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Polish State Railways as a Mode of Transport for Troops of the Warsaw Pact

Technology in Service of a Doctrine


Zbigniew Tucholski

The subject of the book is the history of the planned use of Polish railway infrastructure during the Cold War as part of the strategic plans of the Warsaw Pact. Analysing both technical and operational issues related to railway military transportation in a historical perspective, the author presents the history of the military transportation service of the Polish Army and provides a detailed characteristics of the organizational structure, equipment and tasks of the military transportation units and railway troops. The book also deals with rail transports of the Soviet Army on the Polish State Railways. The work is not only the result of archival queries and interviews with retired officers of the military transportation service but also field research of railway infrastructure.

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A proper description of the complex circumstances of developing the railway network in Poland requires an indispensable reference to the early use of the railways by the military.

For the first time in history, troops were carried by rail during the Palatine Uprising of 18494, and – that same year – during the German expedition to Schleswig. Ten years later, in 1859, the French and English were already making use of rail transport. During the American Civil War, Americans carried troops by rail on a major scale. In 1866, Austrians were the first to make strategic use of this mode of transport, moving 100,000 people from Custozza to the German Front, and thus covering 700 km in 12 days.5

In 1851 Russian military authorities developed their first guidelines for the movement of troops by rail: Przepisy o przewozie kawalerii po Petersbursko-Moskiewskiej Kolei Żelaznej [Regulations of Moving Cavalry by the Petersburg-Moscow Railway], while on November 24th 1851, the Russian Ministry of War issued its first directive on the use of railways for the purposes of transferring troops.6

The progressive development of railways is connected with the 19th-century industrialisation, making it a crucial mode of transport, which was of utmost importance to the success of both individual operations and entire campaigns. In the wake of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, the importance of rail transport was duly noted by the General Staff of almost all major European nations. Prussia owed its military success in the 1870 war to the efficient mobilisation and shipment of its armed forces, most certainly assisted by the strategic railway network which had at the time been under expansion in Prussia for quite a time already: Field Marshal Helmut von Moltke’s Prussian war doctrine provided for the expansion of a dense rail network, including technical infrastructure to serve the purposes of mass mobilisation and operational transfer. The efficiency of Prussia’s transport system enabled swift completion of all mobilisation exercises, as well as full combat readiness three weeks ahead of the Russians.

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Geopolitical conditions determined the main directions of military movement to the west and east, across the territories lost by Poland as a result of partitioning upon the loss of its independence. Moreover, the highest concentration of fortifications in Europe clearly points to the operational importance of the Polish territory. In the 19th century, strategic crossings were fortified on major rivers at the following locations: Warszawa, Dęblin, Modlin, Toruń, Grudziądz, and Poznań. Furthermore, Russian and Prussian systems of centralised fortifications and ring fortresses (brought about by extensions to the artillery range and the invention of smokeless gunpowder after 1870) were developed on Polish territory in the late 19th century, serving identical operational purposes.

Within the Kingdom, the network of fortress roads connecting specific fortifications and points of resistance was also expanded in the 19th century.

Different concepts for the operational use of railway transport laid out by the partitioning powers became a lead factor in determining the development of the railway network on the Polish land.

In Poland under partitions, road and rail networks were constructed and operated in conformity to the operational plans drafted by the General Staffs of Prussia, Russia and Austria-Hungary. Consequently, due to the growing importance of railways to the military, from the mid-19th century onwards, the development of the railway network was largely determined by military goals. Nonetheless, the partitioning powers followed separate railway-related policies, appropriately adapted to the binding war doctrines of the time.

Railway construction in Imperial Russia was largely determined by strategic considerations. New railway routes, particularly those stretching across the River Vistula and into the pre-frontier area of the Vistula Country, were perceived as a significant strategic threat – ample proof that an extensive rail network would allow the enemy to attack swiftly and dislocate troops.

Construction of new railway lines (particularly in the western part of the Empire) was strictly controlled by the state and dependent on approval by the Department of Military Transport of the Russian General Staff, upon which the Ministry of Railways could issue a licence for the construction and operation of every single narrow-gauge or industrial line, even if tertiary in importance.

The Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878 exposed the shortcomings of the Russian railway system, the direct cause of the Sevastopol defeat. The mobilisation capacity of the Prussian army was far greater than that of the Russian army already in the 1880s, due to the expansion of the Prussian railway network. In view of such a state of affairs, Minister of War General Dimitri Milutin decided to abandon the “wilderness strategy” in favour of railway network development, the move to a certain degree changing the Russian military doctrine. Nonetheless, ←14 | 15→a significant number of conservative Russian generals continued to favour the already outdated strategic concepts of Kutuzov and Suvorov. The new military doctrine became the main reason behind the changes to the Russian railway-related policies. A decision was made to restore the concept of construction of railway lines by the state, leading to a rush of railway line purchases from private owners at significant loss to the state treasury. In the early 20th century, two-thirds of the railway network in European Russia were state-owned, strict state controls having been extended on the operation of lines in joint-stock control.

The weakness of the Russian rail transport, the Trans-Siberian railway in particular (efforts to increase the capacity of the line went as far as to setting up a special-purpose railway ferry across the Lake Baikal), was one of the main reasons for Imperial Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War.

Prior to the outbreak of the Great War, Russia developed a system of seven front-bound railway lines heading for the German border, their total capacity reaching 223 train pairs per day. The solution secured a mere 0.25 of train passage per day per frontline kilometre. Nine lines heading for the Austro-Hungarian border were routed (five double-track and four single-track lines). Their total capacity reached no more than 260 train pairs per day, securing the passage of a mere 0.4 of train per day per frontline kilometre.7 In the late 19th century, a system of low-density parallel lines was also developed in the European part of Russia and across Polish territory.

Efforts to expand the capacity of Russian railways immediately prior to the Great War took a wrong turn. No railway network to support the military was built (having been restricted to the network developed in late 19th century with no attention paid to the improvement of the organisation of railway traffic): Prior to the Great War, the Russian Staff failed to predict that warfare against Germany would be a largely railway-based war, dozens of corps being moved from one area to another for strategic purposes, sometimes across hundreds of kilometres. According to the view of the General Staff, the strategic network was mainly to consist of high-capacity mainlines designed to move troops in the shortest possible time from inland governorates to the venues of concentration.8

As the new mode of transport – the railway – developed and expanded, General Staffs of partitioning powers drafted railway policies according to their specific operational plans.

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According to Russian military doctrine, the main theatre of war would extend along the western border of the Empire, from the Baltic Sea to the Carpathian Mountains. Such strategists assumed a specific division of the theatre of war into the following regions: the centre (near the River Vistula), the north (the Baltic Sea and Polesie region), and the south (between the Polesie region and the Carpathian Mountains). Polesie was to serve as a divide between the regions; given the Polesie marshlands, it was assumed that the area would form a natural barrier. The Vistula region incorporated the area of the Kingdom forming a major outcrop, its flanks occupied by Prussia and Austria. It was bordered by Rivers Narew and Biebrza to the north, by the River Vistula to the west, and by the San River basin to the south.

The Russian military doctrine assumed that the Vistula Country would serve as the defence boundary to the west, safeguarding the mobilisation and concentration of troops, and become a foundation, as it were, for the Russian armed forces’ development on the future Western Front (with a planned strike by the Russians towards Vienna and Berlin). The area of the Kingdom (40 % of the entire future front) was to become a major mobilisation and logistical centre for the Russian army. Last but not least, the first line of Class One fortresses intended to defend the western borders of the Empire had been expanded in the early 19th century. Consequently, the area featured considerable saturation of military infrastructure: well-developed systems of Russian fortifications warranted the protection for Russian troops’ concentration in the Kingdom, the concept was followed consistently.9 As early as in the post-1915 period, the Russian General Staff decided to fortify the river crossings – in order to expand the Modlin Fortress and construct new fortifications in Warszawa and Dęblin.

Planning to carry out defence operations in such a way as to avoid providing the enemy with a favourable technical and logistics base, the Russian General Staff restricted railway construction projects on the territory of the Kingdom from the 1880s.

On the other hand, the Prussian military powers advocated an offensive railway strategy, supporting the intensive expansion of the railway network to establish a dense transport system. The goal was even supported by a special-purpose law allowing the construction of private and self-operated local government railways: the Prussian General Staff planned for offensive railway use on enemy territory, including swift construction of temporary trench railway lines ←16 | 17→(standard- and narrow-gauge) aligned with the planned offensive directions, all works to be performed by specialist railway engineering battalions.

Prior to the outbreak of the Great War a system of thirteen double-track main lines was constructed in Germany, leading from the country’s western borders towards the borders with Russia. The main line’s general capacity reached 660 train pairs per day (an average of 1.8 trains per day per frontline kilometre). Ten lines were developed along the main direction of the German army attack, stretching over a distance of 160km.10 The frontline routes: Strasbourg – Stuttgart – Nuremberg – Prague – Częstochowa (including the parallel Nuremberg – Wrocław section), and Ulm – Munich – Vienna – Kraków crossed into Prussia and Austria-Hungary, the development arising from close co-operation between the two countries in the field of wartime operational use of the railway system. A system of high-density parallel lines was also developed in the first zone of future frontline railways, right on the Prussian – Russian border. Intense efforts to develop the railway infrastructure were also made in East Prussia, with intent to regroup and assemble troops prior to the planned flanking strike into the Russian territory.

Several years prior to the outbreak of the First World War Jan Bloch, the author of Przyszła wojna [The Future War], had emphasised the importance of Field Marshal Helmut von Moltke’s operational plan, which assumed a large-scale use of rail transport: “The Germans will initially decide to hurl all their might upon one of their opponents, and, once that opponent’s resistance is crushed, to transfer their main forces onto the second theatre of war by rail.”11 These predictions were confirmed in the course of the war in the western theatre. Bloch had also predicted the future positional nature of the war, a bold theory at the time, vastly differing from the beliefs of the majority of contemporaneous military theorists.12 “The future war – shall mostly involve a series of battles fought around defensive positions […] practice will show that the party with the more resilient army and population, and greater means to wage the war, will come out victorious, in this respect – favourable defence conditions shall prove more important than those for attacking.”13

During the First World War, the majority of operational and supply transports were performed by rail, its technical condition and carriage capacity were of key ←17 | 18→importance to success at any given frontline section. Bearing in mind the nature of military transport, the First World War would ultimately be dubbed “the railway war.”14 During this large-scale conflict railway military units developed wartime railway lines (standard- and narrow-gauge alike) for the purposes of operational transfers and supplies delivery to the troops in combat.

During this conflict, the development of military road transport began as well. Road transport served the purpose of moving troops, weapons and supplies directly to the frontline. In 1916 French troops managed to hold Verdun only thanks to the well-developed road network and a large number of heavy vehicles. When the German army broke through the railway lines from Verdun to Paris and Toul, the French army replaced rail transport with road transport.

At the end of the First World War an unprecedented number of troops was being moved by rail over a short period of time.

During the German offensive of March 21st 1918, when the British front was broken through near St. Quentin, it took ten days to move French reserve divisions to an under-fire section with the use of 1,376 operational transports (plus the transports used to forward supplies).15

The dubious Austrian railway policy adversely affected the construction and operation of railways in Galicia. Several shifts from private to public ownership had a negative impact on the development of the railway network. The density of the inconsistently developed Galician railways was only increased in the late 19th century once the development of the two strategically important lines began, both heading for the Russian border: the Karl Ludwig line connecting Cracow to Lviv via Przemyśl and further on to the Austrian-Russian and Austrian-Romanian borders, and a parallel line running at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains: the so-called Transversal Railway.16

A system of seven frontal railway lines (two double-track and five single-track lines) was extended on the Austro-Hungarian territory all heading for the border with Russia as the Empire’s main adversary. The overall capacity of these lines reached a mere 153 pairs of trains per day, which enabled the passage of 0.22 trains per day per frontline kilometre.17

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Austria also followed an offensive railway strategy, although – given its economic and technical restraints – it was unable to develop a railway network matching the Prussian one in expansiveness.

Once Poland regained its independence significant efforts were made during the inter-war period to integrate the three railway networks taken over from the former invaders, and establish a single uniform transport system (as the country held a combination of terminal sections of the rail networks set up by the three occupants18). Due to financial and technical limitations, a minimum programme of adjusting the railway system to military requirements was approved. Connecting the Warsaw-Berlin mainline with a newly built Kutno – Strzałkowo railway line, and the contemporaneous development of the Herby-Gdynia coal mainline built by the French-Polish Railway Society were of key importance to the Polish raison d’etat, for economic as well as military reasons. During the inter-war period, action was taken to prepare the railway network for the times of war – yet a bare minimum of investments was carried out due to financial constraints. The course of the September campaign served to prove that in its initial stages, both the railway troops and the militarised Polish State Railways fulfilled their roles correctly. The railway lines were destroyed in border regions; wherever the enemy had destroyed stations or junctions, rail traffic was maintained thanks to the provisional reconstruction of the surface infrastructure and installation of signalling devices in order to maintain railway traffic. Yet ever-more intense bombing and organisational chaos resulted in a quick paralysis of the mainline railway traffic.19

Leaders of the Soviet Russia also recognised the importance of railway transport. Russia’s railway network was poorly developed, especially in the east. The catastrophic technical state of the railways, equipment and rolling stock in Russia as a result of the First World War and of the Revolution made operational movement of troops largely difficult. The extent of the pre-Revolution decline of the Russian railways is best proven by the following telegram: “A Telegram to the Head of the Board of the South-East Railway and the Director of the Ministry of Transport from the stationmaster of Samodurovka station. On train the No. 28 that arrived to cross with the train No. 3, there were 15 carriages with soldiers, when it came to an intersection with train No. 3. When the train stopped, the ←19 | 20→soldiers surrounded me and demanded that I dispatch them immediately while apprehending the train No. 3 which was approaching me already. Upon arrival of the train No.3, they demanded that its steam engine be uncoupled from the mail train and coupled to their train. After I explained that I could not leave the mail train without an engine, they threatened me by saying that they would deal with me. I only managed to convince them by explaining that the engine uncoupled from the train No. 3 would be running backwards, reducing their speed of travel even further. Once they understood it, the soldiers grabbed me and led me to the steam engine of the train No. 28, threatening the driver that they would throw him into the firebox if he did not go faster. Most of the discharged [soldiers] were drunk. The work is impossible and life-threatening under such conditions; please take action to protect me from such wilfulness; trains with discharged troops should be escorted by reinforced patrols – signed, Dorokhov.”20

The decapitalisation of Russian railways had also resulted from the implementation of the Leninist grab nagrablonnoye [steal the stolen!] slogan, leading to the destruction of rolling stock, railway equipment, and railway property to an extent never witnessed before. The technical and transport capacity of the Russian railways was also diminished due to the shortage of skilled staff, brought about by wartime and Revolution-related losses, and the demoralisation of Russian railwaymen. All these factors contributed to the Soviet railways being plunged into chaos and corruption. It was fully realised that victory in a world revolution depended upon a properly functioning rail transport and its carrying capacity. As part of the effort to rebuild an effective transport system, Felix Dzerzhinsky was appointed Chief of Railways. The head of the Cheka quickly intimidated railwaymen with executions and repression, introducing something of a proprietary order to the Soviet railways. His excellent organisational skills were soon proven, allowing a transformation of the Soviet railways into a well-run, totally militarised enterprise. The tsarist engineers and railway experts were put to work during the implementation of a long-term plan to modernise the Soviet railways.

The 1930s saw the implementation of the Soviet General Staff doctrine, pursuant to which the start of a war was tantamount to moving the economy onto war footing. One element of the Stalinist plan to industrialise (militarise) the entire country involved the total militarisation of railways (with military ranks introduced for railway staff). Modern rolling stock was developed in Russia at the time (a case in point involving the construction of FD and IS locomotives, ←20 | 21→mainly to American designs), with electric and diesel traction brought in alongside efforts to modernise the infrastructure, signalling, permanent way and station track layouts.21

It should be noted that projects to modernise the railways involved numerous innovative technical solutions and designs for the construction of bridges and rolling stock adopted from the Americans. In the 1930s, such tendencies included the appropriation of guidelines of the American school of locomotive construction; consequently, American locomotives were in principle adapted for the purposes of Soviet railways with no major changes. Regardless of regular intelligence missions, “white intelligence” was also carried out in the field of most recent scientific and technical literature; in the 1930s all novelties in American literature on railway technology were translated into the Russian language, one example including the Moscow-based State Rail Transport Publishing House publishing in 1935 the Russian translation of a volume on the traction economy from the American railway encyclopaedia.22 American sources had major impact on the design work by Russian railway engineers.

However, broad range of activities notwithstanding, the density of the rail network was not increased to any significant extent. The insufficiently developed Russian railway network – a legacy of the defensive military politics of the Tsarist General Staff – made it very difficult to deliver supplies to the advancing German army during the last war. Nonetheless, the dire condition of roads meant that railway transport played a dominant role on the domestic front during the 1944–45 offensive.

In the mid-1930s, once Hitler came to power, railway modernisation and full militarisation began in Germany as well. After the war broke out, special kinds of military locomotives and wagons were developed (Kriegsdampflokomotive). This was also when major cutbacks were introduced for the use of non-ferrous and deficient materials employed in the railway sector. Notably, the importance of railway transport can be proven by the fact that the production of the rolling stock remained a priority up until the end of the war, together with the production of armaments.

While preparing to invade the USSR as part of an operation codenamed Otto, road and railway networks were expanded in Germany and across its newly ←21 | 22→acquired territories. The main lines in the Reich and Poland (the Ostbahn) were modernised and expanded. As part of the efforts to carry out Operation Otto, large railway junctions together with a new Poznań Franowo marshalling yard were developed on the former Polish territory (along with a bypass and a number of connecting lines: Poznań Górczyn – Poznań Starołęka – Poznań Franowo – Swarzędz, Poznań Starołęka – Luboń, Poznań Franowo – Poznań Krzesiny, Poznań Franowo – Kobylnica), as well as the Łódź Olechów marshalling yard (along with an avoiding line Łódź Chojny – Łódź Olechów – Bedoń together with connecting lines); the following junctions and locomotive depots were expanded as well: Poznań Główna Osobowa, Poznań Franowo Towarowa, Toruń Kluczyki (one of the biggest locomotive depots in Poland, designed and built as a rectangular hall with an undercover traverser), Sierpc, Skierniewice, Skarżysko Kamienna, Dęblin, Pilawa, Łuków, Tłuszcz, Sędziszów, Suwałki, Czeremcha, Małaszewicze (pre-war Polish hangars at the Małaszewicze military airfield adapted for the purpose), Łazy, Szczakowa, Zbąszynek, Głogów, Chabówka, Żurawica, Przeworsk, Rozwadów, Nasielsk, Iłowo, Iława, and Łódź Olechów; a new depot was also built at Tomaszów Mazowiecki.23 As part of Operation Otto most railway stations were modernised and expanded along the east-west strategic lines and parallel lines.

Electromechanical (sliding) VES type signalling devices by Siemens & Halske and Siemens electrically driven switches were installed as part of the process to modernise railway signalling devices and increase capacity of all lines at major stations.

On the eve of the German attack on the USSR, the German railways introduced an innovative method of organising and performing railway traffic with intent to increase the capacity of railway lines that had reached their limits when transporting the military and supplies. The so-called report boxes were set up at block posts; report boxes served as provisional separation check points and were fitted with wired railway communication telephones.

Pursuant to the armoured and air warfare doctrine (Fuller, Liddel Hart, Guderian, Douhet) developed over the 1930s, the efficiency of direct operational transport to the frontline would drop significantly. The motorisation of infantry and artillery units, development of armoured weaponry, and the increased ability to manoeuvre new units all meant that rail transport would be facing the ←22 | 23→key task of supplying large amounts of ammunition, propellants and lubricants to the rear support units. In addition, railway lines in close proximity to military activities were exposed to damage due to aerial attacks; consequently, they would be basically taken out of operational use. Furthermore, the threat of small groups of sabotage guerrillas gave rise to the need for employing significant efforts to protect the railway lines. From that time on, the main task of railway transport involved the transfer of troops, equipment and supplies from the interior of the country to rear bases at the frontline, which was later proved by the experience of the Second World War.

Under operational plans of the Warsaw Pact, the Polish railway network was to be used for purposes of handling military and supply delivery transports along the Western (high-level operational reserves) and Coastal (regrouping of troops to protect naval landing operations) Operational Directions. The quickest route to Berlin led across Poland: ever since the early 19th century, both Germany and Russia had been investing in order to develop fortified (defensive) and transport (offensive) infrastructure. Transport by rail along the Western and Coastal Operational Directions to the rear of the frontline was only intended to serve the purposes of country-rear frontline transport of troops. The goal was supported through significant investment engaged in by the Polish State Railways as of the early 1950s. The railway network was undergoing modernisation and development at the time, railway lines and junction stations constructed to bypass the transport infrastructure that was impact-sensitive to conventional and nuclear weapons. Until 1956, total militarisation of the railways proceeded according to the Soviet model (the Polish State Railways had even introduced ranks resembling the military, insignia sewn onto shoulder pads). Such tendencies were also expressed in the official 1950s slogan of the Polish State Railways: “Traffic, transport, defence.” In the late 1950s, once a new doctrine regarding the rear support operations in the event of a nuclear war was introduced, L-30, L-36 and REM-500 folding bridges and the NZM-56 road-rail floating bridge were made part of equipment allocated to the railway military and Polish State Railways (reserve mobilisation units). Furthermore, preparations of the railway network for offensive front-end operations included the securing of appropriate technical infrastructure and rolling stock, all especially adapted for military transport purposes.

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4 Owsińska (1965), 79.

5 Koleje żelazne (1919), 4.

6 Strózik, Wojska kolejowe 1944–1946, M.A. thesis, Military Office of Historical Research Archive, Ref. No. 1036, 4.

7 Nowak (1994), 35.

8 Gawroński (1930), 7.

9 Militaria polskich formacji… (1989).

10 Nowak (1994), 33–34.

11 Bloch (1900), vol. I, 73.

12 Wyszczelski (2001), 133.

13 Bloch (1900), vol. II, 543–546.

14 Bloch (1900), vol.II, 7.

15 Sikorski (1984).

16 Wielopolski (1969), 62.

17 Nowak (1994), 35.

18 Nowak (1994), 52.

19 An example of this was the Warsaw – Poznań line, following the destruction of the important Kutno station, military railway transport and evacuation trains were totally paralysed.

20 Gołowin (2006), 363–364.

21 It is worth noting that Soviet Russia was the first country in the world to introduce mass welding technology for steel boilers in place of rivets, which had previously been most popular.

22 Tjagowoje chazjaistwo (1935).

23 Within the preparations to invade the USSR the German Eastern Railways (Ostbahn) prepared a modern design of a large rectangular steam locomotive depot together with locomotive handling facilities as well as a design of a modern water tower.