Battle of the Westerplatte, Part 1
By David H. Lippman
Friday, September 1, 1939
World War II formally begins with the old German pre-dreadnought battleship Schleswig-Holstein executing the code-word “Fishing” at 4:47 a.m., opening fire on the Westerplatte forts. The coal-burning warship, normally a training vessel, has a number of cadets aboard. She fires eight 11-inch shells and 59 shells from smaller guns into the southwest section of the Westerplatte Fort, creating two or three breaches in it, enabling assault companies to attack.
Schleswig-Holstein fires the first shots of World War II.
Fort Westerplatte is an island strongpoint lying between the City of Danzig and the open sea. The Hel Peninsula, 10 miles (16 kilometers) to the north, dominates the seaward approaches to Gdynia. Without their reduction, the ports cannot fall. The ports are minor in the grand scheme of the campaign, but the forts are well-armed and well-supplied.
Schleswig-Holstein is assigned Westerplatte, while her equally aged sister from the Cadets’ Training Squadron, Schlesien, is to blast the Hel Peninsula. Despite the weight of the 11-inch shells, the Poles hold out, mostly because of the effects of the flat trajectory – had the shells struck at a plunging angle, they might have been more destructive. Instead, the Poles at Westerplatte hold out for five days and nights against Schleswig-Holstein’s guns.
Schlesien does little better against Admiral Josef Unrug (right) and his 4,500 defenders. Unrug is a senior officer in the Polish Navy, and his resume begins with service in the Imperial German Navy, serving on the battleship Braunschweig before commanding a u-boat and eventually a submarine flotilla. Now he must suffer bombardment by Braunschweig’s near-sisters.
Among the Polish naval reserve officers defending the Hel forts is Jedrzej Giertych, called up to duty on August 24th. He commands a “fishing cutter” named Gdynia, also freshly called up from civilian life. The war wakes him up with considerable force – Stukas from the squadron already assigned to the unfinished aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin attack his small ship at the outbreak of war, sinking her right away. Giertych never has a chance to open his sealed orders and discover his wartime mission. Instead, he and the sunken ship’s few survivors swim ashore to the Hel Peninsula. Also lost is all of Giertych’s personal kit, including his picture of the Holy Virgin of Swarzewo.
Fifteen minutes after the firing begins, Albert Forster, the Nazi Gauleiter (Party Leader) of Danzig, announces on radio the reunification of the city with the Reich. Church bells peal and the swastika flag is unfurled over City Hall. Using lists prepared in advance, Gestapo officers sent into town ahead of the war reinforced by local SS and SA men seize Polish officials, teachers, and priests, and march them to the Victoria School, set up as a temporary detention camp. Opponents of the party are driven through the streets and beaten or in some cases murdered. Raids are made on Jewish homes in Danzig. Most Jews will go to a new concentration camp being set up at Stutthof. Fighting continues in Danzig, albeit briefly. The Polish customs posts are seized quickly; the post office holds out a little longer.
Polish postal workers captured, and soon murdered, by the Germans.
While this is going on, the Polish Navy, according to orders, has steamed into the Baltic Sea under agreement with Britain. Under Lieutenant Commander Roman Stankiewicz, three Polish destroyers, Burza, Blyskawica, and Grom, are already past the Danish island of Bornholm and headed for the Oresund Strait between Denmark and Sweden. There they spot the German light cruiser Königsberg and the destroyer Richard Beitzen, which are supposed to shadow them. The Polish destroyers clear for action in the pre-dawn darkness, but the Germans veer away. The Poles steam on.
Around Danzig, the Eberhard Brigade of pro-Nazi territorial police, numbering about 6,000 men with the 3,000-strong SS “Heimwehr Danzig,” supported by German Marines (they had some) and local Nazi para-military units, in total about 12,000 men, attack the Polish Post Office, which is defended by 52 postal workers, and the Westerplatte forts, held by 200 men.
While the Post Office is certainly an Alamo, the Westerplatte defenses are fairly formidable by both the standards of the time and later – fortified buildings configured to withstand the impact of bombs and shells, machine-gun positions, sunken basements to use as command posts, and anti-tank guns. The Westerplatte positions calmly absorb heavy shelling from Schleswig-Holstein.
As shells burst around him in the Westerplatte forts starting at 4:47 a.m., Major Henryk Sucharski puts his garrison on alert. The shelling stops at 4:55 a.m., and the German Marines attack the railway gate and Outpost Prom, with two platoons on the flanks and a pioneer platoon in the middle equipped with flamethrowers, supported by machine guns in the rear. The German pioneers attack and the Poles explode a mine in front of their positions. The explosion kills and disorients the attackers, giving the Poles time to open fire with their machine guns. The Marines are surprised by the opposition, and become disorganized. They regroup and attack again, cutting through Polish barbed wire. The Poles defeat the attack with mortar fire and the Germans withdraw, leaving behind medics and stretcher teams to retrieve their dead and wounded. The Germans have lost between 40 to 50 men in this opening engagement.
The irritated Germans bring up machine guns, so the Poles shoot back with their lone 75mm field piece. The Germans see the Polish move and raise the stakes by ordered another bombardment from Schleswig-Holstein’s 11-inch guns, which hurl 90 such shells at the Poles, along with 366 88mm AA shells and about 3,000 rounds of 20mm ordnance, which does, indeed, knock out the lone Polish gun. It also covers the peninsula in smoke, craters the ground, wrecks buildings, creates massive craters, and leaves the whole area covered in the stench of explosives.
At 8:55 a.m., the German Marines and SS Heimwehr try again, backing the surviving 21 Pioneers. The Germans move over the blasted terrain, closing within hand-grenade range of Outpost Prom. Rather than take grenades through their weapons slits, the Poles withdraw to another bunker, Guardroom I, and the Germans follow them cautiously. When they reach Guardroom I, the Poles hit back, knocking out all the German machine guns and forcing them to withdraw. The Poles have suffered heavy bombardment and lost ground – but taken no casualties.
With the Germans unable to eliminate the Poles quickly from Westerplatte, their commanders decide to resume the attack the following day, with blunt force – an attack by 60 to 70 Stukas.
At the Danzig Post Office, the 52 postal workers fight until they run out of ammunition, taking shellfire from field guns, losing eight killed and six wounded (all of whom die later in hospital). Then the survivors surrender to the Germans. The Nazis declare the 38 prisoners to be francs-tireurs, and order them shot after a summary court-martial. Four of the Poles escape the mass execution. Today a steel monument honors the stand and the men who were executed.
Saturday, September 2, 1939
The scene of the war’s first battle – Danzig and Westerplatte – continues to be an area of heavy fighting. The German Navy hands off the responsibility to seizing Westerplatte to Army Group North and its boss, Generaloberst Fedor von Bock, known as the “Preacher of Death” to his troops for his habit of lecturing them about the honor of dying in battle for the Fatherland. Bock is an old-school Prussian – tall, slender, fine-featured, vigorous – but a military careerist who does not protest Nazi atrocities when doing so might jeopardize his political future.
Hitler wants Westerplatte taken today, and Bock tells his Führer that bombing the forts will not compel the defenders to surrender. Bock needs more troops. The Luftwaffe flies the Pioneer Training Battalion under Oberstleutenant (Lieutenant Colonel) Carl Henke in twenty Ju52 transports from Rosslau to Königsberg and orders them to head for the front. The battalion is a training unit, but German pioneers are trained – or at least partially-trained – in destroying fixed fortifications. While Bock waits for his reinforcements, he cuts the Luftwaffe and his artillery loose on the Westerplatte defenses, and sends in infantry patrols to maintain the pressure. However, after 1 p.m. the bombing, shelling, and gunfire die down, leaving a strange silence over the Westerplatte peninsula. Polish troops take advantage of the breather to repair their defenses.
The lunar landscape that was the Westerplatte.
At 6 p.m., 60 Stukas and the artillery resume the bombardment for 40 minutes, covering the peninsula in smoke, fire, and dust. One bomb hits Guardroom V, burying the crew, leaving only three survivors out of 10 men. Those killed are Sgt. Adolf Petzelt, the post commander, Cpl. Bronislaw Perucki, Lance Corporals Jan Gebura, Wladyslaw Okrasewski, Ignacy Zatorski, and Privates Jozef Kita and Antoni Pirog.
Other bombs smash the barracks, the telephone lines, and punch a hole in the sub-basement ceiling. The Luftwaffe drops eight 500kg bombs, 50 250kg bombs, 100 fragmentation bombs of 100kg, and some incendiary bombs, all told.
Expecting the air raid to be followed by a German attack, the Polish defenders under Major Henryk Sucharski stand-to, and he destroys his secret documents, just in case. But the Germans don’t make a major attack – just two small probes that are fended off – and the Poles rebuild their position.
In 1946, the Poles built the first memorial to the Westerplatte defense on the base of Guardhouse V. The family of Major Sucharski, who dies that year, has the casket containing his ashes interred in front of the memorial in 1971.
Off the coast of Hel, five Polish submarines - Orzel, Wilk, Sep, Zbik, and Rys - prepare to attack the German squadron massed off the forts, and lay mines. The Poles spend three days struggling to achieve firing solutions on the German ships and lay their mines, but to no avail – instead, they suffer heavy damage from German depth charges. The Polish submarines one by one abandon their patrol stations and head for the United Kingdom or internment in neutral Sweden.
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To be continued.
David H. Lippman, an award-winning journalist
and graduate of the New School for Social
Research, has written many magazine articles
about World War II. He currently works as
a public information officer for the city
of Newark, N.J.