3 Myths About the German Invasion of Poland

Alex Browne

3 mins

01 Sep 2014

Image credit: Bundesarchiv.

On 1 September 1939 Adolf Hitler, reassured by his secret agreement 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 Poland.

However, there are a number of misconceptions about the Polish campaign, normally created by effective German propaganda.

This propaganda aimed to reinforce the idea that the Polish resistance was weak and its forces totally outclassed by their German opponents.

There are three myths in particular that require addressing.

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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 fragile, antiquated army.

The image of lances glancing off tank armour aptly encapsulates the futility of Polish resistance.

Polish light cavalry armed with an anti-tank rifle. From a military instruction published in Warsaw in 1938. Credit: Ministerstwo Wojny / Commons.

This myth was convenient to the Nazi agenda, demonstrating the modernity of the German army against the backwards nature of the Polish army.

It originates from a single event, fortuitously captured by journalists and distorted at the behest of the Germans.

At the Battle of Krojanty, a Polish cavalry brigade launched an attack against German infantry resting in a clearing, and in turn was fired upon in ambush by Panzers.

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Italian war correspondents were encouraged to exaggerate the event, and eagerly suggested that the Polish cavalry had launched a frontal attack against tanks.

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.

The delays to the German advance caused by the Battle of Krojanty allowed another Polish infantry division to withdraw before it could be surrounded.

Red Army soldier guarding a Polish PWS-26 trainer aircraft shot down near the city of Równe (Rivne) in the Soviet occupied part of Poland. Credit: Imperial War Museum / Commons.

2. Germany annihilated the Polish Air Force on the ground

Another popular misconception is that Germany destroyed the Polish air force in the early stages of the fighting by bombing key airfields. Again, this is mostly untrue.

The Luftwaffe did conduct an extensive bombing campaign designed to reduce Poland’s air resistance, but was only able to destroy outdated or strategically unimportant aircraft.

The bulk of the Polish airforce had 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 aircraft.

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 the German planes.

Many Polish airmen later flew Spitfires in the Battle of Britain.

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3. 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.

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.

The Red Army enters the provincial capital of Wilno during the Soviet invasion, 19 September 1939. Credit: Press Agency Photographer / Imperial War Museums / Commons.

By comparison, 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 lasted only 9 days longer than the Polish, despite the fact that the French forces were much more evenly matched with the Wehrmacht.

Poland was also better prepared than is 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.