Hitler’s Gets an Ultimatum

In Berlin, Paul Schmidt moved quickly through the corridors of the Foreign Ministry in the Wilhelmstrasse, carrying several sheaths of typescript paper handed to him minutes earlier by Sir Nevile Henderson. Britain’s Ambassador to Germany had arrived punctually at 9am – as he said he would. The supercilious Ribbentrop could not possibly see Henderson. He asked his interpreter, Paul Schmidt, to receive the British envoy. And now Schmidt hurried through the heart of Berlin’s government quarter to the Reich Chancellery bearing an ultimatum from the British.

The mood for the past two days in the Chancellery had been upbeat. London and Paris beat their chests and threatened ultimata, but that was all they were – threats. They had buckled at Munich, they would buckle again now, twelve months later. But the mood this Sunday morning was dark. A procession of Party bigwigs gathered in the Führer’s outer office. The Führer sat at his desk, his Foreign Minister by the window. Schmidt quickly translated the ultimatum. Germany had until 11am to agree to cease hostilities and withdraw its troops from Poland, otherwise it would be at war with the Empire. Hitler thought for what seemed like an eternity, then turned to Ribbentrop: ‘Was nun?’ what now? Ribbentrop was crestfallen. ‘I assume the French will present us with a similar ultimatum within the hour,’ he said quietly. At mid-day, French Ambassador Robert Coulandre duly obliged. He gave Hitler until 5pm to comply.

The Führer had no intention of complying. He summoned his three military commanders, then paced up and down a room overlooking the Chancellery garden, dictating four appeals – to the soldiers in the East, in the West, to the German people and to the Nazi Party. Walther von Brauchitsch strolled into Hitler’s office quietly confident. His army was on the verge of a great victory in the Corridor; the enemy was completely on the back foot. The war in Poland, he told his Führer, would be decided in a few days. Luftwaffe Commander-in-Chief Hermann Göring was deeply shaken, however. ‘If we lose this war, then God have mercy on us,’ he muttered. Erich Raeder, the Navy’s elderly head, tottered out of the Reich Chancellery ashen-faced. Hitler had repeatedly assured the Grossadmiral there would be no war with the Britain until 1944. Faced with the overwhelming might of the Royal Navy, the men of the Kriegsmarine ‘can do no more than show that they know how to die gallantly,’ Raeder lamented.

A fanfare blasted out over the loudspeakers erected around the Wilhelmplatz in central Berlin at mid-day. Several hundred Berliners were enjoying a Sunday lunchtime stroll on a glorious early autumn day. They stopped and listened to the announcer declare that Britain had declared war on Germany. American journalist William Shirer studied their faces. Berliners were dumbfounded, depressed, silent. Like their Führer, they had expected the ‘Polish thing’ to be settled in a few weeks. Few believed the Polish war would become a European war. But now it had. There was, Shirer observed, ‘no excitement, no hurrahs, no cheering, no throwing of flowers, no war fever, no war hysteria.’ Berliners ‘just stood there as they were before. Stunned.’

The downbeat mood in Berlin was not shared by Varsovians. Around mid-day loudspeakers across the Polish capital crackled into life. Britain had declared war on Germany, they proclaimed. ‘It was an electrifying moment,’ hospital secretary Marta Korwin remembered. ‘Warsaw overflowed with joy.’ Varsovians rushed out into the streets to celebrate, they laughed and cried with joy, they converged on the British Embassy, ignoring calls to disperse as German bombers roamed overhead. ‘Roly’ Sword, Britain’s military attaché, stepped out on to the balcony to acknowledge the crowds below him which stretched for miles down the Nowy Swiat. Sword raised a glass to the throng, then urged Jozef Beck, the Polish foreign minister, to join him in a toast to the two nations. The foreign minister shook his head. ‘Non, le moment est trop triste pour ma patrie.’ – no, this is too painful an hour for my country.

Jewish schoolteacher Chaim Kaplan was not among those celebrating. He knew Britain could not help his country directly. He knew Britain could not spare his beloved Warsaw from German air raids – there had been four on 2 September alone. He feared for Poland’s future. ‘She is at the mercy of the full force of war with a cruel, barbaric enemy who is armed to the teeth.’ And he feared for humanity. The German-Polish war, he wrote in his diary, had become a world war – ‘a bloodbath of nations’.

There was little jubilation, too, among the first refugees arriving in Warsaw that Sunday. Carts crammed with entire families moved wearily through the streets; the more agile struggled on bicycles with personal possessions dangling in bags from the handlebars. ‘They had fled to the “safety” of the capital of the country,’ Korwin observed, ‘but only found more German bombers over Warsaw.’

In Silesia, 1st Light Division crossed the Warthe northeast of the ruins of Wielun, still smouldering from the raids on the first day of the war. News reached the men that they were now at war with Britain and France as well. ‘Now this war has become a World War and it will last at least four years,’ a reservist officer said to himself.

Austrian infantryman Wilhelm Prüller spent his first wedding anniversary, 3 September, marching down the road to Krakow. He continued marching, resting, marching some more, preparing for battle, all Sunday and into Monday. Battle rarely came. There was sporadic shelling, the odd fire-fight, a few German dead, more wounded, but rarely did the enemy offer battle outright. ‘They continue to withdraw,’ he fumed. ‘They should face and fight us in a decent and manly way – but not a bit of it.’

Had he known the enemy’s plight, Wilhelm Prüller might not have been so frustrated. Everywhere the Army of Krakow was falling back. This was not an orderly retreat. It was chaos. The line the staff of 6th Division had tried to hold at Auschwitz crumpled almost immediately. All Sunday one Polish reserve officer and his men marched wearily eastwards. At dusk they trudged into Skawina, seven miles from Krakow. The horizon to the southeast glowed red: the town of Wadowice, barely a dozen miles away, was obviously ablaze. Civilians panicked. Soldiers panicked. All rushed towards Krakow in disorder. Command broke down. Officers were unable to give orders. Whenever soldiers asked where they should go the answer was always the same: to Krakow.

All over the lower slopes of the Beskids and the Upper Vistula valley the scenes were identical: Landsers marching forwards, Polish soldiers and civilians retreating. The men of 132nd Infantry Regiment found themselves showered with gifts from ethnic Germans. ‘It’s raining sandwiches, milk stands in pails by the side of the road – we can fill our canteens to our heart’s content,’ one delighted Landser wrote. ‘There’s fruit by the ton. And everywhere there are cheerful faces, the hands of young women waving and eyes looking on longingly.’ The joy of the liberated Volksdeutsche contrasted sharply with the plight of the Poles. Oberleutnant Heinz Borwin Venzky’s armoured reconnaissance column passed small carts crammed with goods, hauled by mules which could barely move any more. Some people walked barefoot, carrying their shoes in their hands, others carried large bundles, worried expressions etched on their faces. Woman cried. Old men shuffled along. They had fled in the face of the invader. Now the invader had overtaken them and they wandered forlornly towards their homes. Few expected to find them still standing, for the landscape was littered with villages and towns in flames, set ablaze either by German artillery or by the infantry, which torched every settlement where they encountered resistance. By night, wrote Prüller, ‘the whole countryside was red with fire’. War reporter Leo Leixner was spellbound by the ‘fantastic sight’ of Krakow and the landscape of the Upper Vistula under the pale glow of the moon. But it was not only the Polish land given a blue-green tint by the moon; the marching troops were also illuminated. Four cavalry who had ridden on ahead to reconnoitre were picked off by Polish troops. ‘We don’t know whether to thank the moon because it shows us the way, or curse it,’ wrote Leixner. When the cavalry failed to return, the troops decided the moon was their foe. ‘Damned light, horrible night.’

By nightfall, Adolf Hitler had recovered his poise. The Allies had declared war, but they would not fight, he explained to his Propaganda Minister. No, in the West there would be nothing more than a ‘potato war’.a Joseph Goebbels was unconvinced, but he stood behind his Führer. ‘We will fight and work towards victory one way or another.’ The two men shook hands and parted company. Shortly before 9pm, a series of staff cars pulled out of the Reich Chancellery and into Berlin’s empty, blacked-out streets. They drew up less than half a mile away outside the Anhalter Bahnhof. ‘Twenty-five years ago I was sucked into the First World War covered with flowers accompanied by stirring regimental music through an enthusiastic crowd of people,’ Army liaison officer Nikolaus von Vormann recorded in his diary. ‘Today the streets, shrouded in total darkness, were deserted.’

Waiting for Hitler and his entourage at a sealed-off, dimly-lit platform was a ten-carriage train, with two flak wagons added for protection, the Sonderzug (special train). The stationmaster watched the Führer and his party climb aboard, then blew his whistle. The wheels of two large, dark-green locomotives slowly turned and the train moved gently out of the station and headed northeast. There was no thought in Adolf Hitler’s mind of withdrawing from Poland. His troops were bearing down on Warsaw; Danzig was German again; Fourth Army was on the verge of cutting off the Polish Corridor. Yet Hitler knew that news of the Anglo-French declaration of war would unsettle many of his men – Germany was now fighting a conflict on two fronts. The Führer sought to reassure his Army swarming across Poland. ‘I know that you are aware of the magnitude of the task before you, and that you are doing your utmost to speedily throw down the adversary as a first step,’ he told them. They should not worry themselves about the Western Front. The West Wall would ‘shield Germany’ from the French and British onslaught. The Sonderzug continued through the night. At four minutes before 2am on 4 September, it drew into Bad Polzin (today Polczyn-Zdroj) 140 miles northeast of Berlin and stopped.

All through the night a column of staff cars drove steadily through Prussia towards Bad Polzin. When Adolf Hitler stepped off his train the next morning he found nearly eighty vehicles waiting for him and his entourage. A large beige open-top Mercedes pulled up for Hitler, shepherded by two armoured cars. The Führer climbed in, accompanied by his adjutants and his valet Heinz Linge. The Mercedes set off almost immediately, followed by two cars with half a dozen men of Hitler’s bodyguard, the Führer Begleit Kommando – Führer Escort Command. Three more Mercedes drew up for senior Wehrmacht officers, Hitler’s personal photographer Heinrich Hoffmann, physicians and various adjutants, followed by another two armoured cars. The rest of the motorcade – more than seventy vehicles – was dedicated to the golden pheasants of the Nazi Party, the weasely de facto Party chief-of-staff Martin Bormann, the sycophantic von Ribbentrop, the head of the Reich Chancellery Hans Lammers, and others. The dignitaries jostled for position, each one determined to be ahead of his rival in the interminable column.

The Führer’s motorcade snaked through Pomerania. The Mercedes threw up huge clouds of dust on the sandy roads, enveloping everything – especially the Party bigwigs, much to the amusement of the military adjutants. Volksdeutsche stood by the roadside. Some held hastily-made banners, others hung out black-white-red flags hidden during two decades of Polish rule. Whenever the Mercedes drew to a halt, soldiers surrounded Hitler’s car – there were no barriers, no cordon to hold them back. The Führer was in his element, at ease as he had never been before nor would be again. He shook the hands of his soldiers, who cried out, yelled, smiled, laughed, joked. The motorcade visited the command posts of Fourth Army in Komierowo, twenty-five miles northwest of Bromberg, then to II Corps in Pruscz, half a dozen miles from the Vistula, and finally to the command post of 3rd Infantry Division in Topolno on the left bank of the Vistula, fifteen miles northeast of Bromberg. In glorious sunshine, the Führer looked across the Vistula valley. ‘What this means to me!’ he enthused. Here, seven centuries before, Hermann Balk, the first Landmeister (ruler) of the German order of knights in Prussia, had begun the German colonisation of the land beyond the Vistula. To Nikolaus von Vormann the vista was intoxicating. ‘The view of the land of Kulm stretched far and wide, land fertilised with German blood,’ the officer recalled. To the southeast, perhaps twenty-five miles away, was the Teutonic fortress of Thorn, birthplace of Copernicus. And just half a dozen miles to the northeast were the historic towers and spires of Kulm itself. The panzers, von Vormann observed, were rolling through the city. This was the land where Nikolaus von Vormann had been born nearly forty-four years earlier. This was not the time to think about the future. A single thought dominated the Oberst’s mind. ‘A grave injustice in the Versailles Diktat had finally been put right,’ he remembered. ‘Historic German land had become German once more.’

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