Added 9 August 2011.

BOOKS: MILITARY HISTORY

David G Williamson: Poland Betrayed: The Nazi-Soviet Invasions of 1939


In September 1939 Britain and France once more found themselves at war with Germany, just over twenty years after the ending of the "war to end all wars".  Commonly in Britain at least the general opinion seems to be that despite their bravery the Poles were walked all over by the Luftwaffe and the panzers, ineptly charged tanks with cavalry and were finally stabbed in the back by the Soviet Union thanks to the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.  

David Williamson's account in the Campaign Chronicles series gives a more nuanced account of the conflict but also shows the long background to the conflict, going back to the eighteenth century partition of Poland by the then great powers of Prussia, Austria and Russia, and the consequent nationalist aspirations of Poles which were only met at the end of the First World War when the Polish Second Republic was set up by the Treaty of Versailles.  Critically however the borders were somewhat vague, leading to Polish nationalists pushing in 1919-20 both west into Silesia, where they came into conflict with German Freikorps fighters, and eastwards into the Ukraine into the nascent Soviet state, where they were to fight the young Soviet forces in a series of battles that brought the Russians to near Warsaw before Pilsudski successfully counter-attacked, the Poles subsequently inflicting heavy losses on the Soviets and gaining considerable areas of White Russia and the Ukraine, as well as seizing Wilno from Lithuania in 1920.  Needless to say, these victories and land acquisitions did not endear the young nation to its neighbours, a dangerous state of affairs since neither Germany nor the USSR would remain weak forever.  The incorporation of significant minorities of Germans and Ukrainians was also to prove problematic later on.

Williamson also gives the economic and political development of Poland in the years 1919-39, a useful contribution inasmuch as it shows that despite Polish military prowess the nation was to be handicapped in the long term by a low industrial basis, backward agriculture, poor infrastructure and political instability.  The latter was to lead to Pilsudski seizing power in a coup in 1926 and remain de facto head of state until his death in 1935.  Although not a brutal dictator in the mould of his Nazi and Soviet counterparts, Pilsudski, while a war hero, did have a certain negative influence on the development of Poland, firstly because his dominance of the realm of military affairs was not matched by any staff training (although he did accelerate the modernisation programme) and secondly, because he did not have a great understanding of new military techniques borne of the Great War.  Also his selection of men personally loyal to him ensured that some able soldiers were to be missed in 1939.  Progress was made in industrial development in Poland, but the degree of anachronisation still left in the Polish armed forces can be seen in the predominance of the cavalry (partly due to the belief by some in its continuing role, and partly due to sheer lack of funds for mechanisation), and in the fact that in the thirties the Polish Air Force received slightly less than half of what was spent on the cavalry. By contrast Williamson shows the rise of both Germany and the USSR, not only in economic terms but in terms of military developments, in particular the embrace of the possibilities of the tank (though Soviet experiments were to stumble in 1938 with Stalin's infamous purge of the Red Army).

Faced in the thirties with the renewed threat from both east and west, the Polish leadership, despite Beck's policy of "equilibrium", were mostly focused on the east, and were willing to conclude agreements with the Germans, agreements that Hitler told other Nazis he had no interest in keeping.  Although a non-agression treaty was signed with the USSR in 1932, Poland refused to join the Franco-Soviet pact in 1935.  Although Poland regarded France as an ally, the country nevertheless acquiesed in Hitler's cynical exploitation of the Munich agreement in 1938 and Polish troops entered Teschen on the Czechoslovakian border on 8 October 1938 and were keen to take further Czech territory, which the Germans refused.  Churchill was to comment balefully on this Polish behaviour in his memoirs after the Second World War.  Far from placating Hitler, this nationalist resurgence merely made Poland a hostage to fortune, and in 1939 the Nazis began to exert serious diplomatic pressure on her for access to Danzig via land.  The Polish agreement with Britain and France was probably more reassuring to the Poles than to the western Allies, neither of whom had much to spare in the way of money or armaments for the embattled nation. 

Hitler, still trying at this stage of his career to preserve a figleaf of political legitimacy, had German forces under Heydrich fake attacks on German territory, but in reality had decided Poland's fate years earlier, the attack on 3 September 1939 being the final consummation of one of his longstanding desires.  By this time, thanks to German forces being able to launch not only from eastern Germany but also East Prussia and Bohemia and Moravia, the strategic situation was one of great handicap for the Poles, even without Russian intervention.  Withdrawal from the western frontiers was deprecated because much of Polish industry was based here.  Nevertheless the invasion was far from the "exercises with live ammunition" that it is sometimes seen as.  Individual Polish units and troops fought hard, while Polish aircraft were also able to inflict losses on German aircraft over Warsaw.  Nevertheless it remains true that the PAF was worn down by attrition and attacks on its airfields - a fate that would befall the Luftwaffe in the West five years later.  German troops were not the battle-hardened veterans of 1941, and there were some instances of retreat or even panic when surprised by Polish counter-attacks, while the first panzer attacks on Warsaw ended in failure.  However the Polish army's weaknesses in other areas, such as communications, lack of planes and its strategic disposition, were to work against it, nor were the British and French any help in either sending material or acting against the Germans in the west.  The only serious threat to the German advance came in Kutrzeba's counterattack at Bzura from 8-17 September.  Again there are shades of Normandy here in that the defenders' counterattack had to be amassed largely at night, and in the event was to receive no support from its air force.  

The Soviets invaded on 17 September, ostensibly because a collapsing Poland was a threat to the USSR, although the attack was accompanied by fairly virulent anti-Polish propaganda that included accusations of "White Terror".  It is one of the strengths of the book that this aspect of the Polish campaign, which is normally overlooked by westerners, is covered in some detail, although by then the outcome of the campaign could not be in doubt.  Williamson acknowledges his debt to Szawlowski's work on the subject which was printed in 1986 and remained illegal in Communist Poland.  Although 100-150,000 Poles were amassed throughout the eastern zones, most were lightly armed and reservists in the process of training.  Given the hopelessness of the situation, Rydz-Smigly, Pilsudski's successor, ordered units to negotiate safe passage to Romania and Hungary, but in the event the Soviet units rapidly tried to seal off the Romanian border, thus ensuring a number of sharp battles, the fiercest fighting taking place at Grodno where a number of Soviet tanks were destroyed by Molotov cocktails.  Military operations from 22 September to 6 October were what Williamson describes as "mopping up" which perhaps does not do justice to those groups of Poles who did carry on fighting fiercely against both their enemies.

The sinister backdrop to all these events, of course, was the cynical carve-up of Poland between Hitler and Stalin, which took place 21-28 September when both sides agreed the new frontier between the USSR and German-controlled Poland.  This left over 4 million Poles east of the new border and thus theoretically subject to Soviet authority.  On the German side, Hitler announced on 8 and 12 October the annexation of all the territory Germany had lost in 1918-21 and also a large area of northwestern Poland which included 10 million Poles.  Another 12 million were left in the German-administered Poland of the General Government of the notorious Hans Frank (who was to be hung in October 1946 for his work in this area).  As Williamson remarks, the General Government was essentially a lawless area where the conquerors were free to do whatever they wanted to any of the subject races.  Atrocities had already been committed (and, it must be said, on both sides, as well as by lawless bands of Ukrainians) in the campaign, but now the Nazis were free to attempt to effectively eliminate Poland as a nation by elimination of the intelligentsia, culture and language, and debarment from education and repression of the rest.  The Jews were to receive even harsher treatment.  Apart from the anti-Semitism, this treatment was also mirrored in the Soviet area, with the theft and confiscation of much property, a "reeducation programme" aimed at children, arrest of leading priests and members of the intellectual class, and finally the massacre at Katyn, proposed by Lavrentia Beria (later of course to be shot himself by vengeful colleagues) and approved by Stalin.  This was a new and dreadful kind of war, not just the readjustment of borders and national loyalties but the readjustment of minds and an attempt to remove whole races and classes.  Against this, Williamson is still able to cite individual examples of kindness or magnamity by German and Russian individuals which flicker against the darkness that both societies imposed.

The Polish Navy was largely able to make it to Britain, and many thousands of Poles did manage to escape either in September 1939 or subsequently to take up the fight in France and then in Britain or the Middle East.  The onslaught of Barbarossa made Stalin amenable to concluding an agreement with Poles, and many were able to leave the USSR to join western forces in Iran.  Nevertheless it is clear from survivors' accounts in Appendix V of the book that Stalin's change of mind did not soften their view of Soviet treatment, and it is striking that most of the reminiscences are to do with the USSR's role in the tragedy.

At 228 pages this is not a dense book, but it is well written with a focus on the facts of events.  As the name suggests, the campaign is chronicled into sections based on date, preceded by the background of the preceding twenty years and followed by a summary, or assessment, of the whole period.  Appendixes include a list of significant dates, brief bibliography of leading figures, glossary and abbreviations, detailed orders of battle and reminiscences of survivors, many taken from unpublished memoirs.

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