“Whether men, gasoline, bombs or bread, we bring Poland death.”
Words painted onto the fuselage of a Luftwaffe Ju-52 transport plane.
Blitzkrieg may have rolled over Poland’s western borders on 1 September 1939 like a sudden storm front, crushing underfoot the hastily mobilised Polish Army, and tearing down the Second Polish Republic’s piecemeal defences, but deep in the nation’s heart Warsaw was determined to stick in Hitler’s throat like a chunk of bone.
Far from being destroyed on the ground as German propaganda boldly claimed, the Polish Air Force around the capital had vacated their peacetime aerodromes in favour of forward airfields on the outskirts of the city and many carefully-planned German air assaults – codenamed Operation Wasserkante – would find their bombs churning up the concrete of empty runways or discarded training planes instead.
After their near-total air supremacy over Poland’s frontier where they turned Katowice, Krakow, Tczew, Wieluń and Tunel burning orange and cancerous black with barrage of devastating incendiary bombs, in the skies above Warsaw the Luftwaffe met the Pursuit Brigade (Brygada Pościgowa) in combat for the first major air engagement of World War II.
Determined though they were – and boasting many veteran pilots of Dęblin’s prestigious ‘School of Eaglets’ air force academy – the planes of the 111th, 112th, 113th and 114th Fighter Escadrille were a poor match for German air power.
For a brief period in 1931 – the year of its introduction – the PZL P.11 monoplane had been the most advanced fighter in the air, but had since been outpaced by the rapid developments in military engineering later in the decade. By 1939 it wasn’t only a poor rival to the faster and more heavily armed Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Bf 110, but even struggled to match the top speed of many German bombers.
The 123rd Fighter Escadrille faced even poorer odds. The fifth and final squadron of the 54-plane Pursuit Brigade flew PZL P.7s and if the P.11 was bumping against its sell-by-date, then the P.7 was little better than a museum piece.
One of the first all-metal monoplanes in the world when it first took to the skies over a decade earlier, it had served as the workhorse of the Polish Air Force before the P.11 rendered it obsolete. By 1939 only 30 remained in combat units, with the rest used for training or reserve, and of that 30, 10 served in the 123rd Fighter Escadrille of the Pursuit Brigade.
Like the P.11, the P.7 enjoyed greater manoeuvrability and shorter take-offs, but its ageing Vickers machine guns could frequently jam and its tired old engines were at the unpredictable end of their mechanical lifespan.
Desperate to counter the speed of the Luftwaffe, 800 sentry posts in 16 sectors arranged into three concentric rings around Warsaw kept their eyes fixed skyward, while on the airfields Polish pilots shifted uneasily in their cockpits, ready to spring into action. Only the Pursuit Brigade’s ability to quickly get its ageing fighters airborne – and get them high enough fast enough to meet the oncoming storm – would keep them in the fight.
That morning at 8am a squadron of He11 Heinkel bombers from Kampfgeschwader 1 (K1) with Bf 110 escorts from the heavy fighter ‘destroyer wing’ Zerstörergeschwader 1 (ZG1), set off warily through the thick morning fog to lay waste to Warsaw-Okecie airfield.
The Pursuit Brigade responded with a fearsome show of force, and six bombers were downed as the air above Warsaw filled with the roar of engines and the rattle of machine guns. ZG1’s commander and Spanish Civil War air ace Major Walter Grabmann was wounded when fire from a P.11 tore into his Messerschmitt and to add insult to injury the Luftwaffe managed to scrap only two P.7s, which had been scrambled to provide a distraction rather than any serious threat to the enemy’s formidable fighter escort.
The German bombers turned tail, forced to jettison their explosive payloads impotently over the countryside as they fled from the running air battle that stretched out over a 20 kilometre (13 mile) area north-east of Warsaw.
“There was a furious fight in front of us,” wrote Lieutenant Jerzy Palusiński of the 111th. “Something around 200 planes in one place, at the same time. On my right I noticed three fat bombers heading south. From the distance of 400 feet I fired at the target with a long burst of fire. Manoeuvring my machine I aimed at the right engine and once again pulled the trigger. The Heinkel’s engine was on fire and after a while dropped off the formation and crashed to the ground with a twist.”
Morale was high, the men of the Pursuit Brigade had stared death in the face and spat in his eye – proving that when it came to dogfights, the experienced flyers and their nimble P.11s were every bit a match for the more numerous and more advanced Messerschmitts.
At 17:00 three groups of He 111 Heinkel and Dornier bombers with the ever-present escort of Bf 110’s were met by the 111th and 112th on approach to Warsaw. The Luftwaffe were back for revenge and they knew exactly what they were dealing with, luring over-eager P.11s out from the pack by feigning damage and limping away. As the isolated Polish pilot lined up his shot, a second Bf 110 swept up behind him and filled the cockpit with blood.
Two He 111s were downed, but at the cost of five P.11s – each and every one caught in the same cunning feint. 90 minutes later a fresh onslaught began, with two more Heinkels taken out, but again the cost – four P.11s – was too high for this threadbare defence. Half the 111th and 112th had been wiped out on the first day of the invasion alone.
With only 20 fighters left airworthy in the entire Pursuit Brigade mechanics went to work at night replacing damaged rudders, ailerons, stabilizers, fuel tanks, wheels and tires. By morning, the number of available planes had risen to 33. This incredible rate of repair even climbed the following night and on the morning of 3 September, the Pursuit Brigade had 40 combat-ready aircraft to call on.
While the Germans crept ever closer and refugees from across the countryside (and reinforcements from depleted and defeated army units elsewhere) poured into the capital to shelter under the wings of the Pursuit Squadron, the arithmetic of war proving that these airmen were making the aggressor pay a bitter toll for every step taken into their motherland.
The British Consul in Lwów (now Lviv in Ukraine) reported three young Pursuit Brigade pilots telling him that “while German equipment is absolutely first class, none of the Polish pilots felt that the majority of the Germans were their equal in training and experience. The German fighters also lacked brio [energy] and their freedom of action was perhaps hampered by too close wireless control from their leaders until the very moment of engagement.”
In that terrible first week of September 42 enemy aircraft were destroyed at a cost of 38 Polish planes in 105 sorties. During the fighting four members of the Pursuit Brigade earned their stripes as ‘aces’ – an accolade given to a pilot who scores five kills in air-to-air combat – out of the total 12 Polish flying aces blooded in the invasion.
“Our concerted attack quickly degenerated into a series of individual engagements,” recalled Oberleutnant Werner Methfessel of the battle above Warsaw. “It was a fantastic sight. The white skeins of machine-gun fire criss-crossed above the city like a giant spider’s web. In amongst them dark shadows flickered, dived and weaved. Lower still, the red pin-point explosions of anti-aircraft fire and smoke rising from the wounded city.”
The Luftwaffe quickly changed tack. Rather than engage the Poles in costly dogfights that played to the defenders’ few strengths, they divided on approach and with their superior speed simply rocketed around the Pursuit Brigade to deliver their deadly payload on Warsaw’s airfields, railway lines and armament factories.
As the front line rumbled ever closer and the early warning provided by the outer rings of sentries fell silent, the Pursuit Brigade changed tactic too and rather than sitting on the runway in a state of febrile readiness, they dispatched constant patrols in the hope of stumbling upon approaching Germans. Luftwaffe tactics changed yet again, mixing up the directions and altitudes of their raids and using smaller groups of planes more frequently to stretch the beleaguered defenders ever more thinly and forcing them to waste fuel in a constant, dizzying roulette of take-off and landing.
By 7 September German armoured units finally crept into the ruined outskirts of Warsaw and the battered remains of the Pursuit Brigade were withdrawn.
The air war for Warsaw was over and a bitter street-by-street campaign for control of the capital was about to begin. The Pursuit Brigade had fought tooth and nail for seven days in defence of Warsaw, but in the end Warsaw’s defiance would outlive them.
Despite being reinforced by planes from the steady flow of withdrawing units from elsewhere in Poland, the collapse of supply lines began to take its toll. The Pursuit Brigade lost a further 17 fighters between 7 and 17 September, with only three more enemy kills to its name. Many planes were denied even the chance to go down fighting and rows of P.11s were left useless on the airfield, their fuel tanks bone dry.
Whatever reserves of sheer will these brave young men and battered old engines had drawn on to keep fighting simply gave out and the unit effectively ceased to exist.
Another 11 days later on 28 September 1939, Warsaw surrendered and by 6 October, the Second Polish Republic joined it.
The Pursuit Brigade may have been long dead, but its survivors fought on and in June 1940 Mirosław Ferić of the 111th Fighter Escadrille, Jan Daszewski and Witold Łokuciewski of the 112th Fighter Escadrille and many other battle-scarred veterans of the Polish Air Force, found themselves fighting another desperate defence against wave-after-wave of German bombers and their fighter escorts as part of the RAF’s No. 303 Polish Fighter Squadron in the Battle of Britain.
This time they flew Hawker Hurricanes, and this time they won. But while the odds stacked against them were great and the cost high, this was nothing compared to their hopeless defence of Warsaw and the courage, skill and iron will that such defence demonstrated.
Almost alone of the Polish Air Force the Pursuit Brigade had inflicted serious losses on the Germans, sending some of the Luftwaffe’s most decorated fighter aces spiralling from the sky and given the seemingly unstoppable Blitzkrieg pause in its thunder.
Truly “this” – September 1939 as much as June 1940 – “was their finest hour.”
- Poland Betrayed: The Nazi-Soviet Invasions of 1939 by David G Williamson
- Hitler’s Stuka Squadrons: The Ju 87 at War, 1936-1945 by John Ward
- Messerschmitt Bf 110 Zerstörer Aces of World War 2 by John Weal
- Polish Aces of World War 2 by Robert Gretzyngier
- WWII 1939 Polish Fighter PZL P.11 by Jaroslaw Skora