Poignant photographs of the German invasion of Poland

On the 1st September 1939, the Nazi regime in Germany unleashed the horror of a Second World War on the planet by invading Poland.

What happened?

At the end of World War I, with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, Upper Silesia, Greater Poland, and West Prussia were given to Poland. This had angered the Germans at the time and continued to fester.

Hitler signed a non-aggression treaty with Poland in 1934. This was a pact he had little intention of honoring in the long run but was designed to prevent a Franco-Polish alliance and give Germany time to recover, rearm and rebuild her armed forces.

Soviet and German officers at the demarcation line examine a map.
Soviet and German officers at the demarcation line examine a map.

At this time, Britain’s public opinion favored some form of concession around the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles. This drove British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to follow a policy of limited appeasement and concessions to the Germans. Added to public opinion was the fact that Britain was not militarily prepared for another all-out European war.

At the end of August, there was a flurry of negotiations and secret negotiations, leading up to the secret signing on the 23rd August 1939 of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and the Soviet Union.

Six days later, Hitler demanded the Polish Corridor’s return leading to the free city of Danzig so that the Germans would have a link to the East Prussian territory. This was refused by the Polish government.

Himmler (behind flag) with Hitler (front left, back turned, holding flag) and Konrad Henlein (on the right) (Gauleiter Sudetenland) in Poland in September 1939.
Himmler (behind flag) with Hitler (front left, back turned, holding flag) and Konrad Henlein (on the right) (Gauleiter Sudetenland) in Poland in September 1939.

To justify their invasion that started on the 1st September, the Germans claimed that the Polish people were persecuting German nationals, and Poland, along with Britain and France, were intending to invade Germany. This was blatantly rubbish, but with a staged attack on a radio station, Hitler had his ‘smoking gun’ and used it as an excuse to invade Poland.

The Polish army wasn’t fully mobilized and poorly equipped compared to the technology available to the German troops, and they were quickly overcome. France and Britain honored their treaty with Poland and formally declared war on Germany on 3rd September. This declaration, however, did not come with substantial military support.

From the start, the Luftwaffe attacked civilians, and a favored target was the long lines of refugees fleeing the fighting. Estimates on the number of civilians killed vary, but the most reliable estimates show that the Luftwaffe killed between 6,000 and 7,000 refugees during the battle for Warsaw.

They were not the only German troops that committed atrocities against the Polish people. The SS was also implicated in many atrocities where entire villages were burned and all the men, women, and children massacred.

On the 17th September, the Soviet Union invaded Poland along its eastern border. By the 6th October, all Polish resistance had faded.

Polish infantry marching.
Polish infantry marching.

The German military then took over the control of the country, and it was not long after that concentration camps were built. Many thousands of Polish people lost their lives to the gas chambers.

The photographs in this collection show the peacekeeping efforts before the war and then the horrors of the battleground encountered by the ordinary Polish people.

Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov signs the German-Soviet non-aggression pact in Moscow, August 23, 1939.
Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov signs the German-Soviet non-aggression pact in Moscow, August 23, 1939.

 

“My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honor. I believe it is peace for our time.” – Neville Chamberlain
“My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honor. I believe it is peace for our time.” – Neville Chamberlain

 

Polish troops in Hungary in September 1939. Up to 140,000 Polish soldiers escaped to the West through Romania, Hungary, Latvia, in order to keep fighting with the Allies, eventually making their way to France and Great Britain.
Polish troops in Hungary in September 1939. Up to 140,000 Polish soldiers escaped to the West through Romania, Hungary, Latvia, in order to keep fighting with the Allies, eventually making their way to France and Great Britain.

 

German battleship Schleswig-Holstein bombarding Westerplatte, Danzig, 1 September 1939. That attack was the first clash between Polish and German forces during the Invasion of Poland and thus the first battle of the European theater of World War II.
German battleship Schleswig-Holstein bombarding Westerplatte, Danzig, 1 September 1939. That attack was the first clash between Polish and German forces during the Invasion of Poland and thus the first battle of the European theater of World War II.

 

 

A damaged Polish armored train captured by German Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler Regiment, near Blonie, Poland. September 1939.
A damaged Polish armored train captured by German Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler Regiment, near Blonie, Poland. September 1939.

 

A girl holding her dog in a devastated neighborhood in Warsaw, Poland. 5 September 1939.
A girl holding her dog in a devastated neighborhood in Warsaw, Poland. 5 September 1939.

 

Aerial view of a Polish city through the gunner’s station aboard a German He 111 bomber. September 1939.
Aerial view of a Polish city through the gunner’s station aboard a German He 111 bomber. September 1939.

 

Aerial view of destroyed buildings between Zielna and Marszalkowska Streets in Warsaw, Poland. September 1939.
Aerial view of destroyed buildings between Zielna and Marszalkowska Streets in Warsaw, Poland. September 1939.

 

German soldiers on Westerplatte after the battle. Sometimes called the “Polish Verdun” due to the heavy shelling the Poles received. During the battle, 209 Polish soldiers resisted for a week against 3000 German soldiers supported by the Luftwaffe.
German soldiers on Westerplatte after the battle. Sometimes called the “Polish Verdun” due to the heavy shelling the Poles received. During the battle, 209 Polish soldiers resisted for a week against 3000 German soldiers supported by the Luftwaffe.

 

City of Wieluń, the very first city bomber during Fall Weiss. 1 September 1939, 440 a.m. More than 1200 civilians lost their lives during the bombing.
City of Wieluń, the very first city bomber during Fall Weiss. 1 September 1939, 440 a.m. More than 1200 civilians lost their lives during the bombing.

 

Forces as of 31 August and German plan of attack.
Forces as of 31 August and German plan of attack.

 

German aerial bombs straddling a road in Poland. September 1939.
German aerial bombs straddling a road in Poland. September 1939.

 

German Bf 109B fighters on an airfield, Poland. September 1939.
German Bf 109B fighters on an airfield, Poland. September 1939.

 

German motorized troops traveling on a muddy road in Poland. September 1939.
German motorized troops traveling on a muddy road in Poland. September 1939.

 

 

German troops engaging in street fighting in a Polish town. September 1939.
German troops engaging in street fighting in a Polish town. September 1939.

 

German troops of SS-Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler Division resting during a campaign toward Pabianice, Poland. September 1939.
German troops of SS-Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler Division resting during a campaign toward Pabianice, Poland. September 1939.

 

 

People of Warsaw in a happy demonstration under British Embassy just after British declaration of war with Nazi Germany. The sign says “Long live England!”
People of Warsaw in a happy demonstration under British Embassy just after British declaration of war with Nazi Germany. The sign says “Long live England!”

 

Pile of Polish rifles collected by German troops, Warsaw, Poland. September 1939.
Pile of Polish rifles collected by German troops, Warsaw, Poland. September 1939.

 

Polish 7TP light tanks in formation during the first days of the 1939 September Campaign.
Polish 7TP light tanks in formation during the first days of the 1939 September Campaign.

 

Polish cavalry in full gallop, Battle of Bzura, the biggest battle of Fall Weiss.
Polish cavalry in full gallop, Battle of Bzura, the biggest battle of Fall Weiss.

 

Polish prisoners of war. Many of them were sent to labor camps, death camps in Germany or simply executed by Soviets.
Polish prisoners of war. Many of them were sent to labor camps, death camps in Germany or simply executed by Soviets.

 

Polish soldiers with anti-aircraft artillery near the Warsaw Central Station during the first days of September, 1939.
Polish soldiers with anti-aircraft artillery near the Warsaw Central Station during the first days of September, 1939.

 

Red Army enters the provincial capital of Wilno during the Soviet invasion. Backstabbed by USSR, Poland lost their last hopes. 19 September 1939.
Red Army enters the provincial capital of Wilno during the Soviet invasion. Backstabbed by USSR, Poland lost their last hopes. 19 September 1939.

 

Soldiers of Wehrmacht and Red Army 20 September 1939.
Soldiers of Wehrmacht and Red Army 20 September 1939.

 

Soviet and German officers at the demarcation line examine a map.
Soviet and German officers at the demarcation line examine a map.

 

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Map of the September Campaign. Note the changes since 17th of September. Map GrzegorzusLudi CC BY-SA 3.0
Map of the September Campaign. Note the changes since 17th of September. Map GrzegorzusLudi CC BY-SA 3.0