Upper Silesia on fire - the actual beginning of World War II

We tend to think about the beginning of World War II in terms of September 1st, 4:45 am. However, as we have already explained in the article about the Gleiwitz incident, in border areas the war was already ongoing when Germany launched an invasion of Poland and SMS Schleswig-Holstein opened fire at the Polish positions on the Westerplatte. In the case of Upper Silesia, a region torn between Poland and Germany, the actual warfare was preceded by a series of diversionary activities, of which the Gleiwitz incident is the most known one. The actions were prepared by the military in cooperation with the Reich Main Security Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt).

The formation whose role was particularly important in the diversionary activities was Freikorps Ebbinghaus, a special unit consisting mostly of fugitives from Upper Silesia gathered in refugee camps in today’s Gogolin, Otmuchów (Ottmachau), Olesno (Rosenberg), Syców (Groß Wartenberg), and St. Anne Mountain (Sankt Annaberg). The units were trained by commanders coming from the SS at the centers in Brzeg (Brieg), Kłodzko (Glatz), and Łambinowice (Lamsdorf). There were around 600 members of the unit, including the Freikorps troops from the Sudetes who already had combat experience.

Let’s first analyze the incident at today’s Jabłonkowska Pass. The action was prepared by the Abwehr and was to be performed by one of the units trained by German intel (the so-called Kampf-Organization Jablunkau). A German combat squad was sent to seize the rail tunnel in Mosty on August 25th, 1939, under the command of a retired German intel officer, lt. Albert Herzner. However, the entire action was to be… aborted, but the order somehow did not reach the commander or the troops. After the withdrawal of their forces, the Germans were questioned by Polish officers and obliged to explain what happened. According to protocols that have survived until today, the Polish side forced the Germans to confirm that Germany had no intention of introducing the state of war. Grentzschutz, the border security units which allegedly were not subordinate to the Wehrmacht, were blamed for all the incidents. Thus, what happened in Mosty was recognized as “a mistake”.

Around 45 incidents in the vicinity of the border, as well as German provocative actions, were noted in the industrial hub of Upper Silesia between August 23rd and September 1st. The largest action took place at night on August 31st-September 1st. Freikorps Ebbinghaus, under the command of the Abwehr captain, Ernst Ebbinghaus, was to take over the industrial plant of the Upper Silesian Industrial Hub without any losses. The headquarters of Freikoprs was located in Beuthen-Bytom, but it is difficult to actually speak about any order - the units fought chaotically and suffered much greater losses than the future regular units would. According to data provided by Germans, 174 people died and 133 were wounded on the first day. In the end, the subversive units were officially dismantled on September 13th, 1939, by the order of the Grenzschutz commander, General Isenhaudus Knobelsdorff. 

Another notorious action was performed by Freikorps from Beuthen-Bytom. The unit counted 300 people and was commanded by Willi Pissarski. Also in September 1939, they attacked a coal mine in today’s Michałkowice, which then was situated on the border. 20 Poles were killed and many more were wounded. Pissarski himself died in battle. However, in general, the Germans lost the fight. Of course, according to propaganda (“Chronicles of Beuthen”, written already during the war), Pissarski’s squad was attacked by Poles, and the commander himself died as a hero. The funeral of the fallen Germans became another pretext to create new Nazi-heroes of Upper Silesia. They were buried in a mass grave. The ceremony was held with the participation of all Nazi formations, police, and army units. Among others, the funeral was attended by: Ebbinghaus - now a major, and the mayor of Bytom, Walter Schmieding, who stated in the "Oberschlesische Volksstimme" that Beuthen-Bytom lost "the best of his sons" in the person of Pissarski.

However, on the evening of August 31, there were other actions prepared at the border by the SD in order to find a pretext for the outbreak of war. An attack on the local customs post was staged in Stodoły in the Ratibor-Racibórz district. It was prepared by SS Oberführer Herbert Mehlhorn and his unit. Also in Byczyna, in the Kluczbork district, the local mayor informed the foresters about an alleged attack by Polish soldiers on a forester's lodge situated on the border.

In Berlin, propaganda was carefully prepared to publicize these actions. In August, regular reports of incidents on the Polish-German border were to convince the German public opinion of the constant escalation of tensions due to the fault of the Polish authorities. Berlin newspaper headlines of August 26, when the attack was originally supposed to take place, reported: Total chaos in Poland, German families flee, Polish soldiers right on the German border ("Berliner Zeitung"), Playing with fire has gone too far, Three German passenger planes shot down by Poles ("12 Uhr Blatt"), Poland engulfed in the fever of war, 1,500,000 people mobilized, Military transports continue to the border, Chaos in Upper Silesia ("Völkischer Beobachter"). It was similar on September 1, when the anti-Polish press campaign was unleashed again. "Völkischer Beobachter" wrote about "an unbelievable bandit attack on a radio station in Gliwice". Foreign correspondents were also invited to a special conference to present the results of the investigation into the attack on the Gliwice radio station.

However, the action in Stodoły, which was not very successful, was not publicized.

Examples go on and on - but they’re impossible to squeeze into one article. Actions which are hardly ever mentioned and which terrorized the locals at its time. 


Based on: Ryszard Kaczmarek “Upper Silesia during the Second World War”, University of Silesia Press, Katowice, 2006