Into Poland 1939

Johann Graf von Kielmansegg had grabbed what sleep he could on the floor of the village school in Panki. He was up before dawn this Saturday morning. He washed himself vigorously in the school’s water fountain, then climbed into his staff car to return to the front line. As he did, he watched three bombers coming in low from the east. The Luftwaffe returning from its first raid of the day, Kielmansegg thought. Something dark fell from one of the bombers then three, four, five explosions. Lumps of earth flew through the air. Another stick of bombs fell directly over Panki, but it did not halt 1st Panzer Division. Only poor roads and the odd demolition hindered the armour’s advance. There was little sight of the enemy. The race to Warsaw had begun in earnest.

Everywhere on the first day of battle German troops had punctured the Polish lines: in Pomerania, in the Corridor, in Silesia, in the Carpathians. In places the enemy had offered battle, but invariably the invader had skirmished briefly with his foe, and his foe had fallen back. Only on the Westerplatte, where this fledgling conflict had begun, did the sense of success elude the attacker. Every attack against the peninsula had been repulsed for the cost of just four dead. Henryk Sucharski, the garrison’s commander, was pleased. Battle-hardened veterans had stiffened the resolve of his younger troops. In each man there was a feeling of ‘having won the first battle’. With dawn on the second they waited for the attacker to come once more. But he did not…

There had been little darkness by the banks of the Brahe. All through the night flares had raced into the sky above the bivouacs of 3rd Panzer Division around the hamlet of Hammermühle, forty miles north of Bromberg. Blazing farms lit up the valley ‘like burning torches’. Wild rifle and pistol fire persisted throughout the night. Two Polish officers in a large Mercedes, its headlights on full beam, accidentally drove through the German picket line and were immediately taken prisoner and marched off into captivity. But if the panzer men believed they were dealing with a shaken, demoralised, beaten enemy, they were sorely mistaken. With first light, the Poles swept forward – infantry and cavalry, elements of two divisions and one brigade – determined to crush the German bridgehead. The 3rd Panzer’s commander Geyr von Schweppenburg and his staff fled, dashing back over open ground to find shelter as Polish shells and machine-gun fire chased them. The defence of the bridgehead was leaderless; Geyr had little idea where his men were.

Geyr’s superior Heinz Guderian was not a man to be unnerved. The attack on 3rd Panzer did not unduly trouble him. But the timidity of 2nd Motorised Infantry Division on the armour’s left flank did. Like the panzers, the infantrymen were set upon by enemy horsemen, the Pomorska Cavalry Brigade. Generalleutnant Paul Bader warned his corps commander he would be forced to fall back. Guderian exploded. Had Bader ever heard of Pomeranian grenadiers being overrun by enemy cavalry, he asked. No, Bader sheepishly replied, he had not. His division would stand firm. Still Guderian was unconvinced. His mistrust was well founded. When he visited the division’s staff that morning it was, he recalled, ‘all at sea’. There was only one solution. The panzer General took charge, leading the regiment which had withdrawn in the face of Polish cavalry back to the positions it had held.

Hundreds of miles to the south in the Carpathians, the Landsers of 7th Infantry Division had already marched half a dozen miles. Some men had spent an unsettled night billeted in a Polish restaurant; its owner reluctantly served the invaders a few glasses of rather stale beer before the men settled down on hay in the adjacent stable. About to doze off, the Landsers were startled by the crack of infantry fire. For an hour, the soldiers swept through the neighbouring meadows on a mild, bright moonlit night, then rested for a couple of hours. Well before dawn, the division was on the move again, unhindered, in silence. Where is the enemy? the men asked themselves. He had gone and so too the few villages who inhabited this mountainous landscape. All that remained were cattle. Only as the infantrymen approached the heights of Barania, beyond the village of Szare, did the enemy appear, sending artillery shells raining down on the men. As the morning mist began to disperse the German guns opened fire on the slopes of Barania. The Poles fell back. The German troops stormed through a brook then up the hill. At the top they enjoyed a warm meal, pork they were told, and looked down the valley towards Polish bunkers defending the village of Wegierska Gorka, a handful of miles to the north.

Some thirty miles away, Heinz Borwin Venzky’s armoured reconnaissance unit drove past Polish field fortifications on the road to the Upper Silesian town of Auschwitz. Panzers and infantry had stormed the bunkers at dawn; the tell-tale markings of caterpillar tracks were still visible on the road and in the fields. ‘Dead Poles lie around everywhere,’ Venzky wrote as his unit rolled past the battlefield for a good half hour. Some dead looked as if they were sleeping peacefully; others were a bloody mess. Wounded Poles crouched apathetically by the side of the road. Bloody scraps of uniform and dented steel helmets were scattered around. Shot-up anti-tank guns were stuck in ditches. Under one smashed limber, Venzky spied a dead Pole. ‘From a pale face, his empty, wide-open eyes stare towards heaven.’

Auschwitz was also the objective for one Polish reserve officer, marching with his column towards the town against a tide of dejected, panicking soldiers. The remnants of three divisions were falling back in chaos. Fear of German panzers had gripped every man. There was talk of an enemy breakthrough barely a dozen miles away. The officer and his men continued towards Auschwitz, but as they approached the town they were attacked from behind by German armour. The column scattered; the men abandoned their kit and, in some cases, their guns and ran for Auschwitz. The roads were crammed with retreating military vehicles and refugees. The staff of 6th Division forced their way through by brandishing pistols. They attempted to rally the men and succeeded in forming a new line in Auschwitz itself. But how long would it last?

4th Panzer Division was finding Saturday, 2 September, no easier than Friday, 1 September. Shortly before mid-day Willi Reibig drove over the previous day’s battlefield north of Czestochowa – Tschenstochau to the Germans – as he moved into position to attack. A Polish field kitchen had been overrun on the first day of the war. Dead Poles lay scattered around it, with wood and coal still littering the field. A bit further on Reibig came across a wrecked field howitzer, ammunition and shell cartridges, more dead. A hideous sweet smell drifted across the battlefield, hardly surprising under the heat of the September sun. Reibig’s panzers crept slowly along, then as the ground opened up before them, the crews sighted dismounted Polish cavalry resting in a copse, and immediately opened fire. The panzers opened fire. ‘The Poles run away as if giant fists have waded in,’ he recalled. ‘Columns of smoke rise over the forest like fiery pine trees. What has not stayed down, dashes in great bounds and disappears behind a hill.’ The panzers pursued the horsemen into the wood, yet Reibig and his comrades found fighting among the trees unnerving. It wasn’t natural panzer country; it was difficult to manoeuvre, to sight the enemy amid the undergrowth, to avoid incoming Polish shells. ‘With a strange piijüh, piijüh, the shells whistle past us,’ wrote Reibig. ‘These hardly worry us – for what whistles has already passed and can do no harm. The bullet which you don’t hear is the one which hits you.’ It was the crack of rifle fire striking at the trees which gnawed at the men’s nerves. ‘We curse this damn bush war where we can never bring our full might to bear properly.’

As 4th Panzer battered its way forward, its right-hand neighbour, 1st Panzer, was racing for the River Warthe – the only substantial natural obstacle on the road to Warsaw. A reconnaissance unit pounced on a train packed with reservists. The soldiers fled into the surrounding woods, but were soon rounded up; none expected the Germans to be so deep inside Polish territory after less than thirty-six hours of war. The Poles had no time, too, to blow the bridges over the Warthe. All three fell undamaged into 1st Panzer’s hands and by 2pm, the first Germans were across the river far to the northeast of Czestochowa. Poles hampered the division’s onward move. Not the Polish Army, but civilians, refugees in their hundreds, clogging the roads with horses, carts, but mostly on foot. ‘There are also unintentional moments of comedy,’ Johann Graf von Kielmansegg observed, ‘like when an old farmer’s wife moved along with a cackling chicken under her arm and a gigantic alarm clock in her other hand as her sole possessions.’

On the east bank of the Vistula, the right arm of the German pincer squeezing the Corridor was lumbering towards the city of Graudenz. The East and West Prussians of 21st Infantry Division had been given wildly optimistic orders on the first day of battle – to smash any Polish forces northwest of Graudenz, then seize the city and the bridges over the Vistula, more than a dozen miles from the division’s jump-off position. Still, they had given it their best shot, punching their way over a small river, the Ossa, to within four miles of Graudenz. The second day of September dawned with the Vistula valley shrouded in thick fog. Under a blanket of artillery fire 45th Infantry Regiment tried to force its way through the Polish defences on the Ossa. It was cut down by a devilish hail of shell, mortar, machine-gun and rifle fire. ‘Medics here, medics there,’ recalled squad leader Karlheinz Herzberg. ‘Cries of: “Medic”, “Mother”, “Mama”, “Help” were drowned out by commands and orders. In the haze an olive-green helmet appeared sporadically and then vanished. In the bright morning after gaining a few hundred metres of ground the order to dig in arrived.’ The regiment dug in, but still the enemy’s shells continued to crash down. Incompetence now came to the attackers’ aid. The Polish command decided its two divisions blocking the road to Graudenz should swap places. As 16th Division began pulling out of the line, there was all manner of chaos as communications broke down and troops ran into each other. Their commander, Colonel Stanislaw Switalksi, lost his head and ordered a general retreat a dozen miles to the southwest. At times, particular among the rearward columns, the withdrawal turned to panic. Switalksi was promptly sacked, but the damage had been done. Only Graudenz’s small garrison and the militia – the Obrona Narodowa – stood between 21st Infantry Division and the town.

A few dozen miles to the west, 9th Infantry Regiment was rushing towards the Brahe to help Geyr von Schweppenburg and his beleaguered panzer division. The regiment force marched along the few roads which ran through a land studded by copses and lakes and which were now crammed with supply columns, hundreds of vehicles, limbered carts, unable to move. As Oberst Werner Freiherr von und zu Gilsa, the regimental commander, pushed his men east from Pruszcz down a railway line towards the village of Klonowo, half a dozen miles away, Polish troops swarmed out of the copses and south, over the rail line. They were thrown back. At dusk, the Poles came again – and again they were repulsed. Von und zu Gilsa feared a renewed attack. His men had not eaten for more than a day, they were exhausted by marching and fighting, but above all they were running out of ammunition. Inexperienced in battle, the men had swiftly devoured what supplies they carried with them – they had left the ammunition columns behind on the clogged roads. If the Poles came on again in force, supported by artillery, there was a chance they would smash their way through Gilsa’s lines and reach the banks of the River Brahe, barely a mile to the south, where all manner of vehicles were waiting to cross the makeshift bridge thrown across the river by 3rd Panzer.

But the Poles did not come. They did not come because Geyr and his men had weathered the storm and renewed their thrust to the Vistula. The sun beat down mercilessly. The roads were poor and usually only suitable for single-file traffic. Signs of Polish disintegration spurred the German armour on. Frequently the lanes were blocked by enemy columns which had bumped into each other in the chaos of battle, or by carts and trees struck by the stukas. By the side of these roads were abandoned ammunition and baggage wagons, the cadavers of horses, dead Poles.11

On the Westerplatte still they waited. Throughout the morning and into the afternoon, plans for a concerted raid on the Polish depot by dive-bombers had been postponed and delayed. In Schleswig-Holstein’s sick bay, bandmaster Willi Aurich was tending to the wounded from yesterday’s fighting. ‘On the bed opposite me lay two grey-black bodies, only one of which moved slightly from time to time and gave out awful, loud groans,’ he recalled. An hour before dusk, Aurich moved to the upper deck. A shipmate pointed to the sky. High above the Bay of Danzig three dots appeared. The dots multiplied. Six, nine, a dozen. For forty minutes they peeled off, one by one, sixty dots in all. The sirens screamed as the Ju87s of Sturzkampfgeschwader 2 plummeted towards the peninsula, then dropped 150 bombs upon the stubborn fortress. Observers on the Schleswig-Holstein saw clouds of smoke and dust tumbling into the sky – and just one section of wall crumble under the weight of the attack. ‘The heavens darken with rising smoke,’ Aurich recorded. ‘On board everyone is full of confidence that this must be the end for the Westerplatte.’ For a moment, the sailors thought they saw a white flag hoisted above the depot, only for it to be quickly hauled down again.

They had seen a white flag. Henryk Sucharski had lost his mind. The forty-year-old was a career soldier, a veteran of the Italian Front with the Austro-Hungarian Army in the Great War. But two days of intense bombardment had shattered the commander’s nerves, his deputy Captain Franciszek Dobrowski observed. ‘He was shaking and blubbering, his lips were foaming.’ Sucharski ordered the white flag hoisted and began burning all his secret papers. His officers mutinied. The Westerplatte’s doctor was summoned. Henryk Sucharski was strapped to a bed, a stick thrust between his teeth. The white flag was lowered, and resistance resumed.

Willi Reibig’s armour eventually emerged from the undergrowth only to run into fierce Polish resistance in front of the village of Kocin Nowy, eight miles north of Czestochowa, which was promptly set ablaze. By the time Reibig passed through it, the first inhabitants were nervously returning home. They stood, staring at the ruins of their cottages. Those who could still find a cellar untouched by fire or artillery were branded ‘the happy ones’ by the panzer men. Other refugees appeared, people who had fled the border villages with the imminence of war and headed for the forests. Now they emerged, wailing, shaking from fear. That evening, Reibig wandered back through the German lines. ‘I noticed a lovely smell,’ he remembered. A calf – wounded in the fighting

– had been slaughtered by an enterprising Landser. ‘A piece of dry bread and one piece of fried meat was an exquisite meal after the day’s exertions,’ wrote Reibig. ‘After eating, calm gradually descended, and I hit the sack and tried to sleep. But before I slowly crossed into the land of dreams, yesterday’s and today’s experiences once again flashed before my eyes. Another hot day had drawn to a close.’

Fifteen miles to the east, Graf von Kielmansegg settled down in his billet, a doctor’s house in the village of Gidle on the right bank of the Warthe. The bulk of his division was across the river. No German unit had punched its way further into Polish territory.

It was twilight before 7th Infantry Division was in position to attack the bunkers at Wegierska Gorka. The soft blue hue in the heavens contrasted with the red of countless fires in the valley of the River Sola. Luminous green tracers raced towards the embrasures of the concrete fortifications. A thousand gun barrels roared – machine-guns, rifles, field guns. A flamethrower was sent up to clear out one particularly troublesome bunker. The way was cleared into Wegierska Gorka, although little remained of the Carpathian village which now burned fiercely. Set against the yellow-red glow of the flames, the advancing landsers were easy targets for Polish sharpshooters hiding on the hillside. But beyond the blazing ruins, the infantry were plunged into darkness, stumbling through a brook, scrambling up a hill whose slopes were covered by trees in pitch blackness – so dark it was barely possible to see the man in front.

For some this was still a Blumenkrieg. The soldiers of 309th Infantry Regiment settled down in the homes and barns of German farmers. There had been no contact with the enemy.

It had been an exhausting, blazing, muggy Saturday in the Corridor. The night was cool. The men were tired and, above all, hungry and thirsty; the division’s supply columns were still far to the rear, unable to force their way through the traffic jam on the Brahe. In desperation, a few men grabbed their rifles and crawled over the fields in the darkness to milk any cows they could find. Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg shared the men’s exhaustion. But he also knew that his panzers stood a hair’s breadth from the Vistula. As far as the Generalleutnant was concerned, the enemy was cut off. The battle of the Corridor had been won.

Long before first light the following morning, Sunday, 3 September, Geyr von Schweppenburg ordered his armour to race along the left bank of the Vistula and begin clearing out the pine woods, marshes and scrubland of the Tucheler Heath. The Poles struck back, trying to force their way southeastwards towards Schwetz by the banks of the Vistula. They threw infantry and cavalry down the main road. 3rd Panzer’s artillery opened fire. It took a terrible toll. Limbers and baggage carts were overturned, horses ran around wildly and Polish soldiers threw away their guns and hurried across the fields in panic. Geyr threw in his infantry to complete the rout; by nightfall, more than 800 prisoners and fifteen guns had fallen into his hands. The road to Schwetz was a graveyard of wrecked vehicles and smashed guns. As for Schwetz itself, German armour dashed past it and continued north along the Vistula valley. The closer the panzers drew to Graudenz, the louder the sounds of battle drifting across the Vistula became and the brighter the fires burning in the town; 21st Infantry Division was fighting in the suburbs of Graudenz. They seized the railway yard. But they fell short of taking Graudenz. With darkness descending – and with the threat of fighting in the streets by night – 21st Infantry withdrew.

By first light that Sunday, staff officer Johann Graf von Kielmansegg was already at work in the courtyard of a doctor’s house in Gidle. Many of the village’s residents had stayed behind – convinced the panzer troops were English; some had even handed the soldiers flowers. Kielmansegg’s commanding officer, Friedrich Kirchner paced up and down the courtyard with his operations officer, Walther Wenck, discussing the situation. The deceptive tranquillity of this Sunday morning was shattered by the drone of aircraft. Luftwaffe formations had already roared overhead in both directions all morning long, but this time there was a loud cry. ‘Look out, bombs!’ Kirchner and his closest staff jumped into a hastily-dug trench, as the bombs straddled the doctor’s house. All missed their true targets – the Warthe bridges – but the attack was one of fifteen suffered by 1st Panzer’s columns that day, proof that the Polish Air Force had deliberately avoided battle on the first two days of the campaign – rather than being driven out of the sky. The division moved its command post repeatedly, finally settling in a forest. ‘We finally feel safe to some extent in a forest, when right next to us a blazing Polish aircraft crashes into the forest and sets it ablaze,’ wrote Kielmansegg. ‘Once more we have to run. But a success all the same!’ There was a begrudging admiration for the Polish airmen who ‘carried out their orders with great courage and also considerable skill. A shot-down Pole was one of numerous prisoners who said nothing during interrogation, despite his wounds.’

There was little sign of enemy aircraft twenty or so miles to the west of Kielmannsegg. In fact, there was little sign of any enemy as the artillery of 19th Infantry Division moved their guns across the Warthe. The fighting had long since passed. Soldiers bathed in the river. And on its bank, a naked Landser armed with a bayonet tried in vain to catch a goose.

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