Blitzkrieg: Poland, September 1939
80 years ago today, Germany invaded Poland thus starting the Second World War.
Poland had been an ‘issue’ for Germany since 1919. As part of 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. To add injury to insult, the city of Danzig was now governed by the League of Nations, despite having a large German population. Hitler wanted the return of Danzig to Germany as well as secure free access to East Prussia, but Poland flatly refused.
As Hitler signed the ‘Pact of Steel’ with Italy in 1938, both Britain and France started to make pro-Poland noises, something that was formally reiterated in August 1939 when Britain publicly declared they would fight if Poland was attacked.
Nonetheless, throughout the summer of 1939, the Nazis laid the groundwork for attacking Poland by distributing stories about Polish brutality towards German nationals in these sought-after areas. German refugees were trotted out in front of Third Reich newsreel cameras regularly to recount tales of hardship, suffering and woe.
Back home in Germany, Hitler was promising to wipe Poland off the map.
The problem was that any kind of fight with Poland would most likely wake up the Russian bear and even Hitler knew that his army was not yet ready for a scrap with Stalin (leader of the Soviet Union). In an effort to pre-empt any Russian interference, Joachim von Ribbentrop (the German Foreign Minister) flew out to Moscow on 23 August to sign a non-aggression pact with Russia. The rest of the world was stunned that the Communists and the Nazis had come together to shake hands on such an agreement, but it cleared the way for Germany to ‘acquire’ Danzig and East Prussia by whatever means necessary, while the Russians essentially agreed to look the other way.
When the German Army crossed the Polish border in the early hours of 1 September 1939 all of this built-up frustration was channeled into a new kind of warfare.
As thousands of fighter planes and bombers roared across Polish skies destroying strategic targets to a tight schedule, the tanks, 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 sporting 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 underprepared for the whirlwind. Within forty-eight hours the Polish air force ceased to exist as an effective fighting force and a week later the Polish infantry followed the same fate.
Two days after the start of the Blitzkrieg, 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 that their friends would open up a second front in the west by 17 September, but it didn’t happen. 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 precisely nothing. France was simply not ready for war and flatly refused to launch any kind of meaningful assault. 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 both Austria and Czechoslovakia and 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.
This text has been taken from my book WW2: A Layman’s Guide which is available on Amazon in either paperback or Kindle form. This week, to help remember the 80th anniversary of the Polish Blitzkrieg, it is available on Amazon Kindle for just 99p in the UK or 99c on Amazon.com – if you fancy finding out more, click on the image below.