Invasion of Poland: the Battle of Westerplatte – Gdansk, Poland


The Free City of Danzig

Coat of Arms Danzig
The Coat of Arms of Danzig

After WW1 the former German city of Danzig (today Gdansk, Poland) was declared an independent city state named “the Free City of Danzig” by the League of Nations, an intergovernmental organization founded in 1920 for maintaining world peace. But even though the city was under the supervision of this League of Nations, the mainly ethnic German majority or “Volksdeutsche” made no secret of it’s loyalty to Germany.
In 1918 Poland was given back her independence and much of the area around Danzig now had become Polish territory under the Treaty of Versailles. The peninsula of Westerplatte at that time was part of the Bay of Danzig and governed by the League of Nations.

The Polish-Bolshevik War

Polish machine gun position near Miłosna – picture courtesy of Wikipedia

Right after WW1 the Soviets or Bolsheviks under Lenin saw their chance to regain lost territory in the vacuum of the retreating German Army and spread the communist revolution towards the West. The country renounced the “Treaty of Brest-Litovsk” which it had signed after the surrender of Germany in March 1918 and started to annex former Russian- and Austro-Hungarian Empire territory towards the West.

The new Second Polish Republic however, set goals of its own and sought to restore the former borders of the country from before 1772. So they started moving their forces East.

This resulted in the Polish-Bolshevik War, where between 1919 and 1920 a series of border confrontations and battles were fought between the two countries. In this period Poland also formed an alliance with Ukraine and Latvia to fight the Red Army and with success.
At the end of 1920 a cease-fire was negotiated and in March 1921 Poland and Soviet-Russia signed a peace treaty known as “The Peace of Riga”, in which the disputed territories were divided and a new border was determined.

A Military Depot on Westerplatte peninsula

Seeking to secure the important harbor of Danzig and ruling out the possibility for an enemy to block it by landing on the Westerplatte peninsula, Poland asked permission from the League of Nations to install an ammunitions transit depot and garrison there. To great dismay of the Free City of Danzig, this permission was granted and in 1925 an area of 60 acres was appointed to them on the Westerplatte peninsula.

Starting January 1926 the transit depot called WST, short for Wojskowa Składnica Tranzytowa (Eng: Military Transport Depot) was fully operational with 22 warehouses and a railroad track connecting it to Polish territory. A guarded brick wall separated the Polish area from the rest of the peninsula. The garrison was allowed to consist of a maximum of a hundred men and was not permitted to erect any further military structures or fortifications.

Guarded Wall
Part of the brick wall that separated the Polish part of Westerplatte and the railroad track

The Westerplatte Incident

With Hitler’s rise to power as Chancellor of Germany in 1933, the discussion about former German territories hardened rapidly, which included the city of Danzig. When Germany as a member of the League of Nations openly calls for a border adaptation at the cost of Polish territory to give them free access to the city, tensions rise. Fueled by the cravings of the ethnic German majority, they rise even further when the city demands that the Poles back out of a former agreement to control the Danzig harbor police together.

To demonstrate their thoughts on the matter, the Poles land a Marine Battalion on Westerplatte, temporarily reinforcing the WST garrison to about 200 men. This act is known as the “Westerplatte incident” and sends a clear warning of what any adversary can expect of them.

Polish-German Non Aggression pact

Polish-German non aggression pact
German Ambassador Hans-Adolf von Moltke, Polish leader Józef Piłsudski, German Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and Polish Foreign Minister Józef Beck in Warsaw on June 15th 1934, five months after signing the declaration.

With Germany growing more aggressive every day, disputing the Treaty of Versailles and threatening to leave the League of Nations, Poland decides to further enforce the depot on Westerplatte against it’s terms with the League of Nations. They build extra guardhouses, small reinforced concrete bunkers and barracks for the garrison, all hidden away in the forested area of Westerplatte.

In an attempt to normalize the tensions between Germany and Poland, a non aggression pact is drawn up between the two countries in Berlin on the 26th of January 1934. Both countries agree to settle arguments and disputes through political negotiations and abolish armed conflict for a period of 10 years.

But when on March 1939, Germany annexes the Klaipèda region of Lithuania after giving them an ultimatum, the Westerplatte garrison is put on alert. The Polish Army decides to reinforce the WST even further, fearing that the same thing could happen to Westerplatte. The peninsula is secured with extra trench lines, wooden barricades and barbed wire. The garrison is also expanded with more men, though it is unclear how many. Speculations of the total number of the garrison range from 180 to 240 men.

Battleship SMS Schleswig-Holstein

SMS Schleswig-Holstein
German Battleship SMS Schleswig-Holstein

On August 25 1939, German Battleship SMS Schleswig-Holstein enters the Harbor of Danzig. Under the pretext of making a courtesy call, she anchors just 150 meters from the Westerplatte WST. The Polish forces are immediately aware of the threat and put on alert. When the next day, Captain Gustav Kleikamp moves the ship to anchor just a little further upstream into the Port canal, Major Sucharski the commander in charge of the WST garrison puts his forces on an even higher alert.

On board of the battleship is a company of 225 Marine shock troops under command of Lt. Wilhelm Henningsen, trained and ready to attack Westerplatte. Although they have been provided with some information about the area by the cooperative Danzig Police, the Germans have no specific information about the defenses they will be up against. They estimate the opposing Polish garrison at about a 100 men strong.

SS Heimwehr Danzig

SS Heimwehr Danzig
Flag of the SS Heimwehr Danzig

In the city of Danzig itself, a ground force of more than 1,500 men of the “SS Heimwehr Danzig” (Eng: Danzig Home Militia) under the Command of Police General Friedrich-Georg Eberhardt is also ready for the attack. The SS unit was officially established earlier in June of 1939 by the request of the Danzig Senate and with the support of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler. It’s ranks are formed by the “Volksdeutsche” (ethnic Germans) from Danzig.

Apart from it’s role in the Invasion of Poland, the unit would be known for it’s atrocities on Polish civilians in mid September of 1939.

The Battle of Westerplatte

Schleswig-Holstein
The Schleswig-Holstein firing on Westerplatte, Danzig – courtesy Wikipedia

During the night of September 1st 1939, Lt. Henningsen’s Marines have disembarked the battleship Schleswig-Holstein and taken up positions East near the Polish border of the Westerplatte peninsula.

Attack at dawn

Now the role of the Schleswig-Holstein becomes clear, when at 04:45 the main battery guns of the battleship open up on the Westerplatte garrison. Luckily, the surprise attack isn’t very successful in terms of casualties, no one on the Polish side gets hurt.
Polish Commander Sucharski informs the nearby battery on the Hel peninsula by radio that he is under attack.

The firing of the Schleswig-Holstein is the signal for the ground forces to attack. Lt. Henningsen and his Marines start to move in on the brick wall that has now been breached by the bombardment and find little resistance. This changes when they engage the Prom outpost, some 200 meters behind the wall. Suddenly the Marines find themselves in an ambush. The Polish defenders have set up concealed firing positions and wreak havoc among the attackers with a deadly crossfire. The death toll gets even bigger when the Poles open up with a hidden 75mm field gun and heavy 81mm mortars. They also target German positions across the harbor canal and even the Schleswig-Holstein is targeted by 37mm Bofors anti tank guns. A small maritime landing force of the Danzig Police West of the WST is also repulsed, although this claims the first Polish casualties. Staff Sergeant Wojciech Najsarek is killed during the fighting.

The German Marines suffer heavy losses and are forced into retreat.

Invasion of Poland

German soldiers removing the Polish border barrier

The attack on Westerplatte is part of a much larger plan; the invasion of Poland. Just a week earlier Germany and Russia have signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact. The pact holds a secret clause; the division of Poland among them.
At the time the battle of Westerplatte starts, Russian and German forces are crossing the border into Polish territory. The Polish forces have their hands full with the two invaders coming from both sides.

Originally the mission of the garrison was to hold the enemy off the peninsula for twelve hours, to give reinforcements time to arrive. But in this scenario, no one can come to the aid of the garrison.

Second attack

Battleship Schleswig-Holstein starts a second bombardment, now lasting more than an hour. The Polish 75mm field gun is put out of action. The Germans start a second ground attack and encounter heavy fire, mines and hard to overcome barbed-wire obstacles. Lieutenant Henningsen is mortally wounded and his Marines are once again forced to retreat at noon.
Henningsen dies of his injuries on the 2nd of September aboard the Schleswig-Holstein. Lieutenant Walter Schug takes over his command.

The first part of this movie above shows Battleship Schleswig-Holstein firing upon Westerplatte. It gives a very good idea of what the Polish defenders had to endure.

The German Army rethink their strategy and realize they have underestimated the situation. They decide on extensive bombardments with naval and artillery guns before setting in another ground attack, followed by a double air raid on September 2nd of Stuka dive bombers dropping a total of 26 tonnes of bombs on the garrison. This attack takes a heavy toll, with the Polish defenders losing most of their mortars, the food supply and the only radio. A direct hit of a 500kg bomb destroys Guardhouse V and kills eight Polish soldiers.

The ruins of the Westerplatte Barracks today. Most of the damage seen here is inflicted by the Russians in 1945.
A view inside the barracks ruins of Westerplatte – Gdansk, Poland

On September 4th, the German Forces try a surprise naval attack coming from the Danzig Bay with Torpedo boat “T196” and an old Minesweeper, but the attack fails.
Major Sucharski holds a conference with his officers wether or not to surrender. Sucharski points out that they initially only had to hold their ground for twelve hours and that no reinforcements can be expected to come to their aid. Despite this the officers decide to hold the position. Keeping these German forces occupied is better than to give them the opportunity to attack other Polish targets.

Burning trains

Again the Germans change their tactics, now making use of running a burning train towards the Polish positions on Westerplatte followed by a ground attack. But the train is halted too soon and instead sets the German tree cover on fire. The Polish defenders make good use of this error and the exposed German Army suffers heavy casualties. A second attempt of sending a burning train also fails.

Guardhouse no3
The remains of the basement of Guardhouse no3. On top of it were the officers quarters. The picture inset shows sailors of the Kriegsmarine inspecting the MG openings.

Surrender

Westerplatte surrender
The Capitulated Polish defenders being taken away

On September 7th in the early morning, the Germans once again commence a heavy attack, starting with another naval bombardment from the Schleswig-Holstein with it’s 28cm guns. Several Guardhouses are destroyed by the heavy shells and now flamethrowers are used to drive out the Polish defenders. Finally, at 09:45 the Polish garrison waves a white flag and surrenders.

For a week this small garrison kept a large German force of more than 3000 men occupied, including the Danzig Police. The Polish defenders suffered 15 dead and 40 wounded, while the German side suffered 50 dead and more than 150 wounded.

During the course of the war, Westerplatte became the symbol of Polish resistance. The phrase “Westerplatte broni się jeszcze” or in English “Westerplatte fights on” became the inspiration for many Poles to fight the Nazi (and Russian) aggression.

Visit Westerplatte

You can visit the area of Westerplatte, Gdansk freely. Although some parts of the island are used by the Polish Army and off limits, most of the original structures can be visited. From the original Polish gate into Westerplatte an “Educational path” leads past all the different positions of the battle of 1939. Signs tell the story of the events that took place here.


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