On 1 September 1939 Adolf Hitler, reassured by his secret agreement (Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) with Stalin, launched a massive invasion of Poland. Scything through the Polish defences the Nazi juggernaut encountered little substantial resistance, and the intervention of the Soviet Union on 17 September sealed the fate of a plucky but doomed nation.
This account holds to the most general facts, but is coloured by a number of misconceptions, primarily that the Polish resistance was ephemeral and its forces totally outclassed by their German opponents. There are three myths in particular that require addressing:
Polish Cavalry Charged the Panzers
The myth that Polish cavalry units charged armoured Panzer divisions seems to reinforce the broader idea of a modern German force sweeping aside a weak, antiquated army. The image of lances glancing off the tank armour aptly encapsulates the futility of Polish resistance.
Polish Cavalry 1939
In its very convenience to the Nazi agenda lies the origins of this myth. It originates from a single event, fortuitously captured by journalists and distorted at the behest of the Germans.
Italian war correspondents at the Battle of Krojanty, where a Polish cavalry brigade was fired upon in ambush by Panzers after it had mounted a successful sabre-charge against German infantry, were encouraged to exaggerate the event. Duly it became an accepted and unexceptional account.
In fact, although the Polish military had many cavalry units they did not operate exclusively by antiquated tactics. The Polish cavalry consisted of 11 brigades, typically equipped with anti-tank rifles and light artillery, that were often very effective.
Germany Annihilated the Polish Air Force on the Ground
Another popular misconception is that Germany destroyed the Polish airforce in the early stages of the fighting by bombing key airfields. Again this is mostly false.
German Luftwaffe in Bombing Formation
The Luftwaffe did conduct an extensive bombing campaign designed to reduce Poland’s air resistance, but weas only able to destroy outdated or strategically unimportant aircraft.
The bulk of the Polish airforce had been sheltered in anticipation of a Nazi invasion, and took to the skies once it took place. It continued fighting into the second week of the conflict, and in total the Luftwaffe lost 285 aircraft, with 279 more damaged, while the Poles lost 333.
In reality Polish aviators were unusually effective. Such was their skill that they recorded 21 kills on 2 September despite flying aircraft that were 50-100mph slower and 15 years older than their adversaries’. Many Polish airmen later flew Spitfires in The Battle of Britain.
Poland was Easily Defeated
This is less clear-cut. There was never any question that Nazi Germany would conquer Poland given enough time, and the intervention of the Soviet Union on 17 September only deepened the hopelessness of the Polish cause.
Werhmacht in Danzig Polish Corridor
However, the widely-accepted ideas that Poland was defeated rapidly and with little resistance, and that it failed to anticipate an invasion, are both misguided.
Poland cost the Germans an entire armoured division, thousands of soldiers, and 25% of its air strength. In total the Poles inflicted almost 50,000 casualties and destroyed nearly 1,000 armoured fighting vehicles in 36 days of fighting. Belgium fell in 18 days while inflicting less than 200 casualties, Luxembourg lasted less than 24 hours while the Netherlands held out for 4 days.
Perhaps most tellingly, the French campaign, where forces were much more evenly matched (roughly 3.5 million each), lasted only 9 days longer than the Polish.
Poland was also better prepared than commonly believed. Serious plans to defend the western border were started in 1935, and despite heavy encouragement to play down any mobilisation coming from France and Britain, Poland concocted a secret plan that allowed a full transition from peace to a war readiness in a matter of days.