How Tukhachevsky destroyed his armies on the Vistula

Polish infantry during the Battle of Warsaw. August 1920

While the Polish army by the time of the decisive battle on the Vistula had grown stronger and larger in number, Tukhachevsky’s troops were weakened. They suffered heavy losses, were tired of incessant fighting, the rear was 200-400 km behind, which disrupted the supply of ammunition and food. The divisions received no reinforcements. The balance of forces changed dramatically in favor of the enemy. In addition, the troops of the Southwestern Front were unable to turn to the northwest in time.

And in the south, a threat arose from the Russian army of Wrangel, which diverted forces and reserves from the Polish front. Due to the threat, the Western and South-Western fronts no longer received new formations from Wrangel’s army. In June-July they went to the Crimean front. The White Guards pulled back over 20 rifle and cavalry divisions. And often powerful, selective, like Blucher’s 51st Infantry Division. Their appearance on the Polish front could radically change the situation near Warsaw and Lvov.

The decision to continue the attack on Warsaw

On August 5, 1920, a plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party was held, which discussed the situation at the fronts. The decision was approved to transfer the 12th, 1st Cavalry and 14th armies of the Southwestern Front (SWF) under the command of Tukhachevsky. It was necessary in the decisive battle to break the enemy’s resistance and achieve peace. To do this, it was necessary to transfer the 1st Cavalry Army to the Ivangorod sector and reinforce the southern flank of the Western Front (ZF) with the 12th Army of the Southwestern Front. On August 6, on the basis of the decision of the plenum of the Central Committee, Commander-in-Chief Kamenev issued a directive to the command of the South-Western Front to prepare for the transfer, together with the 12th and 1st Cavalry Armies, to the ZF and 14th Army. Budenny’s army was withdrawn to the reserve, on the Lviv direction it was supposed to be replaced by rifle divisions. On the same day, the commander-in-chief ordered the command of the South-Western Front to replace the 1st Horse with infantry units and withdraw it to the reserve for rest and preparation for a new operation. But in not a single document did Kamenev order an end to the Lvov operation. By August 10, Budyonny’s cavalry was withdrawn to the reserve, and in the morning of August 13, on the orders of the front command, it again resumed the offensive against Lvov.

On August 11 and 13, Commander-in-Chief Kamenev ordered to withdraw Budyonny’s army from the battle and send it to Zamoć. However, firstly, this decision was clearly late. Yegorov’s armies were tied up in a battle in the Lvov direction, bled out of blood and tired of long and difficult battles. Secondly, due to technical errors (inability to decipher the order) and sabotage of the command of the 1st Cavalry Army, which was in no hurry to fulfill the order of the high command, Budyonny’s cavalry left the battle for Lvov only on August 19, when everything was already decided on the Warsaw direction.

Meanwhile, the ZF command was preparing for a decisive battle for Warsaw. Although the right decision would be to take a pause, gain a foothold on the occupied lines, tighten up the rear, wait for replenishments and the arrival of the SWF formations (including the Cavalry Army). At the same time, Tukhachevsky made a number of miscalculations, being mistaken about the location of the main forces of the enemy. With more skillful leadership, the ZF could avoid a catastrophic defeat.

In general, the armies of the ZF (4th, 15th, 3rd, 16th armies and the Mozyr group) numbered just over 100 thousand fighters, that is, they were already inferior to the enemy in number. On the Warsaw and Novogeorgievsky (Modlin) directions, the Poles had about 70 thousand bayonets and sabers, and the four Soviet armies – about 95 thousand people. On the Ivangorod (Demblinsky) direction, where the Polish command was preparing the main attack, the enemy had 38 thousand people, and the Mozyr group consisted of only about 6 thousand fighters. And the 16th Army of Sollogub on the southern flank of the front’s strike group was too weak to repel a possible flank attack of the enemy. At the same time, the troops of the ZF were already exhausted by previous battles, in some divisions there were only 500 fighters each, the regiments in number turned into companies. The infantry in the units was only enough to cover the guns and machine guns. There was not enough ammunition.

On August 10, 1920, the ZF command issued an order to attack Warsaw. Tukhachevsky believed that the main enemy forces were retreating northwest of the Bug towards Warsaw. In fact, the Poles were retreating southwest to the Vepsz River. Therefore, it was decided to seize the Polish capital with an outflanking blow from the north. The 4th, 15th, 3rd armies and the 3rd cavalry corps were to advance around Warsaw from the north. On August 10, Kamenev warned Tukhachevsky that the enemy had main forces south of the Bug, and not north. And the main forces of the front strike at a relatively empty space. However, the ZF commander did not agree with this assessment of the situation. Kamenev gave Tukhachevsky freedom of action. Obviously, the point was that Tukhachevsky was Trotsky’s protégé and the commander-in-chief did not want to spoil relations with the all-powerful chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Republic. In addition, the Soviet high command was still in the illusion that everything was fine on the Polish front and victory was near.

Battle of Warsaw

On August 11, 1920, Soviet troops reached the Ciechanow – Pultusk – Siedlec – Lukow – Kock line. The ZF headquarters intercepted a Polish message about the preparation of a counterattack from the Ivangorod area. On the night of August 13, Tukhachevsky reported this to Kamenev. He asked to speed up the transfer of the ZF to the 1st Cavalry and the 12th armies. At the same time, the ZF command did not take any measures to parry the enemy strike. Apparently, he was sure that the Poles would not be able to do anything serious. That is, the ZF command knew about this three days before the Polish counteroffensive, but did nothing! As noted above, on August 11 and 13, the commander-in-chief gave orders to the SWF command to transfer the 12th and 1st Cavalry armies to the ZF. The 12th army was aimed at Lublin, and the army of Budyonny in the Zamosc region – Tomashov. But these directives were hopelessly late. They had to be handed over and executed at the beginning of August or even at the end of July. So the mistakes of the high command and the command of the Western Front predetermined the heavy defeat of the Red Army on the Vistula.

At this time, fierce battles were going on in the Warsaw direction. The closer the Red Army approached Warsaw, the more stubbornly the Poles fought. The Polish army, using the water lines, held back the Soviet troops. At the same time, the previously defeated units were put in order, replenished, so that they would soon launch a counteroffensive. On August 13, the 21st and 27th rifle divisions of the 3rd and 16th armies took a well-fortified enemy point – the city of Radzimin, 23 km from the Polish capital. In connection with the threat of the enemy to Warsaw, the commander of the Polish Northern Front, General Haller, ordered to accelerate the offensive of the 5th Army north of the capital and the strike group south of it. Having transferred two fresh divisions from the reserve, the Polish forces launched strong counterattacks on 14 August with the aim of returning Radzimin. Soviet troops first repulsed enemy attacks and even slowly moved forward in places. In these battles, Soviet troops experienced a shortage of ammunition, especially shells. The divisional commander of the 27th division Putna even suggested that the army commander themselves retreat back to the Bug until they were defeated. It is clear that this sensible proposal was rejected. The 3rd army of Lazarevich, with the support of the left flank of the 15th army of Cork, took two forts of the Modlin fortress on the same day.

Polish counteroffensive

On August 14, the 5th Polish Army of General Sikorski struck at the junction of the 4th and 15th Soviet armies. On August 15, the Polish cavalry broke into the city of Ciechanów, where the headquarters of the 4th Soviet army was. The army headquarters fled, having lost contact with the front command, which led to the loss of control not only of the army, but also of the entire northern flank of the ZF. Tukhachevsky ordered the troops of the 4th and 15th armies to break the enemy forces wedged in between them, but disordered and disorganized counterattacks did not lead to success. At the same time, apparently not yet realizing the threat to Tukhachevsky’s troops, Trotsky ordered the ZF to cut the Danzig corridor so that the Poles could not receive Entente military supplies.

In the center, Soviet troops fought heavy battles on August 14-15 in the Radzimin area. The Poles eventually recaptured the city. The 8th Infantry Division of the 16th Army broke through to the Vistula at Gura Kalwaria. But this success was already at the breaking point. On August 15, the ZF command ordered the 16th Army to move the front south, but this order was already late. On August 16, Polish troops launched a counteroffensive on the broad Ciechanów-Lublin front. From the border of the river Vepsh attacked 50 thousand. Pilsudski’s strike group. The Poles easily swept away the front of the weak Mozyr group and moved to the northeast, encompassing the Warsaw grouping of the Red Army. Having received news of the enemy’s offensive on the front of the Mozyr group, its headquarters and the command of the 16th Army initially decided that it was only a private counterstrike. The Poles got a head start and quickly went to Brest-Litovsk and Belsk in order to cut off and press the main forces of the ZF to the German border.

Realizing that this was a real threat, the Soviet command tried to organize a defense on the Lipovets and Western Bug rivers. But such a regrouping required time and good organization, and there were no reserves to contain the enemy. In addition, the rear and railways were in ruins, and it was impossible to transport troops quickly. At the same time, the Poles intercepted and read the radio messages of the Soviet command, which facilitated the breakthrough of the Polish army. On the morning of August 19, Polish troops drove out the weak parts of the Mozyr group from Brest-Litovsk. The attempt to regroup the troops of the 16th Soviet Army failed, since the enemy reached any defensive lines before the Soviet troops. On August 20, the Poles reached the line Brest-Litovsk – the Narev and Western Bug rivers, covering the main forces of Tukhachevsky from the south.

Under these conditions, the command of the ZF already on August 17 ordered the regrouping of troops to the east, in fact it was already a retreat. However, due to the chaos in the rear and on the railways, it was not possible to withdraw all forces from the blow. The withdrawal of troops was accompanied by a constant deterioration of the situation. So, on August 22, the troops of the 15th Army were in Lomza, but enemy attacks forced them to deviate northeast to Grajevo and Avgustov. The worst were the divisions of the 4th Army on the northern flank, which advanced farthest to the west. On the 22nd, the 4th Army was still in the Mlawa area and was forced to break through the front of the 18th Infantry Division of the 5th Polish Army. On the same day, Polish troops occupied Ostrolenka and on August 23 – Bialystok. On August 25, Polish divisions finally blocked the 4th Army and parts of the 15th Army from going east. Troops of the 4th Army and 2 divisions of the 5th Army (4th and 33rd) crossed into Germany, where they were interned. Parts of the 3rd Cavalry Corps on August 26 still tried to break through to the east, but, having exhausted their ammunition, they also crossed the German border.

Polish infantry on the offensive


It was a disaster. The Western Front lost almost all its main forces: 15-25 thousand killed, missing and wounded, about 60 thousand prisoners and 30-35 thousand internees. When leaving the encirclement, Tukhachevsky’s army suffered more damage than during the offensive to the west. Polish losses amounted to about 36 thousand people killed, wounded and missing. The Red Army lost all its positions in Poland and by August 25 withdrew to the Lipsk – Svisloch – east of Brest line. The strategic initiative passed to the Polish army.

The Soviet-Polish negotiations, which began on August 17 in Minsk, did not lead to success. Moscow insisted on the border along the “Curzon Line”, with some concessions in favor of Poland in the areas of Bialystok and Holm. Also, Warsaw was proposed to reduce the army to 50 thousand people, reduce military production, transfer surplus weapons to the Red Army and create a workers’ militia. Poland was prohibited from receiving military aid from abroad. After the brilliant victory at Warsaw and the failure of the Red Army in the Lvov region, Poland did not want such a peace. The Polish command was preparing for a new offensive, planning to push the borders far to the east.

The Entente countries agreed that the Polish eastern border should run mainly along the “Curzon Line”. Also, the West informed Warsaw that Vilna should go to Lithuania. However, Poland, in the face of a successful offensive in peace, was in no hurry. After the collapse of plans to create a “red Warsaw”, Moscow decided to concentrate its efforts on defeating Wrangel.

Commander of the 5th Polish Army, General Władysław Sikorski (1881-1943)

Jozef Pilsudski and Edward Rydz-Smigly at the head of the strike group. August 1920

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