It’s a shame that Poland gets such short thrift in most studies of World War II. It is chiefly remembered as the first country to fall to Nazi Germany, thereafter remaining a footnote in history, except maybe for some references to the main death camps being based there (including the infamous Auschwitz and Treblinka).Poland was just another conquered state, one whose subsequent defeat, like France’s, has often led to jokes about Polish military prowess.
Not only is this ignorance unfortunate in its own right, but it’s all the more tragic considering that few people were as instrumental and courageous in the fight against the Nazis than the Poles, who consequently suffered the most of almost any other nation. Despite being the first to go down, they managed to keep the fight going for the remainder of the war, remaining a constant and vital drain on Nazi forces. And for all this, they’re given little attention or credit.
I’ve tried to raise awareness of this issue before, such as in my previous post about the Warsaw Uprising. While I’ll be overlapping a little bit with that one, my focus will encompass all ofPoland’s contributions, from their remarkable fighting prowess as the Free Polish Forces, to their exceptional assistance to their Jewish population. I hope I can do justice to the Poles and make at least a few people aware of their untold sacrifice. I’ll begin with the first of four posts:
The Invasion of Poland: Myths and Misconceptions
This event is remembered only for having kicked off World War II. After only a month of fighting,Poland was defeated, and attention immediately shifts toFrance, theUK, and the westward expansion of the Third Reich. Any analysis of this battle or the Polish response thereafter, is pretty much mute.
Yet closer inspection of the campaign revealed that Poles hardly went down easy. They put up a valiant fight, which was all the more remarkable considering that they were only an independent state for two decades. Unfortunately, what little anyone knows about this battle is rife with misconceptions, many of them downright offensive. Here are the most prevalent ones that I’ll debunk:
The famous Blitzkrieg strategy was first used in Poland.
This is the most widespread myth, with almost every introduction to the Battle of Poland claiming the German blitzkrieg tactics are what won the conflict so quickly. As it turns out, though, the Germans were using an older and less innovative strategy throughout the Polish campaign, known as the Vernichtungsgedanke. This doctrine originated in Prussia under Frederick the Great, and was used no differently than in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 or World War I. Tanks, planes, and other armored vehicles were not used to maximum effect, and overall did not partake in the sort of shock and speed maneuvers that are commonly claimed (if anything, it was actually the underestimated German artillery that used to great effect).
The Polish Army fought German tanks with horse-mounted cavalry wielding lances and swords.
I remember actually being taught cruel myth in my high school European History course (needless to say, the entire class thought that the Poles were pretty foolish; no wonder they lost!). Now, it is true that 10% of the Polish army was made up of cavalry units (though many would think it was higher, given the stereotypes). However, other armies at the time, including those ofGermanyand theSoviet Union, also fielded and utilized horse-mounted units. They usually served as mobile infantry and reconnaissance, and charged only in very rare situations against foot soldiers: Polish cavalry never charged German tanks, artillery, or fortified infantry. They were equipped with anti-tank rifles and artillery guns, and were actually more effective than mechanized vehicles when traveling in some forms of terrain (indeed, the Soviets used them to great effect against the Germans when they were invaded; the post-winter slush had bogged down tanks and trucks, while the horses traversed just fine).
The Polish air force was destroyed on the ground in the first days of the war.
The Polish Air Force was actually somewhat decent for it’s time, and Polandhad developed some pretty advanced fighters. Shortly before the war, most planes were moved to small, camouflaged airfields that kept most of them safe; only a few trainer and auxiliary aircraft destroyed on the ground. Though significantly outnumbered and outmatched by more advanced aircraft of the Luftwaff. The air force was active until halfway into the conflict, managing to inflict significant damage its German counterpart: the enemy directly lost 285 aircraft (with an additional 279 damaged beyond repair), compared to Polish losses of 333 – hardly an overwhelming victory.
Poland offered little resistance and surrendered quickly.
This is perhaps the most regrettable misconception, one that isn’t helped by the fact that the fighting last “only” one month. However,Germanyhad actually sustained very heavy losses initially, including an entire armored division, thousands of soldiers, and 25% of its air strength. By the battle’s end, German losses included around 16,000 killed, 28,000 wounded, and 30% of their armored vehicles lost. Polish casualties were heavier, at around 66,000 dead and 694,000 captured, but it should be noted that their forces were technologically and numerically inferior.
Furthermore, most people forget that poor Polandwas faced with a two front war: Stalin and Hitler had signed a signed a pact just one week before the war, which included a secret provision to divide the defeated territory between themselves. When the Nazis invaded from the west, so did the Soviets two weeks later, from the east. The Poles obviously didn’t anticipate this, and they had to cancel plans that would’ve called for a more effective defensive maneuver against the Germans to prolong the fight. Who knows what would have happened if the accord with Hitler hadn’t been signed. Though the Soviets came to be instrumental in our victory against the Axis, they ironically started off as near-allies to the Nazis, helping to facilitate the rise of the Third Reich.
As for the presumably short duration of the Polish Campaign, note that it lasted only about one week less than the Battle of France a year later, even though French forces, along with the British ones that joined them, were much more equivalent to the German invaders in terms of numbers and technology.
Also, Poland never offered an official or general surrender to the Germans. In fact, not only was it one of the few defeated states never to sign surrender terms, it never formed a collaborationist government either: afterPoland had been overrun, a government-in-exile was established inLondon, along with full-fledged armed forces and an intelligence service (more on those later). These remained the representatives of the Polish people throughout the war. That is whyPoland was, uniquely, administered directly by the Germans – there weren’t enough people willing to work with them.
Moreover, under German occupation, Polandformed the Polish Underground State, which not only fielded one of the three largest resistance forces in the war, but was a rare example of a functioning, underground government, something that didn’t occur in other occupied states. The Polish army continued to fight throughout the war as the Armia Krajowa (“Home Army”) and the Leśni (“forest partisans”). The Polish resistance movement in World War II, which included both these forces and numerous other insurgent groups, was one of the largest and most successful resistance movements in all of occupied Europe (more on them later as well).
Stay tuned for my next two (or three) installments in this series, where we’ll explore the nature of the Polish resistances, and the contributions of Poland’s “Free Forces” on both the western and eastern fronts.