Westerplatte fights on... first shots in WW2

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Nov 9, 2005
After Poland regained its independence in 1918, it was granted the right to establish its Military Transit Depot on Westerplatte to guard Poland's interests in the port of the Free City of Danzig. On 9 December 1925 the Council of the League of Nations issued a resolution, which allowed Poland to keep 88 soldiers of the Polish Army on Westerplatte. As the Germano-Polish relations strained, and the Free City saw more hitlerite provocations and violence, it was decided to enlarge the Westerplatte garrison, and strengthen its firepower in case of an aggression. On 1 September 1939 the Westerplatte's garrison numbered 182 well trained and armed men. They were dubbed "the dead garrison". Originally they were supposed to deliver a 6-hours' resistance; then this time was increased to 12 hours. After that Polish troops had to arrive with the aid.
On 25 August 1939 a Kriegsmarine's battleship Schleswig-Holstein came to Danzig for a courtesy visit. She anchored in the port canal right across the Westerplatte and did not leave after the visit was officially over. During this ostensible visit the garrison of Westerplatte was on guard 24 hours a day. In fact under the decks of the German ship there was concealed a German assault company. Till 23 August 1939 it quartered under command of Lt. Henningsen in the building of a grammar school in Memel. The company numbered 225 men; after the war the West German journal Quick reached four of them. Among them were artillery Mate Georg Wolf, later a doctor in Essen, and engineer Senior Mate Helmut Schauer, later an officer of the Bundesmarine and the commander of the corvette Kiel. He recalled: On 24 August we steamed to the sector 2638. Combat readiness at 1930hr. Ammunition: 405 shells 280mm, 1450 shells 150mm, and 370 shells 88mm. Alarm at 1946hr. An "Orzel" class submarine had been detected. At 2010hr a flotilla of minesweepers was spotted. Georg Wolf added:
"We embarked to a beautiful, warm weather. Yet we were surprised that instead of cabins we were quartered together with the whole equipment in the holds, at the very bottom of the ship. We were crowded there like herrings in a can. Twice a submarine alarm was announced. We could not understand what was going on. Next day we learnt from the radio, that our ship was going for a courtesy visit to Danzig. At 1200hr we were told to arm the grenades, and collect the individual food rations and ammunition. On 25 August at 1600hr we moored at the Danzig waterfront across the Polish zone Westerplatte. At 1700hr came aboard the president of the Senate of the Free City of Danzig, Artur Greiser, and soon after him also Major-General Eberhardt of the Danzig police."

The following minutes were recorded in the Schleswig-Holstein's log: 1830hr. Briefing by the ship commander Captain Kleikamp. General Eberhardt presents plans of Westerplatte, states that Westerplatte lacks fortifications. The garrison numbers 100 soldiers. Taking the base cannot take more than three hours. Assault company will disembark at 2130hr on the waterfront, which will be cleared by police. No lights to be allowed. Captain Kleikamp reads the Order No.1648 concerning combat actions of the training ship "Schleswig-Holstein". 2015hr. Radio surveillance receives the Order No.2623. Military operation cancelled. Complete disappointment. Says Helmut Schauer:
"For the several next days nothing happened. We spent the time under the deck. One could walk out only briefly by night. Sometimes our men were allowed to run along the waterfront, but only those who had plain clothes. Lieutenant Henningsen acquired 50 civilian garments, and we wore them in turns. Once I had run as far as to the wall surrounding Westerplatte.
On 28 August the ship was visited by minister Chodacki - the Polish government's commissioner for the Free City of Danzig. He drank tea with the captain and left. Our company remained silent under the deck. Next day Capt. Kleikamp revisited the commissioner in his residence. On 30 August we learnt about the Hitler's ultimatum and mobilization in Poland. On 31 August at 1835hr we received the combat order - attack on 1 September at 0445hr."

At dawn 1 September 1939 on Westerplatte soldiers from the detachment of Warrant Officer Jan Gryczman were getting ready to march out to the barracks after a tiresome night duty. The soldiers were collecting their weapon when suddenly a rifle shot resounded. Its echo bounced from the red-brick wall surrounding the tiny peninsula of Westerplatte, flew over the port canal and farther to the sleeping city, to the mouth of Vistula, and vanished somewhere over Mottlau. Gryczman instinctively looked at his watch. The time was 4:17.

Gryczman did not neglect the sudden alarming signal. He ordered his soldiers to re-assume their action stations. Intuition did not fail him. Exactly at 4:45 Schleswig-Holstein's eighteen guns of calibres ranging from 88 to 280 mm opened fire at Westerplatte. Their salvoes covered the barracks, outposts, storages, as well as the railway siding; under its rubble was buried its supervisor, Jan Najsarek - probably the first casualty of the Second World War. The artillery fire and explosions on Westerplatte merged in one hellish roar, which overwhelmed even the invaders. A former artillery officer from Schleswig-Holstein, Fritz Otto Busch, remembered:
"curling clouds of smoke with columns of yellow-orange fire billowing here and there. Iron and steel, earth and wood whirling in the air and falling back to the ground. (...)
To those few crewmen of the battleship, who stay on the deck, it seems like the time has stopped. Their eyes like enchanted are stuck to the bright glow of the fire. In their ears roars the fire and explosions of heavy 28cm shells, steady rattle of the machine-guns, and eardrum-breaking barking of the anti-aircraft canons shooting at point-blank range. (...)
Is there anybody still alive? the chief petty officer asks his men servicing the guns, and stretches his neck toward the casemate embrasure to see anything through this firework in front of us. The sailors shake their heads in silence and wipe the sweat from their foreheads - no, certainly nobody... "
The artillery bombardment of the tiny peninsula lasted almost an hour. When the guns silenced, the Germans launched the attack with the forces of their infantry, SS Danziger Heimwehr, and naval infantry. On the other side of the red-brick wall the Polish garrison was already awaiting them. Alas, continues Busch, as soon as the assault group, attached to the ship, leaps across the ruined wall into the shallow forest, a crazy machine-gun fire bursts out there, rifle shots rattle, and the hand grenades explode before the brave marines. Corporal Edmund Szamlewski opened fire from his machine-gun barely from 50 metres and literally mowed the assailants. Those who were looking for cover from the bullets mixed with those who already caught them. They lied like that for a moment, and then fled to the safety. But then Gryczman's men opened fire from the flank. The Germans were stumbling and falling on the ground. This and that still tried to crawl. Wrote Busch:
"The soldiers from the assault grouping advanced very far, as far as to the embrasures of the Polish bunkers spitting short series of the crazy machine-gun fire. One should avoid unnecessary casualties. Westerplatte is not ripe yet for storming. (...)
This resistance must be broken - the sooner the better. The watch officer standing behind the helmsman seems not to notice the excitement around him. He sees inquiring faces and brushes away all the doubts, worries and fears: Concrete bunkers are too strong, but no worries, mates, we'll try again. Polaczeks won't hold any longer."
The Poles did not let to catch them by surprise. Hitlerites' first attack cost them dearly. Few returned back beyond the red-brick wall. Sergeant Heinz Denker from the naval infantry group visited Westerplatte again in 1979; he recalled the atmosphere of the fights on that day:
"We knew nothing about the enemy. We were attacking along the railway, having only an old 1:1000 map without pill-boxes marked. At once we noticed that the ship artillery was not efficient. Huge 280mm shells needed to go 600m to explode, while in fact they made only 400m. During the fights we found a lot of such "chests" and we used them as a cover. The first attack ended at 1000hr. Our company lost 127 men out of 225. (...)
We came back to the ship. I saw Greiser in the SS uniform and Eberhardt, who approached us and said, that we'd receive support of an SS squad. Our commander, Lieutenant Schuck who replaced the wounded Henningsen, answered that even three squads wouldn't be enough, for the Poles were fighting like lions and were well entrenched. We'd rather need air support."
Meanwhile an alarm was announced in the depot's barracks. Soldiers in hurry were putting on their helmets, fastening belts, grabbing rifles and running to the action stations. Their commander, Major Henryk Sucharski, was issuing short commands in breaking voice. Westerplatte turned into a little fortress; later the Germans nicknamed it a Little Verdun (Kleines Verdun). The Germans attacked three more times that day but all attacks failed. They lost between 80 and 100 killed. The Poles would not cease fire even while seeing the Germans retreating. Platoon Leader Piotr Buder reported, that he literally had to drag his men away from machine-guns to make them spare ammunition.
On 2 September the watch on Schleswig-Holstein reported spotting a white flag on Westerplatte, but when the troops went to take Westerplatte into their possession, they encountered the previous fast resistance. For the rest of the day hitlerites conducted alternately artillery and air bombardments. Hundreds of bombs and shells fell on the small, inflexible peninsula. A witness of the fights, later a respected German historian Anton Bassarek, noted on that day:
"A bomb fell after a bomb turning the battlefield into one hell of a fire, smoke and mud. People of Danzig were watching this spectacle from the roofs and city hills with admiration to the Hermann Gцring's air force in action. This and that old veteran soldier, who spent many days under the shower of shells on the Somme and in the Flanders, would only shake his head, watching the exploits of our airmen. Because what was falling incessantly on Westerplatte must have had an impact on the defenders as horrible as the most thunderous fire of the great battles in the West. Yet when our assault troops renewed advance after this cannonade, they encountered a real firestorm."
At 14:00 Georg Wolf returned to the ship. Out of 49 men of his platoon he brought back 13. On 3 September at 1440hr the Ju-87's finally flew in, recalls Helmut Schauer. Sixty machines dropped about 500 bombs on Westerplatte. When we went to attack the Poles welcomed us with the fire of the same strength as before. After all this soldier deserves respect.
Information services of the Polish Supreme Command repeatedly announced: "Westerplatte fights on", "Poland salutes the lions of Westerplatte"... German forces exceeded the Polish ones twenty times. The days filled with fights were passing, but no aid was arriving. Exhausted Polish soldiers were scrambling the rests of their strengths to fight, casualties were mounting, and the wounded were agonizing without water and medicines. At night and dawn 3 September the Germans made two sorties; this time instead of SA and SS they were made by a battalion of naval cadets. The attacks were repelled, and then a lull came for the rest of the day. On 4 and 5 September the Germans did not try to take Westerplatte in fights. Instead they submitted Westerplatte, and particularly its centre with the barracks, to a heavy bombardment. Apart from Schleswig-Holstein also took part in it a battery of 88mm guns in Heubude, two torpedoboats anchored off Brosen, two batteries of 210mm mortars, and the coastal battery at Glettkau - it means from all the possible sides. The artillery bombardment continued on 6 September in the morning, then in the afternoon the Germans decided to renew their assault. They tried to silence Polish emplacements No. 1 and 5 by setting the forest afire. An armoured handcar pushed a railway cistern filled with fuel towards Westerplatte's railway siding. Yet the Poles hit it with machine-gun fire and anti-tank shells, and destroyed it. The content of the cistern went aflame and lit the enemy positions. German plans were frustrated. Three assaults were repelled that night.
The attack on Westerplatte was renewed next day. Georg Wolf took part in that attack:
"On 7 September at 0420hr my platoon has to attack after the cistern-carriage, which has to be pushed through the gate and set afire. Unteroffizier Waschynski took command over the engineers to push the carriage. We see the explosion (...) Then we resume the attack (...) and reach the main building. (...) Silence. The white flag on the roof. The Poles have surrendered. (...) It's 0930hr. "
Indeed, as the food, water and hope exhausted, the Poles decided to surrender. After 7 days of fights, which cost the Germans some 300-400 killed and many wounded, the enemy took Westerplatte. The Poles suffered relatively low casualties: 15 killed and 53 wounded. The commander of the German forces, Gen. Friedrich Eberhardt, let Major Sucharski keep his sabre as sign of appreciation of his courage. The Germans could not believe that such a tiny outpost without serious fortifications could resist so long. They saluted Polish soldiers marching into captivity, and protected them of Danzig townfolks, who wanted to lynch them. Major Sucharski spent the rest of the war in a POW camp. In July 1945 he joined the Polish forces in Italy, but he had no strengths to command the troops. The years spent in the prison camp had ruined his health. He died on 30 August 1946 in a military hospital in Naples. Before the death he begged to be buried in Poland. His wish came true 25 years later. On 1 September 1971 his remains were reburied on Westerplatte; the last surviving officer from Westerplatte, Lt. Leon Pająk, commanded the ceremony.


mjr Sucharski
Good posting there, good info. I enjoyed reading it. Some of my family is originally from the Danzig area. They are actually quite sensitive about Danzig and it being there home.

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