The first target?

Wieluń is a small town located in western Poland, with a population of around 12,000 people. The town has a long history dating back to the Middle Ages. It was granted city rights in the 13th century and developed into an important center for trade and industry. Wieluń was known for its textiles, brewing, and sugar production.

The town of Wielu, close the German border, was utterly undefended, without anti-air capability and a military presence. 

Despite the fact that Wieluń had no military targets, airstrikes persisted. According to German intelligence reports, the town was home to a Polish cavalry brigade.

The Luftwaffe also bombed neighbouring towns Dziaoszyn, Radomsko, and Sulejów, all of which had no military targets.

Many consider the bombing of Wielu to be the first major act of World War II and the September Campaign. Luftwaffe aviation units entered Polish airspace in the early morning of the 1st September and arrived over Wieluń by 04:40-45 hours. The first strikes on the town occurred about this time, with a total of 46,000 lb bombs being dropped on civilian targets lasting 9 hours and resulting in a high civilian death toll.


The bombing

29 Junkers Ju 87B Stukas of I group Sturzkampfgeschwader 76 took out from Nieder-Ellguth airport under the leadership of Captain (Hauptmann) Walter Sigel. They arrived at Wielu uncontested and dropped 29 500-kilogram bombs and 112 50-kilogram bombs. The hospital, which most likely featured Red Cross symbols, was one of the first targets; 32 people were killed there. After the hospital caught fire, German planes strafed people attempting to flee.

After the hospital caught fire, German planes strafed people attempting to flee. Within an hour, all 29 aircraft had returned to Nieder-Ellguth, where Sigel reported "no significant enemy observation." During the strike, German planes reported "blue sky" and detailed descriptions of the structures targeted. German pilots reported no enemy activity in Wielu following the initial raid.

Two Dornier Do 17 reconnaissance planes that scouted the region for Polish military troops between 04:50 and 05:02 reported finding numerous, the closest to the town being in a forest 12 kilometres (7.5 miles) southwest of Wielu.

Several more waves blasted the town; the number varies according to accounts. Captain Friedrich-Karl Freiherr von Dalwigk zu Lichtenfels commanded one of the latter waves, described by Pitkowski as the second, of Stuka bombers from I./Sturzkampfgeschwader 77.

The second wave, which attacked the town at 05:08 (or possibly 06:08), was commanded by Captain von Schönborn, also of Sturzkampfgeschwader 77, according to Ksiek. Hauptmann Clemens Graf von Schönborn-Wiesentheid commanded II./Sturzkampfgeschwader 77.

Bombing of St. Michael's Church in Wieluń, September 1, 1939.

https://www.niedziela.pl/

A third wave of 29 Stukas from Sturzkampfgeschwader 2, led by Major Oskar Dinort of Nieder-Ellguth, attacked Wielu at 13:00 (or 14:00). However, according to Bbnik, the third wave, led by Major Dinort, attacked the town between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m. This was followed by a fourth wave of 60 Ju 87 Stukas from I./Sturzkampfgeschwader 77, commanded by Günter Schwartzkopff, around 14:00 hours. Bbnik concludes that three morning waves and one milder afternoon wave of bombing can be established based on German documents.

Due to the lack of air defences, the city was bombarded with exceptional precision from a low height. Following the attack, Germans strafed fleeing people. On the first day of the invasion, the German Army took the town.


Aftermath

In total, 380 bombs weighing 46,000 kg were dropped on the town, destroying 70% of the town's structures, including up to 90% in the city centre. According to some estimates, 75% of the buildings were destroyed. Casualty estimates vary greatly because an accurate casualty count does not exist because no full damage investigation was performed until after the war. Early estimates from the People's Republic of Poland put the death toll at 2169; however, these figures have since been updated and reduced.

The casualty rate was "more than twice as high as Guernica's or Coventry's," according to Norman Davies, who quoted the statistic of "1,290 townspeople dead," which was popular in older research and is still quite frequently reported in modern media. According to historian Pitkowski, the number of proven casualties is 127, and the claim of 1,200 is erroneous because it represents the total number of fatalities in Wielu County.

A similar conclusion was reached in a 2004 Institute of National Remembrance assessment, which noted that while the number of casualties was probable in the "several hundred" range, there were insufficient sources to arrive at a decisive number, and only 127 were named beyond all doubt.

Major landmarks, damaged or destroyed by the German bombing included:

  • The Collegiate Church in Wieluń , built in the 13th–14th centuries.
  • A mid-19th-century synagogue in Wieluń.
  • The 14th-century Augustinian cloister in Wieluń.
  • One wing of the 19th-century castle in Wieluń.
  • The All Saints Hospital in Wieluń with a clear Red Cross roof sign, whose bombing killed 32 persons, including 26 patients.
  • The 15th-century city walls in Wieluń severely damaged.
  • Over a dozen historic 18th- and early-19th-century houses.
  • The city hall, with its 14th-century Kraków Gate, survived when a bomb got stuck in the city hall's roof and failed to explode.

A war crime?

The attack was part of Germany’s strategy of “Blitzkrieg,” which relied on a combination of fast-moving armoured units and airpower to quickly defeat the enemy. The Luftwaffe was tasked with destroying Poland’s air defences and creating chaos among the civilian population. Wieluń was chosen as the first target because it was located near the German border and was believed to be an important railway hub.

However, according to reports, the Luftwaffe bombed a "well-recognised" hospital and strafed fleeing residents. Following the incident, 127 civilian casualties were recorded, potentially "several hundred," although the precise number is unknown. 70% of the town was completely destroyed (90 per cent in the city core). The majority of the town's buildings were gutted, including the hospital, schools, and homes. The bombing also caused fires that burned for several days.

The death toll from the bombing of Wieluń was high and many of the victims were women, children, and the elderly. The town's hospital was also destroyed, leaving the wounded without any medical attention. Many of the survivors were left homeless and without food or clothing.

According to some historians, the raids may have been designed to test the Luftwaffe's tactics and weaponry, particularly the new Ju 87B bomber. Germany's Chief of General Staff, Franz Halder, mentioned in his war diary a plan called "Offensive Operation Red in the Wielu area" two weeks before the war began.

The Luftwaffe launched numerous more raids in the area in the early days of the war, particularly on the tiny towns of Dziaoszyn and Kamiesk, and produced aerial images illustrating the efficacy of attacks on neighbouring towns.

In his war diary, Halder distinguished between "terrorist attacks" and strikes on military targets. According to German historian Hans-Erich Volkmann, Wielu would have had no operational, much alone strategic, relevance for the German 10th Army, which was the decisive military component in this area of the front. Wolfram von Richthofen, the Luftwaffe's commander, would have personally ordered the attack. 

Volkmann, like Böhler, believes that, while Richthofen may not have planned it as a "terror strike," he chose Wielu as a target close to the border to test the capabilities and operational efficacy of his dive bombers, if feasible without incurring losses to his own unit.

Others argue that, while Richthofen may not have intended it as a "terror assault," he chose Wielu as a target near to the border to test the capabilities and operational efficacy of his dive bombers, if

feasible without incurring losses to his own force. Volkmann considers the destruction of Wielu to be a war crime because it was an attack on a non-military target.

Similarly, historian Norman Davies explains why Frampol was bombed two weeks later: "Frampol was chosen partly because it was utterly defenceless, and partly because its baroque street pattern gave an ideal geometric grid for calculations and measurements."

The bombing was also seen as a violation of the Hague Convention of 1907, which prohibited the bombing of civilian areas.


Was it the first attack?

The precise time the first bombs fell on Wieluń on the morning of 1st September 1939 has been disputed, particularly in relation to claims that the town's bombing was the first overt act of World War II, five minutes before the shelling of Westerplatte at 04:45, which has traditionally been considered the war's start. The Danzig skirmishes also started about the same time (04:45 h). Regardless of which event happened first, they all collectively marked the start of the well-coordinated German Invasion of Poland.

However, even if the time of 04:40 is true, several historians identify the first (aerial) action of the war as bombers from Sturzkampfgeschwader 1 attacking the vital Tczew bridge in the Pomeranian Corridor about 04:30.


Conclusion

In conclusion, the bombing of Wieluń was the first bombing of World War II and one of the first acts of the war. It was conducted by the German Luftwaffe and resulted in the deaths of over 1,200 people, mostly civilians.

The bombing was likely a war crime and a violation of international law, it demonstrated the brutality of war and the devastating consequences of bombing civilian areas. The bombing of Wieluń served as a reminder of the importance of protecting civilians during armed conflicts.


Further reading