Polish September Campaign

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The Polish September Campaign — also known as "Polish-German War of 1939", in Poland often as Wojna obronna 1939 roku ("Defensive War of 1939"), in Germany as "Polish Campaign" (Polenfeldzug) — was the conquest of Poland by the armies of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and a small contingent of Slovak forces during the Second World War. The campaign began on 1 September 1939, and ended on 6 October, 1939, with Germany and the Soviet Union occupying the entirety of Poland. None of the major participants — Germany, the Western Allies, the Soviet Union, or Poland itself — expected that this German invasion of Poland would lead to a war that would surpass the First World War in scale and cost. This military operation marked the start of the Second World War in Europe as the invasion led Poland's allies, the United Kingdom and France, to declare war on Germany on September 3. It was also the first campaign to witness the use of German Blitzkrieg tactics.

Following the German-staged attack on 1 September 1939, German forces invaded Poland's western, southern and northern borders. Defending the long borders, the Polish armies were soon forced to withdraw east. After the mid-September Polish defeat in the Battle of Bzura, the Germans gained undisputed initiative. Polish forces then began a withdrawal south-east, following a plan that called for a long defence in the Romanian bridgehead area where Polish forces were to await an expected Western Allies counterattack and relief. On September 17, 1939, the Soviet Red Army invaded the eastern regions of Poland. The Soviets were acting in co-operation with Nazi Germany, carrying out their part of the secret appendix of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (the division of Europe into Nazi and Soviet spheres of influence). In view of this unexpected Soviet aggression, the Polish government and its high command decided that the defence of the Romanian bridgehead was no longer feasible and ordered the evacuation of all troops to neutral Romania. By the beginning of October, Germany and the Soviet Union had completely overrun Poland. The Polish government (which never surrendered) together with many of its remaining land and air forces successfully evacuated to neighboring Romania and Hungary. Many of the evacuees subsequently joined the recreated Polish Army in allied France, French-mandated Syria and the United Kingdom.

In the aftermath of the September Campaign, Poland, even under occupation, managed to create a powerful resistance movement and contributed significant military forces to the Allies for the duration of World War II. Germany captured the Soviet-occupied areas when it invaded the Soviet Union (June 22, 1941), and the Soviet Union would later recapture these areas in 1944. Both the German and Soviet occupations were responsible for the death of over 20% of Poland's citizens and meant the effective end of the Second Polish Republic.


Opposing forces

Main article: Opposing forces in the Polish September Campaign


, advanced German fighter
Me 109s, advanced German fighter

Germany had a large numerical advantage over Polish forces, and the German economy was geared toward military production. The Wehrmacht had some 2,400 tanks organized into six panzer divisions using the new operational doctrine. They acted with other units to punch holes in the enemy line and isolate selected enemy units, which the infantry would then encircle and destroy. This would be repeated and followed up by less mobile mechanized infantry and foot soldiers. The Luftwaffe provided close air support, particularly dive bombers that attacked and disrupted the enemy's supply and communications lines. Together these new tactics were nicknamed Blitzkrieg (lightning war), but historians generally hold that German operations during it were more consistent with more traditional methods. The Wehrmacht's strategy was more inline with Vernichtungsgedanken, or a focus on envelopment to create pockets in broad-front annihilation.

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Nazi Panzer 35(t) tanks in Poland

Aircraft played a major role in the fighting. Bomber aircraft purposefully attacked cities and civilian targets causing huge losses amongst the civilian population in what became known as terror bombings. The Luftwaffe forces consisted of 1,180 fighter aircraft: 290 Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers, 290 conventional bombers (mainly of the He 111 type), and an assortment of 240 naval aircraft. In total, Germany had close to 3,000 aircraft (~2,000 of them can be considered militarily modern) with half of them deployed on the Polish front. The German Air Force, or Luftwaffe, was also the best force of its kind in 1939.

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Junkers Ju 87 dive bombers

At sea the odds against the German Kriegsmarine were much greater in September 1939 than in August 1914, since the Allies in 1939 had many more large surface warships than Germany. However, during the entire war there was to be no clash between the Allied and the German massed fleets, but only the individual operation of German pocket battleships and commerce raiders. In 1939 Germany did have an advantage over the tiny Polish fleet, and the Western Allies were unwilling and unprepared to challenge the Kriegsmarine on the small, land-locked Baltic Sea.


Between 1936 and 1939, Poland invested heavily in industrialization of the Centralny Okręg Przemysłowy. Preparations for a defensive war with Germany were ongoing for many years, but most plans assumed fighting would not begin before 1942. To raise funds for industrial development, Poland was selling much of the modern equipment it produced. The Polish Army had about a million soldiers but less than half were mobilised by the 1 September. Latecomers sustained significant casualties when public transport became targets of the German Air Force. The Polish military had fewer armoured forces than the Germans and, being dispersed within the infantry, were unable to effectively engage the enemy.

, Polish main fighter
PZL P.11, Polish main fighter

Experience in the Polish-Soviet War shaped Polish Army organisational and operational doctrine. Unlike the trench warfare of the First World War, this was a conflict in which the cavalry's mobility played a decisive role. Poland acknowledged the benefits of mobility but was unwilling to invest heavily in the expensive and unproven new inventions to make that a major part of its armed forces. In spite of this, Polish Cavalry brigades were used as a mobile infantry and were quite successful against German infantry, even though in the end the cavalry could not stand its ground against German tanks.

, a Polish modern light tank
7TP, a Polish modern light tank

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, as Poland had only approximately 400 modern and semi-modern aircraft, including 169 fighters (and another 400 obsolete transport, recon and training aircraft). German plans also had superior designs and were deployed with a much better command structure.

, advanced Polish bomber
PZL.37 Łoś, advanced Polish bomber

The Polish Navy was a small fleet composed of destroyers, submarines and smaller support vessels. Most Polish surface units followed Operation Pekin, leaving Polish ports on 20 August, evading German forces and escaping to the North Sea to join with the British Royal Navy. Submarine forces participated in Operation Worek, with the goal of engaging and damaging German shipping in the Baltic Sea, but with much less success. In addition, many ships of the Polish Merchant Navy joined the British merchant fleet and took part in various convoys during the war.

Order of battle

Order of battle of Poland:

Order of battle of invading forces:

Prelude to the campaign

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A Polish map showing the territory known as the Polish Corridor

Main article: Causes of World War II

Led by Adolf Hitler, the Nazi Party took power in Germany in 1933. Hitler at first ostentatiously pursued a policy of rapprochement with Poland, culminating in the Polish-German Non-Aggression Pact of 1934. However, following Germany's annexation of Austria in 1938, and most of Czechoslovakia in 1939, under the continued Allied policy of appeasement, the Nazi regime turned its attention to Poland. Of special concern to Germany was the little-known territory called the Polish Corridor, a narrow strip of land separating East Prussia from the main part of Germany, and allowing Poland access to the Baltic Sea. This small strip of territory was a continual annoyance for the Germans. In early 1939, Hitler issued orders to prepare for the "solution of the Polish problem by military means," and the German government intensified demands for the annexation of the Free City of Danzig, as well as for construction of an extra-territorial road through the Polish Corridor connecting East Prussia with the rest of Germany. The Fall Weiss plan was be ready by April 3.

Hitler and most of his advisors expected the Polish government to yield to those demands as many other governments had done before. However, the Polish government rejected these demands and was backed on March 30 by guarantees from Britain and France, now concerned with German expansionism. The government of the United Kingdom pledged to defend Poland in the event of a German attack, and Romania in case of other threats. However, the British "guarantee" to Poland was not complete, and it addressed only Polish independence and pointedly excluded Polish territorial integrity. This further encouraged Hitler, who believed that Britain and France would be unwilling to take any military action. On 28 April, Germany withdrew from both the Polish-German Non-Aggression Pact of 1934 and the London Naval Agreement of 1935.

Between 1919 and 1939, the basic goal of British foreign policy was to prevent another world war by a mixture of "carrot and stick". The "stick" in this case was the "guarantee" of March 1939, which was intended to prevent Germany from attacking either Poland or Romania. At the same time, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax hoped to offer Hitler a "carrot" in the form of another deal similar to the Munich Agreement, which would see the Free City of Danzig and the Polish Corridor returned to Germany in exchange for a promise to leave the rest of Poland alone.

This declaration was further amended in April, when Poland's minister of foreign affairs Colonel Józef Beck met with Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax. In the aftermath of the talks, a mutual assistance treaty was signed. On August 25 the Polish-British Common Defence Pact was signed as an annex to the Polish-French alliance. Like the "guarantee" of 30 March, the Anglo-Polish alliance committed Britain only to the defence of Polish independence. (It was clearly aimed against German aggression.) In case of war, the United Kingdom was to start hostilities as soon as possible, initially helping Poland with air raids against the German war industry, and joining the struggle on land as soon as the British Expeditionary Corps arrived in France. In addition, a military credit was granted and armament was to reach Polish or Romanian ports in early autumn.

However, both the British and French governments had plans other than fulfilling their treaties with Poland. On May 4, 1939, a meeting was held in Paris at which it was decided that "the fate of Poland depends on the final outcome of the war, which will depend on our ability to defeat Germany rather than to aid Poland at the beginning." Poland's government was not notified of this decision, and the Polish-British talks in London were continued. Also in May 1939, Poland signed a secret protocol to the Franco-Polish Military Alliance (signed in 1921), in which it was agreed that France would grant her eastern ally military credit "as soon as possible." In case of war with Germany, France promised to start minor land and air military operations at once, and to start a major offensive (with the majority of its forces) no later than 15 days after a declaration of war. A full military alliance treaty between Poland and Great Britain was ready to be signed on August 22, but His Majesty's government postponed the signing until August 25, 1939.

Molotov signs the German-Soviet non-aggression pact. Behind him are Ribbentrop and Stalin.
Molotov signs the German-Soviet non-aggression pact. Behind him are Ribbentrop and Stalin.

At the same time, secret German-Soviet talks were held in Moscow, which resulted in signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on August 22, by which Hitler intended to neutralize the possibility of the Soviet Union resisting an invasion of its western neighbour. In a secret protocol of this pact, the Germans and the Soviets agreed that Poland should be divided between them, with the western third of the country going to Germany and the eastern two-thirds to the Soviet Union. Although Western Allies' intelligence had uncovered the secret appendix concerning Poland, this information was not shared with the Polish government.

The German assault was originally scheduled to begin at 0400 on 26 August. However, on 25 August, Britain announced that its guarantee of Polish independence had been formalized by an alliance between the two countries. Hitler wavered and postponed his attack until 1 September, while trying on 26th of August to dissuade the British and the French from interfering in the eventual conflict. The negotiations convinced Hitler that there was little chance the Western Allies would declare war on Germany, and even if they did, due to the lack of territorial guarantees to Poland, they would be willing to negotiate a compromise favourable to Germany after its conquest of Poland. Meanwhile, the number of cross-border raids and sabotages by German Abwehr units, border skirmishes and increased overflights by high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft, signalled to Poland that war was imminent.

On 28 August, Germany revoked the German-Polish Non-Aggression Pact of 1934 . On 29 August, Germany issued Poland a final ultimatum demanding the Polish Corridor, which the Poles refused to consider. German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop declared negotiations with Poland to be at an end, and Polish forces braced for war. On 30 August, the Polish Navy sent its destroyer flotilla to Britain to avoid destruction by the overwhelming German Navy (Kriegsmarine) on the small Baltic Sea. On the same day, Polish Marshal Rydz-Smigly announced the war mobilization of Polish troops, but was pressured into revoking the order by the French, who still hoped for a diplomatic settlement, and failed to realize that the Germans were fully mobilized and concentrated at the Polish border. On 31 August 1939, Hitler ordered hostilities against Poland to start at 4:45 the next morning. In the meantime, Poland managed to mobilise only 70% of its planned forces, and many units were still forming or moving to their designated frontline positions.

Details of the campaign

Deployment of German and Polish divisions, , .
Deployment of German and Polish divisions, September 1, 1939.


German plan

The German plan Fall Weiss, for what became known as the September campaign, was created by General Franz Halder, chief of the general staff, and directed by General Walther von Brauchitsch, the commander in chief of the upcoming campaign. The plan called for the start of hostilities before the declaration of war and to pursue the doctrine of lightning war, later known as blitzkrieg. The novel concept of blitzkrieg called for German tanks (panzers) to attack in massed formations, break through the enemy front, isolate segments of the enemy, and to surround and destroy them. The armored forces would be followed by slower infantry, which would relieve armored forces from the burden of destroying the encircled units; thus the armored forces would be free to continue their advance.

Poland was a country all too well suited for the demonstration of blitzkrieg's ruthless efficiency. It was a country of flat plains, and its frontiers were immensely long, close to 3,500 miles. It had long borders with Germany on the west and north (facing East Prussia) of 1,250 miles. Those had been extended by another 500 miles on the southern side in the aftermath of the Munich Agreement of 1938; the German occupation of Bohemia and Moravia and creation of the German puppet state of Slovakia meant that Poland's southern flank became exposed to invasion.

German planners intended to fully utilise their advantageously long border with the great enveloping maneuver of Fall Weiss. German units were to invade Poland from three directions:

  • A main attack from the German mainland through the western Polish border. This was to be carried out by Army Group South commanded by General Gerd von Rundstedt, attacking from German Silesia and from the Moravian and Slovakian border: General Johannes Blaskowitz's 8th Army was to drive eastward against Łódz; General Wilhelm List's 14th Army was to push on toward Kraków and to turn the Poles' Carpathian flank; and General Walter von Reichenau's 10th Army, in the centre with Army Group South's armour, was to deliver the decisive blow with a northwestward thrust into the heart of Poland.
  • A second route of attack from the northern Prussian area. General Fedor von Bock commanded Army Group North comprising General Georg von Küchler's 3rd Army, which struck southward from East Prussia, and General Günther von Kluge's 4th Army, which struck eastward across the base of the Polish Corridor.
  • A tertiary attack by part of Army Group South's allied Slovak units from the territory of Slovakia.

All three assaults were to converge on Warsaw, while the main Polish army was to be encircled and destroyed west of the Vistula. Fall Weiss was initiated on 1 September of 1939 and was the first operation of the Second World War.

Polish plan

The Polish defence plan, Zachód, was shaped by political determination to deploy directly at the front. With the most valuable natural resources, industry and highly populated regions near the western border (Silesia region), Polish policy was centered on protection of those regions, especially as many politicians feared that if Poland should retreat from the regions disputed by Germany (like the Polish Corridor, cause of the famous "Danzig or War" ultimatum), Britain and France would sign a separate peace with Germany similar to the Munich Agreement of 1938, especially as none of those countries specifically guaranteed Polish borders and territorial integrity. On those grounds, Poland disregarded French advice to deploy the bulk of their forces behind the Vistula and San rivers, even though some Polish generals supported it as a reasonable strategy. The Zachód plan did allow the Polish armies to retreat inside the country, but it was supposed to be a slow retreat behind prepared positions near rivers (Narew, Vistula and San), giving the country time to finish its mobilisation, and was to be turned to a general counteroffensive when the Western Allies would launch their own promised offensive.

The Polish Army's most pessimistic fall-back plan involved retreat behind the river San to the southeastern voviodships and their lengthy defence (the Romanian bridgehead plan). The UK and France estimated that Poland should be able to defend that region for 2–3 months, while Poland estimated it could hold it for at least 6 months. This Polish plan was based around the expectation that the 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 the Germans in trench warfare, eventually forcing them 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.

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Polish infantry

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, were often encircled by mobile German forces. Approximately one-third of Poland's forces were concentrated in or near the Polish Corridor (in northeastern Poland), where they were perilously exposed to a double envelopment — from East Prussia and the west combined. In the south, facing the main avenues of a German advance, the Polish forces were thinly spread. At the same time, nearly another one-third of Poland's forces were massed in reserve in the north-central part of the country, between the major cities of Łódz and Warsaw, under commander in chief Marshal Edward Rydz-Smigly. The Poles' forward concentration in general forfeited their chance of fighting a series of delaying actions, since their foot-marching army was unable to retreat to their defensive positions in the rear or to man them before being overrun by the invader's mechanized columns.

The political decision to defend the border was not the Polish high command's only strategic mistake. Polish pre-war propaganda stated that any German invasion would be easily repelled, so that the eventual 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 for the Polish troops themselves, whose communications, disrupted by German mobile units operating in the rear and civilians blocking roads, were further thrown into chaos by bizarre reports from Polish radio stations and newspapers, which often reported imaginary victories and other military operations. This led to some Polish troops being encircled or taking a stand against overwhelming odds, when they thought they were actually counterattacking or would soon receive reinforcements from other victorious areas. Template:Inote

Phase 1: German aggression

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Schleswig-Holstein shelling Polish Westerplatte

Following a number of German-staged incidents (Operation Himmler), which gave German propaganda reason to claim they were acting in self-defense, 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, destroying 75% of the city and killing close to 1,200 people, most of them civilians. Five minutes later, at 04:45 hours, the old German battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on the Polish enclave of Westerplatte at the Free City of Gdańsk on the Baltic Sea. At 08:00 hours, German troops, still without a formal declaration of war issued, attacked near the Polish 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. Main routes of attack led eastwards from the German mainland through the western Polish border. A second route carried supporting attacks from East Prussia in the north, and a German and allied Slovak tertiary attack by units (Army "Bernolak") from the territory of German-allied Slovakia in the south. All three assaults converged on the Polish captial of Warsaw.

In the meantime, the Allied governments declared war on Germany on September 3; however, they failed to provide Poland with any meaningful support. The German-French border was calm, although the majority of German forces, including eighty-five percent of their armed forces, were engaged in Poland. This marked the beginning of the Phony War.

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German forces during their failed assault on Wola, suburb of Warsaw, on September 9

Despite some Polish successes in minor border battles, German technical, operational and numerical superiority forced the Polish armies to withdraw from the borders towards Warsaw and Lwów. The Luftwaffe gained air superiority early in the campaign. By 3 September, when Kluge in the north had reached the Vistula river and Küchler was approaching the Narew River, Reichenau's armour was already beyond the Warta river; two days later his left wing was well to the rear of Łódź and his right wing at the town of Kielce; and by 8 September one of his armoured corps was on the outskirts of Warsaw, having advanced 140 miles in the first week of war. Light divisions on Reichenau's right were on the Vistula between Warsaw and the town of Sandomierz by 9 September, while List, in the south, was on the river San above and below the town of Przemyśl. At the same time, Guderian led his 3rd Army tanks across the Narew, attacking the line of the Bug River already encircling Warsaw. All the German armies had made progress in fulfilling their parts of the Fall Weiss plan. The Polish armies were splitting up into uncoordinated fragments, some of which were retreating while others were delivering disjointed attacks on the nearest German columns.

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Polish Campaign—Operations—1 September–14, 1939. In Poland, German panzer divisions utilising blitzkrieg tactics trapped numerous pockets of Polish forces (blue circles) that were destroyed by following infantry.

Polish forces abandoned regions of Pomerania, Greater Poland and Silesia in the first week of the campaign, after a series of battles known as the battle of the border. Thus the Polish plan for border defence was proven a dismal failure. On 10 September, the Polish commander in chief, Marshal Edward Rydz-Śmigły, ordered a general retreat to the southeast, towards the so-called Romanian bridgehead.

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Polish Bofors AA gun and a bombed column of Polish Army during the battle of Bzura

Meanwhile, the Germans were tightening their net around encircled Polish forces west of the Vistula (in the Lódz area and, still farther west, around Poznan) but also penetrating deeply into eastern Poland. 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. Around that time, advanced German forces had also reached the city of Lwów, a major metropolis of eastern Poland.

The largest battle during this campaign (Battle of Bzura) took place near the Bzura river west of Warsaw from 9 September to 18 September, when Polish armies Poznań and Pomorze, retreating from the border area of the Polish Corridor, attacked the flank of the advancing German 8th army. This attempted Polish counter-attack failed after initial success. Defeat in this battle effectively marked the end of Polish ability to take the initiative and counterattack on a large scale.

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"Whether figures, gasoline, bombs or bread, we bring Poland death." Painted on German Ju-52 transport plane airframe.

The Polish government (of president Ignacy Mościcki) and the high command (of General Edward Rydz-Śmigły) had left Warsaw in the first days of the campaign and headed south-east, arriving in Brześć on 6 September. General Rydz-Śmigły ordered the Polish forces to retreat in the same direction, behind the Vistula and San rivers, beginning the preparations for the long defence of the Romanian bridgehead area.

Phase 2: Soviet aggression

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"Blow in the back", Dziennik Chicagoski - The Polish Daily News, September 19, 1939, Chicago.

The Polish defense was already broken, with their only hope being retreat and reorganisation in the south-eastern region (Romanian Bridgehead), when on September 17, 1939, it was rendered obsolete overnight. The 800,000 strong Soviet Union Red Army, divided into the Belarusian and Ukrainian fronts, invaded the eastern regions of Poland that had not yet been involved in military operations. While Soviet diplomacy claimed that they were "protecting the Ukrainian and Belarusian 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 influence, as specified in the secret appendix of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact). Polish border defence forces (Korpus Ochrony Pogranicza) in the east (about 25 battalions) were unable to defend the border, and Edward Rydz-Śmigly further ordered them to fall back and not 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's fall-back plan had called for long-term defence against Germany in the southern-eastern part of Poland (near the Romanian border), while awaiting relief from a Western Allies attack on Germany's western border. 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. However, it refused to surrender or negotiate for peace with Germany and ordered all units to evacuate Poland and reorganize in France.

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German bombers over Warsaw
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Near the end—25 September. Source: TIME magazine, 25 September 1939

Meanwhile, Polish forces tried to move towards the Romanian bridgehead area, still actively resisting the German invasion. From 17–20 September, the Polish Armies "Kraków" and "Lublin" were crippled at the Battle of Tomaszów Lubelski, the second largest battle of the campaign. The city of Lwów capitulated on 22 September, and in a turn of events illustrating well this bizarre campaign, it capitulated to the Soviets, even though it had been attacked by Germans over a week earlier—in the middle of the siege, German troops were relieved by their Soviet allies. Despite a series of intensifying German attacks, Warsaw, defended by quickly reorganised retreating units, civilian volunteers and militia, held out until its capitulation on 28 September. The Modlin Fortress north of Warsaw capitulated on 29 September after an intense 16-day battle. Some isolated Polish garrisons managed to hold their positions long after being surrounded by German forces. Westerplatte enclave's tiny garrison capitulated on 7 September, and Oksywie garrison held until the 19th September. By September 28 the Soviets had defeated the Poles at the battle of Szack, executing all captured NCOs and officers on the spot, and reached the line of rivers Narwew, Bug, Vistula and San, in many cases meeting German units advancing from the other side. Polish defenders on the Hel peninsula on the shore of the Baltic Sea held out until 2 October. The last operational unit of the Polish Army, General Franciszek Kleeberg's Samodzielna Grupa Operacyjna "Polesie", capitulated after the 4-day Battle of Kock near Lublin on 6 October, marking the end of the September Campaign.


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October 5, 1939. The Wehrmacht was marching on Aleje Ujazdowskie before a tribune on which Adolf Hitler and other Nazi officials stood. During the parade all inhabitants of Warsaw were ordered to stay at home and shut their windows. In order to prevent an assassination attempt, the Germans held 412 civilians hostage. Among them were the most notable professors of Warsaw University and civilian authorities of the city with its president Stefan Starzyński.

At the end of the September Campaign, Poland was divided among Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Lithuania and Slovakia. Nazi Germany annexed parts of Poland, while the rest was governed by the so-called General Government.

Poland was conquered and divided between Germany and the Soviet Union, the forces of which met and greeted each other on Polish soil. On September 28, another secret German-Soviet protocol modified the arrangements of August: all Lithuania was to be a Soviet sphere of influence, not a German one; but the dividing line in Poland was changed in Germany's favour, being moved eastward to the Bug River.

About 65,000 Polish troops were killed and 680,000 were captured by the Germans (420,000) or the 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. German personnel losses were smaller (~16,000 KIA), but the loss of over ~30% of armored vehicles during the campaign was one of the reasons the plans for immediate attack west were discarded.

Soviet and German soldiers meeting after the Soviet invasion of Poland
Soviet and German soldiers meeting after the Soviet invasion of Poland

Neither side—Germany, Western Allies or the Soviet Union—expected that the German invasion of Poland would lead to the war that would surpass the First World War in its scale and cost. In 1939 Hitler didn't want to attack the west as the German war machine was not yet ready. It would be months before Hitler would see the futility of his peace negotiation attempts with Great Britain and France, and years before the war would be joined by Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United States, becoming truly a "world war". Nonetheless, what was not visible to most politicians and generals in 1939 is clear from the historical perspective: The Polish September Campaign marked the beginning of the Second World War in Europe, which combined with the Pacific War in 1941 would form the conflict known as Second World War.

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), which was connected to an 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 the Soviet Union entered the war, Poland, even with its territories occupied, had the third largest army at the Western Allies' disposal.

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Survivor of bombing of Warsaw

The Polish campaign was important as the first step in Hitler's drive for "living space" (Lebensraum) for Germans in Eastern Europe (Generalplan Ost), 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 the country's inhabitants), including the mass murder of 3 million Polish Jews in extermination camps like Auschwitz. Soviet occupation between 1939 and 1941 resulted in the death or deportation of least 1.8 million former Polish citizens, 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 the 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 the Home Army soldiers and executions of their leaders (Trial of the Sixteen).


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Graves of Polish soldiers in Powązki Cemetery

There are several common misconceptions regarding the Polish September Campaign:

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 German) also fielded and extensively used cavalry units. Polish cavalry never charged German tanks or entrenched machine guns but usually acted as mobile infantry units and executed cavalry charges only in rare situations, against enemy troops. The article about the Battle of Krojanty (when the Polish cavalry was fired on by hidden tanks, rather than charged them) describes how this myth originated.

The Polish air force was destroyed on the ground in the first days of the war: The Polish Air Force, though numerically inferior and lacking modern fighters, was not destroyed on ground, because combat units were moved from air bases to small camouflaged airfields during the mobilization before the war. Only a number of trainers and auxiliary aircraft were destroyed on ground on airfields. The Polish Air Force remained active in the first two weeks of the campaign, causing some harm to the Germans. Many skilled Polish pilots escaped afterwards to the United Kingdom and 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 Template:Ref.

Poland offered little resistance and surrendered quickly: It should be noted that the September Campaign lasted only about one week shorter than the Battle of France in 1940, even though the French forces had much better parity in terms of numerical strength and equipment Template:Ref.

See also



  1. Template:Note Various sources contradict each other so the figures quoted above should only be taken as a rough indication of the strength estimate. The most common range differences and their brackets are: German personnel 1,500,000–1,800,000. This can be explained by inclusion (or lack of it) of Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine forces alongside Wehrmacht personnel. Luftwaffe: 1,300–3,000 planes, this can be explained by inclusion of all Luftwaffe planes (including transport, communications, training and anything not stationed at Polish front) on the larger end. Similarly Polish Air Force is given at 400–800; as with total Luftwaffe, the 800 number includes virtually 'anything that can fly'. Polish tanks: 100–880, 100 is the number of modern tanks, 880 number includes older tank and tankettes. Template:Inote
  2. Template:Note 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 KIA, 134,000 WIA; German KIA—8,082 to 16,343, with MIA from 5,029 to 320, total KIA and WIA given at 45,000. The discrepancy in German casualties can be attributed to he fact that some German statistics still listed soldiers as missing decades after the war. Today the most common and accepted number for German KIA casualties is 16,343. Soviet losses are estimated at 737 killed and 1,859 wounded. The often cited figure of 420,000 Polish prisoners of war represents only those captured by the Germans, as Soviets captured about 240,000 Polish POWs themselves, making the total number of Polish POWs about 660,000–690,000. Equipment losses are given as 89 German tanks and approximately 1,000 other vehicles to 132 Polish tanks and 300 other vehicles, 107–141 German planes to 327 Polish planes (118 fighters) (Polish PWN Encyclopedia gives number of 700 planes lost), 1 German small minelayer to 1 Polish destroyer ("Wicher"), 1 minelayer ("Gryf") and several support craft. Soviets lost approximately 42 tanks in combat while hundreds more suffered technical failures.
  3. Template:Note No. 303 "Kościuszko" Polish Fighter Squadron formed from Polish pilots in the United Kingdom almost 2 months after the Battle of Britain begun is famous for achieving the highest number of enemy kills during the Battle of Britain of all fighter squadrons then in operation.
  4. Template:Note Polish to Germany forces in the September Campaign: 1 million soldiers 4,300 guns, 880 tanks, 435 aircraft to 1,8 million soldiers, 10,000 guns, 2,800 tanks, 3,000 aircraft. French and participating Allies to German forces in the Battle of France: 2,862,000 soldiers, 13,974 guns, 3,384 tanks, 3,099 aircraft 2 to 3,350,000 soldiers, 7,378 guns, 2,445 tanks, 5,446 aircraft.



External links

Template:WW2Theatrede:Polenfeldzug 1939 ja:ポーランド侵攻 nl:Poolse campagne pl:Kampania wrześniowa


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