Hitler’s Gamble: Nazi Germany Took Big Risks By Invading Poland

October 17, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IIPolandNazi Germany

Hitler’s Gamble: Nazi Germany Took Big Risks By Invading Poland

The decision to invade Poland was one in a series of risky moves that led to World War II.

The German army groups now began their encirclement of Army Poznan in western Poland. Army Poznan’s commander, General Tadeusz Kutrzeba, asked to attack the German 8th Army, the northern formation of Army Group South. He was refused permission by Marshal Edward Rydz-Smigly, supreme Polish commander, who feared the unit would be destroyed; he wanted to avoid a decisive battle west of the Vistula. Sadly, the Germans were vulnerable on this flank and feared just such an attack.

The Polish 7th Division, decimated earlier, was mauled again by the 1st Panzer Division and several infantry units as the Germans exploited the gap between the Polish Armies Lodz and Krakow. This fighting enabled the German 10th Army, with its heavy armored contingent, to move toward Warsaw. The tanks struck out across flat farmland through the heart of Poland. The Polish units south of this exploitation withdrew skillfully, delaying the 2nd Panzer Division and maintaining their cohesion.

The panzer divisions made for Warsaw directly toward the Polish Army Prusy, which had been placed there in expectation that the Germans would advance from that direction. Containing three infantry divisions and a cavalry brigade, this army also had a small force of tanks to defend against the panzers bearing down on them. The 1st and 4th Panzer Divisions quickly made for Piotrkow, where they were met by Polish infantry and the 2nd Tank Battalion with its 7TP light tanks. The Polish tankers fought well, knocking out 33 German armored vehicles, but since they were not concentrated their efforts had no lasting effect.

Meanwhile, the German 10th Army pushed back Army Krakow to Kielce by September 5, further opening the path to Warsaw.  General Kutrzeba again asked to attack the German flank but was refused. That evening Marshal Rydz-Smigly ordered all four engaged Polish armies—Poznan, Prusy, Lodz and Krakow—to withdraw to the Vistula.

The Germans noticed the Polish moves; Rundstedt and other field commanders realized what was happening and asked to penetrate deeper to encircle the Poles. OKW still worried about a French attack in the west, however, and delayed. It took until September 9, when it was becoming obvious the French were not moving quickly, for the high command to change its mind. Meanwhile, the Poles continued retreating to the Vistula. Rydz-Smigly became worried that the fast-moving Germans would cut off his forces and decided to move his headquarters forward to Brzesc. This location was not able to handle the level of communications needed, and the move proved a major error as the high command could not effectively communicate with units in the field.

The fast-moving German units were easily outdistancing the Polish forces now; time and again Polish troops reached a position only to find German tanks behind them. The gap between Army Prusy and Army Lodz was the worst, with the 1st and 4th Panzer Divisions pushing ever deeper toward Warsaw. Other German forces were moving through the Polish Corridor for another offensive. General Bock was allowed to push his troops down the east bank of the Vistula to endanger the Poles defending along that line.

With the Germans closing on Warsaw, Marshal Rydz-Smigly finally began to consider the counterattack General Kutrzeba was suggesting, hoping to relieve pressure on Army Lodz and allow the Poles time to reorganize around Warsaw and the Vistula River. The counterattack came along the Bzura River on September 9; the Germans were still aware of the vulnerability of their flank but were lulled by bad intelligence reports and the lack of Polish movement up to this point. Three Polish infantry divisions (14th, 17th, and 25th) attacked the German 24th and 30th Infantry Divisions. A pair of Polish cavalry brigades guarded the flanks of the advance. The initial fighting was heavy, but the Poles threw in their reserves supported by armor and turned the tide. Both German divisions fell back; the 30th lost more than 1,500 as prisoners by September 10. The Poles were finally striking back.

Rundstedt remained calm and ordered the 1st and 4th Panzer Divisions to turn west from the outskirts of Warsaw and begin encircling Army Poznan. He hoped to cut off and destroy this large concentration of enemy troops. Other units were also rushed to the area, establishing numerical superiority. Within two days the Polish offensive was done, and Kutrzeba was ordered to break through to the south toward the Romanian border. However, his command was now badly outnumbered, nine Polish divisions with two cavalry brigades against 19 German divisions, of which five were armored or mechanized.

Kutrzeba understood his predicament and instead moved eastward. The Germans attacked, but the fighting proved difficult until air support arrived. On September 16, some 820 Luftwaffe planes attacked along with the 16th Panzer Corps on the ground. By that evening Kutrzeba ordered his troops to try and escape the pocket through a gap at Sochaczew. Elements of two divisions and two cavalry brigades made it out, but 120,000 Poles were taken prisoner when the Bzura Pocket capitulated on September 18. Both Army Poznan and Army Pomorze were destroyed. Their sacrifice had delayed the German advance on Warsaw and allowed their comrades to prepare better defenses, but the price was staggering.

The Polish command was operating in confusion as stragglers and partially mobilized units began arriving, not knowing where to go. The Polish leadership within Warsaw decided to make a stand and defend the city. Since Rundstedt’s Army Group South was still fighting at Bzura, Army Group North attacked the city on September 15. It was led by the German 3rd Army, which had troops on both banks of the Vistula. The Germans entered the suburbs of the city and engaged in heavy fighting, but since Warsaw was not yet surrounded some Polish troops were still filtering in. After September 21, the Germans finished mopping up the Bzura Pocket and redistributed divisions to surround Warsaw. Army Group South spread out along the south and west sides of the city.

The Soviet Union Moves in, Sealing Poland’s Fate

On September 17, Polish fortunes reached a new low when the Soviet Union moved into Poland with 41 divisions and 12 tank brigades totaling over 466,000 troops. Some Poles expected the Soviets might be coming to assist them, but those hopes were quickly dashed. Most of the Polish Army was fighting to the west, leaving only token border troops on the eastern frontier. On average, there was one Polish battalion against a Soviet corps. There was some fighting, mostly skirmishing, but all real hope was now lost. Marshal Rydz-Smigly ordered all Polish units to make for the Romanian border.

On September 23, the Germans began their first attempt to take Warsaw, supported by 1,000 field guns, but few gains were made. The Poles were resisting fiercely. On September 25, another attack came with both artillery and air bombardment. Known as “Black Monday,” the city was pelted with bombs and shells. Even German Junkers Ju-52 transport planes were pressed into service, dropping many incendiary bombs. There was so much smoke that target identification was almost impossible, and many Luftwaffe aircraft dropped their payloads on German troops.

The next day the Germans seized three old forts on the south side of Warsaw. To increase the suffering within the city and hopefully speed the surrender, Hitler ordered that no civilians were allowed to leave, trapping them inside the shattered capital. During the evening of September 26, Army Warsaw’s commander, General Juliusz Rommel, sent word to the Germans that he was prepared to discuss surrender. The fighting ended the next day, and more than 140,000 Polish troops became prisoners. A separate Polish force at Modlin held out for another two days, and then it too gave up, 24,000 soldiers marching into captivity.

A small Polish force, east of Warsaw and out of communication, was unaware of the city’s surrender and tried to get there to join the fighting. It ran into the German 13th Infantry Division, a motorized unit, and fought until October 6. Since by this point the Soviets had invaded eastern Poland, there was no longer anywhere for Polish troops to go, and the campaign was effectively over.  

Hitler’s great gamble for a Nazi invasion of Poland had succeeded at the cost of 48,000 casualties and a nation now at war. Further gambles would bring France, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, and Norway under his control by the end of 1940. It would be to the east, on the vast unending plains of the Soviet Union, where the gambles would begin to fail, leading to the ruin of the Reich Hitler had claimed would last a millennium.

This article first appeared at the Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikipedia.