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What If Poland Stopped the Blitz? Part 1

By Dale Cozort

This story was originally published on Dale’s website in February 1998. He has since published some of his essays in three collections that you can buy now.

Edward Śmigły-Rydz, Marshall of Poland

I’ve always been one to root for the underdog, and underdogs don’t come much more quixotic than the Poles at the start of World War II. I’ve always thought about doing a scenario where the Poles survive the German Blitz. I finally decided to do one.

Usually I restrict myself to one change. I tried that with this scenario and couldn’t make it credible. It takes at least three changes to give the Poles a fighting chance. (None of those changes are particularly unlikely, but I’ll admit that I prefer one-change scenarios.)

The three changes are as follows:

  1. A Polish secret weapon. Bazooka-type anti-tank weapons are invented in Poland in early 1937, about six years early and secretly, but widely deployed by 1939.

  2. A brilliant Polish aircraft designer does not die in a plane crash in the mid-1930s.

  3. Due to some sort of bureaucratic snafu, the German army is unable to completely reequip itself with a new version of its Enigma coding machines by September 1939.

What actually happened:

The Poles exited the war early, within roughly a month of its beginning. They fought hard, but were overwhelmed. Most students of World War II look at the Poles as kind of a speed bump for the Germans, with absolutely no chance of surviving much longer than they did. I think that image is wrong. Before I talk about the what-if, I need to clear away some of the myths surrounding the campaign.

Debunking the myths of the Polish campaign

Poland has gotten a rather bad rap over the years for its army’s performance in 1939. Part of that rap is true. Poland between the wars was a poor, mainly rural country. Once Germany started seriously rearming, Poland could not possibly keep up, even if Germany had only rearmed at a sustainable level. Under Hitler, Germany rearmed at a rate which would have resulted in national bankruptcy if it hadn’t resulted in war. The Poles couldn’t possibly keep up. Their annual military spending was often as little as one-twentieth of German military spending.

At the same time, the gap between Poland and Germany in 1939 was not as huge as is often thought. This section will debunk some of the myths.

Cavalry charges

Most people have the image of Polish cavalry charging with lances against German Panzers. The reality is quite different. Poland had a large cavalry force, but those cavalry used their horses for mobility. They fought dismounted and used anti-tank guns against German tanks.

There was one incident where mounted Polish cavalry tangled with German tanks, but it was an accidental encounter that got blown out of proportion by Italian journalists.

Poland as a speed bump for the Germans

The Polish campaign was fast for the Germans, but it was by no means easy. The Germans lost 285 aircraft, and 279 more were badly enough damaged that they had to be written off. The Germans also had 674 tanks either destroyed or damaged badly enough that they had to be taken back to Germany to be repaired or rebuilt. In both categories, German losses were close to the total Polish inventory.

Polish tanks

The Poles were producing around fifty tanks per year, around 5 percent of the German rate. Most, if not all, of those tanks were a light/medium (10 tons, 37mm gun) tank called the 7TP. It was based on the British 6-ton tank and was roughly equivalent to the Russian T26.

The Poles had a tank force called the Broń pancerna with 150 to 200 reasonably modern tanks plus about five hundred tankettes. That doesn’t sound like very many, but it was reasonably comparable to what the United States or Britain had at the time.

The Poles were also in the process of receiving 100 French R35 tanks when the war broke out and they had a couple of pretty good Christie suspension-type tanks called the 10TP and the 14TP in the design process at the start of the war. The 10TP was at the prototype stage in September 1939. It would have been roughly equivalent to a late model Russian BT7.

Polish air force

A PZL.43 tactical bomber

The Poles had a large and modern air force through the 1920s and early 30s. As late as 1936 or 1937 that air force had been pretty competitive performance-wise with anything in Europe. The Poles had a good design team, but not much depth. When they lost a key designer to a plane crash in the mid-1930s, new designs started to falter. They also put too much of their remaining design talent into designing a very nice modern bomber rather than the modern fighter planes that they desperately needed.

In the mid-1930s, the Polish and German air forces were reasonably comparable. The Germans used fighter biplanes while the Poles had high-winged fighter monoplanes with fixed undercarriages. Between 1937 and 1939, Germany reequipped its air force with low-wing fighter monoplanes like the Messerschmitt Bf 109. That upped fighter speeds substantially — from around 250 mph to over 320 mph.

The other great powers lagged behind somewhat, and Poland’s effort to produce a low-wing fighter monoplane were delayed to the extent that they had only one flyable prototype by September 1939. The Germans also dramatically expanded their air force. The Poles had ordered a hundred or two French Morane-Salner MS-406 monoplane fighters, but the French were desperately trying to reequip their own air force so none of those fighters made it to Poland before Poland was knocked out of the war. The French fighters weren’t all that great, but they would have made some difference.

The British had also pledged to send fighter planes to Poland if war broke out. Both the French and British had also promised to send bombers to fly from Polish bases. None of those planes made it before the war ended.

The Germans tried to knock the Polish air force out of the war with a strike at Polish airports at the beginning of the war, but the Poles had dispersed their planes to secondary airports and were able to keep flying until they ran out of planes and airports. Polish pilots were very well trained and they did a good job with the obsolete stuff they had. Polish fighter pilots claimed to have shot down 121 German planes. German records seem to indicate that the Polish fighter pilots actually shot down at least 160 German planes. A couple hundred modern Polish fighter planes could have made the Germans work much harder in the air.

Other Polish weapons

The Poles were license-building a very good Swedish 37mm anti-tank gun, and a reasonably modern 75mm anti-aircraft gun. They were also license-building various other artillery pieces, along with ammunition for that artillery. A 155mm long-range artillery piece had just started production when the war started. A Polish division had about two-thirds the artillery firepower that a German division did, and what artillery they did have was less effective due to poor communications. The Poles had reequipped most of their front line divisions with standard Polish-made rifles, but a few divisions still had older French stuff. The Poles were starting production of an automatic rifle, with just a few hundred produced when the war started.

Polish contributions

The Poles had one of the best codebreaking operations in the world. Up until summer 1939, they were reading German Enigma codes on a regular basis. Their work provided a large part of the basis for the Ultra codebreaking that the English and US did later in World War II.

They had also secretly developed one of the few anti-tank rifles that was still usable against 1939-era tanks. It used tungsten-cored ammunition and some physics tricks to get a high enough muzzle velocity to knock out most German tanks of the era.

So why did they go down so fast?

Slow French and English reaction. The Germans were overwhelmingly powerful in the east as long as the French and English did nothing meaningful in the west. The Western Allies were able to get away with making only a token effort because the Polish campaign ended so quickly.

Delayed Polish mobilization. The French and English convinced the Poles not to mobilize until long after the Germans had completed their mobilization. When the invasion started, only a quarter of the Polish army was armed and in position. Another quarter of it had been mobilized but hadn’t made it to the frontlines. About one-third of the Polish army never even formed before the war was over. The rest of it mobilized under German attack. On day one, the Germans faced a quarter of the men that the Poles theoretically could have faced them with.

The Poles fought too far forward. They put too much of their manpower into a hopeless fight for the Polish Corridor and important industrial areas near the German border. The Germans were able to cut a lot of those troops off and win the war before time and distance started to wear on the Panzers.

Polish weakness pushed the Soviets in. The Soviets probably intended to eventually go into eastern Poland to claim their share of the booty. That wasn’t carved in stone, though. The Soviets were fighting a major border war with Japan through September 15, 1939, and they were by no means ready to attack Poland in mid-September. They went in at that time because of Polish weakness. If the Poles had held off the Germans more effectively, the Soviets would have waited longer for their own attack, and depending on the way things went they might have held off entirely. Stalin was by no means incapable of double-crossing Hitler.

The rainy season came late in 1939. The Poles expected fall rains to turn central Poland into a large swamp by mid- to late-September. Then German mechanized units would lose mobility while Polish cavalry units would still be mobile. At that point the Poles would come into their own.

The Polish high command cut itself off from its own army on September 7. They were afraid of getting cut off in Warsaw, so they moved to another town. That town lacked the communication facilities necessary to deal with an army, so after the move the individual Polish armies were essentially on their own, without coordination. That was fatal against a fast moving opponent like the Germans.

German command of the air, and the quick tempo of the Panzers‘ advance, forced the Poles to move at night and fight during the day. Infantry units tended to quickly exhaust themselves. Cavalry brigades had more resilience because of their greater mobility.

What might have happened

Bazooka-type weapons are invented early in Poland. The technology of shaped charges and short-range rockets had been around since before World War I. In our timeline, some Swiss inventors/con-artists figured out that shaped charges would be useful against armor. In 1938, they did a demonstration in front of an English military type, then demanded a slug of money for their invention. After a couple of demonstrations, the Englishman figured out what they were doing, realized that the idea couldn’t be patented, and started the line of development that with some twists and turns resulted in the bazooka.

In this timeline, move the Swiss invention back a few years, and possibly make the inventors Polish. They go to a Polish government desperate to find a way to counter the increasing number of German and Soviet tanks on Poland’s borders. The Polish government shifts some money from the prestige project of building a Polish destroyer-based navy to producing thousands of bazookas. They do this with very heavy security and are able to keep the weapon, or at least its purpose and capabilities, secret until September 1939.

The Poles also manage to deploy a monoplane fighter comparable to the ME109. They don’t make extremely large numbers of them, but they do crank out around 150 by September 1939. They have some foreign orders from the likes of Turkey and Romania, and quite a few more fighters on order.

The Germans attempt to make a major upgrade to their Enigma coding machines in summer 1939. Due to a foul-up of some sort, the army is unable to complete that reequipment in time for the start of the war.

Everything else goes as it did in our timeline until September 1939. Then Panzers run into bazookas. Those bazookas are massed at exactly the right places, because the Poles know where the Panzers are coming. The Polish air force is able to concentrate its efforts at the points the Germans consider critical too.

The Enigma intercepts have a couple of other impacts:

The Poles have mobilized more forces, because they know an invasion is coming.

They know the Germans are going after a knockout, rather than just trying to grab off some border territory. That means the Poles would probably not concentrate as much of their power in the Corridor or in frontline areas.

The material impact of bazookas is not ruinous to the Germans. Yeah, they lose a lot more tanks, but not enough to stop them. The main impact is psychological. Tank crews are facing a dangerous unknown. They slow down the tempo of their attacks and become less aggressive. Polish infantry becomes more aggressive against tanks. German commanders have never actually tried a Blitzkrieg against a real opponent, so they become more cautious — more worried about their flanks, more worried about attrition to their tanks.

Then there is the impact on the mind of Hitler.

Portrait of Adolf Hitler.

Hitler was a gambler. As a gambler, he was lucky rather than good. From 1937 through mid-1941, he had a run of good luck in our timeline, winning on outrageous bluffs and holding his nerve at just the right time. As a former corporal with no further formal military training, he increasingly intervened in army affairs. In our timeline that usually worked out well through 1941, and caused disasters from then on.

In this timeline, initial tank losses have an impact on the mind of Hitler that far outweighs their physical significance. He looks at the heavy initial tank losses and recognizes that without the Panzer divisions, Germany cannot win the war. He pulls the Panzers back temporarily in order to give the army time to figure out what the new Polish weapon is and how to neutralize it.

That mistake compounds itself. The German infantry divisions are desperate for tank support. They have been stripped of tanks in order to supply the Panzer divisions. There is always a crucial point where a few tanks could make an attack succeed or fail. The German command finds itself stripping away a few dozen tanks here and a few dozen tanks there from the Panzer division for infantry support roles.

More importantly, trucks from the Panzer divisions get “borrowed” by the various infantry divisions. The Panzer divisions are weakened as the Germans work frantically to figure out how to avoid a repeat of those initial very high tank losses. A strong element of the German army has always opposed the Panzer division concept. They claim that the heavy Panzer losses prove their point. The German tanks prove extremely useful, but not decisive in their infantry support role.

These changes don’t stall the German offensive, but they give the Poles more time. That’s the one thing they need most. The German attack to cut off the Polish Corridor succeeds, but not quickly enough to capture a significant part of the Polish army. The Germans find and exploit weaknesses in the overextended Polish lines, and advance at very credible rates by World War I standards, but without the Panzers the advance is just enough slower that the Poles can react to it — avoiding encirclement, moving up what reserves there are. The Polish mobilization is continuing, making the fight a little more even as time goes on.

In our timeline, by mid-September the Polish army had been reduced to pockets, at least in the western part of the country. They just couldn’t move quickly enough to escape and establish new lines. In this alternative, by September 15, the Germans have taken a substantial part of Poland, and they have bagged some Polish divisions. The bulk of the Polish army has escaped and established a new set of lines along the rivers in the interior of Poland.

France is under heavy and increasing pressure to launch the offensive that they have been promising the Poles that they will launch. The Germans are weak on the Western Front. Putting the bulk of their combat power against Poland only made sense if it won them a very quick victory. The French are not as intimidated by a quick, overwhelming German victory in the east either.

The French are also under more pressure to rush arms to the Poles than they were in our timeline. In this alternative, the Poles still appear to have a chance. The French R35 are deployed, and the Poles quickly discover the severe tactical disadvantages of their one man turrets. The French ship three or four hundred more of them to Poland anyway. Within a month, the French start work redesigning the H35/39 and S35/39 line of tanks to reflect the Polish experience. The new designs will take at least a year to become operational. The French also decide to ship a couple hundred sort-of modern fighter planes through Romania. They won’t arrive and become operational until at least mid- to late-October. The French don’t have many modern planes to spare, so they are stingy in that department. They do have quite a few mid-1930’s-era planes in stock, and they are quite willing to send those. With the Polish airforce dwindling toward extinction, anything that will fly is helpful, at least in a ground attack role. Both Britain and France have a few dozen bombers and pilots on the way to Poland. Those planes may be in operation by early October if absolutely everything goes as planned.

The French have ample supplies of artillery and ammunition, so they are more generous with that. The prospect of getting samples of the Polish “bazookas” makes them more generous than they would have been, as does the fact that they look bad for not launching the promised offensive. The French and British are very interested in looking over knocked out German tanks, especially ones in relatively good condition.

The Soviets are in no hurry to join in on the German side. From their point of view, they now have the “capitalist” powers fighting one another. Why not just sit back and let them destroy one another? The Soviets could also take this opportunity to make sure the Japanese have been taught enough of a lesson in the Soviet-Japanese border wars that they will never want to challenge the Soviets again. Hitler wants the Soviets in, but he has no leverage to make them hurry. He can’t cut the Poles off from French supplies without going into territory that he promised the Soviets. He doesn’t have much leverage over Romania as long as the bulk of his forces are tied down in Poland.

The Polish army is in some ways in a stronger position in mid-September than it was at the beginning of September. Their casualties and captured are more than made up for by newly mobilized forces. They have far less territory to cover on their frontlines. They are running short on ammunition, but as long as they don’t run out before the supplies in the pipeline arrive they’ll be okay. Their air force is dwindling, but Germans are losing more planes in terms of absolute numbers (that was true in our timeline, believe it or not, and would be far more true given modern Polish fighters), and most air combat is over Polish-held territory so more Polish pilots are in a position to fight again if they are shot down.

The Polish army has learned a lot about how to fight the Germans in the two weeks. The Polish commanders have begun to adapt to the tempo of modern warfare somewhat, though they have a long ways to go. Polish buying teams are scouring the world for communications equipment and anti-aircraft weapons.

The Germans are still in a strong position. They still outnumber and outclass the Poles in just about every category of manpower and weapon power. They are beginning to face some problems, though. They’ve lost far more tanks than they expected to, both because of the bazookas and because the infantry support role, tank crew caution and increased artillery preparation actually leaves them more vulnerable to other weapons than more aggressive action would. Most of the German army still marched on foot in 1939. That part of the army would have been marching and fighting continuously for two weeks.

The Germans were geared toward a short war, followed by a period in which they rebuilt their stocks. For example, in our timeline, the Luftwaffe apparently was running low on bombs by the end of September 1939. The German army never produced enough spare parts for its trucks and tanks. A simple mechanical failure often meant that a tank or a truck had to be shipped back to Germany for repair. That didn’t matter much in our timeline, because France and Poland lost so much of their armies so early. In this timeline it starts to make a difference. Not enough to even the odds, but enough to have an impact.

The Poles would have an ace in the hole in this scenario. One of the little known aspects of 1930s-era politics is that Japan and Poland had a tacit alliance aimed at containing the Soviets throughout the mid- to late-1930s. The Poles shared intelligence and intelligence-gathering expertise with the Japanese. The Japanese allied themselves with Germany as an anti-Soviet move more than anything else. They still had ties to Poland, especially intelligence ties. The Japanese were fighting a border war with the Soviets in September 1939 and many Japanese regarded the German pact with the Soviets as a stab in the back.

Given that background, in this scenario the Japanese quietly leak what they know of upcoming German moves to the Poles in order to help preserve the Polish counterweight against the Soviets. That didn’t have time to happen in our timeline, but it probably would have given more effective Polish resistance. How much did the Japanese have to share at this point? I honestly don’t know.

At this point, one of two things could happen. First, the Germans could conclude that losses or no losses they have to unleash the Panzers. If that happens, and they push through with it, the Germans could take a couple of days to gather their scattered tanks, then break through the new Polish lines and cut the Polish army into pockets within a couple of weeks. The Russians would then come in for their slice, and nothing much would have changed. The war would end in mid-October rather than the end of September. The battle for France might go differently, but Poland would be knocked out of the war.

Second, the Germans could experiment with another smaller-scale Panzer attack, maybe involving two divisions, using massive artillery preparation to suppress the bazookas, then using the tanks to break through and cut off a section of the Polish army. If the Poles were still reading Enigma, that attack would turn out even worse than the initial ones did. The Poles would be able to concentrate their limited resources to blunt the attack. Given the power of the Panzer divisions, the Germans might manage to pull off a victory, but they would lose enough tanks to make them reluctant to try again.

Would it be possible for the Poles to keep their army and territory intact for another two weeks? Yes. The Poles were poorly equipped but very brave. The Germans would not have experienced the tempo that an armored attack is capable of. Given a Polish intelligence edge and the psychological and physical impact of bazookas, along with the handicap of Hitler’s wrong-headed orders a renewed German attack would provide gains but not breakthroughs. If the Germans fail to destroy the Polish army between September 16 and September 30, things start getting very ugly for them.

France is smoked out. Either they launch a real offensive or it becomes very obvious that France is led by cowards. The French attack becomes heavier as September nears its end. The attack doesn’t have the full weight of the French army behind it, but Germans are very aware of their weakness in the west. Pressure mounts on Hitler to shift forces west.

The English also feel pressure to do something. Winston Churchill pushes for an English move into Norway. He points out that a move there would cut off the vital Swedish iron ore imports to Germany. Of course Norway is a neutral country. Neville Chamberlain is still British prime minister, and he isn’t willing to invade Norway, but the British navy is making ominous moves in that area by mid- to late-September 1939. In our timeline, Hitler was very concerned about Norway throughout the war, diverting scarce resources there at every rumor of an Allied attack. In this timeline, the British moves rattle him. He pulls air resources and some army divisions from the Polish campaign and plans a lightning attack on Norway in mid-October 1939.

The attack catches England unprepared, but the German attack is a throw of the dice, just like it was in our timeline. It involves three prongs. In the riskiest move, the Germans send a force by sea to Narvik in northern Norway. In our timeline, the Germans lucked out and landed, but were stranded when the Royal Navy destroyed the bulk of the ships that brought them. In our timeline, the Germans in the north were bailed out by the fall of France. In this timeline, the Royal Navy sinks the German destroyer screen, then most of the transports, killing two or three thousand German soldiers. The British and French rush forces to the area, and the remnants of the German force in northern Norway retreats to Sweden after a brief fight and is interned there. The other two prongs of the German invasion are somewhat more successful, but not completely so.

The Royal Navy wreaks havoc on the shipborne components, and the British land hastily gathered forces at several points along the coast of Norway. The Norwegians fight as well as they can, given their manpower and equipment. After weeks of confused fighting, the Allies control the north. The Germans control the south. The central part of Norway is the site of bitter fighting. That fighting sucks men and equipment, and especially German air power, away from the battle for Poland. The Western Allies are getting a taste of Hitler’s air and land power, and they don’t like that taste at all, even though Norway is not good tank country. The Germans get a taste of British sea power, and that taste essentially finishes the German surface fleet. The British get a taste of what air power can do to a navy. They don’t like that taste either.

Meanwhile, back in Poland, as October wears on the Germans are still making progress, but it is beginning to look more like a World War I-type battle than the World War II battles of our timeline. Air superiority is an integral part of the power of the early Blitzkrieg. The Germans still have air superiority over Poland, but the remaining air force is spread thin with so much air power in the battle for Norway. The Poles are still flying a handful of their modern Polish-designed fighters, and they are even building small numbers of them. The first few dozen French monoplane fighters have arrived, along with a few French pilots to fly them and to train the Poles on how to fly them. The French planes are not a match for ME109s, but they come closer than the older Polish fighters did. French artillery and ammunition is arriving in large quantities, making the German task on the ground much more difficult. Presumably the rainy season arrives at some point, and Polish resistance gets a boost as the Germans bog down.

The Germans are running short of ammunition of all kinds. Tanks and trucks are breaking down in large enough quantities that the Panzer divisions are becoming demechanized. The Germans are also running low on oil. In our timeline, the Germans were very short of oil in the winter of 1939-40 until Stalin bailed them out. A longer battle for Poland, and a battle for Norway, would make that shortage worse. With no common border, Stalin couldn’t help even if he wanted to.

While the Germans get increasingly desperate for a quick win in Poland, Stalin sees an opportunity and seizes it. The border war with Japan started out with the Japanese as aggressors, but it became increasingly obvious that the Soviets outclassed the Japanese army in Manchuria. Stalin realizes that he doesn’t have to be in any hurry to grab his part of Poland. With world attention focused on the war in Europe, the Soviets stall on negotiations to end the border war with Japan, build up their forces and attempt an annihilating blow at the Japanese force in the disputed area. The Japanese army is for the most part tied down in China, and with Hitler embroiled in the west Stalin decides to make sure Japan understands the lesson of the border wars and grab some territory at the same time.

In the west, Stalin plays hardball with Hitler. It becomes more and more obvious that Hitler needs Stalin in the war, and Stalin makes it clear that he is in no hurry and that the price will be high — demanding widened spheres of influence in Romania as well as more territory in the Baltics. The Soviets also send out feelers to the Western Allies, looking for a better deal if they can find it.

In mid-November, the Germans go back on the offensive in Poland. The Germans play another card against the Poles. A large part of eastern Poland is Ukrainian-speaking. The Poles have had a great deal of trouble with a Ukrainian nationalist movement in that area. The Germans set up a Ukrainian nationalist government in the small sections of Ukrainian-speaking Poland that they have occupied. They also force Hungary to give up a Ukrainian-speaking part of Czechoslovakia that Hungary occupied in 1939. The Germans start training a Ukrainian army and try to foment a Ukrainian guerrilla movement inside Polish-held territory. That puts pressure on the Soviets too, because their share of Poland has a large Ukrainian population and the Soviet Union itself has a large Ukrainian minority.

The Germans themselves don’t go into territory that had been promised to the Soviets, but they help their Ukrainian allies take some of that territory. Helping the Ukrainian nationalists also threatens to cut the Poles off from their arms pipeline through Romania. In our timeline, Hitler considered using Ukrainian nationalists against Poland and later against the Soviets, but he didn’t think he needed them and felt that they would be an obstacle to his later plans for the area. They were also “Slavs” and fell victim to his racial theories. In this timeline, it would have been obvious that he needed them, so they would be promoted to “Cossacks” in his mind. The alliance is one of convenience and is just as cynical as the Hitler-Stalin pact. The Ukrainian nationalist leadership knows that, but they don’t have any better options.

With the concept of Panzer divisions discredited in the German army, armored warfare advocates find themselves with little room to advance in the German army. Several of the most vocal ones find themselves relegated to the role of training and advising the new Ukrainian army. They quietly scrounge Czech-built tanks for the new army and build up miniature versions of the Panzer divisions for the Ukrainian nationalists.

1940 opens with Poland still in the war, though shrunken. England and France are duking it out with Germany over Norway. The Germans are teaching the Western Allies how much they need to learn about modern warfare. The French are doing as little as they can get away with in terms of an offensive into Germany, but that has to be more and more as time goes on. The war in Norway takes some of the pressure off, as does arms shipments to Poland.

So that's the situation. And in the next article, we'll look at the consequences of that.


Dale Cozort, is a published Author and long term AH essay writer who can be found at his website here.


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