May 20, 2014

Enemy at the Gates! The Panzer Thrust on Warsaw

At 20:00 hours on August 25, 1939 an urgent message was received by Army Group South. “Hold everything, no attack tomorrow!” The Army Group with great difficulty communicated the order to its units which were already in their jump-off positions. Peace had a new chance but it didn’t last long.

German panzers during the Polish Campaign.
German panzers during the Polish Campaign.

Army Group South
Rundstedt with his Army  commanders  Reichenau and Blaskowitz.
2. Rundstedt (left) with his Commanding 
Generals: Reichenau (right) 
and Blaskowitz (centre).

The German High Command conceived the attack on Poland as a pincer movement that would annihilate the Polish Armies in Western Poland, before they could retreat behind the Narew-Vistula-San River line. Army Group South was forming the southern arm of the pincers and was assigned to deliver the main blow. Launched from the Silesian-Polish border it was to advance northeastward and to join the northern arm at Warsaw. It was imperative for the Germans to accomplish their objective in short time, before the Western Allies could offer any substantial help to the Poles.

Army Group South was commanded by Generaloberst Gerd von Rundstedt, a distinguished Prussian officer. His Chief of Staff was Generalleutnant Erich von Manstein. Rundstedt had set up his Headquarters at Neisse (Nysa), from where he was to direct his three Armies:

Eighth Army
General der Infanterie Johannes Blaskowitz
Tenth Army
General der Artillerie Walther von Reichenau
Fourteenth Arrmy
Generaloberst Wilhelm List

The main effort was to be made by the Tenth Army which was to slice through the Polish defenses and get to Warsaw in time to join hands with the Third Army coming from the north. The CG Walther von Reichenau established his Headquarters at Oppeln (Opole). Under his command were:

IV Armeekorps
General der Infanterie Victor von Schwedler
XI Armeekorps
General der Artillerie Emil Leeb
XV Armeekorps (mot.)
General der Infanterie Hermann Hoth
XVI Armeekorps (mot.)
General der Kavallerie Erich Hoepner

The motorized XV & XVI Corps were Tenth Army's cutting edge. Commanded by two aggressive generals they were freed from the tempo of the foot marching infantry and they were assigned distant strategic objectives. The Łysa Góra region was assigned to Hoth while Warsaw itself to Hoepner.

Planned advances of Tenth Army
3. Planned advances of Tenth Army’s motorized Corps. XV Corps was directed towards the 
Łysa Góra Hills while XVI Corps toward Warsaw. The Eighth Army was to cover their left flank.

Plan “Z”

The Polish High Command had to balance between two, largely conflicting, standpoints. 
  • From a military point of view a chance of military success existed only if the Polish armies were deployed behind the Narew-Vistula-San River line; Poland’s natural defensive line. 
  • However, if the previous option was adopted all of Western Poland would be surrendered without a fight which was politically unacceptable. 
In its final form Plan “Z” (from the word Zachod=West) demanded that:
  • The Polish Armies would be deployed along the Polish borders, 
  • they would absorb the initial German blows, 
  • and then they would contact a phased withdrawal to the Narew-Vistula-San River line, wearing down the German armies and gaining valuable time for a French intervention. 
A serious misunderstanding existed between the French and the Poles. The Polish side had come to the understanding that France would launch a major offens ive against Germany within two weeks from the outbreak of war, while the French High Command estimated that the Poles could hold for three to four months which was the time they needed to prepare an assault on Germany.

Plan Zacod
4. According to the plan the Polish Armies would be deployed along the frontier, 
then they would occupy a delaying position along the Vistula – Warthe – Cracow line 
and finally would retire behind the Narew – Vistula – San line.

The Polish High Command had correctly appreciated that the main German thrust would come from Silesia aimed at Warsaw. Along that axis they had placed Army “Lodz” with four infantry divisions and two cavalry brigades echeloned in depth. Army Lodz was commanded by General Juliusz Rómmel who had won great fame during the Polish – Bolshevik War. Its mission was:
  • to defend strongly on the frontier,
  • to fall back to a prepared delaying position on the Warthe (Warta) river and
  • to hold the line of the Vistula river between Warsaw and Dęblin.
The Army was expected to fulfill its mission with the following forces:
  • 2nd Legion Infantry Division
  • 10th Infantry Division
  • 28th Infantry Division
  • 30th Infantry Division
  • Kresowa Cavalry Brigade
  • Wołyńska Cavalry Brigade
Taking a look at the armor component of Army “Lodz” we can notice the following. Each of the Cavalry Brigades had an organic Armored Battalion. More specifically the 21st Armored Battalion belonged to Wolynska and the 61st to Kresowa. Each Armored Battalion was equipped with eight wz.34 armored cars and thirteen TKS tankettes, all armed only with machine guns (MGs). There were also five Independent Reconnaissance Tank Companies distributed amongst the Infantry Divisions of the Army. Each one was equipped with thirteen TK-3/TKS tankettes armed only with MGs. So Army Lodz possessed some 91 AFVs but none of them had any armor piercing capability.

Army Lodz and Army Prusy.
5. Army Lodz and Army Prusy.

Army “Prusy”, Poland’s strategic reserve, was deployed to the east of Army “Lodz” along the Silesia – Warsaw axis. This Army was commanded by General Stefan Dąb-Biernacki and included six infantry divisions and one cavalry brigade:
  • 3rd Legion Infantry Division
  • 12th Infantry Division
  • 13th Infantry Division
  • 19th Infantry Division
  • 29th Infantry Division
  • 36th Reserve Infantry Division
  • Wilenska Cavalry Brigade
As for its armor Army “Prusy” could count on:
  • two Light Tank Battalions (1st and 2nd) with 49 7TP tanks each. The 7TP tank was of Polish manufacture and it was armed with a 37mm anti-tank cannon.
  • the 33rd Armored Battalion of the Wileńska Cavalry Brigade with thirteen TKS tankettes (MGs only).

Polish 7TP tanks
6. Polish 7TP tanks.

XVI Armeekorps (mot.)

XVI Armeekorps (mot.) was to spearhead Tenth Army’s advance toward Warsaw. Its mission was to engage and defeat decisively the bulk of the enemy forces west of the Vistula, to thrust on Warsaw and to cut off the retreating Polish formations. Hoepner’s Corps was composed of:

1st Panzer-Division
Generalleutnant Friedrich Kirchner
4th Panzer-Division
Generalmajor Georg-Hans Reinhardt
14th Infanterie-Division
Generalleutnant Peter Weyer
31st Infanterie-Division
Generalleutnant Rudolf Kaempfe

The combined tank strength of the two Panzer-Divisions was:

Tank strength of XVI Armeekorps
7. Tank strength of XVI Armeekorps (mot.).

Fall Weiss

The German invasion began at 04:45 hours on September 1, 1939. Hoepner’s divisions jumped off from the area of Kluczbork (Kreuzburg) and advanced without serious opposition, except at the village of Mokra where the 4th Panzer-Division faced the Wołyńska Cavalry Brigade. The Polish cavalrymen defended their ground skillfully and inflicted heavy losses on the 4th Panzer. Wołyńska held until the evening but was outflanked by the 1st Panzer-Division and withdrew during the night.

On the second day of the Campaign the Panzer-Divisions of XVI Armeekorps (mot.) had reached the Warta (Warthe) River and 1st Panzer-Division had secured an intact bridge on it. It was already becoming apparent that the Polish Army could not dictate its tempo on the German motorized formations and that the successive defensive lines would be occupied by the attackers rather than the defenders.

By September 3 Hoepner’s Corps had pushed on to Radomsko and was fifty miles away from its jump-off positions. Polish reserves en route to occupy their positions behind the Warta were surprised and scattered. Any plan for a phased withdrawal was becoming out of touch with reality for the Poles. The game had changed and it had turned to a race to the Vistula, the final defensive line.

On September 4 the Polish forces begun to withdraw and the operation turned into a rout. Army Lodz was retreating toward Tomaszów Mazowiecki and Army Prusy toward the Vistula.

The city of Piotrkow (Piotrków Trybunalski), twenty miles further from Radomsko, was reached by the Panzer-Divisions on September 5. There the 19th Polish Infantry Division counterattacked with the support of the 2nd Light Tank Battalion. In the ensuing battle the 7TP’s destroyed seventeen German tanks for the loss of only two of their own. That success however could not affect the big picture. Army “Prusy” failed to materialize a new defensive line. The Polish High Command ordered a general retreat towards the Vistula. The divisions of Army “Lodz” were withdrawing northward while those of Army “Prusy” eastward thus a gap was created.

Advance of XVI Armeekorps (mot.)
8. Advance of XVI Armeekorps (mot.).

Hoepner’s panzers were quick to exploit the gap and reached the town of Tomaszów Mazowiecki on September 6. At that time there was no serious Polish forces between the Germans and the Polish capital. One panzer column captured Rawa Mazowiecka on the 7th and was in the southwestern suburbs of Warsaw by the evening of the following day. Another column, operating on the right, took a more easterly route, swinging from Tomaszów Mazowiecki toward Góra Kalwaria on the west bank of the Vistula. Then it followed the river bank northward toward the Polish capital. On the evening of the 8th this column also was in the suburbs of Warsaw.

With his infantry divisions some 70 miles behind Hoepner attempted to take the city with the Panzers. The attack penetrated almost to the city’s main railway station but met fierce resistance and at nightfall the Germans withdrew to the western suburbs awaiting the foot marching infantry.

Bibliography & Internet Sources
Gudmundsson, Bruce I. On Armor. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004.
Jentz, Thomas L. Panzertruppen vol. 1. Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 1996.
Kennedy, Robert, M. "The German Campaign in Poland (1939)." DA PAM 20-255. 1956.
Manstein, Erich. Lost Victories. Washington. DC: Henry Regnery & Co,1958.
Rundstedt, Gerd. "Notes on the 1939 Polish Campaign." Mimeographed. U.S. Army, Europe, Historical Division, 1954. MS # B-847.
U.S. War Department. "The German Campaign in Poland September 1 to October 5, 1939." Digest and lessons of recent military operations. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1942.
Zaloga, Steven J. Poland 1939 The Birth of Blitzkrieg. Oxford: Osprey, 2002.

Photos attribution
1. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-318-0083-30/Rascheit/CC BY-SA 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons
2. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-2004-0910-500/CC BY-SA 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons
3., 4., 5. DA PAM 20-255, operational details: author
6., via Wikimedia Commons
7. author
8., operational details: author

Related Posts