Chapter 1 – We’ll die for Danzig
It was always tough to be Poland. After regaining independence with the conclusion of The Great War in 1918, Poland’s sovereignty was once again threatened just 18 years later. It had only been four years since the National Socialists obtained majority rule in the Reichstag, and Germany was already breaking free of the shackles placed upon them by the Principal Allied Powers during the Treaty of Versailles. This treaty was an abomination to the newly forming Third Reich, and the lands lost at the conclusion of The Great War needed to be brought back to Germany where they belonged. One of these lands was Poland.
Poland’s ability to defend itself in 1936 was pitiful, and the strength of the Polish military was barely given consideration by the first rate armies of the world. At the dawn of the new year, the Polish order of battle consisted of only 43 divisions, though these “divisions” would likely be considered over-strength brigades in many parts of the world. Most of these divisions were structured into 9 battalions of foot infantry and 2 battalions of artillery supported by a headquarters and engineer company. The Polish Navy was nearly non-existent, composing of a total of 5 warships: Two Wicher-class destroyers and three Wilk-class submarines. Both Wichers, the Wicher and Burza were relatively new warships, ordered from France in 1926. The project proved to be a disaster for inexperienced Polish navy, as their new destroyers were slow, poorly armored, and top heavy, among numerous other flaws. Poland only had less than 100 miles of coastline to defend, and the Wichers would have to do the job. The Polish Air Force was only slightly more impressive, fielding 142 PZL P.11 fighters and 22 PZL 23 Kara light bombers in 1936. The P.11’s were a technological marvel at the beginning of the 1930’s, but the rapid development of aircraft in the early thirties caused Polish air power to become less and less competitive as a few short years passed.
What Poland made up for in its weak stature was an appearance of political stability, which was lacking throughout Europe at the time. President Ignacy Mościcki was closing in on his 10th year in power, elected in June of 1926 after the successful “May Coup,” less than a month before. Prior to the revolution, Mościcki was a chemist, graduating from Riga Polytechnium where he was first exposed to the Polish leftist organization Proletariat. Mościcki went on to work at the University of Switzerland and later at Lemberg Polytechnic in Austria-Hungary. By 1925 he returned to Poland, working at Warsaw Polytechnic. By now Mościcki was well connected with Marshall Józef Piłsudski and the Polish Socialist Party. Piłsudski led his authoritarian movement in the successful overthrow of the previous Polish government, but declined to take the Presidency at the conclusion of the brief coup. Piłsudski recommended Mościcki for the position, and the Polish National Assembly voted in favor.
If Mościcki was going to get Poland through the next few years, two major steps had to be undertaken: The restoration of Polish national pride, and a complete overhaul of the Polish industrial sector. Around the same time that Germany violated a major portion of the Treaty of Versailles by re-militarizing the Rhineland, Mościcki enacted his own “Four Year Plan,” aimed at expanding industrial and infrastructure efforts across Poland.
In November of 1936, Germany drafted the “Anti-Comintern” Pact, testing the waters to see where the allegiance of the world’s nations lie. Both the Soviet Union and Germany were grave dangers to Poland, and no matter what decision Warsaw reached, the consequences would be painful. By this point in 1936, it seemed as if conflict with Germany was inevitable, due to their blatant posturing and preparations to reclaim lands in Europe. A fight with the Soviet Union was not unlikely, but certainly not guaranteed. So far, Stalin kept quiet about occupying lands in eastern Poland. The easiest solution was to sign “no,” and extend an olive branch to the Soviet Union. If little Poland had to fight a war, it was best to keep it to one. Upsetting both of their titanic neighbors would be a grave and quickly fatal mistake.
Mościcki’s Four Year Plan was off to a successful start, improving factory output in Lublin, Warsazawa, and Polesie. It could not have come earlier, as Germany annexed Austria without bloodshed on March 2nd, 1938. Warsaw had already had extensive talks with Britain, discussing Poland’s relationship with the Allies in the event that Germany continued its expansion unabated. The anschluss of Austria was a major turning point in the European powder keg, and the following day Poland requested to join the Allied powers. The answer from Britain was yes. Poland found the friends that were so desperately needed, as England and France now swore to protect Poland from German aggression.
As conflict with Germany loomed further, the Polish army established further plans in regards to how a European war would be dealt with. No one had any illusions that the Polish army could stand and fight against the Wermacht and Luftwaffe, causing the army to adopt a defensive doctrine. Poland may not have the capability to build, field, and man thousands of tanks, but they could train their infantry to deal with them in a cost effective manner. The construction of anti-tank equipment was at the fore front, be it in the form of towed guns, or man portable weapons. The Polish army would never be the biggest, the strongest, or most advanced, but if they kept their men well equipped and trained then they stood a chance. In October of 1938, Germany annexed the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, further reinforcing this necessity.
The next month, President Mościcki drafted legislation ordering limited conscription around Poland. Tens of thousands of young men needed to be prepared in the reserves, ready to replace and reinforce the front lines, or even become regulars soldiers if the situation called for it. To conclude 1938, a large construction effort began in western Poland, as defensive forts were erected on the Polish-German border. If the Germans were going to charge across the border en-masse, Poland would benefit from an extensive fortification effort to supplement the shortage of men and armor.
Construction became increasingly hasty, as Germany annexed the remainder of Czechoslovakia in March of 1939. The Third Reich was moving west like the plague, faster than pessimistic predictions anticipated. The question of war went from “if” to “when?” Polish troops on the German border began to place bets on the date of a German invasion. Tomorrow? April? Certainly no later than Summer. Morale on the Polish fortifications was low. How could an army like Poland hope to defeat the German juggernaut? The only chance relied on the alliance with England and France acting as a deterrent. Germany struck again, annexing Memel from Lithuania on March 22nd. Would all of Europe lie down against the threat of German aggression without protest? So far that answer was a firm “yes.”
An interesting breakthrough occurred in July of 1939, as the Polish mathematician Marian Rejewski broke the Enigma code. Poland now had the ability to decipher encoded German messages. This information was quickly shared with England and France, giving the Allies a much needed intelligence advantage.
In August, Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, promising peace between the two titans. Germany would not aid the Soviet Union’s enemies, and the Soviet Union would return the favor. The world frowned, believing Stalin just gave Hitler the key eastern Europe. The next day, Finland joined the Allies.
It was now time for Mościcki to gamble. General Antoni Szylling was in command of 18 divisions on the Soviet border, and on August 25th Poland’s president ordered Szylling to relocate all 18 of them west. Several would reinforce north of Warsaw, while the rest went to the southern most border with Germany, reinforcing General Władysław Anders’ army. The relocation would take several days, but timing could have been better.
As the sun set over Europe on August 30th, 1939, German diplomats delivered Poland an ultimatum. By mid-night, Poland needed to reach a decision. Either surrender Danzig to Germany, or face the crushing boot of the Wermacht. Time and time again, Germany bullied its way east, and no one was naive enough to believe that they would stop at Danzig. Perhaps next month they would kindly ask for Warsaw? If a stand was not taken now, perhaps it would be too late by the time the next ultimatum was delivered. August 31st 1939 would be the day the world stood up to the Third Reich. Poland would defend its autonomy or die trying. General Anders’ men were dug in deep, and although they were not nearly as prepared as they would have liked, they all knew they were the only barrier between Germany and their homes as the second battle for Europe erupted around them.