Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Warsaw, Battle of (8–27 September 1939)

Title: Battle of Warsaw
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On 1 September 1939, German forces invaded Poland from three directions, with the bulk of German forces deployed on the flanks in Army Groups North and South. Only weak German forces to the west connected the two army groups. The meeting point for the German northern and southern pincers was to be the capital of Warsaw, which, with 1.3 million people, was Poland's largest city.

On 5 September, the government began evacuating its offices in the city, and the next day, Marshal Edward Rydz-Smigly and his commanders departed for Brest in the east. On 8 September, as German troops closed on Warsaw, Lord Mayor Stefan Starzynski formed a defense committee composed of both civilian and military leaders; its Order No. 1 proclaimed that the city would be defended. All public transport was commandeered, rationing was begun, and the populace was organized into guard and labor battalions. Polish General Juliusz Rommel had overall command, and General Walerian Czuma was charged with the actual defense of the city; he commanded some 120,000 Polish army troops.

The Poles did what they could, utilizing old Russian city defenses, turning city blocks into strong points, covering intersections with artillery, and taking advantage of rubble for ambush positions. They also made use of makeshift weapons, including gasoline bombs used against German tanks. The Polish defensive positions were difficult to detect, and the German formations, organized for rapid movement, would have little advantage in city fighting at close quarters.

Defending against the Luftwaffe was another matter altogether. The city had 54 fighter aircraft, which had some success against the Germans in the first days. But their numbers were steadily reduced both through aerial combat and lack of spare parts. Those that remained were withdrawn entirely on 8 September, leaving only 40 mm and 75 mm antiaircraft guns and machine guns, and these were spread thin. German air strength was so dominant that the Poles were forced to restrict ground counterattacks to night actions.

In addition to shortages of military equipment, particularly for use against air attack, Warsaw had little in the way of food. By 14 September, even with rationing, stocks were sufficient only for two weeks. Despite this, people in the city were defiant, and morale remained high.

At first, Warsaw was subject only to German air attacks, but on 8 September, German ground units arrived and entered the fray. On that day, Polish troops repulsed an attack by the 4th Panzer Division in the Ochota suburb, destroying some 60 German armored vehicles. This rebuff convinced the Germans on the ground that a direct ground assault on the city would be costly and that the best course would be a protracted siege. That day also, the Germans began what would be a growing artillery bombardment, probably the key factor in the city's eventual surrender. Warsaw had been under intermittent terror bombing from the first day of the invasion, but on 13 September, the Germans announced their intention to bomb cities, and Adolf Hitler himself ordered that civilians be prevented from leaving Warsaw. These decisions were based on the belief that terror bombing would hasten the Polish surrender. The next day, 14 September, the bombing of Warsaw was especially severe. That day was the Jewish New Year for Warsaw's 400,000 Jews, who were specially targeted by German bombers while in the streets and in the synagogues of Nalewki, the Jewish quarter.

Hitler rejected any talk of a siege, and German army units were sent into the city on 15 September. Five days later, 12 German divisions supported by more than 1,000 artillery pieces began an assault that reached its peak on 25 September, when the Germans launched Operation coast, an air attack that was expressly ordered by Hitler and involved some 400 bombers and dive-bombers. They dropped 72 tons of incendiary bombs, causing fires throughout the city. On 26 September, the Germans captured two of the three Polish defensive lines and the Poles opened negotiations with the German Eighth Army commander, General Johannes von Blaskowitz.

On 27 September, Warsaw surrendered unconditionally. The Germans took 140,000 Poles prisoner, 36,000 of them wounded. In addition, some 2,000 Polish military troops died in the battle, along with 60,000 civilians. Damage to the city itself was immense, with an estimated 12 percent of the structures destroyed. Warsaw was the first capital to suffer such devastation in the war.

Michael Share and Spencer C. Tucker


Further Reading
Bielecki, Tadeusz, and Szymanski Leszek. Warsaw Aflame. Los Angeles, CA: Polamerica Press, 1973.; Garlinski, Józef. Poland in the Second World War. New York: Macmillan, 1985.; Kennedy, Robert M. The German Campaign in Poland. Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 1956.; Warlimont, Walter. Inside Hitler's Headquarters, 1939–45. New York: Praeger, 1964.; Zaloga, Steven, and Victor Madej. The Polish Campaign, 1939. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1985.
 

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