The Luftwaffe’s first day of air war began in confusion and fog. The thick white stuff blanketed almost the entire length of the thousand-mile front, thinner in some places but lying impenetrable in others. An early reconnaissance plane flew off to Warsaw, the intended victim of Goering’s plans for Operation Seaside, a mass bombing attack by the combined He.111 groups of both air fleets, and reported a ceiling of only six hundred feet over the Polish capital. The mission was scrubbed and the bomber crews stood down. The reconnaissance pilot reported the skies strangely empty of enemy fighters.
An even more critical mission was canceled in the north, where the weather was worst. The huge steel bridges spanning the Vistula at Dirschau had been selected for quick seizure by the secretly trained paratroopers of General Kurt Student’s elite Seventh Air Division. The spearhead of the Third Army needed the bridge at Dirschau in order to funnel its tanks, motorized infantry, and support elements across the river to link up with Fourth Army once the Corridor had been breached and the breakout from East Prussia accomplished. Capture of the bridge before the Poles could blow it was planned to coincide with the general advance at 4:45 A.M., but with the paratroopers already aboard the clammy interiors of the Ju.52s with engines ticking over, it was seen that an air drop was out of the question. The jump was called off, and the contingency plan substituted at the last minute. Fifteen minutes before H-hour, three Stukas were scrambled from Elbing and streaked for Dirschau, less than ten minutes away. Their mission was to bomb the approaches to the bridge on both sides of the river in an attempt to destroy the wires leading to the demolition charges placed beneath the spans. The Stukas were forced down to 150 feet, but even at this low altitude visibility was minimal. The bombs, a total of three 550-pounders and a dozen 110-pounders, would have to be delivered in a dip-and-run maneuver; there would be no repetition of the Neuhammer disaster. The Stukas reached the bridge area without being fired on and dropped their bombs. The attack was followed an hour later by a flight of Dorniers operating at higher altitude that made pinpoint accuracy impossible, and the best the pilots could report was that fires had been started in the town of Dirschau. Polish engineers stumbled through the craters fishing for the torn wires leading to the charges, and an hour after the Dorniers had droned away, the charges were reset and fired. The bridge rose into the air, then plunged into the river. This, the first Luftwaffe attack of the war, had gone for nothing.
As the morning wore on, visibility began to improve in the interior and the Fourth Air Fleet was able to launch its bombers against the major Polish air bases in the south. Reconnaissance pilots reported the fields in the clear, many of them packed with a variety of Polish aircraft. The bombers struck at a dozen fields that morning — Lvov, Katowice, Krosno and nine others. Hardest hit was the airdrome at Krakow, only fifty miles from the border. Sixty He.111s appeared over Krakow and carpet-bombed the field from twelve thousand feet. The Heinkel gunners stared into the sky, expecting an onslaught of fighters, but all they could see were the escorting Me.110s high overhead. The first strike was followed by a classic Stuka attack in group strength that saw thirty-odd JU.87s plunging down to unload thirty tons of bombs on hangars, shops and parked aircraft. Now the slender Do.17s raced across the field, streaming 110-pounders that tore up runways and scattered wreckage left by the others. The field at Krakow was turned into a smoking shambles and the Luftwaffe had not sustained a single casualty. Other strike groups returned from sorties to report similar results. Here and there isolated Polish fighters were seen, but no real opposition was encountered. Was the enemy to allow its air force to be destroyed on the ground without a fight? To air crews and senior commanders alike, the behavior of the Poles was puzzling, and even a little disquieting.
To the Polish army, outnumbered in any case by almost two to one, the absence of fighter cover to keep away the German reconnaissance planes perpetually buzzing overhead, and to drive off what followed, spelled doom. To meet the left wing of the German Tenth Army’s thrust toward the Warta River, the Polish commander in chief, Field Marshal Smigly-Rydz, ordered three thousand men of a cavalry brigade, plus supporting units, to drive westward toward the village of Wielun, twelve miles from the German frontier. A Luftwaffe reconnaissance plane, scouting the terrain for targets of opportunity, spotted the dust raised on Poland’s dry roads and flew back to base with the position marked on his map. Thirty minutes later, shortly before one o’clock in the afternoon, the slaughter began.
The Stukas fell on the struggling, two-mile-long column of men, horses and wagons before it could disperse into the fields and nearby woods. The sky rained bombs and the earth heaved with their heavy detonations. Animals and men were dismembered and wagons blown to splinters. The terrified horses bolted from the road, and many were cut down by machine-gun fire delivered by Stukas strafing at treetop level after they had unloaded their bombs. Dead and dying horses and wrecked vehicles piled up on the narrow road and in the ditches, blocking the way for those who frantically sought escape from the howling Stukas. What had been a tightly disciplined military brigade became a struggling, disorganized mob. The Stukas, bothered only by light flak coming from the town, dive-bombed at leisure, howling down to 2500 feet before pulling out and climbing back up to execute second and third parabolas of destruction. A hundred and twenty bombs were hurled on the defenseless Poles; then the JU.87s formed up and flew away. They were replaced by a fresh group, whose pilots hounded the survivors on the road and in the fields and in the town. When the Stukas had finished their work, thirty Do.17s of K.G.77 appeared over Wielun and unloaded on the fleeing cavalry squadrons. The Polish cavalry brigade had been wiped out, and not one Polish fighter had appeared during the hours of its destruction.
By late afternoon on the first day of war, the Luftwaffe had good reason to believe that the Polish air force had been destroyed on the ground. But this was not the case. The burning wreckage that littered the dozen airfields plastered by German bombers was not that of Poland’s first-line aircraft, but were the remains of old trainers and aircraft that were not immediately serviceable. Forty-eight hours before Poland was invaded, all of the airworthy fighters, bombers and reconnaissance planes had been moved to emergency airstrips and were being saved largely for the defense of Warsaw. Explained Major F. Kalinowski, “It seems quite naive of the Germans to have believed that during the preceding days of high political tension, and with their own obviously aggressive intentions, we would leave our units sitting at their peacetime bases … the Germans’ opening air blast completely failed in its purpose …”
Moreover, German Intelligence grossly overrated the strength of the Polish air force on the day war began; it numbered not 900 aircraft, but only 396, and of these but 160 were fighters. The Polish fighters, most of them PZL P.11s, were gullwinged monoplanes of a design dating back to 1931. Top speed at sea level was only 186 miles per hour, but at 18,000 feet, the P.11 could do 240 miles per hour, which was fast enough to catch German bombers flying at that altitude. The majority of P.11s were armed with only two light machine guns, but later versions carried four. It was not until late that afternoon that the P.11s were committed to battle in force.
A few minutes past 5:30 P.M. the first German bombers appeared over Warsaw — ninety He.111s of K.G.27, escorted by thirty-six Me.110s. Thirty P.11s climbed up to get at the Heinkels, but were bounced first by the Me.110s, and in the melee that followed, five of the P.11s were shot down. On the second day of battle, the light, maneuverable Polish fighters began to take the measure of the faster but clumsier Me.110s. In a duel over Lodz, sixty miles west of Warsaw, outnumbered P.11s shot down three Messerschmitts and lost only two of their own. Two days later, however, when the P.11s went for a bomber formation, they were bounced by Me.109s, which simply shot them to pieces; eleven Polish fighters were blown out of the sky. Polish survivors of these air battles would limp back home only to find that Stukas and Dorniers had been there first, leaving the runways cratered and the hangars and fuel dumps blazing. After the first forty-eight hours of war, the Luftwaffe hammering of communications rendered impossible any systematic defense. The telephone and teleprinter systems were gone, and interception became a matter of hazard. Spares were unobtainable, grounding one plane after another.
On September 3, with the German assault developing into a pincers movement deep inside the frontier, France and Great Britain declared war on Germany. Now, thought Field Marshal Smigly-Rydz, his allies would move quickly and overwhelmingly against the common enemy to relieve the irresistible pressure against his own beleaguered forces. Poland might yet be saved.
In the House of Commons, debate swayed back and forth over what form the initial strike by the Royal Air Force against Germany should take. It was suggested to Sir Kingsley Wood, the State Secretary for Air, that Bomber Command should be turned loose with masses of incendiary bombs to set ablaze the Black Forest. The suggestion was received with horror. “Are you aware,” Sir Kingsley said archly, “that it is private property? Why, you will be asking me to bomb Essen next!” Instead, ten twin-engine Blenheim bombers of No.107 and No.no Squadrons set off across the North Sea after lunch on September 4 in weather so bad they were flying in and out of clouds between fifty and a hundred feet over the water. The Blenheims reached Wilhelmshaven and attacked German warships lying in Schillig Roads. Three hits were scored on the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer, but all bounced off the armored deck without exploding. Five of the ten Blenheims were shot down by ship-and shore-based antiaircraft guns, one of them plunging in flames on top of the cruiser Emden. Fourteen Vickers Wellingtons from No.9 and No.149 Squadrons managed to reach the port of Brunsbüttel, but the flak was so hot and the visibility so poor that the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau lying there were in little danger. Neither was hit, but one of the Wellingtons was brought down in flames by antiaircraft fire, and another was bagged by one of the Me.109s of J.G.77 sent out from Nordholz to deal with the British incursion. Aside from these abortive — and costly — attempts to deal deathblows to the German fleet, the RAF dispatched bombers over Hamburg, Bremen, and the Ruhr. Not one plane carried bombs; they showered down leaflets instead. Such was the British government’s contribution to Poland during its hour of agony.
Four months prior to the German assault on Poland, the supreme commander of all French ground forces, General Maurice Gamelin, sixty-eight, had assured the Polish government that the French army would launch an offensive against Germany immediately after the war started. It was not until September 7 that the French army moved out of its own country and entered the Saar, using only nine out of the eighty-five divisions that were available. On a narrow front only fifteen miles wide, the French advanced timidly, averaging less than two thousand yards per day against almost no opposition. By September 12, the “offensive” halted after gaining five miles of ground and the capture of twenty deserted villages. The French troops were ordered to dig in where they were, that is, at the approaches to the sketchily built Siegfried Line. A few shots were exchanged, and some French soldiers were killed by mines and booby traps set by the Wehrmacht for looters in the abandoned towns, but that was all. Two weeks later, the French invaders were headed back to the underground security of the Maginot Line, without having drawn off a single soldier, airplane or tank from the battleground that was Poland.
Field Marshal Smigly-Rydz never forgave Gamelin for the lies the French general presented as truth when the Polish General Staff requested information as to what, exactly, France was doing to alleviate their nation’s plight. Wrote Gamelin on September 9: “More than half of our active divisions on the northeast front are engaged in combat … the Germans are opposing us with a vigorous resistance … the Germans are reinforcing their battlefront with large new formations … We know we are holding down before us a considerable portion of the German Air Force …” One wonders where Gamelin summoned the nerve to present all this, over his own signature, to the Polish commander in chief through the military attaché in Paris.
By the end of the first week of fighting, the Polish army no longer existed as an organized combat force. The swift-moving Panzers and motorized infantry sundered entire armies and corps again and again, until all that was left were pockets of stubborn resistance, one isolated from the other and all cut off from supplies or reinforcements. The Luftwaffe bombers had worked over Polish rail lines so thoroughly that no trains could run, and any transport that ventured onto the roads was quickly dealt with by Stukas and strafing fighters. Only once did the Wehrmacht find itself in serious trouble, and when it did, the Luftwaffe’s quick reaction proved decisive.
In its headlong dash to reach the gates of Warsaw by September 8, Reichenau’s Tenth Army Panzers outstripped the Eighth Army’s infantry divisions, trying vainly to maintain contact with the Tenth Army’s northern flank. Now it was a German force, four divisions plus supporting elements, that was in a pocket on the south side of the Bzura River, some sixty miles west of Warsaw.
Here was the opportunity the Polish commander of the Army of Poznan, General Kutrzeba, had been waiting for. When the Germans smashed across the frontier on September 1, Kutrzeba had deployed his infantry and cavalry in a defensive posture and waited to deal with the mechanized invaders as best he could. But the German spearheads bypassed his army on both flanks, leaving Kutrzeba poised to deliver a blow that had nowhere to land. With the heavy combat moving eastward, Kutrzeba began marching his men to the sound of the guns. Experience at such places as Wielun had shown that large formations could not survive under a sky dominated by German planes, so Kutrzeba wisely laid up by day, sheltering his men and horses deep in the woods, and moved only at night. Stragglers from regiments already shattered by the Germans appeared to add their numbers to the Army of Poznan, including a wary handful of cavalrymen whose brigade had been largely wiped out in a charge across the plains to take on a regiment of German tanks. By the time Kutrzeba’s army reached the village of Kutno, sixty-five miles west of Warsaw, its numbers had increased to approximately 170,000 men. Kutrzeba concentrated only his assault forces, dispersing the others between the Vistula and the Bzura in an area covering something like six hundred square miles of plains, forests, and lakes. Kutrzeba sent out cavalry and armored patrols and discovered that the German rear guard, which he greatly outnumbered was deployed just across the Bzura. On September 9, the Poles swarmed across the river and fell on the Germans. Hard fighting went on all during the night and into the next day. Polish cavalry and what few light tanks Kutrzeba had at his disposal cut deep wedges into the German line, and the Eighth Army’s 30th Infantry Division was especially hard hit. The commander of Army Group South, General Gerd von Rundstedt, got on the phone to General Kesselring and demanded immediate and overwhelming air support for the mauled German troops at Kutno. Kesselring knew exactly which call to make first: straight on to Richthofen and his Special Duty Group.