The First Months of World War II


This map, from the September 25, 1939 edition of Time Magazine,
shows the Polish Campaign, as it was called by the Germans.
Compare to the post-war map.


Caught between two behemoths, pre-war Poland rejected an alliance with the Soviet Union, and refused permission for the Red Army to cross its territory to engage the Nazi army in a future war. Hitler saw his opportunity, and authorised his Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop to enter into secret negotiations with the Soviet Union.

The result was the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact on August 23, 1939. Both Hitler and Stalin set aside their mutual antipathy for national gain and in particular the restoration of their pre-1919 borders, effectively eliminating Poland as a nation.

On September 1, 1939, when war came to Poland its armies fought valiantly. Germany suffered 16,000 military deaths in the struggle (in contrast, the Germans lost 27,000 in the Battle of France). On September 17, as planned, the Soviets invaded the country from the East, the final blow to Polish arms.

World War II in Europe was fought over Germany's invasion of Poland. In April, 1939, Great Britain and France had signed a mutual defense pact guaranteeing Poland's borders. On September 3, 1939 Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. However, these declarations were not followed by any immediate assistance to the Poles.

Historians argue that World War II was a grave mistake, a miscalculation by Adolph Hitler. Given his experience of the French and British leadership at the Munich Conference, he did not expect the French and British to honor their commitment to Poland. When they declared war, Hitler and Germany were taken by surprise. For years afterwards, one of the uniting elements to the German war was that the populace considered the French and British to be the aggressors.

Once the end to the Polish Campaign was certain, Polish military forces made it their duty to escape Poland and join the French and British Armies. About 120,000 Polish soldiers escaped to ultimately form the First Polish Division in England. These men fought at Narvik, the Falaise Gap in Normandy, and at Arnheim. Polish naval elements took part in the sinking of the Bismarck. Polish pilots proved excellent during the Battle of Britain, when in the crucial six-week period, they shot down 126 German planes. In one squadron, nine of the thirty-four pilots were aces.

Poland’s pre-war work in decoding the Enigma machine also paid off later in the war, as the Allies were able to read many high-level German communications.