European Urban Centres from West to East, 1940-44

This article is a revised version of an essay submitted for academic credit at the University of Toronto.

Belgian displaced-persons (or “DPs”) after their escape from urban combat in 1945. (Time)

Throughout history, military forces have usually avoided fighting in built-up areas for a variety of reasons. Street battles are difficult to control, harder to wage, and nearly impossible to “win”. In WWII the German Wehrmacht realized this; manuals on doctrine and strategy warned that “… street battles are costly, and could extend beyond a point to which forces prepared for short operations could properly be sustained.” As a consequence, German forces tended to bypass urban centres in their patented Blitzkrieg (“lightning war”) approach. But in some cases, the Wehrmacht (and SS forces) were drawn into cities — and their time within those urban centres had pronounced effects. German treatment of cities and their populations in the ETO (European Theatre of Operations) varied significantly from location to location due to logistical factors, timing and most importantly, the racial and ethnic makeup of the local inhabitants.

A ruined European city in the wake of WWII. (History.com)

Paris

Paris certainly felt the effects of war during its occupation by German forces from 1940-1944. But the French capital fared significantly better than most other European cities in WWII. Soviet Red Army generals joked in 1942 that “… the enemy lost more men attacking [a Stalingrad] house than they did in taking Paris.” French forces certainly lost many men in the German offensive due to their outdated tactics and general lack of political will to fight a costly war. The Third Republic swiftly collapsed and government officials fled to Bordeaux on June 10th. The ensuing Vichy regime collaborated with German forces to a large extent, enabling the Germans to govern with a “hands off” approach that spared them military manpower for engagement elsewhere. 

The evolution of German military plans for the 1940 invasion of France. The rapid sweep through the Ardennes – which bypassed France’s defensive line – took the Parisian government by surprise. (Wikimedia Commons)

In Paris, little actual street violence accompanied the German advance in 1940. The Standard Oil refinery was lit on fire to deny fuel to the approaching Wehrmacht; US diplomat William Bullitt barely managed to convince German forces not to bombard the city with artillery in response. As occupation wore on, some small but futile acts of resistance occurred: three Germans were assassinated on the metro in 1941, but their deaths were avenged with the execution of 100 French prisoners. As a result, assassinations were rare. Even as the German labour drafts of 1942 prompted revolt in Paris, there were few acts of open violence directed at the occupying forces. 

German troops marching into Paris through l’Arc du Triomphe in 1940. (Reddit)

The only sustained street-fighting in Paris took place in 1944. Gaullists seized government buildings, while Free French operatives assaulted rail-yards and industrial targets. Regular Parisians flew homemade Free French (FFI) flags and mobbed policemen. Some Milice collaborators and isolated German fanatics sniped at advancing Allied forces from rooftops, but they were quickly caught, and usually surrendered. Overall, Paris saw very little urban violence during WWII, at least on the scale of that seen in Warsaw or even London, and there was little German retaliation during the German retreat. Upon liberation, many Parisians even complained that “the Americans were worse than the Germans.

A Parisian street scene during the occupation. Very little destruction of property took place there during WWII. (Daily Mail)

Why was Paris preserved?

Well, one must note again how unpleasant wartime life was for Parisians. The average height of Parisian children fell between 7 and 11 centimetres due to malnutrition, and of course one must never forget the plight of much of Paris’ Jewish population who were rounded up by French policemen. But the majority of Paris survived, and much of its prewar architecture stands today. And much of the Parisian population remained in place during the war.

L’Arc du Triomphe, years after the German capture of Paris. Allied troops rolling (unopposed) into France’s capital found it virtually undamaged. (Wikimedia Commons)

German forces were at the relative beginning of their advance and so had abundant supplies and equipment. German troops stationed in France always received good rations and board, even in the earliest days of occupation, and as such their morale was relatively high in Paris. Secondly, the invasion of France came at a time when Germany was at the near-peak of its military power. German soldiers were not yet fighting for their survival, at least not in the most literal sense. Because of this, acts of resistance were not met with the same level of savagery as they were farther east.

Most importantly, Paris’ location in Western Europe combined with the ethnic makeup of its population meant that Germans regarded the Parisian French as only slightly inferior to German Aryans.

The flag of the Free French, seen in large numbers in Paris during liberation. (Wikimedia Commons)

One captured German soldier remarked that if you put a French or English soldier in German uniform, “you wouldn’t notice the difference.” Hitler in particular respected the fighting reputation of the French, and admired the cultural achievements of the country. The Fuhrer and his staff had endeavoured to turn France into a “tourist country”, and for a period of time, that’s essentially what it was — well-kept and pretty, but staffed by underfed and unhappy locals. Paris certainly did not escape the horrors of WWII, but it fared well compared to other cities within the ETO due largely to its location and ethnic/cultural makeup. 

A Parisian woman accused of “horizontal collaboration” with German troops. According to many sources, Parisians took an “animalistic delight” in punishing similar women in the wake of liberation. (All That’s Interesting)

Warsaw

Before Paris was taken, Wehrmacht tanks were rolling into Poland and waging a very different war. German forces encountered a highly determined enemy in the Poles, and Polish patriotism remained “astonishingly resolute through the darkest days of […] Nazi oppression.” Following a brutal ground and air campaign, Poland was incorporated into the Third Reich. In 1943, after years of brutal oppression, Jewish fighters in Warsaw embarked on a historic, 3-week long last stand to resist deportation to the concentration camps. Using pistols and homemade weapons, Jewish Poles fought bravely but were eventually crushed by brutal SS action.

A German light tank in 1940 during offensive operations in Poland. (Rare Historical Photos)

In August of 1944, underground leaders of the Polish Home Army decided to stage a much larger-scale uprising. The Warsaw General Uprising was partially galvanized by widespread Red Army propaganda broadcasts from across the Vistula river, urging Poles to begin fighting with words like “…Warsaw already hears the guns of the battle which is soon to bring her liberation… “  As Soviet General Rokossovsky’s 1st Belorussian Front battled German rearguard action and held back at the Vistula’s edge, the Polish Home Army began to mobilize. 

The invasion of Poland in 1939. As the Germans pushed in from the West, the Red Army occupied portions of Poland’s Eastern provinces. (Wikimedia Commons)

Using captured and homemade weapons, the 50,000-strong Home Army began daylight offensive operations on August 1st, 1944. A small undercover team sprayed a German convoy with Sten-gun fire, thus initiating the uprising. German troops were systematically flushed out of the city centre, although some 200 held out in the PAST Telephone building for a number of weeks. Polish female sappers of the Kilinski Bn. eventually cleared the building with explosives and flame-throwers. The SS retaliated by deploying Nebelwerfer rockets that destroyed many buildings and killed scores of Poles. But Polish resistance never slacked, and the civilian population became so involved that “…a 9 year old boy threw a grenade into a German tank, and raced off… he burst out crying” as German and Polish forces watched in disbelief. Actions like this were proof enough to German viewers that all Poles were to be regarded as partisans. 

Jewish occupants of the Warsaw Ghetto captured by SS troops as their homes burn, 1943. (Wikimedia Commons)

For the Germans, it was “an established doctrine to nip any incipient guerrilla activity in the bud with brute force”, so the partisan Polish aggressors were rarely captured alive, and the majority of civilians found in the combat area were killed or deported. Even prior to the uprising, “25 to 50 [civilians] were executed daily” as Germans watched. During the uprising, Poles were forced to act as human shields and perform other suicidal tasks.

A Polish Home Army trooper armed with a British-supplied submachine gun. (Beskidzka24.pl)

After 63 days of resistance, the Warsaw General Uprising collapsed. For a variety of reasons beyond the scope of this article, the 1st Belorussian Front had not come to the aid of Warsaw’s defenders. Some 17,000 Germans had been killed, but in turn 200,000 Poles died in battle and later in the chambers of Treblinka and Auschwitz. A full 85% of the city was razed through Nebelwerfer fire and arson, including 923 historic buildings, 150 schools, 2 universities and the national library.

A German armoured infantry section engages Polish troops during the battles of 1940. (ayay.co.uk)

Why was Warsaw purged?

Warsaw had never been a popular destination for German forces, with limited rations compared to Paris and less appealing culture and nightlife to explore (from a chauvinistic German perspective). At that point in 1944, the Wehrmacht and SS were stretched thin, with deployments to the West drawing manpower away and the advancing Red Army significantly lowering morale amongst the troops. Many of the SS troops stationed in Warsaw had lived through some of the harsher fighting in the ETO, particularly on the Eastern Front, and as such were hardened and on edge. The Poles of Warsaw faced a combined group of foreign “Hiwi” (non-German) troops from the Eastern front and SS, later joined by the infamously fanatic Assault Bde. Dirlewanger.

Most importantly, Warsaw was a predominately Slavic city located in Central-Eastern Europe with a large Jewish population.

The flag of the well-organized Polish Home Army. (Wikimedia Commons)

While Paris was seen as a jewel to add to the Reich’s crown, Warsaw was seen as an ugly but necessary bump in the road Eastwards. From the very beginning, Warsaw was doomed to a much harsher fate than that experienced by more Westerly European cities. One Luftwaffe bomber pilot noted during the initial attack in 1939 that “… it was our over-breakfast amusement to chase [individuals] over the fields with MG fire… I was sorry for the horses, but not at all for the people.” This transcript is indicative of the wider German attitude towards combating Poles: they were lesser than Germans, and killing them was sport. Much of German action was in response to fierce resistance activities — but this resistance was in reaction to oppression that Paris never experienced on the same scale. Warsaw fared very poorly during WWII under German occupation due to strained logistical factors and morale, poor timing and above all, German attitudes towards the Slavic and Jewish population.

Polish refugees in a Red Cross camp near Tehran, Iran, in 1943. The lucky few who managed to escape Nazi brutality in their homeland had little to return to by war’s end in 1945. (Wikimedia Commons)

Stalingrad

Some time after Poland and France were forced to capitulate, Operation Barbarossa began in spring of 1942. As they advanced on Stalingrad, German forces were “full of confidence …. that Stalingrad will fall in the next few days.” The summer had not yet ended, and the 6th Army Group was nearly a million strong. But as the Germans drew up plans for the initial assault, the Red Army was quickly regrouping from its disastrous retreat. According to one Russian officer, Soviets “…were ideologically prepared for the battle of Stalingrad. Above all, we had no illusions about the cost, and were prepared to pay it.” When General Chuikov, commander of the defence on the Volga River, was asked to interpret his orders, he responded: “We will defend the city or die in the attempt.” This simple, brutal mindset was what motivated Soviet fighters long after their situation appeared hopeless. 

The German 6th Army push on Stalingrad in 1942. As with all other invaders of modern Russia, the Germans were far too optimistic about their chances. (Awesome Stories)

Already by the end of September 1942, the ground near the Volga was almost completely paved with corpses. Chuikov swiftly set about consolidating his forces, issuing Order no. 166 stating that assaults on enemy-held positions would be undertaken by small “storm groups” of men throwing grenades every 25 metres. By taking and holding certain strong-points, Chuikov intended to make the Germans pay for every inch of ground they took. One location, an inauspicious-looking building nicknamed the Black House, was the subject of particularly brutal fighting:

The storming of the house began in the morning, after an artillery bombardment. The Germans, hiding behind the thick stone walls, were firing from all the windows and out of the basement. The storm groups moved forward in short hops, covering each other’s approach with gunfire. Using grenades and MG [machine gun], we carved out a path up the stairs… there was a struggle on the staircase landing at the second floor, and an enemy bullet felled LT Rostovtsev; Sgt Zhernov took his place. While the battle continued on the second floor, more storm groups burst into the building. There were battles in every corner of the house..

Red Army infantrymen push through the ruins of Stalingrad. (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Violence in the “Black House”, which wore on for months, was common to the entire city and showcased the resolve and ferocity of the fighters on both sides. As in Warsaw, German forces used Nebelwerfer “Vanyusha” rockets to terrifying effect, knocking down block after block of buildings and coating everyone in a thick, choking dust, and “… turning the city into a perfect killing ground”. The inventive Russian defenders made use of every pile of rubble to hide and snipe at Germans. By mid-winter 1943, the German 6th Army had been worn down and could not match the strength and ferocity of the Soviet Stalingrad Front. Germans had partially occupied the city for months; but thanks to the tenacity of Chuikov’s defence, they had failed, and the tide of war began to change.

A Nebelwerfer rocket gun in action. The German weapon – which emitted a terrifying screeching sound when in flight – was responsible for much of Stalingrad’s destruction. (Wikimedia Commons)

Stalingrad was completely destroyed. The Mamayev Kurgan mound in particular was “so polluted with shrapnel and debris that no grass would grow there for some time”. 1.1 million Red Army casualties occurred at Stalingrad, and in turn the entirety of the German 6th Army was encircled and killed or imprisoned. The civilian population of the city had clung to life as “the whole universe shook with the mighty roaring of the heavy guns”. Many thousands perished in German prison camps, where freezing rain killed almost as many as starvation and brutality.

Soviet Red army troops eat lunch amidst a gunfight. (Busy.org)

Why was Stalingrad flattened?

Logistically, the 6th Army at Stalingrad was always low on supplies, forced to eat horses and use captured Soviet weaponry. Morale was low almost from the start, with one soldier complaining that “There are two people who didn’t know that in Russia it is cold in the winter […]: Napoleon Bonaparte, and […] the Führer.” But many Germans grimly clung to their positions, determined to do their homeland proud. As such, morale within the 6th Army group amongst Germans can be described as low, but determined.  The timing of the action is significant as well, for in correspondence and interviews, many Germans indicated that they saw Stalingrad as a crucial point in the war. This contributed to the brutal way in which Germans fought for Stalingrad.

Finally, German forces in Stalingrad had a number of significant racial preconceptions about Russian troops. Soviets were regarded as having “a terrific toughness of spirit and body”, and were viewed more as superhuman beasts than mortal soldiers.

The flag of the Soviet Union, planted wherever the Red Army prevailed. When the Soviets captured the Reichstag in Berlin, they flew this flag as a symbol of revenge. (Quora)

Germans tended to look down on and fear the Slavic Red Army in almost equal measure. General Eberbach described the attitude at Stalingrad: “Things are now so desperate that … the German race [must] fight to the bitter end, so that at least some respect may be wrung from the enemy, and …the  German race may at some future date rise again”. And that’s exactly what the Germans did, effectively wiping the city off the map and bringing untold miseries upon everyone involved.

Russians flee the fighting. In many cases, Stalingrad residents were forced to stay in their homes to prevent an impression of defeatism from taking hold. (Hobbylink Japan)

Conclusion

This article’s aim is not to “rank” suffering or tabulate who “had it worse”; the goal is simply to understand how the presence of German forces impacted various cities in different ways. Paris, a Western European city, was treated relatively well because of the circumstances of its conquest, lack of partisan activity and the racial attitudes Germans had towards the French. Warsaw – a Central-Eastern European centre – was largely destroyed and many of its population deported, partially because of the impending Red Army advance and because of the partisan/Jewish identity of the Uprising. And Stalingrad was completely razed because of the symbolic nature of the city, desperation on both sides and the racial preconceptions and biases of German forces towards Russian Slavs. Whereas the Germans grudgingly respected the French, they hated the ethnic Poles and feared the Slavic Russians. After examining these three example, it’s clear that German treatment of cities and their populations in the WWII ETO varied significantly from location to location due to logistical factors, timing and most importantly, the racial and ethnic makeup of the local inhabitants.

Further Reading & Citations

Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!

  • Beevor, Antony. Stalingrad – The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943. London: Penguin Books, 1998.
  • Beevor, Antony. The Second World War. New York: Back Bay Books, 2012.
  • Bull, Stephen. World War II Street-Fighting Tactics. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2008.
  • Conklin, Alice L., Sarah Fishman, and Robert Zaretsky. France And Its Empire Since 1870. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
  • Kaplan, Alice. The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
  • Lukas, Richard C. Russia, The Warsaw Uprising And The Cold War. The Polish Review 20, no. 4 (1975).
  • Miller, David. Fighting Men of World War II – Axis Forces: Uniforms, Equipment & Weapons. New York: Chartwell Books, 2011.
  • Neitzel, Sönke, and Harald Welzer. Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying. London: Simon & Schuster, 2012.
  • Perry, Marvin, Matthew Berg, and James Krukones. Sources of European History Since 1900. 2nd ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2011.  
  • Zaloga, Steven J. Polish Anti-Tank Defense And The 1939 Campaign. The Polish Review 34, no. 3 (1989).

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