How the death of a farmer and a bungled siege of a radio tower gave Hitler his justification to unleash WWII
On the evening of 31 August 1939, a seven-man SS team disguised as Poles stormed the radio station in the then German city of Gleiwitz.
They terrorised the German staff, seized the microphone, and announced in Polish: “Attention! This is Gliwice. The broadcasting station is in Polish hands.”
Their aim was to cause a provocation that would justify Hitler’s attack on Poland. The operation failed. The bungling SS team broke into the wrong radio station. Their message, containing only nine words in Polish, was not heard across Germany, and Poland’s allies, France and Britain, were not dissuaded from declaring war.
The caper would have remained in the realms of farce if it had not claimed the war’s first victim, the Pole Franciszek Honiok, who was murdered so that his body could be presented as ‘evidence’ of the hoax Polish invasion.
The Gleiwitz Incident, as it is known, was part of a German fake-news campaign in the days leading up to the German invasion of Poland in 1939.
In August 1939 Hitler was stirring up tension with Poland. He wanted to persuade the world that Poland was the aggressor to justify his planned invasion. To this end, he needed to fabricate an eye-catching provocation that would cast Poland as the bad guys.
On August 11th, he told the League of Nations High Commissioner, “If there’s the slightest provocation, I shall shatter Poland without warning into so many pieces that there will be nothing left to pick up.”
Meanwhile, on August 22nd Hitler told his military commanders, “I will give propagandistic cause for the release of the war, whether convincing or not. The winner is not asked later whether he said the truth or not.”
To fulfill Hitler’s wishes, in early August, SS security boss Reinhard Heydrich gathered together a group of top SS officers. He told his men that war with Poland was inevitable and together they planned to stage a series of ‘false flag’ operations along the Polish-German border in Upper Silesia.
They identified isolated outposts of the German government that could be attacked by Germans pretending to be Polish ‘aggressors’.
This plan included an attack on the customs house at the then German border village of Hochlinden, in which six inmates from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp were dressed up in Polish uniforms and shot. Another operation was carried out against the Pitschen forestry lodge.
The most famous incident, though, took place in the German city of Gleiwitz, now Gliwice in Poland, which at the time was just a few kilometres from the border with Poland.
The ‘Poles’ were to take over the station and broadcast a nationalistic statements in Polish, which Germans listening at home would hear.
This operation was top-secret and started only when Heydrich gave the password by telephone: Grandmother died.
The attack was led by an SS major named Alfred Naujocks. He was a well-known amateur boxer and was frequently involved in brawls with communists. He joined the SS in 1931 and became one of Heydrich's most trusted agents.
What he didn’t know, though, was that in Gleiwitz about 4 km away, there was an older radio station, built in 1925 which housed the microphone studios. In the new one, which was the target of the attack, there was no studio, only transmitters that broadcast signals received via cable from Breslau.
Pretending to be Silesian insurgents, the attackers entered through the back door and reached the transmitter room without any obstacles, where three technicians were working.
They were arrested and placed in the basement. The attackers looked in vain for the microphone to start their broadcast. After a search lasting more than 10 minutes, the crew was forced to use the storm microphone, which was used to notify radio listeners about an impending storm.
One of the attackers started to read out the prepared message in Polish, but only a few words were broadcast: “Attention! This is Gliwice. The broadcasting station is in Polish hands.” For reasons that are still a mystery, the broadcast was abruptly stopped. Probably one of the radio station employees interrupted the broadcast or there was a technical glitch.
To make the attack look real, German concentration camp prisoners dressed in Polish uniforms were given lethal injections then shot in the face to avoid identification. It was their corpses that were photographed and shown to journalists.
Meanwhile, Franciszek Honiok, a German citizen of Polish nationality, had been arrested the day before the incident. He was knocked out with drugs before the raid then dragged semi-unconscious into the radio station, where he was shot in the back of the head and dumped at the entrance to the radio station.
They were referred to by the attackers as ‘canned goods’, which could be prepared in advance and used to suggest Polish involvement in the attack.
Little is known about the attackers themselves. They were probably mostly SS men who knew Polish.
They were dressed in working clothes, not Polish uniforms as they were supposed to look like insurgents from the Silesian uprisings 20 years before. At that time, Poland had not given the insurgents uniforms as it would have been tantamount to declaring war on Germany.
After the operation, they quietly returned to their hotel in the city centre. None of them died during the attack. At least three, including Naujocks, survived the war.
Despite the blunders made by the attackers, within hours, German radio stations were reporting the incident at Gleiwitz. News of the incident spread abroad quickly, with the BBC broadcasting a report the same evening and the New York Times running an article the next day.
Although the operation had failed in many respects, Hitler had his pre-packaged provocation. At 4.00 AM the next morning 29 German Stukas dive bombers took off to attack Wieluń thereby starting the global conflagration.