By Frank J. Dmuchowski
Normally on this date I would have more to say about the outstanding conduct of the Poles who had to first contend with Germany beginning September 1, 1939 and then the Soviet Union beginning September 17, 1939. However, I believe that it is important for our readers to understand the situation that Poland faced. She and her citizens were truly alone.
On September 1, 1939 Germany invaded Poland to begin the Second World War. In the wings there was Germany’s trusted ally the Soviet Union waiting to gain her share of Polish lands and shed Polish blood. At the same time one can ask where were Poland’s “noble allies” France and Great Britain? Well they “Declared War on Germany. Great Britain on September 3rd – and France on September 4th.Then what did they do? They sat behind the Maginot Line doing nothing, absolutely nothing. They did this for 8 months until Germany invaded France on May 8, 1940.
Then what did they do? Their combined forces led to France capitulating in 6 weeks. Then 387,000 primarily British and French troops were saved from ignominious surrender or worse on the beaches of Dunkirk. Between May 27th and June 4th thanks to the efforts of so many brave British civilians who came across the English Channel to save their fellow countrymen. (The French troops who were rescued formed the core of the Free French army under General Charles de Gaulle) Then on June 22, 1940 France signed an armistice with Germany.
So who’s to blame for this period of passivity and ultimate defeat? Certainly the blame does not fall on the average French or British soldier who did his/her best and sometimes paid the ultimate price. No the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of the senior political and military leaders of France and Great Britain.
What if the British and French Had Chosen to Fight in September 1939?
While they engaged in Sitzkrieg (sitting warfare), Germany tried to engage in Blitzkrieg.
How serious was the non-actions of France and Great Britain?
According to the German General Jodl at the Nuremberg War Trials he said:
“if we did not collapse already in the year 1939 that was due only to the fact that during the Polish campaign, the approximately 110 French and British divisions in the West were held completely inactive against the 23 German divisions.”
German General Alfred Jodl who had achieved the rank of Chief of the Operations Staff of the German Armed Forces was hung on October 16, 1945. It was not only Jodl’s opinion that the British and the French engaged in a phony war. It was called the “Twilight War” by Winston Churchill and the “Phony War” by U.S. Senator William Borah. This period had other names but they all meant the same “Sitzkrieg”.
Having a five-to-one man power advantage and the French and British could only pretend to attack. France also had a technological advantage over Germany at that time. The argument has sometimes been made that the French miscalculated by thinking that the Germans would attack through the Maginot Line. However what the purveyors of this argument fail to comprehend is that France and Great Britain were treaty bound to immediately come to the aid of Poland.
To understand the accuracy of General Jodl statement and to see it was not mere rhetoric, one only needs to realize that Germany had over 16,000 killed in action and 35,000+ wounded or missing in fighting the Poles for approximately 5 weeks. The Poles suffered terrible military losses of 66,000 killed in action and 137,000 wounded. The Polish civilian losses were significant as the Germans thought nothing of bombing civilians and executing thousands on the ground.
The invasion was a situation for which the Poles were only 50% fully mobilized because their “noble allies” feared that if Poland became fully mobilized in August that it might offend and provoke Germany. So they prevailed upon Warsaw to hold back on a general mobilization. It is important to note that Germany had a two-to-one man advantage over Poland and had spent over a decade developing its military forces.
Furthermore, Poland had only been a free and independent nation for only 20 years of its prior 150 years. She was still trying to develop her economic and military resources after the brutal occupation by Prussia/Germany and Russia as well as the comparatively benign occupation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The Language of Anglo/ French Guarantees of Polish Independence
On March 31, 1939, in response to Germany’s defiance of the Munich Agreement by invading Czechoslovakia, the United Kingdom (Great Britain, Canada etc.) and France pledged to guarantee Polish independence. The Prime Minister of Great Britain, Neville Chamberlain said in the British House of Commons:
.”.. in the event of any action which clearly threatened Polish independence, and which the Polish Government accordingly considered it vital to resist with their national forces, His Majesty’s Government would feel themselves bound at once to lend the Polish Government all support in their power. They have given the Polish Government an assurance to this effect. I may add that the French Government have authorized me to make it plain that they stand in the same position in this matter as do His Majesty’s Government”.
The military pact between Poland and the United Kingdom (Great Britain, Canada etc.) was formalized on August 25, 1939.
The language is clear. It is also important to appreciate that Poland and France had a mutual defense pact going back to the very early 1920’s. It is clear that September 1, 1939 was not a “sneak attack” like Pearl Harbor. Great Britain and France had plenty of time to get their military forces up to a reasonable level in the event of a German invasion of Poland.
Unfortunately Hitler guessed correctly, he understood the British and the French better than they understood themselves. After June 22, 1940 the French capitulated and formed a collaborationist Vichy government under the former French World I War hero Marshal Philippe Petain.
The British then correctly decided to make Winston Churchill their Prime Minister. He is certainly to be deeply respected and admired for his dogged efforts in inspiring the British to never surrender. Churchill among all of the Allied war leaders was most sympathetic to the plight of Poland. The American President Franklin Roosevelt was completely indifferent to the situation of the Poles and was quite content to place them behind the Iron Curtain to be subjugated and brutalized by Moscow until 1989.
What is really tragic is that the myth of Poland rolling over in the face of Germany’s invasion still persists and is just plain false. Of course Great Britain and France are remembered for having declared war. The fact they did nothing else for eight long months until Germany invaded France on May 10, 1940 has been conveniently forgotten by many.
This is a period of time for which the British and the French should be deeply ashamed. How many Poles and others needlessly died because of British and French passivity?
Written September 1st 2012 at 4:45 am in remembrance of the moment of the invasion of Poland and the beginning of her 50 year struggle to become a free and independent nation.