Poland 1939

In the aftermath of WW1, it was Poland's misfortune to find herself sandwiched between two aggressive neighbours: Germany to the west and the Soviet Union to the east. The fact that both of these European super-powers harboured territorial ambitions in Poland made the Polish position even more dangerous. During 1918-22, the loss of the Baltic port of Danzig (now Gdansk) and the separation of East Prussia from the rest of Germany by a strip of land known as the 'Pomeranian corridor', had generated much resentment in Germany. Hitler and the Nazis exploited these widely-held grievances and used them as a pretext for war. Following Hitler's invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, it became clear to the leaders of Britain and France that Poland would be Hitler's next target. As a consequence, and in order to halt German expansionism, Britain pledged its support and that of France to guarantee Polish independence.

A bugler of the Polish Cavalry, the elite of the Polish Army.

During the summer of 1939, diplomatic tensions continued to rise. Hitler was convinced that Britain and France would not go to war over Poland and plans for an invasion were well advanced. In August, to ensure Soviet co-operation, the so-called Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, essentially a non-aggression treaty between Germany and the Soviet Union, but crucially, including secret clauses concerning the occupation and partitioning of Poland was signed. Germany also made diplomatic efforts to support the legitimacy of its territorial claims and made accusations of Polish persecution of German minorities in Poland in an attempt to discredit the Polish government. These actions finally culminated in the Nazis 'fabricating' a border incursion by Polish forces in the German town of Gleiwitz. By late August, the Poles had mobilised 700,000 men, but they were dissuaded from ordering a full mobilisation by French and British government requests not to provoke the Germans into an all-out war. This was to further hamper Poland's plans for a fighting defence west of the Vistula, as once war broke out it became increasingly difficult to mobilise their remaining reserves.

Polish infantryman.

On the 1st September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, with major and rapid thrusts in the north across the Pomeranian Corridor, in the centre towards Lodz and from the south towards Krakow. On the second day a smaller German force also attacked from East Prussia, although the attack was largely stalled by well-prepared defensive positions.

Polish infantry in summer uniform on a cross-country march.

The very significant imbalance in manpower, mechanisation and modern weapons made the outcome of the campaign a forgone conclusion. The Polish borders were long and the western parts of Poland lacked the natural defensive barriers necessary for a prolonged defence. The Polish defensive strategy was therefore largely predicated on the early and active entry of Britain and France to the war. Whilst both declared war on Germany on the 3rd September, the generally passive nature of their participation in the first few weeks of the war and the Germans' new Blitzkrieg tactics sealed Poland's fate. The defeat of Polish forces was accelerated when, two weeks after the initial invasion, the Soviet Union attacked eastern Poland.

Red Army sentry stands guard over a downed Polish plane.

The German assault was spearheaded by its Panzer divisions (tank units with fully integrated motorised artillery and infantry support), whose firepower and speed stunned the defenders. The bulk of the German Luftwaffe was employed in support of the army and with almost complete air superiority, made it virtually impossible for Polish forces to be reinforced, re-supplied or re-grouped. The key weaknesses of the Polish armed forces were the lack of mechanisation and its small air force. As early as the 7th September, German tanks had reached the outskirts of Warsaw, but after heavy fighting were thrown back. Where the Poles were able to concentrate their forces, such as during the Bzura counter-offensive, they inflicted significant losses on the enemy. However, these were only temporary setbacks for the Germans. They were able to quickly reinforce their units around the Bzura River, together with those columns advancing on Warsaw and either destroy the Polish forces, or force them to withdraw. By the 15th September, Warsaw was once more under siege. Following almost two weeks of intense artillery and air bombardment, resulting in massive civilian casualties, the Warsaw garrison eventually surrendered on the 27th.

Relic wz31 helmet recovered from the 1939 battlefields.

Following the fall of Warsaw, resistance continued, but the remaining Polish forces were surrounded and were forced to capitulate on the 6th October 1939. By the time the campaign was over, the Polish casualties had amounted to 66,300 killed, 133,700 wounded and 687,000 captured. The German casualties were also heavy with around 16,000 dead and a further 32,000 wounded. The German losses in light tanks, motor vehicles and aircraft had also been surprisingly heavy.

Discarded Polish Army helmets, gas masks and field gear.

Around 100,000 Polish troops escaped into Romania, Hungary and the Baltic states. Over several months, the majority of these men found their way to Britain and France to continue the armed struggle against the Germans. They formed the nucleus of the Polish Army in Exile, which fought so effectively in campaigns in Norway, France, North Africa, Italy and in the final bloody battles in Western Europe to ultimately defeat Nazi Germany. Thus, Poland was able to keep an army in the field throughout the war and by the war's end the Poles represented the fourth-largest contingent in the Allied coalition.

For more about the Polish exhibits, click here.

To discover the Polish Wz31 Mortar, click here.

For more about the German exhibits, click here.

For information on the Katyn Massacre, click here.

To view a Russian SSH-36 Helmet, click here.

To discover the Russian small arms of 1939, click here.

To read about the Russian T 26 Tank, click here.

To return to the main museum, click here.

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