First to fight, p.17

First to Fight, page 17


First to Fight

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  Travelling across the city during an air raid, Korwin found it completely deserted. ‘Not a soul was on the streets,’ she wrote. ‘Warsaw seemed a city without people.’ Hurrying to pick up wounded servicemen, she soon found herself a target for the enemy pilots and jumped into a ditch by the roadside. ‘The bombers were flying so low that we could see the faces of the airmen distinctly,’ she recalled. ‘They were encountering no opposition. They were masters of the sky, out for a joy ride. One of the pilots was laughing as he pointed to the destruction beneath him. The bombing went on … Why were they bombing, I wondered? No one and nothing lay below; there was only devastation.’152

  The effects were harrowing: ‘Here lay a shoe and a hat, over there a coat. A pool of fresh blood told a tale of horror.’ Korwin remembered seeing what she thought was a discarded overcoat after a raid, but rushing to investigate, discovered that it was a Jewish boy, with a gaping shrapnel wound, already beyond help: ‘He could no longer speak. When he saw me, he lifted his hand and opened it. In his palm was a tiny, one-ounce package of tea he had been carrying to the hospital.’ Korwin took the package and told the boy that his mission would be completed: she would take it to the hospital for him, where it would give comfort to an injured soldier. With that, she recalled, ‘the boy relaxed and died in peace’. She never discovered his name.153

  Whatever the cost, it seemed that Warsaw would be defended. On 8 September, General Czuma issued his first order of the day to the city’s garrison. ‘The commander-in-chief has entrusted you with the defence of the capital,’ he announced.

  He demands that the enemy’s attack be defeated at the gates of Warsaw, that the rape of Polish soil be brought to an end, and that those comrades fallen in battle – soldiers, women and children – be avenged. We shall reach out a hand to the fighting troops, to support them in the coming battles. We have taken our positions, from which there will be no retreat. The enemy will receive only one answer: ‘Enough! Not a step further!’ And we have only one order: ‘The commander-in-chief’s order will be carried out.’154

  That evening, as the first German spearheads entered the suburb of Wola, in the south-west of Warsaw, housewife Maria Komornicka confided her fears to her diary. ‘I suppose the fate of Warsaw has been sealed,’ she wrote. ‘We should be prepared to sit in the cellars. What a nightmare. We might be buried under the rubble. Warsaw might be turned to ruins … Good God, have mercy on us.’155


  Poland Is Not Yet Lost

  Those Varsovians able to consult the newspapers on the morning of 9 September might have found some grounds for cautious optimism. Only a few newspapers were still printing in the capital that day, among them the socialist Robotnik, whose tone of its front page was upbeat: ‘Franco-British Forces’, it proclaimed, were ‘marching on the Rhine’.1

  Two days earlier, French forces had indeed launched an invasion of the Saarland, probing across the German frontier into the Warndt Forest, south of Saarlouis, and the area south and south-east of Saarbrücken. The action was undertaken ostensibly in support of France’s Polish allies and in partial fulfilment of the undertaking, given to the Poles by General Gamelin in May 1939, to throw ‘the bulk’ of French forces against Germany. In truth, however, the eleven divisions of the French 2nd Army Group carried out only a limited incursion, advancing some 13 kilometres towards the town of Hornbach. In all, twelve small towns and villages were taken, unopposed, with French tanks and infantry inching nervously forward, while the German defenders mostly melted away, leaving daubed slogans in their wake that proclaimed the Wehrmacht’s pacific intentions. The German commander in the west, General Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, recalled the rather ridiculous nature of events: ‘Placards on the French side say “Please don’t shoot. We will not shoot”. We answer with “If you don’t shoot, neither will we”.’2 Where battle was actually joined, it was scarcely less farcical. On one occasion, a French platoon was stopped in its tracks for an entire day by the fire from a single automatic weapon.3

  Though the French did not know it, at that time they actually enjoyed a huge advantage over their German enemy. Not only did they have a numerical superiority of 3:1, but those Wehrmacht forces facing them had been pared to the bone in the expectation of a swift defeat of Poland, before any possible Anglo-French intervention could be made to count. Consequently, German ground forces were completely lacking in armour; machine guns and artillery were in short supply; and the Luftwaffe presence over the Saar was restricted to only a few obsolete biplanes. The German army in the west had effectively been hollowed out.4 Ritter von Leeb did not wholly understand why the French did not attack with more vigour. ‘Evidently they are not ready’, he concluded, ‘or they don’t want to pick the chestnuts out of the fire, and are waiting for the British.’ To a German officer of the old school, and a veteran of the First World War, French timidity was simply baffling.5

  Moreover, the area into which the French were cautiously advancing was not as well fortified as it at first appeared. Dominated by the Siegfried Line – the complex of layered German defences that stretched from Holland to the Swiss border – the Saarland was certainly dotted with minefields, bunkers and tank obstacles. But the defences were not complete: there were gaps and many of the bunkers themselves were not finished. Indeed, speaking after the war, General Alfred Jodl would describe the area at the time as ‘little better than a building site’.6

  Had the French attacked the Saarland with force in 1939, therefore, they would have quickly discovered that their opponents were under strength and those seemingly formidable defences were little more than a Potemkin village. But they rarely displayed any vigour at all, cautiously advancing and halting at the slightest whiff of resistance. Though General Gamelin spoke of doing ‘all we can to help the Poles’,7 he was clearly not prepared to sacrifice any French lives in doing so. Indeed, the French seemed to actually resent having been put in the firing line. Arriving in Paris in the first week of September, the former head of the British military mission in Warsaw, Adrian Carton de Wiart, noted that his French colleagues and friends ‘were all equally bitter and disgruntled with Britain for having stuck to her word to declare war on Germany if Poland was invaded’. The French, he would complain in his memoirs, ‘with their usual realism’ had failed to understand why the British had allied themselves to the Poles, and laboured under the impression that ‘the Poles wouldn’t have fought … if Britain hadn’t declared war’.8 In such circumstances, it was perhaps fortunate for Gamelin that casualties were light, with only a couple of hundred dead on both sides. The French Saar offensive was little more than an Allied propaganda exercise.

  Despite this, following the tone of the rather breathless French communiqués of the time, the incursion was reported in the most dramatic terms. Though The Times of London cautioned that French accounts should not be interpreted ‘in a fashion which may cause disappointment later’, the Daily Mail had no such qualms, writing that the French army was ‘pouring over the German border’ and that Germany was rushing troops west to meet the invaders.9

  In Poland, meanwhile, where people were desperate to believe in Allied determination and vigour, the French communiqués were reproduced verbatim in the press, and often embellished with rumour, hearsay and no little wishful thinking. One Lwów newspaper spoke of the Germans fleeing ‘in panic’, as ‘enormous French motorised forces’ broke through the Siegfried Line and sent crowds of refugees to flood Berlin. Later reports claimed that German forces were retreating in chaos, that the bridges on the Rhine had been captured, and that Aachen, Mainz, Frankfurt and Stuttgart were being evacuated. Very quickly, the Saar operation appeared, from a Polish perspective, to take on the character of a liberation. ‘We are being relieved, a little more each day,’ a Robotnik editorial opined on 9 September; ‘several German divisions, a significant portion of their air force and tanks, have been of necessity transferred to the French front.’ The Wilno paper Słowo went further: ‘The moment is nigh when the Ger
man General Staff will be forced to throw all of their forces to the west.’10 Ordinary Poles took their lead from such fantastic prognostications. One especially imaginative diarist near Lwów brimmed with enthusiasm for the actions of Poland’s allies, writing that ‘Britain rules the seas and the skies’, that the German battleship Gneisenau had been sunk, that Berlin’s industrial areas had been ‘bombed to rubble’ and that the French had captured Frankfurt.11 In Warsaw, meanwhile, housewife Maria Komornicka rejoiced about what she called ‘the Allied advance’ in the west. ‘Today is one week since the declaration of war by Britain and France,’ she wrote in her diary. ‘We can already feel that Germany is becoming weaker.’12

  In truth, there was very little to rejoice about. Poland’s western allies were only reluctantly creeping towards war, and the Saar offensive was grimly symbolic of their collective timidity and lack of resolve. The Polish military attaché in Paris was under few illusions. On 11 September, he wrote to his superiors in Warsaw to outline French inaction hitherto, and to explain that he had urged Gamelin, in writing, to speed things up.13 The head of the Polish military mission in London pithily summed up the French action as ‘fighting a war without a war’.14

  The arrival of the British Expeditionary Force did little to improve matters. The first five divisions were already arriving in France, but lacking transport, training and even maps, they were described by one of their corps commanders as ‘quite unfit for war, practically in every respect’.15 Moreover, subordinated to French command, they were incapable of independent action, even if they had had the capacity or the will. It seemed that they were little more than a token bolstering of French morale. The chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Ironside, noted the French mood after his attaché returned from a visit to the front. ‘The French believe’, he wrote, ‘that this struggle with Germany must happen in every century and probably more often. Their one desire is to emerge from the war with something of their manhood left. They are therefore going to do nothing until we are more in line. They do not want to fight in front of the Maginot Line and therefore they are not going to put too many men there.’ His conclusion was stark: ‘The more I look into our strategical position, the more serious does it seem.’16

  There was hardly any good news in the air either. Though Polish newspapers excitedly proclaimed that Germany’s industrial districts had been ‘turned to rubble’ by the RAF and that the iconic Krupp factory in Essen had already been destroyed,17 here too the reality was much more pedestrian. The RAF had gone into action, and on 4 September, twenty-nine Wellington and Blenheim aircraft had raided German warships and naval installations at Wilhelmshaven and Brunsbüttel, where five of their number were lost to anti-aircraft fire but little serious damage was caused. There had been even less damage the previous night, when a force of ten Whitleys from 51 and 58 squadrons dropped 5.4 million leaflets over ‘targets’ such as Hamburg, Bremen and the Ruhr.18 The leaflets, entitled ‘Warning! A Message from Great Britain’, gave the reasons for Britain’s declaration of war and stressed the British government’s ‘desire for peace’. The idea of bombing non-military targets in Germany – as the Luftwaffe was already ruthlessly doing in Poland – was dismissed by Prime Minister Chamberlain out of hand, largely for fear that it might lead to retaliatory raids on London and Paris.19 Moreover, when on 5 September it was proposed that munitions stores in the Black Forest might be set alight by an incendiary raid, the secretary for air, Sir Kingsley Wood, was horrified. He replied in disbelief: ‘Are you aware it is private property?’20

  Meanwhile, the head of the Polish military mission in London, Major-General Mieczysław Norwid-Neugebauer, was holding talks with senior members of the British military establishment, keeping them abreast of developments in Poland and seeking to realise Allied promises of help. Throughout the conversations, he was complimented about the valour of the Polish army and assured that everything would be done to assist in the fight, but his attempts to pin down specifics were met only with evasions and deference to higher authority. In one of his reports to Warsaw that September, Norwid-Neugebauer wrote that General Ironside ‘assures me that he will do everything he can to pressure the political decision makers in our favour’.21 However, as Ironside himself noted in his diary, that pressure bore little fruit. When it was suggested to Chamberlain that a ‘gloves off’ approach should be adopted in the air war against Germany, for instance, the prime minister ‘shook his head in a dull way as if it were too much to consider’.22

  Despite their public protestations that the defence of Poland was a matter of national honour, both the British and the French governments were brutally sanguine in private about the extent to which they were prepared to actually assist their ally. In justifying their inactivity, Britain’s military and political leaders even appeared to be willing to delude themselves about the murderous nature of Germany’s aerial campaign over Poland. At the same time as the British ambassador in Warsaw was outlining the Germans’ ‘tactics of deliberate and indiscriminate bombing of open towns’ and relaying the desperate pleas of the Polish foreign minister for ‘retaliation on German military objectives’,23 a war cabinet memorandum on the ‘German Observance of International Law’ cleared the enemy of any transgression. It suggested that those instances where civilian targets had been hit were a succession of accidents and the result of ‘normal inaccuracy’.24 As if this moral myopia were not enough to justify inaction, the argument was aired that Allied forces should be preserved for future battles. The private secretary to Viscount Halifax, the British foreign minister, noted that it would be wrong to ‘dash off against the Germans, either by land or air, merely to relieve the Poles, when by conserving our effort we should be able to deal a much shrewder blow later’. General Gamelin concurred that preserving Allied force was the preferable option. On 4 September, he stated that ‘to break or discourage the French Army, Navy or Air Force would in no way advance matters’.25

  The apogee of Allied inertia was apparent at the Supreme War Council, which met at Abbeville on the morning of 12 September, with Neville Chamberlain, General Gamelin and French prime minister Édouard Daladier in attendance. In their discussions, Daladier and Chamberlain stressed their ‘unity of will’ and their desire ‘to live in peace and quiet without a constant menace’. When asked his view of the military situation, Daladier replied that it had developed ‘as had been anticipated, and hoped for, by the French General Staff’, adding that though French forces were ‘approaching the Siegfried Line … no spectacular success was anticipated’. Indeed, the objective underlying operations in the Saarland ‘was to help Poland by distracting the attention of Germany’, but Daladier had ‘no intention of throwing his army against German main defences’. Chamberlain described the French decision to avoid large-scale operations as ‘wise’, claiming that ‘there was no hurry, as time was on our side’. In any case, it was clear that ‘nothing the Allies could do would save Poland from being overrun’. When asked whether any change of plan was contemplated, in the event of Poland holding on longer than expected, Gamelin gave a blunt ‘No’, adding that such a turn of events would merely give the Allies more time to prepare their own defences.26 It was, as one historian has memorably summarised, ‘a veritable orgy of mutual congratulation at not having succumbed to the temptation of attacking Germany’.27

  After a swift discussion of other matters, ranging from Spain to Syria, the two prime ministers penned a joint communiqué to be issued to the world’s press. It read:

  This meeting has fully confirmed the strength of the resolve of Great Britain and France to devote their entire strength and resources to the waging of the conflict which has been forced upon them, and to give all possible assistance to their Polish ally, who is resisting with so much gallantry the ruthless invasion of her territory.28

  Impressive words, no doubt, but the truth was that Britain and France were planning to defend Poland using vowels and consonants alone.

  When Chamberlain addressed
the House of Commons the next day to report on the proceedings of the Supreme War Council meeting, he once again declared the determination of the British and French peoples not only to put an end to the perpetual threat of Nazi aggression, but also ‘to honour to the full their obligations to Poland’. Beyond that principle, he was deliberately vague, claiming that he did not want to give away any information to the enemy.29

  Chamberlain also gave nothing away to his allies. The Polish ambassador’s note to Halifax that same day, asking for clarification of Allied intentions, went unanswered.30 Meanwhile in Paris, the head of the Polish mission was no longer permitted to see General Gamelin, and was reduced to begging his superiors in Poland for information on the wider strategic situation, because ‘I am getting nothing’ from the French.31 The Poles, it seemed, were being frozen out. In London, Major-General Norwid-Neugebauer perceived the Polish predicament with absolute clarity. In a message to Warsaw on 14 September, he explained that the British were planning for the long term, aiming to fight until Hitler was defeated, instead of pursuing the short-term aim of liberating Poland. Consequently, he wrote, ‘at this time we are left to ourselves’.32


  While British and French politicians agonised, Poland was enduring very real agonies of her own. Though military operations in the former Corridor had ceased, Polish civilians there were obliged to deal with the aftermath: the murderous persecution that came with German rule. It was most obvious in Bydgoszcz, where – as we have seen – reprisals for the earlier Polish killing of ethnic German insurgents merged with a brutal attempt to suppress Polish resistance. The killing reached a bloody climax on 10 September, with the ‘pacification’ of the southern suburb of Szwederowo (Schwedenhöhe in German), which had been a focus of violence since the town militia made a determined stand there, after the Wehrmacht had first arrived. Aktion Schwedenhöhe would be spearheaded by a new type of unit, which had been tasked specifically with the ‘neutralisation’ of resistance behind the front line – the Einsatzgruppen or ‘deployment groups’. Comprising primarily SS men and police, the Einsatzgruppen had been formed the previous year to secure important sites during the annexation of Austria. In 1939, they were re-formed, albeit with a rather different task, that of eliminating ‘oppositional elements’ encountered in the wake of the German advance into Poland. Initially six in number, each around 500 men strong, the units had already seen isolated action during the invasion, but the ‘pacification’ of Bydgoszcz was to be one of their most important – and formative – engagements.

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