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.


1 comment:

  1. I knew a fellow who flew a PZL P-11 and managed to shoot down a Heinkel. Piloted a Los to Rumania and avoided capture in Poland. Eventually found his way to Great Britain and was assigned to bombers because his age was in his thirties.