Polish Armoured Divisions Post 1939 Part I

In 1941, the Polish-Soviet military convention permitted the formation of the `Polish Army in Russia’ under General Wladyslaw Anders. This decision launched one of the epic odysseys of modern warfare, worthy of Xenophon’s `Ten Thousand’. Polish refugees and deportees who had withstood the rigours of Stalin’s Arctic camps or of Siberian exile drifted into the collecting centres at Buzuluk on the Volga and at Yangi-Yul in Uzbekistan, and in March 1942, after endless obstructions by the Soviet authorities, crossed into British-controlled Persia. From there, the civilians were transferred to safety in India or Africa; the young men and women of military age were sent to Palestine for training. Many Polish Jews (Corporal Begin among them) opted to stay in Palestine, eventually to fight their British protectors and to launch the state of Israel. But the merger of the main body of Anders’s Army with Kopan’ski’s Brigade produced the `Second Corps’ which moved on to Cairo and joined the British Army in North Africa. In the next three years, fighting in the ranks of Montgomery’s Eighth Army, the Second Corps covered itself with glory-at Tobruk (1942), at Monte Cassino (1944), and at Bologna (1945).

Meanwhile, the Polish `First Corps’ of General Marian Kukiel was stationed in Scotland. At first, an excess of officers and too few men caused difficulties; and the island of Bute (known to the Poles as `the island of snakes’) was incongruously designated as a Polish political detention district. Later, through re-equipment and recruitment, five full divisions emerged. The Polish Parachute Brigade, under BrigadierGeneral Sosabowski, took part in the ill-fated landings at Arnhem. The First Polish Armoured Division of General Maczek played a crucial role at the Falaise Gap in the break-out from the Normandy beaches, and ended the War accepting the surrender of Wilhelmshaven.

No one can question the fact that the Polish Armed Forces, in total some 228,000 men under arms by 1945, set an outstanding example of duty and sacrifice in the Allied defeat of Nazi Germany. No Pole who loves his country can fail to honour their memory.

The unfortunate German-Polish War did not put an end to the Polish armoured forces. Many Polish soldiers having escaped to France, one ‘brigade polonaise’, with two battalions of R-35 tanks, was raised with them from April 1940 onwards. They fought gallantly during the French disaster and a number of them were, once again, evacuated to England. They formed, via an Army Tank Brigade and a reborn 10th Cavalry Brigade, the nucleus of an armoured division. Created in the spring of 1942, with Covenanter then Crusader III tanks, and later with Cromwell and Sherman tanks, the 1st Free Polish Armoured Division fought in Normandy, Belgium, Holland and Germany. Another Polish armoured brigade, formed in 1943 from personnel saved from Russian camps, had been engaged on the Italian front and later expanded into the 2nd Polish Armoured Division (2nd Warszawska Armoured Division). Both units were demobilised after the war.

Polish Soldiers

Some 100,000 Polish soldiers managed to evade capture and escaped through Romania, Hungary, and the Baltic states. Many eventually made their way to France and joined the Polish government-in-exile, which was headed by General Władysław Sikorski. Meanwhile, as early as May 1939, Polish and French officials had discussed the feasibility of forming military units manned by some of the half million Polish immigrants then living in France. By May 1940, the reconstituted Polish army in France had some 84,500 troops organized into two infantry divisions and a mechanized brigade. In addition, the Podhale Rifle Brigade fought in Norway and at Narvik, and the independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade was formed in the Middle East.

During the 1940 France Campaign, the Polish 1st Grenadier Division was destroyed fighting in Lorraine. The 2nd Rifle Division escaped into Switzerland, and its soldiers were interned there for the remainder of the war. Only some 30 percent of the Polish army managed to escape to Britain, where it again reconstituted and formed the Polish I Corps. That unit eventually consisted of the 1st Armored Division, the 4th Infantry Division, and the 1st Independent Parachute Brigade. The parachute brigade’s most celebrated battle was its doomed jump into Arnhem to support the British there in Operation MARKET-GARDEN in September 1944.

1st Armored Division History

The Polish 1st Armoured Division (Polish 1 Dywizja Pancerna) was an Allied military unit during World War II, created in February 1942 at Duns in Scotland. At its peak it numbered approximately 16,000 soldiers. It was commanded by General Stanisław Maczek.

The division was formed as part of the I Polish Corps In the early stages the division was stationed in Scotland and guarded approximately 200 kilometres of British coast.

Normandy

By the end of July 1944 the division had been transferred to Normandy. The final elements arrived on August 1 and the unit was attached to the First Canadian Army. It entered combat on August 8 during Operation Totalize. The division twice suffered serious bombings by Allied aircraft which accidentally bombed friendly troops, but yet it achieved a victory against the Wehrmacht in the battles for Mont Ormel, and the town of Chambois. This series of offensive and defensive operations came to be known as the Battle of Falaise in which a large number of German Wehrmacht and SS divisions were trapped in the Falaise pocket and subsequently destroyed. Maczek’s division had the crucial role of closing the pocket at the escape route of those German divisions, hence the fighting was absolutely desperate and the 2nd Polish Armoured Regiment, 24th Polish Lancers and 10th Dragoons supported by the 8th and 9th Infantry Battalions took the brunt of German attacks trying to break free from the pocket. Surrounded and running out of ammunition they withstood incessant attacks from multiple fleeing panzer divisions for 48 hours until they were relieved.

Falaise pocket

In accordance with the 1943 directive of the Combined Chiefs of Staff, the 1st Polish Armoured Division was not used in Operation Overlord but held in reserve. The division had struggled to reach its full establishment, and in 1943 Sosnokowski had stripped the infantry regiments in Scotland to fill it. On 1 August, the strength of the 1st Armoured Division was 13,000 officers and men, equipped with 381 tanks, 473 artillery pieces and 3,050 vehicles. 56 Its commander was General Maczek, who had led an armoured unit in Poland in September 1939 and in France in 1940. The insignia of the division was the helmet and Husaria eagle wings, which had been worn on the shoulders of the Polish soldiers who, under King Jan Sobieski, had stopped the Turks at the gates of Vienna in 1683 and saved Christendom in Europe. The division was nicknamed `The Black Devils’. On 1 August, the day on which the Warsaw Uprising was launched, the 1st Armoured Division crossed the Channel. It was placed under the 1st Canadian Army, commanded by Lieutenant-General Henry Crerar, and its objective was to assist in trapping the bulk of the German armies at Falaise.

Operation Totalise was the name given to the drive by the II Canadian Armoured Division, commanded by Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds, and the 1st Polish Armoured Division towards Falaise to cut off the German retreat to the Seine. It was launched on 7 August and began disastrously when the American bombers dropped their bombs on the Polish and Canadian front lines, killing 315 men. Attempts on the ground to alert the bombers to their error by throwing yellow smoke grenades came to nothing because the Americans were using yellow flares to mark their target.

A Canadian Spitfire pilot, after vainly trying to divert the first two waves of Fortresses that were bombing the gun lines, deliberately shot down the leader of the third wave to the accompaniment of tumultuous applause from the scattered, frightened soldiery below. The crew baled out.

Operation Totalise failed in the face of fierce resistance by the SS Hitlerjugend Panzer Division.

On 13 August, Operation Tractable opened with an attack by the Canadians towards Falaise and a drive by the Poles on the left flank towards Thun. Again American bombers bombed the allied positions, this time in the rear, causing 391 casualties. The Poles succeeded in breaking through the German defences and, on 15 August, the Polish reconnaissance regiment, the 10th Mounted Rifles, reached and secured a crossing over the river Dives near Jort. Further south the American army had reached Argentan. A Polish participant, Ryszard Zolski, recalled the tempo of the battles:

Falaise will be remembered as the most murderous battlefield of the invasion, where the might of the German Army clashed with the armies of America, England, Canada and Poland – where the Germans were determined to fight – not counting the cost, even to the last man. My God, how they fought – bravely and with determination, until at the end, hardly recognisable as human at all, only tattered remnants of clothing, flesh of men and horses, jumbled up with smashed armour, tanks and the like. Attack from the air, bombing, rockets, machine guns, together with our artillery, grenades and armour of every sort, finally annihilated their mighty army, and halted their retreat. Falaise – one of the most costly battles of the war, both in men and armament.

Maczek now split his limited forces: on 17 August he ordered the 24th Lancers, 10th Mounted Rifles and 2nd Armoured Regiment to advance towards Chambois, while the remainder of the division occupied a vital piece of high ground, Mont Ormel, also known as Hill 262 and `The Mace’.

The Poles had mixed fortunes on the road to Chambois, when the 2nd Armoured Regiment ended up in Les Chameaux, a few miles from Chambois, because their French guide had become disorientated in the dark. It was fortuitous because at Les Chameaux the Poles found and destroyed the rearguard of the 2nd Panzer Division before turning towards their target. On the way when they encountered a German motorised column in the dark:

The Germans halt their units and allow our column to pass. They even post a German soldier to regulate the traffic. He should be able to discern the American Shermans and those large white stars on the tanks and on my carriers. But it is still totally black. We just ride in front of the German column.

The 2nd Tactical Air Force flew sortie after sortie as Chambois `was delivered to the flames . . . The roads leading to it and the side streets were jammed with German armour already alight or smouldering, enemy corpses and a host of wounded soldiers.’ The Poles took so many prisoners that they struggled to spare enough men to guard them. On 19 August, the Poles linked up with the 90th United States Infantry Division. Lieutenant George Godrey noted of the Poles: `They were excellent fighters and very cold-blooded.’

The main body of the Poles was on `The Mace’, so nicknamed by Maczek because of its shape. This high, wooded escarpment overlooked the Chambois-Vimoutiers road along which the German forces were trying to escape eastwards under allied artillery fire. The Polish force expected an early reinforcement by the Canadian 4th Armoured Division under Major-General George Kitching, as they were rapidly running out of food and ammunition, despite receiving a limited resupply by a parachute drop, and they asked the Canadians to speed up their relief. Kitching, however, refused to do so and was sacked by Simonds. Then on 20 August, elements of Der Führer Regiment of the 2nd SS Panzer Division and of the 9th SS Panzer Division Der Hohenstaufen mounted an assault directly on the Mace: `Every combination of tactics was used: conventional infantry assaults, combined panzer and grenadier, unsupported Panther attacks, savage bombardments or no barrage at all.’ Second Lieutenant Tadeusz Krzyzaniak commented on the fighting:

Where are we? Where are they? In fact I know very well. THEY are in front of us, WE behind. At the same time, THEY are behind us, WE in front. Then it’s the opposite. Everywhere explosions, and everywhere blood: the blood of horses, the blood of others, and my blood.

All day the battle raged, with high casualties among both the attacking SS formations and the Polish defenders. Finally, on 21 August, the Canadians reached the beleaguered Poles and Ed Borowicz noted their reaction:

On the top of Hill 262 stands Lieut. Col Nowaczynski, the battalion commander, with the commander of the Canadian tanks, staring in silence at the battlefield. Over the khaki uniforms, at the emerald-blue lance pennons of the dead soldiers of the 8th Battalion, the disfigured faces, jutting jaws and teeth in deathly smiles, human parts – torsos, legs, bloodied stretchers, pieces of an anti-tank gun, and nearby a barrel of a broken mortar in the convulsive grip of a dead gunner. In the middle of a few blackened, smoking Shermans, on their turrets hangs a leaning torso, half scorched hands lying listlessly.

Tomasz Potworowski and a friend visited the scene a few days later and observed: `Already by then the Canadian sappers charged with clearing the mess had erected a sign on the “Mace” which read: “A Polish Battlefield.” Polish losses up to 22 August were 325 killed and 1,116 wounded or missing: this was 10 per cent of the division’s strength. Sosnkowski telegraphed his troops from London: `Your sacrifices will enable the rights of Poland to be established on an indestructible foundation.’ The Germans left behind 50,000 dead and 200,000 taken prisoner in the Falaise Pocket.

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Polish Armoured Divisions Post 1939 Part II

Belgium and the Netherlands

After the Allied armies broke out from Normandy, the Polish 1st Armoured Division pursued the Germans along the coast of the English Channel. It liberated, among others, the towns of Saint-Omer, Ypres, Ghent and Passchendaele. A successful outflanking manoeuvre planned and performed by General Maczek allowed the liberation of the city of Breda without any civilian casualties (October 29, 1944). The Division spent the winter of 1944-1945 on the south bank of the river Rhine, guarding a sector around Moerdijk, Netherlands. In early 1945 it was transferred to the province of Overijssel and started to push along with the Allies along the Dutch-German border, liberating the eastern parts of the provinces of Drenthe and Groningen with towns such as Emmen, Coevorden and Stadskanaal.

Germany

In April 1945 the 1st Armoured entered Germany in the area of Emsland. On May 6 the division seized the Kriegsmarine naval base in Wilhelmshaven, where General Maczek accepted the capitulation of the fortress, naval base, East Frisian Fleet and more than 10 infantry divisions. There the Division ended the war and was joined by the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade. It undertook occupation duties until 1947, when the division was disbanded, it and the many Polish displaced persons in the Western occupied territories forming a Polish enclave at Haren in Germany which was for a while known as “Maczków”. The majority of its soldiers opted not to return to now Soviet occupied Poland and stayed in exile.

Wilhemshaven 1945

The Germans resisted the Allies strongly on their own territory but slowly and surely the Allies advanced, and the Polish objective was altered to the important German naval base at Wilhelmshaven. From 19 to 29 April, the Poles fought hard to advance, as the terrain proved ideal for defence since it was extremely marshy with a thin layer of peat covering the tracks along which the tanks and armoured vehicles had to pass. The obvious routes that the Poles had to advance along meant that the Germans knew precisely where to place their defences.

The Germans were collapsing on all fronts and Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin on 30 April. On 6 May, Maczek attended a meeting between General Simonds and a German delegation led by General Erich von Straube. Simonds made it clear that only unconditional surrender was on offer. The 1st Polish Armoured Division was given the honour of occupying Wilhemshaven, and Colonel Antoni Grudzinski, second in command of the Polish 10th Armoured Brigade, noted the reaction of the Germans to this news:

An officer on my staff, a former student at Gdansk Polytechnic, translated every sentence into German. When the words ‘Polish Division’ were uttered by the translator, and as if by inattentiveness repeated, it seemed the Germans whitened and unease flashed in their eyes. I enquired if they understood – ‘Jawohl’ – they replied. I gave a sign that they might leave. But, a thought passed through my mind, ‘This is for September 1939’.

The Poles took control of Wilhelmshaven and accepted the surrender of 19,000 German officers, including a general and an admiral. Three cruisers, 18 submarines, 205 battleships and support vessels plus a vast array of artillery and infantry weaponry were taken into Polish custodianship. The division had lost 304 officers and 5,000 other ranks since August 1944. Despite all that Poland had suffered at the hands of the Germans, Maczek maintained strict discipline to ensure that the Poles did not take reprisals. This, despite the fact that the division had liberated a concentration camp at Oberlangen full of emaciated women POWs, members of the AK who had surrendered after the collapse of the Warsaw Uprising and had been held there without the protection of the Geneva Convention. On 19 May, General Anders visited Wilhelmshaven and Maczek had prepared for the visit by ordering the German population to sew Polish flags using white sheets and the red portion of the Nazi flags. The result was an impressive array of Polish flags on 25-feet-high posts shimmering along the avenue where the division marched past Anders.

Organization during 1944-45

10th Armoured Cavalry Brigade (10 Brygada Kawalerii Pancernej) – Col. T. Majewski

    1st Polish Armoured Regiment (1 pułk pancerny) – Lt.Col. Aleksander Stefanowicz

    2nd Polish Armoured Regiment (2 pułk pancerny) – Lt.Col. S. Koszustki

    24th Polish Lancers Regiment (Armoured; 24 pułk ułanów im. Hetmana Żółkiewskiego) – Lt.Col. J. Kański

    10th Polish Dragoons Regiment (10 pułk dragonów zmotoryzowanych) – Lt.Col. Władysław Zgorzelski

3rd Polish Infantry Brigade (3 Brygada Strzelców) – Col. Marian Wieroński

    1st Polish Highland Battalion (1 battalion Strzelców Podhalańskich) – Lt.Col. K. Complak

    8th Polish Rifle Battalion (8 battalion strzelców) – Lt.Col. Aleksander Nowaczyński

    9th Polish Rifle Battalion (9 battalion strzelców flandryjskich) – Lt.Col. Zygmunt Szydłowski

    1st Polish Independent HMG Squadron (samodzielna kompania ckm.) – Maj. M. Kochanowski

Divisional Artillery (Artyleria dywizyjna) – Col. B. Noel

    1st Polish Motorized Artillery Regiment (1 pułk artylerii motorowej) – Lt.Col. J. Krautwald

    2nd Polish Motorized Artillery Regiment (2 pułk artylerii motorowej) – Lt.Col. K. Meresch

    1st Polish Anti-Tank Regiment (formed in 1945 from smaller units) (1 pułk artylerii przeciwpancernej) – Major R. Dowbór

    1st Polish Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment (1 pułk artylerii przeciwlotniczej) – Lt.Col. O. Eminowicz, later Maj. W. Berendt

Other Units

    10th Polish Mounted Rifle Regiment (10 pułk strzelców konnych) (amoured reconnaissance equipped with Cromwell tanks) – Maj. J. Maciejowski

    HQ, Military Police,

    engineers (saperzy dywizyjni) – Lt.Col. J. Dorantt

    signals (1 batalion łączności) – Lt.Col. J. Grajkowski

    administration, military court, chaplaincy, reserve squadrons, medical services.

Strength

    885 – officers and NCOs

    15,210 – soldiers

    381 – tanks (mostly M4 Shermans)

    473 – artillery pieces (mostly motorized)

    4,050 – motor cars, trucks, utility vehicles, artillery carriers.

Last Polish Battles 1939

General Franciszek Kleeberg

Modlin surrendered on 30th September. The Germans claimed to have taken there 219 officers and 5,000 men, as well as 58 guns and 183 machine-guns.

The German campaign in Poland was not yet over and there was still fighting on the Baltic coast. Danzig had been captured and the port of Gdynia fell on 14 September. Polish defences were now concentrated on the Hela peninsula, a narrow spit of land, 20 miles long and a few hundred yards wide, stretching into the bay of Danzig. It was defended by about 2,000 men under the command of the head of the Polish admiralty, Vice-Admiral Jozef Unrug. The Hela peninsula was remorselessly bombarded from the sea by the Schleswig-Holstein and Schlesein and bombed by the Luftwaffe, but German infantry had to attack to force its surrender on 1 October.

The garrison of He! surrendered on 1nd October. It consisted of 52 officers, including Rear-Admiral Unrug, about 4,000 soldiers and ratings, and nearly as many German prisoners.

Until 18th September Lwow was surrounded on three sides by the Germans, who made a number of rather half-hearted attack and endeavoured to obtain a capitulation. On 18h September the Soviet forces approached from the east, from Winniki, and also proposed capitulation. There was a peculiar form of rivalry, for the headquarters of the defence refused at first to reply to either of the proposals. Then the Germans sent an ultimatum, demanding surrender by 10 A.M. of 20th September and threatening air reprisals in case of refusal. The resistance continued, and it was on 22nd September that a capitulation in favour of the Russians was signed on honourable terms (which were not kept by the Soviet army). The enemy took about 10,000 prisoners.

The command of the defence of Polesie decided on 19th September to concentrate its forces in the region Kamien Koszyrski-Datyn-Krymno-Wyz, from which they were to proceed to Warsaw, crossing the Bug at Wlodawa. The strength of the units was as follow: (a) Coil. Brzezinski (80th and 79th infantry reserve regiments)-4 battalions, (b) Colonel Epler-4 battalions, (c) Colonel Gorzkowski-2 battalions, (d) Commodore Zajaczkowski-2 battalions of marines, (e) the Suwalki and Podlasie cavalry brigades (the 1st, 2nd, 5th, and 10th uhlan regiments, the 9th mounted rifles, the 3rd chevau-legers, and the cavalry squadron of the Frontier Defence Corps of Niewirkow).

The artillery consisted of 6 batteries (20 guns). The total summed up to 11,000 men. At the same time the command of the Frontier Defence Corps was concentrating its units for 23rd September in the region Mroczno-Serniki-Kuchocka Wola-Rafalowka. The command was in the hands of General Ruekemann, the vice-commander of the K. O. P. (Frontier Defence Corps). The units were 3 battalions from the Polesie brigade of the K. O. P. and the 135th Infantry Reserve Regiment, which was going by train from Ossowiec to eastern Malopolska (south-eastern Poland), but was unloaded in the Sarny region and took part in fighting against the Bolsheviks. There were about 4,000 men and 6 guns.

General Franciszek Kleeberg collected about 16,000 troops under his command and intended to move westward to reinforce the Warsaw defences. Out of radio communication, they had no idea that Warsaw had fallen and they continued to push west. General Franciszek Kleeberg commanded Special Operational Group Polesie, and by incorporating into it the remnants of Special Operational Group Narew and various other units, he had at least 16,000 men under his command. They fought a series of actions against the Red Army near Milanow, inflicting over 100 casualties on the Red Army. Kleeberg then turned his attention towards the Germans. Realising that his ad-hoc force had little chance of reaching the capital, he planned to raid the main Polish Army arsenal near Deblin and seize enough weapons and ammunition to wage guerrilla warfare.

General Fr. Kleeberg ordered action for 23rd September, reckoning with the fact that the Soviets had reached already on the 20th Brzesc in the north and Kowel in the south. The K. O. P., which had behind it 170-250 kilometres of march, could not reach the region of Kamien Koszyrski before 25th September, and that is why the two groups never joined their forces. They had to fight separately.

At Kock, however, his force ran into General Gustav Anton von Wietersheim’s XIV Motorised Corps, and fierce fighting and high casualties ensued. Encountering the German 13th Motorised Infantry Division, they fought a four-day battle around Kock before finally surrendering on 6 October 1939.

Weak German forces retreated before the Polesie group and General Fr. Kleeberg, rolling up Soviet units in the north and the south, crossed the Bug without encountering very serious resistance and reached on 2nd October the region of Radzyn. In consequence of that movement the K. O. P. forces had to fight already during their march for Ratno and Szack on 24th September and for Mielniki on the 27th. They forced the Bug on 29th September at Wlodawa and Grabow, reaching on 30th September the region Hansk-Wytyczne. There they were surrounded, and according to orders endeavoured to break out in individual groups. Some of them escaped and the rest were captured. The Soviets claimed the capture of 8,000 prisoners.

The German divisions from Lukow-Garwolin-Deblin barred the way of the Polesie forces. A battle was fought, and in spite of the great superiority of the enemy’s artillery of about 100 guns it lasted until 5th October. When Soviet armoured divisions approached from Miendzyrzecz and Parczew, the remaining Polish force had to surrender.

The German communique claimed the capture of 1,234 officers, 15,600 men, 2 divisional staffs, 20 guns, 180 heavy machine-guns, and 5,000 horses. It was the last battle of a Polish army, against 75 German divisions, 30 Soviet infantry divisions, 12 motorised brigades, and 10 cavalry divisions which were operating on 27th September on the territory of Poland.

Guerrilla warfare continued well into the winter months.

The Polish campaign is not yet over. It is waged on one side by the population of Poland and the army reconstituted on French and then British soil, and on the other by the German and Soviet invaders, who try to break down the spirit of national resistance by means of cruel reprisals against the defenceless people of Poland.

Polish Air Units

The last major formation to fight in regular combat operations was Samodzielna Grupa Operacyjna ‘Polesie’ under gen. Kleeberg. In an attempt to break through to besieged Warsaw they fought the last battle of the campaign on 2-5 October, at Kock. A separate chapter of SGO ‘Polesie’ operations was written by 13 Eskadra Szkolna also known as the Pluton Rozpoznawczy Lotniczy. The unit was formed by por. pit. Edmund Piorunkiewicz. On 18 September he assumed command of a part of the ground party of 13 Eskadra Obserwacyjna, subordinating it to SGO ‘Polesie’. The unit was formed around a PWS 26 trainer aircraft found at Adampol near Wlodawa. 13 Eskadra Szkolna was joined by cadet officers Bandor, Matz and Wieczorek, who brought with them two RWD 8 aircraft. On 25 September the name of ’13 Eskadra Szkolna’ was officially accepted, and the unit reported directly to gen. Kleeberg. During their short period of combat (25 September-5 October) pilots flew many reconnaissance missions over enemy troops in their unarmed aircraft. Since the aircraft had no bomb racks, the crews attacked the Germans with hand grenades. These were the last aircraft with Polish markings in the sky over Poland in 1939.

SS-HEIMWEHR – DANZIG 1939

The Tczew (Dirschau) Bridge destroyed by the Poles.

Wehrmacht soldiers in Dirschau / Tczew Poland 1939.

The Battle for Dirschau [Tczew]

The importance of Dirschau to the German leadership was the geographical position of the Vistula Bridge. In the plans for war with Poland, the 837m long double railway and road bridge presented a decisive connection between East and West Prussia. This bridge was described as a “most important point” in the “Military and Geographical Description of Poland” given out by the OKW in 1939, which informed the leaders of the three parts of the Wehrmacht accordingly: “In the initial stages of the attack, the preservation of surprise remains imperative for the taking of the Vistula Bridge.” It was clear that Poland knew the strategic importance of the bridge, and would therefore have taken suitable precautions. That is why everything had to be done from East Prussia to take the bridge intact. These efforts were to be supported from Danzig. That Poland knew the importance of the bridge can be seen by the fact that earlier in the year units particularly qualified as reliable were brought to strengthen the bridge. Poland had also begun to fortify the bridge, for example, with wire entanglements and machine gun nests, in 1938.

In East Prussia, Oberst Medem was picked for the “Dirschau” mission. He created the “Gruppe Medem”, which consisted of:

  • 1 Battalion of Grenzwacht-Regiment 1
  • 1 Infantry Replacement Battalion
  • 1 Light Artillery Detachment
  • 1 Armoured Train

From the north, on the eastern side of the Vistula, SS-Heimwehr Danzig and from the air a Stuka wing of Sturzkampfgeschwader 3 were to support the Gruppe Medem.

The plan was that the Gruppe Medem, with the co-operation of the Luftwaffe, should prevent the destruction of the Vistula Bridge and capture it, so that a connection could be created between the German troops coming from the west and the East Prussian units. The SS-Heimwehr Danzig received the order to attack Dirschau from the north, make contact with the East Prussian soldiers and protect the bridge and the city of Dirschau against possible Polish counter-attacks. The bridge was to be taken by a goods train filled with East Prussian soldiers, which would cross the bridge at a specified time, while the Luftwaffe bombarded important points in Dirschau such as the barracks and the power station. The action involving the freight train was arranged to take advantage of the good working relationship which was then obtained between the Polish and German railway authorities. Poland was responsible for the area of the Free City of Danzig. If a train from East Prussia was to travel to Danzig or the German Reich, Poland took control of the transport, and would use a Polish locomotive. At the border, it was uncoupled, and a German engine would be used again. This happened in this case as well: Poland was asked to pick up an empty goods train at 0445 hrs on 1st September 1939 and take it to the western border. When the Polish locomotive arrived at Marienburg, East Prussia, the Polish train drivers were overpowered, replaced by German officials in Polish uniforms, and the Gruppe Medem was loaded into the empty goods trucks. The first setback happened at Simonsdorf Station in the Danzig territory. The following Armoured Train was steered into a siding by Polish railway officials. It had now to be tediously shunted, and valuable time was lost. The Polish officials reacted accordingly, and shot a flare as a warning for the bridge garrison. Thus when the goods train tried to cross the bridge, it found an iron gate blocking its way. Completely contrary to plan the train now sat outside the gate while the Luftwaffe had already started the bombardment. The Poles opened fire immediately on the train and blew up the bridge. The East Prussian soldiers jumped from the train and took cover in the embankment.

Parts of SS-Heimwehr Danzig, about 1,200 strong, went to their stand-by area north of Dirschau on the night of 31st August 1939-lst September 1939. They arrived at around two in the morning. The stand-by area stretched around the village of Rambeltsch, one of the last towns in Danzig territory before the border. At 0300 hrs, the commander, Goetze gave the order: “Make and keep contact with the East Prussian units.” The SS-Heimwehr Danzig went over the border and turned south-east to the Polish village of Mühlbanz.

From here it marched south without incident to the village of Damerau. The attack was then confined to the railway embankment between Dirschau and Danzig, after strong Polish resistance afforded from the city suburbs. The distance to this was around 1,500 m. Due to the concentric fire, a crossing of the railway embankment to the south, in the direction of Dirschau, was not possible without substantial losses. Even an anti-tank gun and a shock troop set up to engage the Polish positions were unsuccessful.

The former SS Officer Leo Wilm in the HQ Staff Goetze witnessed this action: “… The Poles had concentrated their fire on the embankment and the railway underpass there, so that crossing the embankment or storming the underpass would only have been possible with heavy losses. After a thorough observation by the Commander himself from the embankment, he gave me the order: “Bring Adjutant Westermann here, a platoon leader with an anti-tank gun, and as many hand grenades as possible, for a shock troop to be set up under his leadership: objective to attack recognised resistance nests and destroy them”. Despite heavy opposing fire it managed to get through the underpass at the first attempt and immediately to find cover in the ditch under construction in Dirschau. The anti-tank gun followed on the road to Dirschau and supported the shock party from a completely unprotected firing position. Through the loss of the gun it was very difficult to get to the houses and resistance nests. The attack of the shock party failed having had no effect…”

Almost the whole battalion stayed in its initial position at the embankment until the afternoon of the 1st September. The plan to take Dirschau by surprise was unsuccessful. Only with further support from the Luftwaffe and heavy artillery could SS-Heimwehr Danzig get into Dirschau in the afternoon. In the city itself there was only isolated resistance, which occasionally flared up until 5th September 1939. The new command post in Dirschau was set up in the kindergarten.

The former member of SS-Heimwehr Danzig, Wenzel Woldrich reports on the severity of the fighting: “I was number 1 on the light machine gun and was wounded on the very first day of battle. Ours, the 1st company, whose 1st platoon I belonged to, suffered the most losses on this day. Five dead and five wounded in the 1st platoon alone…” Similarly, Päpper, the former Section Leader in the 1st Platoon, 2nd Company remembers: “… I was likewise with my section on the embankment before Dirschau on the morning of the 1st of September, only I had advanced with my men over the embankment to near a garden settlement left of the underpass, because the order to proceed only as far as the embankment had not reached me. There, Gunner Behrend was wounded. As I established there was no progress to be made from here over the open plain due the enemy fire, I went with my whole group back to the embankment again. There was almost the whole battalion stuck fast in its initial position… The Poles defended themselves bravely…”

Willy Fischer, a volunteer from Danzig, experienced the battle for Dirschau as follows: ” I was born in 1917. From 1936 to 1938 I was a recruit in the 1st Cavalry Regiment in Insterburg. Since I felt my homeland threatened by Poland, I joined the Heimwehr with quite a few other reservists. Firstly we went to Berlin for training, then back to Danzig. One day there was an alarm. Three trains with Polish soldiers had pulled into the main station. We went to our position on the Bischofsberg. The Poles probably noticed this, and pulled out again after two hours. I was wounded on the first day before Dirschau. A shot to the spine. Immediately I was taken to the hospital in Danzig, and then to Berlin-Hohenlychen in a plane. There I was operated on by Dr. Sauerbruch. Back in Danzig I was visited in hospital by our Commander Goetze and my company leader, Baier. Here I was also awarded the Iron Cross 2nd class. Before the French campaign I went to the Bayerisch-Zell sanatorium…”

Charlotte Kuthning, nee Grätsch and sister of SS-Heimwehr Danzig member Herbert Grätsch recalls: “I was a nurse in the city hospital in Danzig and got to know everything from the other side. On the first day of battle, vehicles carrying the wounded were coming in one after the other. A 20 year old from East Prussia had lain for two hours in the water at the Dirschau bridge: a shot to the cervical vertebrae – completely paralysed. He lived two more days. The most seriously wounded were tended to first. Sometimes even a Pole. I always shook when some came from the Heimwehr. Could have been my brother. Then in the afternoon the Poles from the Polish Post Office. Burned black, shaking with fear and pain. We wrapped their whole bodies in bandages with pain-relieving ointment. They got morphine injections, tetanus and poison gas serum. On the next day it was somewhat calmer. I could watch the Stuka attack on the Westerplatte from our roof…”

The action of SS-Heimwehr Danzig had not fulfilled the goal of the mission from the German point of view: the Vistula Bridge was destroyed. German sappers began to build a pontoon bridge from east to west, to re-establish contact. The SS-Heimwehr was ordered from Dirschau back to Danzig-Zoppot. Here it was made subordinate to the Landespolizei, and with the exception of occasional scouting party operations, clashes did not take place. The motorcycle messenger Leo Wilm also took part in an operation of this type: “… Since the Poles were retreating and contact with the enemy was broken, a new shock party was formed from the HQ Staff Goetze – Adjutant Westermann and three men in a Kübelwagen, as well as me on my motorcycle. After around 15 km we came upon brief resistance, but the enemy retreated. Here we saw a terrible, bloody atrocity. A man was crucified on a barn door and a family of seven killed in their home with their tongues nailed to the table…” The SS-Heimwehr suffered most of its losses before Dirschau through head shots by Polish sharpshooters. 26 members of SS-Heimwehr Danzig fell: that was a third of their total losses. Around a half of these were Danzig volunteers. Whether this was to do with very short training we cannot say, since the Wehrmacht had just as high losses.

SS Heimwehr “Danzig” was an SS unit established in the Free City of Danzig (today Gdańsk and environs, Poland) before the Second World War. It fought with the German Army against the Polish Army during the invasion of Poland, and some of its members committed a massacre of Polish civilians. After this it became part of the 3rd SS Totenkopf Division and ceased to exist as an independent unit.

On 8 September members of the SS Heimwehr Danzig killed 33 Polish civilians in the village of Ksiazki.

Danzig 1939

Soldiers of the SS-Heimwehr Danzig round up “undesirables” in the free city of Danzig. The SS had clandestinely sent troops into Danzig before the invasion ready to seize key objectives once war was declared.

 

Soldiers of SS Heimwehr Danzig, an SS unit recruited in Danzig, take cover behind an ADGZ armored car during an attack on Polish troops in a post office. SS Heimwehr Danzig was incorporated into the 3rd SS Totenkopf Division after the Poland campaign.

The Battle for the Polish Post Office in Danzig

On 19th December 1921, Poland received the former Danzig Garrison Sick-bay on the Heveliusplatz from the International Arbitration Commission for use on postal duties. The Polish Post Office was called “Gdansk 1” from 1st August 1926. The former military hospital had already been robustly built, but the Poles began to strengthen and extend the building in the 1930s. 38 special ex-service reserve officers of the Polish Army were made postal officials. They were enlisted by Ridz-Smigly for defence of the Post Office until the promised relief by Polish cavalry.

A group of a hundred VGAD, which was formed from SA men, joined the 1st half platoon of the 3rd platoon of the 13th Coy., SS-Heimwehr Danzig in the battle for the Post Office under Hauptmann der Schutzpolizei Tornbaum, as well as the barracked police of the 2nd Police Precinct.

The members of SS-Heimwehr received their order into action in the early morning hours. A swift, surprise seizure of the Post Office by the police units failed due to the unexpected readiness of the Polish postal officials, and the German attackers were left around 20 metres in front of the building under well-planned defensive fire. Both light infantry guns of SS-Heimwehr were only partially used, since they would have endangered the population. The SS men were therefore used as infantry for the short term. Further attempts to storm the Post Office quickly and without losses failed due to the dogged defence by the Poles. In contrast to the Post Office, the other Polish quarters in Danzig were occupied by the afternoon. The SS-Heimwehr Danzig was however not involved.

Place; Found:

  1. Main railway station a light MG
  2. Polish railway post office a MG, four rifles, 18 pistols, and two cases of hand grenades
  3. Polish railway office 45 pistols
  4. Polish customs post 15 rifles
  5. Diplomatic agency a light MG, five rifles, four pistols
  6. Polish scout hall a machine gun
  7. Polish living quarters some rifles
  8. Polish student hostel some rifles
  9. Polish grammar school some rifles

A new attack was planned for 1700 hrs. One of the two Minenwerfers which had been set up on the Westerplatte was taken from there and brought to the Post Office. This was to shell the brick building until it was ripe for the storming. After the guns had together shot a large hole in the wall, the Poles retreated to the cellars. When the Fire Brigade finally managed to pump gas into the cellar and ignite it, the confused defending Poles gave up. The well-built Post Office came in useful while the German soldiers and police had to move around in the street without cover. At 1830 hrs, the swastika flag was raised. The battle was over. After the end of the battle for the Post Office, further weapons were found: 3 light machine guns with 44 full and 13 empty rounds, 30 army pistols, 1 drum revolver, 1 sack of infantry and pistol ammunition and 150 hand grenades. (Source: Auswärtiges Amt. Weißbuch Nr. 2/1939/ Dokumente zur Vorgeschichte des Krieges.)

The then SS Officer Anton Winter experienced the battle for the Polish Post Office: “I experienced the outbreak of war on 1st September 1939 as a member of the 3rd platoon of the 13/SS-Heimwehr Danzig. Our orders were to immediately go to the Bischofsberg above Danzig. The infantry gun company consisted at the time of three platoons each of two infantry guns, called “gypsy artillery”. The guns of the 1st and 2nd platoons were rubber-tyred so as to be suitable for motorised deployment. Because of the lack of purpose-built artillery tractors they could only be pulled by the Opel Blitz truck which was present. Our 3rd platoon had only iron-wheeled guns, for horses to pull, but we had no horses, so we had to move the guns ourselves. Later we loaded our artillery into requisitioned civilian vehicles. In our case it was a margarine factory truck. Apart from the infantry guns we received another two Minenwerfers from World War I. The manpower stayed the same and since we were not trained in these heavy Minenwerfers, we had serious difficulties in using them later. The calibre of this mortar was, as I recall, 150 mm (6-inches)[1]. Our platoon was transferred to the Danzig mess hall from Bischofsberg shortly before 1st September 1939. From here we were ordered, most nights, to guard the harbour area of the new shipping route with our “margarine gun”. On 31st August 1939 the units of the Heimwehr were put on stand-by. Only we, the 3rd platoon of the 13th company, remained in the mess hall for the time being, for defence and possible deployment in the city. In the early morning hours of the 1st September 1939 we were wakened by a muffled rumbling. The shelling of the Westerplatte had begun. We listened until our platoon leader came to us with the order into action. We crawled to our gun in the truck and drove to the Polish Post Office, where we moved our gun into an open firing position. The distance to the Post Office was about 60 metres. Despite the heavy rifle and machine gun fire against us, we fired shell after shell directly on and into the building. At every shot from the cobbled street, however, our gun recoiled out of position, which definitely made our shooting more difficult. We had to take the cobbles up, during which our comrade Taynor was killed by a shot to the head, and our platoon leader was seriously injured on the arm. With the help of an armoured scout car from the police, we tried to storm the Post Office again, but failed, and we had further losses. It was just impossible to get through the strong wall and bars and take the building. After the attack with the armoured scout car had also failed, there was a pause in the battle. Even shelling with the recently-arrived heavy 15mm howitzer of the Wehrmacht could not bring the defenders to surrender. The Poles defended their Post Office with extraordinary bravery, even in the belief that they would be relieved by Polish cavalry, which was expecting to be in Berlin in seven days. Only in the late afternoon did we succeed, under heavy defensive fire, in getting flammable material into the rooms and cellar, igniting it and thus smoking out the defenders. Only then did they give up, and we pulled our gun back to the mess hall through a mass audience of people drawn up in a row. In the evening our gun company was ordered to see Generalmajor Eberhardt, who wanted to praise us for our “selfless action against the Polish Post Office”. On the next day, our company was taken off and deployed in the battle for the Westerplatte.”

Kurt Boldt from Danzig lived near the Polish Post Office in 1939: “… When SS-Rottenfiihrer Taynor fell with a head wound, I was stood about 60 to 80 metres away and observed how a comrade, with complete disregard for his own life, moved the body to the shelter of the houses, on the corner of Heveliusplatz…” The Polish postal officials, as they wore no military uniforms, were tried and executed in October 1939 as guerrillas.

Small quantity of ADGZ armoured cars was used by Germans. The most familiar example is a combat record of two ADGZ’s in Danzig, early 1939. Both of them organisationally belonged to a local “Heimwehr” and took part in assaulting the Polish post office in the city. It’s important however that instead of their original Austrian armament consisting of the 20mm Tankgewehr M35 and Schwarzlose M07/12 MMG’s the Germans re-armed their ADGZ’s with MG 34’s and reduced the vehicle crew to four crewmen (the vehicle was designed to accommodate a crew of six).

The 2 ADGZ used in Danzig where in fact cars of a police unit (together with 2 old Erhardt armoured cars), despite being marked with SS runes and a skull. They where supporting the Heimwehr troops. It had been planned to storm the Polish post office with Police men of the local German police, whose office was in a side floor of exactly that building. But both police and Heimwehr where not able to get into the main building for several hours. They succeeded only after the ADGZ held down the Polish defenders and fuel was pumped into the building and ignited.

The Polish post office in Danzig had successfully resisted the first German assaults and the 30 or so Poles had retreated to the cellar, where they refused to surrender. Rather than suffer more casualties, the Germans ordered the Danzig Fire Brigade to pump domestic gas into the cellar. The asphyxiated Poles duly gave themselves up.

The Poles were later shot for wearing civilian clothing whilst bearing arms. The Danzig firemen were presumably not shot for the more serious offence of using gas while in civilian uniform.

General Friedrich-Georg Eberhardt

Kampfgruppe Eberhardt 1939

I think it was officially known as Brigade Eberhardt. It later became the core of 60th Motorised Infantry Division.

There is a book entitled something like “Heimwehr Danzig” about the SS contribution beside Brigade Eberhardt in Danzig in 1939.

The OB I have for Brigade Eberhardt comes from a Polish book on the fighting along the seacoast during the German invasion in September 1939. It is the only source I have ever found that gives an OB for the brigade. It is as follows:

Police Brigade Eberhardt: 1st and 2nd Police Regiments

SS Heimwehr Danzig Infantry Battalion

Battalion Hacker (a Grenzwacht battalion)

Danzig Artillery Battalion

Eberhardt Cavalry Squadron

Eberhardt Construction Engineer Battalion

The book Sid mentioned is a history of the SS Heimwehr Danzig Battalion during the early days of the campaign, but that’s about it. There is nothing about the rest of the brigade in the book.

” Die Geschichte der SS Heimwehr Danzig” by Rolf Michaelis

SS-Heimwehr-Danzig

In June 1939, the III./SS-Totenkopf-Standarte was redesignated as the “SS-Heimwehr Danzig”.

Headquarters SS-Heimwehr Danzig — Feldpostnummer 24 611

— Signal Plt.

— Pioneer Plt.

— Medical Plt.

— Motor Transport Company (motorized) [3 truck Plt.]

1st Infantry Company — Feldpostnummer 24 293 [4 infantry Plt.]

2nd Infantry Company — Feldpostnummer 31 292 [4 infantry Plt.]

3rd Infantry Company — Feldpostnummer 31 700 [4 infantry Plt.]

4th Machine-Gun Company — Feldpostnummer 32 304 [3 MG Plt.; 1 mortar plt.]

13th Infantry Gun Company — Feldpostnummer 33 475 [2 lt IG Plattons w/ 4 lt IG; 1 mixed plt. (2 lt IG + 2 mortars)]

14th Anti-Tank Company — Feldpostnummer 33 832 [4 Plt. w/ 3 ATG]

15th Anti-Tank Company — Feldpostnummer 34 799 [4 Plt. w/ 3 ATG]

The SS-Heimwehr Danzig was an infantry (non-motorized) battalion-sized unit. It certainly did NOT have an “Panzer-Nachrichten” units.

Gemischter Verband Danzig (aka Brigade Eberhardt) [3. Armee]

Danziger Infanterie-Regiment 1 (Landespolizei) (I. – III.)

Danziger Infanterie-Regiment 2 (Landespolizei) (I. – III.)

Danziger leichte Artillerie-Abteilung

Grenzabschnitt Hacker (3 cos.)

Arbeitsdienstgruppe Eberhardt (6 cos.)

Aufklaerungs-Kompanie Eberhardt

Brigade NetzeIII. Armeekorps, 4. AOK]

2x Grenzwachtabschnitt (#’s unknown) of Grenzwachtabschnitt 2

It is impossible to compile a complete accurate composition of all companies and individual weapons, as many records have been destroyed. The above is a compendium of many sources, not all original, and some conflicting.

Polizei-Panzerkampfwagen ADGZ

The Steyr ADGZ was originally developed as a heavy armored car for the Austrian army (its designation was “M35 Mittlere Panzerwagen”) from 1934 and delivered from 1935-37. Series production was under consideration, but the events of 1938 precluded the completion of this possibility. In 1941, Steyr received an order from the Reichsfuhrer-SS to complete a further 25 new ADGZ for the SS. These were delivered during 1942. An interesting feature of this vehicle was that there was no “rear:” either end was capable of driving the unit.

The original fourteen” ADGZ served with police detachments in Danzig in September 1939. The ADGZ delivered in 1942 were used by the SS to fight partisans in the East. After the invasion of the USSR a few ADGZ armored cars were rearmed with turrets from the Soviet T-26 model 1933 light tank.

Verstärkter Grenzaufsichtsdienst (VGAD, Reinforced Border Surveillance Service)

A very little known unit deriving from the SA was the Verstärkter Grenzaufsichtsdienst (VGAD, Reinforced Border Surveillance Service) created in 1939 at Danzig (today Gdansk in Poland) from the SA Brigade VI. As the title implies, the VGAD was intended as a paramilitary unit for patrolling the frontiers around the Free City of Danzig and as an extra defence against the Poles. Members of the VGAD usually wore standard German army uniform with a black collar displaying the SA collar patch and a sleeve title reading Grenzwacht (Border Guard). During the invasion of Poland in September 1939 members of the VGAD fought as part of the Sonderverband Danzig (Special Detachment Danzig), also named Brigade Eberhardt after its commanding officer Generalmajor Friedrich Eberhardt. This unit is principally remembered for capturing the central post office of Danzig after heavy fighting.

„Küstenschutz Danzig“

This unit was formed by Marine-SA (~naval SA) and Zollbeamte (customs officers).

Some 250 men formed two Coastal Artillery Batteries and one Harbour Barrier/Blockade Group.

„Küstenschutz Danzig“ was attached to „Gruppe Eberhardt“.

It seems as the „Küstenschutz Danzig“ was a kind of a naval version of the SS Heimwehr Danzig, each battery comprised four 88mm pieces.

The task of Küstenschutz Danzig was to make provisions for operation of SCHLESWIG-HOLSTEIN. They were also responsible for closing (blocking) the Danzig harbour, or unblocking it – depending on situation.

On 4th September 1939 one battery of Küstenschutz Danzig shelled Westerplatte.

in “Die Yacht” Jg, 1939 ist ein schönes Soldatenfoto mit Mützenband

LINK

LINK

Invasion of Poland by Germany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pushing East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Battle of Bzura

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

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

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

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

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

Disintegration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warsaw 1939 I

On September 8, 1939, one week into the Nazi invasion of Poland, German armoured troops reached the gates of Warsaw. The Polish government and High Command had left the city but a determined garrison awaited the enemy invader and the Poles were able to stave off two consecutive German attempts to take the capital by armoured attack. Thus began a siege that would last for three weeks and subject the Warsaw Army of over 100,000 and the civilian population of over one million to a ruthless campaign of aerial bombardment and heavy artillery shelling, causing thousands of casualties and widespread destruction. It was a hopeless battle that could only end in defeat and on September 27 the Polish garrison capitulated. The photos of the first penetration by tanks and infantry of the 4. Panzer-Division taken on September 9 became standard repertoire of German propaganda publications on the Blitzkrieg in Poland.

 

On September 8 – eight days after the start of the campaign and after an amazing dash of 80 kilometres in ten hours – lead elements of the 4. Panzer-Division suddenly appeared on the outskirts of Warsaw. Taking advantage of the surprise, the Germans immediately launched an attack into the city, hoping to capture it on the run. The first attack, in the late afternoon of the 8th and by Panzer-Regiment 35 only, was quickly stopped by the fierce Polish resistance in the outer borough of Ochota. The second attempt, by the entire division and on a double axis, on the morning of the 9th penetrated deeper into the city but was again repulsed in heavy fighting in Ochota and Wola. A Propaganda-Kompanie photographer, Bildberichter Otto Lanzinger, accompanied one of the attacking columns into the city and his pictures have become classic images of the 1939 fighting for Warsaw. Here a number of PzKpfw I and IIs roll forward while supporting infantry keep close to the houses.

 

A PzKpfw II advances past another one. These photographs were taken on Grojecka Street, the main thoroughfare entering Warsaw from the south-east and leading into the borough of Ochota, at its intersection with Siewierska Street. Grojecka was the axis of attack of Panzer-Regiment 35 both on the afternoon of the 8th and again during the morning of the 9th. The long shadows in Lanzinger’s photos show the sun in the east, which proves that they were taken on the 9th.

 

Some 150 metres back along Grojecka, near its junction with Przemyska Street, Lanzinger pictured a 7.5cm le. IG 18 light infantry gun set up to engage enemy troops defending behind a barricade. The gun has just fired off a round and smoke is still curling from its barrel. Panzer I and IIs are waiting behind. Black smoke rises up from a disabled vehicle in the background.

 

Back up front, and right in front of where Lanzinger is taking cover, another gun – this one a 3.7cm Pak 36 – has been set up. Across the street is its Krupp Kfz 69 towing vehicle. Two Panzer Is roll forward. The 4. Panzer-Division had begun the campaign with 341 tanks: 183 Panzer I, 130 Panzer II, 12 Panzer IV and 16 Panzerbefehlswagen. However, by the time it reached Warsaw, both tank regiments had suffered losses and all four tank battalions were below strength.

Map of initial ground attacks on Warsaw. Poles-blue, Germans-red.

THE SITUATION IN WARSAW

Warsaw in 1939 was a city of 1.3 million inhabitants. From the very first hours of the campaign, this huge metropolitan area became the target of an unrestricted aerial bombardment campaign by Luftwaffe bombers and dive-bombers, mainly from Kesselring’s Luftflotte 1 supporting Heeresgruppe Nord.

On September 1, a force of some 90 Heinkel He 111 bombers from Kampfgeschwader 27, protected by 36 Me 109 fighters from Jagdgeschwader 21, together with 35 He 111s from II./Lehrgeschwader 1 raided the capital. They hit military targets, such as infantry barracks, the aerodrome and the PZL aircraft factory at Okecie in the south-west and the Warsaw radio station in Fort Mokotow in the south. However, right from the start, they also freely bombed civilian facilities such as waterworks, hospitals, market places and schools, and strafed civilians with machinegun fire. The attacks came as a complete surprise. The streets were crowded and dozens died in the first few minutes. Later that week, in order to disrupt communications, the bombers and dive-bombers attacked the city’s railway stations and the Vistula bridges – the latter without success. On September 3 alone 1,500 civilians were killed. A girls’ school was hit on the 4th.

Warsaw’s air defence depended mostly on the fighters of the Polish Air Force’s Pursuit Brigade (Brygada Poscigowa) under Colonel Stefan Pawlikowski. It comprised two squadrons and was equipped with 54 fighter aircraft, chiefly the PZL P. 7 and PZL P. 11 types. The city’s anti-aircraft artillery under Colonel Kazimierz Baran had 86 AA guns and various detachments of anti-aircraft machine guns.

Initially the air defence of the capital was fairly successful. During the first six days, the Pursuit Brigade managed to shoot down 43 enemy aircraft, while the anti-aircraft artillery destroyed a similar number. In addition, there were nine unconfirmed victories and 20 damaged aircraft. However, the brigade had itself also lost 38 machines, or approximately 70 per cent of its strength. The city’s air defence began to crumble on September 5 when the military authorities ordered 11 of the AA batteries withdrawn from Warsaw towards Lublin, Brest-Litovsk and Lwow. The following day, September 6, the remnants of the Pursuit Brigade were also transferred from the Warsaw sector to Lublin.

With rumours of the rout of the Polish armies reaching the capital, thousands of inhabitants packed their belongings and fled to the east, only to meet up with other refugees heading westwards. At the same time, masses of people entered the city from the west, fleeing before the German invading forces. Stukas swooped down on the long columns of people, strafing and striking terror at leisure.

On September 4, Polish President Ignacy Moscicki and his government evacuated from Warsaw, transferring their seat to Lublin, 150 kilometres to the south-east. Commander-in-Chief Marshal Smigly-Rydz and the Polish General Staff also left the capital, on the night of September 6/7, moving to Brest-Litovsk, also 150 kilometres to the rear. Their departure led to further panic and chaos in the capital.

At one time, it had been the Government’s intention to declare Warsaw an `open city’, but this idea was now abandoned. The capital would be defended at all cost. On September 3, before he left, Smigly-Rydz ordered the creation of an improvised Warsaw Defence Command (Dowodztwo Obrony Warszawy). General Walerian Czuma, the head of the Border Guard (Straz Graniczna), was appointed its commander and Colonel Tadeusz Tomaszewski its Chief-of-Staff.

Initially the forces under command of General Czuma were very limited. Most of the city authorities had withdrawn together with a large part of the police forces, firefighters and military garrison. Warsaw was left with only four battalions of infantry and one battery of artillery. Also, the spokesman of the Warsaw garrison had issued a communiqué in which he ordered all young men to leave the city. To co-ordinate civilian efforts and counter the panic that threatened to engulf the capital, Czuma appointed the President (Lord Mayor) of Warsaw, Stefan Starzynski, as the Civilian Commissar of the capital. Starzynski immediately started to organise the Civil Guard to replace the evacuated police forces and the fire-fighters. He also ordered all members of the city’s administration to return to their posts. In his daily radio broadcasts he asked all civilians to construct barricades and anti-tank barriers at the city outskirts.

Defensive field fortifications were constructed mostly to the west of the city limits. Streets were blocked with barricades and overturned tram cars. Cellars of houses were turned into pillboxes. Gradually, the forces of General Czuma were reinforced with volunteers, as well as rearguard troops and various army units, primarily from the Lodz and Prusy Armies, retreating before the onslaught of German armoured units. One was a stray battalion of the 41st Infantry Regiment `Suwalski’ from the destroyed 29th Division. On September 7, the 40th Infantry Regiment `Children of Lwow’, part of the 5th Division and commanded by LieutenantColonel Jozef Kalandyk, was transiting through Warsaw towards previously assigned positions with the Pomorze Army. The unit was stopped and joined the defence of the capital.

By the 8th General Czuma had gathered some 17 infantry battalions under his command, supported by 64 pieces of artillery and 33 tanks. The latter – 27 light tanks of the Vickers E, 7-TP and R-35 types and six TK-3 and TKS tankettes – were formed into the 1st and 2nd Light Tank Companies.

The last Polish formation defending before Warsaw was the 13th Infantry Division, positioned near Koluszki in central Poland. After bitter fighting with Hoepner’s XVI. Armeekorps on September 6-7, its lines were broken by the 4. Panzer-Division, which captured the town of Tomaszow Mazowiecki, located 115 kilometres southwest of Warsaw, During the night (September 7/8), most of the soldiers of the 13th Division panicked and deserted, enabling the 4. Panzer-Division to carry on to Rawa Mozawiecka, another 35 kilometres closer to the Polish capital.

FIRST GERMAN ATTACKS ON THE CAPITAL

On the morning of September 8, the 4. Panzer-Division – now well ahead of the rest of the 10. Armee – made a lightning dash towards Warsaw, 80 kilometres away. Moving out at first light from Rawa Mozawiecka, with Panzer-Regiment 35 in the lead, it brushed aside pockets of enemy resistance and reached Radziejowice, 35 kilometres on. With Polish soldiers surrendering by the thousands, the panzers rushed forward another 35 kilometres to Wolica, an outer suburb south-west of Warsaw, hoping to secure crossings over the Utrata river at Raszyn. Attacking at 1.15 p. m., the panzers destroyed two Polish light tanks and pushed back the Polish infantry but they could not prevent the Poles from blowing up two bridges right in front of them. Undaunted, the light panzers forded the brook, while attached engineers from Pionier-Bataillon 79, protected by infantry from SchützenRegiment 12, quickly repaired the crossings. Soon the lead troops were approaching Okecie, the airfield right on the south-western edge of the metropolitan area. Panzer-Regiment 35 had reached the city limits of Warsaw.

Back at the divisional command post at Nadarzyn, ten kilometres to the rear, Generalleutnant Georg-Hans Reinhardt was just receiving a visit from his army and corps commanders, Generals Reichenau and Hoepner. Having heard rumours that the Poles had declared their capital an open city, the three generals did not expect serious resistance and together they worked out exact plans for the seizure of the city. The division was to advance in two columns, with Panzer-Regiment 35 and Schützen-Regiment 12 on the right and Panzer-Regiment 36 and Infanterie-Regiment 33 on the left. However, the latter three units were still moving up and it would take some time for them to reach the start line.

Up front, the commander of Panzer-Regiment 35, Oberst Heinrich Eberbach, thought he could take the city on the run. Conferring with Hoepner and Reinhardt, he recommended that the surprise of the enemy be exploited and that he be allowed to continue the advance without waiting for the rest of the division. Permission was granted. A Storch light aircraft hurriedly flew in a few street maps of Warsaw and a plan of attack was made. Entering from the south-west, the regiment’s II. Abteilung was to advance across Pilsudski Square and then cross the Vistula to the east bank; the I. Abteilung was to remain in the centre of the city. Aerial support for the attack was quickly arranged through Kesselring’s Luftflotte 1 (nominally in support of Heeresgruppe Nord) which sent in 35 Henschel HS 123 biplane divebombers from II./Lehrgeschwader 2.

At 5 p. m. Eberbach’s regiment began the assault, advancing towards the borough of Ochota. A few rounds were fired. Just beyond the Rakowiec settlement the houses momentarily stopped, an open area partly filled with suburban vegetable gardens stretching out before the tankers’ eyes. The tanks moved across a road bridge, the actual outskirts of the city being 400 metres beyond. As they entered the built-up area, the road ahead was blocked by a barricade of overturned streetcars and furniture trucks. Suddenly, a rain of fire fell on the force. From four-storied apartment buildings, ventilation openings in the rooftops, windows and basement openings, Polish soldiers of the 40th `Children of Lwow’ and 41st `Suwalski’ Regiments opened up on the tanks with everything they had. One of the few PzKpfw IV (the whole regiment had just eight of these in its 4. and 8. Kompanie) received a direct hit. It was recovered under fire but the attack was stalling.

By now the sun was setting. Realising that Warsaw was not an open city and that the Poles were strongly defending it, Eberbach called off the attack and withdrew his tanks behind the bridge. For now, all by itself and well ahead of the rest of the division, the regiment needed to secure itself on all sides.

At 7.15 p. m. that evening – a point in time when the panzers were still battling in Ochota – German radio already broadcast the OKW communiqué bringing the headline news that German troops had penetrated into Warsaw.

During the night, the remaining elements of the division caught up with Panzer-Regiment 35: the tanks of Panzer-Regiment 36, the infantry of Schützen-Regiment 12 and Infanterie-Regiment 33 and the divisional artillery. Thinking he was now strong enough to take the city, Generalleutnant Reinhardt ordered the attack to be repeated the following morning with all available forces. PanzerRegiment 35, supported by Schützen-Regiment 12, was to repeat its attack along the main road into Ochota. Panzer-Regiment 36, supported by Infanterie-Regiment 33 and two engineer companies, was to launch an attack from positions further to the north, along the main road leading into the borough of Wola.

At 7 a. m. on September 9, following a tenminute preparatory artillery barrage on the city’s edge, the 4. Panzer-Division again moved into the assault. Dive-bombing support was once more provided by Luftflotte 1, which had dispatched the HS 123s from II./LG2 and 140 Stukas from StG77 and III./StG51.

Leading the attack into Ochota, the I. Abteilung of Panzer-Regiment 35 (Hauptmann Meinrad von Lauchert), with infantry mounted on the tanks, once again rolled across the bridge, followed by more infantry and attached engineers. The first road barricade was eliminated. Despite strong Polish resistance a second bridge was taken and the tanks reached the streets of Warsaw. Once in the built-up area, the German infantry had to take each house and clear it. The Poles resisted fiercely with burst of machine-gun fire, hand-grenades dropped from above and tossed from cellar openings, even with blocks of stones dropped from the roofs. Anti-tank mines buried in the road verges and adjoining fields disabled several panzers. The fiercest fighting in Ochota was at the barricade erected near the junction of Grojecka and Siewierska Streets and defended by the 4th Company of the 40th Regiment.

The panzers attempted to continue by themselves. The lead tank, commanded by Leutnant Georg Claass of the 1. Kompanie, was hit by a well-camouflaged anti-tank gun. The first round failed to knock it out but the second set the vehicle on fire. Claass and his radio operator managed to bail out but both later succumbed to their wounds. The same Polish gun immobilised the vehicle of the regimental adjutant, Oberleutnant Heinz-Günther Guderian (the son of the panzer general). Dismounting and escaping through a courtyard gate, Guderian came across the tank of Leutnant Diergardt and a platoon of infantry. Taking both under his command he continued the attack.

Advancing through courtyards and gardens, Leutnant Wilhelm Esser and two platoons of tanks from the 2. Kompanie were able to advance as far as the railway line, where Polish defences knocked out his radio. Oberfeldwebel Ziegler in his PzKpfw III assumed command of the remaining vehicles and managed to advance as far as the main railway station. All by himself in the middle of the capital, he eventually had to pull back. Leutnant Gerhard Lange worked his way forward to an enemy artillery position and opened fire on the guns with everything he had. The Poles attacked by throwing shaped charges against his tracks, which tore off one of the roadwheels and blocked his turret, and he too had to pull back.

Throughout the battle the Stukas of StG77 and III./StG51 gave support by attacking the Polish main artillery positions which were located in Praga, on the far side of the city and east of the Vistula. In addition to divebombing the gun sites, they swooped down on the city’s main avenues and on the railways in an attempt to obstruct Polish troop movements.

Around 9 a. m. Oberst Eberbach committed the II. Abteilung (Major Wilhelm Hochbaum), which had been held in reserve and was supported by another battalion of Schützen-Regiment 12, to the area one kilometre north of the main road, where the Polish defences appeared less well organised. This force initially made good progress, overrunning Fort Szczesliwice, one of the old fortifications surrounding the capital. However, as they reached the park beyond, the mounted riflemen received rifle and machine-gun fire from the high-rises on the left. Just as they deployed to engage it, Polish artillery fell among them and a few vehicles caught fire. Meanwhile, Polish anti-tank guns stopped the advance of the tanks. Oberleutnant Heinz Morgenroth, the commander of the 8. Kompanie, was fatally wounded. Of the two panzer platoons that advanced into the park, only three tanks came back.

The story was much the same with PanzerRegiment 36, attacking north of the railway line and into Wola. Here too, well-placed Polish 75mm anti-tank guns firing at pointblank range, and the barricades erected on main streets, managed to repel the German assault. The civilian population took an active part in the fighting and the Germans were halted with severe losses.

On several occasions the Poles made up for their lack of armament by ingenuity. Colonel Zdzislaw Pacak-Kuzmirski, commander of the 8th Company of the 40th Regiment, found 100 barrels of turpentine in the Dobrolin Factory and ordered his men to position these in front of the barricade at the intersection of Wolska, Elekcyjna and Redutowa Streets. When the German armour approached, the liquid was ignited and several tanks were destroyed without a single shot being fired.

The TP-7 tanks of the Warsaw Defence Command were actively engaged in the battles. Those of the 1st Light Tank Company joined in the heavy fights around Okecie airport, but they were no match for the German panzers and suffered considerable losses. Those of the 2nd Company took part in the successful defence of Wola.

At 10 a. m., after three hours of fruitless attack, Generalleutnant Reinhardt saw that the fighting could not be prolonged if his division was to remain as an operational unit and ordered his men to retreat to their initial line of departure. Casualties in tanks and infantry had been very heavy. Of the 220 tanks that had taken part in the assault, some 80 had been lost. Panzer-Regiment 35 alone, which had started the assault with 120 tanks, had only 57 left operational, including a single Panzer IV. Even the command tank of Generalleutnant Max von Hartlieb-Walsporn, commander of the 5. Panzer-Brigade

(which controlled the two panzer regiments), was immobilised by anti-tank fire as it made its way back. When the XVI. Armeekorps sent an order to renew the attack immediately, Reinhardt drove back to the corps command post and convinced Hoepner that this was absolutely impossible. All that could be done for now was to lay siege to the capital from the west.

During the night, a large number of the disabled panzers, including some that had run over mines, were recovered by their crews, in some cases from out of the Polish lines. Additional reinforcements arrived in the form of Infanterie-Regiment Leibstandarte-SS `Adolf Hitler’ (mot.), the Führer’s bodyguard unit turned into a motorised infantry unit and commanded by SS-Obergruppenführer Sepp Dietrich.