On August 31st Europe was just hours away from the Second German Invasion of Poland.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 114 - The September Campaign Pt. 6 - The Last Days of Peace. During the last two weeks of August 1939 everything was coming into alignment for war in Europe. Among the diplomatic corps of various nations, messages were being exchanged that an invasion of Poland would be an irreversible catalyst for a continental war. As one Memorandum by the German State Secretary would say on August 15: “The French Ambassador called on me today after his return from leave. We first discussed the Abetz case. The Ambassador then turned to general politics, expressing himself somewhat as follows, and speaking calmly and decisively: France had taken her stand. Her relations with Poland and with Britain were well known. A conflict between Germany and Poland would automatically involve France. This was a fact, not a desire on the part of France.” In the Soviet Union the non aggression pact would be signed between Germany and the Soviet Union on August 23rd, taking the Soviet Union out of any conflict with Germany in the immediate future. On August 23rd the Danzig Senate would vote to join with Germany, which in any previous month would have been the biggest story, but barely gets a mention and in fact it caused no real responses from Britain, France, and Poland because the war started. Military preparations were happening in many nations, with militaries being mobilized, navies were moving out to sea to avoid being trapped in port, troops were being moved to the border. The Germans would even accidentally invade Poland on August 26th, after ordering the start of the invasion, and then cancelling, but that cancellation not reaching all of the troops in time.
During the last two weeks of August the number of German soldiers who were mobilized would rapidly increase. On August 26 another 2 infantry divisions were mobilized, bringing the total number up to 28. At the same time 50,000 additional Luftwaffe personnel were activated. A week later another 7 infantry divisions would be mobilized when more reservists and some Landwehr troops received their mobilization notices. These efforts allowed a large number of men to be available to the armies invading Poland, but there were some concerns about the overall quality of the soldiers that were arriving near the Polish border. The bulk of these late-mobilized units would be placed in Army Group Nord, and General Bock the commander of Army Group North would not be very complementary of his new resources. His biggest complaint was around the amount of training that some of the new infantry units had before they arrived at the front. Most of them had some level of training, but not all of it was the most recent or of the highest quality, there were also some comments about some of the new infantrymen being a bit on the old side. Part of this may have been true, but part of it might be attributable to the fact that Bock was in general working with far more reservists than Runstedt was with Army Group south. The German Heer had multiple different tiers of divisions, with the first tier being the best equipped and trained, with Rundstedt having 17 of them, and Bock having just 9. The reservists mobilized in the last two weeks of August were largely of second and third tier formations. By the time they were in their staging positions, the units were provided with 10 days of rations to use during the invasion, although some of that could be eaten while they waited for the attack to begin. With the ground units moving into position, starting on August 19th the German navy also began to activate its war plans. This involved not just preparing ships to leave port, but also dispatching them out into the open sea for two important reasons. The first was simply so that they could begin their tasks as early as possible, which for most of the Kriegsmarine’s assets meant commerce raiding. The goal was to have as many commerce raiding vessels, be they submarines or surface ships, out in the trade lanes the instant that naval warfare could begin against Britain and France. The second reason was simply to prevent any possibility of the ships being intercepted on their way out of German ports. If the ships were in port when hostilities started with Britain, the Royal navy would know exactly where they were and might take measures to prevent their departure. For these reasons 34 U-boats would leave port between August 19 and 23. During this same time period two of the pocket-battleships, the Deutschland and the Admiral Graf Spee, on its way to its date with destiny at the River Plate. Accompanying both of these ships were dedicated supply vessels, the Westerwald and Altmark respectively, whose sole purpose was to keep the warships supplied and capable of action for as long as possible. Of far greater concern for Poland was the fact that the old pre-dreadnought Schleswig-Holstein would arrive at Danzig on August 25, with a 225 man naval assault detachment and its 28cm guns prepared for shore bombardment. While the army and navy were being mobilized government Propaganda was once again ratcheted up in intensity, with German newspapers claiming all kinds of actions were being taken by Poland. The killing of ethnic Germans in Poland and the destruction of their property was a common refrain, which had been a common accusation for months before August. William Shirer would state that these claims were accepted by most Germans as true, and in this area it is important to remember how much more localized communication was in the pre-internet age. Germans in 1939 could not pop online to see what as being said in Polish or British newspapers. It is also worth noting that while the German military had been through preparations for war before, so had the German people. The Munich Crisis is called the Munich Crisis because of the threat of a war breaking out, with the same types of stories of violence against ethnic Germans being present in the German press. So there was probably some hope of that happening again, although Hitler had decided that such negotiations would not be allowed to happen again.
Poland was not idle while Germany was making all of these preparations for war, and on August 24th they had started a partial mobilization using their pre-arranged secret mobilization system. This was accomplished by color coded cards being sent to reservists, who had already been told what each color might mean, with certain colors matching up with certain concentration points due to the planned enemy. This allowed for 3/4 of the troops that would be available to be made ready without a public and open mobilization, with somewhere around 20 infantry divisions and 4 cavalry brigades of reservists mobilized in this way to greatly expand the standing army. There were some challenges involved in this mobilization, beyond its secrecy. The first problem was one of equipment. Due to the very much ongoing nature of rearmament, some Polish units would be given weapons to use during the upcoming defense that they had never seen seen, let alone actually had training on. An example of this was the wz 35 UR anti-tank rifle, which most soldiers did not even known existed before it was given to their units on mobilization. The second problem was one of training, much like the late-mobilized German units, these Polish soldiers would not have time for any kind of training before being called into action, requiring them to pull on training and exercises that may have been years in the past. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that the Polish military was forced to call upon far more classes of reservists than the Germans, meaning older men, further from their training, were being mobilized. The third problem was one of supplies. Due to inadequate supply preparations, there were problems supplying Polish units with more than a few days of supplies, be they ammunition or food. Just like the German Navy, the Polish Navy, or Marynarka, would also order its ships out of port before the start of hostilities. In this case instead of moving into raiding positions, 3 Polish destroyers, along the 2 freighters, would sail for Britain where it was hoped they would be able to assist the Royal Navy. The Germans knew that the ships departed, but the war had not started by the time they had clear the Denmark straits, so there was nothing they could do to interdict their travels. On the side of the Polish Air Force, it would begin to disperse its aircraft on August 27th, an action that made resupply more challenging, but would prevent them from being caught on concentrated air strips by enemy air attack. Doing everything covertly was politically very important, which was made very apparent on August 29th. Many preparations had been made to execute this secret mobilization, but there were limits to what could be done, and it also just slowed everything down. By the 29th, with the possibility of war seeming to be a certainty, the Polish government would finally order a general and public mobilization. And immediately the British and French protested. There was a focus, bordering on obsession, in London and Paris to prevent any Polish act of provocation that would give Germany an excuse for war. This resulted in several reminders about the necessity of not allowing Polish response to provocation, but then on the 29th messages arrived that required Poland to cancel its mobilization. The Polish government did not feel that it could openly defy its allies, and so it was cancelled, only to then be ordered once again on the 31st. Obviously it is impossible to know the exact effect that this two day delay had on the overall readiness of the Polish military, but more time is always useful.
What is even more remarkable about the Poles agreeing to delay their mobilization was the fact that Poland had in fact already been invaded on the August 26th. Now, of course, the full invasion of Poland would not begin until September 1st, but the original plan was for the invasion to begin five days earlier, on August 26th. Which brings us to our first discussion of communication times during the war. When the order that the attack was going forward was given, it could not be instantly relayed to all of the troops involved, disseminating that kind of information took time, even if it could be aided by radio and telephone. On August 25th, the order for the attack had not gone out, and instead Hitler was delaying the decision. To be fair, this was a pretty big decision, especially given the fact that by August 25th it was clear that the British and French were not going to back down and so it was very likely that they would also enter the war in defense of Poland. There was also the constant discussion of negotiation that was cycling around European capitals during August 1939, with many efforts made to mediate some kind of peaceful solution. The most likely possibility on the 25th was some kind of peace conference hosted by Italy, but nothing was certain and there were many roadblocks to making that happen, particularly Poland’s desire to not be forced into a Munich situation. When Hitler asked what the last possible moment on the 25th the order could be given and still allow for the troops to kick off the attack at the desired 4:30AM the next day, he was involved it was 3PM. He would delay as long as possible, but at 3:02PM the order would be dispatched to execute Fall Weiss the next morning, August 26th. This had been the date that had been earlier earmarked as the date that the war would begin, and Directives from the General Staff were already prepared, here is one from General Keitel: “The Fuhrer and Reich Chancellor has ordered the mobilization without public proclamation (X-Day) of the bulk of the Wehrmacht. […] X-Day is August 26, 1939. With effect from the same date, the Fuhrer has conferred upon the Commander-in-Chief of the Army authority to exercise executive power in the ‘East’ and ‘West’ operational areas of the army. On the crossing of the Reich frontier ‘East’, the operational area will be extended forward in accordance with the ground gained by the troops.” There were several things that then happened, the first was that messages were sent to the numerous German military formations to begin preparations for the attack, telephone links between Poland and Germany were cut, units began moving into attack positions right on the border, which resulted in several clashes between German troops and Polish border guards. In the air the Luftwaffe increased its rate of reconnaissance flights over Polish territory, sorties that it had already been running during the previous weeks and even months. The British and Polish governments announced the official signature of their mutual defense pact, which had been in publicly discussed as far back as March 1939, but was now signed and they also publicly announced that the two governments were open to further negotiations. As much as Hitler wanted the war to begin, he also was hopeful that it could happen without Germany appearing to every other nation as rejecting any options for peace, and so the invasion was cancelled. Much like initiating an invasion could not happen instantly, in some ways trying to cancel it was even worse. All of the same problems existed as when the order was originally given, but on top of those challenges was also the fact that units had already started moving from their staging areas. Messages were not now going to known locations, but also had to find their way to units that were already on the march to the Polish border. And they were actually pretty successful at calling things off, except for a few different instances. In East Prussia a cavalry patrol would cross the border and would actually engage Polish units in a firefight, resulting in one German death, the first of the Second World War. In the south in the the unit assigned to capture the Jablunkova Pass train station, on the modern day border of Czechia and Slovakia, did not receive the message. They would be spotted near the rail tunnel, and another fire fight would occur, with a few killed on both sides, but the vast majority of the German units would be halted and called back. In retrospect this was probably a mistake, because on August 26th the Polish military had only really started its mobilization efforts, and at that time the German units would have outnumbered the Poles by something around 3 to 1, by September 1st that advantage had degraded to around 2 to 1. The one positive was that it gave peace a chance, with many governments around Europe hoping that it could be maintained.
I won’t be going through a full list of every communication that was occurring around Europe in the pursuit of peace in the last week of August 1939, but we will touch on a few different discussions that were occurring. The general path of many of the discussions had nations in the following positions. The Polish government, above all, refused to allow any negotiate that did not involve Polish representatives that would dictate the future of Poland, and they also refused to enter into any kind of personal negotiations with the Germans in which a singular representative of Poland was required to make decisions without consulting Warsaw. Poland refused both to be Czechslovakia, watching the Munich Conference from afar in September 1938, and also refused to be Czechoslovakia in March 1939 when President Emil Hacha had been forced to give into German demands. The German government was not necessarily refusing to negotiate with the other nations, but they wanted to be negotiated from a position of strength, and they did not really want Polish representatives involved, basically in an attempt to recreate the conditions at Munich. The British government was also willing to negotiate, but in several crucial instances would put some kind of pre-condition on negotiations, with the most difficult being a call for Germany and Poland to demobilize their military before negotiations could begin, with both nations refusing to give such an order because they did not think the other would, which if we are being honest was probably accurate on both counts. The Italian government was trying to place itself in the position as the great peacemaker of Europe, with Mussolini trying somewhat desperately to be in a position of the mediator between Hitler and the other leaders. The French and British also hoped that Mussolini could fill that role. These efforts by the Italians were not totally altruistic, and the primary concern in Rome was that they were going to get pulled into a war years before the Italian military would be ready for such an endeavor. In France, well they were in a tough spot. The French government, led by Premier Daladier, was driven by a few key concerns that would mostly dictate their actions during the last days of peace. The first was that they did not really want to go to war, French rearmament was accelerating, but it was by no means complete and it was felt that the longer peace was maintained the better it would be for French military readiness. The second was that they felt like they could not abandon their promises to Britain and Poland, because if they did so it seemed very possible that the British would then not honor their commitments to France if the Germans selected France as their next target, this was the possibility that General Gamelin was very concerned about. The third key concern was based around the fact that some leading French politicians, and also the French ambassador in Berlin, believed right to the very end that Hitler was bluffing. This idea was obviously very attractive, because it was basically the foundation upon when the entirety of French and British diplomatic strategy had been built upon for most of 1939. Britain had provided Poland with a guarantee, France had reiterated its commitment under the idea that with such declarations Germany would be forced to back down. Now this did not work, at least partially because Hitler believed the same thing about the French and British, but that is just how it goes sometimes. This line of thinking was taken to its final phase when Coulondre wrote to Daladier, and Daladier would read his letter to the French cabinet on August 31st. One of the French politicians who was in attendance at the meeting would write of the effects of this Cabinet session on those who wanted to proceed with negotiation at any cost that “The object was to bluff, The one who bluffs last will have the upper hand… We must just be brazen. When the objective is to wait and be bold, enthusiasm and the easy way out go hand in hand. No more debates! Coulondre’s opinion shut up those who were recalcitrant.” Daladier was also leading the charge in the Cabinet against negotiation, saying that “Do we agree to go and chop up Poland and dishonor ourselves…then wind up with war in any case? The lesson of Munich is that Hitler’s signature isn’t worth anything.” In the end, the efforts made by all five nations to maintain peace did not fail because nobody wanted peace, many government, and many politicians within those governments, wanted to prevent war, but by the last week of August 1939 they were no longer willing to prevent war at any cost. And in a situation where one group is not concerned with preserving peace, and another group is not willing to give into the others demands without reservation, conflict often occurs, as it would on September 1, 1939.
The last minute efforts of August 31 were too late anyway. Negotiation efforts continued into the afternoon and evening, but at 12:40PM on August 31, Hitler had one again given the order for Fall Weiss to begin the next day, and this time it would not be rescinded. On the afternoon of August 31 Directive No. 1 for the Conduct of the War would be issued, and it would state:
“Now that all the political possibilities of disposing by peaceful means of a situation on the Eastern Frontier which is intolerable for Germany are exhausted, I have determined a solution by force. The attack on Poland is to be carried out in accordance with the preparations made for Case White […] Allotment of tasks and the operational target remain unchanged. Date of attack: September 1, 1939. Time of attack: 4:45 A.M. This timing also applies to the operation at [Danzig], Bay of Danzig and the Dirschau Bridge. In the West it is important that the responsibility for the opening of hostilities should rest squarely on England and France. For the time being insignificant frontier violations should be met by purely local action. The neutrality of Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland, to which we have given assurances, must be scrupulously observed. On land, the German Western Frontier is not to be crossed without my express permission. At sea, the same applies for all warlike actions or actions which could be regarded as such. If Britain and France open hostilities against Germany, it is the task of the Wehrmacht formations operating in the West to conserve their forces as much as possible and thus maintain the conditions for a victorious conclusion of the Operations against Poland. Within these limits enemy forces and their military-economic resources are to be damaged as much as possible. Orders to go over to the attack I reserve, in any case, to myself. The Army will hold the West Wall and make preparations to prevent its being outflanked in the north through violation of Belgian or Dutch territory by the Western powers . . . The Navy will carry on warfare against merchant shipping, directed mainly at England . . . The Air Force is, in the first place, to prevent the French and British Air Forces from attacking the German Army and the German Lebensraum. In conducting the war against England, preparations are to be made for the use of the Luftwaffe in disrupting British supplies by sea, the armaments industry, and the transport of troops to France. A favorable opportunity is to be taken for an effective attack on massed British naval units, especially against battleships and aircraft carriers. Attacks against London are reserved for my decision. Preparations are to be made for attacks against the British mainland, bearing in mind that partial success with insufficient forces is in all circumstances to be avoided.”