Grodno – a symbol of resistance

In the deliberations of Polish historians and journalists, the topic of Grodno in September 1939 and the lonely struggle of its inhabitants against the Soviet invasion returns every year. This is because it was the longest defensive fight during the aggression of the Red Army against Poland.

Parade of the 81st Regiment of King Stefan Batory’s Grodno Riflemen

Before the war, Grodno – now in Belarus – was a significant centre of economic and cultural life, with over 50,000 inhabitants, of which 60 per cent were Poles. It was the seat of administrative and military authorities. Military institutions had their seats here, in particular, the Command of the Corps District No. III. Moreover, there were, among others, the command of the 29th Infantry Division and the command of the Brigade of Border Protection Corps (KOP) “Grodno”. An inseparable element of the landscape of Grodno were the soldiers of the units stationed in the city: the 81st Regiment of King Stefan Batory’s Grodno Riflemen and the 76th Ludwik Narbutt’s Lida Infantry Regiment, as well as the 7th Armoured Battalion.

Grodno on a pre-war map of Poland

Such a large concentration of institutions and military units meant that Grodno was perceived as one of the largest and most heavily armed garrisons in the Republic of Poland. In the event of a war with Germany, however, the plans did not include Grodno as a point of resistance. The city was to remain in the hinterland of the main hostilities. Notwithstanding, the “Grodno” Fortified Area was established, the purpose of which was to maintain Grodno and the railway line on the Niemen river. The mobilisation plan provided for the use of only eleven companies of soldiers for this purpose.

King of Poland Stefan Batory’s castle in Grodno – a pre-war view

At the same time, the situation of Grodno itself changed due to the mobilisation plans. Although mobilisation in the city proceeded very smoothly, gathering large numbers of reservists in the barracks, yet over time there were no officers who could take positions of command. Despite the staff and equipment shortages, the commander of the “Grodno” Fortified Area, Colonel Bohdan Hulewicz, intended to form a fully-fledged combat unit from the reservists, ready to defend the city.

However, the creation of the “Prusy” Army, which was to be the reserve of the Supreme Commander (south-west of Warsaw) meant that these plans had to change. According to the mobilisation plan, the “Prusy” Army included Grodno units – the 76th and 81st Infantry Regiments and the 21st Light Artillery Regiment. Tanks and armoured cars of the 7th Armoured Battalion were delivered to three cavalry brigades. Regular troops, trained and armed, were thus designated to fight on the western border with Germany.

The troops leaving the city did not cause any anxiety among the inhabitants. However, the relocation of the Grodno units into the interior of the country fundamentally changed the situation and influenced Grodno’s defence capabilities, regardless of the direction from which the threat was to come. Despite the lack of people and equipment, Colonel Hulewicz managed to make some preparations. Anti-aircraft ditches were created in the city, and the bottles confiscated at the local spirit bottling plant were filled with a mixture of kerosene and gasoline. As the near future was to show, they were to be effective anti-tank weapons. These were preparations – which should be emphasized – in the event of a defence against Germany.

During the first few days of September, Grodno was bombed every day. Air defence activities turned out to be ineffective. There were fatalities and injuries. At that time, the mobilized units of the Grodno garrison were used for combat operations in the vicinity of Piotrków Trybunalski (135 km south-west of Warsaw).

After Col. Hulewicz left the city, there was no officer in the town who could command the defence. The commander of the Corps District No. III, General Józef Olszyna-Wilczyński, who on September 19 went to the nearby Sopoćkinie (he was murdered by the Red Army soldiers near this city on September 22), did not indicate a new officer in charge of the defence.

General J. Olszyna-Wilczyński leaving the barracks in Grodno. Scene from the movie “Krew na bruku. Grodno 1939”

In this way, a small crew of two infantry battalions, five artillery platoons and the guard battalion No. 31 of Major Benedykt Serafin, remained in Grodno. They were to fulfil the duty of defending the city. Volunteers dominated – students, scouts, members of the Military Training and reservists. Women and young girls – volunteers and members of the Women’s Military Training Organization, organized medical aid, communications and support facilities for the soldiers.

The entry of the Red Army into the eastern territories of Poland completely changed the situation of Grodno and put into question the possibility of resisting the invasion. Nevertheless, work on the preparation of anti-aircraft ditches and anti-tank barriers was resumed in the city; access to the bridges over the Niemen, where posts were located, was also blocked. The Grodno crew, however, with a strength of about 2,000 soldiers, had little chance of an effective resistance. The defenders did not have enough weapons, nor did they have the basic skills in the field of military craftsmanship.

Major Serafin was ordered to leave the city, but refused to do so. He headed the combat-ready soldiers, which earned him their respect and sympathy. He was a realist, and he knew the resistance could not be successful. This fight could only be fought for the honour of the city and its inhabitants. Speaking to the assembled volunteers, he allowed for a voluntary surrender of arms before any action began, but none of them took advantage of this opportunity.

The inhabitants and the crew were abandoned by the civilian and military authorities. In a short time, the mayor of the city and the head of the district left Grodno. Only the deputy mayor Roman Sawicki remained in his position. The Command of the District Corps No. III, also left the city and went to Wilno (at that time Polish, now Vilnius in Lithuania).

More and more is known about the defence of Grodno in September 1939. Street fights with Soviet tanks, pelted with petrol filled bottles, have become symbolic. Despite the enormous commitment, however, the battle was conducted chaotically and without much plan.

The departure of the civil and military authorities removed hope from the lives of the inhabitants that minimal order would be maintained in an already difficult situation. Instead, it created a dangerous situation for the defenders – it revealed a sizable group of those who supported the Red Army. Their knowledge of the defenders, the location of resistance points in the city, passed on with impunity to the encroaching Soviet troops, further threatened the combatants.

Defenders of Grodno. A scene from the same movie

When considering the situation of Grodno in September 1939, the most important questions seem to be about the specific character of this city, defined by the bravery, courage and uncompromising attitude of its inhabitants. The fate of Grodno, like the other eastern territories of Poland, was decided by the highest military authorities, which, disregarding the threat from the east, focused their entire military effort on activities with the expected enemy – Germany. This lack of imagination, which made the city of Grodno defenceless, left its inhabitants in a situation with virtually no solution, but it released in ordinary people a sense of responsibility for the  others who remained in the city, for their own existence, which had to be protected.

Grodno has become a symbol of determination, but also of a bloody battle between the victors and the defeated. It is also a symbol of the unequal struggle of all the inhabitants of Kresy – the Polish Borderlands, who also remained defenceless against the Soviet invasion. The question about the meaning of the fight in those conditions does not provide a clear answer. Should Grodno be defended? From the point of view of the Polish authorities, there was no need to fight, as it was not possible to undertake an effective and even defence. However, from the position of the city’s inhabitants left to their own fate, there could be only one answer – fight! In the name of honour, dignity, at any cost, even for the loss of life, which happened to many. Due to the strength of its inhabitants, Grodno, alone and defenceless, despite its severe defeat, turned into a city of ruthless resistance, marked by its destruction and its victims.

Agnieszka Jędrzejewska

The author has a PhD in History. The abbreviations in the article come from the editor.

Photos – Public Domain

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