Thursday, September 1, 2016

Making World War Official—September 1, 1939

Hittler and members of the General Staff review troops marching into Poland.  Mechanization of the German army was not complete and the tank driven blitzkrieg not yet perfected.  Much of the army, especially artillery and supply trains still moved by horse power. 

The exact beginning of the greatest cataclysm in the history—so far—is harder to pin point than you might imagine.  In the early 1930’s Japan and Italy were honing their war skills and adding to their empires with attacks on, respectively, Manchuria and Abyssinia (Ethiopia.)  The Germans and Italians on one side and to a lesser extent the Russians on the other used the Spanish Civil War as a kind of laboratory for modern war.  In 1937 Japan opened up war with China, Throughout the late 1930’s Adolph Hitler continued to blatantly re-arm in pretty much open violation of the Versailles Treaty that ended World War I and used that gathering might to cower Britain and France into acquiescing to aggressive land grabs in the Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia.  All of this was part of the slide into the eventual universal conflagration known as World War II.
Americans are apt to believe the whole thing started on December 7, 1941 when the Japanese bombed  Pearl Harbor.  But of course war had raged in Europe and Asia for years.
Open up any text book and you will find an exact date for the beginning of the war—September 1, 1939.  It came just one week after the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, the German and Russian non-aggression pact that also secretly called for the division of Poland.
On the night of August 31 a small group of German operatives, dressed in Polish uniforms seized the Gleiwitz radio station in Silesia and broadcast a short anti-German message in Polish.
To “prove” that attack was the work of the Poles, Franciszek Honiok, a German Silesian known for sympathizing with the Poles and who had been arrested the previous day by the Gestapo was dressed in a Polish uniform and then killed by lethal injection.  His body was riddled with gunshot wounds, and left at the scene. The corpse was subsequently presented as proof of the attack to the police and press.
The reason for this elaborate but transparent ruse was to provide justification for a German declaration of war against Poland as an act of self-defense and not a violation of international law.  The hope was that the French and British, pledged to the defense of Poland, might be cowed once again and refrain from action.  As early as August 22 with preparation for the invasion of Poland in full swing Hitler told his generals, “I shall give a propaganda reason for starting the war; whether it is plausible or not. The victor will not be asked whether he told the truth.”
On September 1 in a speech to the Reichstag, Hitler cited the Gleiwitz incident and twenty other equally spurious episodes of Polish “aggression” against Germany and ethnic Germans in its territory.  By then the tanks were already rolling.  The long planned invasion had started across the border shortly after 4 am.
The pride of Poland was its cavalry which rode gallantly but futility against the Nazi tanks.  It was a virtual last hurrah of mounted warfare.
The Poles, who were partially mobilized as tensions grew, put up as good a defense as possible.  They hoped to hold out long enough for promised British and French intervention.  Despite inferior equipment and numbers, they slowed the highly mechanized German advance in many places.  But they were relatively helpless against German air superiority.  Their whole defense plan collapsed on September 17 when the Russians attacked from the rear.  

The Poles managed to get sizable numbers of their troops over the border to neutral Romania, including many officers of the Polish Air Force, before the country was completely over run on October 6.  Some of these troops and airmen eventually made it to Britain from which they participated as Free Polish forces in the D-Day invasion and French campaign.

Polish women farm workers killed in a Stuka attack.
On September 3 at 11:15 AM British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced on BBC Radio that the deadline of the final British ultimatum for the withdrawal of German troops from Poland expired at 11:00am and that “consequently this nation is at war with Germany”. Australia, India, and New Zealand also declared war on Germany within hours.  The French followed a few hours later.

The British and French began mobilization, but were not ready to materially aid Poland.  And they never extended their declaration of war to the second aggressive party, the Soviet Union.  There followed months of the so called Phony War as the Allies built up forces and dithered in France.  That ended when Hitler shifted his forces from the East and launched his invasion of France on May 10, 1940.  Chamberlain’s government fell and Winston Churchill became British Prime minister. 
There would be no more Phony War.

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