September 1939


Marek Gałęzowski

Before the war storm

Polish authorities initially believed that the main threat to the independence of the state is the possibility of aggression by the USSR. The other of the great neighbours of Poland, Germany, under the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, for a long time had only a 100,000-strong army, which hardly had any heavy weapons. In the event of a conflict with its western neighbour, Poland could count on military assistance, guaranteed by its alliance with France.The situation began to change after 1935, when Germany broke the Versailles agreements, reintroducing conscripted military service and expanding the army and the arms industry on a large scale. At that time, Poland started to develop a defense plan in the event of an attack by Germany, but its preparation gained momentum only after the Munich conference and the annexation of the Czech Sudeten by the Third Reich. Polish military command adopted the strategy of defending the entire territory of the state. Arrangement of troops on all sections of the border with Germany (after the occupation of Slovakia by the Third Reich, also in this direction) hindered effective combat. However, the strategy resulted from the fear that after taking over the areas claimed before the war, Germany may interrupt its military action and, following the example of the Munich conference, appeal to other countries to resolve the conflict amicably.The country's defense plan assumed fighting in a coalition with France and the United Kingdom, which had pledged to come to Poland’s help within fifteen days of the start of German aggression. The Polish side had not verified, however, whether those promises were feasible. Should it receive no help from its Western allies, in the confrontation with the power of Nazi Germany, the Polish army was doomed to lose. Germany had a two-to-one advantage over Poland in the number of large military units. A significant proportion of them were armoured and motorized divisions, against which Poland could pit only one fully independent unit of this type. The German army had a fivefold advantage in tanks and aircraft, more than trifold in artillery, and it outnumbered by far the small Polish Navy. Moreover, postponing the original mobilization date of the conscripted Polish Army – under the pressure of Western ambassadors, trying at all costs to prevent the outbreak of the war – was a mistake, and the mobilization was completed under the bombs of German planes.

Unequal struggle

In the early hours of 1 September 1939, without declaring war on Poland, Germany attacked along the whole length of the border between the two countries. Artillery barrage laid down on a Polish military transit depot by Schleswig-Holstein, a German battleship, has become a symbolic opening of the Second World War. Polish soldiers, though heavily outnumbered, resisted heroically from the outset. In the North, a thrust of German armoured formations defeated several Pomorze Army units in Bory Tucholskie, and then crushed the Modlin Army, despite the latter’s initial successes near Mława. Meanwhile, the Wołyńska Cavalry Brigade achieved a remarkable local victory on the western front, inflicting heavy losses on a German armoured division at the Battle of Mokra. In the South-West, the Germans forced the Kraków Army to pull back in the first days of the war, capturing Silesia, crossing the Carpathian Mountains and overcoming Polish forces, weak in the region. Once regular Polish troops withdrew from Silesia, local self-defence units stood up to fight; this true ″salt of the black earth”, formed of Silesian insurgents and scouts, defended a number of cities, among them Katowice and Chorzów. Breaking through border defence lines by German armies forced general retreat of Polish units along the whole length of the frontline. The defeat of the Prusy Army in the region of Kielce – for the most part caused by its commander, Gen. Stefan Dąb-Biernacki, who grossly underestimated the enemy – only accelerated Polish units’ withdrawal to new defence lines on the Narew, Wisła and San rivers. Meanwhile, civilian authorities left Warsaw, heading for eastern, then southern regions of the country. They were followed by Edward Śmigły-Rydz and his staff – due to dramatically poor communications, the Commander-in-Chief was no longer able to command the troops effectively. On 8 September German armoured and infantry units reached Warsaw, but great dedication and sacrifice of Polish soldiers reinforced by civilians made it possible to repel the attack from the Ochota district.German successes were made possible by their absolute superiority in all types of military forces, as well as the use of Blitzkrieg tactics, that is quick and sudden warfare. Numerous armoured formations targeted the points where units of Polish armies met, forcing them to pull back to avoid encirclement – their retreat often being hampered by the German Luftwaffe, which enjoyed complete air supremacy. While Polish troops were fighting their way through enemy lines to take new positions behind the Wisła River, the Poznań Army commanded by Gen. Tadeusz Kutrzeba, joined by a number of Pomorze Army units, concentrated on the Bzura River. On 9 September the Poles engaged there in what turned out to be the largest battle of the campaign, successfully attacking a flank of the German forces advancing on Warsaw. However, the agressor soon moved troops from other sections of the frontline, and after heavy fights that claimed the lives of three Polish generals – Stanisław Grzmot-Skotnicki, Franciszek Wład and Mikołaj Bołtuć – by mid-September defeated Gen. Kutrzeba’s army. Only a handful of Polish units managed to break through enemy lines and reach Warsaw. Completely cut off from the rest of the country’s territory were the defenders of Polish coastline. On the first day of the war the Germans attacked the Polish Post Office in Gdańsk. The personnel, drafted a few weeks earlier, all day repelled the charges, and only when the building was set on fire did they surrender. The next target was the Polish Military Transit Depot on Westerplatte. Its garrison under Major Henryk Sucharski fought off the first attacks. The commander, following previous orders, intended to surrender then, but confronted with strong protest of his officers, particularly Cpt. Franciszek Dąbrowski, decided to continue the defense. The Polish soldiers, attacked on land, fired at from the sea by Schleswig-Holstein and bombed from the air, heroically held their positions until 7 September. The Polish Navy was essentially eliminated in the first days of the war; German air force sank the destroyer Wicher and the largest Polish warship, the minelayer Gryf, in the port of Hel. One of five submarines in inventory, Orzeł, the pride of the Polish Navy, after operations in the Baltic Sea was interned in an Estonian port that she subsequently left without authorization, and even though the crew had no maps, they managed to reach Great Britain in October. The Germans also fell on the Polish Army units defending the area of Gdynia, commanded by Lt. Col. Stanisław Dąbek. Having lost possession of the largest Polish port, the defenders fought off German attacks on Oksywie, all the time ferociously pushed towards the sea. On 19 September the agressors broke through their lines in Babi Dół, which prompted Col. Dąbek, who refused to surrender, to take his own life. At that point of the war the Hel peninsula remained the last line of defence on the coastline.

A total war

Following Adolf Hitler’s and orders transmitted by various levels of military command, German troops engaged in a ruthless, total war that targeted civilians as well as troops. German air force did not restrict itself to bombing military targets and transportation routes, but carried out terrorist raids against towns and cities where no army or industrial facilities were located – such as Wieluń, destroyed on the first day of the war. Also refugees fleeing war zones fell victim to attacks by German airmen. In Greater Poland and Silesia many self-defence members taken prisoner were murdered, and so were the defenders of Gdańsk Post Office in October 1939. In Bydgoszcz hundreds of civilians perished in mass executions, justified by the agressor as retaliation for the alleged murder of German minority members by the Poles, which German propaganda dubbed ″Bloody Sunday”. The truth was that on 3 September some local Germans shot at withdrawing Polish Army units; those apprehended with weapons or simply suspected of participating in the attack were promptly executed. Having captured Bydgoszcz, the Germans relatiated, murdering no less than 1,500 Poles, for the most part selected at random or pointed out by their German neighbours. More atrocities followed, such as the executions in Częstochowa on 4 September, and in Będzin, where on 8 September a synagogue was set on fire and over 40 Jews were shot or burned alive. A symbol of crimes against Polish prisoners of war was the execution of Polish soldiers captured during the battle in Dabrowa forest near Ciepielów in the Kielce region.

Soviet aggression

Only on 3 September did the United Kingdom and France recognize that there was no possibility of a peaceful settlement of the conflict and declared war on Germany. Contrary to previous arrangements with the Polish authorities, on 12 September in the French town of Abbeville the prime ministers of both Poland’s allies decided not to undertake military action against the Third Reich.
The Polish Government was not informed about this decision. Despite the fact that the Germans did not leave significant forces on their western border, and the French troops had an 80-fold advantage in the tanks, France continued the so-called strange war, limited to dropping leaflets and seizing a few villages on the border. As can be seen from the above, Hitler's predictions that the West would abandon Poland came true.While the Polish Army was fighting the German Wehrmacht, on 17 September 1939 the eastern border of the Republic of Poland was crossed by the Red Army over the entire length. The authorities of the Soviet Union broke several agreements signed with the Polish government, above all, the non-aggression agreement of 1934, in force until 1945. As the Soviets claimed, the motivation behind the assault on Poland and violations of the agreements was the alleged dissolution of the Polish state and the absence of its authorities. The President of the Republic of Poland condemned these actions in his speech, but he did not decide to pronounce a state of war between the two countries. The Supreme Commander of the Polish Army ordered the Polish troops to avoid engagements with the Red Army and break through to the Hungarian and Romanian borders.Forced with direct threat, the President of the Republic of Poland, the government, and then the general command, decided to evacuate to Romania. In the case of the civil authorities this was justified by the effort to maintain the legal continuity of the Polish state and continue fighting in exile. At the same time, the actions of the chief commander Marshal Śmigly-Rydz, abandoning the fighting troops, aroused widespread opposition and indignation in Polish society. Contrary to previous arrangements to allow them to enter the West, after crossing the border, both civilian and military authorities were interned in Romania. The remaining few units of the Border Protection Corps (KOP), stationing at the1,300 km long strip of the Polish border, started fighting against the Red Army. In the following days, the fight was led by the retreating to the west KOP regiments led by General Wilhelm Orlik-Rückemann which, among others, defeated the Germans in the battle of Szack. For three days, Grodno defended itself heroically, the soldiers being supported by Polish youth. Until the end of September, the Soviets gained control over the eastern provinces of the Republic. They comitted crimes on the occupied territories, mainly on soldiers. In Grodno, they shot a group of prisoners of war who had defended the city. In the hospital in Mielniki they murdered soldiers and officers of the KOP units wounded in Szack. In Mokrany a group of officers of the Pinsk Flotilla taken captive by the Red Army was handed over to the local militia and executed.

Last struggles

The Soviet invasion, immediately called a "stab in the back" (the British "Times" was the first to use this expression), ultimately determined the outcome of the war with Germany. Despite this, Polish troops concentrated in the Lublin region went into a decisive battle with the Germans, intending to head towards the Hungarian border. The largest, ten-day-long battle took place near Tomaszów Lubelski, where the Krakow and Lublin armies were ultimately defeated. In the south of the country, fierce battles with the Germans took place in the region of Lwów. The army commanded by General Kazimierz Sosnkowski, the former Chief of Staff of the 1st Brigade of the Polish Legions, manifested exceptional bravery and won a glorious victory over the German SS regiment "Germania" near Jaworów.The army of General Sosnkowski, having suffered great losses in numerous battles, reached the outskirts of the city of Lwów, to be finally, defeated by the Germans. Lwów, effectively defending itself against the German army, surrendered to the Soviets on 22 September.Warsaw was still fighting, with Stefan Starzyński, the city's President growing to be the symbol of resistance. The situation of the besieged capital constantly deteriorated. On 25 September the German air force carried out the most intense air raid on Warsaw, dropping nearly 630 tons of demolition bombs and incendiary bombs. Public buildings, churches, houses and hospitals - bombarded despite the visible emblems of the Red Cross – went up in flames. On 27 September, due to the dramatic situation of the civilian population, deprived of food, electricity and running water, a decision to stop the fight was made. Two days later, the Modlin fortress surrendered, and on 2 October Hel capitulated. The last shots in the campaign were fired in the Lublin region, where the troops of the Independent Operational Group "Polesie" under General Franciszek Kleeberg arrived at the end of September while marching to aid Warsaw. They fought near Kock. They were not crushed in the fights, having inflicted severe losses on German motorized units, but surrendered due to lack of ammunition on 6 October 1939.

The fight continues

In the 1939 campaign, nearly 70,000 Polish soldiers were killed and 133,000 were injured. About 300,000 were taken prisoner by the Germans, and about 250,000 (including nearly 18,000 officers) by the Soviets. 83,000 fled into neighbouring neutral countries, mainly Romania and Hungary. German losses amounted to approx. 17,000 fallen, whereas Soviet losses are unknown. The Polish public, convinced of the state's military superpower, blamed the defeat on the pre-war authorities.In the following years of the war, however, it turned out that Poland had lost to a state, which by autumn 1941 had conquered most of Europe from Paris to the outskirts of Moscow. In September 1939, German superiority over the Polish Army as regards all types of weapons was overwhelming. The defeat was expedited by the strike of the Red Army on 17 September 1939, which within a few days captured the areas to the rear of the fighting Polish forces. Contrary to earlier promises, Poland did not receive any military assistance from its Western Allies. Regardless of these factors, communication on the Polish side failed, and the actions of fighting units were poorly coordinated. Concentrating the command of the Polish Army in the hands of one person, instead of at the army or front level turned out to be a mistake. Such factors as chaos, panic and news of the Soviets' entry significantly affected the morale of the army.At a time when Polish troops were still fighting the aggressors, on 28 September 1939 in Moscow, Germany and the USSR signed a border and friendship treaty, under which they divided Poland and pledged to cooperate in combating Polish independence efforts. The German-Soviet border ran along the lines of the rivers: Pisa, Narew, Bug and San. A small part of the territory of Poland in Spisz and Orawa was occupied by Slovakia, whose troops participated in the aggression against Poland. Part of the Vilnius Province including the city itself, were transferred by the Soviet authorities to Lithuania, but in the summer of the following year, the whole state was taken over by the Soviets.Despite the defeat in a five-week long struggle, the Polish authorities interned in Romania did not sign the act of surrender. Under the Constitution in force at the time, President Ignacy Mościcki appointed the former Speaker of the Polish Senate, Władysław Raczkiewicz, as his successor. The first decision of the new President was the establishment of the government of the Republic of Poland headed by Gen. Władysław Sikorski, who announced the continuation of the fight alongside France and Great Britain until Poland regained its independence.

Krzysztof Kopeć

Human losses of the Polish, German and Soviet troops
Human losses of the Polish troops

The information presented below was prepared primarily based on the publication entitled "Poland 1939-1945 - Human losses and victims of repression under two occupations" edited by prof. Wojciech Materski and prof. Tomasz Szarota, published by the Institute of National Remembrance – Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation, Warsaw 2009. On page 19 of the publication, in Table 6, Human losses of the Polish Army during World War II, the authors present a breakdown of losses prepared by the Polish War Reparations Bureau (BOW), established by the communists at the Presidium of the Council of Ministers on 6 January 1945.

The Polish Campaign (human losses of the Polish Army):
state number
Killed 66 300
Wounded 133 700
Missing 420 000
Total 620 000

Source: Statement on Polish war losses and damages in 1939-1945, Warsaw 1947.

The data included in the table was subsequently repeatedly verified based on numerous later studies.
One such verification, carried out by prof. Tadeusz Panecki, was presented by the authors on page 20 in Table 7, Human losses of the Polish Army during World War II.

Human losses of the Polish Army in the Polish Campaign:
State Number
Killed 95-97 000 (a)
Wounded 130 000
Taken captive 420 000 (c1) + 230 000 (c2)
Total 876 000 (d)


Source: Tadeusz Panecki: Poland's military effort in World War II, "Military Historical Review" 1995, issue 1-2 p. 13, 18. (a): the author gives a general number of soldiers killed, those who died of injuries and those missing without a trace, including the 17,000-19,000 Polish soldiers on the Eastern Borderlands (Military participation of Poland in World War II [in:] Poland's military effort in World War II: Outcome, conclusions and experiences, ed. T. Panecki, Warsaw 1999 p. 31) (c1): 587,300 Polish soldiers found themselves in German captivity, of whom 420,000 were held in prisoner-of-war camps. German data gives a greater number of 694,000 prisoners of war. Out of those, 10,000 died of their injuries after being taken captive, while 120,000 were released in the initial period after the fighting ended. In October and November 1939, German prisoners of war were released, and 17,420 Ukrainians and Belarusians were handed over to the USSR. Tens of thousands of Jewish prisoners of war were also discharged, the majority of whom subsequently died in concentration camps and ghettos, as well as tens of thousands of people unfit for work, sick or injured during the Polish Campaign of 1939. (c2) 452,500 Polish soldiers found themselves in Soviet captivity, about 420,000 of whom were held in camps and forced-labour camps (T. Panecki, Poland's military effort in World War II, p. 31). (d) The calculation is approximate. Some of the wounded found themselves in captivity, and the first item includes also soldiers who died of their wounds.

Another verification of the data published by the Polish War Reparations Bureau (BOW) was carried out by prof. Czesław Łuczak in his book titled "Poland and Poles in World War II" published in 1993 by Wydawnictwo Naukowe PAN.

Many differences can be noted when comparing these two breakdowns. The first is the number of absolute losses (killed, died of wounds, permanently missing without a trace) in the Polish Campaign of 1939. The following numbers appear here: 66,300 – the Polish War Reparations Bureau, over 70,000 – C. Łuczak, 95,000-97,000 – T. Panecki. Undoubtedly, the number given by the War Reparations Bureau is underestimated, as there are 70,520 graves of soldiers from the Polish Campaign of 1939 in Polish cemeteries, while on the Eastern Borderlands, there are at least 964 such graves. The estimated number of Polish soldiers killed by the Red Army in September 1939 ranges from several thousand – C. Łuczak, to 17,000-19,000 – T. Panecki. The number of soldiers who died of wounds requires further investigation.


The Polish Army in 1939 had 950,000 soldiers, of whom 82,000 are assumed to have been interned after battles.

Country Number
in Romania about 30 000
In Hungary over 40 000
the remainder in Lithuania, Latvia and Slovakia 12 000
Total 82 000 (d)

According to other data, e.g. T. Dubicki, Polish Army in Romania in 1939-1941, Warsaw 1994, p. 180, the number of Polish soldiers interned in Romania was 24,000-25,000. According to Romanian data from 23 September 1939, there were 20,845 interned soldiers.
Adding up the number of soldiers taken captive by both aggressors (587,300 + 452,000) gives us 1,039,800 people, that is more than the Polish Army had in the Polish Campaign of 1939. This is the result of the inclusion of policemen, clerks, etc. as soldiers in the statistics.

Straty osobowe wojsk niemieckich


W wielu opracowaniach dotyczących Kampanii Polskiej w 1939 r. przyjmuje się zestawienie strat niemieckich zgodnie z publikacją generała Mullera- Hillebranda ,,Das Herr 1933-1945”, Frankfurt nad Menem 1954 - 1969:

Human losses of the German troops:
State Number
Killed 16 343
Wounded 27 280
Missing 320
Total 43 943


Similar estimates of German casualties in the Polish Campaign of 1939 are presented on the German Wikipedia page at: under "Polenfeldzug".
More detailed data on German casualties in the Polish Campaign are shown on the website on page 3 in section 3. 1. Kriegstote, Gefangene, Verluste (war deaths, prisoners of war, losses). According to that study, German casualties in the initial statement of the army command after the end of the Polish Campaign were as follows:

State Number
Killed 10 572
Wounded 3 409
Missing 30 322
Total 44 303

Those did not include the 734 killed, wounded and missing Luftwaffe soldiers. The data is based mostly on data from the Medical Inspectorate, which had 10,244 killed soldiers during the campaign and 593 killed officers. The data has changed since its publication, having been verified based on entries in war journals of combat units involved in the Polish Campaign, and are at 14,188 killed soldiers and 759 officers. Following subsequent verifications by the Department of Defence of the German Armed Forces (a document of the WVW / WED statistical unit dated 30 August 1944 without the losses of the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine), the number of casualties among German soldiers and officers in the Polish Campaign increased to 15,450 soldiers and 819 officers. According to another document of the Wehrmacht Zentralstatistik of 30 November 1944 (Bundes Archiv – Militar Archiv in Freiburg, document RH 7/653), German losses in the September Campaign were not 16,343 killed and 320 missing, but 16,843 killed and 320 missing – 17,163 in total. The increase in the number of casualties in subsequent German reports is likely the result of the inclusion of those who died of wounds suffered in combat as "killed in action". The German archives also include a document with the reference no.: BA-MA RH 3/134, according to which the losses of German land forces in the Polish Campaign were: 16,843 killed and 320 missing, which, after adding the losses of the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine (326 and 77 killed and 101 missing, respectively) gives the figure of 17,667 German soldiers. In Norman Davies's opinion, included in the publication: Zweites Kapitel: Das Erbe der Niederlage, 1. Die Ära des Hitler-Stalin-Pakts, 1939-41, aus: Im Herzen Europas - Geschichte Polens; 4., durchgesehene Auflage 2006, S. 60 (Norman Davies: Chapter Two: The Legacy of Loss, 1. The Era of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, 1939/41, in: The Heart of Europe – History of Poland, 4, revised 2006 edition, p. 60), the total of the Wehrmacht casualties in the Polish Campaign was over 50,000 dead. The New York Times reported on 28 September 1939 that, according to the Polish authorities, German losses in the Polish Campaign were 90,000 dead, 400 tanks and 500 aircraft. A similar figure of German losses: 91,278 killed and missing and 98,355 wounded can be found in Apoloniusz Zawilski's book "Battles of the Polish September". He quotes, among others, the Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, who in his "Lost Victories", gives the following number of casualties (only Army Group South): 6,554 killed, 4,062 missing, 20,478 wounded. However, most Polish authors give estimates of German losses in the Polish Campaign that are closer to the official ones consistent with General Muller-Hillebrand's publication. For example, Leszek Moczulski in "Poland's War 1939" estimates German losses at 25,000 killed and missing and 45,000 wounded. In Grzelak and Stańczyk's book "Polish Campaign of 1939", the total German losses estimated by the authors are at 16,600 killed, 30,300 wounded and 3,400 missing. More information about German losses among others in the Polish Campaign can be found at:


Human losses of the Soviet troops


Prof. Czesław Grzelak makes an attempt to estimate Soviet casualties in the Polish Campaign of 1939 at 2,500-3,000 killed and 8,000-10,000 wounded in his publications: a) "Polish Campaign of 1939" – published in 2008 by Rytm b) "Borderlands in red 1939. "Soviet Union's aggression against Poland" – published in 2008 by Rytm. However, according to Russian studies, e.g.: Г.Ф.Кривошеев (под редакцией). Россия и СССР в войнах XX века: Потери вооруженных сил’’

Soviet casualties in the Polish Campaign were as follows:
State Number
Killed in action 973
Died of wounds 102
Missing 302
Died outside combat 76
Died of diseases 22 (definitely blood infection is also included)
Total dead 1 475 (972 - Ukrainian Front, 503 - Belarusian Front)
Wounded 2 002 (1360 - Ukrainian Front, 642 - Belarusian Front)
Sick 381
Total casualties 3 858


Privacy and cookies policy of IPN

Information clauses