How well prepared for war was Poland in 1939?
Poland had long been wary of attack from her more powerful neighbours, Germany and the Soviet Union. Following the first World War a series of policies were put into place to develop and strengthen the military organisation and might of Poland in order to counter these possible longer term threats.
The Polish air force was created in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. This force was limited to imports, mainly from France, and suffered from being rather aged upon purchase. However throughout the 1920’s and 30’s improvements were made to the quality of armament borne by Polish aircraft and by September 1939 had a relatively modern air force comprising 164 fighters armed with fixed guns from a range of producers including Vickers and BAR. Though smaller than the air forces of her neighbours, this was a force sizeable enough to pose a problem for any invading force. The limitations of the air force were notable however, the planes, Polish produced by 1939, were fewer in number, had less effective weaponry than the fighter planes of the Luftwaffe and were not all of the highest quality. Polish pilots, on the other hand, had many hours flying time and had flown many hours of practice sorties.
The Polish army is often presented as being woefully incapable. That they fought the Panzers as cavalrymen riding into battle on horseback is more than a little far fetched. The Poles had, by 1939, a mechanised armed force. In September 1939, the Poles had assembled:
– 2 light tank battalions (1st, 2nd) – 7TP – 49 x 7TP light tanks each
– 1 light tank battalion (21st) – R-35 – 45 x Renault R-35 light tanks
– 11 armored units (battalions) (reconnaissance) – 8 armour ed cars and 13 tankettes each
– 15 independent reconnaissance tank companies – 13 x TK /TKS tankettes each
– 3 light tank companies – FT-17 – 15 x Renault FT-17 light tanks
– 10 armour ed trains – numbers: 11-15, 51-55.
– 2 motorized brigades : – light tank company – 16 x Vickers E light tanks
– reconnaissance tank company – 13 x TK /TKS tankettes
– reconnaissance battalion – 13 x TK /TKS tankettes
The 10th Cavalry Brigade (motorized) – the 10.BK
The Warsaw Armored-Motorized Brigade – WBP-M
Source: Polish Armoured Formations
These battalions were supplemented by a large number of support vehicles, many of which could be adapted for more efficient military use in case of war: trains could easily be armed, for example.
The Poles had devised a range of strategies for dealing with invasions. The armed forces had undertaken maneuvers that simulated invasions from Germany, Russia and both simultaneously. As a result the armed forces were allocated areas of the frontier that they were to defend. Cavalry units were to scout and area of some 9km, infantry units then had fortified positions that acted as the main line of defense and then major cities had their own battalions which would defend individual sites of strategic importance. These were to be supported by the Polish air force and the motorised brigades.
Some historians have claimed that the Poles were caught by surprise in September 1939. This appears to be far from the truth. By 1939 Polish cryptographers had managed to break the codes of several German cipher machines (better known as Enigma). This meant that german communications were not entirely secure and provided the poles with advance notice of troops movements. German intelligence had mounted an increasing number of reconnaissance flights over Poland in the summer of 1939, these had hardly gone unnoticed. Additionally the Poles were aware of the troop movements in germany that saw a large number of divisions gathering along the frontier.
Polish strategy did however rely on one crucial event. Throughout their simulations and war games, the Poles had assumed a near immediate response from Romania or France, with whom Poland had mutual assistance pacts. These foreign policy agreements were intended to subject any invading force to a war on two fronts, thus diminishing the weight of force that could be thrown into Poland.
Polish Aircraft – This site provides a detailed look at the armaments of the Polish air force in the years leading up to the war.
Polish Armoured Formations – This site looks at the Polish army and the types of armed vehicles developed and deployed in the late 1930’s.
Polish Army – A detailed explanation of Polish battalions, tactics and preparations for any war with Germany or the Soviet Union.
Causes of the Second World War How well prepared for war was Germany in 1939? How well prepared for war was Poland in 1939?
How well prepared for war was Britain in 1939? How well prepared was the Soviet Union for war in 1939? How well prepared for war was France in 1939?
Statistical analysis of Europe’s readiness for war in 1939