I’ve been remiss in not observing the 80th anniversary of the start of WW II with the German invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. No other nation suffered as high a percentage of loss as the Poles did. Six million Polish citizens or 22 percent of the population died, mostly by murder and starvation. By comparison, the other major victim of Nazi aggression, the Soviet Union, lost 12 percent of its population. Ironically and tragically, the Russian invasion of eastern Poland on Sept. 17, 1939, sealed Poland’s fate. Hitler of course would invade Russia in June 1941.
The Polish Army contained 1.5 million soldiers at the start of the war, but much of its equipment was obsolete. As an example, the Poles deployed less than 200 tanks, instead relying on hundreds of “tankettes,” tiny two-man armored vehicles that stood no chance against the Germans.
While Poland was overrun in a matter of weeks and suffered horribly under Nazi occupation, Polish fighters were by no means knocked out of the war. Thousands of soldiers escaped and made their way to France and then England to fight again. Polish regiments led the final assault on bloody Monte Cassino in Italy and protected the flanks of Canadian troops landing at Normandy.
Much of the small Polish Navy escaped to the West, and Polish destroyers played a role in the Battle of the Atlantic. Polish flyers bolstered the hard-pressed Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain.
What about the Allies
Poland still feels bitter about the opening of WW II. Polish scholars, historians and politicians argue they were betrayed by their erstwhile allies, Great Britain and France. While both countries immediately declared war on Germany, neither made much of an effort to directly aid Poland.
Interestingly, a representative of one of the villains in the whole story — the Soviet Union — defended his country’s actions. The Russian ambassador to Israel wrote a guest commentary in the Jerusalem Post to mark the 80th anniversary arguing the Soviet Union tried to form an alliance with Great Britain and France against Germany in the summer of 1939 but negotiations broke down. To protect itself, the Soviet Union was then “forced” to sign a secret treaty with the Nazis, allowing Russia to dismember eastern Poland, the Russian ambassador insisted.
One of the most fascinating and forgotten stories of the opening of WW II was the French Saar Offensive Sept. 7-16, 1939. It was France’s attempt to help the beleaguered Poles but like everything else attempted by the French military the offensive fizzled due to French timidity.
Plans called for 40 French divisions to pour across the lightly defended German border including hundreds of the best tank in the world at the time, the French Char-B. But only a few divisions actually attacked. The French occupied 12 German villages after advancing 8 kilometers into Germany.
The way was open for the French to drive deep into German territory and completely change the course of the war, but it was not to be. When Polish resistance quickly collapsed, the French lost their nerve and withdrew to behind the vaunted Maginot Line. The resulting months of inaction on the Western Front were called the Phony War, which ended in the spring of 1940 when the Nazis overran the Low Countries and then France itself.