September 1939

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Poland, Germany, and Italy..and that the British government would be bound to take action unless German forces were withdrawn from Poland.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 Photon Courier.

3 thoughts on “September 1939”

  1. I agree that WW2 was a disaster for Poland, and that Poland’s troops fought bravely on all fronts.

    The real disaster for Poland was the signing of the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact. At this point the alliance ensured that Poland would be invaded from both sides simultaneously; if the pact hadn’t been signed it is conceivable that the Soviets would have tried to assist the Poles against the Germans.

    The Poles did not help their situation by deploying large portions of their army on the frontier where it could be defeated in detail. If they truly expected aid, then they should have lightly defended the frontier but set up defensive positions where the terrain was more advantageous to the defender. This would have net caused the Germans to take more time to conquer Poland, although it does seem inevitable.

    Don’t forget that Poland was a big net recipient of land after WW1; both Germany and Russia had significant and at least partially legitimate claims to Polish territory. Poland was now hard pressed to defend these extended borders.

    As far as France and Britain, Germany hadn’t declared war on Belgium and the Netherlands so a big portion of the border where the battle would have ideally been fought was not accessible. Britain had a small expeditionary force available but it was not very motorized and hardly ready for the attack. The French, on the other hand, did have a strong and well armed military, particularly capable with artillery and well designed and numerous tanks. It is hardly conceivable that the French could have initiated a war of movement in the available terrain where the Germans had fortified their border; they could have made some perfunctory gains but generally the lessons that the French learned from WW1 was that a strong defense was key. Most of their forces were called up and secondary, and they had limited numbers of first line units across the front. Remember that French and British coordination was generally poor; in 1939 it would have been abysmal.

    The British had decent fighter planes but their bombers had little or no tactical capabilities; the French were just bringing their next generation fighters on line and were caught between the two groups. In general the British and French were way behind the Germans as far as combined arms and integration of air power with ground warfare.

    Also don’t forget that the British and French had a lot of resources tied up in the colonies and that the French also had the potential of a two front war with Italy. While the Italian army performance was poor their navy and air force were in much better shape and the Italians would be most likely to strike, like a jackal, if the French seriously committed to a war with Germany.

  2. “generally the lessons that the French learned from WW1 was that a strong defense was key”…indeed, they over-learned this lesson, and failed to understand the degree to which armor and tactical air, properly coordinated, had changed the balance of offense and defense. There was also a failure to understand just how rapidly events could unfold–I believe it was Marc Bloch who wrote that “the metronomes in GHQ were always set to too slow a beat.”

    Concerning the French fighter force, I’ve seen conflicting and confusing data on how well it did perform…there are some suggestions that even the Morane-Saulnier fighters that made up the bulk of the French air force did better than might have been expected from their specifications. The Dewoitine 520 was an excellent airplane, but less than 100 of them were available when the campaign of 1940 started. It is a tragedy that France failed to follow the advice of her Air Minister and have large numbers of aircraft built in the United States. 500 D520s could have had a huge impact on the outcome of the campaign.

    I did a fairly extensive post on the 1940 campaign, encompassing political as well as military factors, here.

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