AAR – We’ll Die for Danzig
Chapter 2 – The Banks of the Vistula
The initial hostilities in Europe began more or less as expected, with a German offensive launching into western and northern Poland on August 31st, 1939. All 18 of General Władysław Anders’ divisions were stretched thin as they remained entrenched from Danzig to Krakow, awaiting reinforcement from General Antoni Szylling’s 17 divisions, tasked with bolstering the area west of Krakow. Kopanski would have to deal with the Germans in East Prussia alone.
Fortunately for Poland, England and France stayed true to their word, declaring war on Germany as the Wehrmacht began their offensive. Only time would tell whether or not their promises would hold any weight.
The initial German offensive was met with mixed results, with Polish forces scoring surprising victories south west of Katowice. Here, Mother Nature sided with Poland, forcing German forces led by General Gerd von Rundstedt to attack through the Sudeten Mountains and a series of Polish fortresses. The Wehrmacht struggled to supply and reinforce in such a harsh terrain, and just two days after the onset of the war, General Anders counter attacked von Rundstedt. This small offensive into German territory pushed four divisions into former Czechoslovakia, keeping the German’s off balance.
The front was more or less stable with Germany probing Polish defenses, unwilling to commit a large number of forces into any single area until weak points could be established. Three days after combat began, Slovakia agreed to join their German allies in the battle for Europe, opening a new front south of Poland. The Polish underbelly was now exposed, and both German and Slovakian troops began pushing north out of the Carpathian mountains.
With the sudden need to further reinforce the southern border, Anders’ withdrew his 4 divisions pushing into Germany. Portions of Szylling’s army were now present, and barely beat the Germans in a race to Krakow.
The fighting in Poznan and Danzig was growing increasingly desperate for Poland, as all forces in the north began a retreat on September 3rd. Kopanski’s armies began a full withdrawal to the Vistula river, their last line of defense to protect Warsaw. As Kopanski retreated, a German offensive broke a hole in Anders’ line just north of Poznan, forcing his armies to backpedal in order to close the gap. Valuable defensive lines were abandoned at the price of maintaining a solid front, and Poznan would surely fall.
In a desperate gamble, Anders and Szylling coordinated an offensive east towards Breslau, hoping to pull German troops south where their lines were thinner, taking pressure off of the failing Polish armies to the north. The Polish forces only had the initiative to push several miles into German territory, but if it drew attention away from northern Poland then it was a worthwhile endeavor. 6 days into the war Poland had suffered 16,000 casualties, but had inflicted 27,000 onto the Germans. Poland was losing ground rapidly, but their enemies were going to pay for every step of it.
By September 7th, General Kopanski’s forces were in complete disarray, now falling back behind the Vistula and into Warsaw itself. The river was the last barrier between Warsaw and the Wehrmacht onslaught.
Anders lost Poznan as his troops fell back to the Warta river, leaving two divisions to be encircled in Danzig. The two lone divisions fought mercilessly, drastically outnumbered and outgunned as a German force over three times its size rushed to tear it apart. For the Poles, the situation was hopeless from the very beginning, but the defenders of Danzig endured for several days before being overwhelmed and crushed. As the Wehrmacht stormed the port city they caught the small Polish navy still tied alongside their berths, scuttling the warships as they were deemed useless to the far superior Kreigsmarine. It was now the 16th of September, 17 days after Germany invaded. Poland had now suffered 74,000 casualties, and Germany 56,000.
Just two weeks into the war the situation was overwhelmingly bleak for the Polish army who grew increasingly aggravated by the lack of support from their partners in the Allies. Little Poland was dismissed as a loss while the first shell casings were being expended, leaving France content to guard its border at the Maginot line while England focused on supporting its extensive network of colonies across the globe. Polish diplomats pleaded in both Paris and London for assistance, but their cries were met with little sympathy from nations who’s own survival was also at stake. The truth was, there was very little they could do. The Royal Navy may have been the pride of the world, but what British battleships did in the English Channel had little impact on the war to the east. Even if the full weight of the English army could land in Europe and link up with the French, it was far from guaranteed that they could eventually take down the Wehrmacht.
Germany managed to launch an offensive across the Vistula and into Warsaw on September 24th. A lone Polish garrison unit attempted to hold the German 4th Infantry Division at bay, and was just hours from being over run before reinforcements joined them in the Polish capital. While the fate of Warsaw hung from a thin string, the German Army moved ever closer to Krakow, forcing the Polish army to defend the opposite bank of the southern Vistula. The Polish homeland was growing smaller at an exponential rate. Both sides inflicted tremendous casualties upon each other as the fighting became increasingly chaotic, with Poland reaching 115,000 casualties by September 28th. Germany was close behind at 112,000 while Slovakia was nearing 1,000.
Despite the utter collapse of every region of the Polish line, the defense of Krakow was legendary. Germany broke through the Sudeten Mountains by the end of September, getting within a days travel of the major Polish city. Territory just miles from Krakow would change hands multiple times a week as the Poles retreated, counter attacked, then retreated again. It became a war of attrition that Poland would surely lose, racking up an additional 35,000 casualties over the next two weeks. Germany lost an additional 30,000 men in the same period.
Every man that Poland lost was an attempt at buying time. Even the most fanatic believer in the Poles knew that they were only weeks away from capitulation, unless their allies could pull off a decisive victory against Germany in the west. As the German army was slowly chipped away in Poland, this created opportunities for France back on the Maginot line as German reinforcements were pulled east. On October 9th 1939, France launched its first offensive of the war, attempting to drive 27 divisions from the 6th Army between Frankfurt and Munich. All of Poland prayed that the effort would not be too late.
As the number of fighting men on the Polish front diminished, an additional 60,000 men were pulled up from the reserves, forming 10 new divisions to help bolster the increasingly thin line near Warsaw. As their newly formed units began to march, seven of Kopanski and Szylling’s divisions were trapped on the wrong side of the Vistula, surrounded by German forces.
A number of these new divisions attempted to support in an offensive across the river to open up a lane of travel for the doomed men behind German lines. The sudden offensive ran the risk of attracting a German counterattack which could blow open the Polish line at Warsaw, but Kopanski refused to let his men die without a fight. The initial attack was successful, but the push was stopped just past the Vistula. The Polish units simply lacked the ability to punch through the superior Wehrmacht, condemning the stranded units to death. Kopanski gave up the newly taken ground, moving back behind the protective currents of the Vistula yet again. Polish defenses from Warsaw to Krakow were now focused behind Poland’s largest river.
As winter set in, Germany grew ever closer to other European powers, welcoming Romania into the Axis powers on November 23rd, and Italy on December 5th. While Romania was little concern to Poland, the inclusion of Italy into the war was extremely disheartening. Sharing a border with France, the French army would now need to commit troops to the Italian front, severely complicating their already monumental task of pushing into Germany.
The second successful breach of the Vistula occurred on the 16th of December, as the German General Eduard Dietl led the 1st and 40th Infantry Divisions towards Kielce, allowing an additional 11 divisions to follow behind them. The retreating Polish forces pulled back to Kielce, preparing to counter attack. The noose continued to tighten around Poland’s neck. The Wehrmacht was content to take its time, dealing with a more serious threat out of France. Chipping away at the Polish defenses was a sound strategy as Poland quickly dwindled its manpower, and every factory occupied made the resupply effort even more difficult. Even the breakthrough around Kielce stagnated as the snow began to pile on as December dragged on. Poland was still here, despite many expectations. The question was how much longer would they last? France was making little progress, and the English were nowhere to be found in Europe. If anything was for certain, the Polish would fight until the last man. For now, they could rely on the growing cold to slow the pace and buy some excess time to resupply and reinforce. It was going to be a very long winter, but it would not last forever.