In Southern Poland the most important target of the German invasion was Krakow.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 119 - The September Campaign Pt. 11 - The Southern Front. This week I would like to thank Miles and Brenden who chose to become members to support the podcast. I would also like to let everyone know that the structure of the History of the Second World War Membership program is changing. I have included a link in the show notes for far more details, but the one thing that most listeners will be concerned about: for the foreseeable future there will no longer be monthly member episodes, and all current Member episodes will be released onto the free feed, the one you are listening to right now, over roughly the next year. A full explanation of the reasons can be found in the link in the show notes, but the core reason is that I simply don’t have time to maintain weekly episodes plus one per month and I am going to prioritize the weekly episodes because they are the reason I started podcasting in the first place: to bring good history to as many people as possible. With all that admin talk out of the way, onto the show. Last episode covered the events that occurred in the German drive towards Lodz, where the German 10th Army took advantage of the area where two Polish armies, Lodz and Poznan, met west of Lodz. This episode will shift focus south once again. The German 14th Army, under General List would attack along a lengthy front starting just to the west of Katowice and then south along the German-Polish border, before turning east all along the Polish-Slovakia border. The goal of the German attack in this sector was simple, destroy the Polish units facing them. If this was achieved then the souther flank of the primary German advance, made by the 10th Army to the north, would be secure. Geography posed a few additional problems on this area of the front. Along the German-Polish border the terrain was generally wooded and hilly, and there were less roads in the area than were available further north. Then along the Slovakia-Polish border the German and Slovak troops would be attacking through actual mountains. Even with the slightly more challenging terrain, there were two primary areas of focus, concentrated around the 14th Army’s two Panzer divisions, the 5th and 2nd. The 5th Panzer was positioned near the northern end of the advance with the goal of pushing through to approach Krakow from the north, while the 2nd Panzer would advance out of Slovakia to push towards Krakow from the south. This very lengthy are of the front was occupied by two Polish armies, Krakow and Carpathian. The key point of Army Krakow’s defenses was the area known as the Obszar Warowny Ślask which translated means Fortified Region of Silesia, I will be referring to it during this episode as the OWS. The OWS was a series of fortification that had been under construction for most of the 1930s to defend the areas around the Polish city of Katowice. by 1939 there were about 140 bunkers strung out over 22 kilometers of front, with positions joining the bunkers that allowed for troops of the 23rd and 55th Infantry divisions to be placed in the defenses, with the 23rd placed in the northern and central part of the line, while the 55th would occupy the southern sector.
The Germans knew that the OWS existed, and therefore planned around the strong Polish defenses. Troops of the 8th and 28th German Infantry divisions, under General Ernst Busch’s 8th Army Corps would advance up to the point of resistance West of Katowice. The 8th Infantry, positioned in the north and primarily against the Polish 23rd Infantry Division, would then launch an attack against the 23rd defenses. This attack was not designed to actually push through the Polish front, but instead simply to tie down troops, which it would not be completely successful at. This became a problem for the German 28th division which would attack the Polish defenses further south. This attack was actually meant to make meaningful progress, but the lack of pressure in the north allowed the the Polish General Jagmin-Sadowski, to transfer several infantry battalions south to assist the 55th Infantry Division against the German attacks. This is a really good example of multiple Polish formations working closely together in a way that greatly benefited both, and it was possible primarily for 2 reasons: the first was that the two Polish divisions had been placed in the Slask Operational Group together under General Jagmin-Sadowski, giving them much greater coordination, the second reason was that they were in strong positions that the Germans did not want to dedicate enough troops to attacking the full length of. Unfortunately for the defenders of the OWS, and you are probably getting really tired of me saying this, their successes would be undone due to the events that would occur on other areas of the front.
Directly to the south of the German 28th Infantry Division was the 5th Panzer division. As with other areas of the front, to determine where the Germans really wanted to succeed in their attacks, you just needed to follow the placement of the Panzer divisions. The objective of the 5th Panzer was to move south of Katowice and towards Krakow, which would bring it up against the 6th Polish Infantry division. The 6th infantry occupied an important position at Pszczyna, which served as the linking point between the Slask operational group to the north which we just discussed, and the Bielsko Operational Group which the 6th Infantry was the northern most formation of. There were some pretty good defenses near Pscyzyna, and they were fronted by a few strong points in some Polish towns that they hoped would slow the German advance even further. These forward outposts were unable to meaningfully alter the speed of the German advance, but when the German troops hit the primary defenses of the 6th Infantry the situation was very different. 13 German tanks would be knocked out near one Polish village, and other German attacks along the front were also stopped by determined and strong Polish defenses. After starting their attacks in the late afternoon by the time that night fell the German attacks would be paused, after losing about 30 tanks and 12 armored cars on the first day of the attack. The attacks both against the Slask Operational Group and the 6th Infanty would continue on September 2nd. In the north the Polish 55th division would experience a severe pounding at the hands of German artillery, which would be met by a strong response from Polish artillery. Late in the morning the 55th and 23rd Polish divisions would even be able to launch some counter attacks that recaptured some ground that they had lost the day before, but to their south the situation was rapidly deteriorating. It would start when the German troops of Panzer Regiment 15 were able to find a small gap in the lines of the 6th Infantry, using the morning fog to mask their movements and then to mask their attack against the far right flank of the 6th infantry. The first that General Mond, the commander of the 6th infantry heard about this movement was when he learned that German armored formations were already capturing Polish divisional artillery batteries, by this point it was mostly too late. The only choice he had was to begin disengaging other units and retreating to the east to avoid encirclement. When this order was given he would be able to send a message to General Sadowski that would say ‘Do not count on me to protect the southern flank; my division has ceased to exist, overrun by tanks. I’m collecting the rest and going to Oswiecim.’ When this message arrived it was clear that if the 23rd and 55th infantry divisions of the Slask operational group remained in their positions they would be surrounded, and so they would also begin their retreat, giving up one of the strongest Polish positions along the front not due to German pressure against those positions, but actions elsewhere. Over the night of September 2nd to 3rd all three Polish divisions would begin their retreat eastward, and by mid-day on September 4th German troops had captured Katowice.
To the south of the 6th infantry was the 21st Mountain Infantry division, which was assigned the unenviable task of defending the Teschen region. This area had been given to Poland by Czechoslovakia after the Munich Agreement had been signed, but it was in reality indefensible against the German attack. There were some units of the 21st that were deployed in the forward areas, but most of the divisions troops were stationed further east, with those closer to the border ready to begin a retreat. After some fighting early in the morning, and after the German advance had been momentarily stopped, the 21st commander realized what was going to happen due to the German numerical superiority and ordered the troops to retreat.
During the last two episodes we have been discussing German attacks that were being launched out of Germany, with the border running roughly north to south. However, starting with the positions of the German 7th division, just to the south of the Polish 21st division, the border curves to the east, and changes from being German territory to the newly created Slovakia. This distinction is important, and not just because the direction of the border changes, but also because before March 1939 this had been the shared Czechslovakia-Polish border. The two nations were not on great terms during the interwar period, but the threat of war was relatively low, and so Polish defenses in this area had been largely neglected throughout the 1930s to focus resources on a possible German attack. After the German takeover of March 1939, this situation changed and the Polish defensive frontier against a German attack expanded. In July serious effort began on some defenses, with the goal of making it more difficult for an army to approach Krakow from the south. These defenses would be attacked by the German 7th infantry division, which would advance out of Slovakia. General Ott, 7th Infantry’s commander, knew about the Polish defenses due to aerial reconnaissance before the start of the attack, and due to their position some distance from the border they would not be encountered until September 2nd. Instead of launching direct attacks on the newly built bunkers and other Polish positions, Ott would have his infantry execute World War 1 style infiltration attacks, with the goal of moving around and behind any Polish defenders so that they could be attacked from the more vulnerable rear areas. Several of the larger Polish bunkers would be surrounded in this way and over the course of September 2nd and 3rd they would be either forced to surrender, or they would wait until darkness to try and make their way through German lines. Remarkably the 7th Infantry would suffer just 57 casualties during these actions, proving that with a bit more creativity and forethought the German units could deal with Polish defenses.
Further east along the Slovakia-Polish border, Polish defenses were even weaker than those to the west and north. This included the 3,000 troops that would be on the receiving end of the attack by the 2nd Panzer Division. These troops were volunteer troops that had no support weapons, they barely had rifles, they were of course almost helpless against the German mechanized troops. Some assistance was sent in the form of the 10th Motorized Cavalry Brigade, which contained a company of old Vickers tanks, which were by 1939 completely obsolete, but the unit had not yet received its newer replacement vehicles. They would arrive near the Polish town of Wysoka during the evening of September 1st, which was only possible because the German commander had decided to wait until morning before launching the attack. On September 2nd that attack would begin with the combination of German armor, infantry, and artillery, that was the hallmark of German attacks during this period. Polish anti-tanks guns were able to hit several German tanks, which caused them to momentarily retreat, but just a few hours later another attack would be made. This time they got close enough that machine guns equipped with armored piercing munitions were able to knock out several Panzer 1 and 2 tanks. Throughout the day German attacks would continue, until eventually the continued pressure would prove to be too much for the Polish defenders, but by the time that the Polish forces retreated from Wysoka they had knocked 30 German tanks out of action, although several would later be repaired. What would follow was a multiple chase where the Polish units would retreat over night, establish a defensive line which the Germans would then attack the next day, the attack would not be able to remove the Polish defenders, but they would then have to retreat during the next night. This resulted in a very effective delaying action, but did nothing to prevent the Germans from continuing their advance on Krakow. This was the best that could be done as all along the southern front Polish units were forced to retreat towards Krakow, with the Germans arriving on the outskirts of the city on September 4th. Several polish formations would be able to make it to the city, including the 21st Mountain Infantry division, but they faced the problem of German troops attacking from a growing number of directions. On September 6th the city would be abandoned to the Germans, adding another area to the list of positions that had to be abandoned due to the risk of any Polish defenders being surrounded and destroyed. Further to the east, in the Carpathian mountains, what Polish troops were available were being overrun if only due to numbers, with both German and Slovakian units moving through the mountain passes by the second day of the attack.
For the Luftwaffe the second day of the invasion was, by and large, a much better experience than September 1st. For the operations on the second day there was a general refocusing of Luftwaffe efforts away from targeting the Polish air force and instead putting more effort into directly influencing the fighting on the ground. This was at least partially due to the belief that most of the Polish Air Force had already been destroyed on the first day of fighting, primarily while they were still on the ground. This was believed all the way up to the very top of the Luftwaffe’s Intelligence branch, and would also be picked up by Nazi propaganda in the days that followed. The focus on supporting the ground offensive would take the form of German bombers targeting objectives like the rail lines behind the front, like when squadrons of Stuka dive bombers hit the rail stations at Radomsko and Piotrkow, which helped to prevent the concentration of Polish defenders who were trying to create some kind of roadblock to stop the advance of the German 10th Army. This air support was not given to all German attacks, and instead it was focused just on a few small areas of the front, with other areas getting almost no air support at all. The Polish defenders were not idle during the second day of the attack, and there would be many attempts to intercept German bombing raids, but of course not all of these attempts were successful. The first problem was simply finding the German bomber formations, remember this is a time before radar where raid warning and interception was much more challenging, and then there was of course also the problem of German fighters. When the Polish fighter aircraft were able to intercept unescorted bombers, they did quite well, a good example of how vulnerable escorted bombers were to enemy fighters. The air groups assigned to Army Pomorze and Poznan were particularly active during September 2nd. This included some efforts to provide their own air support for the ground forces, with Polish fighters making strafing attacks on advancing German motorized infantry columns. This particular effort would not be very rewarding, partially because the Polish fighters did not carry any bombs, so all they could do was attack the Germans with their machine guns. Polish bombers would have been far more useful, but the bulk of the Polish bombing force, contained in the independent bomber brigade, was held in reserve south of Warsaw. Overall the Luftwaffe flew about 2000 sorties on the second day of the war, losing about 14 aircraft, while the Poles were only able to manage about 200, at a much higher rate of attrition, losing 10% or 20 aircraft. One other small even of note, the first bombing raid over German soil would be launched by a single bomber which would drop 8 bombs on a factory near the German town of Ohlau, modern day Olawa.
September 3 would be another day of bombing raids against Warsaw. Just before 9AM in the morning another bombing raid would hit the capital, with this raid made up of He-111s and BF-110s as escorts. Polish fighters would be there to meet them, with their numbers bolstered by the aircraft that had been repaired since they had been damaged during the actions of September 1st. In total 120 Polish fighter sorties would meet the German attacks over Warsaw, but they had a much more difficult time getting through the fighter escorts than during earlier raids, and the losses on both sides would be roughly even, 15 vs 13 with the Polish fighters coming out ahead. At night on September 3rd the first German night bombing raid would take place, partially as a test of the navigational aids that the Luftwaffe had been developing over the previous years. The main bombing groups were preceded by small groups of pathfinding aircraft, equipped with special radio gear that were able to recognize the position of radio signals from German held territory which, which the positions were cross referenced allowed for very accurate night bombing raids, with the raids over Poland allowed for the bombs to be dropped within several hundred meters of the intended target. The radio guidance systems were critical because it was very difficult to navigate at night, especially when it came to finding targets in enemy territory. This same system would become much more famous when it was used during the German bombing campaign against Britain in 1940. Polish bombers were also active on September 3rd, placing their primary focus being on the German armored troops of the 1st and 4th Panzer divisions north of Czestochowa. These attacks would be costly, but the situation at the front was deteriorating to a point where all possible tools to halt the German advance had to be used, even if doing so was costly. This fact would become more true over the following days. On September 4th a major raid would be launched by the Bomber Brigade again focusing on the 1st and 4th divisions. This time the newest and most capable squadrons of the Polish air force were committed, including Poland’s best bomber the PZL.37b. On 50 sorties 9 of these bombers would be lost. For the Polish Air Force, one of the major challenges by the third day of the war was one of numbers. Polish aircraft continued to launch sortie after sortie every day, but every day there would be a few lost, and even if they were able to destroy some German aircraft, the Luftwaffe was more much capable of replacing its losses. This resulted in Polish aircraft increasing their sortie tempo, but still being outnumbered 10 to 1 by the Luftwaffe. The math problem was made even worse when the Luftwaffe found some of the airfields used to base the Polish fighters, which had mostly eluded them after September 1st. On one airfield near Lodz, five Polish fighters would be destroyed on the ground, not even able to defend themselves.
On September 4th, 300 Polish sorties were launched, but that rate was unsustainable as losses mounted, on September 5th the number would be just 180, then 240 on September 6th. Every day there were losses, 30 on the 4th, 15 on the 5th, 23 on the 6th. Polish squadrons were also forced to begin moving to airfields further east as there previous homes were threatened by the continued German advance. This made the already challenging logistical situation even worse, and just adding the exhaustion of both the pilots and the mechanics and support staff that kept the aircraft in the air. On the 6th the decision would be made to try and concentrate fighter resources to help provide some assurance of being able to defend against German air attack somewhere along the front, instead of spreading dwindling resources thinner and thinner, to the point where they were not making a discernable difference anywhere. In total, over the first 6 days of the campaign the Polish air force would lose 155 aircraft, about 40 percent of the number that they started the war with. The Luftwaffe would also lose 126 aircraft, but this represented just 7 percent of their number from September 1st. Even if they were not destroyed on the ground on September 1st, the Polish Air Force was rapidly losing its ability to influence the actions of the Luftwaffe, a trend that would only accelerate in the days that followed. But by September 6th, there was another factor to consider in the air war, the British and French had entered the conflict, and they might prove to be a major distraction, pulling Luftwaffe resources away from the Poland and into Western Germany. French and British bombers could be over Germany at any moment, dropping bombs on Germany cities! Maybe? Hopefully? Please? Oh no…..