The Second World War began with a terrific gamble. At dawn on 1 September 1939, a huge German army rolled across the 1,250-mile Polish border. The attack was spearheaded by Panzers, seven divisions of them. No one had tried such a strategy before. It was not one of the terror tactics that the Germans had perfected during the Spanish Civil War that had raged for the previous three years. The deployment of Panzers in Spain was considered largely a failure. When German tanks rolled over the border into Austria in 1938, at least 30 per cent had broken down before they reached Vienna. Things went little smoother during the occupation of Czechoslovakia the following year. The crews lacked the experience to fix mechanical problems on the spot and a tank broken down on a bridge or a narrow road could hold up a whole brigade. They also destroyed the surface of the roads they used, slowing those who followed. Fuel was another problem. The Wehrmacht, the German army, quickly realised that there was more to tanks than guns and armour. They were going to have to learn a whole new discipline – the art of mechanised warfare.
However, there were a handful of men who believed that tank warfare would work on the plains of Poland. Hitler was among them. The proper use of the Panzer, he believed, was something that would have to be learnt in war itself.
The first lesson, it was believed, should be easy. The Poles had just one armoured brigade, 660 tanks in all versus Germany’s 2,100. Although the Polish army would outnumber the attacking Germans once it had all been mustered, the Poles started out with seventeen ill-equipped infantry divisions, three infantry brigades and six cavalry brigades – real cavalry brigades with horses, not the armoured units cavalry later became. However, the German High Command was not 100 per cent confident of victory. Orders issued in Berlin in 1939 stated:
No tanks must fall into enemy hands without the crew and the crews of neighbouring tanks doing their utmost to rescue or destroy it. A crew may abandon an immobilised tank only if they have run out of ammunition or can no longer fire, and if other vehicles cannot be expected to save it… If there is a risk that the tank may fall into enemy hands, it should be destroyed. Waste wool, combustible material, ammunition, etc. inside the vehicle should be soaked with fuel (possibly by ripping out the fuel pipe) and the vehicle is to be set on fire.
The German Panzer spearhead would be followed by four motorised infantry divisions, four light divisions and forty regular infantry divisions. The Germans also had overwhelming superiority in the air. The Polish Air Force had just 842 obsolescent planes, while the Luftwaffe, the German air force, could put 4,700 modern aircraft in the air. One tactic the Germans had perfected during the Spanish Civil War was the terror bombing of civilian targets, including, infamously, the Basque market town of Guernica.
The Poles also believed that the French would attack Germany in the rear, across Germany’s western frontier. When they finally did, they sent insufficient forces and it was too late. The Soviet Union – Russia and its Communist satellites – would be no help. It had signed the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939, which publicly guaranteed that the two nations would not attack each other and privately divided Poland between them. Poland was on its own and its cavalry lances would be matched against the monstrous new machines of war: the Panzers.
The Luftwaffe wiped out the Polish air force in the first two days. This left the sky clear for German Stukas to dive-bomb Polish columns which did more to dent the morale of raw Polish recruits than inflict physical damage. What tanks the Polish did possess were dispersed throughout the army, which itself made the fatal mistake of trying to defend the entire length of the border. The Panzers concentrated on weak points and broke through. They penetrated deep into the country, then fanned out, isolating and encircling Polish units. When they came across Polish strongpoints, they simply bypassed them and allowed the bombers to take care of them later. And if they could not simply outflank a heavily fortified Polish position, they waited for the infantry and artillery to catch up, then launched a conventional assault on the stronghold.
The Poles did not grasp the full extent of the threat posed by the German armour and believed that, once they had fallen back to a defensive line, they could hold it. But the speed and depth of the Panzers’ thrusts caused confusion and the dive-bombing of undefended towns choked the roads with refugees. This was all part of Panzer theory. The idea was to prevent the enemy from using the road network to bring up reinforcements or regroup its forces. After all, civilians on the roads were no hindrance to the advancing Panzers. The refugees were simply machine-gunned from the air, producing further panic – and further obstacles to advancing Polish forces.
After the First World War, Poland had been recreated with two million Germans living within its borders. Some were involved in active sabotage. Others spread rumours of German victories, the inevitability of Polish defeat and the cowardice and deceit of Poland’s leaders. This tactic, known as Schrecklichkeit, ‘frightfulness’, again sapped morale.
The Panzers led four deep thrusts into Poland. Two came directly from the German Reich itself, led by the XIX Panzer Corps and the XVI Panzer Corps heading for Warsaw, via Bydgoszcz and Lodz respectively. A southern thrust from Slovakia, led by the 2nd and 5th Panzer Divisions, headed through Chelm to Brest-Litovsk, where they were to meet up with the Third Army, led by elements of XIX Panzer Corps. This came via East Prussia, a part of Germany separated from the Reich by the ‘Polish Corridor’ which, under the Treaty of Versailles, gave Poland access to the Baltic. The Southern Army Group was under the command of General Karl von Rundstedt, whose chief of staff was General Erich von Manstein. The Northern Army Group was commanded by General Fedor von Bock.
The attack began at 0445 on Friday 1 September when the German naval training ship Schleswig Holstein began bombarding the Polish Corridor. The Luftwaffe then bombed the Polish airfields. At 0800 a large formation of tanks from the German 4th Panzer Division arrived at the positions held by the Polish cavalry brigade Wolynska Brygada Kawalerii. They came under fire from machine guns and anti-tank weapons, and retreated to the village of Wilkowiecko. The Polish cavalry were then dive-bombed, causing the horses to stampede. A swarm of Panzers then left Wilkowiecko to attack the Polish 21st Lancers, who were now fighting on foot along the edge of Mokra Wood, but they were forced to withdraw leaving four burning tanks behind them. Renewed Stuka attacks and an artillery barrage left the villages of Mokra I, II and III in flames. Polish casualties were high. Nevertheless, when the Panzers went in again, several were hit and caught fire, and escaping crews were captured by the lancers.
The Germans aimed their main attack at the 4th Troop of the 21st Lancers. But at 1100 hrs, shortly before they reached the lancers’ position, the Polish Armoured Platoon arrived and began bombarding them with 10cm howitzers and 7.5cm field guns. The Germans retreated behind Wilkowiecko, leaving crews behind on the battlefield in their wrecked tanks to be captured by the Poles. This was going to be no pushover.
Around this time the Reich Press Chief, Otto Dietrich, issued an edict that the word ‘war’ was to be avoided in press reports at all costs, stressing that the Polish ambassador was still in Berlin. Even the Polish News Agency said that the fighting was ‘confined to border zones’. But the German First Lieutenant W. Reibel took part in the attack and described the scene:
The bow waves crashed around the tanks, spraying a cool shower over many a driver who crosses the river too fast. To our left is a blown-up railway bridge, at the edge of the road is a dead Polish soldier. It really is a strange feeling to know that now we have left Germany and are standing on Polish soil. Far away we hear the weak barking of a machine gun. Somewhere there is a hollow thunder of cannon – the first signs of war. Ahead of us lies a village. According to the map it must be Mokra III. The name means nothing to us yet. It’s just a village like any other. But what would we have done if we had known? There! Arriving at the last houses in the village we hear rifle and machine gun fire, then comes the order: ‘Prepare for combat.’ The shooting steps up… projectiles strike the tank with a bright clang. Trenches crisscross our attack zone, marshy meadows impair our progress. Yet we roll on relentlessly… Slowly we reach the edge of the wood and push into a forest lane, my company ahead of me. All hell has broken loose here. Ahead of us is an embankment with an underpass. Bullets are cracking and roaring like mad… A lot of vehicles from 2nd Company and our company are now standing in the forest lane. Suddenly a tank that had already pushed through the underpass goes up in flames. Damn the lot of them. It’s an anti-tank force… Many a dear comrade was missing when we assembled. Their tanks turned into iron graves. Our company too has suffered its first deaths… A short time later our company too marched back to the resting area… The burning villages lit the horizon with a red glow. Then came a sudden cry: ‘Polish cavalry approaching to the left’ and we seized our weapons again. But it was a false alarm. Herds of riderless horses were searching for human beings.
Nevertheless, the Wolynska cavalry brigade succeeded in holding up the advance of the German 4th Panzer Division for a whole day.
Official sources in Germany told a different story. After reporting ‘an almost grotesque attack on some of our tanks by a Polish lancer regiment with what annihilating consequences one can easily imagine’, the army propaganda sheet Die Wehrmacht went on to say:
Even the anti-tank guns which the Poles believed could easily halt the advance of our tanks were soon revealed as too weak. In one battle a single German heavy tank annihilated two gun crews with a single shot and then crushed the guns themselves under its heavy track chains. Incidentally, the tank driver, a very young second lieutenant, shortly afterwards stopped a railroad train loaded with Polish reservists, forced them to climb out and herded them along – 400 men in all – in the van of his tank.
On 2 September, the Polish army was forced to retreat under intense pressure from the XV Panzer Corps under General Hoth and the XVI Panzer Corps under General Hoepner who threatened to encircle it from the south. Meanwhile at the head of the XIX Panzer Corps, the armoured spearhead of the Northern Army Groups, was General Heinz Guderian, the great theorist of Panzer warfare. Now, at last, he could now see his theories being put into practice. He believed that it was essential for a Panzer commander to be in the forefront of the action with his men. Reporting the situation back to an HQ in the rear then waiting for orders to be sent forward again would slow progress.
The fast-moving nature of this new type of mechanised warfare meant that troops were liable to shoot first and ask questions later. Consequently, Germans ended up firing on other Germans who had turned up in unexpected places. Nevertheless Guderian soon proved the worth of his ‘command from forward’ system. All the armoured unit commanders were kept as far forward as possible, allowing them to issue commands by radio direct to the Panzers and infantry troops following. This meant they could take rapid advantage of any situation. However, stationing the commander forward when the lines are fluid had its own dangers. Guderian found himself under shellfire from his own artillery who were firing haphazardly through the mist and was lucky to escape with his life. The Luftwaffe general in charge of close air support was also fired on by his own troops, even though his plane clearly carried German markings.
The Poles also claimed some initial successes. On 5 September, their news agency reported: ‘A successful Polish counter-attack has been reported against motorised divisions advancing towards Bieradz in southern Poland. The enemy abandoned considerable numbers of assault vehicles and motor cars whose occupants were taken prisoner. There were many captives.’
There were other setbacks. Panzers outran their fuel supplies, blocking the roads when they ran out of petrol. Again there was a high level of breakdowns. No less than a quarter of the tanks were out of action at any one time. This was an improvement on the 30 per cent breakdown rate they had experienced before, though all the vehicles needed an overhaul by the end of the campaign. However the Panzers played a decisive role in the remarkable success of the Polish campaign. The Wehrmacht, under another important advocate of the Panzer, General Walther von Reichenau, covered the 140 miles to the outskirts of Warsaw in just seven days. Guderian made even more ground in lightning thrusts with two Panzer divisions and two motorised divisions moulded into a single corps. His XIX Corps covered 200 miles in ten days cutting through the Narev Operational Group and destroying the Polish Eighteenth Army for the loss of only 4 per cent of its strength: 650 killed and 1,586 wounded and missing. And General Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma, Panzer commander in Spain, managed to infiltrate 50 miles though thick, though undefended, woods to turn the Polish flank at the Jablunka pass.
But the Panzers acted as a cutting edge rather than as an independent force. Their six armoured divisions comprised just 11 per cent of the Wehrmacht’s strength and they were given strict orders not to outpace the infantry. The Panzers were still strictly under the command of their larger army groups. Training regulations maintained that tanks were only allowed to open fire independently ‘when breaching the enemy or to ward off impending attack’.
It was only on 8 September, when it became clear that the Southern Army Group had not managed to occupy Warsaw that Guderian’s XIX Panzer Corps were allowed to leave the Third Army behind and race south-eastwards to take Brest-Litovsk, a hundred miles beyond the Polish capital to the east. But Guderian’s success, according to von Manstein, was due to Germany’s success in the air, rather than the Panzers themselves.
‘What decided the battles,’ he wrote, ‘was the almost complete elimination of the enemy’s air force and the crippling of his staff communications and transport network by the effective attacks of our Luftwaffe.’
But Die Wehrmacht lauded the success of the 15th and 16th Panzers, who had fought their way through to the outskirts of Warsaw on 6 September: ‘Our spearhead rapidly reached the hills on the side of the river. The enemy artillery fired but our tanks rolled undeterred towards their targets along roundabout routes, under cover of farmsteads and underbrush. As the sun sank towards the west, our tanks penetrated the city under their protective fire, German combat engineers crossed the river so as to get behind and destroy the enemy still resisting in the city. While the armoured spearhead was still securing the river crossing, the second wave of tanks was already rolling up. It was led by a general travelling in a command tank studded with antiaircraft machine guns. Reinforcement Panzer units and mobile divisions rolled up in an irresistible train over twelve miles long.’
A defence of the city had been hastily prepared. But by 8 September, Panzers had entered Warsaw. However, the 4th Panzer Division met dogged resistance in the city and 57 of the 120 attacking tanks were lost in just three hours. On the 11th, there was a report of a Polish counter-attack which claimed to have smashed eighteen tanks. Although the Poles claimed on 14 September to have set more tanks on fire, and captured several anti-tank guns in skirmishes in the capital, the German thrust into Poland had been so swift that it was impossible for the Poles to pull back enough of their army to mount a concerted defence of the city.
While resistance inside the capital continued, the Polish cavalry took on the Panzers, according to Guderian. The British advocate of mechanised warfare Basil Liddell Hart also wrote of ‘gallant but fantastic charges with sword and lance’. However, it is probably a myth. Denis Hills, a Briton who was in Poland at the time, dismissed this ‘Balaclava stuff’ as ‘a bit of fantasy’. Though the Polish lancers would have come up against Nazi Panzers, they were far more effective against infantry battalions. At dawn on 9 September, the 3rd Light Horse Regiment of the Suwalki Cavalry Brigade charged a column of transport trucks just north of the Zambrow Forest, but only after they had been softened up by machine-gun fire from men hidden in the woods.
‘The command “Draw sabres, gallop, march!” flew down the lines,’ according to platoon commander M. Kamil Dziewanowski. ‘Reins were gripped tighter. The riders bent forward in the saddles and they rushed forward like a mad whirlwind.’
This, the last Polish cavalry charge in history, turned the Germans into ‘a frantic mob’ who were quickly overrun with negligible Polish losses.
‘The morning sun was high when our bugler blew assembly,’ Dziewanowski went on. ‘We came up slowly, driving our prisoners ahead of us. We took about two hundred men, most of them insane from fright.’
Dziewanowski said that, although his proud cavalry brigade did turn themselves into ‘an outfit of tank hunters’ that autumn, they had more sense than to attack them with sabres. Instead, daredevils among them crept up on the German tanks at night and threw Molotov cocktails at them, or blew their tracks off with hand grenades.
After this one last charge, the cavalry’s horses were too hungry and exhausted to mount anything like it again. However, the myth of the Polish cavalry taking on the Panzers persists. The reason may be that Polish, like the British, love stories of heroic defeat. After years of suffering under Nazi, then Soviet, tyranny, they have clutched onto the romantic idea of gallant Polish cavalry officers digging their spurs into their horses’ flanks and galloping heroically at the invading Nazi divisions. In fact, the origin of story probably lies in Nazi propaganda – Germany, a great twentieth-century power, was crushing primitive Poland, stuck in the eighteenth.
On 17 September, Soviet forces entered Poland from the east. The country was divided between Germany and Russia along the lines of the secret protocol that accompanied the Non-Aggression Pact. On the morning of 18 September, the Polish government and high command crossed the Rumanian frontier into exile and formal resistance was over. The Warsaw garrison held out against the Germans until 28 September, while terror-bombings and artillery barrages reduced parts of the city to rubble and the civilian population were starved and denied water. The last serious body of the Polish Army held out until 5 October, though some guerrilla fighting went on into the winter. By then Poland as an independent state had been removed from the maps.
However, while the Poles were ill-equipped and unsupported, the invasion of Poland was not the bloodless victory that the Germans had expected, or the Panzers had hoped for. The Germans lost 10,572 killed in action. Another 5,029 were listed as ‘missing’, but as the country was completely overrun it can be assumed that they were not taken prisoner. And 30,332 Germans were wounded.
Of the 2,100 tanks that took part in the attack on Poland, 218 were destroyed. Fifty-seven of those were lost in heavy fighting in the streets of Warsaw. Tanks are not well suited to fighting in the confined conditions of city streets, where they are vulnerable to attack from the side and above. Against such a weak enemy a 10 per cent loss was considered high. Few faced anti-tank guns. When they did it was discovered that the smaller Panzer Is and IIs had neither the strength nor the firepower required for all-out mechanised warfare. It was found that the four divisions of light tanks were of little use, even in the ideal conditions of Poland. As a result four more Panzer divisions were created, bringing the total to ten and each was assigned its own Luftwaffe unit. From now on, armour and air power would work hand in hand.
The campaign had also shown up problems with the motorised infantry troops assigned to Panzer divisions. They had been carried in trucks, aptly known as ‘soft-skinned vehicles’ which presented easy targets to the enemy. This made the drivers cautious and large gaps opened up between them and the Panzer spearhead. Meanwhile, the infantry itself, which was on foot, was left far behind, along with the horse-drawn transports that the Germans used throughout the war.
During the Polish campaign, the rivers did not present the obstacles that the Panzer commanders had feared. Although none of the 1939 generation of tanks was amphibious, mobile bridging units were brought up rapidly from the rear and the Poles were too disorganised to mass their forces on the far bank. The Germans also learnt that the Soviet tanks had thin, out-dated armour, and that their crews were often undisciplined. When the Soviets attacked Finland on 30 November 1939, their tanks could not overcome the Finnish tank hurdles and fell victim to anti-tank guns bought in Sweden. They could not cross rocky terrain. Traps were laid using felled trees and huge boulders, and slit trenches were used to conceal a soldier. When a tank appeared the man would toss a hand grenade under its gears to put it out of action. By 29 December, the Finns had destroyed 271 Russian tanks.
However, the Western Allies learnt little from the Polish Campaign. They dismissed many of the reports they received of lightning thrusts by armoured columns as the ravings of a demoralised people reeling under the shock of defeat. Allied strategists also failed to pick up the fact that the Panzers had not confined themselves to the wide open plains of Poland that would normally be considered perfect tank country, but had also pushed through heavily–wooded areas and over hills. Just eight months later the Western Allies would be surprised when the Panzers attacked through the heavily-wooded Ardennes, an area they would break through again in 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge.
In 1939 though, British and French military thinking was still mired in the mud of the First World War. Although forward-thinking strategists had developed the theory of mechanised warfare, those in command had turned a deaf ear and for the next three years the Panzer would reign supreme.