SS UNITS IN POLAND 1939 Part II

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A gun team from the SS-VT’s artillery regiment during the invasion of Poland. Despite the speed of the much-vaunted Blitzkrieg, most of Germany’s armed forces were still dependent on horsepower.

COSTLY VICTORY

The battle for Rozan turned out to be as unnecessary as it was costly. When the attacking German forces crossed the River Narew at a point further south, they threatened to encircle the town and its forts. As a result, the Polish units occupying the forts were forced to retreat in order to avoid being trapped. The Germans could have taken the area without firing a shot, simply by performing this flanking manoeuvre.

After this costly victory, the Deutschland Regiment resumed its pursuit of the retreating enemy forces. Marching south towards the River Bug, the SS battalions captured the towns of Loriza, Czervin and Nadbory. During this period of relative tranquility, the SS-VT troops had to contend with little more than the hot sun and the sandy dirt beneath their feet. Aided by the 7th Panzer Regiment, they beat back a feeble attack launched by a small Polish detachment sent from Lomza.

On 10 September, the Kempf Division crossed the river at the town of Brok and continued south in an attempt to intercept a detachment from the Pyskor Group, which was heading for Warsaw to aid in the defence of the capital. However, the Kempf Division failed to apprehend the Polish unit, as it was under the direction of skilled commanders and manned by motivated soldiers who successfully kept the Germans at bay. During this stage in the campaign, the German division was no longer acting as a monolithic organization: its units now operated in isolation as separate battle groups.

After this misadventure, the units in the Kempf Division moved further south and seized the towns of Kalosym and Zelechow before turning east and heading for Najiejowice. Fifty miles due east of Warsaw, the Deutschland Regiment captured Siedlce and then began the march south-west toward Majieowicje. Travelling behind these formations, SS Einsatztruppen or ‘death squads’ performed their grisly work, liquidating any local Jews, communists and intellectuals that fell into their hands.

By the middle of the month, German forces in areas east of Warsaw had crushed most of the significant enemy opposition and were preparing to join the encirclement around the capital. On 16 September, SS-Sturmbannführer Matthias Kleinheisterkamp, the very talented commander of the Deutschland Regiment’s 3rd Battalion, led his troops to the banks of the River Vistula and helped close the ring of German forces surrounding the city. Meanwhile, Steiner received a message ordering his SS regiment to participate in an attack on an enemy stronghold situated north-west of Warsaw.

Re-assembled into a unified organization, the Kempf Division moved south-west to the town of Naczpolsk, then headed north until it reached a long network of Polish defences known as the Modlin Line. Arrayed across the northern outskirts of the town of Modlin in the east, and Zacrozym in the west, the line included two forts. Fort No. 1 was situated above Zacrozym, while Fort No. 2 occupied an area north-east of Modlin. Both of these structures were well-constructed citadels garrisoned with 35,000 soldiers who were highly motivated to take a last stand in defence of their country.

In the wake of the Battle of the River Bzura west of Warsaw, the Polish Army was in tatters. The conquest of the country was, by now, a foregone conclusion and simply a matter of time. However, Hitler and OKH wanted to capture the capital in a spectacular assault involving several divisions, regardless of the casualties suffered in such a dramatic action. To accomplish this feat, the Germans needed to overrun the Modlin Line, and so operations against this formidable defence complex began on 19 September.

CONSOLIDATION

For three days, the Germans consolidated their control of areas around Warsaw and the Modlin Line before initiating further aggressive action. On 22 September, reconnaissance detachments from the Deutschland Regiment probed enemy defences for vulnerable points, only to return with heavy casualties. Although this débâcle seemed to foreshadow a long and bloody battle for the city, Luftwaffe supremacy over the sky enabled the Germans to fight more effectively against their well-entrenched opponents. While Stuka dive-bombers (known as the ‘flying artillery’) softened up enemy positions, a pioneer company from the Deutschland Regiment managed to blast a hole in a line of barbed wire protecting the Modlin defence network.

Despite this breach, a general ground assault did not immediately ensue. Instead, senior German strategists waited for another week while more squadrons of Stukas swooped down on the forts and hammered the Polish defenders. Two days before the scheduled attack on Warsaw was to begin, on the evening of 27 September, an Obersturmführer (first lieutenant) from Steiner’s First Battalion returned from a patrol and reported that the garrison at No. 1 Fort above Zacrozym appeared to be severely depleted. The junior officer suggested seizing the structure in an attack similar to those launched by the storm battalions of World War I. The following night, Steiner led his own reconnaissance patrol into the area, agreed with this suggestion, and planned accordingly for a surprise attack.

Early the following morning, companies from the SS regiment infiltrated the outer line of the Polish defences arrayed in front of Zacrozym and waited for the order to attack, when the general offensive was to begin. At these positions, the SS men waited for another hour after the campaign’s chief strategists had heard a rumour that the Poles might surrender without another battle. When this rumour turned out to be groundless, the final assault on Warsaw went ahead. At 06.15 hours on 29 September, an artillery bombardment began against the town of Zacrozym and No. 1 Fort.

Fifteen minutes later, the infiltration companies of the Deutschland Regiment sprang into action. Led by detachments armed with flame-throwers, these units quickly pushed their way through enemy defences and overran most of Zacrozym within 90 minutes, taking several thousand prisoners. By this time, the officer commanding the Polish garrison had ordered his troops to surrender. However, some of his soldiers either did not hear the order or defied it, and decided to keep fighting.

MERCILESS BOMBARDMENT

Nearby, the Polish garrison at No. 1 Fort continued to resist, firing from their positions at German troops fighting in Zacrozym and elsewhere. However, the Germans soon unleashed a merciless artillery bombardment upon the citadel, forcing its surviving occupants to capitulate in the afternoon. By this time, Colonel Steiner was able to report that his SS regiment had achieved all of its objectives for the day.

Less than an hour after the fall of Zacrozym and No. 1 Fort, the general commanding Polish forces at the Modlin Line recognized the futility of continuing further resistance and ordered all the troops in his command to surrender. The fall of this stronghold effectively ended the Polish campaign for the Deutschland Regiment. Despite the tensions between the Wehrmacht and the SS-VT, Steiner and his regiment had performed well enough to win the praise of the divisional commander, Werner Kempf, who promptly communicated his favourable impressions to OKH.

The general also declared his admiration for the SS Artillery Regiment as a unit that contained motivated soldiers who had carried out their duties with skill and precision. In addition, he was impressed with the SS Reconnaissance Detachment which, in his view, was led by an officer imbued with energy and initiative. Kempf especially respected the type of training that the men in this battalion had accomplished and exhibited in action. Finally, thegeneral citied the SS Signals Unit for performing to a degree of perfection that he had never seen before.

The Polish campaign was also an invaluable educational experience for the Deutschland Regiment. During the month of September, the men in this unit learned to operate in a variety of situations that confronted infantry formations. Such experiences ranged from the assaults on enemy fortification, to cooperation with tank units. In Berlin, both Hitler and Himmler were pleased with the performance of their SS regiment and agreed that their SS-Verfügungstruppen units would perform better if they were assembled into their own autonomous division.

While the Deutschland Regiment swooped into northern Poland with the 3rd Army, the men of the Germania Regiment operated in separate detachments within the western and southern parts of the country. Primarily under the command of General List and thus attached to the 14th Army in Slovakia, some of Germania’s battalions and companies spent much of their time guarding the left flank of XXII Corps during its push to the eastern town of Chelm. At the same time, the regiment’s 2nd Battalion acted in cooperation with VIII Corps, while its Armoured Reconnaissance Platoon was attached to the 5th Panzer Division.

GOOD PERFORMANCE

Although these units were thinly spread over large areas, most of them performed well during the campaign. While blocking a road west of the town of Przemysl, No. 15 Company ambushed a battalion-size Polish column and took at least 500 prisoners. Later in the day, the company confronted a more serious problem when a unit of cadets and officers from the Polish War Academy at Krakow charged the Germans in an effort to push through the SS roadblock and reach Lemberg. After sustaining heavy casualties, the SS soldiers retreated north to join No. 1 Company. While the 7th Infantry Division attacked elements of the Carpathian Army at Przemysl, the two companies maintained precarious blocking positions to help prevent enemy troops from escaping the beleaguered town.

Meanwhile, Germania’s 2nd Battalion went with the 8th Infantry Division during an advance on the Brzoza–Stadnice–Linica railway line. Assigned the task of capturing a bridge crossing the River San at Kreszov, the battalion marched 130km (80 miles) in just two days and joined a detachment from the 5th Panzer Division en route to its destination. On the afternoon of the 12th September, the Germans reached the bridge at Kreszov, only to see it demolished by troops from the Carpathian Army stationed on the other side of the river.

Undeterred by this setback, a platoon from the battalion’s No. 3 Company and another from No. 5 Company forded the River San under the cover of darkness during the ensuing evening. On the east bank, the SS men discovered that the Poles had withdrawn. By the end of the night, the Germans had secured both sides of the river just as the 8th Infantry Division reached the area. During a brief attempt to overtake the retreating enemy forces, the soldiers of No. 6 Company, 2nd Battalion, Germania Regiment came close to being hit by friendly fire when a squadron of Stuka dive-bombers swooped into the area and hammered the Poles with explosives and heavy machine-gun fire.

END OF THE CAMPAIGN

At the end of the month, when the devastated city of Warsaw had finally surrendered to the Germans, the Polish campaign effectively came to an end. Pummelled mercilessly by Luftwaffe bombers, the capital had lost its flour-mills, water facilities, and other important structures, forcing its defenders to capitulate. With Warsaw now in German hands, Polish resistance ended throughout the country, except for a small garrison occupying an area north of Danzig, which capitulated in early October. East of the River Bug, Soviet forces consolidated their control over the part of the country that Hitler had conceded to Russia in exchange for the non-aggression pact signed earlier in the year.

On 30 September, the Führer delivered a radio broadcast to his people, informing them of the great victory scored by the German Armed Forces in Poland. In his address, he noted that his armies had taken almost 700,000 prisoners of war, while suffering relatively low casualty rates. In the eastern part of the country, the Red Army captured another 217,000 Polish soldiers, while roughly 100,000 of them escaped to Romania to join the Allied war effort. During the campaign, total German losses included 10,572 killed, 30,322 wounded and 3400 missing.

Although most of the SS-VT regiments, battalions and companies had impressed their division commanders, high-ranking Wehrmacht officers maintained their opposition to SS military formations. Claiming that SS-VT officers and NCOs had exhibited inept leadership on the field, some Army generals also accused their unwanted auxiliaries of committing atrocities against unarmed civilians. However, the actual culprits in such actions were members of SS-Totenkopf (Death’s Head) units, which had been charged with the specific task of eliminating intellectuals, Jews, communists and other undesirables from areas conquered by German forces. These killing squads also sent many civilians to concentration camps and engaged in extensive looting and property destruction throughout Poland.

Not surprisingly, Himmler considered such brutality to be justifiable, claiming that it was necessary to pacify the countryside and eliminate any potential threats to German control of the area. To him, and to other hardcore National Socialist ideologues, the alleged inferiority of the Slavic ‘subhuman’ races also made this cruel behaviour acceptable – and even appropriate – to advance the interests of the Aryan master race. Unfortunately for the soldiers of the SS-Verfügungstruppen, the atrocities performed by other elements of the SS organization quickly created the impression of guilt by association, even in the early stages of World War II.

Despite this blot on their reputation, the commanders of the SS-VT formations finally got what they wanted from their Führer. In mid-October, Hitler ordered these units, which were now stationed in Pilsen, to be joined into a single organization, the SS-Verfügungs Division, or the SS-VT Division. As an autonomous formation, the new division was to include the Deutschland, Germania and Der Führer infantry regiments, as well as the artillery regiment, and the signals, pioneer, reconnaissance, anti-tank and anti-aircraft machine-gun battalions. At the same time, he also authorized the creation of two more SS organizations, the Totenkopf and the Polizei divisions. To keep the Wehrmacht appeased, Hitler assured its senior commanders that these divisions would operate under Army control during campaigns.

Although Germany was now technically in a state of war with Great Britain and France, several months came and went without any real military hostilities taking place between them. As a result, the new SS divisions had an abundant amount of time during this ‘Phoney War’ to attract new members, acquire weapons, vehicles, and equipment, and learn how to fight and manoeuvre in unified formations. Before the invasion of Poland, the SS-Verfügungstruppen possessed roughly 18,000 men. In the months following the campaign, the newly named SS-VT Division grew to include 100,000 troops. During this time, the armed branch of the Schutzstaffel officially became known as the Waffen-SS.

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