Informing the generals of secret negotiations with the Soviets that had produced a nonaggression pact (but not of the treaty's secret clause providing for the partition of Poland), Hitler spoke about his determination to redress by force the last remaining German grievance against the Versailles peace: the dismemberment of East Prussia and the subjugation of millions of Germans to Polish rule as well as, according to propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, Polish abuse of them. Hitler claimed to have made proposals in good faith to the Polish government - all of them rejected. War with Poland was now a certainty. Hitler announced that he would probably order the attack for August 26:
The destruction of Poland has priority....I shall provide a propaganda reason for starting the war - never mind whether it is plausible or not. The victor will not be asked afterward whether or not he told the truth. In starting and waging war it is not right that matters but victory. Close your hearts to pity! Act brutally!
The generals listened in depressed silence. One fell asleep.
THE PREPARATIONS of the Polish army during this time of very real crisis revealed that while Polish commanders took the danger of invasion seriously, they lacked the skill and the character to meet the challenge. The Poles had a peacetime army of some twenty-three infantry divisions (which would grow to thirty on the eve of the invasion) and eleven cavalry brigades, plus two armored brigades; the latter were equipped with only small numbers of up-to-date tanks and many obsolete models. Still, the overall quality of this army was not to be dismissed: As Blumentritt wrote after the war, "The Polish officer corps was competent and courageous, and was highly regarded by the Wehrmacht."
But it was the cavalry that embodied the most outstanding features of Poland's military style, both good and bad. For hundreds of years, Polish horsemen had been among the world's finest, famous for their daring shock tactics and particularly for their terrifying night attacks. Napoleon had incorporated Polish lancers as an elite unit of his own Grande Armée. Yet pride in their success had made many of Poland's senior officers complacent. For example, the commander in chief of the Polish army, Marshal Edward Rydz-Smigly, had had his portrait painted against a background of charging Polish cavalry while his opposite numbers to the west were wrangling with the problems of mobile armored warfare.
Excessive pride also marred the Polish army's preparations for war with Germany. Geographically, Poland was in an almost hopeless situation. By seizing Czechoslovakia, Hitler had given his army three possible avenues of assault into Polish territory. The Poles' only real hope was to pull their defenses in from the very start - perhaps even as far back as the barrier of the Vistula - and fight a defensive war while waiting for France and England to force the Germans to disengage and attend to their western border.
From the start, however, such ideas were rejected by the Polish high command - in fact, they were rarely put forth for fear of the reception they would get. Some of Poland's most valuable industrial regions lay to the west of the Vistula, and the Corridor had become a symbol of the reborn and resurgent Poland. Few generals dared suggest that these regions be abandoned before even an attempt was made to defend them.
One who did have the courage to raise the issue was a General Kutzreba, director of the Polish Military Academy and commander of the Poznan´ army during the battle for Poland. While even Kutzreba's ideas were probably not radical enough to have prevented eventual disaster, his suggestion that the Polish army abandon not only the Corridor but the western section of the province of Poznan (bordering on Germany) might have given the Poles a better chance of concentrating their forces and successfully holding out until the pressure was relieved by their allies.
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.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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