German military operations against Poland began at 4:40am on September 1st, 1939, with Luftwaffe air strikes across the border. German troops began advancing into Poland at 6am.

Always a bold risk-taker, Hitler had left only 44 divisions of his army to defend Germany’s western border against France – where the French could theoretically deploy around 100 divisions. What is more, almost all Germany’s tanks & aircraft were sent to the Polish front. Hitler guessed correctly that the French would fail to mount a serious offensive in Poland’s aid. This gamble allowed him to deploy overwhelming force against the Poles.

German Superiority

Poland’s armed forces were far from negligible in size, but lacked modern aircraft, tanks & transport vehicles. The Germans fielded six armored divisions & 10 divisions of mechanized infantry, alongside some 40 divisions of more conventional infantry advancing on foot. With a large fleet of modern aircraft, the Luftwaffe had no difficulty achieving command of the air. Polish pilots fought bravely & skillfuly, but their aircraft were too few & a generation out of date. The Luftwaffe acted with devastating effect, sowing panic among civilians & disrupting the Polish Army‘s lines of communication.

Polish commanders were perhaps over-optimistic about their ability to resist a German offensive, & placed reliance on the readiness of Britain & France to come to their aid by attacking Germany from the West. Poland had more than 1,400 miles (2,300 km) of border exposed to German attack.

In starting & waging a war it is not right that matters but victory.

Adolf Hitler, 1939, quoted in W.L Shirer’s “The Rise & Fall of the Third Reich”

Unevenly Matched

Poland’s richest mining & industrial areas were situated close to Germany, & the Poles were determined not to sacrifice any national territory. They chose to defend their long frontiers, rather than position most of their forces on a more defensible line along the rivers Vistula & San. Polish troops, thinly spread & pushed too far forward, found themselves exposed to penetration & encirclement by a faster-moving enemy.

The German forces were divided into Army Group North under General Fedor Von Bock & Army Group South under General Gerd Von Rundstedt. Bock’s group attacked from the west & from East Prussia, swiftly cutting off the large number of Polish troops defending the disputed “Polish Corridor.” Rundstedt’s group made a succession of thrusts forward from German Silesia, & advanced units reached the outskirts of Warsaw by September 8th. Polish troops inflicted a few local reverses on the Germans with courageous, if poorly coordinated, counterattacks, but were unable to reverse the tide.

Some Polish forces succeeded in withdrawing behind the Vistula to join reserves in defense of Warsaw, but further east a German enveloping move from the north & south along the line of the Bug River left the city’s defenders encircled. Germany repeatedly called on the Soviet Union to join in the destruction of Poland, as secretly agreed in Stalin‘s pact with Hitler the previous month. On September 17th, Soviet troops crossed Poland’s eastern border. There were no Polish forces available to resist them. In despair, the following day the Polish government & high command sought refuge in neutral Romania.

The fighting around Warsaw continued until September 28th, when the city surrendered after sustaining heavy damage through German bombing & artillery shelling. The last serious military resistance ended on October 5th.

Resounding Victory

For Hitler, this incredibly swift victory confirmed his belief in his own military genius & his utter contempt for his enemies. The Western Allies had done next to nothing to aid a country that they had guaranteed to defend. Defeated in a month, the state of Poland had ceased to exist. Some areas in the West were absorbed into Germany itself. Territory east of the Bug River was annexed by the Soviet Union (land that Stalin held on to at the end of the war & that Poland would never regain). The rest of the country, where the vast majority of ethnic Poles lived, became the General Government to be ruled brutally according to Nazi racial theories. Before the end of 1939 Polish Jews, numbering around 5 million people, were being separated from the rest of the Polish population & herded into ghettos.

Germany & the Soviet Union had agreed that they would suppress any form of Polish “agitation.” Both the aggressors interpreted this as meaning the massacre or imprisonment of any Poles who might provide leadership to a movement of resistance. By the end of the war, Poland was to have lost a fifth of its population to military action, acute hardship, & extermination – the highest percentage population loss of any country in World War II.

From World War II: The Definitive Visual History

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