Luftwaffe Air War Poland 1939

In the war that began on 1 September 1939 air power played a crucial role from the start. The Germans considered a massive opening attack on Warsaw, but bad weather forced them to attack alternative targets. The Luftwaffe’s most important contribution in the Polish campaign lay in quickly gaining air superiority; the Poles were skilled opponents, but they possessed obsolete aircraft which were no match for those of the Germans.

Luftwaffe bombers struck particularly at cities and transportation links, which thoroughly disrupted the Polish mobilization. A small number of Luftwaffe aircraft directly supported the drive of the German panzer forces which completely broke the Polish army apart in the first week of the campaign. Close air-support strikes were mostly successful; however, one Wehrmacht battalion, bombed for several hours by the Luftwaffe, suggested that courts martial might be in order.

Attempts were made to intercept German Dornier Do 17 reconnaissance aircraft which violated Polish airspace from the spring of 1939. Fighter units were ordered in July 1939 to establish fighter posts (‘ambushes’) along the routes of the reconnaissance aircraft flights. 1 Pulk Lotniczy organised posts along the border with East Prussia, a total of 2 sections. Dywizjon III/I used airfields near Bialystok and Grodno, and Dywizjon IV/1 near Suwalki. Aircraft of 2 Pulk organised posts at Wieluri, Czltstochowa and Zawiercie along the Western border. Aircraft of 4 Pulk provided posts near Bydgoszcz, while 3 and 5 Pulk maintained aircraft at readiness at their permanent airfields. During July the aircraft were scrambled many times to intercept and visual contact was sometimes established with German aircraft, but due to the high altitude at which the Dorniers operated, and their superior speed with respect to the P11c fighters, none was ever shot down, and at the end of July these posts were abandoned. Also at the same time Soviet reconnaissance aircraft violated Polish airspace, but there is no written record of any contact with Polish interceptors.

In the early hours of 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, spearheaded by a total of almost 2,000 Luftwaffe aircraft, nearly half of which were bombers. By 27 September the Polish campaign was concluded. It had apparently proved the ‘invincibility’ of the Luftwaffe, which had completely overwhelmed the poorer-armed and less modern Polish Air Force, had given copy-book support to the German ground forces, and had clearly been the supreme factor in such a quick victory. Yet the cost had not been light. Against fierce but hopeless opposition in the air and from the ground, the Luftwaffe had lost at least 750 men and nearly 300 aircraft, with a further 279 aircraft counted as overall strength losses due to serious damage. The Polish Air Force, with less than 800 aircraft on 1 September, had sustained a loss of 333 aircraft in action. Considering that the gross strength of the Luftwaffe at the end of August 1939 was hardly more than 4,000 aircraft of all types – perhaps only half of which could be truly regarded as first line ‘attack’ machines – the loss rate during some three weeks of the Polish campaign, against ill-prepared and inferior opposition in the context of aircraft, gave serious pause in the minds of the more perceptive Luftwaffe heads of staff. Replacement of such casualties quickly was virtually impossible; such resources were simply not available immediately. With France and the Low Countries already designated as ‘next’ on Hitler’s agenda for conquest, the querulous doubts in many Luftwaffe chiefs’ minds prior to the Polish venture now assumed a level of deep concern.

This concern was exacerbated by the knowledge that Germany now had Britain and France as declared enemies. Only men like Göring or other Hitler-sycophants could believe that the Luftwaffe was fully prepared for any long-term aerial assault or struggle; the force was still in its adolescence, and had been built on the narrow platform of tactical air power. Its aircraft were too standardised in role to be capable of undertaking every possible task that would present itself during any sustained aerial conflict. The quality of its air and ground crews was never in question; all were peacetime-trained and thoroughly professional, while among the Staffeln and staffs was a hard core of combat-tested veterans of both the Spanish Civil War and the Poland campaign. Its aircraft presented a mixed picture. The standard fighter was the angular Messerschmitt Bf 109, on a par or clearly superior to almost any other fighter in the world in 1939. Its stablemate Bf 110 two-seat Zerstörer (‘destroyer’) was the apple of Göring’s eye for the moment, but within a year would demonstrate forcibly its unsuitability for the ‘escort fighter’ role imposed upon its unfortunate crews. Of the frontline bombers, the already notorious crooked-wing Junkers Ju 87 dive-bomber was basking in the limelight of apparently deserved fame for its large contribution to recent operations, yet it too would reveal its feet of clay when faced with determined fighter opposition in the months ahead. Of the other bombers the porcine Heinkel He 111 and slender Dornier Do 17 predominated, both twin-engined, medium-range designs of relatively mediocre performance, and poorly armed for self-defence. Only the emerging Junkers Ju 88 offered slight hope of improved bomber performance, although even this excellent design was not intended for long range operations. The one great omission from the Luftwaffe’s offensive air strength was a truly heavy, long range bomber. The only design projected for filling this gap was the troublesome Heinkel He 177, which was conceived in 1938 but did not commence operations until August 1942.

Notwithstanding the eventual failure of many of the 1939 Luftwaffe’s operational aircraft types, the contemporary morale of the German air crews and their upper echelon staffs was very high. The rapidity with which Poland had been vanquished appeared to suggest that the Blitzkrieg tactical war was a sure-fire key to victory, an opinion echoed in the staff rooms of many of the Allied services of the period. If there were doubts about the future efficacy of the Luftwaffe they existed mainly in the minds of individual senior officers and strategists; no such gloomy thoughts pervaded the ranks of the firstline Staffeln. The high casualty rate against relatively ‘soft’ air opposition during the Polish Blitzkrieg was mostly attributed to inexperience on the part of younger air crews, a modicum of sheer bad luck, or simply the exigencies of war. There lingered no lack of confidence in men or machines. If there were any queries among the Luftwaffe crews these pertained to how they might fare against the French air force and, especially, the British Royal Air Force when the inevitable first clashes occurred over the Western Front. Led or commanded by veterans who had fought the Allies in the air during the 1914–18 war, all the young Luftwaffe crews had been trained and inculcated with the fighting traditions created by the now-legendary names in German aviation annals. Inbred in that tradition was an almost unconscious respect for the fighting qualities of the Engländer – would they now acquit themselves against the contemporary generation of RAF fliers with the same courage and honour as their forebears …?

Operational Method

Thus far the war has been, in the air, a strange one. It has been strange in several ways. People had expected the Blitzkrieg to break in full fury in the west, but as yet no thunderbolt has fallen there. Poland felt its impact and crumpled under the stroke, though conditions there seemed, prima facie, unfavorable for the successful conduct of a lightning war. The course of the conflict has not, in fact, followed the book. There have been a number of surprises. In the operations at sea, for example, it was confidently expected that aircraft, not the submarine, would be the chief danger to maritime commerce. The airplane, we were told, would harry and dragoon belligerent and neutral shipping in the narrow waters into which the busy lanes of ocean traffic converge. Actually, the air arm has not been particularly effective at sea, though British aircraft have taken a hand with some success in hunting the submarine. That, however, had been foreseen.

Certainly the achievements of the German air force in Poland fulfilled the expectations of the most sanguine adherents of the blue sky school. In conjunction with the mechanized ground forces it dominated the situation from the first. The lists were set for a tourney between the old order of warfare and the new. Germany’s strength lay in her possession of the most modern instruments of mechanical destruction. Poland was, in comparison, a nineteenth century Power. Her cavalry was her pride. One could imagine her gallant horsemen galloping with Jeb Stuart or Sheridan in Virginia. Indeed, her great masses of cavalry might have thundered their way to victory in the still more appropriate setting of the medieval era. As it was, they were a sheer anachronism. Confronted by armored cars and tanks, hammered by high explosive from the air, they were only flesh for the slaughter. The twentieth century won all along the line. The Polish defeat was a tragedy, but an inevitable one.

German intelligence had estimated the front-line strength of the Polish air force at some 900 aircraft. In fact on 1 September the figure was nearer 300, made up of 36 P37 `Los’ twin-engined medium bombers, 118 single-engined `Karas’ P23 light reconnaissance bombers and 159 fighters of the PZL P11c and P7 types. Light gull-winged monoplanes, with open cockpits and fixed undercarriages, they had been an advanced design in the early 1930s but were now hopelessly outclassed by the Luftwaffe’s modern aircraft. Neither the PZL P11c nor the P7 could get high enough to intercept the high-flying Do17 reconnaissance aircraft.

On the opening day of hostilities, however, the German attack came in at low level, aiming to knock out the Polish air force on the ground. The Luftwaffe failed to achieve its objective as during the last days of peace the Polish air force had dispersed its aircraft to a number of secret airfields. On the morning of September 1 not one Polish squadron remained at its pre-war base. As a result only 28 obsolete or unserviceable machines were destroyed at Rakowice air base.

At first the methods by which she won it were, apart from the fact that the aggression itself was utterly unjustified, fair enough in themselves. Herr Hitler had announced to the Reichstag on September 1 that he would not war against women and children. He was speaking, it will be noted, less than four weeks before the time when women and children were to be slaughtered and mutilated in Warsaw. “I have ordered my air force,” he said, “to restrict itself to attacks on military objectives.” Replying to President Roosevelt’s appeal that civilian populations be spared the horrors of air bombardment, he defined his attitude to this question in terms which, coming from another, would have presaged the waging of a humane and chivalrous war: ” . . . that it is a humanitarian principle to refrain from the bombing of non-military objectives under all circumstances in connection with military operations, corresponds completely with my own point of view and has been advocated by me before. I, therefore, unconditionally endorse the proposal that the governments taking part in the hostilities now in progress make public a declaration in this sense. For my own part, I already gave notice in my Reichstag speech of today that the German air force had received the order to restrict its operations to military objectives.”

That the German air force did confine itself more or less to military objectives in the opening phase of the war is supported by a certain amount of independent evidence. Mr. H. C. Greene, the correspondent of the London Daily Telegraph, reported in that journal from Cernaŭti on September 10 that military objectives such as bridges, roads, railways and aerodromes had been aimed at almost exclusively, though terrible losses had fallen on the civil population as a result of the attacks. On September 6, Mr. Butler, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, stated in reply to a question in the House of Commons that the information in the British Government’s possession showed that the German bombing attacks had in general been directed against objectives serving a military purpose and not indiscriminately against the civil population; but he also was careful to add that the latter had at the same time suffered heavy casualties. Soon, however, evidence began to accumulate that other than military objectives were being attacked and that, in fact, methods of terrorization were being adopted by the German Luftwaffe.

It is true that one must always accept with caution reports from belligerent sources concerning excesses or outrages committed by the enemy. There is inevitably an element of propaganda in such reports. Further, newspaper correspondents on the spot are apt to be impressed by what is told them and are not in a position usually to know or state the other side of the case. Some of the Polish announcements were certainly examples of exaggeration, excusable, no doubt, but still unreliable. For instance, a communiqué of September 2 stated that individual farms and farmers had been bombed — a somewhat improbable occurrence. On the other hand, it is even more improbable that the reports from many quarters about the ruthlessness of the German air force were entirely devoid of foundation. We have, in fact, unbiased evidence sufficient to convict without any need for dependence on ex parte testimony.

Unquestionably, there were numerous instances of bombing objectives which by no possibility could be termed military. Among them was that of the village of Tomaszow, which was the victim of “a particularly vicious bombing” according to a message to the Times of September 11 from its special correspondent on the Polish frontier. Other instances were attested by Dr. Oskar Zsolnay, a Hungarian official trade delegate who had been in Lwów and who described in a Budapest paper a large number of bombing raids on that city, nearly all of them directed against non-military objectives. Some of the most important evidence was supplied by the American Ambassador to Poland, Mr. Biddle, who on September 8 furnished the State Department with particulars of cases in which non-military targets had been attacked: they included his own villa, more than ten miles outside Warsaw, a sanatorium, a refugee train, a hospital train and a hut for Girl Guides. “It is also evident,” he added, “that the German bombers are releasing the bombs they carry even when they are in doubt as to the identity of their objectives.” Again, on September 13, Mr. Biddle reported that the village to which he had then moved and which was, he said, “a defenseless open village” had been attacked by German bombers. On September 20 the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Information said in the House that reports from the British Ambassador to Poland supported the evidence of Mr. Biddle on the bombing of open towns.

One may perhaps feel some hesitation in accepting without reservation the statement in the Polish communiqué of September 15 that the bombardment of open towns by German aircraft had “assumed the character of a systematic destruction of all built-up areas or cities without any connection with military operations,” but there can be no reasonable doubt about the fact that a great number of non-military objectives were bombed. Beyond question many villages were deliberately attacked and a number of them destroyed. In Warsaw itself the Belvedere and Lazienki Palaces, the Seym (Parliament) building, the Soviet and Rumanian Embassies, the Latvian Legation, a number of churches and some hospitals had been wholly or partly demolished from the air even before the intensive bombardment from air and ground began on September 25. The final state of the city was still more tragic. The correspondent of a Danish newspaper who visited it after the surrender reported that scarcely a house was undamaged and in several districts, especially the suburb of Praga, not one house was left standing. The devastation was due in part to artillery fire, but the bombs of the aircraft contributed very materially. Inevitably the losses suffered by the civil population were heavy in the extreme. It is perfectly clear that if the Germans did in fact attempt to bomb only military objectives, they failed in that attempt most lamentably. The more likely explanation is that no such attempt was made. The city was bombed indiscriminately, subjected, in fact, to a display of Nazi Schrecklichkeit. The destruction was intended as an object lesson. “I should like the gentlemen of London to see what a city looks like when it has been through what Warsaw suffered,” said the German wireless announcer on October 4. “These gentlemen ought to see what might happen in their own country if they persist in their mad warmongering.”

The fiction that only military objectives were bombed was kept up in the German reports. A communiqué issued by the High Command on September 25 stated: “Important military objectives in Warsaw were successfully attacked in power-dives by German aircraft.” It is a sufficient commentary upon this to record that when Warsaw asked for an armistice on September 27, 16,000 soldiers and 20,000 civilians lay wounded in the hospitals. There is little doubt, indeed, that Warsaw was subjected to a bombardment, from ground and air, of which the purpose was psychological, or more bluntly, to terrorize. That particular type of bombardment is nothing new in the practice of German arms. It was tried on many occasions in the Franco-German War of 1870-71. At Strasbourg, for instance, the civilian quarters of the city were shelled by siege batteries in order to “induce the inhabitants to compel the governor to surrender the fortress.” The effect was simply to stiffen the determination of the garrison and the inhabitants to resist.

Exactly the same tactics were employed at Warsaw nearly seventy years later, and the same effect was produced; the morale of the city was unbroken, for it was lack of ammunition and supplies, not loss of courage, which finally made surrender inevitable. Methods of frightfulness defeat their aims when used against a determined people. Herr Hitler announced in his speech on September 19 that the British blockade might force him to make use of a “weapon by which we [Germany] cannot be attacked.” The fresh resort to Schrecklichkeit here foreshadowed, whether it referred to the poison gas or to bacteriological warfare or merely to massed attack from the air on cities, will not effect its object. On that point there can be no doubt whatever.

The major role which the German air force played in the conquest of Poland is no proof that it will achieve similar successes in the west. Poland was, in comparison with Germany, very weak in the air. That her air force, was able to resist as well as it did testifies to the gallantry of its personnel. It is the more regrettable that its achievements were magnified by some absurd propaganda. The statement in a communiqué of September 3 that 64 German machines were brought down on that day for the loss of 11 Polish machines was entirely unbelievable. The announcement a little later that Berlin had been bombed was no less unconvincing. There is no escape from the conclusion, on the known facts, that Poland was wholly outclassed in the air.

Soviet Operations in Eastern Poland

The Soviet operations in eastern Poland had been anticipated in the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Stalin’s delay in attacking Poland was in part due to uncertainty over the reaction of the Western Allies, the unexpectedly rapid pace of the German advance, the distraction of military operations in the Far East and the time needed to mobilise the Red Army. Besides the dramatic events in Poland, Stalin was preoccupied with the undeclared war between the Soviet Union and Japan, which culminated in the decisive Soviet victory at Khalkin Gol in September 1939. An armistice was signed with Japan on 15 September, and Soviet intelligence correctly reported that German formations were already operating east of the proposed Soviet-German demarcation line. As a result, Stalin was forced to act sooner than planned.

The decapitation of the Soviet officer corps by the purges of 1937 and 1938 hindered a major military operation of this scale. The Red Army general staff estimated it needed several weeks to fully mobilise. The German advance had proceeded much more quickly than the Soviets had anticipated, forcing a hasty commitment of the ill-prepared Red Army to secure the spoils of the treaty agreement. The Red Army had expected the German operation to be an updated version of the First World War pattern: a series of border clashes until both sides mobilised and deployed their main forces for decisive battle. They had overlooked the possibility that Germany would strike from a fully mobilised posture against their smaller and only partially mobilised opponent. The planning was already well in place as the Red Army general staff had prepared plans in 1938 for intervention under various scenarios during the Munich crisis.

The Red Army was organised into two fronts and deployed no less than 25 rifle divisions, 16 cavalry divisions and 12 tank brigades with a total strength of 466,516 troops. The Red Army’s tank forces sent into Poland actually exceeded the number of tanks and armoured vehicles of the Germans and Poles combined, amounting to 3,739 tanks and 380 armoured cars. The Red Air Force was also committed in strength, totalling about 2,000 combat aircraft. Fighters, consisting mainly of I-16 and I-15bis, made up about 60 per cent of the attacking force, along with medium bombers such as the SB accounting for another 30 per cent of the force. The remainder of the combat elements were army co-operation types like the R-5 biplane.

Polish defences had been stripped bare in the east. Normally the border was guarded by the Border Defence Corps (KOP) with about 18 battalions and 12,000 troops along the Soviet frontier. These forces were little more than light infantry with very little in the way of artillery support. Furthermore, many of the units had been ordered westward as reinforcements, leaving only a token force behind. The force ratio was ludicrously one-sided, roughly one Polish battalion per Soviet corps.

Red Army mobilisation was chaotic at best. Due to the upcoming harvest, it was difficult to fill out the units with their usual supply of war-mobilisation trucks from the civilian sector. As a result, Soviet formations, even tank brigades, seldom had even half of their table-of-organisation in support vehicles. There was also a shortage of spare parts for most types of vehicle including tanks. Although the Red Army order of Battle presents the picture of a conventionally organised force, in fact, the Soviet formations were often deployed in a haphazard fashion, loosely configured as regional groups. Indeed, there are substantial disparities in the historical records about which units participated and under which command, due to the haste under which the operation was prepared. As a result of their belated and haphazard mobilisation and the almost non-existent opposition they faced, the Red Army relied on its cavalry and armoured forces to sweep rapidly into Poland. Horse-mechanised groups were created with tank brigades supporting cavalry divisions.

There was considerable confusion on the Polish side when news of the Soviet invasion first began to filter through. At first there was some hope that the Soviets might be intervening to aid Poland, a delusion that was quickly exposed when word arrived of armed clashes. Nevertheless, the high command on the evening of 17/18 September ordered that the KOP and other units along the frontier were not to engage Soviet forces except in self-defence or if the Soviets interfered with their movement to the Romanian bridgehead. However, the order was not widely received. Instead the commander of the KOP, Brigadier-General W. Orlik-Ruckemann, ordered his troops to fight. Skirmishes between the KOP and Red Army units took place all along the frontier, especially near several of the major cities such as Wilno and Grodno, and along the fortified zone in the Sarny region. The heaviest fighting, not surprisingly, took place in Galicia in south-eastern Poland, since regular Polish army units were gravitating towards this sector near the Romanian frontier.

Galicia was one of the few areas where there was any significant aerial combat between the Polish air force and the Red Air Force. This occurred mostly on the first day of the Soviet invasion, as the surviving Polish air force units had been ordered to escape into Romania. Surviving Polish fighters had been subordinated to the Pursuit Brigade, which was headquartered near Buczacz to the south-east of Lwow. During the first contacts on 17 September, Polish fighters downed an R-5 and two SB bombers, and damaged three further Soviet aircraft. The following day the Pursuit Brigade was evacuated to Romania taking with it 35 PZL P. 11 and eight PZL P. 7 fighters; the last remnants of the combat elements of the Polish air force. A number of Soviet aircraft were lost in subsequent fighting, mostly to ground fire. According to recently declassified records, only five aircrew were killed during the fighting, attesting to the relatively small scale of Soviet air losses in this short campaign.


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