115: September 1, 1939


September 1, 1939.


  • The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer
  • Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill and the Road to War by Tim Bouverie
  • The Origins of the Second World War: An International Perspective Edited by Frank McDonough
  • The Polish Campaign 1939 by Steven Zaloga and Victor Madej
  • The Foreign Policy of Jozef Pilsudski and Jozef Beck, 1926-1939: Misconceptions and Interpretations by Anna M. Cienciala
  • The French Government and the Danzig Crisis: The Italian Dimension by P.R. Stafford
  • Reflections from Rumania and Beyond: Marshal Smigly-Rydz in Exile by Stanley S. Seidner
  • Macht Arbeit Frei? Chapter: The War against Poland and the Beginning of German Economic Policy in the Occupied Territory by Witold Wojciech Medykowski
  • Poland Between the Wars, 1918-1939 Edited by Peter D. Stachura
  • Poland’s Preparation for World War Two by Michael Alfred Peszke
  • The Rebirth and Progress of the Polish Military During the Interwar Years by Jacek Czarnecki
  • Case White: The Invasion of Poland 1939 by Rober Forczyk
  • Poland 1939: The Outbreak of World War II by Roger Moorhouse
  • The Eastern Pact, 1933-1935: A Last Attempt at European Co-operation by Lisanne Radice (1977)
  • The Lights that Failed: European International History 1919-1933 by Zara Steiner
  • Agreement of Mutual Assistance between the United Kingdom and Poland, August 25, 1939.
  • Blitzkrieg Unleashed by Richard Hargreaves
  • The Great Powers and Poland: From Versailles to Yalta by Jan Karski
  • The History of the Panzerwaffe Volume 1: 1939-42 by Thomas Anderson
  • September Storm: The German Invasion of Poland by Gordon Rottman & Stephen Andrew
  • Britain and Poland, 1939-1943: The Betrayed Ally by Anita J. Prazmowska
  • March 1939: The British Guarantee to Poland - A Study in the Continuity of British Foreign Policy by Simon Newman (1976)
  • Poland 1939: The birth of Blitzkrieg by Steven J. Zaloga
  • Reflections from Rumania and Beyond: Marshal Smigly-Rydz in Exile by Stanley S. Seidner
  • Documents on German Foreign Policy 1918-1945
  • The British War Blue Book: Documents Concerning German-Polish Relations and the Outbreak of Hostilities Between Great Britain and Germany on September 3, 1939
  • The French Yellow Book: Diplomatic Documents (1938-1939)
  • Documents on German Foreign Policy 1918-1945 - Series D Volumn IV, VII
  • British Cabinet Papers - CAB 55/19/15, CAB 65/1/1-65/1/31, CAB 65/3/1-65/3/14, CAB 66/1/38-39, CAB 66/2/20


Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 115 - The September Campaign Pt. 7 - September 1, 1939. Before we get started today I wanted to just briefly discuss how the podcast is going to cover the September Campaign, or the German invasion of Poland. In my opinion the best way to do so on a podcast like this one is to break it up into logical chunks, with the first period being September 1 through September 4. During these three frantic days the German invasion would begin, and the first major defeats of Polish forces in the field would occur, with Polish armies all along the border retreating back in the direction of Warsaw. Over the next 5 episodes we will discuss these 3 days by looking at the experiences of various geographic regions of fighting, starting in the north and then working out way to the south. My goal with this arrangement is to make the action easy to follow, especially around geography. And with all of that out of the way, onto the episode.

The German invasion of Poland was scheduled to begin at 4:45AM on September 1, 1939. The order for the invasion had been given the day before, and it had been confirmed in the evening as units began to deploy to their jumping off points. All along the border between Germany and Poland German troops would move forward closer to the border, reach their jumping off points, and then begin what was at times the most difficult task, to wait. In Moravia on the southern end of the German invasion Karl Fischer would would write of the hours before the invasion: ‘The two hours before an attack are an eternity, If only we had something to do, but we lie pressed to the ground and must wait – nothing but waiting.’ As the final moments approached, Staff Officer Johann Graf von Kielmansegg of the 1st Panzer Division would later recall thinking: ‘I light a cigarette – when it goes out, the war will be on, another two minutes before the war begins. It’s a strange and provocative feeling to experience a historic moment, whose significance cannot be predicted, so consciously, so directly!’ On the other side of the border, Polish troops were also waiting, although they did not know that danger was so close at hand. War had seemed imminent for weeks as the various attempts at negotiations had failed time and time again. On September 1st around Poland newspapers would be printed speaking of increased readiness and preparations, and the resolve of the government not to give into Germany’s and Hitler’s demands. They did not know that by the time they were being read in the morning, such headlines were already outdated. What both sides knew was that Germany would have the advantage, although the precise scale of that advantage was not perfectly known. we know today that in terms of manpower the advantage was only around 2 to 1, but in all forms of equipment the difference was far more stark, 3 to 1 in artillery, 3 to 1 in tanks, 5 to 1 in aircraft. The German war machine, long prepared first in secrecy and then openly, was ready for its first major campaign. But while the German soldiers waited near the front, operations were already underway, not for military reasons, but for political ones.

For political reasons, both domestic and international, Hitler and the German leaders felt that it would be better if they were not seen strictly as the aggressors in the upcoming invasion. This has been a major focus of German propaganda leading up to the war, with many claims that ethnic Germans were being killed by the Poles and other provocative actions taking center stage in the German press before the start of the war. The actions of the SS during the night of August 31 and into September 1st was really just the crescendo of these efforts. The precise root of what would come to be known as Operation Himmler would be in mid August 1939 when Reinhard Heydrich, head of the SD, would communicate some orders for the SS to arrange for an attack on a German radio station near the Polish border. The attack would take place, and then the Poles would be blamed for the attack to give the impression that the Poles had struck first in the upcoming war. This would then be trumpeted to foreign and domestic press as an excuse for the German invasion. At Nuremberg Alfred Helmut Naujocks would give a testimony about the operation, stating that he was personally ordered by Heydrich to perform the operation and to carry out the attack. He would then go on to stay “My instructions were to seize the radio station and to hold it long enough to permit a Polish-speaking German who would be put at my disposal to broadcast a speech in Polish. Heydrich told me that this speech should state that the time had come for conflict between Germans and Poles … Heydrich also told me that he expected an attack on Poland by Germany in a few days.” Along with the plan for a radio message to be sent, there would also be dead bodies placed at the radio station and the nearest border crossing. These bodies would be dressed in Polish uniforms that were created by German Intelligence for the purpose. The bodies would be those of concentration camp prisoners who were dressed in the uniforms, taken to the radio station and border crossing, drugged and then shot. On September 1 these bodies would then be presented as physical evidence of a Polish attack on Germany. The operation was carried out as planned at 9:30PM on August 31, providing the German government its excuse to go to war, even if it was a completely fabricated one.

Back at the front, preparations were being made in the final minutes before the attack began, the Luftwaffe would begin launching its attack squadrons before the moment of the attack, to give them time to reach their destinations. For Erich Munske would be in a squadron assigned to make their first wartime sorties against a collection of Polish air fields. Munske would later recall that in their final briefing the Major leading the briefly would end with ‘Gentlemen, off at 4:26AM. One aircraft every twenty seconds! Understood?’ after the briefly squadrons leaders headed to their aircraft and just a few minutes later they began to take off on their way to targets. Near the Polish corridor at 4:30 one soldiers would write that the sun began to finally show its light and to start to provide faint light over the territory they were about to move into. Another soldier near the corridor, Alexander Stahlberg, would write in his diary that he had spent the minutes before 4:45AM just staring at his watch waiting for it to begin, and when the minute hand hit 45 artillery fire could be heard and at that moment ‘Our infantry began to move up, carrying their rifles under their arms as if they were going hunting, not a shot was fired. Column after column rolled by for well over an hour, I looked at the soldiers’ faces, seeing and hearing no excitement, no cheers; they were silent, their faces generally expressionless.’ All along the border similar experiences would be had by millions of men, on the ground they would then begin to move forward under the dull roar of artillery, while in the skies above the war had already begun.

When planning for the Polish invasion, the Luftwaffe had five key missions. The first four missions were in service of military objectives: disable Polish communication and transportation capabilities, give close support to the army as required, disable all Polish naval capabilities, and reduce the ability of the Polish economy to produce armaments. The final mission was to launch a massed bombing attack on Warsaw. To accomplish these tasks Luftflotte 1 and Luftflotte 4 would have over 2,300 total aircraft, which may seem like a very large number, but due to the various tasks that were assigned to them and the amount of territory they had to cover, they were spread quite thin. For comparison during the invasion of France less than a year later the Luftwaffe would have over 5,500 aircraft at its disposal. The two Luftflotten were positioned roughly with each army group, one straddling the Polish corridor in the north and another with Army group South in Silesia. They would have a major task in front of them, but they would not be given all of the available aircraft to achieve it, because substantial Luftwaffe forces would remain in Western Germany due to concerns about the possibility of a British and French response to the invasion. This included around half of Germany’s best front line fighter, the Bf109E.

Regardless of how the aircraft were positioned, or what they planned to do with them, one of the most important factors was the plans of the Polish Air Force. The Polish aircraft, heavily outnumbered by around 5 to 1, had quite the task to accomplish in defense of Poland. In the important department of air defense most of the Polish fighter aircraft were scattered around to the various army formations to provide defense of the border regions. Unfortunately for the Polish pilots this often just resulted in them being heavily outnumbered at all moments as they were unable to mass the number of aircraft necessary to meet the German fighters and bombing aircraft. The one piece of good news was that the Polish squadrons all around the nation had been dispersed to as many airfields asa possible in the days before the invasion, which would lessen the impact of early German bombing of their airfields. The greatest concentration of fighters was in the Pursuit Brigade which was assigned the task of defending Warsaw, and it would be over Warsaw that the 53 fighters the Brigade would experience some success. They would be given early raid warning by hundreds of observation posts that had been erected around the capital, allowing for a better chance at getting off the tarmac in time to meet the attack. Unfortunately for all Polish pilots, as motivated and skilled as they might be, sometimes quantity is what matters, and in quantity they were heavily outclassed.

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In the opening minutes and hours of the operation the Luftwaffe had two primary targets that the first bombing raids would largely be sent to destroy: bridges and airfields. From an invasion perspective, destroying some bridges was an important way to control the movements of Polish forces, or to ensure that bridges remained intact for use by the advancing German units. These were considered to be so important that they would end up being the very first targets hit by German bombers, often Stuka dive bombers, in the minutes before the invasion actually kicked off. While the ground invasion was not scheduled to start until 4:45AM at 4:30AM. One of these attacks would be made on a bridge outside of Danzig when a group of three Stukas would make a bombing attack near a railway bridge over the Vistula river. The goal of the attack was not to destroy, or even to damage, the bridge but to instead attempt to destroy the demolition equipment that the Poles had placed on and around the bridge so that it could be destroyed if the Germans invaded. Even though all three Stukas would release their bombs, roughly on target, the bridge would still be destroyed by Polish forces just an hour later, and before it could be of use to the German troops. Along with bombing bridges, there were also specific efforts to interdict Polish railway traffic which was the primary way that supplies and men moved to the front lines. Erich Munske, who I previously quoted, would participate in a bombing attack on a Polish troop train on their way to their primary target, an airfield. He would later write ‘The locomotive and wagons are covered with green foliage, men wave noisily from the windows with their caps and hats – a military train with Polish reservists. They have not recognised us – they believe we are friendly. But tomorrow these unsuspecting soldiers would bear arms and would not hesitate if they saw the son of a German mother in front of them.’ Another crucial target for early German bombing raids were Polish airfields. Airfields all over eastern Poland would be visited in the early hours of the invasion in the Luftwaffe’s quest to destroy as much of the Polish Air Force as possible in the early hours of the invasion. This is also exactly what the Polish leaders expected, with one Polish officer later writing ‘It attacked our airfields and tried to wipe out our aircraft on the ground. It seems quite naïve of the Germans to have believed that during the preceding days of high political tension and with their own obviously aggressive intentions, we would leave our units sitting at their peacetime bases.’ In total these bombing raids would destroy under 200 aircraft, which was a solid portion of the total Polish air strength, but a far cry from the Polish forces being completely destroyed on the ground.

One other major target for German raids was the Polish capital of Warsaw. The original German plans were for the first day of the invasion to also feature a large effort to bomb the capital, including aircraft from both of the Luftflottes. This would not be possible on September 1 due to the low cloud cover and fog that would cause problems for many German efforts for the day. The fog cover varied greatly based on location but in some areas of northern Poland it was up to 10,000 feet high, making accurate bombing nearly impossible. But the decision would be made to not completely abandon the plans to attack Warsaw, but instead of large bombing raids there would be more isolated attacks made throughout the day. These were never as large as hoped, primarily due to the continuing weather problems. The first raid to appear over the capital would contain 34 He-111s escorted by 24 Bf-110Cs, the German two engine heavy fighter. They had taken off from East Prussia before flying south, but had been spotted soon after they came over Polish territory, which gave the Pursuit Brigade in Warsaw time to get into the air. The two forces would meet a little before 7:30 in the first major air confrontation of the Second World war. The Polish fighters were at a technical disadvantage with their P.11C fighters outclassed in speed and armaments by the Bf-110Cs, with the Polish aircraft armed only with 2 machine guns against the cannons present on the German side. But even at such a disadvantage 5 German bombers were still shot down at the cost of 4 destroyed and many more damaged Polish fighters. Another positive for the Pursuit brigade was that the German bombers would drop their bombs early. The second raid of the day would arrive at four in the afternoon, this time a group of 30 Stukas, with a second group of more He-111s and Bf110cs and Bf109s arriving over the city almost an hour later. The coordination between the groups was not perfect, including instances of German bombers firing on German fighters, but the far outnumbered the number of Polish fighters that were in the the air to meet them when they arrived. By the time the raid was over the totals for the day were 10 German aircraft destroyed for the cost of 12 Polish aircraft. But the larger problem for the Poles were the number of damaged aircraft that would not be available for the next days fighting, with around 20 fighters damaged to the point of not being combat capable on September 2. Given their existing numerical disadvantage this kind of attrition was completely unsustainable.

Warsaw was not the only Polish city to be bombed on the first day of the war, in Poznan there would also be multiple air raids, one at around mid day and another in the evening. The second raid targeted the train station, but many bombs fell simply around the train station. In cities like Poznan Polish air defenses were even more heavily outnumbered than over Warsaw, and they would only be able to destroy one German bomber. Over Krakow raids would be carried out my Do-17 bombers, and they would experience even less Polish resistance, in the south the weather was also better making it easier to fly and hit targets on the ground. These are just two examples of countless German bombing raids made on September 1st and the days immediately following. All around Poland other areas would experience German air attacks. Just to give a few additional examples: In the far north where the Luftwaffe pilots targeted Polish naval facilities and the naval batteries at the Hel Peninsula, in central Poland raids would be made on the Bug river bridges, and all along the front smaller air raids would be made against countless targets. Often this was done in the service of providing close air support to the advancing German ground troops, sometimes that meant targeting military units and other times bombing villages. From small villages all the way up to the largest city, the Germans would claim that they were bombing heavily defended areas, but often the only casualties were civilians. One of the more famous examples of this was the bombing of Wielun that took place throughout the day. Wielun was entirely undefended, and there were no Polish military units based in the town, but that did not prevent multiple bombing raids from being ordered against the city. Eventually three quarters of the city was destroyed and the total number of civilians killed was at least 127. I quite like this quote from Lieutenant Pohl, an He-111 bombardier later reflecting on his experience of the first few days of the war: ‘I had to drop bombs onto a train station in Posen (Poznań) on the second day of the war in Poland. Eight of the 16 bombs fell in the city, right in the middle of houses. I didn’t like it. On the third day I didn’t care, and on the fourth day I took pleasure in it. We enjoyed heading out before breakfast, chasing individual soldiers through the fields with machine guns and then leaving them there with a few bullets in their backs.’ Unfortunately for people all over Europe this was just the beginning of bombing raids of civilian targets. The bombing of Wielun would eventually be classified as a war crime due to it directly targeting civilian targets.

Overall the Luftwaffe would fly over 2,000 sorties during the first day of the invasion, and there would be several successes. However, there were many problems with these opening operations that prevented them from being as successful as the Luftwaffe hoped. Contrary to Nazi propaganda, the Polish air force was not destroyed on the ground, and in fact most of its planes would be operational during September 1st. They would certainly experience attrition on the first day, and for every day afterwards, but they were not immediately destroyed. The second challenge was around their bombing targets, there were many Polish villages, towns, and cities bombed during the day, over 100, but they were not as impactful as the Luftwaffe planners hoped they would be. I think most of this can be attributed to the fact that there was a drastic overestimation of how much damage aerial bombing could do to a city and industrial infrastructure, something that would be proven time and time again during the war. It was a problem that could only be solved by larger numbers of bombing aircraft and fewer targets, and even then the results can be debated. The third challenge experience in the early days of the Polish campaign resulted in more actionable information: the communication between ground forces and air support just took too long. This made it difficult for an officer on the ground to get air support in a timely manner, which resulted in missed opportunities and delays. This had also been experienced during pre-war exercises, but just the sheer scale of the actions during the invasion, and the geographic areas that were covered, made the delays far greater than during exercises. This final challenge would turn into a great learning experience for the Luftwaffe.

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While the invasion of Poland had started, Hitler would send a Proclamation to the German Army on September 1st, giving in its briefest form the reason that many Germans now found themselves invading a foreign nation. “The Polish State has refused the peaceful settlement of relations which I desired, and has appealed to arms. Germans in Poland are persecuted with bloody terror and driven from their houses. A series of violations of the frontier, intolerable to a great Power, prove that Poland is no longer willing to respect the frontier of the Reich. In order to put an end to this lunacy, I have no other choice than to meet force with force from now on. The German Army will fight the battle for the honour and the vital rights of reborn Germany with hard determination. I expect that every soldier, mindful of the great traditions of eternal German soldiery, will ever remain conscious that he is a representative of the National-Socialist Greater Germany. Long live our people and our Reich!” Back in Berlin on the morning of September 1st Hitler would speak before the Reichstag. During this speech Hitler would reiterate many of the reasons that he felt that Germany had to go to war. As always with speeches of this kind, Hitler was in full propaganda mode while speaking of how much patience he had exercised over the previous months and ears, constantly pushing for peace when those pesky Poles were simply unwilling to compromise. He would then claim that the actions of the German military were simply an attempt ’to speak to Poland in the same language that Poland for months past has used toward us.’ This was all, of course, a fabrication. Hitler would also speak to the Western Nations, stating that he believed the western borders of Germany to be completely acceptable, and that he did not want a conflict with Britain and France. One interesting feature of this speech is that Hitler does not really use the word war, it is not an announcement that Germany was going to war with Poland, or that it had declared war, or any other usage of the word war in that way. Or to quote from Roger Moorhouse and his work Poland 1939: The Outbreak of World War II “For all the hyperbole, however, one word that was conspicuously absent from the speech was “war.” As a memorandum sent from Berlin to all German embassies and consulates that night made clear, that word was to be scrupulously avoided. “This action is for the present not to be described as war,” the instruction read, “but merely as engagements which have been brought about by Polish attacks.” On the evening of September 1, the first wartime editions of Polish newspapers would be printed with news of the German invasion. With the Warsaw Evening stating “The Whole Nation in Defense of Freedom, With Faith, Trust and Courage, We Go into Battle.” Radio broadcasts would also be made to inform the Polish public of some of the events of the day, with of course a bit of spin to keep up morale. These news bulletins would be accompanied by patriotic music and uplifting snippets of events at the front, like Polish cavalry moving into East Prussia. To quote from a broadcast made by Roman Umiastowski, not his last broadcast he would make during the campaign: “We are ready. Wherever the enemy has attacked, he has run into a wall of our resistance against which his attacks have been smashed. We are not merely defending ourselves successfully, we are also attacking. Two brigades of Polish cavalry have crossed the border of East Prussia and are pressing forward continually to rescue our brothers in the Masurian Lakes and Ermland. Soldiers! Fight heroically! You are fighting for a just cause! The moment of the victory is at hand.”