Battle of Westerplatte
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The Battle of Westerplatte was the first battle in the Invasion of Poland, the beginning of the Second World War in Europe. Beginning on September 1, 1939, German naval forces and soldiers assaulted the Polish Military Transit Depot (Wojskowa Składnica Tranzytowa, WST) on the peninsula of Westerplatte, in the harbour of the Free City of Danzig. The depot was manned by fewer than 200 soldiers, but held out for seven days in the face of a heavy attack that included dive bomber attacks.
The defense of Westerplatte served as an inspiration for the Polish Army and people in the face of successful German advances elsewhere, and today is still regarded as a symbol of resistance to the invasion. The site is one of the Polish National Historic Monuments (Pomnik historii), as designated September 1st, 2003 and tracked by the National Heritage Board of Poland.
In 1925 the Council of the League of Nations allowed Poland to keep only 88 soldiers on Westerplatte, but secretly the garrison was gradually expanded to 176 men and six officers. The WST was separated from the New Port of the Free City of Danzig (present day Gdańsk) by the harbour channel, with only a small pier connecting them to the mainland; the Polish-held part of the Westerplatte was separated from the territory of Danzig by a brick wall. Fortifications built at Westerplatte were in fact not very impressive: there were no real bunkers or underground tunnels, there were only five small concrete outposts (guardhouses) hidden in the peninsula's forest and the large barracks prepared for defense, supported by a network of field fortifications such as trenches and barricades. Cellars of outposts were fit to fire heavy machine guns from them. In case of war, the defenders were expected to withstand a sustained attack for 12 hours.
At the end of August 1939, the German pre-dreadnought battleship Schleswig-Holstein sailed to Danzig under the pretext of a courtesy visit and anchored in the channel 164 yards (150 m) from Westerplatte. On board was a Shock troop (Stoßtruppen) assault company with orders to launch an attack against the Westerplatte on the morning of August 26. However, shortly before disembarkation, the order to attack was rescinded. As a result of Britain and Poland having signed the Polish-British Common Defence Pact on August 25, and also being informed that Italy was hesitant in fulfilling its obligations regarding the Pact of Steel, Adolf Hitler postponed the opening of hostilities.
The Germans had an SS-Heimwehr force of 1500 men led by Police General Friedrich-Georg Eberhardt and 225 Marines under Lieutenant Wilhelm Henningsen to attack the depot. Overall command was handed to Rear-Admiral Gustav Kleikamp aboard the Schleswig-Holstein. He moved his ship farther upstream on August 26. Major Henryk Sucharski put his garrison on heightened alert.
On September 1, 1939, at 0448 local time, Germany began its invasion of Poland, starting World War II; the Schleswig-Holstein suddenly opened broadside salvo fire on the Polish garrison held by 182 soldiers and 27 civilian reservists. Major Sucharski radioed Hel Peninsula "SOS: I'm under fire". Three holes were made in the perimeter wall and oil warehouses were blazing in the southeastern sector. Eight minutes later, Lieutenant Wilhelm Henningsen's crack marines storm unit from the Schleswig-Holstein advanced in three platoons while the Wehrmacht's Pioneers blew up the railroad gate going on the land-bridge, expecting an easy victory over the surprised Poles. Staff Sergeant Wojciech Najsarek, a Polish soldier, was killed by machine-gun fire, the first victim of both the battle and war. However, soon after crossing the artillery-breached brick wall, the attackers suddenly came into a well-prepared ambush. German soldiers found themselves caught in a kill zone of Polish crossfire from concealed firing points (the Germans believed they were also fired on by snipers hidden in the trees, but in reality that was not the case), while barbed wire entanglements effectively blocked quick movements. The Poles knocked out a machine gun nest at the German Schupo and Lt. Leon Pająk opened intense howitzer fire on the advancing Germans, who faltered and stopped their attack. The single 76.2 mm field gun knocked out machine-gun nests on top of the warehouses across the harbour canal, but was destroyed by the ship's guns after firing 28 shots.
"The tactics of outpost commanders, who lured the Germans into a fire trap, letting them advance into the line of fire, contributed to these heavy losses. The Polish mortar fire, guided precisely by observers from protruding positions, added to the destruction. The system of barriers secretly prepared by the WST soldiers in the spring and summer of 1939 made it difficult for the Germans to move around the park that was Westerplatte (once a popular spa)."
At 0622, the Marines frantically radioed the ship they had heavy losses and were withdrawing, Danzig Police had tried to seize control of the harbor on the other side of Westerplatte but were defeated. Casualties were 50 Germans and 8 Poles. The Germans tried again at 0855 but met mines, fallen trees, barbed wire and intense fire. By noon the SS men fled and Henningsen was mortally wounded. The initial assault was crushed and a second attack that morning (after an artillery barrage of 90 280 mm shells, 407 170 mm shells and 366 88 mm shells) was repelled as well, the Germans suffering unexpectedly high losses. The Poles eventually retreated from the Wał and Prom outposts (and for a time also from Fort), tightening the ring of defence around the New Barracks in the centre of the peninsula. On the first day of combat, the Polish side lost one man killed and seven wounded (three died later, including two of them who were captured and died in a German hospital). On the other side, the German naval infantry lost 16 killed in action and some 120 wounded (injuries of various gravity), the majority out of the 225 men deployed. The German losses would have been even greater if not for the order by the Polish commander, Major Henryk Sucharski, for the mortar crews to cease fire in order to conserve ammunition, issued after firing just a few salvos (because of this order only 104 out of their 860 shells were spent when the mortars were destroyed on the next day).
On the following days, the Germans bombarded the peninsula with naval and heavy field artillery, including a 210 mm howitzer, turning it into World War I-style moonscape. Eberhardt convinced General Fedor von Bock a ground attack was not possible. A devastating two-wave air raid by 60 Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers on September 2 (the total of 26.5 tons of bombs) took out the Polish mortars, directly hit guardhouse 5 (destroying it completely with a 500 kg bomb) and killed at least eight Polish soldiers; the air raid covered the whole area of Westerplatte in enormous clouds of smoke and destroyed their only radio and all their food supplies; German observers believed that no one could possibly have survived such bombing. On the night of 3–4 September more German attacks were repelled. On September 4 a German torpedo boat (T-196) made a surprise attack from the seaside. The "Wał" post had been abandoned and now only "Fort" position prevented an attack from the north side. On September 5, a shell-shocked Sucharski held a war council which urged Westerplatte to surrender; his deputy, Captain Franciszek Dąbrowski, briefly took over command. Several cautious probing attacks by the German naval infantry, Danzig SS and police and Wehrmacht were again repulsed by the Poles; at 0300, during one of these attacks, they sent a burning train against the land bridge, but this failed when the terrified driver decoupled too early. It failed to reach the oil cistern and set ablaze the forest, valuable for cover. The flaming wagons gave a perfect field of fire and the Germans suffered heavy losses. A second fire-train attack came in the afternoon but it too failed. In the meantime, Polskie Radio continuously broadcast the message "Westerplatte still fights on" each morning of the battle. A second war council was held and the Major was set to surrender; the German Army was now outside Warsaw and gangrene had started to appear among the wounded. At 0430 September 7, the Germans opened intense fire on Westerplatte which lasted to 0700. Flamethrowers destroyed Guardhouse 2 and damaged 1 and 4. The besieged garrison lacked sufficient water and medical supplies; Cpt. Mieczysław Słaby, the WST medical officer, was unable to maintain basic care of wounded soldiers.
At 0945 the white flag appeared; the Polish defense had impressed the Germans so much that the German commander, General Friedrich-Georg Eberhardt, allowed Sucharski to retain his ceremonial szabla (Polish sabre) in captivity (it was apparently confiscated later). At the same time Polish wireless operator Kazimierz Rasiński was murdered by Germans after the capitulation; after brutal interrogation, he had refused to hand over radio codes and was shot.
Sucharski surrendered the post to Kleikamp and the Germans paraded in full order when the Polish garrison marched out, still proud and erect. In all, approximately 3,400 Germans were tied up by being engaged in the week-long action against the small Polish garrison.
The exact figures of German losses remain unknown, but are now often estimated to be in range of 200 to 300 killed and wounded or sometimes more. Some of them might actually have been hit by friendly fire, in particular from the battleship, which was initially anchored too close to its target. Polish casualties were much lower, including 15 to 20 killed and 53 wounded. There is a controversy regarding the burial site discovered in 1940, containing the bodies of five unidentified Polish soldiers who were possibly executed by their comrades for attempted desertion. Eight of the prisoners of war are also said to have been tortured, and did not survive German captivity.
Further controversy surrounds the Polish garrison's commanding officer, Major Henryk Sucharski, and the executive officer, Captain Franciszek Dąbrowski. Major Sucharski, who survived the war but died in 1946, was promoted to the rank of generał brygady and given the highest Polish military award of Virtuti Militari, although he became a very controversial figure more recently as the previously unknown account about his role in the battle were uncovered in the 1990s (after the death of Captain Dąbrowski, as the other Polish officers vowed among themselves for their honor to not disclose in their lifetimes that their nominal commander was shell-shocked for the most of the battle). The Westerplatte became the subject of a quasi-historical dispute, which Dr. Janusz Marszalec from the Institute of National Remembrance summarized with the following:
"It (the dispute) centres on the question of who commanded the defence of Westerplatte, Maj. Henryk Sucharski or Cpt. Dąbrowski. Interestingly, this dispute does not involve historians since it is not taking place as an academic debate. It is the domain of disputes of people passionate about history on the internet and in the press, in an atmosphere of gradual and consistent repetition of various unconfirmed sources. They tend to fall into emotional states of elevation and passion, during which it is difficult to apply the principles of sine ira et studio. This dispute has gone so far beyond its narrow circle of fans of the internet, moving into the mass media as a dispute over a film script and the spending of public money on a film which aims to show the new 'truth' about the defence of Westerplatte. Without a detailed analysis of this project, one can only stress that it has nothing in common with the confirmed state of knowledge about the history of the defence of the WST Westerplatte in September 1939 ... Regardless of the disputes, Sucharski and the two hundred other defenders of the WST will remain in the circle of good memory, regardless of whether they wanted to defend it to their last bullet, or whether they contemplated putting down arms already after 12 hours of the first shot of the Schleswig-Holstein on 1 September 1939."
Already during the war the defense of Westerplatte served as an inspiration for the Polish Army and people as the successful German advances continued elsewhere and even today is still regarded as a symbol of resistance to the invasion; a Polish Thermopylae. The Polish poet Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński wrote a widely known poem about this battle, Pieśń o żołnierzach Westerplatte ("A Song of the Soldiers of Westerplatte"). The poem reflected a widespread Polish myth of the later years of the World War II that all of defenders died in the battle, fighting to the last man. A Polish People's Army military unit was named in 1943 in memory of the soldiers (Polish 1st Armoured Brigade of the defenders of Westerplatte). In the years after war, several dozen schools and several ships in Poland were also named after the "Heroes of Westerplatte" or "Defenders of Westerplatte". The ruins of the peninsula's barracks and guardhouses still survive today. After the war one of the guardhouses, which had actually been moved several hundred yards inland, was converted into a museum; two shells from the Schleswig-Holstein's 280 mm guns prop up its entrance.
Order of battle
- Pre-Dreadnought Battleship Schleswig-Holstein
- Two torpedo boats: T-196 and T-963
- 3. Marine-Stoßtrupp-Kompanie (elite naval infantry company, later renamed Marine-Artillerie-Abteilung 531) and an attached Pioneer platoon from Dessau-Roßlau
- An independent howitzer battalion (Haubitzen-Abt.)
- Küstenschutz der Danziger Polizei (a coast guard unit of the Danzig police) and Ordnungspolizei's Landespolizei Regiment
- SS Heimwehr Danzig (the local SS militia force), including SS Wachsturmbann Eimann (already part of the forming 3rd SS Division Totenkopf)
- Other forces
- II & III Gruppe StG 2 Immelmann
- 4.(St)/TrGr 186
German land forces were armed with several ADGZ heavy armoured cars, about 65 artillery pieces (2 cm FlaK 30 anti-aircraft guns, 3.7 cm PaK 36 anti-tank guns, 10.5 cm leFH 18 light howitzers and 21 cm Mörser 18 heavy howitzers), over 100 machine guns, an unknown number of medium mortars and Flammenwerfer 35 flamethrowers.
By August 1939, the garrison of Westerplatte had increased to 182 soldiers and 27 civilian reservists conscripted into service after the breakout of hostilities.
The WST was armed with one 76.2 mm wz. 02 field gun, two Bofors 37 mm wz. 36 anti-tank guns, and four Stokes-Brandt 81 mm wz. 31 medium mortars. The strong side of the garrison was a disproportionately large number of machine guns at their disposal (41 machine guns, including 16 heavy machine guns). They had also 160 rifles, 40 pistols and over 1,000 hand grenades.
The battle is shown in a Polish film made in 2013, 1939 Battle of Westerplatte. See - 1939 Battle of Westerplatte
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- Battle of Hel
- Bombing of Wieluń
- Battle of Wizna
- Defense of the Polish Post Office in Danzig
- Henryk Sucharski
- (English) Janusz Marszalec, Westerplatte, p. 4
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