Forward German HQ in Poland · September 24, 1939

On this date in 1939 in Poland, Luftwaffe chief Her­mann Goering prepared to send hun­dreds of air­craft to blitz War­saw in the first major city attack of World War II in Europe, while Ger­man armored forces pre­pared for a ground assault on the Polish capital. At 8 a.m. the next day, known as “Black Mon­day” in Poland, Ger­man air­planes, including some that were obso­lete, con­ducted 1,150 sorties over the city, drop­ping 500 tons of high-explo­sive bombs and 72 tons of incen­di­ary bombs. In doing so, Ger­many intro­duced the con­cept of fire­bombing civil­ian popu­la­tions. The bombing ruptured water pipes and pre­vented the in­fer­no from being quenched. Between aerial and artil­lery bom­bard­ments, 40 per­cent of War­saw’s buildings were damaged and 10 per­cent destroyed. Over 75,000 civil­ians became casu­al­ties before the capi­tal of 1.1 million people (1931 popu­lation) sur­rendered on September 27, 1939. The Germans took over 100,000 Polish prisoners.

The Luft­waffe next fire­bombed Rotter­dam in the Nether­lands, this on May 14, 1940, killing 1,000 resi­dents and leaving 78,000 home­less, even though the Dutch city had already capit­u­lated. Ger­many carried out fire­bombing raids on an ever larger scale with night­time attacks on the Mid­lands city of Coventry and the British capi­tal, London, in 1940–1941 (Blitz).

Incen­di­ary bombing of hea­vily popu­lated Euro­pean cities was ratcheted up again when the Allies (chiefly in the form of the Royal Air Force) virtually de­stroyed the North German city of Hamburg in mid-1943 in raids that killed about 50,000 peo­ple out of a popu­lation of 1.2 million. The Ham­burg “area bombing,” or carpet bombing, of Germany’s second-largest city was a delib­er­ate attack on civil­ian morale but did little to damage the Nazis’ war machine. This con­trasted with America’s “preci­sion bombing” of Ger­man mili­tary and indus­trial targets such as air­plane, ship­building, synthe­tic oil refin­eries, and transpor­tation systems, which suc­ceeded in inflicting major disrup­tions on the German military and economy reputedly with fewer civilian casual­ties. (Post­war critics of the Anglo-American bombing cam­paign against Nazi Germany main­tain that the difference between an RAF area bombing raid and a U.S. “precision bombing” raid was often minimal.)

Three months before Ger­many’s unconditional sur­render in May 1945, 1,300 U.S. and Brit­ish heavy bombers un­leashed 4,000 tons of bombs on Dres­den, de­stroying 15 square miles of that his­toric city in a con­fla­gra­tion that killed some 25,000 peo­ple. Half a world away, Japan’s capi­tal, Tokyo, was the worst-ravaged of any fire­bombed city when on March 9–10, 1945, 90,000 civil­ians were killed out­right and 40,000 later died when U.S. napalm-filled “block burners” spread a fire typhoon through the city.

Firebombing Warsaw: The Luftwaffe’s Aerial Bombardment Campaign of 1939

Warsaw burning, September 1939 German forces entered Warsaw under aerial cover

Left: Burning Warsaw, September 1939. The Luftwaffe opened the Ger­man attack on Poland’s capi­tal on Septem­ber 1, 1939. As Ger­man armored units approached War­saw on Septem­ber 8, Junkers Ju‑87 Stukas and other bombers attacked the city. On the 13th, Luft­waffe bombers caused wide­spread fires. On Septem­ber 25 Luft­waffe bombers, in coor­di­na­tion with heavy artil­lery shelling, dropped close to 600 high-explo­sive and incen­di­ary bombs that badly damaged Warsaw’s city center.

Right: Under aerial cover German forces entered War­saw on Septem­ber 27, 1939, after three key forts in the city defenses were cap­tured and the Polish gar­ri­son sur­rendered. After the capitu­la­tion approximately 5,000 offi­cers and 97,000 sol­diers and NCOs were taken into captivity, many never to be seen again.

Warsaw child survivor, September 1939 Warsaw street, September or October 1939

Left: From the first hours of the war, Warsaw was the target of an un­re­stricted aerial bom­bard­ment cam­paign, and the Luft­waffe used all avail­able air­craft in its inven­tory. Apart from the mili­tary facili­ties such as army bar­racks, the air­port, and an air­craft fac­tory, Ger­man pilots also tar­geted civil­ian facili­ties such as water works, hos­pitals, mar­ket places, and schools in an effort to ter­rorize the city’s defenders into sur­rendering. In this photo a nine-year-old boy takes time out from a search for food for his family. His father, later taken away by the Nazis, never returned.

Right: Between air and ground assaults in Septem­ber 1939, War­saw suf­fered 25,800 civil­ian deaths, while approxi­mately 50,000 were wounded. Forty per­cent of the city’s buildings were damaged and 10 per­cent destroyed. The Polish Army lost approxi­mately 6,000 killed in action and 16,000 wounded in what Poles call the Polish Defen­sive War of 1939. Ger­man casu­al­ties are esti­mated at 1,500 dead and 5,000 wounded. In the course of the nearly six-year-long conflict in Poland close to 85 per­cent of the Polish capi­tal was destroyed, in part due to mass aerial bombings and heavy artil­lery fire by opposing Ger­man and Soviet forces in 1944–1945, and the demoli­tion cam­paign by venge­ful Ger­mans against Warsaw’s inhabi­tants who had staged an unsuc­cess­ful up­rising between August and the first three days of October 1944.

Captured German Films Document the Invasion of Poland in 1939

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