World War 2 in Europe: The Polish Campaign (II) – The Invasion
“The Polish cavalry attacked heroically; in general the bravery and heroism of the Polish Army merits great respect. But the higher command was not equal to the demands of the situation.”
Gerd von Rundstedt
Having presented the opposing plans in the first part we will move on with the narration of the campaign.
Disposition of Forces
In order to defend the country the Polish Army had created a number of army level formations. Those formations were subordinated directly to the General Headquarters in Warsaw. At the time the Polish Army was not using the Army Group level as an intermediate level between the GHQ and the field armies.
The northern group was deployed along the borders with East Prussia. It was composed of:
Special Operational Group Narew, close to the German-Polish-Lithuanian borders.
The axis East Prussia – Warsaw was checked by Army “Modlin”. Its commander was Emil Krukowicz-Przedrzymirski.
Operational Group Wyszkow was northern group’s reserve.
Mission: The northern group was to delay the German advance and then hold the Narew line at all costs.
Army “Pomorze” was deployed along the Polish Corridor and up to the Noteć river. Its commander was Władysław Bortnowski. Army “Pomorze” was deployed between Pomerania and East Prussia. The bulk of the Army was facing west, while two divisions were around Graudenz (Grudziądz), facing east.
Mission: Army “Pomorze” was to delay the German advance, fall back to a delaying position along the Vistula and finally retire southeast on the fortress of Modlin.
Army “Poznan” was deployed south of the Noteć river. Its commander was Tadeusz Kutrzeba.
Mission: Army “Poznan” was to delay the German advance, fall back to a delaying position between Bromberg (Bydgoszcz) and Koło, connecting with the delaying position of Army “Pomorze” behind the Vistula and of Army “Lodz” behind the Warthe.
Army “Lodz” was checking the Silesia – Warsaw axis. Its commander was Juliusz Rómmel.
Mission: Army “Lodz” was to defend strongly on the frontier, to fall back to a prepared delaying position along the Warthe (Warta) river, and then to retire toward the east and hold the line of the Vistula between Warsaw and Dęblin.
To the east of Army “Lodz” was Army “Prusy”. Its commander was Stefan Dąb-Biernacki. Army “Prusy” was Polish Army’s general reserve.
Army “Krakow” was deployed to the southwest. Its commander was Antoni Szylling.
Mission: Army “Krakow” was to protect the industrial area of Teschen (Cieszyn), to fall back on Krakow in order to extend the line of the Warthe position, and eventually to retire east of the Vistula and the San.
Finally, Army “Karpathy” was deployed along the Polish-Slovakian borders. Its commander was Kazimierz Fabrycy.
Mission: Army “Karpathy” was to delay the enemy and ultimately to fall back behind the San river in conformance with Army “Krakow”.
Marshal Edward Rydz-Śmigły headed the General Inspectorate of the Polish Armed Forces and was the de facto C-in-C. His plan foresaw the deployment of his army along the Germano-Polish frontier. There the Polish army was to absorb the initial blows and conduct a fighting withdrawal to the Vistula - Bromberg – Koło – Warthe – Krakow line. In that position the Polish army was to delay the invaders for as much as possible and then fall back to its Main Line of Defense, the Narew – Vistula – San line. Rydz-Śmigły’s headquarters were located at Warsaw.
The Polish army was not fully mobilized when war broke out. Great Britain and France discouraged the Poles from taking such a measure under the consideration that it would provoke Hitler to invade.
The invading army was organized into two army groups: Army Group “North” and Army Group “South”.
Army Group “North”
Army Group “North” was commanded by Fedor von Bock and was composed of the Third Army, under Georg von Kuchler in East Prussia and the Fourth Army under Gunther von Kluge in Pomerania.
The Third Army was to reduce Graudenz and force the crossings of the Narew and Bug rivers. Then it was to isolate Warsaw from the east and link up with the Tenth Army in the vicinity of Siedlce.
The Fourth Army was to cut off the Corridor and make contact with the Third Army at Graudenz. Then it was to force a crossing of the Vistula between Bromberg (Bydgoszcz) and Graudenz, continuing the attack to the southeast.
Army Group “South”
Army Group “South” was commanded by Gerd von Rundstedt and was composed of the Eighth Army, under Johannes Blaskowitz in the area of Breslau (Wrocław), the Tenth Army under Walter von Reichenau in Silesia and the Fourteenth Army under Wilhelm List in Upper Silesia.
The Eighth Army was to protect the north flank of the Tenth Army.
The Tenth Army was to attack along the Oppeln (Opole) – Siedlce axis, destroy the bulk of the Polish armies, seize the high ground in the Łysa Góra region and link up with the Third Army.
The Fourteenth Army was to capture the industrial area of Teschen (Cieszyn), seize the high ground at Lemberg (Lviv), and cut Polish communications with Rumania.
the day before... the day after...
On September 1 at 04:45 hrs the German army crossed the Polish frontiers on all fronts. Flying ahead of the advancing armies the Luftwaffe bombed ground installations of the Polish Air Force, railroads and command & communication centers.
Army Group North
Fourth Army Area of Operations
The Fourth Army effected its main thrust at the base of the Corridor, while a weaker force was to occupy the seacoast.
The main effort was assigned to the II Armeekorps, with the III Armeekorps guarding its southern flank and Guderian’s XIX Armeekorps (mot.) its northern flank. The first day of the war was of mediocre success for the Fourth Army and by the evening the line Konitz (Chojnice) – Nakel (Nakło nad Notecią) had been reached. The Poles were withdrawing fighting fiercely for every inch of their ground. They intended to reach the Brahe (Brda) river, which was halfway between the frontiers and the Vistula, and make their stand there.
However in the evening, through a combination of luck and skill, the 3rd Panzer Division managed to establish a bridgehead on the Brahe and expand it during the night. The next day the 3rd Panzer beat off all Polish counterattacks and without regard to the security of its flanks and rear rushed to the east and reached the Vistula on September 3. The Poles were trying to follow their withdrawal plan, but they were unable to break off contact with the German infantry divisions and they were lacking the mechanization to outrun Guderian’s panzers. So the bulk of Army “Pomorze” was cut off, before it could reach its first delaying position. The Poles made several attempts to break out, but when the infantrymen of the II Armeekorps crossed the Vistula, during the night of September 4, their fate was sealed. On September 5 the II Armeekorps established contact with the XXI Armeekorps of the Third Army at Graudenz. The fight for the Corridor was over.
Third Army Area of Operations
The Third Army was composed of the I and XXI Armeekorps, Korps “Wodrig” and a large number of reserve and Landwehr formations. As we have seen the XXI Armeekorps had the special mission to link up with the Fourth Army at Graudenz. The bulk of the Third Army was to advance towards Warsaw. Being the obvious and shortest way to their capital the Poles had fortified their frontiers north of the city of Mława.
In the morning of September 1 I Armeekorps made an effort to breach the line of fortifications and failed. At 15:00 hrs the 7th Panzer-Regiment was thrown in the battle. The tanks were immobilized between antitank obstacles and were decimated by direct fire. The next day Korps “Wodrig”, which was operating to the east of I Armeekorps, penetrated Polish defenses around Chorzele and advanced to the south as far as Ciechanów, thus effectively outflanking the Mława front. The Polish High Command ordered its forces in the northern sector to withdraw towards Warsaw.
The German forces continued their advance in a southeastern direction and on September 6 they had crossed the Narew at Różan and at Pultusk. The German army had pierced part of Poland’s main defensive line in the north; a development that was not expected to take place so early in the war.
Army Group South
Tenth Army Area of Operations
The Tenth Army was by far the strongest one and was assigned to make the main effort. It was commanded by Walter von Reichenau. The bulk of the German panzers were attached to this Army. Reichenau’s cutting edges were Hoepner’s XVI Armeekorps (mot.) and Hoth’s XV Armeekorps (mot.). Hoth’s objective was to cross the Łysa Góra Hills and establish a bridgehead on the eastern bank of the Vistula at Dęblin, while Hoepner was to strike for the Polish capital itself.
The tank strength of the two motorized corps was as follows:
Pz I 317
Pz II 317
Pz III 26
Pz IV 68
PzBef (Command tanks) 32
Despite a few initial setbacks the Tenth Army overran the frontier defenses and captured the city of Tschenstochau (Częstochowa). On September 3 Hoepner’s XVI Armeekorps (mot.) had breached the Warthe line and was at Radomsko, a town a few miles east of the Warta river. That was a significant development because the Polish and the French High Commands expected the Polish army to hold the Germans between the frontier position and the Warthe line (delaying position) for a couple of weeks. The German panzers fell on surprised reserves behind the Warthe river and scattered them. The Polish divisions on the frontier position began to withdraw, but by September 4 the operation turned into a rout. The 7th Infantry Division was encircled east of Tschenstochau and was annihilated. The divisions of Army “Prusy” began to withdraw toward the Vistula. By September 5 XVI Armeekorps (mot.) was standing at Piotrkow (Piotrków Trybunalski), while Hoth’s XV Armeekorps (mot.) was at Chęciny.
Eighth Army Area of Operations
The Eighth Army was assigned no panzer divisions. It was organized in two corps and also controlled a number of Border Guard units. Following Hoepner’s rapid advance the Eighth Army crossed the Warthe on 5 September and on the evening of the same day the town of Zduńska Wola was taken.
Fourteenth Army Area of Operations
The Fourteenth Army attacked from two directions. VIII and XVII Armeekorps debouched from the vichinity of Mahrish Ostrau (Ostrava) and struck due eastward toward Kraków. XVIII Armeekorps attacked from Sillein (Žilina), in northern Slovakia, towards Neumarkt (Nowy Targ) south of Kraków. To reach its objective XVIII Armeekorps had to force the strategically important Jablunka (Jablunkov) Pass. A group of Abwehr agents tried to capture the rail station and rail tunnel at Mosty on August 26. Mosty u Jablunkova lies in the pass. Unknown to the German commando unit Hitler had cancelled the invasion the evening before. The agents reached their objective but failed to surprise the Poles. The army guard units were alerted and after a long exchange of fire the Germans withdrew to Slovakia. The tunnel was blown up by the Polish army on September 1, at 06:00 hrs, just before the invading troops could make use of it.
The rapid advance of Hoth’s motorized corps assisted the effort of Fourteenth Army’s northwestern group (VIII & XVII AK). On September 3 this group had broken through the Polish pillbox line that stretched from Nikolai (Mikołów) to the Carpathians. On September 5 the Poles evacuated the industrial area of Teschen. The southeastern group (XVIII AK which was replaced by XXII motorized corps on Sept. 2) captured Jablunka Pass, broke through the passes of the High Tatra Mountains and seized Neumarkt on September 4. The next day the two groups met at the vicinity of Kraków. Further to the east Slovak and German mountain divisions attacked from Zipser Neudorf (Spišská Nová Ves) east of the High Tatra Mountains. By September 5 those troops had reached Neu Sandez (Nowy Sącz).
So, as the first week of the war was drawing to a close the situation was as follows:
- The frontier defenses were pierced everywhere.
- The Polish Corridor was overran.
- The Narew line was breeched.
- Hoepner’s and Hoth’s tanks were heading to the Vistula.
- Krakow was endangered from the west and south.
- There was a real chance that German mechanized troops would reach the Polish main defensive line before the retreating Poles.
With the lines crumbling on all the Polish High Command on the evening of September 6 had ordered its armies to retreat. The forces along the Narew river were ordered to counterattack and capture Rozan. But the counterattack failed and the troops were directed to retire behind the Bug river. Units in the vicinity of Modlin were to withdraw to the juncture of the Bug and the Vistula. The remnants of Army “Pomorze” and the largely intact Army “Poznan” were to retire behind the Vistula, while Army “Lodz” was to shift to the south of Warsaw in the vicinity of Góra Kalwaria. Army “Prusy” was ordered to retreat to the eastern bank of the Vistula, and Army “Karpathy” and part of Army “Krakow” received orders to take up positions on the Dunajec river, from its junction with the Vistula to the Carpathian Mountains.
Rydz-Smigly’s objective was to avoid a decisive battle on the west bank of the Vistula and keep his army alive until the expected French offensive. Unfortunately for Rydz-Smigly the French High Command had no intention of seriously engaging the German army. At midnight on September 7 the General Headquarter of the Polish Army decided to transfer from Warsaw to Brest.
Army Group North
Fourth Army Area of Operations
After joining hands with Third Army, and giving up its motorized forces, the Fourth Army continued its attack in a southeastern direction. On September 6 it had capture Bromberg (Bydgoszcz) and by the evening of September 8 the Army stood at the Hohensalza (Inowrocław) – Lipno line. The Army’s next objective was the fortress of Modlin (Nowy Dwór Mazowiecki). During the second week of the campaign Fourth Army’s III Armeekorps took part in the battle of Bzura, while its II Armeekorps continued its southeastern march and on September 12 it had reached the Vistula at Wyszogród.
Third Army Area of Operations
On September 9 the Third Army reached the Bug river between Serock and Brok and gained a foothold on the south bank in the vicinity of Wyszków. Advancing rapidly on the 12th the Third Army cut the railroad lines leading from Warsaw to Białystok and Siedlce. On the 14th the Polish capital was completely encircled.
XIX Armeekorps (mot.)
After overrunning the Polish Corridor Guderian’s motorized corps was placed under the command of Army Group North directly. With two panzer divisions (3rd and 10th) and one motorized (20th) Guderian was ordered to advance further east and occupy the city of Brest-Litovsk (Brest). This wide encircling movement had the purpose of denying the Poles any chance of setting up a new defensive line east of Warsaw. On September 14 the 10th Panzer-Division made contact with Brest’s defenses.
Army Group South
Tenth Army Area of Operations
On September 5 the Tenth Army was stretched on a broad front from Piotrkow [XVI Armeekorps (mot.)] to Chęciny [XV Armeekorps (mot.)]. The divisions of Army “Lodz” began to withdraw northward toward Lodz while the divisions of Army “Prusy” retired eastward toward the Vistula. The parting of these two forces opened a broad and inviting gap in front of Hoepner’s motorized corps. Between Piotrkow and Warsaw stood no Polish force of consequential size.
Hoepner dashed into the gap and reached Tomaszów Mazowiecki on September 6. From there one column of the 4th Panzer-Division captured Rawa Mazowiecka on the 7th and was in the southwestern suburbs of Warsaw (Ochota) by evening of the following day. Another column advanced toward Gora Kalwaria on the west bank of the Vistula. On the evening of the 8th this column also was in the suburbs of Warsaw. Neither column however was strong enough to occupy the city, while the infantry divisions were some seventy miles behind the panzers.
General Hoepner made repeated attempts to seize the Polish capital and many tanks were lost in street fighting, as a result. From that experience the German army learned to isolate cities by passing around them, leaving their reduction to the infantry that followed the armored spearheads.
On Tenth Army’s right flank Hoth’s motorized corps was advancing toward the Lysa Gora Hills and Radom, in order to cut off the retreating divisions of Army “Prusy”. Kielce fell on September 6 and Radom two days later. After that the line of retreat of the Polish divisions was severed, but Hoth’s corps lacked the power to defeat them. Nevertheless the advance to Radom shattered the southern Polish front and threatened the Polish hold on the middle Vistula. With the arrival of the German infantry divisions some 60,000 Poles were completely encircled at Radom and Zwoleń. Despite their efforts to escape they surrendered on September 12. After its success at Radom XV Armeekorps (mot.) established bridgeheads on the east bank of the Vistula at Puławy and Annopol.
Eighth Army Area of Operations – Battle of Bzura
The Eighth Army continued its advance in a general north-easterly direction. On September 8 it had reached the line Ozorków – Brzeziny. The northwestern flank of this Army was guarded by the 30th Infanterie-Division. North of Eighth Army stood the largely intact Army “Poznan”. General Tadeusz Kutrzeba, commander of Army “Poznan”, was urging Rydz-Smigly to let him attack Army Group South northern flank, as early as September 3. At the time Rydz-Smigly was hoping that his armies would manage to withdraw in an orderly manner behind the Narew-Vistula-San line, so he was not giving his consent to Kutrzeba’s plan. The next days it became evident that the withdrawal plan could not be followed and Kutrzeba’s plan became more attractive. A flank attack could slow down the German advance in central Poland. The attack was set for September 9.
The Germans were totally unaware of the Polish plans and the Polish attack came as a surprise. On the evening of 9 September the 30th Infanterie-Division was struck by three infantry divisions and two cavalry brigades crumbled under the pressure and retreated to the southeast. The same day Eighth Army’s frontguard had advanced to the Bzura river and had seized Łowicz and Sochaczew. These advances were made only after heavy fighting and had resulted in many casualties. By the morning of the 11th Eighth Army was spread out on a broad front and was forced to assume the defensive. The next day the Polish army attacked along the whole front of the Bzura. The German forces west of Łowicz were driven back towards Stryków.
Von Rundstedt saw the developing crises as an opportunity to encircle and destroy the attacking Polish forces. Therefore, infantry and panzer units of the Tenth Army were diverted towards Łowicz and Sochaczew, while the mass of the Eighth Army was turned almost 90 degrees toward the Bzura. The Germans had restored their numerical superiority in the area and were heavily supported by the Luftwaffe. By 14 September the Polish attacks were halted.
Fourteenth Army Area of Operations
After the initial German advances “Krakow” and “Karpathy” Armies began their withdrawal toward the San river. Krakow fell on September 6 and two days later the attackers had reached the Gorlice – Pilzno - Dębica line. Following the tactics that had already been successful in central Poland the motorized elements of the Fourteenth Army cut loose from the infantry divisions, dashed toward the San and seized its crossings before they could be organized for defense. On September 10 the advancing panzer and light-panzer divisions had seized bridgeheads on the east bank of the San at Radymno and Jaroslaw. Further to the south another crossing of the San river was forced at Sanok by the 1st Gebirgsjäger-Division.
After the 12th of September Fourteenth Army’s attack was turned into a relentless pursuit. On September 13 the armored spearheads had crossed the Lublin – Lemberg (Lviv) highway at Tomaszów Lubelski and Rava-Ruska. On this day the main elements of Army “Krakow” were in the vicinity of Biłgoraj, on the east bank of the San, far in the rear these armored forces. Seizure of the San line prevented the retreat of the Polish forces south into Rumania.
By September 14 the situation of the Polish Armies was desperate. There was no coherent resistance, only a few large isolated pockets.
The Polish High Command intended to make a last stand in East Little Poland, close to the borders with Romania. That proved to be almost impossible because the retreating Polish Armies were intercepted and encircled by the German panzer divisions.
Brest fell on September 16. On September 17 reconnaissance units of the Fourteenth Army met south of Brest with Guderian’s troops. The Poles fighting on the Bzura front were encircled and they tried to force their way through the Kampinos Forrest towards Warsaw. Despite their heroism when the fight was over 120,000 Polish soldiers surrendered. On September 22 the noose around Warsaw was tightened. After intense bombardment and fierce hand to hand fighting Warsaw with its 140,000 strong garrison surrendered on the 27th and the Modlin fortress with its 24,000 defenders on the 28th. All fighting seized on October the fifth, but it wasn’t over for the Polish Army. Those who managed to escape to Hungary, Romania, Latvia and Lithuania fought alongside the French and the British Army.
The Third Dimension
“…thus stands the German Air Force today, ready to carry out every command of the Fuehrer with lightning speed and undreamed-of might.”
Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, August 1939
The ground operations in Poland were preceded by massive air attacks. That created a pattern which has been followed by all attackers ever since. The Germans were outnumbering the Poles by almost 6:1 in combat aircraft and they also enjoyed a significant technological advantage. Luftwaffe’s primary goal was to achieve air superiority, mainly by destroying the enemy aircraft on the ground. But the Polish machines weren’t there. The previous day they were dispersed in various airstrips and only unserviceable aircraft and trainers were left on the airfields. That providence saved the Polish Air Force but made its operations more difficult, because it had to use improvised air strips with little if any technical support, command and control of the widely dispersed aircraft became more complex and concentration of forces, when needed, was not easy.
When airfields were written off from Luftwaffe’s target lists the German Air Force turned its might on bridges, railway stations and troop concentrations, interdicting all Polish movement from the rear to the front. As the war progressed the German attack aircraft flew missions closer to the fighting units.
The Polish pilots distinguished themselves in air-to-air combat, especially those in the Pursuit Brigade operating from Warsaw, but they could not have an impact on the course of the events because they were inflicting losses at a high cost on their own. The Luftwaffe could absorb losses; the Polish Air Force could not. Despite the bravery displayed by the Polish crews the German air supremacy, over Poland, was never challenged.
All said in six minutes!
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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