World War II: German Invasion of Poland--Air Campaign (September 1939)

Figure 1.--This is an early wire service photograph explaining the quality. The Germans began their invasion of Poland with air attacks, including the bombing of Warsaw. For a few days, the Polish Air Force challenged the Luftwaffe. The Germans would complete their Polish campaign with the terror blombing of the undefended Polish capital. The press caption read, "This photo, passed by Polish and British censors, shows Warsaw police leading a boy, blinded after an air raid, through the debris strewn streets of the Polish capital." The photograph was dated Septenber 16, 1939.

Aircraft played only a minor role in World War I. It was mostly dashing yoing men fighting it out in dog fights over the trenches of the Western Frnt. Air warfare would play auch darket role in world War II with massive strategic bombing. And it all began in Poland. The Luftwaffe launched World War II with an attack on the town of Wieluń, near Łódź--at the time in southeastern Poland. The town was virtually obliterated and more thn a thousand civilins klled. The Luftwaffe was in 1939 the most powerful air force in the world and struck from the North, East, and South making any Polish air defense impossible. The Luftwaffe was an important component of the Blitzkrieg tactics that the Germans unleased on Europe. The Me-109 fighter and the Ju-87 Stuka dive bomber would dominate the air campaign. And combined with fast-moving Panzer forces, the Polish Army was quickly defeatted in sweeping pinzer movements. The small Polish Ait Force put up a valiant defense, but did not have the planes to resist the Luftwaffe or support the beligered Polish Army. They did manage to bloody the Luftwaffe, shooting down nearly 300 planes. A year later in the skies over Britain, Polish pilots would show what they were capable of when flying modern fighters. The Poles put up a stiff resisance for a few days, but after the first week, the Polish Air Force was destroyed and no longer a factor in the campaign. the Luftwaffe could then focus entirely on the battered Polish Army. There were ground support actions as well as terror attacks. The Lufwaffe would end the Polish campaign wth the nassive terror bombing of Warsaw, confirming the worse fears of the European public as aesult of the bombing of Spanish cities. The Germans later in the War would complain bitterly about Allied bombing of their beautiful meieval cities, but beginning with the Polish campaign the Germans wer convinced that the mighty Luftwaffe could bomb cities throught Europe at will and no bombs would fall on their own cities. Only when the bombs began falling on German cities did their attitude toward bombing civilians began to change.


The Luftwaffe was the most powerful air force in the world in 1939. They had the most effective planes and the thanks to the involvement in the Spanish Civil War, the most experinced aviators. The Soviet Red Air Force was larger, but had many obsolete types. Not only did the Luftwaffe had the advantages of superior types, numbers, and experiebce, but thanks to the NAZI seizure of Czehslovakia had Poland nearly srrounded. Ther were bases in the North (East Prussia), the West (Germany proper), and the South (Czechoslovakia). This made any meaningful Polish air defense virtually impossible. More important than the sheer power of the Luftwaffe was the Wehrmacht's development pf Blitzkreieg--combined arms tactics. The Luftwaffe was an exceptionally important tactical weapon because of the degree to which it was integrated with the Panzers and other Heer forces. This was something it would tale the Western Allies another 4 years to master. The Luftwaffe committd two of its airfleets (Luftflotten) to the Polish campaign. Gen. Albert Kesselring's Luftflotte 1 was equipped with 807 aircraft, which was and 92 Seaplanes of Fliegerfuhrer der Seeluftstreitkrafte. Alexander Löhr's Luftflotte 4 had 627 aircraft and 30 Slovak aircraft. (Slovakia when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia joined with the Germans.) Some 406 fighters were kept in reserve as a home defence force in case the Polish Air Force attacked German cities. Some 333 reconnaissance aircraft were attached to the army. [Hooton] The Luftwaffe was able to commit some 3,300 aurcraft to the campaign, about 10 times the size of the Polish Air Force. The Me-109 fighter was the premier fighter at the time. And the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive bomber was an extrodinarily accurate dive bomber. As long as it operated in German-controlled skies, it was essentilly extremely accurate aerial artillery.

Polish Air Force

Poland had a small air force--the (Siły Powietrzne,. It was much smaller than the Luftwaffe and the planes were inferior to the modern German planes, especially the fighters. Nothing matched the Luftwaffe's Me-109s. The Poles had about 400 aircraft. Many of the planes were obselete, but the aircrews were competently trained. The major Polish aircraft mnufacturer was PZL Mielec (formerly WSK-Mielec -- Wytwórnia Sprzętu Komunikacyjnego WSK. PZL was based in Mielec. The PZL P.11c was Poland's fighter. It was respectable when it first was intriduced, but outdated in the fast moving aero-spce industry of the 1930s and outclassed by the German Me-109. Poland ordered ordered 160 French MS-406s and 10 British Hawker Hurricane fighters, but they were not delivered before the German invasion.

Luftwaffe Initial Actions (September 1)

The Luftwaffe played an important role in first German military victory. At the onset of the German invasion of Poland, the Luftwaffe conducted massive air raids on Polish cities (September 1). The initial directives issued to the Luftwaffe pilots were to destroy the Polish air force to prevent it from supporting Polish ground forces or attacking targets in the Reich. [Speidel, p. 18.] The Germans Luftwafe opened the air War with bombing of Wieluń. The Luftwaffe began bombing Wieluń at 4:40 AM, 5ive minutes before the the Kreignsmarine began shelling Westerplatte in Danzig. The Luftwaffe bombing was one the first aerial bombings of the war. Some 1,300 Polish civilians were killed and many more injured. An estimated 90 per cent of the town center was destroyed. The German target was the Wołyńska Cavalry Brigade. Soon after the Luftwaffe conducted operation Wasserkante, an air attack on Warsaw (September 1). This was the first World War II bombarment of a major city and it was conducted by the Germans. We have had readers write to us to clain that it wa the allies which began strategic bombardment. It was certainly the Allies which would bomb German cities into piles of rubble, but it was Germany whuch began bombig cities and they did it on the first day of the War. Four Luftwaffe bomber groups struck the Warsaw, but were of limited effectiveness. There was low-lying cloud cover and the Polish Air Force (PZL) still existed. PZL P.11 fighters of the Pursuit Brigade shot down 16 German aircraft.

Polish Air Force Response

The Polish Air Force was not destroyed on the ground which was the Luftwaffe's goal. Air Force commanders aware of impending German assault dispersed their planes from the major air bases to pre-arranged heavily camouflaged basic grass airfields in the hours leading up to the invasion. World War II aircraft did not need paved landing strips. As a result, when the Germans struck on the first day of the invasion, the Luftwaffe bombed Polish airfields, destroying mostly empty hangars and planes that were not airworthy. Some trainers and auxiliary aircraft were destroyed. The Polish Air Force in the ensuing air campaign suffered heavy losses but managed to inflict considerable losses on the Luftwaffe. This was something that the Dutch, Yugoslavs and Soviets failed to achieve when the Germans struck. The Polish Air force as a result fought the Luftwaffe during the first week of the campign and there was some limited activity into the second week of the invasion. The Polish pilots with their small force and largely obselete planes were unable to offer much support to the Polish Army or protect Polish cities. They did manage to bloody the Luftwaffe. [Zalonga, p. 50.] The Luftwaffe lost 285 aircraft during the campaign. The Poles claimed 134 air victories. An additional 279 aircraft were damaged. The Poles lost 333 aircraft. [Overy, p. 28.]

Luftwaffe Opperations

The Luftwaffe was primary a tzctical airforce and proved highly effective in suporting the advancing German forces. They were highly sucessful in dusrupting Polish mobilization and troop movements and smashing Polish strong points. The Luftwaffe bombed the railway station at Kolo killing 111 refugees (September 2). This of course can be seen as an attempt to disrupt Polish transportation. The Allied strategic bombing campaign would eventually target the German transportation network. It should be noted, however, that it was Germany which also initiated this aspect of the air war. Bombing railway stations and instalations is more important than in may sound. Rail transit was the primary transportation mode in Europe. Blocking rail transit blocked military movement. Railway stations and other rail centers are located in cities, often the center of cities. There is no way that railway stations can be surgically bombed using World War II technology. An attack on a railway station is thus almost by definition an attack on a city. After the first few days, all Warsaw had was the Warsaw Defense Command's limited number of 40 mm and 75 mm anti-aircraft guns. [Tumińska] This was of limited effectivness and was further eroded by ammunituon shortages and the advance of German ground forces. As the Wehrmacht advanced and military targets began disappear, the Liftwaffe took on more of a terror organization. The Luftwaffe staged a pure terror bombing raid on Krzemieniec, killing dozens (September 12).

Luftwaffe Terror Raids: Warsaw (September 24-27)

The destruction of the Polish Air Force left Warsaw without any air cover. The Luftwaffe launched a ruthless air assault on Warsaw's undefended civilian population (beginning September 24). I have noted different estimates of the number of bombers used, varying from 420-1,150 bombers. The different estimates probably reflect assessments of daily raids or the overall campaign. The Polish Air Force has been destroyed and Warsaw has vurtually no air defenses. At the same time approaching Wehrmact forces prepared to assault the capital. The Luftwaffe on September 25 struck again with 400 German bombers dropping both incendiary and high explosive bombs (September 25). The city's water pipes were ruptured by the bombing fire-fighters had been evacuated. Fires spread througout the city. The assault intensified as German artillery came into range. Warsaw fell a few days later after a ruthless bombing assault. Warsaw surrendered to the NAZIs (September 27). Casualties totaled about 40,000 people killed. German sources often charge that the British first began bombing in World War II. [Rumpf, p. 24-25.] Of course this ignores the German raids on Warsaw as well as numerous raids on smaller Polish cities.

Allied Air Attacks

The British RAF conducts a raid on German naval facilities at Willelmshaven and the Nordsee Canal (September 4). The attack proves costly to the British with seven bombers lost. [Rumpf, p. 21.] Damage to the target was limited and some of the bombs fell on a Danish village. The German ship Admiral Scheer, but the British bombs did not explode and cause little damage. The RAF conducted further raids on Wilhelmhaven and Cuxhaven (September 9). Neither the British or the French at this stage of the war wwre willing to vigorously wage war. The memories of World war I were still too painfull and fear of the Luftwaffe too strong. The RAF dropped leaflets on Germany. British officials do not bomb German industry because it would mean the destruction of private property. The French are even more reluctant.

Escape to the West

A number of Polish pilots managed to get to France if they could get through German-occupied Czechoslovakia to Hungary. Hungary would join the Axius, but at the time was still neutral. Polish pilots in France fought as one fighter squadron (GC 1/145) and several small units detached to French squadrons. Their performance was remarkable. Many escaped again with the fall of France managed to get to Britain. And manned two squadrons. They along with Czech pilots made valuable contribution to the British victory in the Battle of Britain, in part because they had more experience than many of the new, poorly trained Brirish pilots the RAF was forced to throw into the fight. The RAF was never short of planes, they were desperately short of trained pilots.


Warsaw along with its people have to be the most tragic city of World War II. The much larger Luftwaff with its modern aircraft and airfields ringing Poland quickly destroyed the Polish Air Force. The initial Liuftwaffe attack on Warsaw was just the beginning of the air campaign.Many great cities would be enveloped in the wake of German assault on Warsaw, but none would suffer like Warsaw and its people. Some might point to Lenningrad, Dresden or Hiroshima, but that sad destination has to fall on Warsaw. Warsaw was the most devestated city of World War II. And the destruction of the city buildings does not capture the full horror of the attrocities imposed on the people of the citybby the NAZI occupiers and even their Sovoet 'liberators'. And in occurred in wave after wave of invaders and vicious occupiers. Warsaw was left badly damagd not only by the Luftwaffe, but by German artillery batteries. As German units moved on the capitl. They eventully ringed the city with heavy artillery batteries as the Germans laid seige to the city. Tragically it was only the beginning of the destruction of the city and the suffering of its people. Over the course of the War, an estimated 85 percent of the city would be destroyed. It all began with the initial Luftwaffe bombing (1939), but NAZI artillery fire (1939), and Soviet artillery fire (1944). A vindictive NAZI demolition completed the destruction of important buildings (1944) completed the destruction. Warsaw suffered the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto (1940-43), and the NAZI supression of the Warsaw rising (1944). It was of course the Jews who suffered most, but NAZI barbarity was not restructed to the Jews. At the onset of the NAZI occupation, the Germans setvout to murder the Polish inteligencia and leadership--A-B Aktion and the ordinary people werre targeted by the NAZI Hunger Plan. And it was not just the NAZIs that did the killing. The Soviet REd Army crossed of the Vistula in force (1945) and the Soviet NKVD continued rounding up and murdering surviving members of the Polish Home Army (1944-45).


Hooton, E.R. Luftwaffe at War; Gathering Storm 1933–39 Volume 1 (London: Chervron/Ian Allen, 2007).

Overy, Richard J. The Air War: 1939-1945 (London, Europa Publications, 1980).

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

Speidel, Wilhelm (1956). The Luftwaffe in the Polish Campaign of 1939 (Montgomery, Alabama: Air Force Historical Research Agency, 1956).

Tumińska, Olga. Obrona przeciwlotnicza Warszawy Air-defence of Warsaw (Institute of National Remembrance).

Zalonga, Steven J., Ramiro Bujeiro, and Howard Gerrard. Poland 1939: The Birth of Blitzkrieg (Osprey Publishing, 2002).


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Created: 6:22 AM 2/22/2017
Last updated: 6:22 AM 2/22/2017