No End Save Victoryby Robert Cowley (Editor), Leo Burmester (Read by), Peter Cowley
No End Save Victory is a collection of brilliant essays about World War II by some of the most renowned historians in their field.
Essays include: Caleb Carr on Poland in 1939--the only war Hitler actually won; Stephen E. Ambrose on a pivotal battle to take the Rhine; John Keegan on the siege of Berlin; Thaddeus Hold on the King of Bataan; Kanji/i>
No End Save Victory is a collection of brilliant essays about World War II by some of the most renowned historians in their field.
Essays include: Caleb Carr on Poland in 1939--the only war Hitler actually won; Stephen E. Ambrose on a pivotal battle to take the Rhine; John Keegan on the siege of Berlin; Thaddeus Hold on the King of Bataan; Kanji Suzuki on A Kamikaze's Story; Thomas B. Allen and Norman Polmar on the Voice of the Crane.
Each of these fascinating pieces has appeared in print only once before: in the pages of the award-winning, authoritative MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History. In each issue, MHQ brings the history of warfare and of society to life through vivid narrative accounts of the key events--some well known, some seemingly obscure--that have shaped the world we live in today.
Recent hit movies including Saving Private Ryan and U-571 [as well as best-selling books such as D-Day June 6, 1944 and Blind Man's Bluff,] sparked a revival of interest in World War II history among all ages. No End Save Victory will find a large and appreciative audience eager to hear what our era's most distinguished historical thinkers and writers have to say about this most crucial of 20th-century conflicts.
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Read an Excerpt
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Hitler's invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, without a formal declaration of war, signaled the beginning of World War II in Europe. But his Polish campaign was, in a sense, a separate war, a dress rehearsal for the real one in 1940. It was the war Hitler won. Great Britain and France did come in two days later, but they could do little more than stand by while Hitler's armiesand then Stalin'sconsumed Poland. That three-week war is chiefly remembered now (if it is remembered at all) as a laboratory for a new kind of mechanized warfare: blitzkrieg. The methods honed in Poland would be those used in France, Russia, and North Africa. But what goes largely unsaidand it is a point that Caleb Carr emphasizes hereis how hard and well the Poles fought, with many fewer troops than the invaders, inferior equipment, and a strategic situation that was hopeless from day oneand that only became worse when the Soviet Union struck from the rear. As they learned to their sorrow, and it was a lesson repeated endlessly for both sides those next years: courage was not enough.
Caleb Carr is best known for his novels about crime in the New York City of the 1890s, The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness. But as the readers of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History have long recognized, he is also a notable military historian.
In the last days of August 1939, the German Seventh ArmoredReconnaissance Regiment was moving east, along with the rest of the Wehrmacht. "Officially," recalled one officer in the Seventh A.R., "we were to take part in `grand maneuvers under combat conditions.' Although live ammunition was being carried, we were issued only blanks.... Local people greeted us everywhere with flowers and drinks. `Are you going to Poland?' we were asked. `Of course not,' we replied. `We're going on maneuvers.'"
On August 26, the Seventh A.R. reached the Polish border with Czechoslovakia, a nation recently occupied by German forces and now offering an excellent launching point for an attack into Poland. "Suddenly," the same officer went on, "the blank cartridges were exchanged for live ammunition. Now there was no longer any doubt: We were going to invade."
The attack was launched on September 1. The German navy shelled the contested port city of Danzig (Gdansk) in the north while the German army embarked on a huge pincer movement from north to south, aimed at the Polish capital, Warsaw. Although Polish resistance at the outset was disorganizedor nonexistentthe Germans soon found themselves fighting hard. Another German veteran wrote, "We admired our opponents for their national pride and commitment. They demanded our respect."
This is not the impression of the Polish campaign that has been generally fostered in the years since 1939. The German army's humiliation of France in 1940 and its early successes against the Soviet Union so stunned the world that the brief war the Wehrmacht waged against Poland is often seen as a mere dress rehearsal for those more momentous events. In hindsight, it seems impossible that little Poland, with its obsolete army and antiquated military tradition, could have stood even a remote chance against the world's most advanced military juggernaut. From this point of view, it is remarkable not that Germany defeated her eastern neighbor but that the campaign took as long as it did: seventeen days to decide the issue in the field, twenty-seven days to force the capitulation of Warsaw.
This assessment of the Polish campaign, while common, does little justice to either antagonist. In both the quality of their fighting and their occasional displays of tactical (if not strategic) ability, the Poles proved themselves a fighting force of far greater merit than, say, the French army that was sent reeling eight months later. And the German army in 1939 had not yet been transformed into the amazing war machine it would become in later years. That metamorphosis would actually begin during the heat of the Polish campaign, and constitutes a testament to the skill and innovative acumen of the German officer corps.
Perhaps the most erroneous impression created by many commentators (including Nazi propagandists during the war) concerning events in 1939 is that Germany's military leaders were eager to involve themselves in a war with Poland. To most German generals, such a conflictHitler's statements notwithstandingmeant war with Poland's allies: England and France. Virtually no senior German officer faced that prospect with any certainty of ultimate success. The führer's ambitions were viewed with cultivated skepticism.
This attitude was not purely military in origin. During the previous year the German army had seen its three top officers removed by Nazi intrigues. The commander of the combined forces, General Werner von Blomberg, had been replaced after his wife was falsely accused of once having been a prostitute. General Ludwig Beck, chief of the general staff, was removed after repeatedly voicing his belief that Hitler was taking Germany down a road toward world war and ruin. Most ludicrous of all, the commander in chief of the army, Colonel General Werner Freiherr von Fritsch, was falsely accused of homosexual activities by the SS. Tried and exonerated, Fritsch was nonetheless demoted. (He volunteered for hazardous duty in Poland soon afterward and was quickly killed.)
In the wake of this stunning attempt by Hitler to gain tighter control over the regular army (always a hotbed of anti-Nazi sentiment), sixteen more German generals left the army and forty-four were given new assignments. In nearly every case, these reassignments were made on the basis of political sympathies. For example, General Beck's deputy chief of the general staff, General Erich von Mansteinthe German army's most gifted strategic planner but a man with little use for the Nazi partywas transferred to a divisional command.
Hitler apparently believed he could bring the army under his control through such tactics, but he was soon proved wrong. For while the new commander in chief, General Walther von Brauchitsch, was slow to press his complaints against Nazi policies, he did eventually begin to press them; and the new chief of the general staff, General Franz Halder, proved troublesome to Hitler from the beginning. Halder's bristly hair and mustache, pince-nez, and perpetual frown seemed to accentuate the contempt he felt for Germany's new leaderscontempt that, by the end of the Second World War, would evolve into open opposition and imprisonment at Dachau.
In this atmosphere of distance and disinterest at best, and distrust and hostility at worst, the German army received orders in the spring of 1939 to begin preparing operational plans for "Case White"war with Poland. General Halder assumed that to gain concessions from Poland, Hitler once again intended to use the army as an instrument of blackmail. This had been the führer's tactic in dealing with the nations of Europe to date, and it had succeeded. Determined to undo the terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, Hitler had already reoccupied the Rhineland, achieved Anschluss with Austria, taken the Sudetenland, and occupied the rest of Czechoslovakiaall without firing a shot.
But Poland's attitude seemed to indicate a less propitious outcome to Hitler's latest round of brinkmanship. Following the First World War, Poland had been remade in a form that would have pleased her ancient warrior kings: Included within her borders were not only traditionally Polish territories but also healthy slices of German, Ukrainian, Russian, and Lithuanian lands. Hardest for the Germans to accept had been the creation of the "Polish Corridor," a wide swath of territory that ran north from Poland, severed East Prussia from the rest of Germany, and made an "international city" out of the port of Danzig. This region was largely inhabited by Germans, who after 1919 became Polish subjects. A good number of these people were military families, and more than a few German army leaders looked forward to the day when this humiliation would be reversed.
Nevertheless, nearly every senior German officer felt that if such reversal required war, Germany would have to wait to fight it. From its prescribed post-Versailles size of 100,000 men, the German army had recently expanded to well over a million, and would eventually grow to 4 million; but the expansion had come too fast, and the new soldiers lacked thorough training. The appearance of organized and armed SS military unitsthe force that would become the Waffen SSwas also of deep concern to Germany's regular army officers. How would these new soldiers, so thoroughly indoctrinated with Nazi dogma, so ferociously loyal to the party eliteand most important, so openly scornful of the regular armybehave in the field?
Even more crucial was the question of incorporating Germany's new military armsthe Luftwaffe and the panzer (armored) divisionsinto the operations of the German army as a whole. In Germany as elsewhere, the debate over mobile armored warfare had raged ever since British tanks had made their presence felt in World War I. In England, Captain Basil Liddell Hart and Major J. F. C. Fuller had spent the decade of the twenties calling loudly but in vain for a new kind of army, in which masses of tanks would shatter linear fronts, race to the enemy's rear, and disrupt military and political control. It was warfare wholly unlike what had been the rule from 1914 to 1918. Fast and fluid, limiting destruction through mobility and seeking decision rather than devastation, mobile armored warfare represented a quantum leap in military thinking.
The idea was at variance with Britain's military tradition, as well as with that of the other victorious Allied powers, and was slow to take root. But in Germany it found fertile soil, for it must be remembered that the protracted attrition that was World War I was an anomaly in German (and especially Prussian) military history. Because of her geographic positionin a word, surroundedPrussia's military goal since the days of Frederick the Great had consistently been quick, decisive campaigns that would allow her forces to turn speedily from one enemy to the next. Multiple-front wars were anathema to Prussian soldiers; protracted wars equally so.
The philosophy of mobility and quick decisions developed steadily in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Prussia and was given its fullest embodiment by Helmuth von Moltke during his stunningly swift victories over Austria in 1866 and France in 1870-71. Thus the new armored tactics did not represent a departure from the German emphasis on quick decisions and mobility; on the contrary, they simply sped those processes up, to a point whereto older, more conservative mindsthey were scarcely recognizable. But the link between blitzkrieg and Prussian campaigns of the past was real and evident, even if senior commanders could not see it.
Of course, the partisan attitude of many armored and air enthusiasts during the interwar years was not altogether helpful in easing the German army's old school into the new era of blitzkrieg. This was particularly true of the father of Germany's panzer tactics and divisions, General Heinz Guderian. Building on the theories of Fuller and Liddell Hart, Guderian envisaged a new style of warfare in which tanks were supported by motorized infantry, mobile artillery, and air poweran integrated force that could achieve decisive results at the strategic as well as the tactical level. Whole nations, he believed, could be brought to capitulation within a matter of days through the use of such a force.
Guderian was not a member of the Prussian military aristocracy. He was plainspoken to the point of bluntnesseven, on occasion, rudenessand his opinions of junior and senior officers alike were ill-shrouded. For example, General Beck, the much-admired chief of the general staff who had been dismissed by Hitler, had been to Guderian "a procrastinator," "a paralyzing element wherever he appeared," "a disciple of Moltke ... [with] no understanding of modern technical matters." Recalled another armored commander, General Ritter von Thoma, following the Second World War, "It was commonly said in the German army that Guderian was always seeing red, and was too inclined to charge like a bull."
The fact that Adolf Hitler was one of Guderian's earliest converts to mobile-armored tactics did not help to win the panzer leaders' friends in the army high command. Attending one of Guderian's first panzer maneuvers, Hitler stated emphatically, "That's what I need. That's what I want to have." The issue was as yet a bit more complicated than that, and the development of first-class German tanks took much longer than Guderian would have liked. But the führer's support was both of immense value to the development of armor and an irritant to many of Guderian's superiors.
Such was the state of the senior German officer corps that was assigned, in April 1939, the task of preparing for the invasion of Poland: reluctant, politically disdainful (and because of that, distanced from the overwhelming majority of the German people), and finally divided on the future development of weapons and tactics. Fortunately for the Germans, the actual job of planning Case White fell to a small group of officers whose insight allowed them to make use of all the resources and talented men at their disposalwhether "old school" or newin preparing a plan that was at once quintessentially Prussian and daringly advanced.
Overall responsibility for design and coordination of the attack was left, as was customary, to the commander in chief of the army, General Brauchitsch, and to the director of operations of the general staff, General Halder. Their design of the assault could well have come out of the pages of nineteenth-century Prussian history. Accepting the risks involved in stripping their western border of trained combat troops, Brauchitsch and Halder concentrated forty-two divisions into two army groups along the lengthy border around Poland and Slovakia to Pomerania. Army Group North was to cut the Polish Corridor and then advance southeast; Army Group South would engage the main Polish forceshopefully before they could retreat behind the Vistula Riverand then move to link up with Army Group North. This massive pincer thrust from north to south was centered on Warsaw. To achieve it, the Germans accepted the further risk of leaving their own center exposed to possible counterattack.
In the Moltke tradition, General Halder did not exclude field commanders and their staffs from contributing to Case White. Suggestions for the actual deployment and composition of armies were accepted (some willingly, others less so) from army group, army, and corps headquarters.
Command of Army Group South was given to General Gerd von Rundstedt, one of Germany's best-loved soldiers. Already in his mid-sixties, Rundstedt was a true aristocrat but even in appearance had a penchant for idiosyncrasy. In the words of his chief of operations, General Günther von Blumentritt, he "did not wear a general's or a field marshal's uniform, but preferred the simple jacket of the commander of an infantry regiment, with a marshal's shoulder badges and the regimental number 18. It often happened that young officers thus mistook him for a colonel and did not know that it was the field marshal who was standing before them, which Runstedt always accepted good-humoredly." Rundstedt was primarily interested in the movement of troops in actual battle. Peacetime staff planning and details held little fascination for him. Such an attitude placed immense responsibility on both his chief of staff and his chief of operations.
These posts had been secured by two of the most intellectually gifted officers in the Wehrmacht. Rundstedt's chief of staff was Erich von Manstein. The son of a Prussian artillery general, Manstein had been adopted in his infancy by his aunt and unclethe latter a Prussian infantry general of noble lineage. Thus by blood and upbringing, Manstein was steeped in the Prussian military code. Behind his thin, penetrating eyes and beaklike nose worked a prodigious mind, one that would later spawn the remarkable German plan for the invasion of France and contribute significantly to Germany's early successes in Russia.
Manstein had many talents that made these successes possible, but one stood out above the rest: an unmatched capacity to fuse traditional Prussian strategy with the new armored tactics. He had broken step with many of his fellow military aristocrats by recognizing that General Guderian's new panzer divisions must not be slowed or hampered by the actions of infantry and artillery. (In fact, one of Manstein's most significant interwar achievements had been the development of mobile and self-propelled support artillery, which freed more tanks for the job of penetration and exploitation.) Faced with the task of planning the movements of Army Group South in the Polish campaign, Manstein quickly decided to concentrate most of the available armor in one of the group's three armiesthe Tenth, under General Walther von Reichenauin order to achieve a decisive breakthrough and the earliest possible encirclement of Polish forces west of the Vistula. The other two armiesthe Fourteenth on the right flank, commanded by General Wilhelm List; and the Eighth, forming the group's left wing and commanded by General Johannes Blaskowitzwould play roles in this hoped-for envelopment, but the spearhead assignment went to Reichenau's panzers.
In this effort to blend the Prussian strategy of envelopment with modern armored tactics, Manstein was assisted by Army Group South's chief of operations, Colonel Günther von Blumentritt. The two men shared the same intellectual style, and during the months before the invasion they put in many extra hours attending to every detail of the operation. Manstein later recalled: "As often as not, the things that attract us to another person are quite trivial, and what always delighted me about Blumentritt was his fanatical attachment to the telephone. The speed at which he worked was in any case incredibly high, but whenever he had a receiver in his hand he could deal with whole avalanches of queries, always with the same imperturbable good humor."
Army Group North was given to General Fedor von Bock, a forceful and sometimes difficult commander, and comprised the Third and Fourth armies. The Third Army troops were transported to their launching area in East Prussia, by sea, under the guise of participating in a huge celebration of the German victory over the Russians at Tannenberg in August 1914. The Fourth Army, under General Günther von Kluge, was positioned in east Pomerania, opposite the Corridor.
General Guderian's Nineteenth Panzer Corpsthe first unit that came close to embodying the panzer leader's ideas concerning armored operationswas placed under von Kluge. There was initially some resistance to the idea of including such a heavy armored force in the Fourth Army's operations, but Guderian's careful cultivation of Hitler soon had its desired effect, and the führer personally intervened to secure Guderian's role as the spearhead of the forces that would cut the Polish Corridor.
By August 20, the German army was ready. Yet despite the immense effort they had devoted to marshaling their forces, the German generals remained unenthusiastic. Throughout the summer, Chief of Staff Halder had secretly contacted the governments of both France and Great Britain, trying to relay the message that the army high command was powerless to stop Nazi designs because of Hitler's immense popularity with the German people. Only firm commitment on the part of the Western Allies, Halder said, could take the wind out of Hitler's sails. Halder's urgings fell on deaf ears.
On August 22, Hitler called his senior commanders to Obersalzberg for a "conference," which, as was often the case, degenerated into a long diatribe by the führer. The tone was set by Hermann Göring, who arrived wearing a comical jerkin, shorts, and long silk socks. "Up till now," Manstein later wrote, "I had assumed that we were here for a serious purpose, but Göring appeared to have taken it for a masked ball.... I could not resist whispering to my neighbor, General von Salmuth: `I suppose the Fat Boy's here as a strong-arm man?'"
Informing the generals of secret negotiations with the Soviets that had produced a nonaggression pact (but not of the treaty's secret clause providing for the partition of Poland), Hitler spoke about his determination to redress by force the last remaining German grievance against the Versailles peace: the dismemberment of East Prussia and the subjugation of millions of Germans to Polish rule as well as, according to propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, Polish abuse of them. Hitler claimed to have made proposals in good faith to the Polish governmentall of them rejected. War with Poland was now a certainty. Hitler announced that he would probably order the attack for August 26:
The destruction of Poland has priority.... I shall provide a propaganda reason for starting the warnever mind whether it is plausible or not. The victor will not be asked afterward whether or not he told the truth. In starting and waging war it is not right that matters but victory. Close your hearts to pity! Act brutally!
The generals listened in depressed silence. One fell asleep.
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The preparations of the Polish army during this time of very real crisis revealed that while Polish commanders took the danger of invasion seriously, they lacked the skill and the character to meet the challenge. The Poles had a peacetime army of some twenty-three infantry divisions (which would grow to thirty on the eve of the invasion) and eleven cavalry brigades, plus two armored brigades; the latter were equipped with only small numbers of up-to-date tanks and many obsolete models. Still, the overall quality of this army was not to be dismissed: As Blumentritt wrote after the war, "The Polish officer corps was competent and courageous, and was highly regarded by the Wehrmacht."
But it was the cavalry that embodied the most outstanding features of Poland's military style, both good and bad. For hundreds of years, Polish horsemen had been among the world's finest, famous for their daring shock tactics and particularly for their terrifying night attacks. Napoleon had incorporated Polish lancers as an elite unit of his own Grande Armée. Yet pride in their success had made many of Poland's senior officers complacent. For example, the commander in chief of the Polish army, Marshal Edward Rydz-Smigly, had had his portrait painted against a background of charging Polish cavalry while his opposite numbers to the west were wrangling with the problems of mobile armored warfare.
Excessive pride also marred the Polish army's preparations for war with Germany. Geographically, Poland was in an almost hopeless situation. By seizing Czechoslovakia, Hitler had given his army three possible avenues of assault into Polish territory. The Poles' only real hope was to pull their defenses in from the very startperhaps even as far back as the barrier of the Vistulaand fight a defensive war while waiting for France and England to force the Germans to disengage and attend to their western border.
From the start, however, such ideas were rejected by the Polish high commandin fact, they were rarely put forth for fear of the reception they would get. Some of Poland's most valuable industrial regions lay to the west of the Vistula, and the Corridor had become a symbol of the reborn and resurgent Poland. Few generals dared suggest that these regions be abandoned before even an attempt was made to defend them.
One who did have the courage to raise the issue was a General Kutzreba, director of the Polish Military Academy and commander of the Poznan army during the battle for Poland. While even Kutzreba's ideas were probably not radical enough to have prevented eventual disaster, his suggestion that the Polish army abandon not only the Corridor but the western section of the province of Poznan (bordering on Germany) might have given the Poles a better chance of concentrating their forces and successfully holding out until the pressure was relieved by their allies.
Instead, the Polish army spread its forces out along the entire border with Germany, from the Carpathian Mountains in the south, up past the Silesian border, on into the Corridor, and then east to the frontiers of East Prussia. Some seven frontline armies were formed out of the slender Polish resources in an attempt to hold the line everywhere. It was a prescription for disaster. Yet apparently not content with this gross error in judgment, the Polish high command next failed to pursue a rigorous program of fast mobilization, and spent their more imaginative moments planning for an eventual counterattack into Germany.
As he had said he would, Hitler ordered the German army to attack on August 26, and on the 25th German troops began to move toward the Polish frontier. But within hours an emergency message arrived at the headquarters of both army groups: The attack was canceled, and the troops were to be pulled back. Whether Hitler still had one or two eleventh-hour diplomatic tricks to try or simply balked when the moment of decision came is unclearbut despite the immensely difficult job of recalling five advancing armies, the German commanders were not displeased. As even Guderian said, "We did not go lightheartedly to war and there was not one general who would not have advocated peace." The mood at Army Group South headquarters was positively jubilant. Blumentritt recalled that "Rundstedt had some bottles of Tokay fetched from the town of Neisse to celebrate ... this happy release."
The celebration was short-lived. On August 31, a terse new order was received by both army groups: "D = 1.9; H = 0445." And at 4:45 on the morning of September 1, 1939, the Wehrmacht swarmed over the borders of Poland.
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In most areas, initial resistance was slight or nonexistent, owing to the slow Polish mobilization and to the fact that the Luftwaffe quickly destroyed Poland's air units. Whether the Polish planes were destroyed on the ground or managed at least to get into the air has been debated. The fact remains that within days the Germans had mastery of the skies. The German pilots, most tasting combat for the first time, went on to smash bridges and rail lines leading to the fronts. General List's Fourteenth Army in the south met the stiffest Polish resistance in the first days, but soon the Poles had collected their wits and were fighting bravely everywhere.
While many historical accounts of the campaign portray the participation of the Polish cavalry brigades as ludicrous, the German soldiers did not find it so. Blumentritt recalled, "in the course of the campaign [the Polish cavalry] gave several German divisions something serious to think about and distinguished itself by its great bravery." The horsemen "appeared like phantom hosts to surprise us in the night."
The Germans were also plagued by the greenness of their own troops. Many units were stunned or broken by the steadily stiffening Polish resistance and were pulled together only by the determination and loyalty of their officers. As a result of the bravery shown by all ranks of the officer corps, German casualties during the campaign were inordinately weighted toward that group.
Army Group North quickly discovered just how unprepared for war many German soldiers were. Guderian remembered that when his panzers crossed into the Corridor, the "Polish antitank gunners scored many direct hits." Only by taking charge himself at the front was he able to restore order. His account of the first day's action went on revealingly:
Shortly after midnight the 2nd (Motorized) Division informed me that they were being compelled to withdraw by Polish cavalry. I was speechless for a moment; when I regained the use of my voice I asked the divisional commander if he had ever heard of Pomeranian grenadiers being broken by hostile cavalry. He replied that he had not and now assured me that he could hold his positions.
By the second day of the campaign, the Nineteenth Panzer Corps had crossed its first obstacle, the Brahe River inside the Corridor, and its lead units had reached the Vistula. Guderian's tireless peacetime promulgation of mobile armored warfare was beginning to bear fruit in the field.
Then, on September 3, occurred perhaps the most famous incident of the entire Polish campaign. As Guderian's tanksmostly fast training rigs armed only with light artillery and machine guns, but including some heavier modelsraced to close the Corridor, the renowned Polish Pomorska Cavalry Brigade appeared west of the town of Graudenz. The Polish horsemen, Guderian recalled, "in ignorance of the nature of our tanks ... charged them with swords and lances." Polish losses were predictably heavy"tremendous," in Guderian's estimationyet the Germans did not sneer at the attack. Rather, it was taken as further evidence of the enemy's immense courage and determination.
On September 4, the Polish Corridor was closed when Guderian's forward units made solid contact with the Third Army's Third Panzer Division, which was moving west out of East Prussia. Between two and three Polish infantry divisions and one cavalry brigade had been shattered in three days by the Nineteenth Panzer Corps, which had operated mostly on its own. Guderian's theories were triumphantly vindicated.
Hitler, in the meantime, had taken to rushing about the Polish front in the heavily armored train Amerika, seemingly oblivious to the dangers of battle. On the train the oppressive atmosphere that characterized all of the führer's headquarters dominated. "We have been living in the train for ten days now," wrote Hitler's secretary. "Its location is constantly being changed, but since we never get out the monotony is dreadful. The heat is unbearable ... [and] to top it all, there is hardly anything worthwhile to do.... Obviously it gives the soldiers' morale a boost to see the führer in the thick of the danger with them, but I still think it's too risky."
On September 5, Hitler visited Guderian's corps and, impressed by the wreckage left in its wakethe smashed bridges and artilleryasked: "Our dive bombers did that?"
"No," Guderian answered, "our panzers!"
The former infantryman was, in Guderian's words, "plainly astonished." By September 6, the Nineteenth Panzer Corps was across the Vistula, moving faster than planned. While his superiors tried to decide what to do with an armored corps that had completed its primary assignment in just five days, Guderian spent the night contentedly in a castle chamber once used by Napoleon.
* * *
At Army Group South, meanwhile, armor was also providing the key to preventing the courageous but slow-moving Poles from organizing a coherent defense. As the Fourteenth Army began to smash its way through stubborn Polish resistance in the region of the Carpathians, the Poles in western Galicia made a surprisingly apt decision to fall back toward the Vistula before they were encircled. The main fear of both Rundstedt and Manstein was that such a move would lead to a generalized Polish retreat that would frustrate their aim of engaging the main Polish forces west of the Vistula.
This possibility was eliminated by the quick movements of the Twenty-second Panzer Corps under General Ewald von Kleist. Kleistconsidered by Hitler to be one of the army's most "incorrigible" enemies of the Nazi partybroke through the western Carpathians with the Second Panzer and Fourth Light divisions and raced toward the juncture of the Vistula and the San. Within days this speedy advance, along with Guderian's movements in the north, was to prove decisive in destroying any Polish hope of establishing a river defense.
Meanwhile, northwest of the Fourteenth Army, the Eighth and Tenth armies were advancing against heavy Polish troop concentrations in the Lódz-Radom region. The Tenth Army's job was to force an engagement with these troops as soon as possible; the Eighth was to cover the Tenth's left flank and prevent the Poles around Lódz and Radom from joining forces with the Poznan Army to the north.
Army Group South's ability to realize its goal of forcing the Poles to fight west of the Vistula was decided, according to Manstein, by "two factors which had appeared for the very first time in this campaign": the panzer divisions and the Luftwaffe. Reichenau's tanks tore open the Polish front line and, rather than assaulting the Poles from the front, were soon actually a good distance behind them. All attempts by the Poles to organize a systematic defense in the meantime were consistently prevented by the screaming Stuka dive bombers that continued to smash transport and communication lines without opposition.
During the first week of fighting, the Poles drew together in the vicinity of Radom. At this point, Rundstedt and Manstein decided to move quickly to encircle this pocket of enemy resistance instead of first gaining control of the Vistula and advancing on Warsaw, as originally planned. The accelerated pace offered by armored and motorized infantry movement meant that such an encirclement might be achieved without any significant alteration in the larger pincer concept of Case White. By September 9, the Radom pocket was closed, and though the Poles tried for three more days to break out, their fate was unavoidable. Seven divisions were lost, and the southern approach to Warsaw was suddenly wide open.
In the north, meanwhile, General Bock was giving thought to attaching Guderian's Nineteenth Panzer Corps to the Third Army, which was moving toward Warsaw. But Guderian protested that the Third Army was made up almost entirely of infantrythe usefulness of his panzers would be severely limited. The panzer leader formulated his own plan, which was to put the corps under direct army-group control and release it to the east, where, he claimed, it could quickly cross the Narev River and drive on to Brest Litovsk and the River Bug, the next significant barrier east of the Vistula. Such a move would invalidate the east bank of the Vistula as a Polish sanctuary; any Polish forces that were stationed there or managed to reach it would already be encircled. The German plan for Case White had cast a wide netand Guderian's tactics offered them a chance to cast that net dramatically wider.
Von Bock approved the idea, and Guderian's Nineteenth Panzer Corps thus became, effectively, the world's first armored army: autonomous and freed from the constraints of coordinating its movements with the infantry. At the Narev, Guderian's troops encountered stubborn Polish resistance and once more displayed confusion, which their gregarious but tough commander again cleared up with numerous frontline appearances. Moving from unit to unit in a half-track rigged with a wireless radio, he organized a powerful assault, and by September 12 the Tenth Panzer Division had gotten across the Narev and was in a position to surround the Polish defenders. This freed the Third Panzer Division to race for the citadel of Brest Litovsk, and by the 13th the lead elements of the division had reached the city.
Still, there were surprises in store for the GermansArmy Group South had already learned this the hard way. Despite the fact that the first nine days of fighting had gone well, Manstein later recalled, he "still had a vague feeling that something was brewing on the northern flank of the army group." That "something" turned out to be the Polish Poznan Army. Though Manstein continually told the Eighth Army's chief of staff to be alert to the possibility of attack from the north, that army's attention remained focused on driving to the east. When the Poznan Army struck with surprising strength along the Bzura River on September 10, the Eighth Army was unprepared, and quickly called for reinforcements.
But Rundstedt and Manstein were, as Manstein later said, "by no means disposed to see the situation of Eighth Army restored by a reinforcement of its front." The Poles were displaying tactical daring and were enjoying some successbut they were only destroying their own strategic situation by attacking south rather than retreating toward their capital and the Vistula. Manstein went on to say: "Even if a local crisisand possibly a serious one at thatwere to arise here, it would have not the least bearing on the operations as a whole. On the contrary, it actually offered us the chance of winning a big victory."
Rundstedt and Manstein issued orders to the Tenth Army to move into position to cut the Poznan Army's lines of retreat eastward. They then flew to the headquarters of General Blaskowitz, the Eighth Army's commander, and directed the Battle of the Bzura from there. The Polish situationagain because of strategic ineptitudewas hopeless. The German Tenth and Eighth armies moved into position for another pocket encirclement, and the last nail was driven into the Poznan Army's coffin when Army Group North's Third Corps was detached to play a role in this encirclement.
One more shock, however, awaited the German army. On September 17, news that Soviet troops had entered Poland shot through the ranks of the Wehrmacht. Many a German soldier, junior and senior, wanted to know whom the Soviets had come to fight. But when word of the Russo-German agreement to partition Poland was received, as well as news that Russian troops were engaging Poles and quickly occupying Polish territory, the German soldiers returned to the task at hand. (One Polish officer fought the Germans in the morning and the Soviets in the afternoon, and escaped from both.) There was irony in the fact that many of these same German troops would have to fight in the not-too-distant future to conquer the areas of Poland taken by the Soviets; but such irony was unforeseeable.
At this point the situation for the Poles became hopeless. As the battle raged on the Bzura, Guderian's troops to the east prepared an assault on the citadel of Brest Litovsk. Kleist's panzers, meanwhile, had linked up with other advancing elements of Army Group North above the juncture of the Vistula and San Rivers. The Poles were faced with a double envelopment. On September 16, confident that the Twentieth Motorized and Tenth Panzer divisions could take Brest Litovsk, Guderian ordered his remaining forces to move farther south and link up with advancing elements of the Fourteenth Army.
On September 16, the Poznan Army capitulated, and the German Tenth Army reported the taking of 80,000 prisoners. The Eighth Army had taken 90,000. Although not as large as later German armored envelopments in France and Russia, the Battle of the Bzura set the pattern for those subsequent dramatic conquests. Of more immediate importance, it sounded the death knell for Polish resistance.
Already there had been ominous signs of what German occupation held in store for the Poles. Regular German army units were being followed into Poland by SS formations, whose job it was to root out members of the Polish nobility and government, as well as the intelligentsia and all Jews. As one Polish prisoner of war recalled, these Germans "began to select Jews `by sight.' They avoided officers, but concentrated on privates and noncommissioned ranks, pulling out soldiers with `Semitic' features and leading them away, to the accompaniment of shouts and face-slapping."
As to the British and the French, on whose efforts the fate of Poland ultimately rested, they had declared war on Germany soon after the invasion, as they were treaty bound to do. But neither ally had been able to offer anything more substantial by way of support. For if the German generals were somewhat startled by the speed with which they were able, through creative use of their panzer and air forces, to bring the Polish campaign to a climax, the British and French governments were even more so. There were no Allied provisions for launching a western relief attack within the two and a half weeks between the German invasion of Poland and the capitulation of the Poznan Armythus the Poles were left to face their fate alone.
While the German troops east of the Vistula began to wrangle with the problem of pulling back to that rivereverything east of it having been promised to Stalin by Hitlerthe main body of Army Group South and the remainder of Army Group North prepared for the last task left to them: the taking of Warsaw. Under the civilian leadership of its determined mayor, Stefan Starzynski, the capital had been turned into a maze of barricaded streets. Such obstructions, however, would prove to be of as little value to the city as the influx of exhausted survivors of the Battle of the Bzura.
For the Germans had no intention of engaging in brutal street fighting. Assembling their artillery in a ring around the capital, they opened fire first on Warsaw's outer forts and defenses. Leaflets were dropped, calling for surrender and threatening the bombardment of the city proper. When no response came, the guns opened fire. By September 25, life in Warsaw had been brought to a standstill. As one German recalled:
The mortars spoke incessantly, one battery after another, showering a hot rain of metal over Poland's capital, bursting in windows and tearing out window frames and doors. Watching by night we saw curves of colored fire flashing gracefully toward Warsaw. The earth quivered and our eardrums seemed about to split.... In all directions long smoky tongues of fire spurted up every second. In the heavens the clouds were as red as blood.
On September 27, the Poles offered to give in, and the shelling was immediately halted. On the following day the capitulation was signed, the Polish general in command of Warsaw telling the German conquerors, "A wheel always turns." Pockets of Polish resistance remained to be cleared up, and the job of conceding conquered territory in eastern Poland to Soviet troops proved complicated in spots. But by October 5, the German army had put Hitler in a position to parade victoriously through the streets of Warsaw. The Germans had taken hundreds of thousands of prisoners; Army Group South alone took more than half a million, at a cost of just over 6,500 officers and men killed.
The German synthesis of traditional Prussian strategy and advanced armored doctrines had brought about a stunning success. That synthesis was best embodied in the person of Erich von Manstein, and it is therefore appropriate to record his final thoughts concerning the Polish campaign:
In the German Wehrmacht it had been found possible [in Poland], with the help of the new means of warfare, to reacquire the true art of leadership in mobile operations. Individual leadership was fostered on a scale unrivaled in any other army, right down to the most junior NCO or infantryman, and in this lay the secret of our success. So far, the troops had had a purely military battle to fight, and for that reason it had still been possible to fight chivalrously.
That sense of chivalry soon became an irritant to Hitler and his Nazi henchmen and caused the battle that the senior German officer corps was forced to wage to become more than "purely military." Following the Polish capitulation, General Blaskowitz, commander of the Eighth Army, became military governor-general of the conquered territories. A soldier of the old school, Blaskowitz had been appalled by the behavior of SS units in Poland. As governor-general he set up military tribunals that sentenced SS soldiersincluding members of the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, the führer's pet unitto death for the crimes of murder, arson, and rape. This policy soon changed when Austrian Nazi party officials arrived to take over the civilian administration of Poland.
But Blaskowitz had not been the only general to have run-ins with the SS and other party organizations. Drawing on the experiences of his colleagues as well as his own, Blaskowitz submitted a lengthy report to the commander of the German army, General Brauchitsch, on Nazi behavior during the Polish campaign. Hitler heard of the report but did not read it, choosing instead to lecture Brauchitsch about the German officer corps's "outmoded conception of chivalry."
Despite the inner tension between regular army officers and SS leaders, the German Wehrmacht emerged from the Polish campaign transformed, battle-tested, and ready. The crucial theories of air and armored power had been applied and vindicated; officers of all ranks had learned how to lead men under fire; and an army whose quality had worried its own commanders (because of the rapid expansion before the war) had proved itself a remarkable battlefield force. The German officer corps had known that war with Poland meant war with the world. Following the Polish campaign, some of those men might still have been reluctant to face such an eventualitybut their reluctance was now based not on doubts about the units under their command but on doubts about the sanity of their superiors. In France, Russia, and Africa, the methods honed in Poland would be expanded in scale and perfected in technique. And even during the closing months of the war, those methods would delay Allied victory to an extent deemed impossible by Allied commanders.
Meet the Author
ROBERT COWLEY was the founding editor of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History and served as its editor-in-chief for 10 years. He has edited such books as The Experience of War and What If? The World's Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been and co-edited The Reader's Companion to Military History. He lives in Connecticut.
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The majority of the 50 or so essays in this book are eye opening and educational accounts of specific events and individuals that bring to life specific segments of the war. From diary entries from a B-17 tailgunner to the exploits of the unique British general Orde Wingate in Burma, the various authors (including Carr, Ambrose, and Keegan) provide compelling insights. Some of the more interesting essays include an account of the British raid on the German's heavy water plant in Norway (which is also included in the diary of the B-17 tailgunner), an essay on the near coup by the Japanese military to continue the war effort, and two separate accounts that offer insight into the kamikaze.