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World War II’s first victim.


As the rays of early evening sun lingered over the giant wooden mast that protruded through the pine forest, two cars passed through the gates of the German radio station and stopped outside the three-storey transmission building.  Forty-three-year-old unmarried Catholic farmer, Franz Honiok The war's first victim In the following minutes, seven SS officers posing as Polish partisans, would carry out a simple act that would leave one man dead on the station steps – and provide Adolf Hitler with the excuse to invade Poland , plunging the world into six dark years of conflict.

In August 1939 Hitler was stirring up tension with Poland and he was prepared to fabricate whatever was needed as a pretext to invade. 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.

On August 22nd Hitler spoke to 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.

The events that took place in the fading light of August 31, 1939 around Gliwice radio station – some four miles inside Germany, on the border with Poland – have largely been overlooked by historians. Even relatives of the dead man have only spoken of the incident in hushed, private family gatherings, preferring not to ask questions of authorities on either side.

And on Tuesday, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel meets the prime ministers of Russia and Poland in Gdansk (formerly Danzig) to commemorate the day 70 years ago when Hitler’s tanks rolled across Poland’s borders, little thought will be given to the place where it started – or the man who died there.

However, on Monday, in the manicured grounds of the radio station on the edge of the industrial city of Gliwice, which is now within Poland’s borders, there will be a low-key commemoration and, for the first time, German and Polish historians will gather to discuss what took place.


During the invasion of Poland, about 65,000 Polish troops were killed in the fighting, with 420,000 others being captured by the Germans and 240,000 more by the Soviets (for a total of 660,000 prisoners). Up to 120,000 Polish troops escaped to neutral Romania (through the Romanian Bridgehead and Hungary), and another 20,000 to Latvia and Lithuania, with the majority eventually making their way to France or Britain. Most of the Polish Navy succeeded in evacuating to Britain as well. German personnel losses were less than their enemies (~16,000 KIA).

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