It was seventy years ago this morning that Germany invaded Poland, launching World War II in Europe – beginning what was, in a sense,the end of a war that’d begun 25 years earlier, taken a 21 year break, and then re-ignited, killing tens of millions of people directly on the battlefield and, in ways never before seen in human history, off of it.
In another sense, it began the final act of the Old World – the world of European dominance, of its kingdoms and alignments and customs defining “civilization” for the rest of the world – and was the beginning of the world we have today, a world who’s denouement is at this moment very much in play.
But that’s a story we’ll recap in seventy more years, God willing.
In reading the story of the German Blitzkrieg into Poland most of my cognitive life, I became fascinated with the history of Poland – or, really, of all of the smaller European states that Hitler swallowed up. A lot of legends sprang up around each of these nations and their record during the awful year that followed the invasion of Poland.
I would like to address some of them.
Poland started the war with a couple of strikes against it.
For starters, its terrain is just not defendable.
All of its major cities sit on a broad, flat plain, cut by few rivers (whose banks are, largely, not major obstacles to much of anything). The road from the German or Russian border to the capitol in Warsaw, or its industrial heartland around Katowice/Sosnowiec, or its intellectual and cultural heart in Krakow has no more physical speed bumps than a drive from Fargo to Grand Forks.
And while Poland knew very well that it was surrounded by a couple of rapacious dictatorships who, as they had through all of history, meant it nothing but ill, and they did their best to prepare for eventualities, they did something that’s all too familiar to modern IT executives; at a time in history when military technology was evolving at a pace that the world had never before seen (and in many respects hasn’t seen since), the Poles, like the French, laid their cards on the table early, standardizing and mass-producing equipment that turned out to be obsolete a mere 5-10 years after it rolled off the assembly line. The Polish Air Force was mass-producing the Pzl fighter plane and the Karas fighter-bomber at a time when the Germans had just started developing the planes with which they’d launch the war, the Bf109 fighter, the Ju87 Stuka dive bomber, the He111/Do17/Ju88 bombers.
(The French military, like the British navy, likewise bet long on mid-thirties technology that served it less effectively than later designs). Likewise, they built thousands of tiny, two-man machine-gun armed “tankettes”, state of the art in 1933 but useless as anything but mobile machine guns in 1939 against the German tanks that were just going up on the drawing boards.
By 1939, Poland was just starting to produce the excellent “7TP” tanks – as good as any German Panzer…
…but it was too little and too late.
To help make up for that, the Poles had a few advantages; the Air Force’s pilots were spectacularly well-trained; indeed, the Polish pilots who escaped after the Blitz to the UK, and got to fly first-rate modern fighters like the Hurricane and the Spitfire in 1940 turned out to be among the RAF’s highest scorers in the Battle of Britain.
In the days before radar, they were supported by a large, comprehensive ground observer network that did a surprisingly good job of detecting German air raids and vectoring Polish fighters onto the target. The Polish Navy, in contrast (and as an ironic result of its relatively lower standing at budget time) standardized rather later, and went to war with some of the finest equipment in all of Europe; the Blyskawica-class destroyers and Orzel-class submarines (both built in Holland) were among the best anywhere, certainly outclassing anything in the German or British navies. And, since they were standardized late and in dire economic times, there were exactly two of each in service.
The Poles had one other thing; centuries of vassaldom to the Germans and Russians. Other than the brief Republic of Krakow in the mid-1700’s, and the 21 years of independence (marked by a war for survival against the Soviets), Poland had been under one boot or another since the end of the Jagiellonian era. The Poles wanted their freedom. And even though the government in 1939 was at least partly a dictatorship – a response to a paralyzing indecision in the face of both the Great Depression and the gathering threat from east and west – Poland was an outpost of small-“l” liberal sentiment. It also built an intellgience service that, like that of many counteries surrounded by enemies (see Israel), disproportionally excellent; indeed, Polish Intelligence helped with one of the great coups of the war; it was the Poles that made the first inroads into breaking Germany’s “Enigma” encryption system. The Polish mathematicians fled to the UK, and joined with the British thinkers at Bletchley Park to complete the job. The fact that the Allies could read Germany’s “secret” transmissions in near-real-time (by cryptology standards) was one of the key factors in winning the war; without that, the U-Boat offensive in 1941-43 would have likely succeeded in starving Britain to the negotiating table with Hitler.
Unlike France – misconceptions about whom we’ll address on their own 70th anniversary, in about eight months – this gave Poland a deep will to fight.
It wasn’t enough, of course – but it came a lot closer to evening things up than contemporary propaganda credits them.
Two myths grew up around the German invasion of Poland; that the Polish Air Force was destroyed on the ground in the opening minutes of the campaign, and that the Polish Army’s cavalry was such a medieval throwback, it resorted to charging at tanks with lances.
Both are propaganda myths spread by the Germans and parrotted, in a story all too familiar to modern consumers of news, by an incurious, uninformed Western news media.
The Polish Air Force was not caught on the ground. Far from it; they dispersed away from their major airfields, according to pre-war plans that recognized not only the Luftwaffe’s superiority in numbers and equipment – by this point, German bombers could outrun Polish fighter planes – but Poland’s few aces in the hole.
And when the German bomber streams started appearing over Poland, the observers saw and heard them, and phoned in the information to HQ, who vectored Poland’s old fighters into position to do the only thing they realistically could against planes that were faster than their own; wait in ambush over the targets, take the most direct approach they could to their targets, and fight like hell.
And they did. The Polish Air Force shot down over 230 German planes during September of 1939, about 250 more were damaged, many of them beyond repair. The Lotnictwo Wojskowe lost about 100 shot down or otherwise destroyed by enemy action, with about as many being lost as the pace of the German advance, and later the Russian invasion, made repairs impossible and swallowed up the warning network and, finally, teh airfields themselves.
Following the goverment’s instructions, as the fight in central Poland became impossible, they retreated to the mountains in the south, and after the surrender made their way, by air or car or foot, first to Romania, then through Africa or Iran or the Mediterranean, then to France (where many fought with the French air force) and finally Britain or the USSR.
The other legend – the horse-cavalry charges with bugles blowing and lances waving – is more pernicious. It’s a propaganda legend, of course, one started as a German reponse to a Polish tactical victory.
In the opening days of the war, Poland had plenty of horse cavalry; they were in the process of trying to retired horses in favor of tanks and armored cars, but the Depression had slowed the process (as it did, by the way, in the US, whose cavalry was still largely horse-mounted in 1939 as well). They didn’t fight in the classic sense of the term; think of them as infantry on horses, using the greater mobility of being mounted to help cover more ground, but dismounting to fight on foot when the action started. And while they had lances, they were for ceremonial occasions only; they weren’t carried in the field. There was never an intention to fight the way cavalry had always fought – the saber charges, the bugles, the mounted dashes.
In the opening days of the war, a squadron of Pomeranian cavalry under Colonel Julian Filipowicz, patrolling in the corridor below Gdansk (Danzig, at the time), encountered a German infantry battalion which, tired from advancing and from a brisk fight with a Polish infantry unit across some nearby railroad tracks, was resting in an open field.
Col. Filipowicz’ unit – about 300 cavalrymen – while scouting the area, found the Germans. As is so often the deciding factor in modern war, they saw the Germans first, and were able to act accordingly. They deployed some modern weapons – Browning M2 machine guns, first built in 1918 and still found on every US Army tank today – to back up a charge led by some very old weapons, the cavalry saber. Filipowicz, seeing an unprepared foe, ordered a charge.
And it cut the German battalion to pieces, killing dozens, wounding hundreds, and leaving the battalion combat-ineffective for quite some time.
As the Poles completed several passes, a unit of German armored cars happened on the scene, and turned their cannon and machine guns on the Poles, causing heavy losses and sending them back into the woods, to fight another day.
German photographers, travelling with a group of tanks that responded to the debacle, photographed a number of the dead Polish troopers alongside the Panzers. The German propagandists spread the report – the Poles were stuck in the medieval era! – as a morale booster. And the tall tale, rather than the story of the boundless courage of Filipowicz’ men, stuck.
It wasn’t the last bloody nose the Poles gave the Germans. When the Germans pushed the Poles back to Warsaw, they tried to storm the city using the same tanks that had led them across the North Polish Plain. The Sixth Panzer Division was ordered to attack the city.
The tanks moved into the warren of streets that made up Warsaw’s western suburbs…
…and got swallowed in a morass of antitank guns, molotov cocktails (which wouldn’t earn their name until the following winter, from the Finns, about whom more in a couple of months) and booby traps.
The Sixth Panzers lost sixty tanks – about a third of its armored strength – in the first day of its assault, a catastrophic hit.
Warsaw would have to fall the old-fashioned way – through infantrymen advancing from house to house.
Or through treachery.
Stalin, as part of his temporary alliance with Hitler, invaded Poland about this time, destroying whatever hope for resistance that the Poles might have had. It was all she wrote.
Oh, they fought on anyway; tens of thousands of Poles went to the UK or the USSR to carry on the war; hundreds of thousands more fought with the various guerrilla groups, the Armia Krajowa (Home Army) which hampered German movements throughout the war and in 1944, as the Soviets approached, seized control of much of Warsaw (and were beaten down as the Soviets stopped in the city’s eastern suburbs and refused to cross the Vistula River). The Poles, realizing their excellent but tiny navy had no chance, ordered their most modern ships – their destroyers and submarines to feel to the UK in the opening hours of the war; Orzel, brand new out of the shipyard, ran to Sweden, and was interned (placed under arrest, essentially). The crew escaped, and stole the sub from the docks; the Swedes had seized all the boat’s charts and navigational gear, so it sailed across the Baltic, and through the treacherous Skagerrak, and across the North Sea by guess and by gosh.
The Poles had scant hope holding against Hitler from the west; against both of their hereditary enemies, they had none. The clock ran out fast on the Poles. The nation’s story was one of the great tragedies of the past 100 years; winning their freedom, having it seized, held hostage by one dictator and then another for two generations.
It’s also one of the great inspirations; after all that, they took their freedom back…
….and with it catalyzed a shot at freedom for the rest of the Second World.