His hold on Austria and Czechoslovakia secured, Hitler turned his attention to Poland, his next intended target for conquest. Hitler’s deep-seated hatred of Poland was inherited. As early as 1922, General Hans von Seeckt, regarded as the ‘father’ of the Reichswehr, had declared: ‘Poland’s existence is intolerable, incompatible with the essential conditions of German life. Poland must and will go.’
By diktat of the peacemakers of Versailles, the German province of East Prussia on the Baltic Sea had been separated from the rest of the Reich by a corridor which gave Poland its sole access at Danzig (Gdansk). On 21 March 1939, the Führer turned up the heat: Danzig must be restored to Germany, which must have the freedom to build road and rail links to East Prussia across Polish territory. As was to be expected, Poland refused. The war clouds began to gather.
Hitler, however, seeking freedom to act against Poland, still shared a fear that had long haunted German military thinking: the spectre of fighting a war on two fronts. This was relieved by the signing of the Nazi–Soviet Pact during the night of 23 August 1939. Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and his Soviet counterpart, Vyacheslav Molotov, put their signatures to a 10-year non-aggression pact, cemented by an agreement that Poland should be conquered and then divided. For the Poles, it was a death knell.
As early as April 1939, Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) had issued its Directive for the Uniform Preparation for War in 1939/40. After some delay, Hitler gave his armies the final signal for invasion at dawn on 1 September. One of the most significant passages of the OKW directive had stated that the destruction of the Polish Army would be carried out through surprise attack. This was a sign that here was the start, not simply of a conflict, but of a new sort of war. Clausewitz, the German military theorist, many of whose pronouncements had been hitherto regarded as holy writ, had proclaimed over a century before: ‘Blood is the price of victory. Philanthropists may easily imagine that there is a skilful method of disarming and overcoming the enemy without great bloodshed and that this is the proper tendency of the Art of War … That is an error that must be extirpated.’
But this was 1939, the era of Blitzkrieg, or lightning war, with victories being delivered not in rivers of blood, but in tactics of speed and shock delivered with all the resources of new technology. The battlefield would belong to highly mobile forces, to the Panzers, their divisions thrusting deep into any enemy’s defences and cutting up troops into separate pockets. Before that would come bombing cover from screaming Stuka dive-bombers.
The start of the blitz invasion of Poland, which was designated Case Weiss (Case White), found the Poles under attack from three separate directions. In the north of the country, General Fedor von Bock’s 4th Army attacked from Pomerania in the west, while his 3rd Army came from East Prussia, in a giant pincer movement. The aim was to cut off the Polish corridor at its tip. Then came the swing south to attack Warsaw. Still further south, under General von Rundstedt, the 8th and 10th armies struck east from Silesia for Warsaw, while 14th pushed east for Cracow (Kraków) and Lwow (Lvov).
The German muscle appeared impressive. In the east alone were to be positioned 27 infantry divisions, six Panzer divisions, four light divisions and one cavalry brigade. Another 16 divisions were to be created on mobilisation. But all was not entirely well – not least because of opposition among the more hidebound sections of the Wehrmacht, who distrusted with a sneer the ‘tank troops’ with their pretensions of technical superiority. Expansion of the army had taken place over just four years and the supply of equipment, particularly to the Panzer divisions, had been deficient: tanks were equipped with machine guns rather than cannon. Against that, though, was superiority in the large number of independently operating armoured and motorised units. The unknown factor was how they would conduct themselves in battle.
The extension of German territory which had been brought about by the occupation of Czechoslovakia dangerously exposed the southern flank of Poland. The Polish army, with an instinct for trouble, had increased its army’s infantry strength from 30 to 39 divisions. All other units had been reinforced; the air force had been reorganised with a bomber brigade and a pursuit brigade. Plans were in place for the bulk of the armed forces to be mobilised within 72 hours.
But it was a case of too little, too late. The 400 aircraft of the Polish front line were largely obsolete. A motorised force of 225 modern tanks included 80 obsolete ones. In a scarcely better state were its 534 reconnaissance carriers and 100 armoured cars of obsolete types. Only one of the 12 cavalry brigades was armoured, and the artillery did not compare favourably in calibre or range with its German counterpart either.
As early as the middle of June, the Leibstandarte, which had returned to the Berlin area two months previously, had received its orders. Sommerübung (summer exercise) called for combat readiness by 1 August 1939. In preparation for their first blooding in battle, Sepp Dietrich’s men moved out of Lichterfelde, leaving behind a sprinkling of reserve, training and security troops. They arrived in the assembly area around Hundsfeld-Kunersdorf, north of Breslau, with an injunction from Himmler ringing in their ears: ‘SS men, I expect you to do more than your duty.’ In captivity after the war, Dietrich was frank: ‘The Führer’s order was to kill without mercy the entire Polish race. We were the Führer’s men. We had our order. We pressed ahead.’
The battle experience of this former NCO had been in the infinitely different environment of World War I. Up to the invasion of Poland, all had been but theory: attending courses for motorised regimental commanders at Zossen and for Panzer division commanders at the tank school at Winsdorf. Dietrich was now faced with an apprenticeship in this new war, encouraged by the fact that during the previous June, Hitler had finally railroaded the vocal critics within the army and declared that the SS-VT would be organised as a division. An artillery regiment had been raised at Juterborg with drafts from the Leibstandarte, Deutschland and Germania.
Leibstandarte was part of Army Group South. Von Rundstedt, as group commander, soon found work for Dietrich’s men under the control of 17th Infantry Division. Since there was a lack of reconnaissance strength for the left wing of the 10th Army, Dietrich’s men filled this need, acting as the link between 8th and 10th armies, under the commands of Generals Johannes Blaskowitz and Walter von Reichenau.
The first task of the Leibstandarte, approaching from the vicinity of Breslau, centred on a key height lying behind the Prosna River, which lay on the path from Breslau where there was a fortified frontier line. It faced several echelons of Polish infantry and artillery. Adrenaline ran high within 8th Army with the commencement of hostilities at 0045 hours on 1 September. Just before the start, some newly enlisted men who had not yet been able to recite the Leibstandarte oath of loyalty were ordered to do so before moving into battle. These were fresh-faced young SS men, virgins among what all too soon would be killing fields. One of their number had already written home:
‘I am writing this by very poor light … Today we shall be at war with Poland unless the Poles see sense. Tomorrow I shall be a complete soldier. Personal thoughts I have expelled from my mind; only one single thought remains – Germany.’
Advance was speedy: some five or eight kilometres (three or four miles) within 75 minutes. The Leibstandarte reached the German–Polish border at 0445 hours and the first crossing took place at Gola, where the bridge over the Prosna was seized, breasted by the SS troops in the face of easily overcome opposition from the Polish 10th Infantry Division with their 37mm (1.49in) guns. Ahead lay Boleslavecz and, beyond it, Wieuroszov, the town where the Leibstandarte was to link up with the 17th Infantry Division on its left. Attempts to halt the advance proved costly for the Poles; by 1000 hours, Boleslavecz was in German hands and there were columns of prisoners in their field grey, the Eagle of Poland shining in the welt of their field caps.
The countryside, much of it dense birch forests, had concealed Poles with machine guns who knew their own territory well; there were dismounted attacks on the long columns of Leibstandarte vehicles. At the end of the day, however, Dietrich’s men had swept up all their objectives: 10th, 17th and 25th Polish Infantry Divisions, together with those of the Wielpolska and Wolwyska Cavalry Brigades. These men had fought hard counterattacking, often hand-to-hand. One Leibstandarte man recalled: ‘They came into the attack in long lines, not quite shoulder-to-shoulder but very close together. They had a battle cry – a long drawn-out hurrah and we could also hear the officers shouting.’ First German casualties – the overall count was seven killed and 20 wounded – had included the crew of an armed reconnaissance car, victims of a Polish mine.
THE ATTACK CONTINUES
The link-up with 17th Infantry Division was to be followed by an assault on the Warta River in the vicinity of Burzenin. A six-man machine-gun crew from 1st Company Leibstandarte was ordered across a partially blown wooden bridge to the other side of the river to report on the likely strength of opposition. One of the crew later recalled the sudden, totally unexpected appearance of Sepp Dietrich in forage cap, his insignia of rank concealed by a motorcyclist’s long coat. As the men moved towards the bridge, Dietrich himself followed, passing disassembled machine-gun barrels and ammunition canisters. Before melting into the darkness, he called out with a chuckle: ‘Good luck and don’t be afraid. You’re not going to drown, just get a wet arse.’
But it was not a happy experience for the Leibstandarte, who encountered resistance both from enemy firepower and the sandy soil which held up its vehicles. Another blow to the men’s pride was the knowledge that elements of 10th Army were already crossing the river. It was not until late on 4 September that the crossing was finally made in its entirety.
Casualties by now were mounting, which did little for the morale and, just as seriously, the discipline of the Leibstandarte. Major General Loch, commanding 17th Infantry Division, complained of wild firing by the Leibstandarte and a propensity for torching every village during its progress. It was made clear that such a practice was objected to on strict military operational considerations, not sentiment. Burning villages held up the tempo of the tactics of fire and movement, as well as depriving the troops of shelter when it was needed. Still, advance there was by the young volunteers, with the Poles being swept up before them. The riposte to the Leibstandarte was vicious, due to the combined Polish forces of 30th Infantry Division, 21st Infantry Regiment and the armoured cars of Wolwyska Cavalry Brigade.