Valiant Pilots But Inferior Aircraft
|Polish PZL P-37B medium bomber, with P-11 fighters beyond (colorized).|
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.
|Germans examine a Polish PZL P-11 fighter.|
The Polish FighterThe 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.
|A pilot with his 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.
|PZL P-11c / PZL P-11a Okęcie 1939.|
|A PZL P-11C after a rough landing, showing off the distinctive gull wings.|
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 PlanesTactical 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.
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.
|Romanian PZL P-23Bs at an airfield near Stalingrad.|
BombersAs 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.
|PZL P-37B medium bombers on the flight line.|
|PZL P-30 (LWS-6 Żubr). It did not see combat.|
|PZL P-30 (LWS-6 Żubr).|
The Polish Air Force At the War's OutbreakWhile 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-7Unlike 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.
Ground Support: 35 P-23A
Bombers: 86 P-37
|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.|
|A PZL P-23 which apparently made a successful crash-landing.|
Operational UseAs 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.
|This was more in line with reality: a Polish trainer that met its end on 18 September 1939.|
EpilogueThe 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.
|Wreckage of PZL P-37B bomber, September 1939.|
|A PZL P-23 Karaś. September 1939.|