122: Collapse


While they now had allies in the war against Germany, things were not going well in Poland.


  • 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 122 - The September Campaign Pt. 14 - Collapsing. [Patreon Brian and Ben] Over the last two episodes we have discussed the events that occurred in London and Paris over the first week of September 1939. This week we take the story back to Poland. As a reminder, during episodes 8 to 12 of this series we looked at the events of the opening days of the invasion, ending somewhere between September 4th and September 6th depending on the area of the front. During these 4 to 6 days on every area of the front, the Polish defenders would be hit by the German attacks, they would in some areas mount an effective resistance, but eventually they would be forced to retreat. In some areas the units were forced by direct pressure from the Germans, while in others they would be forced to retreat due to the action of units to their left and right. It is after that retreat began that we will pick up the action during this episode. Large scale retreats can be a disorganized mess, and that is exactly what would happen to the various units of the Polish Army. In Poland during the second week of September there would be all of the hallmarks of disorder: poor communication, indecisive leadership, and an unrelenting enemy advance. This created a situation where the Polish military as a whole simply could not find its footing again once the defenses near the border had been breached.

The one Polish Army that had not been heavily engaged in the opening attacks was Army Poznan. This army, commanded by General Kutrzeba, had been left mostly alone by the Germans, really only been engaged on its far southern Flank in the German attacks against Army Lodz. However, as Army Pomorze and Lodz started to fall back from their initial positions, Army Poznan would be forced to do the same, even though it had not been attacked. Kutrzeba wanted to use his available forces, which were just a few days into the invasion one of the strongest intact forces in Poland, to counter attack south, disrupting the German push to Lodz. Rydz-Smigly and Polish High command would specifically order this type of counter attack not to occur, instead focusing efforts on moving Army Poznan further to the east to conserve its strength for later actions. Instead of an early counter attack, Poznan would be abandoned without any real resistance, and Army Poznan would retreat east, eventually linking up with Army Pomorze. After they had joined together Kutrzeba would get a chance to launch his counter attack at the Battle of Bzura, but that is a story for next episode. First we have to discuss what was happening with Army Pomorze and German actions out of East Prussia.

In the north Army Pomorze was retreating south on the eastern bank of the Vistula. Two German infantry divisions arrived at the Vistula on September 4th, but they would encounter a planning problem. Due to Polish efforts to prevent a crossing of the river, the German units had to have bridging equipment to repair a crossing, but this equipment was held too far away, which prevented the crossing of the river until the 5th. The units that would first cross the river to continue the pursuit of Army Pomorze were the German 3rd and 23rd infantry divisions of the II Army Corps. This was very fortunate for Bortnowski and his retreating army, because they were able to keep ahead of the pursuing Germans with both Armies having roughly the same speed of advance, especially when Polish efforts to damage and destroy bridges were taken into account. There had been some motorized and armored units involved in the initial attacks on Army Pomorze, but they had been detailed to mop up the final Polish resistance West of the Vistula. This choice prevented a full destruction of Army Pomorze, allowing them to continue their retreat to the east and south. A discussion started among the German military leaders, particularly General Bock of Army Group North and General Halder, Chief of the General Staff. Halder wanted to take what was already a major German victory in northern Poland and turn it into something bigger by halting the pursuit of Army Pomorze and moving most of the 4th Army to East Prussia. From that position they would then launch a renewed attack south out of East Prussia, but with some units being over 100 kilometers to the east of Warsaw, creating a very strong push to the east of the capital and trapping any troops to the west, including all of those that had already been concentrated in defense of the Polish capital. This was a decent enough move in theory, and it would have matched up nicely with the continued advance of Army Group South towards the capital. But it also had some downsides, which Bock would point out. The first problem was that such a movement of multiple divisions of troops would take time, and any units that had to transition east would not be available while they loaded up on trains, moved to East Prussia, and then were reorganized for the attack. Army Pomorze, even in retreat, was also still a threat. The exact composition of the remaining Polish forces was not known, but halting the pursuit of the remaining Polish divisions might allow them to regroup and counter attack. The result of these disagreements would be a compromise, with the 2nd and 3rd Army Corps left to continue to put pressure on Army Pomorze while the rest of 4th Army, including all of its armor and motorized troops, would move east to launch their new attack. Along with these troops the 10th Panzer Division would also move into East Prussia to join in the attack, with the division having been kept in reserve during the first days of the invasion.

This second round of German attacks south out of East Prussia would encounter a few key problems. Starting just north of Warsaw was the Modlin fortifications. This was considered to be a critical defensive area for the Polish Army, and so after the Germans had started their advance the Modlin garrison had been ordered to maintain their position regardless of other events. This required them to transition into a defensive arrangement that protected from all possible approaches with the expectation that German attacks would leave them surrounded. While the early days of the attack had forced most of the Army Modlin to retreat from the East Prussian border, many troops had managed to make it back to Modlin, with pieces of both the 8th and 20th Infantry divisions added to the garrison. This greatly enhanced the ability of the Modlin garrison to defend itself and it provided enough manpower to allow for a full 360 degree defense. From Modlin the River Narev joins the Vistula from the east. East of Warsaw the Narev runs closer to northeast to southwest which was important because it meant that the river ran roughly parallel to the border of East Prussia and any German attack that tried to approach Warsaw from the Northeast would be forced to cross the river. With this fact in mind, several points along the Narev had been selected in early 1939 and fortifications were created. These defenses were perfectly positioned to defend against the German attack which was about to begin, but there was a problem, that is not where Polish military leaders thought the Germans would put more of their focus on direct attacks against Modlin Fortress in an effort to move towards Warsaw. This caused two problems for the Polish military in the second phase of the campaign. The first problem was that they allocated too many resources to Fortress Modlin, and not enough resources to the defenses of the Narev. The second problem was that it would result in the launching of a counter attack by a collection of units known as Operational Group Wyszkow. The orders would given that these group should advance from their positions on the Narev to launch a counter attack in the direction of the Polish town of Pultusk. In reality this was madness, with the Polish attackers heavily outnumbered by the German units they would be facing. The presence of so many German forces was not fully understood by Polish high command, and they instead believed that the Operational Group would be in a perfect position to launch an attack against the exposed flank of the German units moving against Fortress Modlin. In the end the Polish units were advance, get to Pultusk before the German 61st Infantry division would, but then new orders were given that the units should retreat back to the south before any more Germans arrived.

Instead of focusing on a direct move against Warsaw the primary German effort would occur far to the east on the Narev, where on the night of September 6th the Twenty First Corps prepared for their attack centered on Lomza, where the attack would begin on September 7th. The Polish defenders would be able to take advantage of several concrete bunkers on both sides of the river, as well as fieldworks that had been thrown together over the previous weeks. The defense of the crossing at Lomza would go very well for the Poles over the following days, with units of the German 21st Infantry division unable to make any real headway on September 7th. Then on September 8th much of the same was experienced, with German infantry attacks thrown back due to machine gun and Polish anti-tank guns. After a brief rest another series of attacks would occur on September 10th, once again to no avail. But as would always happen, the Polish defenses could not be strong everywhere, and to the south of Lomza Panzer Division Kempf had been able to force back the Podlaska Cavalry Brigade and then begin moving north to threaten the troops at Lomza with being surrounded. This would force the Polish defenders to retreat. This would cause a ripple effect along the Narev, with the Polish troops at Nowogrod also ordered to retreat to avoid being surrounded even though they had held their positions against the German attacks of the previous days. The 10th Panzer Division would be the German division that was positioned the furthest to the east, at Wizna, where their attack would be more successful than the German attacks further west. But even at Wizna the opening German attacks would be repulsed with heavy losses. Once the Narev had been crossed the German units would face south with the goal of reaching the Bug river.


While the Germans were shifting forces around in northern Poland in preparation for their attacks on the Narev on September 7th, on the central and southern fronts the pressure never really stopped. Army Lodz was still facing the primary focus on the German Army Group South and Army Prusy which was supposed to prepare for a counter attack south of Warsaw had instead been parceled out along the front to try and fill gaps. This meant that there was no real way for the Polish Army to hit back at the Germans as they advanced, which made it impossible to really halt the retreat once it had started, at least on a front wide basis. All along that front there were smaller efforts to halt the German advance, with individual divisions and smaller units choosing specific areas to mount a defense or quickly hit the advancing German units with a counterattack. One of these would occur on September 5th when several companies of German attacks would launch a counter attack against the 1st Panzer Division after their advance had been stalled by Polish defenses near Piotrkow. The Polish counter attack would knock out 11 German tanks, but any territory regained would be quickly lost to a renewed German effort and the power of German artillery and renewed focus by the Luftwaffe. When the Germans recovered the attack by the 1st Panzer would cause huge casualties in some Polish units, with some battalions suffering 80% casualties as they attempted to retreat. Later that night the orders would be given to Army Lodz and army Prusy to begin retreating back towards the Vistula along the entire front. Not every unit would get this order, mostly due to the mess that Polish communications were by this point in the campaign. The Germans would continue their advance the next day, capturing Pitorkow as most of the Polish units retreated in front of them. The next target for the German 1st and 4th Panzer division was the town of Tomaszów Mazowiecki which was next in the line of objectives that would lead the German units directly to Warsaw. The major problem for all Polish units by this stage in the campaign was that they were trying to defend areas that did not have any real pre-war fortifications. This meant that when a Polish unit arrived in a town like Tomaszów Mazowiecki they had to try and rapidly build some fieldworks before the Germans arrived. They often had very little time to do so because of how quickly the German armored units could advance. This would happen to the Polish 13th infantry division in Tomaszów Mazowiecki where they would try and throw up some defenses before being hit hard by both of the Panzer divisions. They were able to stop the first German attack, but they were forced to retreat over the course of the following night.

While the 1st and 4th Panzer divisions were advancing directly towards Warsaw, to their north the 13th and 10th Army Corps were putting their focus on the city of Lodz. There were a few positive developments for the Polish military, like the attack of the 28th Infantry division, but all along the front the cohesion of Army Lodz was evaporating. When the German units reached the city, instead of attack into Lodz directly they would instead focus on advancing both north and south of Lodz to cut off all of the Polish troops that remained. The city would then surrender and the German 17th infantry division would occupy it on September 9th. Army Lodz was essentially dissolved at this point, and its commander General Rómmel was placed in command of the new Army Warsaw. This formation was designed specifically to collect up all of the units that were retreating towards the capital, to organize them for the city’s defense. Over the next week 100,000 soldiers would be under Rómmel’s command. Rydz-Smigly’s focus now shifted to creating a new line of Polish resistance on the Vistula river, with German actions about 180km south of Lodz adding urgency to this shift. In this area the German 15th Army Corps would push towards the Polish city of Kielce. Here the German attacks would be so successful that General Hoth would shift the focus of his entire army from one of trying to capture territory and population centers to instead just focusing on trying to cut off the Polish units that remained West of the Vistula. They would be able to surround 3 Polish infantry divisions over the following days. Attempts would be made to push through the German units and continue west towards the Vistula, but these attempts would be unsuccessful. The order would eventually be given for the divisions to break up and push for the Vistula in small groups. This allowed at least a few units to make it to the river, but destroyed the Polish divisions as fighting forces. In this area of the front the German motorized units would advance so quickly that they would completely lose contact with the German non-motorized infantry divisions that were supposed to support them, a problem that the German leaders of armored and motorized divisions would spend the next several campaigns dealing with.

All of these advances on the central front would begin to cause something akin to panic in the capital. After the loss of Czestochowa during the opening days of the campaign the defense of Warsaw gained greater priority and the Warsaw Defence Command would be created at that time. As the German advances continued other changes would be made. By September 7th the government had fled from the capital. The Polish General Staff would leave just a few days later, moving headquarters to the modern day city of Brest roughly 200 kilometers to the east. This put the General Staff out of communication with the front for a few days as they re-established their headquarters in Brest, at what was a pretty critical time. Rydz-Śmigły, the Commander-in-Chief of all Polish forces, would be criticized for this decision both at the time and later. With many feeling that he abandoned the capital at its time of need. This would then become an important point of discussion after Poland was occupied by the Germans and the Polish government in exile was created. With the civilian and military leadership leaving the capital, the city was put under the control of General Czuma, the commander of the Warsaw Defence Command, who did not have a lot to work with. Almost all of the Polish Army formations had been ordered to move to the eastern side of the Vistula, instead of staying to defend the bulk of the capital which was on the western side of the river. There were some Polish units that would be available for the defense, and their efforts would be greatly aided by the efforts of civilian work details which were spend the next several days setting up barricades around the city and aiding in the construction of defensive works. To the southwest of the capital the advance of the two German Panzer divisions continued, with any possible actions being taken to slow them down, including blowing up bridges behind Polish units as they retreated. When they were within 50 kilometers of the capital there was a belief on the German General Staff that Warsaw had been declared an open city, with this assumption being based on the news that was announced on the radio that the government and military leaders had left the capital. The idea that the German units could just move right into the city was destroyed when the first German tanks were fired at by Polish artillery and anti-tank guns. On September 8th General Czuma would make it clear to everyone that Warsaw would be defended, stating that Polish units would fight to the last man, and the civilians would help them however they could.

While the soldiers and civilians in Warsaw were preparing themselves for the upcoming German attack, in southern Poland retreat was the standing order of the day. Army Krakow was thrown into disarray after the city was abandoned and then fell to the German advance on September 6th. There was an attempt to get the raining Polish troops organized in a defense along the Dunajec river, roughly 100 kilometers to the east of the city, but they had very little time to prepare themselves. One of the challenges that all Polish units would face after the first few days of the attack was the problem of supplies. When they had been mobilized and taken up positions in their defenses along the border they only had a few days of supplies at any given time, and when they were forced to begin the retreat only so many supplies could be carried with each unit. There were many opportunities to resupply as the Polish units fell back, there were supply depots and distribution centers, but the overall pace of the retreat and the disorganization that all Polish units were experiencing made it difficult to ensure that every unit was getting the supplies it needed. This is a good example of a kind of hidden reason that it was so difficult for the Polish units to mount a defense at any given area, like the Dunajec River, where on the night of September 7th the Germans would be able to attack several Polish units before they were even able to cross the river, let alone establish a defensive line. The bridges over the river were then blown up, stranding several Polish units on the western side where their only option was to surrender to the Germans. The defense of the Dunajec River was never a real possibility, and not just because of what was happening on the river, but also what was happening to the southeast. Army Karpaty had been given the task of defending a German and Slovakian attack through the Carpathian Passes, and it had not gone well. The biggest problem was that the German 4th light Division was advancing very quickly to the east, and any attempt to establish any defensive line had to contend with the fact that it was very possible that this German formation would reach any natural line of defense, like the San River, before the retreating Polish units could.

The target of the advancing 4th Light Division, and the entire German advance in southern Poland, was the city of Lvov in modern day western Ukraine. The defense of the city was led by General Sikorski after September 12th when he arrived to take over command. There was not a lot of time to organize the defenses of the city after Sikorski arrived due to the very rapid advance of the German 4th Light Division and the 2nd Panzer Division. However, several thousand fresh troops of the 35th infantry division would arrive by train, adding to the growing number of men who were arriving from various units that had been in retreat since the start of the German attack. The entire of south east Poland came under the control of Army Malopolska commanded by General Sosnkowski, who would try to defend several areas west of the city to provide more time for Polish troops attempting to retreat to the city to escape possible German encirclement. One of the these areas was around the Polish city of Przemysl, which was important because if it could be defended it would allow the Polish 11th and 24th Infantry divisions to continue to the east. Of course the German commanders also knew that this area was important and so the 4th Light Division would be sent towards the Polish city to capture it. The one advantage that all Polish efforts had on this area of the front was the presence of basically all that remained of the Polish air force which had been moved to airfields in southeast Poland. There were only about 50 fighters and 50 bombers that were still operational, and their sortie tempo was greatly reduced to the fuel and supply shortages, but they were still flying. Przemysl would be defended until September 14th when it would finally be abandoned after several German attacks had been defeated. Almost 20,000 troops would be able to retreat from Przemsyl and towards Lvov. Some German troops had actually reached the outskirts of Lvov on September 13th, and over the following days they had not attempted to assault the city but instead simply to surround it. The problem was that while the Germans were attempting to cut off the city there was a continued trickle of Polish units into the city from the south and west. When the large units from Przemysl began to approach the city the German General Kubler would have to move units specifically to try and block them from getting into the city. They would only be partially successful in these efforts and the city of Lvov would become the focal point of fighting in southern Poland over the following week. The primary reason that the city was so important was due to the concept of the Romanian Corridor. The goal was that, even if all of Poland were to fall to the German occupiers, as many Polish units and civilians as possible to retreat towards neutral Romania, and from their they could cross the border to either be interned or to eventually find their way to Western Europe to continue the fight. Lvov was critical to this idea because it could block German advances from the north west towards the Romanian border. Into was into this area that all Polish units would eventually try to retreat if given the opportunity, and it was also the area where Polish military and civilian leaders would flee to after leaving Warsaw. This included Polish High Command who would move from Brest to Kołomyja near the Romanian border on September 15th. This meant that Rydz-Smigly and the military high command would not really be involved with the two most important Polish military operations during the final stages of the Polish campaign: the defense of Warsaw and the Polish counter attack at the Battle of Bzura, which will be discussed next episode.