The survivors emerge into a ruined Warsaw

Janina Bauman was 13, the daughter of a surgeon, when war broke out. She had spent the days of the bombardment huddled in a cellar with her sister Jadwiga and many others. Now they needed food:

We returned to our flat covered now with thick layers of broken glass, white dust and black soot. Cold draughts roamed freely around the rooms bringing a sharp smell of smouldering ruins. At first, there was no sign of the conquerors in the street, and we did not even think about them. We set to to make our place fit to live in. Our food supplies were already exhausted and somebody had to go out and look for something to eat. Jadwiga found two large baskets – one for herself, the other one for me – and off we went. What we saw I can only describe as a dead town, ruined and burnt to the ground – or so it seemed at first. Many buildings were still smouldering, pavements destroyed, deep bomb craters all around.

A few emaciated people could be seen wandering to and fro like us, looking for food. On one occasion, we saw a crowd swarming around a bomb crater, doing something we could not understand until we came close. Deep down in the crater lay the corpse of a horse killed by the bomb. Excited people dived down into the hole with knives or penknives to hack off bits of the horse’s flesh. Soon the corpse was opened wide and the plunderers fought over the steaming liver. We retreated, sick with disgust. The incident brought home to us, however, that our search for food was hopeless.

See Janina Bauman: Winter in the Morning: Young Girl’s Life in the Warsaw Ghetto and Beyond, 1939-45 (Virago classic non-fiction)

Churchill raises spirits in the Commons

Harold Nicholson records in his diary the contrasting effects of two different addresses to the House of Commons. Winston Churchill was at this time First Lord of the Admiralty [Minister for the Navy], a position he had also held in the First World War:

The Prime Minister [Neville Chamberlain] gets to make his statement. He is dressed in deep mourning relieved only by a white handkerchief and a large gold watch-chain. One feels the confidence and spirits of the House dropping inch by inch. When he sits down there is scarcely any applause.

During the whole speech Winston Churchill had sat hunched beside him looking like the Chinese god of plenty suffering from acute indigestion. He just sits there, lowering, hunched and circular, and then he gets up. He is greeted by a loud cheer from all the benches and he starts to tell us about the Naval position. I notice that Hansard does not reproduce his opening phrases.

He began by saying how strange an experience it was for him after a quarter of a century to find himself once more in the same room in front of the same maps, fighting the same enemy and dealing with the same problems. His face then creases into an enormous grin and he adds, glancing down at the Prime Minister, ‘I have no conception how this curious change in my fortunes occurred: The whole House roared with laughter and Chamberlain had not the decency even to raise a sickly smile. He just looked sulky.

The effect of Winston’s speech was infinitely greater than could be derived from any reading of the text. His delivery was really amazing and he sounded every note from deep preoccupation to flippancy, from resolution to sheer boyishness. One could feel the spirits of the House rising with every word. It was quite obvious afterwards that the Prime Minister’s inadequacy and lack of inspiration had been demonstrated even to his warmest supporters.

In those twenty minutes Churchill brought himself nearer to the post of Prime Minister than he has ever been before. In the Lobbies afterwards even Chamberlainites were saying, ‘We have now found our leader: Old Parliamentary hands confessed that never in their experience had they seen a single speech so change the temper of the House.”

See HAROLD NICHOLSON, Diaries and Letters 1939-45

Warsaw suffers constant bombing and shelling

Heinkel III bomber over Warsaw

Simha Roten was a schoolboy in Warsaw. Although he was Jewish his family ran a hardware store in the Czerniakow suburb of Warsaw, serving mainly Polish customers.

Three half-ton bombs (as I was later told) damaged the house and one made a direct hit, killing and wounding many residents, including Grandfather and Grandmother (my mother’s parents), my aunt Hannah (my mother’s sister), my aunt Zissl’s husband, one cousin, and my brother Israel, aged fourteen.

I was seriously wounded. When I came to, I found myself trapped in the rubble: my neck was caught in a tangle of lines, apparently electrical cords. I started considering how to get out, but I acted cautiously for fear of electrocuting myself; I moved the lines with leather gloves I happened to have with me. A stick torn off one of the beams by a blast was stuck in my neck, a “thorn” in my neck, piercing my windpipe. It was hard to breathe; I felt I was choking. Nevertheless, I managed to pull the stick out without losing too much blood.

I lay among the ruins, trapped to the waist. With great effort I managed to get my legs out of the debris. The German positions were about five hundred meters away, and when I got out, I saw that our house had been completely destroyed; there were no signs of life. I reached the shelter in the house next door, where I found my parents and my two sisters. Obviously, the other members of the family had all been killed.

My uncle Moyshe Krengel, who lived in our house, had been away during the bombing. When he came home, he pointed to me and said, “Who’s that?” His question made me realize that I was unrecognizable, since my face was scratched and covered with a layer of clotted blood.”

See Memoirs of a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter: The Past within Me

The final assault on Warsaw

Wladyslaw Szpilman was amongst hundreds of thousands of civilians caught up in the final onslaught on the Polish capital:

The dreadful days of 25 and 26 September came. The noise of explosions merged with the constant thunder of guns, penetrated by the boom of nose-diving aircraft like electric drills boring holes in iron. The air was heavy with smoke and the dust of crumbling bricks and plaster. It got everywhere, stifling people who had shut themselves up in cellars or their flats, keeping as far as possible from the street.

How I survived those two days I do not know. A splinter of shrapnel killed someone sitting next to me in our friends’ bedroom. I spent two nights and a day with ten people standing in a tiny lavatory. A few weeks later, when we wondered how it had been possible, and tried to squeeze ourselves in there again, we found that only eight people could possibly fit in unless they were in terror for their lives.”

Wladyslaw Szpilman: The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939-45

Reasons for the Polish collapse

The Naval Military and Air Situation , the report made to the War Cabinet for the week ending 21st September 1939

The loss of HMS Courageous is the most significant incident noted with respect to Britain in the past week. There is the also first mention that “there is the suspicion that magnetic mines are being used”.


31. Any hopes that the Poles may have had of reforming their forces in the south-east were shattered by the Soviet invasion which began early on 17 September. Only some 100,000 frontier guards were available to meet this threat and there was no serious resistance.

By the morning of 20 September the Soviet high command claimed that their forces had penetrated to an average depth of 120 miles from the frontier and occupied VILNA, OLITA and BERESTOVITSA (30 miles east of BIALYSTOK). Cavalry and tank units had reached the suburbs of LWOW.

Reasons for Polish collapse.

32. Apart from the numerical superiority of the Germans and the subsequent Russian invasion, the main causes of the Polish collapse appeared to have been as follows: –

(a) Overwhelming German air superiority.

The initial attacks on aerodromes, flying schools and aircraft factories crippled the Polish air force. Subsequent air attacks on the railways and on columns of troops reduced the mobility of the Polish ground forces most seriously and prevented the development of an effective counter offensive. Later, air attacks on the headquarters of the Polish armies and government paralysed the direction of the country’s military and civil activities. These attacks were particularly effective, as the Germans frequently succeeded in locating headquarters either through the espionage system or by directional wireless.

(b) Mechanised forces.

The Poles were surprised not only by the weight of attack but also by the depth to which German mechanised forces operated independently of their main forces. In the initial stages the operations of German armoured formations were important factor in preventing the Poles stabilising the battle. Latterly, however, the Poles seem to have achieved considerable successes against isolated German armoured and motorised troops.

(c) Overconfidence.

The Poles overestimated their own and underestimated the German strength. They appear to have assumed that the lack of roads would paralyse German motorised forces and give the advantage in a war of movement to their own horse cavalry. Consequently they made few defensive preparations. As one observer put it “the Polish army of 1939 was admirably prepared for the war of 1918”.

(d) The late withdrawal of the Western Army.

The head of the British military mission considers that the retreat of the army from the Poznan salient started two days too late. The absence of these eight divisions seriously compromised the effort to halt on the BUG and VISTULA.

Soviet Russia

33. An analysis of the dates of the various preparatory measures taken by the Red Army supports the view that the major decisions were taken after it became clear that an early collapse of the Polish armies was at least highly probable.

Reports indicate that the Soviet government awaited the completion of the very considerable mobilisation which they were carrying out in the West before assuming action. The advance the Red Army started early on 17 September and was naturally rapid as there was little resistance.

There are signs that, in spite of the professions of mutual good faith, the Soviet action was not entirely welcome to the Germans, and may even have been made to forestall them; but, on the other hand, there is some evidence to show that the Soviets were prepared to risk war with Great Britain.

Such was the British analysis even before the Poles had surrendered.

Heydrich directs the Einsatzgruppen to establish Jewish ghettos

Germany’s invasion of Poland was far from complete, yet Reinhard Heydrich was planning something even more dreadful. The following memorandum makes it clear that the measures to establish Jewish ghettos were only a means to an end – the ‘final aim’ is unspecified:

The Chief of the Security Police
Berlin: September 21, 1939

To: Chiefs of all Einsatzgruppen of the Security Police

Subject: Jewish question in the occupied territory

I refer to the conference held in Berlin today and once more point out that the planned overall measures (i.e., the final aim) are to be kept strictly secret.

Distinction must be made between:

(1) The final aim (which will require extended periods of time), and
(2) The stages leading to the fulfillment of this final aim (which will be carried out in short terms).

The planned measures demand the most thorough preparation in their technical as well as economic aspects.
It is obvious that the tasks that lie ahead cannot be laid down in full detail from here. The instructions and guidelines below will at the same time serve the purpose of urging the chiefs of the Einsatzgruppen to give the matter their practical thought.

For the time being, the first prerequisite for the final aim is the concentration of the Jews from the countryside into the larger cities. This is to be carried out with all speed.

The Jewish Virtual Library has a copy of the full memorandum.

Victor Klemperer listens to Hitler’s speech

In Dresden, in eastern Germany, Victor Klemperer, continued to maintain his diary. As a Jew he had been forced out his post as a professor of literature in 1935. His diary chronicles the growing restrictions and harassment of Jews within Germany as well as the general German perspective on the progress of the war. His position was slightly eased by being married to Eva, an ‘Aryan’, who nevertheless had to share in the many privations imposed on him. He also maintained a critical study of the language used in Nazi propaganda and its changing tone during the course of the war.

Our situation grows daily more catastrophic. Order yesterday: restricted access to bank account, surrender of all ready cash; today police inquiry as to our suppliers; it therefore looks as if we are to be more strictly rationed than the general populace. I was in Pirna in the morning.

Yesterday afternoon I heard the greater part of the Fuhrer’s speech over the loudspeaker at the Freiheitskampf office on Bismarckplatz. Some of it rhetorically very effective. The Polish soldiers fought very bravely, the junior officers did their duty, the middle ranks lacked intelligence, the commanding officers were all bad, the organisation was Polish. .. We do not have a kept government as in 1918, we are a nation in the tradition of Frederick the Great, we shall not capitulate even after three years, even after five years, even after six years. Etc. etc. At the same time France is courted, it should abandon England. The English are bunglers at propaganda, they need to take lessons from us. Peace with Russia, they remain Bolshevists and we remain National Socialists! … I had the impression that all the bystanders were completely satisfied, sure of victory, sure even of imminent peace. – But every single measure points to a long war.

See Victor Klempere: I Will Bear Witness 1933-1941: A Diary of the Nazi Years