1st September – the start of the Second World War.
77 years ago today German forces commenced an invasion of Poland that would herald the start of the most destructive conflict in history. Here is my take on how it all kicked off on 1st September 1939…
Poland had been an ‘issue’ for Germany since 1919. In the Treaty of Versailles, Poland was rebuilt and given some extra land – dubbed the Polish Corridor – that not only used to be part of the German Empire but also left the region of East Prussia detached from the rest of Germany. Then there was the city of Danzig that was governed by the League of Nations – despite a large German population. Taking this into consideration, it was perhaps no wonder that relationships between Germany and Poland were frosty at best throughout the twenties and thirties.
When the German army crossed the Polish border in the small hours of 1 September 1939 all of this built-up frustration was channeled into a new kind of warfare. A warfare more intense, more violent and more destructive than anyone had witnessed in history.
As hundreds of fighter planes and bombers roared across Polish skies destroying strategic targets to a tight schedule, the tanks, the artillery and other motorised armour smashed their way through the country, advancing up to forty miles a day. Nothing could stop them. On top of that a million and a half men wearing the Nazi eagle followed tightly behind connected with all the other elements of the advance via a huge network of super advanced communication systems. It was the largest coordinated strike ever and unlike any major offensive in the history of major offensives.
The Poles battled bravely but they were woefully under prepared for the whirlwind. Within forty-eight hours the Polish air force ceased to exist and a week later the Polish infantry followed the same fate.
Two days later France and Britain declared war on Germany, in defence of Poland. On 7 September ten French infantry divisions pushed nervously five miles into German Saarland – that was about as much support as the Poles got from their two western Allies. They had been promised the making of a second front in the West by the 17 September, but that didn’t materialise. Instead, on that day the Poles got another surprise present; the Russians invaded from the east. Within a matter of days Stalin had expanded the territory of Mother Russia by a handy 77,000 square miles and 11,000,000 people, including about a million Jews. Meanwhile France and Britain did nothing. France was simply not ready for war, and flatly refused to assault the Siegfried Line. Even when asked to drop a few bombs on Berlin both the French and Britain quickly changed the subject. They didn’t want the Luftwaffe to retaliate with bombing raids against their own cities.
In a matter of weeks Poland had gone the way of Austria and Czechoslovakia – it had disappeared. On 5 October Hitler made a triumphant entry into what was left of Warsaw
Hitler may have won the battle against Poland, but the real victors were the Russians. Stalin had got his hands on half of Poland and had the Baltic States in a stranglehold. In doing so he had also blocked Hitler from getting access to the vast Ukrainian wheat fields and Romanian oil – both were strategic assets he craved in an effort to make Germany self-sufficient. Even the Polish oil fields were now in Russian hands.
Meanwhile back in Germany, all of the time, money and effort Hitler had poured into military expansion was beginning to take its toll on civilian life. To pay for all of the guns Hitler had almost bankrupt his country and almost all manufacturing was given over to the military cause. As a consequence Germany’s infrastructure was crumbling before their eyes and coal supply for domestic use was intermittent at best. The Gestapo was reporting widespread unrest from the population that was already getting fed up with their Fűhrer’s obsession with the military.
And the thing was, the German military machine still wasn’t properly ready for a full on European war. The Polish campaign, for all its devastating speed and lightening strikes by air and ground, showed that the German army was vitally short of guns and vehicles of all sizes and descriptions. When Hitler expressed his wish to commence proceedings in the west his army generals strongly opposed. They wanted time to strengthen; there was also the question of the weather which had turned for the worse. Despite Hitler becoming furious at the prospect of a delay, they managed to convince him to postpone until the spring.
When Blitzkrieg did arrive in the west in early 1940, it wasn’t in France as one would have expected. It was in Scandinavia.
Image – Hitler watching German soldiers marching into Poland in September 1939. ( )
This narrative is taken from Third Reich: A Layman’s Guide