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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.