Battle of the Westerplatte, Part 2
By David H. Lippman
The story began with Part One.
Sunday, September 3, 1939
In the Baltic Sea, the German destroyers Leberecht Maas and Wolfgang Zenker bombard Poland’s main coastal fort at Hel, which is defended by a variety of Polish forces.
Among them are the Polish minelayer Gryf and destroyer Wicher, the latter unable to head for Britain due to engine trouble. Gryf is unable to do her job either. When she tried to mine Polish waters, German bombers pounced, and the ship’s CO died in the attack. His exec panicked and ordered the ship’s remaining mines jettisoned. Now the two vessels drop off most of their crew to fight ashore as infantry, and join coast defense batteries in a duel against the German fleet. Two German destroyers turn up, Maas and Zenker, and the Germans open fire at long range, scoring no hits.
The Poles wait until the Germans are within close range, and open fire. Gryf and Shore Battery Number 31 “Heliodora Laskowskiego” shred Leberecht Maas, but do not sink her. The two German destroyers flee. It’s the high point of the Polish Navy in the September 1939 campaign. It doesn’t last long. An hour later, the Luftwaffe hurls dive-bombers against the Polish ships which sink both of them.
Westerplatte continues to hold out against their German attackers. Oberst Krappe of the Territorial Police Force (Landespolizei in German), is put in command. The attacking German company of Marines has lost 82 men killed or wounded, but gains four machine-gun crews from the Naval Training Depot and 45 men from the company of the battleship Schleswig-Holstein. Also assigned are some units of Territorial Police, a battery of howitzers, and a company of pioneers.
Schleswig-Holstein's gunners pause to observe their work before resuming fire.
The Germans hold a powwow on Schleswig-Holstein to plan their next move, and Oberstleutenant Henke, who has been leading the attacks so far, wants to postpone the next attack until 210mmm mortars, tanks and assault boats can be moved up, to enable an attack to be carried out from several directions simultaneously. However, Hitler has given Krappe discretion to attack.
The fighting starts with the usual probing and patrols, followed by artillery fire. At 11 a.m., the din of artillery fire is punctuated by the sound of church bells and bands in Danzig – the local German population is welcoming both the Sabbath and the Wehrmacht into its city.
The Germans keep attacking at Westerplatte, but the Poles beat off the attacks with determination.
Monday, September 4, 1939
The siege of Westerplatte, now going into extra innings, sees the old German torpedo boat T-196 opening fire with her 102mm guns on the Polish defenses from a distance of 2,800 meters, at 7 a.m. After 12 minutes of shellfire, the torpedo boat heads off, returning at 9:45 a.m. to repeat the process for five minutes. In all, she fires 65 shells, aiming at the ammunition shelters. However, the shellfire is a failure for German bombardment and intelligence: the shelters were emptied before the war.
The Germans try hurling two shells at the Polish positions with an auxiliary ship, Von der Groeben, which packs a 105mm gun. One lands right among the oil tanks. It doesn’t explode. The auxiliary ship withdraws.
German ground-based artillery continues to shell the Polish positions all day long, and Major Sucharski raises the possibility of surrender for the first time at the evening conference with his officers and NCOs, but they all decide unanimously to continue the fight.
Tuesday, September 5, 1939
At Westerplatte, where the war started, and the Poles are still holding out, From 9 a.m. to 10:45 a.m., German field howitzers and the old battleship Schleswig-Holstein shell the Polish defenses, concentrating on Guardroom II, the barracks, and the power plant. The heavy bombardment reduces the last garrison shelter to a heap of rubble. Wounded men lying on the floor cannot be protected, and several suffer additional injuries from flying metal splinters, debris, and rocks. All the Polish defenders are covered with dust. Capt. Mieczyslaw Saby, the doctor, cannot cope with the injuries – one of the first casualties, Lt. Pajak, is now suffering from gangrene.
Shortly before the war began, the Danzig police requisitioned a goods truck headed for Westerplatte, full of medical equipment. But now the wounded cannot be evacuated.
The fort does have food stocks for a four-week siege, but by now, neither hot meals nor coffee is available. The wounded are given hot boiled water to drink, while night runners distribute tinned food, biscuits, and the occasional bottle of brandy or cigarettes from the NCOs’ mess.
On the other side of the line, the Germans take time to bury 20 SS and police, six Marines, and a Sailor in a new war cemetery in Danzig-Silberhammer, with the Schleswig-Holstein band providing the appropriate melancholy music.
Wednesday, September 6, 1939
At Westerplatte, where the siege goes on, German pioneers (engineers) bring up a railway wagon loaded with fuel. The plan is to use this modern-day Trojan Horse to explode within Polish lines, destroying the woods and guardrooms, forcing the defenders to surrender.
At 3 a.m., they send the railway wagon up the tracks, and it explodes before reaching the Polish defenses. The Germans claim the driver released the carriage too early. The Poles claim to have hit it with machine-gun or anti-tank fire. Either way, it fails.
The pioneers bring up their flamethrowers and blaze away, hitting a generator hut and the railway station, to little avail. In the afternoon, the Germans try again with railway cars, using two tankers, pushing them into the defended area, but the fire burns itself out after 15 minutes. The tracks have been unscrewed by the Poles, to prevent the Germans from rolling trains into their lines. The Germans don’t admit to that.
The Germans resume shelling the Poles, using SS-Heimwehr infantry guns (small fieldpieces), damaging Outposts Przysltan and Lazienski. That evening, they attack the Fort and Guardroom I, but don’t gain any ground.
At his evening staff meeting, Major Sucharski tells his men that if the condition of the wounded becomes more desperate, he will order surrender, whether they like it or not.
Thursday, September 7, 1939
At Westerplatte, German Marines set up in their positions with a platoon of machine-guns under Leutnant Hartwig, at 3 a.m. Fifty-seven minutes later, a klaxon sounds on Schleswig-Holstein and she steams from her pier at Danzig for Westerplatte. At 4:20 a.m., she opens fire with her 150mm and AA gun, in a slow, steady barrage from the eastern end of the peninsula. The Marines’ machine guns add to the din and destruction.
Westerplatte's garrison finally surrenders.
At 5 a.m., the bombardment stops, to enable assault groups to move in. They do so 25 minutes later, under a curtain of 88mm fire. Starting at 5:50 a.m., all the German guns open fire on the old ammunition storage, the Fort and Guardroom II. A 280mm shell hits the guardroom and it collapses. Incredibly, the crew survives – they’re holding out in the basement.
The bombardment ends at 6:20 a.m., and the battleship steams off. Now the German Marines, pioneers, and infantry, joined by portable 20 mm SS-Heimwehr anti-tank guns, move up to attack. They gain no ground. The attack is called off at 7:25 a.m.
At 8:30 a.m., the pioneers try again, spraying petrol on trees from two railway wagons, trying to set them afire.
But the latest bombardment has exhausted the Poles’ last reserves of mental and physical strength. Sucharski believes the garrison has done its duty and further sacrifice is pointless. He orders his men to surrender. White flags appear on the barracks and a dugout near the wreckage of Guardroom II, and the Poles emerge from their positions in filthy and bloody uniforms and gather in front of their barracks.
Major Sucharski briefs the men on the situation and expresses his gratitude to them for carrying out their duty. Then he leaves command to Capt. Franciszek Dabrowski, while he takes Sgt. Leonard Piotrowski and Pvt. Marcin Dobies to formally surrender the garrison.
Oberstleutnant Henke is tasked with taking the surrender, and the German Marines and Pioneers report to the front for the ceremony. Henke takes Major Sucharski to Kapitan Kleikamp, who congratulates Sucharski on his men’s valor and then introduces him to Generalmajor Eberhardt for the formal surrender. The German general gives the Pole the right to wear his saber in captivity (that's Eberhardt saluting Sucharski over there on the right). As the filthy Poles move out to buses and captivity, the German sailors and soldiers snap to attention, in a mark of respect. The Germans are estimated to have lost anywhere from 200 to 1,000 dead in the unequal battle.
At 11:33 a.m., Kapitan Kleikamp signals Naval Command East: “Westerplatte Surrendered.”
This unique battle is commemorated today. Most of the fortifications were demolished for postwar development in the 1960s, but Guardhouse No. 1 was moved 50 yards from its original position in 1967, to make room for a new dockyard railway, and preserved, along with two 280mm shells from Schleswig-Holstein. The guardhouse itself is a small museum, which displays Major Sucharski’s jacket, among other items. Major Sucharski himself is nearby – the coffin containing his ashes lies near a T-34 tank memorial on the site of Guardhouse No. 5. He died in 1946.
The battleship Schleswig-Holstein, having played her role in opening the war, misses most of it. After providing gunfire support on the German coast, she remains at Gydnia (Gotenhafen to the Germans) for the duration of the war in her homely role as cadet training ship, except for an appearance in the invasion of Denmark. After that, she becomes flagship of Training Units, and owes her continued active-duty status to the odd fact that she has coal-fired boilers – an advantage for a nation that has a surplus of coal and a shortage of oil. In 1944, the Germans provide her with additional anti-aircraft armament, planning to use her as a convoy escort in the Baltic Sea, but RAF bombers slam three hits into her on December 18th, 1944, and she founders in shallow water. The crew is sent ashore to fight as infantry against the advancing Soviets in Marineburg.
On March 21st, 1945, the ship’s remaining crew set off scuttling charges to sink Schleswig-Holstein, but the Soviets raise her after the war anyway, and use her for target practice off the island of Osmussaar in the Gulf of Finland. Her bells finds its way to the Bundeswehr’s Military History Museum in Dresden in 1990, and parts of her metal wind up in Guardhouse No. 1 in Westerplatte, used as plaques and markers, to describe the exhibits and symbolize the Polish victory over their Nazi tyrants.
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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.