A Small Group of Polish Soldiers Stopped Thousands of Nazi Soldiers in Their Tracks
Most histories of World War II gloss over the German invasion of Poland. It almost feels like they are in a hurry to get to what they consider the important part of the story. In doing so, they give the impression that the Germans faced little opposition as they conquered Poland. Today, we will look at a battle that will challenge that mindset. In the years that followed, this battle would be known as the "Polish Thermopylae".
During the 1930s, Europe watched as Germany grew in strength militarily. Poland, fearing invasion, started improving her defenses. One of these defenses was a line of bunkers constructed near the village of Wizna (pronounced Viz-na). Sitting 5.6 miles from the border with East Prussia, Wizna was an important location for several reasons. First, it was where the Narew and Biebrza rivers met. Second, several important roads passed through the area. These roads lead deep into the rear of the country. An important railroad line also passed through the area.
The plan was to build 60 reinforced bunkers on the hills overlooking the Narew River valley. The area was full of bogs and swamps. Unfortunately, since construction only began two weeks before the German invasion, only 16 were built. Of those 16, six were made out of heavy concrete reinforced by steel plates, two were light bunkers, and the other eight were pillboxes protected by earth. These defenses were armed with a few anti-tank guns and machine guns.
Defense Against All Odds
On September 1st, 1939, the German army invaded Poland and started World War 2. The German 3rd Army under Field Marshal Georg von Küchler headed for Warsaw. They also wanted to encircle and capture the Polish Independent Operational Group Narew.
The following day, Captain Wladyslaw Raginis took command of the defenses at Wizna. His orders were to hold back the German army [until the Polish army could regroup](https://www.unknownsoldierspodcast.com/post/september-8-1839-the-battle-of-wizna-polish-thermopylae). He and his men added improvised anti-tank defenses. According to historians, there were between 350 and 720 Polish troops manning the defenses. Raginis vowed to his men that he would not leave the bunker alive.
On September 7th, German troops engaged Polish infantry near the village of Wizna. Since, the Polish were facing overwhelming odds, they retreated to the bunkers on the hill. The Germans thought the Poles were fleeing and tried to follow. Before they could, Polish engineers blew up the bridges. After a delay, German infantry crossed the river, but were forced to retreat due to heavy casualties.
The next day, General Heinz Guderian of XIX Army Corps was ordered to advance through Wizna. He commanded over 40,000 men, 350 tanks, and over 100 pieces of artillery. Before the battle, German planes dropped leaflets calling for the Polish to surrender. None did.
A large group of German infantry made their way across the river again, but ran into an ambush and were forced back. Polish artillery tried to impede the German river crossing, but were damaged by return fire.
On September 9th, Guderian appeared to find out why progress had stalled. He ordered German heavy artillery and Stuka dive bombers to level the Polish bunkers. He ordered troops and tanks to flank the Polish defenses. The northern part of the defensive line started to crumble. The south was soon in trouble, as well. The Germans used the unfinished bunkers to infiltrate the defenses. The Polish managed to burn a wooden bridge that the Germans were using to transport tanks over the river. By nightfall, the line had been forced to contract, but it still held.
During the night of the 9th and the morning of the 10th, the Germans kept up a brutal assault. Without proper anti-tank weapons, there was little that the defenders could do except fight back with rifles and machine guns. By 11 am on the 10th, only two bunkers remained intact. At this point, the defenders had been reduced to about 70. Most were wounded and ammo was exhausted.
Around noon, the Germans called for a ceasefire under a flag of truce. Knowing that it would be foolish to continue, Raginis ordered his men to ceasefire and surrender. Following his vow, Raginis committed suicide by putting a grenade under his chin and pulling the pin. One soldier said, "The captain looked at me warmly and softly urged me to leave. When I was at the exit, I was hit on my back with a strong gust and I heard an explosion."
Of the men that survived, most were sent to POW camps, where more died. They had cost the German army 900 men, 10 tanks, and several other vehicles. Today, a memorial on the site of the battle reads “Passerby, tell the Homeland that we fought to the end, fulfilling our duty”.
Why This Story is Cool
This is one of the great great David vs Goliath stories of history. Even though the Polish troops at Wizna were fighting a hopeless battle against huge odds, they did so because they were protecting their homeland. These were not battle hardened troops. These were conscripts who were there to protect the country they loved.
Today, people are used to seeing stores about battles fought again great odds. However, most of those stories are about fictional characters and often take place in a fantastic world. People need to know that these battle do take place in real life. They also need to know that the good guys don't always win. Winning is not the point, fighting for what you believe in and in what you hold dear is. I think John Wayne said it best in The Alamo from 1960.
The story of Wizna inspired a Swedish rock band to write a song entitled 40 to 1. I'm not really a fan of rock and roll, but enjoy the song.
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