Warsaw, Poland September 1, 1939

World War II in Europe began on this date in 1939 in Danzig (now the present-day Polish city of Gdańsk) when the elderly German training ship Schles­wig-Hol­stein, under the guise of a cere­monial visit to the city, bom­barded Poland’s naval base in Danzig harbor. After a fierce day­long fight Danzig fell and was annexed by the Reich the next day.

Meanwhile, Hermann Goering’s Luft­waffe, with its large fleet of modern air­craft, had no diffi­culty in achieving con­trol of Poland’s air­space. The Luft­waffe first attacked the Polish town of Wieluń, deep inside Poland, destroying 75 per­cent of the town and killing close to 1,200 peo­ple, most of them civil­ians. Warsaw, Poland’s capi­tal of 3 mil­lion—under heavy aerial bom­bard­ment since the first hours of the war—was attacked on Septem­ber 10 (“Bloody Sunday”), besieged on Septem­ber 13, and pum­meled by 1,150 Ger­man air­craft on Septem­ber 24. On the ground nearly one-and-a-half million men from six panzer (armored) divi­sions, ten mecha­nized infan­try divi­sions, and some 40 divisions of more conven­tional infan­try thundered across the 1,250‑mile border. Accom­paning this mas­sive force was a horde of news­reel camera­men from Joseph Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry to film Poland’s destruction.

As German ground units advanced from the north­west and north (Pomer­a­nia, Danzig, and East Prussia) and from the west and south­west (Silesia and German-allied Slova­kia) (see map), with their goal of con­verging on Warsaw, Polish forces with­drew from their for­ward bases near the Polish-German frontier to more estab­lished lines of defense in the east. The Polish defense plan called for an encircle­ment stra­tegy: Germans were permitted to advance in between two Polish Army groups in the line between Berlin and Warsaw-Łódź, at which point a Polish reserve army would move in and trap them. Polish mili­tary stra­tegists, how­ever, failed to pre­dict the head-spinning pace of German pan­zer and motorized units, a mis­cal­cu­la­tion that led to the Septem­ber 8 cap­ture of Łódź in Central Poland, the country’s third-largest city. This proved to be a major set­back to the Poles’ plan to defend the coun­try west of the Vis­tula, the river that bisects Poland south to north as well as Warsaw itself.

Although the British and French had declared war on Germany on Septem­ber 3, pledging to guarantee Poland’s inde­pen­dence, they made no pro­mises that they would come to Poland’s aid imme­di­ately. Luft­waffe chief Goering hoped that the con­flict would be over quickly, avoiding a world war. That all seemed likely when the last Polish Army group in the field surrendered on October 6, 1939.

German Blitzkrieg Against Poland, September 1 to October 6, 1939

German-Polish deployment on eve of war

Above: German and Polish deployment of land forces on Septem­ber 1, 1939. The German assault on Poland was the first demon­stra­tion of Blitz­krieg tactics—the ruth­less use of armor, mobile infan­try, and air support. The last engage­ment between the two enemies (Battle of Kock) took place between Octo­ber 2 and 5 roughly 75 miles south­east of the Polish capital, Warsaw (Warszawa as it appears in the middle of this map). Adolf Hitler was con­vinced that once Poland was defeated and divided between Germany and the Soviet Union, which by previous agree­ment had entered the con­flict against the Poles on Septem­ber 17, 1939, Britain and France would not seriously continue the war.

German Blitzkrieg against Poland: German soldiers sweep Westerplatte battlefield German Blitzkrieg against Poland: Central Poland town of Wieluń after three air raids, September 1, 1939

Left: The Battle of Westerplatte was the first battle in the German inva­sion of Poland. Beginning on Friday, September 1, 1939, German naval and land forces assaulted the Polish Mili­tary Transit Depot on the Wester­platte penin­sula in Danzig’s har­bor. Manned by fewer than 200 Polish sol­diers, the depot held out for seven days in the face of heavy attacks that included dive bombers. In this photo German soldiers make a sweep of the area on September 8.

Right: Wieluń city center after three German air raids on Septem­ber 1, 1939. The bombing of Wieluń, which held no mili­tary value, is con­sidered to be one of the first terror bombings in his­tory and may­be the second in Europe. The church, syn­a­gogue, hos­pital, and most of the town’s other buildings were destroyed by 70 tons of bombs. The casualty rate was more than twice as high as the Basque town of Guernica, Spain, bombed by German and Italian air forces in 1937.

German Blitzkrieg against Poland: Warsaw burning, September 1939 German Blitzkrieg against Poland: Nine-year-old Warsaw survivor, September 1939

Left: Burning Warsaw, September 1939. The Luft­waffe opened the German attack on Poland’s capi­tal on Septem­ber 1, 1939, deploying 1,750 bombers and 1,200 fighters during the inva­sion. As the German Army approached Warsaw on Septem­ber 8, Junkers Ju‑87 Stukas and other bombers attacked the city. On the 13th, Luft­waffe bombers caused wide­spread fires. Finally, on Septem­ber 25 (“Black Monday”) Luft­waffe bombers, in coor­di­na­tion with heavy artil­lery barrages by army units, badly damaged Warsaw’s city cen­ter. Smoke from raging fires rose 10,000 ft into the air and could be seen 70 miles away. Hitler eagerly watched the destruc­tion of the city through field glasses. The next day the Polish gar­ri­son surrendered, and on September 27 German troops entered the city.

Right: From the first hours of the war, Warsaw—called the “Paris of the North” owing to the splen­dor of the city—was a target of unre­stricted aerial bom­bard­ment. In addi­tion to mili­tary facil­i­ties such as army bar­racks, the air­port, and an air­craft factory, German pilots tar­geted civil­ian facil­i­ties such as water works, hospi­tals, market places, and schools. Between air raids and artil­lery shelling as the Germans approached, the Polish capital sus­tained fifty or sixty thou­sand civil­ian deaths, more than the death toll in Allied raids on Ham­burg in mid-1943 (Oper­a­tion Gomor­rah) and Dresden in February 1945. Forty per­cent of its buildings were damaged and 10 per­cent were destroyed in the first month of war. In this photo a nine‑year-old boy rests in the city’s rubble during a search for food for his family.

English Language German Propaganda Film: “Liberation” of Danzig and Wehrmacht’s Assault of Poland, September 1939