Luftwaffe Terror Raids: Warsaw (September 24-27, 1939)

NAZI terror raids Warsaw
Figure 1.--These Warsaw boys are watching a Luftwaffe air raid as the Germans launched World War II (September 1939). It is a touching picture. One boy holds his pet dog. The others look bewildered and scared. Scenes like this took place all over western Poland as the Lufwaffe launched asttacks on undefended Polish cities.

The Germans from the very beginning of World War II in Poland, adopted the tactic of terror. The Luftwaffe was employed to bring terror to Polish civilians. The primary target was Warsaw, but other defenseless Polish cities were attacked by German bombers (September 1939). One historian writes, "The bombing of Warsaw early in the war made it clear to the Allies how Hitler intended to fight his war. What he threatened the Czechs with he carried out on the Poles. It was to be Schrecklichkeit ('frightfulness') with no regard for the civilian population." [Snyder] We certainly think it should have been clear, but in fact Poland was isolated between NAZI Germany and the Soviet Union. Thus it was difficult for press reports, especially images to reach the West. And this became even more so after the German occupation began. The avowed purpose of the attacks on cities was to cause civilian casualties. The out gunned Polish Air Force was unable to protect their cities, but it bloodied the Luftwaffe. Luftwaffe raids began early in the campaign, but massive raids began as the Wehrmacht Panzers approached the unprotected Polish capital. The Luftwaffe attacks continued day and night with no pretense of targeting military or industrial targets. The Luftwaffe bombings of Guernica and Rotterdam are more complicated affairs. The Luftwaffe's attacks on Poland are not complicated and are not clouded by any moral ambiguity. The Luftwaffe's attacks on Warsaw were a clear example of the terror bombing of a largely defended civilian population. The Luftwaffe launched a ruthless air assault on Warsaw's civilian population beginning September 24. We have noted different estimates of the number of bombers used, varying from 420-1,150 bombers. The different estimates probably reflect differences as to daily raids or the overall campaign. The Polish Air Force had been destroyed and there were no shelters for the beseiged civilians. At the same time approaching Wehrmacht forces prepared to assault the capital. The Luftwaffe on September 25 struck again with 400 German bombers dropping both incendiary and high explosive bombs. The city's water pipes were ruptured by the bombing. Fire-fighters were evacuated. Fires spread throughout the city. Warsaw surrendered to the Germans (September 27). Estimates vary but 25,000-40,000 people are believed to have been killed in air attacks, most in Warsaw. The terror raids were not limited to Warsaw, but Warsaw received the most intensive Luftwaffe bombing. Hitler visiting the destruction, remarked to journalists, "That is how I can deal with any European city." Some German authors claim that it was the British that began attacks on civilians. [Rumpf, p. 24-25.] Of course this ignores the German raids on Warsaw as well as smaller raids on other Polish cities. It is well to remember what Hitler and the Luftwaffe did to Warsaw at the very beginning of the War. What Hitler did not realize at the time was that Germany did not have a strategic bombing force or the industrial capacity to build one. The British and Americans, however, were both building just such a force and in numbers Reichmarshsall Göring and the Luftwaffe could scarcely imagine.

Terror / Schrecklichkeit

The Germans from the very beginning of World War II in Poland, adopted the tactic of terror. The Luftwaffe was employed to bring terror to Polish civilians. The primary target was Warsaw, but other smaller and defenseless Polish cities were attacked by German bombers (September 1939). One historian writes, "The bombing of Warsaw early in the war made it clear to the Allies how Hitler intended to fight his war. What he threatened the Czechs with he carried out on the Poles. It was to be Schrecklichkeit ('frightfulness') with no regard for the civilian population." [Snyder]

Operation Wasserkante (September 1)

The Luftwaffe began the World War II on Poland with Operation Wasserkante, the air attack on Warsaw (September 1). Four bomber groups carried out the attack. The raid was of only limited effectiveness. Low lying cloud cover made it difficult to bomb with any ccuracy. The Polish Air Force committed the PZL P.11 fighters of the Pursuit Brigade which managed to down 16 of the attacking German aircraft while losing 10 of their own. THe Poles wre, however, badly outnumbered and Polish fighter defenes wre soon destroyed (September 6). This left the subdequent air defense of Warsaw to the 40 mm and 75 mm anti-aircraft guns of the Warsaw Defense Command.

Luftwaffe Effort

One reason that the Polish Air Fiorce was so quickly overwealmed was that the Luftwaffe was able to deploy virtually its entire stregth from airfield to the north, west and south of Poland. Germany's western border were left essentially undefended. An Allied air assault on Germany would have been largely unopposed, but it id not come.

Impact on the West

We certainly think it should have been clear to the Bitish and French as well as the Americans , but in fact Poland was isolated between NAZI Germany and the Soviet Union. Thus it was difficult for press reports, especially images to reach the West. And this became even more so after the German occupation began. The avowed purpose of the attacks on cities was to cause civilian casualties.

Polish Air Force

The out-gunned Polish Air Force was unable to protect their cities, but it bloodied the Luftwaffe.

Subsequent Raids

Luftwaffe raids began early in the campaign, but massive raids began as the Wehrmacht Panzers approached the unprotected Polish capital (September 8). THe Luftwaffe launched 140 Junkers Ju-87 Stukas against the area of Warsaw on the eastern bank of the Vistula River. Other bombers targeted Polish Army positions in the western suburbs. Luftwaffe level and dive bombers attacked central Wasaw, causing widespread fires (September 13). Warsaw continuedm, however, to resist. The Germans began propaganda leaflet drops

Target

The Luftwaffe attacks continued day and night with no pretense of targeting military or industrial targets. The Luftwaffe bombings of Guernica and Rotterdam are more complicated affairs. The Luftwaffe's attacks on Poland are not complicated and are not clouded by any moral ambiguity. The Luftwaffe's attacks on Warsaw were a clear example of the terror bombing of a largely defended civilian population.

Final German Assault (September 24-26)

The Luftwaffe launched a ruthless air assault on Warsaw's civilian population beginning September 24. We have noted different estimates of the number of bombers used, varying from 420-1,150 bombers. The different estimates probably reflect differences as to daily raids or the overall campaign. The Polish Air Force had been destroyed and there were no shelters for the beseiged civilians. At the same time approaching Wehrmacht forces prepared to assault the capital. The Luftwaffe on September 25 struck again in wat has become known as Black Monday. Some 400 German bombers dropping both incendiary and high explosive bombs. The city's water pipes were ruptured by the bombing. Fire-fighters were evacuated. Fires spread throughout the city. The Luftwaffe air attacks on Warsaw, especially the devestating Black Monday attack set firmly in the minds of French and British leaders the earlier perceptions in force during the Munich Conference of the vulnerability of their cities to a single massive air attack.

September 24

The Luftwaffe launched a ruthless air assault on Warsaw's civilian population (September 24). We have noted different estimates of the number of bombers used, varying from 420-1,150 bombers. The different estimates probably reflect differences as to daily raids or the overall campaign. And because of the short distances involved, some squadrons were able to fly a second sortie. The Polish Air Force had been destroyed and there were no shelters for the beseiged civilians. At the same time approaching Heer forces assaulted the Polish capital.

September 25: Black Momday

The Luftwaffe on September 25 struck again with 400 German bombers dropping both incendiary and high explosive bombs. The raid began 8:00 AM. of Major General Wolfram von Richthofen (a cousin of the Wiorld War I Red Baron Manfred von Richthofen) oversaw the first major urban attack of World War II. The Germans dropped 500 tons of high explosive bombs and 72 tons of incendiary bombs, By this time, German heavy artillery was in a position to shell the center city. The center of the city was sevely damaged. The Luftwaffe flew some 1,150 sorties emploting a wide variety of aircraft, including even obsolescent Junkers Ju-52/3m bombers, which dropped about 13 percent of the incendiary bombs. This was possible because the Polish air force had been destroyed and their was no longer any fighter opposition. The city's water pipes were ruptured by the bombing. Fire-fighters were evacuated. Fires spread throughout the city. Quite a few authors depict the Black Mondy air assault as the decisive ation pf the Polish campaign. The actual results, however, were mixed, escpecially given the dimensiions of the Luftwaffe effort. Smoke from fires and the dust from the first wave of bombers soon impaired visability over the city. This substantially reduced the accuracy of the successive waves of German bombers. From the German perspective this led to tragic friendly fire incidents. Luftwaffe bombers dropped loads on German infantry entering the northwest suburbs. This would lead to acrimonious meetings between Luftwaffe and Heer commanders after the campign. Black Monday was stunning as the first massive attack on a European city. In terms of tonnage and intensity it was, however, just the beginning of the air war. THe Luftwaffe's use of tactical aircraft meant that the tonnage delivered was only a fraction of what would be dropped in raids later in the War. The lack of accuracy and the short duration of the asault also meant that the Warsaw bombing lacked the intensity of later air assaults.

September 26

More decisive for the fll ofWarsaw was that Gmnan infantry captured three key forts (September 26). The Polish garrison finally offered to surrender.

Surrender (September 27)

The devestating raids left the civilian population of Warsaw stunned and demoralized. Many were now living in the ruins without food and water. The Soviet invasion from the east meant that resisance was futile. And the major forts defending the city had surrendered. Warsaw itself surrendered to the Germans and German troops enter the city (September 27). Estimates vary but 25,000-40,000 people are believed to have been killed in air assault on Warsaw. The terror raids were not limited to Warsaw, but Warsaw received the most intensive Luftwaffe bombing. Some 40 percent of the buildings in the city were damaged and 10 percent of the buildings completely destroyed. It is difficult to assess how much was due to the Luftwaffe. There was intense street fighting between attacking German infantry and armor units and Polish infantry and artillery defending the city. In addit\ion thre was extensive danage due to German artillery.

Hitler and Warsaw (1939-44)

Hitler finlly had the war he had long craved. He traveled extensively durng the campaign visiting fast advancing German units. For the final assault on Warsaw, he flew from Zoppot to the Warsaw area (September 25). He visited the 8th and 10th Army and the Headquarters at Grodjisk Mazowieki. He then returned to Godentow-Lanz by plane. The next day in the morning at 9:30 AM, he went back to Berlin in his Sonderzug (special train), arriving in Berlin at 5:05 PM. After the conclusion of the Polish Campaign, he returned to Warsaw to view a miltary parade through the devestated city (October 5). The least damaged section of the city was embassy row, which is where the Germans held their first victory parade of the War. After the martial music and mandatory goose-stepping, Hitler returned to the airfield for the flight back to Berlin. He makes no secret of his intentions. He tells assembled foreign journalists, “Take a good look around Warsaw. That is how I can deal with any European city.” The foreign correspondents who were largely exclude from the conat areas were allowed to see the destruction. They took back with them shocking photographs of bomb and shell blasted Warsaw. What they saw, however, was just the beginning of the desruction Hitlerb planned to visit on Warsaw. Hitler even before launching the War had plans to destroy Warsaw as a Polish city. Hitler visiting an architectural bureau in Würzburg am Main shortly before the War (June 20, 1939). He noted a project for a future German town – Neue deutsche Stadt Warschau. The Pabst Plan planned to turn Warsaw into a provincial German city of some 130,000 Germans and no Poles. NAZI officials drafted precise plans including detailed drawings for anew city with a historic Germanic core. A select few landmarks would be saved such as the Royal Castle which would become Hitler's state residence. The Plan which consisted of 15 drawings and an architectural model, was named for German army architect Friedrich Pabst who saw the destruction of Warsaw as part of the overall effort of destroying the Polish nation's morale and culture by destroying its physical and architectural heritage. Hubert Gross created the design for the new German city ro be errected over the ruins of Warsaw. It was incorporated into the larger Generalplan Ost developed by Himmler's SS. WArsaw became the center of the GEneralGovernment where the Germans deported Jews and Poles as they oproceeded to Germanize occupied western Poland. The failure of the Warsaw Uprising (August 1944) gave Hitler the opportunity to complete the destruction of Warsaw. [Gutschow and Klain] Hitler's final presription for Warsaw was, "Warsaw has to be pacified, that is, razed to the ground."

Strategic Bombing Campaign

The strategic bombin campaign began one of the major military campigns of the War. It would end with German cities massive poles of rubble and hundreds of thousands of civikian casualties. Some German authors claim that it was the British that began attacks on civilians. [Rumpf, p. 24-25.] Some readers have made this comment to HBC. Of course this ignores the German raids on Warsaw as well as smaller raids on other Polish cities. It is well to remember what Hitler and the Luftwaffe did to Warsaw at the very beginning of the War. What Hitler did not realize at the time was that Germany did not have a strategic bombing force or the industrial capacity to build one. And the British and Americans were both building just such a force and in numbers Reichmarshsall Göring and the Luftwaffe could scarcely imagine. The British at the time were finlly increasing ircraft production afte a sklow start. By the time of the Battle of Britain 9 months later, the British would be out producing the Germans.

Sources

Gutschow, Niels and Barbarta Klain. Vernichtung und Utopie. Stadtplanung Warschau 1939 – 1945 (Hamburg 1994).

Rumpf, Hans. The Bombing of Germany (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962), 256p.

Snyder, Louis L. Historical Guide to World War II (1982).







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Created: 4:51 PM 12/20/2009
Last updated: 1:54 AM 4/23/2013