Invasion of Poland
The beginning of World War Two
September 1939
author Paul Boșcu, October 2016
The invasion of Poland was the first battle of World War Two. This operation had the codename ‘Fall Weiss’ or Case White. The invasion was initiated by Nazi Germany and a small Slovak contingent from the newly-created Slovak puppet state.
The invasion of Poland was the first battle of World War II. This operation had the codename ‘Fall Weiss’ or Case White. The invasion was initiated by Nazi Germany and a small Slovak contingent from the newly-created Slovak puppet state. This was formed by Germany after the occupation of Czechoslovakia. Later, the Red Army invaded the eastern regions of Poland in cooperation with Germany. The Soviets fulfilled their part of the secret appendix of the Ribbentrop - Molotov pact. This pact divided Eastern Europe into spheres of influence, between the two powers.

Germany had a substantial numerical advantage over Poland. The German army had approx. 2,400 tanks, organized into six Panzer divisions. The aviation also played a major role in the campaign, with German bombers attacking Polish industrial centers.

Poland had one million people in the armed forces, but less than half of these were mobilized before the beginning of the invasion. Those arriving late suffered heavy losses, as they were easy targets for the German aviation. The Polish army also had less armored vehicles than the Germans, and the ones they did have were spread out through all the infantry forces. Thus, the Poles were not able to put up an efficient fight against the enemy.

Lotnictwo Wojskowe, the Polish Air Force, was at a severe disadvantage compared with the German Luftwaffe, since it did not have modern fighting planes. Even so, the Polish pilots were among the best trained in the world. This was proven a year later, with Polish pilots playing an important role in the Battle of Britain.

The experience of the Soviet - Polish war strongly influenced the Polish army’s organization and operational doctrine. In this war, in contrast with the trench warfare of World War I, the mobility of the cavalry played a decisive role. Poland recognized the benefits of mobility, however it did not want to make massive investments in new military inventions. These were very costly and hadn’t yet had the chance to be proven efficient.

In total, Germany had airborne advantage both in quantity and quality. The Polish Air Force generally used the PZL P.11 and PZL P.7 fighther planes, locally-produced planes manufactured at the beginning of the 30s. These were vastly inferior to the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Messerschmitt Bf 108 planes used by German aviation.

The international situation and the military intimidation attempts made on Poland meant that the invasion of this country was not a surprise attack. However, Hitler hoped that the new Blitzkrieg tactics of the Wehrmacht would be a tactical shock to the Poles. Hitler had already learned that tactical surprise is an inestimable advantage in military confrontation. Throughout the whole of his revolutionary career, he always tried to use the element of surprise. It usually had great success. The Beer Hall Putsch, which he tried to pull off, surprised even his main leader, General Ludendorff.

Hitler’s aversion to static, attrition warfare, was a natural reaction for him. Hitler served for years in the 16th Bavarian Infantry Regiment in World War I. His tasks as battalion courier meant waiting for breaks between salvos of artillery and rushing fast in a semi-crawl from trenches to shell-holes, carrying messages. Thus, he was a courageous and conscientious soldier. Hitler probably didn’t actually kill anyone himself. He always refused promotions which would have taken him away from his colleagues. He even received two Iron Crosses, Class II and Class I.

The German army created its plan of attack based on Poland’s geography and its military capabilities. The Germans counted on conquering Warsaw with a strong attack. The invasion plan for Poland was officially called Fall Weiss or Case White.

The German plan for this campaign was elaborated by the head of the German General Staff of that period, General Franz Halder. He was supervised by General Walther von Brauchitsch, chief commander of the Polish campaign. All three planned assaults were in the direction of Warsaw. The main Polish army would then be surrounded and destroyed west of the Vistula.

The strategy of having a weak center and two strong flanks was genius. It seems it was taken from the prewar studies of Field Marshal and Count Alfred von Schlieffen concerning the tactics used by Hannibal in the battle of Cannae. Regardless of who created the strategy, it functioned well. The strategy deftly moved the German armies between the Polish armies and allowed them to approach Warsaw simultaneously from different directions.

The plan stipulated the beginning of hostilities before an official declaration of war. The Germans wanted to carry out a massive encirclement and destruction of Polish forces. The infantry was supported by German tanks in order to advance rapidly and concentrate attacks on certain target points of the enemy front. The goal was to isolate and surround the enemy’s groups. Poland’s geography was well suited to such a mobile operation in good weather conditions. The country had wide plains with a very long border of 5,600 km, which was very hard to defend.

The British and French governments gave Poland military guarantees. Thus, Hitler was forced to leave a large percentage of the 100 divisions of his army in the west, to defend the Siegfried Line or the ‘Western Wall’. This line was made up of a series of yet unfinished fortifications, almost five kilometers wide, placed along the western border of Germany. The fear of having a war on two fronts made the Führer select forty divisions to protect his back. Still, Hitler reserved his best troops for attacking Poland, together with all his mobile and armored divisions, and almost his entire air fleet.

According to Case White, on each side of a relatively weak and stationary center lay two strong flanks of the Wehrmacht. They would capture Warsaw. Army Group North, under the leadership of General Fedor von Bock, would strike through the Polish Corridor. The goal of the attack was to take Danzig and meet the 3rd German Army in Western Prussia, in order to make a lightning attack on the Polish capital from the north. In the meantime, Army Group South, led by General Gerd von Rundstedt, would hit the center of the Polish forces. The group must push the front to Lwow, and also attack Warsaw from the east and north.

The Polish Corridor was designed by those who created the Versailles Treaty, in order to isolate Western Prussia from the rest of Germany. This had been produced as a casus belli for a long time by the Nazis, as was Danzig, a port on the Baltic Sea. This town had a majority German population.

Case White involved mobilizing 60 divisions to take Poland. Included in these were five Panzer divisions with 300 tanks in each and four light divisions, made up of a lesser number of tanks and a few horses. Germany also had four divisions of motorized infantry, together with 3,600 aircraft in operative aviation. The invading troops also benefitted from assistance from part of the strong Kriegsmarine, the German Navy.

Case White was elaborated by the strategists of the OKH. Hitler simply approved the final document. In this early stage of the war, there was a good amount of authentic reciprocal respect between Hitler and his generals. This was helped by the fact that, up until then, Hitler had not got involved in the generals’ planning or direction of troops on the ground. The two Iron Crosses, which Hitler had won during the First World War, offered him a certain respect in the eyes of the generals.

Hitler’s self-confidence concerning military matters was unusual. This was probably due, in part, to the feeling of superiority which many veteran infantrymen felt, being convinced that they had borne the brunt of the battle in the Great War. Hitler did not let himself be intimidated, even though he was an ex-corporal in the middle of so many generals. If Hitler had been a German citizen, he would probably have occupied a position of leadership during World War I. Conscious of this fact, he was able to come out of the war with the belief that he was capable of commanding a battalion.

Wilhelm Keitel, head of the General Staff of the OKW and his lieutenant, Alfred Jodl, served as artillerymen and staff officers during World War I. Their battle was an indirect one, even though Keitel was wounded. General Walther von Reichenau, General Walther von Brauchitsch and General Hans von Kluge were also artillerymen. General Paul von Kleist and General Erich Manstein served in the cavalry, even though Manstein was also wounded. Some generals, such as Heinz Guderian, were in Communications, whereas others, like Maximilian von Weichs, spent most of the war in General Staff.

Many of the OKW generals had spent the 20s in paramilitary militias, known as Freikorps, and in the small authorized peace-time army allowed by the Versailles peace agreement. Before Hitler came to power, their activity was limited to bureaucracy, preparation and study. As a consequence, Hitler was not very impressed by any official ranks his generals had obtained serving in this type of army.

The former Lieutenant-Colonel Winston Churchill held ‘corporal Hitler’ in disdain, due to the inferior rank he had held in the trenches of the Great War. Even so, the Führer had no inferiority complexes when dealing with soldiers who held much higher ranks than him during the war.

Part of Fall Weiss included the involvement of small groups of Germans dressed in Räuberzivil, “robbers’ civvies”. They were to cross the border the night before and capture strategic key points before dawn on the day of the invasion. An Abwehr battalion - the secret services of the German army - was given the task of carrying out these operations. It was given the euphemistic name: Construction Training Company 800 for Special Duties. A group of 24 people, under the leadership of Lieutenant dr. Hans-Albrecht Herzner, had the task of preparing the way for the assault of the 7th Infantry Division.

Herzner’s group had to cross the border and capture a railway station at Mosty, in the Jablunka pass in the Carpathian mountains. This must be done to prevent the destruction of the single-track railway tunnel, the fastest route between Warsaw and Vienna. After they crossed the border through the Polish forests at 12:30 at night, Herzner’s group got lost and became separated in the darkness. However, Herzner managed to occupy the Mosty railway station, together with 13 men, at 3:30am, and cut the telephone and telegraph lines. They discovered that the Polish detonators had already been taken out of the tunnel by the soldiers defending the place.

The Polish guards in the tunnel attacked Herzner’s unit, wounding one of his men. Losing contact with the Abwehr, Herzner did not discover that, the previous evening, Hitler had postponed Case White by a week. Each commando unit was informed of this, except for Herzner’s group. The Abwehr managed, in the end, to reach Herzner, at 9:35 am. It ordered him to free the prisoners and return to base. By then, Herzner had lost another man, wounded in battle, and killed a Pole in the exchange of gunfire.

After a series of other incidents, Herzner’s group crossed the border back into Germany at 13:30. The German government explained to the Poles that the whole business was a mistake caused by the lack of a well-marked border through the forest. The German authorities initially didn’t want to give Herzner the Iron Cross, Class II, for acts of courage in peacetime. In the end, they did decorate him, but it was not much use to him. In 1942, Herzner broke his back in a motorcycle accident. He drowned during a therapy session in a swimming pool.

The Polish defence plan was based on the direct defence of the border with Germany. This plan contributed to the defeat of the Poles, since the Polish troops were too thinly stretched out along the long border. The Poles did not have compact defence lines or well-fortified defensive positions. Thus, the German mechanized forces were often able to surround them. Also, the Polish supply lines were not well protected. Still, the Poles were expecting Hitler’s attack. One week earlier, their country had been invaded by a small detachment of Germans, who had not been informed that the invasion was postponed.

Hitler repealed the German-Polish treaty of nonaggression, a strange and unusual act of legalism on his part. Thus, the Poles received an obvious indication that Germany was about to invade their country. However, they did not know enough about Blitzkrieg tactics. These tactics were, until this point, a secret only known by certain German and British military strategists. The Poles were able to correctly estimate the place and time of the forthcoming attack, but they did not know the most important part: how it would happen. Thus, the Poles chose to place the main body of their troops close to the German border.

Poland had only 30 infantry divisions, 11 cavalry brigades, two motorized brigades, 300 medium and light-weight tanks, 1,154 field cannons and 400 battle-ready planes. They also had a fleet of only four modern warships and five submarines. Poland tried to mobilize its reserves. This process was far from being complete at the moment of the devastating blow delivered by the 630,000 German soldiers under the command of Bock, and the other 886,000 soldiers under Rundstedt.

The Munich crisis and annexation of a good part of Czechoslovakia extended the border between the Reich and Poland. From 2,011 km it grew to 2,816 km. This was more than the Polish army could defend. Marshal Edward Śmigły-Rydz, chief commander of the Polish troops, was forced to decide on an action plan. To keep most of his forces behind the natural defensive line of the Vistula, San and Narew rivers, or to try to protect the industrial heart of Poland and the best agricultural areas in the west of the country.

The decision to defend their borders was not the Poles’ only mistake. Polish propaganda before the war told the population that any German attack would be easily repelled. Thus, the Polish defeat during the campaign was a great shock to the Polish people. The population, unprepared for this situation, began to panic and withdrew to the east. Chaos ensued, which contributed to the lowering of morale among Polish troops.

Śmigły-Rydz decided to put all his troops together so he could defend every inch of Polish land, which meant he was exposing his army to great risk. He tried to arrange his troops along the entire front, from Lithuania to the Carpathians. He kept an assault group to invade Oriental Prussia, keeping back one-third of his forces in Poznia and the Polish Corridor. As has happened many times before in Polish history, the orders were brave. Thus, Śmigły-Rydz had to abandon important towns such as Kraków, Poznań, Bydgoszcz and Łódź, all located to the west of the three rivers. However, the Polish plans were not practical.

The propaganda was also harmful for the Polish troops. They were thrown into chaos by radio reports and the Polish press which were reporting imaginary victories in other regions of the front. This led to tragic situations, when Polish troops were surrounded and began fighting against hopeless odds. The soldiers believed they were carrying out a counter-attack or that they would soon receive backup from other regions of the front, where the victory had already been won.

The first act of war took place when the German Air Forces attacked the city of Wieluń. They destroyed 75% of the town and killed around 1,200 people, most of whom were civilians. Five minutes later, the Schleswig-Holstein battleship opened fire on strategic Polish positions in the free town of Danzig. German troops crossed the border for the first time close to the village of Mokra. During the same day, German attacks came from the north, south and west of the Polish border, while German bombers began raids on Polish cities.

As an international reaction, France and England declared war on Germany, however they did not offer any support to the Polish forces. There was just one minor conflict on the French-German border, but German forces repelled the attack. The Poles obtained success in a few minor battles at the border. However, the technical, operational and numerical superiority of the Germans forced the Polish army to retreat towards Warsaw and Lwow.

Heinkel He-111 bombers and Dornier and Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers began to bomb ammunitions deposits, centers of mobilization and Polish cities including Warsaw. The Stuka planes had special sirens attached, whose strident noise intensified the terror of those on the ground. A good part of the Polish Air Force was destroyed on the ground. Air superiority, which would become a vital factor in the next six years of conflict, was rapidly won by the Luftwaffe. The Polish anti-aircraft defense, in the places where it did exist, was completely insufficient.

The Luftwaffe destroyed the Polish communication lines, creating serious logistical problems for the Poles. Polish aviation could not respond adequately to the attacks, since the air units had been left without provisions. 98 of the Polish planes withdrew to Romania, which at that time was neutral. Of the initial 400 Polish airplanes, only 54 were still functional after the first two weeks of the campaign. The German Messerschmitt Me-109 planes could reach speeds of 470 km/h. Thus, the Polish planes, with a much lower speed, had no chance, however brave the pilots proved themselves to be.

Leading the two armored divisions and two of the light divisions of Army Group North was General Heinz Guderian, who was an old and fiery supporter of Blitzkrieg tactics. Guderian used the action force of his army group as a homogenous unit. In contrast, in Army Group South the tanks were distributed between the different units. Guderian thus managed to obtain astounding success as he advanced in front of the principal infantry corps. In addition, the Polish response was hindered by the refugees crowding the roads.

Four days after the beginning of the invasion, the Polish Corridor was completely blocked. Two days later, the Polish army from Pomerania was surrounded in the north. The 10th German Army, under the leadership of General Walther von Reichenau, and the 8th Army, under General Johannes Blaskowitz, completely crushed the Krakow and Łódź Polish armies. The members of the Polish government fled initially to Lublin. From there, they fled to Romania where they were well received at first. Under pressure from Hitler, however, they were remanded.

Polish forces abandoned Silesia, marking the complete failure of the Polish plan for defending its borders. As a consequence, the chief of the Polish General Staff, Marshal Edward Rydz-Śmigły ordered a general retreat towards the Romanian bridgehead. Poland shared a border with Romania. During this time, German forces pushed even harder to surround the Polish forces west of the Vistula.

German forces advanced very fast, coming near to Warsaw in the first week of conflict. In the following days, the city was completely surrounded. The 10th Army, led by Reichenau, arrived on the outskirts of Warsaw. It was initially repelled by an energetic Polish resistance. In spite of the threats Hitler had been making for years, the Poles hadn’t built large-scale fortifications. They preferred to rely on counter-attacks. However, all this changed with the German attack. Barricades were improvised in the center of Warsaw, anti-tank trenches dug and barrels full of turpentine brought in, ready to be set alight.

Warsaw suffered bombing raids for days on end, without hoping to receive any meaningful help from the western Allies. A large-scale Russian assault followed in the east. A good part of the army defending Warsaw, along with reserves of medicine and food, became worryingly depleted. In these conditions, Warsaw surrendered.

Three days after the surrender, the Germans agreed to help the wounded in the city. For many, however, it was too late. The company kitchens were installed only when camera crews were present to film news reports.

The greatest battle of the campaign took place near the Bzura River, west of Warsaw. The Polish armies retreating from the border area attacked the flanks of the 8th German army. The counter-attack failed after an initial weak success. After this defeat, Poland lost its capacity to organize large-scale counter-offensives. German airplanes attacked in waves, causing heavy losses for the Polish troops, which were surrounded.

Hermann Göring stated that “the Polish army will never manage to get out of the German embrace”. Up until that moment, the Germans had executed a perfect attack. However, General Tadeusz Kutrzeba, from the Poznań Army, took over the leadership of the Pomerania Army and crossed the Bzura River in an attack on the flanks of the 8th German army. This sparked the three-day battle at Kutno, through which they managed to halt an entire German division. The Poles were forced to retreat only when the Panzers of the 10th Army returned from the siege of Warsaw.

According to German and Italian propaganda, part of the Polish cavalry, armed only with lances and swords, attacked the German tanks. In fact, this never happened. German General Mellenthin remarked: “All the energy and courage of the Poles was often unable to compensate for their lack of modern arms and serious tactical training.” The Wehrmacht’s training however, was modern and flexible. When necessary, certain troops, such as the infantry and artillerymen, could take the places of the tank operators, while the German NCOs were trained to take over from the officers.

The Polish anti-aircraft units ran out of ammunition and withdrew to the forests. There, they were taken out by German incendiary bombs, with survivors annihilated by the infantry. It’s estimated that the German Stuka planes alone launched 388 tons of bombs during this campaign

In the case of an attack from the west, Hitler needed to wrap up the Polish campaign quickly. Neville Chamberlain’s government declared war on Germany two days after the attack on Poland. France followed Great Britain, albeit half-heartedly, six hours later. With the exception of the Poles, everyone understood that the western Allies had no intention of attacking the Siegfried Line. This happened in spite of the fact that the French had 85 divisions with which to confront the 40 German divisions. The German air raids which could have destroyed London and Paris were due, in part, to the Allied forces’ lack of action.

Even if Great Britain and France had attacked from the west, Poland probably couldn’t have been saved in time. In these conditions, the Advance Attack Force of the RAF, the British Air Force, arrived in France eight days after the invasion. The principal British Expeditionary Force (BEF), under the leadership of Lord Gort, arrived on the continent the day after the RAF contingent.

What the Allies didn’t take into account at the time was Hitler’s permanent fear of an attack from the west. In a letter to the deputy prison governor at Nuremberg in 1946, Wilhelm Keitel stressed that “what the Fuhrer most feared and constantly brought up” was, first of all, the possibility “of a secret agreement between the French and Belgian General Staffs for a surprise thrust of the French high-speed motorized forces, through Belgium and over the German frontier, so as to burst into the German industrial zone in the Ruhr.”

Keitel continued, in his letter: “and, secondly, a secret agreement between the British Admiralty and the Dutch General Staff, for a surprise landing of British troops in Holland, for an attack on the German north flank.”

Thus, Hitler had no need to worry about either of the two possibilities. Neither France nor Great Britain, much less the neutral states of Belgium and Holland, conceived a strategy so imaginative and forceful. Great Britain’s most hostile act was bombing, unsuccessfully, the Wilhelmshaven navy base. The British also dropped several million manifestos over Germany. In these, the Germans were urged to overthrow their Fuhrer. The action was completely inefficient. Hitler went on to obtain one of Germany’s greatest victories.

France invaded Germany, at least from a technical point of view. Hoping to give the Poles some breathing space, the French commander, General Maurice Gamelin, ordered an advance of approx. 8 km into Saarland. The French occupied several abandoned German villages. The Germans retreated behind the fortifications of the Siegfried Line and waited. Since France had not completed general mobilization, there was no further action. Five days later, the French returned to their initial positions, with the order to only carry out reconnaissance missions.

The coup de grace was delivered to the Polish by the Red Army. The Polish army was hoping to organize an efficient defence in the area of the Romanian bridgehead. During this time, the Red Army entered the eastern regions of Poland, under the pretext of protecting the Ukrainian and Belarusian minorities from the imminent Polish collapse.

Since the beginning of the invasion, the German government had repeatedly asked the Russian foreign minister if the Soviet Union would respect its end of the deal agreed to in the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact. The USSR was in an undeclared war with Japan, and Stalin did not want a conflict on two fronts. As soon as Japan and the USSR signed an armistice, ending a five month-long war, Stalin ordered the Red Army to begin the Polish invasion.

At the start of the Soviet invasion, the Polish army was already on the verge of collapse. The only hope for the Poles was to retreat and reorganize at the Romanian bridgehead. These plans were overthrown, since the Soviets entered eastern Poland with approx. 800,000 soldiers, organized on two fronts.

The Poles only had three divisions to cover the eastern border. This was 1,288 km long, and the Russian invasion of Poland came as a complete surprise. The Russians wanted revenge for the defeat suffered in the war with Poland, carried out after the end of World War I. They wanted access to the Baltic States and also to form a buffer area against Germany. They managed to obtain these three things without meeting significant resistance. Their losses came in at only 734 dead.

On the eastern border, the Poles had 25 battalions. Edward Rydz-Śmigły ordered these to retreat and not attack the Soviets. This order was not entirely obeyed, with a few minor battles taking place. One of these battles happened at Grodno, where Polish soldiers together with the local population tried to defend the city. During the campaign, the Soviets executed many Polish officers who were taken prisoners of war, among whom was General Józef Wilczyński.

The Soviet invasion was one of the decisive factors which convinced the Polish government that the war was lost. Before the Soviet intervention, the Polish camp hoped to organize a defensive in south-eastern Poland. The goal was to win the time necessary for England and France to send backup. After the Soviet invasion, the Polish government ordered all active units to leave the country and regroup in France.

After the Soviet invasion, the Polish forces in the west which were trying to reach the Romanian bridgehead resisted the German army. The Poles suffered heavy losses in the battle at Tomaszów Lubelski, the second most intense battle of the campaign. The city of Lwow surrendered due to Soviet intervention. Initially, Lwow was under German siege. After the Soviets entered Poland, the Germans passed the initiative over to their allies, and the city surrendered. Warsaw held out for 20 days under German siege.

In spite of the Polish victory at Shatsk, where the Soviets executed all the Polish officers and NCOs taken as prisoners of war, the Red Army reached the Narew, Bug and Vistula rivers. The Red Army often met German forces advancing from the opposite direction. Isolated elements of the Polish army resisted the German-Soviet attack, even after the fall of Warsaw. The last active unit of the Polish army, commanded by General Franciszek Kleeberg, surrendered close to Lublin, after the battle of Kock. This conflict lasted four days.

The Germans advanced towards several areas beyond Warsaw and occupied Brest-Litovsk and Lwow. Spontaneous battles broke out between the Russians and Germans. In one of the incidents, two Cossacks were killed, and in another 15 Germans. Ribbentrop, the German foreign affairs minister, flew to Moscow to negotiate boundary lines. After spending an evening at the Bolshoi theatre watching Swan Lake, he carried out a round of tough negotiations with his Soviet counterpart, Molotov. These negotiations lasted until 5am the next morning. They agreed that the Germans would take Warsaw and Lublin, and the Russians would take the rest of eastern Poland, leaving them free to take the Baltic area.

Approximately 217,000 Polish soldiers were taken prisoners by the Russians, and 693,000 by the Germans. Around 100,000 Poles living in the Russian sector were arrested by the NKVD and sent to concentration camps. Almost nobody returned from these camps. Amongst those arrested were aristocrats, intellectuals, syndicalists, clergy, politicians and veterans of the Russian-Polish war. Thus, all those who could have formed the nucleus of a new national elite were arrested.

The Germans withdrew from towns such as Brest-Litovsk and Bialystok, now in the new Soviet sector. Thus, the fourth division of Poland was finalized. However, it would have been good for Molotov to remember Hitler’s words, noted years earlier in Mein Kampf: “One should not now raise the objection that an alliance with Russia would not immediately imply a war, or, if it does, that it might be fundamentally prepared for. No. An alliance whose aim does not comprise a plan for war is senseless and worthless. One makes alliances only for fighting.”

At the end of the four-week campaign, the Germans had suffered losses of 8,082 soldiers killed and 27,278 wounded. The Poles lost 70,000 men and 130,000 were wounded. “The operations were of considerable value in ‘blooding’ our troops,” concluded General Mellentin. It truly was a lightning war. After the end of the campaign, Adolf Hitler, triumphant, travelled towards Warsaw in his special train, to visit his troops. “Take a good look around Warsaw,” he told the war correspondents. “That is how I can deal with any European city.”

The Polish campaign was the first sample of the total war which was World War II: a conflict carried out without regard for collateral damage. As a consequence, the number of civilian victims was high during battles, but also afterwards.

From the beginning of the campaign, the Luftwaffe attacked civilian targets and convoys of refugees. The goal was to create chaos and lower the morale of the Poles. Besides the civilian victims during battles, the German forces - both the Wehrmacht and the SS - killed tens of thousands of Polish civilians in mass executions.

The commander of the three SS Totenkopf - Death’s head - regiments, Theodor Eicke, ordered his men to “incarcerate or annihilate” all enemies of national-socialism they met. Nazism was a political and racial ideology. This meant that large sectors of the Polish population were automatically classified as enemies which could not be shown mercy.

The Wehrmacht was actively involved in violent acts against civilians. The country was handed over to civilian administration eight weeks after the breakout of war. However, by that time, without needing special orders, the German Army had burned 531 towns and villages. They had also killed thousands of Polish prisoners of war.

The main factor causing the German brutality to the Polish population was Nazi propaganda. This attempted to convince the Germans that Slavic people and Jews were ‘untermenschen’ or ‘subhumans’. In total, between 150,000 and 200,000 Polish civilians died in Poland during the campaign.

Many civilians were killed in the so-called Tannenberg operation. These acts of genocide were carried out based on lists gathered from the Gestapo in the two years before the invasion. In total, around 61,000 members of the Polish elite were killed or interned in camps. Among these were professors, activists, actors, military officers, and other members of Polish intellectual circles.

At the beginning of the campaign, 1,000 civilians were shot by the SS at Bydgoszcz, whereas at Piotrków, the Jewish quarter was burned down. During this time, the entire Jewish population of Poland was being gathered like flocks of sheep in ghettos. The same treatment was applied even to Jewish farmers. This happened even though the new eastern zone of the Third Reich desperately needed food supplies. On the Day of Atonement - Yom Kippur - thousands of Jews were locked in the synagogue in Bydgoszcz. They were refused access to toilets, and were forced to use their prayer shawls as toilet paper.

Most of these acts were committed by members of the Einsatzgruppe, a special branch of the SS. This group was responsible for the mass executions carried out all through the war. For example, the members of Einsatzgruppe VI, under the command of Herbert Lange, were responsible for the murder of thousands of patients in Polish hospitals. These acts were carried out on the soldiers’ initiatives, without orders from the SS chief, Heinrich Himmler.

After the end of the campaign, Poland was divided between Germany and the Soviet Union. This division was made according to the deal made by the two countries in the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact.

Immediately after the end of hostilities, Germany created a series of military districts in Poland for the administration of the country. Afterwards, the administration of occupied Poland fell into the hands of civilians. After the end of fighting, Germany annexed part of western Poland.

Between 90,000 and 100,000 Polish soldiers managed to escape the country through Lithuania, Hungary and Romania. They reached the west and joined the Polish Independent Brigades. The forces were under the command of General Władysław Sikorski, the Polish prime minister in exile. He was in Paris when the war broke out.

The German occupation was extremely brutal. Over five million Poles lost their lives, including three million Jews killed in concentration camps such as Auschwitz, in ghettos in Polish cities or in countless ad-hoc massacres.

Although the German and Soviet areas were defined by water courses, the two armies met on many occasions. The most remarkable meeting of this kind took place at Brest-Litovsk. There, the group of Panzers commanded by Heinz Guderian occupied the city which was in the Soviet area. When the Soviet troops came close to the city, it was decided that the Germans would retreat as the Red Army entered. The two armies would salute each other and perform a joint victory parade. Another meeting took place close to Lwow, where there were small battles between the two armies.

During the battles, approximately 65,000 Polish soldiers were killed. 660,000 soldiers were taken prisoners by the two invading armies. Most of the soldiers who managed to escape from Poland ultimately reached France or Great Britain and later participated in other battles of the war. Most of the Polish Navy managed to evacuate to England.

The gold in the Polish treasury was sent to England and used to maintain the Polish army during the war. The members of the Polish government who managed to escape the country formed an exiled government in Algiers, in France. This government coordinated the activity of the Polish army during the war. The exiled government continued functioning, symbolically, up until the fall of communism in Poland. In December 1990, Lech Walesa became the first post-communist president. He received the official symbols of the Polish republic from Ryszard Kaczorowski, the last president in exile.

In the two years of Soviet occupation, approximately 150,000 Poles were killed. Another 320,000 were deported and sent to gulags. The Katyń massacre was the most brutal of its kind. Here, all the Polish officers taken as prisoners of war by the Soviets were executed. The massacre was carried out at the suggestion of the head of the NKVD, Lavrentiy Beria, and approved by Stalin. The Soviet government did not acknowledge that the massacre had been carried out by the Soviets until 1990. In 2010, the Russian State Duma passed a declaration blaming Stalin and Beria for what happened.

The Red Army transported 4,100 Polish officers into a forest close to Smolensk, called Katyń. Although the Polish soldiers had surrendered to the Russians according to the conditions of the Geneva Convention, each of them was shot in the back of the head. Vasily Blokhin, the head executioner of the Russian secret services, led the team of assassins. He wore loose trousers, a leather apron and long leather gloves to protect his uniform from the blood and pieces of brain which were scattered. He used a German Walther pistol, since it didn’t jam when heated after intensive use.

In total, 21,857 Polish soldiers were executed by the Soviets at Katyń and in other places. The head of Stalin’s police, Lavrentiy Beria, admitted that this operation was a ‘mistake’ after the Germans invaded Russia. When the Germans uncovered the communal graves, Goebbels made the Katyń massacre known to the world. Soviet propaganda claimed it was done by the Nazis. The British Foreign Minister consciously supported this affirmation up until 1972, even though the Nuremberg Process had absolved the Germans from accusations concerning the Katyń incident.

After the end of the war, a series of mistaken conceptions and myths concerning the Polish campaign appeared. According to some of these, the Poles attacked the German tanks with cavalry forces, or the Polish air forces were destroyed during the first days of the battle. Other theories maintain that the Polish army put up minimal resistance or that the strategy of Blitzkrieg was first used in Poland.

In 1939, only 10% of the Polish Army was made up of cavalry units. These never attacked German tanks, acting rather as mobile artillery units, or fulfilling reconnaissance roles. The units only carried out attacks in rare incidents, against German infantry. The myth was propagated during the battle at Krojanty. There, war correspondents were witnesses to an incident in which a cavalry brigade was caught in an ambush by the German Panzers. This happened after the Poles had carried out a sword attack against the German infantry.

The Polish air forces were moved from air bases to small airports and camouflaged shortly before the beginning of the war. Although the Polish airplanes were fewer and technically inferior, they continued to attack the Luftwaffe planes up until the second week of fighting. They inflicted heavy losses on the Germans. The Luftwaffe lost 285 planes, with another 279 needing repairs. The Poles lost 333 planes.

In the first days of fighting, the Germans suffered heavy losses. The Poles destroyed an entire armored division, killed thousands of enemy soldiers and wiped out 25% of the German aircraft. The Polish army never officially surrendered to the German force. During the German occupation, the army continued to act as a resistance movement. This was considered the largest resistance movement in the whole of occupied Europe.

Blitzkrieg, as a battle tactic, was not used for the first time in Poland. Rapid attacks by armored vehicles, with the support of airborne forces, took place during the Spanish civil war and the Japanese invasion of China. Most battles in Poland were conventional battles, carried out by infantry and artillery. Most of the Luftwaffe’s actions were independent of the battle on the ground. The western reporters during the war tended to underestimate the devastating effect of the German artillery, which hit the Poles just as hard as the tanks and airplanes.