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The Polish Thermopylae – Wizna

The battle of Wizna is one of the most famous episodes of the heroic defence of Poland in September 1939. A fortified defence line guarding the crossing of the Narew River was located near the village of Wizna. It was commanded by the thirty-one-year-old Captain Władysław Raginis. He had an infantry battalion, including a fortress company and an engineer company, at his disposal. The battalion was more than 350 soldiers and officers strong (not 700, as older publications stated), armed with six cannons, 24 heavy machine guns and two antitank rifles. The battalion occupied eight reinforced concrete bunkers, with the one located on Góra Strękowa serving as the headquarters. With these forces the commander of Wizna held off the armoured corps of several dozen thousand soldiers under one of the best German commanders, General Heinz Guderian, for three days.

The German troops approached Wizna on 7 September and struck the Poles on the following day. Raginis’ men did not succumb to the powerful artillery fire and countered the initial attack. On the following day, they halted further attacks, destroying a dozen or so enemy tanks. The deputy commander, Lieutenant Stanisław Brykalski, was killed in the fighting, and the Captain was heavily wounded.

On 10 September, when the Germans had already destroyed most of the Polish bunkers, Captain Raginis committed suicide by throwing himself on a grenade. He was faithful to his oath in which he swore not to surrender his position. As historian Apoloniusz Zawilski wrote about the brave commander, “He had always displayed an extraordinary sense of duty and dogged persistence.” The bravery of Raginis made him a hero of September 1939 – the uneven battle fought by the Polish Army with two aggressors, Germany and the Soviet Union. The bunkers defending the Wizna line under his command earned the honourable name of the Polish Thermopylae.

In 2012, Captain Władysław Raginis was posthumously promoted to the rank of major.

Marek Gałęzowski, PhD