Poland defeated


In London and Paris there was shock at the fall of Warsaw, deep sympathy with the fate of the Poles, amazement at the speed of the German advance, anger at the Soviet connivance in the partition of a State which a month earlier had been independent, a certain shame at not having helped, or been able to help Poland to resist the onslaught, and, above all, fear that the practitioners of ‘lightning war’ might turn their weapons and their tactics against the West. This fear was heightened in Britain by the suspicion that German agents must have skilfully infiltrated into many areas of British life, to report back to Germany on military preparations and to carry out acts of sabotage against British war production.

Unknown to the British public, however, all but a handful of these German agents had been arrested on the outbreak of war; a secret, unsung triumph for British Intelligence. This loss was also unknown to the Germans. Nor was it their only defeat in the clandestine world of espionage. For on 28 September 1939, the day after Warsaw’s surrender, German Intelligence fell into a bizarre trap. That day a Welshman, Arthur Owens, whom German Intelligence believed to be one of its own agents, crossed from Britain to Holland, to make contact with his German superiors, while in fact working for Britain. His British Intelligence masters gave Owens the code name ‘Snow’. He was able to persuade the Germans that he had set up a considerable network of German agents in Wales. Now he asked for both instructions and money. He was given both, and returned that same evening to Britain. Thus began the system known to its British operators as the ‘Double Cross’ system, or ‘XX’ in the coded style of wartime espionage. It was to deceive the Germans entirely; two weeks later Owens crossed back to Holland with another alleged recruit for the German Intelligence network. This was Gwilym Williams, a retired Police inspector from Swansea, hitherto active in the Welsh Nationalist movement. The Germans were again successfully deceived. They not only gave Williams, whom they designated agent A-3551, a series of sabotage tasks which they were later tricked into believing that he had carried out, but also gave him the address of one of the very few genuine German agents in Britain who had not been located by British Intelligence. This was agent A-3725, who was now himself to join the Double Cross system as ‘Charlie’. By the end of the year this spurious spy ring was sending almost daily radio messages to German Intelligence in Hamburg, recruiting further fictitious agents, and preparing a sham sabotage scheme, Plan Guy Fawkes, to poison the reservoirs in Wales which provided water for Britain’s aircraft and munitions factories in the industrial Midlands.

While Arthur Owens was on his Double Cross mission to Holland, the German Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, was on his way to Moscow. There, during two days of negotiations, he accepted for Germany the whole of Poland west of the River Vistula—an area including most of Poland’s populated regions and industry—while accepting Soviet rule over eastern Poland and—this was an unexpected Soviet demand—Lithuania. The treaty embodying this new partition of Poland was signed at five in the morning of September 29. It was called, without reference to the Polish and Lithuanian States which had thereby disappeared, the German—Soviet Boundary and Friendship Treaty. Stalin himself drew the new border line on a map, and signed it. In return for including Lvov, with the nearby oilwells of Drohobycz, on the Soviet side of the line, he promised to provide Germany with 300,000 tons of oil a year.

In the finer points of map making, Stalin agreed to withdraw from the line of the River Vistula to that of the River Bug. This meant that German troops, who having reached the Bug had withdrawn to the Vistula to allow the Red Army to occupy the region, now returned once more to the Bug. Twenty-two million Poles were now under German rule. On September 29, as Ribbentrop returned to Berlin, the Soviet Union signed a Treaty of Mutual Assistance with the small Baltic State of Estonia, giving the Russians the right to occupy Estonia’s naval bases at Narva, Baltiski, Haapsalu and Pärnü. Six days later, a similar treaty was signed with Latvia, and eleven days later with Lithuania. Stalin was not going to leave a vacuum between the Soviet frontiers established in the years after the First World War, when Bolshevism was weak, and the now triumphant Nazi juggernaut whose eastern border had moved well inside what once had been the imperial frontiers of the Russian Tsar. Nor, quite naturally, was Hitler content to set up an undefended eastern border for his Thousand Year Reich. In a top secret Directive No. 5 on September 30, he gave instructions that his Polish borderlands ‘will be constantly strengthened and built up as a line of military security towards the East’ and that ‘the garrisons necessary for this purpose will eventually be moved forward beyond the political frontier of the Reich’.

This same directive of September 30 also increased the scale of German activity in the West. The ‘war at sea’, Hitler decreed, was to be carried on ‘against France just as against England’. Troopships and merchant ships ‘definitely established as being hostile’ could henceforth be attacked without warning. This also applied to ships sailing without lights in British coastal waters. In addition, merchant ships which used their wireless after they had been stopped would be fired on. The sinking of such merchantmen, the German Naval Staff noted that day, ‘must be justified in the war diary as due to possible confusion with a warship or auxiliary cruiser’.

The sinking of British merchant ships was taking place on a widening scale. On the day of Hitler’s directive, the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, sank the British merchant ship Clement, raising the Allied losses in merchant shipping to a total of 185,000 tons in less than a month.

Poland partitioned, October 1939

In Paris, on September 30, a Polish General, Wladyslaw Sikorski, set up a Polish Government-in-Exile. As he did so, the city of Warsaw still awaited, as it had done for the past three days, the arrival of the German Army. ‘There were so many corpses lying still unburied,’ Jadwiga Sosnkowska recalled, ‘there was no food, and there were no medical supplies. These were sorrowful days, but they will live for ever in my memory as days of the greatest solidarity and brotherly compassion of the whole community.’ Nor was it only a question of good deeds; ‘an ocean of kindness’ she added, ‘welled from human hearts, eager to save, to help, to console. The walls of the city had fallen, but the people of Warsaw remained erect, with unbowed heads.’

On October 1 the German Army prepared to occupy Warsaw. Before doing so, it demanded twelve hostages—ten Christians and two Jews—who would be responsible with their lives for any disturbances that might occur while the Army was marching in. On entering the city, the Germans set up field kitchens and began to distribute free soup and bread to the starving population. Thousands flocked to the kitchens. At once, German film operators set up their cameras and filmed the evidence of how German troops were bringing sustenance to the hungry Poles. The film completed, the field kitchens disappeared with the cameramen.

That day, the last Polish soldiers still in action, on the Hel peninsula, were forced to surrender. Three Polish destroyers and three submarines succeeded in escaping the German naval blockade, and made their way to British ports. The Eastern war was over; 694,000 Polish soldiers had been captured by the Germans, 217,000 were in Russian hands. More than 60,000 Polish soldiers had been killed in action, as had as many as 25,000 Polish civilians in three weeks of aerial and artillery bombardment, especially on Warsaw. The Germans, forced despite their tactic of ‘lightning war’ to fight a tenacious enemy, had lost 14,000 men.


On the night of 1 October, British bombers flew over Berlin itself. They dropped, not bombs, but leaflets, telling the German public that whereas they were forced to go to war ‘with hunger rations’, their leaders had secreted vast sums of money overseas. Even Himmler, the leaflet declared, ‘who watches like a lynx that no German takes more than ten marks across the frontier has himself smuggled abroad a sum of 527,500’. After one month of war, ninety-seven million leaflets had been printed, of which thirty-one million had already been dropped. A joke popular at that time told of an airman who was rebuked for dropping a whole bundle of leaflets still tied up in its brick-like packet: ‘Good God, you might have killed someone!’ Public scepticism about the efficacy of the leaflets led to many of them—thirty-nine million in all—being pulped instead of being dropped. This, said its critics, was not real war, but ‘confetti war’. It went on nevertheless.

In German-occupied Poland, it was a cruel war that continued, despite Poland’s defeat. On October 4, in Berlin, Hitler signed a secret amnesty, releasing from detention those SS men who had been arrested by the Army authorities on charges of brutality against the civilian population. On the following day he flew to Warsaw, where he took the salute at a victory parade. Returning to the airfield, he told the foreign journalists there: ‘Take a good look around Warsaw. That is how I can deal with any European city.’

Photographs of Warsaw’s bomb damage were reproduced in newspapers throughout the world, nor did the question of whether such destruction would also be visited on London and Paris go unasked. It was indeed Hitler himself who, speaking in Berlin on October 6, declared: ‘Why should this war in the West be fought? For the restoration of Poland? The Poland of the Versailles Treaty will never rise again.’ Yet, other than Poland, what reason was there for war. All important problems could be resolved at the conference table.

Hitler’s suggestion of negotiations was addressed to Britain and France; Poland would be excluded. In the East, terror, and terror alone, was the order of the day. On October 8, two days after Hitler’s soothing words in Berlin, a group of more than twenty Poles in the town of Swiecie was taken by an SS detachment to the Jewish cemetery. Among the Poles were several children between the ages of two and eight. All were shot. Watching the execution were about 150 German soldiers. Three of them protested to their medical officer. He at once wrote, in outrage, direct to Hitler. Not long afterwards, Hitler received a further protest about such executions from General Blaskowitz. Hitler was shown the report by his Army adjutant, Captain Gerhard Engel. ‘He took note of it calmly enough at first’, Engel noted, ‘but then began another long tirade of abuse at the “childish ideas” prevalent in the army’s leadership; you cannot fight wars with the methods of the Salvation Army.’

On October 8 Hitler signed a decree annexing the Polish frontier regions to Silesia and East Prussia, and creating out of Polish territory three enlarged districts of the German Reich, ‘Greater East Prussia’, ‘Danzig West Prussia’ and ‘Posen’. Four days later the remaining area of German-occupied Poland, including Warsaw, was constituted a General Government, with its capital in Cracow. Warsaw was to be relegated from a capital city to a provincial town. The Governor-General chosen by Hitler was the Nazi Party’s legal adviser, Dr Hans Frank. His tasks included the ‘restoration’ of public order. Frank’s own description of his task was more explicit. ‘Poland shall be treated like a colony,’ he wrote, ‘the Poles will become the slaves of the Greater German Empire’.

On October 9, in Berlin, Hitler received a Swedish businessman, Birger Dahlerus, who had been flying between London and Berlin, through Sweden, with a proposal, emanating originally from Goering, for a negotiated settlement between Britain and Germany. On October 5, in London, Dahlerus had seen the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax; on October 9, in Berlin, he reported to Hitler that Britain was insisting upon the restoration of Polish statehood, the immediate destruction of all weapons of aggression, and a plebiscite inside Germany on certain aspects of Hitler’s foreign policy. On the following day, 10 October, Dahlerus saw Hitler again, twice, before being asked to convey the German terms to Britain: the territorial aspects were Germany’s right to fortify her new frontier with Russia, and the return to Germany of her pre First World War colonies or ‘suitable substitute territories’. Between his two meetings with Dahlerus, Hitler issued a new directive to General Keitel, the Chief of Staff of the German armed forces, and to his Army, Navy and Air Force commanders. This directive set out Operation Yellow, the code name for an offensive against France and Britain.

Hitler’s directive of October 9 gave precise details of an offensive, to be carried out ‘in greatest possible strength’, through Luxemburg, Belgium and Holland. The purpose of this northern advance into France was to defeat ‘as much as possible’ of the French Army, and ‘at the same time to win as much territory as possible in Holland, Belgium and Northern France, to serve as a base for the successful prosecution of the air and sea war against England’. It would also create a ‘wide protective area’ for the economically vital Ruhr.

‘War against England’; the words were chilling in their implications of impending conflict. Chilling in a different way were the census forms sent out that day from Philipp Bouler, the head of Hitler’s Party Office, to all hospitals and doctors, asking them, ostensibly for statistical purposes, to list all patients who were senile, criminally insane or of non-German blood. Meeting in secret, three assessors would then decide whether the patient should live or die. The Head of Hitler’s Chancellery, Hans Lammers, had wanted the procedure codified as part of German law. This, Hitler had refused. It was not only in the euthanasia institutes in Germany that the killing of mental patients now began. In occupied Poland, at Piasnica, not far from Danzig, several thousand so-called ‘defectives’ were killed by the end of the year. As well as Poles and Jews, twelve hundred Germans perished at Piasnica; they had been sent there from psychiatric institutions inside Germany.

On the morning of October 10, Hitler received seven of his most senior military commanders at the Chancellery, the very building from which the euthanasia census forms had been sent the previous day. To the commanders he spoke of the reasons for a war in the West, reading out to them a memorandum which he had written, in which he gave as Germany’s war aim ‘the destruction of the power and ability of the Western powers ever again to oppose the state consolidation and further developments of the German people in Europe’.

It was his treaty with Russia, Hitler explained, which made it possible to attack Britain and France, for it ensured that such a war would be a war on a single front. But time was not on Germany’s side. ‘By no treaty or pact’, Hitler warned, ‘can a lasting neutrality with Soviet Russia be ensured with certainty.’ What was now needed was ‘a prompt demonstration of German strength’. Plans must be made at once. The attack could not begin ‘too early’. It was to take place ‘in all circumstances, if at all possible, this autumn’.

Fifteen days had passed since German scientists, meeting in Berlin, had informed the military authorities of the possibility of using nuclear fission to create a bomb of massive destructive power. Meanwhile, in the United States, an American economist, a friend of Albert Einstein, had been seeking a private meeting with Roosevelt. The meeting took place on October 11. The economist, Alexander Sachs, brought with him a letter from Einstein, the contents of which he explained to the President. Atomic energy would enable a man to ‘blow up his neighbour’ on a scale hitherto unimagined, and unimaginable.

Greater Germany, November 1939

‘This requires action’ was Roosevelt’s comment. Ten days later, an advisory committee on uranium held its first meeting in Washington. America was now actively in search of the new force. Einstein, who, as a Jew, had been forced to flee from Germany in 1933, had shown the way forward for the development of a revolutionary weapon of war. But more than five years were to pass before that weapon could be developed. Meanwhile, the destructive power of the existing weapons continued to be felt. On the evening of October 13 a German submarine, U-47, commanded by Günther Prien, penetrated the British naval defences at Scapa Flow and, in the early hours of October 14, with three torpedoes, sank the battleship Royal Oak as she lay at anchor; 833 sailors were drowned.

Two days after the sinking of the Royal Oak, two German bombers flew, unescorted, over the east coast of Scotland. Both were shot down by fighters. Three of the eight crewmen were drowned. It was the first time that British fighter pilots had destroyed enemy aircraft over home territory. A month later, over France, a young New Zealander, Flying Officer E. J. Kain, shot down a German bomber from the then record height for air combat of 27,000 feet. But such successes could not offset the tragedy of the Royal Oak.

In Poland, there was no abatement in the German pursuit of its goals; on October 16 all Poles were ordered to leave the port and city of Gdynia. There were similar mass expulsions from towns throughout the area annexed by Germany. The Poles who were expelled had to find homes elsewhere in war damaged Poland, in regions already suffering from severe shortages of food. Yet they could take with them only such goods as they could pack into suitcases or bundles. Their homes, the bulk of their possessions, and for most their very means of subsistence, had to be left behind. Executions, too, continued, often to the accompaniment of physical and mental tortures of a perverted kind. On October 17 the seventy-year-old Father Pawlowski, the parish priest of Chocz, was arrested by the Gestapo and charged with illegal possession of arms. A search of his home revealed two cartridge cases, all that remained of his pre-war love of partridge shooting. Pawlowski was then beaten up so badly that his face was lacerated beyond recognition. He was then taken to the nearby town of Kalisz, to an execution post set up in the main square. There, the Gestapo forced local Jews to bind him to the execution post, to unbind him after he had been shot, to kiss his feet, and to bury him in the Jewish cemetery.

That same day, October 17, a decree of the Ministerial Council for the Defence of the Reich gave the SS field divisions judicial independence from the German Army. Henceforth, SS soldiers would no longer be tried by German Army courts martial, but by their own SS superiors. Also on October 17, the Army lost its administrative control in Poland; at a conference in the Chancellery at which Heinrich Himmler and General Keitel were both present, Hitler announced that the government of Poland was now in the hands of Hans Frank for the General Government region, Albert Forster for Danzig—West Prussia and Artur Greiser for Posen. It was to be the task of these senior members of the Nazi Party to prevent any future emergence of a Polish leadership. Poland must become so poor that the Poles would want to work in Germany. Within ten years, Greater Danzig—West Prussia and Posen must both be transformed into ‘pure and Germanic provinces in full bloom’.

That evening, General Keitel spoke of these plans to an Army colonel who had arrived at the Chancellery. ‘The methods to be employed’, Keitel commented, ‘will be irreconcilable with all our existing principles’. Such principles were everywhere being set aside. On October 18, Hitler’s Directive No. 7 for the Conduct of the War, sent to Keitel on October 18, authorized German submarine attacks on passenger ships ‘in convoy, or proceeding without lights’.


A massive forced movement of peoples had now begun in the East. In the eastern areas of Poland occupied by Russia, Germans whose ancestors had settled there two centuries earlier were sent, bewildered, across the new Soviet—German frontier into western Poland. Jews whose ancestors had settled in the Czechoslovak—now German—city of Moravska Ostrava equally long ago were put into railway coaches under SS guard and deported to the General Government, where they were dumped east of Lublin in a special ‘Jewish reservation’, soon to be joined by Jews deported from the Baltic ports and from Vienna, and even with Jews who had been seized at the Hamburg docks, waiting to board ship for the United States. Other Jews, especially those living in Chelm, Pultusk and Ostrow, fled eastward from German-occupied Poland, across the River Bug to the Soviet side. There, to their bewilderment, they met Polish Jews fleeing westward, desperate to escape the perils of Communist rule, and hoping that, as had been true in the First World War, German rule might prove less burdensome.

With the Soviet Union suddenly predominant in the Baltic States, German Balts, who could trace their Baltic ancestry back many hundreds of years, found themselves the somewhat amazed beneficiaries of the new found Soviet—German co-operation; they too were now unexpectedly on the move, the first German Balts reaching Danzig from Estonia on October 20. Two days later, the Germans began to deport Poles from Poznan, the largest city of western Poland, with a population of more than a quarter of a million Poles. The decade of preparing the ‘pure and Germanic provinces’ had begun.

The world awaited Hitler’s next move, not knowing if he would strike again. Some saw in his offer of peace on October 6 a hopeful sign. Others were alarmed by one passage in it, in which Hitler declared: ‘Destiny will decide. One thing is certain, in the course of world history there have never been two victors, but very often only vanquished.’ In a secret speech to senior Nazi Party officials on October 21, Hitler assured his followers that, once he had forced Britain and France to their knees, he would turn his attention back to the East, ‘and show who was the master there’. The Russian soldiers, he said, were badly trained and poorly equipped. Once he had dealt with the East, ‘he would set about restoring Germany to how she used to be’.

Already, in occupied Poland, the New Order was being established. On October 25, in the first official gazette of the General Government, Hans Frank announced that henceforth all Jewish males between the ages of fourteen and sixty would be ‘obliged to work’ at Government-controlled labour projects. Some would go each day in work brigades to tasks near the cities. Other would be taken to special labour camps set up alongside distant projects. By the end of the year, twenty-eight such labour camps had been set up in the Lublin region, twenty-one in the Kielce region, fourteen near Warsaw, twelve near Cracow and ten near Rzeszow. Conditions in these camps were terribly harsh. Yet the pittance paid to those who worked in them provided a means of survival for many Jews who, expelled from the towns and villages in which they had lived and worked all their lives, now had no other means of subsistence.

Typical of the New Order in Poland was a notice posted in the streets of Torun on October 27 by the head of the local State Police. Its ten points set out instructions for the Polish citizens whose ‘brazen behaviour’ would have to change. All Poles must ‘leave the pavement free’ for Germans. ‘The street belongs to the conquerors, not to the conquered.’ In shops and at the market place, representatives of the German authorities, and local ethnic Germans, must be served first. ‘The conquered come only after them.’ Male Polish nationals must raise their hats to the ‘important personalities of State, Party and armed forces’. Poles are forbidden to use the ‘Heil Hitler!’ greeting. ‘Whoever annoys or speaks to German women and girls will receive exemplary punishment. Polish females who speak to or annoy German nationals will be sent to brothels.’

The seriousness of these regulations was made clear in a final paragraph. ‘Poles who have failed to understand that they are the conquered and we are conquerors,’ it read, ‘and who act against the above regulations, expose themselves to the most severe punishment’.

The Poles were now a subject people. But, for the Nazi ideology, it was not enough to conquer. A new race had to be created, based upon the spurious notion of ‘Aryan’ ethnic superiority. On October 28 Himmler issued a special ‘Procreation Order’ to the SS whereby it would become ‘the sublime task of German women and girls of good blood, acting not frivolously but from a profound moral seriousness, to become mothers to children of soldiers setting off to battle’. To make sure that the creation of a race of ‘supermen’ was undertaken on a systematic basis, Himmler established special human stud farms, known as Lebensborn, where young girls, selected for their allegedly perfect ‘Nordic’ traits, could procreate with SS men. Their offspring would be taken care of in maternity homes, where they would receive special benefits.

The breeding of the ‘master’ race and the destruction of the ‘inferior race’ went on side by side. For many German Army officers, however, the treatment of the ‘inferior’ race had taken unacceptable forms. General Blaskowitz, in the protest at such treatment which he sent to Hitler’s Chancellery, described an incident in the Polish town of Turek on October 30, when a number of Jews ‘were herded into the synagogues and there were made to crawl along the pews singing, while being continuously beaten with whips by SS men. They were then forced to take down their trousers so that they could be beaten on the bare buttocks. One Jew, who had fouled his trousers in fear, was compelled to smear his excrement over the faces of other Jews’.

What the future of these Jews was to be, no one knew. Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Josef Goebbels, visiting Lodz on November 2, wrote, of the city’s 200,000 Jews: ‘It is indescribable. They are no longer people, but beasts. There is therefore not a humanitarian, but a surgical task. Here one must make a radical incision. Otherwise Europe will be ruined by the Jewish sickness.’ ‘Behind all the enemies of Germany’s ascendancy’, a Berlin magazine declared that day, ‘stand those who demand our encirclement—the oldest enemies of the German people and of all healthy, rising nations—the Jews.’

A week after this article, and the visit of Goebbels to Lodz, the Germans began the expulsion of all 40,000 Jews who lived in those regions of Poland which were now annexed to Germany. Most families were forced to leave their homes overnight, abandoning their property, their shops and businesses, and all their possessions save those which could be put on a cart or packed into a suitcase. All those deported were sent into the General Government.

On November 3, it was the fate of ninety-six Polish schoolteachers in the town of Rypin to be summoned to the Gestapo, arrested, and shot, some in their school building, others in nearby woods.


On October 28 a German bomber on a naval reconnaissance mission was shot down over Scotland, near the village of Humbie. It was the first German aircraft of the war to be brought down on British soil. Two of its crew, Gottlieb Kowalke and Bruno Reimann, were killed, and the other two crew members, the captain, Rolf Niehoff, and the pilot, Kurt Lehmkühl, captured. They were both to spend the next six years as prisoners-of-war, first in Britain and then in Canada.

In the West, preparations mounted to meet a possible German attack. On October 27 a distinguished Canadian soldier, Brigadier H. D. G. Crerar, had arrived in Britain to establish the nucleus of a Canadian military headquarters in London. On November 3, in Washington, at President Roosevelt’s urging, Congress repealed that provision in the Neutrality Act which, since 1937, had forbidden both the shipment of American arms to belligerent countries and the granting of economic credits to belligerent countries which wished to buy arms in the United States. Both these barriers to British and French arms purchases were now swept away, and an Anglo-French Purchasing Board set up in Washington. The head of the Board was a British-born Canadian industrialist, Arthur Purvis, who at the outbreak of the First World War, aged twenty-four, had been sent from Britain to the United States to buy up all available stocks of acetone, the scarcity of which was then seriously impeding the British manufacture of explosives. The return of Purvis to America marked an important stage in the Anglo-French search for the arms and munitions with which to confront any German military onslaught.

On November 5, two days after the arms embargo was repealed in Washington, Hitler, having violently abused General von Brauchitsch for the ‘defeatist’ spirit of the German Army High Command, set November 12 as the date for the attack on France, Belgium and Holland. Two days later, however, Hitler issued a postponement. The points which von Brauchitsch had made at the Chancellery, and which had so outraged him, could not be denied. The Army was unready. The wet winter weather impeded the advance of the tanks and limited the hours of daylight during which the German Air Force could fly. Most important, the Air Force needed five consecutive days of good weather to destroy the French Air Force, a crucial element in the success of ‘lightning war’. But the meteorological report on November 7 was too negative for safety.

Ironically, Britain and France had learned of the November 12 date from two separate sources. The first source was General Oster, second in command on Admiral Canaris’s Intelligence staff, who on November 7 passed on the date to Colonel Jacobus Sas, the Dutch Military Attache in Berlin. The second source was Paul Thümmel, also a member of Canaris’s military Intelligence agency, who, as agent A-54, passed on the same date and details to Western Intelligence through the Czechoslovak Government-in-exile in London. Since 1936, Thümmel had been sending details of German military intentions to Czechoslovak Intelligence. No other military machine had such high placed spies in its midst—in its very nerve centre.

Hitler could easily set aside the date for war, and was to do so several times. But the German New Order in Poland brooked no postponement. On November 5, the day of Hitler’s decision to attack in the West, all 167 Polish professors and lecturers at Cracow University were seized by the Gestapo and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, north of Berlin. There, seventeen of them died from the torture to which they were subjected. Those who died included Professor Ignatius Chrzanowski, the foremost historian of Polish literature, Professor Michael Siedlecki, a leading zoologist and former Rector of the University of Vilna, and Professor Stanislas Estreicher, Professor of Western European Jurisprudence, who had earlier refused a German offer to become President of a puppet Polish Protectorate. All three were in their mid-seventies.

Hitler, his attack on the West postponed, travelled on November 8 from Berlin to Munich, to celebrate the sixteenth anniversary of his beer-hall Putsch, the moment in 1923 when he had led his followers on an abortive march to seize power in the Bavarian capital. His speech on this particular anniversary was a denunciation of Britain for its ‘jealousy and hatred’ of Germany. Under Nazi rule, Hitler declared, Germany had achieved more in six years than Britain had achieved in centuries.

Hitler left the beer hall earlier than scheduled, in order to be back in Berlin for a discussion with his generals about the new date for the Western offensive. Eight minutes after he had left, a bomb exploded inside the pillar just behind where he had been speaking. Seven people were killed and more than sixty injured. Hitler was already on the train to Berlin when the news of the explosion reached him. ‘Now I am completely content’, he remarked. ‘The fact that I left the beer hall earlier than usual is corroboration of Providence’s intention to let me reach my goal.’

The would-be assassin was caught that same evening at Konstanz, trying to cross the German border into Switzerland. His name was Johann Georg Elser, a thirty-six-year old watchmaker, who had recently been discharged from Dachau concentration camp, near Munich, where he had been held as a Communist sympathizer. Now he was sent to Sachsenhausen as ‘Hitler’s special prisoner’.

At Munich’s Roman Catholic cathedral, Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber, the Archbishop of Munich, celebrated Hitler’s ‘miraculous escape’ from assassination with a solemn mass. There was a more prosaic miracle which Hitler himself could celebrate on November 9, shortly after his return to Berlin—the kidnapping, by SS agents, of two British Intelligence agents in the Netherlands, lured over the Dutch—German border at Venlo. The kidnap plan had been led by the twenty-eight-year-old Alfred Naujocks, who had earlier led the faked ‘Polish attack’ on Gleiwitz radio station on the eve of the German—Polish war. The aim of the Venlo incident, apart from learning as much as possible of the techniques and plans of British Intelligence, was to give the Germans a pretext for invading Holland, on the grounds that the Dutch, in allowing two British agents to operate on their soil, had abandoned their neutrality.

Hitler appreciated the value of this spectacular kidnap, awarding one of its organizers, Helmut Knochen, the Iron Cross, First and Second Class. Knochen, an expert on the German refugee Press in France, Belgium and Holland, held a doctorate in English literature from Göttingen University. The two British agents, Captain Best and Major Stevens, were imprisoned, first in Sachsenhausen and then in Dachau. A Dutch Intelligence officer, Lieutenant Dirk Klop, who had gone to the border with them, was shot and captured; he died of his wounds later that day, in Düsseldorf.

In Buchenwald concentration camp, November 9 saw the execution of twenty-one Jews who had been forced to work in the stone quarries there. The youngest, Walter Abusch, was only seventeen years old; the oldest, Theodor Kriesshaber, was fifty-five.


November 11 was Polish Independence Day. Two days earlier, in Lodz, the Germans had seized a number of Jews on the street and ordered them to break down the monument to the Polish hero, Kosciuszko. The Jews were old; the monument was strong; even rifle butts could not accelerate their work. The monument was therefore blown up with dynamite. On Polish Independence Day itself, the Germans celebrated by marching past the rubble. That same day, once such a day of rejoicing for the Poles, the Germans took 350 Poles from a labour camp near Gdynia to a prison yard in the town of Wejherowo. There, they were ordered to dig a series of deep pits. Divided into groups, the first was taken to the edge of the pit and shot, the others being forced to watch. As each group was brought to the edge of the pit and shot, they cried out: ‘Long live Poland!’

Throughout German-occupied Poland, such atrocities were becoming commonplace. On November 8, in the resort spa of Ciechocinek, a group of fifty Polish officers, now prisoners-of-war, had been led through the streets of the town with their hands above their heads. All were subsequently shot. In Warsaw, on November 9, a thousand Polish intellectuals—writers, journalists, artists—had been arrested.

The expulsion of Poles and Jews from the German-annexed areas was proceeding with considerable speed, amid hardship for those expelled. In all, 120,000 Poles, most of them peasants, were expelled from the Posen district, now known as the Warthegau, 35,000 from Greater Danzig—West Prussia and 15,000 from East Upper Silesia. ‘I have been appointed by the Führer’, Albert Forster declared at Bydgoszcz on November 27, ‘as a trustee of the German cause in this country, with the express order to Germanize it afresh. It will therefore be my task to do everything possible to remove every manifestation of Polonism within the next few years, no matter what the kind.’

For the Jews who were expelled from these annexed regions, one area of relocation was the Lublin district. There, on November 9, Odilo Globocnik was appointed SS and Police Leader; a well-known virulent anti-Semite, he had in the years before the war, as Deputy District Leader of the Nazi Party in Austria, helped pave the way for Hitler’s annexation, and Nazi control.


In the General Government, measures were now being taken which surpassed in severity, and indeed in savagery, the random beatings and killings of the six pre-war years of Nazi ‘struggle’. On November 15, in Lodz, the main synagogue was set on fire; on German orders the local Polish fire brigades were called out to prevent the flames spreading to the adjoining buildings. In Warsaw, on November 16, a German wall poster curtly announced the execution that day of fifteen Poles, one of them a Jew. In Lublin, Odilo Globocnik’s new headquarters, the books from the town’s Jewish Religious Academy were taken to the market place and burned. ‘It was a matter of special pride’, a German eye-witness later reported, ‘to destroy the Talmudic Academy, which was known as the greatest in Poland.’ The fire lasted twenty-four hours. ‘The Lublin Jews’, the German recalled, ‘assembled around and wept bitterly, almost silencing us with their cries. We summoned the military band, and with joyful shouts the soldiers drowned out the sounds of the Jewish cries.’

‘Truly we are cattle in the eyes of the Nazis,’ the Warsaw educationalist Chaim Kaplan noted in his diary on 18 November. ‘When they supervise Jewish workers they hold a whip in their hands. All are beaten unmercifully.’ On November 19 Hitler himself was informed by Himmler, as Himmler’s notes record, of the ‘shooting of 380 Jews at Ostrow’.

Measures were now begun throughout the General Government to isolate the Jews from the Poles. Among those who had earlier been expelled from the areas of Poland annexed by Germany were the Jews of the small town of Sierpc. When they reached Warsaw with their pathetic bundles, it was seen that, as well as the indignities of expulsion, they had been subjected to a peculiar humiliation while still in Sierpc; each of them had been forced to sew a yellow patch on his or her coat lapel, and to mark the patch with the word ‘Jew’. On November 17, in Warsaw, Chaim Kaplan had noted how, when his fellow Warsaw Jews saw the badge, ‘their faces were filled with shame’. Kaplan, however, advised a counter-measure, adding, next to the word Jew, the word ‘my pride’. When he suggested this to one of the Jews from Sierpc, however, ‘the Jew answered, as one who knows, that the conqueror calls such things “sabotage” and condemns the guilty one to death’.

On November 23, Hans Frank announced, from Cracow, that all Jews and Jewesses over the age of ten throughout the General Government must wear a four-inch armband in white, ‘marked with the star of Zion on the right sleeve of their inner and outer clothing’. In Warsaw, the star must be blue. ‘Transgressors’, Frank warned, would be imprisoned. Far worse punishments were already being enacted, however, against the Jews of Warsaw. On the day before Frank’s announcement, fifty-three Jews, the inhabitants of No. 9 Nalewki Street, had been executed as a reprisal for the death of a Polish policeman, killed by a Jew who lived at the same address. The Germans had offered to ransom the fifty-three, but when representatives of the Warsaw Jewish Council brought the money to the Gestapo, and handed it over, they were then told that the imprisoned Jews had already been shot. The money was not returned.

The execution of the fifty-three Jews of No. 9 Nalewki Street was the first mass killing of Jews in Warsaw. ‘It threw the Jewish population into panic,’ one Jew later recalled. Among those killed in this reprisal action was the forty-five-year-old Samuel Zamkowy, one of Warsaw’s leading gynaecologists.

Some individuals in the German Army were shocked by what was being done; on November 23, the day after the Nalewki Street executions, General Petzel, the German military commander in the Warthegau, wrote a report, which General Blaskowitz sent on to Hitler, in which he said that in almost ‘all major localities’ the SS and Gestapo ‘carry out public shootings’. More than that, Petzel added: ‘Selection is entirely arbitrary and the conduct of the executions in many cases disgusting.’

On November 25, two officials in the Racial Political Office in Berlin, Eberhard Wetzel and Gerhard Hecht, sent the Nazi leaders, including Himmler, their suggestions for the future of the Poles. ‘Medical care from our side’, they wrote, ‘must be limited to the prevention of the spreading of epidemics to Reich territory.’ All measures that served to ‘limit’ the Polish birth rate must be ‘tolerated or promoted’. As for the Jews, ‘We are indifferent to the hygienic fate of the Jews.’ As with the Poles, ‘their propagation must be curtailed in every possible way’.


In his plans to force Britain and France to submit, Hitler had launched a weapon intended to revolutionize naval warfare. It was a magnetic mine, detonated by the magnetism of any iron-hulled ship which passed over it. On November 14, in London, Churchill informed the British War Cabinet of this new device, which had begun to wreak havoc on British and French merchant shipping. A German submarine had already laid a line of magnetic mines at a vital point for British seaborne traffic, opposite the entrance to the Thames estuary. A British minelayer, HMS Adventure, had struck a mine and been badly damaged. Twelve sailors had been killed.

British naval experts worked around the clock to try to find a means of countering what Churchill called, in the secrecy of the War Cabinet, ‘a grave menace which might well be Hitler’s “Secret weapon”’. Hitler himself was now deep in his plans for an all out war in the West; on November 15 he discussed these plans with General Rommel, whose military skills had been shown in the Polish campaign. ‘The Führer’s mind is absolutely made up,’ Rommel noted. ‘The assassination attempt in Munich has only made his resolution stronger. It is a marvel to witness all this.’

Five days after his discussion with Rommel, Hitler issued a new directive to his senior Army, Navy and Air force commanders, setting out details of the attacks to be mounted against Belgium and Holland. ‘Where no resistance is offered’, he wrote with reference to Holland, ‘the invasion will assume the character of peaceful occupation.’ The Navy would undertake the blockade of the Dutch and Belgian coasts.

Meanwhile, the German Navy continued to wreak havoc off the east coast of Britain, dropping magnetic mines into place by aeroplane. These mines sank merchant shipping indiscriminately; on November 19, of five merchant ships sunk, two had been British, one French, one Swedish and one Italian. On November 20 a minesweeper, the Mastiff, was itself blown up by a magnetic mine during a sweep. But on November 22 there was a turn in fortune for Britain’s sea lifeline; a magnetic mine, dropped by air, had fallen on the mudflats near Shoeburyness, and was nestling on the mud, intact. Recovered the next night, it was dismantled, and its secret discovered. On November 23, work began at the Admiralty to find an antidote.

Hitler knew nothing of the recovery of the magnetic mine. That same day, November 23, he spoke to his generals of the coming attack on Belgium, Holland and France. Britain would not have to be invaded, however, as she ‘could be forced to her knees by the U-boat and the mine’.

Hitler’s speech was a confident assertion of imminent victory in the West, if the opportunity were taken quickly. ‘For the first time in history we have only to fight on one front. The other is at present open. But nobody can be certain how long it will remain so.’ His own life, Hitler continued, was of no importance; ‘I have led the German people to great achievements, even if we are now an object of hatred in the outside world.’ He had decided to live his life so that he could fall ‘unashamed’ if he had to die. ‘I shall stand or fall in this struggle,’ he ended. ‘I shall never survive the defeat of my people.’

These were stern words. ‘The Führer spoke very bluntly,’ Rommel wrote on the following day. ‘But that seems quite necessary, too, because the more I speak with my comrades, the fewer I find with their heart and conviction in what they are doing.’

At sea, Hitler’s confidence continued to seem well placed. On November 24, the day after his speech to his generals, the German battle cruiser Scharnhorst sank the British armed merchant cruiser Rawalpindi after a fourteen-minute bombardment. In all, 270 British officers and men were drowned; there were only 38 survivors, 27 of whom were picked up by the Germans.

On November 28, as a reprisal for the mining of British coastal waters, the British Government instituted a naval blockade in the North Sea of all German export shipments. On the following day, in his Directive No. 9, Hitler issued further war instructions which began: ‘In our fight against the Western Powers, England has shown herself to be the animator of the fighting spirit of the enemy, and the leading enemy power. The defeat of England is essential to final victory’. The ‘most effective’ means of securing this defeat was ‘to cripple the English economy at decisive points’. Once the German Army had defeated the Anglo-French armies in the field, and was ‘holding a sector of the coast’ opposite England, the paramount task of the German Navy and Air Force would be to ‘carry the war’ to English industry. This was to be done by naval blockade, mining of the seas, and aerial bombardment of industrial centres and ports.

Minelaying activities off British shores were already on a considerable scale. Now the number of German air reconnaissance flights over Britain were increased. In London, the War Cabinet asked the principal interpretation body of German intentions, the Joint Intelligence Committee, what all these activities meant. On November 30 the committee replied that it was impossible to do more than guess at their significance.

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