The Rise and Fall of an Infamous Marxist Icon
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first eight chapters of this series we looked at Hitler’s conversion to Marxism; his rise to the leadership first of the KPD and then of Germany itself; his transformation of Germany into a Communist state, his aggressive expansion of the German armed forces; his intervention in the Spanish Civil War; his involvement in the German-Austrian invasion of Italy; his decision to attack northern France following the Spanish naval defeat at Sardinia; his authorization of the air raid on Calais that wrecked much of the combined Anglo-French naval fleet; the the Franco-Italian assault on Volksarmee occupation forces in the Po Valley and the subsequent German counterattack; the Soviet victory over Finland in the 1938-39 Winter War; and the Red Army’s spring 1939 invasion of Poland. In this episode we’ll review the Soviet push towards the Vistula River, the Polish army’s last stand at the Bug River, and the outbreak of the Second Russo-Japanese War.
The first air raid sirens sounded in Warsaw just after 8:30 AM local time on the morning of March 3rd, 1939; by 9:00 AM fighters at the Polish capital’s main air defense base had been scrambled to intercept the Red Air Force bombers that had been sent to assault the city. These bombers, however, would find themselves facing a lethal opponent in the escort fighters which had been detailed to accompany the Soviet bombers on their lethal assignment; the skies over the Polish capital were soon darkened by thick clouds of smoke from both burning aircraft plunging to earth as they were shot down and from fires triggered by the Soviet bombs raining down on the city. Warsaw’s eighty-eight anti-aircraft batteries erupted in unison like metallic volcanoes, their gunners intent on stopping the hordes of enemy warplanes advancing on the city with the relentlessness and speed of a swarm of locusts.
Despite valiant efforts from Polish air defense squadrons and the Red Air Force bombers’ own considerable limitations, the Soviets managed to inflict sizable damage on Warsaw; the number of civilian dead from this first air attack on the Polish capital rose well into the hundreds and the Polish air force lost 40 fighters to enemy action. But as scared as Warsaw’s citizens had been by this assault from the skies, however, they would be even more frightened as word began to filter back to them that the Red Army had crossed the border and stood on Polish soil....
By the time the first Soviet bombs fell on Warsaw, the Red Army had gotten nearly ten miles inside the Polish frontier and was engaging the regular Polish army along three different fronts. Ivan Chernyakovsky led the assault along the central sector of the Soviet front; Konstantin Rossokovsky commanded Soviet ground forces along the northern sector of the front, while General Mikhail Tolbulkhin was assigned to head up the southern sector. Along all three fronts the Red Army was facing desperate and unrelenting opposition from the Poles; Warsaw had long suspected its massive neighbor to the east might try something like this and wasn’t entirely caught off-guard when Stalin finally launched his attack against Poland.
Casualties on both sides were heavy in the first days of the Soviet invasion of Poland. And not all of them were battle-incurred; hundreds of Red Army soldiers were shot by their political commissars for offenses ranging from pickpocketing to desertion, while several Polish army junior officers were assassinated at the hands of NKVD "black ops" squads sent to sow panic and disorder behind the Polish lines. The assassinations alone would have been alarming enough, but the assassins added a further disturbing touch by disguising themselves in Polish army uniforms either taken from the dead or fabricated in the NKVD’s own workshops.
As the invasion progressed and the Soviets began to wear down the Polish army’s defenses, the Polish high command was faced with a terrible dilemma-- make a stand on the Bug River and risk losing vast numbers of their remaining troops, or pull those troops back to Poland’s southern border with Romania and abandon Warsaw to the Red Army. That dilemma only worsened when two of Chernyakovsky’s armor divisions exploited a tactical error by the Poles to open a breach in the central section of the Polish lines near the town of Baranowicze. Once the gap was opened, additional Soviet troops were able to push through it and start gnawing away at any pockets of Polish army resistance which had the bad luck to be trapped behind their lines. True, it did cost Chernyakovsky hundreds of tanks to break through the Polish lines, but in his opinion and Stalin’s it was a price well worth paying.
Poland’s resistance to the Soviets might have collapsed even sooner than it did had it not been for secret military assistance from Romania, which allowed France and Britain to smuggle guns, tanks, and ammunition across its borders and into Polish territory. All parties involved in the effort took considerable pains to conceal this smuggling from the Kremlin lest Stalin should detect it and use it as a pretext for invading Romania in the near future. Given his aggressive nature, of course, Stalin hardly needed much of an excuse to wage war on Romania, but just the same the Anglo-French alliance was anxious not to give him one.
Shortly after the Soviets penetrated the center of the Polish front, the northern sector of that front began to collapse as well. The Polish army, in its desperation to plug the gap in the center of its lines, made the fateful mistake of withdrawing troops from a critical sector of its northern front, allowing Rossokovsky to strike at the weakened areas and begin driving south for a linkup with Chernyakovsky’s divisions.
Roads throughout southern Poland were soon jammed with refugees trying to make it to the perceived safety of Romania or Hungary. On Poland’s Baltic coast more refugees packed into whatever boats they could find to make the hazardous journey across the Baltic Sea to one of the neutral Scandanavian countries; those with sufficient financial means could buy a plane ticket to Stockholm and from there book passage on planes or ships to either Paris or London.
Across the Atlantic, the Polish-American community rallied to try and persuade Roosevelt to intervene on the Poles’ behalf. Roosevelt himself wanted to act in Poland’s defense. However, even without the problem of isolationist sentiments in his own Congress as an obstacle there was the hard truth that the US armed forces still had some work to do before they were fully prepared to fight an extended conflict abroad-- and that work, unfortunately, wouldn’t be completed in time to prevent the Red Army from finishing its conquest of Poland. In early April, the last remnants of the Polish army’s southern front finally collapsed; from that point on, Chernyakovsky, Tolbulkhin, and Rossokovsky were in a race to see whose troops would have the honor of marching into Warsaw first.
As the Polish army’s situation in the east became more desperate by the hour, the high command in Warsaw was increasingly forced to pull troops from its border with Germany to shore up its anti-Soviet front. There was speculation abroad that Hitler and the Volksarmee general staff might be contemplating their own thrust into Poland to take advantage of the Warsaw government’s plight. Hitler was indeed watching developments on the German-Polish frontier with interest, but not for the reasons his adversaries might have expected-- he saw the Polish army’s collapse in the face of the Soviet offensive in eastern Poland as an opportunity to free up some of his troops to support the Volksarmee campaign against France and Britain. If fresh men were needed to guard the border with Poland, he could make use of the thousands of recruits who were flocking to join the Volksarmee daily.
Accordingly, in the days immediately following the final collapse of the Polish army’s northern front Hitler authorized the redeployment of at least 15,000 Volksarmee soldiers from the German-Polish frontier to the German battlefront in northern France. Another 6,000 were transferred to Italy to bolster the German-Austrian front there against the continuing Franco-Italian drive to push the Communists back into Austria. Overseas, Stasi agents in Europe and North America were busy secretly recruiting foreign volunteers to serve in so-called Hilfswillige detachments; while Hitler usually preferred German-speaking recruits,1 he was quite willing to accept any man who showed the proper Marxist zeal. If that man came from one of the nations with whom the People’s Republic was at war and could be employed to spread propaganda against said nation, so much the better.
Within two weeks after Rossokovsky’s advance units broke through the Polish northern front, the Red Army had reached the Bug River and Soviet bombers were raiding Warsaw on an almost hourly basis. A Polish Communist propaganda team, working under the direction of Polish Communist Party chief Wladislaw Gomulka, began sending leaflets and radio messages that were meant to encourage Polish soldiers to defect to the Soviet camp. But Gomulka’s nessages fell largely on deaf ears-- the men of the Polish army had no interest in becoming Communists. Even as Gomulka’s propaganda men were trying to break the Polish army’s will to fight, thousands of Polish troops stood on the western bank of the Bug River preparing to make a do-or-die stand against the Red Army juggernaut coming from the east.
Most modern historians, especially in Poland, have judged the Polish army’s stand at the Bug River to be a failure because it didn’t prevent the Soviets from taking Warsaw. And in tactical terms they may have a point, given that the Red Army’s drive toward the Polish capital was only slowed down by a week; in strategic terms, though, the Polish stand at the Bug may have been one of the anti-Communist bloc’s most important victories in the early months of the Second World War. Had the Soviets reached Warsaw sooner than they did, the Polish cabinet would probably have fallen into Communist hands before they could escape to organize a government-in-exile. That would have constituted a serious blow to the Allied cause.
An earlier capture of Warsaw would also meant an earlier collapse of Polish resistance, which in turn would have allowed the Red Army to more quickly complete its occupation of Poland; that, in turn, would have put the Soviets in a fairly good position to deploy Red Navy warships from Polish ports to assist the Volksmarine in its campaign against the Anglo-French merchant and naval fleets. A few people have even suggested the idea of Stalin mounting an invasion of Norway from Poland’s Baltic coast, but this seems highly unlikely considering that (A) the Soviets would have first had to go through Sweden and Denmark, both which Hitler considered to be within the sphere of influence of the German People’s Republic; and (B) the Red Army could just as easily enter Norway-- and at considerably less risk --by sending troops across the Norwegian-Soviet border.
In any case, Stalin’s main priority once the conquest of
Poland had been completed was to settle accounts with the Japanese in the Far
East. He couldn’t-- and wouldn’t --tolerate the presence of so many Japanese
troops so close to the USSR’s Siberian borders. Indeed, even as Soviet and
Polish troops were fighting and dying on the banks of the Bug the CPSU leader
had told his generals point-blank that he intended to clear the Japanese not
only out of Manchuria but out of northern Korea as well, and he was prepared to
pay any cost to accomplish that goal. As he himself had said in the aftermath of
the Ukranian famine:
On April 17th, 1939, their numbers depleted and their essential supplies running low, the remaining Polish troops on the Bug River began retreating south towards the Romanian border; that same day the Polish cabinet made final preparations to evacuate Warsaw. By April 22nd more than 200,000 Polish soldiers had successfully escaped to Romania and the Polish government’s gold reserves were being shipped to Switzerland, where they would remaining in safekeeping for the rest of the war. The Polish cabinet resurfaced in Bucharest on April 24th, then was evacuated to France along with half of the troops who’d eluded the Red Army; the other half of those troops would be sent to Great Britain.
Once the Polish army’s defensive lines at the Bug River collapsed, it was a simple matter for the Soviets to steamroller their way into Warsaw. By April 28th General Chernyakovsky’s advance troops had crossed the Vistula and were occupying the Polish capital’s outer districts; on April 30th Chernyakovsky accepted the unconditional surrender of what was left of the city’s main Polish army garrison. The Red Army had won its struggle for control of Poland.
Joseph Stalin officially declared the USSR’s victory over Poland on May 1st in his annual speech at the May Day parade in Moscow’s Red Square. In that same speech he issued an ominous veiled warning that the Soviet Union would take what he described as "vigorous action"2 to protect its Asian interests from any outside party who posed a threat to those interests; he didn’t specifically mention the party by name, or spell out in great detail what kind of action he meant, but to most observers outside the Kremlin walls this statement was an unmistakable signal that Moscow was almost ready for war with Japan.
Those observers would be proven all too right before long. In late June and early July of 1939, there were a score of incidents when Red Army troops and Japanese soldiers exchanged gunfire on the borders of Manchuria and northern Korea; in late July there was a brief undeclared air war in which Soviet and Japanese fighters battled each other in a series of vicious dogfights over the banks of the Ussuri River. Then, on August3rd, an Imperial Japanese Navy destroyer on patrol off the coast of the Kurile Islands fired on a Soviet trawler that Tokyo suspected was the NKVD was using to spy on Japanese naval activity in the waters around the islands.
Though none of the destroyer’s salvos actually hit the trawler, Stalin seized on the Kuriles incident as the pretext he’d been waiting for to start war with Japan. Speaking before the CPSU Central Committee on August 4th, he spun a bogus and wildly exaggerated tale of Japanese warships destroying helpless Soviet fishing ships in a brutal unprovoked assault; within hours of that speech, Red Army armor and infantry troops were smashing across the borders of Manchuria and Korea and Soviet planes were bombing the Manchurian capital of Harbin. Operation Typhoon had begun, and like the tropical storm for which it had been named it would leave a long trail of destruction and carnage in its wake. At 6:00 AM Moscow time on August 5th, 1939 the Soviet foreign ministry issued a two-page statement officially announcing the USSR’s declaration of war on Japan and accusing the Japanese of planning to invade the Soviet Union’s Far Eastern territories.
The Japanese occupation forces in Manchuria had long suspected the Soviets might try to mount an invasion from Siberia, and had conducted a number of wargames based on that very scenario, but nonetheless the Red Army’s initial assault came as a shock to the system. Within six days of the initial Soviet penetration into Manchurian territory Soviet troops had advanced to within less than five miles of Harbin; ten days after the invasion Soviet warplanes were flying from Manchurian airstrips to bomb the harbor city of Port Arthur-Dairen...
To Be Continued
1This probably stems from Hitler’s old ambition of a "pan-Germanic workers’ state" in Europe as well as the simple fact that it was easier to communicate with German-speaking foreign volunteers.
2Quoted from the May 2nd, 1939 edition of the official Soviet government newspaper Pravda.