Most people recognise World War Two started on 1 September 1939 when Germany, led by Adolf Hitler, invaded Poland. There are arguments that it started with the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 but today I am just looking at the European invasion seeing as I am currently reading All Hell Let Loose by Max Hastings.
Hitler had already taken Czechoslovakia and Britain and France, who had vowed to help defend Poland, knew that Poland was the next target. Britain and France, by declaring support for Poland had hoped that it may have prevented Hitler from going ahead with the invasion but it wasn’t to be.
Throughout the summer of 1939, Hitler was advancing plans for his invasion. He was unconvinced by the claims from Britain and France that they would help Poland in their time of need. He pushed forward with his plans to take Poland and split it with Russia.
Germany went on to stage an event portraying Polish aggression against Germany. They used some criminals, considered expendable by Hitler, and dressed them up in polish uniforms before getting them to ‘attack’ a German radio station. The men were killed and they showed off their victory and proof of Poland’s aggression. I suppose they thought this would lead to an outsiders view of their invasion being justified.
Max Hastings, in his book All Hell Let Loose, explains the first movement of German troops:
At 0200 on 1 September, the Wehrmacht’s 1st Mounted Regiment was among scores roused in its bivouacs by a bugle call – some German units, as well as many Polish ones, rode horses to battle. The squadrons saddled, mounted, and began to move towards their start line alongside clattering columns of armour, trucks and guns. The order was given: ‘Muzzle caps off! Load! Safety catches on!’ At 0440, the big guns of the old German battleship Schleswig-Holstein, anchored in Danzig harbour for a ‘goodwill visit’ opened fire on the Polish fort at Westerplatte. An hour later, German soldiers tore down crossing poles on the western frontier, opening the way for leading elements of the invasion force to pour forward into Poland.
The Soldiers on Each Side
When we look at the numbers of soldiers on each side it was thought it would be a closer battle. Poland had a large army, one of the largest in Europe and deployed 1.3 million men against 1.5 million invaders. It was the equipment of each side that made the difference here though. The Wehrmacht had a massive 3600 armoured vehicles against just 750. Poland had around 900 planes but they were old and not of much use when coming up against over 1,900 modern fighters.
Poland hadn’t set up a full defensive force either because Britain and France had asked them not to, in case it provoked Germany into a full-scale war. Their men were stretched and they didn’t have the numbers to be strong in all areas. Little did they know the extent of Hitler’s actions in the future.
France’s high command had urged the Poles to concentrate their forces behind the three big rivers in the centre of their country, but the Warsaw government deemed it essential instead to defend its entire nine-hundred-mile frontier with Germany, not least because most Polish industry lay in the west; some divisions thus became responsible for fronts of eighteen miles, when their strengths – around 15,000 men – scarcely sufficed for three or four.
Introducing the Blitzkrieg
The Germans used a form of attack not seen before, known as the Blitzkrieg. During these attacks, the Germans would move fast and with many strong weapons to stun the enemy. Planes would bomb and strafe defensive positions and armoured vehicles would storm through the enemy line with such speed the enemy would be shocked and confused as to what had just happened.
Then ground troops would follow behind, clearing up any remaining soldiers. The technique would often trap defensive positions, leaving them surrounded, outnumbered and outgunned. Despite Poland’s lack of quality of their defensive capabilities, they still took down 560 German aircraft, refusing to give the Luftwaffe an easy ride as they stormed through their country.
Russia Joins the Invasion Party
Two and a half weeks after the initial invasion, the Polish thought the French would be starting their movement of troops to help fight against the Germans on the western front. What they received instead was the Russians starting their own invasion from the east. The Polish ran, with some telling people to run for their lives because the Russians were coming.
Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, refused to attack the Germans and refused to send an RAF attack to bomb German land targets. Poland was alone. The invaders broke the Polish resistance after three weeks and on 28 September Warsaw fell. The Germans took tens of thousands of Polish soldiers prisoner immediately upon surrender. Britain and France were hoping that after taking Poland there was nothing more for the Germans to try and take, how wrong they were.
For the time being, Germany and Russia shared out the Polish territory and made their own plans for the future.