First to fight, p.31

First to Fight, page 31


First to Fight

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  That morning, the most exciting rumour going around was that a German general – some said the commander-in-chief – had been killed in the fighting for Grochów, a suburb on the eastern side of the Vistula. ‘It sounded too good to be true,’ Polonius recalled. ‘The people did not believe the news.’7 As if to quash such scurrilous rumours, discussion of General von Fritsch’s death was interrupted by the arrival of German aircraft overhead, wheeling and circling high in the sky before diving down towards the street below, with wailing sirens and chattering guns. From the balconies of neighbouring buildings, groups of soldiers fired impotently at the planes with their rifles, desperate to provide some semblance of air defence. Nearby, a timber yard was already ablaze and burning fiercely.

  According to Polonius, those in the queue were initially largely unmoved by the commotion around them. Only when the aircraft returned did some of them leave the line to seek shelter, their places immediately filled by those behind, who ‘pressed as close to the wall as they could’. People were afraid: ‘I could feel the trembling and shaking of human bodies as the aeroplanes dived straight at us, their machine guns spraying bullets.’ But, Polonius noted, the queue dared not disperse because ‘bread was more valuable than safety’.8

  Ultimately, for all the drama of the morning, Polonius was to be disappointed. Soon after the German raiders had wheeled away to find fresh targets elsewhere, those remaining in the queue were told that there was no more bread that day. ‘I had got within a hundred yards of the gates of heaven: the bakery’, he wrote, ‘and behind me stretched an endless crowd. Some did not even leave their places. They would wait patiently until the morning.’9


  By the last week of September, life amid the rubble of Warsaw consisted of little more than the constant search for food, the constant fear of bombing, and the constant diet of rumour and propaganda. Warsaw had endured German bombing since the first day of the war and been under siege by German land forces for over two weeks. Much of the city centre lay in ruins by now, and almost without exception the prominent buildings and streets of the capital – the Royal Castle, the Old Town Square, the Saxon Garden – all bore the scars of war: smashed to rubble or burned out. Many streets were impassable, blocked by fallen masonry and navigable only by those able to pick a path through on foot. For all the exemplary valour and endurance of its inhabitants, Warsaw’s resistance was approaching its end, and that Sunday, 24 September, marked the start of a concerted bombing campaign that would overshadow all that had gone before. Hitler wanted Warsaw’s surrender within seven days.

  The following day – ‘Black Monday’, 25 September – 560 tonnes of explosives and 72 tonnes of incendiaries were dropped on the city.10 This day’s raiding was heavier than the most serious Luftwaffe raid on London during the Battle of Britain (350 tonnes), heavier than the raid that destroyed Rotterdam in 1940 (97 tonnes), and was comparable to the 500 tonnes of explosives dropped in the destruction of Coventry in November 1940.11 As before, the bombing was concentrated not on the fronts, where German and Polish forces were still fighting, but on the city’s central and residential districts. As one Polish colonel noted:

  The Germans had decided to take Warsaw by terror. It began around 7 a.m. and lasted without pause until around 5 p.m., [the Germans] intermittently using high-explosive and incendiary bombs. Within an hour the connection to our subordinate units was broken, smashed by explosions, destroyed by fire. Hell had opened up over Warsaw. Close to my shelter was that of the fire brigade officer who registered the reports of fires and ordered the response. He marked every fire with a little red flag on a large map of the city. By around 10 a.m., the map was covered with red, and he had run out of flags.12

  One Praga resident caught in the bombing was walking down the street, that morning, pondering why so many of Warsaw’s civilians seemed to be drawn towards the city centre where ‘the hell was at its hottest’. Just then, he heard the roar of approaching engines and turned to see a German dive-bomber heading straight for him. Throwing himself to the side of the road, he was deafened by the subsequent explosion and covered with earth and rubble. A 6-metre crater had been blown in the roadway. Dusting himself down, he struggled to make sense of the destruction. ‘Around the crater’, he noted, ‘I counted thirteen disfigured corpses and several more torn to shreds, whose miserable remains hung from the maimed branches of poplar trees and fences. It was hard to tell how many.’13

  German artillery was also active, pounding the city’s suburbs without mercy or respite. One German eye-witness thought that the sound of German guns became ‘the voice of Warsaw’, the mortars booming incessantly, ‘one battery after another’. It was evidently quite a spectacle. ‘Watching by night,’ one artilleryman remembered, ‘we saw curves of coloured fire flashing gracefully towards Warsaw. The earth quivered and our eardrums seemed about to split. Looking to Warsaw we saw columns of smoke soaring languidly, as if from mighty cigars. In all directions long smoky tongues of fire spurted up every second. In the heavens the clouds were as red as blood.’14

  For many Varsovians, meanwhile, the raids were more harrowing than anything they had experienced over the previous weeks. Marta Korwin remembered that day as the worst of the whole siege, and another eye-witness described it as ‘a true hell’: ‘Billows of smoke fill our eyes. Windows are shattered everywhere … A bomb explodes in the courtyard … the wounded building shakes in its foundations. Masses of planes. The world seems to be caving in.’15

  In the aftermath, those emerging from their cellars and shelters were presented with a new vista of horror, with so many fires burning that the city appeared as a single vast sea of fire and smoke. Ludwik Hirszfeld, a Warsaw doctor, wrote:

  This is what the end of the world must look like … dark from the smoke of fires and soot, houses teetered and crumbled to the ground. People as if gone mad, ran from house to house, from shelter to shelter. The streets were filled with the dead, wounded, horses next to men.16

  Like many, perhaps, Alexander Polonius struggled to find the ‘appropriate superlatives’ to describe events. ‘To say merely that today was still worse than yesterday does not convey very much,’ he wrote. Instead, he offered a simple lament:

  Too many bodies have perished in the fires, just burned; too many people have been buried in the public squares unidentified; too many lovely things have disappeared in the smoke. The rate of destruction has been so great that it is impossible to record the losses … Everything that we possess, including life, is being annihilated.17

  Many of the estimated 10,000 of Warsaw’s inhabitants killed during the siege died on that day.18

  Unsurprisingly, morale was shaken. Colonel Tadeusz Tomaszewski, chief of staff to General Walerian Czuma, commander of the defence of Warsaw, wondered glumly whether the continuation of the fight for Warsaw still had ‘any moral, political or military purpose’.

  No water for three days. Food supplies close to exhausted, the population is beginning to starve. The hospitals are burnt down and bombed out. 43,000 wounded are lying in the most primitive conditions in cinemas, cafés and cellars … thousands of corpses are scattered across the city, with hardly a covering of earth.19

  That same day, the Citizens’ Committee – an advisory body of prominent politicians – met in the Methodist community building on Mokotowska Street in the centre of the city. The mood was downbeat: ‘It was clear to everyone’, Senator Artur Śliwiński recalled, ‘that Warsaw’s fate was sealed.’ Śliwiński, a former prime minister, dared to ask the question that hung over all their deliberations: what prospects could a continuation of the fight hold? He was met with silence. It was decided to seek the advice of the military and postpone further discussions until another meeting scheduled in the defence headquarters the following day.20

  In the meantime, Warsaw burned. Wacław Lipiński ventured to the main thoroughfare of Marszałkowska Street that night:

  It was bright out, horrifically bright, and on top of everything, a hot,
dry wind has got up, carrying sparks, embers and hot ashes … Grenades explode one after another. They keep beating down on the wretched city, on the burning streets, on the people mad with terror … No one to help, and fire spreads from place to place, from house to house. Some streets … are entirely engulfed in flames.21

  Within that Hades, Lipiński noted, the people of Warsaw struggled on, running ‘among streets aglow with fire’, their voices barely audible above the crackling chaos, except for the ‘desperate wail of helpless children’. Moved on by the spreading fire, they would find shelter where they could in the crumbling buildings.22

  The morning brought little respite. Soon after dawn the German artillery began firing again, now barely answered by the Polish side. Listening to the cacophony, Alexander Polonius was worried by the ‘thinness of our fire’, but his greatest fear concerned the silences in between: at least the firing was proof of life, he explained, ‘it shows that we are defending our capital’.23 In addition, a German ground assault now began in the suburbs, targeting the forts that ringed the city and had become the mainstays of the Polish defence.

  According to a contemporary German account, the attack on the fort at Mokotów, in the south of Warsaw, proceeded so swiftly that the defenders were caught totally unawares. As a German lieutenant climbed down into the central courtyard that morning, he supposedly encountered a Polish soldier strolling across the quadrangle with a towel over his arm, en route to his morning ablutions. The Pole was so shocked, it was said, that he was unable to speak.24 In truth, such nonchalance belongs to the fictional world of Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda ministry. After the hammering they had received, the Poles were unlikely to be surprised by anything, except possibly a German surrender. Rather, the defence of Warsaw was as bitter and determined as ever. One account, from a Polish soldier on Opaczewska Street, in the western suburb of Ochota, is more reliable in describing the German attack, supported by tanks, which advanced under a hail of artillery fire. ‘The battle went on despite our heavy losses’, he wrote, explaining how his own howitzers were buried by the targeted incoming fire of the German artillery. The German attack stalled in that sector, but it came at a heavy cost to the defenders: ‘It would be hard to estimate how many soldiers fell in battle on that day’, he noted, but only 47 of the original 220 were present at a later roll call.25

  For the civilians caught in the midst of the battle, the experience was the stuff of nightmares. In retrospect Władysław Szpilman was amazed that he managed to survive at all. After the person next to him was killed by shrapnel, he had squeezed into a lavatory for safety, with ten other people. There, he spent the following two nights, listening to the constant noise of the guns, and breathing the foul air, heavy with smoke and plaster dust. Some time later, he recalled, ‘we wondered how it had been possible’ and they tried unsuccessfully to squeeze themselves into the lavatory again. They could only do so, he concluded, if they were in terror for their lives.26

  It was against this background that the military commanders of Warsaw met again on the morning of 26 September, crammed into the defence command HQ in the basement of the city’s Post Office Savings Bank. General Rómmel opened proceedings by thanking the officers and men for their heroic defence of Warsaw, and giving his assessment of the utility of continuing the fight.27 Then after hearing a similar presentation by the Citizens’ Committee, he asked those present to answer with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ the question of whether the defence of the city should be continued. Though few of those present managed to restrict themselves to one-word answers, the consensus was that there was little point in carrying on. General Kutrzeba was one of those more loquacious than required, making plain his opposition to further sacrifice. The situation they faced was different from that of an army in the field, he explained, adding that ‘further resistance would mean a pointless suicide, the killing of the population and the destruction of the city’. In such circumstances, he gave a bold and clear ‘No’.28

  With that, Rómmel again took the floor and told those present that both his conscience and his sense of soldierly duty convinced him that further resistance was senseless, and that a continuation of the defence would only lead to a bloodbath. He then called for a joint sitting of the Defence Council and the Citizens’ Committee to take place that night, where he would inform them of his decision to surrender Warsaw. According to one eye-witness, Rómmel’s decision was not put to a vote.29

  Stefan Starzyński, who had continued to voice his objection to any surrender, was overruled. One of his colleagues, Alexander Ivánka, recalled that it was the only time he saw Starzyński broken. In the aftermath, Starzyński called each of his co-workers to his office, to inform them of the decision. ‘We must capitulate,’ he told Ivánka. ‘What do you plan to do?’ Ivánka replied that he did not know. ‘I don’t know either,’ said Starzyński. ‘I think I will shoot myself.’30 Instead, Starzyński channelled his despair into another address to the people of Warsaw, this time to be distributed as a single sheet of paper. He expressed his continued defiance, and the hope that – one day – Warsaw’s suffering would be avenged. He wrote:

  For the last time, I call upon our Allies. I no longer ask for help. It is too late. I demand vengeance. For the burnt churches, for the devastated antiquities, for the tears and the blood of the murdered innocents, for the agony of those torn by bombs, burnt by the fire of incendiary shells, suffocated in the collapsed shelters and cellars. And you, bandits, barbarians, who have attacked our country, carrying death and destruction – know this, that there is justice, that there is a judgment, before which we shall all stand to answer and be held responsible for our actions.31

  Later that night, a messenger arrived from the Polish commander-in-chief, in remarkable fashion. Śmigły-Rydz had for much of the campaign been a peripheral figure, largely lacking in meaningful communication with his subordinates. He had escaped to Romania on 18 September, where he was interned by the Romanian authorities, thereby making contact with Poland even more problematical. On 22 September, General Rómmel in Warsaw had sent a courier in a repaired P.11a fighter to find the commander-in-chief, report on the situation in the capital and ask how much longer they were to keep fighting. The courier seems to have landed by mistake in Hungary, but he passed the message on to the Polish envoy in Budapest, who sent it on to Romania, where Śmigły-Rydz received it on or around 25 September.32

  Śmigły-Rydz’s reply, hand-written beneath the letterhead of the ‘General Inspectorate of the Armed Forces’, instructed Rómmel that Warsaw was to fight on as long as food and ammunition lasted. It was transmitted by radio via Paris and handed to another airborne courier, who was instructed to return to Warsaw. The pilot entrusted with taking him, Stanisław Riess, was a test-pilot from the PZL aircraft plant at Okęcie near Warsaw, who commandeered a Polish plane – the last surviving prototype of the PZL.46, a single-engined light bomber – which was being kept at Bucharest airport. He took off on the afternoon of 26 September for the Polish capital, taking with him the courier, a Major Edmund Galinat, who had to lie flat in the fuselage.33

  The journey was a difficult one as Riess was obliged to fly above the clouds to avoid the attention of the enemy and – contending with malfunctioning instruments – was repeatedly forced to dive down to take visual references. But, approaching the fires of Warsaw some five hours later, he managed to land on the racecourse at Mokotów, in the no-man’s-land between German and Polish lines, where his human cargo disembarked and made his way into the city.

  What followed was a mix of high drama and low farce. Galinat arrived at Defence Command HQ somewhat the worse for wear, having been given a restorative shot of vodka, or two, to recover from the flight. Rómmel was furious that a liaison officer on such an important mission should be someone who ‘could not even carry himself with propriety’, and briefly considered having Galinat court-martialled for being drunk on duty. He relented, however, and allowed the major to relay his message. If he was carrying
migły-Rydz’s assent to the capital’s capitulation, Galinat must have forgotten about it, for Rómmel would later claim never to have received such an order.34 But the courier seemingly brought another missive. He motioned towards the lining of his uniform, a section of which was torn free and handed to the general. Rómmel read the message that was inscribed there, and then burned the piece of silk in a candle flame.35 It was the commander-in-chief’s last executive order, instructing the military authorities to establish an underground organisation – in the tradition of Poland’s nineteenth-century konspiracja – to continue the fight against the Germans.36 Warsaw might capitulate, but Poland would not surrender.

  Ironically, perhaps, given the dire straits in which Warsaw found itself, there were some Polish units still at large in the east of the country who were trying to make their way to the capital. One such formation was the so-called ‘Polesie Independent Operational Group’, under the command of Brigadier-General Franciszek Kleeberg, which had initially intended to defend the area of Polesie, to the east of Brest, but with the Soviet invasion had been forced to turn westward. Kleeberg, who was of Swedish and German heritage, had fought in the Austrian army in the First World War, and taken part in the defence of Lwów in 1919. In 1939, he would be one of the few Polish commanders to lead his troops against both the Germans and the Soviets.

  By the third week of September, Kleeberg’s ‘Operational Group’ was some 20,000 strong, a rag-tag mixture of military remnants, units in good order and desperate civilians. With them was Zofia Chomętowska, who was frantically trying to find her way west, through a world seemingly turned upside down. There was little respite to be found from the horror of war. Crossing the river Bug, she encountered what remained of the town of Włodawa: ‘For the first time along our way, we see a completely destroyed and burnt-out town. All one can see are the chimneys of large bread ovens. All around us are charred dead trees. The ground is strewn with rubble, some hot, and the twisted remains of iron beds.’37

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