World War II started with a brutal Nazi war crime.
On September 1, 1939, German soldiers began their invasion of Poland, triggering the outbreak of World War II. The shelling of a Polish garrison at Westerplatte is commonly believed to be the first shot fired in the war, but the beginning actually happened five minutes prior, according to Deutsche Welle.
At 4:40 a.m., the town of Wieluń was bombed by the German air force, the Luftwaffe, as most of its 16,000 residents slept. There were no anti-aircraft, military, or economic targets of any importance in the sleepy town just 13 miles from the German border. The target of the bombing was civilians.
Nick Siekierski translates this article from a Polish newspaper:
Overall, 380 bombs fell on Wieluń, weighing a total of 46 tons. The first ones hit the All-Saints Hospital. 32 people died there — patients and staff. These were the first victims of the German air raids during World War II. The next target was the oldest parish church in Wieluń, St. Michael the Archangel, built in the beginning of the 14th Century. The Piarist building was the only surviving structure on the old square.
In total, as a result of the attack on Wieluń by the German air force, which lasted until 2pm, over 1200 people died. Certain sources note as many as 2,000 victims. Bombs dropped by the Stukas (Junkers Ju 87) destroyed 75% of the city. 90% of the city center was destroyed.
The people of Wieluń were the first to experience the German tactic of blitzkrieg, or lightning war, which was later used during the invasions of Belgium, North Africa, the Netherlands, and France. Just minutes after the bombing of the town began, the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein began its bombardment of Westerplatte.
Two days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany, and the conflict lasted six years at the cost of millions of lives. When it was all over in 1945, it ended with the surrender of the Nazis, and the full exposure of the Holocaust.