Crusader Sieges of Vilnius

Lithuanian Grand-Duke Jagiełło’s brothers wanted heavier cannons to oppose the Teutonic Knights’ new weapons, but since gun carriages did not exist yet the heavy weapons could only be transported by water. Because the Teutonic Knights controlled the lower reaches of the Nemunas River, the only route from Poland to Lithuania was from the Vistula up the Bug River to the Narew, then up that river’s tributaries until close to streams that led down to the Nemunas at Gardinas. Cannon could be dragged over a short portage, or perhaps even transported the entire way over the many bodies of water in the Masurian Lake district. Not unexpectedly, the Teutonic Knights sought to block this route by building forts in the wilderness north of the Narew. This presented some complications, because that land belonged to the Masovian dukes, but it did hinder Jagiełło’s efforts to send assistance to his brothers. The wilderness had been unoccupied since the withdrawal of the Sudovians to the east, and empty of all humans other than raiding parties from Prussia, Lithuania, and Masovia. But technically it was still Masovian.

Meanwhile the war had become even more brutal than before. The Teutonic Knights decapitated any Poles captured in the Lithuanian forts – they accused them of apostasy and aiding pagans – and the crusader raids into Samogitia met so little resistance that they were little more than manhunts. In reprisal the Samogitians occasionally sacrificed prisoners to their gods, burning knights alive, tied to their mounts in full armour over a giant pyre, or shooting them full of arrows while bound to a sacred tree. Even so, the war was not continuous. Despite the desperate nature of the fighting, there were truces and sudden changes in alliances; and nothing disturbed the universal love of hunting, for which special truces were arranged.

Although Vytautas was a crusader ally, as he saw his ancestral lands being destroyed he began to look for an alternative means of returning to power in Vilnius. Intellectually, he understood that it was most logical to join forces with his cousin, but Vytautas was a passionate man, not always ruled by his mind. Besides, he had not forgotten Jagiełło’s past treacheries and, well-aware of assassination plots, he surrounded himself with Tatar bodyguards. Consequently Vytautas was an emotional pendulum, swinging from one side to the other, forced to seek help from someone, but not liking any of the available allies. The Teutonic Knights took a cynical but philosophical view of this, as one chronicler stated: ‘Pagans rarely do what is right, as the broken treaties of Vytautas and his relatives prove’.

Still, when he considered the situation rationally Vytautas saw his present alliance with the Teutonic Order as a losing strategy. Victory under such circumstances would make him an impoverished ruler, hated by his own people and dependent upon the goodwill of the grand master. He may have sent a message to Jagiełło, somehow evading the order’s efforts to watch over his every move; if so, it was undoubtedly vague, the kind which would do no harm if discovered. Or perhaps Jagiełło merely sensed that the time was ripe to make his cousin a proposal. All that is known for certain is that in early August 1392 Jagiełło sent Bishop Henryk of Płock to Prussia as his emissary. This rather unpriestly Piast prince-bishop was related by marriage to the king’s sister, Alexandra of Masovia. Henryk used the opportunity provided by confession to inform Vytautas of his master’s propositions. Vytautas, under the pretext of allowing his wife to make a visit home, told Anna to negotiate with Jagiełło; he also managed to secure the release of many hostages who had been kept in honourable captivity in scattered fortresses. Then he gave his sister in marriage to Bishop Henryk and dismissed the English crusaders who had just arrived to join another invasion of Lithuania. He thus eliminated from the game the most dangerous bowmen in Europe, warriors who had been so effective in recent battles with Jagiełło’s subjects.

Vytautas plotted his betrayal carefully, arranging for the Samogitian warriors stationed in the crusader castles entrusted to him to kill or capture the Germans in the garrisons. After this had succeeded, he sent Lithuanian armies on widely separated fronts into Prussia and Livonia and overwhelmed what forces the Teutonic Knights still had in Samogitia. Vytautas’ return to Lithuania was greeted with wild enthusiasm. Every Samogitian appreciated his courage and cunning, contrasted his genial personality with Jagiełło’s vengeful brothers, and understood that the series of military disasters was likely now at an end; and the highlanders were happy to see the reign of foreigners – Poles – at an end.

It was a year before Grand Master Wallenrode was able to take his revenge. In January of 1393 he struck at Gardinas, employing Dutch and French knights. This threatened to cut the major communication route between Masovia and Vilnius, effectively isolating Lithuania. Vytautas and Jagiełło appealed to the papal legate to arrange for peace talks, which did in fact take place in Thorn in the summer. After ten days, however, Wallenrode became ill and left the conference. A short while later he died.

The new grand master, Conrad von Jungingen, was a decisive leader of far-reaching plans and far-reaching vision. Regional peace could be achieved, he believed, by a decisive victory in Vilnius, the one location that Vytautas and Jagiełło had to defend with all their might.

Already collecting in Prussia in the waning days of 1393 was a great army of French and German crusaders, among whom was a body of Burgundian archers (perhaps English mercenaries) whose concentrated firepower had the potential to savage the pagans quite as badly as they had mauled French armies in recent years. The crusaders began their march up the Nemunas in January 1394, relying on the thick ice to serve as a highway into the Lithuanian heartland. Vytautas attempted to halt the crusader march early on, but he barely escaped death under the first barrage of his enemies’ missile weapons, and his army was badly routed. The Lithuanian stand turned into a hurried retreat before the 400 advancing crusader knights and their thousands of sergeants and infantry.

Vytautas received a reinforcement from Poland, a strong contingent of knights, to join the 15,000 mounted warriors under his command, but their numbers were insufficient to stop the advance of the now much-feared archers into the heart of his country. The crusaders passed through forests, swamps, and open fields, evading ambushes, to reach Vilnius, where Vytautas was joined by his Rus’ian troops. The grand prince fought a desperate engagement, giving and taking heavy losses until his Rus’ian wing fled and was followed by one Lithuanian unit after the other. At last, he, too, had to retreat, and again he barely escaped the field alive. While Vytautas sought to rally his scattered and demoralised forces at a safe distance, the Teutonic Knights settled down to besiege his capital, a place they knew well from 1390. They made new plans to celebrate the conversion of the Lithuanians, this time assured by their arms that the baptismal ceremony would take place properly – a true conversion, not the ambiguous promises of Jagiełło and Vytautas, whose Christian names were used only in formal documents. What further proof, the crusaders asked, did anyone need that their allegiance to Rome was very thin?

On the eighth day of the siege the Livonian master arrived to reinforce the crusader host. He was welcomed heartily, for now the crusaders could surround the entire city, contain the sorties from the fortress, and make a determined assault on the wall at its weakest point. The Livonian forces were sent to the river front, where they built two bridges, then rode across the river to plunder the countryside. In this foraging they lost fifty men (only three of them German and only one a knight, indicating that a large native contingent was present) while killing and capturing ‘innumerable’ Lithuanians. Nevertheless, the siege did not go well. After another week of fighting, the firing posts that the engineers had built for the archers, the siege towers, and the bridges were destroyed by an inferno that the garrison set during a sortie. Nevertheless, the crusaders had some successes – their artillery had brought down a stone tower and set fire to various wooden fortifications. Soon afterward, however, the Lithuanians set a tower in the crusader camp ablaze, which not only caused extensive casualties among the French but destroyed most of the supplies, so that the crusaders would be unable to remain at Vilnius as long as planned. The grand master allowed the war of engineers to continue four more days, but it was obvious that the Lithuanians could destroy new siege works almost as fast as the crusaders could build them. An assault would require more time to prepare than the army could be kept fed by its remaining supplies. Also, Vytautas had been regrouping his scattered forces. Scouts were reporting that he would soon be coming to relieve the city. This meant that the crusaders would have to fight on two fronts – an unattractive prospect.

The leaders of the crusader armies met, discussed their situation, and reluctantly agreed to abandon the siege. The grand master sent the Livonian forces home first, then moved west himself, harassed by Lithuanians cutting down trees across the road, fortifying the river crossings, and laying ambushes in the woods. The Prussian force alternately negotiated and fought its way along the route away from Vilnius, then abruptly changed direction and marched through Samogitia, thereby avoiding Vytautas’ army and the obstacles he had erected.

The expedition had been one of the most memorable enterprises of the medieval era – the siege of an enemy capital with knights and military specialists drawn from all of Europe – and a chivalric exploit worthy of any land; but the capture of the greatest city in Lithuania was beyond the ability of the crusaders. The war continued, with the Teutonic Order striking up the Nemunas River and ravaging the Samogitian settlements; they were far from attempting another invasion of the highlands, farther yet from Jagiełło’s capital. The Lithuanians remained on the defensive, biding their time. They had no reason to risk everything on a pitched battle, no reason to carry the war back into Prussia. Not yet, at least.

Peace

By the end of 1393 Vytautas was master of Lithuania. He had driven all Jagiełło’s brothers from the land, and when his forces won a major battle in 1394, crushing the Volhynian, Galician, and Moldavian dukes, Jagiełło completely abandoned his brothers to their fate: Kaributas went into exile in Cracow; the Moldavian ruler also fled to Cracow, where he was imprisoned; Skirgaila died in Kiev in 1396, probably poisoned; and Svidrigailo fought for the Teutonic Order briefly before achieving a reconciliation. The former bishop, Henryk, died, unmourned, of poison.

Jagiełło retained the title of supreme prince, and Vytautas was satisfied with the lesser title of great prince until his very last days. But as time passed, so real authority passed into the hands of Vytautas.

Meanwhile the crusader raids into Lithuania continued. Not only were the Prussian forces constantly in Samogitia, but so too was the black and white banner of the Livonian master – a black centre stripe horizontally flanked by white, with contrasting triangular tails fluttering behind. The last raid into Samogitia came in the winter of 1398, when the crusaders took 700 prisoners and 650 horses, and killed many people; they had surprised the defenders by entering the country during changeable weather, a gamble that had rarely proven worth the risk before, but paid high returns when successful. Vytautas did not retaliate. He was campaigning in southern Rus’, longing for an end to the troublesome northern war that was hindering his chances for success on the steppe. Only his promise to Jagiełło stood in the way of making peace. Of course, promises were not serious obstacles to Vytautas.

Vytautas had an excuse to refuse obedience to Polish orders soon afterward, when Jadwiga (who – not Jagiełło – was legally rex of Poland) demanded a tax from the Lithuanians, a tax that Vytautas’ boyars had no desire to pay. The royal demand was not unreasonable. Vytautas had depended on Polish aid to defend Samogitia, and Polish nobles and clergy were asking why they had to bear all the costs, while the Lithuanians paid nothing. The Poles probably reasoned that Vytautas had no choice, and that no matter how much he protested, in the end he would make his subjects pay.

This presumed reasoning underestimated Vytautas. The grand prince was not fixated on Samogitia. Instead, he was studying the situation on the steppe. In the process of driving Jagiełło’s brothers from their lands in southern Rus’, Vytautas had confirmed suspicions that the Tatar hold on the region had weakened. Moreover, his popularity among his people would be seriously undermined if he appeared to be a mere Polish puppet.

Vytautas understood that if he did not pay the tax he would have to sue for peace with at least one enemy. Better the Teutonic Order than the Tatars, he reasoned, for it was against the weakened Tatars that he saw the best prospects of territorial expansion. In contrast to the potential conquest of the steppe, he could at best fight a defensive war against the Teutonic Knights. Peace with the grand master, of course, could be had only at a price – Samogitia. Fortunately for Vytautas, Jagiełło was caught up in the dream of driving the Tatars from the steppe too, removing them forever as a threat to his Polish and Lithuanian frontiers; and his Polish subjects, who had lived for generations in fear of the Tatars, agreed. It helped that Jadwiga knew the grand master personally and liked him; she had always wanted peace with Prussia and had encouraged the many inconclusive meetings with the grand master’s representatives in the past. Now it appeared that there was the likelihood of a breakthrough in the negotiation process.

Peace talks with the Teutonic Order culminated in September 1398 in the Treaty of Sallinwerder, which surrendered Samogitia to the Germans. Vytautas and Jagiełło led their armies to Kaunas, where the last pagans of Samogitia surrendered to the Teutonic Order. The Samogitians growled, but they understood that they could not fight without the grand prince of Lithuania and the prince-consort of Poland. Besides, they had been under crusader control before, and it had not lasted.

The next year, in the summer of 1399, a great army of Lithuanians, Rus’ians, Tatars, Poles, and Teutonic Knights rode out onto the steppe to challenge Timur’s domination there. The result was another military disaster.  Had Vytautas been successful, the history of the Teutonic Order would have taken a new and more exotic turn than anyone had previously imagined. But even defeat on the steppe did not mean a return to the old ways. In the years to come some Teutonic Knights would accompany Vytautas against Rus’ian foes as far away as Moscow, and others would board ships to destroy a pirate stronghold on the island of Gotland.

It appeared that the crusade was at an end. The Teutonic Order had achieved its goal, the Christianisation of most pagans and the conquest of the rest. The Teutonic Knights still welcomed a handful of crusaders to assist in garrisoning their castles in Samogitia, but the crusade was essentially over by 1400

Interestingly, the greatest complaints against the Teutonic Order came from those churchmen who were unhappy that the grand master was not forcing his new subjects to undergo baptism immediately. Conrad von Jungingen was instead pursuing a policy of economic development, and creating from the many petty Lithuanian boyars a smaller, dependable ruling class. He assumed, probably correctly, that in the course of time, this would result in the voluntary conversion of these stubborn woodsmen.

Vytautas believed that too. He secretly encouraged the Samogitians to hold out. He would soon be coming to free them again.

Third Panzer Division: From the Spree to the Bug 1939 Part I

August 1939 approached. The weather was warm and sunny. There was a lot of activity in the fields and pastures; the harvest needed to be brought in. Who knew when the next bad weather would come? But the sun still smiled down from the clear blue skies.

The headquarters and staff sections were filled with secretive and fast-paced work. The adjutants and liaison officers ran around with serious faces, and even the clerks and staff noncommissioned officers became unapproachable. The first batch of reserve officers arrived in the garrisons at the beginning of August. The soldiers, who had been called up for eight weeks, had given up hope of being released. It was the same picture every year. The annual maneuvers were around the corner. But this time, there was no real anticipation; the reports coming in from east of the Reich frontier were too serious.

In July, at the Bergen-Belsen Training Area, the division had activated the logistical units that belonged to it in accordance with its mobilization plans. They received the designation Divisions-Nachschubtruppen 83 (Division Support Element 83). By the beginning of August, ten truck columns had been established. That was followed by the division rations section under the direction of Stabszahlmeister Flitner. The division bakery company was under the command of Hauptmann Nagel. There was also the division’s meat-processing platoon, the field post office (Feldpostinspektor Mollweide), and the two maintenance companies.

On 17 August, the whistles of the noncommissioned officers in charge pierced through the hallways of the barracks and the living areas: “Load up!” Later on, the company commanders revealed the march objective of the movement that had been ordered: the training area at Groß-Born. The elements of the division gradually moved out of their various garrisons. The advance parties of the rifle regiment left Eberswalde the next day, with elements of the motorcycle battalion following on 19 August and the armored regiments the day after that. That was followed by the artillery. Everyone thought to himself: Were we really just going to Groß-Born? Only a few actually knew that the Army High Command had already taken the preliminary measures for a mobilization. That meant that the formations capable of “moving out expeditiously” were to be prepared to move. That included all motorized divisions.

As the forces marched out, the family members of the soldiers gathered to bid farewell, as did the civilian employees of the mess halls, the canteens, and the administrative elements.

Many career officers and noncommissioned officers had to depart from the divisional elements during that period. They were transferred to new commands, activating formations and schools. It was not easy taking leave of their units. Now that the time had come to prove themselves, their common experiences and common efforts had to be given up. Reserve officers and noncommissioned officers took their places. Some of them were from the times of previous exercises and the march into the Sudetenland, thus allowing them to find a bridge to foster trust and understanding.

The commanders of the 4th and 5th Batteries changed within the 2nd Battalion of the division artillery. Major Wöhlermann and Hauptmann Hellmers gave up their commands to Hauptmann Haselbach and Oberleutnant Nebel (promoted to Hauptmann on 27 August). Major Burmeister assumed command of the 2nd Battalion of Panzer-Regiment 6.

The march route of the individual elements of the division took them past Stettin, across the Oder, and through Pomeranian Switzerland (pommersche Schweiz, the hill country of lower Pomerania, now Poland). On 22 August, a rumor spread through the march serials of a non-aggression pact between Germany and Russia. That evening, the rumor was confirmed. By then, all elements of the division were at the training area. The next few days were spent with the daily duty routine and passed quickly. Weapons and equipment were maintained; classroom instruction alternated with drill. Engineers instructed other formations with regard to electrically detonated obstacles and disarming them. No one thought that a military confrontation was possible.

Suddenly, on 25 August, marching orders arrived. The code word was “Tannenberg.” At 1800 hours, the formations assembled in the camps for a final formation. The commanders discovered from the division that the surreptitious mobilization was to take place, with D-Day being 26 August. The die had been cast.

The march east started. The border was to be reached that same evening. The motorcycle battalion took the lead as far as Barkenbrügge. The armored brigade was to pass through at that point. The lead elements reached the border east of and to both sides of Preußisch Friedland around 2300 hours. The motorcycle battalion staged in the forests along the border. Its 1st Company screened along the railway line to Königsberg.

At 2345 hours, orders to halt arrived.

The lead elements were promptly pulled back ten kilometers; the artillery set up in the thick woods forty kilometers west of the border. No one knew exactly what was going on. The rumor started to circulate slowly that the attack had been called off. It was said that the government had made new proposals to Poland with regard to regulating the Danzig and corridor problems and that it was waiting for the Polish response.

In an order that must be considered a masterpiece of planning, the German Army in the East—around half a million strong at this point—had to be halted at and over the border. The division set up a bivouac site in the Friedland area. The days spent in the camp were certainly a test of nerves for the forces, but they also represented a bit of a breather after the feverish preparations. Hardly any traces of normal duty activities could be seen. The only thing was pulling guard. On 27 August, an order prohibiting the sending of mail was imposed for the next few days. Portions of the companies were detailed to assist in the harvest in the surrounding farmlands. Some colorful evening celebrations took place, with the one hosted by the 2nd Battalion of the divisional artillery on the evening of 28 August in Peterswalde counting among the most impressive. The highlight of the evening was a singing competition, which the choir from the 5th Battery won. Gefreiter Salchow was an entertaining master of ceremonies who was not afraid to inject some political humor. The 2nd Battalion of Panzer-Regiment 6 also held a singing competition, with the 6th Company taking the prize.

On the evening of 26 August, the motorcycle battalion returned to the border area again to secure the staging area of the division. The 3rd Company of Oberleutnant Adler advanced as far as a line running from the Grünkirch customs building to Grunau. Within the company, the platoon of Leutnant Arent, who was the Reichsbühnenbildner in civilian life, was positioned on the right. Leutnant Stadie’s platoon was in the middle and Leutnant Schmidt’s platoon on the left. Across from them were the Polish village of Wilkowo and Hill 162, which featured a tall wooden watchtower.

Contrary to expectations, everything remained quiet on the Polish side, even though some movement could be identified. One antitank gun and one machine-gun position could be identified. There was little to be seen of civilians. On the German side, all traffic was forbidden between 2200 and 0500 hours. During that time, the patrols and engineers were active, cutting tank lanes through the barbed wire.

All of a sudden, around 0100 hours on 29 August, advance parties from the III./Infanterie-Regiment 25 of the 2. Infanterie-Division (mot.) showed up. It was part of a deception, whereby the armored division was being pulled back from the front. The motorcycle battalion moved to the forestry office at Linde. The next day passed quietly. It rained. There was no change in activity on 31 August, either. In the midst of all the quiet, orders arrived around 1600 hours: “Be prepared to move!”

As it started to turn dark on that rainy day, the columns began to move forward again. The tanks moved into the area on both sides of Grunau, followed by the rifle regiment. Just after midnight, an attack order arrived. The war was on!

To that end, the 4. Armee had moved up to the border in Eastern Pomerania. The commander in chief was General der Artillerie von Kluge. It was directed for the field army to force a crossing over the Braha, rapidly reach the west bank of the Vistula in the Kulm–Graudenz area, and eliminate the Polish forces in the corridor. The main effort of that aspect of the operation was the XIX. Armee-Korps (mot.). The commanding general, General der Panzertruppen Guderian, was the creator of the German armored force. Oberst i.G. Nehring, a longtime assistant to Guderian in the creation of the Panzertruppe and prewar commander of Panzer-Regiment 5, was his chief of staff.

The corps consisted of the 2. Infanterie-Division (mot.) of Generalleutnant Bader and the 20. Infanterie-Division (mot.) of Generalleutnant Wiktorin, in addition to the 3. Panzer-Division of Generalleutnant Freiherr Geyr von Schweppenburg. Also attached to the corps was the 23. Infanterie-Division of Generalmajor Graf von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt, which was its operational reserve.

As the formation with the most combat power of the corps, it was to be employed as its main effort. That aspect had already been determined at a conference at the headquarters of the 4. Armee in Kolberg. According to the decision made there, the division would advance up to and into the Tuchel Heath, with its armored brigade in the lead. It was intended for the reinforced reconnaissance battalion of the division to advance as far as the Vistula after the bridge over the Braha had been taken. The long, open flanks were to be screened by the motorized rifle divisions. The first mission given to the division: “Reach the Braha east of Prust in the vicinity of Hammermühle and continue the advance to the Vistula in the vicinity of Schwetz!”

To execute that mission, the division received the following assets in attachment: Panzer-Lehr-Abteilung (Major von Lewinski), Flak-Regiment 101, and a flight of army utility aircraft. At the start of hostilities, the armored brigade had 324 Panzer I’s and Panzer II’s at its disposal. By contrast, the Panzer-Lehr-Abteilung was already fielding some of the first Panzer III’s and Panzer IV’s.

What did things look like from the Polish side? It goes without saying that the Polish government was prepared for the German attack and had already initiated mobilization of its own forces for some time. Starting in the spring of 1939, it had started to systematically “ripen up” its military and populace for the possible confrontation with Germany. The Pomeranian Army of General Bortnowski had completed its movement into the corridor by the end of August. The field army was organized into western and eastern groups. The Eastern Group of General Boltuc had the mission of protecting the western flank of the Modlin Army with its 4th and 16th Infantry Divisions. In addition, it was directed to defend along a line running Straßburg–Graudenz in the event of a German offensive. The Western Group of General Skotnicki was directed to hold the corridor, including the flanking position of Bromberg–Nakel, with its 9th and 15th Infantry Divisions, as well as the Pomeranian Cavalry Brigade. The 27th Infantry Division was the field army’s operational reserve. Its orders were to eventually march on Danzig with the 13th Infantry Division, which would be brought in from Thorn.

The morning of 1 September 1939 dawned . . .

An early-morning fog appeared eerily in the woods; it was already perceptibly cold. There was an unearthly disquiet everywhere. The rattle of engines that quickly died off . . . the almost silent marching of columns . . . whispering and cursing, the light clinking of weapons . . . the division was ready. The officers continuously looked at their watches. The hands seemed to move imperceptibly slowly. Then: 0445 hours! There was a wailing from somewhere, but our artillery was still silent.

All of a sudden, the tank engines howled, tracked rattled, motorcycles roared. It was as if all unrest and all doubts had been lifted all at once and wiped away. The 3. Panzer-Division of Berlin and Brandenburg was marching into war as the lead division of the 4. Armee.

The small tanks were the first ones to make their way through the lanes created in the wire obstacles by the engineers. It was the light platoon of the I./Panzer-Regiment 6 of Oberleutnant Buchterkirch. The mission: “Conduct reconnaissance in the attack zone of the regiment and press through across the Prust to secure the railway crossing!”

Tank after tank followed, with the Panzer-Lehr-Abteilung in the lead. Following close behind, dispersed across a wide frontage, was the rest of the armored brigade. Interspersed were a few squads of riflemen, mounted in the few SPW’s6 that were available. The rifle brigade followed closely behind the armored elements in two groups. Oberst Angern, the brigade commander, led one group, while Oberst Kleemann was in charge of the second one. The riflemen crossed the border on foot. The motorcycle battalion started moving through the barbed wire at 0500 hours and was committed behind the armored regiments.

Panzer-Regiment 5 rolled forward on the righthand side of the attack zone, followed closely by the motorcycles of the 2./Kradschützen-Bataillon 3. The battalion’s 3rd Company followed it, leading a Flak battery, the 1st Company of the motorcycle battalion, and the 4th and 5th Batteries of the divisional artillery into sector. Panzer-Regiment 6 was employed on the left-hand side of the attack zone; its 1st Company was on the right, the 2nd Company on the left, and the 4th Company following. The remaining motorcycle elements, the 2nd and 3rd Companies of the divisional engineers, and a light Flak battery followed the tanks. Guderian rode at the front in an SPW among the regiment’s tanks.

Fog cascaded over the terrain. Despite that, the tanks rolled forward across the potato and stubble fields. There wasn’t a Polish soldier to be seen anywhere. Only the civilian populace could be seen in individual farmsteads along the way, some raising their arms in greeting, others glancing fearfully out from behind windows.

Oberleutnant Buchterkirch’s tanks had already advanced fifteen kilometers when a column of horse-drawn carts suddenly appeared in front of the entrance to Zahn. It was guarded by a few horse-mounted soldiers. The first Poles! The Oberleutnant immediately opened fire. The tanks that were following close behind did likewise. There was confusion among the ranks of the enemy, with a few horses bolting and tossing their riders. Trains vehicles flipped over. After a few minutes, the enemy column scattered. The tanks rolled on. Behind them were the first Polish dead.

The morning fog slowly grew denser. Hardly anything could be seen. But that also meant the enemy could not see the tanks. Oberleutnant Buchterkirch had his tanks form up in column. The tank engines howled and the march continued at maximum speed. Klein Klonia was passed and the Prut reached without encountering any trace of Polish resistance. At 0915 hours, the tanks were positioned along the railway line east of Prust. All of a sudden, a few vehicles appeared in the fog. They were the lead vehicles of the divisional reconnaissance battalion. Nothing had as yet been seen of the enemy. A single motorcycle approached along the roadway. Machine guns bellowed; the motorcycle stopped, with two men jumping off and raising their hands, flabbergasted. They were Polish officers, the first prisoners.

Farther to the rear, Panzer-Regiment 6 had also encountered enemy forces. Around 0600 hours, its tanks were outside of Zahn. Visibility was poor, even though the sun was starting to peek through. A creek was crossed, followed by a large tract of marshland, which caused the first losses. A heavy tank got bogged down and churned itself ever deeper into the marshland with its running gear. A few minutes later, the same fate befell two other vehicles. The other tanks passed them, unconcerned. The maintenance contact teams were summoned forward by radio. The artillery liaison officer, Oberleutnant Weymann, also had bad luck. When he moved onto the Zahn–Großlossburg with his armored vehicle, the rear track came off the running gear. The disabled vehicle was discovered by a Polish bicycle patrol, which approached the vehicle’s crew, which had dismounted and was working on the track. But before the Poles could become dangerous, German tanks appeared and shot the patrol to pieces.

The clocks showed 1000 hours, when the fog lifted all at once. The 7th Company of Panzer-Regiment 6 (Hauptmann Friedrichs), moving on the left, suddenly encountered strong defensive fires coming a patch of woods jutting out near Gross Klonia. The Poles had dug in and become invisible in the woods and were firing antitank guns at pointblank range at the tanks. Two vehicles were hit and immobilized immediately, while the others went into cover behind in the rolling terrain. The company attempted to bypass the patch of woods, but was forced to halt again by the enemy’s fires. The riflemen bringing up the rear also ran into Polish infantry fire, with the result that it was impossible to advance in that sector.

The regiment ordered a general halt in order to wait for the other formations to close up. The 2nd Battalion of the division, which was following the armored regiment, was ordered forward. Likewise, the 1st Company of the motorcycle battalion, under the command of Oberleutnant von Cochenhausen, which had heretofore not had any enemy contact, was ordered to attack.

Things were getting urgent. The 7th Company had already lost a number of vehicles. The first soldiers of the division killed in the war were lost during that engagement: Leutnant Nienaber, Gefreiter Fromm, Gefreiter Hopp, and four Panzerschützen (Meyer, Litmann, Godenschweig, and Kirschke). The 5th Battery of Artillerie-Regiment 75 (Hauptmann Haselbach) went into position in a potato field and took the patch of woods under fire from 800 meters. The shells exploded in the crowns of the trees, and soon there were smoke and flames above the wood line. Some of the Poles fled their positions, others approached the Germans with raised hands. After the artillery observers saw that two enemy antitank guns had been destroyed, they ordered a stop to the artillery fires.

The 2nd Battalion of Panzer-Regiment 6 made only slow progress. Every Polish pocket of resistance had to be eliminated individually. Feldwebel Wolschina of the 6th Company distinguished himself in that round of fighting by his aggressive advances. As a result, he became the first soldier of the regiment to receive the Iron Cross, Second Class.

By then, the motorcycle infantry had arrived. Oberleutnant von Cochenhausen had his company deploy and enter the thick woods. It was difficult to advance. The underbrush was thick and large trees and branches, knocked over or off by gunfire or felled, blocked the way. There were still Polish riflemen everywhere putting up a defense. While clearing the woods, the company suffered its first soldier killed in action; Leutnant Hiltmann and a junior noncommissioned officer were wounded.

At that point, the armored regiment was able to continue its march in the direction of the Brahe. All of the motorcycle battalion had closed up around Willkowo in the meantime. A motorcycle patrol under Unteroffizier Petreins from the 3rd Company was dispatched in the direction of Gross Klonia. A solo rider, Kradschütze Löwenstein, brought the news that the route was clear of the enemy. At that point, the battalion headed out in the direction of Bagnitz.

Panzer-Regiment 5 made faster progress. Moving through Prust, Hauptmann Edler von der Planitz’s tank company reached the Brahe shortly after 1100 hours. By then, Buchterkirch’s platoon had advanced along the railway line, where it was promptly taken under fire from the elevated embankment by numerically superior Polish forces. The regiment’s tanks arrived in time to assist. Leutnant Rommel’s platoon was directed by Buchterkirch in an attack on the embankment and the enemy antitank guns. The tanks overran everything that got in their way, but they were finally stopped by a field position protected by wire. They were wedged between the creek and the marshland, and they had to take up fire from exposed positions. All ammunition was expended after ten minutes. Fortunately, the regiment’s 1st Company (Hauptmann Nedtwig), which had been called forward, arrived by then. The other tanks were able to pull back under its covering fires.

Schützen-Regiment 3 had moved out in the morning with the tanks, but its main body remained behind the advancing fighting vehicles. In searing heat, the riflemen marched and rode across the broad, flat terrain. In the villages that were predisposed to the Germans, the soldiers were greeted heartily. The greetings were especially heartfelt in Lossberg. Men, women, and children stood on the streets, waving flags. Who knew how long and where they might have hidden them?

The two armored regiments, which had worked their way forward to the Brahe, halted along its western banks. The vehicles and men were somewhat the worse for wear and waited for the rest of the divisional elements to close up. By that afternoon, they were thirty kilometers deep in enemy territory, along with the elements of the reconnaissance battalion that had been attached. They had driven a wedge into the Polish Army.

But to the right and the left of that wedge, there were powerful elements of the Polish 9th Infantry Division that were threatening the flanks. An actual threat materialized from the north from the Tuchel Heath. A Polish cavalry brigade attacked the left wing of the division.

The troops charged with drawn sabers. It was a scene straight out of the opening days of World War I. Unfortunately, the Polish cavalryman did not want to believe or were not allowed to believe that the German tanks were made out of steel and not wood and cardboard. The machine-gun fire from the tanks wreaked havoc among the ranks of the enemy riders. But they did not give up. The rode back, reorganized, and attacked again.

In the meantime, friendly artillery had gone into position in the open fields between Bagnitz and Prust. Its fires completely destroyed the Polish cavalry charge. Elements of the rifle regiment were also there. The heavy machine-gun section of the regiment’s 1st Company was able to thin the enemy’s ranks with well-aimed fire. Hauptmann von Bosse’s 1st Battalion assumed a flank guard mission north of Gross Klonia.

Third Panzer Division: From the Spree to the Bug 1939 Part II

By early afternoon, the division had reached its day’s objective. The commander went to the corps headquarters to make his report. Everything seemed to be going according to plan.

The commanding general was not satisfied. Guderian ordered the crossing of the Braha that very afternoon. He wanted to remain on the enemy’s heels—just as he had always preached.

It was directed that the motorcycle battalion move first across the Brahe with all of its available companies. The 2nd Company, together with support from the engineers, succeeded in crossing the river on rubber boats and floats about three kilometers south of the railway line. The 3rd Company followed shortly thereafter. That same night, the 1st Company established a bridgehead on the east bank of the Kamionka. The bridgehead was held until the arrival of the rifle platoons.

The reconnaissance battalion forced the river in a surprise attack directly outside of Hammermühle. The bridge was taken. The tanks that followed took a Polish bicycle company that was hastily arriving to defend the bridge prisoner.

By then, it had turned midnight. Hammermühle and the farmsteads all around it were blazing like torches. To both sides and the rear, pyrotechnic flares were being shot skyward, a sure sign that the division was well ahead of the remaining forces of the corps. Oberleutnant von Manteuffel did not allow his motorcycle infantry any rest. His men were able to reach Swiekatowo. That was as far as they got; the battalion set up an all-round defense in the woods. That same night, there was a wild firefight. A large Mercedes suddenly showed up with headlights on, driving right into the encampment of the 1st Company. The German guards were just as surprised as the two Polish officers in the car. The Poles entered captivity with glowering faces. A few minutes later, they received company in the form of a mounted patrol that also rode into the bivouac site without a clue.

Major Freiherr von Wechmar’s reconnaissance battalion received orders during the night to continue advancing east, along with the attached 2nd Battery of the artillery regiment and some tanks from the Panzer-Lehr-Abteilung. The next objective for the newly formed advance guard was the Vistula.

As it started to dawn on the second day of the war, the reconnaissance and motorcycle battalions continued their advance east. They knew that the armored brigade and the rifle regiment would close up behind them. The division had created a strong second wave in the form of a Kampfgruppe under Generalmajor Stumpff. It consisted of the II./Panzer-Regiment 5, the II./Panzer-Regiment 6, the II./Artillerie-Regiment 75, and the remaining elements of Kradschützen-Bataillon 3. The elements of the rifle regiment that remained behind in Kamionka moved out and into the Tuchel Heath around 0800 hours. The gigantic expanses of woods had an eerie quality to them. No one knew what could be hiding in them.

The Poles then upset the apple cart a bit with regard to the German plans. Strong elements from the Polish 9th and 27th Infantry Divisions, as well as the Pomeranian Cavalry Brigade, conducted a surprise attack on the German bridgehead at Hammermühle early in the morning and established themselves along the road to Swiekatowo. That meant that the advanced elements of the division were threatened with being cut off. Even worse, a loss of the bridgehead would have negative effects on the continued attack of the entire corps.

That morning, only Hauptmann Beigel’s 1st Company of the engineer battalion was arrayed along the Hammermühle. The division commander, unaware of what was happening, continued toward the front in order to receive the reports from the formation commanders. All of a sudden, heavy machine-gun fire flared up from the nearby woods. The enemy fires increased in intensity by the minute. Generalleutnant von Schweppenburg; his adjutant, Major von Wietersheim; and an assistant operations officer, Oberleutnant von Levetzow, had to take cover immediately. The headquarters of the division and of the divisional artillery, which arrived a short while later, also got caught in the fire. The division’s command-and-control ability was lost for a short while on that day. The two headquarters and the accompanying radio operators from the divisional signals battalion suffered their first casualties. The officers had no choice but to bound back across the 100 meters of open meadowland to get to a steep downward slope to the rear. They were received there by the combat outposts of the rifle regiment.

That did not accomplish much, since Polish fires started to impact there as well and stymied every attempt to pull back and occupy better positions. Although the engineers attempted an immediate counterattack into the thick woods, they were unable to dislodge the well-entrenched enemy.

The division commander had the Kampfgruppe of Oberst Kleemann, which was still relatively far back, brought forward to relieve the beleaguered force. Unfortunately, that battle group had changed its direction of march just a few minutes previously and had not turned its radios back on to receive. As a result, hours passed. The division commander had no idea at that point where his individual battalions and regiments were.

Finally, German soldiers appeared from the west. They were not formations from the 3. Panzer-Division, however. Instead, it was the reconnaissance troop of Rittmeister von Götz from the divisional reconnaissance battalion of the 23. Infanterie-Division, which was in the second wave.

The Polish attack not only cut off the command-and-control elements of the division that morning, it also hit the elements of the division that had already ranged well to the east. During the night, the 2nd Battalion of Panzer-Regiment 6 had assumed the mission of screening the bottleneck between the lakes at Swiekatowo. The enemy thrust early that morning slammed right into that area with full force. The 5th and 6th Companies were able to turn back the first attack effort until 0900 hours. Two platoons from the 6th Company particularly distinguished themselves in the engagement. They were the platoons of Leutnant Graf von Kageneck and Leutnant von Diest-Koerber. Also worthy of note were the achievements of Unteroffizier Wehrmeister and Gefreiter Deuter, who were in the thick of things with their fighting vehicles. Nonetheless, that company suffered its first five dead in that fighting: Feldwebel Fiedler, Unteroffizier Fleher, Gefreiter Schreiber, Oberschütze Feldhahn, and Panzerschütze Bischoff.

By noon, the enemy had pulled back to his original line of departure. Due to a lack of fuel, the friendly vehicles were not able to attack him. When the commander of Panzer-Regiment 6 brought up reinforcements in the afternoon, the 2nd Battalion attacked to the north and was able to drive the enemy back. At the same time, the 5th and 8th Companies screened the flank to the east. The 6th Company attacked identified enemy antitank-gun positions and put the guns out of commission. The 5th Company was also able to eliminate some antitank guns—three in all. In the process, it rescued a platoon from the 4th Company, which had advanced the farthest north but had also shot off all of its ammunition. By late afternoon, all threats had been eliminated and the battalion moved out to continue east after rearming.

The 1st Company of the motorcycle battalion was immediately ordered back to Hammermühle, as was the 1st Company of the rifle regiment. The 2nd Battery of the divisional artillery turned its guns around 180 degrees and fired with everything it was capable of.

Hauptmann Boehm’s riflemen moved as quickly as they could to Hammermühle. Along the way were ammunition vehicles and baggage trains that had been overrun by the tanks, as well as the corpses of horses and of Poles killed in action. General Guderian appeared and encouraged the soldiers, waving them on. After moving four kilometers through woods, a halt was ordered. Polish artillery held up any further movement and was raking the road with heavy fire. The company’s vehicles were brought forward, and the march continued through Johannisberg and Stansilawa to Koritowo.

All of a sudden, General von Schweppenburg was standing in front of the men. He personally directed the 3rd Platoon of Feldwebel Hillinger against the enemy battery.

Panzer-Regiment 5 then moved out to attack Gross Lonk. On the far side of Koritow, the fighting vehicles ran into the artillery positions of the enemy. Disregarding the intense fires and brave resistance, the tanks plunged into the Polish lines and individually took out the guns. That did not occur without perceptible losses, however.

The 1st Company of Kradschützen-Bataillon 3 assumed the mission of protecting the division command post with one of its platoons. The remaining two platoons advanced into the woods north of Hammermühle. Two Polish infantry companies were wiped out in tough fighting. The two platoons lost two dead and four wounded in that engagement and only had thirty men altogether by the end of the evening. The batteries that were brought forward fired over open sights. The 3rd Battery lost Hauptwachtmeister Hippe in the process, the first Spieß of the division to be killed, an indicator of the toughness of the fighting and also the bravery of the enemy. By evening, the division had mastered the dangerous situation with its own forces. It was then able to rapidly move its elements to the east across the Brahe.

In the meantime, the motorcycle battalion had taken Klonowo with its remaining two companies and a few tanks from the Panzer-Lehr-Abteilung. Unconcerned about the sounds of fighting to their rear, the motorcycle infantry and reconnaissance troopers continued their advance east. The sun blazed mercilessly that day, with rain following in the afternoon. The tanks and riflemen moved, marched, and advanced. The roads were poor and frequently only had a single lane. All of the traffic had to work its way around that. The roads became clogged and there were unpleasant stops. The reconnaissance battalion was far ahead of the division and moved right through the middle of enemy detachments, which were equally shocked and surprised and incapable of offering a defense. Major von Wechmar intended to reach the Vistula before the onset of darkness. But intertwined enemy columns or vehicles and trees that had fallen victim to Stukas blocked the way. The enemy was not falling back uniformly. Resistance around Rozana was especially hard.

The reconnaissance battalion was unable to advance any farther. The armored car crews, supported by the 1st Battery of the artillery regiment (Leutnant Hoffmann), had a hard fight on their hands at the Poledno Estate, which was being defended by Polish cavalry. The advance guard suffered its first officer casualties. The commander of the 2./Aufklärungs-Abteilung 3, Rittmeister von Prittwitz und Gaffron, the former adjutant to Generaloberst von Fritsch, was wounded in the stomach. The brave officer refused to be operated on at the main clearing station, insisting that the surgeons operate on the more severely wounded first. Leutnant Adam died on the battlefield at the head of his reconnaissance platoon. Once stopped, the battalion “circled the wagons” with its vehicles, the village of Rozana, set alight by air attacks and artillery, forming a backdrop.

The motorcycle battalion pivoted from its movement east to head south in order to help the reconnaissance battalion. But the motorcycle infantry were not able to get beyond the line reached by the armored cars. In contrast, the divisional engineers had more success in the effort to take Rozana. They had been directed there by the division commander. Major von Mertens led his engineers in the assault on the shot-up and burning town and took possession of it that night.

The 2nd Battalion of Panzer-Regiment 6 also moved out in the evening (around 2000 hours). Hauptmann Bernewitz’s 8th Company advanced as far as Polskie-Lakie. At that point, the tanks encountered a surprisingly strong antitank defense. Three friendly tanks were knocked out. The battalion then pulled back 1,000 meters, set the village alight, and then set up an all-round defense for the night.

The division could be satisfied with its achievements that day. Its formations had not only stymied the efforts of the Poles to break through, but they had also broken into the front of the Corridor Army. The corps brought the 23. Infanterie-Division across the Brahe and employed it to the left of the division.

The 1st Battalion of the rifle regiment assumed the flank guard mission for the division during the night. The plucky riflemen succeeded in orienting themselves in the dark woods and fields and taking up good positions. They throttled all attempts by the Poles to find a gap in the German lines. The division discovered with certainty that its tanks had advanced so far into the corridor that elements of the Polish forces had been bypassed.

The night was very cool. That was especially noticeable after a humid summer’s day, as the past one had been. Something else had a negative impact on the soldiers as well: hunger and thirst. The supply elements were still far to the rear as a result of the rapid advance and the poor road network. They had barely gotten beyond Hammermühle. Some of the men found the courage to sneak across the fields in an effort to milk some cows that had gone astray. Among artillery circles within the division, that night was always referred to as “the hour of the Ortsbauernführer.”

The advance started all over again at 0400 hours across the entire frontage of the division. The march route ran parallel to the Vistula along the Poledno–Drozdowo road. The reconnaissance and motorcycle battalions were the first to move out, followed by the armored brigade (at least those elements that had been refueled). The 2nd Company of the motorcycle battalion, which was in the lead, received heavy fire from Drozdowo shortly after moving out and bogged down. The battalion commander quickly brought his 3rd Company forward and employed it north of the road, along with the 1st Company, which was still exhausted from the previous day. The 1st Company approached the railway embankment behind Belno. Oberleutnant von Cochenhausen intended to let his men rest after that. It remained an intent. A transport train steamed in. The motorcycle infantry forced it to halt; 4 officers and 128 enlisted personnel were taken prisoner.

All of the remaining elements of the division also advanced against numerically superior Polish forces. The enemy field army command had recognized the situation it was in—the rapidly growing threat of encirclement—and was doing everything in its power to pull its division across the Vistula on the road leading to Kulm.

The armored brigade attacked at first light from Swiekatowo in the direction of Heinrichsdorf and Biechowoko toward the northwest in an effort to interdict the retreat routes. Both of the division’s armored regiments and the attached Panzer-Lehr-Abteilung moved at “full speed ahead.” But it was soon discovered that the Poles had placed very strong antitank defenses at the entrance to every village. As a result, there was hard fighting that was not without casualties.

Panzer-Regiment 6, moving on the right, crossed the Terespol–Tuchel road, with Hauptmann Schneider-Kostalski’s 2nd Company eliminating three Polish machine-gun tanks in the process. Defiles then held up further advance. The regiment pivoted to the left and ran into elements of the advancing Panzer-Regiment 5. Enemy infantry continued defending everywhere after being bypassed by the tanks and made life difficult for the riflemen following.

The tanks reached the Terespol–Oslowo area and then pressed on to the east, but the following formations ran into strong enemy forces. Only the 4th Battery of the artillery regiment was able to successfully stay on the heels of the enemy. The remaining battery received considerable fire from the village of Heinrichsdorf. Hauptmann Haselbach assumed command of the forces in the area and had the 5th and 6th Batteries unlimber in a depression. Patrols were sent out in all directions. Sections under Wachtmeister Rademacher and Unteroffizier Himmel searched the nearby farmsteads, while Leutnant Grotewald occupied the industrial area of Heinrichsdorf with the ammunition section of the 4th Battery, which had been left behind.

The Poles tried to open the road to Terespol with all the means at their disposal. But it was already too late at noon on that hot summer day to accomplish that, even though elements of the Polish 9th Infantry Division—especially elements of the 16th Cavalry Regiment, as well as the 25th and 35th Infantry Regiments—fought bravely. By then, the rifle regiment was able to join the developing fray by moving via Poledno and Drozdowo.

At 1240 hours, the artillery took the Poles attempting to break out under heavy fire. The effect along the road was horrific. Horses bolted, soldiers ran head over heels into the fields, and limbers and trains vehicles flipped over. They were followed by fires from Hauptmann Haselbach’s 5th Battery and Leutnant Jaschke’s 6th Battery (Jaschke was acting battery commander). Hauptwachtmeister Reinig of the 6th Battery identified a Polish battery going into position along the northern edge of Heinrichsdorf. He brought up the spotting gun of the battery. The gunner, Wenzel, had the target in range with his second shell. A few minutes later, the enemy battery was silenced. For his efforts, Hauptwachtmeister Reinig later became the first soldier of the artillery regiment to receive the Iron Cross, Second Class.

The rifle regiment attacked at just the right time to interdict the hard-fighting enemy. Heavy fighting ensued; it was conducted by the Poles with the courage of desperation. The 1st and 3rd Rifle Companies assaulted along the road in the direction of Polskie. Hauptmann von Lany, the commander of the 3rd Company, and Leutnant von Heydebreck, his platoon leader, were killed. The 1st Company lost its first man with Schütze Krämer.

By then, the Poles had had enough. There was no way to get out. In addition to twenty artillery pieces and six antitank guns being destroyed, there were vehicles, ammunition wagons, machine guns, horses, and articles of equipment scattered everywhere. The rifle regiment took 36 officers and 800 men prisoner that afternoon; fifteen artillery pieces were among the spoils of war.

The division did not allow itself to be distracted from its objective by the fighting to encircle the enemy forces. The reconnaissance battalion received orders to take Schwetz, while the motorcycle battalion was sent in the direction of Liepo–Biala–Taszarko. Fortunately, the advance of Infanterie-Regiment 96 of the 32. Infanterie-Division on the right side of the division was starting to make its presence felt. Despite that, Polish cavalry sections continued to surface across the front and created temporary disruptions here and there. There no longer appeared to be unified command among the Poles; operations seemed to be left up to the individual unit and formation commanders.

Around 1000 hours, the II./Panzer-Regiment 6 crossed the Czerna-Woda at F.W. Dedienke. The lead tanks identified the rapid movement of trains, one after the other, four kilometers away. Oberstleutnant Rothenburg, who was up front with his tanks, ordered Hauptmann Schneider-Kostalski to block the reported rail traffic along the stretch between Derispol–Oslowo. The tanks moved along the sandy road as far as the rail line without encountering any resistance. The railway crossing guard shack was locked up and the gate crossing lowered. Schneider-Kostalski was undeterred. He ordered: “Panzer marsch!” The gate flew in the air with a crash. A cloud of smoke could be seen to the south. Schneider-Kostalski had his company take up firing positions on the far side of the line. The train’s engineer must have noticed the movement, however, since the train slowed and finally stopped. The company commander opened fire at 250 meters. With the first round, the locomotive’s boiler exploded with a monstrous cloud of smoke. The doors to the passenger cars opened everywhere. Polish soldiers jumped out and attempted to flee into the nearby woods. The tanks of the 4th and 7th Companies showed up at that moment and joined in the engagement. Sixty Polish soldiers were sent back as prisoners. They were the last men of a battalion that had boarded the train.

The three tank companies immediately took up the advance on Lakowicz. At Krapjewitce, they were able to scatter horse-drawn trains elements. Once past Polskie-Lakie, they encountered Polish cavalry and antitank elements. The 2nd Company encountered its first enemy tank on the Rozana–Bledno road at 1100 hours; it was knocked out at 300 meters with two rounds.

The armored brigade reached the training area at Schwetz in the afternoon and continued its advance north. Toward 1800 hours, the tanks took Oslowo. The forces reorganized for the attack on the Grupa Training Area. The rear areas also had to be secured, since there were still strong Polish forces in the area around Terespol. Those forces did not remain quiet; they continued to fight to break free. Leutnant Lange, the adjutant of the artillery’s 2nd Battalion, was captured by the enemy during a patrol. He was stabbed, but he lived to tell the tale.

Major von Wechmar’s reconnaissance battalion pressed past Schwetz at the onset of darkness without regard for the scattered enemy groups. He immediately pressed along the Vistula to the north with all of his troops. To help keep the movement fluid, the division sent the engineer companies of Major von Mertens, which had just become available, and Hauptmann Reinke’s 3rd Battery, after the reconnaissance battalion. The engineers and the artillery made it into Schwetz, but the Poles then started a stubborn defense there. There was a danger that the engineer battalion might be encircled. The engineers had to defend from all directions and lost contact with the remaining elements of the division. Despite that, it was able to prevail. In the end, the battalion occupied and held Schwetz. The 3rd Battery captured a war chest in the city hall.

The Polish command knew what was at stake. Energetic officers rallied their men again and again to bravely defend. As a result, the German rifle companies did not advance any farther that night. As a result, Generalleutnant von Schweppenburg ordered the 1st Battalion of the rifle regiment pulled back to Poledno. The division operations officer, Major von der Borne, expressed a contrary opinion. He believed the riflemen should remain where they were. But the division commander wanted to lead his forces in a traditional cavalry style: pull the forces back tonight so that they could be used to conduct a “fencer’s leap” the following morning. As a result, he ordered the battalion back and directed it to hold Poledno “to the last bullet,” as the pivot point of the entire division.

Only Panzer-Regiment 5 was able to score a success that evening. It did not remain in Oslowo; instead, it pushed its companies along sandy routes through the dark woods as far as Dubielno, which was reached around 0200 hours.

That meant that the encirclement of the enemy forces fighting in the corridor was just around the corner. The division could see the blazing fires and hear the sounds of fighting in the nearby fortress of Graudenz, which had fallen to the East Prussian 21. Infanterie-Division that day. The XIX. Armee-Korps (mot.) was only a few kilometers from the borders of East Prussia.

The Polish Pomeranian Army had been split in two in three days of fighting. The field army headquarters was located in Thorn at that point and was attempting to establish contact with the Modlin or Posen Armies with its remaining regiments.

General Guderian went to the division headquarters during the night and ordered the advance to continue, irrespective of the condition of the beleaguered men and vehicles. The Poles could not be given any time to cross the Vistula west of Graudenz. Correspondingly, orders were sent to all elements of the division to move out at first light again.

Third Panzer Division: From the Spree to the Bug 1939 Part III

The reconnaissance battalion started its movement along the Vistula in the direction of Graudenz at 0400 hours. The armored cars and motorcycles moved without regard for the scattered enemy elements, which were still offering a defense from out of individual farmsteads and barns. The men of the division had only one objective: to establish contact with their East Prussian comrades as soon as possible. Whoever fell back had to fend for himself. The disabled vehicles had to be repaired with only the means available. Fortunately, the Poles were no longer in a position to offer energetic resistance. Most of them automatically raised their hands in the air as the vehicles raced past them. Only a burst of machine-gun fire was necessary to fish them out of their hiding places—trenches, haystacks, houses, and gardens—where they had spent the cold night in order to try to find a place that morning to get over the river somewhere and head south.

The movements of the reconnaissance battalion took place on the right wing of the division; the main effort of the day’s efforts was to be in the center, however. The armored brigade, reinforced by the motorcycle battalion and the 2nd and 4th Batteries of the divisional artillery while it staged during the night, received orders to cross the Matave quickly and attack the Grupa Training Area from the west along a broad front. The enemy was to be driven east to the Vistula, where Oberst Angern, with elements of the rifle brigade and the reconnaissance battalion, had been directed to interdict him. Oberst Rothenberg was entrusted with the screening of the division north of Schwetz. In addition to Panzer-Regiment 6, he had the I./Schützen-Regiment 3, the 1./Pionier-Bataillon 39, the I./Artillerie-Regiment 75, and the 6./MG-Bataillon 59 at his disposal. Of those forces, the 2nd Battalion of the armored regiment (Major Burmeister) would face a few dangerous situations over the course of the next few hours.

The elements of the division that were still hanging back were collected into a Kampfgruppe under the command of Oberst Kleemann. It was directed for Kleemann’s elements to move as expeditiously as possible to follow the armored brigade, ferreting out the Polish forces still hiding in the woods and fields in the process. Since the movement of the entire force was delayed, Hauptmann Beez decided to race forward with a hastily assembled advance party. That small element, to which Leutnant Behrend, Leutnant Franzke, and Inspektor Tries were also a party, collected almost 300 prisoners in a short period. Leutnant Behrend ensured the prisoners were properly transported to the rear, while the rest continued moving toward the increasingly loud sounds of fighting coming from Grupa.

The armored brigade moved out around 0400 hours and portions crossed the creek in their first attempt. The Poles did not open fire until the following elements arrived. The brigade suffered considerable casualties, particularly in the streets of Grupa proper, where the enemy had barricaded himself in houses and set up strong antitank-gun positions. Oberstleutnant Wimmer assumed command of the motorcycle, antitank, and artillery elements left behind. Despite the more unified command of those forces, the Poles still thwarted every attempt to cross the creek by means of well-placed artillery fire. It was not until four light tanks of the armored brigade turned around and rolled up the Polish positions from the rear that it was possible to cross the water obstacle.

Hauptmann Hinniger’s 2nd Battery was the first unit that could be guided through. It was high time, since the tanks and riflemen that were attacking Grupa had run into a bind. The Polish forces—later, it was discovered that there were nearly 20,000 men there—were attacking with the courage of desperation in order to break out of the encirclement.

Oberst Angern led the forces of the division that were arrayed around Grupa. The tank attack on the training area was not making any progress due to heavy and well-aimed antitank-gun fire. The friendly companies needed to be pulled back. The 1st Company of the motorcycle battalion also bogged down in the Polish fires. The company commander, Oberleutnant von Cochenhausen, was badly wounded.

The 3rd Company of the motorcycle battalion (Oberleutnant Adler) pulled back from the crossroads east of Grupa and worked its way back in the woods to the south as far as Hill 87. The company was subjected to an intense infantry attack. The numerically superior enemy approached the company, which was fixed in place, by leaps and bounds. If the position were broken through there, then the enemy would create a gap from which to escape.

Oberst Angern gave responsibility for the southern portion of the sector to Oberstleutnant Wimmer, who arrived in Grupa-Dola at 0745 hours. At the time, the 3rd Company of the rifle regiment, the 3rd Company of the motorcycle battalion and elements of two tank and one machine-gun company were positioned there. Wimmer brought the heaviest firepower with him—his 2nd Battery. To the right of the road leading from Grupa to the training area, the battle group had contact with the 2nd Battalion of the rifle regiment (Oberstleutnant Dr. Ehlermann). That battalion’s 7th Company was widely dispersed in the vicinity of the observation posts of the 2nd Battery and was exchanging fire with Polish snipers.

The 2nd Battery then opened well-aimed fire on identified Polish positions. That enabled Oberleutnant Adler and his men to disengage from the enemy. His company left behind three dead (Unteroffizier Bruns, Unteroffizier Fiss, and Unteroffizier Petreins), as well as four men missing (two Gefreite and two Schützen). Wimmer employed the freed-up motorcycle infantry on the right, where the Poles also attacked.

The battery fired off all but twenty of its rounds. In the broken terrain, the machine gunners had no fields of fire and had to allow the enemy to approach to pointblank range. Fortunately, elements of the two tank companies arrived at that point. But they also had little ammunition left. The enemy recognized his advantage and pressed ever more energetically by the minute against the German positions. Both of the brigade commanders, Generalmajor Stumpff and Oberst Angern, had to employ their messengers in the defense of Grupa. The time moved inexorably forward . . . if a miracle did not happen soon.

And miracles do happen.

The 4th Battery of the artillery regiment arrived from the Matave just in time and unlimbered at the edge of the woods. Its fires forced the enemy to call off his attacks for the time being. Fortunately, the ammunition section of Inspektor Tries also arrived. The guns once more had ammunition and started to fire with everything they had. Hauptmann Lorenz, the commander of the 1st Battalion, then arrived with the 1st Battery.

At that point, the Poles gave up on their intent of breaking out in the direction of Graudenz. The Poles only conducted limited attacks, but they were all turned back, since large portions of the rifle regiment had also arrived and started to get committed to the fighting. On that afternoon of 4 September, the division had also passed its baptism of fire in the defense. Generalmajor Stumpff was able to report that to the commanding general, who arrived late in the afternoon. Because Stumpff became ill, however, he had to give up command of the armored brigade temporarily. Oberst Rothenburg assumed acting command, with Major von Lewinski taking over Panzer-Regiment 6. The commander of the latter regiment’s 1st Battalion, Major von Boltenstern, also took ill and had to be relieved by Major Schmidt-Ott.

The motorized elements were gradually withdrawn from the encirclement over the next few hours and replaced by infantry, since the other divisions of the corps had closed up to the division by then and established contact. They assumed responsibility for finishing the encirclement of the Polish Corridor Army.

The ethnic German villages between Graudenz and Schwetz served as the quartering area for the division. The cannoneers and riflemen were especially warmly welcomed in Wiag. The rear-area services, supply elements, and maintenance companies were brought forward through Swiekatowo to Stanislawie. The tanks, trucks, and motorcycles were in desperate need of maintenance, but it could only be conducted hastily, since the fighting in the corridor was not yet over.

The majority of the division did not see action on 5 September. The neighboring infantry divisions did not allow the Poles to break through and forced them to give up the fight that day. The first battle of encirclement of World War II was over.

Despite the “peaceful” hours of that day, the division was not idle. The artillery occupied positions to assist in fending off any potential enemy attacks. The maintenance companies were brought up closer to the motorized elements and quartered in the former Polish military facilities in Schwetz. The engineer battalion, which was never employed as a complete entity up to that point—it had been parceled out to all of the battle groups of the division—built a bridge over the Vistula at Weisshof. The motorcycle battalion combed the bottomlands of the river for scattered Polish elements. Its 3rd Company screened along the embankment, while a reinforced platoon under Leutnant Schmidt became the first element of the division to cross the Vistula to Graudenz.

On 6 September, the first German formations were moved to the eastern portions of East Prussia. They were to conduct a new assault from there. The XXI. Armee-Korps took Graudenz. In the next two days, the XIX. Armee-Korps (mot.) was to follow, crossing the bridges at Käsemark (north of Dirschau), at Mewe, and at Topolno.

The corps situation on the evening of 6 September was as follows. The 20. Infanterie-Division (mot.) was already marching across the bridge at Käsemark in the direction of Elbing and had already reached Bartenstein with its lead elements. The 2. Infanterie-Division (mot.) was preparing to cross at Mewe, while the 3. Panzer-Division remained west of Graudenz behind the latter motorized infantry division.

The division moved out on 7 September with its lead elements. The columns once again experienced the “beauty” of the Polish road system under their wheels. It seemed to the soldiers that ever since that area had come under Polish control, not a single spade had been turned to maintain the roads. The deep sand and the broad craters made the march difficult. Many vehicles became disabled, because the gas lines or the suspension springs broke. The men of the maintenance companies were not idle.

The movement led north. In the shadow of the Ordensburg at Mewe, all of the divisional elements crossed on a pontoon bridge constructed by the engineers over the broad, calm waters of the Vistula. At Kurzebrack, to the west of Marienwerder, most of them saw for the first time in their lives the four-meter-wide access to the Vistula provided to the Germans. At that point, the men of the division were in East Prussia, a beautiful province with large tracts of woods, broad hills, vast fields, and quiet lakes.

The movement took place under magnificent sunshine through the resplendent cities of Marienwerder, Rosenberg, Auerswald, Deutsch-Eylau, Osterode, the Tannenberg Memorial, Allenstein, Guttstadt, Lötzen, and Arys. The long route of 380 kilometers was covered in three days. But no one felt the hardships. The weather put on a sunny face. The reception in the individual localities was indescribable. All people, especially the youth, could not contain themselves in decorating the vehicles with flowers and cheering the soldiers.

Guderian requested that his corps be directly allocated to the field army group. He intended to range far to the east on the left wing of the 3. Armee, reach the Bug at Brest, and encircle the Polish field armies in Eastern Poland. Generaloberst von Bock picked up on the idea; in the end, the Army High Command approved the operation.

When the Polish front in front of the 3. Armee started to waver, the XIX. Armee-Korps (mot.) was employed on the left wing to conduct a bounding pursuit. Guderian gave his divisions the following intermediate objectives:

20. Infanterie-Division (mot.)—through Zambrow to the Bug crossing at Nur

10. Panzer-Division—to Bielsk via Bransk

3. Panzer-Division—to the area north of Bielsk

2. Infanterie-Division (mot.)—to be brought forward into the area around Zambrow–Bielsk

The long-range objective for all of the formations remained the fortress of Brest-Litowsk.

Sunday, 10 September, was a day of rest for the division at the large training area at Arys. The sun smiled warmly on the soldiers. As it started to disappear behind the hills and woods, marching orders arrived. The individual formations left the training area one after the other until about midnight and headed to the southeast to the border. That same night, Polish territory was entered for the second time by the forward elements of the division. The main body of the division crossed the border at Szczuczyn. Panzer-Regiment 6 followed the next day. It had moved out with the following vehicles: 55 Panzer I’s, 55 Panzer II’s, 3 Panzer III’s, 6 Panzer IV’s, 132 trucks, 60 staff cars, and 114 motorcycles.

That meant that the time for cursing had started all over again for the drivers of the tanks, staff cars, trucks, prime movers, and especially the motorcycle riders. “Roads” was not the right word, and the entities that were so marked on the maps would not even have qualified as routes of the worst order back in the homeland. But there was to be no rest. There was only one objective and one mission: Forward!

Wasosz and Przytuly were a few of the places on the route before the columns reached the broad bottomlands of the Narew. The terrain came across as monotonous and bleak; there was something of the unearthly quality of the steppes of the Far East about it. The whitewashed wooden houses of the villages came across as simple structures and the people there as poor and raggedy. For the first time, the soldiers saw faces that expressed neither joy nor sorrow, just a resignation to fate.

The engineers had already constructed a pontoon bridge over the Narew at Wizna, since the large bridge there had been blown up, and its remnants were lying in the water. The crossing went very slowly, since the heavy prime movers had to be guided individually. The planks were only as wide as the heavy vehicles, and it cost a lot of sweat on the part of those drivers to make it across in one piece.

The lead elements—the reconnaissance battalion and the motorcycle battalion—crossed the river in the course of the day, while the artillery crossed during the night. The supply elements were still far to the rear. Moving from Schwetz, they did not follow up until 13 September, when the fighting elements were already deep in Poland. They quickly closed up with the fighting elements, however.

The division did not remain in the Wizna area; it ordered the immediate continuation of the march in the direction of Jedzewo, the large transportation hub south of the river. There was nothing to be seen of the enemy yet. Only the destroyed bunkers, the wire entanglements, the foxholes, and the artillery and bomb craters gave witness to the fact that the 10. Panzer-Division, moving ahead of the 3. Panzer-Division, had to take this area in a fight.

Once again, the reconnaissance battalion and the motorcycle battalion, reinforced by engineers and artillery, had taken the point. The objective for both battalions was Sokoly. But soon after it had moved out, the motorcycle battalion was pivoted sharply to the west.

“Polish forces are attacking the corps headquarters in the vicinity of Wysokie-Masowieki!”

The motorcycle infantry did their utmost to come to the aid of Guderian. When they reached Zambrow late in the afternoon, their efforts had been overcome by events. The commanding general was unharmed and was happy to see the enthusiasm of his soldiers.

Despite that, the battalion did not get any rest, even though the night brought rain with it. The battalion was employed by Guderian against Wysokie, where it was to throw down the gauntlet and cut off the enemy fleeing from the direction of Lomscha. When Oberstleutnant von Manteuffel and his men entered the completely destroyed village of Wysokie, they were too late. The battalion then returned to the command and control of the division.

The 20. Infanterie-Division (mot.) had thrown back the enemy south of Zambrow and pushed him right into the arms of the 21. Infanterie-Division and the 206. Infanterie-Division, which were advancing from the west on Andrzejewo. The Polish 18th Infantry Division met its end there.

The general situation for the XIX. Armee-Korps (mot.) on the evening of 11 September was as follows: the 20. Infanterie-Division (mot.) was south of Zambrow and fighting; the 10. Panzer-Division was advancing from Bransk in the direction of Bielsk; the 3. Panzer-Division was still right to the north of it; and the 2. Infanterie-Division (mot.) was rolling in the direction of Bielsk from the north.

In order to protect its open flank, the division formed a Kampfgruppe composed of engineers and the platoon of Wachtmeister Rademacher of the 5th Battery of the artillery regiment and employed it at Jedzewo. The terrain was completely open and flat. The remaining elements assaulted in generally southerly direction. The reconnaissance battalion, supported by the 6th Battery, advanced as far as the area southeast of Sokoly. The advancing armored cars were suddenly attacked from some woods by Polish cavalry and had to halt. The battery went into position in some vegetated terrain in the nick of time and shot the attacking Poles to pieces at 2,500 meters. When snipers appears during the continued advances in some woods, fire was opened for the second time under the direction of Oberleutnant Kersten and Leutnant Krause, allowing the battalion to continue its march. During its move through Sokoly, the rifle regiment was fired upon by civilians in ambush positions. The riflemen immediately searched the poverty-stricken houses.

Bielsk was reached on 12 September and taken in the face of weak resistance on the part of the Polish 35th Infantry Division. The tanks moved to the Brest–Bialystock rail line and blocked all traffic. Elements of other formations took up the mission of guarding the east flank of the division, which was growing ever longer. The primeval forests of Bialowieza spread out on the far side of the rail line. The czar located his hunting lodge there once, and the last bison of Europe lived in its thickets.

The motorcycle battalion sent two patrols into that area. Unteroffizier Voutta moved into the thick woods with his men, and Gefreiter Steffen was sent to Hainowka. Steffen’s group was lured into an ambush, but it was able to fight its way out and establish contact with the 1st Company of the rifle regiment, which was screening the road east of Bielsk. Hauptmann von Bosse, the commander of the rifle regiment’s 1st Battalion, immediately initiated a reprisal operation against Hainowka. The 4th Battery of the artillery regiment went into position against Hainowka with one of its platoons, under the direction of the battery commander, Hauptmann Nebel. It returned to Halody toward noon.

The advance over the next few days headed toward Brest-Litowsk. The motorcycle battalion was once again in the lead, with its 3rd Company the tip of the spear. The motorcycle infantry rattled carefree into the village of Zabinka, only to find themselves confronted by an armored train at the rail station. Before Leutnant Schmidt could issue orders, the armored trains started spewing fire. At the same moment, things turned lively in the town. Machine guns and carbines started hammering away from the houses. The motorcycle infantry had no other choice but to turn and pull back as quickly as possible. The accompanying artillery forward observer, Leutnant Jaschke, and his men were also fired upon. Vehicles exploded, wounded moaned, and the radio equipment ripped apart. It was a devilish situation. The situation went from bad to worse when four Polish tanks appeared out of nowhere and enemy antitank guns also started firing.

The 6th Battery then raced in and took the town under fire. Leutnant Jaschke, Unteroffizier Killat, and Gefreiter Mieritz directed the fires of the battery by means of a radio set that had been brought quickly forward. The armored trains steamed away. When the first shells destroyed the enemy’s pockets of resistance, he gave up. The motorcycle infantry were able to take Zabinka by 1400 hours. Once again, the town appeared to be dead. Only the four disabled tanks and the burning houses indicated the severity of the fighting. The 7th Company of Panzer-Regiment 6 arrived in time to fend off an immediate counterattack by Polish cavalry. The entire 2nd Battalion then cleared the battle area.

The motorcycle battalion assumed the mission of securing the town and formed a bridgehead over the Muchawiec. The forward observers from the artillery, Leutnant Meyer and Oberwachtmeister Berlin, appeared there. They directed the fires of the friendly batteries against a Polish battery at Zamoszany, which was protecting the rail line.

The division did not allow itself to be distracted from its objective, the fortress of Brest. By the afternoon of 14 September, Panzer-Regiment 5, the reconnaissance battalion, and the 3rd Battery of the artillery regiment were east of the city, in an effort to cut it off from that side. (Fate would have it that the division would once again move out from the same spot on 22 June 1941.)

Guderian’s intent was to attack Brest with his division on 15 September. He led his four major formations up to the fortress in a night march, leaving only the 2. Infanterie-Division (mot.) to protect the broad flank of the corps in the direction of the Bialowies Forest. The lead elements of both the 10. Panzer-Division and the 20. Infanterie-Division (mot.) made it to the fortress on 14 September.

The division moved out to attack from the east. To that end, it formed a Kampfgruppe consisting of elements of Panzer-Regiment 6, the motorcycle battalion, the engineer battalion, the 6th Battery of the artillery (Oberleutnant Kersten), and a platoon from the 4th Battery (Leutnant Stiller).

The battle group moved out around 0345 hours in its attack on Brest. Its mission was to take Fort III. The city was reached without a shot being fired. The Poles did not defend Fort III, either. The 2nd Company of the motorcycle battalion (Hauptmann Pape) rested in the fort. The forces continued unscathed as far as the central train station and occupied the high rail overpass.

From the overpass, the enemy was nowhere to be seen in the immediate area; however, the guns at the citadel were firing with everything they had and there was a lively exchange of fire at the rail yards. The motorcycle infantry screened the southern part of the city, where they were also under constant fire from the citadel.

Contact was established with the 20. Infanterie-Division (mot.), which was attacking from the north. The III./Infanterie-Regiment 86 of that division maintained the contact. The batteries of the 3. Panzer-Division were attached to Oberst Weidling—former commander of Artillerie-Regiment 75 and current commander of the divisional artillery of the motorized infantry division—in an effort to provide unity of command for fire support.

The first attack of the 20. Infanterie-Division (mot.) around 1430 hours against the citadel did not succeed. A bit later, the III./Infanterie-Regiment 86 and Pionier-Bataillon 39 attempted an attack with a limited objective against the eastern edge of the fortress. The Polish defensive fires also forced the German attackers to ground there as well. Small groups from Schützen-Regiment 3—for example, the 2nd Platoon of the 1st Company—attempted to conduct reconnaissance-in-force efforts against the southern part of the fortress, but they were also turned back. The 2nd Battalion of Panzer-Regiment 6 attacked the citadel, which was being placed under heavy German artillery fire, from the east. The 2nd Company (Hauptmann Schneider-Kostalski) and the 4th Company (Hauptmann Weiß) approached the fortress from the southeast. Around 2200 hours, the armored regiment received orders to call off the attack. Both battalions disengaged from the enemy during the night.

The motorcycle battalion remained in the city that night to screen its southern sector. The 1st Platoon of the 3rd Company (Leutnant von Brauchitsch) screened the prison, where civilian and military prisoners taken the previous day were being housed. The battalion was pulled out of Brest on the morning of 16 September and quickly returned to direct divisional control. The division proper was moving in the direction of Wlodawa. As a result, only two batteries of the divisional artillery remained behind. They continued to support the attack of the motorized infantry division on the citadel. Their fires were directed by Leutnant Meyer, assisted by his radio operators, Unteroffizier Göhler and Kanonier Elsholz. The fires were so effective that all three men later received the Iron Cross, Second Class.

Third Panzer Division: From the Spree to the Bug 1939 Part IV

The 3. Panzer-Division no longer took part in the fighting for the fortress. Instead, it went around the city with the majority of its forces to then thrust south. Its new objective was Wlodawa. This time, the reconnaissance battalion, Panzer-Regiment 5, and the 3rd Battery were in the advance guard. The terrain appeared monotonous and gray to the men of the advance guard. The rain of the last few days had softened up the roads and the pastures. There was hardly a tree to be seen; only sandy soil and more sandy soil, with small, dirty localities here and there. There were few people to be seen, and those that were encountered were shy and uncommunicative. They were quite different from the White Russians, who had been encountered at Bialystok and Hainowka.

The division moved in Kampfgruppen on Tomaszowka. The armored cars encountered an energetic defense when they arrived there towards noon on 16 September. The tanks were called up by radio. The commander of the I./Panzer-Regiment 5, Major Wendenburg, ordered the 2nd Company forward. The nineteen tanks caught up with the lead elements at the Przaborowo rail station. The commander of the lead element reported that it was impossible to advance any farther, because the terrain, with many woods and lakes, was full of Poles. Prisoner statements indicated that the organizational staff directing the retrograde movements of the entire Polish Army was located there.

Hauptmann Schmidt, the tank company commander, assumed command of the available motorcycle infantry and turned to the east on the path leading from behind the rail station. Leutnant Nitschke took over the lead with his tanks. To his right was Lake Sielachy. Then Percszpa came into view. The small village was ablaze. The riflemen discovered enemy soldiers and smoked them out. The Leutnant left a few men with their motorcycles back at the entrance to the village and gave them orders to reconnoiter the southwest in the direction of the railway embankment. The tanks raced through the village and reached the woods to its south. By then, it was already fairly dark, so the Leutnant and his men had to wait until the rest of the company closed up.

Just outside of the crossroads at Tomaszowka, movement was identified. Nitschke sent a short burst in that direction, which immediately caused the activities to cease. The 2./Panzer-Regiment 5 turned onto the road leading to Tomaszowka. There was no break in the action. The battery, following to the rear, was unable to maintain contact in the darkness and went into position along the railway embankment. The engineers mounted up on the tanks, which then moved into the woods.

When an enemy armored car turned up on a trail by surprise, it was shot to bits in short order. But there were more and more movements along the road by the minute. Hauptmann Schmidt had his vehicle pivot sharply right and take anything that blocked the route under fire. Trucks, horse-drawn wagons, pontoon equipment, and many other major items of equipment and materiel went up in flames. The Polish drivers fled into the protection of the woods on both sides of the road as quickly as they could. The speedometers on the tanks registered forty-five kilometers an hour, and the pace picked up from there. The Wlodawa–Kowel telegraph line was disrupted by knocking over the poles; horse-drawn columns were scattered and vehicles destroyed.

Just as the darkness of the night made further progress impossible, the company reached Tomaszowka. A single antitank gun, which was positioned not far from the rail station and took the German tanks under fire, was put out of commission. The tankers had only been able to identify the gun by its muzzle flashes. Some batteries were firing from somewhere into the burning village, but the tanks had moved through it by 1945 hours.

Hauptmann Schmidt and Leutnant Nitschke fired white signal flares. The signals were made out by Wachtmeister Gaebler, the forward observer from the 3rd Battery, and understood: Shift the fires forward! On that day, the battery fired some 350 rounds.

Hauptmann Schmidt’s 2nd Company was not satisfied with what it had achieved. There was still fuel in the tanks, so it continued south. The route turned increasingly worse by the minute. The motorcycle infantry were no longer able to keep pace and fell back. The tanks rattled on by themselves. It was difficult to stay oriented in the darkness. The movement grew slower, since woods and marshland became the next obstacles.

During the night, Major Wendenburg assembled his tanks as best he could. The 4th Company took over the lead. The officers moving out front had to illuminate their way with flashlights. At some places, Polish trains vehicles were passed. As it started to turn first light around 0300 hours, the battalion was outside of Opalin. The village was swarming with Polish soldiers. Since the battalion was almost out of fuel—the 2nd Company was already stranded—Major Wendenburg had his forces turn eight kilometers to the west. He had his battalion set up an all-round defense on a small rise. Patrols were sent out in all directions to maintain security.

The motorcycle battalion left Kampfgruppe Wendenburg and turned west toward the Bug. The Poles expected an attack there, however, and had blown up the bridge over the Bug in time. That meant that the men of the division had to remain on the east bank of the river in order to wait for the engineers coming forward.

The next day was one of decision. The motorcycle infantry crossed the river on inflatable craft and floats and entered the city of Wlodawa from the northeast. The 2nd Battalion of the divisional artillery had already been firing on the northern portion of the city since the morning, concentrating on the military facilities. The enemy resistance had been weakened by the well-placed fires, with the result that it did not prove too difficult for the motorcycle battalion and elements of the rifle regiment, which had been brought forward, to take the city in its entirety that morning. Major Burmeister’s 2nd Battalion of Panzer-Regiment 6, which also closed upon the city, was not needed to enter the fray. Two platoons from the 6th Company of the armor regiment, those of Leutnant Graf von Kageneck and Leutnant von Diest-Koerber, were sent west to reconnoiter around 1500 hours. After both platoons had forded the broad but shallow riverbed and moved out of Wlodawa after moving through it, they were immediately engaged by heavy enemy artillery fire and had to pull back to behind the forward combat outposts of the riflemen.

It was not until the afternoon of 17 September that the Poles had reorganized their forces. They attacked from the wooded terrain west of the city to retake it. A storm that broke out at the same time prevented the German defenders from offering a proper defense. The artillery was unable to join directly into the fray. Instead, it was limited to firing on targets that had been previously identified by the forward observers. The companies of the rifle regiment finally gathered themselves, and their rifle and machine-gun fire tore big gaps in the ranks of the Poles. The 3rd Company of the motorcycle battalion was committed to a flanking effort outside of the city, and the 6th Company of Panzer-Regiment 6 (Hauptmann von Winterfeld), which was quickly called forward, was finally able to bring the enemy attack to a complete standstill. According to prisoner statements, nine companies had been involved in the enemy’s effort.

The enemy then gave up on Wlodawa and pulled back into the thick woods south of the city.

After Tomaszokwa was occupied, the 1st Company of the rifle regiment advanced farther along the railway line. The final meters leading up to the Bug were a race against death. It was certain that the Poles had prepared the large bridge for demolition. The riflemen and engineers took long strides across the railway ties, and the risky venture succeeded. They got across the bridge, reached the railway guardhouse on the south bank of the river, and formed a small bridgehead. It was 0030 hours.

The engineers immediately set about searching for charges. Despite the darkness, they found some and started the laborious task of removing them.

At first light, the 3rd Platoon of the 1st Company attacked Orchowek, which was burning. Obergefreiter Janik was killed. Because the village had completely burned down, the riflemen dug bunkers and dugouts next to the rail line. Although the Poles attempted to reduce the small bridgehead a few times during the day with infantry and cavalry, their attacks were always turned back.

From the area where it had encamped, the 1st Battalion of Panzer-Regiment 5 had observed enemy groups attempting to flee since early morning, by swimming across the Bug. The tanks were unable to prevent those attempts, however, since they were stranded due to a lack of fuel.

Major Wendenburg had sent out two patrols during the night that had been directed to blow up the bridges over the Bug. The numerically strongest patrol made good progress. Feldwebel Hass took the lead with his medium tank. Following behind him was the commander’s tank of the 4th Company. Leutnant Brandt and an engineer Unteroffizier had also mounted it. Leutnant Zorn brought up the rear with the two remaining light tanks and the rest of the engineer squad.

The movement of the patrol took it through Huszcza and Rowno in the direction of Wilzcy–Przewo. Along the route, a few vehicle columns were shot up. The crews of the two light tanks watched over the prisoners. After a few minutes, however, they simply let the Poles flee, after their weapons had been taken away. The prisoners would only have been a burden for the patrol. The enemy received the patrol in Przewo with heavy small-arms fires. But Leutnant Zorn, Leutnant Brandt, and the engineers fought their way through the middle of the enemy to the wooden bridge, which they set on fire. The two light tanks held down the Poles on the far side with well-aimed fires.

The tankers even managed to capture a Polish 7.5-centimeter field piece from 1917. Leutnant Zorn limbered the piece to his tank and started to bring it back. Unfortunately, his fighting vehicle became immobilized after a few minutes with running gear problems.

The heavy commander’s tank with the engineer officer went forward as far as the rail line. Just as Leutnant Brand was starting to place a demolition charge on the tracks, a transport train started to approach. Fortunately, its locomotive was knocked out by the tank, thus blocking the line. As a result, this mission was also accomplished.

Leutnant Wisniewski, who led the second patrol, returned around 1000 hours and reported that the railway bridge had been successfully blown up. As a result, the immobilized tank battalions had at least cut off the retreat route over the Bug to the Poles.

It was not until 1600 hours that the regimental logistics officer, Hauptmann Hackermann, arrived and reported that fuel was on its way. It took another hour before the fuel arrived. Major Wendenburg immediately had his battalion form up.

It approached the village of Przewo as it started to turn dark. The tanks did not allow themselves to be held up by either the hastily emplaced road obstacles or by the heavy flanking fires coming from the woods. The 1st Company thrust through the burning village, while the 2nd Company took down the Polish resistance in the woods. The sole heavy tank of the battalion overran everything and reached the rail line. It encountered an enemy battery there, which forced the tank to pull back. The tankers saw that the train that had been engaged that morning by the patrol was still there, making all traffic impossible.

Major Wendenburg had his companies assemble between Przewo and Rowno. In the process, the tank companies encountered the lead company of the rifle regiment. It was the 8th Company, along with Major Zimmermann. The riflemen were immediately employed screening in the direction of Przewo. The tank battalion set up an all-round defense.

On 17 September, the reconnaissance battalion received the mission to blown up the Kowel–Chelm rail line at Luboml. The 2nd Battery of the artillery regiment and some engineers were attached in support. The movement of those elements took place on sandy, softened and seemingly endless roads to the southeast. There were still individual occurrences of enemy resistance, but they were quickly eliminated by a few bursts of fire from the machine guns on the armored cars. There wasn’t a true engagement until it started to turn dark, when the battalion approached Scack. The Poles had dug in there in the houses and gardens.

Major Freiherr von Wechmar had his companies halt and wait until the battery had closed up. The guns unlimbered in an open field and took the locality and individual pockets of resistance under direct fire. After a few minutes, the enemy was silenced, and the companies were able to take the locality in an envelopment. The battalion set up defenses for the night, putting out security in all directions.

The Kampfgruppe was ordered to break camp at first light on 18 September. The march continued relentlessly, and Luboml was reached that same morning. The reconnaissance battalion encountered a large grouping of enemy forces. The armored cars moved into position behind hills and ditches. The riflemen took up the infantry fight and the artillery battery fired. But the enemy no longer had any desire to become engaged in protracted and casualty-intensive fighting. First individually and then in ever-larger groups, the enemy surrendered. In the end, the 400 men of Kampfgruppe Wechmar counted almost 3,000 Polish prisoners. The reconnaissance battalion had accomplished its mission, transitioning to a screening mission.

The tanks of the division continued their own advance about 0700 hours that morning. But the enemy had pulled his forces across the Bug during the night and only put up minimal resistance. Przewo, the railway embankment, and the railway bridge were taken practically without a fight. The tanks advanced across the river and established a small bridgehead. The 6th Battery of artillery arrived and assumed the direct-support mission. Three Unteroffiziere—Killat, Grothe, and Schröder—discovered the gun that had been captured the previous day and included it in the firefight.

At 1357 hours, the division ordered the bridge to be blown up. At that point, the battalion moved back across the river without any enemy interference. At that point, the enemy started to get continual reinforcements. Starting at 1530 hours, strong artillery fire started to fall on the friendly positions. The division was concerned about its Kampfgruppe, which had ranged far forward, and sent out the following radio message in the afternoon: “If the tactical situation requires it, pull back to Aufklärungs-Abteilung 3 in Luboml, since larger regular-army formations are moving from west to east. Report your decision.” Major Wendenburg reported back shortly: “Position will be held!”

Far ahead of the other major formations, the 3. Panzer-Division was the southernmost division of the field army group at that point. Correspondingly, it had covered more ground than any other German division during the campaign. The division was closer to the elements of the 10. Armee approaching from the south than it was to its sister divisions within the corps. The division commander ordered the 2nd Battalion of the rifle regiment (Oberstleutnant Dr. Ehlermann) to break through to Heeresgruppe Süd. Attached to Ehlermann’s battalion were the 6./Panzer-Regiment 6, the 1./Artillerie-Regiment 75, and the 1./Panzerabwehr-Abteilung 39. The lead elements of the southern field army group were trying to take Chelm from three sides with the 4. Infanterie-Division, the 4. leichte Division, and the 2. Panzer-Division.

The reinforced rifle battalion moved out right on time. Forward movement was made difficult by the clogged roads, blown-up bridges, and recurring resistance form Polish formations that were led by especially brave officers. They had established themselves skillfully along wood lines and the outskirts of villages. The fights for Osowa and Malinowka were especially hard for the rifle companies. Leading the way in an exemplary fashion, Hauptmann Wellmann stormed the last village with his 6th Company. The battalion worked its way forward slowly and had to bring down new enemy strongpoints in sacrificial fighting. During that fighting, the 2nd Battalion suffered the heaviest losses of the entire division for the campaign. Since night had fallen in the meantime, the idea of a continued advance was discarded.

A motorcycle infantry patrol under the command of Unteroffizier Panzlaff was sent farther south, however, reaching the area just outside of Chelm. The expected forces of the 10. Armee attacking from the south were not there. The Wehrmacht High Command reported a linkup between the two field army groups, but none ever took place in the campaign.

The division instructed the Ehlermann’s battalion not to continue its operation and to pull back slowly on the direction of Wlodawa. The division pulled back the rest of its battle groups to Wlodawa as well. They were widely dispersed over a large area. It wanted to protect the force and not cause unnecessary casualties, since the Polish Army was already in a state of dissolution. Ehlermann evacuated the positions his reinforced battalion had taken near Chelm and pulled back under sharp pressure from individual Polish formations. Hauptmann von Winterfeld’s tank company provided the Kampfgruppe with the requisite covering fires. Four German fighting vehicles were lost that day. Around 1000 hours, Major Wendenburg received similar orders: He was to pull back to Luboml and link up with the reconnaissance battalion. Around 1600 hours, the two advance guards of the division linked up.

All forces of the division that were east of the Bug left their forward positions and pulled back across the river, as ordered. There had been no encounters with the Red Army anywhere, but the senior commanders took precautionary measures to ensure that the encounters took place without any friction.16

In order to mark the German lines for Russian aircraft, the division ordered recognition panels set out.

The fighting slowly abated. That meant that there was some movement between and within the fronts. The Polish soldiers no longer knew what they should do. Unarmed, they gave up by the hundreds, so as not to fall into the hands of the Red Army. For example, Hauptmann Eikmann’s maintenance company took in some 1,500 prisoners in the Puchaczewo area from 19 to 21 September. Leutnant Müller of Panzer-Regiment 6, who went deer hunting in some woods, wound up bringing in 165 prisoners. The civilian populace was also on the run.

The elements of the division assembled in Wlodawa. For many of the soldiers, the village became a place to recover. They saw an actual city for the first time, which stood out considerably in its appearance from the dirty villages that had been crossed through and fought for up to that point. Its two churches, the Baroque Roman Catholic one and the Orthodox one with its characteristic onion dome, dominated the landscape of the city. Its populace was composed of Poles, White Russians, and a large number of Jews.

After the forces had rested a bit and the men could wash off the dirt and grime from the many days of dust and rain, they had a pleasant surprise. The first field mail arrived.

The return march for the division was set for 21 September. The individuals left their quartering areas around Wlodawa at first light and moved along the road back to Brest. The large city had already been decorated with red flags with the hammer and sickle and black-white-red flags. The first Russian soldiers had arrived; they were assigned to a tank brigade.

The march then continued twenty-five kilometers to the demarcation line, moving through Widomla–Giechanowiec–Zambrow and on to Lomscha, where the divisional formations arrived on 22 September. For the fourth time in a month, the German border was crossed just south of Johannisburg. The men forgot about the hardships of the campaign that was behind them. The friendly and tidy East Prussian villages, the nice people, and the thoughts of reuniting with loved ones back home put wind in the sails of all the soldiers.

The division quartered in the area around Bartenstein. The individual companies and detachments were quartered privately in the surrounding localities. Everyone felt as though they were on maneuvers. The XIX. Armee-Korps (mot.) was disbanded on 26 September,17 and the last general order from the field army group was issued a few days later. That signaled the end of the campaign in Poland.

Battle of Wizna

Wladyslaw Raginis (1908-1939) – Captain of Polish Army, military commander during the Polish Defensive War of 1939 of a small force holding the Polish fortified defense positions against a vastly larger invasion during the Battle of Wizna.

Between September 7 and September 8 was fought the “Battle of Wizna. It is often known as “the Polish Thermopylae” – a reference to the 300 Spartans who bravely held off an enormous Persian army in Ancient Greece.

Polish historian Leszek Moczulski claims that between 350 and 720 managed to defend a fortified line from around 40,000 German troops. For three days they defended the fortified line and they managed to postpone the encirclement of Independent Operational Group Narew that was fighting nearby.

Captain Wladyslaw Raginis was the hero of the battle and the commanding officer of the Polish troops. He swore that he would hold position and fight Germans as long as he was alive. Fighting for 3 days without rest or sleep they started losing the battle. In the end, Captain Raginis told his troops to surrender and he committed suicide by throwing himself on a grenade.

On September 3, Polish troops were attacked from the air, but their own aircraft could not fight back. The Podlaska Cavalry Brigade was operating in the area, but after multiple attacks on its flank on the night of September 4, it received an order to retreat toward Mały Płock and cross the Narew River.

On September 7, scouts of General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst’s 10th Panzer Division captured a village near Wizna. Polish scouts from the mountain rifle division suffered losses and were forced to retreat to the southern bank of the Narew. Polish engineers managed to blow up the bridge and because of that, the Germans faced difficulties to cross the river. In the night patrols of German soldiers managed to cross the river but were repelled with great casualties.

In Polish culture, the Battle of Wizna is known as the Polish Thermopylae because of the small number of Polish soldiers who fought against a great number of German soldiers.  Here are the statistics:

Polish forces:

720 men (20 officers)

Six 76 mm guns

42 MGs – machine guns

2 URs – antitank rifles

German forces:

42,200 men

350 tanks

657 mortars, guns and grenade launchers

Aircraft support

The area of the village of Wizna was fortified to shield the Polish positions in the south and guard the crossing of the Narew and Biebrza rivers. The 5.5 mile (9 km) line of defenses along the high riverbanks passed between the villages of Kołodzieje and Grądy-Woniecko, with Wizna in the center. In addition, the most important road, Łomża–Białystok, passed through Wizna. However, this defensive line was poorly fortified. If broken, an enemy would have access northwards to Warsaw. The construction of the main fortifications began only in April 1939.

By September 1, the Poles had built six heavy bunkers with reinforced concrete domes weighing 8 tons each, two lightweight concrete bunkers, and eight machine gun pillboxes protected by sandbags or earthworks. Four more bunkers were still in the construction stage when the war began.

The average thickness of the bunker walls was nearly 5 feet (1.5 meters). They were also protected by steel plates nearly 8 inches (20 cm) thick, which no Wehrmacht cannon could pierce at that time.

In addition to the bunkers, anti-personnel and anti-tank barriers were erected and many trenches and ditches were dug. To flood this area in order to create additional difficulties for an adversary, the plan was to destroy the dams on the Narew and Biebrza rivers. However, a record dry summer and low water levels prevented that from happening.

Despite their unfinished state, the Polish bunkers were of excellent quality. The fortifications were located on hills, which gave them a large radius of sight and many opportunities for shooting.

Raginis was not only outmanned 60:1 but also had to deal with an extremely formidable foe: General Heinz Guderian. Guderian was one of Germany’s best commanders, known for his infiltration tactics, where strong points on a heavily defended front would be bypassed with special combat teams.

Polish engineers destroyed the only bridge over the Narew, thereby temporarily stopping the Germans. German infantry patrols crossed the river and attempted to advance to Giełczyn, but suffered heavy losses.

On September 8, German General Heinz Guderian received an order to advance through Wizna towards Brześć. The next morning, his troops invaded the Wizna area and were combined with the “Lötzen” Brigade and 10th Panzer Division.

The Poles were vastly outnumbered. German planes dropped leaflets ordering them to surrender, in an attempt to unnerve them and avoid combat. They stated that most of Poland was already under their control, and that “further resistance would only prove futile.” Just when all hope was lost, Raginis found the means to bolster the courage of his men. He swore that he would never leave his post alive, no matter the consequences. Inspired and ready to accept their fate, the soldiers were now prepared to leap into the jaws of death.

The Germans proposed a truce and attempted to force the Poles to surrender, including through threats to shoot their captured comrades if they did not end their resistance. Soon after, the Germans conducted an aerial and artillery bombardment. The Polish artillery was forced to retreat to Białystok. After the bombing, the Germans attacked the northern flank of the Polish troops.

Two platoons of Polish troops were attacked from three sides, but the Germans suffered losses. After strong artillery fire, the Polish commander of the Giełczyn area, First Lieutenant Kiewlicz, received an order to burn the wooden bridge over the Narew and retreat to Białystok. Some of his troops managed to escape from the German encirclement, and joined the forces of General Franciszek Kleeberg in Białystok.

At the same time, the southern Polish fortifications were surrounded and could not repel a tank attack. They did not have anti-tank weapons at their disposal but, hiding in the bunkers, the Poles could still fire at enemy infantry.

Despite this, by 6:00 PM the Polish troops in the trenches and field fortifications had been forced to retreat to the bunkers. German tanks managed to cross the line of defense and advance to Tykocin and Zambrów. However, the German infantry suffered heavy losses and could not follow the armored units.

Lt. Col. Tadeusz Tabaczyński was unable to send his troops to the aid of Raginis, although he was less than 19 miles (30 km) away from him in the fortified area of Osowiec. On September 8, Marshal Edward Śmigły-Rydz ordered the 135th Infantry Regiment, which made up the reserves of Wizna and Osowiec, to retreat to Warsaw.

By the time this order reached the troops, it was too late. The troops on the Wizna line were surrounded. Assaults on the fortifications around Wizna continued. On September 10, German troops using artillery and tanks destroyed all but two of the Polish bunkers. Regardless of the large number of dead and wounded troops, those in the remaining bunkers continued to resist.

In order to force the Poles to stop the resistance, Heinz Guderian demanded that Raginis cease-fire and surrender, threatening to shoot prisoners of war otherwise.For a while, resistance continued.

Eventually Captain Raginis, badly wounded but still in command of what was left of his forces, ordered his men to lay down their arms and surrender. However, true to his oath, he refused to surrender. After his men left the final bunker he committed suicide by throwing himself onto a grenade.

Several dozen Polish soldiers were taken into captivity. The rest fell in battle. Many civilians were murdered in Wizna, and Poland would suffer terribly under Nazi occupation. Polish soldiers fulfilled their oath until the very end. The heroic struggle against overwhelming odds is nowadays one of the symbols of the Polish Defensive War of 1939 and is a part of Polish popular culture.

Although the Polish units were almost entirely composed of conscripts mobilised in August 1939 rather than professional soldiers, their morale was very high. After the war, Guderian had trouble explaining why his Corps was stopped by such a small force. In his memoirs, he attributes the delay to his officers “having trouble building bridges across the rivers”. During the Nuremberg Trials, he remarked that Wizna was “well-defended by a local officer school.”

The resistance of Raginis’ soldiers slowed the advance of the Germans for three days, but could not prevent the occupation of Poland. Even so, the feat of Raginis’ troops is one of the symbols of Poland’s struggles in World War II.

Official Polish losses are unknown. According to various estimates, about 40-70 Polish soldiers survived, some of whom were captured. In his diaries, Guderian estimated German casualties at 900 people, at least 10 tanks, and a number of armored vehicles.

While even though nearly all the men in this famous last stand were killed in battle, the message it sent was one of great valor and bravery. These brave men kicked off one of the bloodiest segments in human history with an act of selflessness. They showed that there is value in setting an example, in creating a legend: in slowing the advancement of evil, even if it comes at the cost of your own life.

Though the engagements on the Narew were intertwined and all equally effective, it is often only the defence of Wizna that receives any popular attention. Perhaps because of the circumstances of Wladyslaw Raginis’ death, it is portrayed as a heroic last stand: Poland’s Thermopylae. Indeed, the memorial at the bunker site consciously echoes the Greek epitaph with the words `Go tell the Fatherland, Passer-by, that we fought to the end, obedient to our duty.’ The heroism of Raginis and his men, their determination and self-sacrifice, is undoubted, particularly as they were effectively abandoned to their fate by their superiors. Whether they appreciated it or not, the crossings on the upper Narew were crucial to the success of Guderian’s plan to drive further east towards Brest, and the few days’ delay that were inflicted upon the Germans there were of vital assistance to the wider Polish withdrawal southward.

However, the more breathless claims attached to the Wizna story are rather harder to justify. Wizna alone did not – as some accounts suggest – halt the 40,000 men of the German 3rd Army in their tracks; that accolade must be shared with the men who defended Lomza and Nowogrod further to the west. Neither did the battle last for three days. Though the Germans first arrived at the river on the 7th, there was evidently little genuine combat in the sector until the morning of the 10th, when the assault on the fortifications began in earnest. It is perhaps telling in this regard that contemporary German sources give Wizna very little mention, beyond complaining of the `weak bridgehead’ there and the resulting slow progress. To them, it seems, it was little more than a skirmish during the frustrating wait to cross the river.

KANAŁ (1957)

Synopsis

Kanał is a Polish war film directed by Andrzej Wajda. The second installment in Wajda’s War Trilogy—preceded by A Generation (1954) and followed by Ashes and Diamonds (1958)—Kanał tells the story of a company of Home Army resistance fighters using the city’s sewers to evade capture by the Nazis as their defensive position collapses during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising.

Background

In late July 1944, during World War II, the advancing Red Army had reached the eastern suburbs of Warsaw, Poland’s capital city. The close proximity of the Russians prompted the Polish government in exile in London to order its Home Army (Polish: Armia Krajowa or AK) of resistance fighters to mount an uprising against the German occupation. By liberating Warsaw prior to full Russian involvement, the Poles hoped to bolster claims to national sovereignty before the Soviet-backed communist Polish Committee of National Liberation could assume political control of the country. Stalin, of course, had other ideas. Avid to annex Poland after Hitler’s defeat, he betrayed the Polish resistance by ordering his armies to halt on the eastern banks of the Vistula River and not advance into the city to aid the Poles. This allowed the Germans time to regroup and destroy the Polish resistance, which fought for 63 days with light arms and little outside support (1 August–2 October 1944). It is estimated that the AK suffered some 22,000 casualties (16,000 killed and 6,000 wounded) and 150,000 to 200,000 civilians died. Arthur Koestler called the Soviet refusal to support the uprising “one of the major infamies of this war which will rank for the future historian on the same ethical level with [the Nazi extermination of] Lidice” (Koestler, p. 374). After the war Warsaw native Jerzy Stefan Stawiński (1921–2010)—who served as an AK company commander during the Uprising—published “Kanał” (Polish for channel or sewer) in the Polish literary journal Twórczość [Creativity]: a story based on his own, bitter experiences during the doomed struggle that he soon turned into a film script. After Stalin died in 1953, his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, relaxed censorship and other forms of political repression. “Khrushchev’s Thaw” spilled over to Poland and the other Soviet client states, making a film on the Warsaw Uprising politically feasible. Even though “Kanał” refrained from indicting Russian complicity in the defeat of the Uprising, Poland’s Soviet-dominated political leadership did not want it made. In the words of the film’s eventual director, Andrzej Wajda, “The authorities must have realized that society would be against the movie, and would regard it as the communist voice on the subject of the Warsaw uprising … It preferred not to make any film on the subject of the Warsaw Uprising, even one with a point of view they could accept as their own” (quoted by James Steffen, n.d.). Submitted to the government for vetting, the script was also deemed insufficiently heroic. Eventually the film was made because Tadeusz Konwicki, a member of the screenplay commission and an official of Kadr, a new film studio, lobbied behind the scenes on its behalf.

Production

Kanał was made by P. P. Film Polski at Kadr Studios and on location in Warsaw in 1956. Some of the above-ground scenes were shot in the studio, but most were filmed on location at ruins that had not yet been demolished after the war. Scenes that comprise the film’s first 45 minutes were shot at Cecilia Sniegocka Street and in an adjacent park in the Solec district, a mile northeast of Mokotów, and the 10-minute closing sequence was shot beneath Kamienne Schodki [Street of Stone Steps] and on Miadowa and Długa Streets in Warsaw’s Old Town. For the scenes in the sewers, Wajda and his crew constructed an elaborate replica of the sewers, and Wajda’s director of photography, Jerzy Lipman, provided the evocatively eerie noir-like chiaroscuro lighting for those episodes.

Plot Summary

During the final days of the Warsaw Uprising (late September 1944), Lt. Zadra (Wieńczysław Gliński) leads a beleaguered platoon of 43 AK soldiers and Warsaw civilians in retreat to south-central Warsaw. The composer Michał (Vladek Sheybal) gets in touch with his family, who are elsewhere in the city. Panicked, she shares that the Germans are in her building and are coming to take her, and then she is cut off. The next day, Officer Cadet Jacek “Korab” (Tadeusz Janczar) happens upon the second-in-command, Lt. Mądry (Emil Karewicz), in bed with a local messenger girl. After apologizing, the officers go to battle against the Germans. While they hold them off, Korab is shot and wounded while cutting the guide wire of a Goliath tracked mine (a remote-controlled miniature tank full of explosives) with a shovel. With his platoon now down to 27 and covered on all sides by the Germans, Zadra is commanded to take to the sewers in order to retreat. Stokrotka (Polish for “Daisy”) (Teresa Izewska), their guide, asks Zadra to permit her to help Korab. Zadra gives his consent but Stokrotka and Korab soon get separated from the group. Korab’s injuries have weakened him, and he is forced to rest before climbing up to the street. Stokrotka then directs them toward the river, and they see rays of sunlight ahead. Korab, extremely weak and near blind, is unable to see that the pair’s exit is blocked by metal bars. Stokrotka confesses her love for Korab while they rest and regroup. Meanwhile, the rest of the group gets lost, as they haven’t had Stokrotka to guide them. Zadra attempts to command Sgt. Kula (Tadeusz Gwiazdowski) to move the troops forward, but they refuse. Zadra and Kula lose all of their men except the mechanic, Smukły (Stanislaw Mikulski). The men who have not followed Zadra and Kula get lost again and eventually end up dead or captured. Zadra, Kula, and Smukły encounter a sewer exit but it is booby-trapped by German grenades. Smukły is only able to disarm two of the three grenades; the third one explodes, killing him. Zadra and Kula finally come up from the sewer to an abandoned and bombed-out part of the city. When Kula admits that he left the other men behind, Zadra kills him and returns to the sewers to find them.

Reception

Released in Poland on 20 May 1957, Kanał was a punishing but ultimately cathartic experience for those who had lived through the terrible, tragic events it depicts. In the words of film critic and Warsaw Uprising survivor Stanislaw Grzelecki, “The tragedy of the people who believed to the very end that the fight they had undertaken [was] right has found disturbing expression in Wajda’s film. The drama assumes a shape of a metaphor, all the more meaningful because its ordinary heroes have been, for many years, forced into the shadows, into silence, to endure the mudslinging, false accusations and slander” (Grzelecki, 1957). Other Polish critics, not as understanding as Grzelecki, initially panned the film for its unheroic grimness. Kanał was screened in competition at the 10th Cannes Film Festival (May 1957), where it shared the Special Jury Prize with Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and received rave notices from French film critics, international recognition that prompted a more positive reassessment at home. Released in the United States in 1961, the film briefly ran in a few art house cinemas. Bosley Crowther found Kanał as “dismal, dark and depressing a drama of events in World War II as this reviewer has yet witnessed” (Crowther, 1961).

Reel History Versus Real History

The plot of Kanał is fictional but the general story it tells about the final days of the Uprising is historically very accurate. As depicted in the film, by the end of September 1944, German forces had retaken most of the city. AK fighters were holding out in five isolated pockets, including an area within the suburb of Mokotów that was less than a mile long and half a mile wide, defended by about 2,750 insurgents. On 24 September 1944 German forces mounted an offensive against the Mokotów pocket from the south. Over the next three days of heavy fighting, the Polish defense perimeter shrank to just a few blocks as advancing Germans executed wounded soldiers, even hospital personnel. On 26 September 9,000 civilians fled Mokotów during a two-hour early afternoon cease fire. That evening, as depicted in the film, some 800 resistance fighters and civilians, many wounded, started evacuating through the sewers and headed for the city center, about two miles due north (Mokotów fell the next day and the Germans captured some 1,500 remaining fighters and 5,000 civilians). As also represented in the film, some AK fighters (actually about 150) headed in the wrong direction and unwittingly climbed out of the sewers at Dworkowa Street, in German-held territory half a mile to the southeast of Mokotów; 120 of them were captured and summarily executed. A monument now stands there in their memory. Actual conditions in the sewers were every bit horrific as the film shows. In his review of the film (cited earlier), Stanislaw Grzelecki observed, “I followed the same underground road from Mokotów to the centre of town as Jerzy Stawiński, and I, like he, spent seventeen hours in the sewers. I saw and experienced enough to state that Wajda’s film is telling the truth.”

Prostki 1656 [Bitwa pod Prostkami]

The battle of Prostki took place during the Second Northern War and was a decisive victory of Polish-Lithuanian forces numbering 10,000 men (mostly regular cavalry) supported by 2,000 Tatars and led by hetman Wincenty Gosiewski over a Swedish-Brandenburg army of 6,500 regulars (nearly half of them infantry) reinforced by 800 Lithuanian-Polish cavalry of prince Boguslav Radziwill and led by prince Georg Friedrich von Waldeck. The battle was portrayed in the Polish movie “Potop” from 1974.

Wincenty Korwin Gosiewski

After the retreat of combined Swedish-Brandenburg armies from Warsaw in 1656, the Polish commanded decided to spare no expense in attacking the territories of Ducal (Polish) Prussia, which despite being a Polish fief had allied itself with the Swedish King.  One of the objectives during this campaign was to completely destroy Prussian territory to force Frederick Wilhelm’s mindset in co-operating with the Swedish invader.  A victorious battle against a combined Swedish-Brandenburg-Prussian army conducted under the command of Field Hetman of Lithuania, ‘Wincenty Gosiewski’, during the Prussian campaign in the time of the Swedish-Muscovite Deluge on Poland in 1654-1660. The Polish-Lithuanian army was composed of Lithuanian units, Crown units (Poles), pospolite ruszenie (general levy) and tartars. The whole army was counted at about 12-13,000 men, most of it cavalry including about 2,000 tartars. Enemy forces under the Swedish General Waldeck were counted at much lower; 2,500 cavalry, 1,000 Prussian infantry (general levy) and 6 artillery pieces, as well as about 800 cavalry under the command of the traitor, Boguslaw Radziwill. Other Swedish commanders in the area heard of the approach of the Polish-Lithuanian army, (namely General Walenrodt and Colonel Josiass Waldeck), who would supply an additional 2,000+ infantry. Total forces were then were around 5,500 men, the bulk of which was Brandenburg infantry.

Gosikewski arrived at Prostek on the right bank of the river Elk and decided to immediately attack the Brandenburg forces, after which he would completely destroy any more advancing formations. He also sent the tartars for a preliminary confrontation with the forces of Wallenrod.

The Lithuanian units used the old trick of ‘feinting retreat’ (which worked so well at Kircholm, and by the tartars so many hundreds of years ago), against the Prussian infantry, which fell for this maneuver and moved across the river to the right side of the bank. Gosiewski’s army surrounded the Prussian infantry, attacked, and their formations broke. Much of the infantry was forced back into the river, either drowning or being killed however a few units together with some artillery pieces managed to escape back to the other side of the bank. The Lithuanians and Tartars immediately charged after them capturing their base of operations very quickly. After this, together with some Tartars then moved to attack the 800 cavalry under Radzwill, which they managed to attack from behind and flanks. Most of his cavalry was killed, only a few successfully retreated the rest were captured, including Prince Radziwill himself. The battle ended at 2pm with a successful attack on the formations of General Waldeck which were almost completely defeated. The rest of the army moved to attack the retreating infantry formations of Wallenrodt which was exhausted by a long march when retreating being continuously attacked by Tartar units.

Total Swedish-Brandenburg losses in this battle amounted to about 5,000 men (over 75% of the entire army), whilst Polish-Lithuanian army losses amounted to no more than around 200-250 dead. The defeat was so great that the population of Ducal Prussia demanded that Frederick Wilhelm sign a treaty with the Poles immediately, however it never came to that.  Whilst this was a great victory, proving that the Polish-Lithuanian army was again a competent force, though victories continued to be on/off affairs, it would be an uphill battle to ride the enemy from the country which had entrenched itself so completely.

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