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The Polish Campaign of September 1939 in Perspective

1939 War

by M. Kamil Dziewanowski

While Poland was fighting her desperate defense campaign her Western Allies, despite their formal declaration of war on September 3, stood by and watched. As a matter of fact, for two days there were considerable doubts as to whether France would declare war at all, despite previous promises and resolutions. Although Britain had announced that she would honor her pledges to Poland, the Chamberlain government was reluctant to shake off appeasement. The French Government was even more sluggish. Britain declared war on Germany first on September 3 at 11 a.m., while the French followed reluctantly after serious On September 2, when the Polish ambassador vigorously protested against the French delay in carrying out their clear treaty obligations to give Poland immediate air support, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, George's Bonnet, indignantly replied: "You don't expect us to have a massacre of women and children in Paris." Yet, no French Government could afford to disassociate itself from its British ally and renounce its position as a Great Power. Finally the French declared war on Germany after a delay of six hours.


The two formal declarations of war, however, were not followed by any significant military moves aimed at relieving the hard pressed Polish allies in their desperate plight. Everyone that Poland would eventually be mangled by the overwhelming German forces and that the fate of the war would be eventually decided on the Western front. But no one had expected that the defeat would happen so quickly. It was not the morale of the Polish Forces that cracked; they were simply crushed by sheer force of numbers combined with technical superiority. The Poles had an army large enough to hold perhaps up to a third of the German forces, but they could not cope with more than two-thirds of the entire Wehrmacht, including most of its tanks and planes, and a considerable segment of the Red Army.

British and French declarations of war caused the Poles, naturally enough to expect immediate land and air operations. Yet, neither the French nor the British did much to help the beleaguered Poles imploring their promised assistance. This was again contrary to the letter and spirit of both the Franco-Polish alliance of 1921 and the military convention of May 1039, as well as the British-Polish Mutual Assistance pact, signed on 25 August. The pact had stated categorically that in case of aggression by a European Power (which was defined as meaning Germany) " the other contracting party will once give the contracting party engaged in hostilities all the support and assistance in its power." Article Five emphasized that such mutual support and assistance would be given "immediately on the outbreak of hostilities." By the Franco-Polish convention of May 1939, the French promised the Poles five squadrons of their bombers and immediate bombardment of key German objectives in case of Hitler's attack on Poland; the main assistance was to come, however, from the French ground forces which were to start their operations along the Franco-German border "on the third day after the end of the mobilization" with a full-scale offensive with "the bulk" of their Army on the fifteenth day of the mobilization.

British reaction was no better than the French. On September 5, the Polish military attaché' in London went to the Air Ministry with an urgent request for the Royal Air Force to launch raids against Germany. Nothing came of it.

It was obvious that Paris and London had decided early to postpone any large scale offensive in the West. But the Poles were told none of this. The declarations of war were intended as a mere gesture by the Western Allies; nothing would be done until Britain and France could either negotiate a compromise settlement with Germany, or their economic blockade and "silver bullets" could bring Germany to its knees. In both cabinets their respective Foreign Ministers, Lord Halifax and George's Bonnet, favored further negotiations with Berlin.

Attacked from four sides, outflanked and overwhelmed, Poland collapsed, fighting to the last moment while abandoned by its Western allies. Could Poland have been rescued from her predicament? Great Britain had no army capable of intervention, but her navy air force could have bombed and shelled German military installations and communication centers. General Gamelin had nearly one hundred divisions ready to fight. His forces could have broken through to the Rhine and threatened the Ruhr, which Hitler considered as "the Achilles heel" of the Reich. But Gamelin refused to give the order. We know from the depositions of General Alfred Jodl at the Nuremberg trail , that the Germans were astonished and relieved that the French did not attack them while the Siegfried Line was still "little better than a building site." Another leading German general, Heinz Guiderian, was also surprised that the French did not take advantage of their favorable situation in September 1939 to attack the Reich from the West, while the bulk of the German forces, including the entire Panzer force, was fighting in Poland.

According to the later testimony of Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, the Germans in September 1939 had not more than thirty poorly prepared combat divisions in the West. Most of the German troops were raw recruits, many of whom had never fired live ammunition, and this was sufficient for barely three days of fighting. The better German troops, all tanks, and practically the entire Air Force were thrown into the Polish campaign. During the second week of the war, while the battle of Kutno was still raging and the fate of Poland was not yet definitely sealed, German forces in the unfinished Siegfried Line were in a critical situation.

Yet, the French Army and Air Force stood passively facing these meager German contingents in the West; on the Allied side of the Western front were approximately 2,500 tanks, 10,000 guns, and nearly 3,000 French and British aircraft. After making allowance for protecting the border with Italy and leaving a dozen or so divisions in North Africa, General Gamelin had in metropolitan France at least eighty-five trained and equipped divisions to confront the German Army's some thirty second-rate German divisions. At that time, Gamelin had six times as many guns as the Germans; he had 1.600 guns apart form his divisional artillery against Germany's 300- and the French guns were better and of heavier caliber. Moreover, the French had 3,286 tanks while in the West the Germans had very few. The Western Allies had 934 fighter planes immediately available for action while the Germans had virtually none on the Western front; the British had 776 serviceable bombers, while all of the Germans had very few since the majority of them had been sent to the Polish front.

In retrospect it is obvious that in 1939 the Germans were not ready for war on two fronts simultaneously. They had only 98 divisions, of which 52 were active. Of the remaining 46, only 10 were fit for immediate action, be-cause the remainder had only a month or so of training. Even in the air the Germans did not have a numerical superiority over their opponents. As of September, 1939, the Allies had in fact more first-line, though not very modern, aircraft. There is no doubt that Germany's better planes were of more advanced design than those of the Allies, but the Luftwaffe's crushing superiority in the air was a myth, largely cultivated by Hitler to intimidate his opponents. In September 1939, the Germans had only 3,600 planes, of which, however, some 2,000 were engaged in Poland, thus leaving about 1,600 for the defense of the entire Reich, including a reserve of only 900 aircraft.18 In 1939 the Germans had no strategic bomber force and the existing craft were suited more to tactical cooperation with land units than to long-range bombing.

German intelligence reports, uncovered by the Allies after the war, indicated deep anxiety about the Wehrmacht in the West. These reports expressed fear that should the Allies attack early in September, they could reach the Rhine with little resistance. Had Gamelin executed his breakthrough toward the Rhur it was the opinion of many senior German officers that he could not only have threatened the industrial heart of the Third Reich, but might have trapped the hard core of the German army in a "sack" on the Saar front. The potential setback would probably have encouraged the sulking and conspiring generals to act against Hitler, while at the same time discouraging Stalin from committing himself more deeply to the German partnership.


As France and Britain were reluctantly mobilizing their resources, the victors were dividing their spoils. Early in October 1939, Hitler incorporated not only Dang, but also Polish Pomeranian, Posnania, and Upper Silesia and a fragment of Central Poland, including the district around the industrial city of Lodz, into the Greater German Reich. Thus, the frontiers of the Third Reich were pushed beyond those of the old Empire of 1914. The bulk and the annexed Polish land were organized into a new Wartegau. The mutilated remainder of Poland, the area around Warsaw, Cracow and Lublin, as far as the Soviet border on the Bug, was decreed to be a General Government "with Cracow as the seat of its ruler," a rabid Nazi Dr. Hans Frank. The Germans soon started the persecution and eventual extermination of Jews as well as the educated class of the Polish society; the remaining strata were to be reduced to helots for the "Master Race."

While in Western and Central Poland the Germans were establishing their New Order, the eastern segment of the country was suffering from the Stalinist policies of " social engineering." The Soviets proceeded to mass arrest of "politically unreliable elements" and their forcible deportation to distant parts of what later was to be called the "Gulag Archipelago." At the same time Stalin turned has attention toward the three small Baltic Republics, the existence of which has hinged on Poland's independence. The Poles has insisted on adding to the British-Polish defensive alliance an additional protocol which extended all alliance to the Baltic states. According to this annex to the treaty, Great Britian would be obliged to assist Poland in defending Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia against a German attack. Of course, neither the British nor the Polish negotiators realized that the fate of the Baltic Republics had already been determined two days earlier in Moscow by the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its secret protocol.

On September 20, three days after the Soviet invasion of Poland, Moscow accused Estonia of threatening the security of the U.S.S.R. by allowing the interned Polish submarine, "OrzeI (Eagle), to escape from Tallinn. Red Army units of the Leningrad military district were ordered to be ready to march into Estonia, while a squadron of the Soviet Baltic fleet immediately sailed into Estonian territorial waters. On September 24, at the Soviet request, Estonia's foreign minister, Karl Selter, appeared in Moscow.

Brushing aside the still valid Soviet-Estonian non-aggression pact, Molotov threatened war against Estonia, unless it agreed to sign a mutual assistance pact for ten years, which would include establishment of military, naval and air bases on Estonian territory. The helpless Estonians submitted to this Soviet pressure; they were assured by Stalin and Molotov that Estonia's internal regime would not be infringed upon and that Soviet garrisons would be withdrawn immediately after the war.

Then came Latvia's turn. On October 2, a Latvian delegation was summoned to the Kermlin to hear a similar ultimatum and similar soothing assurances. During the talks, some sixteen Red Army divisions were ominously present along the Soviet-Latvian border. The Latvians heard from Stalin that they threatened Soviet security; astonished, the Latvians asked who could threaten Soviet interests in the Baltic area. Stalin replied: "The Swedes and the British." The Latvians submitted and on October 5, signed another extensive mutual-aid pact.

Next, Lithuania was requested to send a delegation to Moscow. To the Lithuanians Stalin offered the city of Wilno (Vilnius) to soften their fears of Soviet garrisons on their soil. For over two decades the city had been written into the Constitution of the Lithuanian Republic as its legal capital. Possession of Wilno by the Poles had been the main apple of discord between the two countries.

Lithuanian patriots had desired nothing more than to regain Vilnius from Poland. Yet, Kaunas refused Berlin's urging to join in the attack on Poland at the coveted price. Now, faced again with the Danaian gift offered by Stalin, the Lithuanian Minister hesitated. Expressing his fear for his country's independent existence, he made a dramatic appeal to Stalin to spare Lithuania.

As "a son of a small nation," Georgia, which has lost its freedom at the expense of a great neighbor, Russia, Stalin should understand Lithuanian's plight. Stalin ignored the plea and replied that he was "already a Russified Georgian." On October 10, after long soul-searching, the Lithuanian delegation frightened by a mounting concentration of the Red Army along their eastern borders complied with the Soviet demands. To punish them for their hesitation, Molotov extended this Soviet-Lithuanian pact of mutual assistance from ten to fifteen years.

Thus, the destruction of Poland was followed by the disintegration of all other sovereign states in East Central Europe. The unfolding of events in East Central Europe in 1938-1940 is evidence of the close interdependence of the countries of the area. The collapse of Czechoslovakia was followed by the downfall of Poland and the Baltic States, and finally of the remaining independent nations situated between Germany and Russia. This was a perfect illustration of the domino theory.

Meanwhile, on October 22, 1939, the Soviet commander of the occupation forces in Eastern Poland ordered elections for the selection of deputies to the local Soviets. The electorate, of course, had no voice in the nominations of the candidates, who came mostly from the Soviet Union and were often complete strangers to the voters. Voting was permitted only for the one candidate whose name appeared on the ballot; Soviet occupation troops were also given the right to vote. Chosen deputies were then elected to the Supreme Soviet by a show of hands. They proceeded to pass resolutions providing for the "admission" of their territories into the Soviet Union, for the confiscation of large estates, and for the nationalization of banks and industries. Shortly after these political actions, deportations of "undesirable" and "unreliable" elements started anew, affecting an even greater number of people than before.

Some have seen Stalin's decision to grab as much territory as he could, even in alliance with Hitler, as a rejection of the ideological premises of Communism and definite shift in the traditional Russian approach to territorial expansion. Probably some such shift had occurred. The loss of a broad belt of territory in the West to Russia's western neighbors at the end of World War I has been painful to all Great Russian nationalists, with whom Stalin by then came to identify himself. These losses, a humiliating reminder of Russia's defeats during 1914-1920, had also damaged the U.S.S.R.'s strategic situation by depriving it of Baltic ports in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland, thus making Leningrad a dangerously exposed frontier city.

Beyond the defeat of the enemy on the battlefield, the purpose of war is the achievement of political and other aims of the victor. The conqueror desires to consolidate the benefits of victory. Hitler, however, failed to establish meaningful advantages in Poland. No political party accepted German rule and no pro-Nazi government was ever formed, in contrast to all the other occupied countries of Europe. The terror and persecution which prevailed from the beginning in both parts of divided Poland produced uncompromising opposition drawn from a broad cross-section of the population. A resistance movement was organized by the major Polish political parties not only in the German-controlled regions toward the end of September 1939 , but also later and on a smaller scale in the Soviet zone of occupation. Moreover, to preserve the continuity of Polish statehood a government-in-exile was formed in France by General Wladyslaw Sikorski, who became its Prime Minister, as well as Commander-in-Chief of all Polish armed forces, at home and abroad.

The article is based on M.K. Dziewanowski's book, War at Any Price. A History of World War II, 1939-1945, Prentice Hall, 1991.