Poland's 6th Airborne, 1957-2002

Unit Genesis and History

The 6th traces its history to the 6th Infantry Division, which was formed in 1944 and fought as a component of the Polish 1st Army, alongside the Red Army, during the final stages of the war. Its combat operations including the storming of the fortified city of Kolberg/Kolobrzeg, which won it the honorific designation of "Pomeranian". After the war, it took part in combat operations against anti-Communist partisans of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) operating in the south-eastern corner of Poland.

The idea of creating an airborne division within the Polish military originated with General Jozef Kuropieska, a pre-war General Staff officer who spent most of the war in a German prison camp. Gen. Kuropieska was apparently a long-time proponent of airborne forces, and even was able to study German airborne operations while a POW. After the war Kuropieska was allowed to return to service but, along with many other Polish officers, fell victim to a wave of Stalinist repressions that swept Poland in the late 1940s, and only narrowly managed to survive. Released from prison in 1956 after the process of de-Stalinization of Poland began, Kuropieska turned to the Minister of Defense, General (Marshal after 1963) Marian Spychalski with a proposal to form an airborne division. Spychalski, a veteran of Armia Ludowa (Polish Communist military underground organization) with experience in unconventional operations, understood the value of Kuropieska's proposal and approved it. Choice fell on the 6th Infantry Division to serve as the base of the new unit.

In spite of considerable wartime Polish experience in airborne operations, accumulated by General Stanislaw Sosabowski's 1st Separate Airborne Brigade (1 SBSpad.), the creation of the 6th Airborne proved more difficult than expected. Few of the veterans of 1 SBSpad. returned to Poland after the war. Those that did fell victim to the same wave of repressions that Gen. Kuropieska experienced. Due to the ruined health during stay in prison, only a handful of the veterans were still suitable for military service, but those that were were able to play an important role during the formative period of the division as advisors. The 6th Pomeranian Airborne Division (PDPD) was formally activated in 1957.

Difficulties were also experienced in the selection of an appropriate commander for the new unit. The choice fell on Lt. Col. Edwin Rozlubirski, who during the war served as the executive officer of the 4th AL Battalion, one of the more renowned Polish underground military formations. However, due to Rozlubirski's junior rank, he would become only the fourth commander of the division, in 1963. At the age of 32, he became the youngest general officer in Polish history.

Rozlubirski proved a perfect choice for the 6th PDPD. His experience as a partisan commander was ideally suited to the task of organizing, training, and commanding a unit that was, for all intents and purposes, an air-droppable partisan force, intended to operate behind enemy lines for long periods of time. The period of his command is generally considered to be "golden age" of the division. Rozlubirski's plans also intended the creation of an Assault-Landing Corps (Korpus Desantowy) for use as a rapid deployment force. The corps was to consist of the 6th PDPD, the 7th Amphibious Division, and the 15th Mechanized Division that would be converted into an air-landing force.

These plans came to naught in 1968, when Marian Spychalski was replaced at the post of Minister of Defense by Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski. A supporter of heavy mechanized forces, and lacking the experience in unconventional warfare that Spychalski and Rozlubirski possessed, Jaruzelski was skeptical about the future of airborne forces and did not believe large-scale airborne operations were feasible in the context of a NATO vs. Warsaw Pact general war. Therefore Jaruzelski's ascent resulted not only in the cancellation of the Assault-Landing Corps, but also in the slight reduction of the strength of the 6th PDPD. In 1986 its designation was changed from division to brigade (PBPD), a change that did not entail any organizational changes. In 1989, as the unit was evolving in the direction of an airmobile, rather than airborne, force, 6th PBPD became the 6th Assault Landing Brigade (BDSz.) and apparently lost its Pomeranian honorific. Since 1992 it carries the name of the first Polish airborne commander, Gen. Stanislaw Sosabowski.

In 1994 the 6th BDSz., supported by a transport helicopter regiment, was designated as Poland's Rapid Reaction Force. Since 1999 the 6th BDSz. is part of the Air-Mechanized Corps, which was formed on the basis of the deactivated Krakow Military District. Other units of the Corps are the 25th Air Cavalry Brigade (formerly division), 5th Armored Brigade, 3rd Mechanized Brigade, 21st Mountain Rifles Brigade, and the 5th Artillery Brigade.

Operations and Unit Quality

The 6th Airborne was and without a doubt remains an elite force. During the Warsaw Pact era, its training compared favorably with that received by its Soviet counterpart, the VDV. Its soldiers were trained to be proficient in mountaineering, skiing, assault river crossings, and other forms of unconventional warfare. Not saddled with BMDs or other armored vehicles, it by default became an excellent light infantry force, capable of effective operations in a wide range of terrain. By comparison, wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya have exposed the VDV's deficiencies in dismounted tactics.

At the same time, the unit's quality did not remain constant throughout its existence.  The peak of its capabilities was probably the late 1960s and early 1970s [Command Decision rating: Veteran, Morale 10]. However, its quality appears to have deteriorated somewhat in the late 1970s and 1980s due to a number of factors. They included a less hospitable political climate for airborne forces within the top echelons of the Polish military, following Jaruzelski's assumption of the post of Minister of Defense. Furthermore, the division became a victim of its own success. After it has impressed both domestic and foreign observers during Warsaw Pact exercises, the division's increased profile ironically resulted in its units being misused for the purpose of staging spectacular demonstrations of combat skills for visiting dignitaries, to the detriment of actual training. It also attracted increasing number of inspections, which forced the unit to devote more attention to superficialities, with training again suffering. These factors, incidentally, also plagued the VDV. Finally, during the 1980s the 6th PDPD appears to have played a role of something akin to a "palace guard" for Jaruzelski (who by then became the Party First Secretary, after the crackdown on Solidarity and the declaration of Martial Law in December 2001), to guard him against a possible coup by Party hardliners. Moreover, even the elite 6th PDPD was not unaffected by the dire economic crisis into which Poland was plunged at that time. [Command Decision rating: Experienced, Morale 8 or 9] Following the collapse of the Communist regime in Poland and the demise of Warsaw Pact, the 6th BDSz. appears to have recovered its earlier high level of training, particularly since this unit was slated to be one of the first to become "NATO-compatible" in the late 1990s, and became the Polish Army's "business card."

During the Warsaw Pact era, the division was intended to operate as a component of the Polish Front whose objective would be the capture of Denmark. Scenarios enacted during command post exercises of the era saw the 6th PDPD operating to capture strategic locations in Denmark. Other operational plans existed as well, and during at least one strategic command post exercise (held in 1976) the 6th PDPD was airdropped in Norway, near Oslo.

In the event of a high-intensity conflict, the division was to be transported into battle in two echelons. The first was to consist of all air-droppable equipment, whereas the second would air-land the division's heavier equipment, which required a capture of an airfield by the first-echelon airdrop. The division was intended to operate autonomously, with no resupply, behind enemy lines for up to four days. If by then the division was not relieved by advancing friendly ground forces, it was to break up into smaller units (down to platoon size) and operate as a guerrilla force. Since the Polish Air Force only had airlift sufficient to support peacetime training of the division, airlift assets would have had to be provided by the Soviet Military Transport Aviation (VTA).

The operational doctrine of the 6th PDPD changed toward the late 1970s. There was a shift in the division's doctrine away from using the unit as a single operational formation, and toward using individual assault battalions for specific operations. As a result, several of the division's support units (artillery, assault gun, and anti-aircraft battalions, which comprised the second, air-landing echelon of the division) and the 33rd Reserve Assault Battalion were either eliminated or significantly reduced. To compensate for the loss of divisional assets, individual assault battalions were reinforced.

The 6th PDPD never saw combat. Its operational history includes being placed on high alert in anticipation of possible deployment to the Middle East during the Six-Day War in 1967. In subsequent years, it contributed troops to the various UN peacekeeping operations in the Middle East. Apart from that, most of its operations (not counting major Warsaw Pact exercises, in which the 6th was a regular participant) involved suppression or preparation of suppression of pro-democracy movements in Poland or other Warsaw Pact countries. In 1968 it was deployed to Czechoslovakia as part of the Warsaw Pact effort to suppress the pro-democracy movement there. It was once again placed on alert in 1970, during labor disturbances in Poland. When the Martial Law was declared in 1981, units of the 6th seized the Okecie international airport, radio and TV stations in and around Warsaw, and supported internal security paramilitary units in suppression of anti-government labor strikes.

As Poland's government changed with the collapse of Warsaw Pact, so did the missions of the 6th BDSz. The most significant operations the the Polish paras participated in were the NATO peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, where their performance won the respect of NATO forces. 

Organization and Armament

The chart below illustrates the evolution of the organizational structure of the division:

Year 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80+
Infantry. battalions:                                                
10 aslt                                                
16 aslt                                                
18 aslt                                                
19 aslt                                                
19 rcn                                                
33 res aslt                                                
26 rcn                                                
Artillery battalions:                                                
5 mxd                                                
35 sp arty                                                
6 AA btry                                                
6 AA bn                                                
126 AA btry                                                
Separate Companies:                                                
48 rcn                                                
5 AT btry                                                
11 eng                                                
15 eng                                                

In addition, the organization also includes the 9th (6th, from 1967) Training Battalion, as well as medical, signals, landing zone support, and chemical companies, and other support units.

10th, 16th, and 18th Assault Battalions represent the main maneuver units of the division/brigade. The 19th Reconnaissance/Diversionary Battalion (whose mission was to prepare platoon-sized raiding units) was converted to an assault battalion in 1961, and redesignated as 18th in 1967. The 33rd Reserve Assault Battalion was a wartime-only unit.

The 26th Reconnaissance/Diversionary Battalion was only administratively subordinated to the 6th PDPD. Its mission was that of a strategic reconnaissance/raiding force, and it consisted of a combat diver company, four assault companies, and support units. After it was excluded from the 6th, it was renamed the 1st Assault Battalion. The 48th Reconnaissance Company was formed in its place.

The 5th Mixed Artillery Battalion represents the artillery support of the brigade. The 35th Self-Propelled Artillery Battalion was identical to Soviet airborne division assault gun battalions, and used ASU-85 assault guns borrowed from the Soviet 7th Guards Airborne Division.

The 6th AA Battery was transformed into the 6th AA Battalion, which in turn was downsized and transformed into the 126th AA Battery.

In the 1970s the division had following weapons in service: 18 WP-8 140mm MRLs, 26 120mm mortars, 20 82mm mortars, 30 SPG-9 recoilless rifles, 30 ATGM launchers, 26 23mm ZU-23-2 AA guns, 24 SA-7 SAMs, 328 jeeps, 359 light trucks.

Individual subunits were organized as follows:

Assault Battalion:
Three Assault Companies, each with three infantry platoons, one MG platoon ('50s, early '60s) or one Support platoon (from late '60s). Support platoon had 82mm mortars, recoilless rifles. [In Command Decision terms, each company has 1 Command Infantry stand, 1 Infantry Stand. Since each company had insufficient mortars and other heavy weapons to qualify for a full stand, these weapons will be represented by stands at battalion level.]

One 82mm Mortar Battery (three firing platoons)
One 82mm recoilless rifle battery (two firing platoons)

In 1965 the mortar battery is replaced by an artillery battery [one 120mm mortar stand, two 82mm mortar stands], and the recoilless rifle battery by an AT battery of two ATGM platoons and one SPG-9 platoon [two ATGM stands, two recoilless rifle stands, to account for SPG-9s probably assigned to company support platoons].

Each battalion received an engineer platoon, a reconnaissance platoon [1 recon stand or 2 patrol stands] and an AA artillery battery [1 ZU-23-2 w/lt truck] in the late 1970s. Transfer of ZU-23-2s to assault battalions was done at the expense of reducing the divisional AA battalion to a battery.

Infantry units used the RPG-2 as their squad-level AT weapon, replaced by RPG-7 beginning in late 1960s. SA-7 shoulder-launched SAMs were introduced in the late '60s or early '70s. Although there existed plans to mechanize the assault battalions by introducing BMP-1s and OT-64s, these plans were dropped by mid-1970s. ATGMs were AT-1 (on GAZ jeeps or BRDM-1s) from 1963 onward, officially replaced by suitcase AT-3 Saggers, although first firings of AT-3s by the division did not take place until 1974. AT-4 introduced in the mid-1970s, AT-7 in late 1970s. B-10 82mm recoilless rifles were replaced by 73mm SPG-9 in 1965.

82mm mortars were replaced by 82mm Vasilyok automatic mortars in the mid-1980s. Airborne units also used LPO-50 manpack flamethrowers, although it is not clear whether they were used by dedicated units or were issued to airborne squads on mission basis (most likely the latter).

Mixed Artillery Battalion:
The main firepower of the battalion were the three batteries of 6 towed WP-8 140mm multiple rocket launchers (eight launch tubes each) [3 WP-8 stands, w/lt trucks]. These weapons were introduced in 1961 and withdrawn in 1978. Other weapons used by the 5th Artillery Battalion included 107mm B-11 recoilless rifles (1961-63), SD-44 85mm AT guns (1963-1964?), which were in turn briefly replaced by 82mm B-10 recoilless rifles (1964-?). Once the rocket launchers were withdrawn, the unit was redesignated as the 5th Anti-Tank Artillery Battery with AT-4 ATGMs which were replaced in assault battalions by lighter AT-7 ATGMs.

Self-Propelled Artillery Battalion:
Three companies of ten ASU-85 assault guns, plus one battalion command vehicle [6 ASU-85 stands, including 3 command ones].

Reconnaissance Company: three reconnaissance platoons, no heavy weapons [2 recon stands or 4 patrol stands].

AA Battery/Battalion: 3-4 batteries of initially 14.5mm ZPU-2 AA machine-guns, replaced by ZU-23-2 in the late 1960s. In the 1970s the division had a total of 26 ZU-23-2s, including in AA batteries of individual assault battalions.

Hubert Marcin Krolikowski, 6 Pomorska Dywizja Powietrzno-Desantowa, (Pruszkow: Ajaks, 1997).

Polska Zbrojna, Zolnierz Polski, various issues.

Interviews with former unit members.

The J-8 Shop
Wargame Rules and Variants