The Polish Campaign: Stukas, Haystacks, and High Ranking Generals Historical Commentary
September 1939 marked the end of bloodless victories for the Third Reich and the beginning of general war in Europe for the second time in less than twenty-one years. After formally repudiating the military limitations of the Versailles Treaty in March 1935, Hitler supervised the vigorous reconstruction of the German Armed Forces (Wehrmacht), including a new Navy (Kriegsmarine) and Air Force (Luftwaffe), as well as a much larger and partially mechanized Army (Heer). The following four years brought immense territorial gains for Germany, without the loss of a single German soldier’s life in combat. Between March 1936 and March 1939, the German Army reoccupied the Rhineland, annexed Austria, seized most of Czechoslovakia, and occupied Lithuanian Memel, all without firing a shot. As a result, when the German Army was called upon to invade Poland in September 1939, it was a hugely reinvigorated but essentially untried organization.
Given their defensive mission, the Polish Army seemed to have a chance against the Germans. The Germans were committing fourteen mechanized divisions, forty-four infantry and mountain divisions, and a cavalry brigade to the conquest of the twenty-three-year-old Polish state. With a standing establishment of thirty infantry divisions, a cavalry division, and eleven cavalry brigades, the Poles could effectively double that number upon mobilization. Their soldiers were generally well trained and highly motivated. Unfortunately for them, mobilization of their Army only began on 30 August, and the German invasion began on 1 September. Furthermore, a significant number of units had to be deployed in the east in the event of a Soviet invasion, thus diluting what was available to oppose the Germans in the west. With the conclusion of the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact on 23 August, the Poles had every reason to suspect trouble from the East.
To make things worse for the Poles, their Army was supported by a weak and poorly equipped Air Force which counted fewer than four hundred combat aircraft. Overwhelmed by the 1,400 fighters and bombers of the Luftwaffe, the Polish Air Force offered no effective resistance throughout the conflict. Tanks and antitank guns were outdated and few in number and were deployed ineffectively in a dispersed fashion; horse cavalry was utterly anachronistic on a mid-twentieth-century battlefield and nearly useless for anything beyond reconnaissance missions in difficult terrain. With the Polish Air Force out of the picture, the Luftwaffe vigorously supported the ground maneuvers of the Army with, among other types, siren-equipped Stuka dive bombers, which sowed not only destruction but demoralization among the Polish defenders. To make the situation completely untenable, the Polish High Command deployed their forces well forward, with few defensive features between them and the attackers. This posture made defense not only difficult for Polish tactical commanders, but actually facilitated a massive German envelopment of a huge portion of the Polish forces, namely the Poznan Army, in western Poland.
Basically, the German strategy was to engulf the better part of the Polish Army in a huge double envelopment, with the jaws of the pincers snapping shut on Warsaw. Further fingers would stretch out to seize Lvov in the south and Brest in the north. To this end, the German Army High Command (Oberkommando des Heeres, or OKH) organized their forces into two Army Groups. Army Group South, under von Rundstedt, consisted of Blaskowitz’s Eighth, von Reichenau’s Tenth, and List’s Fourteenth Armies. Von Rundstedt’s troops carried out the main effort, spearheading their assault with ten of the mechanized divisions. Army Group North, under von Bock, consisted of von Küchler’s Third and von Kluge’s Fourth Armies. Von Bock’s units cut the Danzig/Gdansk Corridor, isolating Poland from the sea, and enveloped the Polish Modlin and Pomorze Armies from the north.
Overall, although intending to take advantage of the superior mobility afforded by armored formations and the flexibility of the “aerial artillery” that was Luftwaffe air support, the strategic concept and corollary course of the campaign was one more akin to the Schlieffen Plan of the First World War than to later German “Blitzkriegs.” The material destruction of the Polish Army was the principal objective, rather than concentrating on the elimination of the Poles’ will to fight. Indeed, although they fought valiantly and stubbornly, the outnumbered and outmaneuvered Polish Army was well on the way to destruction at the hands of the Germans even before the invasion by the Soviet Army from the east on 17 September.
Although a few Polish horse cavalry units conducted some limited incursions into East Prussian territory, the Germans seized the strategic and operational initiative from the beginning and retained it throughout the campaign. Overall, while German panzer and Luftwaffe components performed well enough in the Polish campaign, it was the German infantry, supported by horse-drawn artillery, who fought and won the lion’s share of the battles. The campaign was concluded with stunning brevity, and at a relatively “low” cost to the attackers—a little over 10,000 Germans killed.
Georg Grossjohann’s part in the Polish campaign was somewhat removed from the foci of critical combat actions. On 1 September 1939, von Küchler’s Third Army attacked from East Prussia against the Modlin Army and part of Group Narev. The author’s unit, the 21st Infantry Division, was one of the eight infantry divisions von Küchler threw against the Poles to this end. As members of the divisional Field Reserve Battalion, Georg and his men followed in the train of the Division’s combat echelons. Although the author consequently saw limited action in this campaign, his experiences were nevertheless illustrative of many of the key features of the war in Poland in 1939.
Georg Grossjohann Remembers . . .
The German populace was deeply disconcerted by the developments of 1939, as the government probably was also. We soldiers, who knew the true face of war from the stories told us by our fathers, were certainly not enthused about the prospect of an early hero’s death. We were, however, prepared to do our bitter duty.
By the middle of July 1939, all of our units were at the sort of high personnel strength that we had previously only seen during mobilization exercises. Everything went
along in a smooth and well-organized fashion, like a well-oiled machine. No one spoke of a looming war, and secretly each of us hoped that the whole process would run its course as it all had before.
In the beginning of August, our 2d Battalion, Infantry Regiment 3 conducted a fortification exercise along the Polish border. We built positions for use in the event of a possible altercation with Poland. It appeared to me that measures were being taken to avoid leaving married soldiers, particularly those with children, in combat positions. As my company was departing our garrison, I was transferred to a newly organized divisional replacement battalion (Field Replacement Battalion 21). The departure from my 9th Company comrades, with whom I had spent many years, was not easy. I attempted to return to my old gang as a replacement during the first days of the war in Poland but was foiled.
The Field Replacement Battalion was stationed in the East Prussian town of Mohrungen, as was the headquarters of Third Army. I saw that the signs around the barracks simply read “Exercise Army—3d Command.” The Third Army’s commanding general was our old commander, General der Artillerie Georg von Küchler. The nucleus of this Army was composed of the three original East Prussian infantry divisions. The Third Army only had eight infantry divisions, the 4th Panzer Bri-gade, and the only horse cavalry brigade in the German Wehrmacht. The Third Army was also one of the smallest field armies to participate in the Polish campaign; the Tenth Army, in comparison, boasted eighteen divisions, including two panzer and two motorized divisions.
Upon arriving in Morhrungen, I reported to the Stabsfeldwebel of the replacement company to which I had been assigned. He was a nice older man nearing the completion of his twenty-fourth year of service—one of the rare “twenty-four pointers!” He had only made it that far because he had been assigned to the regimental band. Now this old Stabsfeldwebel had been assigned as our first sergeant. Unfortunately, he would later be killed in a pointless attack in the Maginot Line.
In short order, after assembling in Mohrungen, the Field Replacement Battalion outfitted and equipped the arriving reservists. Immediately thereafter, the battalion was entrained and transported to join the rest of the 21st Infantry Division, already in their assembly areas near the Polish border in the vicinity of Graudenz. As an older NCO, I was henceforth sent back to our East Prussian garrison town, where over a decade ago I had “endured” my recruit training.
Osterode was a town of about 16,000 inhabitants, and our adjacent garrison held about 1,000 soldiers. Despite our modest pay, our presence was always an important factor in the economy of this small city. Except for occasional unseemly incidents—and by today’s standards, even these incidents were harmless affairs, such as minor fist fights—all businesses welcomed soldiers within their walls.
Businesses which provided diversions or entertainment for the troops during their free time were naturally an important part of the economic community of each garrison town. During my time there from 1928 to 1939, Osterode had two movie theaters, three dance cafés, a good dozen cozy and friendly taverns, and many excellent guest house/restaurants. There were a great many things for soldiers to do in and around Osterode. Our favorite activities included eating, drinking, dancing, taking part in different sporting activities, or traveling about the beautiful East Prussian countryside by boat or by railroad. Every weekend there were dances held in three large halls in town, although one could also choose to go to a private club, either the type to which one needed a bona fide invitation, or one at which one could pay to enter. Cultural activities were not especially favored by young infantrymen. Of course, the deciding factor regarding our off-duty endeavors was always the same—money!
Five marks was generally enough for an evening. To get into the mood to go to a dance hall, for example, one had to have the means to purchase the necessary potions; a little beer and maybe a shot of rye whiskey were usually enough to dispel any hesitation. The bottle of beer cost twenty-five pfennigs in a tavern; cognac cost twenty, and a shot of clear whiskey was ten pfennigs. Once fortified, we would make our way to the close combat ball.
Once at the objective—a dance hall—one had to carefully protect one’s remaining resources, as the entry fees were usually about three marks. To remain in the place, one must always have a drink in front of him, so we had to use our soldierly initiative to find ways of staying. There was usually a long bar in the room adjacent to the dance hall, and this is where the poorest among us could be found. Grizzled veterans of the First World War made the best companions here, as they would happily refresh our drinks while regaling us with stories of their heroic deeds at Verdun or on the Somme. A truly virtuoso sponge could extend this act for hours by reacting with expressions of wonderment and astonishment as these old boys spun their tales. In the end, however, it often took equal imagination to pry oneself away from these beneficent old men; usually, conjuring the illusion of bodily needs was the answer!
It is well known that our East Prussian girls were beautiful, and the population generally also retained a positive attitude about the soldiery. In fact, among most of the girls, military service was a large part of the measure of a man and was expected. Nevertheless, the situation in Osterode was complicated—it was not simple for the girls of a town of its size to remain respectable around a population of 1,000 predominately single young men. This was especially so for nice girls, who had to contend with many young men who were less than completely serious in their ultimate intentions. The selection of the right partner required a profound knowledge of the psyche of postpubescent infantrymen. However, it seemed that this knowledge was passed on to the girls of every old garrison town through their mother’s milk, as many of their female antecedents had confronted precisely the same challenges for generations before. Further, most girls knew that most troops were not likely to keep their mouths shut once they got back to the barracks, and that they would promptly announce the news of their successes to their barrack mates the next morning. Thus, most young infantrymen didn’t stand a chance of satisfying their blooming passions with a nice girl in Osterode.
This did not mean that the citizens or girls of Osterode had anything against a long-term attachment to a career soldier . . . and we were all career soldiers in the Reichswehr! Indeed, quite the opposite was true. Since most twelve-pointers went on to have respectable careers in civil service, marriage to one of us was generally welcomed by the families of our garrison town.
Like many East Prussian towns, Osterode lay beside a large lake. In the lower quarter of the city, there was an esplanade which on holidays would be decorated with garlands of lanterns a kilometer long. There was also a pier with docks for small passenger ships, on which one could make excursions. Many of our East Prussian lakes were connected by canals, so travel to many destinations was easy. In the early 1930s, our battalion founded a water sports club, from which one could obtain the use of a canoe or rowboat. In the summer months, these boats were in more or less constant usage during off-duty hours, mostly to chauffeur our girlfriends around to quiet inlets or small rush-covered islands.
In the late summer of 1939, however, these idylls were rapidly becoming a thing of the seemingly distant past. It was the last days of August 1939. I had once read that the summer days before the beginning of the First World War were especially beautiful, as if Nature was presenting her greatest splendor just before the dying began. Now, twenty-five years later, one could have written the same thing. Each summer day was more magnificent than the last.
On the evening of 25 August, our company commander opined that X-Hour was imminent.l Only much later did we find out why the operation was delayed and the units already on the way to their objectives pulled back. Feverish, last-minute diplomatic maneuvers to avert war were taking place. By 31 August, however, von Ribbentrop declared that he no longer had authority to negotiate. The dice had been thrown!
“Situation White” went into effect. The order to execute, which had already come down from the highest command authorities in the late afternoon, was brief: “Missions and objectives remain the same. X-Day— 1 September 1939. X-Hour—0445.” As I opened the window in my barracks at 0500, I heard an endless peal of thunder from the south. The artillery on the Polish border had opened fire.
I was dumbstruck. My childhood memories of the First World War were still very distinct. I hurried into the barracks square to find someone with whom to talk. There stood the former commander of our 11th Company, Major von T., now in the uniform of a general staff officer, and the Ia of our division,2 surrounded by soldiers and besieged with questions. “Yes,” he said with a shrug, “this time the shooting is for real!”
It was exactly nine months before the previously longed-for conclusion of my term as a “twelve-pointer.” It was well that neither the German people nor we soldiers knew how long this war would last, or how it would end almost six years later. On 1 September 1939, an epoch began that would change the face of Europe and our history. The Second World War had begun.
The Field Replacement Battalion was alerted at 0800 because Polish troops were allegedly preparing to cross the River Weichsel near the ferry at Kurzebrack, and also to the south of it. Marienwerder is situated barely four kilometers from the Weichsel, which at that point measures almost five hundred meters across. Presumably, the river bank opposite the Polish corridor was at that time only lightly occupied by border patrols, and for some reason or other the patrols panicked, as happens often at the beginning of a war.
First, however, we moved into position on the plateaus west of Marienwerder and started to dig in. We dug in vain, and even refilled the holes on the same afternoon. False alarm! A few hours into the attack, the Poles already had other problems than crossing the Weichsel towards us!
From the early morning hours, almost like a shuttle, squadrons of German bombers flew back and forth over the Polish border to the south. By then, the Polish Marshal Edward Rydz-Smigly presumably understood that his march towards Berlin was not going to happen. At this hour, the bulk of the Polish Air Force had already been destroyed on the ground.3
On 4 September, our division had already entered the outskirts of Fortress Graudenz, which was seized on 5 September. After this we were moved to the southeast of the province and from there turned again towards Poland. The Field Reserve Battalion followed the Division across the Narev River between Lomsha and Ostrolenka and after a few days reached Bialystok, our final objective. During the whole Polish campaign, I experienced only one combat episode. South of the Narev, while taking a rest, we were suddenly told that scattered but strong units of Polish troops were approaching from the north of the advancing division.
A so-called “battle-capable” patrol under my command mounted on bicycles was sent towards the direction from which the enemy was thought to be coming. We rode several kilometers without detecting anything until a large meadow with many haystacks aroused my curiosity. I motioned to my infantrymen to check out the haystacks, which they did by poking the straw vigorously with their bayonets. They had remarkable success, and the reason soon became obvious. After a few loud screams, many of the haystacks suddenly became alive. From almost every one, a few battle-weary Polish soldiers crept out, some still with their weapons, but all of whom surrendered without resistance. They had been dispersed from the fortifications on the Narev. Later during questioning, they stated that more than anything, the attacks of the Stuka dive bombers on their bunkers had undermined their will to fight.
In our advance towards Bialystok, we passed a place with numerous graves of German soldiers. They all belonged to the same company of a reconnaissance battalion that was probably ambushed right there.
On the same day, moving through sand and heath, we were passed by a long convoy. There in the first car, obviously in a radiant mood, stood the Commanding General of Army Group North, Generaloberst Fedor von Bock, who greeted us with his hand raised, crying “Heil Hitler, my dear comrades” (!).
The campaign in Poland was decided in the first eight days. The last Polish resistance, however, only collapsed on 1 October, four weeks after the beginning of the war. From a curbside vantage, I later experienced my old company’s torchlight triumphant return home to a grateful populace after the conclusion of the campaign in Poland. Unfortunately, there were some dead and wounded to mourn.
Excerpted from Five Years, Four Fronts by Georg Grossjohann. Copyright © 2005 by Georg Grossjohann. Excerpted by permission of Presidio Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.