Coming war. Adolf Hitler salutes troops marching to the Polish border.


Apart from Spain and areas of hitlerite rule the New Year 1939 was celebrated in the whole Europe in an atmosphere of euphoric joy. Chamberlain's words about the peace in our time were taken seriously everywhere from Thames to the Urals. Whether in England or Poland, France or Yugoslavia, Norway and even Italy people believed in life, may be hard but anyhow bloodless. They did not feel that the coming year would become the darkest one in their lives.

Józef Beck celebrated New Year on French Riviera. Of course he did not go there just for entertainment. But his French colleague, Georges Bonnet, did not even think that it would fit to invite the Pole to Paris, and he did not take the trouble too to come to the Riviera.

France's passivity towards German actions in the East emboldened Adolf Hitler and confirmed him in decisions he had made earlier. The Germano-French non-aggression pact concluded in December 1938 constituted another soporific injection. After all the French apparently wanted to sleep and they were offended when some Britons, who, like Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, were undertaking a complicated process of reversal Islanders' sympathies from Germany. Meanwhile Berlin was getting confident that France had completely abandoned her East European allies.

At that time statesmen used to travel by trains; Neville Chamberlain flying to Hitler, whatever can be told about him, was a pioneer of air travels. Beck was coming back to Poland by traditional mean of transport and the way was via Germany. The visit to Berlin was of course arranged beforehand. Hitler did not leave Beck only to Joachim Ribbentrop, the German foreign minister - a toad actually incapable to talk to anybody and assigned just to trumpet his master's opinions. In that case the matter was even more sensitive and the Polish minister was with honours escorted to Obersalzberg, the winter residence of the Führer of the Third Reich. But there he heard the same he could hear earlier from Ribbentrop. Hitler demanded Danzig and an extraterritorial motorway, but first of all he demanded closer co-operation towards possible common expedition to Moscow.

Since some time Germany, Italy and Japan were bound with so-called Anti-Comintern Pact; officially it was concluded against any actions of the Comintern, namely the communist international, and less officially against the Soviet state. The Germans tried to involve Poland into the pact as a yet another member, particularly useful due to the geographic location. During the talks with Beck Hitler emphasized a common anti-Russian attitude of both regimes, drafted Polish perspectives in the Ukraine and stated that every Polish division engaged against Russia could spare a German division somewhere else. It seems that Beck realised how fragile was his policy of "equal distance" from Berlin and Moscow inherited from Józef Piłsudski: the distance from Berlin visibly decreased.

Towards the end of January 1939 Ribbentrop visited Warsaw; the Germans still expected, that they would manage to drive Poland into their plans of the conquest of the world. The schedule Hitler had concocted foresaw first the conquest of France and the West and then the turn towards the USSR; and there he seriously expected a Polish assistance. Ribbentrop did not demand a Germano-Polish march against France and Great Britain; he just suggested that Poland would remain neutral, securing Germany from the east and preparing herself, after the fall of Paris and London, to the common attack on Moscow. But the visit had missed its goal. It caused a major change in the hitlerite schedule.

On 30 January 1939, the sixth anniversary of the seizure of power, Hitler mentioned yet the Germano-Polish non-aggression pact of 1934, but with a little emphasis. German expectations were melting down day after day. And the Berlin again animated an apparatus of anti-Polish propaganda. The German embassy in Warsaw had transformed into a megaphone of complaints. Particularly the case of German landlords in Posnania was exploited as they were deprived of their possessions in course of nation-wide land reform.

On the other hand Polish military preparations had been very conservative. Marshal Piłsudski until his death was stuck to the experiences of the First World War and trusted only in traditional infantry and cavalry. But in the end of 1930s they demanded motors. The old Marshal though remembered an aircraft crash he saw back in 1919 and forbade introducing modern technics to the Polish army. It was not until his death that the works on modernization started. But the country was poor, economically backward and every fractured pneumatic used to cause a no mean problem. Besides, according to an unwritten Piłsudski's testament army's main forces were deployed in the east.

According to Gen. Wacław Teofil Stachiewicz, then chief of general staff, in 1936-1938 the main effort was put to work out the strategic plan East, which was finished by the winter 1938/1939. According to the plan the Polish army was supposed to be ready for full-scale military action in spring 1940. These preparations were given a priority before the strategic plan West, which after all was deemed technically impossible. Only weak border guard troops were deployed on the German frontier. It was not until 1938, annexation of Austria and dismemberment of Czechoslovakia that Piłsudski's successor, Marshal Edward Śmigły-Rydz got sober. The sobriety though had come somewhat vehemently. A Germany's weakness had been presumed too long. Strategic plans require years of work and a Polish defence plan did not exist yet in February 1939. And its inevitable operational imperfection unfortunately composed with the destitution of defence budget. Meanwhile new events were coming down in streams.

For three years then Spain had been burning in the fire of the civil war. After the fall of monarchy the power in that country was assumed by leftist forces rallied in the Popular Front. In July 1936 against the newly created republic had rebelled garrisons in Morocco and Canary Islands. The rebellion, led by Gen. Francisco Franco Bahamonde, soon got supported by some metropolitan regiments. The rebels, who openly called themselves fascists, immediately obtained support from Hitler and Benito Mussolini, who sent to Iberian peninsula their troops, mainly armoured, mechanized and air units. The republic received an effective help from the Soviet Union and some minor democratic countries. But it is closer to Valencia from Naples than from Odessa. Major powers had accepted the policy of non-intervention. From many corners of the world volunteers rushed to Spain, where they formed famous international brigades to fight fascism. But the soldiers' rifles, bought secretly on world's arms marts, were a poor match to Italian tanks and German aircraft, regularly, and together with crews, shipped to Franco. On 27 February 1939 the Spanish drama came to its end; British and French governments officially recognized the rebel government. Within next weeks fell Madrid and Barcelona and Noche Negra, black night of the fascist dictatorship, fell upon the country. Hitler and Mussolini could hug themselves for their first military victory on a wide scale. They did not fail to exploit it.

On 15 March 1939 German armoured columns entered Prague. Czechoslovakia became erased from the map of Europe. Carved out Bohemia and Moravia became incorporated to a Reich protectorate; the pattern of its statute was taken from statutes of French North African colonies. Slovak chauvinists supported and often paid by Berlin created by Hitler's grace a so-called Slovak State. It was Poland's strategic defeat. Slovakia subordinated to Germany had constituted the second claw of gigantic grip around Poland. The president of Czechoslovakia, Dr. Edvard Beneš, yet in October 1938 had renounced his post and made for exile.

In March 1939 supreme German military commanders were marching out to Prague with a foreboding of evil. They perfectly knew, that a firm Czechoslovak defence, even supported just by the Poles, would bring them a final military defeat. The German army still had not been prepared to any war. But the Czechoslovak army surrendered without a single shot, the Poles did not move as well. Some Slovak politicians counted on the Warsaw yet on days of the Munich crisis. But the Warsaw, with behemoth awkwardness, resolved to grab some scraps of Spish and Orava. For the Poles it was a matter of few villages, for the Slovaks - a matter of a national prestige. The more so Beck had entered political manipulations in favour of incorporation the territory of Transcarpathian Rus (Ruthenia) to Hungary. Thus was achieved a common Polish-Hungarian border in insignificant outskirts of both countries, what was inconsiderably promoted by Polish propaganda to a rank of a national feast. And pro-Polish sympathies in Bratislava were completely wasted. Whereas the Germans immediately occupied the Vah valley, the shortest route from Vienna to Cracow. The rich armoured and air equipment of the Czechoslovak army fell completely to the Germans, who, fed with the Czechoslovak loot, could speed up further activities.

On 22 March they grabbed Memel (Klaipeda) from the Lithuanians and next day forced the Romanians to sign a treaty, which practically gave them the whole economics of that country. Since then they had Romanian oil at their disposal. And thus got dissipated Beck's dreams about the Greater Poland from sea to sea - a federation of lands from the Gulf of Finland to the Aegean Sea under the Polish hegemony. The Germans were plucking out of that unattained constellation a country after a country with absolute passivity of democracies. Romania was allied with France, Czechoslovakia and Poland, but France was sleeping, Czechoslovakia did not exist, whereas Poland offered, with Beck's voice, incorporation of a scrap of Transcarpathian Rus as big as a quarter of a county. No wonder that king Charles II of Romania, a man otherwise rather not serious, decided the flop to time less dangerous. On the other side of the Polish state territory the Lithuanians also gave up. A year earlier the Poles, amidst a savage anti-Lithuanian hysteria and under a military threat, forced them to establish diplomatic relations non-existent since 1922 when Poland occupied Vilnius (Wilno). Now they came to a conclusion that nobody would support them against hoodlums grabbing an important Baltic port and started to look more and more often eastward.

But could Poland fight for Slovakia, Romania, Lithuania? Of course she could not do it alone. Although the Warsaw believed in possibility to deliver an efficient defence, nobody even considered a successful single offensive action. After Czechoslovak capitulation, after the seizure of Czechoslovak arsenals by the Germans, Poland could only trust in allies.

The momentum hitlerites gathered in March finally disillusioned even Chamberlain. The British felt menaced by growing German might. The panic spread in London: one seriously was afraid, that Poland too would bind herself with Germany. That would mean a complete ruin of the traditional British political principle known as the balance of power. A country to disturb the balance of strengths on European continent automatically used to become a Great Britain's enemy. France used to be such an enemy in the past. Now, second time in the 20th century, Germany emerged as a major threat.

On 31 March Chamberlain declared before the House of Commons to lend the Polish government all support in British power in the event of any action, which clearly threatened Polish independence. The declaration was preceded by hectic diplomatic soundings between Warsaw and London. On 2 April Beck arrived in the British capital, and on 6 April was published the common Anglo-Polish announcement. It stated, that the Chamberlain's declaration became supplemented by Polish declaration, it means Poland's will to help Great Britain shall she be menaced and a further conclusion of the formal Anglo-Polish alliance was announced.

Next day, on Good Friday 7 April, Italian troops landed in Albania. It was the most bizarre one out of crippled Mussolini's conquests. The escape of king Ahmet bej Zogu with his wife, beautiful Hungarian countess Geraldina of Apponyi and their new-born baby (as well as the state treasury), became one of those romantic episodes, which are always interesting to infantile readers of tabloids. Actually Mussolini could be contributed with the conquest of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), where his tanks and aircraft within months overcame a stubborn defence of barefoot warriors, but in comparison to Hitler's successes he was left far behind. By striking against Albania he tried to compensate his inferiority complex. But the seizure of the Balkan bridgehead had brought not only a personal compensation. Italian regiments were often hungry and barefoot, incomparably worse equipped than the German ones, poorly trained, undisciplined and first of all deprived of that Teutonic arrogance, which transforms Berlin or Hamburg townsfolk into bloody beasts. But those were the regiments of the effective force similar to the German ones, inspired with a similar ideology and with their very mass created another claw of the grip menacing not Poland alone, but the whole East Europe.

The rapprochement between Warsaw and London had caused of course a fury in Berlin. It took however some time before reaction came out. The Germans were surprised by Britons' decision; they did not expect it from phlegmatic Islanders, who so far used to avoid engagement east to the Rhine. It was not until 28 April that Hitler delivered an angry speech. While spitting and snorting, he renounced the Germano-Polish non-aggression pact and the Germano-British naval treaty. Simultaneously he disclosed first time in public demands towards Poland; in return for their fulfilment he promised a guarantee of the Germano-Polish border. But there were no more fools, ready to believe his promises.

On 5 May before the Polish parliament Józef Beck delivered a speech on Polish-German relations. Originally members of parliament did not listen him attentively, some even fell asleep - who likes to listen to such boring formalities? Suddenly they became awakened by a firm thump on the pulpit. Beck did it to strengthen his key phrase: Poland will not let herself to be barred from the Baltic. The silence fell upon the chamber. Not only the chamber though - the whole Poland expected those words.

Peace is a valuable and desirable thing, concluded Beck. Our generation, which bled in several wars, surely deserves a period of peace. However, peace, like almost all things of this world, has its price, high but definable. We in Poland do not know the conception of peace at any price. There is only one thing in the life of men, nations, and States which is above price - and that is honour. [Beck J. (1957).]

The speech, made almost immediately after Hitler's shrieks of 28 April, elicited enthusiasm, but it definitely buried Poland's policy of balancing between Germany and the USSR. Warsaw officially rejected German offer and started partial, secret mobilization of some groups of reservists. Soon first army units were sent from the east towards East Prussia's frontier.

On 25 March Hitler talked to Walther von Brauchitsch, the commander-in-chief of the German land forces, that one had to avoid seizure of Danzig by force for that would push Poland towards Britain. He also explained, that he intended to destroy Poland to such a degree, that it could not be considered as a political factor for generations. Finally on 11 April he signed directions to commence the plan Fall Weiß (Case White), foreseeing assault on Poland without declaration of war and annihilation of Polish defence before possible interference of third countries. He ordered full readiness of armed forces by 25 August.

Britons' determination finally woke up the French. On 13 April Daladier had stammered words of solidarity. Considering sluggishness of the French diplomacy one frankly can name it a lightning hurry. Some days after the Beck's speech General Tadeusz Kasprzycki, Poland's war minister, went to Paris and during the talks with General Maurice Gamelin, designated for the French supreme commander in case of war, and tried to obtain a commitment that the French army would engage against Germany immediately after an expected attack. It was not until after the war, that Gamelin revealed his anti-Polish feelings. For short, he regarded the Poles for warmongers, who tried to drag France into unpopular war. He promised Kasprzycki, that the French air forces would undertake an action against Germany immediately, whereas land forces would undertake limited offensive operations on the third day of mobilization and would unfold them with bulk forces on the fifteenth day of mobilization. Seven years later he admitted: I had accepted a formula, which always could be logically interpreted. [Gamelin M. (1946).] The most important is the fact, that conclusion of a protocol, which would contain those promises, was postponed until conclusion of a general French-Polish political agreement. Bonnet however preferred to wait a while with such an agreement. And subsequently he was waiting until the war broke out.

The British were more sincere. They promised no wonders, they did not try to conceal the weakness of their land forces. So one relied upon their mighty navy, capable to cut Germany from overseas supplies of raw materials. But one mostly relied upon them as an economical power. Unfortunately, neither British nor French loans were able to solve the problem. Both powers demanded that the loans would be spent on their markets. But they did not offer modern weapons. In Poland, when after Piłsudski's death it was decided to modernize the army, two opposite options were considered: to buy armaments abroad or to develop domestic defence industry. Quite reasonably, the latter was accepted. Unfortunately this reasonable solution was frustrated by another nonsense: modern weapons were sold out abroad and thus remainders of time, money and intellectual potential were wasted. It even came to an absurd paradox: poor Poland sold to Great Britain, one of the world's leading economic powers, over 200 most modern 40mm anti-aircraft guns, manufactured in Poland after purchase of a licence from the Swedish Bofors. Those guns had stood the test during the critical days of the Battle of Britain in 1940, while in 1939 Poland was deprived of anti-air defence.

The annual budget of the Polish state at the time did not exceed a sum of two and half of billion zlotys, what makes about a billion US dollars. In 1934-1939 Poland, extending military shares in annual budget beyond safe limits, spent on armaments about two billion and 600 million US dollars. At the same time Germany spent on armaments about 90 billion marks, what makes 80 billion US dollars. French loans granted in 1937 and spring 1939 theoretically aided Poland with 300 million dollars, but they were wasted on mostly obsolete equipment; besides, French factories used to sell defective items, and long deadlines left many orders unfulfilled. As to the tiny loan of about 80 million dollars granted by Great Britain in spring 1939, it was simply stolen away by corrupted officials.

Looking for additional sources of cash, Polish government had appealed to the society for help. The Loan of the Anti-Air Defence floated, soon had brought marvellous effects - 400 million zlotys, about 80 million US dollars, donated by citizens within one month. By June it was collected enough money and valuables to buy about a thousand of most modern fighter planes. However a large part of these funds miraculously vanished and its fates are still unknown.

Nevertheless the Poles looked forward with optimism. Of course they knew, that the Reich could oppose 35 million Polish citizens with 80 million its own ones, but they were not aware of differences in Poland's and Germany's potentials, moral and military weakness of allies, threat of new weapons and new military doctrines. The more difficult it is to understand the optimism of the state leadership. They did not lack an information about the real state of matters. Nevertheless they expected a miracle: that the Germans would not dare to launch a final adventure, that German economic and social structures would collapse, that alliances would unfailingly do. With time those dolts had coined a slogan "We are strong, united, ready" (Jesteśmy silni, zwarci, gotowi) and let the society believe in invincibility of the Polish cavalry. The enemy meanwhile had new experiences. Spain became a range, where the Germans and Italians had gained valuable experiences and practically tested theories of the modern warfare. The Spanish civil war attracted attention of military specialists from all over Europe, among others from Poland too. But Polish specialists had driven very particular conclusions. For example, they insisted that tanks got damaged very easily, so on Polish roads, especially in bad weather conditions, armoured vehicles would prove to be useless.

Meanwhile British and French governments were exploring, since spring, possibilities of conclusion a military co-operation with the Soviet Union. The Soviet government declared an aid to Czechoslovakia yet during the Munich crisis, but the Soviet offer was rejected mostly due to hostile Poland's position. Now the Russians offered France and Great Britain an alliance of the last chance, which might eventually hold back Hitler's attempts. This however required introduction of Soviet troops to the immediate vicinity of German frontiers, it means Polish territory. In a desperate attempt to save remnants of his policy of balance, Beck refused downright on 19 August. After the pressure from western capitals he agreed to undertake talks with Moscow, but only after a possible aggression. The political situation had though changed rapidly. As the Soviet Union was already menaced by Japan, which was carrying out hostilities in the Far East, the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had decided to secure western frontiers of his state in some measures directly. On 23 August in Moscow was concluded the Germano-Soviet non-aggression pact.

The day before Hitler had summoned a conference of high rank commanders and ordered the attack on Poland on 26 August morning. He claimed that it would cause dismissals of democratic governments and a political chaos in Europe. He also called to ruthlessness, to killing women and children. A gang of criminals, called the German general staff, listened to its Führer with reverence. After all German "fifth column" had already been killing women and children. On 28 August a crowd of passengers was massacred on the railway station in Tarnow by explosion of a time bomb terrorists had concealed in a luggage carriage. And Danzig's Gauleiter Albert Forster was already preparing the first in that area concentration camp in Stutthof. But on 25 August in London was signed the Anglo-Polish pact and the Berlin got panicked. Hitler had decided to postpone the onslaught till 1 September. German divisions were halted literally at the very last moment. A unit, which had not received new orders on time, struck according the old schedule against Jablunkov pass. It was driven back with heavy losses and a German commander had to apologize for, as it was formulated, "irresponsible escapade of an insubordinated officer".

The postponement of the attack had to secure Hitler some time to shake democratic powers. He expected that he would be able to induce them to abandon Poland. His expectations were not completely baseless. The British foreign minister, Lord Edward Wood Halifax, in a talk with Polish ambassador unfolded a concept of a new political compromise with Berlin. Halifax, with Chamberlain, was responsible for Munich tragedy. Now both were looking in dismay at the results of their own deeds and at the ruin of their policy. Yet still they hoped against hope, that they would induce the Poles to make concessions. They made Polish government to call out the general mobilization proclaimed on 29 August. On the same day Hitler demanded from the British ambassador, Sir Neville Henderson, that the British government would prompt the Poles to send a plenipotentiary envoy, ready to accept and sign German conditions. Those conditions were not revealed till the next day when Ribbentrop had mumbled them to Henderson, without presentation of any document though. Henderson was appalled by the form of his reception, but he did not understand, that Hitler did not desire ho have any conditions accepted; all he needed was to spark the war under any pretext. And the pretext was duly delivered.

On 31 August the radio station in Gleiwitz broadcast an appeal to the Polish minority in Silesia to launch an uprising against Germany. That was a heavenly gift. At 12:30 the orders were issued. The attack had to start next day at dawn, namely at 4:45. The battleship Schleswig-Holstein fired her guns exactly on time. But land troops opened fire against Westerplatte at 4:17. Some German units crossed Polish borders at 3:55. German aircraft started bombing Polish cities soon after 4:00. Big was invaders' impatience.