Instytut Pamięci Narodowej

Polish Months

September 1939


Polish September

In the early hours of 1 September 1939, without declaring war on Poland, Germany attacked along the whole length of the border between the two countries. Artillery barrage laid down on a Polish military transit depot by Schleswig-Holstein, a German battleship, has become a symbolic opening of the Second World War.

Before the war storm

Polish authorities initially believed that the main threat to the independence of the state is the possibility of aggression by the USSR. The other of the great neighbours of Poland, Germany, under the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, for a long time had only a 100,000-strong army, which hardly had any heavy weapons. In the event of a conflict with its western neighbour, Poland could count on military assistance, guaranteed by its alliance with France.The situation began to change after 1935, when Germany broke the Versailles agreements, reintroducing conscripted military service and expanding the army and the arms industry on a large scale. At that time, Poland started to develop a defense plan in the event of an attack by Germany, but its preparation gained momentum only after the Munich conference and the annexation of the Czech Sudeten by the Third Reich. Polish military command adopted the strategy of defending the entire territory of the state. Arrangement of troops on all sections of the border with Germany (after the occupation of Slovakia by the Third Reich, also in this direction) hindered effective combat. However, the strategy resulted from the fear that after taking over the areas claimed before the war, Germany may interrupt its military action and, following the example of the Munich conference, appeal to other countries to resolve the conflict amicably.The country's defense plan assumed fighting in a coalition with France and the United Kingdom, which had pledged to come to Poland’s help within fifteen days of the start of German aggression. The Polish side had not verified, however, whether those promises were feasible. Should it receive no help from its Western allies, in the confrontation with the power of Nazi Germany, the Polish army was doomed to lose. Germany had a two-to-one advantage over Poland in the number of large military units. A significant proportion of them were armoured and motorized divisions, against which Poland could pit only one fully independent unit of this type. The German army had a fivefold advantage in tanks and aircraft, more than trifold in artillery, and it outnumbered by far the small Polish Navy. Moreover, postponing the original mobilization date of the conscripted Polish Army – under the pressure of Western ambassadors, trying at all costs to prevent the outbreak of the war – was a mistake, and the mobilization was completed under the bombs of German planes.

Unequal struggle

In the early hours of 1 September 1939, without declaring war on Poland, Germany attacked along the whole length of the border between the two countries. Artillery barrage laid down on a Polish military transit depot by Schleswig-Holstein, a German battleship, has become a symbolic opening of the Second World War. Polish soldiers, though heavily outnumbered, resisted heroically from the outset. In the North, a thrust of German armoured formations defeated several Pomorze Army units in Bory Tucholskie, and then crushed the Modlin Army, despite the latter’s initial successes near Mława. Meanwhile, the Wołyńska Cavalry Brigade achieved a remarkable local victory on the western front, inflicting heavy losses on a German armoured division at the Battle of Mokra. In the South-West, the Germans forced the Kraków Army to pull back in the first days of the war, capturing Silesia, crossing the Carpathian Mountains and overcoming Polish forces, weak in the region. Once regular Polish troops withdrew from Silesia, local self-defence units stood up to fight; this true ″salt of the black earth”, formed of Silesian insurgents and scouts, defended a number of cities, among them Katowice and Chorzów. Breaking through border defence lines by German armies forced general retreat of Polish units along the whole length of the frontline. The defeat of the Prusy Army in the region of Kielce – for the most part caused by its commander, Gen. Stefan Dąb-Biernacki, who grossly underestimated the enemy – only accelerated Polish units’ withdrawal to new defence lines on the Narew, Wisła and San rivers. Meanwhile, civilian authorities left Warsaw, heading for eastern, then southern regions of the country. They were followed by Edward Śmigły-Rydz and his staff – due to dramatically poor communications, the Commander-in-Chief was no longer able to command the troops effectively. On 8 September German armoured and infantry units reached Warsaw, but great dedication and sacrifice of Polish soldiers reinforced by civilians made it possible to repel the attack from the Ochota district.German successes were made possible by their absolute superiority in all types of military forces, as well as the use of Blitzkrieg tactics, that is quick and sudden warfare. Numerous armoured formations targeted the points where units of Polish armies met, forcing them to pull back to avoid encirclement – their retreat often being hampered by the German Luftwaffe, which enjoyed complete air supremacy. While Polish troops were fighting their way through enemy lines to take new positions behind the Wisła River, the Poznań Army commanded by Gen. Tadeusz Kutrzeba, joined by a number of Pomorze Army units, concentrated on the Bzura River. On 9 September the Poles engaged there in what turned out to be the largest battle of the campaign, successfully attacking a flank of the German forces advancing on Warsaw. However, the agressor soon moved troops from other sections of the frontline, and after heavy fights that claimed the lives of three Polish generals – Stanisław Grzmot-Skotnicki, Franciszek Wład and Mikołaj Bołtuć – by mid-September defeated Gen. Kutrzeba’s army. Only a handful of Polish units managed to break through enemy lines and reach Warsaw. Completely cut off from the rest of the country’s territory were the defenders of Polish coastline. On the first day of the war the Germans attacked the Polish Post Office in Gdańsk. The personnel, drafted a few weeks earlier, all day repelled the charges, and only when the building was set on fire did they surrender. The next target was the Polish Military Transit Depot on Westerplatte. Its garrison under Major Henryk Sucharski fought off the first attacks. The commander, following previous orders, intended to surrender then, but confronted with strong protest of his officers, particularly Cpt. Franciszek Dąbrowski, decided to continue the defense. The Polish soldiers, attacked on land, fired at from the sea by Schleswig-Holstein and bombed from the air, heroically held their positions until 7 September. The Polish Navy was essentially eliminated in the first days of the war; German air force sank the destroyer Wicher and the largest Polish warship, the minelayer Gryf, in the port of Hel. One of five submarines in inventory, Orzeł, the pride of the Polish Navy, after operations in the Baltic Sea was interned in an Estonian port that she subsequently left without authorization, and even though the crew had no maps, they managed to reach Great Britain in October. The Germans also fell on the Polish Army units defending the area of Gdynia, commanded by Lt. Col. Stanisław Dąbek. Having lost possession of the largest Polish port, the defenders fought off German attacks on Oksywie, all the time ferociously pushed towards the sea. On 19 September the agressors broke through their lines in Babi Dół, which prompted Col. Dąbek, who refused to surrender, to take his own life. At that point of the war the Hel peninsula remained the last line of defence on the coastline.

A total war

Following Adolf Hitler’s and orders transmitted by various levels of military command, German troops engaged in a ruthless, total war that targeted civilians as well as troops. German air force did not restrict itself to bombing military targets and transportation routes, but carried out terrorist raids against towns and cities where no army or industrial facilities were located – such as Wieluń, destroyed on the first day of the war. Also refugees fleeing war zones fell victim to attacks by German airmen. In Greater Poland and Silesia many self-defence members taken prisoner were murdered, and so were the defenders of Gdańsk Post Office in October 1939. In Bydgoszcz hundreds of civilians perished in mass executions, justified by the agressor as retaliation for the alleged murder of German minority members by the Poles, which German propaganda dubbed ″Bloody Sunday”. The truth was that on 3 September some local Germans shot at withdrawing Polish Army units; those apprehended with weapons or simply suspected of participating in the attack were promptly executed. Having captured Bydgoszcz, the Germans relatiated, murdering no less than 1,500 Poles, for the most part selected at random or pointed out by their German neighbours. More atrocities followed, such as the executions in Częstochowa on 4 September, and in Będzin, where on 8 September a synagogue was set on fire and over 40 Jews were shot or burned alive. A symbol of crimes against Polish prisoners of war was the execution of Polish soldiers captured during the battle in Dabrowa forest near Ciepielów in the Kielce region.

Soviet aggression

Only on 3 September did the United Kingdom and France recognize that there was no possibility of a peaceful settlement of the conflict and declared war on Germany. Contrary to previous arrangements with the Polish authorities, on 12 September in the French town of Abbeville the prime ministers of both Poland’s allies decided not to undertake military action against the Third Reich. The Polish Government was not informed about this decision. Despite the fact that the Germans did not leave significant forces on their western border, and the French troops had an 80-fold advantage in the tanks, France continued the so-called strange war, limited to dropping leaflets and seizing a few villages on the border. As can be seen from the above, Hitler's predictions that the West would abandon Poland came true.While the Polish Army was fighting the German Wehrmacht, on 17 September 1939 the eastern border of the Republic of Poland was crossed by the Red Army over the entire length. The authorities of the Soviet Union broke several agreements signed with the Polish government, above all, the non-aggression agreement of 1934, in force until 1945. As the Soviets claimed, the motivation behind the assault on Poland and violations of the agreements was the alleged dissolution of the Polish state and the absence of its authorities. The President of the Republic of Poland condemned these actions in his speech, but he did not decide to pronounce a state of war between the two countries. The Supreme Commander of the Polish Army ordered the Polish troops to avoid engagements with the Red Army and break through to the Hungarian and Romanian borders.Forced with direct threat, the President of the Republic of Poland, the government, and then the general command, decided to evacuate to Romania. In the case of the civil authorities this was justified by the effort to maintain the legal continuity of the Polish state and continue fighting in exile. At the same time, the actions of the chief commander Marshal Śmigly-Rydz, abandoning the fighting troops, aroused widespread opposition and indignation in Polish society. Contrary to previous arrangements to allow them to enter the West, after crossing the border, both civilian and military authorities were interned in Romania. The remaining few units of the Border Protection Corps (KOP), stationing at the1,300 km long strip of the Polish border, started fighting against the Red Army. In the following days, the fight was led by the retreating to the west KOP regiments led by General Wilhelm Orlik-Rückemann which, among others, defeated the Germans in the battle of Szack. For three days, Grodno defended itself heroically, the soldiers being supported by Polish youth. Until the end of September, the Soviets gained control over the eastern provinces of the Republic. They comitted crimes on the occupied territories, mainly on soldiers. In Grodno, they shot a group of prisoners of war who had defended the city. In the hospital in Mielniki they murdered soldiers and officers of the KOP units wounded in Szack. In Mokrany a group of officers of the Pinsk Flotilla taken captive by the Red Army was handed over to the local militia and executed.

Last struggles

The Soviet invasion, immediately called a "stab in the back" (the British "Times" was the first to use this expression), ultimately determined the outcome of the war with Germany. Despite this, Polish troops concentrated in the Lublin region went into a decisive battle with the Germans, intending to head towards the Hungarian border. The largest, ten-day-long battle took place near Tomaszów Lubelski, where the Krakow and Lublin armies were ultimately defeated. In the south of the country, fierce battles with the Germans took place in the region of Lwów. The army commanded by General Kazimierz Sosnkowski, the former Chief of Staff of the 1st Brigade of the Polish Legions, manifested exceptional bravery and won a glorious victory over the German SS regiment "Germania" near Jaworów.The army of General Sosnkowski, having suffered great losses in numerous battles, reached the outskirts of the city of Lwów, to be finally, defeated by the Germans. Lwów, effectively defending itself against the German army, surrendered to the Soviets on 22 September.Warsaw was still fighting, with Stefan Starzyński, the city's President growing to be the symbol of resistance. The situation of the besieged capital constantly deteriorated. On 25 September the German air force carried out the most intense air raid on Warsaw, dropping nearly 630 tons of demolition bombs and incendiary bombs. Public buildings, churches, houses and hospitals - bombarded despite the visible emblems of the Red Cross – went up in flames. On 27 September, due to the dramatic situation of the civilian population, deprived of food, electricity and running water, a decision to stop the fight was made. Two days later, the Modlin fortress surrendered, and on 2 October Hel capitulated. The last shots in the campaign were fired in the Lublin region, where the troops of the Independent Operational Group "Polesie" under General Franciszek Kleeberg arrived at the end of September while marching to aid Warsaw. They fought near Kock. They were not crushed in the fights, having inflicted severe losses on German motorized units, but surrendered due to lack of ammunition on 6 October 1939.

The fight continues

In the 1939 campaign, nearly 70,000 Polish soldiers were killed and 133,000 were injured. About 300,000 were taken prisoner by the Germans, and about 250,000 (including nearly 18,000 officers) by the Soviets. 83,000 fled into neighbouring neutral countries, mainly Romania and Hungary. German losses amounted to approx. 17,000 fallen, whereas Soviet losses are unknown. The Polish public, convinced of the state's military superpower, blamed the defeat on the pre-war authorities.In the following years of the war, however, it turned out that Poland had lost to a state, which by autumn 1941 had conquered most of Europe from Paris to the outskirts of Moscow. In September 1939, German superiority over the Polish Army as regards all types of weapons was overwhelming. The defeat was expedited by the strike of the Red Army on 17 September 1939, which within a few days captured the areas to the rear of the fighting Polish forces. Contrary to earlier promises, Poland did not receive any military assistance from its Western Allies. Regardless of these factors, communication on the Polish side failed, and the actions of fighting units were poorly coordinated. Concentrating the command of the Polish Army in the hands of one person, instead of at the army or front level turned out to be a mistake. Such factors as chaos, panic and news of the Soviets' entry significantly affected the morale of the army.At a time when Polish troops were still fighting the aggressors, on 28 September 1939 in Moscow, Germany and the USSR signed a border and friendship treaty, under which they divided Poland and pledged to cooperate in combating Polish independence efforts. The German-Soviet border ran along the lines of the rivers: Pisa, Narew, Bug and San. A small part of the territory of Poland in Spisz and Orawa was occupied by Slovakia, whose troops participated in the aggression against Poland. Part of the Vilnius Province including the city itself, were transferred by the Soviet authorities to Lithuania, but in the summer of the following year, the whole state was taken over by the Soviets.Despite the defeat in a five-week long struggle, the Polish authorities interned in Romania did not sign the act of surrender. Under the Constitution in force at the time, President Ignacy Mościcki appointed the former Speaker of the Polish Senate, Władysław Raczkiewicz, as his successor. The first decision of the new President was the establishment of the government of the Republic of Poland headed by Gen. Władysław Sikorski, who announced the continuation of the fight alongside France and Great Britain until Poland regained its independence.

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