Towards Warsaw

A single thought also dominated the minds of the men of 3rd Panzer Division: reach the Vistula at Graudenz. The drive was relentless. Any panzers which broke down were abandoned by the wayside, their crews left to repair them on their own. The enemy offered little resistance. Polish troops simply raised their hands as the German armour rolled past them – the panzers didn’t even stop to round up prisoners. Elsewhere, a short burst of fire from a panzer’s machine-gun prompted Polish soldiers to emerge from their hiding places and surrender.

Across the Tucheler Heath, the scrubland, copses, marshes and lakes between Bromberg and Danzig, the German Army was rounding up the remnants of the ‘Corridor Army’ – the Army of Pomorze. Just north of Schwetz artilleryman Emil Falckenthal watched as infantry razed the village of Skarszewy to the ground after Polish troops offered stubborn resistance. Upwards of 300 Poles fell into German hands, but some escaped, setting a farm ablaze as they withdrew. In a stable seventy cows bellowed in fear, straining at their leashes as the flames ripped through the building. Falckenthal and his comrades braved the acrid smoke to save what they could, but only the pigs could be rescued. ‘Everything else burns, perishing in the searing flames,’ he wrote. That afternoon the artilleryman reached the edge of Grupa Dolna, opposite Graudenz. From a hillside cemetery, the gunner could see the Vistula valley laid out before him and there, just three miles away, the towers of Graudenz – now in German hands after 21st Infantry Division had marched in almost unopposed – twinkling in the sunlight. The bridge over the Vistula still stood, only partially demolished by the Poles; three of its huge iron-arch spans had collapsed into the river. And right in front of the artillerymen, the red steeple of the church at the Polish Army’s exercise ground in Grupa itself, where 20,000 enemy soldiers were now trapped.

A few miles upstream, the Army of Pomorze was making a final desperate attempt to force the Vistula near Schwetz. Having brushed past 23rd Infantry Division, a cavalry column, accompanied by infantry and vehicles, moved along the left bank in the direction of a dam, hoping to use it to cross the Vistula – unaware German infantry had beaten them to it. As the Poles moved through a field, German heavy machine guns opened fire from little over a mile’s range. Some men gave themselves up instantly, some made a dash for the dam, most were mown down. The sandbanks leading to the Vistula were littered with dead Poles; a makeshift ferry, crammed with fleeing troops, suffered a direct hit from a German field gun. A few Polish troops took shelter in a farmhouse, from where they took a heavy toll of an infantry company. Only when the farmhouse was ablaze and the building surrounded did fourteen Poles emerge and raise their hands. 3rd Panzer spent the rest of the day clearing out the scrub on the Vistula’s left bank. By the day’s end, 450 prisoners had been brought in, 100 vehicles captured and the cavalry regiment had ceased to exist. A few miles to the north a Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft found two regiments of ulans, the fabled Polish cavalry, and another cavalry brigade trying to make for the Vistula. Bombers soon appeared over the heath and tossed their bombs. The cries of wounded horses and men echoed around forests, cavalry squadrons galloped between the trees, scores of riderless horses ran around wildly. The principal road across the heath, from Tuchel to Schwetz, was littered with the detritus of a destroyed army. It was, one Unteroffizier recalled, ‘a depressing, fateful scene. Baggage wagons are piled up in chaotic heaps, their horses dead next to them, still in their harnesses, mountains of ammunition piled up as well as countless guns, bayonets, gasmasks, all manner of equipment hastily discarded.’ Guderian’s men began to round up Polish prisoners, thousands of them, plus innumerable field guns and other military equipment. That evening, gunner Emil Falckenthal examined the exhausted, expressionless faces of weary prisoners, sat in a circle around their officers. A dejected young lieutenant who spoke a little German shook his head. ‘I do not understand the reason behind this war,’ he confessed. ‘Of course, it’s wonderful to fight for something great – to give up your life for high ideals, but that’s not the case in Poland any more. So we can’t fight any more – we must lose. Poland will cease to exist!’

Heinz Guderian spent the evening with the men of 3rd Panzer, convinced the fighting in the Corridor was all but over. His passion for the tank, for armoured warfare had been vindicated. His men had boundless confidence in their weapon. But there was a dark cloud. Britain and France were now involved. ‘A new world war is beginning,’ the panzer General wrote to his wife. ‘It will last a long time and we must stand our ground.’

The infantry of Eighth Army, protecting the left flank of the thrust on Warsaw, were a good day or two behind the panzers and motorised divisions. Now, in the early afternoon of the fourth, the foot soldiers began to arrive on the Warthe between Lodz and Kalisz. Conrad von Cochenhausen climbed between the gravestones up a hill to the north of the town of Sieradz. Through his binoculars the Generalleutnant looked eastwards across the valley of the Warthe, the last major natural obstacle between his 10th Infantry Division and the industrial metropolis of Lodz, thirty miles to the northwest. The view through the binoculars was far from encouraging. To be sure, the enemy was silent – there was no movement in his positions on the far bank of the Warthe. But the terrain was formidable. From Sieradz, the ground sloped gently to the river, which had been spanned by rail and road bridges until the Poles had blown both up. The Warthe here was nearly 200ft wide, its waters flowing freely, if not violently. And beyond them the Poles were obviously dug in on a dam which dominated the marshy, flat east bank of the Warthe. Further east still a smattering of bunkers and a forest where the enemy would clearly be lurking. All in all, thought Cochenhausen, you could not imagine more difficult terrain to attack over.

A few miles south of Sieradz, an Oberleutnant and his men in 17th Infantry Division marched wearily through the burning sand on the dust tracks. The terrain was monotonous, the few cottages they passed filthy. And now, in the distance, basking in the sunshine of late afternoon, the village of Stronsko, its red-brick church towering over the surrounding copses. With the setting sun, the men rested in a forest of pine and birch trees which offered welcome shade. Field kitchens began serving the evening meal. Artillery began firing sporadically at the right bank of the Warthe. Through binoculars, the men could see the Poles digging in. The men moved up to the river’s edge during the bright moonlit night, hastily digging slit trenches to protect themselves should the Polish artillery open up. But the Warthe valley was bathed in a milky-white fog as dawn approached. The enemy remained silent.

Shortly before 8am on the fifth, the German guns opened fire on a twenty-mile front straddling Sieradz as three divisions attempted to storm the Warthe behind a wall of steel and iron. Ten miles north of Sieradz, Wolf Oeringk and his 24th Infantry Division comrades moved towards the river near the village of Glinno, where pioneers were already at work ferrying infantry across the Warthe in inflatable boats. The river here split into four arms – some could be forded, some could not. Polish shells hissed and fizzled as the infantry crossed the first arm by boat. The men struggled through muddy, marshy terrain before reaching the next arm, which they waded through, and the third. The Landsers sank to their knees in mud, holding their rifles high. Then the final arm, the widest, only passable in boats, and then only two or three men at a time. Machine-gun fire kept the Poles pinned down, while two German rifle platoons cowered on the steep far bank, unable to move. Oeringk watched as the enemy troops attempted to wipe out the tiny German bridgehead – and promptly fell under a hail of machine-gun bullets. And above the Warthe, on the high ground on the right bank, tall, dark clouds of smoke rose above Glinno.

It took Wolf Oeringk barely thirty minutes to cross the Warthe. It took Conrad von Cochenhausen’s men nearly five hours to subdue the Polish troops dug in on the right bank. The Generalleutnant and his staff had planned the assault down to the finest detail: artillery would pound the bunkers and dug-outs close to the water’s edge, then switch to the enemy’s rear defences. There was nothing to be done about the terrain. Marshes and swamps restricted the attack to a strip of land barely 300 yards wide. The Poles poured withering fire on this narrow strip, but once 10th Infantry finally got a foothold over the Warthe, it quickly rolled up the Polish defences, even seizing an enemy battery still firing. A good half dozen miles beyond the river, the advancing Landsers found enemy infantry and artillery columns decimated by German howitzers, pounding away from the left bank. The battle for Warthe was over.

After a rest, Wolf Oeringk’s Feldwebel ordered his men on to the east. It was dark now, but fires on both sides of the Warthe lit the way down an endless, sandy road. ‘The air is mild and filled with the smell of burning,’ Oeringk recorded in his diary. ‘The awful reality of this war strikes us – coupled with the expectation that at any moment we could be shot out of the darkness.’ There are still Polish soldiers everywhere, he thought. But then came the comforting howl of German shells racing over the marching men’s heads. At the day’s end the infantry entered Glinno. The village was still ablaze.

While Eighth Army’s infantry battered its way across the Warthe, 1st Panzer Division was rolling into Petrikau – to Poles Piotrkow Trybunalski – a town of 15,000 residents sixty miles south of Lodz, while the rest of the division struck onwards to the north. For the first time, the German armour ran into Polish tanks; at least half were shot-up, the remainder took to their heels. The defenders of Petrikau, however, proved more stubborn; they continued to offer resistance beyond dusk as the Landsers cleared out the town house by house. That night, with the remnants of the elite 19th Division streaming back towards Warsaw having been routed around Petrikau, Johann Graf von Kielmansegg’s column of panzers rounded up countless Polish troops, startled by the Germans’ rapid advance. Suddenly, a truck, its headlights on full beam, nervously edged out of a side road. Seeing the panzers, its occupants jumped out and tried to flee; all were captured, including the divisional commander – a Brigadier General Kwaciszewski – and his entire staff. ‘A good capture at the end of a good day,’ Kielmansegg observed succinctly. But then, the general no longer had a division to command. ‘Who was not taken prisoner and what did not fall into our hands as booty, what did not lie dead on the battlefield, were merely the shattered remnants,’ the German staff officer recorded.

Poland’s 19th Division no longer existed; her 29th was still battle-worthy and still a threat to 1st Panzer. Roused just before dawn on 6 September, Johann Graf von Kielmansegg grabbed his steel helmet and carbine as cries of ‘Naprzod, naprzod’ – forward, forward – filled the air south of Petrikau. He continued:

We take up position in a rather deep ditch on the edge of the estate and hear, or rather feel, for the first time what it means to be under direct machine-gun fire. There’s a slight whizzing, whistling or singing, the shaking of the striped blades of grass and bushes, the rustling of branches, all this causes new, but brief sensations.

The fighting reached its climax around the village of Milejow, as the Poles swept out of the forests and copses which had shielded them from the Luftwaffe’s prying eyes on the fifth and fell upon 1st Panzer’s right flank, bound for Petrikau. ‘Every man defends himself exactly where he is,’ Kielmansegg wrote. Staff officers, infantry, engineers, panzer crews, artillerymen, all were thrown into the battle, which dragged on throughout 6 September and into the seventh. The Polish attacks first halted, then turned about. The enemy, Kielmansegg observed, ‘disappears in the direction whence he came, leaving behind countless dead, many prisoners and considerable material, among it a complete battery. In places, so many Polish dead lie in the smallest area that even veterans of the World War say that they have rarely or never seen anything like it.’32

The scenes were identical behind 1st Panzer’s route of advance. Everywhere ‘a scene of desolation’ one soldier recalled. ‘Burned-out houses and ruined farms, weapons, vehicles and horse-drawn carts abandoned by the roadside. And everywhere, the dead. Horses, men, their bodies bloated, distorted, covered by flies, the smell unbearable.’

Such was war, mused XVI Corps’ commanding officer Erich Hoepner – der alte Reiter, the old cavalryman. ‘It’s rather interesting here,’ he wrote to his wife, ‘but it’s not always nice. We oldies didn’t expect to have to go to war again – now we must get used to it once more.’ Erich Hoepner very quickly ‘got used to it’. After six days’ relentless advance, his corps, spearheaded by 1st Panzer Division, was within touching distance of the Polish capital. ‘Without enemy resistance I could be there in two hours,’ he boasted.

The enemy already stood at the gates of Krakow. Scenes in the great mediaeval city were chaotic. Its citizens were leaving by any means they could after a German air attack. Polish troops entering the city found those inhabitants who had stayed behind plundering the department stores. The Helwetia chocolate factory had also been raided; bars were handed out to soldiers as they marched hurriedly through Krakow. As the first German armour rolled into the city’s suburbs on the sixth, the last Polish troops pulled out to the southeast. The road to Weliczka, eight miles from the heart of Krakow, was ‘a picture of misery’, one Polish officer recalled. The withdrawing troops had been attacked by the Luftwaffe. So hasty had been the retreat there had been no time to bury the corpses of soldiers and cadavers of horses. When a single German aircraft appeared over the small town of Brsesko, on the main road to Rzeszow, all form of order and discipline disintegrated. Drivers abandoned their cars and trucks and took shelter in homes. The town was completely clogged with traffic. When the aircraft eventually disappeared, the drivers gingerly returned to their vehicles; their officers horsewhipped them for deserting the column.

Northeast of Krakow, the relentless advance of 5th Panzer Division through the valley of the Vistula brought the armour to the town of Staszow. Townsfolk lined the streets in silence as the panzers rolled past. ‘They were told that these colossuses had just enough power to trundle past the Führer’s dais in the parades in Berlin,’ Heinz Borwin Venzky gloated. ‘Someone had told the Polish soldier that the stupid Germans had only fixed armour to their foremost panzers, the rest were merely cardboard dummies which they could easily withstand.’ For half an hour 5th Panzer’s armour thundered through Staczow. An exhaust backfired; the inhabitants fled from the streets terrified, before tentatively returning when they realised there was nothing to fear.

The sun continued to beat down on the gravel roads of Pomerania. Wednesday 6 September was another glorious day in the Corridor. The beige Mercedes roaring along the main road between Tuchel and Schwetz once again left an impenetrable cloud of dust behind it. The car came to a stop outside the village of Plewno where Heinz Guderian was waiting for it. A radiant Adolf Hitler climbed out. ‘My dear general, what you and your men have achieved!’ he greeted the panzer man. ‘My faith in the panzer divisions was always boundless!’ Guderian glowed with pride. He ran through the deeds of his Corps to the Führer, then accompanied Hitler to his Mercedes to begin a tour of the front. Soldiers and Volksdeutsche applauded and crowded around the car. Smiling, Hitler raised his hand. The jubilation ceased. The men fell silent. ‘Soldiers! You have put Berliners’ minds at rest,’ he declared. ‘The Poles won’t get to Berlin. What has been fought over with German blood remains German.’

A dozen miles away, Generalleutnant Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg had drawn up a panzer regiment and armoured reconnaissance cars from his 3rd Panzer Division along the main road from Schwetz to Graudenz. Geyr was anxious. His men were not lining the road merely to greet Hitler; they were there for their Führer’s protection. ‘There were still armed Poles everywhere – in the bushes on the road which the Führer drove down,’ he recalled. One of his ordnance officers dragged a Polish soldier from the undergrowth shortly before Hitler was due to arrive.

The Führer was still enthralled by his tour of the battlefield. The road from Plewno to Schwetz was littered with wrecked Polish batteries. ‘Our dive bombers did that?’ he asked Guderian. ‘No, our panzers,’ the General told him. As the motorcade approached the left bank of the Vistula, the outlines of the towers and steeples of Kulm, half a dozen miles to the south, were clearly visible. ‘In March last year I had the privilege of greeting you in your birthplace,’ the panzer General told his Führer. ‘Today you are with me in mine.’

Shortly before mid-day, Hitler’s Mercedes turned on to the road to Graudenz. The Führer stood up to acknowledge the soldiers lining the route. He stopped briefly to greet 3rd Panzer’s commander with an earnest handshake. ‘General von Geyr, your division has achieved wonderful things.’ Geyr told him his men had merely done what had been asked of them. ‘No,’ Hitler insisted, ‘it has done more than its duty.’

The motorcade continued towards Graudenz to the strains of a regimental band. Hitler asked Guderian about casualties. Just 150 dead and 700 wounded in the four divisions under his command, the general responded. And for that his Corps had destroyed perhaps three enemy infantry divisions and a cavalry brigade, and taken thousands of prisoners and captured hundreds of guns. The Führer was astonished; his regiment alone had suffered far heavier casualties in the Great War. The few losses, Heinz Guderian explained, were due to the potency of his panzers. ‘Tanks are a life-saving weapon,’ he declared. He neglected to mention the Poles barely possessed any…

It was around 11pm when the Führer returned to his train and stepped into the command wagon. Nikolaus von Vormann had spent the day in the carriage monitoring the latest reports from the front, feeding the relevant ones to Hitler such as news of the fall of Krakow. The Führer’s first concern, however, was not for the East, but the West. What was happening on the Western Front? he asked breathlessly. ‘Nothing new,’ Vormann responded rather flippantly. ‘The Potato War continues.’ The officer was equally smug about the state of affairs in the East. The German Army was on the verge of encircling large Polish formations in front of Warsaw and had already left the Army of Poznan ‘hovering in thin air’. Poland’s leaders could no longer direct their armies. ‘All that’s left is a rabbit hunt,’ von Vormann declared. ‘Militarily, the war is decided.’ Hitler stared at his liaison officer, took Vormann’s hands in his, shook them heartily and left the carriage without saying a word.

On the Westerplatte, Henry Sucharski was still strapped to a bed in his bunker. His men were still being pounded daily by German bombs and shells – and they were still holding out. The incessant bombardment had inflicted few casualties, but it had wreaked terrible destruction on the peninsula. ‘Enemy artillery fire literally ploughed the land, overturned trees, the men in the guard posts were thrown up in the air like feathers,’ one junior officer wrote. Shrapnel and lumps of concrete were blown into the mess, serving as a makeshift hospital, exacerbating the wounds of already-injured men, while the Westerplatte’s sole doctor struggled to care for them without the aid of an operating table or even bandages.

The uninjured were barely any more able to defend the peninsula. ‘The barracks are unrecognisable after all the damage,’ one young officer recorded in his diary. ‘In the cellar, soldiers lie along the walls, overly tired, the wounded on stretchers. The only light comes from a candle. Hygiene is beneath all contempt, the air is awful.’ At night there was no hope of sleep. Random bursts of gun and machine-gun fire every few minutes kept the defenders awake.

By mid-morning on Thursday, 7 September, it had become too much for the men of the Westerplatte. Shortly before 10am, the white flag was raised for the second time over the depot. On this occasion, it would not be hauled down.

After days of sobbing and uncontrollable shaking, Henryk Sucharski had recovered some of his composure. He summoned his men in front of the wrecked barracks. The troops were reluctant to surrender. ‘Someone will still rescue us here,’ they pleaded with their major. ‘We can endure for one more day.’ For the first time, the major told his men about the plight of their comrades, that the Germans were at the gates of Warsaw, that Poland was being overrun. There was a brief prayer for the fifteen dead, followed by a soldier’s hymn, ‘Peaceful calm, comrade’. And then Henryk Sucharski crossed the German lines to capitulate.

To the Germans, Sucharski appeared ‘utterly exhausted’, his men ‘scruffy, extremely sullen and demoralised’. The peninsula had cost the Reich nearly 400 casualties, but its defenders were treated with respect. As the garrison marched into captivity, German soldiers stood stiffly to attention and saluted.

After five days almost continually retreating, the anonymous Polish reserve officer who had originally set off towards Auschwitz now found himself with three men and a field canteen near the village of Radomysl Wielki, a good sixty miles east of Krakow. Once again the Germans were there first. Artillery shells began crashing down on the village and reports reached the exhausted men that German armour had taken the village. The officer turned north, aiming for Szczucin, eighteen miles away on the right bank of the Vistula. ‘There was no leadership,’ he recalled. ‘Everyone acted on his own initiative.’ The Polish Army was disintegrating around him. The men were demoralised; they threw away their guns. Horses collapsed out of exhaustion. In the sandy terrain the field guns became bogged down. The officer overheard a sergeant complain: ‘I can’t force anyone to go on any more; each man does what he wants because none of this makes any sense. The men have nothing to eat and no ammunition to continue to fight with.’ Later that day, Thursday, 7 September, the reservist was captured by 5th Panzer Division.

For a week, the armour of 1st and 4th Panzer Divisions had punched through the heart of Poland down the road to Warsaw. Now, with barely seventy miles to go to the Polish capital, their paths separated: 4th Panzer would head on to Warsaw, its comrades would smash their way through to the Vistula to the south of the city, thwarting any relief of – or escape by – its garrison. Although their objectives differed, the methods of the two panzer divisions’ leaders were identical: relentless pursuit. ‘Forward to the Vistula!’ demanded Major Walter Wenck, 1st Panzer’s operations officer. ‘What remains behind, remains behind. As long as we have the strength, the enemy will be attacked.’ Generalmajor Georg-Hans Reinhardt expected his men ‘to be first to reach the enemy’s capital. We have not merely hit the enemy, but driven him back in confusion in front of us. But still we have not reached our objective. Our objective is Warsaw. Forward to Warsaw!’

Reinhardt’s men began the day in the town of Bedkow, seventy miles from Warsaw. By mid-morning, they had already reached the objective for the day, Czerniewice, fifty-five miles from the capital. The armour was now on the highway to Warsaw. The pace of the advance accelerated. The Pole wasn’t resisting now. He wasn’t retreating. He was fleeing. By early afternoon, 4th Panzer had rolled through Rawa Mazowiecka, eight miles down the road to Warsaw; the town had been flattened by the Luftwaffe to clear the way. By nightfall, Reinhardt was in Babsk, forty miles from his objective. That evening, one of his men surveyed the scene on the road to Warsaw. The world was aflame. ‘As far as the eye can see, every village is burning, every farm, even the smallest haystack, near and far,’ he wrote. ‘The flames hiss and crackle, whoosh towards the night sky. A shower of sparks shoots up when a roof collapses, crashing down, or a house wall caves in. There’s an acrid, stinging smell of burning and thick clouds of smoke spiral across the sky.’

In the forests and copses around Tomaszow Mazowiecki, 1st Panzer Division was enjoying little of its neighbour’s success; the terrain and the enemy conspired against it. ‘Our exhaustion is probably already so great that it could hardly be endured any longer under normal circumstances,’ Johann Graf von Kielmansegg wrote. ‘Here, with the fulfilment of victory at hand, we barely notice it.’ If 7 September had been relatively frustrating for 1st Panzer, Friday the eighth passed by in a blur of Polish place names as the division rushed to cross the Vistula south of Warsaw. At 7.35am Nowe Miasto, thirty-seven miles from the Vistula; forty minutes later, Mogielnicka, twenty-nine miles from the river; by 10am, Grojek, fifteen miles; and at 11.15 Chynow, just five miles from Poland’s great artery. ‘The road presents a picture of a flight in panic,’ Kielmansegg wrote. He continued:

The road is strewn with all kinds of abandoned pieces of equipment, including steel helmets, rucksacks, coats and gas masks. Vast quantities of ammunition, left loose or packed in boxes, have been thrown out of cars. At times we have to stop to clear the road of all this material so we can continue. The closer we get to the Vistula, the more vehicles are left on the road, especially field kitchens and panje wagons loaded with all kinds of things. Most of the horses haven’t been unharnessed and have dragged the carts into the fields to graze. Among torn sacks of rice and flour there’s an open medical case with valuable surgical equipment. Loaves of bread in their hundreds, countless brown cubes of ground coffee, all covered with dust and dirt, mostly crushed by vehicles driving over them – it’s impossible to give the slightest inkling in words of this Polish road of flight.

The number of prisoners grew by the hour. ‘The deprivation and horror of the last few days is clearly etched upon their faces,’ the staff officer observed. ‘For them, the war is over.’

In the early afternoon, near the town of Gora Kalwaria, 1st Panzer arrived at the Vistula. The bridge had already been destroyed by the Germans and Poles in turn; the withdrawing Poles had also destroyed the final floating bridge before being wiped out or taken prisoner. Motorcyclists thrust into the water with inflatable boats and forged a weak bridgehead on the east bank of the Vistula.