Ch.7 — 1
The Second World War - Part 1


On 1st September 1939, 1.8 million German troops invaded Poland on three fronts: from Prussia in the north, from Germany in the west and from occupied part of Czechoslovakia in the south.

hammer and sickle

Two weeks later, on 17th September 1939, 1.1 million Soviet troops invaded Poland from the east.

  • The Germans 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 14th September 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 3rd September, 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.
  • Poland was only just beginning to modernize her armed forces and had been forced by Britain and France to delay mobilization, which they claimed might be interpreted by Hitler as aggressive behaviour.
  • So that at the time of sudden invasion only about one-third of her total potential manpower was mobilized. Despite this fact, Polish forces ensured that the September campaign was no walkover for the Germans.
  • Warsaw fought for 4 weeks before it surrendered. The garrison on the Hel peninsula surrendered on 2nd October and the Polesie Defence group, after fighting on two fronts against both German and Soviet forces, surrendered on 5th October.
  • 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", later forming the "Homeland Army". A Polish government-in-exile was formed in London with General Wladyslaw Sikorski as Prime Minister and Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz as President.


  • Under the 1939 German-Soviet Friendship Treaty Poland was divided.
  • The Soviets took, and absorbed into the Soviet Union, the eastern half (now part of Belarus and Ukraine).
  • The Germans incorporated Pomerania, Posnania and Silesia into the Reich.
  • The rest was designated as the General Gouvernement, a colony ruled from Krakow by Hitler's friend, Hans Frank.

  • In the Soviet zone over 1.5 million Poles, including women and children, were deported to labour camps in Siberia and other areas.
  • Many thousands of captured Polish officers were shot in 1940 at several secret forest sites in Russia. The first to be discovered being Katyn, near Smolensk.

Suffering Poland. ("Polska Cierpiaca"). Contemporary sketch depicting crucified Poland torn by Nazi and Communist vultures. Bombed Warsaw in background.


Polish Forces shoulder stripesShoulder stripes worn by
Forces in the West, an Allied Army attached to the British.

  • The Polish Army, Navy and Air Force that escaped in 1939 and reorganized abroad, 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. Also in 1940 they earned a reputation for bravery at Narvik in the Norwegian campaign. And in 1941 in Africa the Polish Carpathian Brigade fought at Tobruk, relieving the Australians.

  • Polish Squadrons played an important role in the Battle of Britain in 1940-41, accounting for 12% of all German aircraft destroyed at the cost of 33 Polish 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.
Markings on Polish planes
Polish Air Force markings on the planes

  • 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" that escaped from internment in Tallinn.
  • Polish ships were involved in 665 actions at sea.
  • The first German ship sunk in the war was sunk by Polish ships.
  • The Polish Navy also took part in the D-day landings in 1944 - the Allied invasion of Europe.

Polish Navy ships that escaped to Britain, anchored at Port Southampton ?

  • When the Soviet Union was attacked by Germany in June 1941, Polish military and civilian deportees were released from Soviet prison camps and set up an army headed by General Anders. This army was allowed to make its way to Persia (nowadays Iran) and then on to Egypt.
  • Some of this army went to England but most, known as the Polish Second Corps, fought with distinction in Italy. Their most notable victory being that at Monte Cassino in May 1944, which opened up the road to Rome for the Allies as a whole.
  • One of the "heroes" of the Polish Second Corps was their mascot Wojtek (Voyteck), a brown bear adopted as a cub in Persia (Iran) in 1942, on the way out from Russia.
  • 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 Scotland in 1964, aged 22.

Young Voyteck in the Middle East taken for a walk by Polish soldiers

A second Corps Polish soldier with Voyteck now a soldier too.

  • 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, which wished to be parachuted into Poland, had to take part in the disastrous Battle of Arnhem in Holland.
  • In 1945, the Poles captured the German port of Wilhelmshaven in the west of Europe.

  • In 1943 a division of Polish soldiers was formed in Russia from those people who did not manage to be evacuated to Persia with general's Anders army, before the rift in Polish-Soviet relations due to the discovery of Katyn crime.
  • These soldiers were 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, and in the fighting in Saxony, and finally in the capture of Berlin.
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