Leibstandarte in Poland

The invasion of Poland was sparked by Hitler’s order of 31 August 1939. The next day, Stukas, panzers and infantry struck across the frontier at dawn. Here was the birth of a new sort of war: the Blitzkrieg, or ‘lightning war’, in which the Leibstandarte was soon to take part.

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.

INVASION

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).

MASSIVE FORCES

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.

FURIOUS RESISTANCE

The Leibstandarte moved on towards the town of Wieuroszov, where the Poles attacked using every scrap of cover, including every bush which seemed to serve as a machine-gun cover. With his fellows, one member of 1st Company ran into a knot of Poles clad in civilian trousers beneath their army coats, their refuge a grain field. But the advance was unstoppable: 10th Army achieved a breakthrough north of Chestakova. Units from two panzer divisions pressed their advantage between the Lodz and Kraków armies, storming across the Pilica River on the headlong thrust towards Warsaw.

The next 8th Army objective was Lodz, with its heavily defended approaches. Two Leibstandarte companies, 1st and 2nd, encountered stiff opposition and suffered heavy casualties, despite tank support. Polish anti-tank fire prevented the advance of the panzers; units were ordered to disengage from the Poles so that the artillery could conduct fire preparatory to a fresh attack. By 1800 hours on 7 September, despite outnumbering the Germans, the Poles had been overwhelmed and had abandoned the town. The next target was Pabianice, a small market town and road–rail junction on the river, where the Poles succeeded in keeping at bay Leibstandarte’s 1st Battalion. The battalion, supported by another from 23rd Panzer Regiment, made little headway beyond the town’s western outskirts.

This particular engagement provided another instance of the advantages that the defenders enjoyed on their own territory. Well-camouflaged Polish riflemen had the marksmanship skills of huntsmen, well used to taking up positions in trees and picking off the enemy below. The Leibstandarte’s countermeasures included raking trees and bushes with rifle fire and lobbed grenades. This was also an area of vast fields of sunflowers and maize; men on both sides took to stalking one another through the tall plants. There were some ingenious instances of camouflage. One Leibstandarte man reported:

‘The Poles are devilishly cunning … They had dugouts with crops growing on the roof and were almost invisible and hard to detect. We had to stalk them like characters from a Karl May Wild West novel. When we found a dug-out we blew it up with bundles of grenades. Some of them may have been linked by tunnels; a combat report had mentioned this … We captured more than 50 and it took us hours before we had wiped out this nest …’

The Poles were also helped by reinforcements from those who had originally withdrawn in the face of 10th Army’s advance. These men were able to launch fierce counterattacks, at one point even threatening Dietrich’s own headquarters, before an entire infantry regiment was sent to his aid.

Early progress by the Leibstandarte was successful, but it was forced to detour from the advance on Pabianice, which was heavily defended. ‘Hitler’s own’ suffered the indignity of being extricated from this danger spot by the intervention of Infantry Regiment 55 of the 10th Division. By the early hours of the 8th, Pabianice had fallen, but Leibstandarte received scant kudos for this achieved objective. Major General Loch redoubled his criticism: the training and conduct of the SS men had been shown to be severely deficient. Rescue measures in such circumstances could not be afforded. The Leibstandarte constituted a liability, therefore it should be withdrawn into reserve. Although this did not happen, even so, it was removed from 8th Army and sent to Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s 4th Panzer Division in von Reichenau’s 10th Army.

After a move to prevent Polish forces from escaping from an entrapped pocket down the Grodisk–Masczovoc road, south-east of Warsaw, the 1st Battalion moved on to Oltarzev, a town on the way to the Polish capital. The plight of Polish forces was made increasingly perilous by the arrival of the battalion’s artillery component. Polish columns perished along with their vehicles under murderous German fire. By now it was evening, and the mist which gathered was made even more of a hazard by the smoke from the guns.

The engagement which followed resembled a tableau from some earlier war, with troops of horse artillery storming out of the smoke. They came straight into the path of the guns, which were soon being turned on columns of civilians who had sought to withdraw safely under the protection of the Polish Army. But still there was no admission of defeat by the Poles. As one German eyewitness stated: ‘They came with their heads held high as if they were swimmers breasting the waves.’

Von Reichenau’s 10th Army reeled north, forming a block along the Bzura, west of Warsaw; on the same evening, the Leibstandarte joined it on the southwestern outskirts of the capital. The other two divisions took up positions to capture Blonie, east of 1st Battalion and also on the way to the capital. The battle of Warsaw, which the Poles had declared a fortress, was about to begin. With it came the personal control of von Rundstedt himself, with the order that 8th and 10th Armies annihilate all Polish forces that remained between the Bzura and Vistula. Von Reichenau’s spearhead reached the outskirts of Warsaw in eight days, having travelled 225km (140 miles). There it halted, a solid, immovable steel door. From East Prussia to the northwest, Guderian’s armoured corps arrowed towards Brest-Litovsk, capturing the town on 14 September and making contact with the armour of General Paul Baron von Kleist coming up from the south.

HEAVY LOSSES

The Poles, however, were not ready to admit defeat. They launched counterstrokes; heavy street fighting involved 4th Panzer Division on the outskirts of Warsaw. Although the division’s commander, Lieutenant General Georg-Hans Reinhardt, was optimistic that the bulk of Polish resistance had been annihilated, in reality, men had been forced back with heavy losses, including around half their armour. The Leibstandarte joined the division and, for the next few days, the two fought together in a bitter battle. For virtually the first time since the ‘asphalt soldiers’ had relinquished textbook training and blackboard lecturing for the real thing, Leibstandarte was on the defensive. The result was the overrunning of 6th Company of the 2nd Battalion and the death of its commander, Haupsturmführer Seppel Lange. Strong forces in the Poznan and Pomorze armies launched a counterattack to the south-east across the Bzura River which ran west of Warsaw and into the Vistula.

The German armoured vehicles disregarded the efforts of engineers working desperately to complete bridges, driving headlong down the steep eastern bank into the waters of the Bzura under a storm of Polish artillery. The weather was atrocious; tanks were stuck in muddied exit points and those which made it were puny in number until the arrival of reinforcements.

Lieutenant General Reinhardt’s optimism that all serious resistance had been eliminated was premature. There was still the Polish garrison within Warsaw to the east, prepared to resist with everything it had. An attempt on 8/9 September to take the city by assault had come to nothing. German forces then had to withdraw to the Bzura river sector.

VITAL SECTOR

Some idea of the importance that the Germans attached to taking out the sector can be gauged by the fact that von Rundstedt himself took charge of the offensive. A prime role was assigned to 16th Corps, with Leibstandarte as an important adjunct. On 14 September came the order to seal off the eastern exit from the Bzura pocket with an attack northwards to the Vistula, a goal not achieved until five days later.

The Polish army faced annihilation. It was clear that Warsaw was a spent force. The path there could only be taken by men rendered exhausted by the forced marches and vicious battles. Their arrival temporarily boosted the morale of those in the capital, but the arrivals were soldiers who had abandoned their equipment and had no prospect of finding any within the city. The bombardment from German 305mm (12in) mortars was not long in coming. For many days, in the words of one German eyewitness, this bombardment formed ‘the voice of Warsaw’.

Another event on 17 September helped to hasten the fate of the Poles: the Russians had begun their invasion from the east. The Bzura pocket was sealed by the Leibstandarte, but its duty was not over. Polish forces had withdrawn to the fortress area of Modlin, guarding the approach to Warsaw from the north; Leibstandarte was ordered to join 15th Corps to aid its reduction. The Polish army was by now a spectacle of Goya-esque horror. Another firsthand Leibstandarte account reads:

‘Our advance took us across that part of the battlefield which had been held by the so-called Pomorze army. The whole area was a scene of death and destruction. The bloated bodies of men and animals blackening under the hot sun, smashed carts, burnt-out vehicles and those most tragic victims of war, the wounded horses, waiting for the mercy shot. Everywhere there was evidence of a beaten army covering the ground …’

Such survivors as there were huddled into the garrison forts of Modlin, which their General Thomme was soon to yield, adding 31,000 to the tally of Polish prisoners of war. The forts were pulverised by German artillery. On 25 September, the men of the Leibstandarte were able, in good visibility, to witness the dive-bombers of 4 Air Fleet finish the work. Two days later, Polish forces contacted General Blaskowitz and the surrender of Warsaw was signed at 1315 hours the next day. About 2000 soldiers and 10,000 civilians had perished in the siege.

Dietrich’s command had, for the most part, been within orthodox military parameters. There were exceptions. Most notable among these was the arrest of Hermann Müller-John, the Leibstandarte band’s director of music, who had rounded up a number of Polish Jews and had them shot by members of his band without any judicial investigation. His army superiors brought a charge against him, but the intervention of Hitler resulted in an amnesty a year later. This expunged from the record all other atrocities known to have been committed during the Polish campaign. At the war’s end, and fearing postwar reprisals, Müller-John committed suicide, along with various members of his family.

SUCCESSFUL DEBUT

As for the Polish campaign as a whole, it was widely felt that the Leibstandarte, its components mere battlefield fledglings, had conducted itself creditably. But criticism from the Wehrmacht would not go away. There were snide references to ‘ornamental policemen’, but these were muted since it was realised that Hitler would almost certainly turn a deaf ear to to any censure. There was also the realisation that any criticism of the elite guard would do the originator’s career no good.

Hitler, as was always the case, had taken a close personal interest in how the SS-VT, and the Leibstandarte in particular, had fared. According to Otto Dietrich (no relation to Sepp), Press Chief of the Reich and State Secretary to the Propaganda Ministry, during the Polish campaign, the Führer had marked on a large map the terse notation ‘Sepp’, which served as a marker on the progress of Leibstandarte.

Hitler’s mood altered drastically, though, when he learnt the extent of the Leibstandarte casualties: 108 killed, 292 wounded, 14 lightly wounded, 3 missing and 15 accidental deaths. This was unacceptable, as he made plain at a meeting in his headquarters train at Gross, Pomerania. According to Walther Warlimont, one of Hitler’s most trusted officers, Dietrich, refusing to be cowed, had protested vigorously that the Wehrmacht support his men had the right to expect had seldom been forthcoming. Indeed, the Wehrmacht had been happy enough to throw them into battle under the most disadvantageous circumstances. General Walther von Brauchitsch, the Wehrmacht Commander in Chief, riposted that the Leibstandarte was untrained for battle and had no knowledge of strategy. Then had delivered the final sneer: ‘They had to pay the price for being policemen dressed up in army uniforms.’

According to Warlimont, it was now Hitler’s turn to be angry. He ‘thumped the map table and said he was sick of the everlasting feud between the Army and the SS and would stand no more of it. They would either learn to work together or there would be wide plans for alteration to command.’ Much to the disappointment of Dietrich and his men, there was to be no immediate return to Berlin. Instead, they were to go to Czechoslovakia in order that they might relieve SS Der Führer. This unit was in turn sent not to Berlin, but to the West Wall, the fortifications designed to protect the Third Reich in the west.

Hitler’s mood altered drastically, though, when he learnt the extent of the Leibstandarte casualties: 108 killed, 292 wounded, 14 lightly wounded, 3 missing and 15 accidental deaths. This was unacceptable, as he made plain at a meeting in his headquarters train at Gross, Pomerania. According to Walther Warlimont, one of Hitler’s most trusted officers, Dietrich, refusing to be cowed, had protested vigorously that the Wehrmacht support his men had the right to expect had seldom been forthcoming. Indeed, the Wehrmacht had been happy enough to throw them into battle under the most disadvantageous circumstances. General Walther von Brauchitsch, the Wehrmacht Commander in Chief, riposted that the Leibstandarte was untrained for battle and had no knowledge of strategy. Then had delivered the final sneer: ‘They had to pay the price for being policemen dressed up in army uniforms.’

According to Warlimont, it was now Hitler’s turn to be angry. He ‘thumped the map table and said he was sick of the everlasting feud between the Army and the SS and would stand no more of it. They would either learn to work together or there would be wide plans for alteration to command.’ Much to the disappointment of Dietrich and his men, there was to be no immediate return to Berlin. Instead, they were to go to Czechoslovakia in order that they might relieve SS Der Führer. This unit was in turn sent not to Berlin, but to the West Wall, the fortifications designed to protect the Third Reich in the west.

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