By William R. Trotter
My Path to Bialystock
My first action involving tanks was during the second week of the Polish Campaign, when I commanded a reconnaissance force comprised of PzKw-I’s and PzKw-II’s – little more than training toys by today’s standards, but fast and reliable. My first tank-action occurred on 10 September, 1939, when I was serving with General (now Field Marshal) von Bock, who commanded XXI Corps during the war with Poland. We had surrounded a sizable Polish pocket, more than regimental-sized, near the town of Wyszkow, except for one small railroad-line corridor, through which they were receiving a steady influx of reinforcements from Warsaw, where of course the preponderance of German power was tied-up in a bitter siege action. After studying aerial photos and maps I pin-pointed the location of the railhead through which the Poles received their infusions of fresh troops. And hard on the heels of that knowledge came my tactical plan for dealing with it.
Although still fairly crude and short-ranged, shell guns became a common part of the man-o-war’s armament during the last few years of the Napoleonic Wars, and given the inevitability of their further improvement, clear-headed naval experts discerned how much of a threat they would soon become. While the collective smashing-power of a Nelsonian battleship was immense, the natural resiliency of seasoned oak caused many puncture-hits to swell up and more or less repair themselves after the passage of several hours – one reason why it was so difficult to actually sink a large NelsIt was not without trepidation that I appeared at the General’s headquarters and announced that I -- a mere Kapitan – had a plan for forcing the troublesome Polish pocket to surrender. I expected a stern dressing-down, but instead Von Bock favored me with a fatherly smile and escorted me to the big situation map that covered one wall of the conference room, saying as he did so: “If you’ve come up with a sensible solution, Herr Kapitan, I’m eager to hear it. In a few more days, the Poles we have ‘trapped’ against the Vistula will outnumber my own forces and their commander, General Szymanowski, is no fool. The moment he feels strong enough, he will attempt a break-out and march to the relief of Warsaw – a move which, if successful, could prolong this misbegotten war for weeks if not months. Here, son, take the pointer and show me your idea.”
With some trepidation, I did so, placing the marker’s tip on a tiny village named Przasnysaz located on the bank of the Vistula. Every night, it seemed, trains packed with fresh Polish reserves, ammunition re-supplies, food and other essentials arrived at the inconspicuous railroad station in Przsnyaz, silently de-trained, and crossed the broad slow river on rafts, unloading their contents into General Szymanowski’s redoubt. No one had discovered where the transport barges were hidden during the day, although the Luftwaffe had wasted several hundred bombs blindly pulverizing suspected warehouses and anchorages. They were undoubtedly well-dispersed and skillfully camouflaged – the Poles had gotten very good at that aspect of warfare since we invaded them on 1 September.
Impulsively, I tapped the map on an utterly innocuous rural railroad station, in a crossroads village named Goszcz. “There, Herr General, is the weak link in our siege lines. Trains roll up every night, slowly and darkened to escape detection, and each one bearing at least a thousand Polish reinforcements.”
“How did you come by this information, Kapitan Wurstfangler?” the general snapped back at me.
“By leading a five-man patrol around and sometimes through Polish lines until I could personally observe the harmless-looking little railroad station. Here’s my notebook, sir, and you can count the tic-marks if you like. But I give you my word as the scion of an old and proud Bavarian military family that it’s as accurate as any man could make while lying in wet marsh grass one hundred yards from five hundred alert enemy soldiers.”
Now von Bock did look interested, so I pressed on: “The same trains that re-supply the men in the pocket also take out the seriously wounded, presumably to better hospitals in Warsaw, and bring in regular mail pouches, not to mention boxes filled with homemade cakes, pies and strudels.
Von Bock laughed ruefully. “No wonder the swine are resisting so strongly – they’re eating better than we are! And they get mail from home filled with all sorts of breads and sweets, some of them still warm from the ovens I’ll wager! Well done, Kapitan Wurstfangler! I shall call for heavy Luftwaffe strikes against this thorn in our side this very afternoon.”
Now I knew I was sticking my neck, professionally speaking, on this officer’s chopping block.
“No doubt that will temporally discomfit the Poles, sir, but with so many Luftwaffe planes tied down by the on-going siege of Warsaw you won’t always be able to keep sufficient aircraft loitering above that area; and as the general surely knows that it only takes a skilled repair crew twenty minutes to replace any broken section of track. What I have in mind is bolder, more violent and dramatic, an action which will, so to speak, tell the hold-outs fighting under General Szymanowski that they are now truly surrounded and cut off – No more cakes from Mutter’s kitchen.”