Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Polish September Campaign
"Polish September Campaign" (the fruition of the German Fall Weiss, "Plan White") refers to the conquest of Poland by the armies of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and a small contingent of Slovak forces. The campaign began 1 September 1939 and ended 6 October 1939, with Germany and the Soviet Union occupying Poland.
The Polish government and its remaining land and air forces that were able to, evacuated to neighboring Romania and Hungary, and many of them subsequently to France, French-mandated Syria and the United Kingdom. Poland's territory was completely overrun by Germany and the Soviet Union. The Soviet-occupied areas would later be captured by Germany when she invaded the Soviet Union (June 22, 1941). While under occupation, Poland managed to create a powerful resistance movement and to contribute significant military forces to the Allies for the duration of World War II.
Names of the campaign
The campaign is known by several names. From the German perspective the war is called the "the September Campaign." Polish historians also term it Wojna obronna 1939 roku ("the Defensive War of 1939"). Other names include "Polish-German War of 1939" and "Polish Campaign."
The German operational plan was codenamed Fall Weiß (Fall Weiss — "Plan White").
Details of the campaign
Following a number of German-staged incidents (Operation Himmler), the first regular act of war took place on September 1, 1939, at 04:40 hours, when Germany's Luftwaffe (air force) attacked the Polish town of Wieluń. Five minutes later, at 04:45 hours, the old German battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on the Polish enclave of Westerplatte at Gdańsk on the Baltic Sea. At 08:00 hours, German troops attacked Poland near the town of Mokra . Later that day, the Germans opened fronts along Poland's western, southern and northern borders, while German aircraft began raids on Polish cities.
Despite some Polish successes in minor border battles, German technical and numerical superiority forced the Polish armies to withdraw towards Warsaw and Lwów. Westerplatte garrison capitulated on 7 September. The largest battle during this campaign (Battle of Bzura) took place near the Bzura river west of Warsaw from 9 September to 18 September - it was the Polish attempt at a counter-attack, which failed after an initial success. Warsaw, under heavy aerial bombardment from the first hours of the war, was first attacked on 9 September and was put under siege from September 13 until its capitulation on 28 September.
Polish defenders on the Hel peninsula on the shore of the Baltic Sea held out until 2 October. The capitulation of the town of Kock near Lublin on 6 October, after a 4-day Battle of Kock, marked the end of the September Campaign.
Tanks and aircraft (particularly fighter and ground attack aircraft like the famous Junkers Ju 87 Stuka) played a major role in the fighting. Bomber aircraft also attacked cities and civilian targets causing huge losses amongst the civilian population in what became known as terror bombings.
While the Soviet diplomacy claimed that they were 'protecting the Ukrainian and Belorussian minorities inhabiting Poland in view of Polish imminent collapse', in fact they were acting in co-operation with Nazi Germany, carrying out their part of a secret deal (the division of Europe into Nazi and Soviet spheres of influences, as specified in the secret appendix of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact).
Polish border defences forces (Korpus Ochrony Pogranicza) in the east (about 25 battalions) were unable to defend the border and were ordered by Edward Rydz-Smigly to fall back and not to engage the Soviets. This however did not prevent some clashes and small battles.
The Soviet invasion was one of the decisive factors that convinced the Polish government that the war in Poland was lost. Prior to the Soviet attack from the East, the Polish military plan called for long-term defence against Germany in the southern-eastern part of Poland (near the Romanian border), while awaiting relief from an attack on the western border with Germany by the Western Allies. Facing two powerful enemies--Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union--the Polish government decided that it was impossible to carry out the defence on Polish territories and ordered all units to evacuate Poland and reorganize in France.
Some of the more notable engagements of the September Campaign are:
- Battle of Bzura (September 9 - September 18) - failed Polish counter-attack, the biggest battle of the campaign
- Battle of Warsaw (September 8 - September 28) - siege of the Polish capital
- Battle of Tomaszów Lubelski (September 17 - September 20) - second biggest battle of the campaign
- Battle of Kock (October 2 - October 5) - the last battle of the campaign
At the end of the September Campaign, Poland was divided among Nazi Germany, Soviet Union, Lithuania and Slovakia. Nazi Germany annexed parts of Poland, while the rest was governed by the so-called General Government.
About 65,000 Polish troops were killed and 680,000 were captured by the Germans (420,000) or Soviets (240,000). Up to 120,000 Polish troops withdrew to neutral Romania (through the Romanian Bridgehead) and Hungary and 20,000 to Latvia and Lithuania, with the majority eventually making their way to France or Britain. Most of the Polish Navy succeeded in evacuating to Britain as well.
The invasion of Poland led to Britain and France declaring war on Germany on September 3, however they did little to affect the outcome of the September Campaign. This lack of direct help during September 1939 led many Poles to believe that they had been betrayed by their Western allies. In the meantime Poland, fulfilling her alliance obligations, did not surrender in 1939, but rather set up a government-in-exile (see Polish Government in Exile) in France (later in the United Kingdom) connected to the extensive underground civil and military organisation (Polish Secret State) as legal successors to their pre-1939 government. During the German occupation, the Poles continued their struggle as one of the most restive and organised populations under Nazi rule. Until the United States and Soviet Union entered the war, Poland, even with its territories occupied, had the third biggest army at the Western Allies' disposal.
The Polish campaign was important as the first step in Hitler's drive for "living space" for Germans in Eastern Europe, and as the blitzkrieg decimated urban residential areas, civilians soon became indistinguishable from combatants. The forthcoming Nazi occupation (General Government, Reichsgau Wartheland) was one of the most brutal episodes of World War II, resulting in over 6 million Polish deaths (over 20% of country's inhabitants), including the mass murder of 3 million Polish Jews in extermination camps like Auschwitz. Soviet occupation, while shorter, also resulted in millions of deaths, when all who were deemed dangerous to the communist regime were subject to Sovietization, forced resettlement, imprisonment in labour camps (the Gulags) or simply murdered, like Polish officers in the Katyn massacre. Soviet atrocities commenced again after Poland was 'liberated' by the Red Army in 1944, with events like the persecutions of Armia Krajowa soldiers and executions of their leaders.
Polish army equipment and tactics
Between 1936 and 1939, Poland invested heavily in industrialization of the Centralny Okręg Przemysłowy, chosen for being reasonably far from both the Soviet and German frontiers. That heavy spending on military industry pushed much of the spending on actual weapons into 1940 - 42. Poland had been preparing for defensive war for many years, however most plans assumed German aggression would not happen before 1942. Polish military industry development and fortifications were scheduled to be completed in that year, and newer tanks and aircraft were just entering production or would shortly.
The French loaned Poland 2.6 billion francs over a 5 year period starting in September 1936. That added 12% to the annual Polish military budget. The Polish defense budget for 1938-39 was 800 million Zloty, of which:
- Armored force - 13.7 million
- Artillery - 16 million
- Air Force - 46.3 million
- Navy - 21.7 million
- Cavalry - 58 million
To raise funds for the industrial development, Poland was selling much of the modern equipment it produced: for example, anti-tank guns were sold to Britain, and planes were exported to Greece.
The Polish defence plan was shaped by the politicians' determination to deploy directly at the front. With the most valuable natural resources (Silesia), industry and highly populated regions near the western border, Polish policy was centered on protection of those regions, especially as many politicians were feared that if Poland should retreat from the regions disputed by Germany (like the Gdansk corridor, cause of the famous 'Danzig or War' ultimatum), Britain and France would sign a peace with Germany, similar to the Munich Agreement of 1938. On that grounds French advice to Poland to deploy bulk of Polish forces behind Vistula was disregarded, even though it was supported by some Polish generals.
The plan to defend the borders contributed vastly to the Polish defeat, as during the September campaign Polish forces were stretched thin on the very long border, and lacking compact defence lines and good defence positions, often encircled by the mobile German forces. The Polish army had a fall-back plan, involving retreat to the southeastern voviodships (the Romanian bridgehead plan). The UK and France estimated that Poland should be able to defend that region for 2-3 months, while Poles estimated they could hold it for at least 6 months. This Polish plan was based around the expectation that Western Allies would keep their end of the signed alliance treaty and quickly start an offensive of their own. However, neither the French nor the British government had made plans to attack Germany while the Polish campaign was fought. Their plans were based on the experiences of the First World War and they expected to wear down Germany in trench-like warfare, eventually forcing Germany to sign a peace treaty and restore Polish independence. The Polish government, however, was not notified of this strategy and based all of its defence plans on the expectation of a quick relief action by their Western Allies. Furthermore, the Polish plan for Romanian Bridgehead defence was rendered obsolete by the unexpected attack by the Soviet Union. Although the secret appendix of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact about the Soviet alliance with Nazi Germany and its policy towards Poland had been uncovered by the Western Allies' intelligence, it was never shared with Poland.
Germany's forces were not incredibly mobile, but the number of mechanized forces was greater than Poland's. The Germans were able to successfully exploit the weakness of the Polish forces' thin deployment on the long frontline. Their blitzkrieg doctrine was based on the novel idea of a mechanized spearhead attack, using mobile units to break through enemy frontlines and then disperse, causing confusion in the rear areas and severing lines of supply and communication, Follow-on forces could then defeat the confused and cut-off units at the front.
The political decision to defend the border was not the only strategic mistake. Polish pre-war propaganda stated that any German invasion would be easily repelled. Polish defeats in the September campaign came as a shock to many civilians, who, unprepared for such news and with no training for such an event, panicked and retreated east, spreading chaos, lowering troop morale and making road transportation for Polish troops very difficult. The propaganda also had some negative consequences on Polish troops themselves, whose communications, disrupted by German mobilie units operating in the rear and civilians blocking roads, was further thrown in chaos by the bizarre reports from Polish radio stations and newspapers, which often reported imaginary victories and other military operations. This led to many cases of Polish troops being encircled or taking a stand against overwhelming odds, when they thought they were actually counterattacking or would receive reinforcements from other areas soon.
The Polish army was fairly strong in numbers (~1 million soldiers), but many of them were not mobilised by the 1st September, as the Polish government, advised in this by the British and French governments, constantly hoped that the war could be resolved (at least, for the time being) by diplomatic channels. Less than half of the Polish armed forces had been mobilized by 1 September, and only one-quarter (600,000) were fully equipped and in position when hostilities commenced. Thus many soldiers, mobilised after 1st September, failed to reach the designated staging areas, and, together with normal civilians, sustained significant casualties when public transport (trains and roads filled with refugees) became targets of the German air force.
Poland possessed numerically inferior armoured forces. Polish units were dispersed within infantry and unable to effectively engage in any major panzer battles. The Germans opposing them had 3,000 tanks, organised into independent divisions under blitzkrieg doctrine. In terms of equipment, the Poles had 132 7TP light tanks, which were capable of destroying any German armour, including the Panzer IV, and less than 300 tankettes.
In addition to tanks, Poland successfully used armoured trains against Germans, who were unprepared to face this kind of combat vehicle. Although the trains proved vulnerable to air attack, the losses that the Germans incurred against Polish trains convinced them to reintroduce this type of vehicle into their own army after the September Campaign.
Polish cavalry brigades, contrary to the common myth, were used as a mobile infantry, and were quite successful against German infantry. They were considered to be elite troops of the Polish army and were much more successful than the Germans anticipated. However, while Polish cavalry matched German panzers in speed and anti-infantry effectiveness, it could not stand its ground against the tanks.
Another interesting equipment used with success by Polish forces was the 7.92 mm Karabin przeciwpancerny wz.35 anti-tank rifle. It was quite successful against German light tanks, although, as with most of the Polish modern equipment, production was just beginning when the war started.
Polish Air Force
The Polish Air Force was at a severe disadvantage against the German Luftwaffe. Although its pilots were highly trained, the Polish Air Force lacked modern fighter aircraft, and the Germans had gross numerical superiority: Poland had approximately 400 aircraft, including 169 fighters, and Germany had approximately 3,000 aircraft. The development program of the Polish airforce was slowed in 1926 in the aftermath of Józef Piłsudski's coup d'etat, as Piłsudski considered the airforce to be of less importance than other military branches.
In 1939, the Polish main fighter, the PZL P.11, designed in early-1930s, was becoming obsolete, the slightly better PZL P.24 was used solely for export and PZL P.50s , which were supposed to have better parameters than contemporary German fighters, were still on the drawing board. As the result, the German Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Bf 110 fighters were faster and better armed, and most German bombers could also outrun the Polish fighters. On the other hand, P.11s were more maneuverable, and despite the German superiority in speed, armament and numbers, P.11s downed a considerable number of German aircraft, including fighters, although suffering heavy losses as well. The exact numbers are not verified, but some sources claim that at least one German aircraft was shot down for each P.11 lost (a figure of 107 to 141 German aircraft shot down for the loss of 118 Polish aircraft are most often given).
One of the most interesting units in the Polish arsenal was the twin-engine medium bomber, the PZL.37 Łoś. Before the war it was one of the world's most modern and outstanding bombers. Smaller than most contemporary medium bombers, it was still able to carry a heavier bomb load than comparable aircraft, including the famous Vickers Wellington. It was relatively fast and easy to handle. Thanks to a landing gear with double wheels, it could operate from rough fields or meadows. The only drawback was its relatively weak defensive armament, consisting of 3 machine guns. Its range was also limited, but the Łoś was not meant to be a long range bomber. During the September Campaign, they were too few in number to change the outcome, and, often lacking fighter cover, sustained heavy losses.
Few planes of the Polish air Force were destroyed on ground, as most had been deployed to temporary secret airstrips. The fighter planes were grouped in 15 escadres. Five of them constituted the Pursuit Brigade , deployed in Warsaw area. The bombers, grouped in 9 escadres of the Bomber Brigade , attacked armoured columns, suffering heavy losses. Seven reconnaissance and 12 observation escadres, deployed to particular Polish Armies , were intensively used for reconnaissance. However, the Polish pilots, while highly trained and motivated, faced a superior numerical opponent in superior designs with much better command structure. Germany achieved air superiority around day three of the campaign, although Polish Air Force manged to remain operational for the two first weeks of the September campaign. At that point, most planes were either destroyed in combat or had to be abandoned on the ground due to lack of supplies and spare parts, in the face of rapidly advancing German land troops. A few remaining aircraft were either captured by Germans or withdrawn to Romania and taken over by that country. A great number of pilots and air crews managed to break through to France through European countries.
The Polish Navy was a small fleet composed of destroyers and submarines. Most of Polish surface units followed Operation Pekin , leaving Polish ports on 20th August, evading German forces and escaping to the North Sea to join with the British Royal Navy. Submarine forces were realising Operation Worek , with the goal of engaging and damaging German shipping in the Baltic Sea, but with much less success.
- Warships (in service during September 1939)
- ORP Gryf, large minelayer, sunk by German bombers near Hel
- ORP Błyskawica, a destroyer, escaped to United Kingdom
- ORP Wicher, a destroyer, sunk by German bombers near Hel
- ORP Grom, a destroyer, escaped to United Kingdom
- ORP Burza, a destroyer, escaped to United Kingdom
- ORP Orzeł, a submarine, escaped to United Kingdom
- ORP Sęp , a submarine, interned in Sweden
- ORP Wilk , a submarine, escaped to United Kingdom
- ORP Ryś , a submarine, interned in Sweden
- ORP Żbik , a submarine, interned in Sweden
- ORP Mewa, Jaskółka, Rybitwa, Czajka, Żuraw, Czapla - 6 small minesweepers. ORP Mewa, Jaskółka and Czapla were sunk by German bombers near hel and Oksywie , others have been captured and salvaged by Germans.
- ORP Mazur, old torpedo destroyer from First World War, sunk by German bombers near Hel
- two gunboats
In addition, many ships of Polish Merchant Navy joined the British merchant fleet and took part in various convoys during the war.
The Polish military was so backward they fought tanks with cavalry: Although Poland had 11 cavalry brigades and its doctrine emphasized cavalry units as elites, other armies of that time (including Germany) also fielded and extensively used cavalry units. Polish cavalry never charged on German tanks nor entrenched machine guns but usually acted as mobile infantry units and executed cavalry charges only in rare situations.
The Polish air force was destroyed on the ground in the first days of the war: The Polish Air Forces, though numerically inferior and lacking modern fighters, were not destroyed on airfields and remained active in the first two weeks of the campaign, causing some harm to the Germans. Skilled Polish pilots who escaped to the United Kingdom after the German occupation were employed by the RAF during the Battle of Britain. Fighting from British bases, Polish pilots were also, on average, the most successful in shooting down German planes.
Order of battle
- German order of battle for Operation Fall Weiss
- Soviet order of battle for invasion of Poland in 1939
- ...in general the bravery and heroism of the Polish Army merits great respect - Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, commander of Army Group South
- Various sources contradict each other so the figures quoted above should only be taken as a rough indication of losses. The most common range brackets for casualties are: Polish casualties - 65,000 to 66,300; German casualties - 8082 to 16,343, with missing in action from 5029 to 320. The discrepancy in German causalties can be attributed to the missing numbers and the fact that some German statistics still listed some soldiers as missing decades after the war. Today the most common and accepted number for German casualties is 16,343. Soviet losses are estimated at 737 killed and 1859 wounded. The often cited figure of 420,000 Polish POW is only for those captured by the Germans, as Soviets took about 240,000 Polish POW by themselves, so the total number of Polish POW is about 660,000-690,000. the Equipment losses is given as 89 German tanks and approximately 1000 other vehicles to 132 Polish tanks and 300 other vehicles, 107-141 German planes to 327 Polish planes (118 fighters), 2 German destroyers and 2 minelayers to 1 Polish destroyer, 1 minelayer and several support craft. Soviets lost approximately 42 tanks in combat, hundreds more suffered technical failures.
- British military history of World War II
- Oder-Neisse line
- Polish cavalry brigade order of battle
- Polish contribution to World War II
- Western betrayal
- Romanian bridgehead
- World War 2 Online Newspaper Archives - The Invasion of Poland, 1939
- The Campaign in Poland at WorldWar2 Database
- The Campaign in Poland at Achtung! Panzer
- German Statistics including September Campaign losses
- Brief Campaign losses and more statistics
- Fall Weiß - The Fall of Poland
- Agreement of Mutual Assistance Between the United Kingdom and Poland.-London, August 25, 1939.
- Poland's Defence War, a fairly detailed account of the Polish defense in 1939
- A timeline of the events in Poland in 1939
- Zaloga Steve , The Polish Army 1939-1945, Osprey Publishing, 1982, ISBN 0850454174
- Zaloga Steve, Gerrard, Howard , Poland 1939: The Birth of Blitzkrieg, Osprey Publishing, 2002, ISBN 1841764086
- Smith, Peter Charles , Stuka Spearhead: The Lightning War from Poland to Dunkirk 1939-1940, Greenhill Books, 1998, ISBN 1853673293
- Chodakiewicz, Marek Jan, Between Nazis and Soviets: Occupation Politics in Poland, 1939-1947, Lexington Books, 2004, ISBN 0739104845
- Kennedy, Robert M. , The German campaign in Poland (1939), Zenger Pub. Co, 1980, ISBN 0892010649
- Prazmowska, Anita J. , Britain and Poland 1939-1943 : The Betrayed Ally, Cambridge University Press, 1995, ISBN 0521483859
- Majer, Diemut , Hill, Peter Thomas , Humphrey, Edward Vance , Levin, Brian , Non-Germans under the Third Reich: The Nazi Judicial and Administrative System in Germany and Occupied Eastern Europe, with Special Regard to Occupied Poland, 1939-1945, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003, ISBN 0801864933
- Lukas, Richard C. , Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles Under German Occupation, 1939-1944, Hippocrene Books, Inc, 2001, ISBN 0781809010,
- Rossino, Alexander B. , Hitler Strikes Poland: Blitzkrieg, Ideology and Atrocity, University Press of Kansas, 2003, ISBN 0700612343
- Gross, Jan T. , Revolution from Abroad: The Soviet Conquest of Poland's Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia, Princeton University Press, 2002, ISBN 0691096031
- Sword, Keith , The Soviet Takeover of the Polish Eastern Provinces, 1939-41, Palgrave Macmillan, 1991, ISBN 0312055706
- Baliszewski Dariusz, Wojna sukcesów, Tygodnik "Wprost", Nr 1141 (10 October 2004), Polish, retrieved on 24 March 2005
- Baliszewski Dariusz, Most honoru, Tygodnik "Wprost", Nr 1138 (19 September 2004), Polish, retrieved on 24 March 2005
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