Biskupska on Forczyk, 'Case White: The Invasion of Poland 1939'

Robert Forczyk. Case White: The Invasion of Poland 1939. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2019. Illustrations. 416 pp. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4728-3495-9

Reviewed by Jadwiga Biskupska (Sam Houston State University)
Published on H-Poland (July, 2020)
Commissioned by Anna Muller (University of Michigan - Dearborn)

Printable Version:

The popularity of the recent BBC/PBS documentary series World on Fire and its sentimental portrait of Polish soldiers contesting Germans “on bicycles,” as Helen Hunt’s character repeatedly insists, demonstrates the need for a work like Robert Forczyk’s Case White: The Invasion of Poland, 1939. It promises an updated analysis of the military campaign that began the Second World War. Forczyk is the author of numerous specialized campaign studies and his Case White is deliberately revisionist, dismissing much of the Western scholarship on the Polish campaign as “lazy” and dominated by the German perspective (p. 10). Even more ambitiously, Forczyk asserts that the 1939 co-invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union constituted “the greatest criminal conspiracy of the 20th century”—a bold claim considering the bloodiness of the century—and therefore demands more consideration than it has gotten (p. 7). This volume is the first book-length study in English since Steven Zaloga and Victor Madej’s illustrated The Polish Campaign 1939 (1985) and should now be considered the definitive English-language treatment, though there is a much-deeper Polish literature and source base. It covers the German and Soviet attacks on Poland and considers all branches of the German military and the combat performance of the SS, though the police atrocity campaign, Operation Tannenberg, is mentioned only in passing. The study relies on an established library of secondary sources and campaign studies, supplemented with the memoirs and diaries of participants and some archival sources on British decision-making. The maps interspersed throughout are especially useful for visualizing the campaign as a series of regional conflicts.

Though the heart of the book investigates the fighting itself, the treatment begins with a brief overview of Polish military history, “Poland Is Not Lost,” followed by a very interesting chapter on how the new Polish Second Republic built an army and a military-industrial complex, and the political and economic difficulties that stunted these efforts, a chapter that should have wide interest. The central thesis in this discussion is that the Polish Army was on a successful modernization path by the late 1930s, but that this late date and limited financial means meant that reforms were incomplete at the time of the German invasion—a story of a state caught mid-reform that was not unique during the longer war. Chapters 3 and 4 consider the military and diplomatic buildup to war, outlining interwar German and Soviet military developments and the wrangling of alliances. Forczyk blames Polish military unpreparedness on Józef Piłsudski’s narrowmindedness and financial limitations, but he sees the country’s political isolation as largely the result of some combination of British indifference and hostility. Of note here is his reminder that the Germans, Poles, and Soviets all undertook politically motivated purges of their militaries during the 1930s and that these purges had far-reaching consequences.

The book then provides a detailed story of the five-week war, breaking it down into its major engagements region by region, and opening with naval and air warfare but focusing primarily on the land campaigns. Though military historians now begrudge the term, it is therefore an examination of Nazi Germany’s first stab at Blitzkrieg. The heart of the book (chapters 5 and 6) is a campaign history analyzing how the Polish Army and Wehrmacht maneuvered and fought, how good their commanders’ decisions were, and how well they used the weapons they possessed. Forczyk is dismissive of Gerd von Rundstedt and thinks Heinz Guderian competent if overpraised; he considers the Polish commander in chief Edward Smigły-Rydz so bad—“disastrous” and “disgraceful”—that his men were often better off when he lost contact with them (pp. 255, 261). Chapter 7, “Apotheosis,” sandwiches a brief discussion of the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland between a two-part discussion of the siege and defense of Warsaw. Though the detail in these chapters will likely overwhelm the nonspecialist, particular attention should be paid to the sections on aerial bombardment, the Battle of the Bzura, and the fight for Warsaw. Chapter 8, “Occupation,” is not primarily about occupation but about how the fighting ended, and its opening campaign analysis should be widely useful.

Forczyk passes harsh judgment on German and Polish command decisions, and also on French and British hesitation after their declarations of war. His goal is not primarily to overturn the conventional understanding of the campaign, which was that it was a decisive German victory, but to complicate that portrait by explaining that the victory was more difficult than it is generally taken to have been and that German use of air power and armor was less effective than it later became. The Polish defensive plan, which was to delay the German advance and then launch a substantial counterattack, was foiled in both aspects primarily by poor coordination among Polish units as they retreated. As a general matter, Forczyk asserts that Polish behavior—and especially the decisions of lower-level commanders—should not be dismissed outright and that some Polish actions were effective in delaying the German advance, maintaining soldiers’ morale, and creating precedents upon which later military resistance depended. Those with an interest in wartime resistance will encounter some of its major players—Kazimierz Sosnkowski, Stefan Rowecki, Tadeusz Komorowski—in their 1939 exploits.

Though politics are bracketed once the fighting begins in this study, it provides context for the behavior of Polish ethnic minorities, antisemitic atrocities, and the (mis)treatment of prisoners. Wehrmacht and SS atrocities against Polish soldiers and civilians, which Forczyk details at Wieluń, Gdańsk, Bydgoszcz, Parzymiechy, Zimnowo, Bolesławiec, Częstochowa, Milejów, Ciepielów, and Modlin, are a particular theme.

This volume will allow historians of the war to understand how the campaign in Poland was conducted and how later German campaigns emerged out of solutions to the mistakes of 1939. Its narrative and detailed maps, images, and appendices should be an asset to those interested in the Polish wartime experience, and a complement to the literature on antisemitic violence and police and Wehrmacht brutalization. Forczyk’s study of the collapse of Poland and the start of the Second World War is the only account available in English that considers all three opponents in the campaign. It demonstrates clearly that the Wehrmacht in 1939 was not already an institution capable of defeating France or invading the Soviet Union but that it developed from its experiences in Poland—and that it had to do so.

Citation: Jadwiga Biskupska. Review of Forczyk, Robert, Case White: The Invasion of Poland 1939. H-Poland, H-Net Reviews. July, 2020.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.