[ANALYSIS] The Second World War, Poland, and the fight for freedom
"Because we do not beg for freedom, we fight for it." – General Witold Urbanowicz, 303 Squadron Commander
Eighty years ago, in the early morning of September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Hundreds of thousands of German soldiers, thousands of armored vehicles and aircraft poured into Poland. At the Polish city of Danzig, an old German warship on a visit treacherously opened up with its guns against Polish defenses. The Poles staggered, then fought back ferociously.
Yes, it was an uneven fight. The Germans had more than 50 active infantry divisions to the Polish 30. The Germans could employ 5,805 artillery against the Polish 2,065. The Germans had 2,511 tanks to the Polish 615. The Germans had 2,152 combat aircraft to the Polish 400 operational combat aircraft.
Worse was that, in the month of August, the Germans had signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, which secretly aimed to partition Poland between the two. Moscow was seething with revenge for their defeat at the hands of the Poles almost 20 years earlier. The agreement was that the Soviets would move in from the east and stab Poland in the back.
The Polish people were ready for a fight even though they were outnumbered by the Germans and they were very suspicious of the Soviet Union. Even some Balkan states had cast covetous eyes on Polish territory. It was as if some unholy black alliance had formed to crush the life out of Poland. However, buoyed by their victory against the Soviet Union in the 1920s, the Poles may have believed that miracles do happen and that they had a fighting chance against Germany.
For more than a month Poland resisted the twin invasions. Polish commanders had earlier estimated that they could hold out for 6 months, the Western allies believed in 2 to 3 months, but Nazi Germany had introduced a new way of war: blitzkrieg or lighting war. Mechanized and armored units aided by concentrated air and artillery support would slash into Polish lines. The Poles, being less mobile, were hard pressed and slow to react. In less than two weeks, German forces had reached Warsaw. Valiant attempts by the Poles to resist, such as during the battle of Bzura, through inflicting serious losses on the Germans proved futile.
On September 17, 1939, the Soviet Red Army invaded Poland. Although the bulk of the Polish military was deployed against the Germans, the Soviet invasion was no easy walk in the park. Inefficient mobilization, bad equipment, and bad training, meant that losses were experienced by the Soviets, who had 4,000 casualties in two weeks. The Soviets lost 42 tanks, and 400 vehicles suffered breakdowns. Soviet performance was so bad that despite overwhelming superiority – as in, 20,000 Red Army troops for every 500 Polish soldiers – the Poles managed to score a victory in the battle of Szack. Eventually Polish resistance in the east collapsed. A portent of what the Soviets had in store for Poland emerged: following one surrender of Polish forces, the Red Army murdered scores of Polish officers on the spot.
Meanwhile on September 27, 1939, the Warsaw garrison of 140,000 troops surrendered to the Germans. Forty thousands Polish civilians were killed in the siege of the capital. On October 6, the last Polish resistance ceased and the country went under the jackboots of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The Western Allies, namely Great Britain and France, barely lifted a finger to defend Poland, although they did declare war on Nazi Germany.
The invasion of Poland repeated but in a far greater scale the brutality of Nazi Germany that had been first shown to the world in the aerial bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. The Germans were indiscriminate in their violence during the advance into Poland. Cities and towns were reduced to rubble and civilians slaughtered in aerial or artillery attacks. The objective was to sow terror and, though it did terrorize the Poles, their army fought back and managed to make the Germans bleed.
Unfortunately local victories and individual acts of bravery could not stem the relentless and ruthless German tide. Total Polish military losses in the battle were almost 70,000 killed and a million captured by both Germans and Soviets. German losses were approximately 16,000 killed, almost 700 armored vehicles knocked out, and 400 aircraft destroyed. Given the great disadvantage of the Poles, they still gave as good as they got.
Polish civilian losses ran into hundreds of thousands in a month of fighting. That was just the beginning as Berlin implemented genocidal and ethnic cleansing policies against the Polish nation. Poland then became the site of the worst Nazi concentration camps in Europe with Auschwitz being the most notorious. The Soviet Union also did its own genocidal policies on the Poles by exiling or murdering hundreds of thousands of civilians and slaughtering thousands of captured officers of the Polish military at Katyn. It was only after the Germans invaded the Soviet Union that treatment of Poles in Soviet-occupied areas slightly improved.
“This soil was won for Poland, though Poland is far away. For freedom is measured in crosses, when history from justice does stray.” – Feliks Konarski, Polish Army in exile
Yet the Poles fought back during the occupation either in the resistance or in exile. A total of 100,000 Polish soldiers, airmen, and sailors managed to escape through Romania and elsewhere. They eventually fought as free Polish forces in France, Britain, North Africa, the Atlantic, and back into Western and Southern Europe as part of the liberation forces from 1943 to 1945. Shortly following the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin grudgingly allowed tens of thousands of imprisoned Polish soldiers and a large number of civilians to fight for the Western Allies. However Stalin did not release all, and hundreds of thousands of Poles were kept for slave labor for the Soviet war machine.
In occupied Poland, Polish Jews staged an uprising at the Warsaw ghetto in 1943 that was brutally crushed by the Germans. The survivors were then sent to the death camps. The following year, in mid-1944, as the Soviet armies were advancing into Poland following the success of Operation Bagration, the Polish Home Army launched an uprising at Warsaw on August 1, 1944. Instead of assisting the Poles,the Soviets stopped and made excuses and just allowed the Germans to crush the uprising. The Western Allies tried to assist through aerial supply, but that was ineffective and the Home Army surrendered on October 2, 1944. The city of Warsaw was ruined and it became the most devastated capital city in the Second World War.
“May God permit us both to return to a free and independent Poland.” – Lt. Gen. Wladyslaw Anders
At the end of the war, Poland experienced its worst betrayal ever. The Western allies in secret agreement with the Soviets agreed to hand over Poland as a satellite state of the Soviet Union. Great Britain went to the extent to deny the Poles who had fought so hard and valiantly on their side from 1940, which was the darkest time for the British up to the triumph in 1945, a place of recognition in the postwar victory parade. The British government even cajoled the tens of thousands of Polish exiles to return to Soviet-occupied Poland where they were sure to face repression or even death. Fortunately many of the exiles disregarded the British pressure and those who returned faced persecution.
Poland remained communist for 43 turbulent years. In those years a number of rebellions to communist rule broke out. Poland remained thoroughly Polish and only nominally communist. In 1978 an event occurred that greatly contributed to the end of communist rule and Soviet Union domination of Poland. The archbishop of Krakow, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, was elected Pope. For an already restive Poland, this sent shockwaves throughout the communist leadership and even the Warsaw Pact.
Dissent took new heights that workers' strikes broke out, encouraging the establishment of the Solidarity movement led by Lech Walesa. By the end of the 1980s, communism was on the retreat in Poland and the Soviet Union was teetering on the brink of collapse. In December 1989, by an act of the Polish parliament, democracy was restored in Poland. Poland and its people were once again free and in control of their destiny.
Poland provides an example for countries and peoples in need of inspiration in times of national peril, when leaders who are supposed to lead abandon their sworn responsibilities and advocate the interests of the invader. What it has is real national pride and not shallow pretensions of glory typical of other societies. It is a country that Filipinos can learn from as our nation grapples with its worst threat from a foreign power since the end of the Second World War. – Rappler.com
Jose Antonio Custodio is a security and defense consultant. He specializes in military history and has post-graduate studies in history from the University of the Philippines. He occasionally teaches history and political science in several universities in Metro Manila.