Military history


It is with the greatest pleasure that I use this opportunity on concluding this book to thank those who helped make this volume possible. My expression of gratitude first goes to my German photographic collector Rolf Halfen. He has been an unfailing source; supplying me with a number of photographs that were obtained from numerous private sources. Throughout the research stage of this book Rolf searched and contacted numerous collectors all over Germany, trying in vain to find a multitude of interesting and rare photographs. I am also indebted to Jim Payne who provided me with photos from an album that once belonged to someone who was part of the support staff for General Rommel.

Further afield in the USA I am also extremely grateful to Richard White, who supplied me with a number of photographs that he sought from private photographic collections in Germany and other parts of the world.

Preparation for War

Now that the stage for aggression was set, all military preparations for the planned attack against Poland, code-named ‘Case White’ (Falls Weiss), was issued to the armed forces. As the second half of August 1939 began, German military chiefs pushed forward their final plans to destroy Poland and liberate its western parts from an area that was predominantly German. On 22 August Hitler summoned his principle Eastern Front commanders to the Obersalzberg and elaborated on his military plans. Speaking with eagerness he told his generals that the war with Poland would be a different type of warfare, not like the dehumanizing years of trench warfare in the 1914–1918 war, but a new concept: Blitzkrieg, a swift all-out attack of such force and ferocity that victory would be secured quickly and decisively.

As a storm began to brew outside he told his captivated audience that they should display an iron nerve, even if the West wanted war, ‘it was vital’, he said, ‘to crush every living spark out of Poland rapidly and, if needed, brutally’. In one of his most arrogant and uncompromising moods he concluded, ‘I have done my duty, now go out and do yours’. Commander-in-Chief of the Army, General Walther von Brauchitsch assured his Führer the Wehrmacht would do its duty. He then leaped to his feet and dismissed the whole audience telling them, ‘Gentlemen to your stations’.

A few days later as the war clouds of war settled over Europe on the evening of 31 August 1939, a million and a half German troops began moving forward to their final positions on the Polish border for the jump off at dawn. Long columns of vehicles, guns, and men moved forward towards their assembly areas. Thousands of soldiers joined with other columns until the whole German army formed a continuous line of military might. The entire German/Polish frontier had become a vast military encampment. Under the trees beside roads stood dump after dump of artillery ammunition, mines and engineering stores. The soldiers were dwarfed by the tank and vehicles parked hidden in the woods and fields, where trucks and halftracks, armoured cars and artillery pieces stood in ranks reaching to the horizon. Above all, there were the men – 52 German divisions, corps troops, headquarter units, lines of communication personnel. At last, they were preparing in earnest for what they had to do. Most men were impatient to end the months of training and begin the battle upon which all their thoughts had been focused for so long.

Already the postponement of the attack on 26 August 1939 much increased the mental strain and physical pressure on the men waiting in the fields, undergrowth and forests. They chatted quietly, played cards, and in many cases simply laid in anxious silence.

Prior to the attack on Poland in August 1939 German troops line-up for inspection with their rifles. Three MG34 machine guns can be seen on their bipods. Hitler wanted his forces to invade Poland on the 26 August 1939, which was the anniversary of the World War One Battle of Tannenberg, East Prussia in 1914.

As night fell, units which were to form the first line of attack drew up to the frontier area, vehicle headlights were extinguished, smoking forbidden and the formations took up primary positions in the surrounding forests. Nearby the assault detachments moved up to the frontier wire and waited with anxiety at their jumping-off points. As the German Army completed its battle positions there was a general feeling, not of the excitement at the coming of the war, but something more deeply ingrained – a determination and firm belief to do its duty.

Thus as the last steps towards war were inaugurated, Hitler painted the finishing touches to what he called his war of ‘liberation’. The well prepared simulated Polish attacks at Pitschen and the principle one at Gleiwitz, remained the only concocting deed that Hitler had left to prove that not Germany, but Poland had fired the first shots of the war.

German troops on manoeuvres prior to the invasion. In order to secure secrecy and safeguard a surprise attack, German troop activity in the vicinity of the Polish frontier were called up on the pretext of autumn manoeuvres and by the celebration of the 25th Anniversary of the Battle of Tannenberg.

German naval staff watch as a Pz.Kpfw.IV tank is about to be transported by rail to East Prussia for manoeuvres in August 1939. All troop deployment in Poland was to be completed in 12 weeks before the date for X-Day, 25 August. Its accomplishment remains one of the greatest organisational achievements of the Second World War.

A Pz.Kpfw.I tank is being prepared for transportation during manoeuvres in Poland in August 1939. On a peace footing Germany’s armoured strength consisted of five armoured motorised divisions, four motorised divisions and four light divisions. An armoured division was made up of 345 heavy and medium tanks and a light division was half that amount. It was these armoured machines that were going to lead the first lightening strikes into Poland.

Two soldiers pose for the camera next to their car during the build-up of forces along the Polish frontier in August 1939.The first troop movements to the east actually began in late June, involving a number of infantry divisions.

An MG34 machine gun position can be seen dug-in not far from the Polish border in August 1939. During the mobilisation of German forces to the east some units that were dispatched to the frontier regions were actually returned to their home bases before arriving at their command areas, allaying Polish fears of an imminent German attack.

A German soldier on a field telephone. By early August German troops were deployed along the eastern parts of East Prussia. These precautions were to forestall a possible Polish attack on the Reich’s most exposed frontier.

A German field kitchen during manoeuvres. In the field assembly areas great tented encampments where created with water points, field bakeries, field kitchens, bath facilities, each one camouflaged with the intent of making it indistinguishable from the air.

Troops with their horses towing supplies. For the Polish invasion a great number of horses were utilised for towing supplies to the forward edge of the battlefield. Note the national flag draped over the limber carrying supplies. This was done for aerial recognition. During the invasion German forces moved so rapidly east that is was often difficult for air crews to distinguish from friend or foe.

A long column of Pz.Kpfw.IVs on a typical road not far from the Polish border in August 1939.The Panzer divisions had become the modern cavalry of the German Army. The armoured strike was equipped to accomplish a heavy surprise blow at the enemy and gain the spearhead of a tank attack.

Three Pz.Kpfw.IIs are seen here on manoeuvres just prior to the invasion. Note the white crosses painted on the turrets for ground and aerial recognition. Each Panzer division had a tank brigade totalling some 324 tanks of Pz.Kpfw.Is through to Pz.Kpfw.IV types.

A column of Pz.Kpfw.Is halt in a field during manoeuvres in August 1939. Although the Pz.Kpfw.I was underarmed and underpowered it was more than capable of combating Polish armoured vehicles.

A typical scene prior to the invasion of Poland in August 1939. A multitude of vehicles and Pz.Kpfw.IIs can be seen parked, preparing to move off at a moment’s notice. On 23 August Hitler finally made his decision to set 26 August as YDay (Invasion Day).The German High Command sent out a code word ‘Assume Command’, setting German forces to operational duties.

Pz.Kpfw.IIs and Pz.Kpfw.Is wait anxiously in a field as they undertake final preparations for the attack. Everything seemed to confirm that the war would come in the ensuing hours. However, by the early evening of 25 August the troops received a halt order. By a feat of organisation, and despite a ban on wireless traffic, most of the five German Army groups were notified that the attack on Poland had been postponed.

Three soldiers pose for the camera standing next to a Pz.Kpfw.III. After the halt order troops which had been placed in their final deployment areas during the latter part of the troop buildup were needlessly identified by Polish reconnaissance.

A nice photograph showing a Panzer man in the turret of his Pz.Kpfw.I. Although these tanks were used in relatively large numbers against lightly armed opponents it suffered from very thin armour and an inadequate main gun.

Motorcyclists with their motorcycle combination onboard a flatbed railway car destined for the Polish border in late August 1939. Just twenty-four hours following the postponement of the invasion, the troops received a new zero hour. The new attack was to be unleashed on 1 September 1939.

A posed photograph showing a Panzer man perched in the turret of a Pz.Kpfw.I. In spite of these tanks being used extensively during the invasion it was soon obvious that the light tank did not have any combat potential. It suffered from an underpowered engine, uncompetitive armament and was prone to heavy damage from anti-tank shells because of its thin armoured plating.

A column of vehicles move along a road towards the frontier area and to begin preparations for the attack on Poland. Note the foliage the crew have draped over parts of the vehicle. This was undertaken in order to camouflage the vehicle and break up its distinctive shape from the air.

Soldiers laugh and joke among themselves as they wait for the order to move forward to their final `jump-off` positions. In the vicinity of these frontier areas, man, horse and machine were now the most prominent feature. Troop trains were drawn up in the countryside, army vehicles were flooding to the west, building up the frontier defence units.

A German motorcyclist in his leather motorcycle coat poses in front of a bus, which has more than likely been utilised to carry troops to the border.

An interesting photograph showing border control police and German troops with Polish peasant women just days before the attack. During this period intensive German preparations for the invasion were so great that German military movements were spotted by Polish civilians along the border areas with Poland.

Four soldiers in a vehicle pose for the camera. Just twenty-four hours prior to the invasion all along the frontier area long columns of vehicles, guns and men moved forward towards their assembly areas.

A vehicle on tow across uneven terrain along the Polish border at the end of August 1939. Already the postponement of the attack much increased the mental strain and physical pressure on the men waiting in the fields, undergrowth and forests.

A last photograph before moving to the assembly area. Here German anti-tank gunners pose for the camera next to their Pak35/36 gun. It was in Poland that anti-tank crews found that their PaK guns were more than adequate for operational needs in the face of relatively modest armoured opposition.

A 15cm artillery crew poised for action along the Polish border. The artillery piece is in an elevated position and is being prepared for war. The power of these heavy field guns could hurl its destructive charge miles into the enemy lines, sometimes with devastating results.

An 8.8cm flak crew enjoying the warm August sun on their backs as they prepare their weapon for action prior to the attack on Poland. The crew have dismounted the limber and can be seen next to the flak gun. Loaded on the halftrack in the rear side storage bin is some of the flak gun’s ammunition.

An MG34 machine gun crew relax before being ordered to their final assembly area. Note the heavily camouflaged MG34 machine-gun perched precariously in a small tree. The waiting for the troops was often monotonous and broken only by card games or chatting and joking with their comrades.

Polish troops are guarding a railway bridge over a river just prior to the invasion. When the Luftwaffe opened up the attack on Poland during the early hours of 1 September 1939, aircrews were ordered to attack and destroy all lines of support and communication, which included railway lines and bridges.



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