The large windows on the eastern façade of the Saxon Palace allowed the full glare of the morning sun to cast a deceptively bright sheen on what any sane man could only describe as a scene of foreboding chaos. Aides and staffers scrambled about the conference room, desperately trying to bring order to a situation that already threatened to overwhelm what was now the most important room in Poland. For four hours, Poland had been at war with Germany.
As Minister of Military Affairs, Generał dywizji
Tadeusz Kasprzycki was charged with coordinating the Polish Military’s operations and advising the President on defense issues. Technically, that’s what this meeting was for. Technically.
Kasprzycki pinched the bridge of his nose and forced himself to acknowledge that General Inspector Marszałek Polski
Edward Rydz-Śmigły was doing his damndest to complicate matters. Second in power only to the President, Rydz-Śmigły was Commander-in-Chief of the military now that war had broken out, and he had his own ideas on how to prosecute the war.
President Mościcki, General Inspector Rydz-Śmigły, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Beck formed Poland's ruling triumvirate. The leading party, OZN, was a pro-military organization formed in 1937 to preserve Marshal Piłsudski's political legacy.
Rydz-Śmigły’s fist shook the conference table, and a few map counters jumped. So did a pair of startled aides. Rydz-Śmigły’s deep-set eyes and hawkish nose gave the man a fearsome appearance, and few in the room cared to have the Marshal’s attention directed towards them. “We can’t give up the frontier without a fight! The people demand that we keep the German invaders out.” Behind the Marshal, Chief of Staff Wacław Stachiewicz nodded his agreement. Stachiewicz was a useless creature, Kasprzycki thought, whose competence was outweighed by his utter subservience to Rydz-Śmigły. Turning to the President, the Marshal continued. “If we pull back and consign ourselves to the defensive, we won’t last the year. We’ll be dragged into the streets and rightfully shot.”
President Ignacy Mościcki nodded. At a dignified 71, the President was two decades older than anybody else in the room. Like Stachiewicz, Mościcki owed his position to Rydz-Śmigły, who didn’t have enough support on his own to proclaim himself dictator. He absently tugged on his mustache, weighing the arguments with his politician’s mind. “Minister, what are our contingencies for a counteroffensive?” Small surprise that he would back the Marshal.
In 1936, President Mościcki promoted General Rydz-Śmigły to the rank of Marszałek Polski. Rydz-Śmigły's position as General Inspector of the Armed Forces puts him above the normal chain of command.
“None, sir, we simply don’t have the men. Plan Zachód was implemented last month, but we only began calling up reserves yesterday. They won’t be ready for combat for another ten days.”
Rydz-Śmigły jumped back into the discussion. “Don’t give me that, Minister. Surely there are garrison units that can plug the gap for the moment.”
Kasprzycki gestured towards the large map stretched across the conference table.
The Polish General Staff's most basic map of the Western Front, indicating Polish and German troop dispositions. The commitment to defending the western border made Poland vulnerable to attacks from East Prussia and Slovakia.
“Nothing nearby. A division each at Łódź and Lublin, two here in Warszawa, scattered brigades on the eastern border, any of which would take at least three days to reach the front. Everything else is on the frontier or tied up as reserves in the various armies.”
“Then transfer the Pomorze reserve south, if nothing else can be done. Armia Poznań must make the Germans fight for every inch of Polish soil.”
Kasprzycki shook his head in exasperation. “Sir, we may be able to spare a division here or there, but the Germans will bring more to bear if their attack fails. I respectfully suggest that we use this opportunity to retreat. I remind you that Plan Zachód calls for Armia Poznań to fall back to the Warta regardless of success; speeding up the timetable won’t hurt us.”
Initial reports of the battle west of Poznań were sketchy. Although Kutrzeba's Armia Poznań held off the frontal attack, XIX Panzerkorps' flanking maneuver to the north threatened to unhinge the entire northwestern defense.
The explanation distracted Rydz-Śmigły long enough for a major from the communications office to approach. “News from the front, sir. From Poznań,” he continued, offering the Marshal a sheaf of papers.
“Speak of the devil. This had better be good,” Rydz-Śmigły said as he glanced through the pages. Unfortunately, it wasn't. “The German panzers have breached the northern flank of Armia Poznań’s lines. They’re driving hard for Bydgoszcz.”
The German 4. Armee attacked Polish forces at the weak point between Armia Pomorze and Armia Poznań, prompting the withdrawal of Armia Pomorze from the Corridor.
“Bydgoszcz!” Kasprzycki exclaimed. “They’ll be there in two days. Sir, we must fall back. Armia Pomorze can still make it before the trap closes.”
“Fine, Minister,” the Marshal relented. “Send the orders to Armia Pomorze, have them fall back to Toruń. Armia Modlin will proceed immediately northward to keep a line open, then withdraw to Plock as soon as practicable.”
“Very well, sir,” Kasprzycki agreed. Armia Modlin’s attack would likely fail if it ran into a German force of comparable size, but the plan was better than nothing. “I’ll have SGO Narew skirt westward to cover Modlin’s flank. Our eastern flank will be left dangling, but we’ll need something covering the northern approaches to Warszawa.”
Adam Brzechwa-Ajdukiewicz's 26 Dywizja Piechoty, recently transferred to Armia Pomorze, withdraws to Plock while the Armia Modlin launches spoiling attacks into East Prussia.
“Fine, fine. If that’s settled, we still have the question of the main counterattack to the west.” Rydz-Śmigły said. “Armia Prusy is still being mobilized, yes?” he asked Kasprzycki.
“It is, sir. It will be combat ready in-” Kasprzycki started, but was interrupted as one of his staff officers stepped forward.
“Sir, this just came in from Pyry, marked urgent,” the aide said, then handed him a folder and scuttled back out the door. Kasprzycki tore open the seal and looked at the first page. This was just what he needed to win over the Marshal. With a grim sort of satisfaction, he laid the envelope’s contents on the table.
German messages decoded at the Polish General Staff's Cipher Bureau in Pyry revealed that 8. Armee intended to break Armia Poznań's lines and cut off its retreat to the interior.
“Radio decrypts from Pyry. The Germans plan to cut off Armia Poznań, and they’ll do it if we don’t fall back. We must pull everything back while we have the chance.”
Even Rydz-Śmigły faltered as he looked at the report, but soon regained his bluster. “Eight divisions? Very well. Order Kutrzeba to conduct a fighting retreat, and get in touch with Rómmel. Armia Łódź will hit the Germans from the flank as they chase Armia Poznań.”
Kaprzycki sighed and pointed to another map.
The average German corps was roughly half the size of a Polish Army. 8. Armee could use its numerical parity to tie down both Armia Poznań and Armia Łódź while other German forces advanced towards Warszawa.
“The Germans have another army further south. If Armia Łódź isn’t already engaged, they only have an hour or two before contact is made.” Rydz-Śmigły remained quiet while Mościcki looked on. “Marshal, please,” he begged. Once we shorten our lines, we can hold out for a few months, until the new year at the very least. If we try to fight it out on the border, there won’t be an army left in two weeks, three at most.”
Rydz-Śmigły stood silently, trying to find an answer in the maps arrayed before him, but none was to be found. Finally, he stiffened, almost to attention. “Minister, you seem to have things well in hand here. General Stachiewicz will aid you in any manner you desire. Mr. President, if you’ll excuse me,” he said, turning towards Mościcki, “I must be getting to my headquarters at Modlin Fortress- somebody must have noticed my absence by now, and you know how junior staffers can be when they don’t have a nursemaid. I’ll be there if you wish to consult further.” Donning his hat, the old Marshal turned and stalked out of the room.
“Minister,” Mościcki said, stepping back towards the table as he watched the Marshal go, “I fear Edward may have been right. Our political coalition might not last if this war continues for too long. How will the country fare?”
“We’ll be fine, Mr. President. We’ll be fine once the French and English join the fight.”
Another aide approached, with another letter. “Minister, news from Kraków. The German 14. Armee is attacking from the south.”
The establishment of a German puppet government in Slovakia in March 1939 forced the Polish military to stretch itself thin over some 300 miles of new hostile frontier. Jabłonka Pass, near the Slovakian/German border, had relatively heavy defenses.
“Excuse me, Mr. President. I have work to do.”