112: Fall Weiss


We have talked quite a bit about Poland the last few episodes, time to check in on the Germans.

Unsigned Memorandum: https://archive.org/details/documentsongerma0007unse/page/200/mode/2up 170th Day of Trial of German Major War Criminals: http://nizkor.com/hweb/imt/tgmwc/tgmwc-18/tgmwc-18-170-03.shtml Colonel General Halder Notes: https://archive.org/details/documentsongerma0007unse/page/556/mode/2up?view=theater


  • The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer
  • Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill and the Road to War by Tim Bouverie
  • The Origins of the Second World War: An International Perspective Edited by Frank McDonough
  • The Polish Campaign 1939 by Steven Zaloga and Victor Madej
  • The Foreign Policy of Jozef Pilsudski and Jozef Beck, 1926-1939: Misconceptions and Interpretations by Anna M. Cienciala
  • The French Government and the Danzig Crisis: The Italian Dimension by P.R. Stafford
  • Reflections from Rumania and Beyond: Marshal Smigly-Rydz in Exile by Stanley S. Seidner
  • Macht Arbeit Frei? Chapter: The War against Poland and the Beginning of German Economic Policy in the Occupied Territory by Witold Wojciech Medykowski
  • Poland Between the Wars, 1918-1939 Edited by Peter D. Stachura
  • Poland’s Preparation for World War Two by Michael Alfred Peszke
  • The Rebirth and Progress of the Polish Military During the Interwar Years by Jacek Czarnecki
  • Case White: The Invasion of Poland 1939 by Rober Forczyk
  • Poland 1939: The Outbreak of World War II by Roger Moorhouse
  • The Eastern Pact, 1933-1935: A Last Attempt at European Co-operation by Lisanne Radice (1977)
  • The Lights that Failed: European International History 1919-1933 by Zara Steiner
  • Agreement of Mutual Assistance between the United Kingdom and Poland, August 25, 1939.
  • Blitzkrieg Unleashed by Richard Hargreaves
  • The Great Powers and Poland: From Versailles to Yalta by Jan Karski
  • The History of the Panzerwaffe Volume 1: 1939-42 by Thomas Anderson
  • September Storm: The German Invasion of Poland by Gordon Rottman & Stephen Andrew
  • Britain and Poland, 1939-1943: The Betrayed Ally by Anita J. Prazmowska
  • March 1939: The British Guarantee to Poland - A Study in the Continuity of British Foreign Policy by Simon Newman (1976)
  • Poland 1939: The birth of Blitzkrieg by Steven J. Zaloga
  • Reflections from Rumania and Beyond: Marshal Smigly-Rydz in Exile by Stanley S. Seidner
  • Documents on German Foreign Policy 1918-1945
  • The British War Blue Book: Documents Concerning German-Polish Relations and the Outbreak of Hostilities Between Great Britain and Germany on September 3, 1939
  • The French Yellow Book: Diplomatic Documents (1938-1939)
  • Documents on German Foreign Policy 1918-1945 - Series D Volumn IV, VII
  • British Cabinet Papers - CAB 55/19/15, CAB 65/1/1-65/1/31, CAB 65/3/1-65/3/14, CAB 66/1/38-39, CAB 66/2/20


Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 112 - The September Campaign Pt. 4 - Fall Weiss. This week a big thank you goes out to Andrew, Mikko, Ethan, and Roman for choosing to support the podcast by becoming members. Members get access to ad free versions of all of the podcast episodes, plus other benefits when you can learn more about at historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. Over the last few episodes we have discussed Poland’s preparations for a war during the 1930s, and today we focus in on the German plans for their invasion of Poland. I think one of the most important periods of any conflict is the weeks or months before it begins as the group that will launch their attack determines not just how they are going to attack, but also what the goals of that attack will be. Today we will look at the evolution of the policies of the German government in the wake of the invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 as decisions were being made about what the future actions of the German military would be. The most important decision that had to be made was what an attack on Poland would try to achieve, with the full invasion seen in September 1939 not being the only option. There were also plans that would have seen a more limited attack that sought to just carve off some of Poland before seeking to then negotiate out of a war, basically exactly what the Polish leaders feared might happen. Eventually the plan that was put in place would be called Fall Weiss, which would involve a full invasion of Poland with the goal of destroying Poland’s military capabilities. We will discuss how forces were prepared and assembled for this plan before closing out the episode with a discussion of a meeting between Hitler and his military leader on August 22, 1939 which is known as the Obersalzberg Speech.

While the Polish invasion would be the first real military campaign launched by the Wehrmacht, over the previous year there had been several instances during which there had been the possibility that it would be used in some kind of campaign against another nation. For example during October 1938, this directive had been issued by Hitler to the military: “Liquidation of the Remainder of the Czech State. It must be possible to smash at any time the remainder of the Czech state, should it pursue an anti-German policy. […] The organization, order of battle, and degree of preparedness of the units earmarked for that purpose are to be prearranged in peace time for a surprise assault so that Czechoslovakia herself will be deprived of all possibility of organized resistance.” But in many of these cases, while the Wehrmacht might be preparing a military campaign, the expectation was generally that meaningful resistance would not be experienced, for example in December 1938 when planning for the move into Czechoslovakia, the directive from the Chief of Staff would say “The case is to be prepared on the assumption that no appreciable resistance is to be expected. Outwardly it must be quite clear that it is only a peaceful action and not a warlike undertaking. The action must therefore be carried out only with the peacetime Wehrmacht, without reinforcement by mobilization.” A similar event would then occur when the German takeover of Memel had been accomplished in March 1939, during that event the German Navy had sent several of its pocket battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and torpedo boats to anchor off of Memel during the negotiations, as a clear threat of force should the Lithuanians not cooperate with the negotiations that were taking place. All of these actions would eventually be largely bloodless expansion of German control, but there had always been some risk that fighting would occur whenever German troops moved over the border.

When these efforts were over, and the goals of Hitler and the German leaders were achieved, focus then shifted to their next target, Danzig. German planning for military action against Poland did not begin with plans for a full invasion, but instead for the possibility of a military coup that could be put in place at a moments notice by the Wehrmacht that would seize Danzig and hold it against a possible Polish response. Hitler would order these plans finalized late November 1938. In a lot of ways Danzig made sense as the next target for German expansion efforts, as it had been under a growing amount of German and Nazi party control since 1933. This control was led by Albert Forster, who would be elected Gauleiter of Danzig and began to do everything in his power to ensure Nazi control of the city. This included having firm control of the police, and suppressing any other political group that attempted to gain power in Danzig. Forster would even begin to put in place Nazi racial policies, targeting Jews specifically, which would prompt an official protest from the League of Nations Commissioner Sean Lester. Lester would eventually resign after his protests achieved nothing. Forster and his actions in Danzig is one of those interesting cases where a local Nazi leader received the message to actually calm things down a bit in the months before Munich. Basically he was agitating too much for Berlin, who were not seeking to make any serious move against Danzig at the time. So he got the message to just maybe not make so many inflammatory speeches and actions, speeches and actions that would be back in full force after the Munich Agreement was signed. It would be at that time that political discussions between Poland and Germany would shift to focus on Danzig and its future. In several meetings between German leaders, like Hitler, Ribbentrop, or other diplomats, and Polish diplomats like Foreign Minister Beck, the Germans would bring up the idea of official negotiations around Danzig with the goal of returning it to German control and then constructing some kind of road or railway across the corridor. These discussions would always result in firm and unambiguous rejection from the Polish participants, but it was discussed in various conversations time and time again. It almost seems to me that it got to a point where the Polish foreign office was really tired of talking about it, but it just kept happening.

When planning for a war with Poland, German leaders could not ignore the British guarantee or the French assurances that it would honor its alliance commitments to Poland. Because of this any plans for a war with Poland had to include a discussion about what Germany would do to respond to Britain and France also entering the war. Hitler and the German military would plan under the assumption that London and Paris would declare war, although they would be more than happy to keep the conflict limited to just a war with Poland if given to opportunity. In early may Hitler would specify that the Luftwaffe and the Kriegsmarine would be ready to begin their economic warfare efforts on Britain and France as soon as any invasion of Poland began, although they would not initiate actions against either of the western nations until they declared their intention to enter the war. On May 23rd in a meeting with the leaders of the military arms, Hitler would say that while it was not certain that they would enter the war, Germany must be prepared and ready to attack to the western nations. This recognition of possible threat from the West made some parts of the upcoming plan for the invasion more important, primarily its speed and the actions of the Soviet Union. The eventual non aggression pact with the Soviet Union was critical for a German war with Britain and France due to the long shadow cast by the blockade put in place by the Royal Navy during the First World War. From 1914 to 1919 the British led blockade of German ports had been very successful and had caused very serious problems for not just the German war effort but also for the entirety of the German people. The blockade may not have directly caused the famine that would be experienced in Germany during those years, to the point where civilians were starving to death in German cities, but it prevented imports from reaching Germany. By securing access to the Soviet economy and the economies of Eastern Europe by conquering Poland, some of these problems would be solved and the fears of a British blockade were greatly lessened. The initial agreements would include the German-Soviet Credit Agreement where the two nations agreed to allow raw materials to be exported to from the Soviet Union to Germany in exchange for industrial equipment that could be source in Germany and then sent to the Soviet Union. This type of agreement would expand in the time between September 1939 and June 1941, as the two nations tried to utilize the resources of the other to solve some of its own problems, Germany and its lack of raw materials, and the Soviet Union and its industrial shortcomings. It was not necessarily fully appreciated by every nation at the time, but the agreement with the Soviet Union, and then the early successes that Germany would see in 1939 would completely shift the economic warfare calculus. This is something that the British and French would be late in recognizing, and they would persist in the idea that they economic efforts were having an effect on the German war effort, and would continue to have an impact, even though they really were not. But this drastic change in expectations versus reality was not completely understood when the Soviet agreement was signed. Regardless of economic warfare efforts Hitler saw the conflict with England and France to be the real war that Germany had to prepare itself for, as it would be a life and death struggle with the other nations that would require a huge amount of effort and sacrifice from the German people and German military.

To plan for this effort and sacrifice, in June 1939 the Reich Defence Council, led by Goring would outline plans for the complete mobilization of the German economy. This involved not just the plans to mobilize German manpower into the military, with the numbers to be mobilized around 7 million, but also to try and determine how all of those men could be replaced within the German economy. Part of the worker shortcomings could be made up for simply with a shift in how people were being used in the workforce, but plans were also drawn up to begin to use inmates in prison or concentration camps as forced laborers. While these plans were still being finalized, there would also begin to be some shifting of German military units to prepare them for a future invasion of Poland. This included a slow build up during the June and July timeframes that would see some units deploy to areas near the Polish border, although there were efforts to keep such troop movements somewhat secret. The biggest problem was how to move troops and supplies into East Prussia. In any military plan for the invasion of Poland the fact that the Germans controlled East Prussia was an important advantage as it would allow German troops to attack into Poland from the north, presenting the Polish military with another threat to plan against. However, in the summer of 1939 the necessary equipment and vehicles for an attack by the German military were not positioned in East Prussia and would have to be transported there, the only way to do so was by sea. Infantry units were a bit easier to work with, since there were two reserve infantry divisions that could be mobilized in East Prussia, and they would be during August 1939, but everything else had to be imported by sea. It was difficult to conceal shipping 160 tanks to East Prussia, and therefore the claim would be made that they were only being moved to East Prussia so that they could participate in a the 25th anniversary ceremonies of the victory of the German Army over the Russian Army at the Battle of Tannenberg in 1914. Having the units and equipment prepositioned in East Prussia for the attack was important because one of the primary concerns that drove planning for the German operation was that it had to happen quickly. Due to the threat of reactions from Britain and France, it was crucial that the Polish military be destroyed as quickly as possible so that if German units were needed elsewhere they would be available, without leaving the Polish campaign only partially completed.

The plan that would be created for the German attack, Fall Weiss, or Case White, would be a relatively simple military plan. There would be two primary German military formations, army Group North and Army Group South. Army Group North would be led by General Fedor von Bock which would be made up of the 3rd Army, based in East Prussia, and 4th Army in Pomerania in northern Germany. Army group south would be commanded by General Gerd von Rundstedt and would contain the 8th army, based in Silesia, the 10th Army in Bohemia, and the 14th Army which would attack out of Slovakia. These two Army Groups had two key tasks, the first was to attack into Poland and move towards Warsaw as two large pincers. The second was that on their way to the Polish capital they would destroy as much of the Polish military as they possibly could. Due to its basic structure, a large pincer attack, the addition of Slovakia as an area that the German army could launch itself from was very advantageous, because it allowed Army Group South to extend the eastern most arm of its pincer even further east, increasing the possibility of cutting of Polish military units. Along with the pincer movement of the German Army, the Luftwaffe would commit two of its air fleets to assist in the invasion, Luftflotte 1 and Luftflotte 4. With the goals of the Luftwaffe being to destroy the Polish Air Force, launch operations in support of the ground attack, and to perform strategic bombing raids on targets like Warsaw to reduce the general ability of Polish society to continue its resistance. Specific plans for where the fighting would occur were limited by the fact that the Germans did not have a great understanding of how the Poles planned to defend their borders. This lack of understanding was rooted in the fact that the German intelligence about Polish plans was anemic, a shortcoming caused primarily by the belief that it did not matter. The German military believed that they could easily defeat the Polish army, and it did not necessarily really matter what the Poles were planning.

In the border regions there were also efforts by the German government to influence the actions of ethnic Germans in Polish territory, and there would be secret formations organized in a few places that would call themselves self-defense units, although their goal was to assist the German army once it crossed the border. There were only a small number of these units, but it served the purpose of sowing distrust among Poles in those same areas who were less likely to trust any Germans. Danzig would also receive some very special attention during the the months before the invasion, with the SS providing specific assistance to Forster in the creation of local militia units which were primarily made up of men who were in the Danzig police. Soldiers were also dispatched to Danzig from Germany, with the SS sending a full reinforced battalion of troops who would enter the city dressed as civilians while the German Army would send officers to lead the militia units within Danzig itself in the hopes that it would make them better combat units. For this purpose Major General Georg Friedrich-Eberhardt would be sent to Danzig with several junior officers and NCOs which would begin training operations. Throughout the summer additional German troops would arrive in a variety of ways, sometimes by night and sometimes more openly in civilian clothes. There would even be an effort to bring in far more conspicuous military hardware, with some light artillery and armoured cars being smuggled into the city. The goal of these efforts was to launch a quick and decisive coup within the city, if nothing else for the quick propaganda victory. These actions were for the most part known to the Polish authorities in the city, but there were limits to what they could do in response due to the absolute political necessity that Polish actions not cause the first violence within Danzig. August 28, 1939 a report would be sent to Foreign Minister Beck from Danzig which would state “So far as manpower is concerned, I estimate the military forces in the Danzig area to be about 18,000 men, including the detachments of SS, SA, and Hitler Jugend, who are entrusted with special functions throughout the entire organization.”

One of the major topics of conversation after 1945, and at the Nuremberg trials, would be around if the violence that would be the hallmark of the German occupation of Poland, with not just the holocaust but all of the other violence perpetrated against Poland, was pre-meditated before the invasion took place. Basically, was the German government and German military pursuing a policy of genocide in September 1939. The answer to this is complicated, and we certainly won’t arrive at a final answer here, but what we do know is that there would be plans for the German occupation to immediately begin a series of policies which were designed to repress Polish society at large and to remove large numbers of Polish leaders, either by killing them or sending them to concentration camps. Lists of these individuals, over 60,000, would be created in the months before the war in preparation for the invasion and on that list were the types of people you would expect: political, religious, and cultural leaders. Special attention was paid to Polish individuals in what were considered to be the more German areas like Poznan and Pomorze. Or as Reinhard Heydrich would later describe it: “Solving of the Polish question—as has been repeatedly indicated—is to be varied: one way in relation to the leadership (Polish intelligentsia), another in relation to the workers and the lower layers of the Polish population. There are still no more than 3% of political leaders in the occupied territories. And these 3% must be neutralized and sent to concentration camps. The Einsatzgruppen should draw up a list, on which they should place outstanding leaders and also lists containing the average layer of the Polish society: teachers, clergy, nobility, legionnaires, returning officers, and so forth. They must be arrested and deported to the remaining district (Restraum).” To accomplish these tasks, each of the Armies that would be involved in the invasion, all five of them, would be accompanized by an Einsatzgruppe which would be made up of Gestapo and men from Heydrich’s SD. Beyond the general round up of individuals, which would happen in many German invasions during the following years, these units had a special task in Poland: to make sure that as many Polish jews as possible were forced into the Soviet zone of control after the invasion. The exact border between the two armies was not exactly determined before the invasion, due to the ambiguous nature of whether or not Poland as an independent entity would be allowed to survive, and so the hope was that large numbers of Polish Jews could be forced into resettling on the other side of the eventual border.

This now brings us to August 22, 1939 and the meeting led by Hitler and which was attended by Germany’s military leaders. When I started writing this episode my plan was to quote from this speech at length, but then as I went hunting for more information about its contents, things got a bit fuzzy. As with many meetings of this type, where Hitler was speaking about future plans to a small group of leaders, there is not a written speech or a published version. And our records today come primarily from 3 types of sources: notes about the speech written at the time, accounts of speech submitted at the Nuremberg trials, and notes taken by participants in personal correspondence at the time. Usually I would just pull a few quotes that seem to be consistent between sources and go from there, but I think a deeper investigation might be good here, because this type of multiple source, with many only coming after the war, is going to be something that we bump into many times during this podcast. First up we have what is a summary but not the full text of the speech which was found after the war when working through the archives of the German Army. This was an unsigned memorandum, so we don’t necessarily know who wrote it. In general the contents of this memorandum do match up with all of the other accounts we have of the speech, but we have to contend with the comments made at Nuremberg and the documents submitted as part of those hearings. During some of those discussions, and I have linked to the 170th Day of the Trial of German Major War Criminals in the episode notes as an example, Admiral Raeder has some thoughts on the specific wording of some of the accounts of the speech provided to the tribunal. Finally we have first hand accounts of the meeting that come to us in the form of personal notes, for example those of Colonel General Halder which I have linked in the show notes. These obviously differ in wording from the speech given, as they are notes taken by Halder, but they just provide another way of looking at what was said. Typically, everything I just said would be in a footnote, but I thought it would be interesting to surface that information here on the podcast. So what was these speech? Well it was Hitler basically reiterating to his military leaders what they were about to do, why they were about to invade Poland, and then at a high level what the basic structure of the campaign would be and how it would be executed. To quote from that Unsigned Memorandum: “I have called you together to give you a picture of the political situation, in order that you may have some insight into the individual factors on which I have based my decision to act and in order to strengthen your confidence.” Hitler addresses England and France, saying that neither of their war preparations are advanced enough to be a hinderance to German efforts in Poland, before discussing plans for Poland. According to one memorandum: “Close your hearts to pity. Act brutally. Eighty million people must obtain what is their right. Their existence must be made secure. The strong man is right. The greatest harshness.” or as Halder would record “The victor is never called upon to vindicate his actions. We are note concerned with having justice on our side, but solely with victory. […] Execution Harsh and remorseless. Be steeled against all signs of compassion.” These were the basic tenets of the upcoming German invasion. Next episode we will discuss the preparations that had been made by the German military in the years before the war to prepare a conflict.