ATTACKING THE GORA-KAMIENSKA: “STALLING THE BLITZ” – THE BATTLE OF MLAWA
2nd and 3rd of September 1939
On the 1st of September 1939 at 0445h 1. Infanterie-Division crossed the border into Poland. The intelligence reports concerning the strength of Polish forces soon proved to be wrong. The only noticeable resistance was met at the bridges at Janowo (two platoons of Infantry), which was easily brushed aside. As I. AK had failed to break through the Polish defences at Mlawa on the 2nd of the September, the Division got the order to push forward on both sides of the road to Grudusk and then, using all available artillery as support, to take the strong fortified positions on and around Gora Kamienska on the north-eastern flank of Mlawa. As this action is considered to be a part of the “Battle of Mlawa”, let’s have a look at that first.
The Battle of Mława, otherwise known as the “Defence of the Mława position”, took place to the north of the town of Mława in northern Poland between September 1 and September 3, 1939. The whole battlefield, with the exception of the fortified positions around Gora-Kamiensk was (and still is) flat as a table. It was one of the opening battles of the Invasion of Poland and World War II in general and fought between the forces of the Polish Modlin Army under Gen. Krukowicz-Przedrzymirski and the German 3rd Army under Gen. Georg von Küchler. As a result of the Treaty of Versailles, the new German-Polish border was located only some 120 km north of Warsaw, the Polish capital city. In 1939 the Polish Modlin Army, led by Brigadier General Emil Krukowicz-Przedrzymirski, was thought of as the main defensive force guarding Polish borders from the north. It was dislocated along the border with East Prussia and was to stop the enemy forces advancing towards Warsaw, the Modlin Fortress. Shortly before the war, a decision was made to strengthen the Polish defences by construction of a line of field fortifications and concrete bunkers to the north of Mława, in the centre of the army’s positions.
The main line of defence of the army was located along the line of Narew and Vistula rivers. There were a number of 19th century fortifications in the area, but the plains to the north of it were almost defenseless. To ease the delaying actions in case of a war with Germany, the Polish General Staff decided that the Modlin Army should be transported to the border with East Prussia and should defend the line for as long as possible. Afterwards, the units under command of General Przedrzymirski-Krukowicz were to withdraw to the south and defend the line of Narew and Vistula rivers, together with the forces of Narew Independent Operational Group.
After the Polish secret mobilization had started in March 1939, the 20th Infantry Division was assigned to the Modlin Army and transported to the area of Mława. In addition, the army commander was assigned a number of trainloads of concrete and other construction materials and several combat engineering battalions. It was decided that a line of fortifications should be constructed in the area held by that division. On June 19 of that year, the project was ready and was finally approved by Marshal of Poland Edward Rydz-Śmigły on July 3.
The line of trenches and concrete bunkers, shielded by anti-tank trenches and obstacles, was to be constructed along a low glacial hill overlooking the valley of the Mławka river, to the north of the town. The river itself could be blocked by a dam to enhance the defensive valor of the area. In the center, a swampy terrain of the Niemyje Marshes was located, which was virtually impassable to enemy armored vehicles. This swamp divided the area into two separate flanks. The western section was to be reinforced with 68 concrete bunkers while the eastern, much shorter, with 25.
In peacetime the 20th Division was located in Baranowicze. In case of a war with the USSR, it was planned as the first-line unit to defend a line of German World War I fortifications built there in 1915. Because of that, most of its soldiers had experience in defending fortified positions.
The construction of bunkers in the western section of the front, near the town of Mława, was started on July 14. It was carried out mostly by the soldiers themselves, under the command of the head of the 20th engineering battalion, Maj. Juliusz Levittoux. The construction of the eastern flank bunkers near the village of Rzęgnowo started on August 12. Soon the soldiers were joined by a number of civilian volunteers, helping to dig the trenches. However, the positions were not finished until the outbreak of World War II and many of the bunkers were not completed.
At noon on September 1, 1939 the Polish line of defence manned by the 20th Infantry Division was attacked by the 1st Army Corps under General Walter Petzel. Although the attacking forces were equipped with tanks and supported by warplanes, the initial assault was repelled by Polish-made 37mm AT guns, the commander of German Third Army, ordered his units to attack the Polish forces several times in a row, but all attacks were broken and in the late evening the Germans were forced to withdraw to their initial positions.
The following afternoon the German units started a heavy artillery bombardment of the Rzegnów position on the right flank of the Polish forces. After two hours of constant artillery fire, the assault was started and, in the result of close combat, the Polish defenders started to waver. The counterattack of the Polish 79th Infantry Regiment was unsuccessful and the commander of the Polish Modlin Army ordered the 20th Division to extend further eastwards and prepare the defence of its right flank between the villages of Dębsk and Nosarzewo. At the same time the 8th Infantry Division, until then held in reserve near Ciechanów, was ordered to prepare a counterattack.
The 8th Division arrived in the area in the early hours of September 3. As the Mazovian Cavalry Brigade operating further eastwards was also endangered by German armoured troops, the army commander ordered the division to split its forces and attack in two directions: towards Grudusk east of Mława and towards Przasnysz. However, conflicting orders and German diversants operating in the rear disrupted both attacks and led to chaos in the Polish ranks. In the evening the division was mostly destroyed and only the 21st Infantry Regiment of Colonel (later General) Stanisław Sosabowski managed to withdraw from the fights towards the Modlin Fortress. Despite this, the German attacks towards both flanks of the 20th Infantry Division were unsuccessful.
On September 3 the German engineers finally managed to cut through Polish antitank barriers. According to several Polish sources, German units used the local civilians as human shields, which allowed them to finally capture several bunkers on the left flank of the Polish forces, but were unable to push forwards. On the right flank, in the Rzegnów section of the front to the east of the swamps, the attacks were more successful and in the late evening elements of German Wodrig Corps finally broke through the lines of the 79th Infantry Regiment to the rear of the Poles. This widened the front gap in the area ofGrudusk. General Emil Krukowicz-Przedrzymirski, facing the risk of his forces being outflanked and surrounded, ordered the 20th division and the remnants of the 8th to withdraw towards Warsaw and Modlin, finally abandoning the fortified positions.
But lets rewind the clock to the 2nd of September 1939, and have a look at the role of 1.ID in the Battle of Mlawa and more precisely at the north-eastern corner of the fortress of Mlawa, to the Gora-Kamienska (Kamienska hill) and the efforts of the Division to take it.
ATTACKING THE “BASTION” OF GORA-KAMIENSKA: “BAPTISM OF FIRE”
2nd of September 1939
“It is a miracle that we managed to take the Kamienska position without long preparations and in a relatively short period of time!”
(General von Kortzfleisch, commanding officer of 1.ID, 3rd of September 1939)
The bastion of Gora-Kamienska lay half way between Krzynowloga-Mala and Grudusk towering over the surrounding terrain with a height difference of around 60 meters.
The bastion and the adjoining fortifications in the forest south of Szumsk had been developed to a strong cornerstone of the Mlawa defensive positions. It had been vested with trenches, double-apron entanglements, timber shelters and six concrete bunkers allowing for enfilading fire. Its forefront was further defended by advanced pickets and multiple minefields. The positions were defended by the the 79th Polish infantry regiment (commanded by ppłk. Konstanty Zaborowski) and supported by about seven batteries of artillery.
The Division attacked in a pincer movement. The reinforced Infanterie-Regiment 1 attacked from the north via Dzierzgowo-Szumsk. The remainder on both sides of the road Krzynowologa-Rzegnowo. During the attack IR1 fulfilled the role of tying up enemy forces in forest south of Szumsk.
At 1500h the main force began its advance, having to cross about 2 kilometers of open ground. The advance was covered by concentrated artillery fire on the Kamienska positions.
In order to make the artillery fire more efficient an observation balloon was launched , which was flying in the neighbourhood of Rzegnowo and directing artillery fire of 1 ID. In the church tower in Dzierzgowo 1ID located their second observation post but this was soon detected by Polish forces and destroyed by one troop of 20 pal (20 light artillery battalion).
III./IR43 attacked north of the road (Krzynowologa-Rzegnowo), followed by I./IR43 as a reserve. III./IR22 moved forward south of it, having II./IR22 as regimental and I./IR22 as divisional reserves. Heavy German artillery fire allowed for a fast advance. Having reached the villages of Ozumieck and R. Kosily the battalions came under frontal and flanking machine gun fire, effectively stalling the advance of III./IR43.
A report on his experiences of serving as a divisional reserve, can be found in a private letter about the Polish campaign, written by Hauptmann de la Chevallerie. He had been commanding 11./IR22 on the first day of the campaign, but when the officer commanding I./IR22 had been wounded, he was ordered to take over I. Batallion on the 2nd of September:
“At half past three in the morning I was woken by Leutnant Götz, once member of my company, now second adjudant to the CO of I. Batallion. “Herr Hauptmann, you are ordered back to the regiment to take over command of I. Batallion”. Even the classic Goethe quote* (see below) would not help me, so I got up and stumbled up to the regimental command post, joining I. Batallion shortly afterwards. We had been ordered to act as divisional reserve! I was swearing my head off, but to no avail. Notwithstanding that I also got hit by a fit of diarrhoea. Our Doctor called it a gastric flu, but I call it the worst kind of diarrhoea I have ever experienced! I also had a temperature. I guzzled down a dose of opium, quinine and tanalbin every 15 minutes, but dragged through the whole thing as well as I could. Not that we had much to do. Changing positions into a different wood every 2 or 3 hours, three kilometers away from the frontline. The boring fate of the reserves.
Now and then we hear the sounds of battle and we could observe steep a ridge, on which trenches and bunkers could be seen. The Kamienka ridge, which was defended by the Poles until the boys of II., but mainly III. Batallion cleared them out with handgrenades. My company had been in battle for the first time and put up a good show, losing four dead and five wounded (including 3 NCOs).”
* “Tell your captain that for His Imperial Majesty, I have, as always, due respect. But he, tell him that, he can lick me in the arse!” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Götz von Berlichingen”.
III./IR22 managed to break into the enemy trenches south of the road and to push forward to Zaboklik. Following that, IR22 (including all its reserves) received the order to swing into the attack on the Gora Kamienska.
II./IR22 (commanded by Major Knobelspieß) advanced in a fast pace, crossed the road between R. Kosily and Zaboklik and broke into the system of trenches north of the road. Forests, trenches and dugouts were cleared and two concrete bunkers on the north side of the hill were taken. Polish resistance was fierce, many of the Polish soldiers refusing to surrender. The Poles kept on firing on the German attackers until the last possible moment, but always retreating as so to escape close combat and being taken prisoner.
A description from the Polish point of view can be found in Ryszard Juszkiewiczs book “Bitwa pod Mławą” (Warsaw, 1987):
“When after violent fighting the pickets of the 79th Polish infantry regiment had been forced to retreat from their protruding positions towards the main defensive position around 12:00 AM, the artillery of Korps “Wodrig” once again began its bombardment – this time preparing for the main assault. This had already been preceded by strong artillery preparation (10 Abteilungen = 120 guns from 1. and 12. Inf.Div.) The artillery preparation against Kamienska Gora was coordinated and commanded by Generaloberst Werner von Fritsch himself (Commander of Art.Rgt.12). This heavy artillery fire on Kamienska Gora lasted for 8 hours (1200h-1800h). Under covering fire of their own artillery, German infantry already started to attack Polish positions around 1500h. Their 1. Inf.Div. was attacking from the direction of Szumsk towards Kitki and Kamienska Gora, while 12. Inf.Div. was attacking from the direction of Krzynowloga Mala towards “redoubt Zaboklik” and Kamienska Gora with “Czubak”.”
The officer commanding the AT gun company of the Polish 79th Inf.Reg. wrote in his diary:
“At 1500h the general German assault started. Units of the 1st and 12th German infantry divisions, supported by tremendous artillery fire and many tanks, launched an attack against the foremost edge of the defensive position of our regiment. Left wing of the regiment – I. battalion – holds its positions. Right wing of the regiment, the reinforced 9th company under Cpt. Hoppe on Kamienska Gora, and the platoon of cyclists from 11 puł. on the “Żaboklik” position are defending against massive enemy attacks. The regiment is fighting for its life. Waves of German infantry are advancing towards our positions, coming closer and closer. Our artillery (12 howitzers from 88 dac and 8 guns cal. 75mm from 59 dal) are defending by laying a curtain of fire in front of our positions. The first wave of Germans met with our minefield. Parts of human bodies, weapons and equipment get thrown up by their explosions. Our wonderful boys fought with all their strength, many of them making the final sacrifice – it was in vain…”
By 1800h II./IR22 had taken the peak of Kamienska hill. When darkness set in the whole hill was in possession of III./IR43 and II., III./IR22. The fall of the Gora Kamienska had sealed the fate of the fortress of Mlawa, which I.AK had failed to take the day before.
The most detailed description of the fighting for the Kamiensa ridge can be found in a report published in Germany by the end of 1939 for III./IR22. This batallion had borne the brunt of the fighting and the report evaluated strengths and weaknesses, tactical dispositions and summarised the lessons learned from it.
It opens with a description of the battlefield itself:
“The Gora Kamienska dominates the surrounding terrain. It commands an excellent view of the marching route Krzynowloga-Mala and on the assembly rooms in the forests north-east of it. To bring in heavy weapons an attacker can only use a single road. The slightly rising ground in front of it offers only minimal cover for an attack which is further limited by the flanking bunkers on the northern slope of the Gora Kamienska. With its well placed obstacles, well camouflaged observing posts and trench systems the Gora Kamienska is the massive cornerstone of the Mlawa defensive lines. Its not surprising that Polish officers that were taken prisoner there, reported that these defences were thought to be impregnable. Indeed it can be said that it would never have been taken if it had been defended by German soldiers.”
The reinforced III./IR22 began its attack on 0800h having its right flank close to the road Krzynowloga-Mala/Grudusk. When it reached the hamlets about 1000 meters southwest of Krzynowloga-Mala it recieved enemy fire from the area of Hill 195. This hill lies about 2000 meters southwest of Krzynowloga-Mala and was occupied by enemy pickets. The batallion kept on advancing in a fast pace and pushed the enemy out of his defensive positions. The Poles had retreated in a hurry, leaving large quantities of ammunition, clothing and equipment.
It was the first time III. Batallion had been in battle and the first time the new machine guns (MG34) and mortars (Granatwerfer 34) had been used in action. “The men were pleased about their own firepower, which was far superior to that of the enemy, even from an acoustic point of view. Any doubts we had on the MG34 were wiped out. The enemy retreated from the weight of our fire and the pressure of our attack. The will to fight and the effectiveness in combat showed that our hard training before the war had finally paid out”.
The batallion now pushed through the forest with the order to take defensive postions on its southwestern corner. This was done without encountering enemy resistance. When the edge of the forest had been reached, the men of III. Batallion could see Polish forces retreating across the the road to Grudusk. The order to follow the retreating enemy was cancelled by a regimental command. For now III. Batallion stayed in position.
“By now the massive Kamienska hill could be observed. To get information about enemy strength and dispositions small reconnaissance elements were detached. Leutnant Neumann with some men of 10th coy and Unteroffizier Sparing with a group from 11th coy went out to obtain that intelligence. In a daring and bold move, both men managed to push forward to the village of Kosily, not only under constant fire of the enemy but also that of our own artillery”
“The Gora-Kamienska had been surrounded by a triple barrier of wire entanglements interspersed with trip wires. Behind that a well developed trench system. The road Kosily-Zaboklik had been blocked with a row of obstacles (chevaux de frise). The northeastern slope, north of the road Krzynowloga-Mala-Grudusk was defended by a heavy machine gun position dominating the road northeast of Kosily. South of it was a well camouflaged bunker which enfiladed the southern side of Kosily and the first 300 meters of the road Kosily-Zaboklik. Also flanking this road, another well camouflaged bunker was observed on hill 173. These observations, coupled with the reconnaissance conducted before the start of the campaign, gave a clear picture of what lay ahead. A well constructed defensive system, defended by a determined enemy.”
The batallion was just digging in, to take cover from sporadic Polish artillery fire when it finally recieved the regimental order to attack the Gora-Kamiensk. The whole Division would take part in the attack, supported by all available artillery which was now concentrating its fire onto the enemy positions.
The first target for III./IR22 was the village of Zaboklik, the second target the road Rzognowo-Borkowo. 11th coy, supported by a parts of the mortar company, was to attack from its positions in the forest north of hill 169, in the direction of Kosily-Zaboklik.
10th coy, supported by two mortar squads and a platoon of heavy machine guns, was to support this attack. An assault platoon of 9th coy was to attack the bunker on hill 173, the remains of 9th coy were to support 10th coy under the command of Hauptmann Todtenhaupt. Another target for 11th coy was the village of Rzegnowo, while 10th coy was to attack the ground northeast of it. Two light infantry gun platoons were to cover the advance of the companies.
For the attack the soldiers of the batallion had to leave all unnecessary equipment behind. Handgrenades were stuck into belts and double the normal amount of ammunition was issued. The report tells us that:
“The Gora is now covered in smoke and flame and the air is filled with the roar and thunder of constant artillery fire. The commander has a look at his watch. Five minutes to go, four, three, two, now its only one minute. Then the shout “1oth company attack!”.
Like one man everyone rises and moves forward into the attack. 10th coy advances in a long skirmish line led by its commander Hauptmann Rogalski, 11th coy is moving forward aswell, followed by the reminder of 12th coy, whose heavy weapon sections had been distributed on the other companies. The assault squad of 9th coy is working its way the bunker on hill 173.”
“The enemy artillery fire is ineffective. There are a few losses inflicted by shrapnell, but so far the advance is going well. In the front of the advance, heavy machine gun platoons move forward, ammunition carriers carry boxes full of cartridges, the signal platoon the heavy cable drums. About 500 meters southeast of Kosily the Batallion wades into enemy machine gun fire. Still casualities are light. The thin lines moving from cover to cover, using every furrow. “
“Our own artillery fire began to grow weaker, with the result that enemy machine gun fire increased considerably. The batallion had to halt, every soldier going down into full cover. Luckily a wire connection to the regimental command post could be established and the artillery could be called in again. It’s only due to the couragous behaviour of Unteroffizier Schicktanz that our communications to the command post were never broken, even on the move ”
Under cover of the attached mortar sections and heavy machine guns,10th and 11th coy managed to push forward into the dead angle of Kosily village, now temporarily secure from flanking and frontal enemy fire. Still when entering the village casualities begin to rise, when some soldiers fall victim to Polish anti infantry mines. For the next step, the companies of III./IR22 had to continue the advance over a plain field, under constant frontal and flanking fire from the Polish bunkers which the artillery was not able to suppress. As the neighbouring divisions were not able to send units to support the attack, the commander of III. Batallion decided to push forward under cover of the weapons available to him. By committing two 37mm AT guns of 14th coy (Oberleutnant Tolsdorff) which targeted the enemy bunkers and positions with direct fire and the reminder of the heavy company (12th coy) under Feldwebel Marquardt and Unterfeldwebel Langer the assault on the Gora Kamienska began to gain momentum.
Casualities began to rise. Hauptmann Marquardt (commanding 10th coy) got wounded, squadleader Feldwebel Kanapin, and Gefreiter Mornigkeit got killed. Another 11 men of 10th coy got wounded. 11th coy lost the Füsiliere Braun, Kuklen and Oschkenlat who were killed and another 7 soldiers wounded. Still the attack did not stall. Some motivation came from the fact that by the late evening, signal flares and the sounds of machine gun fire could be observed on the batallions right. Its neighbour, Infanterie-Regiment 43 had joined the attack on the Goras other side.
11th coy managed to clear the roadblocks on the southern slope of the Kamienska and captured a Polish anti-tank gun which they now used against its former owners.
An assault platoon commanded by Feldwebel Kleinschmantat worked its way towards the bunker on the right side of the road (2). 10th coy had crossed a wire entanglement and broke into the enemy trenches behind that. The assault squad of 9th coy had been pinned down by enemy flanking fire. When the commander of 9th coy, Hauptmann Todtenhaupt, noticed that he personally took the lead. Lying down and crawling, he led the squad through enemy fire until it had reached a potato field about 300 meters in front of Bunker 4. From here the soldiers had enough cover to move forward one by one.
Bunker 4 was attacked from the left side. Light mortars and machine guns provided enough suppression for the soldiers of 9th coy to get into range to use handgrenades. When it was finally taken no enemies could be found, the Poles had retreated in the last possible moment, leaving behind ammunition crates and equipment.
One of these battlegroups led by Leutnant Neumann managed to push forward to the village of Rzegnowo. On the hills northwest of it the Poles seemed to have held some units in reserve. From this position they now started a strong counter attack supported by light tanks which forced Neumanns battlegroup back to western side of Zaboklik. In the meantime, at about 1830h, 10th and 11th coy, together with parts of 9th coy had also reached Zaboklik. Everywhere in the village machine guns and mortars were brought into position. Supplies were alarmingly low and single soldiers were sent back to collect ammunition from the dead and wounded.
Without artillery support and low on ammo the commander of III./IR22 decided to hold Zaboklik and to organise a defence. Parts of II./IR22 had in the meantime arrived in Zaboklik aswell, and with these, six defensive groups were formed.
The counter attack was carried out by the 2nd batallion of the 79th polish infantry regiment, supported by elements of its 3rd batallion and a company of TK Tankettes commanded by Lieutenant Mieczyslaw Kosiewicz.
The situation for the German defenders was critical. In the previous combats the straw on the fields behind the batallion had started to burn. Smoke and fire was everywhere. This made is difficult to bring in ammunition and to bring out the wounded. The soldiers of the Polish 79th Regiment were fighting most couragously, coming extremly close to the German positions. The left flank of Zaboklik was unguarded and IR22 always in the danger of getting outflanked. The fighting lasted through most of the night. On midnight a company of IR43 arrived, finally guarding Zabokliks left flank. In the early morning, the Poles retreated.
1. Infanterie-Division (IR43/IR22) had taken the Gora-Kamienska and repulsed a counter attack at Zaboklik. The brunt of the fighting had been taken by III./IR22 which, after the fighting, had 12 soldiers killed in action and 20 severely wounded. Not much, considering that it had assaulted a fortified position and defended against a counter-attack by two Polish batallions and one company of tankettes.
The north eastern flank of the fortess of Mlawa had been crushed. 1. Infanterie-Division had gone through its baptism of fire and was able to try out new weapons and tactics.
According to the combat report of III./IR22 the new MG34s had been a complete success, as had the new ammo type “SmK(H)”. These 7.92mm rounds had a tungsten alloy core instead of an iron one. This gave the round an excellent armor piercing capability (13 mm for 30° impact angle). Every riflemen was issued with 10 rounds of this expensive ammo. The report states that enemy tankettes turned and retreated after being fired at with SmK(H).
It also notes that the ammo consumption of the MG34 was far worse than expected. The machine gun companies running out of ammo after only two hours of battle, having exhausted half of the batallions reserves! It advises to fire in shorter bursts, as many Polish dead had 6 or more bullet wounds. It was noticed that it was impossible to suppress concrete bunkers sufficiently by the use of artillery only and that without the use of 14th coys AT guns (firing directly) the attack would have stalled.
The battle of Mlawa had cost the Wehrmacht 1800 soldiers killed and another 3000 wounded. Polish losses being about 1200 killed and another 1500 wounded. Although the Mlawa position was finally abandoned on the 4th of September, the German forces suffered substantial losses and it was not until September 13, when they finally managed to reach the Modlin Fortress, located less than 100 kilometres to the south.
For the 1. Infanterie-Division Gora-Kamiensk had been a baptism of fire. Six years of total war still lay in front of them.
Sources used to compile this article:
– Major W. Richter, Die 1. (ostpreussische Infanterie-Division), Munich 1975
-Rudolf v. Tycowicz, Das Infanterie-Regiment 1 – Ein Erinnerungsbuch, 1966
-War diaries of 1.Infanterie-Division (US National Archives)
– Combat report of III. Batallion, Infanterie-Regiment 22 “Bericht über den Kampf an der Gora Kamienska“, Bundesarchiv
– Hauptmann von la Chevallerie (commanding officer of 11th company, III. Batallion), Handwritten report on the campaign in Poland, Bundesarchiv
– “Ostpreussische Kameraden”, various magazines of the organisation of former members of 1.ID (1955-64)