Warsaw, Poland September 1, 1939

Eighty-two years ago 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. The Polish Navy was attacked and was effectively destroyed in less than a week.

In the air war, 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. The Luft­waffe also hit rail­ways, impor­tant roads, and Polish troop move­ments. On the ground nearly one-and-a-half million men from six panzer (armored) divi­sions, ten mecha­nized infan­try divi­sions, some 40 divisions of more conven­tional infan­try, and several con­tin­gents of com­man­dos from what would soon be called Branden­burgers thundered across the 1,250‑mile border. Accom­panying this mas­sive force was a horde of news­reel camera­men from Joseph Goebbels’ Propa­ganda Minis­try and some Italian war correspondents to record 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. (A look at the map of Central Europe showed Allied war planners that there was no easy way to do that except by an attack on Germany’s west flank.) 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 rapid and ruth­less use of armor, mobile infan­try, and air support. (The term “Blitz­krieg” was coined by Western news reporters to describe the speed and destruc­tive­ness of the German attack on Poland; Germans did not use the term.) 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 with 41 divi­sions and 12 tank brigades totaling over 466,000 troops on Septem­ber 17, 1939, Britain and France would not seriously continue the war.

German Blitzkrieg against Poland: German soldiers sweep Westerplatte battlefieldGerman 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 April 1937. On Septem­ber 1, 2019, the Presi­dent of Poland, Andrzej Duda, and the Presi­dent of Germany, Frank-Walter Stein­meier, attended a memo­rial cere­mony before dawn in Wieluń. The pair next moved to Pilud­ski Square in Warsaw, to be joined by U.S. Vice Presi­dent Mike Pence, for a second memo­rial cere­mony marking the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II in Europe.

German Blitzkrieg against Poland: Warsaw burning, September 1939German 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 of 140,000 men 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.

Day 1 of the Invasion of Poland: Newsreel Accounts, First-Person Reminiscences, and Reenactments

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