Polish Air ForcePolish Air ForcePolish Air Force
Polish Air ForceHomepage
Polish Air Force Polish Air Force Return to Homepage Polish Airforce Polish Army 1st Polish People's Army Polish Navy Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade Norwegian Campaign Resettlement Corps Polish Resettlement Exile Blackpool 1940 Enigma Other Stories Escape Operation Market Garden Operation Vistula Children of 303 Polish Women at War Victory Parade 2005 Contact Addresses References Book Reviews Glossary  

The Polish September Campaign 1939

Polish infantry moving into actionpopular artillery piece in the Polish army the venerable French 'soixante-quinze'
tankettes in counterattack, outskirts of Warsaw, 13 September 1939 The Polish Campaign of 1939 'situation on september 9'

The Polish nation re-emerged in 1918 after 123 years of obscurity and subjugation by Germany, Russia or the Austro - Hungarian Empire. While the Poles quickly implemented political and economic systems to attain 'nationhood,' external forces were quick to seize any opportunity to test Poland's strength while there was a vacuum in Central and Eastern Europe. Within three years of its re-emergence, Poland had fought forces from Germany, Lithuania, the Ukraine and Russia over the sovereignty of land. While Polish politicians like Dmowski wanted frontiers based upon ethnic boundaries, many Poles sought the former glory of the Polish - Lithuanian Commonwealth which had existed at the end of the eighteenth century. The 'Polish Question' had dogged politicians both during war and at the Treaty of Versailles. Friction caused by complex ethnic boundaries and contested cities, ultimately led to the outbreak of war.

Prologue to War

The fledgling parliament (Sejm) passed the Army Law in February 1919 and appointed Jozef Pilsudski as commander - in - chief. The inter-war army was initially a 'motley-crew' of units largely made up of prisoners of war from German and Austro-Hungarian army or small political militias (Ascherson, 1987; Zaloga and Madej, 1991). Historically, Poland had provided the elite cavalry for Napoleon and this relationship had ironically been maintained in both the First and Second World Wars.

In France, General Jozef Haller had commanded six divisions of the Polish Army during the 1914 -18 War and other units had been attached to the French Foreign Legion. At the outbreak of war 25,000 Polish-Americans had volunteered to fight in the trenches. These volunteers were trained in Canada while the USA languished in neutrality. (The Haller Army was transferred to Poland in 1919).

The tsarist government had also allowed the formation of a Polish Legion (Pulawy Legion). However, increasing political tension within Russia and fears of growing Polish nationalism, saw it disbanded until the more liberal regime of Kerensky in 1917 enabled the formation of the 1st Polish Eastern Corps and transferred to the front in Byelorussia.

Pilsudski commanded an army trained by its adversaries and commanded by an officer corps drawn largely from the old Austro - Hungarian Empire that led to tension within the armed forces. Many of these units consisted of up to 40% non-Polish ethnic origin (Zaloga and Madej, 1991).

As Poland regained its nationhood, border skirmishes enabled the 'new army' to emerge as a more cohesive unit. The 1920 - 21 Polish - Soviet War was a brief but terrifying moment for the whole of Europe (Ascherson, 1987, Stafford, 1997). To numerous observers, the Poles were about to achieve what the White Russians had not - the overthrow of the Bolsheviks (Stafford, 1997).

Churchill had seen and hoped to have funded the campaign by Savinkov, an anti - Tsarist and anti - Bolshevik Russian for a campaign to thwart the rise in communism. The 'Greens' or Union for the Defence of the Motherland carried out a series of sabotage operations against rolling stock, ambushing Bolshevik patrols and organized the assassination of leading local Bolsheviks within Russia. Pilsudski supported Savinkov who was unaware that the Cheka had penetrated his organization. White Russians still envisaged Poland being reabsorbed into the Russian Empire and this fundamental political stance negated any support Pilsudski may have given.

In April 1920 Poland supported the Ukrainian nationalist forces and invaded the Ukraine. The operation was so successful with Polish cavalry units pushing towards Kiev that the humiliated Soviets sought retribution. With the White Russian Army quashed, the Soviets pushed the Poles back to the gates of Warsaw. By the end of the summer 1920, Pilsudski had engineered a brilliant counterattack (Zaloga and Madej, 1991) and pushed the Soviets back to the border.

Russian peasant revolts in Tambov and the Kronstadt mutiny caused by famine, forced Lenin to alter his economic 'reforms' and with an embarrassing defeat, bided his time. Poland's military ability did not deter Czechoslovakia from seizing a contested strip of territory near the city of Cieszyn. In the run up to the Second World War, Poland was bordered by neighbourly disputes that appeared unsolvable. State of the Armed Forces

Much of the First World War's Eastern Front had been fought over Polish soil. Previous imperial powers had stripped agricultural resources and made no industrial investment apart from a few textile factories in Lodz. The Polish State was in a dire economic situation. While the fledgling democracy had flexed its political and military muscles, the economy was a shambles.

Military training and support came from France. French officers training and theory favoured a strategy of static attrition. To lessen French influence, Pilsudski requested their departure in the late 1920s (Zaloga and Madej, 1991). Political infighting along ethnic and party lines resulted in a coup d'etat in 1926 by Pilsudski. Industrialization in southern Poland had enabled the Poles to produce fighter aircraft (P.7 and P.11) superior to contemporary German and Russian designs, however, these were largely shipped abroad to countries like Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey for foreign exchange earnings to fund the economy. Funding of the armed services represented 10% of the German Luftwaffe's 1939 budget (Zaloga and Madej, 1991:11)

Polish Defence Budget 1938 - 1939
Service Millions Zloty %
Military administration 100 12.5
Infantry 225 28.2
Cavalry 58 7.3
National Guard 7 0.9
Artillery 16 2
Armored Force 13.7 1.7
Engineers 8.9 1.1
Communications 5.1 0.6
Quartermaster 1.8 0.2
Air Force 46.3 5.8
Navy 21.7 2.7
Industrial preparations 6 0.7
Research and Training 30 3.8
Reservist stipends 8 1
Rail and road transport 15 1.9
Construction 22 2.7
Reserve supplies 197 24.7
Salaries 16 2

Source: Zaloga and Madej, 1991:13

While Poland began updating its armed forces, its budgets were modest and suffered from defence budgets being postponed until the mid 1940s. Unfortunately, this set back modernization by at least a generation for all key strategic weaponry.

Strategic and Operational Doctrine

The Polish Armed Forces (Polskie Sily Zbrojne) or PSZ incorporated the Polish Army and Polish navy. The Polish Airforce was part of the army, but was distinguished by its own uniform and command structures. After 1926 the organization of the PSZ was on a peculiar two-track system devised by Pilsudski (Zaloga and Madej, 1991) in order to cope with war and peacetime operations. Like all armies during peace, PSZ war games and strategic planning simulated invasions from the Germany (Plan N) or from Soviet invasion (Plan R). The Poles even simulated a two front invasion (Plan N + R). In each scenario, the role and support of the French and Romanians were critical to any success or survival, therefore, all the post 1918 conventions with these countries encompassed strategic support being put into action should invasion occur.

In March 1939 the Pole estimated they would be facing an invasion of 70 German divisions. The PSZ field structure is set out in the following table:

Army Unit Commander Type Position
Army Modlin Gen. Emil Krukowicz-Przedrzymirski 2 infantry divisions,2 cavalry brigades Border with E. Prussia
Special Operational Group Narew (SGO Narew) Gen. Czeslaw Mlot-Fijalkowski 2 infantry divisions,2 cavalry brigades Protect right flank of Army Modlin
Wyszkow Reserve   3 infantry divisions Support to Army Modlin and SGO Narew
Army Pomorze Gen. Wladyslaw Bortnowski 5 infantry divisions 1 cavalry brigade Defence of Pomeranian Corridor
Army Poznan Gen. Tadeusz Kutrzeba 4 infantry divisions 2 cavalry brigades Frontier and flanks of Pomerania and Silesia
Army Lodz Gen. Juliusz Rommel 5 infantry divisions 2 cavalry brigades Central Poland
Army Krakow Gen. Antoni Szylling 2 infantry divisions 10th Mechanized Brigade Upper Silesia and S. Poland bordering Slovakia
Army Prusy Polish High Command 7 infantry divisions 1 cavalry brigade 2 tank battalions Central Front
Army Karpaty Gen, Kazimierz Fabrycy 2 infantry divisions of reserves Carpathian region
Polish Airforce Gen. Jozef Zajac Bomber Brigade (90) Pursuit Brigade (120) Support Army Defence of Warsaw
AA Units     Major cities
Polish Navy   Destroyer Flotilla (4) Submarine Flotilla (5)  

Source: Zaloga and Madej, 1991:28

According to Zaloga and Madej (1991) the Polish fighting doctrine as to split the armies into two smaller operational units, fight at night and use improvisation in order to counteract numerical weakness. Tactically, this approach was more akin to the Franco - Prussian War rather than an army about to face the Blitzkrieg. Each army was to cover up to a 200Km front with each infantry division covering 12 to 25 Km depending upon terrain and the opposition's tactics. The main defensive belt would be 2 Km deep with conventional linear defences. The cavalry would provide scouting and a mobile defence for up to 9 Km in front as a screen to the main defences. Artillery would typically be positioned about 3 Km behind the main defensive curtain.

The September Campaign

Analysis of the September Campaign is all too easy with hindsight. Liddell Hart (1970) expounded the proposition that the Poles should have made its main fortifications behind the Vistula and San, abandoning the country's main industrial area. He saw the Poles military strategy as being over weighted by pride and an over-confident military making their military planning unreal by placing huge concentrations in the 'corridor' and ill-equipped to deal with a mechanized war. It was not an easy victory and the Germans took heavier casualties than the longer campaign in France (Ascherson, 1987).

By the end of August 1939, Poland had secretly being mobilizing its army to a strength of 700,000. On 25th August the Wehrmacht despatched orders for 'Case White' (invasion of Poland), unfortunately, the negotiations between Hitler and Mussolini were not going well, therfore the orders were rescinded, but not all units received them in time. Border raids by the Abwehr, increases in reconnaissance flights and an intrusion at the Jablonka Pass were noted and not necessarily acted upon by the Poles, not through 'over-confidence' as Liddell Hart saw it, but through sheer inability due to lack of resources. The Germans did not achieve tactical surprise as many English and German historians would us believe (Zaloga and Madej,1991).

On the 30th August 1939, Marshal Rydz-Smigly put the country on war footing. The Navy was instructed to activate Operation Pekin. The destroyer flotilla left for Britain and had time to clear the Danish Straits before war was declared. General Mobilization had to be delayed in order to meet agreements with Britain and France not to inflame the diplomatically tense situation. To may historians, this action has been interpreted as the Poles being taken by surprise. The Wehrmacht were going to war on the 1st September irrespective of what the Poles, English or French thought or did. When General Mobilization took place, the English and French protested despite the evidence supporting the presence of a massed German army on its borders. The Poles were outnumbered by about 10:1 (Ascherson, 1987). For Lieutenant - General Anders, the opening stages of the war had an element of irony. As the commander of the Novogrodek Cavalry Brigade based at Lidzbark, just a few kilometres from Grunewald, where in 1410 the Poles achieved a brilliant victory over the Teutonic Knights, Anders knew the defence of Poland was hopeless.

On the 31st August, the Polish Airforce was ordered to disperse to secret airfields. Hitler correctly anticipated the poor response by the English and French and issued the armed forces to be deployed for Case White. No one knows why Smigly -Rydz thought England or France would come to immediate assistance - they had indicated a two week period would be needed for France to mount a full counter offensive. Smigly -Rydz also did not heed the Pilsudskian policy of considering measures for the defence against the Soviets.

1st September 1939

At 04.30 Stuka dive-bombers prematurely bombed the bridge at Tczew in the Pomeranian Corridor. SS troops dressed in Polish uniforms attacked the radio station at Gleiwitz and broadcast inflammatory statements urging Polish minorities to take up arms against Hitler. For a touch of realism, several bodies of concentration inmates dressed in Polish uniforms, were left behind as 'evidence' for journalists (Zaloga and Madej, 1991) to report on.

The Free City of Danzig was heavily shelled and bombed, inflicting heavy casualties upon the civilian population and military coastal defences or navy flotillas. In Danzig, the defenders, particularly civilian volunteers were shot. The Army Pomorze faced the 4th Army whose tactic was to isolate them in the north from the rest of the Polish Forces and then link up with the Third Army and attack Warsaw.

Daylong fighting produced at times, scenes of sheer heroism. The Pomorska Cavalry Brigade had been in contacts with the German 20th Motorized Infantry Division. Colonel Masterlarz had half the unit mount up and attempted a surprise attack from the rear. Catching an infantry battalion by surprise in a woodland clearing, the sabre attack wiped them out. Legends and myths were borne of cavalry units taking on armoured vehicles. However, what is forgotten, is that the cavalry units carried anti-tank weapons for rapid deployment (Zaloga and Madej, 1991).

German troops demolish a Polish customs station.

On the Prussian Front the German Third Army broke through defences to the north of Warsaw. Ground attacks started at 05.00 and aimed to knock out the heavy fortifications at Mlawa. It was on this front that the Polish Mazowiecka Cavalry Brigade had a number of sabre clashes with the German First Cavalry Brigade (Zaloga and Madej,1991) thus marking an end to mounted warfare. The Polish Special Operational Group Narew had virtually no contacts with German forces due to the restraining action of the Polish Third Army and therefore effectively denied rapid gains on this front.

The heaviest fighting took place in the Southwest, a front covered by Army Lodz and further south, Army Krakow. Army Poznan in the centre saw little action or contact on the first day of fighting. The German Eighth and Tenth Armies pushed through the massive densely forested areas with major infantry clashes en route. The Wolynska Cavalry Brigade successfully countered attacks by the German 4th Panzer Division whose poor co-ordination in attack delayed advance and lost equipment. This front was geographicaly the most diverse and faced the largest concentration of mechanized troops. The heaviest fighting was around the industrial zone of Katowice. In the south, the 44th and 45th Infantry Divisions attacked throught the Jablonkow Pass near Karwina and Cieszyn which were lightly defended. In the southern mountainous area, the XXII Panzer Corps attacked just below Nowy Targ at the Dunajec river which was defended by the 1st KOP Regiment and National Guard Zakopane Battalion. Army Krakow was forced to commit support to stem the attack which was temporarily held.

Outflanked and harassed by German guerrilla units, Army Krakow had to deal with a large number of armed German units set up by the Abwehr to carry out sabotage.

Once the Germans broke through the various fronts, poor communications impeded any chance of reforming on a grand scale. From the 10th until 18th September Polish units were able to reform quickly and still were able to harass and inflict serious damage. For field commanders like Anders, confusion and contradictory orders added to the pain and humiliation of the inevitable defeat. Units attempted to move south-east despite heavy co-ordinated artillery bombardments. Soldiers and civilians who were able to bear arms bravely defended and resisted for as long as possible as they moved behind the Vistula. Encirclement began and 60,000 troops were destroyed at Radom. Partisan units were organized and regular army units kept moving southeast in order to gain supplies of food and munitions and regroup to avoid annihilation once the Russians entered the war on 17th September.

Field commanders moved as many of the remnants of the army to an escape route which led to Romania and Hungary . Units breached German lines on 22nd September before Soviet troops blocked all routes. Poland finally fell on the 6th October as the last organized resistance was crushed at Hel and Kock. Zaloga and Madej (1991) estimated the Germans took 587,000 prisoners and the Soviets 200,000. Anders (1949) estimated between 200 - 300,000 escaped into Romania and Hungary through the Dukla Pass. Those who were caught by the Soviets may have been far higher (Anders, 1949). Fiedotov, an NKVD general estimated it to be nearer 475,000. However, if all those arrested including White Russians, Jews and political prisoners, the number was between 1.5 and 1.6m people. Transported to the Gulags, few survived.

One of Poland's greatest gifts towards the war effort was to have captured an Ultra machine (Stafford, 1997) early in the conflict. The true value of this encryption machine was instantly recognised by Polish and French code-breakers. Unfortunately, true recognition of its significance came later and the thanks given to the Poles hardly covers couple of sentences in either archives or in historical text.

Top of Page


Any correspondence should be addressed to Julian Hoseason and e-mailed to:jhoseason@paston.co.uk

Any additional material or stories would be gratefully received.

© Copyright polandinexile.com 2008. All rights reserved.
Site hosting by Paston.