Invasion of Poland by Germany

During the early hours of 1 September 1939, Hitler’s other undercover operations pulled together by a special Abwehr army and Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst) or SD volunteers, infiltrated Poland about 3 a.m. to seize vital bridges, railway junctions, coalmines, and factories. In many places the operations run into stiff resistance. Two strategically important bridges over the river Vistula which were assigned by the Germans to capture intact were blown by the Poles, jeopardising the whole plan which Hitler had specifically ordered in his Directive No.1.To make matters worse early morning fog hampered the dropping of paratroopers, and in some areas the Luftwaffe were grounded altogether by the bad visibility.

At 4.25 a.m. as German soldiers waited anxiously along the frontier, German aircraft began leaving their home bases for Poland. From all their assigned airfields, just five minutes before ‘zero-hour’, the Luftwaffe began attacking Polish targets. Airfields, aviation production centres, troop concentrations, ammunition dumps, railways, bridges, and open cities were all bombed. Within minutes German warplanes were giving the Poles the first taste of sudden death and destruction from the skies ever experienced on any great scale on earth. In a cauldron of fire Polish soldiers defending the front lines were unable to combat these incessant aerial bombings and were annihilated or torn to pieces by the dive bombers.

As the Luftwaffe endlessly roared above, on the ground German soldiers had been using nothing more than artillery fire as cover. For nearly an hour an eruption of artillery burst along the German/Polish front. When the barrage subsided, the avalanche broke. An army of formidable tanks juggernauted swiftly across the Polish frontier into the Polish heartlands to achieve its first tactical bounds.

Now in an instant German soldiers were moved forward into action. Their path was forced open principally by tanks that rammed and overrun obstacles by accident or intent. The Poles it seemed, were simply overwhelmed by the German onslaught. The sudden surprise attack; the bombers and fighter planes soaring overhead, reconnoitring, attacking, spreading fire and fear; the Stukas howling as they dived; the tanks, whole divisions of them breaking across even the most rutty Polish roads; the amazing speed of the infantry, of the whole huge army of a million and a half men on horses, motorised wheels, directed and co-ordinated through a complicated maze of electronic communications of intricate radio, telephone and telegraphic networks. This was a monstrous mechanised juggernaut such as the earth had never seen.

To carry out this monumental task against Poland there were two Army Groups – Army Group North, consisting of the Fourth and Third armies, under the command of General Fedor von Bock, and the Southern Army Group, consisting of the Eighth, Tenth and Fourteenth armies, commanded by General Gerd von Rundstedt. From north to south all five German Army Groups crashed over the frontier. Almost immediately they quickly began achieving their objectives.

All along the German front shells and mortars rained down on the defenders as they cowered at the bottom of their foxholes and trenches. Panzers, many of them, came in large groups, clattering forward in low gear, their machine guns chattering to keep the Poles’ heads down. Everywhere the German probed the defence looking for weak spots. Successfully they infiltrated everywhere making a determined attempt to cut off the defender’s rear. In most cases Polish soldiers were forced to withdraw by overwhelming strength. Some Poles, however, even though their positions seemed to be like little oases of defended terrain, preferred to fight to the bitter end.

Spearheading one of the first promising attacks into Poland from the north was General Gunther Hans von Kluge’s Fourth Army. Kluge controlled five infantry divisions, plus two motorised divisions and the Third Panzer Division under General Heinz Guderian. The main thrust of the Fourth Army was east and south, sealing off and then destroying General Bortnowski’s Pomorze Army, which was situated in what was known as the Polish corridor. All main efforts were carried out by the army’s XIX Corps, under the faithful command of the Panzer ace, General Heinz Guderian. Bearing the brunt of this German armoured stampede stood the Pomorze Army, which consisted of five infantry divisions and one cavalry brigade. Throughout the first day of intensive fighting Kluge’s army caused such severe losses to the Pomorze Army that it was forced to reluctantly withdraw in total confusion.

Further east, separated by the Polish corridor in East Prussia, General George von Kuechler’s Third Army made a number of thrusting all-out attacks south from the Prussian border in the direction of Warsaw against the Polish Narew Group and Modlin Army. Under Kuechler’s command advanced seven infantry divisions, an ad hoc panzer division consisting of SS-Panzer Division ‘Kempf ’, which incorporated SSPanzer Regiment Deutschland, and four brigade-size commands, which were all divided under three corps.

During the course of the first day five of Kuechler’s infantry divisions and the SSPanzer Division ‘Kempf ’, nicknamed by its troops as ‘Division-Kempf ’, advanced south at breakneck speed until they smashed head-long into a number of well fortified positions around the area of Mlawa. Immediately ‘Division-Kempf ’, which had been leading the furious drive south, was given the task to destroy the permanent fortification which consisted of a number of heavy fortified pillboxes. For the next few days, ‘Kempf ’, supported by divisional artillery, became increasingly embroiled in a number of savage engagements until it finally surrendered.

To the south German forces were inflicting almost equal misery upon the enemy. Army Group South’s main task was to try and engage the enemy as far forward of the Vistula and eliminate any attempt he might make to retreat east behind the line of the Vistula and San. It was for this reason that the Southern Army Group were ordered to reach the Vistula and San with the greatest possible speed.

Throughout 1 September, German soldiers strove to achieve its objectives. Eighth Army, under the command of General Johannes von Blaskowitz, had driven his four infantry divisions successfully forward despite meeting fierce resistance from the Lodz Army. Although most of the roads were often little more than tracks in the predominantly sandy soil, movement, thanks to the particularly hot and sunny weather – baptised, ‘Führer weather’, went according to plan.

On Eighth Army’s southern flank, General Walter von Reichenau’s Tenth Army launched a series of infantry attacks through forested areas that run along vast parts of the frontier. Some of these attacks met virtually no opposition as the main Polish defence line was positioned miles from the German border. Von Reichenau’s army concentrated two powerful armoured forces, one to the north of the city of Czestochowa, and the other on the south moving on both sides of the town of Lubliniec. In the centre, three infantry divisions covered the central drive. The two armoured units, which were conducting operations on the northern and southern arms was General Reinhardt’s 4th Panzer Division, which was the strongest division in the entire German Army. It was given the difficult task of driving at breakneck speed on Warsaw. For most of the day the Tenth Army continued to consume ever increasing pressure on the Lodz Army. With incredible anger the formidable cadre of the German Army, including some of its most skilled and dedicated men achieved remarkable gains with typical military thoroughness. Their reeling advance had taken them head-on into huge retreating enemy formations, and with it came the capture of town after town, village after village. As the Germans gathered momentum the main focus of struggle concentrated upon the main towns where the wreckage of hundreds of Poles from the Lodz Army were fighting for survival. Blackened vehicles, blackened buildings and woods scarred every acre over which the battle had passed.

On Tenth Army’s southern flank, General List’s Fourteenth Army comprising of some seven infantry and two armoured divisions made staggering advances against the Krakow and Carpathian armies. In just several hours List’s troops had catapulted across the frontier and burst onto the Polish heartlands far ahead of schedule. Even in the jagged terrain of the Tatra and Carpathian mountains many army vehicles were rolling freely along the narrow, dusty roads. In endless lines the convoys roared through heading east on the long haul to the Vistula and San rivers.

The entire thrust of the German Army was quick and swift. The fruits of the dash east were intoxicating for the men riding the tanks and trucks. An almost unopposed advance across country against a disorganised jumble of Polish units retreating with all they could muster had instilled every German soldier with eager enthusiasm. But following this initial excitement of battle, the rapid capture of the first towns and villages, the dramatic seizure of heavy fortified positions, and the clearance of the frontier area, the mood among the men slowly changed, as certain parts of the front stiffened and congealed. They began to quickly learn the costs of conflict. In some areas the Germans found the quality of their opposition extraordinarily uneven. At one moment a handful of them were receiving wholesale enemy surrenders. Whilst in some sectors an entire division found itself being held up by stubborn resistance of a company of Polish troops with a detachment of artillery and anti-tank guns. Yet despite the determination of these brave Polish soldiers, fast and devastatingly efficient Blitzkrieg had arrived.

From the beginning of the invasion the Luftwaffe had paralysed large sections of the Polish railway network, severely disrupting the desperately needed mobilisation, which was still far from completed. Bewildered Polish commanders struggled despairingly to hold their forces together. They were paralysed by developments they had not faintly expected, and could not organise their army in the utter confusion that ensued on the battlefield. In many areas the virtual collapse of the communication system had left many commands isolated, making it difficult for them to establish contact with the fronts. Consequently decisions were almost invariably late and therefore disastrously overtaken by events with the result of one position after another being lost to the Germans. Already the fleeing Polish Army were being mauled almost to death by constant air attacks and pounded mercilessly by tanks and artillery. The Poles were faced with the finest fighting army that the world had ever seen. The quality of the German weapons – above all the Panzers – was of immense importance in Poland. Their tactics were the best; stubborn defence; concentrated local firepower from machine-guns and mortars; rapid counter-attacks to recover lost ground. Units often fought on even when cut-off, which was not a mark of fanaticism, but of masterly tactical discipline. The invasion was a product of dazzling organisation and staff work, and marvellous technical ingenuity. Each operation profited from the mistakes of the last, used mass firepower to wear down the Poles, absorbed disappointments without trauma. Everything it seemed went according to plan, or even better than the plan, in the unfolding both of strategy and tactics. Both Hitler and his Generals were confounded by the lightening speed and the extent of their own gains. As the sun disappeared beyond the scarred remains of Poland that first day in September the die it seemed had already been cast – Germany would soon be reaping the glories of victory.

Pushing East

Over the next few days both the German Northern and Southern groups continued to make furious thrusts on all fronts. As this great advance gathered momentum, more towns and villages fell to the onrushing forces. The campaign had taken on the character that was to remain for the few weeks that followed. Everywhere north, south and east the fronts were shrinking, cracking slowly but surely under the massive German pressure. In this unparalleled armoured dash, some units had covered 40-60 road miles in just twenty-four hours. For many soldiers it was an exhilarating dash, Panzers bucketing across the countryside, meeting in some places only isolated pockets of resistance.

In just over five days of unbroken combat, Kluge’s Fourth Army had cut through the Polish corridor, established a breach between Pomerania and East Prussia, and encircled thousands of enemy soldiers from the Poznan and Pomorze Army. Elements of Guderian’s XIX Corps crossed the Vistula and were informed under the direct command of von Bock to transport its tank battalions through East Prussia; thereafter the corps was to effectively concentrate on the left wing of the Third Army. It was to operate close co-ordination with Kuechler’s force and move out through Lomza, heading east of Warsaw.

In Third Army, infantry and armoured forces continued to push southwards. Already by September 5 Kuechler’s force alone had captured 15,000 prisoners, were driving the Modlin Army back, Panzer Division Kempf had broken through and its spearheads were less than thirty-five miles from Warsaw. Already some forward units were reporting that they had reached strong defensive positions on the Narew river. In the following days to come there would be thousands of German troops crossing the river, hurling themselves east of Warsaw.

South of the country operations were moving as rapidly as those in the north. Both the Eighth and Tenth armies especially fought a measured, stage by stage battle in which the enemy retreated to fresh defensive positions as their lines were driven in by successive German attacks. The bulk of Blaskowitz’s Eighth Army maintained a steady drive on the city of Lodz. But constantly units found themselves confounded by the appalling traffic jams clogging the advance by refugees, and by the Polish army vehicles entangled upon the roads that had been endlessly strafed by air-attack. Most vehicles, particularly the Panzers, struck off across country to escape the chaos and continued their unopposed dash.

In Tenth Army, armour of formidable size and anger made a number of deep penetrating thrusts. Only on the roads did the traffic slow; the deep dust billowing above the columns, choking men and horses, and sifting into motors. All along Reichenau’s front unceasing attacks embraced the dwindling enemy lines. For striking power the Tenth Army relied on its tremendous superiority in tanks and artillery. By 6 September Reichenau boasted that his front stretched south from Lodz to within sixty miles north of Krakow. His armoured dash was now threatening the capital. He had beaten off heavy counter-attacks against his northern flank with his Panzer divisions, smashed the Polish 29th Infantry Division, and captured the commander of Poland’s reserve. By evening he had bypassed the Lodz Army on his northern flank and virtually enveloped the Krakow Army at Radom on his southern flank. Reichenau was now ordered to destroy the Polish forces at Radom, an operation that would cause delay in the advance on the Vistula, especially since von Rundstedt decided to detach two of Tenth Army’s XI and XVI Corps to Eighth Army on Reichenau’s left flank.

By 7 September Reinhardt’s 4th Panzer Division had finally brought it to the main road to Warsaw. Within hours of this engagement reports reached Rundstedt’s headquarters that leading parts of the division were now no less than 20 miles from the suburbs of the capital.

During early evening on 8 September a few miles south-west of Warsaw’s Ochota suburb, Polish outposts identified enemy tanks and infantry. Before reports of the sighting had time to be relayed back, Panzers supported by artillery began a number of close-quarter attacks. Though the fire power showed no evidence of a fully equipped motorised division, the bombardment on the suburb was no less impressive. The forces making the first attacks on Warsaw were advanced elements of Reinhardt’s 4th Panzer Division. By the time advanced elements of Reinhardt’s force arrived at the most southern western edge of the city the inhabitants had already prepared themselves for a prolonged defence. The defence of Warsaw mainly consisted of anti-tank and flak batteries, including anti-tank trenches and barricades, with some buildings left to soldiers to construct fortified positions. The barricades were built with a multitude of crude objects consisting of tram cars, furniture and timber that had been hastily erected across the main roads leading into the centre.

Reinhardt’s first assault on Ochota had been immediately repulsed by a heavy unrelenting screen of enemy artillery fire. Dozens of Panzers attempting to storm the suburbs were engulfed in a sheet of flames, severely limiting further tank strikes. Polish resistance in the area had become so stubborn that Reinhardt reluctantly aborted his attack. Later that evening a dispirited Reinhardt reported to von Rundstedt that, ‘After heavy losses, my attack on the city has to be discontinued. Unexpectedly sharp resistance, by the enemy, with all weapons, had reduced a single armoured division, by only four infantry battalions a quite insufficient force to obtain a decisive outcome’. Altogether Reinhardt lost 57 out of 120 Panzers engaged. Apart from illustrating the vulnerability of tanks on their own in urbanised areas, it also showed that the Poles were not prepared to surrender their capital at the first sight of the enemy. It seemed the capture of Warsaw was going to be a long drawn out blood-thirsty battle of attrition.

Although Reinhardt’s Panzer division spent the rest of the night counting the cost of its attack, by next morning on 9 September encouraging reports confirmed that the German Army were now beginning to arrive on the west bank of the Vistula. The Poles had not even had time to build a defence barrier along the river, let alone a close-meshed network of field fortifications which had been the intended plan. Before the Vistula the Germans committed their main forces in marginal, wholly unspectacular clearing operations, preparing to the front between the Vistula and Bug. There was never any doubt in the minds of both von Bock and Rundstedt that in the immediate days that followed the vital strategic ground would lie between these two rivers. Here for the Germans glittered the opportunity that would lead them to victory. As for the Poles, they fought on without any rational prospect of success. They were now preoccupied with the struggle to keep on resisting, to build a defensive line along the major rivers and keep hopes alive in the only theatre of the war where Germany felt threatened – the western powers of France and Great Britain. But already, well over 200,000 Polish troops had been captured, killed or injured. With the deteriorating shortages of ammunition and weapons wholesale collapses continued to result in mass surrenders of units, which were swamped by the German spearhead. Many divisions had simply disintegrated, leaving scattered bands of demoralised stragglers roaming the countryside without equipment or leadership.

In the north of the country, however, there were still large parts of the Pomorze and Poznan armies that had been undefeated. The German Fourth Army had simply bypassed them in their furious drive east. Now the Pomorze and Poznan armies took advantage of the situation and hastily joined together into one army commanded by General Kutrzeba. In an attempt to try and crush the onrushing enemy before Warsaw Kutrzeba’s army prepared to mount a series of surprise attacks from the Bzura River where they were now situated and strike German forces moving up from the city of Lodz, which had previously fallen.

Polish cavalry brigade “Wielkopolska” during the battle of Brura.

Battle of Bzura

On 9 September as four German infantry divisions from Eighth Army pushed along the Bzura attacking towards Lowicz, strong Polish formations from what was now called General Kutrzeba’s Army moved across from the Poznan province and advance south on the weak German northern flank. General Ulex’s X Corps, which had been following the greater part of Eighth Army’s thrust on Warsaw and the Vistula, were reported to be advancing steadily along the Bzura. At first light and unknown to X Corps or even to reconnaissance patrols, Kutrzeba saw his chance and made a surprise attack southwards against General Briesen’s 30th Infantry Division, and parts of the 4th and 16th Infantry Divisions. In a desperate attempt to keep casualties to a minimum, the 30th Infantry Division crossed the river to the southern bank where it intended to prepare a counterattack. Throughout the day German troops frantically began digging in to beat off the enemy, but found it difficult to stave off the Polish attack. German troops were already beginning to flee across open fields heavily infested with well armed enemy troops. By late afternoon it was reported that most of the German divisional NCOs and officers were already dead or wounded. During the thick of battle, Ulex anxiously telephoned General Blaskowitz field-headquarters appealing for help. Immediately Blaskowitz ordered Eighth Army to halt its rapid advance on the Vistula and Warsaw, swing-round and repair the damage to its rear caused by Kutrzeba’s force. Von Rundstedt decided to withdraw elements of Tenth Army from the besieged capital and move it to the Bzura to strengthen the ravaged Eighth. As Reichenau’s infantry divisions swung west, in Warsaw resistance intensified. It seemed as though the Poles defending the city had heard by word of mouth the successful gains on the Bzura. In a fierce effort to annihilate the capital’s defenders Reinhardt’s Panzers resumed a number of heavy close-quarter attacks, but by early evening it once again failed to crush the strong Polish defences. Even the use of heavy close coordinated air-strikes did nothing to weaken the city’s ability to holdout. To make matters worse by early evening Reinhardt received a reconnaissance report that large enemy formations were advancing along the east-west road between the town of Sochaczew and Warsaw. But what the message did not explain, and in fact what was not known at the time, was that the enemy force was made up from large parts of the Poznan and Pomorze armies under the command of General Kutrzeba. The only obstacle between this strong Polish force and Warsaw was Reinhardt’s division. The bulk of Reinhardt’s units were already deployed eastwest of the capital. Neither the 4th or Schmidt’s powerful 1st Panzer Division were in physical contact with the other to meet the developing threat. To protect the armoured force from complete destruction Reinhardt immediately ordered his division to face back-to-back, east and west, and then proceed to contact General Hoepner’s command post, asking for urgent assistance. Hoepner wasted no time and called up Hitler’s foremost fighting machine the SS-Leibstandarte Panzer regiments, which were immediately launched into an infantry attack in the west sector of the suburb. At the same time Reinhardt directed his 5th Panzer Brigade northwards to cut the Modlin to Warsaw road, where it was believed that Polish units were punching a hole through an unguarded sector north of the city. The remaining units of his group facing the capital were ordered to stem further Polish attacks out of Warsaw, while the remainder of the units facing west were ordered to dig-in and hold its positions.

Approaching in the swirling dust from the west, determined to reach the capital at all costs, came infantry divisions from General Kutrzeba’s Army. To meet this developing threat, the 103rd SS-Leibstandarte artillery regiment was quickly employed along the Warsaw to Sochaczew road. What followed was a bloodthirsty contact that was fought doggedly and methodically in and around the battered town of Sochaczew.

The sheer scale of the battle of the Bzura was now beginning to unfold. By 10 September it was estimated that nearly thirty German and Polish divisions, including some 400,000 men were being drawn to the area. The High Command of the Army, OKH (Oberkommando des Heeres) estimated there to be at least a quarter of the Polish Army already embroiled in the region. But the cost to the Poles was high. Along the Bzura near Sochaczew the conflict had revealed the horror and devastation. Columns of dead civilians, troops, cattle and horses which had perished during intensive and prolonged attacks by the army and units of the SSLeibstandarte, laid tangled inside ditches and clearings along the road leading to Warsaw. Refugees, which had been withdrawing under the protection of the Polish Army, were caught in the hurricane of fire and gunned down. The majority of dismembered human remains and their belongings were gathered in piles on both sides of the road. But still the Poles continued to fight on.

Elsewhere, Army Group South had achieved notable success. In the region around the city of Radom, where intensive fighting had been raging for a number of days, General Schwedler’s IV Corps, General Wietersheim’s XIV Corps, and General Hoth’s XV Corps, had been fighting against elements of the Lodz Army, now called General Rommel Group (not to be confused with the German General, Erwin Rommel), another newly created army, the Lublin Army, and parts of the Krakow Army, had encircled these badly depleted Polish forces, which yielded some 60,000 prisoners.

Further east advanced German units from the Tenth Army successfully reached the Vistula, whilst simultaneously List’s army were arriving on the bank of the San River. In the north both the Fourth and Third armies made a series of combined attacks across the Narew, reaching parts of the Bug River, which were heavily fortified. As for the Polish Army it had been vanquished. Most of its 35 divisions had either been destroyed or caught in a vast pincer movement that closed around Warsaw. The German objective was now to crush what was left of the dazed and disorganised Polish units, and destroy them, completing a second much deeper envelopment aimed at the Bug, 100-miles east of Warsaw. The plan was for Army Group North to spearhead further east and for the Fourth Army to occupy the city of Brzesc, which was situated on the Bug. Fourteenth Army was to continue its drive north between the San and Bug and link up with Army Group North.

Disintegration

On 12 September the dispirited and confused commander-in-chief of the Polish Army, Marshal Rydz-Smigly, ordered the general withdrawal of the entire Polish Army, which was now divided into the Polish Northern, Central and Southern Groups. These exhausted and dishevelled soldiers were now to retreat to the most south-eastern parts of the country and attempt to hold positions until the launching of a French offensive that was expected in six days. Their retreat had not degenerated into panic flight. It was a kind of stubborn retreat. Villages and towns in the objective area were strongly held by a mixture of Polish troops and partisans. German infantry sometimes had to batter their way through street by street against heavily motivated enemy soldiers. On occasions the fighting was so close and fierce it often became impossible to distinguish friend from foe. At times this stiff opposition and the continuous nature of the fighting made many German troops hard-pressed to continue what they saw as their ‘legendry march’. To make matters worse brutal guerrilla warfare had broken out in many places and nervous German soldiers were unable to deal with the problem without overreacting. If shots were fired at them from a village in bandit country, houses were torched, villages were razed, and the inhabitants, innocent as well as guilty, found themselves facing firing squads. Just as serious were the numerous occurrences of surrendered Polish soldiers in uniform being shot by regular German soldiers. However, more sinister activities were already generating fear and terror in the rear areas of Poland. Behind the military arm of the SS-VT (later Waffen-SS) and the German Army, lurked the SS Death Head groups or Totenkopfverbande under the notorious command of Theodor Eicke. Three regiments had been deployed, SS Oberbayern, Brandenburg, and Thuringen. Eicke’s men quickly gained a reputation, and in a matter of days began eradicating by means of torturing and killing Poles which were regarded hostile to the Reich.

The German Army were fully aware of the systematic campaign of slaughter in the rear areas. Regular soldiers and commanders that had not been involved in these actions became increasingly uneasy and concerned. A number of them actually complained bitterly to their superiors, but nothing was done to stop the killing. As a direct result the German army’s reputation, along with parts of the military arm of the SS, had been severely damaged by the Death Heads and later the five SS Einsatzgruppen (Task Force).

Whilst Eicke’s Death Heads and the SS Einsatzgruppen roamed Poland killing, murdering and pillaging, the German Army continued driving east using devastating blitzkrieg tactics to gain rapid supremacy on the battlefield. By 15 September German forces had reached the cities of Brzesc and Lwow. During the days that followed both these cities and the area around the Bzura became the key strategic focal point of destroying the last remnants of the main Polish Army. In addition, attention was devoted to the capture of Warsaw, which had been declared by the Poles as a fortress.

On the Bzura Kutrzeba’s army constantly threatened to break out of what was now known as the Kutno Pocket to the north, but were barely able to maintain cohesion against stiff German attacks. East of the pocket, soldiers from General von Weichs XIII Corps made fierce retaliatory attacks against enemy positions defending the town of Kutno. Following a day of strong German battery-fire, accompanied by overwhelming infantry charges, a number of street battles broke out and the town finally capitulated on the 16 September. Elsewhere on the Bzura Kutrzeba’s army continued its death agony to make one last attempt to smash its way through enemy lines and reach the fortifications at Modlin or Warsaw.

Inside the Polish capital General Rommel’s Polish Army, which had been given the task of organising the defence of the city, still stood resolute. General Blaskowitz who had taken charge of seizing the capital, remarked blatantly about the Poles stubbornness to capitulate: ‘What shocked the most hardened soldier was how at the instigation of their military leaders a misguided population, completely ignorant of the effect of modern weapons, could contribute to the destruction of their capital’.

Hitler was so eager to see Warsaw surrender he even made a special visit to the front line around the city on 16 September. On board Hitler’s special headquarters train, the ‘Führersonderzug’, the Führer had been plaguing his Generals for days, asking them incessantly when ‘Fortress Warsaw’ would fall. To keep casualties down to a bare minimum his staff favoured starving the city into submission, but Hitler wanted the capital taken as quickly as possible. Already his new found allies, Russia, were preparing to invade Poland from the East. In his secret non-aggression pact with Stalin in August 1939 they had drawn up plans to carve up Poland between themselves. Because of the establishment of the Vistula as a demarcation line with Russia, Hitler wanted the capital captured without delay and insisted on sending the Poles an ultimatum. Later that afternoon several hundred tons of leaflets were dropped from twelve Heinkel bombers, advising the civilian population to leave by two specified roads within two hours. The Poles, however, refused outright, preferring to fight on than agree to Hitler’s terms.

The next day on 17 September while German forces around Warsaw confined its attacks by using a combination of artillery bombardments and air raids, news reached von Bock and Rundstedt that the Polish frontier in the east along its whole length from Latvia in the north down to Rumania in the south had been attacked by the Russian Army. The Russian invasion was swift and almost immediately its forces began taking out scatted pockets of Polish resistance that consisted mainly of detachments of the Frontier Defence Corps or KOP. In the towns and villages bordering the Russian frontier, frightened and bewildered Poles dazed by the invasion stared in amazement from their windows and doorways. The invasion had come as a complete surprise. Because most of the Polish Army had either been routed or destroyed those defending in the east were hopelessly out-numbered and out-gunned. The situation for the Polish Army was now even grimmer. For them the final blow had been unwittingly delivered.

At last Hitler, the warlord, who described himself as the ‘first soldier of the Reich’, had achieved his plan – the wholesale destruction of Poland. His war in the east was almost complete. The German Army had recaptured Danzig; the former lands of Poznan and Silesia, the Wehrmacht were annihilating the last pockets of resistance, and its Russian allies were occupying the eastern territories that Hitler did not require. Both Germany and Russia were now accomplices in wiping ancient Poland off the map.

As the Russians thundered west, Guderian’s XIX Corps, which had raced south towards Brzesc on the Bug finally made contact with General von Kleist’s XXII of the German Southern Group. Virtually the whole Polish Army, or what remained of it, was now trapped inside a gigantic double pincer. The besieged city of Brzesc, which the Poles had defended at terrible cost, finally capitulated and Guderian established his headquarters in the city. In the south, infantry and Panzer divisions from List’s Fourteenth Army encircled the heavily fortified garrison defending the city of Lwow on the San.

Elsewhere, west of the Vistula and San, the Wehrmacht were mopping up pockets of resistance by-passed during the great dash for the rivers. Around Warsaw, infantry divisions from Third, Eighth and Tenth armies were able to impose a decisive block on the cities perimeter and prevent the bulk of enemy forces escaping into the besieged capital. On the Bzura the town of Kutno fell with the capture of 40,000 Poles. Despite stiffening superiority and unrelenting fire power, the remains of Kutrzeba’s encircled army continued to fight for the death, doomed in the fiery cauldron that the Bzura had become. The resilience and the chivalry shown by the Poles on the Bzura had caused genuine surprise among the German troops, even amongst some of the most irrepressible SS soldiers.

By 18 September, besieged by an ever increasing flow of infantry and tanks from the bulk of Tenth Army, massive parts of Kutzeba’s force finally laid down its arms. General Hoepner’s 1st and 4th Panzer Divisions had captured a staggering 80,000 prisoners and a large amount of battlefield booty. In other parts of the pocket a number of divisions from Blaskowitz Eighth Army eliminated the last remnants of resistance in the area. In all some 90,000 troops, 320 guns, 130 aircraft, and an enormous amount of equipment were captured by Blaskowitz army. German soldiers were completely stunned by the weight of the blow which had hit the Bzura region. Following nine gruelling days of combat the battlefield had become wrought with death and destruction. Both banks of the river were covered with the dead and carnage of war. Never before had these young German soldiers seen so much catastrophe. Many of them could not help but to gaze at the scarred Bzura skyline, virtually all the familiar landmarks were almost unrecognisable.

The battle of the Bzura resulted in the total destruction of nearly a quarter of the Polish Army. It was the only major Polish counter-offensive of the campaign and the largest single action, involving over fifteen German divisions, including two of the most powerful Panzer divisions, and three light divisions, against some nine Polish infantry divisions and two cavalry brigades.

The German march through Poland had taken no more than eighteen days to achieve. By this time the Germans had moreover swept every Polish division clean off the map, brought thundering Panzer divisions to the very far corners of eastern Poland and outflanked and outmanoeuvred its opponents with skill, verging on brilliance. The days that followed consisted of a series of actions against the last remnants of the Polish Army.

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