1637 – The Polish Maelstrom – Snippet 51

Chapter 21

Krakow, official capital of Poland

Actual capital of Lesser Poland

“We’ll wait until it has passed over the city and is clearly heading to the southeast,” said General Franz von Mercy, watching the aircraft that was flying over Krakow at an altitude he guessed to be perhaps half a mile. That was a very rough guess, as you’d expect coming from a man who’d had little experience with the American flying machines. He’d never been up in one himself, and hoped he never would. Von Mercy wasn’t exactly afraid of heights, but they did make him queasy.

“That will distract the garrison and have them looking the other way when we begin the charge. We’ll start the charge when the airplane has gone a mile or so beyond the city limits. Give the signal then, Captain.”

His adjutant, Captain Reitz Aechler, pursed his lips. Belatedly, von Mercy realized he’d given the order to a man who had no experience at all with aircraft. He’d never seen one until the day before yesterday. His ability to gauge distances would be tentative.

So was von Mercy’s, but he probably had a better chance of getting it right.  “Give it another minute,” he elaborated. “These machines move very quickly.”

Aechler nodded and turned in his saddle. “Ready for my command!” he shouted to the small group of trumpeters sitting on their horses some twenty yards away. Unlike von Mercy and Aechler himself, the trumpeters were still within the line of trees. Von Mercy hadn’t wanted any more men than necessary to come out into the open until they began the charge. That meant him and one adjutant. He figured that even if an unusually keen-eyed and alert sentry on the walls of Krakow spotted them at this distance–it was at least half a mile–he wouldn’t call an alarm. At most, he might call them to the attention of his sergeant. But that delay would be all they needed. Once the charge started they’d be spotted quickly.

Von Mercy could easily see the royal castle on Wawel Hill, as well as the Basilica of St. Mary. However, what his attention was concentrated on was the tower in the center of the city that rose up from the town hall. Adjacent to that town hall was the Cloth Hall, which sat in the middle of Krakow’s famous Rynek Główny, the main square which was one of the largest in Europe.

That was their destination, once they got through the gate and into the city. The Main Square was at the very center of Krakow, not just in terms of crude geography but because well-built streets went out from it to every part of the city. If all went as planned, the garrison would be dispersed and still further disorganized, which would allow von Mercy to strike anywhere.


Jeff didn’t wait until Eddie’s plane was past the city walls. As soon as the Steady Girl crossed the city’s walls on the northwest side, he gave the order.

“Tell the forward battery to start firing.”

The order was passed by radio immediately. Mike Stearns had been known to complain about the slowness with which down-time officers adopted radio techniques instead of the tried and true method of sending couriers to transmit orders. But that was not a problem in the Hangman Regiment. The Hangman’s radio chief before he got killed in the Bavarian campaign had been Jimmy Andersen, one of Jeff’s close friends. Between his instruction and his example, the Hangmen had been quick to adapt to radio.

Within seconds, the six mortars stationed forward began firing. And, once again, Colonel Higgins had the unpleasant experience captured in the old dictum no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.

To add a bitter irony, in this instance the problem wasn’t caused by the enemy but his own mortar crews.

The jerks were too accurate, right out of the gate! The very first salvo landed directly on the barbican of the gate they were aiming at. That was just blind luck. But then, to compound the problem, the mortar crews–who were in direct line of sight and could see how accurate their fire had been–kept it up. No doubt congratulating each other on their extraordinary skill.

Jeff waved over one of his remaining radio operators. He’d send orders–stiff ones–telling the mortar crews to start moving their fire away from the barbican, toward the center of the city. How were the cavalry supposed to seize the gate if their own damn army was shelling them?

Then, to his astonishment, the medieval construction started coming apart under the bombardment. How in hell was that happening? The bombs the mortars were throwing were just not that powerful; they were designed as anti-personnel weapons, not bunker-busters.

But coming down they were. Watching, Jeff realized what must be happening. Krakow’s walls were quite impressive to the eye–two miles long, with no fewer than thirty-nine towers and eight gates. The main gate was known as the Brama FloriaÅ„ska, but that was quite a distance from the gate where Jeff intended to breach the walls.

However imposing they might appear to be, however, the walls had been erected in the thirteenth century. That was before cannons started being used in this part of Europe. Cannons were first developed in China in the twelfth century and spread westward over the course of the next hundred years, transmitted by the Arabs. Their first use in Europe was in the Iberian Peninsula. No one knew exactly when they started coming into use in Eastern Europe.

But whenever it was, the walls of Krakow had never been designed to withstand cannon fire. Even so, they should have held up under mortar fire. But Jeff had picked this gate precisely because it was not used as often as most others. What he hadn’t considered was that as the decades and then the centuries passed, it received only occasional maintenance–which was usually improvised and makeshift, to boot. The barbican had probably never been rebuilt, simply braced and shored up whenever it became too dilapidated. But the best that could be said for it was that it was ramshackle. If two or more bombs hit simultaneously on the same structure, that could set up shock waves that could rip or jolt the structure enough to start what amounted to a masonry avalanche.

However it had happened, the fact was that it had. Under the impact of the high explosive bombs, the barbican was coming apart and pulling down the adjacent walls with it. But “coming apart” didn’t mean the stones they were made of disintegrated. No, as the barbican and walls collapsed the stones just started piling up.

An incongruous thought passed through Jeff’s mind as he watched his plan of battle collapse like the walls of Krakow.

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt

Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!

He wished stones would do the same. Fat chance of that happening. The barbican came down completely, crushing the gates. How do you charge and open gates when the blasted things no longer exist? All there was now in that part of the walls was a pile of rubble.

On the bright side, part of the rubble fell into the moat that surrounded the city. That moat, which had been constructed at the same time as the walls, was still a formidable obstacle in places. But elsewhere it had suffered the inevitable decline that the fortifications of a city that had rarely been attacked were prone to. Originally–and it still was in places–the moat had been more than fifty feet wide and twenty to twenty-five feet deep.