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World War 2 in Europe: The Polish Campaign (I) – The Preliminaries
“The board is set, the pieces are moving. We come to it at last … The great battle of our time.”— J. R. R. Tolkien
The Path to War
After the Munich Agreement on September 29, 1938, which was supposed to deliver “peace in our time”, Hitler started putting pressure on the Poles. He demanded the return of the city of Danzig (Gdańsk) along with the Polish Corridor and a non-aggression pact that would turn Poland to a German satellite. As he has confessed to his inner circle he was not interested in Danzig but to gain land in the east. On March 15, 1939 German troops invaded Czechoslovakia; the Czech part of the country was annexed and Slovakia was turned into a puppet state. At the end of the same month Hitler implied for the first time that he wanted to solve the “Polish Question” with military force. On April the 3rd he issued his orders for the preparation of the operation Fall Weiss (Case White). The Wehrmacht ought to be ready to execute it at any point after the 20th of August.
Hitler, counting on his recent experience, firmly believed that the Western Powers wouldn’t interfere in his war with Poland. He didn’t want to engage himself into a major European war for the time, although he thought that was inevitable. He and his top commanders seemed to share the opinion that Germany would be ready for the clash in 1942 or even later. Despite all these during the summer of 1939 it became evident that Hitler wanted to fight more than ever. In a speech to his generals, at Berghof, on August 22, he said that he was so important for the forthcoming struggle that he couldn’t postpone it. He was already fifty and no one knew for how long he would live. Time was pressing him. He couldn’t wait for five or ten years. If he was gone Germany would lose her only chance for victory. They had to fight now.
Hitler had set August 26th as the day of the invasion, but the last moment it was cancelled. The military alliance between Great Britain and England and Mussolini’s hesitation drove Hitler to reconsider, but not for long. On August 31 he gave the order. The assault would be launched on September 1st, at 04:45 hrs. But before the German Army would cross the borders the SS were to provide an excuse for the invasion.
The SS Lead the Way
According to Hitler’s instructions proof had to be presented to the German people and the international community that Germany was the victim of Polish aggression. This task was given to Himmler from early August. Himmler appointed Heinrich Heydrich, the notorious chief of the SS secret information service (SD), to execute the mission. Heydrich had come up to a similar plan for the invasion of Czechoslovakia. At that time it wasn’t needed, but Heydrich gained the expertise.
Under Heydrich’s plan SD men dressed as Polish soldiers or guerillas would initiate a series of incidents along the German-Polish frontier. The supposed Poles were to occupy Gleiwitz (Gliwice) radio station and attack the Forestry Station at Pitschen (Byczyna) and the customs building at Hochlinden (Rybnik). The most significant action was the one at Gleiwitz; a large audience was expected to listen live to “Polish” invaders breaking into German property. Heydrich had also thought that the existence of real human corpses would add realism to his plan. The corpses came from Dachau inmates who were killed with lethal injections and their bodies were dispersed on the “battlefields”.
The attack on Gleiwitz was trusted to Alfred Naujocks, an old Heydrich’s crony. On August 10 Naujocks and his team were already at Gleiwitz, reconnoitering the area and planning their action. On August 10, at 16:00 hrs Naujocks received the order to proceed. He was also supplied with a body which was laid at the entrance of the station. With their pistols drawn Naujocks’ men stormed the station. The staff were handcuffed and locked in the cellar. Then they broadcasted for four minutes a confused speech in Polish and they left. The next day German papers were full with news of the Polish aggression and SD men returned to sites of the provocation, this time as crime scene investigators.
Geographically Poland was surrounded by the Third Reich from the north; the south and the west, whilst she faced a hostile Soviet Russia in the east. Also developments in Czechoslovakia had left few questions about German intentions. The Polish defense plan, named Plan “Z” from Zachod – West, took its final form in March 1939. It estimated correctly that the German main thrust would come from Silesia towards Warsaw.
To defend their country Polish ground forces would be deployed along the Polish-German frontier. Part of the frontier was fortified. That would give time to the Polish army to call its reserves. Once the reservists had reached their assigned units the Polish army would commence a phased withdrawal towards the Narew – Vistula – San riverline, which was Poland’s main defensive line. At the time it was believed that the Polish army could hold that line for long. The Poles also were of the impression that the French army would attack Germany within two weeks of the beginning of the war. On the other hand, the French High Command estimated that the Poles could hold for three to four months, which was the minimum time they needed to prepare an attack on Germany.
The success of the plan relied on the ability of the Polish army to avoid decisive engagement with the Germans at the frontier position and then to fall back with order to the main defensive line. The geography of the frontier position from the point of view of the defender was problematic. Army “Pomorze”, which was deployed in the Polish Corridor, was between Pomerania and East Prussia. Army “Poznan” was surrounded from north and south by German soil and Army “Krakow” was between south Silesia and Slovakia. The Polish armies, which were not favored by geography, had to face superior German forces, absorb the initial blows and then successfully conduct a fighting withdrawal against an enemy more mechanized than them. Whether the Polish army could accomplish those feats remained to be seen.
Polish Army Manoeuvers.
The Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH) set as the goal of the campaign the encirclement and destruction of the Polish army west of the Narew – Vistula – San line. As has already been mentioned geography favored it. On the other hand the Germans knew that time was against them. The more they delayed in Poland the more possible an intervention from the West became. So the destruction of the Polish army ought to happen at the earliest time. For that purpose two powerful pincers, one from East Prussia the other from Silesia, would encircle the Polish army before it was established on the Narew – Vistula – San line. A secondary thrust would be launched from Slovakia towards Galicia.
The main German thrust would be effected on the Silesia – Warsaw axis. The better part of the mechanized forces would be deployed there. In the north the German army expected to overrun the Corridor, uniting East Prussia with the rest of the Reich, and then the northern group would turn south towards Warsaw, were it was to link up with the southern group coming from Silesia. When that happened the war would be over.
The Polish Campaign series
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