Hi, Cindy Stewart here. I’m excited to join the Heroes, Heroines, & History blog and look forward to interacting with you on the 1st day of each month. I write inspirational historical fiction set during World War II. Through my research, I’ve uncovered obscure events and new stories which bring history to life for me. The war caused great devastation, and we should never forget these horrors. But even during the worst tragedies, God’s hand is evident, working through people and events, transforming the outcome for future generations. I plan to share these miraculous stories with you.
What big mistake did Hitler make in 1939 that contributed to his eventual defeat?
Today we will focus on an event Hitler encouraged and later came to regret. An event which saved tens of thousands of lives and aided the Allies in their future victory.
The map below illustrates the boundaries of European countries in early 1938 before Hitler began his conquests. Notice that Poland is sandwiched between Germany to the west and the USSR to the east and bordered by Czechoslovakia and Romania in the south.
|By Dros Catalin. Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons
Before the end of 1938, Germany took possession of Austria and the Sudetenland (the mountainous area of western Czechoslovakia) without opposition. Hitler then devised a way to take over the great Czechoslovakian iron works, armament factories, and huge supplies of modern military equipment in addition to more land. He encouraged the Hungarian government to invade the eastern tail of Czechoslovakia and reclaim the territory of Carpathian-Ruthenia lost after World War I.
In March of 1939, the Hungarians acted upon Hitler’s suggestion and repossessed their former lands in the Carpathian Mountains. Hitler took advantage of the distraction, and the Germans marched into Prague, seizing the whole western half of Czechoslovakia. The middle of the divided country became “Slovakia” and a protectorate of Germany. The rest of the world responded with outrage but didn’t move to stop these advances. As seen on the map below, Hungary gained a common border with Poland.
|Professor John L Heineman, Boston College
And then almost 6 months later . . . on September 1st . . .
the Germans unleashed the Luftwaffe and the Wehrmacht on Poland, giving birth to the blitzkrieg, “lightning war.” The English and French had urged the Polish government not to mobilize its troops and further enrage Hitler. The Poles had ignored the warnings and secretly mobilized half of their armed forces by August 31st. The Luftwaffe bombed trains, stations, and rail lines, preventing many of the remaining troops from reaching their battle stations. Refugees clogged the roads, making it even more difficult for defense forces to engage the enemy.
What the Polish soldiers
lacked in numbers and equipment they made up for in bravery and sheer
determination. They held the enemy back longer than Hitler had expected. However,
armed with the most modern equipment (including the newly acquired arsenal from
Czechoslovakia), the German troops attacked from multiple points, broke through
weak spots where the Polish Armies were spread out, and encircled hundreds of
thousands of troops. The Poles tenaciously fought an army almost twice their
size and an air force five times greater.
|Polish Soldier 1939
By September 9th Hitler was impatient to finish the Polish campaign. The Germans asked the Hungarian government for permission to transport soldiers to Poland on a rail line through Hungary. The Hungarians denied passage. Even though they had signed a trade agreement with Germany, the Hungarians considered Poland their friend. If German troops set foot in Hungary, the government would consider it an act of war.
The Germans advanced across Poland, and on September 11th Polish Commander-in-Chief Marshal Rydz-Śmigły ordered his remaining troops to retreat to the Romanian border in southeast Poland. He expected new military equipment to arrive from France and England via Romania. He also planned to organize a counterattack from the east when France opened an offensive from the west as they had promised.
Then on September 17th, the unthinkable happened. . . .
The Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east and captured Polish troops. Upon hearing the news, Rydz-Śmigły ordered
all Polish units to cross the border into Hungary or Romania by any means possible. Although many soldiers, airmen, and civilians escaped into Romania, the Soviets quickly sealed the Polish-Romanian border, leaving Hungary as the only other escape route in the south.
The Hungarians officially opened their border with Poland on September 18th, and tens of thousands without passports or visas crossed safely. Whole military units escaped to fight another day.
|Polish Soldiers - Wikimedia Commons
Both Romania and Hungary followed the Geneva Convention and established refugee camps for civilian refugees and internment camps for soldiers. Refugees who could fend for themselves passed through Hungary and Yugoslavia to Italy and France. Hungarian citizens housed civilians in their homes and transported them to the Yugoslavian border where they found transportation further west. The Hungarian government didn’t stop “refugees” dressed in civilian clothing from leaving the country. In fact, the Hungarians sent civilian clothing to the Polish Embassy, enabling tens of thousands of soldiers to make their way to France and rejoin the Polish Army and Air Force.
|Graves of Polish Soldiers (1939)
By Сергей Семёнов (User:Stauffenberg (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons
The Polish Armed Forces joined the Allies and became the fourth largest Allied military force to serve in World War II. And they served with distinction.
If the escape route through Hungary had not been available, how much longer would the war in Europe have lasted? How many more civilian lives would have been lost?
|Used by Permission from Budby via flikr
Sources: No Greater Ally (Kenneth K. Koskodan)
Poland Betrayed (David G. Wiliamson)
Man of Steel and Honour: General Stanislaw Maczek (Evan McGilvray)
Hungarian History (http://www.hungarianhistory.com/lib/kapronczay/kapronczay2.pdf)