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|Second Polish–Soviet War|
|Part of World War II|
|Commanders and leaders|
| Edward Rydz-Śmigły|
(Marshal of Poland)
(Chief of the General Staff)
| Joseph Stalin
(Chief of Staff)
Total: 800,000 men
Total: 1,000,000+ men
The Second Polish–Soviet War (Polish: Druga wojna polsko-sowiecka, Russian: Второй Советско-польская война) was a military conflict between the Soviet Union and Poland and a part of World War II. It began with the Soviet invasion of Poland on 23 October 1938 three weeks after the outbreak of World War II).
On 3 October 1938 the Soviet Union, France and the United Kingdom declared war on Nazi Germany in response to their invasion of Czechoslovakia, honoring their respective alliance treaties. Following this, the Soviet Union entered into negotiations with the United Kingdom and France to establish a formal alliance against Nazi Germany. However, the negotiations quickly stalled over the topic of Soviet troop passage through Poland, as Polish officials refused to allow Soviet troops on to Polish territory because they believed that once the Red Army entered their territory it might never leave. The Soviets suggested that Poland's wishes be ignored and that the tripartite agreements be concluded despite its objections.
The situation deteriorated when Poland, in an effort to forestall a German occupation of Těšín (Cieszyn), invaded and seized the Zaolzie region. Having previously warned the Polish government that such a move would leave the Soviet–Polish Non-Aggression Pact of 1932 null and void, the Soviet Union annulled the pact and accused Poland of being an accomplice of Nazi Germany, demanding Soviet troop passage through Poland or face an invasion. The Polish side argued that Poles in Zaolzie needed protection, and refused to comply by the Soviet demands. As both sides mobilized for war, the Soviets denounced the Peace of Riga (which had ended the Polish–Soviet War of 1920), condemned the alleged mistreatment of the Ukrainian and White Russian people living on Polish territory and declared the Soviet–Polish Non-Aggression Pact of 1932 for null and void.
On 23 October 1938 the Soviet Union invaded Poland, announcing they were acting to liberate the Ukrainians and Belarusians who lived in the eastern part of Poland from the pro-German leadership of Marshal Edward Rydz-Śmigły. Despite having numerical superiority in terms of men, tanks and aircraft, the Red Army had been crippled by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's Great Purge of 1937. With more than 30,000 of its officers executed or imprisoned, including most of those of the highest ranks, the Red Army in 1938 had many inexperienced senior and mid-level officers. Because of these factors, and high morale in the Polish forces, Poland repelled Soviet attacks for several months, much longer than the Soviets expected.
The result of the Paris Peace Conference (1919) did little to decrease the territorial ambitions of parties in Eastern Europe. Józef Piłsudski sought to expand the Polish borders as far east as possible in an attempt to create a Polish-led federation to counter any potential imperialist intentions on the part of Russia or Germany. At the same time, the Bolsheviks began to gain the upper hand in the Russian Civil War and started to advance westward towards the disputed territories with the intent of assisting other Communist movements in Western Europe. The border skirmishes of 1919 progressively escalated into the Polish–Soviet War in 1920. Following the Polish victory at the Battle of Warsaw, the Soviets sued for peace and the war ended with an armistice in October 1920. The parties signed the formal peace treaty, the Peace of Riga, on 18 March 1921, dividing the disputed territories between Poland and Soviet Russia. In an action that largely determined the Soviet-Polish border during the interwar period, the Soviets offered the Polish peace delegation territorial concessions in the contested borderland areas, closely resembling the border between the Russian Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth before the first partition of 1772. In the aftermath of the peace agreement, Soviet leaders largely abandoned the cause of international revolution and did not return to the concept for approximately 20 years.
After the Polish–Soviet War, the Polish authorities pursued a policy of "equal distance" between Germany and the Soviet Union. Most of Polish politicians, both on the left and right, believed that Poland should rely mostly on the crucial alliance with France dating back to World War I and should not support either Germany or the Soviet Union. To normalize the bilateral contacts with the Soviet Union, talks were started in January 1926 to prepare a non-aggression treaty. The treaty was to fortify the Polish gains of the Peace of Riga and was to be balanced by a similar pact signed with Germany. However, the talks with Germany were not started, and the Polish–Soviet talks were interrupted in June 1927, after Great Britain broke diplomatic relations with the USSR and Soviet plenipotentiary Pyotr Voykov was murdered in Warsaw. Instead, Poland applied to the Briand-Kellogg Pact of 1928. The Polish-Soviet negotiations were resumed in Moscow, in 1931.
On 25 July 1932 the two countries signed the Soviet–Polish Non-Aggression Pact effective for a three-year period. Ratifications were exchanged in Warsaw on 23 December 1932 and it went into effect on the same day. On 5 May 1934 it was extended to 31 December 1945 without amendment. Among other topics, both sides agreed to renounce violence in bilateral relations, to resolve their problems through negotiations and to forgo any armed conflict or alliances aimed at the other side.
Polish relations with Germany
While Poland's foreign policy had been that of an equilibrium between her two big neighbours through non-aggression treaties in 1932 and 1934. However, after the Rhineland remilitarization in 1936, Poland concluded that the Soviet Union were the weaker and the more hostile of the two powers, and that good relations with Germany were, therefore, more valuable and possible to achieve. The authoritarian, anti-semitic and anti-communist character of the Polish government also contributed to their orientation towards Berlin. Germany, on the other hand, with Austria and Czechoslovakia in the foreground of their foreign policy aspirations, also had an interest in wishing for harmony with Poland.
Despite the Polish inclination towards Berlin, there were serious problems in the relations between the two countries, concerning primarily with the Free City of Danzig, which had been created by the Versailles Treaty. In 1933 the Nazis achieved dominance in the city government, which was still nominally overseen by the League of Nations' High Commissioner. The German government officially demanded the return of Danzig to Germany along with an extraterritorial (meaning under German jurisdiction) highway through the area of the Polish Corridor for land-based access from the rest of Germany. The local Nazis also haassed the Polish officials and merchants in the exercise of their harbor and shipping rights. Besides this, around 750,000 ethnic Germans lived as minorities in Polish Silesia and Pomerania, with almost twice as many Poles living in Germany. There were repression and discrimination against these territories on both sides, which had not been alleviated by the 1934 Non-Aggression Treaty. In June 1937 German foreign minister Konstantin von Neurath received the Polish ambassador, Józef Lipski, in order to propose a "declaration of minorities". Following futher negotiations between Poland and Germany, they signed a declaration of minorities on 7 November 1937, which was signed with considerable ceremony in both Berlin and Warsaw. Hitler simultaneously gave his assurances to Lipski on Danzig, which were publicized in a communiqué stating that "it was confirmed during the conversation that German-Polish relations would not be disturbed by the Danzig question". While the declaration was only hortatory, it nevertheless marked a period of improved rleations between Germany and Poland.
When Hermann Göring visited Poland in February 1938 for a hunting trip, he talked with both Foreign Minister Józef Beck and Marshal Edward Rydz-Śmigły, where he stressed the congruence of German and Polish interests in raising a rampart against Soviet communism. Beck also expressed "serious interest" in the Czech problem and the Zaolzie region, which Göring promised would not be infringed. Beck also suggested an extension of the 1934 non-aggression pact, to which Göring proposed a period of fifteen to twenty years.
While the German annexation of Austria on 11 March 1938 caused alarm in Poland among Francophiles in the Polish Army who were nervous about Warsaw's pro-German proclivities an fearful of moving too far from Fance, it did not change the Polish policy towards Germany. Following the Anschluss, discussions of ways to improve the situation were for the most part carried on outside normal official channels, at meetings between Lipski and Göring. Late in August 1938 Göring again expressed approval of extending the 1934, while Lipski indicated a desire for better ordering of the Danzig situation.
Developments during the Sudeten crisis
In the spring and summer of 1938, the Polish authorities assumed that France would not fight if Czechoslovakia was attacked by Germany, and the Polish foreign minister, Józef Beck, believed that Germany would prevail and annex the Sudeten German territories. In his opinion, much could be gained in the short run by cooperating with Hitler. The destruction of Czechoslovakia, which Beck had long argued was an artificial creation, provided a unique opportunity for Poland, as they could annex the disputed Zaolzie and the town of Těšín (Cieszyn), which had a significant Polish population. Following World War I and the peace conference in 1919, both Czechoslovakia and Poland had been arguing over the territory on various historic, ethnic, economic and strategic grounds, and as a result it was on 28 July 1920 decided to partition the region. Besides the wish to annex the Zaolzie region, the Poles looked forward to Hungarian action in Ruthenia (Carpatho-Ukraine) and the creation of a common Polish–Hungarian border that would provide the base for a Balkan bloc, giving Poland greater security.
While tensions between Germany and Czechoslovakia over the Sudetenland continued to escalate, the Polish ambassador to Germany, Józef Lipski, was briefed in Warsaw on 13 September on the Polish price for "neutrality": a recognition of the German–Polish frontier as final, an extension of the 1934 German-Polish Non-Agression Treaty, and a written commitment to the solution of the Danzig question. Beck moved in two directions simultaneously: demanding the Czechs to give concessions paralleling those given to the Germans on the grounds of self-determination, and assuring the French that, if there was a general war over Czechoslovakia, Poland would either join France or remain neutral.
When Czechoslovakia capitulated to the Anglo-French proposal at 1700 hours on 21 September, both Poland and Hungary presented their demands in Prague later the same evening. Hitler had the previous day met with ambassador Lipski at Berchtesgaden, in which Lipski had outlined the geographical borders of the Zaolzie region that Poland would demand and assured Hitler that military force would be used if proved necessary. They also agreed that neither Germany nor Poland would recognize the new Czech borders until all minority claims had been satisfied.
The same day, on 21 September 1938, the Polish Army formed the Independent Operational Group Silesia and began concentrating large military forces on the border of Czechoslovakia, in order to forestall a possible German occupation of the disputed Zaolzie region. On 22 September Czechoslovak Foreign Minister Kamil Krofta summoned the Soviet Ambassador Sergei Aleksandrovskii, where he told him that the Poles were concentrating a large military force on the border of Czechoslovakia, and asked Moscow to warn the Polish that an attack on Czechoslovakia would automatically void the Polish-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1932. Soviet intelligence had earlier reported on 10 September of extensive Polish army maneuvers along the Soviet frontiers, including the evacuation of families from border areas. In response to the Czechoslovak request, the Soviet government at 0400 hours on 23 September issued a formal declaration to the Polish chargé d'affaires that Moscow would denounce the non-aggression pact if Poland attacked Czechoslovakia. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union began to mobilize its forces on 21-23 September in response to the increased tensions between Germany and Czechoslovakia, who the Soviet Union were obliged to support in accordance to the Soviet-Czechoslovak Pact of 1935. When the Poles discovered the massive mobilization of the Kiev and the Byelorussian Military Districts, they responded with similar countermoves.
As the crisis escalated, the Czechoslovak military leadership acknowledge the possibility that they would have to give Poland territorial concessions in exchange for Polish neutrality. On 25 September general Ludvík Krejčí, chief of the Main Headquarters of the Czechoslovak Army, urged president Edvard Beneš to secure Polish neutrality and, if possible, transit rights for Soviet forces, as compensation for territorrial concessions. As a result, on 28 September Beneš sent a communiqué to the Polish administration offering to reopen the debate surrounding the Zaolzie region.
The Red Army mobilizes
At 1800 hours on 21 September 1938 the Kiev Special Military District was ordered to mobilize and deploy in the regions of Volochinsk, Proskurov and Kamianets-Podilskyi a group consisting of the Vinnitsa army group, the 4th Cavalry Corps (34th, 32nd and 9th Cavalry Divisions), the 25th Tank Corps, the 17th Infantry Corps (96th, 97th and 72nd Infantry Divisions) and the 23rd and 26th Light Brigades. At the same time, the infantry divisions were to call up 8,000 reservists per division as well as their required complement of horses. These orders were being implemented the following day, as Komandarm Semyon Timoshenko, together with his staff, transferred headquarters from Kiev to Proskurov.
At 2345 hours on 23 September, the Commissariat of Defence issued similar orders to the Byelorussian Special Military District. The 5th and 50th Infantry Divisions along with a division of armoured trains were to be deployed around Polotsk; the 24th Cavalry Division, 16th Tank Brigade and the 79th Infantry Division around Lepel; around Minsk the 7th and 36th Cavalry Divisions, the 2nd, 13th and 100th Infantry Divisions and the 21st Tank Brigade; and around Slutsk the 4th Cavalry Division. To accompany these deployments, fighter plane squadrons were ordered to move to forwarding bases near the frontier to cover the Sebezhsk, Polotsk, Minsk and Slutsk sectors; light bombers were stationed at Vitebsk and Orsha, while heavy bombers were to operate from their usual airfields. In total, the preparations in Ukraine and Byelorussia included 30 infantry and 10 cavalry divisions, seven tank and motorized brigades, twelve brigades of fighter planes and bombers, and two corps, one division, six brigades and 31 regiments of anti-aircraft forces.
Further orders were issued on 29 September to the Kiev, Belorussian, Leningrad and Kalinin Military Districts to call up from reserve and form seventeen additional infantry divisions, the commands staffs of three tank corps, twenty-two tank and three motorized infantry brigades, and thirty-four air bases. In addition to these forces prepared and deployed along the western frontier, a considerable second echelon of forces was formed in the interior of the country, comprising 30 infantry divisions, six cavalry divisions, two tank corps, fifteen additional tank brigades and 34 air bases.
Negotiations over transit rights for Soviet forces
On 30 September 1938, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia on the false pretext that Czechoslovakia had suppressed the Sudeten German minority and had launched attacks on German territory. On 2 October France, Britain and the Soviet Union, declared war on Germany.
On 3 October 1938, the Soviet Union, Britain and France began trading suggestions and plans regarding a military alliance that would provide guaranteed support against an attack on its territory. Poland did not participate in these talks, acting on the belief that any Polish alignment with Soviet Union would lead to a serious German reaction. The tripartite discussions focused on potential guarantees to central and eastern European countries should German aggression arise. The Soviet Union insisted on a sphere of influence stretching from Finland to Romania, to serve as a buffer zone, and military support in the event another country attacked the Soviet Union or a country within its proposed sphere of influence. The Soviet Union also demanded on the right to enter those countries in its sphere of influence in the event its security was threatened.
Negotiations quickly stalled over the topic of Soviet troop passage through either Romania or Poland. Although Romania were reluctant to cooperate with the Red Army, they had turned a blind eye to Soviet overflights during the spring of 1938. However, the system of railroad logistics in Romania, over a route of some 800 kilometers, was completely inadequate to transport a modern army. There were only 360 kilometers of double tracking in the Romanian railway system (mostly located in the far southern part of the country), and there were no major railroad lines that crossed the Romanian-Czechoslovak border in Ruthenia. Poland, on the other hand, was far better equipped in double-tracked railway lines - by a factor of 10:1 - than Romania. Not only were the capacity and the density of the tracks better in Poland, but its location was also vastly more advantageous. Three nearly parallel double-tracked systems ran through the Wilno corridor to Warsaw, while another ran from the northwestern Ukraine and joined the three parallel tracks at Brzéść and Białystok. For transporting Soviet forces to Slovakia, the Soviet had two obvious alternatives: the Tarnopol – Bohumín line and the Kamianets-Podilskyi – Przemyśl – Łupków Pass – Humenné – Prešov line.
The parties waited as British and French officials pressured Polish officials to agree to such terms. However, Polish officials refused to allow Soviet troops on to Polish territory because they believed that once the Red Army entered their territory it might never leave. On 22 May 1938, Juliusz Łukasiewicz, the Polish ambassador to France, had told the French Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet that if France moved against Germany in defense of Czechoslovakia: "We shall not move." Łukasiewicz also told Bonnet that Poland would oppose any attempt by Soviet forces to defend Czechoslovakia from Germany. Daladier told Jakob Surits, the Soviet ambassador to France: "Not only can we not count on Polish support but we have no faith that Poland will not strike us in the back."
On 4 October Marshal Rydz-Śmigły said the following: "There is no guarantee that the Soviets will really take active part in the war; furthermore, once having entered Polish territory, they will never leave it". The Soviets suggested that Poland's wishes be ignored and that the tripartite agreements be concluded despite its objections. The British refused to do so because they believed that such a move would push Poland into establishing stronger bilateral relations with Germany.
Poland enters the war; negotiations
At noon on 5 October, Poland gave an ultimatum to the Czechoslovak government. It demanded the immediate evacuation of Czechoslovak troops and police and gave Prague time until noon the following day. At 11:45 AM on 6 October the Czechoslovak foreign ministry called the Polish ambassador in Prague and told him that they needed more time. As a result, on 6 October Polish forces commanded by General Władysław Bortnowski invaded the Zaolzie region of Czechoslovakia. The same day President Beneš sent a communiqué to Warsaw agreeing to cede the Zaolzie region in return for Polish neutrality and allowing Czechoslovak forces to escape into Poland to avoid German captivity. After some fighting with Czechoslovak forces the Poles had seized Těšín, the Polish government agreed. As a result, combat activities seized on the 8 October, and Poland annexed an area of 801.5 km² with a population of 227,399 people.
Although they explicitly stated they were not allied with Germany and claimed their actions were to protect the Polish population in the area, the Soviet government condemned the Polish actions and denounced the non-aggression pact on 6 October. On 9 October 1938, the Soviet Union invited a Polish delegation to Moscow for negotiations. Beck, the Polish foreign minister, headed the delegation, which also included the Polish Ambassador to Moscow, Wacław Grzybowski. The Soviets condemned the Polish military actions against Czechoslovakia and again demanded Soviet troop passage through Poland on railway lines south of Lwów-Brody-Równe. They also demanded free passage of all Czechoslovak forces who might escape into Poland to avoid German captivity as well as Soviet overflights over northern Poland in order to allow the Red Air Force bomb targets inside German-held East Prussia. The following day, on 10 October, the Lithuanian and Latvian foreign ministers, Vilhelms Munters and Stasys Lozoraitis, were given a similar ultimatum in Moscow, in which the Soviets demanded Soviet overflights over their territory.
The Soviets continued the mobilization of the Leningrad, Kiev and Belorussian Special Military Districts. After two days of negotiations, Latvia and Lithuania gave in to the Soviet demands of overflight, but Poland refused their ultimatum, arguing that accepting the Soviet demands would make Poland a belligerent country. The parties met again at the negotiating table on 13 October, where the Polish delegation, wanting to reassure their French ally by allowing Czechoslovak troops to escape through Polish territory, made a counteroffer in which they would allow Czechoslovak forces to retreat into Poland and guarantee they would remain neutral, but still refused the troop passage.
On 14 October, in the assembly of the Supreme Soviet, Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov announced Soviet demands in public. On 17 October the Poles made a new counteroffer, now allowing Soviet overflights, but still refusing troop passage, arguing that with the Hungarian invasion of Slovakia meant that a collapse of Czechoslovakia now was a fait accompli. From the Soviet point of view, the negotiations were finished, breaking off the negotiations on 18 October.
Shelling of Volochys'k
On 19 October, a border incident was reported near the town of Volochys'k on the Soviet-Polish border. A Soviet border guard post had been shelled by an unknown party resulting, according to Soviet reports, in the deaths of seven and injuries of twelve border guards. The shelling was carried out from the Soviet side of the border by an NKVD unit with the purpose of providing the Soviet Union with a casus belli and a pretext to invade Poland.
Litvinov claimed that it was a Polish artillery attack and demanded that Poland apologize for the incident, move its forces beyond a line 20–25 km away from the border and allow for Soviet troop passage. Poland denied responsibility for the attack, rejected the demands, and called for a joint Polish–Soviet commission to examine the incident. The Soviet Union then claimed that the Polish response was hostile and severed diplomatic relations with Poland on 21 October. Two days later, Marshal of Poland Edward Rydz-Śmigły announced the mobilization of Polish troops.
Opposing forces and plans
Poland's shared border with the Soviet Union was 1412 km long. By comparison, the border with Germany and its province of East Prussia was more than 20 percent longer, at 1912 km. Neither border contained any major geographical obstacles, making defense very difficult.
In the north there was a flat, plain land with huge forests (e.g. Puszcza Nalibocka — the Wilderness of Naliboki). In addition, a major rail route connecting Moscow to Western Europe extended across the northern portion of the country. The areas major conurbation at the time was Wilno, located in the northeast corner of interbellum Poland.
The centre region of the country was primarily composed of a huge, sparsely populated swamp known as Polesie. This land had no roads and few rail lines. However, it held supreme strategic importance, as its landscape made possible a prolonged, organized defense. Neither Polesie nor the adjacent Volhynia contained any major urban centers.
The south, formerly a portion of the Galicia province of the Austrian Empire, was the most highly developed, with a high density of rail lines, growing industry (e.g., oil fields in Boryslaw), and the well-developed agriculture of Podolia. Lwów, one of the major urban centers of interbellum Poland, was located in this area. In addition, the Soviet border was marked by a natural obstacle — the Zbrucz river.
Virtually all Polish industrial and urban centers were located in the West. This made long-lasting defense possible, as a Soviet force would have taken up to several weeks to reach Upper Silesia, Warsaw, Kraków or Poznań. While devising Plan Wschód, Polish planners assumed cooperation and support would be forthcoming from Romania, which was Poland's main ally in the East.
During the 1920s and 1930s, the leaders of the Republic focused their efforts on countering the potential threat from the East. Fresh were memories of the Polish-Soviet War and the Battle of Warsaw, which saved both Poland and Europe from the spread of Bolshevik revolution by force. Both the Polish Army and the government in Warsaw were certain that war with the Soviets was inevitable, thus preparations for it (known as Plan East, or Plan Wschód) were far more advanced than preparation for armed conflict with Germany (known as Plan West, or Plan Zachod).
The plan, developed between 1935 and 1938 and headed by Lt. Col. Leopold Okulicki, was based on the notions of Józef Piłsudski, who, until his death in 1935, was sure that war would arrive from the East. Thus most army maneuvers and field fortifications built by Polish Corps of Engineers (especially around Sarny) were held in the east, while Poland's western border was, to a large extent, neglected.
Polish planners were well aware that the Red Army was in many elements superior to their own. Therefore, the main idea was to organize a so-called "resistance in motion", and to try to split Soviet forces south and north of the vast Polesie swamps. Front line armies, located in the vicinity of the border, were to try to delay the advance of the aggressors and to bleed them, while reserves, located mostly in the area of Brześć Litweski and Lublin, were intended to enter the conflict in later stages. The Poles were expecting the Red Army to advance in three directions. Firstly, along the Minsk - Baranowicze - Białystok - Warsaw rail line. Secondly, along the Sarny - Kowel - Lublin line, and finally, in the south along the Tarnopol - Lwów line.
The plan predicted that the Soviets would attack north and south of the Pińsk (Pripet) Marshes, the bulk of the Polish Army was supposed to have been concentrated both in the north and south, with central section of the border left mostly unguarded. The Polish forces were mobilized as follows:
- In the extreme north-east, around the rail nexus of Mołodeczno, was Armia Wilno under the command of Div. Gen. Stefan Dąb-Biernacki. It comprised three infantry divisions (1st Legions Infantry Division from Wilno, 19th Infantry Division, also from Wilno, 29th Infatry Division from Grodno), two cavalry brigades (Wileńska Cavalry Brigade from Wilno, Suwalska Cavalry Brigade from Suwałki), and the 5th Air Corps from Lida.
- South of Armia Wilno was Armia Baranowicze under the command of Div. Gen. Tadeusz Piskor. It comprised four infantry divisions (9th Infantry Division from Siedlce, 20th Infantry Division from Baranowicze, 18th Infantry Division from Łomża, and 28th Infantry Division from Warszawa), two cavalry brigades (Nowogródzka Cavalry Brigade from Baranowicze, Podlaska Cavalry Brigade from Białystok) and the 4th Air Corps from Toruń.
- In the center was Independent Operational Group Polesie under the command of Brig. Gen. Emil Krukowicz-Przedrzymirski. It was composed of three infantry divisions (8th Infantry Division from Modlin, 27th Infantry Division from Kowel, 30th Infantry Division from Kobryń), one cavalry brigade (Mazowiecka Cavalry Brigade from Warszawa), the Riverine Flotilla of the Polish Navy and the 3rd Air Corps from Poznań.
- Further south was Armia Wołyń under the command of Div. Gen. Stanisław Burhardt-Bukacki. It comprised three infantry divisions (2nd Legions Infantry Division from Kielce, 3rd Legions Infantry Division from Zamość, 13th Infantry Division from Równe), one cavalry brigade (Wołyńska Cavalry Brigade from Równe) and the 2nd Air Corps from Kraków.
- In the extreme south was Armia Podole under the command of Div. Gen. Kazimierz Fabrycy. It comprised five infantry divisions (5th Infantry Division from Lwów, 11th Infantry Division from Stanisławów, 12th Infantry Division from Tarnopol, 22nd Infantry Division from Przemyśl, 24th Infantry Division from Jarosław), two cavalry brigades (Podolska Cavalry Brigade from Stanisławów, Kresowa Cavalry Brigade from Brody) and the 6th Air Corps from Lwów.
- Apart from these units, in all armies there were Border Protection Corps (Polish: Korpus Ochrony Pogranicza, KOP) units and garrisons of the main cities.
The army had also following reserve forces:
- Behind Armia Wilno and Armia Baranowicze was Armia Lida, consisting of three infantry divisions.
- Behind Armia Podole and Armia Wołyń was Armia Lwów, made up of two infantry divisions and a cavalry brigade (5th Krakowska Cavalry Brigade from Kraków).
- Far behind the front lines, around the city of Brześć Litewski, was the main reserve, which comprised six infantry divisions, two cavalry brigades (7th Wielkopolska Cavalry Brigade from Poznań, 8th Pomorska Cavalry Brigade from Bydgoszcz), an Armored Brigade and the 1st Warsaw Air Corps.
In Soviet military planning, the assessment of the threat to its territory was based on the assumption that Germany and Poland would attack the Soviet Union simultaneously from the west, while Japan would attack from the east. It was estimated that Estonia, Latvia, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and Finland would join the war only if the operations of the Red Army and the Red Navy did not meet with success from the outset.
The guidelines for the Soviet war plans, as proposed by the General Staff, were approved by the Council of People's Commissars (the Soviet government), and the Defence Committee, which was chaired by the Premier, Vyacheslav Molotov. The activities of the Red Army were directed by the Main War Council of the People's Commissariat for Defence, headed by People's Commissar Kliment Voroshilov, while the activities of the Red Navy were headed by the Main War Council of the People's Commissariat of the Navy, headed by People's Commissar Mikhail Frinovsky. It was part of the system that the central committee of the Party and its Politburo voiced their opinions when decisions concerning important policies were made. An important position as far as operative planning was concerned was occupied by the General Staff of the Red Army, under Komandarm 1st class Boris Shaposhnikov, while the chief of the General Staff of the Navy was Flagman 2nd class Lev Galler.
The General War Plan of 24 March 1938 was based on the assumption of a confrontation between two military blocks: on one hand France, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union; and on the other Germany, Italy, Japan, Poland, Finland, Estonia and Latvia. It was assumed that Italy would exclusively contribute with the Italian Navy; Lithuania will be occupied by Germany and Poland in the first days of the war; while Romania and Turkey could, under certain circumstances, also decide to enter war against the Soviet Union.
It was assumed that Germany would field 14 divisions against France; Germany and Poland would field 33 divisions against Czechoslovakia; and Germany, Poland, Latvia, Estonia and Finland will field 144 divisions and 16 cavalry brigades against the Soviet Union. The Red Army could mobilize 139 divisions and 26 tank brigades; conceived by the Red Army Command, the numerical inferiority had to be compensated by their greater mechanization.
The war plan had two variants: the first involved the deployment of the bulk of the German, Latvian and Polish forces to the north of the Pripet Marshes, while the second involved the deployment of the bulk of the German and Polish armies to the south of the Pripet Marshes. In both cases, a defeat of the enemy frontal attack of Soviet troops on the biggest enemy troops. In the first variant, between 70-82 Soviet divisions and 11 tank brigades would be deployed north of the Pripyat Marshes, and tasked with breaking through a German-Polish-Latvian comrpising 88 divisions and 3 cavalry brigades on a broad front between Święciany – Baranowicze towards Grodno. To the south of the Pripyat Marshes, 38 Soviet divisions and 9 tank brigades would be opposed by a Polish force of 40 divisions and 13 cavalry brigades, and were to advance on a narrower front towards. Further north, a special army of 12 divisions would attack Tallinn in Estonia (from Pskov) and Riga in Latvia; while in the Northwesten theatre an operation with 19 divisions and 6 tank brigades would be carried out against Finland on the Karelian Isthmus to the line Käkisalmi – Viipuri and another one in the North to snatch away the Arctic coast in Petsamo.
In the second variant, between 80 and 86 divisions and 13-15 tank brigades deployed south of the Pripyat Marshes would split the German-Polish force of around 86 divisions and 13 cavalry brigades around Tarnopol and then advance on a broad front towards Kowel, Lublin and Lwów. North of the Pripyat Marshes a Soviet force of 37 divisions and 7 tank brigades would attempt to tie down a joint German-Polish formation of 62 divisions and 3 cavalry brigades on a narrow front between Oszmiana and Nowogródek. In contrast to the northern variant, the second variant included a deeper strike into Poland.
Following the Polish attack on Czechoslovakia, Stalin instructed on 7 October the Chief of the General Staff for the Red Army, Komandarm 1st Class Boris Shaposhnikov, to prepare a plan for an invasion of Poland. Shaposhnikov outlined an plan based on the War Plan of 24 March 1938 with a duration of several months, which advocated for a serious buildup, extensive logistical and fire support preparations, and a rational order of battle, deploying the army's best units.
The Soviets employed two primary offensive axes, each managed by a Front. Each Front commander had at his disposal a mobile group of forces created from cavalry and mechanised troops; a precursor of the cavalry-mechanised groups of the Second World War.
Komandarm 2nd rank Mikhail Kovalyov.
Komandarm 1st rank Semyon Timoshenko.
The Soviet forces, numbering between 450,000 and 1,000,000 soldiers, 2,500 tanks and 718 armoured cars and 3,800 aircraft, were positioned as follows:
- North of the Pińsk Marshes, the Belorussian Front was under the command of Komandarm 2nd rank Mikhail Kovalyov. Three armies would advance to the line Wilno –Baranowicze, from which the advance would be split into two groups. The right flank would advance through Białystok towards Modlin, while the left flank would advance on Brześć nad Bugiem and then on to the capital Warsaw. The Byelorussian Front had an initial strength of 12 infantry divisions, 4 cavalry divisions and 8 tank brigades, with two tank brigades in reserve.
- South of the Pińsk Marshes, the Ukrainian Front was under the command of Komandarm 1st rank Semyon Timoshenko. Two armies would advance on a broad front and advance to the line Stanisławów – Tarnopol, followed by an advance on the line Przemyśl – Lwów. After securing Przemyśl, the bulk of the forces continue their advance on Lublin and then Warsaw, one corps would advance on the Łupków Pass in order to assist the Czechoslovak Army. A third army would protect the right flank of the front by an advance towards Łuck and Chełm. The Ukrainian Front had an initial strength of 7 infantry divisions, 6 cavalry divisions and 9 tank brigades.
While the Latvian and Lithuanian governments on 12 October agreed to Soviet overflights over their territory, the plan allowed for potential future operations against Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Finland.
Stalin's purges had devastated the officer corps of the Red Army; those purged included three of its five marshals, 220 of its 264 division-level commanders or higher, and 36,761 officers of all ranks. Fewer than half of the officers remained in total. They were commonly replaced by soldiers who were less competent but more loyal to their superiors. The effects of the purge are visible in the ranks of the commanders in the order of battle, with only one Army commander serving in the appropriate rank of the Army General, in this case 2nd Class (Komandarm 2nd rank, Russian: командарм 2 ранга), the rest serving in being Corps (Komcor) and Divisional (Komdiv) Commander rank Russian: комкор, комдив). Furthermore, unit commanders were superseded by a political commissar, who ratified military decisions on their political merits, further complicating the Soviet chain of command. This system of dual command destroyed the independence of commanding officers.
1938: Soviet invasion
On 23 October 1938 at 05:00, Soviet forces invaded Poland with 21 divisions, totaling some 450,000 men, and bombed Warsaw, Lwów, Przemyśl and Brześć nad Bugiem. Two hours later, Litvinov delivered the following declaration of war to Wacław Grzybowski, the Polish Ambassador in Moscow:
|“|| On 6 October 1938 the semifascist Polish Government led by Marshal Rydz-Śmigły participated in the dismemberment of our ally Czechoslovakia, in direct violation of Article 2 of the Polish-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1932, which has now ceased to operate. Following this, they rejected the S.S.S.R.’s just and equitable demands for troop passage so we could aid our Czechoslovak ally in their war against the German fascists. The Republic of Poland therefore has sided with the fascists government in Berlin. For these reasons the Soviet Government, cannot any longer preserve a neutral attitude towards these facts... In these circumstances, the Soviet Government have directed the High Command of the Red Army to order troops to cross the frontier and to take under their protection the life and property of the population of Western Ukraine and Western White Russia.|
— People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs of the U.S.S.R. Maxim Litvinov, 23 October 1938
On 1 November 1938, the Soviet Union formed a puppet government called the People's Republic of Poland, which was headed by Bolesław Bierut. From the very outset of the war, working-class Poles stood behind the legal government in Warsaw. At the start of the war, Poland brought up the matter of the Soviet invasion before the League of Nations, but did not meet much sympathy.