The primary point of German focus would be an attack by Army Group South targeting the area between Army Poznan and Army Lodz.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 118. This week a big thank you goes out to John, Ash, ThreeFromTwo, Steve, and Kay for choosing to support the podcast by becoming members, find out more about being a member at historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. Last episode we discussed the events on the southern end of the Polish Corridor, where the Polish Army Pomorze faced an almost impossible situation, with threats from both the east and west. This episode will shift focus to the south, focusing on the attacks by Army Group South in its attacks against three Polish armies, Poznan, Lodz, and Krakow. One of the key geographic features of this area of the front, particularly in the center behind Army Lodz, was the Warta river, which was positioned roughly parallel, but around 60 kilometers west, of the border. The three Armies would also be named after the three largest cities in western Poland, Poznan, Lodz, and Krakow which were important Polish population and production centers. Facing these three Polish armies were three German armies, the Eighth, Tenth, and Fourteenth which were grouped under Army Group South and its command General von Rundstedt. Rundstedt had the majority of the forces attacking Poland, including the vast majority of its armored formations, around 75%, along with over 525,000 total troops. The German plan was to attack directly into the territories defended by Army Lodz and Krakow, capture the two cities, and then for the 10th Army to continue on its way to attack Warsaw from the south. While this was happening on the left flank of the advance the German 8th Army would guard against an attack by the Poznan Army while on the German right a combination of German and Slovakian troops attacked through the Carpathian mountains. Everything was setup and done in service of getting the German 10th Armies two armored and three Light divisions to Lodz and beyond. To give some idea of the importance of this attack by 10th Army, the Germans would commit 5 full Panzer Divisions to the invasion of Poland, and two of them, the 1st and the 4th would be positioned side by side right on the border where the Polish Lodz and Krakow armies met. This would be absolutely perfect positioning due to one of the primary weaknesses of the Polish plan for defense, the lack of real coordination between the armies. There was no equivalent of the “Army Group” level within the Polish organization, on this area of the front there was not an equivalent of a Rundstedt, tasked with making sure the armies were working together correctly. This made coordination between the three Polish forces very challenging, and even at times meant routing orders and requests all the way back to Polish headquarters in Warsaw. This created a situation where by far the most vulnerable areas of the front were the junctions between armies, not just because of the lack of cooperation but also the tendency for units to retreat back and often away from those of other armies to their left or right. This had a tendency to create gaps even wider that just a normal retreat by an army, a crucial phenomenon when trying to understand how the central and southern fronts developed over the first few days of the campaign. All of these challenges would always make it more difficult for the Polish units to hold the German troops near the border, but doing so was very important to the overall plan for Polish defense. Behind the shield of the three Polish armies was another army that was being created, Army Prusy. This force did not, on September 1st, really exist, because it was going to be created by late mobilizing forces and would not be ready to really fight until days after the first attack. Once it was fully organized, it would then be used as the primary counterattacking for against the German invasion, with the hope that it would be able to take back most of the territory that the German army had seized. The problem was that if this plan was to happen it needed time, and that meant it needed the 200,000 men in 9 infantry divisions and four cavalry brigades of Army Lodz and Krakow to buy time, as much as possible, and as close to the German border as possible.
Boleslawiec - Boleswavits We will look at this sector by moving from north to south, or the German left to right or the Polish right to left. It is worth noting the northern side of the German attacks in this area did not meet up with the attacks happening against Army Pomorze that we discussed last episode and there was a gap of several hundred kilometers between the two German efforts. This area of the front would be occupied by Army Poznan, and it would not be directly focused by a German attack. The most action that Army Poznan would see on the first day of the attack would be on its far southern flank, where it would be attacked by elements of the German 10th Army. The goal of the German forces in this area was to secure the northern flank of the German advance, and to prevent Army Poznan from attacking the German troops further south as they, hopefully, advanced far into Poland during the opening days of the war. In this area the same structure of events would occur, with German reconnaissance units advancing, losing some vehicles due to the presence of Polish anti-tank guns, before the Polish defenders were forced to pull back. One of the more notable events in this sector is notable for all of the wrong reasons. In just one of many examples of German troops committing violent acts against civilians, the Infantry Regiment SS Adolf Hitler would murder several civilians in the village of Boleslawiec. This would be just one of many such events happening all over Poland in the opening days of the attack, an unfortunate phenomenon we will discuss in further detail later in this episode.
Parzymiechy - Pashameahuh Next in the German line would be the 18th and 19th Infantry divisions, which were part of General Leeb’s 11th Army Corps. These troops were going to march forward, with the goal of making it to the Warta river during the first day of the advance. The German advance would begin at 4:30AM and for several hours they would encounter no resistance as the first Polish positions were several kilometers to the east of the border. They were advancing against the 30th Polish infantry division, who would make themselves known at the village of Parzymiechy where fighting would erupt at around 8:30. The Polish 83rd Infantry Regiment had been positioned in the area to delay the German advance to the west and south of the Warta, and they would do so with machine guns and artillery. The forwardmost German units had outpaced their artillery which was not motorized, and so the Polish defense would be able to hold out for most of the day. There was even a rare instance of a Polish counterattack by a unit of Polish Tankettes which further delayed German efforts to advance. It would not be until 9PM in the evening that the Polish defenders would decide to retreat. This would be another area where Polish civilians would suffer under the hands of German violence, with some of the German soldiers of the 73rd Infantry Regiment believing that some of the weapons being fired at them were in the hands of Polish civilians. 100 men, women, and children would be murdered over the course of the day by the 19th Infantry Division near Parzymiechy. In other areas of the advance, attempts were made to cross the Warta river in the afternoon, but these efforts were met by concentrated Polish artillery and machine gun fire by the 84th Infantry Regiment. Eventually the Germans would be able to cross the river after bringing up artillery and blasting away at the Polish defenders, and when they were able to cross the entire Polish 30th Division would be forced to retreat out of fear that individual units would be cut off and surrounded.
Czestochowa - Chestahova To the south of the 18th and 19th divisions was the primary point of focus for the German advance, because it was here that the 4th and 1st Panzer divisions were arranged side by side under the command of General Erich Hoepner. The goal of these two divisions was to punch through any Polish resistance on the way to a path that took them to the south of Lodz and toward Warsaw. These two armored divisions had been positioned at one of the most vulnerable areas of the Polish front, being right on the border between Army Lodz to the north and Army Krakow to the south. Due to the coordination issues experienced by the Polish armies, this was probably the ideal place for a German armored attack. The 4th panzer would have to contend with the the southern units of the Polish 30th infantry and a cavalry Brigade which had prepared some defensive positions which the 4th panzer would encounter at around 8AM. The forward elements of the 4th Panzer would be halted by anti-tank guns of the Polish cavalry, and at around 10AM they would choose the path of most resistance by launching frontal assaults on the Polish positions. In these assaults many of the shortcomings of the German tanks would be made clear, with the Panzer Is and IIs vulnerable not just to the 35mm anti-tank gun but also to anti-tank infantry rifles. The Polish defenders would also use some 75mm artillery pieces in an anti-tank role, which they were not designed for, but their fast fire rate making up for any downsides it made have had when being fired at tanks. One 75mm gun would be credited with 8 German tank kills. On this area of the front a Polish armored train, with the number 53, would also engage German tanks with its 100mm and 75mm guns knocking out several German tanks of the 4th panzer. Even with the various successes that the Polish defenders had, event the German attacks would eventually be successful due to weight of numbers if nothing else. The Polish cavalry would retreat late in the afternoon after completely destroying 24 German tanks and disabling 38 more. The efforts of the 4th Panzer would be a good example of the best case scenario for the Polish defenders, with the German commanders making the mistake of a frontal assault. To the south of the 4th, the 1st panzer would take a different approach in its attacks against the 7th infantry division. The Polish 7th division was the northern most unit of Army Krakow, with the expectation that it would maintain contact with the Army Lodz to the north. To assist in this effort they would be able to utilize the very well built and prepared Polish defenses around Czestochowa, which included 19 large concrete bunkers, well built field works, and many other defenses. During the early hours of the attack the 1st panzer, and the 14th German infantry to its south, would push the Polish defenders from their advanced positions near the border to the defenses around Czestochowa, but then the 1st Panzer did something very smart. Instead of attacking the Polish defenses, it would move to the north of the city, taking advantage of the growing gap between the 7th Polish division of Army Krakow and the Wolynska Cavalry Brigade the southernmost element of Army Lodz which was heavily engaged with the 4th Panzer. The situation would have been even worse for the Poles, but the advance of the 1st Panzer was hampered by the poor state of many Polish roads in the area, with only a few primary roads being paved, and the rest being dirt roads. The state of the Polish road network would be a constant problem for German armored units throughout the campaign. Even with the road issues though, by choosing to work around the Polish defenses, and leaving them to the to be dealt with by the 14th Infantry, the 1st Panzer was able to quickly move to the Warta river and then cross the river unopposed. This created the nightmare situation for Polish commanders, even though ensconced in the strong defenses around Czestochowa, that they might be surrounded. This possibility forced the order to be given to the 7th Infantry on September 2nd to abandon the city and begin to retreat to the east. Then then further widened the gap between the two Polish armies, as the 7th infantry was retreating south east while the troops to their north were retreating directly east. This is the best example of the challenges faced by the Polish Armies, with Army Lodz focusing on mounting a defense of Lodz itself, and Army Krakow focused on defending army Krakow, with the two cities inadvertently pulling the two armies apart. The situation further deteriorated when the 7th infantry would be surrounded and cut off, leaving a gaping hole in the Polish defensive line. Back at Polish headquarters concerns about the situation between Lodz and Krakow would result in orders being given to the commander of Army Prusy, which was being formed up as a counter attack force, to provide reinforcements to Army Lodz in the hopes that those troops could help stabilize the situation.
This attempt would be unsuccessful, and over the next two days, that being September 3 and 4, the Polish front would largely collapse. There would be some attempts by Polish units to stop or delay the German attacks, like when the Polish tanks of the 301st Light Tank Battalion engaged and destroyed 15 German tanks and armored cars at the cost of 7 Polish tanks, or the efforts of General Thommee to use a thrown together hodgepodge of Polish units to slow the advance of the 4th Panzer south of Lodz, but none of the scattered Polish resistance could reverse the overall inertia of what was happening in western Poland with the general retreat of all Polish forces east. This also included Army Poznan which had not been under very much direct German pressure, and had even been able to briefly launch an attack into German territory on September 2nd. As we have already discussed in several smaller instances Army Poznan would be forced to retreat due to fear of being surrounded. On September 6th the front around Lodz would be fully collapse, a situation made just worse based on the events on Army Krakows front to the south, which we will cover next episode.
One of the most unfortunate legacies of the Second World War is the scale and scope of human suffering caused by the war. All around the world ordinary, innocent civilians would find themselves as the recipients of violence that they in no way deserved or could defend themselves against. We will be discussing these events a lot on the podcast over the next however many years the podcast lasts. It starts in Poland. When the Germans invaded Poland the violence of the battlefield would also be present in villages, towns, and cities all over Poland. The number one thing I want to get across in discussing violence against Polish citizens is that it was not a simple matter of a few bad units, or a few specific instances, it was everywhere. During this episode we will only discuss a few instances of that violence, and maybe touch on some of the largest death totals, but violence against civilians, the murdering of innocent civilians, happened everywhere along the course of the invasion. There are many reasons that the violence was so widespread, the general racism present in Germany and amplified by years of Nazi propaganda, the unfortunate realities of war, and also official orders given by German officers to their units. To put it in modern terminology, the rules of engagement were very permissive towards using violence, with one German general telling his troops that they must respond to any Polish franc-tireur ‘using the most severe measures’ with another saying that there would be no mercy shown to any Polish civilian that carries a weapon. Another German officer would tell his men: ‘See in every Polish citizen a fanatical enemy who will fight against you with every means possible.’ When these kinds of orders were combined with existing feelings towards Poles and the amplified stress and violence of war, the result was almost inevitable. While all Poles were in danger, Polish Jews would experience even greater violence, with some just being shot on sight, while others would suffer the same types of humiliations that had been used against German Jews during the earlier years of the 1930s, with Jews being forced to clean the streets of the city, being paraded around cities while being beaten by German soldiers, and then killed. Jewish businesses and homes were looted, with anything inside up for grabs for soldiers to take as they pleased.
Just to give a few specific examples of some of the events that would occur during the first week of the invasion. The village of Torzeniec would see fighting between Polish units and the 41st German Infantry Regiment. This included a clash at night which the German troops attributed to local civilians. This resulted in the German soldiers moving into the village to begin shooting at civilians, while also setting various buildings on fire. When people then tried to escape from the burning houses they were shot by the soldiers. Then all of the men who were still alive in the village were arrested, stood in line, before half of them were executed. Examples like this are important because it clearly shows that the actions of German military units were not random, or mistakes, or just a consequence of the confusion and speed of combat, but it also included slow, methodical, and targeted acts of violence. 34 villages would be killed in Torzeniec. There are so many examples of this type of event, in Zloczew (Zwachef) the 9t5th infantry regiment and the SS-Leibstandarte would kill 200 men women and children. In Kajetanowice 72 would be killed, with some shot and some burned alive after buildings were set alight. In the city of Bydgoszcz there would be a spree of violence that would span multiple days. On September 6 it would start with a full search of the town, with the excuse that the Germans were looking for weapons or those that had previously been involved in the killing of Ethnic Germans who had fired at retreating Polish soldiers. During this process the Germans would drag people front them homes and force them to stand in the streets for hours, sometimes just making them wait there. Some would just be executed on the spot based on accusations from local Germans that they had been involved with the earlier events, others would be arrested and taken for interrogation. On September 7th, after a few instances of German troops being shot at in the city, the campaigns of violence were escalated, with German units being told to take hostages from among the civilian population and then to publicly execute them if there were any further instances of violence against Germans. This would then occur, with a group of teenage boys, local boy scouts, being executed by German machine gunners, according to one witness: “Unaware of what awaited them, these poor children joked and even played games amongst themselves. They realised the truth only when they were made to line up… and the machine guns were brought. Some of the little ones began to cry, but the others gave proof of the most admirable courage.” Along with these and many other acts of violence which were committed by German military units, there were also dedicated groups of Germans, primarily under the SS and the police, which were sent to pursue what was called “neutralization”, these the the infamous Einsatzgruppen. They would move into areas of Poland after the Wehrmacht troops had captured territory and proceed with their efforts to pacify the local population. The men in these units were given instructions that assurances that they would not be blamed or criticized for executing Polish civilians as long as they looked suspicious. One example of these efforts was near the city of Bydgoszcz (bidgotsck) where there would be what would be called a cleansing action, with the entire area searched. During just one day 120 Poles would be executed, with hundreds more arrested, 150 would then be executed in some nearby woods. Einsatzgruppen would also move into Bydgoszcz and would continue the previous efforts of German military units to pacify the local civilians. The estimates on their actions vary, but at least 1,300 Polish civilians would be executed in just the first 12 days of the occupation, with hundreds more sentenced to execution of the next several months.
While violence was occurring all over Poland, some Poles would elect to take their chances as refugees instead of taking the risk of being in German occupied territory. Often those that chose to to take to the road would be forced to do so with only very limited possessions. Christine Zamoyska-Panek, a 22 year old Pole belonging to a wealthy family would write: “A seemingly endless stream of refugees continues to arrive in horse-drawn wagons, on foot, a few in cars. […] Most of the exiles clutch only meager possessions and perhaps a small amount of food; yet inevitably these people are accompanied by the family pet. Dogs of every breed and station roam randomly, as lost and confused as their masters.” Christine’s account, which is widely available and titled Have you Forgotten? A Memoir of Poland 1939-1945, is full of interesting details. For example when her family arrived at their country estate it rapidly became apparent that they would need to leave and move further east. So they decided to feed as many people as possible by slaughtering their livestock, because they could not take the animals with them when they continued eastward: “We have managed to feed these people, often as many as 300 a day, by slaughtering our pigs, chickens, turkeys, and cows. It is senseless after all, to preserve the animals for the Germans.” Christine’s group would then find themselves in the path of the Soviet invasion of Poland’s eastern territories, which forced them to get on a train to Lwow, “For two days and two nights we must stay on this glutted train, […]. Without food or water we stand the interminable hours, sandwiched body to body, legs swollen, inhaling the seat, the cheap vodka, the breath of hatred from the many who are drunk.” Eventually, with the German and Soviet forces meeting and occupying all of Poland, Christine would make her way back to the family’s country estate where she would live under German occupation. Regardless of the situation that Poles found themselves in during the first weeks of the invasion, it was a time of great danger, fear, and suffering.