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Western Front1st September 1939

German invasion of Poland

German troops march in triumph through Warsaw, September 1939
German troops march in triumph through Warsaw, September 1939

In the early hours of Friday, 1 September 1939, the Germany army invaded Poland. It was an invasion that ought to have come as little surprise. The Nazis had been agitating against the Poles – particularly in the Danzig corridor – for sometime. Indeed, the previous Saturday – 26 August – a small group of German soldiers had already attempted an invasion, not realizing that this, the original date for the offensive, had been postponed.

But this action, on 1 September, was the German High Command’s Fall Weiss (Plan White) in full fury. Three separate armoured thrusts pushed into Polish territory. The offensive in the centre was deliberately less strong than the other two in the north (commanded by Colonel-General Fedor von Bock) and south (commanded by Colonel-General Gerd von Rundstedt). The idea was to embrace the whole of Poland in one near-seamless action. The Poles, who resisted bravely, ultimately could not cope with the power of the German attack.

Under their commander, Marshal Edward Smigly-Rydz, many soldiers of the Polish army had been ordered to confront the Germans near the border, but they were spread too thin to stop the advance. Once again, Poland’s geography worked against her defence - this was, for the most part, ideal tank country, flat and clear of obstructions.

However, as Professor Adam Tooze reminds us, the Germans were not so much practicing revolutionary warfare in this invasion, as relying on strategic concepts that were more than a hundred years old: ‘The actual execution of the Blitzkrieg is largely the application of classical principles of warfare distilled by German military theorists from the Napoleonic experience.’

But, as Professor Robert Citino points out, both in the attack on Poland and in the battle for France nine months later, the Germans had managed to adapt these ‘classical principles’ in a way which was hugely in advance of their opponents' ability to cope: ‘There was a brief moment in time where they had a more advanced doctrine for the utilisation of large tanks, or as the Germans called them Panzer formations; their enemies were relatively less well armed and relatively less well equipped with this kind of doctrine (I’m thinking of the Polish campaign). In the French campaign while the French and British tanks were quite decent the doctrine was not there for fighting this new kind of faster paced war. In both cases a relatively small chunk of the German army, a handful of Panzer divisions in Poland and a couple of handfuls of Panzer divisions in France, managed to break through the crust of the allied defenders and drive far into the rear, almost in the characteristic of large scale armoured raids…. It was an all too brief moment, but it’s still one that’s impressive and still one that people ask a lot of questions about.’

In Poland, the Germans – benefiting from almost total air superiority – were able to make swift progress. Within five days the Polish corridor – the section of land that since the Treaty of Versailles had split East Prussia from the rest of Germany – had been completely occupied.

As Professor Mary Fulbrook says, the general population back in Germany would have learnt all this news with a mix of emotions: 'I think the vast majority of people in the old Germany, away from the borders, first of all were initially terrified, and did not want to go back to war. There was a real feeling against war at that point, but then when Poland was so rapidly crushed and it appeared to be so relatively bloodless on the part of the German troops, not for those they were crushing, but with relatively few casualties on the German side, then I think there was probably a degree of relief that the war will be over soon, that we’ve revised the Treaty of Versailles...'

And that 'degree of relief' felt by many Germans would have been increased by the news that two weeks after the British and French had declared war on Germany, Wehrmacht forces in Poland received help from an unexpected source. Because on 17 September there was a second invasion of Poland. This new incursion was by the Red Army from the east, and effectively trapped the remaining Polish fighting units between the Germans and the Soviets. What little hope the Poles had that they could continue to hold out against the Germans was now extinguished.

600,000 Red Army soldiers crossed into eastern Poland. Initially, some Poles thought that the Soviets had come to help them in their struggle against the Germans. But soon the reality became clear. Just like the German invasion, this was an attempt to comprehensively subjugate Polish nationality.

The Nazis and the Soviets had secretly agreed to divide Poland between them, with discussions to this effect having taken place as part of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact agreed the previous month in Moscow. (Both sides at the talks referred euphemistically to agreeing between them ‘spheres of influence’ in Poland and Eastern Europe). Then, on 3 September, Joachim von Ribbentrop had sent a secret message to the Soviets through the German ambassador to Moscow, which demonstrated the extent of the connivance between Germany and the Soviet Union over Poland. ‘We should naturally, however, for military reasons,’ wrote Ribbentrop to the ambassador, ‘have to continue to take action against such Polish military forces as are at that time located in the Polish territory belonging to the Russian sphere of influence. Please discuss this at once with Molotov and see if the Soviet Union does not consider it desirable for Russian forces to move at the proper time against Polish forces in the Russian sphere of influence and, for their part, to occupy this territory. In our estimation this would not only be a relief for us, but also, in the sense of the Moscow agreements, be in the Soviet interest as well.’i

The Soviets carefully considered Ribbentrop’s suggestion that they invade eastern Poland, and six days later – on 9 September – they agreed to do as the Germans asked, with the offensive starting on 17 September. 'We officially extended the hand of friendship to our brother Russians and Ukrainians,' says Georgy Dragunov, who was one of the Soviet soldiers who entered Poland that September.

This notion that the Red Army were helping their ‘brother Russians and Ukrainians’ was the official excuse Molotov gave for the invasion. The Soviet government had long coveted eastern Poland. For even though the Poles were the largest single ethnic group in this territory (around 40%) there were also considerable numbers of Ukrainians (over 30%) and Russians (around 10%).

Warsaw finally fell to the Germans on 27 September – the same day that Joachim von Ribbentrop returned to Moscow for further friendly discussions with Stalin and the Soviet leadership, culminating in a sumptuous banquet of celebration in the Kremlin.

The whole of Poland was under Nazi and Soviet control by the end of the first week in October. It was the start of one of the most brutal occupations in history. 

i Quoted in Geoffrey Roberts, The Unholy Alliance: Stalin's Pact with Hitler, I.B. Tauris, 1989, p. 159