The Invasion of Poland triggered the Second World War….everbody knows that of course. What most don’t know is that the first fighting technically didn’t occur on Polish or German soil; Danzig was a sovereign city state.
A “Free” City
Danzig had been separated from Germany after WWI and the newly created Poland was given control of its external affairs by the League of Nations. This gave Poland access to a major port, which was especially needed at the time as it was fighting a war with the Soviet Union. While Danzig was nominally independent, the Poles had a habit of meddling in their affairs more than they were legally obliged, similar to the behavior of the French in the Saarland. During the East Prussian plebiscite in 1920 the Poles blocked all traffic between East Prussia and Germany proper coming through the city state in a bold attempt to hamper opposition to their annexation of the surrounding regions. While neither East Prussia or Danzig was annexed by Poland that year, Danzig did remain a protectorate of the League for two decades.
After Germany’s own annexation of the Sudetenland and the fragmentation of Czechoslovakia, regaining control of Danzig had become the next major objective of the National Socialist agenda, fatally damaging German-Polish relations that had otherwise flourished under Hitler. Long story short, after several overtures that were rejected by the Poles, who were emboldened by the guarantee of support from Britain and France, serious planning for an invasion of Poland began.
The Polish presence in Danzig
The first step in any invasion would be to clear the Poles out of Danzig; In the city itself, they controlled two locations…
- A post office in the heart of the city, belonging to Poczta Polska
- A garrisoned ammunition and transit depot on the Westerplatte, a peninsula at the mouth of Danzig harbor between the Dead Vistula canal and the Baltic Sea.
As it became clear conflict with Germany was on the horizon in April 1939, Second-Lieutenant and combat engineer Konrad Guderski was sent to turn the post office into something defensible: the employees were drilled on possible attacks, reservist officers were used to set up a volunteer security force, fields of fire were improved by removing trees and foliage from nearby, the building was fortified and a cache of forty-three firearms (including several light machine guns) was placed inside.
The Westerplatte, 3.5 kilometers in circumference, was normally defended by 88 men, but had been bolstered to some 200 in anticipation of an invasion. In the the center was the depot, concrete barracks and several other buildings. four mortars, two light anti-tank guns, and one field artillery gun made up the available fire support. Guarding this was an inner ring of defense, and an outer one consisting of camouflaged trenches, dugouts and guard houses arranged in a checkerboard-style defense, all in preparation for an attack from inland. Blocking the base of the peninsula was a brick wall topped with barbed wire. Commanding the whole garrison was Major Henryk Sucharski.
The Danzig police planned to attack the post office from two directions, the first as a diversion at the front and the second being the main thrust to break through from the neighboring work office, attacking from the side, while at Westerplatte the pre-dreadnought battleship Schleswig-Holstein would disembark the Marine-Stoßtrupp-Kompanie (an elite unit of 225 German Marines) under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Wilhelm Henningsen and provide fire-support for their assault. Participating in both attacks would be the SS Heimwehr Danzig, a satellite unit of the Waffen SS with elements of the Totenkopf Division attached.
Captain Gustaf Kleikamp, commanding officer of the Schleswig-Holstein (which was a training cadet ship but now called back into active service) was called to the Naval Ministry in Berlin where he received orders to sail to Danzig on an official visit as a substitute for the light cruiser Konigsberg, which had supposedly suffered a machinery failure. The official reason for the visit was the 25th anniversary of the sinking of the cruiser Magdeburg in World War One. Several days later while at sea he received orders detailing the true nature of the visit – his ship is to transport and then provide fire-support for Marine units taking the Westerplatte, and afterward engage other enemy coastal targets on the Gulf of Danzig.
With the Signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in August 1939, the final preparations were put into place for the invasion of Poland, codenamed Fall Weiss (Case White). On the 24th Schleswig-Holstein rendezvoused with the Minsweeper M-1 that was carrying the Marine detachment fresh from training in Memel, East Prussia. After taking on board the Marines Kleikamp made way to Danzig harbor.
The Twin Sieges
On August 25th 1939 Schleswig-Holstein arrived in Danzig under the pretext of her courtesy call, laying anchor less than 200 yards from the Westerplatte at the wharf of Nowy Port. There was obvious anxiety aboard, but Kleikamp had been assured that the Westerplatte could be taken in a matter of minutes.
Before sunrise on September 1st, the Germans cut the phone and electricity lines to the post office. Not long after, Henningsen’s Marines, having been hidden in a battleship for days, swiftly unloaded in preparation for the attack, followed by the Schleswig-Holstein abruptly firing on the Westerplatte with her entire armament.
Major Sucharski commanding the Polish garrison radioed they were under fire to the nearest military base on the Hel peninsula.
As the Marines began their advance toward the Polish defenses the stationmaster of Gdańsk-Westerplatte station, (A Polish trade outpost on the mainland side of the canal) Staff Sergeant Wojciech Najsarek heard the commotion and left his post to investigate. Spotting the German Marines he was shot repeatedly before he could react, killing him instantly…..Sgt Najsarek was the first casualty of the entire war.
Not long after, the Danzig police began their attack on the post office supported by three armored cars alongside the Heimwehr troops. The initial attacks on the post office were repulsed, despite several soldiers managing to enter the building. A second attempt with artillery support from German forces entering the city via East Prussia was again repulsed. The Germans called for a ceasefire, and demanded their surrender; the Poles refused, but in the meantime combat engineers had dug under the building and planted explosives. When detonated, the explosives collapsed one of the walls and the Germans rushed in, overwhelming the defenders.
At this point only the basement was still in Polish hands. This was promptly dealt with when a firetruck was brought in to pump gasoline into the basement and ignited by hand grenades. The Poles finally surrendered. (see the footage below, it was captured on film)
Two Germans and six Poles had died in the fighting for the post office, all but two (who had escaped the building) of the remaining Poles were captured. They were then executed as illegal combatants – technically they were not members of the Polish military. While it had taken well over 12 hours, the first part of clearing the Poles out of Danzig was accomplished. The capture of the Westerplatte however would be much, MUCH more difficult.
With the Schleswig-Holstein giving fire-support, the Marines breached the brick wall at the base of the peninsula, only to be pinned down in a hailstorm of fire from concealed Polish positions. The single 75mm field gun the Poles possessed poured fire on German positions seized by the Danzig police across the canal, knocking out a machine gun emplacement, and even picked a fight with the Schleswig-Holstein, although it scored no hits before being obliterated by return fire from the battleship.
The Marines having sustained heavy losses withdrew to the base of the peninsula to allow the Schleswig-Holstein’s 283mm main guns to further soften the Polish positions.
From eight in the morning to noon the Germans attacked again but were stalled by further intense fire and also minefields. The Marines withdrew and Henningsen himself was mortally wounded; dying the next day. Having underestimated the defense of the Westerplatte, the Germans had failed to take a day-one objective.
In the following few days, with General Friedrich-Georg Eberhardt now in command of the siege, the Germans decided to pound the peninsula into nothingness with heavy artillery fire from the regular German army which was now in the city. On September 2nd a sixty strong raid of Stuka dive-bombers hit the island doing immense damage, killing eight Poles and destroying mortar positions, outposts, the radio equipment and food supplies. On the 4th two German Torpedo Boats (T-196 and the T-963) supported by a minesweeper conducted bombardment attacks on the Polish encampments on the north side of the Westerplatte, alongside further fire from Schleswig-Holstein and sporadic skirmishes on land. On the 5th, Major Sucharski called a conference where he suggested surrender, but his subordinates resisted.
Early in the morning on of September 7th came yet another fierce bombardment. This time flamethrowers were added to the maelstrom. The military complex in the center of the peninsula was now a complete wreck.
Major Sucharski was finally ready to surrender, and at 9:45 AM a white flag appeared – the siege was over.
General Eberhardt was so impressed by the Polish defense he allowed Major Sucharski to keep his ceremonial saber into captivity. It had been a truly heroic defense by any metric, and one memorialized to this day in the Westerplatte by an 82″ tall monument.
Hitler himself visited the Westerplatte and Schleswig-Holstein after the battle, but Getty images wants to rape everyone on prices for actually using the damn photos since they have exclusive rights, so the two links will have to do.