Bombing of Wieluń

Coordinates: 51°13′12″N 18°34′08″E / 51.220°N 18.569°E / 51.220; 18.569
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Bombing of Wieluń
Part of the Invasion of Poland

Wieluń town center after German Luftwaffe bombing on 1 September 1939
Date1 September 1939
Location51°13′12″N 18°34′08″E / 51.220°N 18.569°E / 51.220; 18.569
  • Beginning of World War II
Destruction of civilian infrastructure
Second Polish Republic Poland Nazi Germany Germany
Commanders and leaders
none Walter Sigel
Friedrich-Karl Freiherr von Dalwigk zu Lichtenfels
Oskar Dinort
Units involved
None Luftwaffe
None Several dozen bombers, mostly Junkers Ju 87B
Casualties and losses
127-500 civilian casualties None

The bombing of Wieluń is considered by many to be the first major act of World War II, and the September Campaign. After Luftwaffe air units moved into Polish airspace in the early morning of 1 September, they reached the town of Wieluń by 04:40–45. Around this time, the first strikes on the town were conducted, with a total of 46,000 kg bombs being dropped on civilian targets for 9 consecutive hours. Elsewhere, the Battle of Westerplatte and Danzig skirmishes began around the same time (04:45), starting the well-coordinated Invasion of Poland.

Located near the German border, the town of Wieluń was completely undefended, lacking anti-air capabilities and a military garrison. Despite Wieluń having no military targets, airstrikes continued. German intelligence reports had stated there was a Polish cavalry brigade stationed in the town. The Luftwaffe had reportedly bombed a "clearly marked" hospital, and strafed fleeing civilians, and also bombed the nearby towns of Działoszyn, Radomsko, and Sulejów, which also had no military targets.[1]

In the aftermath, 127 civilian casualties were reported – possibly "several hundred" – but the exact number remains unknown.[2][3] 70% of the town (90 percent, in the city center) was destroyed.

As the attack on the town happened without a declaration of war, it constituted the first German war crime in World War II, because it violated the 1907 Hague Convention III - Opening of Hostilities prohibiting hostilities against neutral powers without notification of a declaration of war.[4][5]


The exact time the first bombs fell on Wieluń on the morning of 1 September 1939 has been a subject of debate, particularly in reference to claims that the town's bombing was the first overt act of World War II, preceding by five minutes the shelling of Westerplatte at 04:45, which has traditionally been considered the opening of the war.[6]

The time given by most Polish sources is 04:40, but this is an average of eyewitness reports on various phases of the initial bombing run, which likely lasted more than a minute. Polish historian Tadeusz Olejnik reports a number of accounts of the first bombs falling as early as 04:30.[7] Another Polish historian, Jan Książek, described 04:40 as a "certainly confirmed" time.[8]

German sources report the time as 05:40, based on German flight documents (Startzeit: 5.02, Angriffzeit: 5.40, Landezeit: 06.05: take-off 05:02, attack 05:40, landing 06:05). The time difference, 04:40 versus 05:40, has been attributed by several writers, such as journalist Joachim Trenkner [pl], to a summer time-difference between Poland and Germany.[8][9] Other historians, such as Grzegorz Bębnik, disagree that there was a time difference and give the attack time as 05:40; he also cites an eyewitness account giving the attack time as "shortly before 6 a.m." and notes that the eyewitness testimonies are likely unreliable as they were collected in 1961, two years after a commemorative plaque was put up in the town, giving the time as 04:40. He concludes the eyewitnesses were likely influenced by the plaque, which "corrected" their memories.[6] In 2004 the Polish Institute of National Remembrance stated that there was no time difference between Poland and Germany and gave the time of initial bombing as 05:40.[3]

Even if the time 04:40 was to be correct, several historians identify the first (aerial) action of the war as the bombing of the key Tczew bridge in the Pomeranian Corridor by bombers from Sturzkampfgeschwader 1 around 04:30.[10][11]


Aerial view of part of the city on 1 September

On 1 September 1939, 29 Junkers Ju 87B Stukas of I group Sturzkampfgeschwader 76, under command of Captain (Hauptmann) Walter Sigel,[12] took off from Nieder-Ellguth airfield.[13] Half an hour later they reached Wieluń unopposed and dropped 29 500-kilogram bombs and 112 50-kilogram bombs.[13] One of the first places hit was the hospital, which likely had Red Cross markings;[9][14] 32 persons in the hospital were killed.[15] After the hospital began burning, German pilots strafed patients trying to escape the building.[16][17] Within the hour all 29 aircraft landed back at Nieder-Ellguth, where Sigel reported "no noteworthy observation of the enemy."[13] German pilots reported "blue skies" during the attack and gave detailed descriptions of buildings bombed.[18] After the initial attack, German pilots reported no enemy presence in Wieluń.[19] Two Dornier Do 17 reconnaissance planes that had surveyed the area between 04:50 and 05:02 for Polish military units, reported locating several, the nearest to the town being in a forest 12 kilometres (7.5 mi) southwest of Wieluń.[19]

Several more waves bombed the town; sources vary as to the number. One of the latter waves, described by Piątkowski as the second, of Stuka bombers of I./Sturzkampfgeschwader 77, was commanded by Captain Friedrich-Karl Freiherr von Dalwigk zu Lichtenfels.[9] Książek describes the second wave, which bombed the town at 05:08 (or 06:08, according to the IPN, which does not name its commander, only the unit: I/StG 77[3]), as being commanded by Captain von Schönborn, likewise of Sturzkampfgeschwader 77.[8] II./Sturzkampfgeschwader 77, was actually commanded by Hauptmann Clemens Graf von Schönborn-Wiesentheid.[20]

At 13:00 hours (or 14:00[3]) a third wave of 29 Stukas of Sturzkampfgeschwader 2, commanded by Major Oskar Dinort from Nieder-Ellguth, struck Wieluń.[13] However, Bębnik writes that the third wave, commanded by Major Dinort, bombed the town around 08:00 and 9:00 a.m.[6] This was followed by a fourth wave about 14:00 hours, commanded by Günter Schwartzkopff, of 60 Ju 87 Stukas of I./Sturzkampfgeschwader 77.[21] Based on German documents, Bębnik concludes that three morning waves and one lighter, afternoon wave of bombing can be confirmed.[6]

The city was bombed with extreme precision, from low altitude due to the absence of air defenses. After the bombing, the Germans strafed fleeing civilians.[16] The town was captured by the German Army on the first day of the invasion.[21]

In all, 380 bombs totaling 46,000 kilograms were dropped on the town, hitting the hospital and destroying 70% of the town's buildings, including as much as 90% in the city center.[13] Other estimates have suggested 75% of buildings destroyed.[2] Casualty estimates vary substantially, as an accurate casualty count does not exist since no comprehensive analysis of damage was carried out until after the war.[3] Early estimates from the People's Republic of Poland gave a number of 2169 fatalities;[22] as time went by they have been revised and lowered. Norman Davies, who cited the number of "1,290 townspeople killed", common in older research, still relatively often reported in modern media, called the casualty rate "more than twice as high as Guernica's or Coventry's".[2] In 2013, historian Piątkowski stated that the number of confirmed casualties is 127 and writes that the estimate of some 1,200 is incorrect as it represents the number of fatalities in all of Wieluń County.[9] A similar conclusion was reached in a 2004 Institute of National Remembrance report, which stated that, while the number of casualties was likely in the range of "several hundred", there are insufficient sources to arrive at a conclusive number, and only 127 have been identified beyond all doubt.[3]


Piątkowski writes that some historians, such as Grzegorz Bębnik and Marius Emmerling [pl], describe the bombings as having resulted from faulty reconnaissance or intelligence.[9] German historian Rolf-Dieter Müller writes that, while the town might not have contained military targets, German pilots bombed it due to poor visibility, assuming there were military targets present.[23][24] Several accounts state that the German command had received reports of the possible presence of Polish cavalry of the Wołyń Cavalry Brigade in the town's vicinity, and at least one German pilot described the bombing of cavalry targets in the town itself.[25][26] However, other German pilots had reported no military targets present.[13][27] German historian Jochen Böhler writes that the first operational report by Sturzkampfgeschwader 76 stated there had been "no enemy sightings", a finding corroborated by Poland's Institute of National Remembrance, which concluded there were no Polish military targets or units in the city or vicinity on 1 September or the preceding day—as had already earlier been stated as well by a number of historians.[3][19][27]

Most historians agree that the town contained no targets of military value.[7] Historian Timothy Snyder suggests that the civilian population itself may have been the primary target: "The Germans had chosen a locality bereft of military significance as the site of a lethal experiment. Could a modern air force terrorize a civilian population by deliberate bombing?"[28] This view has also been supported by Polish historians Tadeusz Olejnik and Bogumił Rudawski.[29][30] Another view of a number of historians is that the destruction of the town infrastructure may have been the raids' aim, in order to test the tactics and firepower of the Luftwaffe, in particular of the new Ju 87B bomber.[9][29] Two weeks before the war began, Germany's Chief of the General Staff Franz Halder mentioned in his war diary a plan called "Offensive Operation Red in the Wieluń area". In the first days of the war, the Luftwaffe launched several further attacks in the area, including on the small towns of Działoszyn and Kamieńsk, and produced aerial photographs of the effectiveness of attacks on other towns.[27]

Halder distinguished in his war diary between "terror attacks" and attacks on military targets.[27] German historian Hans-Erich Volkmann notes that, for the German 10th Army, which was the critical military factor in this section of the front, Wieluń would have had no operational, let alone strategic, importance to justify its bombing. The commander responsible for the Luftwaffe, Wolfram von Richthofen, would have personally ordered the attack. Volkmann, like Böhler, observes that while Richthofen might not have intended it as a "terror attack", he had selected Wieluń as a target close to the border in order to test the capabilities and operational effectiveness of his dive bombers, if possible without losses to his own force. Volkmann characterizes the destruction of Wieluń as an attack on a non-military target and therefore as a war crime.[31] Similar reasons for bombing a defenseless small town are given by historian Norman Davies for the bombing of Frampol two weeks later: "Frampol was chosen partly because it was completely defenceless, and partly because its baroque street plan presented a perfect geometric grid for calculations and measurements."[32]

Piątkowski, analyzing the bombing from the perspective of aerial bombardment and international law, concludes that the bombing constituted a violation of a number of war norms, in particular relating to humanitarianism and proportional force. He also discusses the applicability of the term "terror bombing" in the light of a never-adopted 1923 draft convention (The Hague Rules of Air Warfare) that introduced the term. He concludes that, in order to describe the Wieluń raids as terror bombing, documents would have to prove that the real reason for the bombing was the terrorizing of the civilian populace and not a misidentification of military targets.[9]

Legal scholar Antoni Zakrzewski wrote:[33]

Despite the aforementioned debates, Wieluń remains the first assault involving civilian casualties of the Second World War, and many see it as a symbol of Polish suffering during the war. As such, it is being compared to Guernica – a town destroyed in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, no less but by the same Luftwaffe forces under the command of the field marshal Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen.

Major landmarks, damaged or destroyed[edit]

Targets destroyed by German bombing included:

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.[34]


The first scholarly study of the bombing was performed in 1961 by Barbara Bojarska, based on her interviews with 14 Polish witnesses.[30]

The attack on Wieluń has been commemorated by several Polish Presidents. In 2004 President Aleksander Kwasniewski unveiled a monument to the city's fallen residents, saying that "here total war was waged, not distinguishing between civilians and military, with the aim of mass extermination." In 2009 President Lech Kaczynski visited, emphasizing that "Wieluń is a symbol of total war." In 2017 President Andrzej Duda visited and "remind[ed] the world that the war started in Poland, on Westerplatte, but that in the first days the highest losses were sustained by civilians, and that Nazi Germany committed atrocities in bombing innocent populations."[1][35]

The bombing of Wieluń is part of an exhibit at the German Bundeswehr Military History Museum in Dresden.[36]

Prosecution attempts[edit]

Two attempts, in 1978 and 1983, to prosecute individuals for the bombing of the Wieluń hospital were dismissed by West German judges when prosecutors stated that, in the morning fog, the pilots had been unable to make out the nature of the structure.[13][37]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Rybczyński, Zbyszek (1 September 2017). "Czy wystawiać rachunek za Wieluń?" [Should We Issue an Invoice for Wieluń?]. Dziennik Łódzki (in Polish). Retrieved 16 May 2018.
  2. ^ a b c Davies, Norman (29 August 2009). "We must not forget the real causes of the war". The Independent. Retrieved 25 February 2010.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g "Oddziałowa Komisja w Łodzi. Śledztwa zakończone wydaniem postanowienia o umorzeniu. Śledztwo w sprawie zabójstwa przez lotników niemieckich w dniu 1 września 1939 roku, podczas bombardowania miasta, 32 pacjentów Szpitala w Wieluniu oraz kilkuset Polaków i Żydów, którzy zginęli w innych miejscach podczas bombardowania miasta, to jest o zbrodnię nazistowską stanowiącą zbrodnię wojenną (S 10.2004.Zn)" (in Polish). 2004. Archived from the original on 2 September 2017. Retrieved 2 September 2017.
  4. ^ Irene Watson (14 July 2017). Indigenous Peoples as Subjects of International Law. Taylor & Francis. pp. 57–58. ISBN 9-7813-1724-0662.
  5. ^ Kulesza, Witold (2004). ""Wieluń polska Guernica", Tadeusz Olejnik, Wieluń 2004 : [recenzja]" ["Wieluń Polish Guernica", Tadeusz Olejnik, Wieluń 2004 : [review]] (PDF). Rocznik Wieluński (in Polish). 4: 253–254.
  6. ^ a b c d Bębnik, Grzegorz (2009). "WIELUŃ, 1 WRZEŚNIA 1939 – fragment tekstu dr. Grzegorza Bębnika" [WIELUŃ, 1 WRZEŚNIA 1939 – fragment of the work of dr. Grzegorz Bębnik]. Pamięć.pl – portal edukacyjny IPN (in Polish). Archived from the original on 17 May 2018. Retrieved 16 May 2018.
  7. ^ a b Tadeusz Olejnik (2004). Wieluń polska Guernica (in Polish). Biblioteka Wieluńskiego Towarzystwa Naukowego. pp. 31–34. ISBN 9788391378861.
  8. ^ a b c d Książek, Jan (2005). "Cel zniszczony, z dzienników wojennych Waltera Siegla i Kurta Hartmana" [Target destroyed, from the war diaries of Walter Siegel and Kurt Hartmann] (PDF). Siódma Prowincja (in Polish). 3–4: 44–47. Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 October 2019. Retrieved 16 May 2018.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g Piątkowski, Mateusz Jan (2013). "Wieluń – 1 IX 1939 r. Bombardowanie miasta a międzynarodowe prawo konfliktów zbrojnych". Wojskowy Przegląd Prawniczy (2): 21–52. ISSN 0137-7272. Archived from the original on 16 May 2018. Retrieved 16 May 2018. PDF
  10. ^ Steve Zaloga; W. Victor Madej (31 December 1990). The Polish Campaign, 1939. Hippocrene Books. p. 107. ISBN 978-0-87052-013-6.
  11. ^ John Weal (20 October 2012). Bf 109D/E Aces 1939–41. Bloomsbury Publishing. pp. 4–7. ISBN 978-1-78200-526-1.
  12. ^ Lexikon der Wehrmacht, Sturzkampfgeschwader 76
  13. ^ a b c d e f g Trenkner, Joachim (1 September 2009). "Ziel vernichtet" [Target destroyed]. Die Zeit (in German). 2003 (7). Retrieved 4 June 2010.
  14. ^ Tadeusz Olejnik (2004). Wieluń polska Guernica (in Polish). Biblioteka Wieluńskiego Towarzystwa Naukowego. pp. 20–21. ISBN 9788391378861.
  15. ^ Tadeusz Olejnik (2004). Wieluń polska Guernica (in Polish). Biblioteka Wieluńskiego Towarzystwa Naukowego. p. 19. ISBN 9788391378861.
  16. ^ a b Tadeusz Olejnik (2004). Wieluń polska Guernica (in Polish). Biblioteka Wieluńskiego Towarzystwa Naukowego. pp. 16–17. ISBN 9788391378861.
  17. ^ Tadeusz Olejnik (2004). Wieluń polska Guernica (in Polish). Biblioteka Wieluńskiego Towarzystwa Naukowego. p. 33. ISBN 9788391378861.
  18. ^ a b Sylwia Słomińska, Z dziejów dawnego Wielunia: Wieluń, 1 września 1939 r. Archived 17 February 2018 at the Wayback Machine, Uniwersytet Lodzki
  19. ^ a b c Tadeusz Olejnik (2004). Wieluń polska Guernica (in Polish). Biblioteka Wieluńskiego Towarzystwa Naukowego. p. 30. ISBN 9788391378861.
  20. ^ de Zeng, Stankey, Creek 2009, p. 133.
  21. ^ a b Pete that r C. Smith (2007). Ju 87 Stuka Volume One: Luftwaffe Ju 87 Dive-bomber Units 1939–1941. Classic Publications. p. 27. ISBN 978-1-903223-69-7.
  22. ^ Wielkia Encyklopedia Powszechna, [pl] 1969
  23. ^ Chris McNab (20 November 2012). Hitler's Eagles: The Luftwaffe 1933–45. Bloomsbury Publishing. pp. 262–. ISBN 978-1-78200-311-3.
  24. ^ Rolf-Dieter Müller: Der Bombenkrieg 1939–1945 , Ch. Links Verlag , Berlin 2004, ISBN 978-3-86153-317-7 , S. 54; Horst Boog: Bombenkriegslegenden , in: Militärgeschichtliche Beiträge 9/1995, S. 22.
  25. ^ Mike Guardia (20 July 2014). Junkers Ju 87 Stuka. Bloomsbury Publishing. pp. 50–. ISBN 978-1-4728-0121-0.
  26. ^ Richard Hargreaves (2008). Blitzkrieg Unleashed: The German Invasion of Poland, 1939. Stackpole Books. pp. 116–. ISBN 978-0-8117-0724-4.
  27. ^ a b c d Jochen Böhler: Die Zerstörung der Nachbarschaft – Die Anfänge des Vernichtungskrieges in Polen 1939. In: Mike Schmeitzner, Katarzyna Stokłosa: Partner oder Kontrahenten? Deutsch-polnische Nachbarschaft im Jahrhundert der Diktaturen. Mittel- und Ostmitteleuropastudien Vol. 8, Lit Verlag, Berlin, 2008, ISBN 3-8258-1254-5, pp. 82 ff.
  28. ^ Timothy Snyder (2 October 2012). Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. Basic Books. p. 119. ISBN 978-0-465-03297-6.
  29. ^ a b Tadeusz Olejnik (2004). Wieluń polska Guernica (in Polish). Biblioteka Wieluńskiego Towarzystwa Naukowego. pp. 27–28. ISBN 9788391378861.
  30. ^ a b c d e f Rudawski, Bogumił (2016). "Nalot bombowy na Wieluń 1 września 1939 r" [Bombing of Wieluń 1 September 1939]. Z Archiwum Instytutu Zachodniego (in Polish). 7: 1–10.
  31. ^ Hans-Erich Volkmann, "Wolfram von Richthofen, die Zerstörung Wieluńs und das Kriegsvölkerrecht", Militärgeschichtliche Zeitschrift 70 (2011), pp. 287–328.
  32. ^ Norman Davies (26 August 2008). No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939–1945. Penguin Publishing Group. p. 262. ISBN 978-1-4406-5112-0.
  33. ^ Antoni Zakrzewski (30 August 2019). "Bombing of Wieluń. Polish Guernica". European Network Remembrance and Solidarity.
  34. ^ a b c d e f Tadeusz Olejnik (2004). Wieluń polska Guernica (in Polish). Biblioteka Wieluńskiego Towarzystwa Naukowego. p. 18. ISBN 9788391378861.
  35. ^ Łódź, Instytut Pamięci Narodowej -. "Ogólnopolskie obchody 78. rocznicy wybuchu II wojny światowej i Dnia Weterana – Wieluń, 1 września 2017". Instytut Pamięci Narodowej – Łódź (in Polish). Retrieved 18 May 2018.
  36. ^ Kraenzle, Christina; Mayr, Maria (10 December 2016). The Changing Place of Europe in Global Memory Cultures: Usable Pasts and Futures. Springer. pp. 36–37. ISBN 9783319391526.
  37. ^ Jolly, Philip (2010). Jewish Wielun – a Polish Shtetl. Philip Jolly. p. 501. ISBN 978-1-4452-8773-7.

Further reading[edit]

  • de Zeng, H.L; Stankey, D.G; Creek, E.J. (2009). Dive-Bomber and Ground-Attack Units of the Luftwaffe, 1933-1945: A Reference Source, Vol. 1. Ian Allan Publishing. ISBN 978-1-9065-3708-1
  • (in Polish) Barbara Bojarska, Zniszczenie miasta Wielunia w dniu 1 września 1939 r., „Przegląd Zachodni" 1962, nr 2.
  • (in Polish) Witold Kulesza, Pierwszy był Wieluń, „Rzeczpospolita" 1999, nr 211, 9 IX 1999.
  • (in Polish) Tadeusz Olejnik, Wieluń – na pięć minut przed Westerplatte. Pierwsi zginęli cywile, „Tygodnik Powszechny" nr 35, 31 VIII 2003 r.
  • (in Polish) Tadeusz Olejnik, Wieluń. Zniszczenie miasta 1 IX 1939 r., Kępno 1979.
  • (in Polish) Tadeusz Olejnik, Wieluńska hekatomba. Początek wojny totalnej, Wieluń 2014, ISBN 978-83-935401-5-0; ISBN 978-83-7982-043-6
  • (in Polish) Pięciak W., Wieluń 1 września 1939 r., „Tygodnik Powszechny" nr 2, 12 I 2003.
  • (in Polish) Janusz Wróbel, ed., Wieluń był pierwszy: Bombardowania lotnicze miast regionu łodzkiego we wrześniu 1939 r. Łódź: Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, 2009, ISBN 9788392930433
  • (in Polish) Joanna Żelazko and Artur Ossowski, Wieluń 1 IX 1939 r. Łódź: Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, 2009. ISBN 9788392930419
  • (in German) Stukas over Wielun

External links[edit]