TIME's Sept. 11, 1939, report on the beginning of World War II
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World War II began last week at 5:20 a. m. (Polish time) Friday, September 1, when a German bombing plane dropped a projectile on Puck, fishing village and air base in the armpit of the Hel Peninsula. At 5:45 a. m. the German training ship Schleswig-Holstein lying off Danzig fired what was believed to be the first shell: a direct hit on the Polish underground ammunition dump at Westerplatte. It was a grey day, with gentle rain.
In the War’s first five days, hundreds of Nazi bombing planes dumped ton after ton of explosive on every city of any importance the length & breadth of Poland. They aimed at air bases, fortifications, bridges, railroad lines and stations, but in the process they killed upward of 1,500 noncombatants. The Nazi ships were mostly big Heinkels, unaccompanied by pursuit escorts. Germany admitted losing 21 planes to Polish counterattack by pursuits and antiaircraft. They claimed to have massacred more than half of a 47-plane Polish squadron which tried to bomb Berlin.
Out of a welter of sketchy bulletins, counter-claims and unpronounceable names (see col. j) flowing from Poland, the broad outlines of Germany’s assault began to take shape. Recapture of what was Germany in 1914 was the first objective: Danzig, the Corridor, and a hump of Upper Silesia (see map, p. 19). It is believed that Adolf Hitler, if allowed to take and keep this much, might have checked his juggernaut at these lines for the time being. When Britain & France insisted that he withdraw entirely from Polish soil or consider himself at war with them, he determined on the complete shattering and subjugation of Poland. Ordering his other generals to hold the Western Front (see p. 28), he made the gesture of joining General von Brauchitsch “somewhere” on the Polish Front. There, by this week, the German offensive was focused in six main lines.
From East Prussia, one force moved on Grudziadz. After four days, it made contact with another force driving across the Corridor from the west to cut the Warsaw-Gdynia rail line. Also from East Prussia went a column aimed at Mlawa and Pultusk. Based on Breslau, a many-headed fourth Nazi onslaught was launched toward Lodz, Kielce and Cracow. Based on Bratislava in Slovakia, a fifth and sixth spearhead were driven up through the Jablonka Pass and over the steep Tatras to the East. Radomska, Czestochowa, Katowice, Teschen and Nowy Targ were the first targets of these southwestern assaults. German commanders claimed to be taking all objectives “on schedule,” while the Polish defenders reported repeated counterattacks and recaptures.
Grand strategy of the Polish Armies was to retire slowly, conserve manpower, shorten their lines. Their Western stand was to be on a line running south from Torun to Czestochowa. From there South to behind Teschen they had a fortified front which the German divisions must crack or outflank.
As the mechanized German units advanced, the Smigly (nimble) cavalry of Generalissimo Smigly-Rydz swept around them to get at the German infantry. Poles claimed that successful counterattacks of this nature had carried the fighting to German soil on the west, in the neighborhood of Breslau and, in the north, over the East Prussian border below Allenstein. For this week, a major battle loomed as the Poles fell back upon prepared positions along the Narew River.
Weather, next to stomachs, is war’s most basic consideration.* Six predictably fair weeks of Polish autumn lay ahead for action on the fat Polish plains. Then will come rains which the Poles hope will bog down the German juggernaut on the purposely unpaved roads leading in from the borders. In the mountain passes on the South soon will come General Snow to aid the defenders.
Triangle. Ultimate core of Polish defense is the triangular Central Region of Industry (C. O. P.) between Cracow on the west, Lwów on the east, Lublin on the north. Into this area, guarded by highlands, served by two rivers, Poland two years ago moved her vital steel and munitions works, built power plants, at a cost of $200,000,000.
Postern. If forced back into her Triangle, Poland can expect direct aid only through her southeast postern, the valley of the Dniester down to Rumania and the Black Sea. Clearly seen last week was the reason why Poland, when Hitler carved Czecho-Slovakia, stood watchful guard over those Carpathian peaks which frown down on the Dniester Valley. When Hungarians rushed in and seized the Carpatho-Ukraine (eastern tip of Czecho-Slovakia), Poles embraced them at their new common border, for Hungary is traditionally Poland’s friend. Much depends for Poland on Hungary’s continued neutrality, for only by marching around through Hungary, unless he fights through from Cracow to Lwów, can Hitler sever the artery (river, railroad, broad highway) by which France and Britain may give Poland blood transfusions via the Mediterranean (see p. 22).
On the East. Poland’s defenses are not concentrated. Only five fortified cities piece out the distances not protected by the morasses of the many-branched Pripet River, to stave out the Red Army which last week growled ominously (see p. 35). Should the Red Army move west, Poland would desperately need Rumanians, Turks and Greeks to help man its eastern marches.
>Heroes this week were a handful of Polish soldiers left in charge of the Westerplatte munitions dump. Under steady bombing and shell fire, they held out as a suicide squad in the thick-walled fortress, replying from its depths with machine gun fire, resolved to blow up the dump and themselves with it before surrendering.
>Another small band of Poles took and held the Danzig post office until artillery was drawn up to blow away the building’s face, gasoline poured on from above and set afire.
>German planes dropped soldiers (with parachutes) behind Polish lines, where they reconnoitred, reported back to their army via small, portable radios. Poles captured them right & left, gave ‘them short shrift. Over bombed Warsaw, the Poles erected a poor imitation of London’s “balloon barrage,” claimed that a German pilot got caught in the net.
>Gas was first reported on the war’s fourth day, dropped in bombs by German planes.
>The Germans complained that Polish civilians were taking up arms, waging treacherous guerrilla warfare in their rear.
>The German Navy claimed full control of the Baltic, said it had sunk a Polish destroyer and submarine off Gdynia.
Puck & Luck
Foreigners have several times conquered Poland, but few foreigners have ever mastered the pronunciation of Polish. It has a peculiar letter similar to L which is pronounced like W; W is pronounced like V or F; CZ like SH; SZ as in the word “azure.” Poles also frequently half tick off an extra consonant or two that is hitched in front of many words, and pronounce OW at the end of words as in “woof-woof.”
The names of various places and people connected with the War in Poland, together with rough approximations of their pronunciation (suitable for U. S. tongues):
- Warszawa (Warsaw): var-sha-va
- Bydgoszcz: bid-goch
- Wisla (Vistula) : vees-wa.
- Tczew: cheff
- Poznań: posh-nine
- Grudziadz: groo-jaj
- Lódź: wooj
- Mlawa: Wa-va.
- Czestochowa: ches-to-Ao-va
- Kraków: kra-koof
- Lwów: voof
- Rzeszów: shay-shooi
- Chojnice: hoy-weet-sa
- Katowice: kat-o-veet-sa.
- Brześć: shetch
- Pszczyna: sh-chee-na
- Przasnysz: shas-nitch
- Przemyśl: shem-ishl
- Puck: pootsk
- Luck: wootsk
- Smigly-Rydz: shmig-wy-rij
- Slawoj-Skladkowski: swa-voy-skwad-kof-ski
- Swistoslawski: svis-to-swav-ski
- Kasprzycki: kasp-sheet-ski
- Moscicki: mo-cheet-ski
- Stachiewicz: stahi-evish
- Raczynski: rash-een-ski
- Lukasiewicz: woo-feasz-evish
- Potocki: pot-otski
*In 1927 at the Geneva disarmament talks U.S. Delegate Hugh Gibson said : “This conference has become a matter of hogs, fogs, and bogs.”