Piotr Korczyński and Tadeusz Wróbel talk with Janusz Odziemkowski, Jerzy Kirszak and Jakub Polit about all scenarios of September ‘39.
The timely retreat from the border battle at the beginning of September 1939 prevented the Wehrmacht from destroying the Polish army. The Germans started the chase, but they were surprised by the counter-offensive by Major General Tadeusz Kutrzeba on the Bzura River. The ‘Poznań’ army commander had long before wanted to strike the northern wing of the South Army Group but it was opposed by Marshal Edward Rydz-Śmigły. Wouldn’t the defense by attack have brought us better outcomes?
Janusz Odziemkowski: What good would it have done? Perhaps thanks to the more offensive actions we would have gained a few days, but the breakthrough of our positions took place far from the possible place of General Kutrzeba’s strike because the armored body performed it near Piotrków two or three days later. When he wanted to attack, the front was still more or less stable, and the ‘Poznań’ army was in the process of retreating from the border, not concentrated to make the strike. The ‘Pomerania’ army, which had just failed in the Tuchola Forest, was far away and couldn’t reinforce the impact.
Kutrzeba would have had only two divisions. Even if he had managed to surprise the enemy and break through the front at some point, the Germans would have quickly realized that they would have had minor Polish forces ahead of them. Then they would have had the possibility of a quick maneuver of aviation and motorized units, so a possible success of Poland would have been limited to a small area and would have been short-lived. Do not forget about other fronts that were bending under German pressure. Our wings started to break; the ‘Modlin’ army in the north and ‘Krakow’ army in the south started to retreat.
The Commander-in-Chief had the reserves that he could have deployed for the counterattack.
Janusz Odziemkowski: Indeed, the planned attack of a part of the ‘Prussia’ army fought greater benefits. It wouldn’t have stopped the march of the German army for a long time either, but considering what one Polish regiment did... Well, they attacked the Germans because they didn’t receive an order to retreat on time. And although it was mostly extinct in that attack, it turned back a part of one armored division as it suddenly turned out that the German back was threatened. If bigger Polish forces had hit that place, perhaps the fight would have taken a different turn and we would have gained a day, two days in the section near Warsaw.
Did we have any chances of which we didn’t take advantage then?
Janusz Odziemkowski: There are analyses of German staff after the campaign, concerning what could have extended the resistance of Poles. It was pointed out that we could have retreated immediately on the lines of great rivers and established defense there. Thanks to that, the front line would have been shortened and we would have had more convenient positions to engage in the fight. The first German attack would have hit the void, and the command, after the march from the border, would have had to plan a new attack from the very beginning.
Jerzy Kirszak: Rydz-Śmigły, even if not outstanding in military terms, was aware of the fact that extending the armed forces along the whole border contradicted all the rules of the art of war. However, if we talk about the withdrawal of the army inland, thus about the unrealized concept that emerged during the planning of defense, we must remember that it was not about the withdrawal of all units to the Narew, Vistula and San river lines. Cavalry and National Defense units would have remained on the western border. Of course, this would have been a fatal outpost, but thanks to that there would have been no impression that Poles would have given up their lands without a fight. Anyway, we could not have won this campaign under any circumstances. We had no chance of any effective defense, even if the Soviets had not entered into play. Only it could have lasted longer, maybe a week longer.
Janusz Odziemkowski: The National Defense would have fought for one day and all these units would have been lost to no avail. It’s good that it was not what happened. They would have been good for securing the back or defending the railway line, but not for front fighting. And if so, then only where they were actually placed, that is in places where the main strike was not expected. Fortunately, this concept was rejected as it would have resulted in a slaughter. Generally, if we had retreated to the line of great rivers, the defense of the western borderlands would have turned out to be symbolic at the most and the world would not have seen it. It would see, however, that Poles gave up a part of the country without a fight. It was in fact a problem worth calling the squaring of the circle, considering all the political and economic considerations. Suffice it to say that giving up Wielkopolska without the evacuation of supplies meant that not only the army but also the whole country would have faced the specter of famine within three months, and after four months we would have had to surrender regardless of the results of the fighting. So, we had to stand up for ourselves in the west to evacuate as much as possible from there, and then to go back, protecting the center of the country as long as possible.
Jakub Politik: Certainly, the General Staff was aware that shortening the front line between the Vistula and the Bug River would have been optimal; but what to do when political considerations did not allow it? Moreover, all the targets worth defending were on the left bank of the Vistula. There was also another danger, if we do not cause the allies’ intervention, then why should we run this campaign at all? Meanwhile, there was a widespread fear of what would happen if the Germans reached the border of the Reich in 1914 and then demanded peace. Let us remember that Benito Mussolini tried, at that time, to bring about another international conference, some sort of the Munich conference. We know how relatively quickly our allies reacted to the outbreak of war; the British in particular, because the French’ attitude depended on what London did; but we forget how much pressure our ambassadors were under during the first hours of war. There is no significant scene in the general consciousness when Winston Churchill calls ambassador Edward Raczynski, sighs and speaks: ‘I hope that England will keep its word...’.
The question immediately arises as to whether, if we had withdrawn to the line of the great rivers, Britain and France would have declared war on Germany.
Janusz Odziemkowski: A retreat without a political struggle was a bad solution, and a solution unacceptable to the Polish society believing in the power of the state.
When did they realize that we were about to fail?
Janusz Odziemkowski: The Marshal realized that the campaign was lost around September 7-8. We must admit that he had the courage to say, ‘The campaign is lost. What do we do?’ The only real alternative was the Romanian outskirts as there was at least a possibility, not only a theoretical one, to obtain supplies from the allies. In Great Britain, weapons and equipment were already loaded on ships, which were to reach Poland by rail through allied Romania.
Was the defense on the outskirts actually real?
Janusz Odziemkowski: A great mistake in planning actions on the outskirts, and also earlier, when constructing defense on the borders, was that the maneuverability of the Polish Army was not taken into account. After all, the units withdrawing from the Pilica, Vistula and even Bug had 400-600 km to cross. The infantry would have had to march for a month. And German motorized units could have been there already on September 18-20. We must remembered, however, that no one in Europe was prepared for the kind of instant war that was imposed by the Germans.
Jakub Politik: Let’s not forget that we had to fight the world’s best army of that time.
Janusz Odziemkowski: And no one knew exactly what this war would look like - neither the French, the Soviets, nor even a part of the German command.
Jakub Polit: Whatever we would have done, in the autumn of 1939 it would have been stated that we were defeated instantly, even if the campaign had lasted until November.
Why was there no mobilization in July or early August 1939?
Jerzy Kirszak: I don’t know if the gentlemen are familiar with the book ‘Podsłuchiwani. Niemieccy generałowie w brytyjskiej niewoli 1942-1945’, in which secret conversations of German commanders were recorded. One of them said that they should not attack us at all in 1939. He then argued that they should simply wait, because Poland would not be able to sustain the mobilization for a long time in economic terms - its monthly cost as much as two years of normal functioning of the state. No budget would have been able to bear it.
However, was the delay in mobilization not a mistake?
Jerzy Kirszak: The postponement of the general mobilization by 24 hours in connection with the intervention of the English did not matter as much as the failure to conduct a secret, card-based mobilization. If it had been done a few days earlier, we would not have provoked Hitler to war, and we would have gained a different balance of power on the border. The units from the emergency mobilization announced on August 23 were to complete the concentration stage on September 2. It was enough to have speeded it up by three or four days, so that all the units would have been on the operational area. Then the course of the border battle would have been different, although it would not have changed the outcome of the campaign itself. This, in turn, would have given us time to achieve full combat readiness of the mobilized units, which would undoubtedly have had a positive impact on their strength and, consequently, on the quality of their operations.
But what would have happened if England and France had launched an offensive in the West in September 1939?
Janusz Odziemkowski: This is a purely theoretical reflection, because the Allies lacked mental preparation for the start of World War II.
Jakub Politik: There would have to be a different command, a different political leadership, and different war plans. Even if the French and British had launched a great offensive in September, we would not have gained much in the end. The Germans would have had to transfer the western part of the troops to the front, so the Red Army would have taken care of the further conquest of Poland.
Jerzy Odziemkowski: Remember that these were also different soldiers than those who fought in 1914. And Marshal Józef Piłsudski had a skeptical attitude towards Western countries. He used to say that the West was ‘a little bit skunk’.
Jerzy Kirszak: Even if this French soldier had their father’s lion from 1914 in their heart, it wouldn’t have been of much assistance. Sometimes it is said that the Germans were very weak on the western border, that it was enough to just go deep into it and it would be over. This is a myth. Of course, they had worse-quality divisions there, but still enough to stop the attack of the French. Remember what happened in 1944. The Siegfried Line was being conquered by the allies for half a year, and it wasn’t much more developed than in 1939. After all, the Americans then had a total advantage in the air and on land, and yet it took six months to break it. The French in 1939 would not be able to bite into these fortifications at all. The same thing happened with the English, who are accused that in 1939 they were scattering only leaflets from airplanes. The only raid, on Wilhelmshaven, took place already on September 4, but when the English saw what losses they suffered and achieved them to mediocre results, they withdrew from further raids.
So, we must support the thesis that our only success in September 1939 was that we dragged England and France into the war?
Jakub Polit: Apart from the issues of France and the United Kingdom, there were also all kinds of hesitations. The argument of the Polish side was, above all, that the army did not leave without a fight. Of course, it is extremely valuable to consider whether we could have sold the blood of soldiers at a higher price, because we remember one of the greatest disasters in the history of our nation. We also know that against the backdrop of subsequent failures of our allies we did not do bad, but unfortunately we were the first in this line.
What mistakes did we make in preparing for war?
Janusz Odziemkowski: The Germans emphasized that in 1939 Polish infantry was better trained than their soldiers. The problem in our army was that both before and after the outbreak of the war, the motorized forces were underestimated. In 1932, the Polish Army made a list of how much it costs to maintain a cavalry brigade and how much of a mechanized brigade - it turned out that it was a similar value... And although some officers drew attention to the need to motorize the army, the majority of them underestimated this issue. What is more, every example of the failure of the concept of mechanizing the army was searched for in order to prove that it would not play a great role in the future war.
Jakub Polit: The example of the civil war in Spain and the role of the Moroccan cavalry in the victories over the mechanized republican troops were often cited here.
Janusz Odziemkowski: Or they were dwelling on the high failure rate of the German equipment, which during the Anschluss of Austria was lying in the roadside ditches. It was said that we had nothing to worry about, and in the ‘Cavalry Review’, you can find an article written by a military expert who proves that on our roads a Polish horse is better than a tank.
Would the industry have been ready if the decision had been made to motorize the army?
Janusz Odziemkowski: The possibilities of our industry in this respect were much greater than the orders of the army. It was assumed that at the beginning of the forties even 100 thousand motor vehicles could be produced. The problem was the high price, so the state paid extra for every truck so that citizens would want to buy it. The army could have been the largest recipient. If it ordered several thousand units at once, it would significantly reduce the production costs of these vehicles, as well as their price.
Jerzy Kirszak: We are now entering a high level of detail, so I would like to give you some figures on the pre-war automotive industry. In my opinion, the appearance of several thousand cars at the same time was impossible to ‘digest’ by the then Polish Army. In the 1930s in the United States, there was one car per five inhabitants. In France it was 24, in Germany it was 99, in Romania it was 600, and in Poland it was 1200. In 1939, we had over 41 thousand motor vehicles and 1 million 300 thousand bicycles.
Jakub Polit: At that time the Germans had over 2 million motor vehicles...
Jerzy Kirszak: So they had more cars than we had bicycles. Even if we had doubled the number of vehicles, it wouldn’t have helped. Where to get the right number of drivers and mechanics? When in September 1939 our soldiers broke up the motorized SS ‘Germania’, there was no one to man the motorized equipment and most of the machines were destroyed.
Janusz Odziemkowski: All right, but before the war we had a few years to change that. You raise the problem of drivers and mechanics, and in the American army drivers after a short training became poorly educated Afro-Americans. The Soviet Uniot trained peasants in this respect. The same could have been done in our country. The peasants would not have been high-class mechanics, but they could still have driven mechanized vehicles. I will remind our first armored-motor brigade, Colonel Stanislaw Maczek. It was approached like a dog to a hedgehog. And yet Rydz-Śmigły himself used cars to transport the army on the front in 1920! General Władysław Sikorski may be criticized in various ways, but he consistently postulated the mechanization of the army throughout the entire period of the Second Republic of Poland. Only that for many years he was on the side track. He well remembered that in 1920 the victory brought us good maneuverability. I would like to remind you that one armored-motor field on Kowel dismantled the whole Bolshevik front on Wołyń. This example was later analyzed by the Allies, Germans and Soviets in their military schools. Only we forgot about it....
There was also no investment in aviation.
Janusz Odziemkowski: That’s a fact. The English who came to us in 1939 to examine the condition of the Polish army, for example, stated that the Polish aviation is very well organized! One thing it lacked - modern equipment. And when they got acquainted with the possibilities of Polish industry in terms of aircraft and tank production, they gave an opinion that we need only a year to catch up on all the backlogs.
Perhaps we would have been more effective if we had not drown the funds in the Navy? It was created to confront a completely different enemy, the Soviet Baltic Fleet.
Jakub Polit: Here, the conclusion immediately comes to mind that after September 1939, naval officers were less to blame for the defeat than others. And this was due not only to the fact that she fought in specific conditions, but also to the fact that the environment of General Sikorski was less familiar with this type of army. Of course, the Navy could play a greater role in September 1939 only in the fight against the Soviet Union.
If we had known that we did not have a better chance with the German fleet, then why hadn’t all the ships been withdrawn to Great Britain, but two relatively modern ships left for some kind of loss?
Jerzy Kirszak: For prestige and political reasons. It was simply at the highest level that an order was given that some representation of our fleet had to stay and take part in the fight - it fell on ‘Griffin’, who could effectively threaten German ships with his mines, and ‘Wichra’ - one of the destroyers, who was supposed to protect ‘Griffin’ on miner cruises. Coming back to the confrontation with the Soviet Baltic Fleet, unfortunately I have to say that we didn’t have many chances. In September 1939, the Soviets had two old but heavily armed battleships and a modern Kirov type cruiser on the Baltic Sea. In addition, there were 11 destroyers, 38 submarines and over 60 torpedo boats.
Jakub Politik: In the war with the Soviets our navy could have played a greater role, however, in the war with Germany too, but after it was withdrawn from the Baltic Sea, which was rightly partly done.
Let us move on to September 17, 1939. Was the Soviet attack really a total surprise for the Polish command?
Jakub Polit: There is a powerful literature about leaks of secret protocols to diplomatic agreements, including a book by Professor Marek Kornat, which basically says not whether these plans were known or not, but why they were not taken seriously. This was explained in various ways, including psychological hypotheses that one does not believe in terrible news. Ambassador Raczynski’s conversation with Lord Edward Halifax also shows a lot. Of course, both gentlemen are not familiar with the contents of the secret protocols of the German-Soviet pact, but when asked what needs to be done by an Englishman, Raczynski answers that this document rather strengthens our position... And here we can ask whether our ambassador was so thoughtless or whether he simply could not say anything else. After all, he couldn’t have said, ‘My Lord, we are in a terrible situation, don’t bind yourselves to a political bankruptcy.
Probably some countries knew the content of the secret protocols accompanying the agreement, but not Poland...
Jakub Polit: Indeed, the French, or some Baltic ministers, have been able to discern quite aptly what was in these secret protocols. We were disappointed by the allies and so-called friendly states - I am thinking, in particular, of the United States, which has not confided in the secrets handed down by its diplomats and intelligence. Moreover, we have not taken any appropriate steps either. Prof. Kornat puts it this way: it was assumed that the Soviet Union could intervene, but it would wait for the war to develop, that is, for how the French would deal with the German fortifications. And in a way it also happened - Józef Stalin, having made sure that the English and French wouldn’t carry out the attack, set off on 17 September for Poland.
Prof. Janusz Odziemkowski - Professor of historical sciences. He deals mainly with military history, the history of the nineteenth century and contemporary armed conflicts. Lecturer at the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw.
Dr. Jakub Polit - Assistant Professor at the Department of Modern History at the Faculty of History of the Jagiellonian University. He studies, among others, the British Empire in international relations of the 20th century and the expansion of the powers in East Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Dr Jerzy Kirszak - Historian, employee of the Institute of National Remembrance and the General Kazimierz Sosnkowski Military Historical Bureau.
autor zdjęć: NAC