Clare Hollingworth on the German Invasion of Poland: Excerpts from The Three Weeks' War in Poland (1940)
Since all British correspondents had been expelled from Berlin some days before, I decided to have a look round in German Silesia. Katowice was too quiet for news. I crossed the frontier at Beuthen without trouble. (Though news of my crossing so upset the Polish Foreign Office that the British Embassy were required to vouch for me.) The German frontier town was nearly deserted. It was open to enfilading fire from Polish batteries, and the Germans evidently thought it prudent to evacuate civilians. Those who remained looked depressed and unhappy. I spoke to old acquaintances and found increased trust in Hitler, even among those who had been critical—but, linked with this, a refusal to believe in war.
"It won't come to that, liebes Fraülein, don't you worry. The Führer will get Germany her rights without war this time, just as he did before."
They told me stories of the "atrocities" committed by Poland against her German minority, and asked me if I had seen such things. I had not.
"Ah, you don't see them, but they happen every day. Why do you suppose our people come across the frontier to escape the Poles?" Then I learned an interesting thing. German "refugees" from Poland were not being allowed into the Reich. They were being kept for use on the frontier. We were to hear much of them before the end of the war.
I found a noticeable shortage of supplies in Beuthen. There was no soap for foreigners, while even for Germans it was strictly rationed. Aspirin itself, the German product par excellence, was unobtainable. A friendly butcher showed the meat ration, the weekly allowance for a family with two children; it was enough for three meals, I reckoned, and your German is no vegetarian. The family's tea ration would have made a good "mash" (as they say in the Midlands) for six English tea-drinkers; and the coffee, which tasted like burnt toast, and was burnt maize, could perhaps serve twelve. Oils and fats could be bought with a special permit only. Butter, cream and milk had been unobtainable for five weeks. I found it impossible to get meals in restaurants, and should have gone hungry, had not a waiter, well tipped in the past, produced a partridge from nowhere. What kind of victualling is this, I wondered, on which to begin a major war?
I drove along the fortified frontier road via Hindenburg (which in the nineteen-twenties the townsfolk voted to call "Leninburg") to Gleiwitz, which had become a military town. On the road were parties of motor-cycle despatch-riders, bunched together and riding hard. As we came over the little ridge into the town, sixty-five of them burst past us, each about ten yards behind the other. From the road I could see bodies of troops, and at the roadside hundreds of tanks, armoured cars and field guns stood or moved off toward the frontier. Here and there were screens of canvas or planking, concealing the big guns; they seemed not to be camouflaged against air-attack. I guessed that the German Command was preparing to strike to the north of Katowice and its fortified lines: the advance which was to reach Czestochowa in two days of war.
In the middle of all this I bought odd things—wine, electric torches—and drove back peacefully. Now and then a trooper would spot the Union Jack on my car and give a sudden, astonished gape. As we reached a length of road which lies parallel with the frontier, I looked across a hollow, some wire and tank-barricades, and watched the peasant-women moving about the Polish fields, a few hundred yards away. In the evening I returned to Poland, without trouble, the feverish preparations of the German military uppermost in my mind.
[The next day, Hollingworth learned that in her absence the Polish authorities had uncovered and, so they believed, squelched various plots by German-Polish nationals, activities in which the German Consul was openly implicated, a fact that "showed me again that we stood on the edge of war." She nonetheless retired to bed, but was awoken in the early hours of 1 September 1939.]
Slam! Slam! . . . a noise like doors banging. I woke up. It could not be later than five in the morning. Next, the roar of airplanes and more doors banging. Running to the window I could pick out the planes, riding high, with the guns blowing smoke-rings below them. There was a long flash into the town park, another, another. Incendiary bombs? I wondered. As I opened my door I ran against the friends with whom I was staying, in their dressing-gowns.
"What is all this about?"
"We aren't sure. A big air-raid practice was announced for to-day. Or it may be something more. We are trying to reach Zoltaszek" (my old friend the Chief of Police). Just then the Polish maid appeared.
"Only Mrs. Zoltaszek is at home."
"Then ask her what's going on. Is this an air-raid practice? What does she know?" they pressed the girl. She spoke into the telephone for a moment and then turned, her eyes wide open.
"She . . . she says it's the beginning of war! . . ."
I grabbed the telephone, reached the Telegraph correspondent in Warsaw and told him my news. I heard later that he rang straight through to the Polish Foreign Office, who had had no word of the attack. The Telegraph was not only the first paper to hear that Poland was at war—it had, too, the odd privilege of informing the Polish Government itself.
I had arranged for a car to come on the first hint of alarm, but it did not arrive. We stood, drank coffee, walked about the rooms and waited; I was alternately cursing my driver and wondering whether the Telegraph would produce a Special Edition for my news. The war, as a tragic disaster, was not yet a reality. When my driver came at last, he met my fury with a pitying smile.
"It's only an air-raid practice," he said.
We ran down to the British Consulate, which I knew well. On our way I noticed smiles on the faces turned up to the sky. "Well," they seemed to be saying, "so this is the air-raid practice."
"But of course it's an air-raid practice, Herr Konsul," the Secretary of the Consulate was saying as I arrived. My own reaction, for the moment, was actual fear: fear that I had made the gaffe of my life by reporting a non-existent war.
However, official confirmation of the war came soon enough. At once the Secretary—one of the German minority, who had worked at the Consulate since its opening in 1920—burst into tears.
"This is the end of poor Germany," she wept.
Just then my sympathy with "poor Germany" was not all that it might have been.
Everyone at the Consulate was working furiously. Papers were being stuffed into the big, old-fashioned stoves until ashes fluffed under one's feet. The Consul was whipping round by telephone to ensure the departure of those British subjects who remained.
Clare Hollingworth, The Three Weeks' War in Poland (London: Duckworth, 1940), 11–17. Courtesy Clare Hollingworth. .