We tend to impose narratives on history, seizing on compelling legends and streamlining complex events into a convenient and rousing story. Thus first act of World War II is often told as a story of Polish cavalry, lances in hand, charging unstoppable Nazi tanks.
However, one Polish cadet and his ridiculously tiny tankette would illustrate that the Panzers of that conflict did not have everything go their way—though even his heroic narrative may turn out to be a bit tidier than the reality.
War affected Edmund Roman Orlik from the onset—his father, a military pilot, had died in World War I just prior to his birth on January 1918 in Rogozno, Poland. Mechanically inclined, Orlik joined the Polish Army as an officer cadet after graduating from high school and trained with its armored forces.
The Polish army’s principle armored vehicles were its 580 tankettes, based on the British Carden-Lloyd. The little 2.9-ton TK-3 stood less than four and a half feet tall and carried a crew of two and a single machine gun for armament.
The little tankettes were disbursed to cavalry units to serve in a reconnaissance and fire support role. However, with a range of only 120 miles at 25 miles per hour—or half that off-road—the TK-3 had such poor suspension that crews tended to fall ill and become exhausted after just a half hour’s ride.
In 1933 the Poles developed the enhanced TKS tankette with greatly improved suspension and a more reliable 46-horsepower FIAT-122 engine. They also added a revolutionary 360-degree vision periscope, and slightly upgraded the armor to eight- to 10-millimeters thickness.
This was just enough to protect against rifle bullets and shrapnel but little else, and the tankettes still lacked any weaponry effective against armored vehicles.
By 1939 Orlik had moved on to study at Warsaw Polytechnic and became a telegraph operator. But in August, rising tensions with Nazi Germany caused the Polish Army to begin mobilizing. Orlik was conscripted as a sergeant first class into the 71st Armored Battalion, which consisted of a company of eight Wz-34 armored cars, armed with a mix of 37-millimeter guns and machine guns, a company of 13 tankettes, and a logistical company.
However, the 71st receive an unusual upgrade. Two years prior, engineer Wawrzyniec Lewandowski developed a rapid-fire blowback-operated 20-millimeter autocannon called the Wz.38 FK, which could spit out five to six rounds per second. Literally designated the “heaviest machine gun,” it had long, 74-caliber barrel, allowing the small shells to penetrate 25 millimeters of steel at a few hundred meters range.
The Polish military planned to install the expensive cannons on at least 100 tankettes, each of which could carry 16 five or ten-round box magazine. However, only 20 or 24 TKSs were upgraded before the war broke out, including three or four for the 71st.
Orlik’s was one of them—he commanded a “demi-platoon” with two machine-gun armed TK-3s, and partnered with driver-mechanic Corporal Bronislaw Zakrzewski.
The Polish cavalry strike back
The 71st was part of the Wielkopolska Cavalry Brigade in the Poznan Army, deployed far to the northwestern border with Germany. On the opening days of the conflict, German Grenwacht border guard units snatched the towns of Rawicz and Lezno.
The 71st’s armored car company supported the 55th Infantry Regiment in a counterattack that drove the Nazis out of Rawocz while the tankettes ran the Grenwacht out of Lezno. The following day the Polish cavalry did one better and launched a cross-border raid, shooting up German vehicles in Koenigsdorf — present-day Zalecze.
However, the German invasion plan, Case White, largely ignored Poznan and instead targeted the Pomorze and Łódź armies to the north and south respectively. Committed to a forward defense of the border, rather than a more robust defense-in-depth, both armies were steamrolled by German Panzers, leaving the Poznan Army in danger of being cut off in a pincer.
The army’s commander, Tadeusz Kutrzeba, begged for permission to counterattack to the south but was denied. Finally, on Aug. 8, the Army H.Q. fell out of contact, so Kutrzeba spurred his army on a breakout toward Warsaw. By then, the Germans had lost track of the army’s position, and assumed it had already withdrawn.
On Sept. 9, the Wielkopolska Cavalry Brigade surprised the 24th and 30th Infantry Divisions and sent them reeling back 20 kilometers, inflicting 1500 casualties and capturing 3000 along the Bzura River. The tankettes of the 71st participated in the action, shooting up a surprised German infantry column of the 30th division.
Realizing the serious threat to their flanks, the Heer pivoted the 4th and 10th Armies, away from their drive on Warsaw to deal with the counterattack on Sept. 11. These mustered 800 Panzers between them in five Panzer and light divisions. Meanwhile, nearly every Luftwaffe unit in the theater was redirected to pound the Poles. Outgunned and out-numbered two to one, the Bzura counterattack foundered with more than 40,000 killed or wounded.
However, the more mobile Polish units continued their movement toward Warsaw, attacking German-occupied towns in their path. On Sept. 14, the 7th Mounted Infantry and 15th Lancers successfully attacked Borochow, with the tankettes of the 71st providing fire support from across the Bzura River. For the first time they encountered enemy tanks—Panzer IIs of the 36th Panzer Regiment also armed with 20-millimeter autocannons, though of a faster-firing but lower-velocity type.
Positioned atop a hill, Orlik reportedly knocked out three of the light tanks, which were protected by only 14 millimeters of armor.
However, here the first discrepancies crop up. In 1966, another tankette commander, Cpl. Władysław Tritt claimed to have knocked out all three while part of a force of eight tankettes. Separately, one Cpl. Roman Nawrocki reported destroying two and damaged a third in 1979. The site Polish Armour details these controversies here.
Showdown with a prince in Kampinos Forest
As the retreat toward Warsaw continued, the 71st was forced to destroys its armored cars on Sept. 16 because they were incapable of fording the Bzura. Running short on supplies, the Poles scavenged shorter German 20-millimeter rounds for their cannon-armed TKSs. By Sept. 18, a lack of fuel scuttled most of the TK-3s.
The same day, Orlik’s demi-platoon sallied forth on a reconnaissance mission on the road to Pociecha in the Kampinos forest. Suddenly, Orlik heard the rumbling of approaching tanks. He ordered his two machine-gun armed TK-3s to withdraw, while he rolled his tankette into a concealed ambush position overlooking a road intersection.
Approaching him was a tank platoon led by Lt. Viktor IV Albrecht Johannes von Ratibor, heir to the Prince of Ratibor in Silesia. Some claim that his father’s criticism of the Nazis led to the 23-year-old aristocrat’s conscription.
Two Czech-built Panzer 35(t) tanks armed with 37-millimeter guns and protected by 25 millimeters of frontal armor accompanied Viktor. Albrecht himself rode on a 19-ton Panzer IVB, which boasted a stubby 75-millimeter low-velocity howitzer and a 30-millimeter frontal armor plate—easily the toughest and deadliest German tank then in service.
In fact, the Panzer IV proved such a robust design that, unlike its peers, it would serve through the end of the war and beyond, upgraded with a long-barreled gun and heavier armor. All the German tanks could also communicate via radio, unlike Polish armor.
However, both Panzers had only around 14 to 16 millimeters of armor on their flanks. Orlik waited until he had a clear shot at the lead tank’s side armor, then opened fire, causing smoke to pour out of the vehicle. The other two German tanks swerved off the road and began randomly shooting into the woods, unable to spot the dwarfish tankette.
Orlik proceeded to strike the Panzer IV with a volley of shells—which had no effect. The Pole then unloaded an entire magazine. This time, the rounds blasted a plate of the side hull armor clean off and apparently detonated the Panzer IV’s ammunition, causing it to burst into flames.
The third Panzer 35 began retreating, firing wildly. Orlik rolled his tankette into a new ambush position, and spotted Panzer driving alongside the road through some bushes. He knocked it out in a final burst of fire at only 60 meters range and proceeded to destroy several trucks.
The cadet then dismounted and personally captured two of the German tank crew, whom he recalled commented, “It is very hard to hit such a small cockroach with a gun!”
He also pulled Albrecht from his smoldering wreck. Badly burned, the German noble died minutes later. He was identified by his hunting license.
Years later, Orlik drew a map detailing the engagement.
However, Tritt offered a different account of the battle in a 1966 letter to a newspaper, claiming that all three tankettes had cannons and engaged the Germans together, backed up by a 37-millimeter anti-tank gun from the cavalry. According to Tritt, he personally knocked out two of the Panzers, while the third overran the anti-tank gun before being overwhelmed. He also mentions a German “general” burning alive in his tank.