Attack on Poland – Polish Army

Attack on Poland – Polish Army

Polish Army

In February 1919., the newly created Polish parliament – Sejm – passed the Army Law, setting up an official Polish Defense Force under Pilsudski. Its core was comprised of Pilsudski’s former Polish Legions, soon strenghtened in April 1919 by the arrival of Haller’s Polish units from France. Its defense of new Polish state ensured that Polish Army, along with the Catholic Church, was one of few national institutions which enjoyed respect among the populace. It was however a very heterogenous force, inheriting staff traditions from Germany, Austria and Russia, and in the early years it was even multilingual, with commanders speaking Polish, German and Russian. Units were poorly equipped and riven by ethnic tensions. Troops in Poznan could not be used in case of war as they wished for union with Germany, as testified by a deserter from Poznan in 1921.:

Clothing is very frugal. Each man has only a single pair of boots [. . .] the attitude of the troops in Posen is very divided, since there are many troops from Congress Poland. The Pozna÷ troops all wish for union with Germany. In a war with Germany the Pozna÷ian troops could not be used, since the larger part would desert [. . .] the number of German soldiers who commit suicide is very high. [Source: R.M. Citino, p. 101.]

The French provided significant support to Polish rearmament, and by 1925. the Polish Army had become a factor in European affairs. Polish cavalry had a limited number of tanks, and infantry was well-trained and equipped. But Polish military leadership had neither experience of nor idea of how modern war would be waged. By the end of 1925., Polish military had also been gutted by financial cuts, and government threatened to reduce the army to only 144 000 effectives. This forced Pilsudski to mount a coup in May 1926., marching onto Warsaw where he overthrew the government. Pilsudski immediately began a programme of modernization, but his inexperience with staff work meant that modernization was done in a haphazard manner. Pilsudski also excluded many experienced officers (such as General Sikorski) on the grounds of dubious loyalty, consequences of which would be felt in September 1939.

Polish Army was powerful on paper, able to field 2,5 million men when fully mobilized (Active, Reserve and National Guard). National Guard consisted of volunteers, totalling 82 battalions, or 10% of the fully mobilized armed forces. Frontier Defence Corps (KOP) consisted of ethnic Poles in order to ensure their loyalty. Poland was divided into ten administrative regions, which bore no resemblance to actual wartime mobilization, and organization was the responsibility of Inspectorate. This division of responsibility created massive issues with modernization of forces compared to Germany. In 1929., Inspectorate vetoed reduction in cavalry that would have allowed for expansion of mechanized and air forces.

In 1939., Polish Armed Forces had six field and one reserve army. Total force consisted of:

  • 30 infantry divisions
  • 11 cavalry brigades
  • 1 mechanized brigade
  • 2 engineer brigades
  • 11 artillery regiments
  • 1 air command of
    • 4 bomber squadrons
    • 11 light bomber squadrons
    • 15 fighter squadrons
    • 11 reconnaissance/observation squadrons
    • torpedo, training and transport squadrons.

The core of the Polish army was infantry, and was far more proportionally numerous than in German or Soviet armies. In March 1939., Polish military counted 283 000 active troops, of which infantry were 160 000. At the time of general mobilization, further 700 000 troops would be recruited within the first month. Polish infantry division was a balanced combined-arms force, with its own artillery, cavalry and transport. However, lack of firepower and mobility meant that it had only half the combat power of its German equivalent.

Cavalry comprised some 10% of Polish units. Proportionately, this was five times the German cavalry and 1,5 times the Soviet or French cavalry. Main reason for this was the lack of money necessary for mechanization. The cavalry was divided into eleven brigades which usually fought dismounted. Poles did make limited progress in mechanization. By 1932., the Polish Army had managed to assemble a force of 382 tanks. By 1937 eighteen scout tank or tankette companies were assigned to the infantry divisions. Each company was composed of thirteen tankettes, four lorries, four fuel trailers, seven motorcycles, a Background 22 radio car and staff car as well as a field kitchen, all manned by four officers and 87 men.

A platoon of Polish cavalry troops rides to the plains of Eastern Prussia to await invasion by Adolf Hitler in 1939.

Each cavalry brigade also had eleven tankettes and seven armored cars, as well as some motorcycles. Two of the cavalry brigades had been mechanized and equipped with reconnaissance squadrons, consisting of a light truck company and two motorized rifle regiment. Tank force consisted of two battalions and a company of light tanks, an R-35 tank battalion and a further three companies of obsolete light tanks (M-17 FT) in reserve. Tanks served as an infantry and cavalry support force, much like in British and French doctrine of the time, and thus were never deployed as a concentrated force during the September campaign.

Polish army was also significantly inferior to its German counterpart in terms of firepower. To remedy the shortage of artillery, Pilsudski bought howitzers from Skoda and Schneider-Creusot, the French armaments firm, and in 1932 began purchasing heavy railroad guns from the Americans. He also set up indigenous production of lincensed foreign models. By 1939., about one seventh of the Polish army consisted of artillery troops, compared to one-fifth in Germany. There were 39 light artillery regiments equipped with obsolete French 75 mm guns and twelve regiments equipped with 100 mm guns. There were thirty heavy artillery sections, a further eleven horse artillery detachments, and each of the two mechanized brigades had a motorized battery. But the main disadvantage compared to German artillery was vastly inferior fire control system.

Both engineer and communication branches, sappers and pioneers in particular, had been neglected. By 1939 both infantry and motorized regiments had a mere platoon of engineers each. At divisional level there were engineer battalions, while the cavalry regiments had a squad each. Signals branch only started receiving two-way radios in 1936., but even in 1939 . the Army remained dependent on the civilian telephone system, messengers and liaison aircraft, all of which were vulnerable to enemy action. Supply system likewise was dependant on horse-drawn vehicles, and would have been easily recognizable to Napoleon Bonaparte.

Air Defence

Polish Air Force was organizationally part of the Army, and was tasked primarily with supporting the ground forces. Thus the majority of fighter and reconnaissance squadrons were allocated to ground units, with High Command having a reserve of eight bomber squadrons. The Army however failed to understand importance of air power – out of the total budget of 180 million USD in 1939., cavalry received one fifth of the budget and air force only one tenth. In the five years prior to the war, PAF received 74,5 million USD – 95 times less than the Luftwaffe.

Expansion of Luftwaffe however forced a modernization plan. This called for 78 combat squadrons with 688 aircraft by 1942., of which there would be:

  • 15 Fighter interceptor squadrons with 11 aircraft each
  • 10 Fighter-bomber attack squadrons with 11 aircraft each
  • 14 Army cooperation squadrons with ten aircraft each
  • 21 Bomber squadrons with 7 aircraft each
  • 18 Observation squadrons with 7 aircraft each

But even this plan was impossible. For it to be met, development of new models of aircraft should have started in 1934. – 1935. Yet in winter of 1938., only P-37 Los bomber was being manufactured, and supplies of new aircraft had come to a virtual halt in the autumn of 1937. In fact, number of operational aircraft and overall readiness had started to decrease in 1937. Situation was made only worse when Zajac, upon succeeding Rayski as Aviation Commander in March 1939., ceased the production of P-37 Los bomber and suspended production of P-50 Jastrzab fighter. As a stopgap, he ordered the mass production of a modernized version of the P-11 fighter and decided to focus on fighter and cooperation aircraft. . In the summer of 1939 he allowed production to resume on a mere thirty P-50 Jastrz¢b aircraft, and then, in the last days of August, gave the go-ahead for the production of the new P-45 Sokóª, a totally new and untested fighter. These were to be supplemented by the purchase of foreign planes.

Pzl.P-11A fighter

As a result, Polish Air Force was completely unprepared for war in summer of 1939. It had 1900 aircraft on paper, but of those only a quarter were in a serviceable condition. There was a first line strength of only 397 aircraft, as opposed to the planned strength of 688. Bomber strength was only about 20 per cent of the projected numbers and observation planes only about two-thirds of the intended figure. Fighter squadrons were technically up to strength, but majority of their fighters were obsolete or obsolescent. Shortage of anti-aircraft artillery, which was under purview of the Air Force, meant that these were primarily deployed in western Poland, in the big cities such as Kraków, Warsaw and Lodz, and the coastal areas.

Overall, Polish Air Force was not prepared to conduct either offensive or defensive operations in 1939. Limited defensive operations were at least possible, but any offensive operations were out of the question.


Polish Navy began as a riverine force based around Austrian monitors and river boats which had been in November 1918. ordered to report to new Polish authorities in Krakow. This navy was deployed in 1920., reaching Kiev, but had to be scuttled with Soviet advance. The Treaty of Versailles gave Poland access to sea through the Gdansk corridor, allowing it to develop a small naval force based at the new seaport of Gdynia. The first generation of ships were built in French, British and Dutch yards, but by 1939 Polish shipyards were capable of building warships themselves.

Main task of the Polish Navy was protecting the coast and, in the case of war against Germany, hindering the shipping between German mainland and East Prussia. This required a force of destroyers and submarines, and by 1938. the Polish Navy had four destroyers, five submarines, six minesweepers and one minelayer. Navy also had limited ground forces to defend the coast between Gdynia and the German border. Besides a frontier-force battalion and two infantry companies, it also possessed two naval brigades, which were equipped with anti-aircraft and naval artillery and two improvised armoured trains.


Major question was whether Polish industry could sustain its military in the times of war. The Piªsudski regime began to develop ‘the arms industry triangle’ to the south of Warsaw, and by the early 1930s the Poles were even exporting arms to Greece, Bolivia, Brazil and Romania. But Poland simply lacked the resources to keep up with massive industrialization effort of Germany and USSR, and thus required external help to survive.

Under the Four Year Plan (1936–40) the Polish Government had concentrated the new armament industries in the Central Industrial District. This however was far away from the coal mines and steel plants in Upper Silesia, and thus required extensive road and rail links. Military garrisons were likewise widely distributed and dependant on efficient transportation system. But despite that, rail and road links to vital industrial areas were still inadequate in 1939.

Industries were concentrated in the Central Industrial District. By 1938., progress had been made in development of gas and oil fields, and a 40 000 kw power station had been built on the river San near Nisko to supply power. New factories had been built, which produced field artillery (including 105 and 155 mm howitzers) and anti-aircraft guns. Polish facilities for production of 40 mm Bofors guns were in fact superior to facilities in Sweden, and they also produced 37 mm Bofors anti-tank gun.

Poland was agriculturally self-sufficient, but relied heavily on import of raw materials. Industry too was not able to equip or sustain a modern first-rate military force, and modernization proceeded slowly.

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