Tanks for the memory: Enthusiasts build incredible replica of Poland’s first armoured vehicle

Known as the Piłsuduski Tank, the steel-plated converted truck had its baptism of fire in the Battle of Lwów 100 years ago. Kalbar/TFN

A group of military enthusiasts have built a stunning replica of Poland’s first ever armoured vehicle.

Known as the Piłsuduski Tank, the steel-plated converted truck had its baptism of fire in the Battle of Lwów 100 years ago. 

To keep alive the memory of the Poles who fought to establish Poland’s eastern borders, the Railway Military Preparation Foundation based in a railway yard in Warsaw’s Praga district has spent the last year analysing the few photos that exist of the vehicle and measuring the angles of the armour so that they could build an accurate replica on the base of an old Mercedes truck. 

The group were aiming to have the ‘tank’ ready to take part in the Independence Day March on November 11, but last minute glitches scuppered these plans. 

They finally got their chance to show off the impressive reconstruction during the Lwów Days celebration on Piłsudski Square in Warsaw on November 24. 

Jan Meyer, the head of the foundation, told TFN: “We wanted to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Poland’s independence and remind people about a forgotten episode in Polish history, the Battle of Lwów, so we decided to build a replica of something that took part in the battle for Poland’s borders.

The whole ‘Piłsudski’ tank project took about a year because the reconstruction team had very little source information to go on. 'We only had a few poor quality photographs, so we had to figure out all the dimensions using special software. Then to actually build it we needed about one month', Jan explained.Public domain

“One hundred years ago there were Poles who were fighting for their independence, who showed creativity, discipline and a will to fight in very difficult conditions, so we wanted to honour those people.”

The conflict, which lasted six months, was the trigger for the Polish-Ukrainian war which Poland ultimately won. 

The whole ‘Piłsudski’ tank project took about a year because the reconstruction team had very little source information to go on. “We only had a few poor quality photographs, so we had to figure out all the dimensions using special software. Then to actually build it we needed about one month,” Jan explained.

The Praga-based group had the luxury of time to complete their project. Back in Lwów in 1918, the Polish army had to fashion their improvised vehicle in only a few days before it saw battle. Without any plans or prototypes, just ideas and images in their minds, a team of Polish soldiers used whatever materials they could get their hands on in the Lwów railway yards to put together the intimidating looking armoured car. 

In Lwów in 1918, the Polish army had to fashion their improvised vehicle in only a few days before it saw battle. Without any plans or prototypes, just ideas and images in their minds, a team of Polish soldiers used whatever materials they could get their hands on in the Lwów railway yards to put together the intimidating looking armoured car. NAC

When it took to the streets as part of a mission to seize control of the Lwów parliament building from the Ukrainians, it caused a sensation and boosted the morale of the local Polish population. 

After Lwów had been attacked by the Ukrainians in 1918, the public mood was initially very bad in the face of overwhelming enemy forces, so every success, even minor, was important. 

One of the constructors of the vehicle recalled the scene: “I cannot describe the enthusiasm of the population at the sight of the first armoured car. People are encouraged not only on the Polish side, but also the population in the Ukrainian-controlled part of the city.”

The Piłsudski Tank was additionally decorated with the US flag to emphasise that the Poles were not alone and had outside support. However, the support was purely symbolic as they had to wait until the following year for concrete help from the United States when food transports for the starving citizens of the besieged city were delivered.

Jan Meyer, head of the foundation, told TFN: 'One hundred years ago there were Poles who were fighting for their independence, who showed creativity, discipline and a will to fight in very difficult conditions, so we wanted to honour those people.'Kalbar/TFN

Although it was a huge propaganda success, in battle the vehicle proved to be less valuable. Initially, it was planned for the vehicle to cover the advance of Polish infantry. However, word about its existence had got out and the Ukrainians had dug anti-tank trenches and set up barricades. 

When the fighting got underway, it got stuck and came under heavy fire, then its machine guns jammed and its engine failed. It later came across a group of Ukrainian soldiers that the crew mistook for fellow Poles, which lead to further damage. Finally, after deciding to withdraw it crashed into a tree.

The Piłsudski Tank was additionally decorated with the US flag to emphasise that the Poles were not alone and had outside support. However, the support was purely symbolic as they had to wait until the following year for concrete help from the United States when food transports for the starving citizens of the besieged city were delivered.Kalbar/TFN

Although the Piłsudski Tank was repaired, its further use was impossible due to the Ukrainians’ anti-tank defences. It remained in the city until the end of November, but what happened to it later is not known and all trace of it has been lost.

Back in Warsaw, the replica of the vehicle was accompanied by reenactors in period uniforms when it was displayed on Piłsudski Square in November. One of the reenactors close to the project, 15-year-old Kacper, is the great-great nephew of Kazimierz Bartel, who was the officer in command of the railway yard where the armoured car was built and who later went on to head five of Poland’s inter-war governments.

A group of military enthusiasts has recreated Poland’s first ever armoured vehicle. Kalbar/TFN

“I dress as a one of the Lwów Eaglets. These are the teenagers from Lwów who fought alongside the Polish army to defend the city,’ he told TFN.

The enthusiasm of Kacper and his fellow reenactor Fryderyk for the vehicle and the history behind it is infectious. The foundation’s aim to raise awareness among Poles of the deeds of the Lwów defenders has the perfect tool in the form of the Piłsudski Tank.