6. Blitzkrieg in Poland

THROUGH THE LAST, all-too-short summer of peace, both the Germans and Poles had prepared frantically for what was coming. If the diplomats and the civilians hoped against hope for peace, the soldiers knew that war could come at any time, and they were doing their best to get ready for it; through August there was a palpable girding of loins.

The high command of the Wehrmacht had been planning the invasion of Poland since March of 1939; immediately after the takeover of the remains of Czechoslovakia, Hitler had called his generals together, told them Poland was next on his list, and instructed them to work up an operational plan. The occupation of Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia meant that Poland was all but indefensible, just as Czechoslovakia had been after the Anschluss. Very roughly, Poland consisted of a large irregular triangle, with the Polish Corridor jutting up out of the western apex of it. On two sides of the triangle Poland was bordered by East Prussia, Germany proper, and the occupied territory of Czechoslovakia. It was little comfort that the third side was bordered by Russia.

The German plan was to deploy two army groups; Army Group North and Army Group South under General Feodor von Bock and General Gerd von Rundstedt respectively. These would drive directly into Poland and meet at Warsaw, encircling and cutting off the main Polish forces, which the Germans expected to be deployed in the western part of the country. Von Bock proposed a second, deeper pincer farther to the eastward, but that was not adopted as a part of the original plan.

Army Group North had about 630,000 men in two armies. It was supported by the 1st Air Fleet with 500 bombers, 180 Stukas or dive-bombers, and about 120 fighter aircraft. It had one armored corps in the 4th Army, west of the Polish Corridor, whose task was to cut the Corridor, link up with the other army in East Prussia, and then drive due south on Warsaw.


Army Group South had three armies consisting of about 886,000 men. The 4th Air Fleet was in support, with 310 bombers, 160 Stukas, and again about 120 fighters. Its central 10th Army, with one Panzer or armored corps, was to drive northeast to Warsaw, while 8th Army protected its left flank from the assumed mass of Polish troops, and 14th Army protected its right flank while taking Cracow, one of the great historic sites of Poland and the kind of city the Poles might be expected to defend to the last.

Most of the navy was held in the west, on the other side of the Danish Peninsula, to guard against possible British intervention, but some units were allocated for the bombardment of the Polish port and naval base of Gydnia and Hel, at the end of the Corridor. The Luftwaffe held in reserve 250 Junkers Ju52 transports, which could be used in an emergency to drop paratroops.

Hitler’s generals were extremely worried about what the Western Powers would do. The British Army was incapable of doing a great deal, but the Royal Air Force was by now formidable, while the French were perceived as a definite threat. Nevertheless, Hitler remained convinced the French would not take the initiative. He put on a major propaganda campaign to convince the world that Germany’s western fortifications were impregnable; at the same time, he could spare only understrength infantry divisions and a few light air-force units to man the “West Wall.” The whole concept of the campaign was to break through the Polish frontier crust as rapidly as possible and gobble up Poland before her allies could do anything about it. Then, having achieved a fait accompli, it would be time to decide where to go next.

In retrospect, it looks as if the old adage, “Whom the gods would destroy they first drive mad,” might be applied to the Polish government in 1939. That is only the accuracy of hindsight. At the time neither the Poles nor anyone else expected the Germans to fight the kind of war they did. It is possible that the Polish Army might have held the eastern part of the country, defending the line of the Bug River or conceivably even the San. That would have meant abandoning Warsaw, Poland’s industrial areas, and all the parts of the homeland that were most dear to the people. The Poles were tough, they had no illusions that the war would not come, and they were determined to make the hated Germans pay for every inch of Polish territory. The Polish high command, therefore, decided to hold on the frontiers in a linear defense, fall back as necessary under German pressure, and fight until the Western Allies came to their rescue.

To do this, the Commander-in-Chief, Marshal Edward Smigly-Rydz, had an army that at full strength would have mustered nearly 1,800,000 men. In the event, the Poles got about 1,000,000 called up, and of these about 800,000 actually seem to have gotten to their units and been taken on strength before Poland was overrun. These troops were disposed in six armies along the frontiers and one smaller “Operational Group” up near the juncture of East Prussia and Lithuania, plus a central reserve organized fifty miles or so south of Warsaw. The best of these armies, in terms of the modernity of its equipment, was the Poznan Army, at the western apex of Poland, in the area where the Germans did not intend to attack. The Poles had about 935 aircraft, almost all of them inferior to the equivalent German types, and no more than a few light tanks against the Germans’ four armored divisions. They had impressive numbers of horsed cavalry, which they believed, probably correctly, to be the best in the world. Partly because of this they had not done much in the way of preparing field fortifications. The official Polish doctrine was that they would fight a mobile war, and that enemy penetrations would be quickly counterattacked and sealed off and destroyed, a doctrine that would have been adequate had their enemy possessed, as the Poles did, a World War I type of army.

The Germans had been violating Polish air space all summer, flying photographic reconnaissance missions which the Polish fighters were too slow to intercept. Perhaps because the Poles were jaded by the unending atmosphere of crisis, the attack when it came caught them by surprise. Instead of using the standard border clashes of a more leisurely era, the Germans hit with everything they had. At dawn on September 1 the Luftwaffe struck at Polish airfields, the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein moved into Gydnia at point-blank range to bombard Polish naval installations, and artillery and tank engines roared all along the frontier.

Contrary to popular opinion, the Luftwaffe did not wipe out the Polish Air Force in its first strike. The Poles had dispersed their planes to operational fields a few days before the attack. The Germans did, though, inflict serious losses, and that, coupled with the overwhelming numerical and design superiority of the Luftwaffe, was enough to destroy the Polish Air Force within the next three or four days. Polish fighters took a relatively heavy toll of the German planes—in some cases ramming them in desperation—but they were soon worn down, and the remaining fighters were pulled back for the defense of Warsaw. Their ground attack and tactical support aircraft, even more vulnerable than their fighters, were decimated in early attacks against the heavily armed German columns breaking across the frontier. The Luftwaffe was soon virtually free of opposition and turned its attention on the one hand to dive-bombing and strafing in support of the armored advance, and on the other to bombing communications and transport links, sowing confusion and despair in the rear of the Polish forces. Under this pressure, Polish mobilization broke down on the first day of the invasion, and was never completed.

The initial phase of the German attack consisted of the breaking of the frontier positions. This was achieved for practical purposes on the first day. The Polish idea of cut-off units establishing strongpoints until relieved by counterattacks was completely negated by the tank-aircraft combination. The counterattacks never got launched, and the “strongpoints” were quickly mopped up or dispersed by mobile artillery, by follow-up infantry units, or by dive-bombing attacks. The Poles fought stubbornly, and even, on occasion, tried their horses, swords, and lances against the German tanks. Nonetheless, by the evening of the first day, some of the German armor had made fifteen miles, and was practically into open country. By the 3rd, when Britain and France got around to declaring war, the Corridor was cut and the air force was all but wiped out. The last units holding on the frontier fell back on the 5th.

The linear defense being completely broken, the Germans entered the second phase of their operation, the pincer movement cutting off and destroying the remaining Polish forces. The Polish headquarters units were under constant air attacks, and the Poles were rapidly losing what little control they had over their battle. The roads were filled with panic-stricken refugees, and the motorized Germans could advance faster than the Poles could retreat. The Poznan Army was falling back eastward, seeking to reach Warsaw and defend it before the Germans could get there, but by the 7th, the German 10th Army, from the south, was only thirty-five miles short of the city. That day the Polish government left its capital and moved to Lublin.

The Germans won the race. They surrounded Warsaw on the 9th before the Poznan forces could get there. On the 10th, the Poznan Army, together with remnants of the other western Polish armies, about 100,000 strong, attempted to break out to the south. For four days the issue hung in the balance, while the Poles struggled desperately. The Germans pounded them with artillery and Stukas, and were at one point forced to fly in reserves, the pressure was so heavy. Yet the German grip tightened inexorably, and the crisis was past by the 14th; the survivors of the Polish attacks, about 52,000 strong, finally surrendered on the 17th.

The Poles by then were completely broken up, and their still-existent main units were all surrounded. The German Army high command had already adopted von Bock’s earlier suggestion of a second deeper envelopment to gather in Polish forces escaping to the east. This pincer was complete by the 19th. From then on, it was a matter of cleaning up pockets of resistance. Remaining major units surrendered or dispersed in the third week of September. Warsaw held out, under constant air and artillery bombardment, until the 27th. By then, food was giving out, the water mains were broken, fires were raging out of control, and the city had collapsed. Aerial defense consisted mainly of loudspeakers sounding warnings and playing Poland’s national music, Chopin’s “Polonaises.” Hospitals were out of supplies and swamped with both civilian and military casualties, unattached soldiers were shepherded through the city and out to fend for themselves, as the city did not need and could not feed them; organized life and with it resistance ground down, and finally there was nothing left to do but capitulate.

A few strongpoints lasted longer. Up on the Baltic, at the little naval base on the Hel Peninsula, the garrison of a few hundred soldiers, sailors, and civilian workers stood off attacks by tanks, artillery, dive-bombers, and German battleships until the first of October. Finally, after thirty-one days—about thirty more than required by the dictates of military honor—having nothing left to fight with, the Poles surrendered. The last organized resistance was at Kock, southeast of Warsaw, and here about 17,000 remnants put up the white flag on October 6.

No one knows what the campaign cost Poland; the breakdown was so rapid and so complete that accurate figures were never obtained. The Germans said they took 694,000 prisoners, and they estimated that about 100,000 escaped across neutral frontiers into Hungary, Lithuania, or Rumania. The Polish combat losses are unknown, as is the exact number taken by the Russians. The Germans themselves lost about 14,000 killed and about 30,000 wounded.

The whole German plan had been to overrun Poland quickly, and they had done so with a speed that astonished the rest of the world. Even so, it had not gone as rapidly as they had hoped. It was an essential part of Hitler’s idea that Poland should be swallowed up in one gulp, before the West had time to react. As early as the 3rd, therefore, Hitler was asking that the Russians should fulfill, or take advantage of, their part of the deal and move in from the east. Essentially, the Russians were caught flatfooted by this and did nothing; the Germans repeated their request on the 10th, but it was another week before the Russians lurched into motion. On the 17th, they got two army groups moving, the White Russian Front in the north, and the Ukrainian Front in the south. There was little resistance as they crossed the frontiers, the Poles being fully occupied in the west, and by the 17th already collapsing. The Russians did gather up more than 200,000 prisoners among Polish troops and potential troops fleeing eastward. The Red armies then closed up to the German stop line; both sides were very careful to avoid any clash between units as a result of mistaken identity; it was not, after all, a very comfortable alliance.

In fact, the original nonaggression pact had called for a buffer zone between the Germans and the Russians, but this was now renegotiated, each took a sphere of Poland, and the Polish state once again disappeared from the map. Hitler then announced that the central European situation was satisfactory, that it could be a basis for a lasting peace, and he called for negotiations with the Western Powers.

The big question of the 1939 campaign is not what happened to Poland, or to Germany or Russia, but what happened to France and Great Britain. At a time when the Germans were almost completely committed in Poland, why did Britain and France not strike quickly and hard? This was what the Poles expected as help from their allies; this was, in effect, what Poland died for.

The saddest aspect of the whole matter is that the Western Allies could have done so. There is virtually no doubt that had they attacked vigorously, they could have broken through the thin screen of Germans to and across the Rhine. They could, and should, have easily defeated Germany, and the Second World War would never have gotten off the ground.

The French were fully mobilized while the Germans were still enmeshed in Poland. Facing the German frontier they had eighty-five divisions. Some of them were not fully worked up, but the lowest estimate by military experts gives the French seventy-two divisions. Against them the Germans had eight weak regular divisions, and about twenty-five reserve formations, some of them existing on paper, some made up largely of recruits who were not even half-trained. The Germans had 300 guns, the French had 1,600. The French had 3,200 tanks; the Germans had none—they were all in Poland. The French and British together had 1,700 aircraft; the Germans had almost none.

The French did undertake an offensive operation. They sent out patrols that penetrated about fourteen miles into German territory; they met no opposition. They then withdrew on order and never advanced again.

The Royal Air Force before the war had deliberately assumed a policy of building up a strategic bomber force. Now, with nearly 800 serviceable bombers against a virtually defenseless western Germany, it announced that its policy was not to use those bombers, but to conserve and build them up further. It would never again achieve a force ratio of 800 to nothing.

The facts seem to be that no one in the West really wanted to fight. German intelligence rated French morale as high, and the French Army as the most formidable possible foe; this was before its spirit was sapped by months of “phoney war.” Yet the high command clung to its visions of French and Allied inferiority to German capability. Allied intelligence consistently overrated German strength, and underrated its own. The politicians were only too happy to listen to the generals, and the generals were afraid to risk a fight. Paralyzed by their fears and their memories, hamstrung by their doctrinal preconceptions, they wanted an absolutely guaranteed sure thing. Unwilling to accept the closest they would ever come to it, they let the opportunity pass. It was really a vicious circle; the military experts advised their governments that they were in a parlous position. The civilian leaders were therefore hesitant to dictate action. The military command drew the inference therefrom that the politicians were uncommitted to war, and might well be contemplating a deal with Hitler. That made the soldiers all the more reluctant to risk the issue of battle. So Poland went down, unaided. The French sat in the Maginot Line and let their army rot. The Royal Air Force dropped leaflets over Germany. The Allies’ decision, or lack of it, would cost millions of lives and alter the shape of the world for the foreseeable future.

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