First to fight, p.33

First to Fight, page 33


First to Fight

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  With that, a large-scale map of the Polish Republic was produced from the German Embassy and laid out across the conference table, and a black line was drawn to mark the new German–Soviet frontier. The line began at the East Prussian frontier, on the river Pisa, and ran south-west to Ostrołęka before turning south-east to meet the river Bug near Ostrów Mazowiecka. It then followed the course of the Bug, south-eastward, past Brest – where Wehrmacht and Red Army forces had paraded a week before – and on southward to Krystynopol (Chervonohrad), where it then followed the river Sołokija westward before winding its way down, following the upper reaches of the river San, to the border with Hungary at the village of Sianki in the Beskid Mountains.

  When they had finished, Poland had been neatly divided into two almost equal halves: Germany took 201,000 square kilometres of territory, along with twenty million inhabitants; and the Soviet Union took 188,500 square kilometres with a population of twelve million. Ribbentrop and Stalin then signed the map to signify the agreement. Ribbentrop added his signature in a flourish of red pencil, giving the date of ‘28 IX 39’; and Stalin signed with a swirl of blue, adding an initial next to two adjustments. ‘Is my signature clear enough for you?’ he asked his guest.65

  That day, the text of the German–Soviet Boundary and Friendship Treaty was published. It stated that Germany and the USSR considered it ‘exclusively’ their task to restore order in the region following ‘the collapse of the former Polish state’. Between them, they would establish the frontier, and they alone would administer the territories on either side of that line; the map was appended to the treaty for the sake of clarity. Furthermore, in an addendum they agreed not to tolerate ‘Polish agitation’ in their respective areas and promised to collaborate in the suppression of such activity.66 With that – consumed by its enemies and abolished with a scribble of coloured pencil – Poland ceased to exist.


  For all the bravery of the Polish forces that continued to defy the invaders, what remained for the Wehrmacht and the Red Army was merely a process of mopping up. The fortress complex of Modlin was still obstinately holding out, despite dire shortages of munitions, food and medical supplies, and after enduring days of concentrated aerial, artillery and ground assault by an enemy vastly superior in numbers and equipment. For all the privation, however, morale was still good. ‘Until the last moments’, one captain recalled, ‘the soldiers did not think of surrendering or throwing down their weapons. The only complaints one heard were due to the decreasing food rations and the shortage of cigarettes.’67 One senior officer noted that the shortage of bread was ‘the most terrifying thing’.68 Another, stationed at the western edge of the Modlin enclave, suggested that his men were buoyed by a sense of moral purpose, in contrast to their opponents:

  The Germans were heroes when they could freely drop bombs on defenceless villages and towns. They performed wonders of courage, flying over the heads of innocent civilians at the lowest altitude, sparing no woman or child. But here, at modest Zakroczym, they cannot cross a distance of 300 metres. They no longer advance in a triumphant march … They cannot reach our trenches even by crawling on their bellies, for our positions are defended by men aware of the purpose of the fight, convinced that their role is not only to hold Zakroczym or Modlin but to preserve the entire nation.69

  Though the moral case was undimmed, once Warsaw had capitulated, the defence of Modlin lost whatever strategic rationale it still had. At dawn on 28 September, a staff officer arrived from the capital, having been sent through the German lines, to bring word that Warsaw had surrendered under ‘honourable conditions’. After brief consideration, the commander of Modlin, Brigadier-General Wiktor Thommée, decided it was time to end the fight. He gave the order to cease firing and sent an emissary to begin negotiations on a surrender.70

  The capitulation did not go smoothly everywhere: lines of communication were frayed, and passions on both sides were running high. Many prisoners were routinely beaten. One recalled how his group of around twenty men were surrounded by Germans and ordered to keep their hands up. Those that dropped their arms from exhaustion were beaten and kicked. When an officer dared to remind their captors of their duty of care to the prisoners, he was hit with a rifle butt.71

  It was the defenders of Zakroczym who paid most dearly for their defiance. That morning, Polish troops there were instructed to cease firing and raise white flags, much to their evident consternation.72 What followed is disputed, but soon after German troops of the Kempf Armoured Division, including elements of the SS-Deutschland Regiment, stormed the Polish lines. As the Poles were rounded up, about sixty of their number were shot out of hand and a Captain Tadeusz Dorant, a battalion commander in the 2nd Legions Infantry Regiment, was killed with a flamethrower.73 German accounts suggest the attack was made in error; Polish sources are less charitable.74

  It was not an isolated incident. Over the day, the killing spree continued, with prisoners being massacred in the Jewish cemetery, and in Zakroczym itself, where dozens of civilians were also murdered in the rampage. As a military surgeon later testified, the killing was seemingly indiscriminate: ‘Next to the Jewish cemetery, over a dozen soldiers were shot after they had surrendered. The same happened in Gałachy. Some soldiers were burned alive. When passing cellars where the elderly and children were hiding, the Germans threw in hand grenades.’75

  By the following morning, as the survivors were being marched through Zakroczym, evidence of the slaughter was all around:

  Burnt-out ruins everywhere, smoke still rising from some of the houses … Before us more ashes of farms and vegetable fields ploughed in deep, jagged furrows: the work of bombs and artillery shells. To the right and left, the field is strewn with the bodies of our fallen brothers-in-arms … Here and there, there are only shreds of human flesh blown apart by exploding bombs. A German NCO walking next to me beholds this harvest of death with horror. Shocked by the sight, he tells me that ‘history will write about your heroic resistance’. I hold my tongue. I cannot tell him what I really think.76

  It has been estimated that some 500 Polish soldiers were slaughtered at Zakroczym, along with 100 civilians.77

  On the morning of 29 September, Modlin itself formally capitulated. With terms agreed the previous day, Thommée travelled to the small town of Jabłonna, on the road to Warsaw, where on a windswept country lane he met his counterpart, General Adolf Strauss, commander of the German 2nd Army Corps, and agreed to the handover of the fortress complex. The terms offered were essentially the same as those agreed the previous day in Warsaw, except that special provision was requested for the 4,000 wounded inside the citadel; in addition, given that Modlin’s food supplies were exhausted, it was asked that the garrison be fed as a matter of urgency.78 That afternoon, Thommée returned to the fortress under a clear blue sky, for once devoid of enemy aircraft. It was ‘as though the world had changed in those few hours’, he mused. ‘A free man turns into a slave. I no longer have anything to do, the battle is over. Nothing makes one happy, everything brings grief and shame. Wouldn’t it have been better to have died in these walls?’79 As he pondered, the Modlin defensive area was being prepared for surrender: rifles were stacked, helmets discarded, documents burned and ammunition hidden. Soon afterwards, some 25,000 officers and men marched into German captivity.80

  Far to the north, meanwhile, the complex of defences at Hel was still holding out, though that action too was nearing its end. Over the previous weeks, Hel’s coastal artillery positions had been pummelled by the Germans, both from the air and from the battleships Schlesien and Schleswig-Holstein, which patrolled the Bay of Danzig. A few days earlier, the privations endured by the Hel garrison had led to a brief mutiny among the troops guarding the landward front, caused – it was said – by German leaflets that had encouraged the defenders to surrender, promising that they would not be harmed and would be returned to their families. Despite this, morale remained robust, and when the area commander, Rear-Admiral Józef
Unrug, visited the main Laskowski battery, on the tip of the peninsula, on 30 September, he was greeted with demands from the men that they should fight on. According to one eye-witness, Unrug’s face filled with grief and he thanked the soldiers, adding that he wished that all his men were as courageous.81 He then asked his gun commanders how much food and munitions they had left. The replies would not have pleased him. Food had been all but exhausted, and none of the batteries had enough ammunition for more than 15 minutes of firing. The guns that had shot down an estimated fifty enemy aircraft, had sunk a minesweeper, had damaged both the battleships in the bay, and had contributed to the most protracted defensive operation of the September campaign, had finally exhausted their supplies.82

  That afternoon, Unrug issued orders for all of Hel’s batteries to hold their fire and prepare to surrender. Spurning the opportunity to escape to Britain, he vowed to remain with his men and go into captivity. After securing a ceasefire, he destroyed the garrison’s sensitive documents, evacuated those unit commanders who wished to escape, and sent a delegation to the German headquarters, in the Kasino Hotel in Zoppot, where a formal capitulation was signed on 1 October. Hel was occupied by the Germans the following morning. The German naval correspondent Fritz-Otto Busch accompanied the forces that took control of the harbour. He was shocked by the ‘picture of absolute destruction’: the sleek upturned flank of the destroyer ORP Wicher, lapped by the waves, and the shattered superstructure of the minelayer ORP Gryf, poking up out of the oil-stained water.83 Polish dead amounted to around 100, with a similar number of wounded. That day, 3,600 seamen and soldiers were taken captive, along with Rear Admiral Unrug, who – true to his oath – would insist on speaking to his German captors only through an interpreter.84

  With the surrender of Hel, the last remaining pocket of Polish resistance was the motley collection of forces commanded by Brigadier-General Franciszek Kleeberg that was slowly making its way westward towards the river Vistula. Now around 18,000 strong, with its crowds of refugees and camp followers, its horse-drawn wagons, horses and cattle in tow, and its multifarious troops, the ‘Polesie Independent Operational Group’ is easily imagined as something of a rabble. But that was not the case. At its heart was strict military discipline: it was still first and foremost an army. As one of its officers, Colonel Adam Epler, put it: ‘Every unit was in a constant state of readiness for battle.’85 Little wonder, perhaps, that the Red Army tended to shadow Kleeberg’s group rather than confront it, often withdrawing when the two came too close.

  It was a lesson that Soviet forces learned to their cost in a number of engagements west of Włodawa on 29 and 30 September. After skirmishes at Jabłoń and Parczew, battle was joined around the village of Milanów, where the Polish 79th Regiment met a Red Army advance with heavy machine guns and artillery fire. As the Soviet attack crumbled, the Poles went onto the offensive, launching an infantry assault, which soon turned into a rout. When the battle was over, 100 Red Army dead littered the field and 60 prisoners had been taken. According to Epler, they would later beg not to be returned to Soviet lines and were willingly incorporated into Kleeberg’s group, with which they fought ‘gallantly to the very end’.86

  Pushing ever westward, Kleeberg was by now aware of the fall of Warsaw, and altered his plans accordingly. Avoiding the capital, he planned to head – via Dęblin on the Vistula, where he hoped to be able to secure supplies of ammunition – to the forests of the Świętokrzyskie (‘Holy Cross’) Mountains, 150 kilometres to the south-west, to continue the fight. As he explained to his officers: ‘Warsaw has fallen, there is no point in going to aid the capital or carry out diversions. The only option we have left is small warfare: guerrilla operations which can be carried out in large forest areas. This war will prove that, in spite of everything, we continued to fight.’87 According to Epler, morale was little dented by the news of Warsaw’s fall. On the contrary, his soldiers took heart from the reaction that they received from the civilians in the towns and villages through which they passed. ‘They looked upon us as if we were spectres or ghosts from another world. The women blessed the marching columns and the men stood silently gazing long after the last soldier had passed their dwellings.’ Their role, Epler wrote, was simple: ‘to remain united, to end on a battlefield in one last struggle, so that nobody – comrade, superior or subordinate – would be able to say that we did not do our best’.88

  That last struggle was looming. On 1 October, the day that the garrison on Hel surrendered, Kleeberg’s group arrived in the area of Kock, north of Lublin. There German forces, of the 13th Infantry Division, anticipated a simple surrender, on the assumption that the Poles were outnumbered and morale was low. They were to be disappointed. Polish forces were still capable of springing a surprise, even to their own side. Zofia Chomętowska recalled seeing a detachment of cavalrymen form up that day: ‘There is commotion in the market square. The jingle of stirrups; the quartermasters of the 1st Lancers Regt. They look magnificent, we haven’t seen such an army in a long time.’89

  The following day, the Germans attempted to persuade the Poles to submit with an assault on the village of Serokomla, at the heart of the area under Kleeberg’s control. For civilians caught up in the fighting, it was a terrifying experience. One recalled the shocking intensity of the attack: ‘Shells fall all around the village, but we cannot see the enemy. It is difficult to determine where they are firing from. They must be all around us … If we’re not killed in this battle it will be a miracle.’90 Yet the Germans met with spirited resistance, and were beaten back by units of Polish cavalry and infantry.

  Over the next couple of days, the Poles were sufficiently emboldened to go over to the offensive, and, though pushed westward, targeted a number of villages in seeking to drive the Germans back. They scored a few successes. Colonel Epler recalled that Charlejów was taken on 4 October, sending German troops there into a headlong flight. ‘This was the last splendid testimony of our soldiers of 1939,’ he later wrote, ‘a final pursuit of fleeing Germans.’91

  Though the Poles were successful in isolated skirmishes, the wider picture was much bleaker. The Germans had brought up reinforcements and Polish forces were now surrounded and facing insuperable odds. Leaflets were dropped on their positions, urging them to surrender. ‘We acknowledge your gallantry,’ the notes read, but adding the harsh truth: ‘Stop fighting. You are alone.’92 As if to confirm that fact, Hitler visited Warsaw on 5 October, arriving as a conqueror and being driven through the rubble-strewn streets to a saluting base on the Aleje Ujazdowskie, one of the city’s main boulevards. There, among the remains of once opulent villas and former embassies, a dais had been constructed, with a huge German war flag hung behind, between the yellowing trees. For two hours Hitler took the salute of the victorious German 8th Army, which filed past in massed ranks of infantry, cavalry and motorised artillery. Tellingly, the wider city was in lockdown, its prominent persons held hostage to ensure the good behaviour of the others, and its inhabitants learning of Hitler’s presence only through rumour and hearsay.93

  That evening, Kleeberg called a conference with his senior commanders to assess their prospects for continuing the fight. He stated that, after the three-day battle at Kock, they had exhausted their ammunition and had no possibility to replenish their supplies. Their losses, too, had been heavy, and morale was fading. The commanders then gave their assessments: they were still fighting, they said, but ammunition was low. Regretfully, they concurred that there was nothing to be gained by further resistance. Kleeberg concluded the meeting with the words:

  We have nothing with which to reproach ourselves. We have done our duty to the last, and some time, when our country will ask us for an account, we shall be able to answer every question. Tell your soldiers that they knew how to fight for the honour of their Fatherland.

  Underlining the seriousness of his predicament, Kleeberg’s closing words were accompanied by the cacophony of incoming artillery fire.94

  With that,
emissaries were sent to request a ceasefire and to agree capitulation terms with the Germans. The following morning, 6 October, at eleven o’clock, over 1,000 officers and 15,000 men of the ‘Polesie Independent Operational Group’ marched, in perfect order, into German captivity. Poland’s defensive war had come to an end. Many of them marched with the words of Kleeberg’s emotional final address ringing in their ears:

  Soldiers! I have gathered you under my command from far away Polesie, from the banks of the Narew, from the units which resisted demoralisation in Kowel, to fight until the end … You showed courage at a time of doubt and you remained faithful to your country until the end. Today we are surrounded and running out of ammunition and food. Continued resistance offers no hope, but will only shed soldiers’ blood, which could still be useful. It is a commander’s privilege to take responsibility for his decisions. Today I take it at the hardest time, ordering you to stop further pointless bloodshed, so as not to waste soldiers’ lives. I thank you for your courage and obedience, and I know that you will take up arms again when you are needed.

  Appropriately, he ended with the opening line of the Polish national anthem: ‘Jeszcze Polska nie zginȩła’ (‘Poland is not yet lost’).95


  With the surrender of General Kleeberg and his men at Kock, Poland’s defensive war finally came to an end. It had been an unequal fight. Not only had Germany enjoyed a numerical advantage over the Poles, but its military hardware and military doctrine sometimes appeared to belong to another age of warfare. Though the Poles fought well, destroying as many as 1,000 German tanks and armoured vehicles, and around 600 aircraft, they were outgunned and outfought in every theatre.1 And when Stalin’s Red Army entered the fray – itself the largest military force in the world at that time – they were already reeling. Faced with both German and Soviet forces, they had little chance.

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