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 largest air raid ever up to that time, while German armored forces pre­pared for a ground assault on the Polish capital. At 8 a.m. the next day, Septem­ber 25, known as “Black Monday” in Poland, German air­planes, including some that were obso­lete, con­ducted 1,150 sorties over the city, drop­ping 560 tons of high-explo­sive bombs and 72 tons of incen­di­ary bombs. In doing so, Germany shifted the terror bombing of civil­ian popu­la­tions into over­drive following Axis exper­i­ments on Guer­nica (1937) and Barcelona (1938) during the Spanish Civil War.

Lt. Col. Wolfram von Richthofen, who was in charge of the Guer­nica air raid, declared the bombing and strafing of that Spanish town, which may have killed over 1,500 peo­ple out of a popu­la­tion of 7,000, to have been “a com­plete techni­cal success” and broke the sur­vivors’ morale. Richt­hofen employed the same bombing tech­niques in Poland with greater intensity and to much greater effect. The “Black Monday” bombing ruptured Warsaw’s water pipes and pre­vented the in­fer­no from being quenched, elating Richt­hofen who wanted to burn the capital to the ground and turn it into a mere “cus­toms station” in the future. Between aerial and artil­lery bom­bard­ments, 40 per­cent of the city’s buildings were damaged and 10 per­cent destroyed. Over 75,000 civil­ians became casu­al­ties before the Polish capi­tal of 1.1 mil­lion people (1931 popu­lation) sur­rendered on Septem­ber 27, 1939. The Germans took over 100,000 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. Quickening the tempo, Germany carried out incen­diary 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 air 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 and did little to damage the Nazis’ war machine in con­trast to Amer­ica’s “pre­ci­sion bombing” of German mili­tary and indus­trial tar­gets such as air­craft, ship­building, synthe­tic oil refin­eries, and trans­por­tation system, which inflicted 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 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. Para­dox­i­cally, fewer Japa­nese died in each of the atomic blasts over Hiro­shima and Naga­saki later that August than in Tokyo on March 9–10, 1945.

Terror Bombing Warsaw: The Luftwaffe’s Aerial Bombardment Campaign of 1939

Warsaw blitz: Warsaw burning, September 1939Warsaw blitz: 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 and 10, Junkers Ju‑87 Stukas and bombers attacked the city, the slow-speed Stukas strafing civilians as they flew over the city. On the 13th, Luftwaffe bombers caused wide­spread fires. On Septem­ber 25 Luft­waffe bombers, in coor­di­na­tion with heavy artil­lery shelling, dropped 632 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 blitz: Warsaw child survivor, September 1939Warsaw blitz: 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 infan­try 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. Amid the waste and destruc­tion of violent bom­bard­ment and artil­lery shelling, the nine-year-old boy in this photo 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 terror bombing of the Polish capi­tal played a key role in the country’s defeat. The Polish Army lost approxi­mately 6,000 killed in action and 16,000 wounded in what Poles call the Polish Defen­sive War of 1939. As cour­ageously as they fought, the Poles were simply out­matched by the more modern Wehr­macht (German armed forces). 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 Warsaw 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 the capital’s inhabi­tants who had staged an unsuc­cess­ful uprising between August and the first three days of October 1944.

U.S. War Department Film Documenting September 1939 Invasion of Poland

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