Poster of the times of the Soviet-Polish war. The last dog of the Entente.
100 years ago, in May 1920, Tukhachevsky’s troops tried to destroy the Polish army in Belarus. The May offensive of the Red Army failed, but managed to divert enemy forces from Ukraine.
Polish army in Kiev
In late April - the first half of May 1920, the Polish army conducted a successful Kiev operation. The Polish army defeated the red South-Western Front; on May 6, the Poles entered Kiev. On the same day, on the shoulders of the retreating Reds, Polish troops, crossing the left bank of the Dnieper, occupied a bridgehead 15–20 km east of Kiev. May 9 with emphasized solemnity, with the participation of Pilsudski was the Polish "victory parade" in Kiev. By May 16, the front east of Kiev had stabilized. On the southern flank, allied Poles rebels threatened Odessa and Nikolaev.
The offensive of the Polish troops was supported by the Petliurists. Under the Warsaw Treaty of April 22, 1920, Poland restored the borders of 1772 in Ukraine. As part of Poland, Galicia and the western part of Volyn remained with 11 million people. The agreement provided for the inviolability of Polish land ownership in the territory of the future Ukrainian People's Republic (UNR). Poland provided Petliura with military assistance in restoring Ukrainian statehood. In fact, Pilsudski created an “independent” Ukraine as a buffer against Russia. Ukraine was seen as a market for Polish goods, a raw materials and colonial appendage of Poland. According to the Polish Marshal, the border of the UNR was supposed to pass only along the Dnieper in the east. Moscow, according to Warsaw, could have lost the Kiev region and Podolia, but would not give up Left-Bank Ukraine and Novorossia. Petlyura did not agree with this idea and insisted on the capture of Kharkov, Yekaterinoslav, Odessa and Donbass. In these areas was the main economic potential of Little Russia, without it independence was impossible.
The defeat of the Red Army in Ukraine was due to several reasons. The Polish command created a significant superiority of forces in the south-west direction. The Polish army had over 140 thousand bayonets and sabers (over 65 thousand directly at the front), plus thousands of Petliurists, rebels and bandits in the rear of the Red Army. Also, the Polish army has a significant advantage in armament: guns, machine guns, armored cars and airplanes. The Reds had in the Ukrainian direction had about 55 thousand fighters (15,5 thousand directly at the front). Part of the forces was diverted to fight the rebellion of the Galician riflemen, rebels and gangs. Soviet troops covered the border with weak shields; there was no continuous front. The moment for the Polish operation was chosen very well.
The main miscalculation of the Soviet high command was that the main blow of the Poles in alliance with the Latvians was waiting in the north-west of Belarus. The main forces of the Red Army were located here, new formations from the North Caucasus and Siberia, reinforcements and reserves were sent here. The Soviet command was preparing a powerful counterattack in Belarus. However, the Poles in Belarus did not go on the offensive on the dates indicated by intelligence. The Soviet command calmed down. The enemy’s strike in Ukraine became sudden.
Polish poster "Beat the Bolshevik!"
Errors of the Polish command
Despite the “Kiev Blitzkrieg”, the Polish command was not able to realize all its plans. So, the Poles were unable to encircle and destroy most of the Kiev group of the Red Army. Polish troops as a whole were advancing frontally, this allowed the Red Army, albeit with losses, to successfully retreat beyond the Dnieper.
Pilsudsky’s mistake is also considered to be a halt to a successful offensive in the Kiev direction at the time of the Soviet fleeing Kiev, panic and collapse in parts of the 12th army. Petlyura wanted to continue the attack on Chernihiv and Poltava, but Pilsudsky was against. In addition, the Polish high command feared that the Red Army would launch an offensive in Belarus and immediately after the victory in Ukraine began to transfer troops to the north. Indeed, there the Western Front under the command of Tukhachevsky launched the May offensive.
After the capture of Kiev, the Polish army was only active on the southern flank. The Polish 6th and 2nd armies captured Vinnitsa, Tulchin, Nemirov, Kazatin, Squira, Vasilkov, Tripolye and Bila Tserkva. In late May, Polish troops conducted an operation on the southeastern section of the front and occupied Rzhishchev. As a result, while the Soviet command rebuilt the front and transferred the best units from the former Caucasian front, the Poles lost the initiative and went on the defensive.
Another mistake of the Polish high command was the assessment of the mood of the West Russian population in the "liberated territories." The "Liberators" were met with caution and without joy. The union of Poland and the UPR also did not please anyone. If at the beginning the Poles and Petliurites were met coldly, then after two weeks they already hated it. The fact was that the Poles and the forces supporting them acted as occupiers. The requisition of the Polish troops reminded the Little Russians the most difficult times of the Hetmanism, the Austro-German occupation. Polish commandants took away bread, sugar, cattle, fodder, cruelly drowned in blood any attempt to disobedience. “Free” from the dictatorship of the Bolsheviks, Ukrainian peasants received an even more brutal Polish military regime.
Of course, Petliura and the leadership of the UNR protested, tried to reach out to the Pilsudski, Polish government, the Sejm, the military command, but there was no sense. The Polish lords simply ignored all the protests. Pilsudski also deceived in the formation of a large Ukrainian army. Mobilization was allowed only in a few counties, although it was promised throughout Volhynia, Podolia and the Kiev region. By mid-May 1920, the Ukrainian army had only 20 thousand soldiers with 37 guns. The divisions in numbers were closer to the regiments. The UPR army was subordinate to the command of the Polish 6th Army, got stuck in battles at Yampol for a month and was unable to develop an offensive on Odessa. Also, new Ukrainian local authorities were not formed. Petlyura appointed the chief commissioner of the UPR, the commissioner of Kiev, the commissars of the districts, but they did not decide anything. All power was in the Polish military. Only in Kamenetz-Podolsky, Mogilev-Podolsky, Vinnitsa and its environs was there a likeness of the Ukrainian government. Vinnitsa became the capital of the UPR; Pilsudsky did not allow it to be moved to Kiev.
Starting the war, the Polish-Ukrainian leadership counted on broad popular support, a large-scale peasant and rebel war in the rear of the Red Army. These calculations were only partially justified. In the south of the Kiev region, in the north of the Kherson region, in Polesie and Zaporozhye, really strong rebel detachments acted. However, they did not bring much help to the Poles and Petliurists. They acted randomly, disorganized, avoided clashes and regular parts of the Reds.
Soviet poster: "Trained Parisian pig"
In the Belarusian direction
Meanwhile, the Red Army attempted to defeat the Poles on the Western Front. The new front commander, Tukhachevsky (succeeded Gittis), an ambitious protege of Trotsky, was going to defeat the troops of the Polish Northeast Front, General Sheptytsky, and assist the Soviet troops of the Southwestern Front. The Soviet command planned to defeat the Poles in the Warsaw direction, press them from the north to the Pinsk swamps and destroy them.
The Western Front included: the Northern Group of Forces (two rifle divisions and a brigade) under the command of E. Sergeyev; 15th Army A. Cork (7 rifle and cavalry divisions); The 16th Army of N. Sollogub (4 rifle divisions). Already during the offensive, two more divisions joined the front. All the commanders were experienced military leaders, served as officers in the Russian imperial army. The number of Soviet troops totaled about 80 thousand bayonets and sabers, over 450 guns, over 1900 machine guns, 15 armored trains and 67 aircraft.
Soviet troops had superiority over the enemy. The Polish Northeast Front at the beginning of the operation included the 1st Army (3 infantry divisions and cavalry brigade) and the 4th Army (4 infantry divisions and cavalry brigade). In total, more than 57,5 thousand bayonets and sabers, about 340 guns, over 1400 machine guns, 10 armored trains and 46 airplanes.
The main blow was delivered by the 15th army of Cork in a general direction on Vilna, it was to defeat the 1st Polish army and drive it back to the Pinsk swamps. The offensive of the Cork army was supported by the Sergeev Northern Group, which struck the flank and rear of the Polish army. Sollogub's 16th Soviet Army delivered an auxiliary strike to Minsk to divert the attention and forces of the 4th Polish Army. The offensive required a regrouping of troops from the center to the right flank of the front, which they did not have time to complete by the beginning of the operation. We also did not have time to transfer reserves on time and the offensive began without them.
The Polish command knew about the preparation of the Red Army for the offensive. The 4th Polish army was preparing a counterattack on Zhlobin and Mogilev. The 1st Army was to support the offensive on the northern flank. From Poland and Ukraine it was planned to transfer reinforcements.
On May 14, 1920, the Northern Group unexpectedly for the enemy threw its strike group (rifle brigade) onto the left bank of the Western Dvina. However, its advance was halted by Polish reserves. It was not possible to strengthen the group, as one division covered the border with Latvia, and the other did not manage to deploy. But the Poles failed to push back the Soviet troops for the Western Dvina. The Reds repulsed all the attacks of the enemy and waited for the approach of the right flank of the 15th Army.
On May 14, the Cork army successfully broke through the defenses of two Polish divisions. Only the left flank of the army (29th division) could not immediately penetrate the enemy defenses, here the Poles even counterattacked. In addition, the terrain was more difficult to move on the southern flank of the army. On May 15, a Southern group was formed on the left flank of the army (5th, 29th, and 56th rifle divisions). On May 17, the front command changed the direction of the advance of the Cork army from northwest to southwest, in the direction of Molodechno. The northern group was now supposed to advance to the northwest. In the five days of the offensive, the 15th Army advanced 40–80 km in depth and 110 km wide. However, the Poles managed to avoid the environment and organize a planned departure.
On May 19, the Cork army continued the offensive. The southern group forced the Berezina. The army reserve (6th division) began to advance in the direction of the main attack. Since that time, the Northern Group and individual groups of the 15th Army began to advance in diverging directions. The northern group advanced on Braslav, the right flank of the 15th army on Postavy, the center on Molodechno, the southern group on Zembin. There were large gaps between the groups, but there were no reinforcements or reserves to fill them. The rear of the Cork army was far behind, the advanced units lost their supplies, the army headquarters began to lose control. The movement of troops slowed down.
On May 19, two divisions of the 16th Army successfully crossed the Berezina and captured the bridgehead on the west bank. However, Sollogub’s army was hit 80 km south of the left flank of the 15th Army, which greatly weakened the impact of this attack on the development of the entire operation. In addition, the 16th Army could not establish cooperation with the 15th Army. The 8th division of Sollogub’s army took the Igumen settlement and by 24 May advanced 60 km in depth. However, then the Poles counterattacked and on May 27 the troops of the 16th Army retreated beyond Berezina. At the same time, Polish troops drove out for the Berezina part of the 16th army that advanced in the Borisov area.
The Polish command successfully led the troops back, avoiding defeat. At the same time, forces were being transferred from other directions, from Poland and Ukraine, and a counteroffensive was being prepared. 1,5 divisions were transferred from Poland, 2,5 divisions from Little Russia, and a reserve army was created from them. The Poles formed shock groups in the Sventsyansky, Molodechensky, Zembinsky directions against the 15th Soviet army. On May 23-24, Polish troops began to move, began to wedge themselves in the location of the Soviet army, which during the May attack advanced 110-130 km. By the end of May 1920, the Poles stopped the Russians and began to squeeze the 15th Army. June 2, the Poles were able to break into the rear of the army of Cork and almost drove it into the "boiler". Soviet troops, stubborn resistance began to withdraw, giving up a significant part of the previously occupied territory. The Red Army retreated east 60–100 km. By June 8, 1920, the situation stabilized, both sides went on the defensive.
Thus, the army of Tukhachevsky could not develop the initial success, block and destroy the Belarusian enemy group. The Poles successfully withdrawn and regrouped the troops, deployed reinforcements, reserves and successfully counterattacked. Soviet troops retreated to their original positions. The reasons for the failure were errors of the high and front command, poor preparation of the operation - the second echelon and reserves for the development of the first success were absent or did not have time to arrive at the beginning of the battle, communications and rear support. However, the Western Front was able to pull back the Polish divisions and eased the position of Soviet troops in Ukraine, which conducted a successful Kiev operation.
Commander of the Western Front Mikhail Tukhachevsky