(This post is a rerun, updated to include a link to Sheila O’Malley’s extensive coverage of this topic)
On September 1, 1939, Germany launched a massive assault on Poland, thereby igniting the Second World War.
Britain and France were both bound by treaty to come to Poland’s assistance. On September 2, Neville Chamberlain’s government sent a message to Germany proposing that hostilities should cease and that there should be an immediate conference among Britain, France, Poland, Germany, and Italy..and that the British government would be bound to take action unless German forces were withdrawn from Poland. “If the German Government should agree to withdraw their forces, then His Majesty’s Government would be willing to regard the position as being the same as it was before the German forces crossed the Polish frontier.”
According to General Edward Spears, who was then a member of Parliament, the assembly had been expecting a declaration of war. Few were happy with this temporizing by the Chamberlain government. Spears describes the scene:
Arthur Greenwood got up, tall, lanky, his dank, fair hair hanging to either side of his forehead. He swayed a little as he clutched at the box in front of him and gazed through his glasses at Chamberlain sitting opposite him, bolt-upright as usual. There was a moment’s silence, then something very astonishing happened.
Leo Amery, sitting in the corner seat of the third bench below the gangway on the government side, voiced in three words his own pent-up anguish and fury, as well as the repudiation by the whole House of a policy of surrender. Standing up he shouted across to Greenwood: “Speak for England!” It was clear that this great patriot sought at this crucial moment to proclaim that no loyalty had any meaning if it was in conflict with the country’s honour. What in effect he said was: “The Prime Minister has not spoken for Britain, then let the socialists do so. Let the lead go to anyone who will.” That shout was a cry of defiance. It meant that the house and the country would neither surrender nor accept a leader who might be prepared to trifle with the nation’s pledged word.
Greenwood then made a speech which I noted that night as certain to be the greatest of his life; a speech that would illuminate a career and justify a whole existence. It was remarkable neither for eloquence nor for dramatic effect, but the drama was there, we were all living it, we and millions more whose fate depended on the decisions taken in that small Chamber.
The reaction of the House evidently made an impact on Chamberlain: the declaration of war came the next day. France also declared war on Germany, but little effective action in support of the Poles was taken by either country. Spears continues:
Many of my fellow Members of Parliament were as worried as I was that we were doing nothing by way of air attack on Germany to relieve the intolerable pressure the German Luftwaffe was exerting on Poland…The Polish Ambassador, Count Raczinski, a young man gifted with rare qualities of fortitude and courage, asked to see me. He was justifiably upset at an answer given by the Minister concerned in the House of Commons on September 6th, to the effect that the information available indicated that the Germans were only bombing Polish military objectives and were not attacking the civilian population as such.
Spears was aware that this was not true–that according to press reports the Germans were in fact attacking population centers, and Raczinski provided him with further details. Spears met with Kingsley Wood, the Secretary of State for Air, demanding that aggressive action be taken in place of the propaganda-leaflet drops on Germany that were then the only British activity in the air.
It was ignominious, I told him, to stage a confetti war against an utterly ruthless enemy who was meanwhile destroying a whole nation, and to pretend we were thereby fulfilling our obligations. We were covering ourselves with ridicule by organizing this kind of carnival. It was as futile as reading a lesson on deportment to a homicidal maniac at the height of his frenzy.
France, also, did very little to provide support to the Poles. An advance from the Maginot line was announced, with the intention of drawing off German troops, but it was more of a political demonstration than a serious military operation.
Writing after the war, General Spears quotes German sources on the opportunity that was missed by not taking more aggressive action:
The Germans, notably General Zlander, were puzzled by Allied inactivity in the air. He wrote (February 1941) that it was a grave error on the part of the Allies not to have made a maximum effort at the time their opponent was fully occupied in Poland. Their attitude, he avowed, completely justified the German strategy of temporary non-aggression in the West.
(German) General Jodl declared at the Nuremberg Trial: “In 1939, catastrophe was only avoided because the 110 French and British Divisions remained inactive in front of our 23 divisions in the West.”
On September 17, the Soviet Union also attacked Poland, in accordance with Stalin’s agreement with Hitler. Despite a valiant resistance, there was no longer any hope of preserving Poland’s independence, and the country was partitioned between the two dictators.
The Polish Government went into exile. Many Polish troops and pilots escaped, along with naval units, and went on to support Allied operations throughout the remainder of the war. Polish codebreakers also made a great contribution to the Allied victory: they took the first steps toward breaking the German “Enigma” code and devised the earliest form of the “Bombe” device (later improved by Alan Turing and others) which partially automated this process.
More on the war in Poland and its consequences here.
The Spears quotations are from his remarkable memoir, Assignment to Catastrophe.
(Originally posted at Chicago Boyz on 9/3/2007, based on earlier Photon Courier posts)
9/1/2012: See also Lexington Green’s 2007 post on WWII and the loss of historical memory.
9/2/2013: Sheila O’Malley has an extensive set of excerpts and links