On the other side, the Poles drew from 39 total divisions with 500,000 men with no mechanized forces to speak of and only 392 combat-ready aircraft. Yet what they lacked in armament they made up for in resistance. For example, one opening conflict was near Gdansk, the valuable port city on the Baltic that had been taken away from Germany in the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler envisioned the capture of this part of East Prussia as a major morale booster on the first day of the war. In late August the ancient battleship Schleswig-Holstein entered the port under the false pretense of an exercise, but on 1 September opened fire on the Polish island of Westerplatte that protected the harbor. The Germans also sent in a team of ground troops that were beaten back by a 182 man garrison at the loss of only 15 Polish lives. The Germans, however, lost over 200 men and were only able to capture the city after seven days of continuous attacks and the arrival of substantial reinforcements. A similar situation occurred at the naval base at Hela, which held out for a full month under tremendous pressure from German planes, ships, and soldiers. These were not a typical victories for the Poles, but they typify the unbreakable Polish spirit that was determined to stop the German attack at any cost. However, determination can only take an army so far. German high altitude bombers effectively destroyed communication and transportation lines, creating instant disorder. Footsoldiers were introduced to one of Germany's most effective weapons, the Ju-87 Stuka dive bomber, with its trademark siren that proved to be as demoralizing as it was accurate. Roads became a gridlock of cars, trucks, horses, carts, soldiers & civilians and the entire country seemed to be in utter chaos. Even the Germans were occasionally caught up in the confusion, as legendary tank genius General Heinz Guderian, was almost killed in an auto accident when German artillery forced his car into a ditch.
There are several myths that surround the Polish campaign in WWII. One common myth is that the Luftwaffe wiped out the helpless Polish air force on the ground in the opening days of the war. Certainly the Germans enjoyed air superiority and their planes caused tremendous damage, but in fact their attacks on Polish air bases proved utterly ineffective. Some of the first shots fired in the war came from German dive bombers at 4:30am, who struck an airfield in Poznan, but the base had already been evacuated. The Poles had secretly hidden their best aircraft at alternate bases, although it is true that the Luftwaffe did severely damage the bases themselves, their supply depots and the aircraft used for spare parts. However, no functioning Polish aircraft was destroyed on the ground until 14 September, two weeks into the war.
Another popular myth is that the millions of Germans stormed into Poland on motorcycles, motorized troop carriers, and tanks. Nazi propaganda tried to show the world that their Wehrmacht was armed with dozens of armored divisions, but in reality they only had 6 true divisions. German armor production was in its early stages and the tanks that made it to the front were mostly light tanks only carrying machine guns--the PzKw I and PzKw II. The Germans relied on horses to do the bulk of the transportation as well as reconnaissance, and nearly all artillery was pulled by horses. The vast majority of the infantry had to march on foot. In fact, the average German infantry division employed nearly 5,000 horses and was not completely motorized until 10 years after the war ended. Still, this proved to be enough to overwhelm the Poles. Poland had less than 1/3 the armor strength of the Germans, but were still greater in numbers than the United States.
The most infamous myth is the fantasy that the Polish cavalry charged at German tanks. These units were thought to be the best horsemen in Europe, but were relied upon mainly for their cost-effectiveness, since few vehicles were available. Despite their antiquated means of travel, Polish cavalry were used primarily as heavy infantry for break-outs or surprise attacks. They carried machine guns, 7.92mm anti-tank rifles, and 37mm anti-tank guns which could easily take out German armor. Cavalry charges were not a standard tactic, but on the first day of the war a Polish cavalry regiment discovered a battalion of Germans in a field and led a charge against them. The Germans were caught off guard and suffered severe casualties, but were rescued by the advancing panzers, who opened fire on the exposed cavalry. The Poles fled, but only lost 20 men, including the commanding officer, Colonel Kazimierz Mastelarz. However, when Italian journalists visited the battlefield the following day, the Germans told them that the cavalry had charged against their tanks and were wiped out. This fabrication was put into print and the Nazi propaganda made sure it was widely publicized, and therefore widely believed.
Polish commanders hoped that Poland's usual early fall rainstorms would slow the German advance, but the weather remained perfect for their blitzkrieg. The ground was hard and the rivers were low from conditions that some people called "Hitler weather." The blitzkrieg itself was not inherently new or German, as French and British strategists toyed with the idea in the 1920s and 1930s. However, the validity of a large mobile assault was not widely accepted and the Germans were the first to devise a successful plan and implement it. The blitzkrieg, literally "lightning war," was a name given by the Allies for a new style of attack developed by legendary German General Erich von Manstein, who devised the German invasion of western Europe. The idea was to select the weakest point in the enemy's line and attack to the sides of that point, drawing troops to that area and further weakening it. Then the Germans would use the Luftwaffe to bomb behind enemy lines, causing great confusion and disorder. The armored vehicles would then punch through the weak spot easily, and German infantry would pour through the hole in the enemy line, using motorized troop carriers whenever possible. Portions of the spearhead would break off to guard the flanks in a shield for further reinforcements and supplies to support the attack. One of the keys to victory was the emphasis on speed, and the Germans had to travel light to keep up with the advances of the tanks. The typical German footsoldier carried just a rifle with 60 rounds, 2 hand grenades, gas mask, canteen, shovel, mess kit and knapsack, allowing the Germans to march as much as 40 miles a day.
For Poland, the real dilemma was not the obvious German military superiority, but rather the lack of reinforcements or outside help, so any Polish victory was short lived because they had nothing to back it up with. The Germans, on the other hand, could easily deploy reinforcements when and where they wanted. Britain and France had told Poland not to activate reserve units prior to avoid any instigation of conflict, and once the invasion began, Polish reserves were helplessly stuck in transit or cut off from the front. The Poles were also at a great disadvantage industrially, and they could never sustain a prolonged war without importing materials and goods from distant France or Britain. Their country was also extremely vulnerable to invasion, as it had been for hundreds of years and this war was no different. Poland's wide, flat plains offered no natural barriers to help with the defense. To top it all off, Poland was not very unified in its population after the Treaty of Versailles redefined Poland's borders. Approximately 1/3 of the population was not ethnically Polish, and it was impossible to gather the Ukrainian, Belorussian, Lithuanian and German minorities to fight and die for a land they did not necessarily recognize as their native homeland.
As the fighting continued, German commanders were worried about an attack from the west, but Hitler knew the ill-prepared and cautious Allies would not dare mount an offensive. It was a big gamble on Hitler's part, throwing that much manpower at Poland with just a fraction of their army defending Germany's western borders, but it paid off. Not only did the blitzkrieg shorten the length of the campaign, but it was a vulgar display of power that was widely publicized and twisted by the Nazi propaganda machine. Besides, the ever confident Göring was sure his Luftwaffe would neutralize any threat, boasting, "if an enemy bomb reaches the Ruhr, my name is not Hermann Göring!" Realizing they could not wait for Allied help, the Polish government fled on 4 September, and the High Command followed 3 days later on their journey to Romania. A glimmer of hope appeared on 10 September as General Tadeusz Kutrzeba led a successful counterattack on an overextended German division. However, the Poles’ poor organization could not capitalize on the opportunity and were eventually surrounded. These pockets of Polish troops were not only cut off from reinforcements or escape, but became opportunities for German air attacks. One major section of Polish resistance near the Bzura river became known as the Battle of Bzura Cauldron because the Luftwaffe could essentially bomb the trapped masses at will. As one Stuka pilot put it, "It's hardly necessary to take aim. Such a target is impossible to miss." Poland's leaders decided to slowly fall back and wait for the inevitable British & French attack on Germany. The attack never came, only the advancement of the Germans, until Warsaw was finally encircled on 15 September. It was only a matter of time before the Germans were victorious over the weary Polish army, who had been fighting for more than two weeks alone against the most formidable army in the world.
Even so, Polish citizens tried to turn Warsaw into a fortress as they dug 13 miles of trenches, overturned furniture, cars and trolleys to form makeshift barricades. Sniper fire and Molotov cocktails rained down on the arrival of German troops. The 140,000 remaining Polish soldiers held on for another week amidst horrifically intense street fighting that could be compared to the chaos in Stalingrad. Hitler was so enraged at the German inability to take the city that he ordered a "carpet bombing" and sent 420 bombers to level the city on 25 September, which the Poles still call "Black Monday." Refugees fled the Polish capital, but the Germans forced them back in order to starve the city into a surrender. The last bombing attacks were again from the Ju-87 Stukas, followed by incindiary bombs from Ju-52 transports, eventually bringing Warsaw to its knees. This was too much for the defenders, who were out of food, water, electricity and munitions, forcing them to finally surrender on 27 September. Modlin held out for another two days under a merciless bombardment before surrendering to the SS. Hela held off the Germans until 1 October when it was clear that continued resistance was pointless. Within hours of the surrender in a rail car in Rakow, the SS began gathering Jews to be sent to concentration camps or simply executed on the spot. For anyone who wanted to continue the fight, carrying or hiding anything that could be used as a weapon was grounds for immediate execution. After losing Warsaw, the Poles’ only hope was to consolidate resistance in the southeast on the Romanian border and regroup while awaiting help from the West. Poland would not be rescued. The last organized fighting ceased on 6 October in Kock, near Warsaw, ending the opening act of what would be 5˝ more years of brutal war.
Stalin later announced he would acquire Lithuania, which did not adhere to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, but Hitler conceded, probably because he believed in two years he would control all the Russian lands anyway. 100,000 Polish soldiers fled to Romania, who would later fight with the British and French, who would also try to win back Europe. Other Polish troops were captured by the Soviets, some of whom were integrated units that later fought off the Germans. Unfortunately, thousands of others were put in the Gulag, tortured or executed, all of which was kept a secret for decades. On a positive note, some destroyers and submarines escaped to safe waters, who later fought alongside the British. Additionally, 98 Polish aircraft made it to Romania, and many Polish pilots became heroes in the Battle of Britain, with one Polish squadron having the highest kill score. No fewer than 58 Polish pilots were confirmed Aces by the end of the war.
The Polish army had 66,300 killed, 133,700 wounded and 587,000 captured (with an additional 200,000 taken by the Soviets), as well as losing virtually all of their military assets. Nazi propaganda whitewashed the campaign and concealed the true figures, but it was a very costly month for Germany. The Germans had 16,000 killed, 32,000 wounded, 217 destroyed tanks and 457 damaged, 285 destroyed aircraft and 279 damaged, plus a loss of 370 guns and 11,000 vehicles. Perhaps the most startling fact is that the Germans used up 8 months worth of munitions, parts, and fuel in a 1 month campaign. Clearly the Polish army did significant damage to the German war machine, and in fact the Poles accounted for half of their losses up until the invasion of the USSR. They lasted for 36 days, which is only 3 days less than the combined Western Allies lasted, who had 99 divisions and 3500 aircraft and months to prepare. It is mind boggling to think how the war might have turned out differently if any help had been given to the Poles in their time of need. While it is unlikely that Poland could have been saved, an early two-front war might have quickly ended Hitler’s quest for European domination.