It was no coincidence that the Ju 87 was selected to carry out the first aerial attack of World War II in Europe. The easternmost province of Germany, East Prussia, was cut off from the rest of the Fatherland by the Polish Corridor. “This hotly disputed strip of territory, which afforded the
landlocked Poles access to the Baltic Sea,” said Weal, “was another product of the Treaty of Versailles, and a contributory factor in Hitler’s decision to attack Poland.” A single railway across the Polish Corridor connected East Prussia directly to Berlin. The weakest point of the rail line was a bridge over the Vistula River near the town of Dirschau (Tczew). The Poles understood the bridge’s significance – and they had preemptively rigged it with explosives, ready to detonate should the Germans ever attack. Thus, the bombing target was not the bridge itself, but the detonation site located at the nearby Dirschau station. By destroying the detonation site, Germany could prevent the Poles from destroying the bridge, and thus preserve East Prussia’s lifeline to the Reich proper.
At exactly 4:26 a.m. on September 1, 1939, three Stukas from III./StG 1, led by pilot Bruno Dilly, lifted off from their air base in East Prussia en route to the Dirschau station. With their 250kg bombs attached firmly to their wings, the Stukas climbed in unison before separating, one by one, into their signature dive patterns. Within minutes, each pilot delivered his bombs with pinpoint accuracy onto the Dirschau station. Although the first dive-bomb run of World War II was a tactical success, it did not preserve the railway bridge. Undaunted, Polish Army engineers managed to destroy the bridge before the first German troop trains could arrive.
The same day, elements from I./StG 2 launched a raid on the enemy airfield at Krakow, only to find it deserted. As it turned out, most Polish Air Force units had vacated their peacetime airbases and relocated to secret, carefully secluded fields in the near countryside. After returning from their unfruitful mission at Krakow, these same Stukas spotted one of the secret airfields near Balice, just as a pair of PZL P.11c fighters were scrambling from the runway. The lead Stuka, piloted by Frank Neubert (who went on to earn the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross) shot down the P.11 piloted by Captain Mieczylaw Medwecki, making Neubert’s kill the Luftwaffe’s first air-to-air combat victory of World War II. According to Neubert, his shot caused the P.11 to “suddenly explode in mid-air, bursting apart like a huge fireball – the fragments literally flew around our ears.”
Later on September 1, the Luftwaffe’s vanguard Stukas engaged the Polish Navy at Hela in the first of several attacks on that naval base. In this engagement, four Stukas plummeted from 7,000m to attack the enemy’s naval stronghold. However, Hela was defended by one of the largest anti-aircraft batteries in Poland, and the diving Stukas got their first taste of enemy fire. Bracketed by the intense anti-aircraft fire, two of the four Stukas were downed by Polish guns – the first Ju 87s lost to enemy fire. Two days later, the Stukas were in action again over Gdynia, where they sank the Polish destroyer Wicher and the minelayer Gryf.
After disrupting the enemy’s air and naval defenses, the Stuka could now perform its primary role in the Blitzkrieg campaign: to act as “flying artillery,” disrupting the enemy ground forces and clearing a path for the oncoming Panzer and mechanized formations. Around noon on September 1, aerial reconnaissance reported a large concentration of Polish horse cavalry massing along the northern flank of the German XVI Armeekorps near Wielun. Major Oskar Dinort, the Gruppenkommandeur of I./StG 2 (and the first Stuka pilot to win the Knights Cross with Oak Leaves), recalled how his Stukas met the Polish horsemen on that fateful day:
We cross the border at a height of 2500 meters. Visibility is far from good; hardly a kilometer. Although the sun is now shining, everything is swimming in an opalescent haze. Suddenly a group of buildings – either a large estate or a small village. Smoke is already rising. Wielun – the target!
I stuff my map away, set the sights, close the radiator flaps; do all those things we’ve already done a hundred times or more in practice, but never with a feeling so intense as today. Then bank slightly, drop the left wing and commence the dive. The air brakes screech, all the blood in my body is forced downwards. 1200 meters – press the bomb release. A tremor runs through the machine. The first bomb is on its way.
Recover – bank – corkscrew – and then a quick glance below. Bang on target, a direct hit on the road. The black snake of men and horses that had been crawling along it has now come to a complete standstill. Now for that large estate, packed with men and wagons. Our height scarcely 1200 meters, we dive to 800. Bombs away! The whole lot goes up in smoke and flames.
By mid-afternoon, the Wehrmacht confirmed that as a farm complex just north of Wielun housed the entire headquarters of the Polish Wolynska brigade. In response, 60 Ju 87s belonging to the I and II./StG 77 destroyed the headquarters outpost and the Germans occupied Wielan that night.
In the following days, the Stuka squadrons performed over 300 bombing runs on civilian and military targets as the Wehrmacht sped towards the Polish capital, Warsaw. In the European tradition of conventional warfare, it was understood that once the enemy’s capital had fallen, the game was over. The Poles obviously understood this as well as the Germans did. Indeed, the 24 infantry brigades and six mounted brigades defending Polish borderlands put every ounce of strength they had into preventing the Nazis from reaching Warsaw. Yet, Poland’s defenses gradually eroded under the relentless bombardment (and the terrifying wails) of the Stuka dive-bomber.
As the Poles retreated towards Warsaw, however, many of their number invariably became separated from the main retreat. One such contingent included six Polish divisions that were trapped between Radom and their fallback point near the Vistula River. As the Panzer forces surrounded the beleaguered Poles, more than 150 Stukas arrived overhead to pound the enemy troops into submission. After four days of enduring the relentless 50kg fragmentation bombs, and hearing the dreadful scream of the Jericho Trumpet, the encircled Polish units finally gave up.
A few days later, the Stukas participated in the battle of Bzura. The Polish Poznan Army (consisting of four infantry divisions and two cavalry brigades) had moved southeast across the Bzura River, trying to reach the Vistula in attempt to break through the frontline screen of the German 8.Armee. The ensuing battle of Bzura, which was essentially an “air-versus-ground engagement,” effectively broke the back of the remaining Polish resistance. During this battle alone, the Stukas dropped over 388 metric tons of ordnance on the beleaguered Polish defenders.
Following the collapse of Poland’s defenses, the Stuka units turned their attention to Warsaw proper. The enemy capital, however, with its few remaining air defense batteries, put up a valiant last stand against the invading Stukas and other Luftwaffe aircraft. In fact, one Ju 87 pilot recalled how tight the Polish defenses were around the capital city:
I had just recovered from the dive and was corkscrewing back up to altitude when the Polish 40mm flak caught me fair and square in its crossfire. The ‘red tomatoes’ which this dangerous weapon spewed out were flying around my ears. Suddenly there was an almighty crash in the machine. There I was, 1200 meters over the middle of Warsaw, and I could immediately tell that the machine was no longer maneuverable.
My gunner reported that the elevator had been shot off and there were only a few scraps left fluttering in the wind. Quick decision: the airfield just south of Warsaw was already in German hands…I had to make it. The machine was steadily losing height, but I slowly coaxed it along, gently slide-slipped and got safely down on the first attempt.
But despite the Poles’ best efforts against the Luftwaffe, the air defenses around the city eventually collapsed. Warsaw fell to the Germans on September 27, 1939 – less than one month after the start of the invasion. Throughout the campaign, only 31 Stukas had been lost to enemy fire.