Insurgent Troops

The Greater Poland Air Force 1919-1920

Mariusz Niestrawski

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The history of Polish air force has, for many years, been a subject which is rather difficult to ignore. However, the interest of historians is not distributed evenly. Those subjects related specifically to the glory of the Polish wings, i.e. the air campaigns during World War II, have always enjoyed much greater popularity, while less is written about the beginnings of the Polish Air Force. Among the few publications which do touch upon the history of Polish aviation in the years 1918-1920, a certain selectiveness may be noticed. Researchers place more emphasis on the presentation of the participation of the Polish Air Force in the shaping of the Eastern border, and less attention is paid to the representation of the events in Greater Poland. This situation could lead to a failure to appreciate the contribution of Greater Poland in the building of the Air Force of the Second Republic of Poland; it is certainly worth taking the time to reflect on the history of aviation in this region in the years 1919-1920.


The centre, around which the air forces took shape in the former Prussian partition, was the airport in Ławica near Poznań. Until the end of the year 1918, the Reserve Aviation Unit No. 4 was stationed at the airport in Ławica. The activities of this unit were concentrated on the training of flying personnel (pilots and observers) and auxiliary personnel. Also repairs and checks of aeroplanes were performed in Ławica.


There were about 200 soldiers in service in this unit. For the most part, these were Germans, but this group also included several dozen Poles. Among the soldiers of Polish nationality, there was Sergeant Pilot Wiktor Pniewski, a member of the Polish Military Organisation of the Prussian Partition who was assigned the task of the initiation of the preparations for the organisation of a Polish aviation unit. At the very beginning, the Polish pilot focused on acquiring weapons and checking the contents of the warehouses and hangars in Ławica. Pniewski managed to engage 5 other pilots, 2 observers and 2 aviation mechanics, also of Polish nationality, in these covert activities.


The outbreak of the uprising in Poznań surprised the Germans, who were pushed out of the administrative borders of Greater Poland within just a couple of days. However, the command of the insurgent armies had to struggle with the problem of what to do with the nearby Ławica, where German soldiers from defeated units had found refuge.

The buildings of the Air Base in Ławica. Photo from the year 1919, from the collection of the Digital National Library - “Polona”



There were two opposing views among the members of City Command. The Polish Military Organisation of the Prussian Partition (PMOPP) suggested capturing the Air Base because, on the one hand, it was striving for the expansion of the territory occupied by the Poles, and on the other hand, it was afraid of the armed Germans in the immediate vicinity of Poznań. Furthermore, there was the risk that the German soldiers, deprived of supplies, could start confiscating food in the surrounding areas. The stance taken by the PMOPP was opposed by the members of the Commissariat of the Supreme People's Council, who were afraid of the German response (including the possible bombardment of Poznań).


The members of the PMOPP managed to push through their postulates on 4 January and one day later, representatives of the insurgents were sent to the airport. The Polish demand of non-conditional capitulation was strongly rejected. Conversely, the Poles also did not wish to agree to the German proposals.


After returning from Ławica, the insurgents involved themselves in the preparation of a plan for the seizure of the Air Base. Before the attack, the main electric cable which connected Ławica with Poznań was cut, and as a consequence of this the Air Base was plunged into darkness; this was to done ensure the surprise necessary for the success of the attack. The attack on the airport was delegated to three infantry companies, a mounted riflemen platoon, several units of the PMOPP and a sanitary unit. Support was to be provided by two 80mm cannons and several machine guns. The command of the entire operation was taken by Second Lieutenant Andrzej Kopa. Among the insurgents who attacked Ławica at that time, there were a few of the subsequent prominent aviators: Second Lieutenant Observer Franciszek Stempniewicz, Sergeant Pilot Wiktor Pniewski, Sergeant Pilot Józef Mańczak and Sergeant Observer Andrzej Płachta.


The main forces were to strike from the side of the Ławica village. The artillery, protected by an infantry unit, took up positions in the area of the Poznań-Wola railway station. The cavalry and volunteers from the PMO were assigned the task of a diversionary attack from the direction of Poznań. Early in the morning, on 6 January 1919, the airport in Ławica was seized by force. Yet again, the insurgents sent envoys, but to no avail. Taking advantage of the darkness, the attackers managed to get very close to the airport. The German machine gun crews aimed too high and therefore did not create any serious obstacle.


The interior of the aircraft hangar in Winiary near Poznań, filled with airframes. Visible are the fuselages of the following aeroplanes: Albatros B.II, AEG C.IV, AEG N.I and LVG C.V. Photo from the collections of the “Polona” Digital National Library



The Polish cannons fired only four times, so as not to cause a fire at the airport by accident. The losses of both parties to the conflict were insignificant and were limited to only a few dead and wounded. 26 fully operational aeroplanes and 20 machine guns were captured in Ławica. At the same time, over one hundred prisoners of war were taken. The Polish acquisitions were significantly increased as a result of the capture of an aircraft hangar in the nearby Winiary - the insurgents managed to seize about 215 airframes there. Two-seater aeroplanes such as LVGs, Rumplers, Albatrosses and Halberstadts, one-seater fighters such as Albatrosses and Fokkers, and two-seater training Albatros aeroplanes were seized. As well as the aeroplanes, which were now in the hands of insurgents, there were also several dozen aircraft engines, spare parts, ammunition and aerial bombs, on-board weapons, field hangars, cars, motorcycles, carts, photographic equipment, aviation equipment and also some balloon equipment.


On the day of the seizure of Ławica by the Poles, Sergeant W. Pniewski was appointed as the commandant of the Air Base. Four companies were formed at the airport. The 1st aviation company included pilots and a group of mechanics. This was, in principle, the flight school, in charge of which was Sergeant Pilot J. Mańczak. Sergeant Franciszek Gruszkiewicz commanded the 2nd workshop company, while the 3rd guard company was commanded by Sergeant Józef Szyfter. The last subunit of the Air Base was the 4th recruit company.



As part of the first company, a Combat Group was also formed. The group was composed of the most experienced aviators commanded directly by the commandant of the Air Base. The latter was subordinated to the Central Command of the Uprising through the aviation department which was headed by Second Lieutenant Observer F. Stempniewicz. The aviation department was also established on 7 January.


On the same day, three or four German Gotha G.IV bombers appeared over the Air Base. They flew from the airport in Frankfurt an der Oder. The Germans dropped 18 bombs and although it is true that the bombardment per se did not cause any losses in people, a wooden barrack-house did catch fire. The losses could have been much greater, because the Poles had not managed to organise any solid anti-aircraft defence. It was only after the bombardment that the Air Base was reinforced with two companies which were ordered to prepare machine guns to repulse attacks from the air.


This anti-aircraft defence passed its exam on the following day, when the Germans arrived with another air raid. The formation of three Gotha G.IV bombers did not manage to get through to the airport, however, one aeroplane was forced to carry out an emergency landing. The German aviators did manage to destroy their damaged Gotha before they were taken into captivity and imprisoned in the Citadel.



The first flight, providing support to the armies on the Front, was carried out by the Greater Poland aviators on 17 January 1919. The crew, which consisted of Pilot Ludwik Piechowiak and Sergeant Observer Andrzej Płachta, conducted reconnaissance over the region to the west of Leszno. After a few days, the Polish aeroplane conducted reconnaissance with regards to the situation in the direction of Zbąszyń. On their way back, the Polish aviators decided to land near Posadowo, so that Sergeant Płachta could report directly to the commander of the section. Piechowiak and Płachta also flew several missions over northern Greater Poland. Such tasks were performed by the most experienced pilots and observers of the Air Base, which was now the assembly point for all of the Polish aviators in Greater Poland.


The next days and weeks brought a re-organisation of the Greater Poland Air Force, which was now starting to resemble a regular army. This was, after all, a general trend noticeable in all of the insurgent armed forces. On 18 January, Second Lieutenant Pilot Jerzy Dziembowski became the temporary commander of the Greater Poland Uprising. However, he held this position for a short time, as four days later General Józef Dowbor-Muśnicki handed command of the Greater Poland Air Force over to Colonel Pilot Gustaw Macewicz.


On 31 January, the manning of the Air Force Command was established. The position of commander (inspector) of the Air Force should now be taken by a pilot with the rank of general major, general second lieutenant or possibly colonel, and a colonel pilot should fulfil the function of his assistant, but because of a shortage of officers, the giving of this function to a subaltern was permitted. Places for one officer responsible for technical issues and one officer responsible for economic and front-related issues were provided for in the Command. Also an adjutant and a secretary were supposed to serve as staff members. These two people were also supposed to be part of the flying personnel.




The Air Force Command was subordinated to the Commander of Polish Armed Forces in the Former Prussian Partition. The competences of the Air Force Command included all matters related to the air force, aviation schools, workshops and depots.


Also, on 31 January, the manning of the air squadron was announced. A unit of this size was supposed to be commanded by a captain pilot (or otherwise possibly a lieutenant pilot). Furthermore, the flying personnel should consist of six pilots, four observers and two aircraft gunners. The squadron also comprised 125 people in the ground crew. The unit was supposed to be provided with seven aeroplanes: five reconnaissance aircraft, one fighter plane and one attack plane. All this should be complemented by two reserve aircraft. One tool kit and six spare part kits were to be assigned to each aircraft. Two kits of spare parts were ensured for each aircraft engine. The squadron would also receive 5 reserve propellers, 7 hangars, 8 heavy machine guns, a set of gunner tools, 2 cameras, 10 signal pistols, ammunition for machine guns, bombs and flares.

Based on this, the organisation of squadrons was started in February and March 1919. The relevant order was given on 12 February, and one day later, Second Lieutenant Pilot W. Pniewski started working on the establishment of the 1st Greater Poland Air Force Squadron. Second Lieutenant Pilot J. Dziembowski was appointed as the new commandant of the Air Base in Ławica. Pniewski’s squadron was provided with six aeroplanes: five LVG C.V reconnaissance aircraft and one Albatros D.Va fighter plane. Colonel Pilot G. Macewicz, who commanded the entire Greater Poland Air Forces, not only oversaw the air force in the former Prussian partition, but also bore the difficult situation faced by the Polish squadrons in Galicia in mind. The commander of the Air Force in Greater Poland decided to send the 1st Greater Poland Squadron to Lesser Poland in order to support the countrymen there. He could afford to send this squadron to the east because another combat unit was feverishly being organised at the airport in Ławica: On 14 February, Rittmeister Pilot Tadeusz Grochowalski commenced the establishment of the 2nd Greater Poland Air Force Squadron. The staff and aeroplane resources in Ławica looked good, therefore, as early as 2 April, the squadron, commanded by Second Lieutenant Pilot Edmund Norwid-Kudła could begin to participate in front-line operations. The equipment of the unit included German two-seater aeroplanes –Halberstadt Cl.IIs and C.Vs and one fighter plane–an Albatros D.III.


The squadron commanded by Second Lieutenant Pilot E. Norwid-Kudła was sent to the Southern Front of the Uprising. Its first field airport was located in Klęka, near Nowe Miasto nad Wartą. The aviators of the squadron mainly carried out reconnaissance flights. According to the guidelines of Colonel G. Macewicz, Norwid-Kudła’s squadron was to check whether the Polish armies were threatened by any serious danger from the direction of Rawicz. It also carried out propaganda flights, flying over the borders of Silesia.


An inspection by the commander of the Polish Armed Forces of the Former Prussian Partition, General Józef Dowbor--Muśnicki at the airport in Ławica (March 1919). With his back to the camera and wearing boots with spurs, there is the Greater Poland Air Force Inspector, Colonel Pilot Gustaw Macewicz, and next to him: General Dowbor-Muśnicki. The officers of the Air Base are standing in a line: from the left - Second Lieutenant Pilot Jerzy Dziembowski, unknown, Second Lieutenant Pilot Wiktor Pniewski, Second Lieutenant Pilot Edmund Norwid-Kudło, Second Lieutenant Pilot Józef Mańczak, unknown, Second Lieutenant Pilot Wojciech Biały and military official Hullej. Photo from the collection of Priest R. Kulczyński SDB


An inspection by the commander of the Polish Armed Forces of the Former Prussian Partition, General Józef Dowbor--Muśnicki at the airport in Ławica (March 1919). With his back to the camera and wearing boots with spurs, there is the Greater Poland Air Force Inspector, Colonel Pilot Gustaw Macewicz, and next to him: General Dowbor-Muśnicki. The officers of the Air Base are standing in a line: from the left - Second Lieutenant Pilot Jerzy Dziembowski, unknown, Second Lieutenant Pilot Wiktor Pniewski, Second Lieutenant Pilot Edmund Norwid-Kudło, Second Lieutenant Pilot Józef Mańczak, unknown, Second Lieutenant Pilot Wojciech Biały and military official Hullej. Photo from the collection of Priest R. Kulczyński SDB


The first flight over the southern edge of Greater Poland and the northern edge of Silesia was carried out by a crew composed of Second Lieutenant Pilot E. Norwid-Kudło and Sergeant Observer Tadeusz Kostro. Using a Halberstadt C.V, they flew over Ostrów Wielkopolski, Kluczbork and Oleśnica. It is also worth mentioning a particular flight dated 23 May 1919, which ended in a crash: at 7:15 p.m. the 2nd Squadron lost one Halberstadt C.V along with its the crew: Sergeant Pilot Łukasz Durka and Sergeant Observer Stanisław Kruszona. The aeroplane crashed during its take-off for a combat flight.


On 6 March, at the airport in Ławica, Rittmeister Pilot T. Grochowalski started to organise the 3rd Greater Poland Air Force Squadron. However, at that stage of the formation of the Greater Poland Air Force, problems with staffing and equipment appeared; the unit only became fully operational as late as on 1 June 1919. Several days before this, Grochowalski transferred the command of the squadron to Lieutenant Colonel Pilot Marek Krzyczkowski. The squadron was provided mainly with DFW C.V and LVG C.V for intelligence purposes.


In Greater Poland, during the period of autonomy, three reconnaissance squadrons and one fighter unit were established - on 25 May, work on the organisation of the 4th Greater Poland Air Force Squadron was commenced. This task was charged to Lieutenant Pilot J. Dziembowski.

The two-seater escort aircraft – Halberstadt Cl.II- No. SLŁ 208/18 in a hangar in Ławica.

As well as this plane, there are also: an Albatros C.Ia No. SLŁ 126/17 and an Albatros C.VII. Photo from the collection of Priest Robert Kulczyński SDB


The provision of any appropriate aeroplanes to the squadron turned out to be a serious problem - in January 1919, not many fighter planes were captured in Greater Poland. Therefore, the new squadron was provided with used aeroplanes of the following types: Fokker D.VII (2 aeroplanes), E.V (1 aeroplanes) and Albatros D.III (3 aeroplanes). In the summer, the squadron was rearmed with French Spad S.VIIC1 fighter planes. Finally, however, German Fokkers D.VII started to be used again.


At the beginning of June, the 3rd Greater Poland Air Force Squadron was sent to the airport in Góra near Jarocin. It carried out operations along the Greater Poland-Silesian border and conducted reconnaissance of the movements of the German armies there. The aviators also dropped leaflets addressed to the Poles in the Upper Silesia region. The squadron lost two aeroplanes in this area. Sergeant Pilot Stanisław Wrembela and Sergeant Observer Marian Skórzyński managed to get through to the territory under Polish authorities, while the crew of the second aeroplane: Lieutenant Pilot Wiktor Lang and Sergeant Observer Jan Kasprzak were taken into captivity.

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