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WILLI Reibig stood in the turret of his panzer, a radio headset over his Schutzmütze – a padded helmet covered by the distinctive black beret of the Reich’s new armoured force. In the half-light, the outline of his Panzerkampfwagen – literally armoured fighting vehicle, but to Germans and the world, simply ‘panzer’ – Mark III was barely visible. The column drove in darkness, in silence apart from the constant reassuring deep growl of a Maybach engine. The only light came from the tail light of the vehicle in front, bouncing up and down as it rolled through the Silesian lanes. Reibig watched the sun climb in the east. ‘It promises to be a beautiful day,’ he thought. ‘A good sign for us.’
At 4.45am that Friday, 1 September 1939, the guns of 103rd Artillery Regiment barked ‘sending their iron greetings’ towards the hills around the small town of Krzepice, twenty or so miles northwest of Czestochowa – Tschentochau to Germans. Overhead the Luftwaffe roared eastwards. Far below, the panzer crews waved and shouted. The barrage ceased. The panzers jerked forward. German customs officers cheered the armour on as it rolled across the Polish frontier. ‘It’s a strange feeling knowing that we have left Germany and are now on Polish soil,’ thought Reibig.
Within an hour the panzers were across a small brook, the Pankovka. Within two they had driven through Krzepice. This was ideal tank country, Willi Reibig observed, and ideal anti-tank country. But there was no sign of the enemy. The panzers kicked up huge clouds of dust as they raced across a potato field. They passed through nondescript settlements of small cottages with straw-covered roofs. They crashed into the Lisswarthe, a small tributary of the Warthe. The waters of the Lisswarthe smacked against the side of the tanks, foaming, spewing through the driver’s slit hatch. The panzers climbed the opposite bank and into Opatow, eight miles inside Polish territory. Onwards went the armour, avoiding the copses which littered the valley of the Lisswarthe. Only now were the first signs of war were apparent: a blown-up railway bridge, a dead Pole. There was the distant thunder of cannon and the rattle of machine-gun fire, barely audible above the throb of the Panzer Mk III’s engine. Reibig glanced at his map. Up ahead was the village of Mokra III – there were three Mokras, barely a mile apart, here in the Lisswarthe valley. The name meant nothing to Willi Reibig.
A few hundred yards east of Mokra ran the railway line to Czestochowa and on to the heart of Silesia. Drawn up behind it were Polish troops with anti-tank guns, anti-tank rifles and small tanks – tankettes – and Armoured Train No.53, Smialy. Smialy (The Bold) was a strange-looking beast, a relic of the Polish-Soviet war with 75mm guns in turrets atop its wagons. Around one hundred panzers and armoured vehicles were bearing down on them. The guns barked once more, but this time Polish guns. Several panzers were knocked out, the rest fell back.
From the high ground west of Opatow, Georg-Hans Reinhardt watched his panzers falter. This was supposed to be the ‘crowning glory’ of his career. ‘To be a divisional commander on the field of battle is probably the most wonderful, the greatest position of command, where the personal influence and link still exists between the leader and those led,’ he enthused. And now, at the first sign of enemy resistance, his men had been repulsed.
With his narrow, inquisitive eyes peering through round pince-nez, the balding Reinhardt looked more professor than warrior. But looks could be deceptive. Georg-Hans Reinhardt – der lange Reinhardt, the tall Reinhardt – was a born warrior. He had marched to the Marne with his infantry regiment a generation before. He had commanded infantry companies, cavalry squadrons, infantry battalions, rifle brigades, and now, since the autumn of 1938, the armour of Würzburg’s 4th Panzer Division. The 52-year-old Generalleutnant had faith in his Führer – ‘a genius,’ he gushed to his wife Eva. He convinced himself, like most Germans, that the Polish crisis would be solved ‘bloodlessly’. But the Führer’s genius had failed him, failed Germany. And so 4th Panzer Division would have to drive on Warsaw, a task Georg-Hans Reinhardt approached ‘not enthusiastically, not lusting for war, but seriously and dutifully’. In his ten months in command of 4th Panzer, Reinhardt had sought ‘to instil the spirit of attack’ in his men and ‘banish bunker psychosis’. Evidently, he had failed. He ordered his armour to re-group and attack Mokra again.
Attacking was also on the mind of Major Stanislaw Glinski, commander of 21st Armoured Battalion. Glinski’s tankettes had orders to hold Mokra and drive the enemy back. They would be joined in their attack by a squadron of horsemen from the Wolynian Cavalry Brigade.
WIlli Reibig’s Panzer Mk III bogged down in the marshy, ditch-strewn terrain west of Mokra. He ordered his platoon to continue the attack on the village without him. And then, out of the mist and smoke, an unforgettable sight: Polish cavalry, sabres drawn, lances fixed, thundering towards the advancing panzers. Surely they don’t want to attack us – that would be madness and merely bring about their destruction, Reibig thought to himself. But they were attacking. Five hundred metres away. Then four hundred. Three hundred. Reibig adjusted his sights slightly and aimed at the horses’ bodies. At two hundred metres, his finger pressed the trigger. ‘The bursts from the machine-gun act like a scythe in a ripe corn field,’ the panzer commander wrote. ‘In a few minutes it’s all over. Only a few succeed in escaping to the protection of the forest.’
This remains the enduring image of the Polish campaign. And it is a myth. The charge of the Wolynian Cavalry Brigade at Mokra was never a charge; the riders ran into the German armour by accident. The handful of deliberate charges Polish horsemen unleashed in the early autumn of 1939 were against enemy infantry, not panzers. They carried carbines not lances. They invariably fought dismounted, not on horseback. But it suited German propaganda – and heroic Polish mythology – to perpetuate the legend, a legend often accepted by historians and generals alike.
There are enduring sounds of the Polish campaign, too, notably the ‘trumpets of Jericho’, the siren fixed beneath the nose of the Junkers 87 which wailed as the Sturzkampfflugzeug – dive-bomber, usually abbreviated to ‘Stuka’ – hurtled groundwards, preparing to unleash its 250kg bomb.
The combination of panzer and Stuka created a powerful image, an image of a new form of warfare: an American journalist dubbed it Blitzkrieg – lightning war. He described its effects:
Even with no opposition, armies had never moved so fast before. Theorists had always said that only infantry could take and hold positions. But these armies had not waited for the infantry. Swift columns of tanks and armoured trucks had plunged through Poland while bombs raining from the sky heralded their coming. They had sawed off communications, destroyed stores, scattered civilians, spread terror.
Such was Blitzkrieg unleashed. And yet Blitzkrieg unleashed was never as omnipotent and infallible as the popular image suggests. The panzers raced to the gates of Warsaw, but could not take the city. They raced to the citadel of Brest, but could not subdue the great fortress. The Stukas pounded the Polish depot on the Westerplatte opposite Danzig for a week, yet made little headway. They pounded the fortress of Brest, too, but it did not capitulate. The panzer-Luftwaffe combination did not defeat Poland in September 1939 – the much-heralded ‘campaign of eighteen days’ which actually lasted twice as long – but they did pave the way for victory. The burden of the Polish campaign was borne, as it was a generation early, by the Germany infantry, the ordinary Schütze (rifleman) or the mountain infantryman, Gebirgsjäger, who relied chiefly, though not entirely, on the horse for transportation. The war of 1939 was closer to the war of 1914 than the German propaganda machine would have the world believe.
And yet there was something new about this way of war. Few people, save the German military, expected such a rapid defeat of Poland – certainly not the Poles themselves. Set to a soundtrack of bombs exploding, artillery and naval guns pounding, machine-guns clattering, bombastic Germanic music, the inflammatory speeches of Hitler and Goebbels, the triumphalist commentary of the newsreel reporters, Blitzkrieg mesmerised friend and foe alike.
As the trigger for the 20th Century’s second terrible conflagration, the German invasion of Poland has largely been ignored by English and, to some extent also, German historians. The occupation of Poland, rightly, has received a great deal of attention from scholars. No nation suffered greater losses between 1939 and 1945 than Poland: more than one in every eight Poles was killed, over six million people in all, half of them Jews. But the ‘campaign of eighteen days’ which cleared the way for such bloodletting is dismissed in a couple of paragraphs in general histories, or a chapter in a memoir.
Precisely why is difficult to fathom. The English-speaking world has an insatiable appetite for books on the Eastern Front. Perhaps, I reasoned as I tentatively embarked on this project, disinterest in the Polish campaign could be attributed to a shortage of source material. Sadly, my linguistic shortcomings have prevented me tapping the vast Polish-language literature on the September campaign. German material is equally bountiful, however, if not more so. The records of many, though not all, of the Army units which fought in Poland survive. So, too, do Erlebnisberichte – experience reports – memories of the campaign compiled by in the autumn of 1939 by hundreds of soldiers. Some reports were filed away, others were published in regimental or divisional ‘memorial books’. And other literature abounds. To justify an unpopular war to its people, the Nazi propaganda machine produced countless books of varying quality.
Relying on contemporary publications poses problems, however. Accounts of the war in Poland published between 1939 and 1941 are laden with National Socialist propaganda, either deliberately or subconsciously. They are a paean to Nazi ideology, the heroic Teutonic warrior smiting invidious Poles. But the German Army’s role in the Polish campaign was far from heroic. It blooded its hands in the villages and towns of Poland. German soldiers rounded up Polish civilians, men, women, children. They executed them. They beat or killed Jews. They shot prisoners of war, evicted Poles from their homes, burned villages to the ground. These atrocities – and many more – are also documented in the contemporary accounts, in letters home, in diaries. You will find little mention of them in propaganda books or post-war memoirs.
Atrocities in the summer and autumn of 1939 were not solely the domain of Germans, however. Polish memoirs, like their German counterparts, are invariably silent on the subject. But before and during the September campaign, Poland’s ethnic German population – Volksdeutsche – were persecuted: beaten, attacked, evicted, force-marched, murdered. The oppression was never as organised, never as systematic, never as wholesale as that committed by the invaders, but that was slim consolation for the victims.
Terror, persecution, brutality, these were as much a part of Blitzkrieg unleashed as the panzers and Stukas. ‘War will be waged with all means,’ the theorists of the German High Command predicted eighteen months before war engulfed Europe. ‘It will be directed against the enemy’s armed forces, against the sources of his material strength, against the moral strength of his people. The watchword of its leadership must be: necessity knows no rules.’
The story which follows is a human one ¬– and an inhuman one. It is the story of men and women, not of armies and corps. It is the story of centuries of burning hatred, of ruthless politicians, of soldiers and airmen, of sailors and marines, of police and paramilitary, all of which conspired to bring war to Europe for the second time in a generation on one fateful Friday in September 1939.
I hope that your well-written book will prompt a new span of interest in the Polish campaign of 1939 and thus, soon or later some Polish author or scholar would write in English on this subject, providing us with the Polish side of the story.Richard Hargreaves wrote: The lack of Polish accounts is, for me, its main shortcoming. I can struggle by in German, French and Latin, but Polish is beyond my limited linguistic abilities, sadly.
Yes, it doesI hope your own research on the Alpine front is proceeding apace.
Interesting Who is the publisher in Poland?Richard Hargreaves wrote:Out in Polish next month apparently as Blitzkrieg w Polsce - Wrzesień 1939 (I'm guessing that's Blitzkrieg in Poland: September 1939)