Military history

Chapter Four


On 12 September the dispirited and confused commander-in-chief of the Polish Army, Marshal Rydz-Smigly, ordered the general withdrawal of the entire Polish Army, which was now divided into the Polish Northern, Central and Southern Groups. These exhausted and dishevelled soldiers were now to retreat to the most south-eastern parts of the country and attempt to hold positions until the launching of a French offensive that was expected in six days. Their retreat had not degenerated into panic flight. It was a kind of stubborn retreat. Villages and towns in the objective area were strongly held by a mixture of Polish troops and partisans. German infantry sometimes had to batter their way through street by street against heavily motivated enemy soldiers. On occasions the fighting was so close and fierce it often became impossible to distinguish friend from foe. At times this stiff opposition and the continuous nature of the fighting made many German troops hard-pressed to continue what they saw as their ‘legendry march’. To make matters worse brutal guerrilla warfare had broken out in many places and nervous German soldiers were unable to deal with the problem without overreacting. If shots were fired at them from a village in bandit country, houses were torched, villages were razed, and the inhabitants, innocent as well as guilty, found themselves facing firing squads. Just as serious were the numerous occurrences of surrendered Polish soldiers in uniform being shot by regular German soldiers. However, more sinister activities were already generating fear and terror in the rear areas of Poland. Behind the military arm of the SS-VT (later Waffen-SS) and the German Army, lurked the SS Death Head groups or Totenkopfverbande under the notorious command of Theodor Eicke. Three regiments had been deployed, SS Oberbayern, Brandenburg, and Thuringen. Eicke’s men quickly gained a reputation, and in a matter of days began eradicating by means of torturing and killing Poles which were regarded hostile to the Reich.

The German Army were fully aware of the systematic campaign of slaughter in the rear areas. Regular soldiers and commanders that had not been involved in these actions became increasingly uneasy and concerned. A number of them actually complained bitterly to their superiors, but nothing was done to stop the killing. As a direct result the German army’s reputation, along with parts of the military arm of the SS, had been severely damaged by the Death Heads and later the five SS Einsatzgruppen (Task Force).

Изображение выглядит как внешний, дерево, небо, земля

German infantry question arrested civilians inside a captured village. Quite regularly Polish civilians who were suspected of aiding the growing partisan force in Poland were rounded up, and those found guilty were indiscriminately shot.

Whilst Eicke’s Death Heads and the SS Einsatzgruppen roamed Poland killing, murdering and pillaging, the German Army continued driving east using devastating blitzkrieg tactics to gain rapid supremacy on the battlefield. By 15 September German forces had reached the cities of Brzesc and Lwow. During the days that followed both these cities and the area around the Bzura became the key strategic focal point of destroying the last remnants of the main Polish Army. In addition, attention was devoted to the capture of Warsaw, which had been declared by the Poles as a fortress.

On the Bzura Kutrzeba’s army constantly threatened to break out of what was now known as the Kutno Pocket to the north, but were barely able to maintain cohesion against stiff German attacks. East of the pocket, soldiers from General von Weichs XIII Corps made fierce retaliatory attacks against enemy positions defending the town of Kutno. Following a day of strong German battery-fire, accompanied by overwhelming infantry charges, a number of street battles broke out and the town finally capitulated on the 16 September. Elsewhere on the Bzura Kutrzeba’s army continued its death agony to make one last attempt to smash its way through enemy lines and reach the fortifications at Modlin or Warsaw.

Inside the Polish capital General Rommel’s Polish Army, which had been given the task of organising the defence of the city, still stood resolute. General Blaskowitz who had taken charge of seizing the capital, remarked blatantly about the Poles stubbornness to capitulate: ‘What shocked the most hardened soldier was how at the instigation of their military leaders a misguided population, completely ignorant of the effect of modern weapons, could contribute to the destruction of their capital’.

Hitler was so eager to see Warsaw surrender he even made a special visit to the front line around the city on 16 September. On board Hitler’s special headquarters train, the ‘Führersonderzug’, the Führer had been plaguing his Generals for days, asking them incessantly when ‘Fortress Warsaw’ would fall. To keep casualties down to a bare minimum his staff favoured starving the city into submission, but Hitler wanted the capital taken as quickly as possible. Already his new found allies, Russia, were preparing to invade Poland from the East. In his secret non-aggression pact with Stalin in August 1939 they had drawn up plans to carve up Poland between themselves. Because of the establishment of the Vistula as a demarcation line with Russia, Hitler wanted the capital captured without delay and insisted on sending the Poles an ultimatum. Later that afternoon several hundred tons of leaflets were dropped from twelve Heinkel bombers, advising the civilian population to leave by two specified roads within two hours. The Poles, however, refused outright, preferring to fight on than agree to Hitler’s terms.

Изображение выглядит как внешний, земля, небо, старый

Soldiers survey the devastation of a town after it was systematically brought under heavy shelling during a bitter battle with Polish troops. Dispirited and confused, those Poles that had not been killed in the hurricane of fire retreated.

The next day on 17 September while German forces around Warsaw confined its attacks by using a combination of artillery bombardments and air raids, news reached von Bock and Rundstedt that the Polish frontier in the east along its whole length from Latvia in the north down to Rumania in the south had been attacked by the Russian Army. The Russian invasion was swift and almost immediately its forces began taking out scatted pockets of Polish resistance that consisted mainly of detachments of the Frontier Defence Corps or KOP. In the towns and villages bordering the Russian frontier, frightened and bewildered Poles dazed by the invasion stared in amazement from their windows and doorways. The invasion had come as a complete surprise. Because most of the Polish Army had either been routed or destroyed those defending in the east were hopelessly out-numbered and out-gunned. The situation for the Polish Army was now even grimmer. For them the final blow had been unwittingly delivered.

At last Hitler, the warlord, who described himself as the ‘first soldier of the Reich’, had achieved his plan – the wholesale destruction of Poland. His war in the east was almost complete. The German Army had recaptured Danzig; the former lands of Poznan and Silesia, the Wehrmacht were annihilating the last pockets of resistance, and its Russian allies were occupying the eastern territories that Hitler did not require. Both Germany and Russia were now accomplices in wiping ancient Poland off the map.

As the Russians thundered west, Guderian’s XIX Corps, which had raced south towards Brzesc on the Bug finally made contact with General von Kleist’s XXII of the German Southern Group. Virtually the whole Polish Army, or what remained of it, was now trapped inside a gigantic double pincer. The besieged city of Brzesc, which the Poles had defended at terrible cost, finally capitulated and Guderian established his headquarters in the city. In the south, infantry and Panzer divisions from List’s Fourteenth Army encircled the heavily fortified garrison defending the city of Lwow on the San.

Elsewhere, west of the Vistula and San, the Wehrmacht were mopping up pockets of resistance by-passed during the great dash for the rivers. Around Warsaw, infantry divisions from Third, Eighth and Tenth armies were able to impose a decisive block on the cities perimeter and prevent the bulk of enemy forces escaping into the besieged capital. On the Bzura the town of Kutno fell with the capture of 40,000 Poles. Despite stiffening superiority and unrelenting fire power, the remains of Kutrzeba’s encircled army continued to fight for the death, doomed in the fiery cauldron that the Bzura had become. The resilience and the chivalry shown by the Poles on the Bzura had caused genuine surprise among the German troops, even amongst some of the most irrepressible SS soldiers.

By 18 September, besieged by an ever increasing flow of infantry and tanks from the bulk of Tenth Army, massive parts of Kutzeba’s force finally laid down its arms. General Hoepner’s 1st and 4th Panzer Divisions had captured a staggering 80,000 prisoners and a large amount of battlefield booty. In other parts of the pocket a number of divisions from Blaskowitz Eighth Army eliminated the last remnants of resistance in the area. In all some 90,000 troops, 320 guns, 130 aircraft, and an enormous amount of equipment were captured by Blaskowitz army. German soldiers were completely stunned by the weight of the blow which had hit the Bzura region. Following nine gruelling days of combat the battlefield had become wrought with death and destruction. Both banks of the river were covered with the dead and carnage of war. Never before had these young German soldiers seen so much catastrophe. Many of them could not help but to gaze at the scarred Bzura skyline, virtually all the familiar landmarks were almost unrecognisable.

The battle of the Bzura resulted in the total destruction of nearly a quarter of the Polish Army. It was the only major Polish counter-offensive of the campaign and the largest single action, involving over fifteen German divisions, including two of the most powerful Panzer divisions, and three light divisions, against some nine Polish infantry divisions and two cavalry brigades.

The German march through Poland had taken no more than eighteen days to achieve. By this time the Germans had moreover swept every Polish division clean off the map, brought thundering Panzer divisions to the very far corners of eastern Poland and outflanked and outmanoeuvred its opponents with skill, verging on brilliance. The days that followed consisted of a series of actions against the last remnants of the Polish Army.

Изображение выглядит как внешний, небо, трава, дерево

A line of Pz.Kpfw.IIIs have halted in a field using some the of trees and foliage to help conceal their vehicles. Despite the victorious spearheads of the Panzers the Polish retreat had not degenerated into panic, despite the pulverising effects of the enemies Blitzkrieg tactics.

Изображение выглядит как небо, внешний, человек, дерево

Troops inside a captured village that has just fallen into German hands. Note the Polish prisoner being escorted away. The swiftness of the German advance was a huge psychological shock to the Poles, and they did well to muster any sort of defence.

Изображение выглядит как текст, внешний, трава, поле

A column of Pz.Kpfw.38 (t)s advance through a field, trying to avoid the congested roads east. As the Polish Army began to disintegrate villages and towns in the German objective area were beginning to be held by a strong mix of Polish troops and partisans.

Изображение выглядит как внешний, трава, небо, поле

Troops can be seen encamped inside a field with tents. A motorcyclist is moving across the field towards a muddy road probably preparing to escort the approaching vehicle.

Изображение выглядит как внешний, небо, автомобиль, человек

An officer questions a Pole who is seated in the passenger seat of a staff car whilst two motorcyclists watch and listen. Throughout the German advance many Polish civilians and troops were interrogated in order to find out additional information on the whereabouts or location of enemy positions. Courtesy of Jim Payne

Изображение выглядит как дерево, внешний

At a divisional headquarters German commanders are seen going over various maps and other pieces of information. Courtesy of Jim Payne

Изображение выглядит как внешний, небо, дорога, старый

A radio vehicle advances through a village. This armoured vehicle is equipped with a long range radio set and was used mainly by signal and Army headquarters. Even during the later part of the invasion a number of vehicles still displayed the prominent white cross on the side.

Изображение выглядит как небо, внешний, земля, поле

Two halftracks move across a field passing a stationary vehicle. The leading halftrack is towing a 10.5cm artillery gun. This weapon was the standard light howitzer used by the German Army in Poland. Many of these weapons were brought to the outskirts of Warsaw and used to soften up Polish defensive positions within the city limits. Courtesy of Jim Payne

Изображение выглядит как внешний, небо, трава, поле

Two photographs showing various armoured vehicles, support trucks and motorcycle combinations out in a field. By 10 September the Polish Army had all but been vanquished. There remained for the Germans the ‘Second Phase’: crushing the dazed and disorganised Polish units, and destroying them, before completing a much deeper, envelopment aimed at the River Bug, 125-miles east of Warsaw. Courtesy of Jim Payne

Изображение выглядит как внешний, небо, трава, поле

Изображение выглядит как небо, внешний, дерево, дорога

Two photographs showing light Horch Country vehicles, motorcycles and support lorries. All these vehicles were a vital contribution to both the infantry and Panzer divisions that were operating deep inside Poland. Maintaining the advance was very important to the success, and supplying the divisions, especially when leading units were far ahead of its column were of utmost importance. Courtesy of Jim Payne

Изображение выглядит как внешний, небо, трава, поле

Изображение выглядит как внешний, старый, камень

Three photographs show engineers at work repairing a road that was more than likely destroyed by the Luftwaffe during the early part of the campaign. Moving an armoured force by road was an immense undertaking, especially when considering that a normal armoured column occupied nearly 70-miles of road space at any one time. Courtesy of Jim Payne

Изображение выглядит как внешний, земля, боевая машина, грязь

Изображение выглядит как внешний, земля, небо, грязь

Изображение выглядит как внешний, дерево

German vehicles have halted on a road before entering a village. A local man watches the spectacle from the roadside. Driving along the narrow, rutty roads in Poland was always difficult, but was made particularly worse for the soldiers with increasing partisan activity. Courtesy of Jim Payne

Изображение выглядит как внешний, земля, группа, старый

A group of soldiers pose for the camera next to a river with their inflatable boat. To ferry men and equipment, the soldiers used inflatable boats more than capable of carrying anti-tank guns or small infantry howitzer.

Изображение выглядит как небо, внешний, грузовик, транспорт

A stationary Pz.Kpfw.IV pauses during its long and furious drive east. The vehicle still retains the white cross. The Pz.Kpfw.IV became the most popular tank during World War Two and remained in production throughout the war. At first it was not intended to be a main armoured vehicle in the Panzerwaffe, but in Poland and then against the west it soon proved to be a diverse and effective weapon.

Изображение выглядит как внешний, небо, вода, гора

Inflatable boats have been pressed into service by assault troops. Two paddles either side was normally sufficient enough for the boats to be propelled through the water, even when carrying a full complement of infantry onboard with heavy weapons and equipment.

Изображение выглядит как внешний, лодка, дерево, небо

Engineers with a pontoon section ferrying troops across a river bound for the front line. The German drive through Poland continued with rapid succession. Instead of attempting to outflank the Poles and envelop him, they sought to use the weight of the Panzer division to break through the enemy line and head for objectives deep in the enemy rear.

Изображение выглядит как человек, укладывает, плот

Two gruesome photographs revealing two dead Polish soldiers shot whilst trying to defend their meagre position. Although it is difficult to estimate just how many Poles were killed, it is known that some 800,000 men were mobilised by the Polish Government during the course of the campaign, a total of 694,000 were captured. The remaining 106,000 men were either killed in action, forced to flee across into Romania, or captured by the Red Army when it invaded on 17 September 1939. Courtesy of Jim Payne

Изображение выглядит как трава, внешний, человек, млекопитающее

Изображение выглядит как внешний, небо, грузовик, дорога

Vehicles have halted on a road. In the distance black smoke rises into the air, more than likely caused by heavy shelling of the area. Over the next days that followed exhausted Polish troops continued to laboriously stream eastwards through the closing jaws of the German pincer. Courtesy of Jim Payne

Изображение выглядит как внешний, небо, старый, боевая машина

German troops more than likely belonging to the Eighth or Tenth armies have halted in a small village with their vehicles west of Warsaw. In the distance unmistakable signs of heavy fighting are apparent as smoke raises high into the air following a heavy aerial attack on the area. Courtesy of Jim Payne

Изображение выглядит как внешний, дерево, небо, трава

A variety of Horch Cross Country vehicles have halted near a building. Much of the German advance was now unhindered. The Polish Air Force was barely making any serious contact against German armoured columns due to the severe lack of fuel. Courtesy of Jim Payne

Изображение выглядит как внешний, дерево, небо, мужчина

German infantry move slowly forward towards the outskirts of a village. After more than two weeks of continuous fighting, marching across many miles of unknown territory and sometimes faced with well-defended positions, which took a variable amount of time to conquer, German soldiers were occasionally hard pressed to continue and some were on the verge of total exhaustion. Courtesy of Jim Payne

Изображение выглядит как внешний, стул

Meticulous planning was very important for any military campaign and the Polish invasion was no exception. Here German commanders study maps and other important data. Courtesy of Jim Payne

Изображение выглядит как поезд, небо, внешний, пар

Troops belonging to Eighth Army west of Warsaw. On 14 September both the Eighth and Tenth armies helped to secure the encirclement of Kutrzeba’s Army and prevent any attempt made by the Poles to break out east and join the Modlin and Warsaw garrisons.

Изображение выглядит как внешний, небо, поле, старый

A vehicle passes across a pontoon bridge towing a 2cm FlaK gun. Motorcycle combinations can be seen following closely behind. The 2cm FlaK gun was the first anti-aircraft gun to see active service in the Wehrmacht.

Изображение выглядит как внешний, небо, старый, тянет

A motorcycle unit cross a bridge following a vehicle laden with supplies. All riders were armed with side arms or Mauser rifles slung over their shoulder. Supplies were attached to the back of the bike on panniers.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!