Defense of the Polish Post Office in Danzig
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On September 1, 1939, Polish personnel defended the building for some 15 hours against assaults by the SS Heimwehr Danzig (SS Danzig Home Defense), local SA formations and special units of Ordnungspolizei (Danzig police). All but four of the defenders, who were able to escape from the building during the surrender, were sentenced to death by a German court martial as illegal combatants on October 5, 1939 and executed.
The Polish Post Office (Poczta Polska) in the Free City of Danzig was created in 1920 under the Treaty of Versailles, and its buildings were considered extraterritorial Polish property. The Polish Post Office in Danzig comprised several buildings.
As tensions between Poland and Germany grew, in April 1939 the Polish High Command detached combat engineer and Army Reserve Sublieutenant (or 2LT) Konrad Guderski to the Baltic Sea coast. With Alfons Flisykowski and others, he helped organize the official and volunteer security staff at the Polish Post Office in Danzig, and prepared them for possible hostilities. In addition to training the staff, he prepared the defenses in and around the building: nearby trees were removed and the entrance was fortified. In mid-August, ten additional employees were sent to the post office from Polish Post offices in Gdynia and Bydgoszcz (mostly reserve non-commissioned officers).
In the Polish Post Office complex on 1 September 1939 there were 57 people: Konrad Guderski, 42 local Polish employees, 10 employees from Gdynia and Bydgoszcz, and the building keeper with his wife and 10-year old daughter who lived in the complex. Polish employees had a cache of weapons, consisting of three Browning wz.1928 light machine guns, 40 other firearms and three chests of hand grenades. The Polish defense plan assigned the defenders the role of keeping Germans from the main building for 6 hours, when a relief force from Armia Pomorze was supposed to secure the area.
The German attack plan, devised in July 1939, determined that the main building and its defenders would be stormed from two directions. A diversionary attack was to be carried out at the front entrance, while the main force would break through the wall from the neighbouring Work Office and attack from the side.
At 04:00 Germans cut the phone and electricity lines to the building. At 04:45, just as the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein started shelling the nearby Polish Army military outpost at Westerplatte, German forces began their assault on the Polish Post. German units detached for this task were composed of the special unit of Danzig police, local SA formations and the SS units SS Wachsturmbann "E" and SS Heimwehr Danzig, supported by at least three ADGZ heavy armored cars. The attack was commanded by German police colonel, Willi Bethke.
The first German attack, from the front, was repelled, although Germans managed to break through the entrance and briefly enter the building (at the cost of two killed and seven wounded attackers, including one group leader). The second attack, from the Work Office, was also repelled. The commander of Polish defense, Konrad Guderski, died during that second attack from the blast of his own grenade which stopped the Germans who broke through the wall.
At 11:00 German units were reinforced by the Wehrmacht with two 75 mm artillery pieces, but the second attack, even with the artillery support, was again repulsed. At 15:00 Germans declared a two-hour ceasefire and demanded that Polish forces surrender, which they refused. In the meantime, Germans received additional reinforcements: a 105 mm artillery piece, and a unit of sappers, which dug under the walls and prepared a 600 kg explosive device. At 17:00 the bomb was set off, collapsing part of the wall, and German forces under the cover of three artillery pieces attacked again, this time capturing most of the building except the basement.
At 18:00 Germans brought automatic pumps, gasoline tanks and flamethrowers, which they used to flood the basements with burning gasoline. After three Poles were burned alive (bringing the total Polish casualties to six killed in action), the rest decided to capitulate. The first two people to leave the building—director Dr. Jan Michoń, carrying a white flag, and commandant (naczelnik) Józef Wąsik—were shot by the Germans (according to one version, Dr. Michoń was attacked with a flamethrower). The rest of the Poles were allowed to surrender and leave the burning building. Six people managed to escape from the building, although two of them were captured the following days.
Sixteen wounded prisoners were sent to the Gestapo hospital, where six subsequently died (including the 10-year old Erwina). The other 28 were first imprisoned in the police building and, after a few days, sent to Victoriaschule, where they were interrogated and tortured. Some 300 to 400 Polish citizens of Danzig were also held there.
All the prisoners were put on trial in front of the martial court of the Wehrmacht's Gruppe Eberhardt. A first group of 28 Victoriaschule-prisoners, with a single Wehrmacht officer as defense lawyer, was tried on 8 September, a second group of 10, who recovered in the hospital, on 30 September. All were sentenced to death as illegal combatants under the German special military penal law of 1938. The sentence was demanded by the prosecutor Hans Giesecke and declared by presiding judge Kurt Bode, Vice-President of the Oberlandesgericht Danzig (Higher Regional Court of Danzig). 28 of the judgements were countersigned, and thus became legally valid, by General Hans Günther von Kluge, the further 10 by Colonel Eduard Wagner, who committed suicide on 23 July 1944 as a member of the 20 July plot. A clemency appeal was rejected by General Walther von Brauchitsch. A similar fate awaited eleven Polish railway workers south of the city after they foiled a German attempt to use an armoured train, and were executed by the SA along with their immediate families.
The prisoners were mostly executed by firing squad led by SS-Sturmbannführer Max Pauly (later commandant of the Neuengamme concentration camp) on 5 October and buried in a mass grave at the cemetery of Danzig-Saspe (Zaspa). One, Leon Fuz, was later recognised and murdered in the Stutthof concentration camp in November. Four defenders who managed to escape and hide survived the war. Families of the postmen were also persecuted.
Giesecke and Bode were never held responsible for this episode or held accountable for the executions. They were denazified after the war and continued their careers as lawyers in Germany. Both died of natural causes in the 1970s. Only in 1997–8, the German court at Lübeck (the Große Strafkammer IIb and the Dritte Große Strafkammer) invalidated the 1939 Nazi sentence, citing among the reasons that the Special military penal law had only taken effect in Danzig on November 16, 1939 and charged the presiding judge with negligence of his duties. The decision of the German court occurred thanks to the work of a German author, Dieter Schenk, who published a monograph on the defense of the post office and referred to the execution of the defenders as judicial murder (Justizmord). Schenk stresses the commanding role of Danzig police forces, which made a Wehrmacht court martial not competent to convict the defenders. Instead, the Free City of Danzig's penal law would have been applicable, without the option of a death penalty.
In Poland, the whole episode has become one of the better known episodes of the Polish September Campaign and it is usually portrayed as a heroic story of David and Goliath proportions. In this view, it was a group of postmen who held out against German SS troops for almost an entire day. In 1979 in the People's Republic of Poland a Defenders of the Polish Post Monument was unveiled in Gdańsk. The Polish defense of the post office was also sympathetically portrayed in The Tin Drum by Günter Grass.
- Zaloga, S.J., 2002, Poland 1939, Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd., ISBN 9781841764085
- (Polish) OBROŃCY POCZTY GDAŃSKIEJ: CHWAŁA I ZBRODNIA, Bogusław Kubisz, Mówią Wieki
- Dieter Schenk, Die Post von Danzig, page 80
- Dieter Schenk, Die Post von Danzig, page 96
- Schenk, Dieter (1995). Die Post von Danzig, Geschichte eines deutschen Justizmordes (in German). Rowohlt. p. 150. ISBN 3-498-06288-3.
- Dieter Schenk, Die Post von Danzig, page 103
- Dieter Schenk, Die Post von Danzig, page 106
- deutsche-und-polen.de (German)
- Kriegsverbrechen in Europa und im Nahen Osten im 20. Jahrhundert, Franz W. Seidler/ Alfred M. de Zayas (Hrsg.), Hamburg: Mittler 2002, Seite 138
- Andrzej Gasiorowski in Chrzanowski, et al. Polska Podziemna na Pomorzu w Latach 1939-1945 (Polish Underground State in Pomerania in the years 1939-1945), Oskar, Gdansk, 2005, pg. 50
- Günter Grass Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), 1959
- (Polish) Adam Bartoszewski, Wiesław Gomulski, Żolnierze w pocztowych mundurach (Soldiers in the Postal Uniforms), 1969
- (German) Dieter Schenk 'Die Post von Danzig. Geschichte eines deutschen Justizmords (Post-Office of Gdańsk. History of a German Justice Murder), 1995