In the Polish Corridor Army Pomorze had the unenviable task of defending not just an attack by one, but two, German armies.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 117 - The September Campaign Pt. 9 - Army Pomorze. [Patreon Matt] This week a big thank you goes out to Matt and Rich for choosing to support the podcast by becoming Members. You can become a member as well by heading over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. This episode will focus, as the title suggests, on Army Pomorze. In my opinion Army Pomorze, out of all of the Polish armies, was in the worst position at the start of the invasion. If you think about the Polish corridor as your thumb, Army Pomorze was positioned between the knuckle and the base of the thumb. In this position they were completely exposed to attacks from both directions, northern Germany and East Prussia, and there was also the possibility that they would be surrounded and destroyed without being able to retreat to the south east towards Warsaw. Most of Army Pomorze’s strength was also positioned northwest of the Vistula river, which made it critical that bridges over the river be held and protected to keep open the line of retreat. Army Pomorze would pay the price in blood to the political need to defend the corridor. The Army would be commanded by General Bortnowski and due to the threats from both east and west he had to setup his forces to cover both directions, 2 infantry divisions would be positioned to intercept any advances by the German fourth army from the west, and 2 divisions would be placed to intercept an advance out of east Prussia. Arranged against Army Pomorze was the primary strength of Army Group North under the command of General Bock. In the west the German attack would be launched with 4 infantry divisions, 2 motorized divisions, and one armored division of General Kluge’s Fourth Army. From the east the German advance would be made by 2 infantry divisions of General Kuchler’s Third Army, who we discussed last episode due the majority of his forces being sent against Army Modlin to the south. Included with this attack would be the German 19th Motorized Army Corps commanded by General Heinz Guderian which we will of course be discussing many times in the coming years. Guderian’s forces here are notable because they would be the primary armored formation assigned to the attack against Army Pomorze and the Motorized core would contain over 50,000 men, over 8,700 motor vehicles, and 530 armored vehicles of various types. All of the German divisions assigned to the attack gave them a crushing numerical advantage over the Polish defenders, and when you combined that with the two front nature of the attack Bortnowski and the rest of the Army’s leadership knew that a lengthy defense was not going to be possible. This was due not just to the position of the Army, but also to the amount of total front that had to be defended. This resulted in situations where infantry divisions were defending almost 50 kilometers worth of front, when they should have been defending less than 20, there were also large gaps between some Polish units not because the Polish officers thought that was a good plan, but simply because of the number of troops that were available. Instead they planned a fighting retreat with the goal of buying a little time to the west of the Vistula river, before retreating behind the river and using it as a defensive anchor upon which greater defense against the German attackers could be mounted.
Army Group North would begin their advance at the scheduled time of 4:45AM on September 1st, but when they reached the border they would encounter no resistance. Instead of placing troops right on the border, the Polish defensive positions were about 10 kilometers back from the border, and the mistake had been made of not posting any troops closer to the border. This meant that when the Germans did cross they encountered no resistance, and the Polish forces did not even know that it was happening. For the advancing Germans there were some surprises in store once they were in Polish territory, one soldier would find that the local population was far from hostile, with many villages near the border populated by ethnic Germans who 20 years earlier would have been a part of Germany. There are other soldiers who would, in their accounts of the their actions, let racism slip into their writings. One of the common ways that this was expressed, and would be for all of Germany’s eastern European campaigns, was through characterizing Polish villages and towns as dirty or unclean. With one soldier noting that the streets of one village seemed ‘narrow and extremely dirty’. This type of characterization was a powerful way to “other” the Poles, calling into question not just the individuals but their society as a whole, and comparing it to how German villages might be laid out and taken care of, or more often the idealized version of how German villages were taken care of. If you want to do some reading on this idea, I highly recommend War Land on the Eastern Front, which is a look at the German occupation of Eastern Europe during the First World War but its investigation into how German society viewed the cultures of Eastern Europe still held true in 1939. I discussed the book during the two Occupation episodes for History of the Great War that you can find on that podcast’s feed with the title Patreon Episodes 15 and 16. Another item that gets mentioned in soldiers accounts, are of course the names of the places that they were moving through, with the German officer Fritz Fillies saying ‘Now the unpronounceable names had begun. One man pronounced it one way, the next man another way, but they both meant the same thing.’ I feel like having challenges pronouncing local place names is one of the great unifying experiences of all soldiers moving into strange lands. There were many experiences of the German troops as they crossed the border, but on this area of the front one of those experiences would not be Polish resistance, and in fact it would be almost 5 hours after their advanced started before they would encounter any Polish resistance at all. Although they did not know that they were advancing against no opposition, partially due to the fact that it was in this area of the front that the thick fog we discussed during episode 115 would be most impactful. It prevented any serious support for the advancing troops by the Luftwaffe, and it also made artillery support very challenging because it was so hard to see where shells were falling.
When the two forces did finally meet, the same type of problems that the German advance had against Army Modlin would also be present. One of the decisions that was made for the Third Panzer Division was to have the advance let not by reconnaissance units but instead by tanks. This mistake contributed to the fact that when the forward elements of the 6th Panzer Regiment encountered an outpost of the Polish 34th Infantry regiment 2 Panzer II tanks were very quickly destroyed by the Polish 37mm anti-tank guns. After these losses the advance was halted while artillery was used to neutralize the Polish position so that the advance could continue. This same template of events would occur on several areas of the front. For example in another area a separate company of the 34th regiment would take up positions on a railway embankment near the town of Pruscz. This was a great position because if the Germans wanted to continue their advance they had to pass through two underpasses, which could be defended by more Polish anti-tank guns. A Panzer IV tank would be destroyed when it tried its luck by moving forward. These positions would be held for two hours while the Germans brought up greater numbers of troops and equipment and eventually overwhelmed the Polish defenders. This allowed the 5th Panzer regiment to reach the Brda river. This river was important because it ran north to south and directly across the German path of advance. Recognizing its importance the retreating Polish troops would try to burn the bridges over the river at Pruscz, with some success. Later in the evening the Germans would be able to cross the Brda at Pruscz using rubber boats to launch an assault, but it still delayed them until 6PM when the crossing was finally made. Further north Polish defenders would have been greater success, stopping the 6th Panzer Regiment for the entire day before retreating to the east to keep in line with what was happening to the south. Further north in the town of Tuchola, Polish defenders would have even greater success. The Polish 35th infantry regiment had been able to construct a strong series of positions near Tuchola that was named the Rytel position. This included trenches, barbed wire, and concrete machine gun nests. It was defended by about 3,300 Polish troops, almost entirely made up of reservists, but they at least had strong defenses to defend. They were facing the German 2nd Infantry Division. Three regiments would be used to attack the Polish positions just a bit before noon on September 1st, it went very poorly. The German attack would be a frontal assault on a very prepared position, and the results would go as you might expect, heavy German casualties with no real gains. The attacks, of the same style, would continue for next following six hours, before the Polish defenders would be ordered to retreat not because of the actions of the Germans in front of them but due to the gains of the German forces to the south. further north once again, near the town of Chojnice the Polish defenders would be slightly less successful, holding off the 20th Motorized Infantry division until 2PM, but in this area the German forces would use their greater numbers and mobility to much greater effect, moving around the Polish defenses to threat an encirclement, forcing the Poles to abandon their positions and join other units moving southeast.
North of Chojnice one of the most famous, or infamous events of the Polish campaign would take place near the village of Krojanty. It is very possible that you have heard about what would take place near the village if you have heard the story of Polish cavalry charging German tanks with their lances and sabers. Cavalry and tanks would be involved, but the rest of that story is a complete fabrication of Nazi propaganda. Krojanty was a village to the northeast of Chojnice, and when it was clear that the Polish troops were going to need to abandon the area 2 squadrons of the 18th Pomeranian Cavalry Regiment were sent forward to slow the German advance. This was a completely normal thing for Polish cavalry to do, they basically fought as mounted infantry most of the time, and they were able to use their increased mobility to move field guns, anti-tank files, and machine guns around the battlefield to quickly react to German actions. When the cavalry moved forward what they found was a unit of German infantry of the 76th Infantry Regiment who were not prepared for any kind of Polish assault. To try and take advantage of the situation the Polish Colonel Masztalerz would lead 200 cavalry troops on a charge into the infantry. The charge was a complete success, scattering the German infantry and causing them to retreat in disorder, as might be expected with several hundred cavalrymen charging at an unprepared unit of infantry. At the moment of Polish success several German armored vehicles appeared and opened fire on the cavalry, who very quickly began to retreat. Before they were able to break contact between a third and a half of the Polish cavalry would be killed. Overall it would not end up being a costly move for the cavalry units involved, but it did also achieve what the cavalry had been sent to achieve, delay a possible German advance. But the important part of this story is simply that the initial charge was not some suicidal dash German tanks by men with sabers, it was a risky but successful attack on an unsuspecting group of German infantry. It is unfortunate that the German propaganda version of events has become the most well known.
At the same time as the attacks from the west were hitting the Pomorze Army, from the east men of the German Third army were launching their own attacks. This operation would start with an attempt being made to quickly capture some bridges over the Vistula near the town of Tczew. To accomplish this the German 41st Pioneer Battalion would use a bit of trickery, dressing up as Polish railway workers on a civilian train while hiding most of the Battalion within the train. There would also be German armored train following behind with another Pioneer Battalion to assist. This attempt, as inventive as it was, would be completely unsuccessful. The Polish defenders would learn of the attempt and would stop the train short of the bridges. This allowed the Polish 2nd Rifle Battalion to mount a defense long enough for the first bridge to be blown just after 6AM while the other bridge was dropped about 40 minutes later. This action was really important to the overall flow of the German advance out of East Prussia, because without those two bridges the only option available was to stay on the eastern side of the Vistula river, instead of being able to advance down both sides. Regardless of which side of the river they were operating on, the German forces were aiming to capture the city of Grudziadz which was also on the Vistula, with the hope being that it would be near that city that they would meet up with the German troops advancing from the west. The city was defended by the Polish 16th Infantry division, which was guarding a 22 kilometer sector. For the majority of the day the defenders would do well, before they were outflanked due to a German force being able to move across the Osa river on the 16th left flank. The crossing, accomplished at 6PM by the 24th infantry regiment, would unhinge the entire Polish position.
After the afternoon shifted into evening, all along the front Polish units were in almost all moving away from the positions in which they had started the war, with most of them moving generally southeast to escape the ongoing German attack. But the day had not gone completely poorly for the Polish defenders. As we have covered in this episode there were several instances where the Polish defenders were able to stop German attacks, or at the very least delay them by several hours. The Polish anti-tank weapons worked well, and their defensive techniques were working well. The problem was that so many of the Polish positions were too isolated, with so many instances where a unit would perform very well but then be forced to retreat due to German movements on the flanks. I like this summary from Robert Forczyk’s Case White: The Invasion of Poland 1939: ‘In general, the Polish defence of strongpoints had been tenacious, but inter-unit co-ordination was extremely poor; each Polish regiment was essentially fighting its own independent war.’ For the German attackers there were also many problems experienced during their first day of real combat in Poland. In some cases the German units had been too aggressive with leading with armored units without proper reconnaissance or attacking directly into Polish defenses. This caused far greater losses than what really necessary if the German units had used their greater numbers and mobility to its greatest benefit, by moving around and behind as many Polish strongpoints as possible. This would be one of the most important lessons that many militaries during the war would be forced to learn. The firm resistance of the Polish units would also have an effect on the German soldiers, with one German infantryman writing of one of the firefights he was in that day: “We reached the cemetery and jumped like rabbits between the gravestones. One salvo after another rained down.… The first moans from the wounded were heard. Whoever entered into this war with enthusiasm would at this moment get goosebumps. I will never forget how I found a comrade by the side of the road with his chest torn open. He was still conscious, and one could see his heart beating. He didn’t last the day.” On September 2nd there would be a few attempts by Polish units to launch counterattacks to slow the German advance. for example the 16th infantry division would try to kick the Germans back across the Osa river near Grudziadz. Unfortunately for the Polish troops involved these efforts were almost universally failures, lacking the coordination and the simple numbers to really achieve their desired results of halting the German attack. The only real positive to the counter attacks is that it did at least slow the German attack, and prevented the German armored units from crossing the Vistula. This would buy at least a little time for the Polish units who were retreating to reach crossing points of the river or simple retreating south of the river from Bydgoszcz.
By September 3 the retreat was continuing everywhere and Polish formations were getting strung out and completely disorganized almost by the hour. There was also the problem of civilians that were also trying to move in the same direction as the military units which caused traffic problems on many of the roads in the area. The Germans were at the same time trying to cut off the treat of as many Polish units as possible, with some units continuing to race to the Vistula as quickly as possible while others were positioned wherever possible to halt the Polish retreat. This resulted in a confusing mix of small little actions all over the front that were not really connected in any meaningful way beyond Polish troops attempting to survive and retreat while German troops tried to stop them from continuing either. In some cases the Polish defenders would experience short term successes, with instances where a Polish unit would be able to destroy a few enemy tanks, but the outcome was often the same, the unit would be surrounded and then ground down to nothing, either due to men being killed or surrendering. That same type of story would happen countless times all along the front, with the only real unifying features being confusion and desperation. Thousands of Polish prisoners would be captured on September 3, with the 19th German Corps alone capturing 4,000 west of the Vistula. Some Polish units that were on the Western Bank would manage to escape, for example the 35th infantry regiment and the 16th Uhlans, but they were the exception, and even those units that did escape often suffered serious losses and were completely disorganized. On the eastern bank the 16th Infantry division would do a little better, and would continue to defend Grudziadz throughout the day. The Germans were slowly grinding forward though, using their advantages in artillery and armor to grind through the Polish defenses. Eventually the 16th would decide to blow up the bridge over the river and join the retreat to the south. By mid day on September 3rd there were two grim realities for the Pomorze Army: the first was that the 9th and 27th divisions essentially ceased to exist as effective combat units, with very few of their original units having made it far enough south to avoid encirclement and the second reality was that the two German armies had finally met across the Vistula before meeting fully the next day. What was left of the Pomorze Army that had been on the western side of the Vistula would concentrate around the city of Bydgoszcz which was defended by the 15th Infantry division. In their retreat through the city, some ethnic-Germans, who had been given weapons by Abwehr agents before the start of the war, took the opportunity to begin firing at the retreating Polish troops, killing 20 Polish soldiers. This would be answered by 100 ethnic Germans being killed, and another 600 arrested, but it would not end there. By September 4th, with the Polish retreat continuing, further clashes would take place with ethnic German civilians, reaching the point where if you were an ethnic German and you lived anywhere near one of the shootings you were in danger. Up to another 150 ethnic Germans would be killed by both Polish soldiers and civilians. On the night of September 4th the order would be given for all Polish troops to abandon the city of Bydgaszcz and continue on their way south east, which then resulted in further killings of civilians when the German forces of the 50th Infantry division arrived and turned the tables on the now defenseless Polish citizens. German losses in their attacks on Army Pomorze were not very high, and they had completely accomplished their goal in about 4 days, the Polish forces were destroyed or in retreat and the corridor was once again in German hands. For the Polish Army the results were an expected disaster. It had been known from the beginning that Army Pomorze was in a bad place and was at risk of destruction, but the hope was that it would delay the German advance and cause serious German casualties, unfortunately it only did a little bit of both. General Bortnowski, the commander of Army Pomorze would write to Polish High Command that “The situation is that all the troops that have been cut off can now be considered lost. All that is left of the 27th Division is the division commander, about 3 infantry battalions and 5 batteries.… Of the 9th Division—only the incomplete 22nd Regiment and one battery.… Something might still come up, but the bridgehead was destroyed at half six this morning and… in the current situation it seems to me impossible. This is the state of things.” I hope you will join me next episode as we continue to move south along the Polish German border, by looking at the events that would occur on the central front manned by Armies Poznan and Lodz.