Stories of Poland’s fall

Stories true and false of the first invasion of World War II

A German medium bomber flying over a Polish city during the invasion of Poland
(Photo: Library of Congress)

On September 1, 1939, exactly eighty-four years before the publication of this article, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. The Central European country never stood a real chance of defeating the invasion, especially after the Soviet Union also attacked it from the east on September 17; nevertheless, it had put up a heroic fight in against unbeatable odds in what became the first movement of World War II. Today’s article is a collection of several short claims, myths and stories about the invasion that you might have heard of.
 
Glitches from the get-go. The German invasion was preceded by a number of small-scale false flag attacks the day before: SS men dressed up as either Polish soldiers or civilians mounted staged attacks on various locations along the German-Polish border. These “Polish” attacks were then used by Hitler to justify his invasion of Poland the next day. The most famous of these attacks, known as the “Gleiwitz incident,” was against the German radio tower at Gleiwitz.

The Gleiwitz station
(Photo: Upper Silesia Transport Association)

What you might not know is that the attack was riddled with unforeseen problems. The SS men masquerading as Polish saboteurs were supposed to broadcast a short Polish-language propaganda message, but they couldn’t find a microphone. Once they eventually got one, they realized that Gleiwitz was not actually a real radio station, but merely a transmitter relay, which did not have the facilities to make a broadcast on common frequencies. They eventually sent their message on an emergency channel reserved for flood warnings, and as such were hardly heard by anyone. Additionally, some sources claim the broadcast was delivered in such a bad Polish accent that it could not have fooled anyone.

A German officer in front of the Gleiwitz radio tower
(Photo: unknown photographer)

The SS also left behind the body of a Polish man dressed up in a Polish uniform as a “dead attacker” and had the local police photograph it as evidence. The photo, however, was so unconvincing that the SS decided to fetch a few more inmates (code-named Konserve, “canned food”) from a concentration camp, dress them up and shoot them dead as well, and have the police take a new picture as proof of the attack.
 
Lancers against Panzers. One often-repeated story is that of a Polish cavalry unit charging German tanks with lances and swords. It is used to demonstrate both the hopelessness and the undaunted courage of the Polish cause, but there is a single problem with the admittedly romantic notion: it never really happened.
 
The story, while fictional, is still loosely based on a real event, the Charge at Krojanty. On the first day of the war, a unit of the Polish 18th Pomeranian Uhlan (lance-equipped light cavalry) Regiment spotted a German infantry unit resting in a forest clearing at around 7 p.m. The Uhlans charged with two squadrons, roughly 250 men, and rapidly dispersed the surprised Germans.

A Polish cavalry unit (equipped with both rifles and lances) on maneuvers in the spring of 1939
(Photo: rarehistoricalphotos.com)
The Poles occupied the clearing, but soon came under machine gun fire from German reconnaissance cars which appeared from a nearby forest road. Having no feasible way to engage the vehicles, the cavalry withdrew after losing some men.
 
Several German and Italian war correspondents accompanying the German invasion forces were brought to the site later, where they saw the dead horses and soldiers, as well as some German tanks that just happened to be there at the time. One particular Italian journalist, future anti-fascist Indro Montanelli, incorrectly connected the dots and wrote a mistaken report about how the Poles attacked the tanks with cavalry.
Indro Montanelli, the journalist who mistakenly started the story of Polish lancer fighting tanks
(Photo: Montanelli Foundation)

The report was quickly picked up by German propaganda, which used it to demonstrate how the Poles underestimated German strength. Their spin on the story was that the Poles incorrectly assumed that the tanks were largely useless vehicles only protected by a thin layer of sheet metal, rather than properly armored true war machines. The Soviet Union also latched onto the story to illustrate how Polish military leadership was stupid and wasteful of the soldiers’ lives.

One of several types of German armored reconnaissance vehicle used in the German invasion of Poland
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

While the Polish uhlans retreated, the skirmish still achieved much. The German 20th Motorized Infantry Division was greatly delayed, giving time for Polish troops to withdraw and reorganize. In fact, the Germans even considered a tactical retreat which was only prevented by a personal visit from General Heinz Guderian.  It should also be noted that had the Poles actually attacked early-war German tanks, the fight might have possibly gone better for them then one would expect. Polish cavalry units regularly carried anti-tank rifles, which were capable of damaging this relatively lightly armored vehicles – though, of course, they wouldn’t have charged enemy tanks with such rifles; they would have used them in the manner of 17th-18th century dragoons, riding to the battlefield and then dismounting to fight on foot.

A Polish uhlan with an anti-tank rifle
(Photo: Polish Ministry of War [National Defense today])
It should also be added that the cavalry charge was far from a hopelessly tactic in the early days of World War II. Polish forces have conducted 15 other cavalry charges in September 1939, most of the against the Germans, and the majority of these attacks were actually successful.
 
The air force that never took off. It’s sometimes claimed that the Polish air force was destroyed on the ground during the first couple of days of the war. While some planes, mainly trainers and other auxiliary craft, were in fact destroyed on the airfields, the majority of Polish pilots actually met the Germans in the skies. The Luftwaffe lost 285 planes and had another 279 damaged, against 333 Polish losses. This ratio is nothing to scoff at, especially considering that the Germans had over 2,300 planes against the Poles’ 400, and that Polish fighters were 15 years older and 50-100 mph slower than the attackers.
A Polish PZL P11 fighter camouflaged during the German invasion
(Photo: unknown photographer)
Another, related false claim is that Polish pilots were brave and aggressive, but poorly trained. This is also incorrect. Since the Polish Air Force was rather small for the size of the country, only the best of many hopeful candidates actually managed to get into a combat unit, and constant training was used to separate the wheat from the chaff. One particular gunnery training exercise underscores the intensity of training. The pilot had to throw a small, colorful parachute out of the cockpit and keep his eyes on it. He then had to climb 300-400 m (980 to 1300 ft), deliberately go into a stall spin, then recover from that spin at exactly the right moment to take one single shot at the small, still-falling target with the camera gun. There was a reason why the single most successful Royal Air Force squadron in the Battle of Britain was No. 303 Squadron, comprising Polish pilots.
A trophy acquired by No. 303 Squadron
(Photo: Polish National Institute of Remembrance)
The Lightning War that fizzled. The invasion of Poland is sometimes cited as the first example of Blitzkrieg (“lightning war”) but this is false on two counts. Firstly, tactics similar to Blitzkrieg were already used by German troops in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 and also saw use in China and Siberia. Secondly, even though journalists did adopt the name during the invasion of Poland, the German tactics used there were not actually Blitzkrieg. The term denotes an offensive in which armor and motorized infantry break through at a single point and attack targets behind enemy lines to unbalance and panic the defenders. In contrast, German tanks in Poland were not used as such a spearhead, but dispersed over the area to support slower-moving infantry, with the goal being not a breakthrough the but the encirclement of the Polish defenders.
German tanks crossing the Bzura River during the invasion
(Photo: unknown photographer)
A tough nut to crack. People often believe that Poland was quick to fall before the onslaught of German and Soviet forces. The truth is that while Poland did not have a realistic chance of victory, it put up a fight for surprisingly long. It took the invaders 36 days to achieve victory – the German invasion of France only lasted 9 days longer, and that was against a more evenly-matched defender also assisted by Great Britain.
A Polish soldier escorting German prisoners of war
(Photo: unknown photographer)
An escape to the enemy. This is not a myth, but rather an interesting piece of history most war buffs might not be aware of. As Poland’s fall was becoming inevitable, somewhere between 50,000 to 140,000 Poles, both soldiers and civilians, fled the country, heading south and into the territory of one of Germany’s allies. The Kingdom of Hungary was allied to Germany in World War II because they hoped that Hitler would return to them significant territories which were detached from the country at the Treaty of Trianon after World War I. Hungary, however, also had a centuries-long shared history and good relations with Poland, and neither the political elite nor the people at large were willing to sacrifice it just to appease Hitler. Even before the invasion, Hitler’s request to use the Hungarian railway system to move some of his troops in place for an attack from the south was flatly refused by the Hungarian government.
Hungarian and Polish soldiers greeting each other at the opening of the Hungarian-Polish border in early 1939
(Photo: Collection of Péter György Laborc)
The Hungarian authorities set up organizations to help the refugees and house them in camps, hotels and civilian homes, operating discreetly but almost in open defiance of the alliance with Germany. The government also helped Polish soldiers acquire fake IDs, escape internment camps and make their way to the west via an “underground railroad”, eventually joining British and French forces. One Polish officer who passed through Hungary this way was Stanisław Sosabowski, who went on to command Polish paratroopers in Operation Market Garden. Meanwhile, a special high school was established for child refugees, which was, in fact, the only Polish-language school in the world at the time, since schools in Poland were closed down by the Germans. While Hungary itself was guilty of the persecution of Jews, one particular orphanage hid close to a hundred Polish Jewish children, pretending they were the orphans of Polish officers.
The author’s grandmother posing with Polish soldiers quartered at her house in Central Hungary during the war
(Photo: author’s own)
Hungary’s sheltering of its historical friends came to a tragic end in 1944, when Germany invaded the country and established direct control to prevent the nation from switching sides and joining the Allies. Most Poles who had not fled the country and could not hide in private homes were rounded up and sent to concentration camps, while many high-level officials involved in the refugee scheme were arrested by the Gestapo.

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U.S. Navy carrier planes fly in formation over the USS Missouri during the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945.
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