68 years ago today, September first, 1939; the German 10th army, of Army Group South, marched across the German/Polish frontier and attacked the small towns of Mokra, Krzepice, and Starokrzepice.
The Poles were ready and waiting for them, and delivered the Germans a tactical defeat; one of the few that would follow in the next four weeks.
Three days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany, as required by the treaty of Versailles; and World War II "officially" began. Unfortunately for the Poles, the French and English politicians were prepared to speak very loudly, but not to actually do something to aid in the defense of Poland (a stain on the national honor of both that was eventually repaid by the Brits, but certainly not by the French).
Germany and Russia together invaded Poland with a combined manpower of 2.7 million; the Poles had just 650,000 available to defend. The tri-partate powers had 7000 tanks to the poles 900; 7500 aircraft to the Poles 400. Unsurprising then that Warsaw fell in just 15 days; and the cleanup only took another three weeks. Those three weeks though were marked by some truly determined and courageous defenses of their homeland by the Poles; including the defense of the core of Warsaw; which didn't surrender until the 27th.
The "legend" that has spread since then however has been a disgraceful calumny against the Poles. This myth is that of an unprepared, incompetent, and stupid polish military and populace. The legend further says that the fight against the Poles was fast, easy, and an unmitigated victory for the Germans (and the Soviets are conveniently left out of the picture). This could not be farther from the truth.
Although the Poles were attacked from all sides, although they were outnumbered 10 to 1 in tanks and aircraft, and 4 to one in men; they put up a valiant and surprisingly effective resistance. The poles took 66,000 dead; but they gave 17,000 back; which considering how far outnumbered they were, and the inferiority of their equipment, is a most respectable number.
Perhaps the greatest slander, is that perpetrated by the greatest myth of the polish campaign; that the Poles charged tanks with horse mounted cavalry, armed with lances and sabers; and that this was an indication of their overall stupidity and incompetence.
Of course, the west listened to this great lie, and believed it; taking it as just another example of "polish stupidity".
I'm going to get back to that in a minute; but in order to understand why this "big lie" worked, let me tell you a bit about the history of Poland.
Poland has never gone more than 150 years without being at least partially occupied, in its entire history as a nation. In fact from its founding in 966, until the “election” of 1674 it was essentially continuously occupied by the Teutons, Pruthenians (later Prussians), Mongols, Hungarians, and Lithuanians.
In 1370, when “Casimir the great” died, they were OFFICIALLY occupied by Hungary and Lithuania until Sobieski in 1674.
They managed to stay a real country for less than 120 years; until they were occupied and partitioned again (by Prussians, Austro-hunagrians, and Russians) beginning in 1772 and completed in 1795. This state (or more acurately a lack of state) persisted until the end of World War One.
Even the name Poland was erased from the map until 1919. Parts of it were sliced off and included in Prussia, Bohemia, Silesia, Sudetenland, and Lithuania (all ruled by the Austro-Hungarians, Prussians, and Russians).
Then in ‘39 it was the Prussians all over again, followed by the Russians, and more Prussians (the east Germans) all the way up to 1991.
The Poles have been Europes whipping boy for 1041 years. In fact, the English word "Slave", is derived from the natives of the Polish region of Europe; who spent so much time in bondage, that their name "Slavs" or "Slavas" became synonymous with bound servitude.
During this time, the people of Europe spread the tales of Polish stupidity; sometimes as merely a joke, sometimes to salve their conscience as occupying powers; saying that those poor stupid slavs needed a smarter country to rule them.
Poles got their reputation for being stupid, not because their people were actively stupid, but because their “government” was. In fact, Poland had a long history of producing good military officers, and in general having excellent military intelligence (Something about being the easiest land route between east and west makes people understandably nervous about their neighbors intentions). It was Polish military intelligence who cracked the German enigma machine for example.
The polish government consisted of several "Grand Dukes" who ruled the various large semi-autonomous regions of Poland (Silesia, Pomerania, Pruthenia, Little Poland, Great Poland etc...); and a parliament consisting of all the Polish barons (over one thousand at any given time).
The greatest problem with this parliament was that it could be overruled at any time within any one of the grand duchies, by the local duke. The second problem was that no acts of parliament could be passed except by unanimous decision. The third, was that the "polish" nobility (including the grand dukes) often consisted more of transplanted Germans and Swedes who married into relatively poor polish families, and then exploited the Polish lands and people for their own ends and interests.
It was the phenomenal greed, venality, and incompetence of the Polish governments; combined with that particular accident of geography that made them such an appealing target for occupation. Most of the occupations were in fact conducted under the auspices of one particular faction of their government or another.
If you asked a Pole who the Poles greatest enemy was prior to 1939, they would probably tell you their own government rather than the Germans or Russians.
Which brings us back to world war II, and the so called "charge of the stupid brigade".
It is a historical fact that the Polish cavalry made that last large scale organized horse cavalry charge in European warfare (the last overall was the American charge at Luzon in 1942).
The charge was made by 18th Uhlans lancers, at the battle of Krojanty; late in the afternoon of Sept. 1st 1939.
One might think this to be foolish, stupid, etc... but in fact it should be recognized as a great act of bravery.
They didn’t actually charge tanks with lances and sabers as has been popularly portrayed. The 18th regiment were in the process of being converted to a mechanized brigade (they were to be combined with mech. infantry and tank destroyers to form the brigade); and they made a charge against German XIX Korps supporting infantry with sabers and lances, while their machine gun and tank destroyer units opened up on the Panzers.
It has been widely portrayed as an idiotic charge into hopeless circumstances; and the danger the lancers went into is unquestioned. They charged directly into heavy machine gun and small arms fire; but these were long trained horse warriors, who understood the devastating effect that mounted cavalry can have on loose formation infantry (as the Germans fought).
The lancers actually took relatively light casualties and created great havoc in the German ranks. The charge demoralized the Germans, and forced a tactical retreat until Guderian himself rallied the Korps; and in the next engagement crushed the Polish infantry.
This is not the charge of the stupid, not knowing what they were getting into; nor was it a futile gesture of horsebound idiots. Those men knew what they were doing, and they did it well, bringing great honor to themselves and to their nation.
Such an example however could never be allowed to stand by the Germans, or the Soviets. They had plans for Poland, and those plans could not be carried out without the destruction of Polish national pride and culture. Such a battle story could serve as a rallying point for future Polish resistance.
The common misconception of Polish military idiocy was primarily a creation of Soviet propagandists after the war.
Before the war, the Poles were acknowledged as producing fine military officers, as I indicated above. The Prussians in particular had for years respected the Polish military establishment (which they recognized as being hobbled by their government), and in fact had often exchanged military students between their academies.
The Russians began systematically destroying the Polish infrastructure, leadership, and to some degree national pride at Katyn; long before the war was over (in fact before America had even entered the war).
In March and April of 1940, the Soviets executed 22,000 Poles in the Katyn forest. They had them first dig their own mass graves, then lined them up along the edges of the pit, and fired a single bullet into the back of each persons head. Among those executed were 8,000 military officers (the enlisted men were either killed out of hand, or sent to slave labor camps earlier); 2000 military academy cadets and boy scouts (all under the age of 16); and 12,000 civilians, including women and children.
Poles have a somewhat different view of the holocaust than most in the west. You see, we here most often hear about six million Jews killed. What we don't hear about so much is that 3 million of them were poles; essentially the entire Polish population of Jews.
What you NEVER hear about in the west, is that of a pre-war population of 27 million, Poland lost at least 5 million people dead; and another 2 million scattered across the world as refugees.
The Poles took an 18.5% casualty rate in the war, with another 7.5% as refugees; in total losing 26% of their population; nearly double that of any other major nation in the war (the Soviets lost 13.5%). The Population of Poland didn't recover to pre-war levels until the 1980s.
The Poles fought honorably against evil. They were overwhelmed, and they were slaughtered by evil to a level unprecedented in modern warfare. They were dominated by it for the next 50 years... and yet they are rebuilding themselves, faster than almost any other nation in Europe did, and with less western assistance.
I think it's time that we in the west recognize that.