- James Houser
September 8, 1839 - The Battle of Wizna, "Polish Thermopylae"
Updated: Jun 13, 2021
September 8, 1939. Near the town of Wizna, a few companies of Polish infantry prepare to resist the full might of Hitler’s Wehrmacht – a Panzer Corps commanded by Heinz Guderian, inventor of the Blitzkrieg. They are less than 800, facing 42,000 Germans with tanks and aircraft. They will hold out for three days. Their stand will go down in legend as the “Polish Thermopylae,” the battle of 40 to 1.
The world first got a good look at the new German way of war on September 1, 1939, when World War II began and the Wehrmacht crossed the Polish border. Even though I just used it in my description up there, that was to catch eyes, so it’s time to shatter a myth: the Germans did not call this “Blitzkrieg.” No one in the German high command ever referred to what they did in World War II by that word; instead, it was a term invented and latched onto by Western press in Britain and America. From their point of view, the Germans were undertaking a traditionally Prussian/German form of warfare - *aufstragtaktik*, or “mission tactics” – and applying modern weapons to it. If you looked at it the way the Germans did, it wasn’t a revolution, it was a rebirth.
And the godfather of this rebirth was General Heinz Guderian.
Guderian was a prominent figure in the prewar German Army, and he literally wrote the book on mechanized and motorized warfare, publishing his “Achtung Panzer!” in 1937. Guderian promoted the replacement of cavalry with tanks and motorized infantry, and the combination of these forces with artillery, engineers, and tactical air power to form an all-arms strike force. He was the most prominent of a small cadre of officers that formed the first of these strike forces, the legendary “panzer divisions” that would form the cutting edge of Germany’s conquest of Europe from 1939 to 1941. Having gotten Hitler’s ear in 1935, Guderian was able to shamelessly self-promote his ideas – and his own career – throughout the last years before World War II.
When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, Guderian was leading the 19th Panzer Corps, with two panzer divisions and a motorized infantry division. The 19th Corps was a prototype of the new German way of war, and as it screamed across the plains of Poland it cut up everything in its path. Phalanxes of light tanks swarmed and overran Polish infantry positions as German Stuka dive-bombers slashed at the fleeing soldiers. Hardpoints were stormed by the motorized infantry, who were quick on the scene and well-armed with automatic weapons to clear villages, fortresses and bunkers. Guderian himself rode with his forward units, directing their rapid movements by radio from a special command car.
By September 5, in only five days, the 19th Corps had completed the encirclement of the main Polish troops defending the border in their sector. Guderian’s panzers had completed the conquest of West Prussia and isolated the key city of Danzig. He gave a tour of the battlefield to Hitler and Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, who would lead their country to the utter brutalization of Poland in the years to come. Hitler ordered Guderian to take his command farther east and loop behind Warsaw itself, cutting the capital off and completing the encirclement of most of the Polish Army.
Guderian sent his Corps east. To make their great encirclement, they would have to cross the Narew River about 100 miles north of the Polish capital at a small town called Wizna. The Germans thought it would be easy, and they had reason to believe that. But they were wrong.
In the summer of 1939, when it had become clear that the Nazis were planning to attack their country, the Polish government ordered defensive lines constructed along likely avenues of attack. Most of these lines were never finished, and that included the line near Wizna. The crossing at Wizna was one of the most important strategic sites in northern Poland since it covered critical roads leading to Warsaw and points east, and because it was one of the very few chokepoints in the mostly open territory of Poland. The bunkers at Wizna overlooked the banks of the Narew and were constructed with concrete and reinforced steel firing positions, armed with machine guns and antitank guns. Due to the short notice, however, only six of these big bunkers were constructed. There were ten others, less hardened and less well-armed. In addition, the Poles had trenches, mines, wire obstacles and ditches to protect their lines.
They would need it. Much of the Polish Army had been surrounded and destroyed in the opening days of the German attack, and what was left of these units were still struggling to pull back behind Warsaw and regroup. There had been a full infantry battalion manning the defenses at Wizna, but they were soon called away to fight for the fortresses around Warsaw, leaving the line in the hands of a single reinforced machinegun company and a handful of detachments. The command of this force – no more than 20 officers and 700 men – fell to Captain Wladyslaw Raginis, commander of the machine gun unit.
The Poles were almost all second-line troops: fortress infantry, engineer teams, and a horse cavalry recon unit. They were all armed with rifles, but also had at hand around 40 machine guns, six pieces of 76mm antitank artillery, and two antitank rifles with only a few rounds. The antitank rifle was useless against almost any seriously armored vehicle; it mainly served to remind everyone that no matter how bad *your* job was, at least you weren’t an antitank rifleman. Against the light German tanks of the early war era, however, the antitank rifle could actually do more than scratch the paint.
The Germans, of course, were racing for the Wizna crossings by September 7 with three combat divisions - almost 42,000 men with 350 tanks, full batteries of artillery, mortars, grenade launchers, and more than a thousand machine guns.
Despite their meagre armament and the massive weight of numbers, though, Polish morale was high. Even though they were almost all recent conscripts, their spirits were high and they were determined. Word had reached Captain Raginis that he had to delay Guderian for as long as possible to give the Polish Army a chance to regroup. What they were asking was essentially a suicide mission, and the high command probably had no hope that anything would come of it. Instead, Raginis and his men would make one of history’s great last stands in defense of a doomed cause.
Captain Raginis, a quiet, shy man of 31, had never been anything more than an average officer in peacetime. He was honestly something of a dullard to most of his fellow officers, the kind of guy who you might trust with a small task but not anything serious. Hardly the makings of a 20th-Century Leonidas of Sparta. But having been brought to this place, at this time, Wladyslaw Raginis somehow rose to the occasion. Some have greatness thrust upon them. As the sounds of artillery fire came closer on September 7, he told his troops that he would not leave his post alive. He would defend the Wizna defense system to his last breath.
The first recon units of Guderian’s Panzer Corps came knocking at the gates of Wizna that very day. Soon the 10th Panzer Division was overrunning the town itself, and the Polish cavalry platoons Raginis had sent out as a guard began to fall back. As the German tanks tried to cross the bridge, though, it was blown out from under them by the Polish engineers, and soon the Germans were subjected to a withering fire from the bunker line on the hills overlooking the river, forcing them to pull back and prepare to cross the next day.
As Guderian’s units stalled, the German infantry attempted to cross the river on September 8, 1939, the first of the legendary three days at Wizna. The Polish line held, however, in the face of these relentless assaults. A large German force crossed in the night on the 8th, but ran into an ambush and was driven back across the river. By now, though, the bulk of Guderian’s forces were coming into the area and beginning to pile up in front of the critical crossing. All along the line across Poland, the Wehrmacht advanced – except here.
Time worked against Raginis’ small force. As he suffered casualties, he could not replace his fallen, while the Germans only got stronger and brought up more heavy weapons. His artillery support was being knocked out by German bombers, even as they tried desperately to maintain fire on the German crossing sites. From their bunkers, the Polish defenders could see the dust clouds rising to the north as panzers, trucks, guns and men converged on their little position: the breakwater in the onrushing sea.
Guderian himself finally arrived on the scene at 0800 on September 9 to see what the holdup was. He had expected to “bounce” the river on the 7th, and here they were two precious days later having gone no farther. Frustrated, he had German planes drop leaflets demanding that the Poles surrender and declaring further resistance futile. They received no response; Raginis had sworn he would die in place, and he intended to do so. Guderian, furious more at his own commanders’ ineptitude than at the defenders, ordered a concerted attack all along the line.
The previous two days had been relatively calm compared to the firestorm that now fell on the Poles. Concentrated artillery fire and airstrikes smashed into the line of bunkers, and the smaller ones were soon reduced to near ruins even as the larger bunkers were rattled by the explosions. This maelstrom finally forced Raginis’ only artillery support to withdraw, leaving him virtually stranded in the fortress line with no hope of relief. Guderian managed to locate an old wooden bridge to the north, and ordered tanks and infantry across in force to overwhelm the trench line.
The north of Raginis’ line soon began to crumble under concentrated attack from German infantry and light tanks. Flanked and attacked from three sides, only two platoons of infantry in three bunkers wreaked fury on the German attackers, but soon they realized they would be overwhelmed. The beleaguered Poles managed to fight their way to the wooden bridge, burn it, and escape to the rear. Soon the south was under attack as well, and in this sector the incomplete bunker line enabled the Germans to infiltrate through the defense system. Though they made the best use of their obsolete antitank rifles and cut the attacking German infantry to pieces, the weight of the attack forced them to fall back to the center.
By nightfall on the 9th of September, the Germans had hammered at both ends of Raginis’ line and bent it back – but the line still held, still blocking Guderian’s advance on Warsaw. The Poles had taken everything a German Panzer Corps could throw at them and survived. But their fight was hopeless. The units to their left and right along the river had already fallen back; the Germans were established in force on the south side of the river. Only Raginis’ dwindling men held out on the Narew, isolated in their bunkers, waiting for the end to come. Like Leonidas and his Spartans, holding the rear guard as the rest of the Greeks escaped, the Narew Defense Detachment (Wizna) prepared to die.
All night on the 9th and into the early light of the 10th, the Germans launched unending assaults on the remaining big bunkers. Unable to get close due to the galling machine gun fire, the Germans used grenades, flamethrowers, and tank guns to smash at the bunkers, and by 1100 on the 10th of September all but two of the bunkers were knocked out, the Poles either dying or being taken prisoner. The stubborn Poles refused to quit, and the bunkers were only cracked either when howitzers were rolled up to shell them at near point-blank range, or German engineers managed to place satchel charges on the sides or down the vents. Some bunkers were destroyed, some surrendered, but all made the Germans pay a heavy price.
The last two bunkers, in the ruined village of Strekowa Gora, continued to hold out against the tightening German ring. Raginis was in command of the largest and final bunker. As panzers, artillery, air strikes, grenades, infantry and mortars rained hell on the bunkers, the Poles continued to hold out for an hour and a half.
What happened next is a matter of some dispute. Though there is no record of it from Guderian’s memoirs or later battle reports, the Poles claim that around noon, Guderian threatened to execute the remainder of the Polish prisoners if the holdouts didn’t surrender. The fact that Guderian was not prosecuted for war crimes after the war remained a sore spot for some Polish veterans, especially since this alleged incident was one of the possible charges.
Either way, it was the Wehrmacht that held up a flag of truce and proposed a cease fire to Captain Raginis. Every remaining Pole was wounded, and they were almost out of ammunition. All the antitank rifles had been lost, and the Germans were preparing to blast the last two bunkers to pieces. There was no longer any point in resisting. Raginis turned to his remaining forces, thanked them for their bravery and their dedication to duty, then ordered them to leave the shelter and surrender. As for him, there would be no surrender. He would die, as he said he would.
One soldier remembered: "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 strong gust and I heard an explosion." Raginis had thrown himself on a grenade. The Battle of Wizna was over. Of the 720 Polish soldiers, only 70 survived, and of these several more died in German prison camps. Only a handful lived to tell the story of their last stand.
The small garrison of Wizna had cost the Germans at least 900 dead and 10 tanks, several other vehicles, and at least one aircraft destroyed, along with three days from September 8 to 10 that stopped Guderian’s lightning advance in its tracks. It was all for naught, of course; no small group of men, no matter how brave, could stop the inevitable outcome of the German invasion of Poland. Poland would fall, and the regrouping units east of Warsaw would be overrun when the Soviet Union stabbed Poland in the back and joined Germany in their invasion on September 17.
The Battle of Wizna, long forgotten, only came to popular attention in the 21st Century. Captain Raginis’ remains were discovered in 2011, confirmed through DNA testing, and reinterred under an obelisk. His symbolic grave, though, is located next to the bunker in which he died. He was also posthumously promoted to Major, for whatever that’s worth.
There is today a monument at Wizna which purposely invokes the memory of the Spartans, to commemorate the battle that has become known to Raginis’ countrymen as the “Polish Thermopylae.” It reads: “Passerby, tell the Fatherland that we fought to the end, fulfilling our duty." (It is likely that the Poles at Wizna faced even WORSE odds than the Spartans at the Hot Gates.)
They had probably faced odds as terrible as any of history’s great final stands – Leonidas and his Spartans at Thermopylae, the Hebrews at Masada, Roland at the Roncesvalles, the Swiss Guard in the Sack of Rome, Custer at Little Bighorn, or MSG Gordon and SFC Shughart at Mogadishu.
To this list must be added Captain Raginis and the 720 at Wizna.