The Polish Army participated in the liberation of Warsaw as well as the subsequent Pomeranian and Berlin campaigns. When World War II ended, the army numbered 335,000 men in two field armies, an armored corps, and air units.
After the war, the size of the Polish military was gradually reduced. In 1949, it reached its lowest postwar level of only 130,000 men. As the Cold War intensified, the army was significantly increased beginning in 1950, reaching 382,000 men at its peak in 1954. This expansion was accompanied by an enormous increase in military equipment. Thus, during 1949–1956 the number of tanks increased from 225 to 2,188, while military aircraft grew from 272 to 1,110. In order to provide this equipment, the armaments industry also expanded significantly. This imposed a major burden on the already-strained Polish economy and was one of the reasons for the failure of the Six-Year Plan of 1950–1955.
During the Stalinist period, numerous purges were carried out in the Polish military, with the counterintelligence service arresting hundreds of officers who were falsely accused of espionage. Twenty were executed. After the death of Stalin in March 1953, the growth of the military slowed, and beginning in 1955 its size was gradually reduced.
The Warsaw Pact, created in 1955, did not represent a major change, since the Polish Army had already been made fully subordinate to the General Staff of the Soviet Army in the early 1950s. All key command positions in the Polish Army were held by Soviet officers.
In October 1956, Marshal Marian Spychalski, who had been repressed during the Stalinist period, was appointed minister of defense. Soviet officers were then recalled, and their functions were assumed by Polish officers. According to Warsaw Pact planning of the early 1960s, in the event of war Poland was to commence military action in northern Europe toward Denmark and Belgium. Poland would commit to the attack three field armies, an air army, and its navy. In all, 380,000 men would be engaged of a total of 712,000 available, with the recall of reserves, in time of war. In the early 1970s, the army underwent expansion and modernization, including the introduction of rocket forces. In the early 1970s it numbered 418,000 men, a level that remained largely unchanged until the end of the Cold War. Following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, purges in the officer corps resulted in the dismissal of 1,500 officers of Jewish descent. General Wojciech Jaruzelski also replaced Spychalski as minister of national defense.
Approximately 30,000 soldiers from Poland's Second Army participated in the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968 that crushed the Prague Spring. The army was also used to quash social unrest at home. During 1945–1948, it had fought against the anticommunist underground and Ukrainian separatists. It was also the main tool in crushing worker unrest in Poznań in 1956 as well as in Gdańsk, Gdynia, and Szczecin in 1970. The Polish Army's largest military operation after World War II came with the imposition of martial law on 13 December 1981 and involved some 70,000 soldiers. Army detachments ended strikes and broke up demonstrations, and those arrested were tried in military courts. Military commissars also appeared in factories and state institutions.
In the 1980s, the military underwent additional modernization, which was halted only in 1988 by a growing economic crisis. At the end of the Cold War, the lessening of tensions led to a significant reduction in the size of the military and a shift to defensive capabilities. By early 1992, the Polish Army had decreased from some 295,000 men in 1986 to just over 199,000 men. Tanks had been reduced from 3,400 to 2,800. Combat aircraft had fallen from a 1986 total of 675 to 500 in 1992. The navy also operated fewer ships.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, Poland moved closer to the West, which was reflected in increasing arms transfers from the West and more operational contacts with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member states. Poland joined with NATO in July 1994 in the first Partnership for Peace (PFP) participating state from the former Soviet bloc. Poland became a full member of NATO in March 1999.
Sztab Generalny Wojska Polskiego, 1918–2003. [The General Staff of the Polish Military]. Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Bellona, 2003.; Johnson, A. Ross, et al. East European Military Establishments: The Warsaw Pact Northern Tier. Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1980.; Lewis, William J. The Warsaw Pact: Arms, Doctrine, and Strategy. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982.; Waite, Jerzy J. The Soldier and the Nation: The Rise of the Military in Polish Politics, 1918–1985. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1988.; Walendowski, Edward. Combat Motivation of the Polish Forces. New York: St. Martin's, 1988.