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The ungainly German battleship backing into a wharf in the Free City of Danzig (Gdansk, Poland, today) on August 25, 1939, did not look like the latest word in marine technology.

Schleswig-Holstein was, in fact, a living record of the first decade of the 20th century. She was built between 1905 and 1908, and eight years after she entered service she took part in the famous Battle of Jutland, the greatest naval showdown of World War I. If her silhouette now lacked modern “style,” however, she nonetheless was fully capable of performing her naval functions.) The vessel had been redesigned and modernized three times, her firepower upgraded with larger (280mm) guns, the newest fire-control equipment and a battery of anti-aircraft guns of various caliber,

As Kapitän-zur-See Gustav Kleikamp took his big ship out to sea the day before his arrival at Danzig, the world at large was all too aware of the growing tension between Poland and Nazi Germany–and few were ready to believe that the Poles would bend to the demands of Adolf Hitler without struggle. True, the Austrians had given in virtually without resistance, Czechoslovakia had broken down in the face of German threats, and Lithuania recently had agreed to give up the region of Memel. The German battleship’s crew, in fact, had taken part in that action by transporting the landing force that took the Lithuanian port.

And now? The Polish army was standing along its borders, unlikely to move back under the threat of a bully. (But borders so long and so exposed to contiguous German territory, they would be very difficult to defend.)

On the way to Danzig, Kleikamp’s Schleswig-Holstein secretly had met six trawlers at sea and taken aboard a naval storm-troop group that had been stationed in the recently captured Memel. The operation took place the night of August 24 on a calm Baltic Sea, under cloudless skies, in full moonlight–225 storm troopers embarked; cranes lifted seven motorcycles, 14 machine guns, plus grenade launchers, communications equipment and a radio “station” on board the big ship.

It was the next morning that the old battlewagon appeared with an escort of trawlers in the bay off Danzig. Two tugboats did their helpful bit as she entered the narrow port canal. At a wide turn, the ship turned heavily, bow pointed to sea. She then backed into a wharf where thousands of Danzig Germans had been waiting. The scene was typical–shouting, applause, red flags with swastikas in the white circle, hands raised in the Nazi salute: “Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil! Heil Hitler!”

On deck, straight as rods, stood the ship’s naval cadets. For the sake of the conspiracy underway, however, the crews of the big guns were visibly arrayed near their gun turrets, but others remained hidden, especially those assigned to the guns on the far side of the ship, which faced the woodsy-looking terrain of a nearby peninsula. And there, no one had shared the enthusiasm over the battleship’s docking.

That peninsula was called Westerplatte, and behind its red perimeter wall, so close and so clearly visible from the German ship, were Polish soldiers in green uniforms and characteristic square-shaped caps, adorned with Poland’s silver eagle emblem. It was for that reason, in fact, that the German storm troopers were not permitted to come up on deck.

The Westerplatte Peninsula in the period between the world wars was a part of the Free City of Danzig. The wheel of history had spun in such a manner as to take away the port and city of Danzig, which for centuries had been part of Poland and was located at the estuary of Poland’s biggest river, the Vistula. Danzig had been the richest city of the Polish Republic for centuries, and for ages it was the gateway to the world through which a lion’s share of the country’s foreign trade had passed, but after World War I it was cut away from the Polish state. The Versailles Treaty, signed after Germany’s defeat, had given Poland a strip of land as access to the sea, but it did not include the Vistula estuary. Danzig became a protectorate of the League of Nations.

The treaty had created an abnormal situation, but Poland did receive a number of rights in her relations with the Free City of Danzig: the country represented the interests of Danzig citizens abroad; Danzig had been included as part of Poland’s customs territory; the Danzig railways answered to the Polish state railways’ management. Poland also received the right to have her own transit warehouse in Danzig for holding imported ammunition and materiel. Poland’s war experience of 1920 with Bolshevik Russia had shown how important it was to secure a flow of munitions from abroad.

After long negotiations with Danzig and the Council of the League of Nations, the latter decided on March 14, 1924, that the Polish munitions depot in Danzig would be located on the Westerplatte Peninsula. By 1927, a docking basin and various buildings on the peninsula were completed, with 19 ammunition shelters built along a railway supply line. A red-brick wall protected the area from the port canal and isthmus between peninsula and mainland. The strip along the sea was guarded by rows of barbed wire.

The relative peace with Germany ended in January 1933, when Hitler became chancellor and began a program of winning superpower status for Germany. Tensions became particularly obvious in Danzig, especially with the growth of Nazi paramilitary organizations. Poland took steps in the summer of 1933 to provide Westerplatte with defenses, devised by Colonel Jozef Silakowski. He decided any attack by the Germans could be expected mainly from the east, where the narrow isthmus linked the peninsula to the mainland. With the existing buildings of Westerplatte deemed unsuitable for defense purposes, it was decided that four guardhouses would be built. An army barracks was erected in the center of the yard created by those stations. An old villa was adapted for defense purposes as well. The lower floor of the barracks was an air raid shelter, designed in such a way that if a 250kg bomb hit the building, its energy would be spent on the two floors above.

The barracks was finished in 1936. In the autumn of 1938, when the growing aggressiveness of Germany had led to a sudden deterioration of the international situation, two anti-tank guns were sent to Westerplatte. In the spring of 1939, after Hitler had broken the Polish-German non-aggression pact, a dismembered 75mm gun and four 81mm mortars were brought into Westerplatte under cover.

In March and the first days of April 1939, elements of the 2nd Legionary Infantry Division, with Lieutenant Leon Pajak and Ensign Jan Gryczman commanding, arrived. By now, Hitler had already put forward very brutal demands of Poland–he wanted Danzig and Pomerania.

In the summer of 1939, thanks to various ploys, the Poles surreptitiously increased their force at Westerplatte to more than 200 men. Mainly under the cover of night, various field work was done. The most important defensive outposts were the “Prom” field position, located near the entrance from the mainland, and the “Przystan” station, a bulwark established on the port side of the canal. Positions for the 75mm gun and the two 50mm anti-tank guns were prepared.

Schleswig-Holstein had not arrived in Danzig on August 25 by chance. Hitler had designated the following day as the date for his attack against Poland, and the battleship was needed for operations in Danzig and nearby waters.

Polish observers at Westerplatte soon noticed the trial artillery balloons being released by the gun crews of the ship. These tested the pressure and humidity of the atmosphere as data for correct artillery fire.

That afternoon General Friedrich Georg Eberhardt, commander of German armed forces in Danzig–10,000 soldiers in all–arrived on board the battleship. One of Eberhardt’s units was the Danziger SS-Heimwehr Brigade, which numbered some 1,500 men and was equipped according to Wehrmacht standards. As Captain Kleikamp soon learned, the general was not all that interested in attacking Westerplatte with his own forces, but the battleship skipper believed that after a short bombardment by his mighty ship’s guns, Westerplatte would fall to the storm troops brought in on his ship, with possible support from the Danzig SS brigade. Some of the Germans planning the attack claimed that the entire operation could be handled within 15 minutes!

Although the attack plan had been prepared in great detail, there was one major complication–on that afternoon, Hitler put off his invasion date for various policy reasons and until the deployment of his own forces could be completed, and that would not happen until August 31.

Late on August 31, Kleikamp received news that the attack on Poland was to start the next day–September 1–at 4:45 a.m. Before midnight the storm troops (Stosstrupp 3, Marine Abteilung Swinemünde) began to disembark and were deployed near the narrow strip linking Westerplatte with the mainland. Members of a platoon equipped with heavy machine guns were placed in the high buildings of the adjacent New Port area, to which the central part of Westerplatte was exposed. More heavy machine guns were located on the northern and southern banks of the port canal opposite Westerplatte.

At 4:40 on the morning of September 1, in a morning fog, Schleswig-Holstein, led by two tug boats, began moving from inside the port toward the turn in the port canal. A German war correspondent on board the battleship described the scene: “The day rises from the mist that slides over the water and the woods. When the coast and the buildings can be seen, slowly, almost like a phantom, the old battleship leaves its place and sails toward Westerplatte….”

And then, without warning: “The front turret throws one rocket after another out of its cannons–the 150mm guns resound with blasts…. When the heavy missiles stir up spurts of earth and fire, the sight resembles all hell breaking loose with lightning and flashes. The whole ship seems like a mountain spitting out fire and engulfed in clouds of smoke.”

Almost simultaneously with the first blast from the battleship at 4:47 a.m., German pioneer troops blew up the railway gate at the front of the wall surrounding Westerplatte, and a shower of shells, bullets and rockets fell on Westerplatte from almost every direction. Beyond the wall, wooden workshops and flammable materials in warehouses quickly burst into flame. Clouds of smoke, dust and dirt sprang up.

On the Polish peninsula, the defenders ran to their assigned fire positions. The most important events in those first moments were played out along the strip of Polish defenses on the isthmus. There, on a small hill, 14 soldiers from the forward Prom post had been on guard with three machine guns, and to their left, near the munitions warehouse, was a three-man group, led by Corporal Edmund Szamlewski, that had a light machine gun. With the first Nazi onslaught leveled against them, they faced bombardment from the powerful guns of the battleship, while streams of bullets fired by 10 machine guns from the other side of the canal whistled by. It all came suddenly upon the Prom post defenders, who were protected only by trenches dug in the earth and covered with logs.

A platoon leader named Wladislaw Baran, in charge of the Polish machine-gun emplacement at Prom, said: “The first soldiers were entering my first line of fire. I could see them clearly. There were too few of them for my machine gun, but at the same time too many for Corporal Szamlewski.”

Ensign Gryczman at first was waiting for Corporal Szamlewski to go into action, since the corporal had a better view. Then his machine gun failed him–jammed–and the men up front had to retreat. The Germans were able to penetrate the Polish territory more quickly than expected. But then, shelling from the Prom outpost and fire from Szamlewski’s small group stopped the Germans at the Poles’ second line of defense by a clearing in the woods.

At the Prom outpost, Lieutenant Pajak appeared with an additional six soldiers. After a brief survey, the lieutenant ascertained that the men at Prom had done a good job–but there was also shooting about 200 yards away.

This was at the “Fort” outpost on the peninsula shoreline. And here, an outstanding role in repelling the first attacks of the German infantry was played by Leading Seaman Bernard Rygielski and a group of soldiers with him. The Fort dated back to World War I and once served as a station for a German coastal gun. Hence, it did not have any special emplacements for modern machine guns.

Seaman Rygielski had manned the Fort position, together with two soldiers, immediately after the first alarm. It was his duty to shoot at the enemy along the breakers in the area bordering the seacoast, where the Danzig SS-Heimwehr was now attacking. His hand-held machine gun jammed during the battle, so he had to ask for a heavy machine gun. “l took it off its base and set it up on its cooler, as otherwise it would be too high and our post could easily be detected. As far as I can remember three men arrived with the gun.”

He managed to inflict heavy losses on the Germans. While the Poles in outposts on the narrow strip linking the Westerplatte Peninsula with land fought a vicious battle against the attacking German infantry, the 75mm Polish gun played out a brief struggle of its own against the enemy. When Corporal Eugeniusz Grabowski and his six men pushed the gun out of its shelter, they found themselves under heavy machine-gun fire. It took some time to push the gun into position. The targets were 300 to 500 yards away, on the other side of the port canal.

The first Polish shell flew above target, but the second was a hit. Corporal Grabowski stood behind the gun, directing its fire into the distant windows stuffed with German machine guns. In short order, 28 Polish shells headed for the New Port section.

Meanwhile, the Prom outpost, which had to carry the main burden of defense in the first hours, was being fired on from the rear by Schützpolizei personnel located immediately outside the wall surrounding the Polish territory. Prom commander Pajak sent out three men to eliminate the position with hand grenades. During this difficult mission, Corporal Zygmunt Kowalczyk was mortally wounded and another Polish soldier, Bronislaw Uss, died, but the shooting from the police stopped.

The next German attacks, greater in force, also were directed against the Prom outpost. Despite the unrelenting defensive fire, the Germans were able to come up within throwing distance of a hand grenade. It was difficult to guess how long the Poles could hold their ground; the outpost needed reinforcements. Lieutenant Pajak picked up his field phone and asked Major Henryk Sucharski for supporting mortar fire. Grouped in teams of four near the barracks, the Polish 81mm mortar crews had been itching for such orders.

They opened fire using sighting data established long before the action–due to the short distance from the firing positions, the mortars had to be set up at almost a right angle. Their rounds, fired at such an angle, reached fantastic heights before bursting in front of the Prom outpost.

At 6:22 a.m., the commander of the German naval storm group, Lieutenant Wilhelm Henningsen, reported, “Losses too high, we are retreating.” He next demanded additional stretchers and ambulances.

Despite (or because of) his losses, Captain Kleikamp took his warship in even closer to the bend of the port canal. A corporal named Grudzinski, in charge of the Polish Guardhouse No. 2, located near the canal, saw the battleship moving slowly ahead and her guns wiping out everything in her path. Lieutenant Pajak was seriously wounded. His men had to withdraw from their post. But consecutive German attacks now broke down before the fire of Polish Guardhouses 1, 2, and 5 and the Fort outpost. At 12:30 p.m., meanwhile, the commander of the storm troops, Lieutenant Henningsen, was mortally wounded. And soon the commander of the German machine-gun unit deployed in the buildings of the New Port saw, to his horror, that the rest of the storm troops were withdrawing.

In sum, that first day of battle ended encouragingly for the outgunned, outnumbered Poles. They were not taken by surprise; they managed to paralyze the German onslaught. And they inflicted severe losses on the enemy.

The night of September 1 passed relatively peacefully. In the Polish barracks, arms were repaired. The Poles dispersed ammunition, grenades and food to their outer positions. On the German side, there was uncertainty–Hitler had ordered that Danzig be presented to the world as a “German city,” yet here were Poles still putting up resistance!

Reacting to the situation, the Germans ordered in a battalion of pioneers from Dessau capable of breaking such a siege quickly. They flew in 20 Junkers Ju-52 transport planes to Krolewiec, and on the night of September 2-3 appeared before Westerplatte. But before that happened, on September 2, the Luftwaffe entered the action.

The second and third bomb divisions of Stukageschwader 2 “Immelmann” attacked Westerplatte with some 60 planes altogether. At his Guardhouse No. 2, Corporal Grudzinski “saw the fire that filled out the station….I did not hear the blast: when I regained consciousness after a moment I felt as if I were awakening from a dream….”

Guardhouse No. 1 was surrounded by bomb bursts, and two bombs hit the Polish barracks, but the ceiling over the shelter in the cellar–as the designers had intended–sustained the attack. The German planes dropped eight half-ton bombs, 50 quarter-ton bombs, 100 100kg bombs and a great many fire bombs. The greatest Polish loss was the destruction of Guardhouse No. 5, one of two on which the Polish defense was now based. Its commander, Adolph Petzelt, and his entire crew lost their lives there. A great loss also was the destruction of all four Polish mortars in this attack.

The third day of September was relatively peaceful at Westerplatte, except for the minor reconnaissance flights of the enemy. On that day, invading German forces reached Danzig, and the sound of shooting coming from Westerplatte would have marred the celebrations at which the final “unity” of Danzig with the Reich was declared.

The German commanders met in conference that morning on board the battleship to discuss further activities aimed against Westerplatte. The battalion of pioneers from Dessau had just arrived, and at first a strong onslaught was planned, with the commander of the 1st unit of Landespolizei, Oberst Günter Krappe, at the head of two battalions of storm troops, pioneers and others. But it then was decided that such an attack had no chance of success. And so, instead, the Germans elected to press a siege, accompanied by harassing long-term attacks.

For the Poles defending Westerplatte, the afternoon of this day was a period of joy and great hope–they had learned from radio broadcasts that France and England had declared war against Germany. Throughout the following days, the Polish forces anticipated at least naval support from the British–to no avail. On September 4, British ships did not appear near Westerplatte, but the German torpedo ships T-196 and Von der Groeben did. They fired some 80 shells on Polish territory, fortunately not too precisely.

The mode of German attack now changed quite often. On the next day–September 5–Westerplatte came under heavy fire from German guns for 1 1/2 hours. For the first time, German shells reached the lower floor of the barracks, seriously wounding one soldier and killing two previously wounded soldiers in a canteen-turned-hospital room.

On the night of September 5-6, the defenders repelled a German attempt to push a cistern filled with gasoline onto their territory–an attempt to burn the defenders to death.

Early on the morning of September 7, the mighty Schleswig-Holstein once again entered the curve of the port canal and, at 4:26, opened fire. This lasted until 5 a.m. The next onslaught began at 5:50 and lasted until 6:20.

The fire from the ship, only several hundred yards away, focused on Guardhouse No. 2. As Corporal Grudzinski recalled: “The shell hit the northeast corner and cut off part of its wall; the debris began to fall. I ordered the upper guards to go down to the shelter. I, too, followed….The fire increased. One shell destroyed the whole entrance. . . a second one hit the eastern wall and tore off two guns from their bases. The station was in convulsions, rocking to and fro. We were covered by debris, there was no room to breathe, the ventilator was torn up and could no longer rotate. Suddenly a shell hit the ammunition chamber. The force of the blast threw me to the ground, fire and smoke engulfed everything. For a second I lost consciousness….”

Still, a strong German onslaught, coming on the heels of the artillery bombardment, was repelled, as all those before it.

But Major Sucharski, at his post in the barracks, now had to make the most difficult decision of his life.

When Guardhouses No. 5 and No. 2 were destroyed, the Polish defense lost two key points. And now the topography of the forest and peninsula had been so utterly razed that the Polish resistance points were clearly visible to the gunners. That meant only hours of survival were left to the Poles. The condition of the wounded was deteriorating and no sufficient medical aid could be provided for them.

Sucharski also knew from radio transmissions that almost half of the country–Pomerania, Greater Poland and nominally important Silesia–had already been captured by the Nazis, who were still moving forward. On the other hand, the Polish officer also knew his crew had executed its tasks beyond the call of duty–and well beyond a prewar plan calling for 12 hours of resistance.

Westerplatte had struggled against the superior power of the Germans for seven long days, and the enemy had been unable to use the Danzig port. For seven days the battleship Scheswig-Holstein had been unable to sail out into the bay in order to provide direct assistance to German troops attacking Gdynia and the Hel Peninsula. The defenders of Westerplatte had inflicted serious losses–the naval storm company alone lost 127 dead and wounded on the first day.

The decision was to stop fighting, although the Polish soldiers wanted to continue. Bidding them farewell and thanking them for their valor, Major Sucharski said, “You will still be needed by Poland.” Fifteen of them had lost their lives on the fields of the Westerplatte battle, while 25 to 40 were seriously wounded. But it was not a total defeat.’ The defenders of Westerplatte, in fact, became instant heroes to Poland in those September days–living symbols, representing the hidden strength of the nation, so badly needed in its time of trial. And for that they were immediately elevated to the heights of legend, which has survived even until now.

Zbigniew Flisowski’s book on Westerplatte–in Polish–provides a full and detailed account of the battle. An excellent English-language book providing a larger picture is Jozef Garlinski’s Poland in the Second World War (Hippocrene Books, New York). The article “Invasion of Poland: Campaign That Launched a War,” by David T. Zabecki, can be found in the September 1999 issue of World War II.