World War II officially started on the Westerplatte peninsula in Gdansk. Westerplatte, separated from Gdansk by a harbour channel, was a Polish military base from the interwar period.

The Polish military garrison at the base was armed with one 75 mm field gun, two 37 mm anti-tank guns, four mortars and several machine guns, but lacked solid fortifications. In the autumn of 1939, the garrison at Westerplatte consisted of 182 soldiers who were tasked with resisting any attack for 12 hours. Gdansk was a free city under the protection of the League of Nations according to the Treaty of Versailles. Poland had a post office there, special port rights and from 1924 the right to a protected warehouse. The military transit warehouse was located on the small, flat and sandy Westerplatte peninsula with an area of about half a square kilometer.

When Hitler seized power in January 1933, the Poles began to strengthen the defence of Westerplatte. They built bunkers, officially designated as guardhouses, and constructed reinforced concrete shelters under the barracks and the NCOs‘ house. In addition, they created seven field fortifications, two of which prevented access to the undefended mainland neck. From March 1939, when Hitler laid his claim on Poland, the garrison was on full combat alert and by the end of August had completed the construction of the field fortifications. The number of soldiers had also increased – instead of the originally agreed 88 men there were 210 men on 31 August. They were commanded by Major Henryk Sucharski, his deputy was Captain Franciszek Dabrowski.


On the German side, a unit of the Danzig SS Heimwehr Danzig militia of 1,500 men under the command of major general Friedrich Eberhardt, who also had at his disposal about 225 elite members of the marines who were to lead the attack on the warehouse, took part in the fighting. Vice-Admiral Gustav Kleikamp, whose 1908 flagship Schleswig-Holstein was on an official courtesy visit to Gdansk, was the commander of the whole operation. On the morning of 25 August, she docked at the quay of the new harbour just 150 m from Westerplatte. Sucharski put the crew on alert and ordered all defensive measures to be carried out during the night hours, as the Germans could use the high warehouse buildings along the quay to observe the peninsula during the day. Kleikamp moved his ship higher upstream on 26 August to get into a better position to open fire on Westerplatte.

At 4:48 a.m. on Friday, 1 September 1939, the heavy guns of the battleship Schleswig-Holstein fired eight shells at the southeast sector of Westerplatte, whereupon Sucharski radioed a message to the Hel Peninsula: „SOS: I’m under fire!“ Thus began World War II. Three large holes were created in the perimeter wall and the fuel depots came under heavy fire. Eight minutes later, three platoons of Henningsen’s Marines attacked, while the scouts who had penetrated over the mainland neck destroyed the railroad gate. Then the situation began to turn against the Germans.

The Poles counter-attacked and, at the cost of losing three men, disabled the machine-gun nests at the German Gdansk police post. Then the Polish commander, Lieutenant Commander Leon Pajak, began to fire intensively from howitzers at the advancing Germans, who faltered and stopped attacking. Sucharski ordered his artillerymen to fire on the nests of German machine-gun snipers on the roofs of the warehouses behind the canal. This had the desired effect: a cessation of fire from that direction. The same battery then nearly disabled the command bridge on Schleswig-Holstein, but the ship’s guns eventually managed to destroy it.

At 6:22 a.m. the Marines frantically called to the ship, „Too much loss we are withdrawing!“ Meanwhile, at the other end of Westerplatte, the Gdansk police attempted to take control of the harbour, but armed civilians and crew repelled this surprise attack. A total of 50 Germans died. The Poles lost only eight men. Kleikamp, who had expected to seize the warehouse in a lightning strike, found himself in a real battle. The Marines, reinforced by 60 SS Home Guard, attacked again at 8:55. It penetrated the ruins of the perimeter wall, but was stopped by mines, fallen trees, barbed wire and intense Polish fire. The fighting continued until midday, then the demoralized SS began to flee. Hennigsen suffered a mortal wound, and after half an hour the rest of the Marines had had enough. The fight cost the Germans 82 dead, and Westerplatte still held out. The only consolation for the Germans was that they had massacred the Polish defenders of the post office of Gdansk. The German strike on Westerplatte was a complete fiasco.

In the following days, according to the Germans‘ claims, there were no serious attacks on the depot, but from the point of view of the tired and hungry defenders, who were constantly attacked, it seemed that the German attacks would never end. Eberhardt convinced the German commander, Fedor von Bock, that a ground attack was impracticable. Bock, who had witnessed the 1 September fiasco, agreed. The following day, 60 Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers attacked the defenders, dropping more than 100 bombs. Bunker 5 suffered a direct hit, from which only three crew members survived, and the kitchen, food supplies and radio station were also destroyed.


The crew now faced starvation, total isolation and the prospect of being attacked again. There were no anti-aircraft guns on Westerplatte and the air attack of 2 September had a devastating effect on the falling morale of the soldiers. On the night of 3 to 4 September the Germans attacked the Polish posts but were again repulsed. On 4 September a German torpedo boat ( T – 196 ) made a surprise attack on the peninsula from the sea. At the same time, the forward position of the fortifications was abandoned, which seemed to be an invitation for a German attack from the northern part of Westerplatte, prevented only by the position of the fortress. There was a shortage of hot food and the wounded were increasing. On 5 September, Sucharski called a war meeting at the food depot, at which he recommended the surrender of Westerplatte. Dabrowski, who was strongly opposed to such a defeat, angrily left the meeting. Sucharski therefore ordered his men to continue fighting as bravely and tenaciously as before.

The Germans had no idea that the Poles were considering surrender. Every day that Westerplatte resisted was a great propaganda for the Poles and an incentive for Hitler, who hated obstacles. A Polish agent in the German service alerted the Germans to the fact that Westerplatte lacked protected underground fuel storage tanks. Therefore, the Germans sent a burning train across the mainland to the peninsula at 3 a.m. on September 6. However, the frightened engineer abandoned it too soon, so the train did not reach the oil tanker inside the Polish camp. Had this action been successful, the diesel would have set fire to the forest, destroying the defenders‘ valuable shelter. The burning wagons, on the other hand, illuminated the Poles‘ field of fire and as a result the Germans suffered further heavy losses. In the afternoon came a second attempt with the burning train, which again failed. During the evening Sucharski called a second war council, after which he began to resign himself to the idea that he would not continue fighting. After all, the German army was by then standing in front of Warsaw and the first cases of gangrene were beginning to appear among the wounded.

At 4:30 a.m. the Germans started an intense shelling of Westerplatte, which continued until 7:00 a.m. Then came the final barrage followed by a host of attacking Germans, and although they used flame-throwers, the Poles managed to repel them. However, Bunker 2 was destroyed and Bunkers 1 and 4 badly damaged. At 9:45 a.m. the white flag was hoisted and at 11:00 Sucharski handed over the post to Kleikamp, who allowed the brave Polish commander to keep his sabre. At 11:33 a.m. the German soldiers marched solemnly into Westerplatte in full parade, while the place was being abandoned by the exhausted Polish garrison. The Polish White Eagle eventually capitulated, but it was after a truly heroic struggle.


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