On 23rd August 1939 Germany and the Soviet Union surprised world public opinion by signing a non-aggression treaty. From that point on, a war against Poland, squeezed between its two powerful neighbours, was only a matter of time. Initially, Hitler planned to commence his invasion on 26th August 1939.
However, on 25th August 1939 the Polish-British Common Defence Pact was signed. Faced with an entirely different balance of power in Europe (or so it seemed at that time), Hitler hesitated. He postponed the start of the war to give his diplomatic service more time to dissuade Great Britain and France from becoming involved in the imminent conflict with Poland. But it was already too late for diplomacy. On 31st August 1939 Hitler issued the order (Weisung Nr. 1 für die Kriegsführung) to attack Poland in the early hours of 1st September 1939.
On the eve of the war
The German Air Force used two Air Fleets for the war on Poland – Luftflotte 1 Ost in the north, under Gen. Albert Kesselring, and in the south Luftflotte 4 Südost under Gen. Alexander Löhr. Overall, the Luftwaffe fielded 342 Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters, of which 320 were serviceable.1 Two units were equipped with Messerschmitt Bf 109 Ds – I./JG 21, commanded by Hptm. Martin Mettig, subordinated to Luftgaukommando I (Ostpreußen) in the north, and I./ZG 2 led by Hptm. Johannes Gentzen, part of Fliegerführer z.b.V., in the south.
Shortly before the outbreak of war I./JG 21 was transferred to an airfield at Gutenfeld in East Prussia. As of 26th August 1939, the Gruppe had 39 Bf 109 D-1s on strength, distributed between three Staffeln; they were commanded by: Oblt. Günther Scholz, Oblt. Leo Eggers and Oblt. Georg Schneider. The same day found I./ZG 2 stationed at Groß-Stein with 45 Bf 109 Cs and Ds.2 The Gruppe’s three component Staffeln were commanded by Oblt. Waldermar von Roon, Oblt. Erich Groth, and Oblt. Josef Kellner-Steinmetz, respectively.
Karl Georg von Stackelberg, who reported on the daily life of I./ZG 2 during the campaign in Poland, recorded the following description of the last days of peace:
“Jagdfliegergruppe G. took up residence at a new forward landing ground located in the most remote corner of Upper Silesia.3 The personnel were billeted at the manor house of Graf S. at Groß-Stein. In a matter of days they had made themselves comfortable in their new ‘home away from home’. The airfield was some distance away from the manor house, which was set in an old park filled with tall trees. The hosts outdid themselves with their hospitality. Now all we could do was wait. It was the calm before the storm, and deep inside everyone felt anxious, although few would admit it openly.
The telephone kept on ringing. Men would crowd around a radio set, listening attentively to the news. A stocky Oberleutnant, a native of Salzburg (Oblt. Josef Kellner-Steinmetz – author’s note), led the 3rd Staffel. This youthful, dark-haired commander attracted immediate attention with his brown, sparkling eyes, which cast bold, appraising looks. With great flair he recounted his times in Vienna as a newly promoted Lieutenant.
‘If you want to be a really good horse rider’, he stated firmly, ‘you have to ride by the seat of your pants. And a fighter aircraft is just like a thoroughbred racer. It has a temper which you have to learn to dominate’.
The Oberleutnant is a great storyteller. His counterpart, the commander of the 1st Staffel (Oblt. Waldermar von Roon – author’s note) is more composed. After all, he is somewhat older. However, his suave, easy-going manners disguise a man of great energy. The Gruppenkommandeur (Hptm. Johannes Gentzen – author’s note) is truly a man of few words. One only has to look at his simple face and hear him talk in order to guess that he comes from the coastal regions. He was a merchant sailor until he was 31 years old. Only then did he choose a military career. He joined the Luftwaffe, and at the age of 32 he graduated from an officer academy. Two years later, having attained the rank of Hauptmann, he was promoted to be a Gruppenkommandeur. His subordinates knew him for his unfaltering will and his determination to achieve the goals he had set for himself. Here was a commander they could depend on, a born fighter, strict and unrelenting - just as much with himself as with his men. When there was business to be done, he was all business. Climbing into the cockpit of his fighter, he radiated calm confidence. As an old sailor, he sensed the weather well and navigated with awe-inspiring ease and skill. Even when faced with a solid cloud deck, he always seemed to know his way around. That was the ‘Old Man’! His tranquil self-assurance was most welcome now, when anxious men needed someone like him to look up to.”4