On September 1 1939, 1.8 million German troops invaded Poland on three fronts; East Prussia in the north, Germany in the west and Slovakia in the south. They had 2600 tanks against the Polish 180, and over 2000 aircraft against the Polish 420. Their "Blitzkrieg" tactics, coupled with their bombing of defenceless towns and refugees, had never been seen before and, at first, caught the Poles off-guard. By September 14th. Warsaw was surrounded. At this stage the poles reacted, holding off the Germans at Kutno and regrouping behind the Wisla (Vistula) and Bzura rivers. Although Britain and France declared war on September 3rd. the Poles received no help - yet it had been agreed that the Poles should fight a defensive campaign for only 2 weeks during which time the Allies could get their forces together and attack from the west.
There are many "myths" that surround the September Campaign; the fictional Polish cavalry charges against German tanks (actually reported by the Italian press and used as propaganda by the Germans), the alleged destruction of the Polish Air Force on the ground, or claims that Polish armour failed to achieve any success against the invaders. In reality, and despite the fact that Poland was only just beginning to modernise her armed forces and had been forced (by Britain and France) to delay mobilisation (which they claimed might be interpreted as aggressive behaviour) so that, at the time of invasion, only about one-third of her total potential manpower was mobilised, Polish forces ensured that the September campaign was no "walk-over". The Wehrmacht had so under-rated Polish anti-tank capabilities (the Polish-designed anti-tank gun was one of the best in the world at that time) that they had gone into action with white "balkankreuz", or crosses, prominently displayed in eight locations; these crosses made excellent aiming points for Polish gun-sights and forced the Germans to radically rethink their national insignia, initially overpainting them in yellow and then, for their later campaigns, adopting the modified "balkankreuz" similar to that used by the Luftwaffe. The recently-designed 7TP "czolg lekki", or light tank, the first in the world to be designed with a diesel engine, proved to be superior to German tanks of the same class (the PzKpfw I and II) inflicting serious damage to the German forces, limited only by the fact that they were not used in concentrated groups. They were absorbed by the Germans into their own Panzer divisions at the end of the campaign.
On September 17th. Soviet forces invaded from the east. Warsaw surrendered 2 weeks later, the garrison on the Hel peninsula surrendered on October 2nd., and the Polesie Defence group, after fighting on two fronts against both German and Soviet forces, surrendered on October 5th. The Poles had held on for twice as long as had been expected and had done more damage to the Germans than the combined British and French forces were to do in 1940. The Germans lost 50,000 men, 697 planes and 993 tanks and armoured cars.
Thousands of soldiers and civilians managed to escape to France and Britain whilst many more went "underground" . A government-in-exile was formed with Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz as President and General Wladyslaw Sikorski as Prime Minister.
Under the German-Soviet pact Poland was divided; the Soviets took, and absorbed into the Soviet Union, the eastern half (Byelorussia and the West Ukraine), the Germans incorporated Pomerania, Posnania and Silesia into the Reich whilst the rest was designated as the General-Gouvernement (a colony ruled from Krakow by Hitler's friend, Hans Frank).
In the Soviet zone 1.5 million Poles (including women and children) were transported to labour camps in Siberia and other areas. Many thousands of captured Polish officers were shot at several secret forest sites; the first to be discovered being Katyn, near Smolensk.
The Germans declared their intention of eliminating the Polish race (a task to be completed by 1975) alongside the Jews. This process of elimination, the "Holocaust", was carried out systematically. All members of the "intelligentsia" were hunted down in order to destroy Polish culture and leadership (many were originally exterminated at Oswiencim - better known by its German name, Auschwitz). Secret universities and schools, a "Cultural Underground", were formed (the penalty for belonging to one was death). In the General-Gouvernement there were about 100,000 secondary school pupils and over 10,000 university students involved in secret education.
The Polish Jews were herded into Ghettos where they were slowly starved and cruelly offered hopes of survival but, in fact, ended up being shot or gassed. In the end they were transported, alongside non-Jewish Poles, Gypsies and Soviet POWs, to extermination camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka; at Auschwitz over 4 million were exterminated. 2000 concentration camps were built in Poland, which became the major site of the extermination programme, since this was where most of the intended victims lived.
Many non-Jewish Poles were either transported to Germany and used as slave labour or simply executed. In the cities the Germans would round-up and kill indiscriminately as a punishment for any underground or anti-German or pro-Jewish activity. In the countryside they kept prominent citizens as hostages who would be executed if necessary. Sometimes they liquidated whole villages; at least 300 villages were destroyed. Hans Frank said, "If I wanted to put up a poster for every seven Poles shot, the forests of Poland would not suffice to produce the paper for such posters."
Despite such horror the Poles refused to give in or cooperate (there were no Polish collaborators as in other occupied countries). The Polish Underground or AK (Armia Krajowa or Home Army) was the largest in Europe with 400,000 men. The Jewish resistance movement was set up separately because of the problem of being imprisoned within the ghettos. Both these organisations caused great damage to the Nazi military machine. Many non-Jewish Poles saved the lives of thousands of Jews despite the fact that the penalty, if caught, was death (in fact, Poland was the only occupied nation where aiding Jews was punishable by death).
The Polish Army, Navy and Air Force reorganised abroad and continued to fight the Germans. In fact they have the distinction of being the only nation to fight on every front in the War. In 1940 they fought in France, in the Norwegian campaign they earned a reputation for bravery at Narvik, and in Africa the Carpathian Brigade fought at Tobruk.
Polish Squadrons played an important role in the Battle of Britain, accounting for 12% of all German aircraft destroyed at the cost of 33 lives. By the end of the war they had flown a total of 86,527 sorties, lost 1669 men and shot down 500 German planes and 190 V1 rockets.
The Polish Navy, which had escaped intact, consisted of 60 vessels, including 2 cruisers, 9 destroyers and 5 submarines ( one of which was the famous "Orzel") which were involved in 665 actions at sea. The first German ship sunk in the war was sunk by Polish ships. The Navy also took part in the D-Day landings.
When the Soviet Union was attacked by Germany, in June 1941, Polish POWs were released from prison camps and set up an army headed by General Anders. Many civilians were taken under the protection of this army which was allowed to make its way to Persia (modern-day Iran) and then on to Egypt. This army, the Polish Second Corps, fought with distinction in Italy, their most notable victory being that at Monte Cassino, in May 1944, and which opened up the road to Rome for the Allies as a whole. One of the "heroes" of the Polish Second Corps was Wojtek, a brown bear adopted in Iran as their mascot; at Monte Cassino Wojtek actually helped in the fighting by carrying ammunition for the guns. He died, famous and well-loved, in Edinburgh Zoo in 1964, aged 22.
All the Polish forces took part in the Allied invasion of Europe and liberation of France, playing a particularly crucial role in the significant Battle of the Falaise Gap. The Polish Parachute Brigade took part in the disastrous Battle of Arnhem in Holland. In 1945, the Poles captured the German port of Wilhelmshaven.
In 1943 a division of Polish soldiers was formed in Russia under Soviet control and fought on the Eastern Front. They fought loyally alongside the Soviet troops, despite the suffering they had experienced in Soviet hands, and they distinguished themselves in breaking through the last German lines of defence, the "Pomeranian Rampart", in the fighting in Saxony and in the capture of Berlin.
The "Home Army", under the command of General Stefan Roweki (code-named "Grot"), and after his capture in 1943 (he was later murdered), by General Tadeusz Komorowski (code-named "Bor"), fought a very varied war; at times in open combat in brigade or division strength, at times involved in sabotage, often acting as execution squads eliminating German officials, and often fighting a psychological campaign against German military and civilians. It was a costly war since the Germans always took reprisals.
The Intelligence Service of the Home Army captured and sent parts of the V1 to London for examination, providing information on German military movements (giving advanced warning of the German plan to invade Russia), and gave the RAF full information about Peenemunde, where the Germans were producing V2 rockets.
The crime of Katyn was discovered in 1943 and created a rift in Polish-Soviet relations. From now on the Home Army was attacked by Soviet propaganda as collaborating with the Germans and being called on to rise against the Germans once the Red Army reached the outskirts of Warsaw.
Secretly, at Teheran, the British and Americans agreed to letting the Russians profit from their invasion of Poland in 1939 and allowing them to keep the lands that had been absorbed. The "accidental" death of General Sikorski at this time helped keep protests at a minimum.
When the Russians crossed into Poland the Home Army cooperated in the fight against the Germans and contributed greatly to the victories at Lwow, Wilno and Lublin only to find themselves surrounded and disarmed by their "comrades-in-arms" and deported to labour camps in Siberia.
On August 1, 1944, with the Russian forces on the right bank of the Vistula, the Home Army rose in Warsaw; the Warsaw Rising. Heroic street-fighting involving the whole population, using the sewers as lines of communication and escape, under heavy bombardment, lasted for 63 days. The city was completely destroyed. Not only did the Russians cease to advance but they also refused to allow Allied planes to land on Russian airfields after dropping supplies. After surrendering many civilians and soldiers were executed or sent to concentration camps to be exterminated and Warsaw was razed to the ground.
The defeat in Warsaw destroyed the political and military institutions of the Polish underground and left the way open for a Soviet take-over.
With the liberation of Lublin in July 1944 a Russian-sponsored Polish Committee for National Liberation (a Communist Government in all but name) had been set up and the British had put great pressure, mostly unsuccessful, on the Government-in-exile to accept this status quo. At Yalta, in February 1945, the Allies put Poland within the Russian zone of influence in a post-war Europe. To most Poles the meaning of these two events was perfectly clear; Poland had been betrayed. At one stage the Polish Army, still fighting in Italy and Germany, was prepared to withdraw from the front lines in protest; after all, they were supposed to be fighting for Polish liberation. It is a reflection on Polish honour that no such withdrawal took place since it could leave large gaps in the front lines and so was considered too dangerous for their Allied comrades-in-arms.
The war ended on May 8th, 1945.
The Poles are the people who really lost the war.
Over half a million fighting men and women, and 6 million civilians (or 22% of the total population) died. About 50% of these were Polish Christians and 50% were Polish Jews. Approximately 5,384,000, or 89.9% of Polish war losses (Jews and Gentiles) were the victims of prisons, death camps, raids, executions, annihilation of ghettos, epidemics, starvation, excessive work and ill treatment. So many Poles were sent to concentration camps that virtually every family had someone close to them who had been tortured or murdered there.
There were one million war orphans and over half a million invalids.
The country lost 38% of its national assets (Britain lost 0.8%, France lost 1.5%). Half the country was swallowed up by the Soviet Union including the two great cultural centres of Lwow and Wilno.
Many Poles could not return to the country for which they has fought because they belonged to the "wrong" political group or came from eastern Poland and had thus become Soviet citizens. Others were arrested, tortured and imprisoned by the Soviet authorities for belonging to the Home Army.
Although "victors" they were not allowed to partake in victory celebrations.
Through fighting "For Our Freedom and Yours" they had exchanged one master for another and were, for many years to come, treated as "the enemy" by the very Allies who had betrayed them at Teheran and Yalta.