First to fight, p.12

First to Fight, page 12


First to Fight

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  A state of war … yet neither the French nor the English are marching across our frontiers. Why don’t they march? Why don’t they cross whatever river it is and bring the madness of war to an end, before the best of all nations have bled to death? From hour to hour, we wait on the intervention of the Great Powers.68

  Hitler, too, it seems, was expecting some immediate response from his new enemies. That afternoon, he telephoned his home on the Obersalzberg and asked to speak to the Berghof’s house manager, Herbert Döhring. He told Döhring that he should expect to be ‘one of the first to get a hit on the head’, in the event of Allied bombing, and therefore advised that the house’s valuables and works of art should be taken down into the cellar for safe-keeping.69 In the days that followed, similar measures were undertaken by museums and galleries all over the Reich, which were dispersing their collections to safety and closing their doors for the duration of the war. In Berlin, the equestrian statue of Frederick the Great on Unter den Linden was shuttered and enclosed in concrete; the bust of Nefertiti was carefully crated and sent to the cellar of the Reichsbank. Germany’s civilians enjoyed no such protection. Although blackout and rationing regimes were announced with immediate effect, a general evacuation of children from the cities would not be considered for another year.70

  In Warsaw, meanwhile, bombing was already a daily reality. Sporadic aerial attacks over the previous two days had culminated in more intensive raids on the morning of 3 September – primarily on aviation and industrial targets in the suburbs, including Rakowiec, Siekierki and Grochów – and caused the loss of ten lives.71 ‘Constant air-raid alarms – our life is now a constant journey between the basement and the apartment,’ one diarist noted.72 Another mused: ‘Now it is clear to all that, although we are not on the front line, the front is actually above us – the war is being fought overhead.’73 Already, Varsovians were growing accustomed to the new realities of warfare. Trams and buses were lit only with a dim blue light, and windows were criss-crossed with strips of tape to minimise injuries from flying glass. The city also had to accommodate the many refugees who were pouring in from the provinces seeking safety, their carts and wagons piled high with belongings. In addition, that very morning, the capital’s inhabitants had been called upon, by radio, to join labour details to dig slit trenches in the city’s parks and open spaces, to provide a modicum of protection from air attack.74

  Nonetheless, the public mood on 3 September, spurred by the rather rosy reports of the Polish press, was upbeat. As one eye-witness recalled: ‘Varsovians were not anticipating defeat … there was great combat spirit.’75 The previous day, Polish cavalry troops backed by infantry had carried out a raid which penetrated 8 kilometres across the German frontier into Silesia, capturing the towns of Geyersdorf (Dębowa Łęka) and Fraustadt (Wschowa) and forcing the Germans into a temporary retreat.76 Moreover, that very morning, six Karaś bombers of the Polish 2nd Air Regiment had successfully attacked a column of German tanks advancing towards Jordanów, causing numerous casualties.77 One diarist recorded the thrill with which the shooting down of German aircraft was received, noting that ‘the boys were mad with joy when they saw the bomber falling in flames’. ‘So, we were really bringing down German planes. There was no doubt about it,’ he mused. ‘It makes you believe in your own success.’78

  There was also an expectation that help would be forthcoming. Władysław Szpilman recalled listening to the radio with his parents that morning, when the programme was suddenly interrupted by news of an important announcement, followed by the playing of military marches. ‘We could hardly stand the nervous tension,’ he wrote. But when the Polish national anthem was played, followed by that of the United Kingdom, ‘we learned that we no longer faced our enemy alone; we had a powerful ally and the war was certain to be won’. The emotion was hard to contain; ‘Mother had tears in her eyes, Father was sobbing unashamedly.’79 Others recorded similar sentiments. Housewife Maria Komornicka was at home in Mokotów when she heard enthusiastic cheers from the street.

  I thought I heard ‘Long live the Army’ and looked out of the window expecting to see an army march past, but I saw people running towards Krucza St. What they were shouting was ‘Long live Britain’ – ‘Niech żyje Anglia’ – and people were running to the British Embassy, because the radio had announced that Britain had declared war. In the blinking of an eye, flags were hoisted.80

  Soon after, a crowd stretching ‘for miles’ down Warsaw’s most elegant street, Nowy Świat, converged outside the British Embassy, lustily singing their own renditions of ‘God Save the King’ and ‘Tipperary’, throwing flowers and hoisting shoulder-high anyone thought to be British. The ambassador, Sir Howard Kennard, was obliged to show himself on the small balcony of the embassy to acknowledge the crowds, and each time he did so, he was met with wild cheering and shouts of ‘Long live Britain!’ In time, the Polish foreign minister, Józef Beck, arrived, his car scarcely able to push its way through the throng. For a while, he and a bemused Kennard were obliged to salute one another across the street, before Beck was finally able to force his way into the building and join the ambassador to shake hands on the balcony. Beck was offered a glass of champagne, but refused, replying that the moment was ‘too sad’ for his country. The two then addressed the crowd. ‘Long live Poland!’ Kennard proclaimed, in Polish, before adding in English: ‘We will fight side by side against aggression and injustice.’ Beck then raised his hand to quieten the tumultuous cheering and declared: ‘We never doubted that England would fight with Poland.’ He went on: ‘Britain and Poland have joined hands in a fight for freedom and justice. Britain will not let Poland down and Poland will not let Britain down. If anyone is disappointed, it will surely not be one of us.’ Later that afternoon, such joyous scenes would be repeated in front of the French Embassy, with a hearty rendition of the Marseillaise and cheers of ‘Vive la France!’81


  The question remained, however, of what military assistance Poland might reasonably expect from its new allies. France had already agreed – via the Kasprzycki–Gamelin Convention of May 1939 – the extent of the military support that would be offered to Poland in the event of conflict. However, little had been done in the interim to enable the timely realisation of those promises. Worse still, though the French held the trump cards in military matters, they had left the British to take the political lead, and had thereby made themselves willing hostages to London’s hesitation. Chamberlain’s government, though serious about drawing a line in the sand to halt Hitler’s territorial ambitions, had hoped that merely by raising its voice, Hitler would be cowed into submission. Consequently, the bold political gesture of guarantees and alliances had not been translated into any concrete plans for military action. The active defence of Poland against German aggression that autumn was simply not part of British strategy.82 As Chamberlain himself lamented to the US ambassador, Joe Kennedy, in August: ‘The futility of it all is the thing that’s frightful; after all [we] cannot save the Poles.’83 He knew that Britain could offer Poland little beyond vague expressions of moral support.

  Warsaw’s perspective on what might legitimately be expected from Poland’s allies was rather different. Naturally, the Polish General Staff anticipated that which Gamelin had promised in May: a large-scale offensive against Germany in the west. So, when the chief of the Polish military mission to France, Lieutenant-General Stanisław Burhardt-Bukacki, was briefed by Edward Śmigły-Rydz on 1 September, he was explicitly instructed to press for the opening of a ‘French front’ on land, and for immediate help from the French air force.84 This, after all, was the very minimum of what the Poles felt they had been promised.

  In the circumstances, it should come as no surprise that some Poles had rather inflated expectations of what the Anglo-French declaration of war might achieve. One Varsovian noted the popular belief that British bombers would arrive over Poland at ‘any moment’ to help in the fight against the Germans.85 Such attitudes were not confi
ned to the ranks of the ill informed. As Ambassador Kennard and Beck were speaking on the balcony of the British Embassy in Warsaw, Beck’s personal secretary talked with the second secretary at the embassy, Robert Hankey, who expressed the ‘certainty’ that the RAF would ‘launch raids on Germany before the end of the day’.86

  Ten-year-old Niusia Szewczykówna confided her hopes to her diary. ‘Papa says that Great Britain is a mighty power with a strong Navy and Air Force,’ she wrote.

  I shall have to learn English because I know only one word ‘Goodbye’, and that’s hardly enough to carry on a conversation with English soldiers. Papa said that in three or four weeks they’ll be here. When they come, I should like to thank them for helping us to beat Hitler but if I haven’t learnt sufficient English to say so, I’ll just have to hug them and they’ll know what I mean.87


  The Temerity to Resist

  Ironically, perhaps, just as the declaration of war by the British and French was stiffening Polish resolve in Warsaw, Poland’s defence on its frontiers began to falter. Over the previous days, Polish armies had bravely resisted in a series of engagements that would collectively come to be known as the Battle of the Borders. At Mokra, Węgierska Górka, Mława and elsewhere – and particularly where they occupied fortified positions – they had given the invaders a bloody nose, but now the German preponderance in men and materiel began to make itself felt. It was a predicament summed up by a Polish peasant standing at the roadside near Kłobuck, not far from Poland’s south-western frontier, watching the German troops pass by in their trucks and armoured cars. ‘So many Germans,’ he repeated over and over, ‘so many Germans, and none of them on foot!’1

  At Mława, north of Warsaw, Polish defence lines reinforced with bunkers and anti-tank ditches initially checked the southward advance of the German 3rd Army. However, stretching for over 30 kilometres, those lines were always at risk of being penetrated, as German forces probed in search of weak points. One such was found toward the eastern end of the Mława defences, where a section of the line north of Rzęgnowo was held by a single Polish infantry regiment, supported only by two artillery squadrons and the Masovian Cavalry Brigade. There, on the evening of 2 September, the German 1st and 12th infantry divisions broke through, forcing the Poles to withdraw to a makeshift secondary line. More seriously, however, the collapse of the Rzęgnowo defences meant the entire Mława line was jeopardised, as those units still holding the German advance further west were threatened with an attack from the rear. On 3 September, therefore, the defenders of Mława were ordered to withdraw.

  One of those that witnessed the withdrawal was Brigadier-General Władysław Anders, the charismatic commander of the Nowogródek Cavalry Brigade, whose unit had been belatedly brought in to strengthen the eastern section of the line. ‘When I finally reached the 20th Infantry Division,’ he later recalled, ‘I found it already in retreat. It had fought the enemy in excellent spirit and, when it could hold its positions no longer, had begun to retire in good order. But when I came up with it, the retreat had ceased to be orderly. Hundreds of German aircraft bombed the retiring columns, and even made attacks on soldiers moving in small groups across country.’2 The withdrawal was in danger of turning into a rout.

  Such was the speed of the German advance that chaos ensued as the line fractured. In Przasnysz, a barracks of the 11th Uhlan Regiment was overrun by German advance forces on 3 September, with the guards still at the gate, sabres drawn, and others eating in the mess.3 The town of Ciechanów, 30 kilometres to the south of Mława, fell later the same day after a short battle, with a Polish armoured train spearheading a forlorn defence.4 Colonel Stanisław Sosabowski, holding part of the line with his 21st Infantry Regiment (‘Children of Warsaw’), found himself and his men abandoned by their fleeing comrades; they realised to their dismay that they were now behind the German advance. Concealing themselves in forests and woods, and moving by night, they began to make their way south, hoping to escape their predicament. In the process they witnessed the aftermath of a frenzied Polish retreat:

  Not far from my headquarters I was horrified to notice a battery of abandoned guns, with boxes of untouched ammunition lying around them … Everywhere were the signs of panic. Horses with cut harnesses wandered in the fields. Wagons blocked the way, their contents strewn on the roads and in the ditches. Official papers, maps and military orders festooned the hedges and wire fences, guns lay abandoned, many of them still with breech blocks in position.5

  It was little wonder, he mused, that his messages to neighbouring units had gone unanswered.

  Sosabowski was wise to move by night, as the Luftwaffe was wreaking havoc by day, targeting civilians and soldiers alike. Brigadier-General Anders saw their work, passing through burning villages recently raided from the air, where the bodies of civilians still littered the streets. He then witnessed the horror of an air attack with his own eyes:

  I saw a group of small children being led by their teacher to the shelter of the woods. Suddenly there was the roar of an aeroplane. The pilot circled round, descending to a height of 50 metres. As he dropped his bombs and fired his machine guns, the children scattered like sparrows. The aeroplane disappeared as quickly as it had come, but on the field some crumpled and lifeless bundles of bright clothing remained.6

  Just to the west of the Mława positions, similar scenes were playing out. At Wąbrzeźno, Konstanty Peszyński, a major in the 4th Infantry Division, saw ‘throngs of people’ heading south, away from the German advance. ‘It’s hard to forget those terrified faces,’ he wrote:

  prams with infants pushed down the roads by terrified mothers, the elderly with their heads down straining to keep up with the young. The fathers and sons, hauling their property or whatever fell into their hands on overloaded bicycles. The poor wretches! Many barefoot without coats, having grabbed their crying children by the hands, ran without thought or hope.

  Moments later, Peszyński recalled, ‘the sky seemed to freeze with terror’ as German bombers, flying so low they ‘almost touched the ground’, strafed and bombed the crowd, sending the panicked civilians ‘scattering in every direction’. Peszyński was in no doubt that the pilots knew that their targets were refugees. ‘What barbarians, what beasts!’ he wrote. ‘My heart ached, tears filled my eyes.’7

  Peszyński’s experiences in those few days were typical. Not only did he witness the cruelty of the invaders, he also saw very clearly their technological advantage and the grim novelty of the Blitzkrieg. Though his men fought bravely and not without success against the initial German assault, they found themselves under constant threat of air attack, and were ultimately outflanked by fast-moving motorcycle troops. With that, he wrote, ‘the men buckled’, and the next frontal tank assault finally sapped their will to resist. Without air cover or adequate armour, outnumbered and outgunned, Peszyński mused that it was exactly awareness of what they lacked that depressed his men: ‘Nothing demoralises as powerfully as fighting with nothing but heroism.’8

  Once the line had broken, moreover, it was almost impossible to halt the flight. ‘The retreating troops’, Peszyński wrote, ‘mixed in with the reserves, forming scattered chaotic groups, without any combat value. I spent the next few hours on the road, stopping the withdrawing troops, setting them in order and sending them back to their regiments.’ However, on arriving at the next town he found its authorities and police already preparing to leave. Rounding up a few hundred stragglers, he sought to establish a defensive line on the river Drwęca, where he was ‘convinced we would stop the enemy’. But, again, he received the order to fall back a further 40 kilometres. ‘It really was a retreat,’ Peszyński recalled, ‘and we, as it turned out, were withdrawing last.’9

  Far to the south, a similar narrative was playing out. Initially, prepared positions – such as the network of bunkers at Węgierska Górka or the wetlands around Pszczyna, west of Kraków – had held up the German advance. At Orzesze, east of Rybnik, for instance, advanci
ng German forces were drawn into a trap, consisting of numerous interlocking machine-gun posts: ‘Without knowing it,’ Lieutenant Erich Mende recalled, ‘we found ourselves close to well-camouflaged field fortifications of the Polish infantry, which opened up on us from many positions. Progress was unthinkable; just a few steps and one was hit. In a flash, the cry went up: “Medic! Medic!”’ That action alone cost fourteen German lives.10

  Further east, the attack of the German 18th Corps, sweeping north and east down the valleys from the Tatra mountains, was initially halted by a valiant Polish defence near Nowy Targ. When here too a breakthrough was threatened, reinforcements arrived in the shape of the 10th Motorised Cavalry Brigade – the so-called Black Brigade – under Colonel Stanisław Maczek, the only fully operational motorised unit then available to the Polish High Command. Maczek, a veteran of the Isonzo Front and the Polish–Soviet War, was a gifted tactician and a pioneer in the use of small, mobile, well-equipped units, similar to the German stormtroopers of the First World War. Facing the numerical superiority of the Germans in 1939, his tactical thinking was deceptively simple:

  Engage the enemy in terrain with only close-range horizons, drawing the enemy into ravines and defiles, where he will not be able to open up his ranks without wasting too much valuable time; into narrows where he will be forced to fight with his fingers rather than his fist. To gain additional time and force his respect, continually seek opportunities to ‘bite back’ with brief forays or counter-strikes, thus forcing the enemy into time-consuming cautiousness or exposing him repeatedly to surprises which will not expedite his advance.11

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