Operation Battle of Przemyśl

The 'Battle of Przemyśl' was fought between Germans and Polish forces within 'Weiss' (i) for possession of the former Austro-Hungarian fortress of Przemyśl (11/14 September 1939).

The Polish forces managed to halt the German advance for three days before capitulating on 14 September.

In the 2nd Polish Republic, Przemyśl was an important military garrison, and included the headquarters of General brygady Wacław Scaevola-Wieczorkiewicz)'s 9th Military District and the 38th Lwów Regiment, which was part of Pułkownik Boleslaw Schwarzenberg-Czerny’s (later Pułkownik Boleslaw Maria Krzyzanowski’s) 24th Division. In the first days of the German 'Weiss' (i) invasion, the 24th Division remained in the Polish commander-in-chief’s reserve. On 3 September it was attached to the Operational Group 'Jasło', part of the Armia 'Karpaty'. The division was moved by train to Tarnów and Dębica. In the second week of September, the front line approached the San river, which was defended by troops of Generał brygady Wacław Scewola-Wieczorkiewicz, commander of the army’s lines of communication. Scewola-Wieczorkiewicz’s forces were inadequate to defend an extended line, however, and this difficulty was compounded by the fact that the river’s water level was very low after the hot and dry summer of 1939. Thus the advancing German forces of General Wilhelm List’s 4th Army, within Generaloberst Gerd von Rundstedt’s Heeresgruppe 'Süd', were able to cross the San river without difficulty. On 8 September Generał dywizji Kazimierz Fabrycy, commander of the Armia 'Karpaty', ordered preparation for the defence of Przemyśl, in which the Polish forces were commanded by Generał brygady Jan Chmurowicz; the military commandant of Przemyśl was Pułkownik Mieczyslaw Sokol-Szahin.

On the night of 8/9 September, Polish soldiers were holding two defensive lines. Two infantry battalions with pieces of artillery defended the district of Zasanie with the task of holding their positions on nearby hills until the forces of Pułkownik Bronisław Prugar-Ketling’s 11th Division, fighting the Germans near Dubiecko, reached the safety of the fortress. The second line of defence was held, on a temporary basis, by just a single infantry battalion. The road bridge over the San river had been readied for demolition, while railway bridge was barricaded with freight cars and barbed wire entanglements.

Since the beginning of the campaign, Przemyśl had been attacked on several occasions by the Luftwaffe. On 7 and 8 September, two raids brought widespread destruction and losses, and on the latter date two platoons of anti-aircraft guns were brought to Przemyśl from Krosno and Sanok, but on 10 September both platoons were further moved to Lwów.

On 9 September the evacuation of civil servants began, and during the evening of that same day members of the Strzelec riflemen’s association, a paramilitary organisation, moved toward Lwów. On 10 September, the headquarters of the 9th Military District were evacuated. As a result of the chaotic situation in the city, the army authorities had to use military police to restore order in Przemyśl. The situation was worsened by the presence of very large numbers of refugees from western Poland, and thousands of soldiers whose units had been destroyed by the Germans.

During the morning of 10 September, Generalmajor Dr Alfred Ritter von Hubicki’s 4th leichte Division reached the San river near Radymno, and after a short skirmish with weak Polish forces, crossed the river. Next the Germans captured Jarosław, after a battle which lasted several hours. On 11 September, Generalmajor Rudolf Veiel’s 2nd Panzerdivision reached the area of Przemyśl in pursuit of the Polish 10th Motorised Cavalry Brigade.

A motorised column of the 4th leichte Division attacked Przemyśl in an effort to take the city straight off the march. The attackers were repelled by Polish artillery, but in overall terms the situation of the Polish forces in the area of the city worsened, as in the south motorised units of Generalmajor Ludwig Kübler’s 1st Gebirgsdivision captured Dobromil, and its patrols approached Przemyśl on 11 September but failed to seize the city.

On the night of 11/12 September, on the orders of Generał brygady Jan Chmurowicz, Polish forces attacked German artillery batteries located in Kosienice. The raid was a failure, as the Polish soldiers, faced by German machine guns, had to retreat. On 12 September, near Bircza, the 24th Division was involved in heavy fighting with Generalmajor Hans Degen’s 2nd Gebirgsdivision. In the evening of that day, the Germans broke through Polish positions, forcing the 24th Division to retreat.

On 13 September Polish heavy artillery removed from Przemyśl to Mostyska, but en route the column was bombed by the Luftwaffe. During the night, units of 11th Division entered Przemyśl after heavy fighting with Generalleutnant Friedrich Materna’s 45th Division. The Polish soldiers rested in Przemyśl for a few hours, and in the morning of 14 September departed for Lwów but leaving one infantry battalion and one battery of artillery.

On 14 September, therefore, the defence of Przemyśl rested on seven infantry battalions, one company of engineers and six platoons of artillery. These units came from a number of different formations, and in many cases did not know the city they defended. The German forces comprised Generalmajor Eugen Ott’s 7th Division and elements of Generalleutnant Albrecht Schubert’s 44th Division and the 45th Division.

During the morning of 14 September, the Germans attempted to take the city with a frontal attack, but were halted by machine gun and artillery fire. The main fighting took place in the south, where the Germans, in the aftermath of an artillery bombardment, crossed the San river and attacked the village of Kruhel Maly. After a Polish counterattack, in which there was close-quarter fighting, the situation stabilised during the evening. In the north, German attacks also failed.

In the evening of 14 September Pułkownik J. Matuszek, the commander of the city’s defence in succession to Chmurowicz, was ordered by Generał broni Kazimierz Sosnkowski, the deputy commander-in-chief of the Polish armed forces, to abandon Przemyśl and march eastward to Lwów. The Polish units initially headed for Mosciska, blowing the bridges behind them. During the morning of the following day, the Germans entered Przemyśl.

The four-day battle was followed by three days of massacres by the German soldiers and police against the many hundreds of Jews who lived in the city. More than 500 Jews were murdered in and around the city, and the vast majority of the city’s Jewish population was deported across the San river into the portion of Poland that was occupied by the USSR.