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Why did Poland’s allies fail to come to its defense September 1939? England was preparing for war and knew Hitler was going to attack her.

—R. G.

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Dear R.G.,

The main reason for the Western Allies’ failure to adequately assist Poland in September 1939 was their complete miscalculation of both Germany’s and Poland’s strategies and their respective abilities to implement them. Both Britain’s and France’s war planners had anticipated the Poles holding out for two or three months—while Poland’s own commanders expected to do so for six. Even though the Germans did not employ the perfected all-out Blitzkrieg that they used to such dramatic effect in May–June 1940, their invasion plan was sufficient to overturn those expectations, aided by a Polish strategy of defending its western industrial region rather than falling back on more defensive river barriers, for fear that losing those regions would discourage the Western Allies from committing themselves—and in consequence having large parts of its army cut off and destroyed.

The principal Western attempt to divert some of the 85 percent of German forces involved in Poland was a French offensive into the Saar region. Launched on September 7, it penetrated 5 miles into a 15-mile wide area by the 10th, at which point the French stopped and resumed a defensive posture, having not compelled the Germans to withdraw any significant units from Poland. Britain, meanwhile, seemed more intent on naval matters, especially after the sinking of the liner Athenia on September 4, with great loss of life. On September 17 the Royal Navy lost its first warship when U-29 torpedoed and sank the aircraft carrier Courageous—a psychologically devastating blow. That same day also saw the ultimate blow to any Polish hopes of resisting the Germans when the Soviet Union declared war and its troops poured in from the east.



Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History Group
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