A Prepared Poland, Part One
By Mike Bennighof, PhD
I’ve seen plenty of games and books and even movies drawn from the notion that Germany might have somehow defeated the Allies in World War II. Yet I’m not aware of anything similar regarding Poland’s brief war against Germany in September 1939. I think we all know why, and it’s a disturbing reason, but that’s a topic for another day. Instead we’ll look at another question:
Is there any sequence of altered events that would have allowed Poland to turn back the German invasion? The war would be catastrophic: Six million citizens of pre-war Poland (out of a population of 35 million) died at the hands of the Nazis, half of them Jewish. German soldiers started murdering civilians within hours of crossing the border.
Poland had Europe’s sixth-largest economy in August 1939, and fifth-largest army. Those could have been the foundations for a much stouter defense. New weapons had either just begun to reach the troops or been approved for production that would have given the Polish soldier superior firepower to his German counterpart. But the after-effects of the Great Depression, and weak support from the nominally-allied British and French (sometimes veering into outright obstruction) assured that these would not have an impact on the battlefield.
On paper, Poland fielded 30 regular infantry divisions, 25 to 30 more reserve divisions, 11 cavalry brigades and two mechanized brigades. All of those units required the addition of reservists to reach their full war strength, and secret mobilization began during the summer of 1939. But the British and French pressed the Poles to not mobilize lest they antagonize the Germans.
Few of those reserve formations made it to the battlefield, and many of the regular units went to war missing key personnel. Mobilization was expensive, and the failure to order a full call-up can’t be laid solely on doorsteps in London and Paris. The Germans were aware that they could inflict serious budgetary harm on the Poles simply by standing up and then standing down their own army, thereby forcing concessions. The Poles were unwilling to play that game, but ended up being caught unprepared despite a crisis six months in the making.
Prototype of the PZL.38 Wilk heavy fighter.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see that Germany did not have the means to accelerate the timetable for Case White, the planned invasion of Poland. This was not the German Army of even six months later; it had not been to war in a generation, and could not move instantly into the attack. But the Poles could not have mobilized in March 1939, after the occupation of Czechoslovakia made German intentions obvious, and then kept the troops idle for six months awaiting a German attack that never came without facing economic collapse. The timing would have to be, if not perfect, then very good.
The failure to mobilize during the summer forced the Poles to either abandon many of their mobilization centers to the oncoming Germans, or defend the borders in hopes of covering the assembly of their reservists. They chose the latter option, which placed several of their armies in exposed positions.
A Polish Army of sixty divisions, fully-armed and in defensible positions, is a far different proposition from what the Germans actually faced. Would Hitler have pressed ahead with his war anyway? With his overheated economy looking at a near-term collapse otherwise, it’s likely that the panzers would have rolled regardless.
Command and Control
Even without full mobilization, Poland put a formidable army into the field. Individual Polish divisions fought well for the most part, when given even odds on the battlefield. Unfortunately, that was not usually the case. The Polish Army had no corps-level organization, and suffered badly for it. The Poles had won their war with the Soviet Union a generation earlier, and retained the ad-hoc methods that had brought them victory.
The Polish army-level commands simply couldn’t keep up with the pace of the German invasion; they had too many formations to direct. A new level of command would have required many more staff officers, who can’t be anointed on the spot. The French operated corps commands, but Polish stubbornness prevented their adopting French methods; nearly two decades after the Miracle on the Vistula, Polish generals still burned with resentment that the French military observation group had tried to steal their laurels. The Poles had no use for French advice, even when it was useful.
Almost every weapon carried by a Polish soldier in 1939 came out of a Polish factory. Foreign sources were not realistically available; Britain and France refused to sell their best weapons, while the Czechs shamelessly gouged their Polish rivals. Poland’s lackadaisical attitude toward intellectual property had much to do with this problem: any modern weapon sold to Poland would surely be taken apart, reverse-engineered and produced in a Polish plant without the benefit of any license fees paid to the original producer.
Poland had plenty of skilled weapons designers, who produced cutting-edge drafts of equipment as good or better than anything that could have been obtained from foreign sources. To build those weapons, Poland needed modern factories, and in 1936 the Polish government had embarked on an ambitious industrialization program.
The ruins of the PZL aircraft factory in Warsaw, December 1939.
The Central Industrial Region, located south-east of Warsaw in what was thought to be an area safe from foreign attack, had first been proposed in 1928 by the economist Eugeniusz Kwiatkowski, then the Minister of Industry and Trade, and inspired by the then-new Soviet Five-Year Plans.
In 1935 Kwiatkowski became deputy prime minister, and his project went onto the fast track starting the next year. The five-year plan would include steel mills and power plants, and new factories to produce artillery, tanks, automobiles, artificial rubber, aircraft engines and aircraft. Foreign investment never materialized, and the Polish government ended up footing most of the bills, spending 60 percent of its investment funds on the project.
Had the project somehow been completed, or at least partially put into operation, the Poles would have faced another difficulty. Weapons and advanced machinery require a number of specific strategic metals: aluminum, nickel, copper and manganese among others. Poland produced none of these, and had to import them spending precious hard currency. By 1939 the Polish government had managed to assemble a strategic reserve with three months’ worth of these materials but that, of course, did not reflect the greater needs of the factories not yet on-line.
The five-year plan still had more than two years to run when the Germans invaded, and none of the new factories had yet made any contribution to Poland’s defense. The new and enlarged towns that hosted them had received very little investment in new schools or housing. Some of the factories did end up producing weapons and vehicles for the Germans, while others were destroyed by the invaders with their tooling looted and carried off to Germany.
While the project might have benefitted Poland had Hitler waited until 1943 or so to attack, it could only have had an impact in 1939 had it started at least four years earlier. That ties into the next Polish difficulty.
Despite the size of Poland’s economy, she lacked hard currency. Re-armament required cash, and no one wanted to accept the zloty. The Great Depression arrived in France later than most of the world, and its effects still lingered in the mid-1930’s. British investors were not interested in Poland’s agricultural economy, and preferred opportunities in Germany to those in Poland. Their government followed suit, providing very little in the way of cash infusions.
Stalin’s Five-Year Plan represented a major competitor to Poland’s plans for industrialization; 90 percent of British machinery exports in 1930 went to the Soviet Union. Stalin had an edge that Kwiatkowski lacked: The Tsar’s gold reserves. The Soviets paid in gold rubles for the machine tools that equipped their new factories, and for the foreign engineers who designed and built them.
The Ursus Tractor Works also built Poland’s tanks.
Lacking stacks of gold bars, the Poles had to raise hard cash through exports, including weapons. Large stocks of rifles, machine guns and artillery pieces had been left by the former Imperial powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia) or captured during the 1919-1920 Russo-Polish War. Once those had been exhausted, the Poles turned to selling modern weapons: 37mm anti-tank guns, 40mm anti-aircraft guns, PZL.24 fighter planes and PZL.37 light bombers. All of those weapons were desperately needed by the Polish armed forces, but the government calculated that it needed the hard currency more to assure Poland’s future defense. Poland’s allies somehow found the money to buy Polish weapons, with the British taking anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns, and the French anti-aircraft ammunition.
The basics to create an effective Polish defense were there in the 1930’s; Poland had the ability to design and build the modern weapons she needed for her motivated and well-trained armed forces. What she lacked was hard currency - the zloty’s weakness prevented her from borrowing the needed funds domestically. It could only come from outside the country, and given her allies’ unwillingness to provide it and her neighbors’ hostility, Poland had few options.
What cash she did raise went into industrial development, and it failed to pay off in time to help in 1939. Yet where else could it have gone? The British refused to sell the Hurricane fighter, and the French the MS.406, until just weeks before war erupted, too late for the planes to arrive. Likewise the French would not sell the Somua S.35, grudgingly selling only the far less effective Renault R.35.
Poland had few options. Only large-scale foreign economic aid could have made a difference, and none of her allies was going to provide that while they still faced mass unemployment at home.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold approves of this message.