The World at War

 

Fall Weiß - The Fall of Poland

Blitzkrieg - The Fall of Poland

In September 1939 Germany shocked the world with its lightning invasion and rapid destruction of Poland. With the invasion a new word, blitzkrieg, was born and the world glimpsed for the first time the culmination of German tactical development.

Preliminary Moves

In March of 1939 immediately after the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, Hitler told Colonel General Keitel, chief of the High Command of the Armed Forces and Colonel General von Brauchitsch, commander in chief of the Army, that the time had come to settle the Polish problem by military means. A week later Hitler set forth a strategic outline for an attack on Poland no later than September 1st, 1939. On April 28th Hitler abrogated the Polish-German nonaggression treaty of 1934 and declared that the Danzig question must be settled. On march 31st, the British, in an effort to forestall the dictator, had given a unilateral guarantee of Polandís territorial integrity. France had a military alliance with Poland dating back to 1921. It was the Soviet Union that held the trump card in the game Hitler was playing. The German Army feared a two front war and even Hitler would not risk fighting both the western powers and the Soviet Union at this early date. Stalin, cynically, opened negotiations with both sides in mid April, 1939. Britain and France courted the Soviet Union but Stalin feared Germany and did not wish trouble with her. The Russians made overtures to the Germans suggesting that ideological differences need not prevent general agreement and hinting darkly that perhaps Poland could be yet again dismembered. Hitler realized that the Russians were using Germany to raise the price they would extract from the Allies for making common cause with them. Hitlerís position however was strong. The Soviet Union would have to fight for Britain and France but all it needed to do for Hitler was to remain neutral and gather in the spoils. The Russians signaled how well they appraised the situation on May 3rd when Maxim Litvinov, a Jew and longtime advocate of restraint in foreign affairs was suddenly dismissed as commissar of foreign affairs and was replaced by Vycheslav Molotov. On the night of August 23rd, German Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop agreed to the final revision of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Treaty. A secret protocol placed Finland, Estonia and Latvia in the Soviet sphere of influence while Lithuania went to the Germans. Poland was to be divided along the Narew, Vistula and San Rivers. The treaty went into effect as soon as it was signed.

In July 1939 under the fiction of conducting summer maneuvers, strong German forces moved into assembly areas near the Polish Frontier. Other forces were dispatched to East Prussia ostensibly to participate in the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Tannenburg. In a last minute attempt to intimidate Hitler, the British announced on August 25th that they had entered into a full military alliance with Poland. It was of no avail however as on August 31st, Hitler signed Directive No.1 for the Conduct of the War. That night SS units staged incidents along the border including a phony Polish raid on a German radio station at Gleiwitz. Before sunrise the next morning, September 1st, 1939 World War Two began.

War Plans

Polandís strategic position was weak as she lay between Germany and the Soviet Union. She was further hampered by fact that more than ten million of her thirty-seven million people were non-Poles, her industrial base was weak and she included in her boundaries on the north and east, territories to which Germany and the Soviet Union had strong historical claims.
     Polish commanders had two options, a forward defense of the borders, or an interior defense based on the major rivers. The forward defense would protect industry, communications and major population centers but it left the army vulnerable to being outflanked, surrounded and destroyed in detail. An interior defense avoided the potential loss of the covering forces but cost Poland most of its industrial areas and some major cities. In the end the Polish High Command decided on a compromise. The Army would deploy forward but only long enough for mobilization to be completed. Once that had occurred the Army would fight a delaying action to the south-east. The purpose of this was to preserve the Polish Army long enough for France to attack and defeat Germany in the west. The Poles counted on France to begin her attack within the two week time frame established in the treaty. Based on Franceís performance at Munich, Poland had deep fears that France might abandon them just as they did the Czechs. This caused the Army to position itself even farther forward so that any German attempt to seize disputed territory would trigger the military treaty and bring France into the war.. The fundamental concept of the German war plan was to fight a short war that would be over before France or Britain could put their forces in the field should they decide to fight for Poland. The plan was given its final form in an order issued June 15th by Army High Command (OKH. This order provided for two army groups, Army Group North commanded by Col. General Fedor von Bock, and Army Group South, commanded by Col. General Gerd von Rundstedt.
     Army Group North was to attack eastward into the Polish Corridor with one of its two armies, the 4th, while the other, the 3rd Army, would strike west from East Prussia into the corridor. After the armies had made contact in the corridor they would turn southward in the general direction of Warsaw. Army Group South with three armies, the 8th, 10th and 14th was to advance from the Silesia and Slovakia toward the Northeast. The 10th Army, strongest of the three, would strike directly toward Warsaw while its flanks were covered by the 8th Army on the left and the 14th on the right. The junction of the 10th Army with elements of Army Group North at Warsaw would complete the encirclement and destruction of any enemy units not destroyed before then. The meeting of these two forces would presumably end the campaign. General von Bock suggested extending the arms of the encirclement east of Warsaw to prevent the escape of Polish troops into the Pripet Marshes. This suggestion was acted upon in phase two of the actual campaign..

The Armies

The two armies were not evenly matched. Germanyís forces were larger, more modern and well balanced. They were also expert in the doctrine of combined arms. About 1.8 million Germans participated in the campaign including Luftwaffe and Navy. Along with modern communications equipment, he Germans enjoyed a vast superiority in weapons and employed some 2,600 tanks and over 2,000 aircraft of all types.
     The Polish Army, on the other hand, was well thought of in Europe and was reputed to have the continentís finest cavalry. The infantry were tough, resourceful and brave. They were practiced in the arts of anti-tank warfare and heavy German losses of armor during the campaign would point this out. In a man to man infantry fight the Germans had no advantage over the Poles. Polish tactical style was based upon their experiences in the Russian-Polish War and emphasized maneuver and the use of combined arms. Unfortunately for Poland, maneuver meant at the speed of the slowest horse and their combined arms doctrine looked back to the First World War.
     The Polish Army moved on foot or horseback. A German signal battalion had twice as many trucks as an entire Polish infantry division. Another critical weakness was the complete lack of modern communications equipment even at the highest command levels. Poland did possess about 1,000 armored vehicles however three quarters of them were small tankettes of questionable value. Two brigades of 7TP Light Tanks comprised the bulk of Polandís modern tank force. While these tanks were to prove superior to the PzI and PzII and were a near match for the PzIII, the Poles were hopelessly outclassed in the tactical use of armor.

The Polish Air Force numbered about 900 aircraft of all types, most of which were obsolete. The Air Force was under the direct control of the Army and mostly limited to ground support missions. The pilots were well trained and got the most out of their outdated aircraft but could not overcome organizational and equipment shortcomings much less the sheer size and excellence of the Luftwaffe.

The Campaign

At dawn on September 1st, the Luftwaffe struck at Polish airfields destroying most of the planes before they could get off the ground. With control of the skies assured the Germans began the systematic destruction of railroads and the few communications nodes. From the very outset the Poles mobilization plan was seriously compromised. Before the day ended, chaos reigned at Polish Army Headquarters.

The first phase of the campaign, fought on the frontiers was over by September 5th and the morning of the 7th found reconnaissance elements of Army Group Southís 10th Army just 36 miles southwest of Warsaw. Meanwhile, also on September 5th, Bockís Army Group North had cut across the corridor and turned southeast for Warsaw. Units of the 3rd Army reached the banks of the River Narew on September 7th, just 25 miles north of Warsaw. The fast moving armored spearpoints of the German attacks left the immobile Polish armies cut up, surrounded and out of supply.

The destruction of Polish forces was accomplished in the second phase of the campaign. Intelligence reports indicated that large numbers of Polish troops had fled east of the Vistula. OKH in accordance with von Bockís earlier proposal, ordered a second deeper envelopment to the line of Bug River.

Meanwhile the closing of the inner ring at Warsaw witnessed some tough fighting as the Polish Poznan Army, bypassed in the first week of the war, changed heading and attacked toward Warsaw to the southeast. The German 8th and 10th Armies were put to the test as they were forced to turn some divisions completely around to meet the desperate Polish assault. In the end the gallant attack fell short and by September 19th the Poznan Army surrendered some 100,000 men and Polandís last intact army. As this was occurring the second, deeper envelopment led by General Heinz Guderianís panzers took the city of Brest-Litovsk on September 17th, and continued past the city where they made contact with the 10th Army spearhead at Wlodowa 30 miles to the south. The war, for all practical purposes was over by September 17th. Lvov surrender on the 19th. Warsaw held out until September 27th and the last organized resistance ended October 6th with the surrender of 17,000 Polish soldiers at Kock.

Soviet Intervention

Initially the Germans requested that the Russians be ready to move by September 3rd. This proved to be impossible and it wasnít until September 17th that two Soviet army groups, the White Russian Front in the north and Ukrainian Front in the south marched into Poland. They met little effective resistance and spent much of their time shepherding the wide ranging German forces out of the Soviet zone. Over 200,000 Poles surrendered to the Red Army. Many of these men (excepting the officers who were largely murdered by the Soviets at Katyn Forest), went on to fight the Germans in the service of the Red Army or in the west.

Results

The campaign had lasted less than two months and ended in the destruction of the Polish Army and the fourth partition of Poland. German losses were surprisingly heavy considering the brevity of the campaign. German casualties total some 48,000 of which 16,000 were killed. Fully one quarter of the tanks the German committed to battle were lost to Polish anti-tank guns. The Luftwaffe was forced to write off some 550 aircraft. It was not a cheap victory by any means but it did confirm to the generals of the Wehrmacht that the military machine that they had built was indeed the best in the world and worthy of their confidence.

UP - Article Index - Homepage