World War 2 History: 1939 Battle of Westerplatte— Poland's Alamo
Battleship Attacking Westerplatte
In 1836, more than 200 Texans fought about 1,800 Mexican troops before being annihilated at the Alamo near San Antonio, Texas. In 1879, nearly 150 British soldiers successfully defeated an attacking force of more than 3,000 Zulu warriors at Rorke's Drift in southern Africa. In 1939, 209 Polish defenders on the tiny peninsula of Westerplatte held off about 3,400 Germans who attacked them from land, sea and air. The Poles repelled repeated ground assaults and were subjected to attacks by a battleship, Stuka dive bombers, heavy artillery, torpedo boats and even burning trains. The Germans initially thought it would be over in less than an hour. The Poles were under orders to hold out for twelve hours until they were relieved, but relief never came.
Danzig and the Polish Corridor
Poles Set Up for Failure
In the aftermath of World War 1, the nation of Poland was resurrected by the Treaty of Versailles with land carved from the ruined empires of Germany and Russia. In a decision that seemed cleverly designed to please nobody, the Baltic port city of Danzig (present day Gdansk, Poland) and its surroundings were taken from Germany, denied Poland and designated the Free City of Danzig under the protection of the League of Nations. To complicate matters, Poland was allowed to station 82 soldiers at an ammunition depot on the Westerplatte peninsula at the mouth of Danzig's strategic harbor channel. Its 180 acres stretched 1,600 meters (1 mile) east to west and 200 meters north to south where it bordered the mainland in the east.
Preparing for the Gathering Storm
By August 1939, the situation had become very grim indeed. The Nazis had taken de facto control of the “Free City” and war between Germany and Poland seemed imminent. The German battleship Schleswig-Holstein, on a “courtesy” visit, sailed past Westerplatte into the harbor channel to its south and dropped anchor. The Poles had done what they could to improve their impossible position, secretly increasing their numbers to 209 soldiers and reservists and smuggling in a dismantled 76 mm gun and four mortars. They also fortified their barracks and the surrounding guardhouses, dug trenches, laid mines and set up barbed wire entanglements. They were surrounded by water on three sides: the Baltic Sea to their north and the harbor channel to their west and south. A brick wall and a railroad gate on their east separated them from the mainland and the German troops waiting on the other side. The garrison's orders were to hold out for twelve hours until they could be relieved by regular Polish Army units.
Map of the Battle of Westerplatte
Battle of Westerplatte Launches World War 2
At 4:45am on September 1, the Schleswig-Holstein opened fire at point-blank range on Westerplatte with its four 280 mm (11 inch) main guns as well as its 150 mm and 88 mm secondary guns. This was the opening salvo of World War 2; it would be hours before German armies actually began their invasion of Poland. Meanwhile, crack German marines waited for the brick wall and the railroad gate north of the wall to be breached before launching their own attack from the east. Most thought the Poles on Westerplatte would surrender as soon as the battleship's bombardment stopped and the smoke cleared.
Day 1: Germans Stunned
As the German marines poured through three breaches in the wall, they found themselves caught in a crossfire from concealed Polish machine guns and hemmed in by fields of well-placed barbed wire and mines. Mortar shells also rained down on them. At the same time, the Poles' 76 mm field gun took out all of the German machine gun emplacements that had been set up in warehouses across the harbor channel to the south before being destroyed itself. To the west, Danzig police units launched their attack across the channel, but they were quickly defeated.
After withdrawing back behind the wall, the marines resumed their attack at 9:00, but again took heavy casualties before retreating at noon. They attacked two more times that day, but failed to break through to the Poles' circle of reinforced guardhouses. The defenders had fulfilled their orders to hold for twelve hours, but, despite their impossible situation, still refused to surrender.
Stukas Over Poland
Day 2: Poles Bombed
On the second day, the Germans continued to shell Westerplatte and also attacked from the air. In two waves, 60 Stuka dive-bombers dropped more than 26 tons of bombs on the defenders, completely wrecking one of the guardhouses, collapsing the top floor of the barracks and destroying all the mortars. Much of the Pole's supplies of food and medicine were also lost. Parts of Westerplatte resembled a moonscape, reminiscent of a battlefield in the previous war. However, when German assault troops attempted to “mop up”, they were greeted with a withering firestorm of bullets and retreated.
Day 3: Polish Hopes Raised as Britain and France Declare War
The third day, September 3, was relatively quiet, although this was more due to the fact that invading forces from Germany proper had penetrated across the Polish Corridor and entered Danzig. German military leaders did not want the planned celebrations disturbed by sounds of battle on the northern edge of the city. The Poles on Westerplatte were buoyed by the news that Britain and France had declared war on Germany and hoped that British warships would soon appear off the coast. It was, of course, a forlorn hope. Later that evening, the Germans made some half-hearted attacks to no avail.
Days 4 and 5: Siege
On September 4, after early probes by German infantry, two torpedo boats approached from the sea and fired 80 shells, doing little more than churning up the rubble. The Germans seemed content to lay siege to the Westerplatte garrison, bombarding and harassing them instead of launching frontal attacks.
The fifth day saw more of the same with heavy shelling from ground artillery and the Schleswig-Holstein. Later that evening the Poles repulsed German probing attacks.
Day 6: Burning Trains
At 3:00am on September 6, the Germans sent a train pushing an oil-filled cistern through the destroyed gate which was to be ignited and driven into the Polish positions, but the Poles hit it with anti-tank shells and it set the forest ablaze instead. The light from the flames exposed the accompanying German troops who again took heavy casualties. An attempt to send in another train later in the day also failed.
Day 7: Surrender
Early in the morning of September 7, the Germans once again resumed their heavy bombardment. Having fought for seven days against enormous odds, far exceeding the order to resist for twelve hours, the Poles reconsidered their position. By now, German armies occupied half the country and were approaching Warsaw, Poland's capital. Obviously the garrison wasn't going to be relieved nor was the British Navy going to suddenly appear off the Baltic coast. They were running out of food, medical supplies and potable water. The defenders were low on ammunition, their remaining cover was crumbling around them and some of the wounded were starting to suffer from gangrene poisoning.
At 9:45am the Poles hoisted the white flag. Westerplatte had fallen. Polish Radio, which had broadcast the message “Westerplatte fights on!” continuously every morning, inspiring the whole country, fell silent. Surprised at how few defenders there were, the German soldiers saluted them as they marched out into captivity at 11:30am and German General Eberhardt allowed Polish commander Major Sucharski to keep his saber, an extraordinary show of respect when measured against the harshness meted out to most Poles.
Germans Occupy Westerplatte
Of the 209 Polish defenders, 15 to 20 were killed and 53 wounded. The Germans lost 200 to 300 killed or wounded. For a week the Poles had tied up 3,400 German soldiers, sailors, marines and police needed elsewhere. They had prevented access to the Danzig port and the battleship Schleswig-Holstein was unable to provide fire support for other assaults along the coast. In the dark, early days of the war and the hell that Poland would soon become under the Nazis, the defenders of Westerplatte provided desperately needed inspiration for their fellow countrymen. Years later, a monument was erected to the defenders and the ruins of the barracks and guardhouses have been left standing. One of the guardhouses has been converted into a museum; its entrance flanked by two 280 mm shells from the Schleswig-Holstein.
Westerplatte Under Fire September 1939 and Now
© 2017 David Hunt