Similar to other Countries around the Baltic Sea, Poland has a positive attitude towards its military past. Beside castles, barracks and traces of war from older ages, remarkably also some war material from the 20th century, and especially from WWII and the Cold War, has been in the focus of conservation activities.
The mystery bunkers in the southwest of the Country dating from the years of the Third Reich (see here), or the Soviet Monolith-type bunker in Podborsko (see here) and the impressive fallout monitoring center in Kalisz (see here), stand out as major remains from WWII and the Cold War for everybody to check out – and they are just examples.
Along those sites with a history of their own, Poland has many war museums, thematic collections and exhibitions to offer, retracing the evolution of its rich and extremely complex military history.
Looking at the 20th century, it is apparent that Poland has been swept violently and insistently by the winds of war. At the start of WWII, it was surrounded by the Third Reich on two sides, something that contributed to its quick invasion and defeat at the beginning of the conflict. A special relationship with the British meant some from the Polish military ended up directly in the British ranks in exile, whereas others were incorporated in a pro-German Army. However, in the closing stage of the war, when the unfriendly Soviets invaded from the East on their run to Berlin, some from Poland entered the ranks of a pro-Soviet, anti-German army.
Following WWII, Poland was re-founded with new borders, basically those we know today, and due to the presence of the Soviet Army on their territory, they quickly fell under communist control. The relationship between the USSR and Poland military was strong during the Cold War, and the military assets of the Polish Army were massive. The Red Army was also physically stationed in the Western part of the Country, in preparation to a much planned full-scale ‘atomic-supported blitz’ to the Atlantic coast, which luckily never materialized.
The many collections to check out in Poland these days are especially rich in Cold War era supply, and therefore they are tremendous resources for finding many examples of Soviet technology from the Cold War era. However, in most cases also highly valuable material from WWII and from the fierce battles fought on Polish territory mainly between the Germans and the Soviets can be checked out.
This post presents a quick, mainly pictorial description with excerpts from several collections open for a visit in Western Poland. Photographs were taken in the summer of 2020.
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The sites presented in this chapter are all in the Western part of Poland, i.e. west of Gdynia and Poznan. They are listed here below, basically from south to north on a map.
- Museum of Military History, Jelenia Gora
- Lubuskie Museum of Military History, Zielona Gora
- Armored Weaponry Museum, Poznan
- Museum of Armaments, Poznan
- Land Forces Museum, Bydgoszcz
- Museum of Coastal Defense – Fort Gerharda, Swinoujscie
- Polish Arms Museum & Navy Museum, Kolobrzeg
- Museum of Air Defense, Koszalin
- Naval Museum, Gdynia
- Museum of Military Technology ‘Gryf’, Dabrowka
The collection of the Museum of Military History in Jelenia Gora is arranged on an open-air apron. Here you can find several items mainly from the Soviet inventory – albeit in several instances physically manufactured in Poland – and once adopted by the Polish Armed Forces.
In the area closer to the ticket office, possibly the most exotic – or harder to find – items include transportable radar antennas. Items like these are still today the backbone of anti-aircraft defense, and are employed to either detect enemy aircraft or to guide surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) against this type of target. Differences among antennas reflect their actual purpose, as well as different range, intended target level (close to the ground, higher layers of the atmosphere, …) and ease of deployment. The latter is clearly inversely proportional to the bulkiness and weight of the antenna.
Truck-mounted antennas on display include an RW-31 and JAWOR-M2, both from the 1970s, respectively with a vertically- and horizontally-mounted antenna on top.
Exemplars of more modern RT-17 (on top of a taller tower) and PRW-17 models from the 1980s, the latter manufactured in the USSR, feature a somewhat larger size. Despite movable, these antennas are mounted on more articulated trailers.
Many more trailers and trucks are on display as well.
Further on, a few tanks and armored vehicles can be found. These include a well preserved Soviet T34-85, a modernized version from the early 1950s of the original homonym design, which gained fame with the Red Army in the closing stages of WWII against Hitler’s Wehrmacht.
Similarly interesting are a BTR-152, a troop transportation armored truck of Soviet make, and a launcher for a triplet of SA-6 Gainful SAM. The latter, namely a 2K12M, is an interesting and pretty widespread Soviet-made item from the early 1970s, with very good tactical deployment capability granted by its tracks. Also on display is a classical BM-13 Katyuscha rocket launcher, again a workhorse of the Red Army in Stalin’s era.
The latter part of the museum hosts a number of artillery pieces of various size, ranging from ship-mounted anti-aircraft machine guns, to field cannons, anti-tank cannons, etc. These are mostly from WWII, but reaching to the early Cold War period, and invariably share a Soviet design.
An especially interesting design is a recoilless B-11 cannon, designed against light armored vehicles. Of lighter design with respect to other guns of the same bore, it was pretty widespread as a tactical weapon in the early Cold War stage in countries of the Warsaw Pact.
A Mil helicopter, warship guns and some water mines complete this compact yet rich and well-maintained collection.
Getting there & Visiting
The museum is called ‘Muzeum Historii i Militariów’ in Polish. It can be found less than 1 mile southeast of the city center, to the east of the road 367 going south to the border with the Czech Republic. It can be reached easily with a walk from the city center, or by car. Free parking on site (limited capacity, but properly sized for the place). The exact address is Sudecka 83, 58-500 Jelenia Góra.
The museum is made of an open-air exhibition only (no inside display), where all artifacts can be checked out on a self-guided basis once past the ticket office. Plates with basic data and information in double language Polish-English are available ahead of most of the items on display.
The site is rich in material, yet not too big or extensive in size, hence easily digestible even for those without a special interest in military technology. Very convenient to reach and walk. Most artifacts are in a good to very good general condition. A visit taking many good pictures may take up to 1 hour for an interested subject, 15 minutes may be enough for a quick walk. Website with many detailed information, including an inventory of the weapons on display (also in English) here.
The prominent collection of the Lubuskie Museum of Military History is composed of an inside exhibition, hosted in a converted villa from the 19th century, and a major open-air display in the garden, where some of the items are protected under light structures.
Inside the museum building, a few rooms witness the involvement of Poland in several wars over the centuries. Beautifully crafted weapons from the 17th century, including both firearms and edged weapons, can be found in a number.
Several display cases are related to the involvement of Poland in WWII. The articulated history of the Polish Armed Forces in WWII is witnessed by the number of uniforms, medals and papers resulting from actions of Polish corps within the ranks of foreign Armed Forces – especially British.
Light weapons and technical gear from the time is abundant, including genuine material from the Armed Forces of the Third Reich, which occupied substantial parts of the Polish territory for almost the entire duration of WWII.
A historically interesting item is the headdress of a Polish officer killed in the Soviet town of Katyn, in the homonym massacre ordered by Stalin against the the ranks of the the Polish Armed Forces, soon after portions of the Country had been taken over by the Soviets upon agreement with Hitler. This was an unprecedented move to devitalize the Polish military structure by killing all key-figures in it. A pistol employed for executions and a few more memorabilia items from this awful chapter of Polish history are similarly on display.
Other rooms cover the technological evolution of military gear during the Cold War. Here, items on display range from air-to-air missiles – partly dismounted to allow looking at the electronics inside – tactical weapons, aircraft-mounted guns (always with impressively sized cartridges!), as well as anti-radiation suits with protection masks, flight suits, helmets, visors, and much more. Most of the material from those years obviously comes from the Soviet inventory.
In the outside exhibition a few thematic areas can be found. Possibly the richest among them is that of armored vehicles and artillery pieces. A major highlight is a couple of exemplars of the Soviet SU-152 self-propelled gun from WWII, made of an impressive 152 mm gun on a tracked vehicle. One of the exemplars has been recently refurbished and looks mint.
More Soviet tanks include some versions of the T-34 – a classic combatant of WWII – a T-55, and a more recent fully-working T-72, an icon of the Cold War in the 1970s. This is sometimes moved around in the apron.
A long array of guns, mostly field cannons, can be found on the border of the museum garden.
An impressive sight is the gigantic 2S7, a 207 mm self-propelled cannon manufactured in the Soviet Union from the 1970s, and still employed today by both Russia and Ukraine. Side by side with its ‘little cousins’, the monster size of this asset from the Eastern Bloc is readily apparent.
A second thematic area is centered around SAM missiles and their launchers, as well as theater missiles. Also radar antennas for aerial target tracking or missile guidance are on display.
Some major SAM Soviet systems are on the list, including the SA-2 Guideline, the SA-3 Goa and the SA-4 Ganef. The latter is present with the corresponding deployable radar (model code SNR 1S32M1), together composing the 2K11M1 SAM system, codenamed ‘Krug’ in Russian.
Theater missiles include the so-called Luna-M system (model code 9K52), composed of a wheeled transport truck and a missile (9M21), as well as an original transport trailer with a Scud missile! (See this and this chapter for dedicated information on Soviet-designed theater missiles)
Aircraft on display range from the early Cold War period – end of the 1940s – to the more hi-tech stage of the 1980s. Early jets include MiG-15 and MiG-17, and a pretty rare Jak-23, all in the colors of the Polish Air Force. Propeller aircraft include an Il-14 transport and a license-built Douglas C-47, aka. Lisunov Li-2 in the USSR.
Notably, the first defection to the West of a pilot from the Eastern Bloc on a Soviet-made jet fighter happened from Poland. A Polish pilot flew a MiG-15 to the Danish island of Bornholm, having departed from the Baltic coast of Poland. This was immediately after the death of Stalin, in March 1953. The controversial diplomatic case that ensued from this action was settled returning the aircraft to Poland, obviously after a secret and thorough inspection. The pilot moved to Britain and the US. His flight suit is in the Smithsonian collection in Washington, DC.
More recent aircraft include two MiG-21, a Su-20 and a Su-22. The latter is still operated by the Polish Air Force, and is presented in the museum with an underwing cannon pod for strafing. Also on display is a larger Il-28 light bomber.
Massive technical trucks, like movable pontoons, amphibious vehicles, etc. can be found in yet another thematic area, together with a small WWII diorama. The latter features a possibly original Third Reich emblem.
Finally, a small hangar to the far end of the exhibition area has on display a range of restored items of special interest. A didactically disassembled SA-4 Ganef missile allows to see the inner structure of this modern machine, still in use today.
Several field rocket launchers, including a Katyuscha, as well as field cannons and shells, make for a comparative display.
Interestingly, also a full array of air-to-air missiles, and aircraft components including almost complete engines can be checked out in this display.