On 1st September 1939, Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland; the event which began the Second World War.
Britain had previously tried a policy of appeasement with Hitler in order to prevent a war. Despite the promises made in Munich in 1938, Nazi Germany continued its aggressive territorial expansion.
The Triple Entente
Britain and France had declared they would begin a war and come to Poland’s defence if the country was attacked by Nazi Germany. The Triple Entente of the First World War between Britain, France and Russia had been renewed. Although now Russia was a Communist country under Josef Stalin, the Western powers had been reluctant to ally with Russia; however their assistance would be needed as in the First World War to occupy Germany on two fronts. In late August 1939 Nazi Germany and Russia had signed the Nazi-Soviet pact, which stated that both countries would not fight one another should war occur. It was beneficial for both sides although there was little trust between Nazi Germany and Russia.
Invasion of Poland
Hitler’s decision to invade Poland was of high risk, the German Army was not up to full power or equipped with enough arms and ammunition for a full-scale war. Some historians believe that because of the policy of appeasement Hitler believed Britain and France would not declare war on Germany if the Nazis invaded Poland, although Britain and France and guaranteed to defend Poland. However the plan to invade Poland was to go ahead. On September 1st 1939, Poland was attacked from the air by German bombers with armoured Panzer (tank) divisions advancing rapidly into the country. The Polish army fought back as best they could but compared to the advanced tactics and mechanisation of the Wehrmacht, they stood little chance.
The Polish army still had many cavalry units who were armed with lances and not much else, against Panzer divisions they were wiped out. The Luftwaffe bombed Polish towns and villages mercilessly to install fear and panic in the population, many strategic targets were attacked such as railway lines. On the 17th September the Red Army entered Poland from its eastern border as part of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the two sides intended to divide Poland between themselves.The Blitzkrieg (literally lightning war) plan worked so effectively and efficiently in Poland. The Polish army continued to fight on but by September 27th they had little option other than to surrender to Nazi Germany.
As soon as the Germans attacked, Poland sent urgent messages to Britain and France for their assistance. On September 3rd Britain declared war on Germany and the Second World War had begun. However Britain and France did very little in the way of military reaction and for this reason the last quarter of 1939 was dubbed the ‘phoney war’. The French army observed the actions and were prepared for a defensive rather than attacking battle, but eventually fell back. The RAF were mobilised and dropped leaflets urging peace as opposed to dropping bombs. Despite initial apprehensions the rapid success for Nazi Germany of the invasion of Poland and the military inaction from Britain and France encouraged Hitler to begin planning invasions of Western European countries.
- Bendersky, Joseph W. A History of Nazi Germany: 1919-1945. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.
- Burleigh, M. The Third Reich: A New History. London: Macmillan, 2001.