During our days at nearby
, Poland, we visited Westerplatte [pronunciation in German and Polish Gdańsk –phonetically sounds like “Ves-ter-plat-a” with a hard t and soft a vowels in Polish], a short drive from the city. The Battle for Westerplatte took place here on September 1st, 1939 — one of many during the Battle of the Border– and the first stage of the German invasion of Poland. here
Inside of the ruins of the Polish barracks and guardhouses attacked by German aircraft on September 1st, 1939. The seven-day siege of the garrison became a symbol of Polish resistance as the dozens of Polish soldiers were able to hold against thousands of Germans for a week.
Nearby is the incredibly large (and spectacularly SO SOVIET) monument gifted to the memorial site by the occupying USSR in 1966. Where are we?
We were lucky enough to visit during the 50 year anniversary. A short 15 minute drive from the city, the site is located in a wooded area near the coast with walkable ruins, a museum, informational sites, and a memorial.
Located in the Bay of Gdańsk, the peninsula of Westerplatte has a history of changing borders and control, similar to much of Poland (I overviewed the history of the region if you’re interested!). I’m focusing this post on the site right before and during the start of WWII as this is the main memorial here today. here
While much of Poland was re-established as an independent nation following the end of WWI, nearby Gdańsk was named the Free City of Danzig and under control of the United Nations, not Poland or Germany. At the time a large proportion of the city’s population was ethnically German and as a result leaned heavily toward the newly-formed Nazi party.
In 1921, the League of Nations allowed the establishment of an ammunition depot near Danzig by the Polish government and Westerplatte was confirmed as the location for the Polish site in 1925. Located extremely close to the Free City of Danzig’s port — a pier connected the newly organized Westerplatte to the mainland — the Polish segment of the area was distinguished by a brick wall. In 1926, a year after construction the depot was completed, the Polish garrison of 88 men became operational under the caveat that they were not allowed to build fortifications.
In 1933 the League of Nations allowed the Polish government to strengthen their garrison and authorized additional troops be moved to Westerplatte. With the increasing discussions by the German government to redraw borders with Poland and secret talks between the Polish government and France on a potential war with Germany, it is no surprise that the Battle of Westerplatte became the first battle of WWII.
The Polish government began building crude fortifications at Westerplatte–five small guardhouses in the forest and barracks with trenches and barricades–and in 1939 rising tensions forced the small site to be placed on high alert.
On September 1st, 1939 at 4:47 am, the German SMS Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on the Polish garrison at Westerplatte. Although not initially successful, the German marines attacked the Poles on foot, running into an ambush of Polish soldiers. A small unit of Danzig police also joined the fight (on the side of the Germans) resulting in two Polish casualties; Staff Sergeant Wojciech Najsarek was the first to die at the Battle of Westerplatte and potentially of WWII.
On the first day of the Battle of Westerplatte, the Polish garrison lost four men while the Germans had sixteen deaths and over a hundred and twenty were wounded. Concluding that they severely underestimated the defenses established by the Polish soldiers, the Germans used heavy naval and field artillery, along with air raids over the following days. On September 2nd a five bomber dropped 26.5 tons (58,000 pounds) of bombs. These efforts destroyed the Polish mortars, Guardhouse V, their only radio, and most of their food supply.
While there was talk of surrender (particularly by their leader), the remaining Polish troops under Major Henryk Sucharski decided to hold out against the Germans. On September 6th, the Germans attempted to probe the Poles by sending a burning train toward them (!!!) and their oil cistern but, after the terrified driver decoupled early, the train instead set fire to the woods that were providing cover to the Polish soldiers. A second train attack also failed and the Germans suffered a large number of deaths.
Sucharski wanted to surrender for a second time on September 6th. The German Army was now at Warsaw and the garrison at Westerplatte was low on supplies. The following day, the Germans opened intense fire, destroying guardhouses. The Polish surrendered on September 7th. Initially, so impressed with their defense, the Germans allowed Sucharski to keep his szabia (Polish saber) while under imprisonment, although it was later taken away.
Over 3,000 Germans were involved in the Battle of Westerplatte; they lost 300 men while the Poles had 15 casualties and 40 of their men were injured. While imprisoned, Sergeant Kazimierz Rasiński–a Polish wireless operator–was murdered by the Germans after a violent interrogation over his refusal to release radio codes. Adolf Hitler visited Westerplatte on September 21st.
Sucharski remains a controversial character for historians. While initially seen as a hero, many accounts from the 1990s detail that his officers swore not to confess that he was actually shell-shocked for most of the Battle of Westerplatte and had a breakdown on the second day of the siege. The Germans also discovered a grave of four Polish soldiers executed by their own compatriots for desertion when they took control of the garrison.
The Battle of Westerplatte was a symbol of great pride for the Polish resistance; Polish Radio continuously broadcasted “Westerplatte broni się jeszcze” (“Westerplatte fights on”) in 1939. The Nazis strategically used Westerplatte in their war against the Soviet Union until they were evacuated in 1945 during the Vistula-Oder Offensive. Today the site includes the remaining buildings of the garrison, historical markers, and the Westerplatte Monument.
Westerplatte Monument / Monument to the Defenders of the Coast:
Also located on the site is the Westerplatte Monument, an enormous structure located on the coast of the area. Construction of the memorial was started by the Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom while Poland was under Soviet occupation. 236 blocks of granite from southwest Poland were brought to Gdańsk by the Soviets from 1964-1966 to pay tribute to the Polish resistance to the Germans. The 22 meter (72 feet) tall artificial mound was built from sediment collected during the redevelopment of the port.
View from the top of the mound.
The “Nigdy Więcej Wojny” (“Never Again War”) sign at the memorial. Source
The short trip up to Westerplatte is worth your time if you find yourself in Gdańsk! We spent the afternoon here before returning to the city for gelato.
Gulf of Gdańsk
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