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THE FRENCH AND BRITISH BETRAYAL OF POLAND IN 1939

In 1939 Britain and France signed a series of military agreements with Poland that contained very specific promises.  The leaders of Poland understood very clearly that they had no chance against Germany alone.

The French, in fact, promised the Poles in mid-May 1939 that in the event of German aggression against Poland, France would launch an offensive against the Germans "no later than fifteen days after mobilization".  This promise was sealed in a solemn treaty signed between Poland and France. 

Unfortunately, when Germany attacked, Poland was almost totally and completely betrayed by its democratic "friends".  While Britain and France did declare war,  French troops made a brief advance toward the Siegfried Line on Germany's western frontier and immediately stopped upon meeting German resistance. 

This is very significant since Hitler had concentrated almost all German military forces in the east, and France had one of the strongest armies in the world.   Had France attacked Germany in a serious way as promised, the results could have been very serious, if not disastrous for the Germans.

Instead, Hitler was able to win a complete victory over Poland and then mobilize his forces for a devastating offensive in the west in the next year.

The British and French betrayal of Poland in 1939 was not only dishonest, it was a military stupidity of truly monumental dimensions.  Unfortunately, more betrayals would follow.  Contrary to their assurances to the Poles Britain and France would agree to allow Russia to keep the parts of Poland seized as part of their deal with Hitler in 1939.  They were to be compensated by the ethnic cleansing of all Germans from lands that had been German for over 1000 years creating a humanitarian catastrophe at the end of the war.

A crowning humiliation of the Poles was the refusal of their British "friends" to allow the free Polish army to march in the victory parade at the end of the war for fear of offending a Soviet puppet government in Lublin.

During World War II Poland suffered through one of the worst occupations in history, losing roughly six million of its citizens to mass murder and deportation at the hands of both the Germans and the Russians.  Among these were three million Polish Jews, whose society, language, and way of life were almost completely eradicated in the gas chambers of the Nazi death camps.

After the war it had to suffer 45 years as colony of the Soviet Union as result of agreement signed by its "friends" Britain and America.


THE DIPLOMATIC BACKGROUND MILITARY PREPARATIONS THE FINAL DECEPTIONS: AUGUST 1939

CONCLUSION ENDNOTES


THE DIPLOMATIC BACKGROUND

Great Britain and Poland

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain stated in the House of Commons on March 31, 1939.

"As the House is aware, certain consultations are now proceeding with other Governments.  In order to make perfectly clear the position of His Majesty's Government in the meantime before those consultations are concluded, I now have to inform the House that during that period, in the event of any action which clearly threatened Polish independence, and which the Polish Government accordingly considered it vital to resist with their national forces, His Majesty's Government would feel themselves bound at once to lend the Polish Government all support in their power.  They have given the Polish Government an assurance to this effect.  I may add that the French Government have authorized me to make it plain that they stand in the same position in this matter as do His Majesty's Government."[1]

Having secured a guarantee, the Poles now took steps toward coordinating their defensive preparations with the British.  On April 4, 1939, Poland's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Józef Beck, visited London for talks with Prime Minister Chamberlain and Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary.  The content of these talks was described in an official communiqué sent from London to Warsaw on April 6th:

"The conversations with M. Beck have covered a wide field and shown that the two Governments are in complete agreement upon certain general principles.  It was agreed that the two countries were prepared to enter into an agreement of a permanent and reciprocal character to replace the present temporary and unilateral assurance given by His Majesty's Government to the Polish Government. Pending the completion of the permanent agreement, M. Beck gave His Majesty's Government an assurance that the Polish Government would consider themselves under an obligation to render assistance to His Majesty's Government under the same conditions as those contained in the temporary assurance already given by His Majesty's Government to Poland."[2]

Shortly thereafter a formal agreement between Poland and Britain was signed which clearly stated "If Germany attacks Poland His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom will at once come to the help of Poland."[3]

France and Poland

Whereas British support of Poland was a relatively recent diplomatic development, Poland's alliance with the French had a long history.  The first French efforts to buttress Poland against Germany went back to 1921.  In that year, Raymond Poincaré, soon to become president of the French Republic, had stated "Everything orders us to support Poland: The [Versailles] Treaty, the plebiscite, loyalty, the present and the future interest of France, and the permanence of peace."[4]

To this end France had sealed a mutual assistance pact with Poland on February 21, 1921.  According to Article One of this pact France and Poland agreed to "consult each other on all questions of foreign policy which concern both states."  Furthermore, Article Three made it clear that "If, notwithstanding the sincerely peaceful views and intentions of the two contracting states, either or both of them should be attacked without giving provocation, the two governments shall take concerted measures for the defense of their territory and the protection of their legitimate interests."[5]  This agreement for mutual defense was then augmented on September 15, 1922 by a formal military alliance signed by Marshal Foch and General Sokoski.  This agreement stated explicitly "In case of German aggression against either Poland or France, or both, the two nations would aid each other to the fullest extent."[6]

Seventeen years later, Poland and France, facing growing tension with Germany, found it necessary to reaffirm the defensive alliance they had formed in the wake of World War I.[7]  In mid-May of 1939, Poland's Minister of War, General Tadeusz Kasprzycki, visited Paris for a series of talks.  At issue for Kasprzycki was clarifying the terms under which France would assist Poland militarily.  These talks resulted in the Franco-Polish Military Convention which, according to historian Richard Watt, stated that "on the outbreak of war between Germany and Poland, the French would immediately undertake air action against Germany.  It was also agreed that on the third day of French mobilization its army would launch a diversionary offensive into German territory, which would be followed by a major military offensive of the full French army to take place no later than fifteen days after mobilization."[8]

MILITARY PREPARATIONS

Polish Expectations, British and French Promises

Understandably, throughout the spring and summer of 1939 officials in Warsaw drew strength from the numerous assurances made by France and Great Britain that Poland would not stand alone if war with Germany was to break out.  For its part, the Polish military was under no illusion that it could defend against a German assault for more than a few weeks.  Although Poland could field one of the largest armies on the European continent, its troops were only lightly armed in comparison to their German counterparts.  In terms of modern weaponry, Poland was also severely lacking in armored vehicles and tanks, and its air force was hopelessly outmatched by the German Luftwaffe.  Strategically speaking, Polish generals envisioned fighting the Germans at the frontier and then slowly retreating toward the southeastern corner of the country, where an escape route into neighboring Rumania existed.  The Poles thus fully expected the Germans to advance deeply into their country.  Their sole hope was that Polish forces could hold on long enough for French troops and British air power to attack Germany's western border and draw off enough German divisions to allow a Polish counterattack.[9]  After all, France had promised in May to launch a major offensive within two weeks of any German attack.

Expectations of swift Allied action were also repeatedly reinforced by the British.  For example, during Anglo-Polish General Staff talks held in Warsaw at the end of May, the Poles stressed the need for British aerial assaults on Germany should war break out.  The British responded with assurances that the Royal Air Force would attack industrial, civilian, and military targets.[10]  General Sir Edmund Ironside then repeated this promise during an official visit to Warsaw in July.  The Poles could be confident that Britain would carry out bombing raids in Germany once hostilities began.[11]

The Reality: English and French Duplicity

At the same time that Allied politicians and military officers were promising to help Poland fight a war against Nazi Germany, events going on behind the scenes revealed that the British and French seriously doubted their ability to effectively aid the Poles.  Take for example discussions held by the British and French Chiefs of Staff between March 31 and April 4, 1939.  A report issued at the conclusion of these talks entitled "The Military Implications of an Anglo-French Guarantee of Poland and Rumania" stated

"If Germany undertook a major offensive in the East there is little doubt that she could occupy Rumania, Polish Silesia and the Polish Corridor.  If she were to continue the offensive against Poland it would only be a matter of time before Poland was eliminated from the war.  Though lack of adequate communications and difficult country would reduce the chances of an early decision. ... No spectacular success against the Siegfried Line can be anticipated, but having regard to the internal situation in Germany, the dispersal of her effort and the strain of her rearmament programme, we should be able to reduce the period of Germany's resistance and we could regard the ultimate issue with confidence."[12]

In short, while the Western Allies anticipated the eventual defeat of Germany they also believed that Germany would crush Poland before turning her forces to the west.  This situation did not change substantially in the months leading up to the outbreak of war, despite considerable information that western governments received concerning increasing German military activity.  No less credible a source than Robert Coulondre, the French ambassador to Germany, telegraphed numerous warnings to Paris of suspicious German troops movements.  For example, on July 13, 1939, Coulondre wrote Georges Bonnet, the French Foreign Minister, that "This Embassy has recently reported to the Ministry numerous signs of abnormal activity in the German army and of Germany's obvious preparations for the possibility of an impending war."[13]

Given what we now know about the months leading up to World War II one cannot help but agree with the conclusion of Polish scholar Anita Prazmowska: "After granting the guarantee to defend Poland, the British (one might add the French -- WFF) failed to develop a concept of an eastern front. ... The result was that the ... guarantee to Poland remained a political bluff devoid of any strategic consequence."[14]

THE FINAL DECEPTIONS: AUGUST 1939

Indeed, Coulondre's warnings were to no avail.  By August 1939, with German pressure on Poland increasing daily and a diplomatic solution to the crisis farther away than ever, Allied preparations for war remained minimal at best.  Great Britain in particular appeared to be paralyzed by an inability to appreciate the gravity of the situation.  Amazingly, the British had developed no coherent plan for offensive operations in the west, either in the air or on land.  To make matters worse they also refused requests from Paris to devote air power to support the anticipated French offensive into Germany.[15]  And as far as aerial attacks on Germany were concerned, British military planners had actually retreated from their earlier promise to the Poles.  By the end of August, thus on the very eve of war, the Chiefs of Staff in London had decided not to attack a wide array of targets in Germany.  Rather they would limit aerial bombardment to "military installations and units which were clearly that, to the exclusion of industrial stores and military industrial capacity."[16]  Naturally, the Poles were not informed of this alteration in Britain's approach to strategic bombing.

Still the Western Allies continued to put a brave face on their diplomatic efforts to dissuade Germany from going to war with Poland.  Considering the relative lack of military preparations, these efforts seem farcical now.  For example, on August 15, Robert Coulondre cabled Paris concerning a meeting he'd had with Ernst von Weizsäcker, the State Secretary in the Foreign Ministry in Berlin.  During this one-hour conversation Coulondre told von Weizsäcker "if any of the three Allies, France, England, and Poland, were attacked, the other two would automatically be at her side." Furthermore, Coulondre told Paris "To guard as far as possible against this danger [of war] which appears to me formidable and imminent I consider it essential:

(1) To maintain absolute firmness, an entire and unbroken unity of front, as any weakening, or even any semblance of yielding will open the way to war; and to insist every time the opportunity occurs on the automatic operation of military assistance.

(2) To maintain the military forces of the Allies, and in particular our own, on an equality with those of Germany, which are being continuously increased. It is essential that we should at the very least retain the previously existing ratio between our forces and those of the Reich, that we should not give the erroneous impression that we are 'giving ground'."[17]

Again, Coulondre's call for proper military preparations by France would be in vain.  Historian Anna Cienciala writes that General Maurice Gamelin, the commander of the French army, "had no intention to implement the French commitments made in the military convention [signed in May 1939]."  Incredibly, Gamelin instead took steps to ensure that the Poles would resist the Germans, while not further committing French troops to action.  In late August, Gamelin sent General Louis Faury to Warsaw as the head of the French Military Mission there.  Prior to departing, Faury "was told that no date could be given [to the Poles] for a French offensive, that the French Army was in no state to attack, and that Poland would have to hold out as best she could.  His mission was to see that the Poles would fight. ... [As] General Ironside [had] commented in July, 'the French have lied to the Poles in saying they are going to attack.  There is no idea of it'."[18]

The British too had no idea of attacking Germany, although they continued to bluff in the hope that Hitler would back down.  The Royal Air Force would not be deployed against German units in support of a French offensive and aerial bombardment in Germany would be limited only to clearly marked military installations (an unworkable proposition, both then and now, even with advanced technology).  Yet London continued to issue its own false assurances to Warsaw by signing a formal Agreement of Mutual Assistance between the United Kingdom and Poland on August 25, 1939 that committed Britain to declare war on Germany should she attack Poland.

Finally, in the latter days of August, as war loomed on the horizon and Germany massed more than one million men along the Polish frontier, London and Paris pleaded with Warsaw not to provoke the Germans by fully mobilizing her armed forces.  Trusting in their allies, the Poles did as they were asked.  Consequently, when the German attack came, the Polish army was only partly mobilized, making it that much easier for the Wehrmacht to split Polish defenses and drive deep behind Polish lines.[19]

CONCLUSION

Thus by September 1, 1939, the pieces were in place for the beginning of a general European war.  It would be a war for which Great Britain and France were egregiously unprepared.  Meanwhile, Poland would pay in untold lives.  France and Great Britain did indeed honor their signatures and declare war on Germany on September 3, 1939.  Nevertheless, this proved to be a hollow declaration that provided no help to the Poles.  From the evidence presented here is is clear that neither France nor Great Britain had the slightest intention of actually coming to the assistance of their Polish ally.

What transpired is by now well known.  The RAF did not even attempt to bomb German military installations because, as the Air Staff concluded on September 20: "Since the immutable aim of the Allies is the ultimate defeat of Germany, without which the fate of Poland is permanently sealed, it would obviously be militarily unsound and to the disadvantage of all, including Poland, to undertake at any given moment operations ... unlikely to achieve effective results, merely for the sake of maintaining a gesture."  The Chiefs of Staff agreed, informing 10 Downing Street that "nothing we can do in the air in the Western Theatre would have any effect of relieving pressure on Poland."[20]  And so the RAF decided instead to drop propaganda leaflets.

For its part, the French army did launch a diversionary offensive into the Saar region (See the Saar Offensive).  German defenses quickly stopped the attack, however, and it was never resumed.  In fact, France and Great Britain would never launch an combined offensive during the first year of the war, preferring instead to await the German attack, which came in May 1940 and ended in disastrous defeat for both nations.

The opportunity to fight a brief, localized war against Germany was therefore lost in September 1939.  In hindsight, also lost were the opportunities to save millions of lives, to rid the world of Hitler, and to have prevented the creation of conditions that led to the Cold War.  As General Ironside commented in 1945, after much of Europe was in ruins, "Militarily we should have gone all out against the German the minute he invaded Poland. ... We did not ... And so we missed the strategical advantage of the Germans being engaged in the East. We thought completely defensively and of ourselves."[21]  And so they did.


ENDNOTES

[1] Statement by Prime Minister Chamberlain in House of Commons, March 31, 1939.

Diplomatic correspondence between Georges Bonnet, France's Minister for Foreign Affairs and Léon Nöel, French Ambassador in Warsaw on March 31, 1939 reveals:

"The British Ambassador informed me on March 30 that a question would be put to the British Government next day in the House of Commons, suggesting that a German attack on Poland was imminent and asking what measures the Government would take in such an eventuality.

With the intention of giving the German Government a necessary warning in the least provocative form, the British Government proposed, with the approval of the French Government, to answer that, although it considered such a rumour to be without foundation, it has given the Polish Government an assurance that if, previous to the conclusion of consultations going on with the other Governments, any action were undertaken which clearly threatened the independence of the Polish Government, and which the latter should find itself obliged to resist with armed force, the British and French Governments would immediately lend it all the assistance in their power.

I replied to the communication from Sir Eric Phipps that the French Government would give its whole-hearted approval to the declaration which the British Government proposed to make."  See The French Yellow Book: Diplomatic Papers, 1938-1939.

[2] Anglo-Polish Communiqué, April 6, 1939

[3] The Anglo-Polish agreement was also signed on April 6, 1939.  See Anita Prazmowska, Britain, Poland and the Eastern Front, 1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 193.

Less than one week later (on April 13, 1939) Edouard Daladier, the French Minister for War and National Defence, issued the following statement to the press:

"The French Government ... derives great satisfaction from the conclusion of the reciprocal undertakings between Great Britain and Poland, who have decided to give each other mutual support in defence of their independence in the event of either being threatened directly or indirectly. The Franco-Polish alliance is, moreover, confirmed in the same spirit by the French Government and the Polish Government. France and Poland guarantee each other immediate and direct aid against any threat direct or indirect, which might aim a blow at their vital interests."  Source: The French Yellow Book: Diplomatic Papers, 1938-1939.

[4] Richard Watt, Bitter Glory: Poland and its Fate, 1919-1939 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979), p. 176.

[5] Ruth H. Bauer, "Franco-Polish Relations, 1919-1939" (M.A. Thesis: Georgetown University, 1948), p. 30.

[6] Bauer, "Franco-Polish Relations," p. 32.

[7] Tensions between Germany and Poland arose over the status of the German city of Danzig, which was an independent League of Nations protectorate within northern Poland.  Hitler demanded access to Danzig, which had a majority German population, via an extraterritorial highway and rail line from Germany through the Polish Corridor and to East Prussia.  Hitler also raged against Poland on the basis of reports that atrocities were being perpetrated by the Poles against the large German minority in the country.  This was a tactical maneuver on Hitler's part.  Similar claims against the Czechs concerning the German minority in the Sudetenland had won Hitler a significant diplomatic victory at Munich the year before.  Although Hitler claimed only to want the status of Danzig settled satisfactorily and the good treatment of Germans in Poland guaranteed, his motives were actually farther reaching.  As Hitler made clear on August 11, 1939, during a discussion with Carl Burckhardt at Berchtesgaden (see Carl J. Burckhardt's Meeting with Hitler), his actions were ultimately directed against Soviet Russia and not Poland.  Since the Poles had repeatedly rebuffed German invitations to sign the Anti-Comintern Pact, Hitler needed a route by which to reliably transport troops and material to East Prussia, in order to carry out his offensive designs against the USSR.  The extraterritorial highway and rail line would have provided this route.  Polish refusal to grant Germany this concession thus made war inevitable considering Hitler's broader plans for German expansion to the east (see General Plan East: The Nazi Revolution in German Foreign Policy).

[8] Watt, Bitter Glory, p. 402.

[9] Watt, Bitter Glory, p. 401.

[10] Prazmowska, Britain, Poland and the Eastern Front, pp. 94-95.

[11] Watt, Bitter Glory, p. 408.

[12] Prazmowska, Britain, Poland and the Eastern Front, p. 81.

[13] Coulondre to Bonnet, July 13, 1939

[14] Prazmowska, Britain, Poland and the Eastern Front, p. 105.

[15] Prazmowska, Britain, Poland and the Eastern Front, pp. 182-183.

[16] Prazmowska, Britain, Poland and the Eastern Front, p. 102.

[17] Coulondre to Bonnet, August 15, 1939

[18] Anna M. Cienciala, Poland and the Western Powers, 1938-1939 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968), p. 245.

[19] Cienciala, Poland and the Western Powers, p. 248.

[20]  Prazmowska, Britain, Poland and the Eastern Front, pp. 183-184.

[21] Cienciala, Poland and the Western Powers, p. 249.