Occupation of Poland

Occupation of Poland

Between 1921 and 1939 diplomatic efforts were made to form a military alliance between Poland, France and Britain. Already in 1921, an agreement was signed between the French government headed by Poincare and the government of the new Polish state, founded several years before, headed by Joseph Pilsudski. This agreement was signed after the Polish victory over the Red Army (the "miracle on the Vistula") which finally set the borders of Poland. It was a joint defense agreement, which was a step to prevent German aggression in the future as a lesson from the First World.

In March 1939, with the shattering of British Prime Minister Chamberlain's illusions, t, after the occupation of Czechoslovakia and the collapse of the Munich Agreement, the latter announced in Parliament that Britain fully guaranteed Poland's territorial integrity and would do its utmost to help the Polish government in the event of German aggression.

 May 1939,saw the completion of the process of joint operational planning between the French and Polish General Staffs in the event of a German attack on Poland and the plans were distributed in sealed orders to the armies signed by the Commander-in-Chief of the French Army General Gamelin and the Polish Minister of Defense, General Tadeusz Kasprzycki. According to this plan, the French army was to launch an all-out attack on Germany three weeks at the most after the start of the German offensive against Poland.

On the basis of this plan and these guarantees, the Polish army planned to defend the country against Germany.

The Polish army on the eve of World War II

On the eve of the war, the regular Polish army numbered 282,877 soldiers. The complement of the army, including reserves, reached 1,350,000. The Polish government, which was suspicious of German intentions, began recruiting 465,000 reservists on August 1, a process that accelerated during the month with the refusal of the Soviet Union to transfer Russian troops through Poland in the event of a confrontation with Germany on August 14 and after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop- Agreement - 23 August.

With the outbreak of hostilities on September 1, a general mobilization was announced, but due to the German deception and surprise program, the army completed the recruitment of only about one million soldiers. A large number of recruits could not reach their units due to the rapid advance of the German army. Many of the German and Ukrainian minorities avoided enlistment.

The Polish military order of battle included six regional armies (such as regional / operational commands in the IDF) and a number of troop groups of corps Orbat.During the campaign, additional units were formed.

Total: 30 regular infantry divisions, 9 reserve infantry divisions, 2 mechanized divisions, 11 cavalry divisions and 3 mountain brigades.

Strength: 771 combat aircraft (421 in active units), 2,500 guns (artillery) and mortars, 211 tanks with, 403 light patrol tanks and armored vehicles, 80 mechanized artillery pieces.

During the time of peace, the Polish military establishment was composed of five regional armies and one reserve army. During 1939, however, with the rise of tension in Europe, the Poles prepared a new defensive plan called Z Zed (West). According to this plan, most of the Polish army's units were deployed towards the west in preparation for the defense of all of Poland's territory and sovereignty in the face of the impending German offensive. The Polish defense plan was based on the defense of the whole country, the containment and destruction of the attacking German army by an all-out offensive parallel to the British-French offensive from the west. According to this plan, the Polish forces were reorganized into the following Armies:

The Carpathian Army was established in July 1939 under the command of Major-General Kazimierz Fabrycy after Germany annexed Czechoslovakia and established the puppet government there. Its mission was to protect the Carpathians. At first this Army consisted of two improvised divisions and a few small units, but during the campaign additional forces were withdrawn from the Kraków Army.

The Kraków Army was established in March 1939 under the command of General Anthony Szylling and was a central element in the Polish defense plan. Its mission was to delay German progress while retreating eastward towards the foot of the Carpathians. It included five infantry divisions, a mountain division, a cavalry brigade, and an independent mountain infantry brigade.

* The Lublin Army, an improvised army group formed after the outbreak of the fighting, on September 4 under the command of General Tadeusz Piskor. It included a motorized brigade and a number of smaller units. Its mission was to protect Lublin, Sandomierz, and the Upper Vistula River.

* The Lodz Army was established in March 1939 under the command of General Juliusz Rommel. This army was to serve as a second element to the Armies of Krakow and Poznan. However, due to a too advanced preparation deployment, it found itself involved in fighting from the first day without the possibility of cooperation with the neighboring armies. This Army was composed of four infantry and two cavalry divisions.

* The Modlin Army was established in March 1939 to protect the capital, Warsaw, from the north. The task of the Army was to defend fortifications networks near the border with East Prussia in the Mlawa region and then retreat towards the Narev River. Under the command of Brigadier General Emil Krukowicz-Przedrzymirski. This Army consisted of two infantry divisions and two cavalry divisions.

* The Pomorska Army  was established in March 1939 under the command of General Pomorze. Its mission was to protect the cities of Torun and Budgoszak and to conduct holding operations in the "Polish corridor" (the Danzig corridor).It consisted of two infantry divisions (within the framework of "East Union" of Forces of General Mikolaj Boltuc), composed of a cavalry division and a guard division

* The Poznan Army, commanded by General Tadeusz Kutrzeba. Its mission was to defend the wing of Greater Poland and retreat to the fortified defenses of the Warta River. Consisted of four infantry divisions and two cavalry divisions.

* Prusy army, commanded by General Stefan Biernacki,

 was formed in the summer of 1939 as a reserve of the General Command. It was intended to absorb the waves of new recruits and to support the neighboring armies of Poznan and Krakow. However, due to the rapid German advance, these two makeshift armies entered the fighting separately and most of the units were unable to complete the recruitment process. It included six infantry divisions, a cavalry division and a tank battalion.

* The Warsaw Army was established only 10 days after the German invasion on September 10, on the basis of a variety of units that retreated to Warsaw and Modlin. Originally it consisted of 25 infantry battalions and 40 tanks, later reinforced by the troops of Modlin and Lodz, commanded by General Valerian Kuzma, but the commander in chief was Juliusz Rommel (commander of the Lodz Army).

The campaign

German forces invaded Poland on Friday, September 1, 1939, following an ongoing diplomatic crisis that affected the political framework in Europe as a whole. The attack began at 0440 with an air attack on the city of Wielun. More than 1,200 people were killed in this bombardment, which heralded the future. At 0445 the German warship Schleswig-Holstein (on a goodwill visit to the free port of Gdansk) opened fire with its 355 mm cannon on the camp and base of the Polish army in Westerplatte, and an hour later the first German soldiers crossed the border.

Forty-eight hours later, on September 3, Britain and France declared war on Germany.

Originally, the German plan was to attack Poland on August 26, but the day before Hitler rejected the attack which was finally approved by him on 31 August. The invasion was preceded by a number of German attacks and provocations (for example, against radio stations in the cities of Gdansk, Danzig, Gleiwitz and Yablonko).

The invading German force consisted of two Army Groups of 5 Armies and a General Staff Reserve (with 14 infantry divisions, one Armored Corps and two Mountain divisions). The German Army as a whole was under the command of General Walter von Brauchitch.

The attack was launched in three parallel directions simultaneously, Silesia / Moravia to the south, West Pomerania to the west, and East Prussia to the north. Army Group South under the command of Colonel-General Gerd von Rundstedt was the largest and most superior attack formation. It consisted of 3 Armies, the Blaskowicz's 8th, von Reichenau's 10th, and, Liszt's14th. A total of 18 infantry divisions,1 Slovak infantry division, 1 mountain division, 2 mechanized divisions, 4 mechanized armored divisions and 4 armored divisions  in the Army Group, 2,000 tanks and about 800 armored vehicles.

The Northern Army Group was commanded by Colonel General Fedor von Bock, who attacked Pomerania and East Prussia, consisting of two Armies, the 4th commanded by von Kluge (within Guderian's 19th Armoured Corps ), and the 3rd commanded by von Kuechler. It consisted of 19 infantry, 2 motorized and 2 armored, divisions with a combined strength of 600 tanks and 200 armored vehicles. The German offensive was concentrated on three sides towards the capital Warsaw, cutting off the Danzig corridor and destroying the Polish army. The Poles bravely opposed the 1.8 million German soldiers, but found it difficult to cope with German tanks and air forces with 2,800 tanks, 10,000 pieces of artillery, and 2,085 combat aircraft (organized in two air fleets - one for each group of armies). The Germans had a good network of intelligence agents which reported most of the Polish army's movements.

Germany enjoyed the help of many Germans living in Poland (and of other minorities) and was well acquainted with the Polish railway network because German engineers built it. Much of the equipment of the Polish army was obsolete, and the new armaments program that began in 1936 had not yet been able to equip all the units. In terms of operational and strategic mobility, the Polish army (like most of the world's armies at the time) was not highly mechanized and or motorized, and in fact still made much use of horses. The number of vehicles was small and most of the army moved on foot. This was particularly problematic when some 3,000 kilometers of border had to be protected against armored and motorized formations.

The Germans attacked Poland from three directions, Slovakia in the south, Germany in the west and Prussia in the north. This concentric attack was later completed by the Russian attack in the east on September 17. In the first two days of the German offensive, the Polish army was engaged in intensive fighting in Mlawa and Pomerania (by retreat and delay actions) in order to contain the German offensive and create a new defense zone closer to Warsaw .On 3 September the Germans had already cut off the "Danzig Corridor" and that day the Western powers declared war on Germany The Polish troops that retreated on foot, could not set up a new defense line as there were no new, no intermediate defense positions. The German armored units, though few, bypassed these Polish units and penetrated the flanks and the rear.

Many Polish units were attacked and destroyed in attempts to withdraw. Already on the 5th of the month, the Polish High Command understood the meaning of the rapid German incursions, estimated that its situation was hopeless, and hung its hopes on the intervention of the British and French armies. Many Polish units continued to fight encirclement with great determination. On September 6, the Krakow Army under the command of General Sosnowski began to retreat east because of a threat to his flanks from the north. General Piotrub Trybunalski surrendered the Prussy Army after the failure of the Polish counterattack. A week after the beginning of the German offensive, after a heroic defense and causing heavy losses to the Germans, the Polish naval fortress of Westerplatte fell. The soldiers of the fortress surrendered with their commander, Major Sucharski at their head and on September 8 the Germans reached the outskirts of the capital, Warsaw.

On 9 September, the most bitter and bloody battles began in the whole campaign. The Battle of Zbura was a Polish counter attack by two Armies to defend Warsaw, which took place in the area of Kutno, Levitz, and Sutchkaswa.( The Armies Pomorze and Poznan, although in danger of being encircled by the German 8th Army, attacked with great force and surprise, causing heavy losses to the Germans, succeeded in repelling the Germans but failed to maintain momentum of action due to the lack of ammunition and food and because of events on the other fronts. Once again the speed of the German forces made further operations futile, and on September 16 the Polish forces began to be pushed back towards Warsaw, The battle ended on the 20th of the month with the total annihilation of the Polish forces (under the command of General Tadeusz Kutrzeba.

The Poles managed to put off the fall of the capital a little. In the Battle of Bzoura, 18 German divisions of the 4th, 8th and 10th Armies were involved with close air support. Only a few of the Polish units managed to break out and retreat into Warsaw. On September 10, the Germans entered Poznan after the Poznan Army retreated from the city.

On the 18th of the month, the only significant armored battle took place near the town of Tomaszow-Lubelski when 80 Polish tanks encountered German tanks.

Already on September 7th, the 4th German Armored Division reached the outskirts of Warsaw. The first German attack on the capital was made on September 9, but until September 24 all German attacks on the city were repulsed.

On September 25, the Germans began bombing and shelling the Polish capital indiscriminately. But two German attacks on 25 and 27 were repulsed with losses. On 28 September, the city finally succumbed due to the city's extreme living conditions and lack of provisions. At the same time, a battle was fought over the city of Modlin (Polish forces under the command of General Victor Thomme), who held out against all German attacks for 20 days (10-29). On 29 September it was captured because of the lack of provisions and the occupation of Warsaw.

The blow in the rear

On Sunday, September 17, the city of Lublin surrendered to the Germans. That same day at 4 am the Red Army invaded from the east to "liberate" and "protect" Belorussian and Ukrainian citizens living in eastern Poland from their "Polish masters" This attack came as a surprise to the Polish High Command, whose forces were already fully involved in the war against the German onslaught from west to north and south. The Polish army was faced with the impossible task of redeployment - this time also toward the east - the last side that was not yet involved in the fighting and which until now had served as the rear for the fighting forces. The Soviet invasion was a secret part of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, which defined the partition of Poland (and the rest of Central and Eastern Europe) between the Soviet Union and Germany. The Soviet attack was launched on two fronts, the Ukrainian, General Timoshenko, and the Belorussian, of General Kowalow.

The two fronts numbered 1.5 million soldiers, 6,191 tanks, 1,800 planes and 9,140 pieces of artillery. After bitter fighting the Red Army occupied Vilna on September 18, followed by Grodno and Lvov on September 22, and reached the River Bug. At first the Polish High Command  instructed the army not to oppose the Red Army as long as the Polish units were not requested to lay down their arms and go into captivity. The Poles still hoped that they could use the Red Army against the Germans. Unfortunately this order did not reach all the units. At first the Polish soldiers and civilians thought that the Red Army had come to help them against the Germans and displayed no opposition to their moves, but soon found out that this, too, was an all-out offensive and bitter fighting took place. The Soviets halted on a line running from East Prussia southward toward the Bug River.

End of the campaign

On the night of 18 September, the Polish President and the Supreme Command of the Army crossed the border to Romania, escorted by the only modern battalion of tanks in the Army (equipped with the Renault-35 tanks) and other units. They were immediately arrested (but then released and on 30 September the Polish government-in-exile was established in Paris). On the same day a meeting between the German and the Russian forces was already taking place on Polish soil, and the partition of Poland was made de facto. On 2 October, the Polish defenders of Hel under the command of Brigadier-General Admiral Unrug surrendered in the last battle of the campaign which took place between 2-5 October. The final battle took place between 2 and 5 October in the vicinity of the city of Kock, where the Union of Independent Forces of Polsiaie fought under the command of General Ferenczek Kleeberg. On Friday, October 6, 1939, the last of the Polish soldiers laid down their arms.

Within a month, Poland had been conquered and its army surrendered mostly after suffering heavy losses. Britain and France stood on the sidelines and did not actually join the fighting despite their alliance with Poland as did Soviet Russia, Germany's ally. The one-sided struggle ended on October 6, 35 days later, when the last Polish formation surrendered.

In the agreement signed on September 25, Poland (and all of Eastern Europe) was divided between the two aggressor states: the USSR controlled eastern Poland, Germany controlled the center (military rule – the "General gouvernement").

 Analysis of the campaign

The German Armored Corps in this campaign consisted of seven armored divisions, four light divisions, and four mechanized infantry divisions. Most of the German tanks, over 2,500, were lightweight Panzer-1 and 2 type tanks that the Poles had little trouble in coping with them. Only 300 tanks were medium "Panzer 3 and 4" modesl. In addition, the Germans employed approximately 200 captured Czech tanks, about 1,000 armored cars and a few scores of armored personnel carriers.

The Polish Armored Corps included a variety of foreign armored vehicles which were manufactured under franchise. This included 11 armored trains (and another 4 were built during the campaign).There were only three tank regiments in all of the Army and a further seven independent tank companies. The other light tanks operated under the command of infantry and cavalry  units in frameworks of platoons and companies. During the campaign, the Poles began setting up two armored divisions, the 10th mechanized unit under the command of Stanislaw Maczek, who later became commander of the Polish 1st Armored Division in the battles of Western Europe in 1944-5, and a motorized armored brigade in Warsaw under the command of Stefan Rowecki The future commander of the Polish "Home Army." Neither of them took part in the campaign as armored formations.

The light Polish tanks were the first adversaries in the war against the German Armor. The Polish tank crews displayed great patriotism in defending the homeland, but their small number, meager equipment, and outdated organization did not allow them to engage in effective combat. Although they fought heroically and destroyed quite a few German and Russian armored vehicles, they didn't have any significant impact on the battles.

The sweeping German-Soviet victory was a result of the decisive advantage of the Wehrmacht over the Polish army. For the first time, the Germans adopted the modern doctrine of the Blitzkrieg War, a crushing combination of rapid penetration in depth by mobile land forces, mainly armored, namely the "Panzer-Gruppe", with the close cooperation of airforce operating as "aerial artillery".

The Luftwaffe - the German Air Force - succeeded in defeating the Polish Air Force by a numerical advantage of more than 1: 4, thus achieving complete superiority in the air, which was used to bomb military camps, convoys of refugees, populated cities, but mainly to destroy enemy forces. The Polish army found it difficult to deal with the German army, mainly because of conservative combat doctrine and concepts, but also because of the delays in the modernization program of the Polish army on the eve of the war as a result of Anglo-French pressure not to provoke the Germans.

Secondly, with the German invasion, the army was only partially mobilized and prepared in order to avoid a deterioration of the situation vis a vis Germany. The inevitable end came after the Soviet Union, Poland's ally, joined the fighting against her, from the east, while England and France also, allies of Poland who were supposed to attack from the west within two weeks of the German attack, did not join the fighting and left Poland alone in a heroic struggle for her life against the two superpowers. At the same time, the campaign in Poland caused the Germans more damage and losses than is generally thought. They learned a number of important lessons from this campaign: the significance of the power and speed of armor units in modern warfare. Also that the time of large armies based almost solely on infantry and cavalry has passed.

Extensive experience was accumulated in the operation of armored units in combat conditions. Tanks were not suited to warfare in built-up areas and in the Battle for Warsaw they suffered heavy losses. Most of the Panzer-1 and 2 tanks proved unsuitable as assault units and should be replaced by heavier tanks. Lighter divisions are unsuitable and weaker than both motorized and regular infantry divisions.

The Polish campaign has led to a number of myths such as the Polish air force was caught in the outbreak of fighting with its aircraft on the ground and was mostly destroyed in the first days. Secondly that the Polish cavalry charged German armor. These two myths are the product of German (and even Italian) propaganda and are far from the truth.

The Polish cavalry was very active in the campaign and served as a mounted infantry, which means that when they reached the battlefield they would descend from the horses and fight as regular infantry. The myth developed as a result of an event that took place during the retreat of the Pomorze Army down the Polish Corridor. In the late afternoon of the first day of fighting, the 20th German Mechanised Infantry Division arrived at the town of Chojnice in the forest of Tochola about 250 km northwest of Warsaw.

This movement threatened a key intersection of the Polish railway system in the village of Krojanty about 7 km north-east of Cuenica, and the Pomorze Army forces in this sector consisted mainly of the 18th Regiment of Lancers of the Pomoroska Cavalry Division Under the command of Lt. Col. Kazimierz Mastelarz. In order to carry out his mission to hold the area he was assigned, Mastlerz took two cavalry companies A and B and attacked a German infantry battalion that was in the process of being deployed from the rear (among the forest trees to the open area) Usually the practice was to get off the horses and attack on foot. However, taking advantage of surprise and mobility, the Polish commander decided to attack the German infantry with swords drawn About 250 Polish cavalry men attacked the German infantry at full gallop and had the upper hand and the Germans began to retreat.

When the Poles seemed to be winning the battle, a number of German armored cars suddenly appeared with machine guns and automatic artillery and opened fire, and the Polish assault was broken and they began to retreat after suffering 20 dead. (Including Colonel Mastelraz himself) and about 60 wounded.

This was the first cavalry charge in World War II. Guderian, the commander of the 19th Armored Corps to which 20th Division belonged wrote about the incident in a report he presented to his superiors in which he wrote that the Poles had foolishly attacked German tanks with lances The Germans decided to use this for propaganda purposes, and brought two neutral journalists, one an Italian and William Shirer ("The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich"), who recounted the strange incident of the cavalry charge with lances against tanks. The event itself was not much different from similar events in the campaign when units of Polish cavalry of various sizes, surrounded by the advancing German forces, tried to break through the gaps between the German units and not up against them frontally, and this was interpreted frequently as attempts at frontal assault.

In the wake of Guderian's report and the publication of articles in Italy and the United States by the journalists (who, of course, were not present on the battlefield at the time of the incident but rather wrote what the Germans told them), references to anti-tank Polish cavalry began to appear in many articles and books, There was no armor at all and the Polish cavalry were not so stupid and primitive (though brave) that they thought they could stop tanks with swords and lances.

The truth is of course completely different, the Polish cavalry never stormed the German armor while wielding swords or lances because they were equipped with 37 mm Bofors anti-tank guns that could penetrate any German tank in the campaign (26 mm steel at a range of 600 mm at- 30 degrees) and were well trained to fight both against enemy infantry and armor. With regard to the Polish armor, we have already noted that most of it was built in the Polish military industry.

The Polish air forces were deployed in a number of airfields, and despite their numerical inferiority, and the use of types of aircraft many of which were very out-dated, were very active in the campaign and even shot down 137 German planes. The German attack did not catch them on the ground at the airfields (unlike the Americans in Pearl Harbor) but in alternative airfields to which they were transferred in advance or in the air in combat against the attacking planes.

Polish losses in battle:

Against Germany: killed: 70,000 (of whom 3,300 officers)

Wounded: 133,700

Prisoners: 420,000

Against Russia:

Killed: 7,000

Wounded: 2,000

Prisoners: 240-250,000 (of which 16,723 were officers).

Losses of the Germans in the Campaign:

Killed: 16,343

Wounded: 27,640

Missing: 5,058

Equipment: 674 guns, 319 tanks, 521 aircraft and another 10,000 miscellaneous vehicles

Russian losses in the in the campaign:

About 10,000 to 15,000 dead and wounded.

In conclusion: The day of the invasion of Poland, September 1, 1939 is the day that marks the outbreak of World War 2. Two days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany, in accordance with the mutual defense agreement signed with Poland on August 25, 1939, but in practice they did little to help the Poles. From now on Britain and France stood as allies in Western Europe against Germany and Soviet Russia, who worked together to divide Central and Eastern Europe. The defense agreement signed by Britain and France with Poland did not deter Hitler nor did it aid Poland on the battlefield .However due to this agreement the war became a wider European war.

It should be noted that many Polish forces and civilians managed to escape to France and Britain and continue to fight from there against the Germans within the Free Polish Army. At the end of the campaign, 95,000 Polish soldiers entered Russia, 30,000 to Romania, 40,382 to Hungary, 13,500 to Lithuania, 1,315 to Latvia. Hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews who found themselves in the Soviet occupied territory joined the Red Army and the Free Polish Army during the war.


1. Polish article of the Polish Military Research and History Office (WBBH), 1939 campaign, Ministry of Defense, July 2009.

2. Ben Aryeh, September 1939, Tel Aviv, Lavi, 1987.

3. Len Deighton, Blitzkrieg: from the rise of Hitler to the fall of Dunkirk, Maarachot Publications, Tel Aviv, 1986.

4.Winston Churchill, World War II, Am Hasefer publications. Tel Aviv, 1963.

5. William L. Shirer The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Schocken, Jerusalem, 1969.

6. General Heinz Guderian, Panzer Leader, London, Michael Joseph, 1952.

7. Dr. Janusz Marszalec, Westerplatte - Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk ,July 2009.

8. The British War Bluebook, Statement by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons on March 31, 1939. Lillian Goldman Law Library, Wall Street, New Haven, CT. 2008

9. German army units invading Poland in 1939, http://www.bambooweb.com