tank Brigade, 9th Guards Mechanised Corps, in Vienna. 
That said, many Sherman tanks did find their way into Guards units. As one source notes, as of 16 April 1945, the 2nd Guards Tank Army had 184 M4A2s. Fair enough, this prestigious unit had Shermans. However, it also had 260 T-34s. Some units had only T-34s, a few had all or primarily M4A2s. The Shermans do not appear to have been given special treatment. The deeper you get into this, the less of a distinction that you find between the use of T-34 tanks and M4A2s in the Red Army. The evidence suggests that the Soviets simply classified both their own T-34 and the Shermans as medium tanks and allocated them pretty much interchangeably, without regard to quality. While some Guards units appear to have been composed mainly of Sherman tanks, this was more for purposes of standardization (repair, training, etc.) and not a commentary on their quality. It just makes logistics easier to group similar types of tanks together.

In other words, pointing to the use by "Guards" units of certain equipment is a red herring if you are using that to say the weapons they used were somehow better.

Sherman Vs. T-34

So far, we have established that the Soviets viewed the M4A2 as the best American tank. It had a 75 mm M3 L/40 gun and GM6046 twin 6-cylinder diesel engine. The Soviets took to replacing the 75 mm gun with their own 76.2mm F-34 gun of the T-34 medium tank to create the M4M, though ultimately they figured it wasn't worth the effort since the Americans were supplying the ammunition for the 75mm gun as well. The Sherman main gun was comparable to that of a Panzer IV in 1941/1942, good but not exactly awe-inspiring by the time they began reaching Soviet units in 1944.

Soviet Sherman M4A2
An M4A2 with a 76mm gun in Berlin.
Comparing early-war T-34s and late-war Sherman tanks is like comparing apples and oranges. The T-34 was a pre-war design and, as such, saved the Soviet Union in 1941. Thus, in those terms alone, the T-34 was more valuable to the Red Army. The Soviets already had a supply of T-34s when the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa. The Stavka craftily held them back and only unleashed them in October 1941, when Moscow was threatened. They astounded the Wehrmacht and proved that the Panzer IV was not going to cut it. This set in motion their plans to create the Panther and Tiger (which Hitler had been thinking about doing since the Battle of France anyway, apparently).
Sherman M4A2 Patton M4 Soviet T-34/76
From left: M47 Patton, M4 "Sherman" A3E4, Soviet T-34/76B at the Aberdeen proving grounds.
The Shermans, on the other hand, only began arriving in the Soviet Union in the winter of 1943. Very shortly thereafter, in February 1944, the Soviets began manufacturing the T-34/85 with an S-53 main gun, and by mid-1944 the T-34 was using the 85mm ZiS-S-53. In other words: practically from the moment the Shermans began arriving, the Soviet T-34 was using an 85mm gun as opposed to the Shermans tanks' 75mm (or 76mm). There is no question which gun is better: the T-34 clearly had far more firepower by mid-1944. The British also took to swapping out the Shermans' main gun, too, to create the Firefly - a much more effective weapon. In short, the Sherman was under-gunned by the standards of the ETO when they reached the Soviet Union.
Sherman M4A2 Firefly
Sherman Firefly tank of 2nd Irish Guards, 31 August 1944 (© IWM (BU 302)).
In terms of armor, the T-34/85 had the same thickness as earlier versions. The hull sides were 40 mm, the hull front went from 47-60mm. The Sherman, on the other hand, had side armor of only 30 mm and hull frontal armor of 76mm on the front and upper glacis. However - and this is a big, however - the T-34 frontal armor had a much deeper slope, giving it greater protection from head-on shots. The Germans copied this in their own tanks, so they saw the benefits of sloping armor that the Sherman was lacking. As a general rule of thumb, a gun of a certain caliber will penetrate armor of similar thickness - an 88mm gun will penetrate 88mm of armor and so forth - so neither the T-34 nor the Sherman could stand up to a Tiger II equipped with an 88mm main gun from any angle - or even a Panzer V Panther main gun. However, given its better sloping design and thicker armor, the T-34 had better armor than the Sherman and was more survivable.

Soviet T-34 Sherman M4A2
The M4A2 Sherman design obviously is from an earlier generation of tank development than the T-34.
In addition, the T-34 has a much lower, squatter profile. That was extremely important on the battlefield of the Second World War. Sitting up higher with a boxier shape just made you a more visible target, both to other tanks and enemy aircraft.

T-34 Build Quality

While Sherman tanks generally are considered to be of higher build quality than T-34 tanks, the reality is a bit more subtle. In 1953, US metallurgist A. Hurlich completed a secret report for the US CIA on the metallurgy and construction methods of Soviet arms and ammunition produced before and during World War II. This report, issued at the height of the Cold War, was surprisingly even-handed though in some ways it was slanted in the direction of the USA. Mr. Hurlich compared the build quality of a 1941 T-34 to 1953 US standards and found some Soviet deficiencies - that's the slanted part, it's like comparing the technology of a 1981 Ford sedan to a 1993 Cadillac. However, his analysis of the fundamental quality of the construction of the T-34 led to some surprising conclusions that must have annoyed some CIA analysts.

The report was critical of the T-34 in some ways. Soviet welders often did poor work and the T-34 bow structure was distinctly inferior to US standards. Soviet armor with poor welds tended to rupture upon a hard impact. This was a major problem that should not be dismissed.

On the flip side, the metal used in the T-34 had a very high degree of hardness. The Soviets did not skimp on rare metals. The T-34 had a 430–500 Brinell in hardness, while the US tanks like the Sherman had 280–320 Brinell hardness - meaning, the Soviet metal was much harder, if perhaps more brittle upon hard impacts. (For comparison, a German Tiger tank had a Brinell hardness of 298-343 on its horizontal plate and 257-310 on the nearly vertical plate). Obviously, you want harder armor when someone is shooting at you. Soviet shells similarly had a higher degree of hardness and thus tended to fragment less upon impact than US ammunition. These facts made Soviet shells more lethal and Soviet armor more protective - quite an attractive combination for any tank. The quality of the T-34 cast turret was excellent even by later US standards.

The bottom line was that the Soviets had a lead in metals science and cut corners where they could get away with it. The Soviets got better at welding with time and practice. In 1941, the Soviets were operating under extreme wartime pressure (such as relocating industry to the Urals) and figured the bow area could be skimped on while the turret was of critical importance. The T-34 was not a pretty tank, but it was very solidly built.

Believe me when I say I would love to be able to say the T-34 was built like crap. Go USA! The facts show the opposite in some critical ways. Like Mr. Hurlich, I am simply giving you the facts and you can dismiss them as you like. However, the CIA knew by the 1950s that the World War II Soviet T-34 was a formidable weapon and better in some fundamental ways than the Sherman tank of a later period, particularly where it came to crew protection and the ability to deliver a lethal blow.
burning Sherman M4A2
This Sherman has seen a better day.
The hidden Achilles heel of the Sherman tank was that it ran on gasoline, not diesel fuel like the Soviet tanks. That made it, in the opinion of many, a death trap. One hit in the right place and it would become a blazing inferno. Gus Stavros, a decorated World War II veteran who served with General Patton, gave an oral history interview in which he described this scenario:
If you’ve seen movies where the people come out of the tank all aflame—I saw that. The German tank had an 88-[millimeter gun] and it just blew the General Sherman tank to pieces until there was nothing left but smoke and fire.
While it might be overstating things to say that the Sherman tank was a death trap - a lot of soldiers felt that way.

Sherman M4A2 synthetic fuel conversion
Gasoline was not always plentiful - or desired - on the battlefield, so General Patton is said to have had many Shermans converted to run on synthetic fuel.

The Sherman Advantage

With all that said... the Sherman tank did have one big advantage over the T-34. This advantage is not apparent to the naked eye or by comparison of things like gun size or armor thickness.

Here, we go for some indirect evidence. In early August 1942, the Germans were blasting toward the Don River and the Soviet forces there were in full retreat. Stalin himself issued an order of unusual detail which stated:
Our armored forces and their units frequently suffer greater losses through mechanical breakdowns than they do in battle. For example, at Stalingrad Front in six days twelve of our tank brigades lost 326 out of their 400 tanks. Of those, about 260 owed to mechanical problems. Many of the tanks were abandoned on the battlefield. Similar instances can be observed on other fronts. 
Since such a high incidence of mechanical defects is implausible, the Supreme Headquarters sees in it covert sabotage and wrecking by certain elements in the tank crews who try to exploit small mechanical troubles to avoid battle.
This Stalin Order does not specify the tanks involved, but one may surmise that the majority of those broken-down tanks must have been T-34s. While Stalin was a suspicious, paranoid, brutal man who instinctively felt that the problem was sabotage, the very evidence that he sets forth in his order actually supports another, more obvious interpretation.
Captured Sherman M4A2
A late-model Russian T34 with an 85 mm gun compared to German Tiger 1 fitted with the 88 mm.
Soviet manufacturing after the great resettlement of factories to the Urals during the first winter of Operation Barbarossa was over-strained, to put it mildly. The plants were turning out a lot of tanks but in very difficult conditions. There were stories of tanks being built in factories that were still under construction and did not yet have roofs, for instance, or even walls. And this in the middle of winter. In Siberia.

The point is that the US tanks may not have been elegant or up to the highest standards of the Russian Front - but they ran. Americans knew how to make reliable engines and drivetrains, the greatest problems with armor on both sides. Their quality was of the highest standard, being built in undisturbed and brand new factories by a well-rested and well-fed labor force. The Americans also had access to raw materials that were difficult to come by in Europe, and their production standards were acknowledged by everyone to be top-notch. The Soviet inspectors never had any issue with the quality of Sherman construction - only with their overall design and outfitting.
Captured Sherman M4A2
Russian T-34 tank production in Chelyabinsk.
So, those who view the Sherman as better than the T-34 do have a leg to stand on, but it probably is not the one they think. A mediocre tank that runs is worlds better than an excellent tank that breaks down by the side of the road during the battle. The Sherman might be a deathtrap when confronted by a German Tiger or Panther - but it did get you there and back. Maybe you would get lucky and not be blown up. Any soldier will tell you that 99% of military life even during wartime is spent outside of battle. During those times, the Sherman was a joy compared to the T-34.

A wry Russian joke about American tanks is that they were better - in peacetime. They were more comfortable and gave you fewer problems. Despite design faults, the Shermans were reliable, plentiful and could be counted upon. And, in warfare, that counts for a lot, especially when you are dealing with very large numbers of tanks and your main advantage is quantity.

What Experts Thought

Just looking at specifications never tells the whole story. The literature is full of weapons that had fantastic specs and which failed miserably in their intended role (the Me 163 Komet is a prime example). Let's see what people who actually worked with these weapons one way or another thought.
Captured Sherman M4A2
The writing says, "Don’t cannibalize, for Okh-Wa.Pru, captured by I/Pz.Rgt.5." Tunisia, 1943.
The Germans were clear: they feared the T-34. German Field Marshall Ewald Von Kleist - to whom Hitler gave command of Army Group A in the Caucasus, which he said he wanted to entrust only to the "best" Generals - was quite straightforward in his assessment:
The finest tank in the world. 
Generalmajor Friedrich Wilhelm von Mellenthin, General Hermann Balck's Chief of Staff and later in command of the 9th Panzer Division in the Ardennes Offensive, had this to say:
It was the most excellent example of the offensive weapon of Second World War.
The best tank expert in the world was Heinz Guderian; even many in the British military would grant him that. He noted in his memoirs that, as he reviewed the after-action scene on 11 October 1941, when the Soviet 4th Armoured Brigade (Colonel Katukov) first sprang the T-34 on the Wehrmacht:
[T]his was the first occasion on which the vast superiority of the T-34 to our own tanks became plainly apparent. 
Many historians take the same view of the Sherman tank's inferiority. Belton Cooper in Death Traps" says on p. 35:
The German tanks had a qualitative superiority of as much as five to one over our M4 Sherman.
Cooper did not pull that number out of thin air: that actually was the general view within the Wehrmacht. When Michael Wittman was cornered and killed in his Tiger II in August 1944, it was only because he was surrounded by five Sherman tanks.
Soviet Sherman M4A2
M4A2s rolling into Brno, Czechoslovakia with the Red Army.
There was a common joke in the Red Army about the Sherman tanks by soldiers who knew how comfortable - and dangerous, they were:
These are the best tanks for peaceful times.
Conditions on the Russian Front were abysmal. The Shermans did not do particularly well on snow and ice. They also were reputed to tip over due to their high center of gravity whilst traversing rough country.

While Soviet soldiers writing their memoirs generally didn't get into this kind of debate - very political, and in the Soviet Union being political was dangerous - Some Soviets did give some hints at what they really thought. The Soviet commission which examined the new Chrysler plant in Detroit from 3-5 September 1942 (and continued investigating until February 1943) reported negatively about the M4A4. However, in doing so, it also gave some backhanded slaps to the M4A2. For instance, in its conclusions it noted that:
The M4A4 tank is identical to the M4A2 [in pertinent respects]... The M4A2  is well known in the Soviet Union from previously sent documents (high ground pressure, height, insufficient amount of vision devices, difficulty in installation and removal of components, difficulty in service, etc.)... Overall, thanks to a lack of experienced tank designers, the Chrysler factory is building tanks whose design and combat performance does not measure up to the potential of such a first-class tank building giant.
With that kind of backhanded "praise," it is a wonder that the Soviets used any Shermans at all. However, there was a war on, and someone was giving them free weapons. The Red Army proved time and time again that it didn't care much about the well-being of its soldiers, just what would accomplish its objectives. The quotes conclusion shows that the Soviets only used the Sherman because it was the best of its poor Lend-Lease options.
Sherman M4A2 Barents Sea sunk
An M4 Sherman tank carried aboard the USS Thomas Donaldson. The ship, part of Arctic convoy JW-65, was torpedoed by U-968 near the shore of Kildin Island in the Barents Sea on March 20, 1945.

What Happened

The question arises: why? Why was the main United States battle tank so mediocre? After all, the engineering of US tanks was top-notch - as the Soviets themselves conceded above. Well, below is some brief history to show how, standing at a fork in the road, one army takes one fork, and another goes the way less traveled.
Christie tank
J. Walter Christie with an early tank design. Note the sloping armor?
A fellow by the name of J. Walter Christie from New Milford, New Jersey cut his teeth starting around the turn of the century designing race cars, then fire engine tractors, then, during World War I, gun carriages. He had innovative ideas such as front-wheel drive and four-wheel drive vehicles. Christie gravitated into tank design after they became popular late in the war. His designs were not superb as tanks but had superb design elements that were decades ahead of their time. In a somewhat spooky foreshadowing, Christie submitted a prototype to the US Army in 1928 that he called the "Model 1940" for being a dozen years ahead of its time. The US Army nitpicked and questioned and turned Christie down. He never could convince the US Generals and Colonels (there was one notable exception I'll get to below) that his revolutionary ideas about tank suspension ("Helicoil") and speed were worth pursuing. Why the US military didn't get it... well, that's a good question.
Christie tank
Experimental Christie T3E2 tank, shown here during tests in 1936. You can see the future in this tank (Harris & Ewing collection at the Library of Congress).
The Soviets (and the British, who used Christies' ideas in their cruiser tanks) were not so hard-headed. The Red Army bought Christie's prototype and designed the BT tank series around Christie's basic ideas. The improved version of the BT Tank series was the T-34, which began production in... 1940.

Oh, and the US officer who "got it" in 1928? A fellow who went by the moniker of Lt. Colonel George S. Patton Jr., the top tank expert in the United States military and perhaps the world. Of course, he earned a few general's stars after that.


Compared to the Soviet T-34 medium tank, the American Sherman M4A2 was inferior in terms of:
  • Armor;
  • Main Gun;
  • Overall design;
  • Fuel used.
Against those advantages must be set the better reliability of the American tanks.

Both the Soviets and the Germans recognized that the T-34 was a war-winning tank. Nobody with experience against them ever said that about the Sherman tank. The advantage of the Sherman was that it was available in massive numbers, and, to the Soviets, that it was completely free of charge. While the Soviets did use them in Guards tank formations, that does not prove that they considered the Sherman tanks as being superior weapons to their own tanks. Overall, the T-34 was a better tank than the Sherman tank and the Soviets only used the Sherman because it was the best tank the Western Allies had to offer.
Prime Mover Sherman M4A2
A Sherman tank converted by the Soviets into a prime mover.

What do you think about the relative merits of the T-34 versus the Sherman tank? Leave a comment below. To read about the Panther tank, Germany's best medium tank of World War II, click here.


Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Hanna Reitsch, Unrepentant Luftwaffe Daredevil

The Eternal Aviator

Hanna Reitsch

Some German figures of World War II are difficult to write about. There are things about them which are exciting and romantic - but, they served a horrible cause. However, write about them we must, because they are important figures in history from whom we can learn, pivotal figures of the last (hopefully) world war.
Hanna Reitsch
Whether you take inspiration from such figures is your affair, and easy if you can separate out the laudable qualities from the political associations that you don't personally like. This article is intended for those who want to learn about a true giant of aviation, albeit an extremely controversial one: Hanna Reitsch, a woman who blazed a trail of glory and heartbreak for those interested in true female pioneers who achieve because of what they do and not who they are.
Hanna Reitsch
Hanna Reitsch on 27 August 1938 (Heinrich von der Becke, Federal Archive).
Let's start from the beginning.

Pre-War Year

Hannah Reitsch was born in Hirschberg, Silesia in the German Empire (Jelenia Góra in modern Poland) on 29 March 1912. While a pre-med student in Berlin, she became interested in flying and signed up for flying lessons at the German Air Mail amateur flying school in 1932.
Hanna Reitsch
She showed such promise that the following year she quit school early and became a full-time glider pilot and instructor in the town of Hornberg in Baden-Württemberg (southwest Germany). It was the right time to begin a flying career, because the new Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler, had plans for German aviation. Big plans.
Hanna Reitsch
Hanna Reitsch with aircraft designer Alexander Lippisch, center, and Willy Messerschmitt, right.
Glider flying was the best way for would-be pilots to get experience at the time due to the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles. Hanna developed her skills in the company of several other young pilots who also would make names for themselves in years to come, including Peter Riedel and Heini Dittmar.
Hanna Reitsch
Hanna Reitsch on 25 July 1938, around the time of her pioneering helicopter work. She is wearing her Luftwaffe Pilot's Badge & Glider pin. It is hard to tell, but Hanna appeared to be wearing the glider pin during her last filmed interviews in the mid-1970s. She may have viewed her gliding work as her most important accomplishment.
The three went on an expedition together to Argentina early in 1934 to experience the thermal currents there, and Hanna became only the 25th person in the world - and the first woman - to earn the prestigious Silver C Badge for glider pilots (meaning they went at least 1000 meters high, completed a five-hour flight, and flew at least 50 km in one flight). Hanna also worked with the top German film company, Ufa, as a stunt pilot and set virtually all the early glider records for women. The Luftwaffe was ramping up and looking for new talent, and her growing skills led Hanna to become a test pilot in 1935.
Hanna Reitsch
Hanna, already qualified on powered planes, quickly began testing the limits of Luftwaffe aircraft. She became adept at performing aerobatics in a Focke-Wulf Fw 44 biplane, which impressed Ernst Udet, one of the world's top aerobatics pilots himself. Udet happened to be a World War I ace and friend to fellow ace Hermann Goering, as well as a top Luftwaffe General. He made Hanna the first Flight Captain in the world.
Hanna Reitsch
Through his position as head of the T-Amt (the development wing of the Reichsluftfahrtministerium) (Reich Air Ministry), Udet had Hanna posted to the Rechlin-Lärz Airfield development airfield north of Berlin in September 1937. Another reason for her rapid advancement was the fact that she was a fervent supporter of Hitler, fully committed to the regime and its development.
Hanna Reitsch
It was an amazing time to be a German test pilot. Rechlin was ablaze with exotic aircraft that nobody had flown. Hitler was throwing huge resources into airplane development, and brilliant German designers such as Kurt Tank at Focke-Wulf had opportunities to expand the limits of aviation. Jet engines, helicopters, rockets - everything was going on at once, and the Luftwaffe needed brave and skilled pilots to try out its new and untested equipment. It was the most advanced aviation facility in the world. Hanna Reitsch stepped forward along with her friends from the glider days and took the risks.
Hanna Reitsch
Some view Hanna as a kind of feminist icon, but that was not her thing. She was candid about the fact that some men resented "this girl's" presence, but Hanna never portrayed herself as "breaking ceilings" or "being the first woman" in the fashion of a modern feminist. She never suggested that beating men or proving a point against them was her goal. In fact, throughout her life, Hanna respected strong men and gravitated to them. Hanna enjoyed her success, but she wasn't doing it "for women"; she was doing it to accomplish new things just like the men, to push the barriers of speed and performance.
Hanna Reitsch
Reitsch was "goal-oriented." This non-confrontational perspective might seem alien to feminists today, but it was part of the reason why Hanna succeeded and prospered. The only part of her attitude recognizable as "feminist" is that she became an idol and mentor to girls - imbuing them with the Hitler spirit and drawing them to the cause. That, however, was not her goal, just a byproduct of her own success. If she led, she led by example, not design.
Hanna Reitsch
In 1938, Professor Heinrich Focke of Focke-Wulf had a strange new craft that he wanted to show to the world. Designed by Focke himself along with engineer Gerd Achgelis, it was a huge leap forward from autogyros, a craft powered by two rotors capable of independent vertical flight. As the first of its kind, this "helicopter" - years ahead of Igor Sikorsky's first helicopter in the United States - was ready to be demonstrated to the world. Focke, knowing that the world press would ignore a demonstration at some remote German airfield, decided that he would force the press to take notice. He knew just how to do it.
Hanna Reitsch
Hanna flying the Fw 61 in the Deutschlandhalle in 1938. It was created around an Fw 44 frame of the kind she had used to perform aerobatics. Igor Sikorsky in the United States was still years away from flying anything like this.
Focke waited until the annual Berlin auto show which always attracted press from around the world. He trucked the helicopter, a Focke-Wulf Fw 61 (one of only two ever built), to the nearby Deutschlandhalle. Perhaps to make the experience even more exotic, he asked the photogenic Hanna Reitsch to demonstrate the craft. Never having flown a helicopter before - virtually nobody in the world had - Hanna got in and experimented with the controls.
Hanna Reitsch
You push this forward, and the craft does this, you step on this pedal and it does that - this was all the instruction Hanna had. Focke then invited in the world press, and Hanna flew the helicopter inside the stadium flawlessly - the first time anyone ever had done that. Hanna continued flying the craft (it had counter-rotating rotors, so required no tail rotor) nightly. For this, Hanna Reitsch received the Military Flying Medal.

World War II

Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels was always looking for propaganda heroes, and Hanna was a natural. She continued to demonstrate the Fw 61 for audiences, but also found time to set a record in the DFS Habicht sailplane in the Cleveland National Air Races. The Luftwaffe gave Hanna a Dornier Do 17 twin-engine bomber for her personal use, and she would fly around testing new aircraft and performing at different airports. Among the aircraft she tested were the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bomber, the DFS 230 glider for carrying troops (used at Belgian fortress Eben Emael), and a special Do 17 outfitted to cut barrage-balloon cables.
Hanna Reitsch
Hanna with a familiar face on the magazine's cover.
One of the top Luftwaffe "wonder weapons" of the war's final years was the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet. Powered by a rocket, it was exceedingly fast. However, it also was extremely dangerous to fly because the engine cut out after a few minutes, after which the pilot had to glide down to a high-speed dead-stick landing. Hanna flew the dangerous craft four times with success, but on the fifth flight, she overshot the runway and, with no power, had to bring the craft down one way or another. It resulted in a horrible crash. Hanna survived but incurred serious injuries to her nose (which had to be rebuilt) and face. Adolf Hitler personally awarded her the Iron Cross First Class for this incident, which kept her in the hospital for five months.
Hanna Reitsch
Hanna's celebrity made her a valuable tool of the government. With the Wehrmacht reeling from the catastrophe at Stalingrad, Luftwaffe Colonel-General Ritter von Greim had her visit airfields on the Eastern Front in her personal Fieseler Storch plane to raise morale. However, Hanna remained a top test pilot, not just a propaganda hero, and this exposed her to a lot of danger. While visiting the Peenemünde Army Research Center on an island in the Baltic later in the year, Hanna was present when the RAF bombed it in Operation Hydra on the night of 17 August 1943. Hanna was sleeping in a nearby barracks not targeted by the bombers and claimed to have slept through the attack.
Hanna Reitsch
The war situation became desperate in 1944, and with great reluctance, some in the Luftwaffe began considering suicide planes for use against Allied bombers. Nobody was very enthusiastic about the project, including Hitler, but the bombers were destroying German cities with impunity and something had to be done. Hanna herself went to Hitler at Berchtesgaden on 28 February 1944 and proposed the idea, and she charmed him into approving it. However, they still had to settle on a plane to use.
Hanna Reitsch
A Me 328 pulse jet fitted with a bomber in a Mistel configuration.
Hanna first tested the Messerschmitt Me 328, a failed pulse-jet fighter adapted as a suicide weapon, but the engines proved too unreliable for combat. Otto Skorzeny then tipped her off to a project he was working on for his Leonidas Squadron: a manned version of the V-1 cruise missile. Termed the Fieseler Fi 103R Reichenberg, it had the same problem as the Me 163 Komet: very difficult high-speed landings. She flew the Reichenberg successfully several times, but the Luftwaffe quietly shelved the program in early 1945. This incident was portrayed in the opening scenes of "Operation Crossbow" (1965) with great artistic license.
Hanna Reitsch
Hanna Reitsch posing with the manned V-1 cruise missile "Reichenberg."
It is fair to ask if what Hanna Reitsch did was unique aside from being a woman with her extraordinary (for anyone) career. The answer is yes... and no. Hanna did nothing that her friends and colleagues Peter Riedel and Heini Dittmar did not or could not do in terms of flying new planes. Of course, all had different "firsts" to their credit. For instance, Dittmar first flew the Me 163, not Hanna. However, there is one thing that Hanna Reitsch did that could never be duplicated.
Hanna Reitsch
The Tiergarten (here in 1945/46) was converted into an emergency airstrip.  (Foto: picture-alliance / Everett Colle).
The Reich was falling, but Hanna Reitsch was unbowed. The Soviets had surrounded Berlin, and Adolf Hitler refused to leave. He dismissed Reichsmarschall Goering on April 23rd for treason and replaced him as head of the dying Luftwaffe with Hanna's old friend von Greim. The only way for the General to accept the appointment, however, was to fly into burning Berlin directly over the encircling Soviet forces. He would have to land on the Tiergarten, the main thoroughfare near the bunker which had been converted into an airstrip. Von Greim asked the best pilot available, a true daredevil, Hanna Reitsch, to fly him in using her Fieseler Storch. They came in at night under heavy Soviet anti-aircraft fire, and von Greim was hit by anti-aircraft fire in the right foot, but they made it.
Hanna Reitsch
Hanna Reitsch was one of the very few females to earn the Iron Cross First Class, and she wore it with great pride.
What happened next has become the subject of conspiracy theories and controversy. It also may have affected events decades later in another way, which we will get to below. Reitsch helped carry von Greim down into the bunker. After appointing him Generalfeldmarschall and (last) commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, Hitler ordered von Greim to rejoin the intact Wehrmacht command in northern Germany to organize a relief of Berlin. Reitsch would have to fly him out, once again directly over the nearby Soviets. Hitler gave each of the two visitors cyanide capsules and rejected Hanna's plea to say and die with him. Under orders, Reitsch flew von Greim out again that night in an Arado Ar 96 on 28 April under the astonished eyes of nearby soldiers of the Soviet 3rd Shock Army. The flight in and out of Berlin during the last days became legendary and one of the epic tales of the dying Third Reich.
Hanna Reitsch
Hanna greeting some BDM girls.
The pair made it out, but the war basically was over. Less than two days later, Hitler was dead. The question lingers for many historians whether perhaps Hitler escaped with Reitsch. That is answered with a resounding "No!" by the history books, and we shall leave it at that.
Hanna Reitsch

Hanna was captured with von Greim and other Reich leaders in northern Germany at the end of the war. The Allied interrogators were bemused by Hanna because German women generally did not become high profile figures in the Third Reich. An interrogator posed the question to her about what actually had happened during the trip to the Berlin bunker. She responded:
It was the blackest day when we could not die at our Führer's side.... We should all kneel down in reverence and prayer before the altar of the Fatherland.
The astonished interrogator asked Hanna where the "altar of the Fatherland" was located. She replied:
Why, the Führer's bunker in Berlin
The Allied did not really know what to do with Hanna. She was an outspoken supporter of Hitler, but she was not accused of any war crimes and was not even a member of the military. After holding her for 18 months (for no reason), they released her. No charges.


Life, of course, could never be the same for Hanna Reitsch. Her entire family, living in what was widely known to become part of the Soviet occupation zone (and soon to become part of Poland, which was not known), was convinced that they would not be allowed to remain there (which was accurate). They committed suicide after fleeing to western Germany (Hanna's father shot her mother, sister, and her sister's three children, then himself). Just like after World War I, German civilians were forbidden from flying powered aircraft, but gliding soon became permissible again. Returning to her original love, Hanna Reitsch began entering glider competitions. She set numerous glider records and in large part rehabilitated herself, becoming the German Champion in 1955. She fascinated leaders around the world. Hanna met Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and established a glider school in New Delhi, then met President John F. Kennedy. After that, she moved to Africa, which was near Europe but far away in spirit at the same time.
Hanna Reitsch
Hanna with Kwame Nkrumah on the first anniversary of their flight school. From Reitsch, "I Fly for Kwame Nkrumah" (Munich: JF Lehmanns Verlag 1968) 35.
Invited to Ghana, Hanna charmed the country's strongman, Kwame Nkrumah, and set up a glider school for him. The West German government contributed to the school. While the western press would have been aghast at her closeness to the government - any government - it was far away and irrelevant in Ghana. There is some speculation that Hanna and (the married) Nkrumah were involved. This is another untidy aspect of Hanna's life that does not fit into the usual pigeonholes to which we assign people.
Hanna Reitsch
Hanna Reitsch, perhaps around the time of the 1971 Helicopter World Championship.
After Nkrumah was overthrown in 1966, or at least after he passed away in 1972, Reitsch cut her ties with Ghana and resumed her pursuit of international glider records.

Hanna Reitsch's Last Days

Hanna was vigorous throughout the 1970s. She continued to set glider distance records and even returned to helicopter competitions. In 1971, she won the female class in the 1st Helicopter World Championships with co-pilot Doerli Schrimpf. In 1979, she set her last record, the Women Out & Return World Record (805 km) flown over the Appalachian Ridges. Her last flight over the Alps in June 1978 was later repeated in a vivid documentary that fully captured the glorious, soaring experience (see below). As she undoubtedly would have wished, the star is the experience and the glider, not Hanna - but she is the true creator.
Hanna Reitsch
Hanna, however, now was a bitter woman. Her bitterness had nothing to do with herself, but rather with the state of Germany. Divided into two by the Allies, Germany, in Hanna's eyes, had lost its identity. In 1976, she gave a filmed interview to American photojournalist Ron Laytner. It provided a detailed summary of her experiences during World War II, but the most astonishing aspect was her unrepentant devotion to the Third Reich:
And what have we now in Germany? A land of bankers and car-makers. Even our great army has gone soft. Soldiers wear beards and question orders. I am not ashamed to say I believed in National Socialism. I still wear the Iron Cross with diamonds Hitler gave me. But today in all Germany you can't find a single person who voted Adolf Hitler into power ... Many Germans feel guilty about the war. But they don't explain the real guilt we share – that we lost.
Hanna Reitsch was described in press reports as being naive politically. For her, the main thing was more about Germany itself than the Third Reich, though many may not see the distinction in her case. In a word - a clumsy word, a too-general word - she was a patriot. Perhaps, for those who can't fathom her unrepentant attitude thirty years after the end of World War II, that will suffice as an explanation.
Hanna Reitsch
And now we come to the last act for Hanna Reitsch. Growing older, having recently set yet another world glider record, with a Germany headed in her view in the wrong direction, there was little left to live for. Hanna was found dead in her home in Frankfurt on 24 August 1979. There was no autopsy recorded and no big funeral. The coroner simply ascribed the cause of death to "heart attack," which could have been caused by anything. 

Reitsch's friend former British test pilot Eric Brown, however, thought he knew the true story. He received an odd, brief letter from Hanna shortly before her passing in which she wrote:
It began in the bunker, there it shall end.
Many agree with Brown's speculation that Hanna Reitsch ended her life in the only appropriate way for her: using the cyanide capsule given to her by the Führer in the Berlin bunker. That, Brown believed, fulfilled a suicide compact with Greim, who had upheld his end of that agreement on 24 May 1945.


Hanna Reitsch was unrepentant to her death and loyal to her death. There is no evidence that she ever had anything to do with war crimes, she never was charged with crimes, and the one time that she asked Heinrich Himmler about such, he denied it to her face. That said, Hanna served an abhorrent regime that repressed and killed people without mercy. Whether or not that makes her a terrible person and complicit in the crimes of the state is for you to say, as we each must draw our own conclusions. It is fair to say that her reputation will forever be tainted, and that is a tragedy for a woman with so many outstanding qualities.

With those reservations, one also can conclude that Hanna Reitsch was quite possibly the most outstanding female pilot in history, and one of the most daring, fearless, and accomplished pilots of either gender in all of aviation history. She let nothing get in the way of what needed to be done in the air, and did it right up until the day she died. She ventured into war zones, she took risky flights on deathtraps, and she did her duty as she saw it in legendary fashion. Hanna Reitsch may not be admired by all, but there is no question about one thing: she will be remembered for her role in history. And that, by itself, is a victory.


Monday, September 12, 2016

Polish WWII Air Force

Valiant Pilots But Inferior Aircraft

Polish Air Force PZL P-37 bomber PZL P-11 fighter
Polish PZL P-37B medium bomber, with P-11 fighters beyond (colorized).
Everybody knows the story of Poland in World War II: Hitler invaded, the Poles charged tanks with cavalry and lances, and then the Poles surrendered and were all sent to camps.

Well, not quite.

Poland had one of the best militaries in the world during the inter-war years. The Germans were limited by the Treaty of Versailles to a 100,000-man army, whereas the countries surrounding it had no such limitations. Up until the mid-1930s, the Germans viewed the Polish army as a major threat. However, once Adolf Hitler took power in January 1933 and began re-arming the Wehrmacht, the equation gradually shifted in favor of the Germans.

Polish Air Force Zygmunt Pulawski
Zygmunt Puławski.
The same basic story applies to the Polish Air Force vis a vis the Luftwaffe. A Polish air force did not even exist until after the end of World War I, but it made up for lost ground quickly during the 1920s. By roughly 1930, it had some of the best aircraft designers in the world, leading designs, and complete domination of its own skies. However, the Polish Air Force stagnated during the 1930s while the Germans built up its Luftwaffe, and by 1939 it was hopelessly inferior to the opposition.

Polish Air Force PZL P-11
Germans examine a Polish PZL P-11 fighter.
Let's look at the development of the Polish Air Force and how that led to its issues during the war.

The Polish Fighter

The Polish Army Air Force of the 1920s relied on old French and other foreign designs. However, for security and other reasons, the government decided to manufacture its own combat planes rather than continue to rely on foreign sources. The army's first requirement (the air force was only established in 1934), naturally enough, was a capable fighter. It turned to the State Aviation works in Warsaw to see what it could come up with.

Polish Air Force PZL P11C
A pilot with his PZL P11C.
Zygmunt Puławski, born in 1901, was a brilliant young student at Warsaw University of Technology in the early 1920s. He began designing gliders, which were a major area of development at the time. After gaining experience at the Louis Breguet factory in France, he was drafted and became a pilot. After mustering out in 1927, his broad experience in the aircraft field got him the position of chief designer at the Central Aviation Workshops in Warsaw, soon to become PZL (Państwowe Zakłady Lotnicze - State Aviation Works).

Polish Air Force PZL P11C

Pulawski, thus, became the key man in the entire Polish aircraft industry. The late 1920s saw the slow acceptance of monoplane aircraft which eventually would dominate the skies. Designing skills were at a premium at the time, and Pulawski was the top man in the fledgling field (despite his young age). This has many similarities to the computer field of 60 years later when extremely young designers took control of another revolutionary new field.

Polish Air Force PZL P-11C PZL P-11A
PZL P-11c / PZL P-11a Okęcie 1939.
Pulawski came up with the "gull wing," with an upward indentation in the wing to give pilots a better field of vision with the then-popular high wings used for monoplanes. The PZL P-1 design was a big success, and the gull-wing even became known for a while as the "Pulawski wing." However, Pulawski was hard at work with increasingly effective designs, so the army bypassed this design entirely. He added a reliable radial engine to the design, and this one the army liked and ordered. Designated PZL P-6 and, with a slight re-design, P-7, the new fighter flew in 1930 and cemented Pulawski's reputation as a top designer. The P-8, with an in-line engine, soon followed, and then the classic P-11 which became the fighter arm's basic mount.

Polish Air Force PZL P-11C
A PZL P-11C after a rough landing, showing off the distinctive gull wings.
By any measure, Pulawski was a designing demon. The initial PZL P-11 design came along in 1929. Retaining the high-wing gull wing of its predecessors, it was the culmination of Pulawski's fighter designs. The prototype flew in August 1931, and the Polish Air Force soon ordered 30 of them. It had a Polish-produced (under license) 575 hp (429 kW) Bristol Mercury IV S2 radial engine. Engines were developing quickly at the time, and the P-11C began production in 1934.

Polish Air Force PZL P-11C

Produced in two separate series, the P-11C had slightly more powerful engines (Mercury V S2 of 600 hp (447 kW) in the first series, the rest with Mercury VI S2 of 630 hp (470 kW)). These became the Polish Air Force's primary fighter, while another version, the P-24, was designed solely for export. The P-11C was very well-armed for the time (2 x 20 mm cannon and 2 x 20 machine guns, all in the wings), which perhaps accounts for their fantastic success against the later-generation Bf 109E, and the P-11C could even serve as fighter-bombers, carrying 100 kg (220 lbs) of bombs.

Ground-Attack Planes

Tactical support aircraft were considered essential during the early inter-war years. Everybody at the time remembered the Great War (and, in Poland, the 1919/1920 war with the USSR) and how vast armies were decisive. Anything that could help the army to advance past the trenches and other obstacles in its way was of great interest. Only during the mid-1930s did strategic bombing become accepted in some quarters, and even then, the idea of "aerial artillery" to support the ground troops held great allure.

Polish Air Force PZL P-23

Having solved the pressing fighter issue with the Pulawski designs, the army issued specifications in 1931 for an indigenous ground-attack plane to replace the obsolete French models then in service. Designer Stanislaw Prauss adapted a commercial transport plane, the P-13, for military use. Unlike the gull-wing Pulawski designs, this was a low-wing cantilever monoplane. Initial versions had a 570 hp (425 kW), maximum 670 hp (500 kW) engine licensed from Bristol in England.

Polish Air Force PZL P-23
PZL P-23.
The plane proved reliable, and the production of 40 began in 1936 with the designation PZL P-23 Karaś. A revised version with a 650 hp (485 kW), maximum 720 (537 kW) Bristol engine followed in 1938, with 210 produced. The new aircraft were useful, but hardly world-beaters even when first produced. They provided little assistance to the troops on the ground, the army discovering that ground support aircraft usually work best when your troops are advancing, not retreating through thick forests. However, they probably best represent the typical Polish aircraft in operation during the war.

Polish Air Force PZL P-23 Romanian
Romanian PZL P-23Bs at an airfield near Stalingrad.
Reliable planes can always come in handy during a war. Romanians used the sturdy PZL P-23s in the Soviet Union, including at Stalingrad.


As the interbellum period progressed, the idea of strategic bombing gained currency due to theorists including Italian Giulio Douhet, American Billy Mitchell and Hugh Trenchard in Great Britain. It became accepted that "the bomber would always get through" and that it would be too late to develop a bomber fleet once the war started, so one had to be developed in peacetime. While PZL proposed a bomber in 1930, the army preferred to take the cheap route and convert some old three-engine Fokker F.VIIb/3ms into bombers. By 1934, however, the need for a modern bomber was becoming obvious, so PZL made a couple of proposals.

Polish Air Force PZL P-37B
PZL P-37B medium bombers on the flight line.
The second proposal, in July 1934, was for a low-wing monoplane powered by Bristol Pegasus radial engines. The Air Force, not feeling a sense of urgency yet, dithered until April 1935, when it finally ordered three prototypes. The first one flew in June 1936 and had the designation P-37/1.

Polish Air Force PZL P-37
The P-37 was an immediate hit with the authorities, and they ordered 30 in the initial series designated P-37A. The first units arrived at Polish units in spring 1938, and several other countries (Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Romania, and Turkey) also expressed interest. A second series, P-37B, with more powerful (918 hp 9-cylinder) engines, was ordered. These began arriving late in 1938. However, the Polish military leaders argued about the importance of strategic bombing, and the order for the second version was slashed from 150 to 100. In the event, only 70 had reached the air force by September 1939. They could carry 2580 kg (5688 lbs) of bombs, not bad for the day in the medium bomber category.

Polish Air Force PZL P-30
PZL P-30 (LWS-6 Żubr). It did not see combat.
The Air Force did not want to put all its eggs in the P-37 basket, so it hedged its bets by having designer Zbysław Ciołkosz convert two Douglas DC-2s bought by Polish Airlines LOT into bombers. This was a common practice in the 1930s, particularly in Germany and Italy, and it often produced good results for military purposes. A prototype, designed PZL P-30, flew in March 1936. After some revisions, the design incorporated two 700 hp Bristol Pegasus VIII engines.

Polish Air Force PZL P-30
PZL P-30 (LWS-6 Żubr).
The Polish Air Force liked the design, and it ordered 16 to be produced in Lublin at the LWS state factory with the designation LWS-6 Żubr (but usually referenced by the original designation). Some design problems related to the conversion, e.g. wings that were not strong enough to support a bomb load, delayed the initial series. In 1938, only 15 were built. Unlike the P-37, which were entirely new designs, these aircraft were not particularly good performers and were used only as trainers.

The Polish Air Force At the War's Outbreak

While the planes described above certainly sound promising, and as described were excellent aircraft, there was one big problem for the Polish Air Force: that's all there were. Aside from various transports, reconnaissance planes, and trainers, the PZL P-11, P-23, and P-37 were the Polish Air Force in September 1939.

Here is what the Poles had on 1 September 1939 in the three major combat categories, aside from odds and ends:

Fighters:               10 P-7
                               175 P-11
Ground Support: 35 P-23A
                               170 P-23-B
Bombers:              86 P-37
                              15 P-30.
Unlike the air forces of the other major powers, the Polish Air Force had little variety. The industrial base in Poland was not as well developed as in Germany, England, Italy, and the other major powers.

Polish Air Force PZL P-23
The flight line of PZL P-23 Karas of the 41st Squadron of the 4th Regiment of the Polish Air Force with their crews. Torun, Poland, 1939.
In the most important category, that of fighters, the problem was painfully obvious: Zygmunt Puławski, the man who designed the entire first generation of Polish fighters, perished in an airplane crash on 21 March 1931. He was never replaced - let us say he was irreplaceable - and the last fighter this genius worked on was the one the Polish Air Force went to war against in 1939. Obviously, no matter how brilliant he was, aviation technology had moved on quite a bit between the beginning and end of the decade.

Polish Air Force PZL P-23
A PZL P-23 which apparently made a successful crash-landing.
As for ground support aircraft, the P-23 was considered a workhorse aircraft that met the needs of the army - every army had one like it - so it was "good enough." However, it only had two machine guns, including the observers in the rear of the cockpit, and was slow (198 mph) and easy to shoot down. The bomber category, meanwhile, was considered satisfied by the excellent P-37. It was comparable to the German Heinkel He 111, but the Poles couldn't agree on the importance of bombers. Thus, not only was design work on bombers neglected, but the production of the P-37 was curtailed right before the war, most likely due to cost considerations. They were good, but there were not enough of them, and even heavy bombers could not have stopped the German Army at that point.

Operational Use

As noted above, everyone "knows" the story of the Polish campaign: the Luftwaffe completely dominated the skies on the opening days of the conflict and destroyed the entire Polish Air Force on the ground.

Well, again, not quite.

German propaganda went to great pains to make very clear that the Polish planes were destroyed on the ground. Indeed, many were. However, in fact, almost all Polish combat planes were dispersed from the main airfields targeted by the Luftwaffe and survived to be shot down in combat. The Luftwaffe did indeed destroy a lot of planes on the ground in the first few days, but they were mostly trainers, reconnaissance and transport aircraft.

Polish Air Force newspaper headlines 5 September 1939
The Everett Daily Herald was full of tales of derring-do by the Polish bombers on 5 September 1939, but the reality was not quite so spectacular. It wasn't the newspaper's fault; the Polish press agency was putting out stories about the army advancing when it, in fact, was retreating, Polish planes bombing enemy capitals when in fact they probably couldn't even find the way there, and so forth.
The Polish fighters were old, but the pilots were excellent. The PZL-11 fighters, organized into 15 squadrons, shot down 170+ of the more advanced Luftwaffe planes despite being much slower than Bf 109E-1 fighters (390 km/h 242 mph for the P-11C vs. about 340 mph for the Bf-109E-1). However, there were many more German fighters than Polish ones, and after the first week of battle, the Poles had few fighters left. Other aircraft used for transport and reconnaissance that had survived the initial attacks then were defenseless against the Germans without fighter protection.

Polish Air Force crashed Polish trainer
This was more in line with reality: a Polish trainer that met its end on 18 September 1939.
The Polish bombers were organized into nine squadrons of the Bomber Brigade. They did not do well, being poorly armed (only 3 machine guns vs. a dozen on later Allied heavy bombers) and thus easy prey for German fighters and anti-aircraft fire. Very few remained operational after about 10 September 1939.


The Polish Air Force did not prevent or even disrupt the German invasion; that much of the common wisdom is certainly true. However, it is not because the planes were destroyed on the ground. Instead, the main factors were obsolete designs and an insufficient number of planes which made victory impossible. However, the Polish contribution to the Allied cause did not end with the defeat of Poland.

Polish Air Force PZL P-37 crashed
Wreckage of PZL P-37B bomber, September 1939.
Many of the Polish pilots (and ground staff) escaped south through Romania, to Hungary, north to the Baltic states, or via other routes. After various adventures, including being interned in Romania, they did their best to make their way to France and, during that country's conquest, to England. There, they formed RAF No. 303 Squadron, the highest-scoring Hurricane squadron in the Battle of Britain, and they served throughout the war. Flying Officer Witold Urbanowicz, Polish commander of 303 Squadron from 5 September 1940, scored 15 kills during the Battle of Britain, and Czech pilot Sgt Josef František flying with them had 17 victories.

Polish Air Force PZL P-23
A PZL P-23 Karaś. September 1939.