The Defense of Grodno

Witold J. Lawrynowicz

July 17 – 20, 1920

Grodno------

During the summer of 1920 the 1 Tank Battalion of the Polish 1 Tank Regiment was placed under the command of the Polish 1 Army and transported to northeastern Poland. The battalion was divided into companies, which were used to support the static defense of infantry divisions against the Soviet offensive opened on July 4, 1920. The 2 Company was stationed in Wilno and its platoons were assigned to different zones of defense. Tanks were dispersed along the trench lines and used in a static role. By July 14, 1920 on orders from the commandant of the Wilno garrison, the 2 Company was pulled back, loaded on railway cars and moved to Grodno. The retreat from Wilno was executed without entering combat, and afterwards the Soviet 18 Cavalry Brigade from the 3 Cavalry Corps captured the eastern district of the city.

The 2 Company with its 19 Renault FT tanks was assigned to the garrison of Grodno on July 17, and stationed in the building of the local high school. Next day the 1 Company of the 1 Tank Battalion arrived at Grodno with 24 Renault FT tanks, but for unknown reasons it did not enter the garrison of the town and remained on flatcars at the station. Both companies sent back their repair shops to the western bank of the Niemen River to the railway station Lososna. A railway and two wooden road bridges spanned Niemen River at Grodno and secured the retreat routs for the Polish garrison.

The defense of Grodno was improvised with the second rate infantry units by the Operational Group under the command of gen. Stefan Mokrzecki. The earth forts around the town were old and in a state of disrepair, and did not lend themselves for a prolonged defense. Hence it was not surprising that the first assault, by the 3 Cavalry Corps commanded by Gaj-Khan (Gaja Dimitievich Bzischkian), carried out in the early morning hours of July 19, 1920 broke through Polish defenses after only 8 hours of fighting. Gen. Mokrzecki having committed his infantry reserves early in the battle decided to use tanks of the 2 Company. At 12:15 the 2 platoon, under the command of second lieutenant Bohdan Jezewski, received an order to attack north in the direction of the village Grandzicze and force the enemy out of the town. Jezewski collected excess tank crews and some straggling soldiers of the guard battalion and vigorously attacked through the streets. The action cleared the enemy from the town and blocked the northern entrance to Grodno. After the action the 3 platoon took a defensive position on a small cemetery at the outskirts of the town.

That afternoon a regiment of Cossacks scattered two reserve squadrons of Polish cavalry from the 13th Ulans Regiment defending the village of Stanislawów and began marching towards Grodno from the east. Once in the fields, the Soviet cavalry moved directly into the line of fire of the 1 Company remaining on flatcars and acting as an improvised armored train. The Soviet move was repelled with heavy losses. To build on their initial success, the train with tanks of the 1 Company moved forward 1 kilometer and took approaching columns of the Soviet 10 Cavalry Division under fire. Faced with these adversities, the Soviets retreated form the outskirts of the town. But in the late afternoon, the 1 Company received information that explosives were placed under the railway bridge across the Niemen River and the bridge was prepared for destruction. Faced with this situation Captain Wlodzimierz Kohutnicki, commander of the 1 Company gave the order to retreat to the west bank of the river. Nevertheless, action of the 1 Company and retreat of the Soviet cavalry allowed the 1 platoon 2 Company, commanded by second lieutenant Michal Piwoszczuk, and supported by the infantry company of the NCO school, to take positions in the village of Stanislawów northeast of Grodno. The attack was continued towards Malyszyn, but this action was a failure, and the company pulled back to Stanislawów. A short time later even this village had to be abandoned because the Soviet cavalry outflanked position on the left and entered Grodno from the direction of Dziewiatkówka. The infantry company retreated quickly without informing the commander of the tank platoon and defense in the sector just melted away. Isolated tanks were taken under fire by the artillery of the 10 and 15 Cavalry Divisions and forced to withdraw. At this time the eastern part of Grodno was devoid of Polish troops. Piwoszczuk and his tanks fought their way through the town streets scattering groups of Cossacks occupied by robbing the residents. The 1 platoon reached the road bridge and stopped on the eastern side awaiting further orders. Soon it became obvious that this bridge was also at risk and by 5 PM, the 1 platoon crossed the river and stopped at the station in Lososna.

The 2 platoon 1 Company, commanded by second lieutenant Wlodzimierz Paczoski, defended the railway bridge supported by tanks of the 1 Company, which served as an improvised armored train and fired from the flatcars. However, after the defenses of the town were penetrated and information of explosives placed under the railway bridge was received both units crossed the river. The 1 Company moved on the flatcars and the railway bridge was supposed to be blown up but the electrical fuse failed. Approaching Soviet units posed a danger of overrunning the intact bridge and the situation became desperate. Engineers asked second lieutenant Paczoski to fire from the tank at the explosives placed under the bridge and cause the blast. After a few attempts they succeeded, and with a big bang the bridge fell into the water and the 2 platoon retreated over a road bridge. At this second, the engineers set a wooden road bridge on fire. Only the 3 platoon 2 Company remained in Grodno.

After completion of the sortie towards Grandzicze, the 3 platoon remained in defense at the local cemetery, blocking the enemy from entering Grodno from the north. The platoon did not have communication established with the Company and was not informed about retreat of other tank platoons from the town. Late afternoon the Soviet artillery found the range and took the cemetery under heavy fire. At 6 PM Cossacks of the 2 Cavalry Brigade attacked Polish positions from Grodno. Second lieutenant Bohdan Jezewski immediately understood that his platoon was surrounded and that Grodno was in Soviet hands. He had no orders or means of communication with his commanding officer lieutenant Stanislaw Jackowski. Taking all this under consideration, Jezewski gave the order to retreat towards the road bridge on the Niemen River. The force under his command had weakened considerably during the defense of the cemetery. Two tanks of the 3 platoon developed mechanical defects and had to be towed. One tank lost its gun torn during the firing; another commanded by corporal Ignacy Kazimierczak, lost an armored copula on the turret hit by an enemy shell. Corporal Kazimierczak, despite a head wound, stayed with his tank and continued shooting at approaching from all sides Soviets. Tanks were accompanied by 9 members of tank crews and 25 soldiers of the sentry battalion, but without their officer who disappeared. Jezewski formed a column of two towed tanks and ordered his last fully operational armored vehicle, commanded by corporal Franciszek Matyjasik, to stay in the rearguard. The defected tanks supported the marching column with their machine guns.

The march of the Polish column was slow, due to very low speed of towing tanks and fighting with the Soviets who were milling around the streets of Grodno. At one of the street corners, a towed tank hit the telephone pole, overturned and was abandoned. During the retreat, corporal Matyjasik distinguished himself staying far behind the column with his tank and alone repelling enemy attacks. The fighting become particularly intense when the column stopped for necessary repairs or fueling of tanks. Polish inhabitants of Grodno helped soldiers, despite constant exchange of fire with Cossacks, but the pro-Bolshevik part of population used the opportunity to fire at Polish soldiers from the buildings.

Early in the afternoon, Cpt. Kohutnicki dispatched the 1 platoon 1 Company, commanded by lieutenant Glowacki, to Grodno with the aim of finding Jezewski’s tanks and bringing them back. However, Glowacki marched across town, did not find the 3 platoon and retreated to Lososna over the road bridge. Then lieutenant Jackowski sent corporal Tadeusz Fitze on foot with orders to the 3 platoon. On his third attempt Fitze found the column of retreating Polish tanks and directed them towards the last undamaged bridge. After two hours of incessant fighting, the 3 platoon reached the Niemen River, but by that time the last bridge was set on fire. It was high time for the 3 platoon as the last towing tank stopped due to lack of fuel. Both towing and towed tanks had to be abandoned. The first to enter the burning bridge was the tank commanded by corporal Peas followed by corporal Matyjasik. Jezewski with the infantry and tank crews hindered the advancement of the enemy until both tanks reached the western bank of the Niemen. His troops fought a delaying action under heavy machine gun fire and eventually crossed the river over the remnants of the bridge. The second lieutenant Jezewski was the last to go over.

The Soviets crossed the Niemen River the same night without encountering any opposition. The Polish infantry was demoralized by the long retreat and did not offer any resistance. Polish Headquarters realized the graveness of the situation and decided to regain initiative by reinforcing the front opposite Grodno with the XVIII Infantry Brigade commanded by Col. Aleksander Luczynski. The 2 Tank Company was allocated to the XVIII Brigade with the orders to lead infantry in the attack against the Soviet bridgehead on the western bank of the Niemen River and destroy it. The first attempt to force Soviet forces back across the river, undertaken solely by the XVIII Infantry Brigade, failed. The Russians were well entrenched and enjoyed a commanding field of fire for their machine guns as well as artillery support from the far bank of the river.

On July 21, 1920, the I platoon of the 2 Tank Company under the command of Lt. Michal Piwoszczuk moved by train to the Korobczyce station and marched to their jumping off positions in Wielka Olszanka. The tanks took their positions at 5 PM and were immediately shelled by enemy artillery. The situation forced the hand of Col. Luczynski who ordered the assault. With the sun behind them, the I tank platoon followed by the 1 and 2 Battalions of the 34 Infantry Regiment started toward the enemy positions, 400 – 500 meters away. The remainder of the 2 Tank Company supported the attack from the flatcars firing their Hotchkiss machine guns and Peuteaux 37-mm guns. The I platoon formed a line of tanks and attacked Hill 177 and Fort No. 2. The fast moving attack surprised Soviet cavalry manning the trenches at the Hill 177 and quickly broke the resistance. Soviet troops in Fort No. 2 were taken under fire and also forced to retreat in the direction of the river. Lt. Michal Piwoszczuk, commander of the I platoon, dispersed his tanks at a distance of 500 meters (i.e. 1 tank every 100 meters) with the objective of clearing the wide tract of the terrain in front of advancing Polish Infantry. Indeed the Soviets were rooted and chased to the bank of the Niemen River. Each tank fought a separate battle pursuing the enemy for 4 kilometers. Eventually the Soviets managed to retreat across the river under the cover of darkness and the entire left bank of the Niemen River was again in Polish hands. Despite heavy artillery fire all Renault FT tanks of the I platoon 2 Company returned safely to the assembly point.

In the following days, the Cossacks of the III Cavalry Corps commanded by Gaj-Khan crossed the Niemen River further to the north at the village of Górka and marched west. At this time the 1 and 2 Tank Companies in cooperation with the XVIII Infantry Brigade fought a delaying battle along the railway tract from Grodno to Sokólka. Both companies remained on flatcars supporting the infantry actions with fire. On July 24, the 2 Company scattered Cossacks at Bakuny and supported the assault at Nowy Dwór. On the same day, the 1 Company repulsed the cavalry charge at Kuznica delaying enemy advance and enabling the retreat of the infantry baggage train. All actions of Polish tanks were successful that day, but the railway tracts were destroyed 2 kilometers north of Kuznica, cutting off the 2 Company train and accompanying the armored train "Boruta" from the main Polish forces. Engineers from the armored train attempted to repair the tracks but Soviet artillery fire inflicted heavy losses and made the task impossible to complete. The Cossacks destroyed the tracts in another spot, a kilometer to the north, and the situation of the armored train became hopeless. The Commander of the 2 Tank Company, Lt. Stanislaw Jackowski, ordered the unloading of tanks at the station in Bakuny and destruction of armored train “Boruta”. The unit consisting of the 2 Company and crew from “Boruta” commenced a night march through Kuznica toward Sokólka hoping to rejoin the XVIII Brigade. Lt. Jackowski calculated that his fuel supplies would last and he could lead tanks safely. The column stopped for the necessary repairs and refueling at 11:30 PM on the forest road between Kuznica and Sokólka. While soldiers were resting and crews were working on their tanks, they were attacked from the forest by enemy machine gun fire. Crews quickly manned their tanks and responded with the fire of 9 guns and 6 machine guns. The enemy retreated and the march was continued uninterrupted through the night.

The next morning, on the orders of Col. Aleksander Luczynski, the 1 Tank Company and armored train “Msciciel” attacked along the railway tracts of Sokólka – Grodno. The Commander of the 1 Company, Capt. Wladyslaw Kohutnicki, insisted on taking empty flatcars, expecting to load tanks of the 2 Company. On July 25, 1920, at 3:30 in the morning, both trains started towards Grodno on two parallel tracts. The operation was risky because the land was now occupied by Soviet forces and both trains could easily be cut off from the XVIII Brigade and share the fate of 2 Tank Company and armored train "Boruta". The trains passed Sokólka without incident and late in the morning were stopped near the village of Orlowicze by a barricade across the tracts. Capt. Kohutnicki ordered “Msciciel” to return to Sokólka thinking that the 2 Company could have reached that locality. The 1 Company attacked the Soviets at the barricade with machine gun fire. After dispersing the enemy, Capt. Kohutnicki created a small detachment of 30 soldiers from the 1 Company of the Slucki Infantry Regiment under Second Lieutenant Julian Glowacki, and stormed the village of Orlowicze. Glowacki’s soldiers, covered in heavy fire from the train, seized the village and took 27 prisoners, a field gun and 2 machine guns from the Soviet 157 Infantry Regiment. After the completion of this action, the Polish soldiers retreated to their train and traveled west. At the same time, the 2 Company reached Sokólka without losses and loaded their tanks on waiting flatcars.

On July 26, the 2 Company was withdrawn from action and sent to workshops in Lódz for necessary repairs. The tanks had marched 150 kilometers on tracks and were in need of careful overhaul. The 1 Tank Company remained in the front line to cover the retreat of the army toward Warsaw.