The opening shots of World War II on the Westerplatte

The heavily wooded Westerplatte peninsula had been a popular park but now contained an ammunition depot. The Polish garrison of only 182, armed mainly with machine guns and mortars, was to make a heroic stand, fighting against overwhelming odds for over a week.

World War II began with the invasion of Poland. Without warning at 0445 the German Battleship Schleswig-Holstein began shelling the Polish garrison at Westerplatte, while the German army swept across the border. The old battleship had sailed into the free city of Danzig earlier in August on a ‘courtesy visit’ and would have launched an assault on 26th August, only for Hitler to postpone the date of the invasion.

The German Battleship Schleswig-Holstein began shelling the Polish garrison at Westerplatte

The heavily wooded Westerplatte peninsula had been a popular park but now contained an ammunition depot. The Polish garrison of only 182, armed mainly with machine guns and mortars, was to make a heroic stand, fighting against overwhelming odds for over a week. The episode might well be seen as the Polish ‘Alamo’ except on this occasion most of the defenders survived, inflicting much greater losses on the German attackers. Ignacy Skowron, then a corporal in the Polish garrison, later remembered

The cruiser then sailed into the channel and started to fire shell after shell at us. I saw huge trees being snapped in two.

On the second day there were three attacks before midday. We fought back and then later we heard some noise and there were planes overhead. They started to dive-bomb us and guardhouse number five was completely destroyed. Five soldiers were killed.

The Germans saw that their attacks weren’t working so they used flame-throwers to try and overcome us with flames. By the sixth day we were barely managing to survive because we were cold, hungry, dirty, and we hadn’t slept. We were struggling.

There were hundreds of German dead but most of the Poles survived and they were allowed to make an honourable surrender, with the officer keeping his sword. See BBC 2009 news report

The devastated Westerplatte a week later as the Germans advance

Germany invades Poland

One of a series of well known propaganda shots of German troops on the point of invasion.

One of a series of well known propaganda shots of German troops on the point of invasion
German Panzers, with a Command Tank at the front, ready for the invasion.
Wielun: bombed on the first day of the war

The Gleiwitz incident: the ‘first man to die’ in the War

If there’s the slightest provocation, I shall shatter Poland without warning into so many pieces that there will be nothing left to pick up. – I will give propagandistic cause for the release of the war, whether convincing or not. The winner is not asked later whether he said the truth or not.

In August 1939 Hitler was stirring up tension with Poland and he was prepared to fabricate whatever was needed as a pretext to invade. On August 11th he told the League of Nations High Commissioner

If there’s the slightest provocation, I shall shatter Poland without warning into so many pieces that there will be nothing left to pick up.

On August 22nd Hitler spoke to his military commanders

I will give propagandistic cause for the release of the war, whether convincing or not. The winner is not asked later whether he said the truth or not.

In fact preparations for Operation Tannenburg had begun on August 8th when SS-Gruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich told his men that war with Poland was ‘inevitable’.

The idea for fake “border incidents”, in which Germany would apparently be the victim of attacks by Poles probably came from Heydrich himself. It was he who was ordered to stage them, assisted by SS-Oberfuhrer Muller, head of the Gestapo.

They started by scouting the Silesian border between Germany and Poland and soon found suitable locations near the town of Gleiwitz. What they wanted were relatively isolated outposts of the German government that could be attacked by ‘Polish aggressors’. The attacks would be on a forestry station, a customs house and a radio station, where the ‘Poles’ would take over a German radio broadcast and make nationalistic statements in Polish. This would have a dramatic impact on ordinary Germans listening to their radios at home.

A plan was rapidly put together where SS troops dressed as Polish ‘rogues’ accompanied by units from the Polish army would ‘attack’ other SS troops dressed as German border guards. A refinement that was introduced during the planning was that some of the ‘Poles’ would be killed in the attack, so that their bodies could be presented to the worlds’ press as “evidence”. The victims were to be concentration camp inmates dressed as Poles, known as “canned goods”.

If the context and implications were not so serious the whole ‘pretend’ episode could be seen as a complete farce, especially as the Nazi’s had to go to extreme lengths to maintain the secrecy of the operation yet were simultaneously giving the nod to various individuals to keep ‘out of the way’. It was arranged that the regular Wehrmacht would keep clear of specific border areas so that they would not get mixed up in actually responding to ‘Polish aggression’.

The descent into farce came closer when on August 23rd, almost as soon as the ink was dry on the Nazi-Soviet Non aggression pact, Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland to start at 4.30 am on 26th August. The first of three successive code words for Operation Tannenburg to commence on August 25th was sent. When the second code word was sent on the evening of 25th two of the ‘attacking’ units became confused and started to cross the border without waiting for the final third code word. Yet Hitler had had a change of mind, rescinding his order to invade because of British guarantees to Poland and a lack of support from Mussolini. Operation Tannenburg was now halted as well. German motor cyclists were sent out to deliver desperate messages to the ‘Polish’ forces telling them to stop.

This led to a revision of the overall plan. Now the takeover of the Radio station by ‘Polish rebels’ became more important. To give it added credibility it was decided that a real ‘Polish rebel’ was needed, so that he could be killed while ‘attacking’ the German radio station. The unfortunate Franz Honiok was selected from police files as being a well known local Polish sympathiser who had fought with the Poles during the 1921 rebellion by Silesian Polish nationalists, even though he was a German national. The 41 year old farmer and agricultural equipment salesman was picked up by the Gestapo on 30th August and held incommunicado.

Hitler decided to go ahead with the invasion on 30th August with the commencement of ‘Fall Weiss’ set for 5.45am on 1st September. Operation Tannenberg was back on. The attack on the Gleiwitz Radio staton went ahead on the evening of the 31st.

At around 8pm the ‘rebels’ managed to break into the unlocked compound and beat up the three radio station employees, all German nationals. Then their problems began. First they could not find a microphone. Further assaults on the radio station employees led to the discovery that it was not a radio station at all, merely a radio transmitter relay station for Radio Breslau, located many kilometers away. In desperation the ‘rebels’ found an emergency channel used for sending out local flood warnings and used this to send out their message of ‘Polish aggression’. How many people heard it, if any, is not known. However hundreds of thousands of Germans sitting at home listening to light music on the radio did not have their evenings interrupted by insurrectionist messages in Polish, as originally planned.

Meanwhile Franz Honiok, who had earlier been drugged into semi-consciousness, was dragged out, placed near the entrance to the radio station and shot in the back of the head. Later that evening the local police were called in to take photographs of the body, which they were forced to hand over to the Gestapo. When these were viewed in Berlin it was decided that they were not good enough – so the Gestapo went back and took pictures of the body in a different position – mysteriously by this stage a second body had been added. Eventually it was decided that even these could not be used for propaganda purposes. What happened to the bodies has never been established.

Later that evening the attacks went ahead on the Pitschen Forestry Station, where a bucket of ox blood was spread around, and at the Hochlinden Customs House, where the bodies of the “canned goods”, the concentration camp inmates, were left. However it was the attack on the Gleiwitz ‘radio station’ that attracted the most attention. The ‘take over of a German broadcast by Poles’ was being reported by German radio by 10.30pm and by the BBC the same evening, and featured in the New York Times the next day. Hitler referred to ‘three serious border incidents’ in his speech to the Reichstag on the 1st September announcing the war. The Nazi’s persisted with the Gleiwitz myth for years, it was only first seriously challenged at the Nuremburg trials.

See Alfred Spiess and Heiner Lichtenstein: Das Unternehmen Tannenberg also available from amazon.com.

See also issue 142 of After the Battle which has a thorough analysis and numerous photographs.

Lingering hopes for peace

The artist and diarist Keith Vaughan records the general mood in England:

We wait still; war or peace. The governments have locked themselves in and continue exchanging letters; only we no longer know what they are saying. Tension has relaxed, simply because it was impossible to remain at that pitch of anxious fever for long. But the situation is the same. One hopes blindly for some miracle, but one dare not speak about it. People seem resigned, almost cheerful. ‘I think we’re going to have a slap at him this time.’

See Keith Vaughan Journals, 1939-77

Hitler vents his frustration on Major Engel

Major Gerhard Engel was Hitlers Army Adjutant. He gives us an idea of Hitler’s state of mind on the brink of war:

F. is as never before on edge, irritable, sharp with everybody. Thus Schmundt and I had to receive a heap of abuse against the Army after it had been all quiet on that front for some time. F. emphasised that he now knew how the General Staff were thinking. Certain things had come to his knowledge about which he preferred not to speak at present. One thing was clear: he would not allow the military to give him counsel on whether there should be peace or war. He was simply unable to understand those German soldiers who feared battle. Frederick the Great would turn in his grave if he saw today’s generals. All he wanted was an end to unjust behaviour by the Poles vis-a-vis the German state. He did not want war at all with the others. If they were stupid enough to get involved, the blood would be on their hands, and they would have to be destroyed.”

See At the Heart of the Reich: The Secret Diary of Hitler’s Army Adjutant,
also available from Amazon.com and Amazon.ca

Germany and Russia sign Non-Aggression Pact

Hitler and Stalin surprised the world when they announced a pact between themselves. The arrangement allowed Hitler to launch his forces against Poland knowing that he would not suffer from Russian interference. Furthermore he would be free to turn to West without worrying about his Eastern front in due. The clause dividing Poland with Russia remained secret until the moment Russian troops marched into Poland on the 17th September.

See Professor Orlando-Figes on the historical context of the Pact.

The Italians expect war

The Italian Foreign Minister Count Ciano anticipates the attack on Poland

I meet the Polish ambassador at the beach. I speak with him in vague terms and advise moderation. Our counsellor at Warsaw tells us that Poland will fight to the last man. The churches are filled. The people pray and sing a hymn, ‘O God, help us save our country.’ These people will be massacred by German steel tomorrow. They are completely innocent. My heart is with them.”

See The Ciano Diaries 1939-1943: The Complete, Unabridged Diaries of Count Galeazzo Ciano, Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, 1936-1943

Germany and Italy sign the "Pact of Steel"

I thought Hitler was in excellent shape, quite serene, less aggressive. A little older. His eyes are more deeply wrinkled. He sleeps very little. Always less. And he spends most of the night surrounded by collaborators and friends. Frau Goebbels, who is a regular participant in these gatherings and who feels quite honored by them, was describing them to me without being able to conceal a vague feeling of boredom because of their monotony. It is always Hitler who talks!

The German Reich and Italy committed themselves to military cooperation and mutual support in case of war in the ‘Pact of Steel’. The photo shows Hitler handing the treaty to the Italian Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano (front left) in the new Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Hermann Göring can be seen next to Hitler on the right.

Count Ciano was to record in his diary that Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Minister, saw the treaty as a means to secure ‘a long period of peace of at least three years’.

He also recorded his impressions of Hitler and the latest gossip …

I thought Hitler was in excellent shape, quite serene, less aggressive. A little older. His eyes are more deeply wrinkled. He sleeps very little. Always less. And he spends most of the night surrounded by collaborators and friends. Frau Goebbels, who is a regular participant in these gatherings and who feels quite honored by them, was describing them to me without being able to conceal a vague feeling of boredom because of their monotony. It is always Hitler who talks! He can be Fuhrer as much as he likes, but he always repeats himself and bores his guests. For the first time I hear hints, within the inner circles, of the Fuhrer’s tender feelings for a beautiful girl.
She is twenty years old with beautiful quiet eyes, regular features, and a magnificent body. Her name is Sigrid von Lappers. They see each other frequently and intimately.

And he notes that Goering has ‘tears in his eyes’ when he see that Ribbentrop has around his neck the ‘Collar of the Annunziata’, a diplomatic honour awarded by the Italians.

See The Ciano Diaries 1939-1943: The Complete, Unabridged Diaries of Count Galeazzo Ciano, Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, 1936-1943

Hitler’s Birthday Parade

‘I’m now 50 years old,’ he told his entourage in August, ‘still in full possession of my strength. The problems must be solved by me, and I can wait no longer. In a few years I will be physically and perhaps mentally no longer up to it.’

SS troops march through Berlin in a parade to celebrate Hitler's birthday, April 1939

As some biographers have commented, the passing of 50 years was just one more factor influencing Hitler to go to war. He felt he was running out of time. He had always been a chronic hypochondriac and now, with this milestone birthday, he had been reminded that he was beginning to age.

‘I’m now 50 years old,’ he told his entourage in August, ‘still in full possession of my strength. The problems must be solved by me, and I can wait no longer. In a few years I will be physically and perhaps mentally no longer up to it.’

The Munich Agreement: ‘Peace for our Time’

“the settlement of the Czechoslovakian problem, which has now been achieved is, in my view, only the prelude to a larger settlement in which all Europe may find peace. This morning I had another talk with the German Chancellor, Herr Hitler, and here is the paper which bears his name”

Neville Chamberlain announces he has come to an agreement with Hitler at Munich.

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew into Hendon Aerodrome following his meeting with Hitler in Munich.

“…the settlement of the Czechoslovakian problem, which has now been achieved is, in my view, only the prelude to a larger settlement in which all Europe may find peace. This morning I had another talk with the German Chancellor, Herr Hitler, and here is the paper which bears his name upon it as well as mine (waves paper to the crowd – receiving loud cheers and “Hear Hears”). Some of you, perhaps, have already heard what it contains but I would just like to read it to you …”.

It was not until later in the day, outside 10 Downing Street that he used the phrase ‘peace for our time’…

My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time.

The phrase became popularly reinterpreted as the expression ‘peace in our time‘.

The Declaration signed by Chamberlain and Hitler on 30th September 1938

The Munich Agreement was a separate document.