Back when War was Glorious, Colorful and Brutal. Now War is just Brutal. Grumpy
When Nazi Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, they found the Polish military to be inferior in numbers, but not completely short-changed in effective equipment or fighting spirit. Several Polish weapons systems were quite effective, as the invading Nazi and Soviet troops were soon to find out. Some of the Polish infantry weapons may appear quite familiar to American small arms enthusiasts.
The Ckm wz. 30 Heavy Machine Gun
From 1919 until well into the 1920s, Poland’s military used a large amount of older, heavy machine guns that they either inherited, purchased from their allies, or captured in some numbers from their enemies (in this case Imperial Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and shortly after World War I the Soviet Union). The mix of French M1914 Hotchkiss guns (8 mm French), Russian Maxim M1910 guns (7.62×54 mm R), German MG08 (7.92×57 mm) and Austrian Schwarzlose M.7 (in a wide range of calibers) proved to be a logistical nightmare that the Poles sought to redress.
The business end of the Polish wz. 30 heavy machine gun.
After a series of tests and competitions that concluded during 1928, the Poles were thoroughly sold on the capabilities of the Browning M1917 machine gun, rechambered to 7.92×57 mm. Polish officials had settled on the Colt-manufactured M1928, a commercially manufactured export version of the famous Browning machine gun, and opted to purchase a license to manufacture. The price for the license proved to be prohibitive ($450,000) and Colt also demanded to make the first 3,000 examples in their own factory. The Poles were forced to find alternatives, when a thunderbolt of good luck struck in Warsaw—Colt had never secured a patent of their machine gun in Poland. After discovering the opportunity, the Polish armaments ministry began to manufacture the weapons in Warsaw. By 1931, the first Ckm wz. 30 machine guns were issued to Polish troops.
Polish Home Army resistance fighters prepare a wz. 30 machine gun for action during the Warsaw Uprising in the late summer of 1944.
The Polish variant is recognizable by its longer barrel (28” compared to 24” on the American original) and by a significantly longer flash suppressor. Several tripod mounts were developed for the Ckm wz. 30, all capable of transitioning to the anti-aircraft role with a mast extension (and special AA sights). A shoulder-stock extension was also available. The Ckm wz. 30’s cyclic rate (600 rounds per minute) was equivalent to the US M1917A1. All told, almost 9,000 were made for Polish forces by the time of the German invasion.
Wz. 30 machine guns reviewed by Polish Marshal E. Rydz-Śmigły. (Courtesy Polish National Archives)
The Polski-Brownings were used both before and after Poland fell in September 1939. About 1,700 Ckm wz. 30s were made for Republican Spain and were in action during the Spanish Civil War. The Germans captured many Ckm wz. 30s and used them as the “7.9 mm sMG 30(p)” in second-line and fortress units. The Polish resistance hid a few of the Ckm wz. 30s during the German occupation, and these emerged during the Warsaw Uprising by the Polish Home Army during August of 1944.
After the end of the Battle of Westerplatte, German troops review captured Polish equipment, including the wz. 30 heavy machine gun. Note the special AA sight in the hand of the German soldier in the center.
Wz. 30 set up for AA use aboard a Polish Sokół 1000 motorcycle combination. (Courtesy Polish National Archives)
The Browning wz. 1928 Automatic Rifle
As Poland developed its small army during the 1920s, they paid careful attention to the latest trends in small arms design. The Poles became interested in the new concept of a “squad automatic” and turned their attention to new concepts from western Europe. They ultimately settled on what is now considered a classic American design. After an extensive search and a 1925 arms competition, the Poles chose the Browning Automatic Rifle—in this case a Fabrique Nationale variant made in Belgium. Ultimately this became the “7,92 mm rkm Browning wz. 1928”, chambered in 7.92×57 mm Mauser and first commissioned in 1927.
The Polish BAR: Polish troops with a wz. 1928 automatic rifle (7.92×57 mm). (Courtesy Steve Zaloga)
The first 10,000 examples of the wz. 1928 were made in Belgium at FN. Subsequently, Poland also bought a license to build the Browning automatic in their own country (production in Poland began in 1930). The new wz. 1928 featured a few modifications compared to the US M1918 BAR: a longer barrel fitted with cooling fins, a folding bipod and simplified sights. Some wz.1928s were also equipped with a carrying handle and a “fish-tail” buttstock. About 14,000 were delivered to Polish infantry and cavalry units before the invasion of September 1939.
The wz. 28 in action: Note the enlarged forward grip and the bipod.
By all accounts, the Polish wz. 1928 was a well-made and highly effective weapon, offering all the benefits of the widely celebrated BAR. The wz. 28’s greatest drawback was its lack of extended-fire capability, limited by its use of 20-round magazines. The Poles had planned on producing an extensive number of spare barrels, but the program was interrupted by the invasion. The Germans captured a large amount of wz. 28s, and happily used them in their service throughout the war as the “lMG 28 (p)”.
After Poland fell, Germany acquired a windfall of captured small arms. Here a wz. 28 sits atop a pile of Polish Mauser rifles.
The 7.92 mm Kb. Ppanc. wz. 35 Anti-Tank Rifle
While Germany prepared for the blitzkrieg, the Poles were doing what they could to defend themselves against an attack they felt was inevitably going to come. Poland could afford few armored vehicles, but they did invest in some effective anti-tank weapons. One of the weapons they developed in secrecy was a high-velocity anti-tank rifle: the 7.92 mm Kb. Ppanc. wz. 35. Patterned after the standard Mauser rifle, the wz. 35 featured an exceptionally long barrel (47 inches, creating a rifle that was 69 inches long overall). A special harness was produced to allow the anti-tank rifleman to carry it on his back.
The unique Polish wz. 35 anti-tank rifle. Chambered for the 7.92×107 mm DS round, the wz. 35’s muzzle brake was particularly effective, reducing the recoil to little more than that of a standard Mauser rifle. (Courtesy SA-Kuva)
A great deal of effort was put into creating the wz. 35’s ammunition: the 225-gr. 7.92×107 mm DS round. The small 8 mm round relied more on kinetic energy than it did traditional armor penetration. Instead of punching a tiny hole through the armor of an enemy vehicle, the DS round transferred incredible kinetic energy to the armor plate, which normally resulted in “spalling” on the inside of the armor. The impact of the DS round on the armor would break off about a 20 mm plug from the interior surface of the vehicle, sending a molten-hot metal scab ricocheting at killing speed inside the enemy tank. The intention was to kill or wound the crew and set fire to fuel or ammunition. Ultimately the wz. 35’s ammunition was effective out to 300 meters on lightly armored vehicles and was capable of penetrating 33 mm of armor plate at 100 meters.
After Poland fell, the Germans sold some of their captured wz. 35 AT rifles to Finland. This example is seen during training exercises with Finnish troops in the summer of 1942. (Courtesy SA-Kuva)
Initial muzzle velocity was 4,180 f.p.s. Unfortunately, the barrels wore out quickly, often after just 200 rounds. Three spare barrels were issued with each wz. 35 to help with this problem. The Polish design team conquered the powerful recoil of their anti-tank rifle with a highly effective muzzle brake (said to have bled off 65 percent of the additional recoil energy). With the muzzle brake in place, anti-tank riflemen reported that the felt recoil of the wz. 35 was little more than the standard Mauser rifle.
Many of the German tanks and armored cars that were deployed during 1939 were light vehicles with very thin armor. Consequently, the Panzer I (two-man crew) and Panzer II (three-man crew) were vulnerable from the front to fire from the wz. 35. Larger German tanks, like the Panzer III and Panzer IV carried frontal armor that was able to handle hits from the wz. 35 except at very short range. One of the drawbacks of such a small caliber anti-tank weapon quickly manifested itself, as while the wz. 35 proved capable of killing or incapacitating the crews of the German light tanks and armored cars, the DS rounds generally did not destroy the vehicles themselves. A curious by-product of this phenomenon were the so-called “ghost tanks” that the Germans recovered from the battlefield; vehicles that had been temporarily stopped with dead crews, but were quickly re-manned and put back into service.
Germany retained a number of the captured Polish AT rifles, using some of them during the invasion of France in 1940. This example is examined by U.S. troops in Germany during the spring of 1945.
About 6,000 of the new AT rifles were delivered by the beginning of the war, but since they were developed in secret, most Polish troops had no experience in firing them, nor did they have any tactical guide to use them. The wz. 35 is often known as the “UR,” short for Uruguay, which was a cover name/destination the Poles applied to their AT rifles. They certainly caught the attention of Poland’s enemies—the Germans captured many and put them to work in their service during the subsequent invasion of France as the “7.92 mm Panzerbuchse 35 (p)”. Soviet agents scoured eastern Poland for the “secret rifles,” and captured examples of the wz.35 were used as inspiration for their later PTRD and PTRS anti-tank rifle designs.
Uprising! Poland’s Fight for Freedom in Warsaw 1944
The law of conservation of mass states that in any closed system the ultimate mass of a system must remain constant over time. The law of conservation of energy posits that the total energy of an isolated system also must remain constant. Mass and energy are therefore said to be conserved over time. Both can change forms, but mass and energy can be neither created nor destroyed. They simply change from one state to another.
Take a match as an example. You strike a match and allow it to burn. What’s left is smaller and different from the original match. However, that excess mass didn’t just disappear. It changed forms. As the compounds in the wood degraded they gave off energy and some portion of it turned into a series of gases. That original stuff is not gone. It’s just different.
In the world of physics, this isn’t only not a good idea. It’s the law. However, there is one glaring exception. Albert Einstein codified the details within his extraordinary equation E=MC2.
In the case of nuclear fission, a small amount of matter actually transforms directly into energy. Unlike our burning match example, some mass of fissile material consumed in a nuclear reaction no longer exists in our universe. This matter is physically transformed into energy. The ratio is driven by that equation where E is energy, M is rest mass or invariant mass, and C if the speed of light. As the speed of light is a big number and you are squaring it, the resulting amount of energy you get for a small amount of transformed matter can be truly astronomical.
As weird as all this seems, we can see the practical results clearly enough. It is this reaction that propels American aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. It also drives nuclear power plants.
Despite their simply breathtaking size, aboard a nuclear-powered ship, a small amount of fissile material powers everything from propulsion and catapults to hot water and laundry. Producing 200,000 horsepower non-stop to power the USS Gerald Ford for a week requires less than nine pounds of enriched uranium fuel. These massive ships are expected to run for a quarter century without refueling. The tiny amount of fuel that is actually turned into energy in a nuclear reaction is even smaller yet. Now, hold that thought.
The Little Boy Test
The atomic bomb unleashed on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945, was called Little Boy. This was a relatively simple gun-based device that burned enriched Uranium-235. The term enriched stems from the fact that only about one part in 140 of naturally-occurring uranium is the particular desirable U-235 isotope.
Building the bomb was fairly easy. Harvesting that specific uranium isotope was hard. That’s what the Iranians have been hell-bent on doing for the past decade.
Little Boy was little more than a stubby gun. An enriched uranium target sat at one end and a smaller uranium projectile resided at the other. At the point of detonation a chemical explosive fired the projectile down the internal barrel into the target and achieved critical mass for a spontaneous detonation.
The plutonium-based bomb, Fat Man, which dropped on Nagasaki three days later, was a more complicated implosion design. It was this mechanism that was detonated during the Trinity test in New Mexico. The first operational test of the Little Boy bomb was the Hiroshima attack. Most of the uranium used in Little Boy came from the Shinkolobwe mine in the Belgian Congo.
A Single Paperclip
Once ready to go Little Boy sported an all-up weight of 9,700 pounds. Of that mass was 141 pounds of enriched uranium. The average level of enrichment was around 80%. Upon detonation around two pounds of uranium underwent nuclear fission. Of the bit that burned, only 0.7 grams or around 0.025 ounce was actually transformed into energy. This is roughly the same mass as a dollar bill or a paperclip.
The bomb was deployed from the B29 Superfortress Enola Gay at 0815 in the morning. It fell for 44.4 seconds before its dual redundant time and barometric triggers fired the ignition charges. The weapon detonated 1,968 feet above ground, and the resulting explosion released 63 Terajoules’ worth of energy — the equivalent to 15,000 tons or 30 million pounds of TNT (Trinitrotoluene) high explosive.
The fireball was 1,200 feet in diameter with a surface temperature of 10,830 degrees Fahrenheit, roughly comparable to the surface of the sun. Every man-made structure within a mile of ground zero was instantly pulverized. The resulting firestorm was roughly two miles in diameter. Survivors reported a strong smell of ozone, as though they had been near a powerful electrical arc. This unprecedented explosion killed 66,000 people and injured another 69,000, all for the cost a single paperclip’s worth of enriched uranium.
“Many GIs in Vietnam thought the night belonged to the enemy, but in the Mekong Delta, darkness belonged to Bert Waldron.” –Major John Plaster
Think back to the last time you felt truly frustrated and helpless. At some point in their lives, everybody finds themselves in circumstances utterly beyond their control. It’s a terrifying sensation.
Perhaps you were the subject of bullying. Maybe you were a little kid and got lost. For the Vietcong in the Mekong Delta in 1969, the engine behind their nightmares was SSG Bert Waldron.
SSG Waldron was a broken man imbued with a dark gift. Born in Syracuse, New York, in 1933, Waldron came of age amidst chaos and despair. The product of a dysfunctional home, young Bert despised his stepfather. This antipathy drove the kid into the nearby forest in search of peace and solitude. There Bert Waldron came to think of the wilderness as home.
Bert Waldron’s life could be a case study of the effects of nature versus nurture. By his 23rd birthday, the man had been married three times. His unique emotional milieu apparently made him all but impossible to live with. Waldron enlisted in the US Navy and served during the Korean War. He left the Navy in 1965 after twelve years to try his hand at civilian life.
With the country embroiled in an increasingly bitter land war in Southeast Asia and life out of uniform not to his liking, Waldron enlisted again, this time in the Army. He completed Basic Training at Fort Benning and five months later was in Vietnam.
Waldron’s prior service in the Navy earned him Staff Sergeant’s stripes, but he still had very little experience with practical soldiering. Once in country, SSG Waldron attended a brief eighteen-day sniper course taught by members of the Army Marksmanship Unit. I don’t know exactly what they taught during those two and one-half weeks, but it took. In short order, SSG Bert Waldron became a holy terror behind a sniper rifle.
SSG Waldron was assigned to the 3d Battalion, 60th Infantry, Regiment, 9th Infantry Division under LTG Julian Ewell. Operating in close conjunction with the Navy’s Mobile Riverine Force, SSG Waldron and his fellow snipers cruised the murky waterways of the Mekong looking for trouble. Waldron’s prior service as a sailor made him a perfect fit for this joint operation with the Brown Water Navy. More often than not Waldron staged onboard ATC’s or Armored Troop Carriers. These heavily armed and armored riverine vessels were called Tango Boats and offered US forces a prickly platform for operations throughout the myriad shallow waterways of the Mekong Delta.
The Mekong was heavily populated and teeming with VC. Charlie typically played to his own strengths, conducting many operations under cover of darkness when American air power and artillery support could not be readily brought to bear. Then Bert Waldrop and his snipers hit the battlefield with high-tech sniper rifles equipped with starlight scopes. The result was unfettered carnage.
It takes unimaginable courage to strike out alone into the jungle in the middle of a firefight, but that was exactly Bert Waldron’s forte. In January of 1969, Waldron and his unit came under intense night attack by a force of forty well-armed VC. When his unit found itself in danger of being overrun SSG Waldron pressed out into the jungle alone to hunt. Using his accurized M21 sniper rifle and AN-PVS-2 starlight scope he could spot the enemy maneuvering in the deep foliage and pick them off as opportunity allowed. During the course of the engagement, SSG Waldron savaged the attacking force and broke the back of the assault. This fight earned him a Bronze Star with “V” device.
Three nights later SSG Waldron discovered a large VC force moving tactically. He tracked the enemy unit using his night vision system until he gained an advantageous position to attack. SSG Waldron then sniped and maneuvered, engaging from various angles to convince the VC they were facing a larger, more organized force. Three hours later he had killed eleven of the Cong and forced them to leave the field. This night’s work earned him the Silver Star.
Eight days later SSG Waldron and his spotter were set up near Ben Tre scanning the darkness around their rice paddy with their starlight equipment. They encountered a seventeen-man VC patrol and took out their lead scout as he emerged from the treeline. Calls for artillery support were denied because of a nearby friendly village. At a range of more than 500 meters and under cover of darkness SSG Waldron killed eight VC with eight rounds from his sniper rifle. The surviving members of the VC combat patrol melted back into the jungle to safety.
Four days after that SSG Waldron was deployed in support of an ARVN unit in contact. He discovered a group of six VC attempting to outflank the ARVNs and gain a position of advantage. SSG Waldron then meticulously killed all six of the insurgents, picking them off one by one in the darkness with his sniper rifle and night vision gear.
In one nineteen-day period, SSG Bert Waldron conducted fourteen successful nocturnal sniper operations. For his dedication, valor, and ruthlessness he was awarded his first Distinguished Service Cross. By now the VC were beginning to appreciate that horrible feeling of helplessness. Where previously they could move and operate in the darkness with relative impunity, now SSG Waldron and his snipers brought death from unexpected quarters. Their efforts began to take a toll.
SSG Waldron’s effectiveness as a sniper clearly spawned from some innate skill. He had only had eighteen days’ worth of formal sniper training. During one engagement a VC sniper was peppering a passing Tango Boat from the top of a coconut tree some 900 meters distant. While the boat’s crew struggled to find the hidden sniper with their heavy crew-served weapons, SSG Waldron killed the man with a single round from his M21 rifle…while the boat was in motion. The Physics behind making a one-round kill from a moving boat against a camouflaged adversary nearly a kilometer distant strains credulity. However, the details were verified.
For these and similar actions SSG Waldron was awarded his second Distinguished Service Cross. Waldron’s reputation exploded among both Allied forces and the Cong, earning him the respectful nickname Daniel Boone. After eight months in country, the 9th ID rotated home and SSG Waldron with them. By the time he left Vietnam Bert Waldron had 109 confirmed kills, fully 12% of all the kills logged by all of the division’s snipers. Until Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle broke his record in 2006, SSG Bert Waldron was the deadliest American sniper in history.
The Army adopted the M14 rifle as a replacement for the WW2-era M1 Garand in 1959. A gas-operated, magazine-fed design, the M14 really reflected the previous generation’s technology. At 44 inches long the M14 was found to be unduly bulky for the bitter close-range jungle fighting that characterized the war in Vietnam. By the mid-1960’s the M14 was being replaced in SE Asia by the lighter, more maneuverable M16.
The US Army is indeed a majestically cumbersome beast. In 1955 the US Army Marksmanship Training Unit (USAMTU) embarked on a quest to incorporate snipers into the Infantry squad. In the malaise of the early 1960s, this initiative was discontinued. However, the exigencies of combat in Vietnam renewed interest in the art. That exposed the need for a dedicated precision sniper rifle.
While the Marines were using modified bolt-action hunting rifles, the Army contracted with Rock Island Armory to build up 1,435 National Match M14 rifles with Redfield 3-9x Adjustable Ranging Telescope (ART) sights. The ART was the brainchild of 2LT James Leatherwood and included both range finding and bullet drop compensation in its mechanism. This new rifle was formally designated the XM21 and first issued in 1969. An improved version with a fiberglass stock was classified the M21 in 1975 and served until 1988 when it was replaced by the bolt-action M24.
The AN/PVS-2 starlight scope was the first truly successful man-portable passive night vision weapon sight fielded by the US Army. This device amplified ambient starlight to produce a usable image in the absence of an active IR emitter. While such stuff is commonplace today, it was radical indeed in 1967 when it was first deployed to Vietnam. When combined with the early SIONICS suppressors fielded in 1969 the AN/PVS-2 offered American snipers a literally unprecedented capacity to own the night in Vietnam.
The Rest of the Story
Like so many true professional warriors, Bert Waldron found himself ill-suited to peacetime life at home. He served as a senior instructor for the US Army Marksmanship Training Unit (USAMTU) until his discharge in 1970. Along the way he met Mitch WerBell III through the commander of the USAMTU, COL Robert Bayard. and accepted a position as a counter-sniper advisor with Cobray International, WerBell’s weird creepy paramilitary training school in Georgia.
Mitch WerBell dabbled in overthrowing third world governments for a time and made quite a few enemies along the way. In 1975 COL Bayard was found murdered outside an Atlanta shopping mall. His killer was never apprehended. Throughout it all Bert Waldron’s name was a persistent fixture.
For the next two decades, Waldron worked in the shadows, plying the dark skills he mastered in Vietnam into a livelihood. Along the way his final marriage self-destructed and he was investigated by the FBI. In October of 1995, Bert Waldron died of a heart attack at age 62. His ex-wife Betty said this of him, “Bert was a wonderful soldier. He loved his country, he would have died for his country, but he had a lot of problems as a human being.”
Bert Waldron was a “Break Glass in Case of War” type of soldier. America desperately needs such men. It is simply figuring out what to do with them when the bullets aren’t flying that seems to be the perennial challenge.