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Crossing the Brda River: Guderian’s First Panzer Action
On August 22, 1939 Generalleutnant Heinz Guderian was ordered to take command of the newly created XIX Armeekorps (mot.). It was composed of the 2nd and 20th Infanterie-Divisions (mot.) and the 3rd Panzer-Division. The 2nd Infanterie-Division (mot.) was commanded by Generalleutnant Paul Bader, the 20th Infanterie-Division (mot.) by Generalleutnant Mauritz von Wiktorin and the 3rd Panzer-Division by Generalleutnant Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg. Oberst Walther Nehring was the Korps’ chief of staff. The strongest element in the Korps was undoubtedly the 3rd Panzer-Division. Its Panzer-Brigade contained a total of:
Panzer I 122
Panzer II 176
Panzer III 43
Panzer IV 32
Command tanks 18
Although the total of tanks is impressive, only 75 of the 391 were of the heavier Panzer III & IV types. The Panzer Is and the command tanks were armed only with machine guns and the Panzer IIs with a 20mm main gun and a coaxial machinegun.
For the forthcoming invasion of Poland XIX Armeekorps (mot.) was subordinated to von Kluge’s Fourth Army. Von Kluge allotted his Army’s main thrust to General Strauss’ II Armeekorps. Guderian’s mission was to protect Strauss’ northern flank. Under its mission XIX Armeekorps (mot.) was to advance between Konitz (Chojnice) and Zębowo, cross the Brahe (Brda) river and in the shortest time possible reach the Vistula, in order to cut off the retreating Poles.
Guderian deployed his divisions in the following manner:
In the north flank, the 20th Infanterie-Division (mot.) was to occupy Konitz and advance toward Graudenz (Grudziądz) via Tuchel (Tuchola) and Osie.
In the centre, the 2nd Infanterie-Division (mot.) was to breach the frontier defenses and advance towards Tuchel.
In the south flank, the 3rd Panzer-Division was to cross the Brahe river east of Pruszcz and advance towards Schwetz (Świecie) and the Vistula. The main thrust of the Korps was assigned to the 3rd Panzer. The 23rd Infanterie-Division, part of Fourth Army’s reserve, was tasked to follow the 3rd Panzer.
The Polish Corridor was defended by Army “Pomorze”, which was facing the German Fourth Army in the west and part of the German Third Army in the east. Although the Corridor could not be defended the Poles decided to establish their military presence there so as not to let Hitler grab their land uncontested as has happened in Czechoslovakia. The bulk of “Pomorze” (9th, 15th, 27th Infantry Divisions, Cavalry Brigade “Pomorska”) was facing west, while two Infantry Divisions (4th & 16th) were facing east. As for the armor of “Pomorze” there were the 81st Independent Reconnaissance Tank Company equipped with thirteen TK-3 tankettes and the 81st Armored Battalion, which belonged to Cavalry Brigade “Pomorska”. The 81st Battalion was equipped with eight wz.34 armored cards and thirteen tankettes. Of them four were TKS with the 20mm cannon and the rest TK-3 armed only with machine guns.
Under heavy fog XIX Armeekorps (mot.) crossed the frontiers at 04:45 hrs on September 1, 1939. The Korps commander was nearly put out of action when his command vehicle received friendly artillery fire and the bewildered driver crushed it in a ditch. In his memoirs Guderian mentions that he was the first commanding general that had used an armored vehicle. After this rather unpleasant experience Guderian established his command post at Zahn (Trzciany) and followed the 3rd Panzer-Division. The Division had some minor engagements with Polish forces around Wielka Klonia and was concentrated between Mała Klonia and Pruszcz. Its advanced elements had reached the Brahe. Guderian was anxious to establish his Panzer-Division on the east bank of the Brahe before the retreating Poles could do so. To his astonishment he found out that the Division was not preparing to cross the river as had been ordered. The 6th Panzer-Regiment commander was of the opinion that such an operation required meticulous preparation and should be attempted the next day. It seemed that this was the prevailing spirit at the Division’s CP. At the time a tank lieutenant presented himself to the Korps commander and informed him that he had found an undestroyed bridge close to Stary Młyn. In his opinion Polish defenses there were weak. Guderian lost no time. He arrived at Stary Młyn himself and ordered a motorcycle battalion to cross the river on rubber boats. The crossing was successful. At 18:00 hrs the bulk of the Division had crossed.
Signs of nervousness were evident in the other two divisions of the Korps also. The advance of the 2nd Infanterie-Division (mot.) was checked close to the borders and the 20th Infanterie-Division (mot.) was for a moment shaken by a saber charge conducted by uhlans of Cavalry Brigade “Pomorska”. The 20th Motorized occupied Konitz, but was reluctant to advance further. Nevertheless, the most significant development of the first day was the crossing of the Brahe by the 3rd Panzer, which, potentially, was cutting off the Polish 9th, 27th Infantry Divisions and “Pomorska”.
On September 2, at 05:00 hrs, Guderian visited the 2nd Motorized which was still lagging behind. The Korps commander placed himself at the head of the Division and got her going. To the south of the 2nd Motorized the 3rd Panzer was facing determined Polish counterattacks, while its reconnaissance battalion had reached the Vistula.
Day Three to Day Eight
Guderian’s Korps was reinforced with the 23rd Infanterie-Division; its landsers marching hard to catch up with the 3rd Panzer. The 3rd Panzer had beaten off all Polish counterattacks and without regard to the security of its flanks and rear had advanced to the Vistula, cutting off the Polish forces in the Corridor. By the end of the third day some 10-15,000 Poles were encircled in a pocket between Schwetz and Graudenz. On the fourth day the battle for the Corridor had come to a close. On September 5 Hitler visited Guderian’s area of operations. The next day Guderian crossed the Vistula and established his HQ at Finckenstein (Kamieniec), in Finckenstein Palace. On September 8 his Korps was subordinated directly to Army Group “North” and was given a new mission.
The advance of the 3rd Panzer-Division in the first three days of the Polish Campaign was not one of the dazzling successes the panzers delivered later in the war. Nonetheless, it showed that motorized forces could easily outmaneuver the non-motorized ones. It also justified Guderian’s insistence in concentrating the tanks in panzer divisions and not scattering them to infantry. When opportunity arose for a quick crossing over the Brda the 3rd Panzer had the size and firepower to exploit it. Finally, it proved Guderian correct in its view that the security of the flanks of a fast advancing motorized unit is ensured by the very speed of the advance.
Guderian, Heinz. Erinnerungen eines Soldaten. Kurt Vowinkel Verlag, 1950.
Jentz, Thomas L. Panzertruppen. Schiffer Military History, 1996.
Kennedy, Robert M. Major. The German Campaign in Poland (1939). Department of the Army Pamphlet No. 20-255. 1956.
U.S. War Department. "The German Campaign in Poland September 1 to October 5, 1939." Digest and lessons of recent military operations. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1942.
Zaloga, Steven J. Poland 1939 The Birth of Blitzkrieg. 2002. Reprint. Osprey Publishing Ltd., 2003.
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