Felix Steiner, commander of the Deutschland Regiment, observes the enemy during the invasion of Poland. The regiment was part of Army Group North’s thrust into Poland from East Prussia.
Within Army Group B, the Germania Regiment was dispersed. Its units were attached to different sections within the 14th Army. In addition, the ‘Dresden’ Pioneer Battalion served in southern command and was attached to XV Corps. Meanwhile, the Der Führer Regiment remained in the Black Forest. With its recruits still in training, it would not see any action in Poland. Although Hitler and Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler were both excited to see their SS formations prove themselves in battle, Hitler had chosen to divide them under different commands. This was done as a concession to the Wehrmacht, which was opposed to the formation of an autonomous SS-VT division. Moreover, the sudden need for rapid mobilization for the upcoming invasion forced the Führer into postponing the creation of such a division, however determined he was to see it come to life.
At first, Hitler planned to launch Fall Weiss (Case White, the codename for the invasion of Poland) on 26 August. However, he abruptly postponed the date of the operation because he believed that Great Britain, France and Poland might agree to a last-minute diplomatic settlement over the Danzig issue. When this prospect proved impossible, he ordered his two army groups to resume their preparations for the invasion. By this time, the Polish Government noticed the threatening deployment of German forces along its borders and ordered a general mobilization of its own forces.
Across the border from East Prussia, the Deutschland Regiment and other units attached to the 3rd Army faced three major Polish formations, which were obstructing their advance to Warsaw. To the east, the Narew Army was arrayed in an area stretching from Suwalki and Bialystok to the River Bug. Its strength consisted of the 18th and 23rd infantry divisions and the Suwalki and Podlaska cavalry brigades. Along the east bank of the River Narew, the Wyskow Group occupied an area north-east of the capital and contained the 1st, 35th and 41st infantry divisions.
West of the River Narew, the Modlin Army covered an area that stretched from the German border at East Prussia to the town of Modlin, situated on the north bank of the River Vistula, with Warsaw directly on the other side. Well-entrenched in a network of fortifications, the army included the 8th and 20th infantry divisions and two cavalry brigades: Mazow and Nowogrod. In the north-west corner of Poland, from the Danzig Corridor to the River Warta, the Pomeranian and Poznan armies defended the region with nine infantry divisions and three cavalry brigades. Within the port of Danzig, a Polish garrison with fewer than 5000 men remained in a location that was vulnerable to isolation and encirclement by enemy forces.
In southern Poland, the Germania Regiment and other units attached to the 10th and 14th armies had to contend with three large enemy forces covering an area between the River San and the town of Wielun. Above eastern Slovakia, the Carpathian Army held a region west of the town of Przemysl with the 11th, 24th and 38th infantry divisions, along with the 2nd and 3rd mountain brigades. In the south-west corner of Poland, the Krakow Army occupied the city of Krakow and surrounding areas. Its strength included the 6th, 7th, 21st, 23rd, 45th and 55th infantry divisions, along with the Krakow Cavalry Brigade. Further north, the Lodz Army straddled both banks of the River Warta. Another large force, it possessed the 2nd, 10th, 28th, and 30th infantry divisions and two cavalry brigades, the Wolhynia and the Border.
Within the Polish interior, two more armies took up positions and prepared to block the German 10th and 14th armies in their march northwards to Warsaw. Between the Bug and Vistula Rivers, the Pyskor Group had a force consisting of the 39th Infantry Division and the Warsaw Armoured Brigade. At the city of Piotrkow, the Prussian Army occupied an area due south of the capital. This organization contained the 3rd, 12th, 13th, 19th, 29th and 36th infantry divisions, along with the Vilna Cavalry Brigade.
Although many of these armies seemed formidable on paper, they were not at full strength by the time the Nazi invasion started. In fact, the Polish Government did not even proclaim a general mobilization order until late morning on 31 August, just a few hours before the start of Case White. When the attack began, 13 Polish divisions were still moving into their concentration areas, while six more had not even finished mustering in their barracks. In addition, a poor communications system within the Polish armed forces prevented any effective coordination of these army groups.
As participants in the invasion of Poland, the SS-VT units became involved in an experimental style of warfare that would be popularly known as the Blitzkrieg (or ‘Lightning War’). Utilizing new fast-moving battle tanks, squadrons of warplanes flying at unprecedented speeds, and motorized infantry formations, the German armed forces used a strategy based upon speed and effective coordination among the diverse service branches. This type of combat was exactly what Felix Steiner and other SS officers wanted. At last, they seemed to have the opportunity to unleash their battalions of hunters and athletes to help demolish the Polish war machine before it could organise itself and mount an adequate defence against the invaders.
Thus, on the morning of 1 September 1939, the Germans launched their attack on Poland. From East Prussia, Steiner and his Deutschland Regiment crossed the border with the Kempf Division. From the start of the invasion, the terrain and weather of Poland created problems for the Deutschland Regiment and other German units. In the daytime, the weather was unbearably hot and arid. At night, heavy rainfall and sharp drops in temperature forced the SS-VT soldiers to endure cold and damp conditions.
Lacking adequate roads, northern Poland was covered with crude tracks that were embedded into soil that had a loose, sandy texture. As a result, trucks and other vehicles were liable to get bogged down during the campaign. When the night rains soaked the landscape, this problem only worsened, as the dry, dusty trails became streams of mud puddles. Not surprisingly, the sandy terrain also caused mechanical problems for vehicles. Frequent breakdowns – along with fuel shortages – forced SS and regular Army soldiers alike to abandon their transports and advance into Poland on foot. Marching through the loose soil under the hot, summer sun, many of them began to feel tired and worn down even before they had engaged in combat.
Despite these hardships, the men of the Deutschland Regiment were eager to play their part in the Kempf Division when the organization reached its first objective. This was a group of defensive positions arrayed along the northern outskirts of the border towns of Zavadski and Dvierznis. At this site, the SS regiment received the honour of spearheading the attack. On the left, 1st Battalion was to assail enemy positions at Zavadski while to the west, 3rd Battalion received the order to strike Polish forces at Dvierznis. After taking these towns, the two battalions were to proceed further south, attack enemy positions at the town of Mlava, and converge at a hill called Point 192.
In the wake of an artillery barrage that pounded enemy positions, the soldiers in 1st Battalion moved up a ridge leading to Zavadski. Georg Prell, a soldier in the battalion’s No. 3 Company, noted, ‘on the enemy side of the village there were barbed wire barricades and beyond that high ground from which the Poles had good observation’. Despite these obstacles, he asserted that ‘the tempo of our attack could not be slowed down’. During the course of the battle, Prell recalled, ‘Unterscharführer Luk Krieger worked his way through the barbed wire and stormed upon the heavily defended ridge. In the murderous enemy fire Luk was mortally wounded and we could not at first recover the body of … the first comrade of our Company to be killed in action.’
After assailing another area within the Polish defence lines at Zavadski, the forward companies pushed through the Polish defences in a determined attack and seized the town. The men killed and wounded in this action were some of the first casualties of the Waffen-SS. On the right, 3rd Battalion experienced similar success at Dvierznis. With these border positions thus captured, the SS soldiers proceeded south down a road leading to Mlava.
Much to their surprise, the battalions of the Deutschland Regiment faced little opposition during their advance to Mlava, until they came close to a network of permanent fortifications established to the north of the settlement. Marching on a secondary road 2km (1.2 miles) to the west, 3rd Battalion carefully approached an outpost at the village of Bialuty, only to discover that the facility had been abandoned. When the regiment reached the Mlava Line, however, its members confronted a formidable obstacle blocking their drive to Warsaw. At the foot of a steep slope in front of the Mlava Line, the SS battalions found themselves in an exposed position, vulnerable to punishing artillery- and rifle-fire from the Polish defenders occupying the crest of the ridge.
In another show of courageous behaviour, the Deutschland Regiment volunteers charged up the slope of the hill. This time, the Polish defenders were more tenacious, pouring down a hail of bullets that stopped the German advance in its tracks. After launching another unsuccessful attack, the SS regiment received an order from its division commander instructing it to dispatch reconnaissance patrols into the Polish defensive positions in an effort to find weak spots to exploit. Before Steiner could carry out this order, he received another order from I Corps headquarters which countermanded it and detailed a new plan. In the middle of the afternoon, all forces within the corps were to launch a combined assault on the Mlava Line.
In this attack, the Deutschland Regiment carried out its original task: the seizure of Point 192. After a massive artillery barrage on the hill, the SS troops moved up its slopes in a two-pronged assault, with battle tanks from the 1st Battalion, 7th Panzer Regiment accompanying them in the ascent. Unfortunately for the Deutschland Regiment, the artillery batteries proved to be ineffectual. Despite the intensity of the bombardment, the enemy bunkers positioned within the high ground of Point 192 suffered little more than minor scratches. In addition, the Luftwaffe failed in its promise to send a squadron of Ju 87 ‘Stuka’ dive-bombers to soften the Polish defences
The tank crews did not fare any better during the assault. After travelling only short distances, most of them became ensnared in railway lines that had been implanted into concrete to act as anti-tank obstacles. Because the armoured battalion was operating PzKpfw I and PzKpfw II light tanks that were not large or powerful enough to roll over these obstructions, it became an easy target for Polish artillery batteries, and withered under heavy shelling. During the course of the day, 39 German tanks were destroyed, heavily damaged or broken down.
Frustrated with the results of this assault, and alarmed at the amount of devastation inflicted upon his battalion, the commander of the 7th Panzer Regiment gained permission from I Corps headquarters to order a withdrawal of his remaining tank crews. The attack on the Mlava Line constituted an inauspicious beginning for tank warfare in World War II. During the Polish campaign, the tendency of these vehicles to break down frequently, as well as the lack of firepower mounted within their hulls, prevented them from performing as decisive a role in battles as OKH had expected them to accomplish. The PzKpfw I contained only two machine guns within its turret, while the PzKpfw II had only one small 20mm cannon and one machine gun. Both tanks also had fairly thin armour, and did not have a particularly high top speed.
Despite the lack of support from artillery crews and armoured formations, and unable to use their motorized capabilities due to fuel shortages, the SS men of the Deutschland Regiment still acquitted themselves rather well during the battle for Mlava. Under constant fire from sharpshooters and artillery batteries, they travelled a good distance up Point 192, reaching a position less than 150m (164yd) from the first row of Polish bunkers, before their superior officers ordered them to retire at the end of the day. In its first day of battle, the SS formation was one of the few German units to do its job properly, and it did so under adverse circumstances.
The following day, the Kempf Division left the Mlava Line and headed towards Chorzele, a town situated 40km (25 miles) to the east. In this area, the fighting went well for the Germans. After another Army Corps had punched a gaping hole in the Polish lines, the combined strength of the Deutschland Regiment, a detachment from the 7th Panzer Regiment and other battle groups poured into the breach, routing enemy forces. In a furious pursuit, the Germans followed a corps-size group of Polish men, which was retreating to the River Narew. More than 48km (30 miles) south-east of Chorzele, at an area around the town of Rozan, the Poles took up positions within a complex comprising four old forts which had been built by the Russian Tsars.
Within these ancient fortifications, Polish resistance stiffened. In the ensuing battle – similar to the one fought at Mlava the previous day – the Polish defenders decimated the SS battalions and other German units which had been sent to attack them, relentlessly hitting these assailants with enfilade- and frontal gunfire. In addition, the Poles knocked out 11 battle tanks, while another 20 suffered from mechanical malfunctions. Although both sides sustained heavy losses, the Germans were getting the worst of it. Moreover, the battalions of the SS regiment eventually became too depleted to dislodge the Poles from their positions. After repulsing this offensive, the defenders launched a series of cavalry charges that forced the Germans to retire.