Guderian in Poland II

German General Guderian and Russian General Krivoshein at Soviet-German parade in occupied Poland, Brest 1939.

The Polish garrison of Brest would not surrender and was well entrenched among the ancient fortifications. This provided yet another opportunity for Guderian to demonstrate his corps’ versatility with a full-scale direct assault that lacked none of the power associated with heavily supported infantry forces in the past. Tanks, artillery and infantry from 10th Panzer and 20th Motorised Divisions were thrown into a deliberate attack on the 16th while 3rd Panzer and 2nd Motorised Divisions continued their advance to the south in pursuit of the Corps’ mission. But if there was nothing to prevent a drive to the south, overcoming the defences of Brest was another matter. Resistance was fierce and accidentally stiffened when German artillery fire fell short among its own infantry. At this the infantry faltered and failed to follow close upon the heels of that part of a creeping barrage which was accurate. Next day the matter was settled, by mutual consent, the final German assault coinciding with a despairing Polish attempt to break out. This, as Guderian wrote, marked the end of the campaign. Isolated garrisons throughout the country would prolong the fight for the sake of honour, but the entry of Russian troops in eastern Poland eradicated any Polish hope there might have been of establishing a coherent defence in that region.

In the closing phases was heard the mutter of yet another storm to come. On 15th September Bock decided to split XIX Corps in two, sending half north-eastward towards Slonin and the rest south-eastward -a task which he estimated would take an infantry corps eight days to complete but which motorised troops could accomplish in a fraction of that time. To co-ordinate this operation with XXI Corps he introduced Kluge’s Fourth Army. Hotly Guderian protested to Kluge at the splitting of his corps. It offended the principle of concentration which was sacred to his philosophy of armoured warfare and it would also, as he forcefully pointed out, make command and control almost impossible. Events precluded the movements, but at this moment was born a mistrust of Kluge that was to distinguish his dealing with that officer (and Bock) over the next five years. Yet it was these two who recommended him for the award of the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross – an honour he deeply appreciated since ‘… it seemed to me to be primarily a vindication of my long struggle for the creation of the new armoured force’. It is equally likely that Bock and Kluge were motivated by immediate considerations and the reflected glory they would gather from Guderian’s accomplishment. For he – and they – could claim a 200-mile advance in ten days against tough opposition for losses which were lower, in proportion, than those of the other groups. Since September 1st XIX Corps had suffered only 650 killed and 1,586 wounded and missing – a mere 4 per cent of its strength. Tank losses for the entire Army were 217 and the number of dead 8,000, of whom the vast majority were in the infantry and only 1,500 in Army Group North.

There were matters which gave less cause for rejoicing in the aftermath. Guderian shared the soldiers’ disappointment that Hitler’s promise of an automatic withdrawal of opposition by the Western Powers once Poland was conquered, was not fulfilled, though he was hardly surprised. In his letter to Gretel on 4th September he had told her: Tn the meantime the political situation has developed in so far as a new world war is in the making. The whole affair will therefore last a long time and we must stiffen our necks’. Now they had to face an offensive campaign in the West at which they boggled and for which there was no plan. The redeployment of an army which had suffered heavy wear and tear in battle had to be swiftly implemented, initially as a defence measure against an expected French offensive which never came. At least half the tanks needed major workshop overhaul. In the haste of withdrawal from the sectors which were to be turned over to the Russians, some equipment had to be abandoned, but the bulk of the Army (Guderian included) was spared the horror of watching the SS units at their deadly work of extermination in that part of Poland which Germany retained. Heinz-Günther Guderian remained for two months, however, and records the ‘deplorable impression’ made by the Jewish ghettos in Warsaw and Lublin.

The campaign’s lessons should have been patently obvious, but although the Germans were avid in correcting relatively minor sins and omissions in their equipment, their methods and organisation, it was plain that the full meaning of their achievement in Poland eluded even their own commanders. At the heart of misunderstanding was a universal belief that the Poles never had a chance, that the might of Germany was certain to prevail against an inferior opponent – as well it might in course of time. Such a belief suited the adjusted arguments put forward by opposing factions. The panzer men claimed everything for themselves, as did some airmen. But whereas history tells us that the latter played an important role within the broadest concept of air power as an instrument of force, it also reminds us that only land forces seize ground. That was what the panzer troops did with such speed and effectiveness that Polish resistance never had a chance of adjusting itself to changed circumstances. It was upon the infantry that the higher German leadership, for a variety of reasons, heaped recrimination. It was said that they had failed to fight with the fervour of their forefathers and it could be inferred that, if the Army had gone to war with the horse and foot organisation Beck had preferred, execution of the campaign might have been so slow as to preclude a decision in time to pre-empt an irresistible offensive in the West. Hence it could be argued that, if Guderian had not engineered the panzer idea against the opposition of the majority, the war would not have been practicable. Few so argued, but Hitler had drawn his own conclusions.

As it was, Bock severely critised the performance of the infantry divisions (as part of an effort to restore their sense of purpose) coupled with a complaint that the artillery was immobile and far too slow in deploying its fire. Henceforward he demanded that the artillery must not delay the infantry and, moreover, should be capable of giving direct support from the front line. This was merely a reiteration of Guderian’s early arguments in favour of the tank. Manstein went further: tracked, motorised assault guns were required, he said. So it was that, as the inadequate Pz I tanks were gradually withdrawn from front-line service, they were rebuilt and fitted with larger guns of Czech origin, mounted, for limited traverse only, behind armour.

With none of these things could Guderian seriously quarrel, even though he resisted digressions from the turretted tank because they were, in his opinion, retrograde steps. He felt the tanks had stood up well against the Polish tanks – many of which were better armed than his own – and so he sought increases in the fire-power and armament of German tanks and expressed dissatisfaction with the standard of command at the lower levels. The Light Divisions, with their low tank content, had failed – as he expected they would – but with tank production reaching 125 per month and good Czech equipment becoming available it was now possible to up-grade these divisions to full panzer specifications. At the same time it was quite easy to resist a bizarre bid by the Cavalry to increase their establishment, even though horsed formations had amply demonstrated their terrible vulnerability in the late campaign. Yet the ‘Great Manoeuvres’ in Poland had not seriously altered the fundamental objections to all that Guderian stood for.

All Guderian could do was recommend. He was without direct power since the post of ‘Chief of Mobile Troops’ had been dissolved – unmourned – upon the outbreak of war when the representation of panzer interests had been transferred to the Commander of the Replacement Army – a somewhat anti-panzer officer called Generaloberst Fritz Fromm. In Guderian’s opinion the personalities who were made responsible for panzer matters were ‘not always in concert with the importance which the Panzer Command enjoys in modern war’. Nevertheless, if educated German military specialists were unwilling to come to terms with the changes which had been wrought upon the art of war as the result of Hitler’s ‘little war’ in Poland – and there is ample evidence in support of Guderian’s contention – an incredulous and ill-informed world was even less likely to do so. Though the major military powers, particularly Germany’s neighbours, realised that tanks and aircraft had played a vital role in the Polish debacle, they tended to minimise their effects on the grounds that this had been an unfair test against an impotent victim. Nothing such as had happened in Poland could possibly take place against France, it was argued. They would not long be left in doubt, if Hitler had his way, for Hitler was uplifted by success and this reinforcement of his self-confidence. He had seen the magic of his new weapons work: they were better than a bluff. No sooner had the dust from Poland settled than the Führer was giving the order, on 27th September, to prepare for an early invasion of Western Europe, a project which so alarmed some German officers, who rejected its feasibility let alone the attendant risk of really starting a Second World War, that they reactivated the project to assassinate Hitler. Among these dissidents were Hammerstein, Beck and a few civilians.

Guderian was not among the plotters – he might well have been the last they thought to invite – but he was far from content with the condition of Army affairs in addition to his worries about the state of the armoured forces. In October, at table, he had sensed what he took to be the Führer’s mood after the presentation of his Knight’s Cross. Seated upon Hitler’s right hand he gave a soldier’s reply to Hitler’s request for Guderian’s reactions when the Soviet Pact was announced in August; he said that it had given him a sense of security since it reduced the likelihood of a two-front war such as proved Germany’s undoing in the First World War. In Panzer Leader he expressed surprise that Hitler should look at him in amazement and displeasure, and says that only later did he come to understand Hitler’s intense hatred of Soviet Russia. It is possible that Guderian’s reply actually pleased the Führer, who had come to believe that most of his generals were whole-heartedly against the war and therefore against the Pact: it may have encouraged him to find one among the few who recognised the wisdom of his diplomacy and who did not flinch from fighting. But Guderian, unlike so many of his fellow professionals, had come to believe in Germany’s power to win battles and, in conversation, transmitted that conviction on the eve of the next round. For November 12th was the date chosen for the invasion of the West and the dissident generals had worked upon Brauchitsch and Haider to stand firm against what seemed, to them, a fatal step.

On November 5th Brauchitsch presented the case against invasion to Hitler, quoting the weather as a prime reason for postponement – an argument with which Guderian would have concurred because the mud produced by so much heavy rain would stop, or at least slow, the tanks. But Brauchitsch also threw doubt upon the fighting qualities of the infantry and this drove Hitler to fury. The Army Commander-in-Chief became a target for a vitriolic attack both upon his own integrity and that of the entire General Staff. At the height of his tirade, according to Goerlitz, he told Brauchitsch that he knew the generals were planning ‘something more than the offensive he had ordered’, an accidental shot in the dark which shook Brauchitsch to the roots. A thoroughly demoralised C-in-C went back to his Chief of Staff and tendered his resignation to Hitler. This, as Supreme Commander of the Wehrmacht, Hitler refused to accept. In much the same way, too, he brushed aside Keitel’s offer to resign when he detected the flight of his Führer’s confidence. Discipline was reasserted. The plot had to be called-off by the dissidents, of course. Not only did it seem possible that they were discovered, but neither Brauchitsch nor Haider were prepared to resist further, and without them there could be no progress. The postponement, on the 7th, of the offensive was almost incidental – the first of many deferments which were to recur at regular intervals throughout the winter.

On 23rd November Hitler felt provoked into reading his commanders a sharp lecture and left them in no doubt, as Guderian (who was there) put it, that, ‘The Luftwaffe generals, under the purposeful leadership of party comrade Göring, are entirely reliable; the admirals can be trusted to follow the Hitlerite line; but the Party cannot place unconditional trust in the good faith of the Army generals’. At this time Guderian and his XIX Corps were concentrated near Koblenz and under command of von Rundstedt’s Army Group A in readiness for the invasion. It was to Rundstedt’s Chief of Staff, his old friend Manstein, to whom Guderian first turned for consultation upon this matter which touched them all so deeply. Manstein agreed that something should be done but Rundstedt would not move in a positive manner – he kept to the letter of his oath. The same attitude he found among the other generals he consulted in his efforts to organise a protest. Finally he visited Reichenau who suggested that Guderian himself should speak to Hitler, and it was he who arranged an audience.

The record of that meeting is Guderian’s alone and is in the character of a man who cherished the Army’s honour above all else, besides being the possessor of a quite unquenchable spirit of aggression when posed with a problem which struck at the heart of his beliefs. Guderian’s correspondence leaves no doubt that the meeting took place and, if his account is true, contradicts Wheeler-Bennett’s claim that ‘Not a voice was raised in criticism or even in comment’, although it must be remembered, as Wheeler-Bennett remarks, that the main body of the Führer’s lecture gave rise to a wave of enthusiasm. Guderian says he was closeted with Hitler for an hour in which time he put the case for the generals and the plea that somebody had to speak out after the Führer told the Army generals that he did not trust them. In return Hitler blamed it all on the C-in-C, to which Guderian responded: ‘If you feel you cannot trust the present C-in-C of the Army then you must get rid of him …’ But after Hitler had asked him to name a suitable successor and Guderian had failed to suggest a single acceptable candidate from the top men, the soldier fell silent.

Now occurred the first of those increasingly recurrent scenes in which Hitler deemed it profitable to spend thirty minutes or more trying to convince a general whom he regarded as different and, perhaps, more sympathetic than the rest. There poured out a long diatribe in castigation of the generals and their resistance to Hitler’s wishes over the preceding years but, in the end, nothing constructive to settle the problem in the way that Guderian would have wished. The broken and pliable Brauchitsch remained as C-in-C and the schism widened between Hitler and OKW on the one hand and with the General Staff and OKH on the other. It is significant that Hitler should have felt the need to convince Guderian. Perhaps he felt that Guderian, because of his ‘modern’ outlook and personal struggle against the Army hierarchy, had a closer affinity with Nazi ideology than most Prussian military leaders (in a way he could have been right even though Guderian was no Nazi). Maybe he hoped to recruit another sycophant who one day, like Keitel, would supplant the recalcitrant members of OKH: if that is so he was hopelessly misled, for Guderian was incapable of sycophancy. Possibly he simply hoped to foster Guderian’s goodwill as that of key leader of the Army’s most potent striking force on the eve of the most testing campaign – but, in practice, he was to show that he had still not fully comprehended the meaning of the panzer divisions. It is more likely that a combination of all three motivations, plus several more of typically devious Hitlerian ingenuity, persuaded Hitler in an attempt to win the support of Germany’s most controversial operational commander. Perhaps he wished to evaluate Guderian as a potential Commander-in-Chief.

Guderian had demonstrated, as had several of his comrades, the absurdity of Seeckt’s demand that the Army should stay out of politics. He actually played an important part in thrusting it deeper – if unwittingly and against its will – into the political field. If he believed, as sometimes it is said he did, in political detachment, it is merely another example of his blindness to reality. This isolated him from those with whom he was destined to collaborate and created the divergences of view which were fundamental to his effectiveness as a leader. For Guderian was a target for the German generals’ distaste when they had the opportunity. Angrily he wrote to Gretel on 21st January 1940:

‘The recent evening with Herr v R [Rundstedt] began quite pleasantly and ended with a. debate started by him and Busch [Generaloberst Ernst Busch the commander of Sixteenth Army] about the Panzertruppe. It was a debate which I thought impossible in its lack of understanding and, in part, even hatefulness after the Polish campaign. I went home deeply disappointed. These people will never see me again. It is completely fruitless ever to expect anything from this well-known group of “comrades”. To these people can be traced back the reason for our irreplaceable equipment standing immobile out of doors for months on end to perish in the extreme cold. The damage arising from this is inconceivable.

‘Apart from this great annoyance I have that evening contracted a nasty infection and am suffering from catarrh and a cold of the most evil kind. And we continue to wait …

‘I have a lot to do for the next fortnight with regard to training courses. But everything suffers on account of the bad training facilities. Had they only left us at our depots! But that cannot be put right now.

‘It freezes, it is snowing. The big brook carries floating ice. It is mostly cloudy and dull. The months pass and what remains is a big question mark.’

Gretel probably smiled compassionately when she received that letter, knowing that a sick and despondent husband would recover and eventually forgive his tormentors. Forgiveness came easily to him on this occasion, as it happened, for on 11th February he could happily report to Gretel after a meeting at which the future campaign was discussed as a ‘war game’: ‘Apparently von R himself has the feeling that I was right to defend myself recently. At the meeting he was kindness itself …’ It mattered less that, in the same letter, he could complain: ‘I suffer from loneliness because I constantly meet strangers to whom I cannot speak freely – and so one talks banalities and what is closest to the heart remains unsaid.’ But this was the end of the period of isolation. Rundstedt’s change of mood marked a change in the fortunes of the creator of the Panzertruppe, for the plans they had discussed were the ones that Hitler favoured and which Guderian recognised as the revelation of a dream.

Nevertheless the fluctuation of sympathy towards Guderian among the German generals acted as a barometer which pointed to the climate of opinion of the Germans – not only towards the controversial subject of tank warfare but also with regard to Hitler’s grasp upon a war situation. As a politician Hitler had secured his position but his pretensions as a military genius’ were as yet hardly suspected. Guderian held out a key that might unlock the door to a military revolution by destroying the orthodox armies of a previous decade. At the same time he could help prove the prowess of the amateur Supreme Commander as the equal of professional soldiers. Much more than the issue of one campaign hinged upon the plan to invade Western Europe.

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