First to Fight, page 1
First to Fight
The Polish War 1939
Prologue: An Unremarkable Man
1 ‘Westerplatte Fights On’
2 The Tyranny of Geography
3 A Frightful Futility
4 The Temerity to Resist
5 Poland Is Not Yet Lost
6 Of ‘Liberators’ and Absent Friends
7 Into the Arms of Death
8 Impenitent Thieves
9 To End on a Battlefield
Appendices: Orders of Battle
About the Author
Roger Moorhouse is a historian and author specialising in modern German history. He is the co-author, with Norman Davies, of Microcosm: Portrait of a Central European City, and the author of Killing Hitler: The Third Reich and the Plots Against the Fuhrer and The Devil’s Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin.
by the same author
Portrait of a Central European City
(with Norman Davies)
The Third Reich and the
Plots against the Führer
Berlin at War:
Life and Death in Hitler’s Capital,
The Devils’ Alliance:
Hitler’s Pact with Stalin,
The Third Reich in 100 Objects
who planted the seed
1 Helmut Naujocks (Library of Congress; public domain).
2 Franciszek Honiok (private collection).
3 Gleiwitz radio station (akg-images/Interfoto).
4 The battleship Schleswig Holstein opens fire (Muzeum Wojska Polskiego, Warsaw).
5 Stuka attack on the bridge at Tczew (Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe).
6 German troops attack the Polish Post Office in Danzig (Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe).
7 German troops destroy border post at Zoppot (Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe).
8 German troops enter Poland (Muzeum II Wojny Swiatowej, Gdańsk).
9 Hitler in the Kroll Opera (Heinrich Hoffmann/Library of Congress).
10 Neville Chamberlain (Wellcome Collection gallery CC-BY-4.0).
11 Crowds in Warsaw cheer the British declaration of war (Osródek Karta, Warsaw).
12 Polish cavalry (Muzeum Wojska Polskiego, Warsaw).
13 German Infantry assault (akg-images/ullstein bild/Pressefoto Kindermann).
14 Polish civilian prisoners (Muzeum II Wojny Swiatowej, Gdańsk).
15 Jews surrendering (Muzeum II Wojny Swiatowej, Gdańsk).
16 Kazimiera Mika (Julien Bryan; public domain).
17 German execution of civilians (akg-images).
18 Ciepielów massacre (akg-images).
19 Polish cavalry at Sochaczew (Wikimedia; public domain).
20 Aftermath on the Bzura (Muzeum II Wojny Swiatowej, Gdańsk)
21 Major General Tadeusz Kutrzeba (public domain).
22 Soviet tank in Rakow (akg-images/Universal Images Group/Sovfoto).
23 Soviet infantry (Laski Diffusion).
24 Guderian and Krivoschein (BArch, Bild 101I-121-0011A-22/Gutjahr/CC-BY-SA 3.0).
25 Soviet and German officers in Lwów (akg-images).
26 Red Army men with Polish villagers (akg-images/Universal Images Group/Tass).
27 General Olszyna-Wilczyński (public domain).
28 Meeting of Wehrmacht and Red Army troops (Laski Diffusion).
29 Red Army guard on the river San (Muzeum II Wojny Swiatowej, Gdańsk).
30 Hitler in Danzig (Muzeum II Wojny Swiatowej, Gdańsk).
31 Naval gun at Oksywie (Muzeum II Wojny Swiatowej, Gdańsk).
32 Destroyed Polish town (Muzeum II Wojny Swiatowej, Gdańsk).
33 Refugees on a farm cart (Muzeum II Wojny Swiatowej, Gdańsk).
34 Edward Śmigły-Rydz (public domain).
35 Kutrzeba surrenders Warsaw (Heinrich Hoffmann/Library of Congress).
36 Surrender of Modlin (Ian Sayer Archive).
37 German soldier guarding a pile of Polish helmets (Szczecinski Archives/East News).
38 Polish prisoners of the Red Army (Laski Diffusion).
39 Franciszek Kleeberg (public domain).
40 Hitler’s victory parade in Warsaw (Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe).
41 Red Army parade in Lwów (private collection).
Writing about a region with shifting frontiers and mixed populations can sometimes be a challenging task. For simplicity, in this book I have employed a policy of using names appropriate to the period under scrutiny. If the modern name differs from that, then it will be given in brackets at first mention.
So, to take the example of what is now the Ukrainian city of L’viv: in September 1939, it was the Polish city of Lwów, so it will be rendered here as Lwów (L’viv) at first mention, and simply as Lwów thereafter. No political statement is thereby intended.
In addition, where there is an accepted Anglicised form – such as Warsaw, Brest or Moscow – then I have naturally used it throughout.
Polish words look complicated, but their pronunciation is at least consistent. All vowels are of even length, and their sound is best rendered by the English words ‘sum’ (a), ‘ten’ (e), ‘ease’ (i), ‘lot’ (o), ‘book’ (u) and ‘sit’ (y). Most consonants behave in the same way as in English, except for c, which is pronounced ‘ts’; j, which is soft, like the y in ‘yes’; and w, which is equivalent to an English v.
There are also a number of accented letters and combinations which are peculiar to Polish, such as:
ą = nasal a, hence Piątek is pronounced ‘piontek’
ę = nasal e, hence Łęczyca is pronounced ‘wenchytsa’
ó = u, hence Kraków is pronounced ‘krakoov’
ci = ch as in ‘cheese’
ć = ch as in ‘cheese’
cz = a longer ch as in ‘catch’
ch = hard h, as in ‘loch’
ł = English w, hence Kałuszyn is pronounced ‘kawooshin’
ń = soft n, as in Spanish ‘mañana’
rz = soft j, as in French ‘je’
si = sh as in ‘ship’
ś = sh as in ‘ship’
sz = a longer sh as in ‘sheer’
ż = as rz, as in French ‘je’
ź = similar to ż, but harder.
The stress in Polish is consistent, and always falls on the penultimate syllable. So ‘Sosabowski’ is pronounced so-sa-BOV-ski; ‘Częstochowa’, chen-sto-HO-va.
The Second World War in Europe began at dawn on 1 September 1939.
It shouldn’t need saying, of course, but the date of the start of the largest war in human history is a subject that is shrouded in confusion across vast swathes of the globe. Every combatant nation has its own narrative and chronology. In China and Japan, for instance, the war is held to have begun on 7 July 1937, when Japanese and Chinese forces engaged following the Marco Polo Bridge Incident. For Americans, the war started on 7 December 1941, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; everything before that date is merely a curious, far-off prelude to the main event. Sometimes, such dissenting views are entirely justifiable, dictated by geography and convention; sometimes they are rather more mendacious. In the Soviet Union (and in its successor state, Russia), for example, the fiction has long been maintained that the Second W
Even the British and the French – and their respective former empires – are less than entirely clear on the issue. Though both countries gamely declared war on Hitler’s Germany on 3 September 1939, after the latter’s failure to withdraw from Poland, they did nothing to aid their ally, shamefully leaving Poland to its fate. Thereafter, for the people of Britain and France, nothing much happened until German forces smashed westwards across the French border in May 1940. The British called that intervening period the ‘Phoney War’; the French, the ‘Drôle de Guerre’ – the ‘funny war’.
But there was nothing funny – or indeed phoney – about the war that Poland fought in the autumn of 1939. As the sun rose on 1 September, Hitler’s forces crossed the Polish frontier from the north, west and south, hurtling forward in their tanks and trucks and on foot, while the Luftwaffe scoured the skies, bombing and strafing seemingly with impunity. After little more than two weeks, with Polish armies in disarray and lacking any assistance from their western allies, the coup de grâce was delivered by Hitler’s new confederate, Stalin, and the Red Army invaded from the east on 17 September. As German and Soviet forces met on Polish soil and declared their eternal brotherhood – conveniently forgetting the preceding decade of rabid antipathy – Poland entered a new, totalitarian dark age: a world of persecution, misery and death. By the end of the Second World War, one in five of its population had been killed.
Poland, then, was – in that neat slogan devised by its wartime propagandists – ‘First to Fight’. Its defensive campaign in September 1939 opened the Second World War in Europe: a five-week struggle that prefaced nearly 300 weeks of slaughter. It cost as many as 250,000 lives on all sides, and showcased many of the brutal practices that would feature so strongly in the later conflict: the targeting of civilian populations, indiscriminate aerial bombing and mass killings.
Invaded and occupied by Europe’s two pre-eminent totalitarian powers, Poland would be exposed to every horror that modern conflict could devise. Just as the Wehrmacht unleashed race war against the Poles in the west, so the Red Army imported class war in the east. Poland’s citizens would be sifted and sorted by either side, with those deemed undesirable subjected to arrest and deportation if they were lucky, state-sanctioned murder if they were not.
The Polish campaign also had a significance well beyond Poland’s frontiers: it brought Britain and France into the war. Both countries had guaranteed Poland’s territorial integrity in the spring of 1939 in a vain attempt to halt German expansion. Consequently, it was the Western Allies’ defence of that country – however nominally interpreted – that transformed the war from a central European squabble into a conflict of worldwide significance.
Bearing all of this in mind, it would be fair to expect that Poland’s brave, brief war of 1939 might be well known. However, it is not. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that it has been all but forgotten outside Poland. Despite our collective obsession with all aspects of the Second World War, the ‘September campaign’ always seems somehow to fall through the cracks, ignored or passed over in a few sentences. Consequently, it is barely known or understood in the English-speaking historiography.
A glance at some of the most popular history books of the last few years should serve to illustrate the point. Whereas enthusiastic readers can peruse competing volumes on the Ardennes campaign, Dunkirk or D-Day, they would search in vain for much modern scholarship on Poland’s war of 1939. Aside from a couple of specialist military studies, the last book devoted to the subject, Nicholas Bethell’s The War Hitler Won, was published in 1972.
General works are little better. An examination of popular histories of the Second World War by some of Britain’s most widely read historians reveals the scale of the problem. On average, out of some 700 pages of text, they devote just sixteen to the defence of Poland in 1939, which often include the wider matter of the entry into the war of Britain and France. Some ignore the subject entirely or are almost comically Anglocentric, describing the outbreak of the war by referring solely to Whitehall politics or scarcely seeing beyond the agonies perceived on the cricket pitches of south-east England, while making no mention of the very real battles then being fought on Polish soil.
Moreover, those that examine the subject in anything more than a cursory manner tend to rely almost entirely on German sources: the usually self-serving memoirs of those that participated in the invasion, and the often turgid regimental histories of the German army that tend to make non-military historians’ eyes bleed. The results are predictably myopic: historians repeat Nazi propaganda tropes almost verbatim, ignore the Soviet invasion entirely and shamefully write the Poles out of their own history. Little wonder, then, that most readers’ knowledge of the September campaign barely extends beyond the hoary old myth of ‘cavalry against tanks’.
Yet the real problem is more profound. History, as we know, is written primarily by the winner. As Hitler pithily put it on the very eve of the Polish campaign: ‘The victor will never be asked if he told the truth.’ And, in this example, none of the victors – short or long term – had any interest in telling the true story of the defence of Poland. The Germans spun their narrative of the September campaign as best they could in the early years of the war, and produced a host of memoirs, coffee-table books and pseudo-histories, which lauded their victory, extolled the brilliance of the Blitzkrieg and emphasised the innate inferiority of the enemy. After the war, meanwhile, when the extent of German crimes was known to the world, the invasion of Poland was seemingly relegated to an insignificant side-show: a quaint prelude to the murderous main act. Aside from a few post-war memoirs and the work of a small number of historians, few Germans care to remember the campaign today.
The Soviets, meanwhile, did everything they could to pretend that they did not invade Poland in 1939. The post-war narrative, which showed the Soviet Union and its people as the foremost victims of the war, could not permit an honest acknowledgement of the fact that Stalin had facilitated Hitler in starting the conflict, and then assisted his new-found ally in invading, partitioning and destroying Poland. Consequently, the Red Army’s invasion was dressed up as a humanitarian intervention, and any mention of it dissenting from that view was effectively suppressed, both in the Soviet Union and in post-war communist Poland. That denial continues to our own day. As recently as 2016, a Russian blogger was prosecuted for sharing a text about German–Soviet collaboration in the invasion of Poland. His alleged crime was the ‘circulation of false information’.
One might have hoped that the British would, at least, keep the flame of truth alive. Sadly, however, that was not to be the case. Here one cannot speak of an active suppression of the facts, but Britain’s own heroic wartime narrative left little popular appetite for, or interest in, that country’s humiliating betrayal of its Polish ally. Even though a large number of Polish veterans of 1939 made their homes in the UK after their nation’s defeat, and after Poland fell to communist control in 1945, their stories were scarcely heard. The memoirs and histories written by veterans resident in the UK – such as Władysław Anders, Klemens Rudnicki and Józef Garliński – signally failed to penetrate the established Western narrative of the war. It is perhaps telling that the flagship TV documentary series The World at War, first broadcast in 1973, which saw a host of significant characters from the conflict – from Albert Speer to Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris – interviewed on screen, featured no Poles among its contributors. It may be, of course, that this omission was simply down to the laziness of the producers, or some imagined language barrier. The more cynical mind might suggest that it suited the British and French mythology of the war to present the Poles as marginal participants who were somehow beyond help.
In the end, it was left to the Poles themselves to tell the story of the two invasions of 19
This book, therefore, is an attempt to embrace some of that new Polish historiography, and so rebalance the wonky Western narrative of the Second World War’s opening campaign. It tells a story that is still little known to English-speaking readers – a story of heroism, suffering and a gallant fight against ruthless and superior enemies. And it is an attempt to wrest the story free from the dark shadow of totalitarian propaganda – from the Nazi mythology of an easy Blitzkrieg victory to the Soviet lie that the Red Army had never invaded at all. In doing so, the book finally brings Polish voices – memoirs, diaries and archival accounts – into the story. One can only hope that the Poles will no longer be rendered by future historians as nameless, voiceless victims, bit-part players in their own narrative.
Of course, any work of scale and ambition requires collaborators, and though the words on the page are mine, a huge number of debts were incurred in their preparation and must be acknowledged. Many colleagues and friends were kind enough to share their knowledge, including Grzegorz Bębnik, Sławomir Dębski, Richard Hargreaves, Tomasz Kuba Kozłowski, Wojciech Łukaszun, Dmitriy Panto, Bill Russ, Ian Sayer, Rob Schäfer, Ben H. Shepherd, Andrzej Suchcitz, Jacek Tebinka and Anna Zygalska-Cannon.