Attack on Poland – Soviet Invasion and The Fall of Poland

Attack on Poland – Soviet Invasion and The Fall of Poland

10 – 20 September: The Situation Elsewhere

On 5 September, Rydz-Smigly had ordered the Polish armies to retire and regroup behind the Vistula, Bug and San rivers. This was an effort doomed to failure: German armored columns had already broken through, and were advancing faster than the Polish forces could withdraw. Vistula front was saved by the Bzura counteroffensive, so it was only on 15 September that the German Third Army approached Warsaw.

Despite reorganization of Polish forces into two fronts, situation continued to deteriorate and on 10 September the German Third Army breached the defences of River Bug while pursuit by the Fourth Army prevented the Northern Front from orderly withdrawal. Rapid German advance caused Rydz-Smigly to order the withdrawal of the remaining Polish forces to the Romanian bridgehead in the south-eastern tip of the country. He hoped – optimistically – that the Polish forces will be able to hold out there for six days until the expected French offensive. But Armies Pomorze and Poznan, which were ordered to attack southwards, were already bogged down in the Bzura offensive and barely holding back the German armies. Army Modlin managed to successfully withdraw, but nevertheless suffered heavy casualties.

1-14 September

German advance forced the High Command to relocate to Mlynow near Romanian border, disrupting its communication with the field armies. These disintegrated into isolated groups, but were still capable ot delivering strong shocks. Still, despite the stubborn defense, both fronts were on the verge of collapse. On the southern front, Army Krakow failed to fight its way towards Lwow and instead had to move eastwards towards Zamosc. German 2nd Panzer and 4th Light Division drove a wedge between Armies Krakow and Malopolska, preventing a coordinated attempt to relieve Lwow. By 20th, Army Krakow was surrounded and forced to surrender.

On 17th September news of Soviet invasion sealed the fate of Poland and shut down any hopes of defending the Romanian bridgehead.

7 – 27 September: The Siege of Warsaw

By the end of the first week of war, Warsaw was swollen with refugees and under constant bombing attacks by the Luftwaffe. Troop movemen near Warsaw was nearly impossible due to clogged roads, and atmosphere in the city was tense. Announcement that the government was abandoning the city and that all men eligible for conscription should leave the city and report to mobilization centres in the east caused panic. Latter order was countermanded by General Czuma, commander of city’s defences. When announcement was made requesting volunteers to dig trenches, within half an hour 150 000 men and women had volunteered.

Positions of troops in the battle

The advanced units of the 4th Panzer Division reached Warsaw on the afternoon of the 7 September and artillery began to shell the city. Panzers themselves reached it via rail on the 8 September with about 1 700 tanks. First attacks were driven back by point-blank artillery fire and physical obstacles, Poles having fortified all entrances into the city. Panzer attacks were heavily supported by Stukas, which had flown 140 sorties on 8 September alone. These failures were followed by a five-day interlude which both sides used to reorganize their forces. Poles brought in more troops – mostly refugees from defeated divisions – while a mass of civilians left the city and moved eastwards.

German Third Army managed to complete the encirclement of Warsaw on the 12th. General Halder, the German Chief of Staff, decided against the direct attack, opting instead to starve out the city – by now almost the last Polish holdout. Hitler agreed, and ordered the 8th Army to not let any refugees leave the city. By the 15th, while the attack by the German 3rd Army was halted with great difficulty, food shortages were becoming critical. Germans continued to bombard the Warsaw, and from 14th September onwards, air raids became a daily occurence.

Warsaw during an air raid

German troops besieging the city meanwhile occupied themselves in looting whatever they could from the surroundings. Heavy attacks against the city were launched on 23rd and 25th September. On the latter date, the “Black Monday”, some 1200 Luftwaffe strategic bombers pounded the city. Yet the Polish Army still held out. Still, the bombardment had destroyed water pipes, and so Fire Brigade was reduced to shoveling sand onto fires raging throughout the city.

On 26 September, with water and electricity cut off and ammunition running out, General Juliusz Rommel decided to surrender. Envoys were sent to the German Eighth Army and it was agreed that the hostilities would end at 14:00 on 27 September.

17 – 30 September: Soviet Invasion and the Second Soviet-Polish War

When Britain and France declared war, Germany called onto the Soviet Union to attack Poland from the east as soon as possible so that German troops tied down in Poland could be transferred westward. Stalin was in no hurry, and waited until the mid-September when the Polish command system was disorganized and their defensive front shattered. Military preparations were accompanied by a virulent anti-Polish propaganda in the press, which had made Poland responsible for its own military failures and even for the invasion itself. According to the governmental newspaper Pravda, the Poles, who made up some 60% of the population of Poland, could only maintain their dominant position through a “white terror” carried out against the Ukrainians, Germans and the other “subject” races.

Soviets had to intervene before finishing the mobilization, as by the time it was completed the Germans will have reached the Soviet frontier. On 16 September, an armistice was quickly signed with Japan, ending thus the fighting in Mongolia. Plans for invasion were drawn up, planning a drive to the Wilno – Lomza – western Bug line.

Campaign After 14 September

All of this was accompanied by a complete news blackout. The justification of the invasion was that the collapse of Poland made it imperative to protect Russian minorities in the Ukraine. Soldiers themselves were given an extensive course in propaganda, which emphasized that they were liberating their class brothers from brutal exploitation at the hands of the Polish landlords and capitalists.

Speed was paramount, and thus two Fronts – Byelorussian and Ukrainian – that had been set up for the invasion formed specialized mechanized, motorized and armored units. Timoshenko ordered each of his individual armies to form their own mobile detachments from tank and cavalry units. When both groups were mobilized, they could deploy 7 field armies, 17 corps, 25 rifle divisions, 16 cavalry divisions and 12 tank brigades – a total of a million combat and support personnel.

On the Northern Front, general Kovalev set up three mobile groups. Polotsk group had to reach Wilno by late on 18 September, the Minsk group had to take Grodno, while the Dzerzhinsk group had to reach the River Szczaro and then Wolkowysk. In the south, Timoshenko ordered his troops to reach the Kowel–Wlodzimierz Wolynski–Sokal line by the evening of 20 September, and then to advance up to the River San line. And while the Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were allies, it was stressed that any contact with the Germans must not lead to any military provocation. Soviet troops were only to react if the Germans crossed the demarcation line.

The Soviet invasion was launched along the whole Soviet-Polish border of 1400 kilometers on the 17 September. It was not well synchronized, and various battlegroups crossed the border anywere between 2:00 and 4:00 hours. Germans and Poles were equally surprised, but for Poles this surprise was lethal. The last-ditch plan of creating a defensible pocket in south-eastern Poland near the Romanian border, where Allied aid could be funneled through the Romanian port of Galati, was now impossible to realize.

By 16 September, some 100 000 – 150 000 lightly armed Polish troops were positioned along the eastern border. Vast majority were the reservists in the process of accelerated military training. While Poles attempted to negotiate, it soon became obvious that the Soviets saw Polish Army as a hostile force, and there was no option but to fight. Fighting was extremely intense – one battalion in the KOP Glebokie Regiment lost over 50 per cent of its numbers, while the rest were taken prisoner.

Soviet troops reached Wilno in 24 hours, by the evening of the 18 September. Wilno garrison numbered some 10 000 men and until the morning of the 18th, some sort of defense was envisioned. But the combat never happened, and the next day the town was full of Russian troops. At Grodno, a revolt by the local Communists was defeated on the 19th. Soviet army attacked the city on the 20th, but the attack was repulsed with the loss of ten tanks, mostly destroyed by gasoline bottles. By 21 September however it was obvious that the Soviet strength was overwhelming, and the order was given to retreat towards Lithuania.

Soviet troops entering Wilno 1939

Those who failed to retreat suffered a grim fate. Large numbers of prisoners of war – especially the students and young volunteers – were shot by the NKVD. 101st Reserve Cavalry Regiment was attacked on the border near Kodziowce, but managed to beat off the attack and cross into Lithuania.

In the central sector, KOP had offered resistance in a system of concrete bunkers to the east of Sarny. It was manned by the Regiment Sarny and the Polesie Brigade, trained in bunker defence, as well as a collection of disparate units that had found themselves there while in transit and an armored train. These mismatched forces managed to hold the Soviets off until 20 September before withdrawing westwards to avoid encirclement, joining up with Orlik Ruckemann, the commander of the KOP. His forces had fought several battles with the Polish Communists Fifth Column and the Red Army. Ruckemann’s forces managed to cross the river Bug, and avoid capitulation to either Germans or the Soviets. He dispersed his forces on 1 October upon news of the Warsaw’s fall. Some of these joined General Franciszek Kleeberg and continued to fight the Germans.

Elsewhere in the central section and other sectors it was small groups of KOP and police who fought to hold back the initial Soviet assault. Inevitably, they were quickly brushed away, prisoners often being sent to gulags or to work in Siberian mines. In many places, local Russians and Byelarussians formed impromptu committees ahead of the arrival of Soviet forces. Once Soviet troops actually arrived, they proceeded to take everything not nailed down and sent it to USSR.

As Soviets advanced westward, they intercepted a considerable number of units that were in transit via train to the Romanian bridgehead. 3rd KOP infantry regiment, as an example, moved from Rowne westwards before having to liberate town of Kolki that had been captured by the Communist insurrectionists. Then it fought a bitter two-day encounter with Soviet troops in the triangle formed by the villages Borowicze–Hruziatyn–Nawoz, inflicting some hundreds of Soviet casualties. Regiment surrendered on 23 September.

Soviet troops invading Poland also carried out numerous random war crimes, no different from the German troops. These were aimed especially against the landowners, military settlers and representatives of the administration of the Polish state. Advancing Soviet troops and tanks would also shoot at random at civilians on the streets. Hundreds of captured soldiers were also immediately executed.

Polish POWs

When the Soviets had crossed into Poland, Lwow – the main city in the south-eastern Poland – was already under the German attack. Like Warsaw, it acted as a magnet for retreating Polish troops, and there were already some 30 000 troops with artillery, anti-tank guns and anti-aircraft guns, as well as two armored trains. Soviet troops reached Lwow on 19 September, and the Polish commander, General Langner, decided to surrender the city to them. Surrender was to be carried out on 22 September at 15:00, and the Soviets agreed to allow the Polish troops to go home. But the Soviets had deceived Langner. As soon as the Polish troops had laid down their arms in the town square, Soviets surrounded them and marched them off to trains. There the Polish troops were left with no food or water, surviving on whatever alms the population provided them along the route. Eventually, Polish captives were taken to the prison camp at Starobielsk and were ultimately to be murdered at Katyn on Stalin’s orders. General Langner was taken and questioned on German tactics, and the Polish tactics used against the Germans, while NKVD was busy with mass arrests and deportations. No discussion was made of the Polish-Soviet agreement beyond the acknowledgement it had existed.

21 – 28 September: Germany and Russia Divide Poland

According to the secret protocol signed as part of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the demarcation line between the future Soviet and Nazi spheres of interest lay along a line based on the Rivers Narew, Vistula and San. Yet by 17 September, twenty one German division was beyond the line, only 150 to 200 miles from the Soviet border, and advancing quickly at a rate of some 15 to 20 miles a day. On 21 September, four German officers arrived at Moscow to arrange the military details of the boundary line, which were announced two days later.

Encounters between the two armies and subsequent withdrawal of German troops took place largely without incident. At Brzesc, General Guderian was informed that he would have to evacuate the city by 22 September. This left him so little time that he could hardly collect his division’s equipment before withdrawal. Nevertheless, relations between German and Soviet commanders remained good.

Yet future of Poland was soon reopened. Ribbentrop wanted oil fields south of Lublin for the Reich. While Stalin was initially furious, he decided to concede Lublin in exchange for Lithuania. He also proposed that Poland be partitioned between the two powers instead of leaving a semi-independent but reduced Poland. Ribbentrop flew to Moscow on 27 September, and on 28 September accepted Stalin’s proposals. The new frontier between the USSR and German-controlled Poland lay along the East Prussian border to the River Narew and then down the River Bug to the Ruthenian border, leaving Drohobycz and Lwow on the Soviet side of the frontier. This left over 4.5 million Poles east of the new frontier.

Planned and actual division of Poland

22 September – 6 October: Mopping Up

While Poland’s fate was definitely sealed with the invasion of the Red Army, some pockets of resistance continued to hold out until early October. On 22 September remnants of the Northern Front under General Dab-Biernacki launched a desperate southwards attack near Zamosc, but the attack failed and Dab-Biernacki was forced to surrender when the Red Army reached the River Big behind the Polish positions the next day. Numerous groups of Polish soldiers and even whole units trying to escape the country were intercepted and captured by the Red Army.

Several units retreated westwards. The 17 000 strong Special Operational Polesie Group under General Kleeberg fought a series of defensive actions against the Russians up to 30 September. After crossing the demarcation line on the Bug, it fought the German 13th Motorized Division near Kock for four days. Only on 6 October did Kleeberg order his troops to surrender – they had run out of ammunition.

To the east of San, a KOP group under Colonel Tadeusz Zielinski managed to hold out against the combined German and Russian attacks until the end of the month. On 30 September and 1 October it even managed to drive the Soviets out of the village of Krzemien, but lack of ammunition forced it to surrender to the Soviets on 1 October. Colonel Zielinski and many officers managed to escape to Hungary.

19 September – 2 October: Modlin and the Hel Peninsula

Other than shattered and isolated remnants of the Polish armies, there were still forces active in the Modlin and the Hel Peninsula. While these had been cut off from any support by the course of the war, they were relatively easy to defend. Hel Peninsula was no more than 20 miles wide and garrisoned by some 3 000 Polish troops. This however made it vulnerable to bombardment by German battleships Schleswig-Holstein and Schlesien.

207th Infantry Regiment launched a major assault on Hel on 21 September, but until 30 September little progress was made. On 30 September however Poles were pushed back to Kuznica, and the garrison surrendered on 2 October. Modlin – defended by four divisions – had fallen three days earlier, after five days of consecutive attacks by the German forces that had surrounded the fortress.


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