Throughout the 1930s Poland would prepare for war.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 110: The September Campaign Pt. 2 - Polish Rearmament. Last episode we discussed some of the political developments that had occurred in Poland in the years before the war, this episode we are going to focus solely on the developments of the Polish military. The Polish military that would meet the German invasion in 1939 was not a backward thinking, poorly equipped, military by the standards of Europe at this time. There had been a large amount of investment made to try and equip the army and air force with the best military equipment available, but there were limits to what a smaller nation like Poland could do. It would be the limit on resources, and not incorrect assumptions about how the war would be fought, that would be the greatest problem for the Polish forces in September 1939. This episode will revolve around how that military was prepared, first looking at the military budgets of the 1930s, before moving into a discussion of the equipment that the money would be used to purchase, before closing out with a discussion of how the Polish military was organized. All of these items are crucial to understanding why the Polish campaign developed as it did, and the plans for national defense, which we will discuss next episode, were driven by and constructed within the constraints of the available equipment.
As I have mentioned in previous episodes, looking at military spending between nations can be challenging because it never directly translates between the different currencies. Even with exchange rates, when they are available, it still isn’t perfect because some things are just more expensive in some areas based on resource availability, trade agreements, and availability of local manufacturing facilities. What we can look at is the percentage of total GDP that was spent on military spending, which shows us how much of the funds available to a nation were being spent on military related items. Unfortunately for the Polish military, the total size of the resources available was greatly impacted by the Great Depression. The entire Polish economy was hit hard, particularly by the drastic reductions in agricultural export prices, but more directly related to military production later in the decade, coal exports dropped by a 1/4 and steel production dropped by 1/5. By the year before the war started the economy had mostly recovered, but it still hindered the critical early years of rearmament. During the period of 1935-1937 Poland would spend about 10 percent of its GDP on defense, with the number increasing after the Munich Crisis and by 1939 this had greatly increased, at least in comparison to the number from earlier years. But the problem that Poland could never solve was that its enemies were spending massively more, because they just had more resources. During 1939 Polish military spending was dwarfed by what the Germans were spending at the same time, and for the Germans a much larger percentage of their spending was done on new equipment and expanding their capabilities, but because the Polish raw number was so much smaller, by necessity, most of it was spent simply on upkeep, maintenance, and basic infrastructure. They did of course try to buy or build new equipment, which will be discussed shortly, but there were limits. During these years of spending there was also the option to kickstart spending by getting foreign loans, and option that seemed far more likely and possible after the Munich Agreement when both Britain and France started to become far more concerned about the possibility of a war. But the simple problem was that both of those nations were also in the midst of massive rearmament efforts. This made the governments in Paris and London hesitant to give large enough loans to Poland for the purchase of impactful military equipment. It also made it difficult to justify sending military goods to Poland when it was felt that both the British and French militaries were desperately in need of the same equipment and supplies. The Polish government would make official requests for some financial support to both governments, but both would simply delay providing large amounts of money. This delay would continue until it was too late, and by the time that funds were made available it would prove to be largely too late for goods and equipment to be purchased and sent back to Poland before the German invasion.
The Polish military had some of the most recent experience in fighting in Europe due to their experiences in the Polish-Soivet war, and during the interwar period those who had fought and led units during that war still were prominent figures in Polish military planning. That war had been very different than the fighting during the First World War, with the Red Army’s invasion being a war of constant maneuver and improvisation. This experience would influence how they viewed a possible future confrontation, but there was still an effort to try and determine now just how the past wars had been fought, but what the Polish military needed to do to fight a future war, to this end a committee was setup in 1935 to make recommendations on what should be done. The result was a six year rearmament program, with the goal of greatly increasing the motorization, anti-tank capabilities, and communication infrastructure of the Polish military. The hope was that once these changes had been made the Polish forces would be capable of being successful at what was being asked of them, which was not really an indefinite defense against either a German or Russian attack. This was because, even as early as 1936 when German rearmament was really just getting started, the Polish War College would define success for the Polish military was maintaining a defense for just six weeks. It was not the most optimistic view of what would happen in case of a war, but it was a pretty realistic view of what a war against Germany would look like in 1939, at least before the Soviet Union also invaded. The hope was that however many weeks the Poles could hold to their defenses would provide time for their allies in Western Europe to begin their own offensives to begin to pull German strength out of Poland. In theory, if everything went well, all the Polish forces needed to do was hold the line against the first German attacks, absorb those early efforts, and then wait for the threat to Western Germany to force the Wehrmacht to reposition its forces. If the goal was to mount a defense that bought time, the obvious answer might have been a series of fixed defenses on the border with Germany. In the late 1920s a study was done by the Polish staff, but the overall recommendation of the study was mixed. The general recommendation was that it would be good to have some fixed defenses to aid the defending units in their defense, particularly in some of the border regions where it was inevitable that an attack would move through. But even in the areas where defenses were recommended, there would only be some construction before the war. One of the major problems, and this will be a recurring theme for this entire episode, was that fortifications were expensive, and they did not provide a lot of flexibility. This was a problem for Poland, which was both resource constrained, but also had a lot of threatened border to defend, not just on the border with Germany but also to the East and the Soviet Union. There were also some areas where the amount of defenses that would be required were out of all proportion to its usefulness to overall defense, like the Danzig corridor. Both of those reasons were combined with the fact that many, if not most Polish political leaders believed that a future war would be more dynamic, with movement and maneuver being key, and that it was better to spend the money on bolstering the capabilities of Polish reserves and counter attack forces.
Speaking of dynamic combat, movement, and maneuver, we have to talk about cavalry. The most persistent myth about the Polish campaign is undoubtedly the one about the Polish cavalry charging German tanks but nothing but their lances and sabers. A complete and total fabrication, and we will get to that, trust me, but Poland did have a sizable number of soldiers in cavalry units. But the amount of cavalry in the Polish army was already in decline by 1937 and as a percentage of the total manpower it would drop from 14.2 to 8.1 percent from 1937 until the start of the war. Beyond just their numbers, there are three key facts that have to be understood about the Polish cavalry if their presence and actions is to be properly analyzed. The first is that almost every army in the world still had cavalry units in 1939, including the German Army, and in many of those armies cavalry troops still carried a saber, just like the Poles did. The second key fact is that for Poland, the cavalry gave them a level of mobility that was not possible in any other way. Poland would struggle to meet its goals for motorized and mechanized troops due to its small domestic manufacturing base, and without the ability to motorize units the second best option to provide mobility beyond the speed of walking was through putting those men on horses. This mobility had been crucial during the Polish-Soviet War, where the battlefields had been very wide open, and it was believed that during the next war such mobility would be an important part of success. As part of the Polish plans for a war with Germany, cavalry was seen as an important way to respond to German attacks, allowing a certain number of men to be a fact action reserve for a greater area of the front. The third key fact was in how they fought. Just like almost every other cavalry force around the world at this time, the Polish cavalry was not going to line up abreast and execute a medieval charge. Instead their goal was to use the mobility provided by their mounts to move around the battlefield, and then engage the enemy often in dismounted combat. And their mobility was not just limited to moving men with rifles, and cavalry brigades would also be able to call upon machine guns and anti-tank guns if required, there were never enough of these items, or of artillery, but that was just as true in Polish infantry units.
There was an effort to build out Polish armored units throughout the 1930s, but as with in other areas the Polish military was starting from a position of weakness. Polish society was far less reliant on motor vehicles than its neighbors, with the total number of civilian motorized vehicles in all of Poland was somewhere around 24,000 in 1936, whereas that number was around 1,000,000 in Germany. The lack of domestic motor vehicle industry in the mid 1930s would hamper efforts to expand the domestic production of vehicles of all types for the military. This meant that the Polish military was was dependent on imports of foreign models, but efforts would be made to change this. What funds that were available were invested in expanding production capacity, and to help things a long a few foreign models would be purchased for license production. This included a light tank from Vickers and a tankette in the early 1930s. The purchase of foreign designs was common for nations that were trying to build up their own design and production capacity because it was much easier to produce a known design rather than try and produce a new design. In the case of the armor designs purchased by Polish firms, small adjustments would be made to the designs but they would remain largely the same. Then by 1939 Polish industry would be capable of producing quality machines, not just of foreign designs, but also of domestic designs that were just entering production. They would never be able to produce them on the same quantities as the Germans or the Soviets, but they were able to create the capability of production. Unfortunately for Polish armored forces, the war started too soon, the 7TP light tank had started to enter service, but the new medium tank models were just a few months away from entering production. But in some ways having more tanks would have caused even more fuel shortages which greatly reduced the ability of Polish armor units to operate effectively. Even with the problems there would be both armored units and an increasing number of motorized units created in the Polish army by summer 1939, including efforts to motorize cavalry divisions. Also, in a similar vein, the Polish army would have 10 armored trains, and I think armored trains are really cool. The Polish trains were generally quite old, with many being left over from the Polish-Soviet war, but they still mounted artillery pieces and machine guns. We will chat about armored trains again when we start discussing the actions after September 1, they would not be a game changing piece of equipment, but in my mind that doesn’t make them less cool.
Along with tanks the Polish military would have all of the other types of equipment that other nations would have at this point in history. One example would be radios, really as many of them as they could either buy or produce. At the lowest level, communication would provided by field telephones, generally the AP-36 model, of which there were about 20,000 in use by the time of the war. As part of the 1936 modernization program the funding would be made available for the design and production of the N2 radio, with 10,000 radios being orders. The plan was to equip every unit down to the battalion level with one of these radios to improve coordination and communication. At a higher level the N1 radio would fill the same role at division and higher level. Both of these radios were completely capable of doing the job that was being asked of them, the Germans would even copy and use the N2 after the Polish campaign. And there were at least some delivered during the summer of 1939, with 1,400 N2s and 65 N1’s in service at the time of the invasion. But in general, the improvements provided by the proliferation of radio came late for the Polish Army, and this meant that the officers and staffs of the Army did not have very much practice in actually utilizing them. It was one thing to create the communication links, but it was another to be able to use them to their fullest ability, and to develop the processes that would allow for the increased availability of communication to actually be useful. These processes, and general familiarization with the benefits of radio would have been provided by prewar exercises, but by the time that radios were available in number there was no time for such exercises to take place before the invasion. There were similar strides made in the anti-tank capabilities of Polish units, a process that began in 1935 when 300 Bofors 3.7mm anti-tank guns were ordered and a production license was purchased to allow for domestic production. The goal was to eventually have over 3,000 of these anti-tank guns spread throughout the divisions of the army, but less than half would be available to meet the German attack. There was also the domestically produced wc.35 antitank rifle, which was high effective against tanks that it could penetrate, of which there would be hundreds in the German army. But, and you are probably tired of me saying this, it was not present in the hoped for numbers. A similar process was followed with anti-aircraft guns, with Bofors 40mm guns purchased and a production license bought as well in 1935. Only about half the hoped for numbers were available, and while the anti-aircraft guns were towed by tractors, they were still vulnerable on campaign. In larger artillery, similar efforts were made, but even fewer numbers of the larger artillery pieces that would prove to be most effective were available. At the start of the war most of the artillery in each Polish division was still the 75mm gun, the design of which had been inherited from the French after the First World War. There were a few larger guns, but only 6 of the 42 guns provided for each division were 105mm or above, compared to German divisions have 48 guns of that size. Artillery would end up being much like the medium tanks, where a final design for a domestically produced 155mm howitzer was about to enter production just months after the war would begin.
One area where the Polish military would have particular success had little to do with equipment or production capacity but was instead in the area of military intelligence. There were two levels of military intelligence that any military needed, the first was tactical intelligence, or the ability for the army to determine the position and movements of specific enemy military formations during the time of war. In this area there were some problems, with few aircraft being available and the reconnaissance units under equipped when it came to radios. But in the other area of intelligence, strategic intelligence, the Polish forces would do very well. The strategic level was more about enemy organization and intentions at the Army and government level, and to this end the Polish General Staff would already have a spy ring in Berlin in the mid-20s. Over the time that it was active it would be able to get copies of many Reichswehr planning documents, which gave the Polish military real insight into how the German military was planning for a war even at that early date. The investments made even at this early date would continue to pay dividends as the Polish intelligence services would have some of the best information about German intentions and capabilities in Europe. They would break the early Enigma machines in the early 1930s, and even in the late 30s, when German encryption was much more difficult to crack, they were still reading more than 2/3 of all German military traffic.
Now of course all of the equipment in the world is useless without the soldiers to use them, and in Poland those soldiers would go through a peacetime conscription regimen whereby they would serve for 2 years of active duty and then they would transition into reserve formations until the age of 40. This meant that the bulk of Polish soldiers were always in the reserves, with there being roughly one and a half million in 1939. Of this number, somewhere between a half and two thirds of the Army would be in infantry divisions or would fight as infantry, which was more than the German Army, but was generally required due to the lack of equipment to support more divisions of other types. This lack of equipment, especially trucks or other motor vehicles, meant that polish infantry divisions were totally dependent on their own legs to move around, with rail transport being available where possible, but beyond the rail network they were always walking. To put things in perspective, at the time of the invasion the German army had 69 battalions of motorized infantry, the Polish army had 4. This did not mean that there were no mobile forces in the Polish Army, and it would enter the war with 70,000 men in cavalry units, which would be very valuable as a quick reaction force, and even in defeat they were often able to escape from the German attackers were infantry units were frequently overrun or surrounded. During the summer of 1939 the number of men who were fully mobilized would increase from 300,000 to 500,000 due to the growing threat of war, but to come up to full strength the Polish Army would still need a period of mobilization, which would not be provided. Of that number, the 500,000 soldiers, about 430,000 would be infantry. This meant that many units would not be up to full strength when hostilities commenced because they relied upon reserve units and reserve manpower to bring them fully up to strength. Each infantry division would plan to receive about 6,000 additional men at time of mobilization .
They would be led by Marshal Edward Rydz-Smigly in his position of Inspector-General of the Armed Forces. And he presided over a Polish Army which had one interesting feature when compared with other armies around Europe, the Polish Army did not have the equivalent of a Corps Level formation. Instead the Polish Army had divisions, and instead of having set division groupings which would be organized permanently as corps, instead they would make semi-ad-hoc operational groups based on the objectives of a set of divisions. This is why we will be talking a lot about Polish armies named after geographic locations, Krakow Army, Pomorze Army, Modlin Army just to name a few examples, instead of something like First Corps, Second Corps, First Army, Second Army, those types of things. The theory behind this different organization was to provide greater flexibility to the Army when required. The disadvantage was that it removed a level of permanent organization and cohesiveness. Another problem, and one that ties into all of our discussions earlier, was the fact that the Polish army units had overall far less firepower than the German units that they were facing, this was apparent both in smaller units, and the disparity grew even greater when you took into account divisions and corps level firepower assets. For example a Polish infantry division, which you take into account all of its anti-tank and artillery assets, had only about 60% of the firepower of a German infantry division. I hope you will join me next episode to discuss how the Polish General Staff planned to use all of these resources to fend against a foreign invasion.