|German soldiers destroying Polish border checkpoint on 1st September. Second World War begins. |
|Polish Defence War of 1939 |
|Conflict ||World War II |
|Date ||1 September - 6 October 1939 |
|Place ||Poland |
|Result ||Decisive German and Soviet victory |
|Poland ||Germany and allies, Soviet Union |
|Edward Rydz-Śmigły ||Fedor von Bock (Army Group North) |
Gerd von Rundstedt (Army Group South)
|39 divisions, 16 brigades |
1 million soldiers
|56 divisions, 4 brigades |
1,8 million soldiers
|65 000 killed |
133 700 wounded
680 000 POWs
|16 343 killed |
27 280 wounded
The Polish September Campaign (alternatively refered to as the German plan Fall Weiss) refers to the conquest of Poland by the armies of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and a small contingent of Slovak forces. The campaign began on 1 September 1939 and ended on 6 October 1939 with Germany and the Soviet Union occupying Poland.
This military operation marks the start of the Second World War within the European theatre. It was one of the first campaigns featuring the use of blitzkrieg tactics.
Polish government and remaining forces evacuated to Romania and later, France and United Kingdom. Polish territories were completely occupied by Germany and the Soviet Union. Soviet territories were later captured by Germany as well. Poland managed to create a strong resistance movement and to contribute military forces to the Allies through the remainder of World War II.
Names of the conflict
The conflict is known under several names. From the German perspective the war is called the "September Campaign". Polish historians call it Wojna obronna 1939 ("Defence War of 1939"). Other names include "Polish-German War of 1939" and "Polish Campaign".
The German operational plan was codenamed by the Wehrmacht as Fall Weiß ("Fall Weiss" or "Case White").
Placement of divisions on September 1st
Recent research by the Polish National Remembrance Institute (IPN) indicates, that after staging a number of false provocations (Operation Himmler), the first regular act of war took place on 1 September 1939, 04:40 local time, when Luftwaffe attacked the town of Wieluń. Five minutes later, at 04:45 local time, the old German battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on the Polish enclave of Westerplatte in Gdańsk by the Baltic Sea. At 08:00 local time, German troops attacked Poland near the town of Mokra. Later that day the front was opened along Poland's Western, Southern and Northern borders, while German aircraft started raids on Polish cities.
Despite some Polish successes in minor border battles, German technical and numerical superiority forced the Polish armies to withdraw towards Warsaw and Lwów. Westerplatte garrison capitulated on 7 September. The largest battle during this campaign (Battle of Bzura) took place near the Bzura river west of Warsaw from 9 September to 18 September - it was the Polish attempt at a counter-attack, which failed after an initial success. Warsaw, under heavy aerial bombardment from the first hours of the war, was first attacked on 9 September and was put under siege from September 13 until its capitulation on 28 September.
The Modlin Fortress north of Warsaw, capitulated on 29 September, after intense 16-days battle.
Polish defenders on the Hel peninsula on the shore of the Baltic Sea held out until 2 October. The capitulation of the town of Kock near Lublin on 6 October, after a 4-day Battle of Kock, marked the end of the September Campaign.
Tanks and aircraft (particularly fighter and ground attack aircraft like the famous Junkers Ju 87 Stuka) played a major role in the fighting. Bomber aircraft also attacked cities and civilian targets causing huge losses amongst the civilian population in what became known as terror bombings.
From September 17, 1939, the Soviet Red Army invaded the Eastern regions of Poland that had not yet been involved in military operations.
While the Soviet diplomacy claimed that they were 'protecting the Russian minority inhabiting Poland in view of Polish imminent collapse', in fact they were acting in co-operation with Nazi Germany, carrying out their part of a secret deal (the division of Europe into Nazi and Soviet spheres of influences, as specified in the secret appendix of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact).
Polish border defences forces (Korpus Ochrony Pogranicza) in the east (about 25 battalions) were unable to defend the border and were ordered by Edward Rydz-Smigly to fall back and not to engage the Soviets. This however did not prevent some clashes and small battles.
The Soviet invasion was one of the decisive factors that convinced the Polish government that the war in Poland was lost. Prior to the Soviet attack from the East, the Polish military plan called for long-term defence against Germany in the southern-eastern part of the Poland (near the Romanian border), while awaiting relief from an attack on the western border of Germany by the Western Allies. Facing two powerful enemies - Nazi Germany and Soviet Union - the Polish government decided that it was impossible to carry out the defence on Polish territories and ordered all units to evacuate Poland and reorganize in France.
All campaigns are composed of various battles. Some of the more notable engagements of the September Campaign are:
- Battle of Bzura (September 9 - September 18) - failed Polish counter-attack, the biggest battle of the campaign
- Battle of Warsaw (September 8 - September 28) - siege of the Polish capital
- Battle of Tomaszów Lubelski (September 17 - September 20) - second biggest battle of the campaign
- Battle of Kock (October 2 - October 5) - the last battle of the campaign
Near the end - 25th September
At the end of the September Campaign, Poland was divided between Nazi Germany, Soviet Union, Lithuania and Slovakia. Nazi Germany annexed parts of Poland, while the rest was governed by the so-called General Government.
About 65,000 Polish troops were killed and 680,000 were captured by the Germans (420,000) or Soviets (240,000). Up to 120,000 Polish troops withdrew to neutral Romania (through the Romanian Bridgehead) and Hungary and 20,000 to Latvia and Lithuania, with the majority eventually making their way to France or Britain. Most of the Polish Navy succeeded in evacuation to Britain as well.
The invasion of Poland led to Britain and France declaring war on Germany on September 3, however they did little to affect the outcome of the September Campaign. This lack of direct help during the September 1939 led many Poles to the believe that they have been betrayed by their Western allies. In the meantime Poland fulfilling her alliance obligations did not surrender in 1939, but rather set up a government-in-exile (Polish Government in Exile) in France (later in United Kingdom) connected to the extensive underground civil and military organisation (Polish Secret State) as legal successors to their pre-1939 government. During the German occupation, the Poles continued their struggle as one of the most extremely restive and organised populations under Nazi rule. Until United States and Soviet Union entered the war, Poland even with its territories occupied had the third biggest army at Western Allies disposal.
The Polish campaign was important as the first step in Hitler's drive for "living space" for Germans in Eastern Europe, and as the blitzkrieg decimated urban residential areas, civilians soon became indistinguishable from combatants. The forthcoming Nazi occupation (General Government, Reichsgau Wartheland) was one of the most brutal episodes of World War II, resulting in over 6 million Polish deaths (over 20% of country's inhabitants), including the mass murder of 3 million Polish Jews in concentration camps like Auschwitz. Soviet occupation, while shorter, also resulted in millions of deaths, when all who were deemed dangerous to the communist regime were subject to Sovietization, forced resettlement, imprisonment in labour camps (the Gulags) or simply murdered, like Polish officers in the Katyn massacre. Soviet atrocities commenced again after the Poland was 'liberated' by Red Army in 1944, with events like the persecutions of Armia Krajowa soldiers and executions of their leaders.
Polish army equipment and tactics
Between 1936 and 1939, Poland invested heavily in industrialization of the Centralny Okręg Przemysłowy, chosen for being reasonably far from both the Soviet and German frontiers. That heavy spending on military industry pushed much of the spending on actual weapons into 1940-42. Poland has been preparing for defensive war for many years, however most plans assumed German aggression would not happen before 1942. Polish military industry development and fortifications were scheduled to be completed in that year, and newer tanks and aircraft were just entering production or would shortly.
The French loaned Poland 2.6 billion francs over a 5 year period starting in September 1936. That added 12% to the annual Polish military budget. The Polish defense budget for 1938-39 was 800 million Zloty, of which:
- Armored force - 13.7 million
- Artillery - 16 million
- Air Force - 46.3 million
- Navy - 21.7 million
- Cavalry - 58 million
To raise funds for the industrial development, Poland was selling much of the modern equipment it produced: for example, anti-tank guns were sold to Britain, and planes were exported to Greece.
Polish defence plan was shaped by the politician's determination to deploy directly at the front. With the most vaulable natural resources (Silesia), industry and highly populated regions near the western border, Polish policy was centered on protection of those regions, especially as many politicians were expecting that in case Poland would retreat from the regions disputed by Germany (like the Gdansk corridor, cause of the famous 'Danzig or War' ultimatum), Britain and France would sign a peace with Germany, similar to the Munich Agreement of 1938. On that grounds French advice to Poland to deploy bulk of Polish forces behind Vistula was disregarded, even through it was supported by some of Polish generals.
The plan to defend the borders contributed vastly to the Polish defeat, as during the September campaing Polish forces were stretchd thin on the very long border, and lacking compact defence lines and good defence positions, often encircled by the mobile German forces. Polish army had the fall back plan, involving retreat to the southern eastern voviodships (the Romanian bridgehead plan). UK and France estimated Poland should be able to defend that region for 2-3 months, while Poles estimated they could hold it at for at least 6 months. This Polish plan was based around the expectation that Western Allies would keep their end of the signed alliance treaty and quickly start an offensive of their own. However neither French nor British government had made plans to attack Germany while Polish campaign fought. Their plans were based on the experiences of the First World War and they expected to wear down Germany in the trench-like warfare, eventully forcing Germany to sign a peace treaty and restore Polish independence. Polish goverment, however, was not notified of this strategy and based all of its defence plans on the expectation of a quick relief action by their Western Allies. Furthermore, Polish plan plan for Romanian Bridgehead defence was rendered obsolete by the unexpected Soviet Union attack. Although the secret appendix of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact about the Soviet alliance with Nazi Germany and its policy towards Poland had been uncovered by the Western Allies intelligence, it was never shared with Poland.
Germany forces weren't incredibly mobile, but they were able to succesfully exploit the weakness of the Polish forces deployment on the long frontline. The blitzkrieg doctrine was based on the novel idea of a spearhead attack, designed to use mobile units to break through enemy frontline and then disperse, cause confusion in the rear areas and severe supply and communications.
Polish Campaign -- Operations -- September 1-14, 1939. In Poland, German panzer
divisions utilising blitzkrieg
tactics created numerous pockets of Polish forces (blue circles) that were destroyed by following infantry.
The political desicion to defend the border was not the only political mistake. Polish pre-war propaganda stated that any German invasion would be easily repelled. Polish defeats in the September campaign came as a shock to many civilians, who unprepared for such news and with no training for such an event, panicked and retreated east, spreading chaos, lowering troops morale and making road transportation for Polish troops very difficult. The propaganda had also some negative consequences on Polish troops themselves, whose communication disrupted by German mobilie units operating in the rear and civilians blocking roads was further thrown in chaos by the bizarre reports from Polish radio stations and newspapers, which often reported imaginary victories and other military operations. This lead to many cases of Polish troops being encirled or taking a stand against overwhelming odds, when they thought they were actually counterattacking or would receive reinforcements from other areas soon.
Polish army was fairly strong in numbers (~1 million soldiers), but many of them were not mobilised by the 1st September, as Polish government, advised in this by the British and French governments, constantly hoped that the war could be resolved (at least, for the time being) by diplomatic channels. Less than half of the Polish armed forces had been mobilized by 1 September, and only one-quarter (600,000) were fully equipped and in position when hostilities commenced. Thus many soldiers, mobilised after 1st September, failed to reach the designated staging areas, and, together with normal civilians, sustained significant casualties when public transport (trains, roads filled with refugees) became targets of German airforce.
Poland possessed numerically inferior armoured forces. Polish units were dispersed within infantry and unable to effectively engage in any major panzer battles. The Germans opposite them had 3,000 tanks, organised into independent divisions under blitzkrieg doctrine. In terms of equipment, the Poles had 132 7TP light tanks, which were capable of destroying any German armour, including the Panzer IV, and less then 300 tankettes.
In addition to tanks, Poland successfully used armoured trains against Germans, who were unprepared to face this kind of combat vehicle. The losses Germans incurred against Polish trains convinced them to reintroduce this type of vehicle into their own army after the September Campaign.
Polish cavalry brigades, contrary to the common myth, were used as a mobile infantry, and quite succesful against German infantry. They were considered to be elite troops of the Polish army and were much more successful then Germans anticipated. However, while Polish cavalry matched German panzers in speed and anti-infantry effectivness, it could not stand its ground against the tanks.
Another interesting equipment used with success by Polish forces was the 7.92 mm Karabin przeciwpancerny wz.35 anti-tank rifle. It was quite successful against German light tanks, although, as with most of the Polish modern equipment, the production was just beginning when the war started.
Polish Air Force
The Polish Air Force was at a severe disadvantage against the German Luftwaffe. Although its pilots were highly trained, the Polish Air Force lacked modern fighter aircraft, and the Germans had gross numerical superiority: Poland had approximately 400 aircraft, including 169 fighters, and Germany had approximately 3,000 aircraft. The development program of the Polish airforce was slowed in 1926 in the aftermath of Józef Piłsudski's coup d'etat, as Piłsudski considered the airforce to be of less importance then other branches military.
In 1939, Polish main fighter, the PZL P.11, designed in early-1930s, was becoming obsolete, the slightly better PZL P.24 were used solely for export and PZL P.50s, which were supposed to have better parameters then German modern fighters, were still on the drawing board. As the result, the German Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Bf 110 fighters were faster and better armed, and most German bombers could also outrun the Polish fighters. On the other hand, P.11 were more maneuvreable, and despite the German superiority is speed, armament and numbers, P.11s downed a considerable number of German aircraft, including fighters, although suffering heavy losses as well. The exact numbers are not verified, but some sources claim that at least one German aircraft was shot down for each P.11 lost (a figure of 141 German aircraft shot down for the loss of 118 Polish aircraft is often given).
One of the most interesting units in the Polish arsenal was the twin-engine medium bomber, the PZL.37 Łoś. Before the war it was one of the world's most modern and outstanding bombers. Smaller than most contemporary medium bombers, it was still able to carry a heavier bomb load than comparable aircraft, including the famous Vickers Wellington. It was relatively fast and easy to handle. Thanks to a landing gear with double wheels, it could operate from rough fields or meadows. The only drawback was its relatively weak defensive armament, consisting of 3 machine guns. Its range was also limited, but the Łoś was not meant to be a long range bomber. During the September Campaign, they were too few in number to change the outcome, and often lacking fighter cover, sustained heavy losses.
PZL.37 Łoś, advanced Polish bomber
Few planes of the Polish air Force were destroyed on ground, as most have been deployed to temporary secret airstrips. The fighter planes were grouped in 15 escadres. 5 of them constituted the Pursuit Brigade, deployed in Warsaw area. The bombers, grouped in 9 escadres of the Bomber Brigade attacked armoured columns, suffering heavy losses. 7 reconnaissance and 12 observation escadres, deployed to particular Polish Armies, were intensively used for reconnaissance. However, the Polish pilots, while highly trained and motivated, faced superior numerical opponent in superior designs and with much better command structure. German achieved air superiority around day three of the campaign, although Polish Air Force manged to remain operational for two first weeks of the September capmpaing, after which most planes were either destroyed in combat or had to been abandoned on ground due to lack of supplies and spare parts, in face of the rapidly advancing German land troops. Few remaining aircraft were either captured by Germans or withdrawn to Romania and taken over by this country. A great number of pilots and air crews managed to breakthrough to France through European countries.
The Polish Navy was a small fleet composed of destroyers and submarines. Most of Polish surface units followed the Operation Pekin, left Polish ports on 20th August, evaded German forces and escaped to the North Sea to join with the British Royal Navy. Submarine forces were realising Operation Worek, with the goal of engaging and damaging German shipping in the Baltic Sea, but with much less success.
ORP Błyskawica, Polish destroyer
- Warships (in service during September 1939)
- ORP Gryf, large minelayer, sunk by German bombers near Hel
- ORP Błyskawica, a destroyer, escaped to United Kingdom
- ORP Wicher, a destroyer, sunk by German bombers near Hel
- ORP Grom, a destroyer, escaped to United Kingdom
- ORP Burza, a destroyer, escaped to United Kingdom
- ORP Orzeł, a submarine, escaped to United Kingdom
- ORP Sęp, a submarine, interned in Sweden
- ORP Wilk, a submarine, escaped to United Kingdom
- ORP Ryś, a submarine, interned in Sweden
- ORP Żbik, a submarine, interned in Sweden
- ORP Mewa, Jaskółka, Rybitwa, Czajka, Żuraw, Czapla - 6 small minesweepers. ORP Mewa, Jaskółka and Czapla were sunk by German bombers near hel and Oksywie, others have been captured and salvaged by Germans.
- ORP Mazur, old torpedo destroyer from First World War, sunk by German bombers near Hel
- two gunboats
In addition, many ships of Polish Merchant Navy have joined the British merchant fleet and took part in various convoys during the war.
There are some common myths about the Polish Campaign, comparable to the urban legends.
Although Poland had 11 cavalry brigades and its doctrine emphasized cavalry units as elites, other armies of that time (including Germany) also fielded and extensively used cavalry units. Polish cavalry never charged on German tanks nor entrenched machine guns but usually acted as mobile infantry units and executed cavalry charges only in rare situations.
Secondly, the Polish Air Forces, though numerically inferior and lacking modern fighters, were not destroyed on airfields and remained active in the first two weeks of the campaign, causing some harm to the Germans. Skilled Polish pilots who escaped to the United Kingdom after the German occupation were employed by the RAF during the Battle of Britain. Fighting from British bases, Polish pilots were also, on average, the most successful in shooting down German planes.
It should be noted that the September campaign lasted only about one week less than the Battle of France in 1940.
German equipment and tactics
Order of battle
- ...in general the bravery and heroism of the Polish Army merits great respect - Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, commander of Army Group South
- Steven Zaloga, The Polish Army 1939-1945, Osprey Publishing, 1982, ISBN 0850454174
- Steve Zaloga, Howard Gerrard, Poland 1939: The Birth of Blitzkrieg, Osprey Publishing, 2002, ISBN 1841764086
- Peter Charles Smith, Stuka Spearhead: The Lightning War from Poland to Dunkirk 1939-1940, Greenhill Books, 1998, ISBN 1853673293
- Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, Between Nazis and Soviets: Occupation Politics in Poland, 1939-1947, Lexington Books, 2004, ISBN 0739104845
- Robert M Kennedy, The German campaign in Poland (1939), Zenger Pub. Co, 1980, ISBN 0892010649
- Anita J. Prazmowska, Britain and Poland 1939-1943 : The Betrayed Ally, Cambridge University Press, 1995, ISBN 0521483859
- Diemut Majer, Peter Thomas Hill, Edward Vance Humphrey, Brian Levin, Non-Germans under the Third Reich: The Nazi Judicial and Administrative System in Germany and Occupied Eastern Europe, with Special Regard to Occupied Poland, 1939-1945, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003, ISBN 0801864933
- Richard C. Lukas, Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles Under German Occupation, 1939-1944, Hippocrene Books, Inc, 2001, ISBN 0781809010,
- Alexander B. Rossino, Hitler Strikes Poland: Blitzkrieg, Ideology and Atrocity, University Press of Kansas, 2003, ISBN 0700612343
- Jan T. Gross, Revolution from Abroad: The Soviet Conquest of Poland's Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia, Princeton University Press, 2002, ISBN 0691096031
- Keith Sword, The Soviet Takeover of the Polish Eastern Provinces, 1939-41, Palgrave Macmillan, 1991, ISBN 0312055706