Excerpt of No End Save Victory by Stephen Ambrose, Robert Cowley
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The German Breakout 1939-1941 by Caleb Carr
Hitler's invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, without a formal declaration of war, signaled the beginning of World War II in Europe. But his Polish campaign was, in a sense, a separate war, a dress rehearsal for the real one in 1940. It was the war Hitler won. Great Britain and France did come in two days later, but they could do little more than stand by while Hitler's armies - and then Stalin's - consumed Poland. That three-week war is chiefly remembered now (if it is remembered at all) as a laboratory for a new kind of mechanized warfare: blitzkrieg. The methods honed in Poland would be those used in France, Russia, and North Africa. But what goes largely unsaid - and it is a point that Caleb Carr emphasizes here - is how hard and well the Poles fought, with many fewer troops than the invaders, inferior equipment, and a strategic situation that was hopeless from day one, and that only became worse when the Soviet Union struck from the rear. As they learned to their sorrow, and it was a lesson repeated endlessly for both sides those next years: courage was not enough.
Caleb Carr is best known for his novels about crime in the New York City of the 1890s, The Alienist, The Angel of Darkness, and Killing Time (which appeared in Time, in Dickens-like installments). But as the readers of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History have long recognized, he is also a notable military historian.
IN THE LAST DAYS OF AUGUST 1939, THE GERMAN SEVENTH Armored Reconnaissance Regiment was moving east, along with the rest of the Wehrmacht. "Officially," recalled one officer in the Seventh A.R., "we were to take part in 'grand maneuvers under combat conditions.' Although live ammunition was being carried, we were issued only blanks....Local people greeted us everywhere with flowers and drinks. 'Are you going to Poland?' we were asked. 'Of course not,' we replied. 'We're going on maneuvers.'"
On August 26, the Seventh A.R. reached the Polish border with Czechoslovakia, a nation recently occupied by German forces and now offering an excellent launching point for an attack into Poland. "Suddenly," the same officer went on, "the blank cartridges were exchanged for live ammunition. Now there was no longer any doubt: We were going to invade."
The attack was launched on September 1. The German navy shelled the contested port city of Danzig (Gdansk) in the north while the German army embarked on a huge pincer movement from north to south, aimed at the Polish capital, Warsaw. Although Polish resistance at the outset was disorganized - or nonexistent - the Germans soon found themselves fighting hard. Another German veteran wrote, "We admired our opponents for their national pride and commitment. They demanded our respect."
This is not the impression of the Polish campaign that has been generally fostered in the years since 1939. The German army's humiliation of France in 1940 and its early successes against the Soviet Union so stunned the world that the brief war the Wehrmacht waged against Poland is often seen as a mere dress rehearsal for those more momentous events. In hindsight, it seems impossible that little Poland, with its obsolete army and antiquated military tradition, could have stood even a remote chance against the world's most advanced military juggernaut. From this point of view, it is remarkable not that Germany defeated her eastern neighbor but that the campaign took as long as it did: seventeen days to decide the issue in the field, twenty-seven days to force the capitulation of Warsaw.
This assessment of the Polish campaign, while common, does little justice to either antagonist. In both the quality of their fighting and their occasional displays of tactical (if not strategic) ability, the Poles proved themselves a fighting force of far greater merit than, say, the French army that was sent reeling eight months later. And the German army in 1939 had not yet been transformed into the amazing war machine it would become in later years. That metamorphosis would actually begin during the heat of the Polish campaign, and constitutes a testament to the skill and innovative acumen of the German officer corps.
Reprinted from No End Save Victory Edited by Robert Cowley by permission of G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2001 Edited by Robert Cowley. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.