The Polish People’s Republic had the most powerful airborne force among all the USSR allies in the Warsaw Pact Organization. The airborne brigade, which, in fact, was a status division, was supposed to operate in the northern direction – in Denmark during the war with NATO.
The first experiments on the use of parachute landings in Poland were carried out in 1937-1938. Subsequently, the 1st separate parachute brigade was formed as part of the Polish armed forces in the West, which participated in Operation Market Garden in 1944 , and carried out occupation service in Germany (in the British zone) in 1945-1947. In post-war socialist Poland, the need for an airborne assault formation appeared only after the Warsaw Treaty Organization (ATS) appeared in 1955.
“Let’s try to save at the expense of the landing!”
At the beginning of the 1950s, the Polish Army had 25 combined arms divisions. Many of these formations had low combat value, so by the middle of the decade, the number of divisions was reduced to 14. At the same time, there was a process of reorganizing infantry divisions into mechanized divisions, which proved to be very expensive. On the other hand, the ATS leadership required Poland to put at its disposal a certain number of divisions. One of the ways to meet this requirement was the decision to form an airborne division (VDD). This allowed significant savings, because the paratroopers did not need tanks and armored personnel carriers. The idea was first formulated in the report of the commander of the Warsaw Military District, Brigade General Jozef Kuropeski in December 1956. Three months later, the concept of creating airborne troops in Poland was presented in Moscow, where it met a full understanding of the Soviet comrades. From this moment, the process began in full swing.
By order of the Minister of National Defense of June 23, 1957, the 6th Pomeranian Infantry Division stationed in Krakow was renamed the 6th Pomeranian Airborne Division. The reorganization was accompanied by a significant reduction in staff. In fact, the formation was curtailed into a brigade, which remained in the future, until the mid-80s, proudly called the division. However, it was not easy to mislead the planners from the command of the police department – in all plans the 6th Pomeranian Airborne Forces was taken into account precisely as a brigade.
By October 1, 1957, the headquarters and management of the division were formed (with communications companies, reconnaissance and combat engineer companies, repair platoon, anti-aircraft battery), the 9th training, 10th and 16th airborne battalions, as well as the 5th artillery division. The staff of the compound was 2013 military personnel and 36 civil servants. The 10th and 16th battalions consisted of 459 military personnel and 3 civil servants, the 9th – 284 and 13, respectively. The latter was actually a cropped battalion, the only deployed company of which served as the training. In the 5th artillery division, there were 368 military personnel and 1 civilian, in the management and headquarters – 443 and 16, respectively.
Each airborne battalion consisted of three assault companies (three assault and machine-gun platoons in each), two batteries (mortar and recoilless guns), a communications platoon, a transport and business platoon, and a repair department. In addition to small arms, the battalion had nine 82-mm mortars, the same number of 82-mm recoilless B-10 guns and 36 RPG-2 grenade launchers .
The artillery division included two mortar batteries (six 120 mm mortars each) and two batteries of recoilless guns (six 107-mm B-11 guns each), a training battery (one 120 mm and two 82 mm mortars, and three recoilless ones – one B-11 and two B-10), a control platoon and a transport and business platoon.
In 1959, the 19th reconnaissance battalion (two companies, including a total of three reconnaissance and one sabotage reconnaissance platoons, as well as a communications department) joined the division. Two years later, this battalion was reorganized into an airborne assault, and on the basis of the reconnaissance company, which was part of the division’s administration, the 26th sabotage and reconnaissance battalion was formed. After these changes, the staffing of the division increased to 2599 military personnel and 48 civilians.
In addition to the listed weapons, the division had 14.5-mm twin anti-aircraft machine guns ZPU-2, manufactured in Poland under a license under the designation RCM-2. In 1961, the first rocket artillery battery was formed as part of an artillery battalion, and a year later a second one appeared. They were armed with the WP-8z airborne launchers developed in Poland. Such an installation was a package of 140 mm tubular guides from a BM-14 16-charge combat vehicle mounted on a carriage of a 45 mm anti-tank gun with sights from a 76.2 mm ZIS-3 gun. This installation weighed (without shells) 750 kg, and the GAZ-69 car served as a tractor.
As of January 1, 1962, the staff of the 6th Airborne Forces provided for the presence of 344 cars, 82 trailers, 10 motorcycles, 216 light machine guns, 163 RPG-2, 14 ZPU-2, 35 B-10 and 18 non-rollbacks – B-11, 35 82 mm and 18 120 mm mortars, 6 launchers WP-8z and 228 radio stations.
The distinguishing mark of the Polish paratroopers was the red beret. The right to wear such a headdress should have been earned, and the presentation of red berets became one of the solemn rituals. It differed from the combined arms and cut uniforms of paratroopers. In addition, the “red berets” had another privilege that distinguished them from all other military men – outside the unit they could walk in field uniforms with their sleeves rolled up.
New structures, new weapons
In 1964, the units that were part of the division’s management became separate, having their own numbers (6th communications company, 11th combat engineer company, 22nd chemical defense company and 15th medical company). Then they formed the 6th supply and repair battalion and the 39th security and maintenance company. The 26th reconnaissance battalion was withdrawn from the division, reorganizing into the 1st assault battalion – part of long-range reconnaissance and special operations. Instead, the 48th intelligence service was formed in the 6th VDD. Also, the 9th training battalion was withdrawn from the division, which became the 6th training and mobilization center. True, in 1968 he returned to the division – already as the 6th training airborne battalion. The increase in the number of reserve personnel who had served in the 6th Airborne Forces in 1968 allowed the formation of the 33rd Airborne Battalion – cropped, deployed in wartime. In addition, the 6th anti-aircraft battery was deployed to the 6th anti-aircraft division, and the 5th artillery division officially became the 5th mixed artillery division.
The most serious strengthening of the division was the formation in the summer of 1966 of the 35th self-propelled artillery division armed with ASU-85. Such self-propelled guns with Polish identification marks debuted in exercises in October 1965, but they were 12 ASU-85, “borrowed” (along with crews dressed in Polish uniforms) from the Soviet 7th Airborne Division. The Polish ASU-85 arrived at the end of June 1966 – just in time to participate in the grandiose Millennium Parade on July 22, dedicated to the 1000th anniversary of the founding of the Polish state.
NDP acquired 28 self-propelled guns ASU-85, one of which got into the training center in Poznan, and the rest was staffed by the 35th division, which initially included three batteries of three three-gun platoons.
At the already mentioned “Millennium Parade” in the ranks of the 6th Airborne Forces, allegedly 2P26 launchers deformed (ATGM “Bumblebee” on the GAZ-69 chassis). However, this was misinformation – such complexes were never used by Polish paratroopers. The first ATGM, which entered service with the Polish paratroopers, was the Malyutka-M portable system with 9M14M missiles. Also, the replacement of B-10 recoilless recovers with SG-9, ZPU-2 easel grenade launchers with the 23-mm ZU-23-2M twin anti-aircraft guns began, and a little later the air defense of the division strengthened the Strela-2M MANPADS.
At the end of the 60s, the 6th Airborne Forces reached the peak of its combat capabilities, with five airborne battalions and two support artillery divisions. In the future, its combat capabilities only decreased. The first victim was the 35th self-propelled artillery division. At first it was reorganized, reducing the number of self-propelled guns to 24 (four batteries of 6 self-propelled guns each), and in 1976 they disbanded. Thus, the career of ASU-85 in the Polish Army ended after ten years of service, and the 6th Airborne Forces lost its only armored vehicles. In the same year, the 33rd airborne battalion was disbanded, the 10th battalion was cropped, and the 6th anti-aircraft battalion was turned into the 120th anti-aircraft battery. A year earlier, the 8th support battalion was formed, which combined the 6th support and repair battalion, the 24th assault landing and landing support company,
In the last decade of Poland
As of January 1, 1981, the structure of the 6th Airborne Forces had the following units and divisions:
- 10th (cropped), 16th, 18th and 6th (training) airborne battalions;
- 5th mixed artillery division (two MLRS WP-8z batteries, two – Malyutka-M anti-tank systems and one – 120 mm mortars);
- 120th anti-aircraft battery (two ZU-23-2M platoons and a MANPADS compartment);
- 48th reconnaissance company (two platoons);
- 11th sapper company;
- 6th communications company;
- 22nd chemical protection company;
- 8th battalion of support;
- 15th medical company.
Each airborne battalion consisted of three assault companies (three assault platoons, a platoon of 82-mm mortars and an SPG-9 platoon). Means of support were three batteries: anti-tank (6 Malyutka-M anti-tank systems and 3 SPG-9), mortar (6 120 mm mortars) and anti-aircraft (6 ZU-23-2M and 6 Strela-2M MANPADS). In addition, the battalion had a service company, reconnaissance, combat engineer and medical platoons, as well as an infection reconnaissance unit.
The regular strength of the peacetime division was 3291 people, the military – 4479 people. In service were 13 launchers WP-8z, 26 120-mm and 20 82-mm mortars, 30 anti-tank systems “Malyutka-M”, 26 anti-aircraft guns ZU-23-2M. The division had 471 radio stations, 289 light vehicles (mainly GAZ-69) and 190 trucks.
After the ASU-85 was decommissioned, the 6th Airborne Forces was a typical light infantry unit, differing only in increased requirements for the selection and training of personnel. In the late 70s, a concept was developed to reorganize the 10th battalion into an “armored landing” by re-equipping it with the BMD-2. It was supposed to purchase 48 such combat vehicles: 15 each for three companies and 3 for a training battalion. It was planned to re-equip three batteries of the 5th mixed artillery battalion with 122-mm towed D-30 howitzers (for the 6th Airborne Forces it was planned to supply 20 such howitzers – 18 for the artillery battalion, and 2 for the training battalion). In addition, it was planned to keep two ATGM batteries in its composition. It was also supposed to change the functions of the 6th (training) airborne battalion: in wartime, three separate airborne battalions were going to deploy at its base,
The implementation of all the plans was hindered by the economic crisis that engulfed Poland. In 1982, the idea was first voiced of renaming the 6th Airborne Forces into a brigade with the disbandment of one of the battalions – this would reduce about 700 posts. But they have not yet begun to realize this idea. Changes in the structure of the division were insignificant, and new weapons arrived in “homeopathic” doses. At the end of 1985, the WP-8z launchers were withdrawn from service, this was partially offset by the inclusion of the second battery of 120 mm mortars in the 5th mixed artillery division. In addition, in one of the anti-tank batteries, the Malyutka-M systems were replaced by the new Metis 9K115 ATGMs. One of the airborne battalions received new mortars – 120-mm 2B11 Sled and 82-mm automatic 2B9 Cornflower (3 and 4 units, respectively). The operation of the latter was considered experienced, and the division did not switch completely to new mortars – only at the end of the 80s for the “red berets” did they buy another dozen “Sleds”. The plans for the delivery of the 24th Fagot ATGMs (to replace the SPG-9 grenade launchers) were not implemented. But the number of MANPADS “Strela-2M” in the states of the second half of the 80s increased to 52. This allowed to reduce to 16 units the nominal number of anti-aircraft guns ZU-23-2M.
In July 1986, the 6th Airborne Forces officially reorganized into the 6th Pomeranian Airborne Brigade. Thus, the formal status of the connection was finally brought in line with its real composition and capabilities. On November 28, 1989, the name of the brigade changed: now it was called the 6th Pomeranian Airborne Assault Brigade named after General Brigade Stanislav Francis Sosabowski (during the Second World War he commanded the 1st Polish Separate Airborne Brigade). Unlike many other PNR army formations, this brigade did not undergo disbandment after the end of the Cold War. However, the history of Krakow’s “red berets” in the 90s of the last century and the beginning of the 21st century deserves a separate story.
The concept of the 6th VDD
Throughout the entire existence of the division, its main task in a possible war against the NATO bloc was landing in Denmark, or rather, on the island of Zealand. True, the capabilities of the combat use of the “red berets” were significantly limited by the very meager fleet of military transport aircraft of the Polish Air Force. To replace the obsolete S-47 and Li-2, only two An-12B aircraft and a dozen light An-26s were purchased. This was enough to ensure the daily combat training of paratroopers, but in the event of war, the landing of the 6th Airborne Forces was to take place from aircraft of Soviet military transport aviation.
The October Storm exercises, held in 1965 in Poland, Czechoslovakia and the GDR, became a demonstration of the combat capabilities of the 6th Airborne Forces. The entire division, with deployed and manned up to the wartime staff, cropped units landed in the area of the city of Erfurt (GDR). In total, 4130 Polish paratroopers participated in the exercises. In addition to the already mentioned Soviet ASU-85, the 6th Airborne Forces used the SKOT-1 and BRDM, temporarily transferred to other Polish units, during the October Storm. The landing was carried out with 180 An-12 aircraft of the Soviet Air Force. The October Storm was the only training exercise in the entire history of the Krakow Red Berets during which the entire landing was practiced in practice.
According to the plans for combat use, on the sixth or seventh day after the start of open military preparations for the 6th Airborne Forces it was necessary to concentrate in one of the two starting areas for loading on airplanes. The first of the districts included the airfields of Zagan, Shprotava and Kshiva (reserve – Babimost, Vskhova and Gostyn) in Western Poland, almost at the border with the German Democratic Republic. The second – Klyuchevoy and Khoyne (reserve – Chaplinek, Miroslavets and Nadaziche) in the north-west of the country. The landing was supposed to be carried out in areas of the east and south-east coast of Zealand. Together with the airborne assault landing a marine – as part of the 7th Airborne Division. The 15th mechanized division was supposed to operate in the second echelon. In the 70s, the task of capturing the island of Bornholm, which for a long time remained out of sight of the command of the ATS, was added.
Fortunately, a war in Europe was avoided, and the only “combat” operation in which units of the 6th Airborne Forces had the opportunity to participate was the introduction of martial law in Poland in December 1981. On December 12, at 24:00, the 10th airborne battalion (220 people) took the Warsaw House of Culture and Science, as well as the Center for Polish Radio and Television. On December 13, at 6:00 a.m., airplanes landed from the capital airport Okecie, transferring an assault company and support units of the 16th battalion from Krakow. These units took control of the airport. On December 15, two companies of the 16th battalion remaining in Krakow were thrown to “pacify” the protesting collective of the Metallurgical Plant named after Lenin, because the police could not cope with this. In the following days, two more assault companies of the 10th battalion “worked” at this plant.
Unlike the Soviet airborne troops, whose divisions had turned into mechanized formations by the 70s of the last century, the 6th Airborne Forces remained light infantry all the time – conceptually close to American and Western European formations of a similar purpose. The division, equivalent in composition to the brigade, had little firepower and limited mobility.