The Start of World War Two

On September 1, 1939, Germany attacked Poland using a new military tactic called Blitzkrieg or “lightening war,” which was characterized by fast-moving columns of motorized armored vehicles supported by air power. This new style of warfare made WW I entrenchment tactics obsolete. The Poles fought bravely, but it was literally horse cavalry against tanks and panzers. They did not stand a chance. The battle for Poland was essentially over by September 17, 1939. On that day, Stalin’s troops invaded Poland from the East and took over the portion of Poland that was pre-arranged in the German-Russian Non-Aggression Pact. In subsequent weeks, Russia also took over Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and parts of Finland.

“Panzelied (The Tankman’s Song), (1933). The English translation is printed below; see German subtitles in the YouTube video ( which was taken from a scene in the movie “The Battle of The Bulge,” although the song was part of the German military long before that. The song epitomizes the Blitzkrieg mentality.

In blizzard or storm,
Or in sun warm and bright,
The day hot as hell,
Or bone-chilling be the night,
Our faces may with dust be laid,
But spirits never fade,
No, never fade;
Relentless, our tank
Thunders out on a raid.

With engines a-howling,
Fast as is the wind,
We head for the foe,
Safe, as we’re in armor skinned.
Our comrades still behind us roam;
We fight the foe alone,
Yes, fight alone.
We stab through the line,
To break the foe’s backbone.

Whenever the foe
May appear in our sight,
We’ll ram throttle full,
Then we’ll humble all his might!
Of what use is our life if we
Our country serve freely?
Yes, serve freely!
To die for our country,
Our honor shall be.

With tank traps and mines,
Our foe tries to impede.
We laugh at his ruses;
We know he’ll not succeed.
And when, in threat, his cannons stand,
Half hidden in the sand,
Yes, in the sand,
We can find our way
Over much safer land.

And should at long last,
Fickle Lady Luck leave,
And we remain here,
Leaving family to grieve,
A bullet with our name on it,
Find us and seal our fate,
Yes, seal our fate,
Our tank will our grave be
On that final date.

“Lithuania” by Dan Bern and the International Jewish Banking Conspiracy is a reflection on the Nazis’ liquidation of the Jewish population of Lithuania, including Bern’s grandparents, aunts and uncles, when the Nazis invaded Lithuania in 1941. Bernstein was Bern’s family name before they emigrated from Lithuania to the United States. (

I’d like to be a good American and write an elegy to the automobile
But no matter where it takes me I don’t really feel any different
I got one foot in the black and white two dimensional ghosts of Lithuania
And the other foot in sunny California where the people are all friendly
As they drive their Mercedes to the mini-malls and take a lunch
Or network with you or drive past and kill you for no reason

These are my ghosts: Uncle Emmanuel, Uncle Eli, Aunt Mia
And my grandparents, Jenny and Tobias, none of whom I’ve ever met
I saw some letters once that they wrote to my dad in Palestine in 1940
Not too long before they all were shot
My only link to them is my dad, he knew them, he knew me, now he’s gone too

Sometimes I want to get next to them, sometimes I want to drive them all away
Say: You’re not my ghosts, I live in Sunny California, I drive a 1992 Red Chevrolet
I drive fast, and I drive as far west as anyone can drive
Eight thousand miles from Lithuania and if I could escape
By driving further then I would, but it doesn’t get me anyplace new

I guess if I was a true American, I could write an elegy to the automobile
But when I jump in it doesn’t get me any place different
Sometimes I want to dance on Hitler’s grave
And shout out: Groucho Marx, Lenny Bruce, Leonard Cohen, Philip Roth,
Bob Dylan, Albert Einstein, Leonard Bernstein, Harry Houdini, Sandy Koufax!

And then I want to sing as loud as I can
Watch the chandeliers sway dangerously overhead
Proclaiming Kristallnacht is over
I say Kristallnacht is over!
The only broken glass tonight
Will be from wedding glasses shattered under boot heels
We’re not the ones in the museum, it’s you,
Your curious mustache and your chamber of horrors

I’ve a friend my age whose parents met in Auschwitz on the Day of Liberation
She lives in San Francisco, a good job, just moved into a new house
I’ve a friend who lies in her hospital bed
After fifteen operations from a botched appendectomy
I go to visit her with a heart heavy from the things on my mind,
And she cheers me up

I saw my dad tell jokes, and teach me how to laugh,
Thirty years after his parents, brothers, and sister were all shot,
Murdered in the streets of Lithuania
I see trees growing tall and the sun coming up, and the ocean roaring home,
And know I must go on, I must go on
It would be cowardly to stop
It would be an aberration to do anything else

Amid something you tried to remember for days
The fog is suddenly lifted
The haze is gone from your mind
And its not so much that your memory finally heeded
But you gave up needing to need it

Hey, the fog has gone
Hey, the fog has gone
Its time for you to come out
There’s no longer a reason to die

When something is over, something else begins
The end of the century is coming
Like a blind woman relentlessly spinning
But before it’s sewn shut
You wanted to scream: Hold on just a minute, was this just a dream?
Or is there something to learn
Besides who got the gold,
And who’s been losing and winning?

But a century’s a man-made process
An attempt to stick order on chaos
We’re born with ten fingers
So we count up to ten
But if everyone counted the cracks on the wall
We might all count to three, and then it wouldn’t be
The end of the century at all

Hey hey, the fog has gone
Hey hey, the fog has gone

It showed signs early today
I knew when I woke in my bed
That something was going on
Throw up the window
I want to scream out your name

Hey hey, the fog has gone
Hey hey, the fog has gone

C’mon we’ll drive up the coast
Its a Tuesday or Thursday
But I can’t remember, and I don’t care
We’ll drive to Seattle or else Oklahoma
Or else if we wanna boat to Hawaii
Or maybe Japan with the kings of karaoke
Come out!

Come on out girl, you gotta come out now
Maybe the only thing jumping in the car and driving can get us
Is an empty tank of gas
But it sure beats sitting around here
Maybe we’ll get lucky, find our own private river valley
Or at least an all-night diner where they know how to poach an egg
Maybe we’ll meet some good people along the way
And anyway, you know I’ll never leave you
I’ll never leave you

France declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, as did Great Britain. But neither country did anything to come to the aid of Poland. From the fall of 1939 through the spring of 1940, other than a small amount of naval activity, the conflict entered into a quiet period, during which there was no fighting. This period was referred to as Sitzkreig or “The Phony War.”

In the spring of 1940, Hitler began a striking offensive against Western Europe. In April 1940, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway for naval tactical reasons. Denmark fell right away; it took Norway two months to fall. On May 10, 1940, German attacked Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg; and, like Poland, they were overrun by the Blitzkrieg in weeks.

France, not having learned the lesson of World War I, again relied on the defensive structure of the Maginot Line: “Based on the logic of trench warfare, the line was an eighty-seven miles string of underground forts long the country’s eastern border, protected by machine guns, barbed wire and concrete walls ten feet thick….[But the] Maginot Line… was useless in the age of the blitzkrieg…. [W]ith two-thirds of their border forces resting comfortably inside the embrace of an archaic defense, France was an easy target.” (Jennings and Brewster, p. 215.)

Marching though Belgium, it took Germany 11 days to defeat France. Paris fell to the Germans on June 14, 1940, and eight days later France signed an armistice with Germany. Hitler made France sign the peace treaty at the same place Germany signed the treaty after World War I. Italy declared war on Britain and France on June 10, 1940.

French and British forces were pushed back by the German army and were virtually encircled on the coast of the English Channel at Dunkirk. They were in danger of being decimated by the Germans. But, Hitler, afraid of overextending his army, called off the panzers and let the retreating forces off the hook, giving them time to evacuate, regroup and to fight another day. English naval craft could not evacuate the troops on the beaches because the waters were too shallow. An armada of smaller private boats of all kinds shuttled back and forth across the Channel and saved more than 340,000 British and French troops. Although the Dunkirk evacuation saved many lives, it was at the loss of greatly needed supplies and equipment. (Jennings and Brewster, p. 217.)

James Keelaghan wrote and sung the “Fire of Calais” about the Dunkirk evacuation. (

The fishing boats roll out across the dark green channel water
As they gather speed for Flanders they cut their nets away
It’s not herring they’ll be pulling from the waters on this morning
But they’ll reap a bitter harvest from the fires of Calais

Twenty leagues from France I saw the amber soaked horizon
In our lee the cliffs of Dover fall beneath the channel waves
Where waters used to sing a song to soothe the hearts of fishers
Now we hear the rolling thunder from the fires of Calais

As we pull in tight to shore, this armada bent on rescue
I could curse the men behind the desks who sell our lives this way
I never signed aboard to save them from this bloody lack of planning
That strands these fine young men beneath the fires of Calais

On the beach allied confusion, will they stand or are they running
If it’s run, where will they go to between the sea and the melee
On the flanks the troops advancing and with heavy guns they’re firing
And not a mother’s son could save them from the fires of Calais

In scattered groups upon the shore some look towards a safer harbor
Some fix their eyes upon the flames that turn night to day
Some yet standing bold and ready to stoutly guard the rear from Jerry
They’ll need no flares to see him ‘neath the fires of Calais

I’ve fished these channel waters since I was man enough to face them
For the herring and the flounder I have often hauled away
But a catch like this I’ve never had in forty years of sailing
Saving Tommies as they flounder ‘neath the fires of Calais

(Repeat First Verse)

Having done away with all opposition in Western Europe, Hitler set his sights to the East and Russia. Hitler reneged on the Nazi-Soviet Pact and on June 22, 1941; the Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union. Realizing that it was just a matter of time before the Americans became involved, Hitler hoped to conquer the Soviet Union before the U.S. entered the war. However, the Russian invasion had to be delayed to support Mussolini, whose army had been pushed back in North Africa and the Balkans. The German army made significant advances into Russia during 1941 before the winter set in, bringing them to the outskirts of Moscow and Leningrad.