Military history

Book Four
WAR: EARLY VICTORIES AND THE TURNING POINT

18. THE FALL OF POLAND

AT TEN O’CLOCK on the morning of September 5, 1939, General Halder had a talk with General von Brauchitsch, the Commander in Chief of the German Army, and General von Bock, who led Army Group North. After sizing up the situation as it looked to them at the beginning of the fifth day of the German attack on Poland they agreed, as Halder wrote in his diary, that “the enemy is practically beaten.”

By the evening of the previous day the battle for the Corridor had ended with the junction of General von Kluge’s Fourth Army, pushing eastward from Pomerania, and General von Kuechler’s Third Army, driving westward from East Prussia. It was in this battle that General Heinz Guderian first made a name for himself with his tanks. At one point, racing east across the Corridor, they had been counterattacked by the Pomorska Brigade of cavalry, and this writer, coming upon the scene a few days later, saw the sickening evidence of the carnage. It was symbolic of the brief Polish campaign.

Horses against tanks! The cavalryman’s long lance against the tank’s long cannon! Brave and valiant and foolhardy though they were, the Poles were simply overwhelmed by the German onslaught. This was their—and the world’s—first experience of the blitzkrieg: the sudden surprise attack; the fighter planes and bombers roaring overhead, reconnoitering, attacking, spreading flame and terror; the Stukas screaming as they dove; the tanks, whole divisions of them, breaking through and thrusting forward thirty or forty miles in a day; self-propelled, rapid-firing heavy guns rolling forty miles an hour down even the rutty Polish roads; the incredible speed of even the infantry, of the whole vast army of a million and a half men on motorized wheels, directed and co-ordinated through a maze of electronic communications consisting of intricate radio, telephone and telegraphic networks. This was a monstrous mechanized juggernaut such as the earth had never seen.

Within forty-eight hours the Polish Air Force was destroyed, most of its five hundred first-line planes having been blown up by German bombing on their home airfields before they could take off. Installations were burned and most of the ground crews were killed or wounded. Cracow, the second city of Poland, fell on September 6. That night the Polish government fled from Warsaw to Lublin. The next day Halder busied himself with plans to begin transferring troops to the Western front, though he could detect no activity there. On the afternoon of September 8 the 4th PanzerDivision reached the outskirts of the Polish capital, while directly south of the city, rolling up from Silesia and Slovakia, Reichenau’s Tenth Army captured Kielce and List’s Fourteenth Army arrived at Sandomierz, at the junction of the Vistula and San rivers.

In one week the Polish Army had been vanquished. Most of its thirty-five divisions—all that there had been time to mobilize—had been either shattered or caught in a vast pincers movement that closed in around Warsaw. There now remained for the Germans the “second phase”: tightening the noose around the dazed and disorganized Polish units which were surrounded and destroying them, and completing a second and larger pincers movement a hundred miles to the east which would trap the remaining Polish formations west of Brest Litovsk and the River Bug.

This phase began September 9 and ended on September 17. The left wing of Bock’s Army Group North headed for Brest Litovsk, which Guderian’s XIXth Corps reached on the fourteenth and captured two days later. On September 17 it met patrols of List’s Fourteenth Army fifty miles south of Brest Litovsk at Wlodawa, closing the second great pincers there. The “counterattack,” as Guderian later observed, had come to a “definite conclusion” on September 17. All Polish forces, except for a handful on the Russian border, were surrounded. Pockets of Polish troops in the Warsaw triangle and farther west near Posen held out valiantly, but they were doomed. The Polish government, or what was left of it, after being unceasingly bombed and strafed by the Luftwaffe reached a village on the Rumanian frontier on the fifteenth. For it and the proud nation all was over, except the dying in the ranks of the units which still, with incredible fortitude, held out.

It was now time for the Russians to move in on the stricken country to grab a share of the spoils.

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