The Battle of Westerplatte was the very first battle of the Invasion of Poland in the first week of September 1939 and Second World War. A completely surrounded Polish Military Transit Depot (WST) on Westerplatte, manned by only 182 soldiers, held alone for seven days in face of overhelming German force of more than 3,000 soldiers attacking from land, sea and air.
Polish military transit depot on WesterplatteEdit
In 1925 the Council of the League of Nations allowed Poland to keep 88 soldiers on the peninsula of Westerplatte. The small Polish garrison was separated from Free City of Danzig (Gdańsk) city by the harbour channel, with only a small pier connecting them to the mainland. The Polish-held part of the Westerplatte was separated from Danzig by a brick wall.
At the end of August 1939, the German pre-dreadnought battleship Schleswig-Holstein came to Danzig (Gdańsk) under the pretext of a "courtesy visit" and anchored in the channel near Westerplatte. Onboard was the Hennigsen 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 However, shortly before disembarkation, the order to attack was rescinded. Having heard of Britain and Poland having concluded a treaty of assistance and also having heard that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini refused to join the war, German dictator Adolf Hitler postponed the opening of hostilities.
This sneak attack was followed by the advance by German forces hoping for an easy victory. However, soon after crossing the artillery-breached brick wall, the attackers were ambushed and decimated by the Polish small arms, mortar, and machine gun fire from a concealed and well-positioned firing points that caught them in crossfire. Another two assaults that day were repelled as well, with the Germans suffering unexpectedly high losses. The only Polish field gun was put out of the action after firing 28 shells at German positions across the channel (silencing several firing positions and hitting a command post). Defenders also counter-attacked and destroyed a German police guard post using hand grenades, but two Poles were mortally wounded in this action. On the first day of combat, the Polish side lost one man killed and seven wounded (three of which died later, including two captured who died in a German hospital), while the German naval infantry company alone lost 17 men killed and 54 seriously wounded out of 225 deployed (or third of the company, including its mortally wounded commander). In all, 40-50 German troops were reported killed on this day according the German sources. The German losses would have been even greater if not for the order by Sucharski for the mortars to cease fire in order to conserve ammunition after just a few salvos (because of this order only 104 out of 860 grenades were fired when the mortars were destroyed the next day).
Over the following days, the Germans bombarded the peninsula with naval and heavy field artillery, including 210 mm howitzers. A devastating dive-bombing raid by Ju 87 Stukas on September 2 (26.5 tons of bombs in two waves) destroyed the Polish mortars, directly hit one guardhouse with a 500 kg bomb (destroying it completely), killed at least eight soldiers, and shocked Major Sucharski, after which Captain Dąbrowski took over command of Westerplatte. After the Stuka raids, which covered the whole area in an enormous cloud of smoke, the Germans believed that no one could possibly have survived it; however, it later turned out the relatively few Polish soldiers were killed and the defence was not broken. Several cautious probing attacks by the German naval infantry, Danzig SS and police, and Wehrmacht were again repelled by the Poles (with some German losses, yet nowhere close to the scale of the disaster they suffered on September 1). During one of the attacks, a German armoured draisine was hit and destroyed by a Polish AT gun. As Polskie Radio broadcasted every day, "Westerplatte still fought on".
In all, approximately 3,400 Germans (including support troops) were tied-up by being engaged in the week-long action against the 182-strong Polish garrison. On September 7, Major Sucharski reclaimed some of his mental stability and decided to quit what he decided was the hopeless fight. Even though many of his officers and soldiers were against the idea, he surrendered the Military Transit Depot on the same day. The Polish defence impressed the German commanders so much that the German commander, General Friedrich Eberhardt (later the military governor of Kiev during the Soviet-German War), allowed Sucharski to retain his ceremonial szabla (Polish sabre) in captivity. At the same time Polish wireless operator Kazimierz Rasiński was murdered by Germans after the capitulation; after brutal interrogation, he refused to hand over radio codes and was shot.
Armed forces involvedEdit
- Navy (Kriegsmarine)
- 3. Marine-Stoßtrupp-Kompanie (naval infantry company, later Marine-Artillerie-Abteilung 531)
- The crews of the three naval vessels, including a training pre-dreadnought battleship
- Army (Wehrmacht Heer)
- A Pioneer (combat engineer) company from Dessau-Roßlau
- Haubitzen-Abt. (independent howitzer battalion)
- Küstenschutz der Danziger Polizei (a coast guard unit of the Danzig police)
- Ordnungspolizei units
- SS Heimwehr Danzig SS militia (including SS Wachsturmbann Eimann, already part of the forming SS Division Totenkopf division)
- Air Force (Luftwaffe)
- II & III Gruppe StG 2 Immelmann
- 4.(St)/TrGr 186
By August 1939, the garrison of Westerplatte had increased to 182 soldiers (there were also 27 civilian workers). The garrison was armed with one 75 mm field gun, two 37 mm anti-tank (AT) guns, and four mortars. The strong side of the garrison was a large number of machine guns at their disposal (41). There were no underground fortifications built on Westerplatte. There were five small concrete posts (guardhouses) hidden in the peninsula's forest and there was a large barracks prepared for defense. These were supported by a network of trenches and barricades. In case of war, the defenders were supposed to withstand a sustained attack for 12 hours. During this time, the aid from the Polish main forces was supposed to reach them.
The Polish garrison's commanding officer was Major Henryk Sucharski, the executive officer was Captain Franciszek Dąbrowski. (According to recently discovered information, Captain Dąbrowski was also the actual commander, following Sucharski's nervous breakdown after the German air strike on the second day of the battle.)
- Several ADGZ heavy armoured cars, about 65 artillery pieces (2 cm FlaK 30 AA guns, 3.7 cm PaK 36 AT guns, 10.5 cm leFH 18 light howitzers, 21 cm Mörser 18 heavy howitzers), numerous mortars, over 150 machine guns and a number of Flammenwerfer 35 flamethrowers.
The exact number of German losses remains unknown, but are often estimated to be in range of 200-400 killed and wounded or sometimes more (People's Republic of Poland authorities claimed the Germans suffered 300 killed and 700 wounded, but this claim is rather dubious).
Polish casualties were much lower - 15-20 killed (there's a controversy regarding the graves of five unidentified Polish soldiers discovered 1939-1940, possibly executed for attempted desertion) and some 53 wounded in action.
List of the Polish soldiers killed in action: Private Jan Ciwil, Corporal Jan Gebura, Działonowy (artilleryman) Władysław Jakubiak, Private Konstanty Jezierski, Private Józef Kita, Corporal Andrzej Kowalczyk, Private Mieczysław Krzak, Sergeant Wojciech Najsarek, Private Władysław Okraszewski, Corporal Bronisław Perucki, Master Corporal Adolf Petzelt, Private Antoni Piróg, Sergeant Kazimierz Rasiński, Private Bronisław Uss, Private Ignacy Zatorski, Private Zygmunt Zięba.
Eight prisoners were also said to not have survived German captivity.
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 WWII that all 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).
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 facts 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).
In the years after war, several dozen schools and several ships in Poland were also named after the "Heroes of" or "Defenders of Westerplatte". The ruins of the peninsula's barracks and guardhouses still survive. After the war one of the guardhouses was converted into a museum. Two shells from the Schleswig-Holstein's 280 mm guns prop up its entrance.
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