By September 1939, Britain and France had made clear that any nation who invaded Poland would be considered an act of war, which both believed that another war could still be avoided. Hitler and Stalin both believed it to be a bluff, since the League of Nations, as well as other, leaders throughout Europe had shown to lack the will to fight another war.
On September 1, 1939, the Nazi blitzkrieg began in the west. On September 3, 1939, Britain and France declared war without sending a single soldier to Poland to aid in the defense. Naval vessels could have reached Poland, but none were sent.
On September 17, 1939, without a formal declaration of war, Soviets invaded from the east. The Polish military was holding their ground. Warsaw, Lublin, Vilnius and Lviv had not been conquered. Warsaw would stand for another 10 days.
There was no declaration of war against the Soviets that following day. For 16 days, England and France did nothing to send any direct military aid to Poland, which gave the green light to Stalin. Had there been any military movement of British or French forces into Poland during the early days of fighting, Hitler would have been stopped and Stalin never would have invaded from the east. Poland could have been saved along with the countless lives that followed.
4000 Soviet tanks rolled into Poland from the east. Stalin sent more planes than Hitler. Polish troops were not prepared for a second front by the Soviets, which were never made aware of the agreement between Hitler and Stalin. Britain and France both knew of the agreement and never shared with a single member of the Polish government.
The advancing army required Poland to split the military, once they understood the Soviets were not there to come to the aid of Poland. Splitting of forces weakened the western front, where the German Army had been unable to advance any further. Hitler kept most a good portion of his military in Germany to prepare for an invasion he was expecting, which never came. Britain and France did not make a strong move into German territory nor did they send forces into Poland.
According to Sztetl, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, “After the Soviet Union invaded Poland, between 232,000 and 225,000 Polish Army soldiers as well as officers serving in the State Police, Border Protection Corps and other uniformed services were taken prisoner. The Soviets placed more than half of them in POW camps.”
There have been a lot of false beliefs about the state of Poland’s Army in September 1939. As Global Security puts it, “The Polish army of 1939 was not as backward as it is often portrayed and fielded a tank force larger than that of the contemporary US Army… The speedy growth of Soviet tank forces in the 1929-32 period prompted the Poles to issue new instructions for the cavalry in 1933 dealing with antitank combat. Enemy tanks were to be dealt with by the new “P” armor piercing machinegun ammunition and by cavalry, armored cars, and tankettes at short ranges. At greater ranges, horse artillery batteries were to be used.”
Poland had been preparing for an invasion of Soviet forces long before September 1939. That’s the reason they had the number of tanks they did compared to other countries of that same year. There remained some traditional calvary in Poland, as many countries did, but Poland was ahead of those countries in changing from horses to tanks.
In September 1939 Poland had mobilized about 1.1 million people. They were fighting an invading force from Germany, which always gives greater advantage to defender, since they have more to fight for and know the terrain. Germans had been stopped short of reaching any major city by those fighting for their homes and lives of their families.
Global Security does go on to state:
“The Poles had wanted to mobilize much sooner, but delayed at the insistence of the French and British, who feared mobilization would provoke Germany. The Germans, however, did not succeed in gaining tactical surprise as some historians suggest. Poland’s defeat was inevitable so long as France and Britain avoided engaging invading German forces. Even under favorable conditions, Poland could not have resisted the German threat singlehandedly. While the Polish armored forces would not compare with those of Germany or the Red Army, it was large, and in some respects, more modern than tank units in the United States at the time.”
Although central Poland is flat and open, which is what is needed for tanks then and today, there are vast portions that are heavily wooded, making it easy to defend from an infantry perspective. Poland has a lot of water features requiring bridges to cross, which can be destroyed leaving tanks ineffective. Building bridges to cross makes for good targets for snipers. The Carpathian Mountains are in the south, which makes the region easier to defend than take.
Had it not been for the splitting of forces to deal with the Soviets, the Polish military would have retreated to any number of places to carry out attacks on German targets. Planes and tanks in 1939 were no match for forests and mountains. We will never know the result of only facing the German military, since history did not play out any other way than what happened.
In April 1940, the Katyn Massacre took place. According to Britannica, “April 13, 1943, the Germans announced that they had discovered mass graves of Polish officers in the Katyn forest near Smolensk, in western Russian S.F.S.R. A total of 4,443 corpses were recovered that had apparently been shot from behind and then piled in stacks and buried… German and Red Cross investigations of the Katyn corpses then produced firm physical evidence that the massacre took place in early 1940, at a time when the area was still under Soviet control.”
There is one who stands out more than the others who were murdered, Baruch Steinburg, who was the Chief Rabbi of the Polish military. It was not a Nazi bullet that ended the life of a Rabbi, but a Soviet bullet. According to Stetzl, “In 1939, after the Red Army invaded Poland, Rabbi Baruch Steinberg was taken prisoner. He was kept in the Starobilsk camp, in the Butyrka prison in Moscow, and in the Yukhnov and Kozelsk camps. It is known that he organized collective prayers in the camps.
Bronisław Młynarski’s book about being a Soviet prisoner called W niewoli sowieckiej (In Soviet Captivity), recalled what happened to Rabbi Steinburg. “On 11-12 April 1940, Rabbi Baruch Steinberg was “placed at the disposal” of the Smolensk District NKVD. He was killed in the Katyn forest probably on 12 or 14 April 1940. He was 42.”
No Soviet officials were ever charged with the crime of murdering unarmed and bound POWs, including Rabbi Steinburg. Far too many ignore the crimes the Soviets committed as allies of Germany as well as from the moment they became enemies. History should never be buried for political convenience, which is the only reason to explain the lack of charges against Soviet officials who were every bit as guilty of war crimes as the Nazis and Imperial Japan.