The First to Fight – German Invasion of Poland of 1939 In Facts And Pictures

A lone horse wondering a recent battlefield, Poland, September 1939

While conflicts being considered later as parts of World War II were already ravaging the planet, it’s the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 that officially marks the start of the worst conflict of humankind.

Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, only to attack China six years later. Italy had already occupied Ethiopia since 1936, and in early 1939 the same fate was shared by Albania. Germany wasn’t sluggish either, incorporating Austria in 1939 – an event commonly known as Anschluss, and annexing Czechoslovakian Sudetenland the same year, in extension creating a Protectorate over the country.

The road to a global war was set and all that was missing was a catalyst to link all these conflicts allowing other great powers to intervene. That happened in the early morning of September 1st, 1939…

Ribbentrop – Molotov Pact

The fate of Poland was sealed earlier, however. Adolf Hitler already had a taste of British indulgence remembering the Munich Conference well.

An attitude that only provoked him to act even more provocatively. A week before the war in Poland was unleashed, a secret document has been signed by the highest diplomats of the Third Reich and USSR.

Those two ideological nemeses somehow found realpolitik to be quite handy when on the table was a partition of Poland – not the first time in history.

Ribbentrop and Molotov, both professional diplomats and pathological liars, not only set the look of their future borders but were also cooperating in various fields. The Pact wasn’t an alliance but it was somewhat more than just a non-aggression pact.

Molotov (left) and Ribbentrop (right) at the signing of the pact
Molotov (left) and Ribbentrop (right) at the signing of the pact

Could it be avoided?

From today’s perspective, we are well aware that being lenient toward Hitler made his appetite only bigger. And whatever whims of his were previously fulfilled, he just didn’t have enough.

Official claims of Germany were about creating a tunnel thru Polish territory from main Germany to Eastern Prussia – an idea seriously violating any independence and sovereignty. Another excuse was protection over the German minority in the Free City of Gdańsk (Danzig). All demands from Germany were rejected, deemed ridiculous, and impossible to achieve.

Knowing the mindset of Hitler better now, his ideology and plans, and events from 1941 – the answer if it could be avoided isn’t that blurred any longer.

“Peace is a precious and a desirable thing. Our generation, bloodied in wars, certainly deserves peace. But peace, like almost all things of this world, has its price, a high but a measurable one. We in Poland do not know the concept of peace at any price. There is only one thing in the lives of men, nations and countries that is without price. That thing is honor.” – Josef Beck, Polish Prime Minister in his speech towards the Sejm.

Beck addresses the Sejm, rejecting Hitler’s demands.
Beck addresses the Sejm, rejecting Hitler’s demands.

Public opinion in the XX century wasn’t without significance. To prepare a casus belli against Poland, a special secret operation was conducted in Gleiwitz, a German city on the border with Poland. It was a false flag attack. Several prisoner’s corpses (most likely from Dachau) in Polish uniforms were left at the scene after a message in Polish was broadcasted thru the radio.

All of that to justify the attack that was about to happen the next day and put Poland in light of being the real problem here. Gleiwitz incident was only a part of a bigger Operation Himmler – a plan to discredit Poland as being innocent, confuse her allies, and gain a reason for all-out war.

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain after landing at Heston Aerodrome following Munich Agreement
British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain after landing at Heston Aerodrome following Munich Agreement

“My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honor. I believe it is peace for our time.” – Neville Chamberlain

The first war crime

The operation nicknamed Fall Weiss started with the Bombing of Wielun at 4:40, 1 September 1939. It’s also considered as the very first war crime of the Third Reich during the war, as the small city presented no military value. A few nearby towns shared the same fate, and similar to Wieluń with no military targets. Over 70% of the city was flattened, killing more than 120 civilians. The first bombs from Ju-87 Stuka fell straight on the hospital, killing 32 people. German losses were about zero.

“The object of the war is … physically to destroy the enemy. That is why I have prepared, for the moment only in the East, my ‘Death’s Head’ formations with orders to kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of Polish descent or language. Only in this way can we obtain the living space we need.” – Adolf Hitler

Aerial view of part of the city on 1 September
Aerial view of part of the city on 1 September

Little Verdun

Five minutes later, at 4:45 am, on the Baltic coast German battleship Schleswig-Holstein fired against the Westerplatte the first shots. It was the first battle of the war, although it didn’t end as quickly as both sides were anticipating.

Instead of stalling for at least a few hours, the defenders of Westerplatte were holding their position for seven long days, being stormed, bombed from the air and the sea. In total, 220 Polish soldiers faced over 4000 Germans from various formations.

In total, they repelled 14 attacks at the cost of 15 lives and over 40 wounded. The words about the battle spread through the rest of the country quickly, boosting the morale of the struggling Polish Army, and becoming a symbol of determination in hopelessness till today.

German soldiers on Westerplatte, 8 September, after the battle
German soldiers on Westerplatte, 8 September, after the battle

Stubborn defenders

The September Campaign consisted of far more heroic actions of Poles. During the Battle of Wizna, a little over 700 Polish soldiers hold their ground along a fortified line against over 40,000 Germans for three days.

Despite a huge disproportion in strength reaching 40:1, the defenders fought for three long days against Guderian’s army consisting of 350 tanks, 650 mortars and artillery guns, supported by Luftwaffe.

The commander of the Poles, Captain Raginis was hailed as Polish Leonidas. He blew himself with a grenade in the last moment of the siege. It’s uncertain how big German losses were. General Guderian estimations of 900 KIA are considered as a low estimate. Only 50 Poles survived the battle.

Władysław Raginis (1908-1939)
Władysław Raginis (1908-1939)

Another great example of the Polish spirit of the time was presented by Gdańsk Polish Post Office workers. For over 15 hours, 55 postmen, 1 railway worker, and their families, protected a piece of their homeland against the invaders.

The prolonging skirmish over one building against civilians outraged the Germans. The defiance of such inferior forces hurt German pride. So far six Poles died while defending, the situation was dire and the post realized no hope will be coming to aid them.

Assault on the Polish Post Office in Gdańsk (Danzig) on 1 September 1939, by SS units supported by an ADGZ armoured vehicle
Assault on the Polish Post Office in Gdańsk (Danzig) on 1 September 1939, by SS units supported by an ADGZ armoured vehicle

Around 19:00, a decision of capitulation has been made.  The director of the post Jan Michoń, while holding a white flag was shot on sight. Another man following him was burned alive by a flamethrower. After venting their anger, the Germans allowed the rest to safely exit the building.

All were taken prisoners and those who survived their wounds were sentenced to death and executed later on by Gestapo. Only four people survived the event by escaping the siege earlier during the surrender.

Captured Polish postmen being led away under SS escort, while SA men and Danzig police look on
Captured Polish postmen being led away under SS escort, while SA men and Danzig police look on

Cavalry myth

During the first day of the war, the Polish cavalry brigade engaged with the enemy near the Krojanty. After some initial successes, the cavalrymen were decimated when Germans armored vehicles arrived.

Goebbel’s propaganda found a peculiar use in what they saw and invited foreign journalists to show them “the foolish bravery” that led the archaic army straight to death armed only with sabres and lances.

The unfair myth has been born and was often repeated by depicting the image of the Eastern Front, justifying the high losses of the Poles. While the Thousand Year Reich lived for only 12 years, the myth itself is still alive.

Polish Cavalry during a maneuvers of the Polish Army in late 1930’s.
Polish Cavalry during a maneuvers of the Polish Army in late 1930’s.

However, the Polish cavalry did fight tanks, not by charging, and they were successful at it! In 1939, the cavalry was trained to act as infantry, while horses were used as a way for transportation.

One of the technological marvels of the time was the highly secret Wz. 35 anti-tank rifle nicknamed Ur-38, capable of penetrating any armor that was in Panzer Division’s possession, including Panzerkampfwagen IV.

Unfortunately, due to its top-secret label, the training with the rifle was often too short and insufficient. At least 3,500 Ur-38 were built, and a significant amount of them was captured by the Wehrmacht. After an analysis of the gun, most captured weapons were shared with their allies – Italy, Hungary, and Finland.

Polish uhlan with wz. 35 anti-tank rifle. Military instruction published in Warsaw in 1938.
Polish uhlan with wz. 35 anti-tank rifle. Military instruction published in Warsaw in 1938.

The Phoney War

It seems that most signatures and pacts from the 1930s were meaningless. First, the non-aggression pacts with both Germany and the Soviet Union were treated as a joke. Then, defensive alliances with France and Great Britain didn’t bring anything useful for the Poles either. On the 1st of September, France and Great Britain did nothing.

The next day didn’t change anything either. On the third day of the war, France and UK finally declared war against Nazi Germany. A wave of excitement flooded over Poland, not knowing yet that the declaration won’t bring relief at all.

Winston Churchill referred to it as Sitzkrieg. Aside from mobilization on the French-German border and the insignificant Saar Offensive, the Allies did nothing. So-called Pamphlets Raids were the weapons of choice of the Allies –  tons of leaflets were the only bombs falling over Germany. The Poles were left on their own.

Army and French Air Force personnel outside a dugout named ’10 Downing Street’ on the edge of an airfield, 28 November 1939.
Army and French Air Force personnel outside a dugout named ’10 Downing Street’ on the edge of an airfield, 28 November 1939.

Black Crosses over Poland

Despite the fact that the Polish Air Force couldn’t match the might of the Luftwaffe in sheer numbers nor modern equipment, it wasn’t destroyed on the ground.

Flying on obsolete aircraft, Polish pilots were extremely well-trained and during the September Campaign, they managed to shot down 126 enemy planes. In total, Luftwaffe lost 280 aircraft and another 220 were damaged beyond repair.

PZL.23A Karaś on the Warsaw Airport. Note lines of PZL P.11 or PZL P.7 fighters in the background
PZL.23A Karaś on the Warsaw Airport. Note lines of PZL P.11 or PZL P.7 fighters in the background

After the capitulation, these skilled and now-experienced pilots escaped via Romania and Hungary to France and England in order to continue the fight.

Among the most notable, they formed 303 Squadron and 302 Squadron, known for being the most effective ones during the Battle of Britain. Polish Fighting Team, known also as Skalski’s Circus, operating in North Africa Campaign successfully hunted the enemy far from their homeland.

Aerial view of a Polish city through the gunner’s station aboard a German He 111 bomber, September 1939
Aerial view of a Polish city through the gunner’s station aboard a German He 111 bomber, September 1939

Stab in the back

With the German army on the offensive from the north, west, and south, the Polish army was desperately fighting along the Vistula River. Chances of winning were slow, yet the Poles spirit was far from broken.

Many battles were still going on, hoping for France and Great Britain to take intervene in the west. Stalin was observing the situation carefully and seeing the lack of serious response from the Allies, he decided to fulfill his part of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. On September 17th, 1939, the Soviet Army invaded from the east crushing the barely breathing hopes of the Poles.

German and Soviet officers shaking hands following the invasion
German and Soviet officers shaking hands following the invasion

Katyń Massacre

For many Poles, the surrender didn’t mean the end of the fight nor even survival. Over 22,000 Polish military officers and intelligentsia were captured by the Soviets met a gruesome end by execution in Katyń forest from the hands of NKVD.

The crime was so horrendous that even Germans were repulsed upon discovery in early 1943, and avoiding backlash of pinning the guilt for it to them. The Germans immediately informed the Western Allies about the mass graves discovered and invited foreign observers to document the exhumation.

It wasn’t purely out of goodwill – the cooperation between Stalin and the Allies was not good news for Fuhrer. Domestic propaganda in Germany also gained a new even to depict Russian brutality, thus justify their invasion of the USSR even more. The relationship between Stalin and the Allies was severely damaged beyond repair.

British, Canadian, and American officers (POWs) brought by the Germans to view the exhumations
British, Canadian, and American officers (POWs) brought by the Germans to view the exhumations

It wasn’t until the early 1990s that Moscow finally admitted they were responsible for the massacre.

The numbers

The Polish army was recently mobilized, a process delayed due to France and Great Britain’s objections, with a total strength of 1 million soldiers in 39 divisions and 16 brigades. Equipped with 4,300 guns of various kinds, 210 tanks, 670 tankettes, and some 800 aircraft, mostly obsolete.

The Germans invaded with most of their force, leaving on the Siegfried line only a handful of soldiers. 66 divisions, 6 brigades with over 9,000 guns, 2,700 tanks, supported by 2,300 aircraft of the Luftwaffe was more than enough to win the war.

Soviet Union’s aggression with over 33 divisions, more than 11 brigades, 5,000 guns, the same number of tanks, and 3,300 planes made the whole defense of Poland futile. Some lesser allies of Hitler also participated, most notably the Slovak Republic. In total, a strength of over 2,000,000 men.

Polish Bofors AA gun and a bombed column of Polish Army during the battle of Bzura
Polish Bofors AA gun and a bombed column of Polish Army during the battle of Bzura

Polish Army suffered an utter defeat, losing almost 900,000 of its men and all the equipment that was either captured or destroyed. Almost 70,000 men were killed, 133,000 wounded and around 700,000 captured.

Axis forces did not have an easy as a popular opinion tends to think: Around 1,000 tanks and other armored vehicles were lost, consisting the losses of 30% from the pre-war state. German losses during the Polish campaign amounted to 50% of all casualties they would suffer until Operation Barbarossa in 1941 with a huge amount of supplies.

Polish soldiers march into German captivity on 30 September, following the capitulation
Polish soldiers march into German captivity on 30 September, following the capitulation

Poland Is Not Yet Lost

After the fall of their homeland, the Poles continued the fight against the Germans wherever possible. They fought on every in every major campaign of the war, on the ground, sea, and in the air.

The contribution to the war effort made by heroic Poles can’t be underestimated. Aside of sharing blood, they also managed to crack the enigma and pass their results to the British. Among the most notable battles with their significant participation were: Battle of Britain, Narvik, Tobruk, Monte Cassino, Falaise Pocket, Vistula-Oder Offensive.

The Home Army – Polish underground forces – was one of the biggest and efficient underground forces of the entire war. They were helping Jews very actively, forming organizations like Żegota with the sole purpose to aid them. To this day, 7,112 Poles were awarded “The Righteous Among the Nations”, amounting to 20% of the total number of the honor.

Polish forest partisan Zdzisław de Ville “Zdzich”, member of AK “Jędrusie” with Browning wz.1928
Polish forest partisan Zdzisław de Ville “Zdzich”, member of AK “Jędrusie” with Browning wz.1928

 

Map of the September Campaign. Note the changes since 17th of September.
Map of the September Campaign. Note the changes since 17th of September.

More photos!

German battleship Schleswig-Holstein bombarding Westerplatte, Danzig, 1 September 1939
German battleship Schleswig-Holstein bombarding Westerplatte, Danzig, 1 September 1939

 

Wehrmacht crossing the border. Note Germany didn’t even declare war against Poland.
Wehrmacht crossing the border. Note Germany didn’t even declare war against Poland.

 

Panzer I tank equipped with the N.K.A.V., Poland 1939.
Panzer I tank equipped with the N.K.A.V., Poland 1939.

 

Panzer soldiers on German Panzer Is and Panzer IIs, along with a medium Schützenpanzer half-track (Sd.Kfz. 251/3; with possibly General Heinz Guderian). 3 September 1939
Panzer soldiers on German Panzer Is and Panzer IIs, along with a medium Schützenpanzer half-track (Sd.Kfz. 251/3; with possibly General Heinz Guderian). 3 September 1939

 

Wehrmacht troops during a rest, September 1939
Wehrmacht troops during a rest, September 1939

 

Armored German battalion on the move, September 1939. Visible are PzKpfW I Ausf A
Armored German battalion on the move, September 1939. Visible are PzKpfW I Ausf A

 

Battle of Bzura, central Poland, 1939.
Battle of Bzura, central Poland, 1939.

 

Bofors 37 mm anti-tank gun on the fire post
Bofors 37 mm anti-tank gun on the fire post

 

Public execution of Polish priests and civilians in Bydgoszcz’s Old Market Square on 9 September 1939
Public execution of Polish priests and civilians in Bydgoszcz’s Old Market Square on 9 September 1939

 

German soldiers at the Westerplatte, Danzig, 7 September 1939
German soldiers at the Westerplatte, Danzig, 7 September 1939

 

Photographer Julien Bryan comforting ten-year-old Polish girl Kazimiera Mika whose sister had just been killed by strafing German aircraft, near Jana Ostroroga Street, Warsaw, Poland, 13 September 1939
Photographer Julien Bryan comforting ten-year-old Polish girl Kazimiera Mika whose sister had just been killed by strafing German aircraft, near Jana Ostroroga Street, Warsaw, Poland, 13 September 1939

 

Aerial view of destroyed buildings between Zielna and Marszalkowska Streets in Warsaw, Poland, September 1939
Aerial view of destroyed buildings between Zielna and Marszalkowska Streets in Warsaw, Poland, September 1939

 

The Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland burning after being hit by German shellfire, 17 September 1939
The Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland burning after being hit by German shellfire, 17 September 1939

 

German troops marched through Warsaw, September 1939
German troops marched through Warsaw, September 1939

 

Red Commander Vladimir Yulianovich Borovitsky and German General Heinz Guderian in Brest, Poland (now Brest, Belarus) to work out the German-Soviet boundary demarcation of occupied Poland, 21 September 1939
Red Commander Vladimir Yulianovich Borovitsky and German General Heinz Guderian in Brest, Poland (now Brest, Belarus) to work out the German-Soviet boundary demarcation of occupied Poland, 21 September 1939

 

Peking Plan: Polish destroyers evacuate the Baltic Sea en route to the United Kingdom.
Peking Plan: Polish destroyers evacuate the Baltic Sea en route to the United Kingdom.

 

Polish troops withdrawn to Hungary in September 1939
Polish troops withdrawn to Hungary in September 1939

 

American embassy in Warsaw during the German air raid in September 1939. Visible shattered window.
American embassy in Warsaw during the German air raid in September 1939. Visible shattered window.

 

Polish soldiers taken as POW after the capitulation of Westerplatte
Polish soldiers taken as POW after the capitulation of Westerplatte

 

German soldiers removing Polish government insignia
German soldiers removing Polish government insignia

 

Polish soldiers with anti-aircraft artillery near the Warsaw Central Station in the first days of September 1939.
Polish soldiers with anti-aircraft artillery near the Warsaw Central Station in the first days of September 1939.

 

German troops during the fighting in the streets of Warsaw
German troops during the fighting in the streets of Warsaw

 

Red Army enters the provincial capital of Wilno during the Soviet invasion, 19 September 1939
Red Army enters the provincial capital of Wilno during the Soviet invasion, 19 September 1939

Another Article From Us: Torpedownia, an Abandoned Luftwaffe Relic off the Coast of Poland

PZL.37, modern Polish bomber
PZL.37, modern Polish bomber