Poland reemerged as an independent nation as a consequence of World War I. It was formed largely of territory expropriated at the end of the eighteenth century by Prussia, Russia, and Austria. Save for the Baltic Sea, Poland after World War I lacked natural frontiers. Poland also claimed considerably more territory than was awarded it in the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the war, and Polish leaders went to war to achieve it. This included the seizure of Upper Silesia from Germany, Vilna from Lithuania, Eastern Galicia from Ukraine, part of Teschen from Czechoslovakia, and a considerable stretch of territory secured from Russia as a result of war with that country during 1919–1920. This expansionist policy, however, meant that some 90 percent of Poland’s borders had to be considered as menaced by hostile neighbors.
This fact, of course, gave Poland a strong interest in maintaining a powerful army, and its chief ally, France, tried to assist the Poles in that effort. As early as 1919 and Poland’s war with Russia, France supplied Renault FT-17 tanks. After that conflict the Poles reorganized their tanks along French lines, assigning them to the infantry.
At first the Poles set out to improve the Renault FT-17, including a new flexible track, which enhanced the tank’s speed. Some FTs also received a new turret that mounted a 37mm gun and coaxial machine gun. From late 1924 there was considerable pressure for a domestically produced heavy tank capable of infantry support, but the prototypes advanced by several firms proved unsuccessful and the project was dropped.
In the late 1920s the Poles acquired the Vickers tankette and used that to produce their own version, the 3,900-pound, two-man TK.1 and, subsequently, the TK.2 and TK.3. The latter was the first tank produced in quantity in Poland. A total of 300 were produced during 1931–1932. The TK.3 tankette weighed 5,500 pounds, had a crew of two, and had a 40-hp Ford Model A engine that drove the tank at 29 mph. It was armed with one 7.92mm machine gun and had maximum 8mm armor. Surprisingly, Poland continued to produce other tankettes up to the time of its defeat by Germany in September 1939.
The need for a more powerful armored vehicle was increasingly obvious, because the TK.3 was not capable of an actual combat role. Poland then copied the British Vickers 6-Ton. The Polish version, produced by the state-run PZI Institute, was the 7 TP light tank. It weighed 21,000 pounds, had a crew of three, and had heavier (maximum 17mm) armor than the Vickers. Its Swiss-patented Saurer six-cylinder 110 diesel engine (produced under license in Poland) made it the first mass-production diesel-powered tank. It was capable of 20 mph. The first version of the 7 TP followed experiments by other nations in multiturret tanks, the idea being that gunners could thus simultaneously engage multiple targets. The 7 TP had twin turrets with a machine gun in each. A second version, introduced beginning in 1937, had heavier armor and a single turret with a 37mm gun and one machine gun. A third version had an enlarged turret with overhang in the rear and still heavier armor. Produced during 1934– 1939, a total of 169 7 TPs were in service at the time of the September 1939 German invasion.
During the mid-1930s there was considerable debate in Poland over whether the nation, with its limited manufacturing resources, should attempt to produce its own tanks or follow the more economical approach of purchasing what it required abroad. Although it defaulted on purchase of two of J. Walter Christie’s tanks, in 1938 Poland did copy the Christie suspension system in its 10 TP fast tank. Weighing some 28,700 pounds, it had a crew of four, was powered by an American La France V-12 gasoline engine, and was capable of 31 mph on tracks and 47 mph on wheels. It mounted a 37mm main gun and two 2.79mm machine guns and had maximum 20mm armor protection. The Polish army envisioned the 10 TP as the mainstay for four mechanized cavalry brigades planned under the 1936–1937 army modernization plan, but the 10 TP arrived too late; the prototype was still in testing at the time of the German invasion.
On 1 September 1939, Poland had 339 tanks: 169 7 TPs, 50 Vickers 6-Tons, 53 Renault R-35s, and 67 Renault FTs. It also had 693 TK and TS tankettes and 100 armored cars. For Poland it was a case of too little, too late.
In September 1939 the Allied powers of Britain, France, and Poland appeared to have the advantage militarily, at least on paper. Their naval assets were far greater, and they outnumbered the Germans 3:2 in ground forces. France alone had 3,200 tanks, more than the German total of some 2,900; the French tanks were also generally of better quality. Only in numbers of aircraft and antiaircraft guns were the Allies at a significant disadvantage.
The German Army was not totally prepared for high-speed warfare. As noted, the bulk of its divisions were based on the World War I pattern and were horse-drawn. In 1939 a single German infantry division required 4,077–6,033 horses for movement; even the vaunted panzer divisions utilized them. This reliance on horses continued throughout the war; indeed, as late as 1944 85 percent of German Army divisions were horse-drawn, with few vehicles. Nonetheless, the Germans were a few vital degrees better than their opponents, and as it turned out, that made all the difference.
Germany did enjoy the considerable advantage of having already established tank and motorized/light divisions along with a doctrine governing their use. These new-style divisions were, however, only a small minority of the total. Of Germany’s 98 divisions (40 of which were still forming) in September 1939, 14 were new-style: six panzer divisions (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 10th) and eight motorized/ light divisions (two of the latter being SS). The original plan was to equip the panzer divisions with 570 tanks apiece, but production failed to keep up with the expansion of the German armored force, so tanks were in short supply at the beginning of the war.
The Polish campaign of September 1939 revealed the errors in Allied thought concerning armor. In their invasion the Germans pressed into service all available tanks, hoping that sheer numbers and their employment en masse would make up for any equipment and armament shortcomings. As noted earlier, in all they had some 2,900 tanks, most of them PzKpfw Is and IIs.
The success of the German blitzkrieg lay not in numbers of tanks but in the formation of combined arms teams. The problem in World War I had been the inability of an attacker’s reserve formations to close quickly once a breech had been created in an enemy’s lines; the attacker’s artillery would also have to be repositioned to support a further advance. The new German theory of high-speed warfare called on mechanized reserves and artillery to move at the speed of the tanks, all supported by aircraft, greatly compressing the time line in favor of the attackers.
During the Polish campaign, enemy dispositions played into the Germans’ hands. Polish forces were still in the process of mobilization, thanks to the British insistence that the Poles provide no excuse for the Germans to invade. Also, Polish Army leaders placed the bulk of their forces far forward. They were unwilling to yield territory to the Germans (indeed, they expected to carry the war into Germany themselves), but in such forward positions they were more easily cut off, surrounded, and destroyed. Poland was also at sharp geographical disadvantage. Attacked by German forces on three sides, it in fact had little chance. With France slow to move, and then only with a small force, and with the Soviet Union invading Poland from the east two weeks after the initial German invasion (in accordance with a secret arrangement with Germany), Poland succumbed after one month.
One often overlooked factor in the German success in Poland, as well as in the May–June 1940 campaign against the Low Countries and France, was the short distances involved and thus the assurance of adequate resupply of fuel and ammunition. The blitzkrieg functioned well in the dry, flat terrain and the relatively short distances of Poland and the well-developed road network [and petrol stations] of France in 1940. It broke down completely in the vast distances and poor transportation system of the Soviet Union in 1941.