The forgotten war

As someone who was brought up and spent most of my life living in the UK, it has become more and more apparent how much of what historical information we are taught, or access is based on a Western European perspective. It is of course understandable to a degree, but it unfortunately allows for a biased, incomplete, or inaccurate picture to be formed of events.

In the case of learning about the Second World War, I recall at school being taught that the war started with the Invasion of Poland, but beyond that, very little detail followed regarding this actual event. Sure, we were quick to understand how formidable a war machine the German Army was in 1939 and there was of course, a nod to the bravery of the Polish defence. But by and large, the details were often missing. The entire Invasion often condensed into a few lines – to serve as a starter for the ‘main course’ – the attack on France.

Map of Poland in 1938.

It makes sense to a degree – certainly for most British students, France is a much more familiar European country – featuring throughout our history teaching as our erstwhile enemy and its language regularly taught in our classrooms. And many a British child would have already made the trip across the channel before they even reach Secondary school. France is familiar. And close. And we tend to already know quite a lot about it.

Poland on the other hand, remains a mystery to many – even with so many native Poles living in the UK and other parts of Western Europe now. A fair few individuals would struggle to even locate it on a map or name a city beyond Warsaw. Its language can appear a mystery with its extra, unfamiliar letters; the names of its places sometimes unpronounceable to us. Which is a shame because – as I found out whilst conducting my research on this key event in the Second World War – a great deal of important events happened and the story of those events – particularly for the gallant Poles – deserved to reach a wider audience.

Timeline of the  German Invasion of Poland

The Invasion of Poland (1939): Every Hour - produced by Yan Xishan

History repeating

Despite all the pain and suffering. Despite everything that had – or should have – been learnt, once again, Europe found itself plunged into war. On the 1st of September 1939, German forces acting on orders from Hitler, invaded its neighbour – the Republic of Poland. The conflict would take a terrible toll on Poland and 6 million of its people would die before the end of the war. Poland lost approximately a fifth of its population during the conflict.

Prior to this, the world had seen the inexorable rise of Adolf Hitler as his Nazi Germany had steadily and ominously grown in power and confidence, swallowing up first a willing Austria and then adding an unfortunate Czechoslovakia. It seemed only a matter of time before he would act again yet the countries of Europe seemed powerless to act – either looking the other way or stalling for time.

Polish Prime Minister, Felicjan Sławoj Składkowski


Fuhrer of German, Adolf Hitler

Hitler dreamt over conquering Europe and correctly guessed that – to begin with at least – the other European nations would do little to stop him. His actions in Austria and Czechoslovakia and the relative passivity of countries such as Britain and France had reinforced this idea.

The Topeka Daily Capital, Topeka, Kansas, September 1, 1939.

He was also contemptuous of many of the new nations that had been formed after the end of the First World War. As some of these countries contained significant amounts of ethnic Germans and had been granted land that was formerly part of the German Empire, Hitler saw this as an additional reason to bring them under Nazi control.

Newspapers reporting the Invasion of Poland,

German and Polish army dispositions on the eve of the German invasion.

The Invasion of Poland

After diplomatic relations between Poland and Germany broke down, the latter, using the ‘false flag’ Gliewitz incident as an excuse to attack, invaded Poland across several fronts, quickly conquering large tracts of land and capturing cities and towns, despite brave Polish resistance.

  • The Baltic Coast saw the first shots of the war fired at Westerplatte and a series of naval skirmishes as Nazi Germany endeavoured to extinguish the Polish Corridor and link Danzig and East Prussia with the rest of Germany. The Poles previous execution of the Peking Plan saving some of their naval forces from destruction, with the remaining vessels powerless to prevent Germany achieving their objectives.
  • The Battle of the Border saw a series of intense battles break out along the German-Polish border as the Germans, without bothering to declare war first, invaded at several points with two separate armies – Army Group North and Army Group South, with the Polish forces bravely attempting but ultimately failing to stem the German tide.
  • Germany made more significant advances during the period of 4-10 September, and despite a heroic Polish defence at Wizna and a clash of armoured forces at Piotrków Trybunalski, they continued to drive deeper into Poland.
  • On the Northern Front, the Germans closed in on the Polish Capital, Warsaw, placing it under siege and bringing the horrors of the war to the residents of the city. And despite the largest Polish counterattack of the war at Bzura, the Germans drove deeper into Poland, overcoming desperate Polish resistance and pushing the defenders further back.
  • On the Southern Front, the Polish actions at the Przemyśl managed to delay the German advance for three days and Tomaszów Lubelski saw the biggest tank battle of the entire campaign, although the Germans continued to grind down the Polish defenders and gradually conquer more and more territory.
  • In the air, the outnumbered Polish air force, often flying obsolete aircraft, bravely took on the mighty Luftwaffe, flying modern and well-equipped aircraft, with many of its pilots having gained valuable experience serving in the Spanish Civil War.

  • As a further blow, the Soviets – in an unholy alliance with their soon to be enemies – briefly allied with Nazi Germany to divide up Poland – as agreed in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and launched their attack on Poland on the 17 September, using it as an opportunity to settle historical scores with their old adversary.

The invasion in stages

A set of maps illustrating the German invasion of Poland.

The end

Last of Polish army surrenders on October 6, 1939, ending the invasion.

Oakland Tribune

With the surrender of Poland on 6th October 1939, the country was divided between Germany and the Soviet Union.


With the inevitable Polish surrender on 6th October, what followed was six years of torment for the Polish people. Their country torn apart and occupied; entire sections of the population forced into slave labour, imprisoned in concentration camps, or simply murdered; brutal treatment handed out by both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. The very existence of Poland came into doubt.

A lucky few managed to escape to friendly countries and carry on the fight from afar but for many – trapped in occupied territory – it became a day-by-day struggle to survive.

Further reading