First to fight, p.3

First to Fight, page 3


First to Fight

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  ‘Westerplatte Fights On’

  At 4.43 a.m., shortly after dawn, on 1 September 1939, the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein slipped her moorings in the New Port of Danzig (Gdańsk), and was nudged and cajoled the short distance to where the Vistula made a southward turn, the Bend of the Five Whistles. There, positioned almost perpendicularly across the channel, she trained her guns on the Polish military transit depot on the Westerplatte, some 300 metres away, and – on the command of her captain, Gustav Kleikamp – opened fire.

  For those watching events that morning, the Schleswig-Holstein must have seemed a peculiar candidate to fire the opening salvoes of the Second World War. A survivor of the Deutschland class of battleships, she had been launched in 1906, before the advent of the Dreadnoughts had revolutionised naval warfare. Obsolete even before the start of the First World War, she had participated in the Battle of Jutland in 1916 and had been decommissioned the following year, destined for use as a floating barracks. She had even been earmarked as a ‘target ship’ for the modern vessels of Hitler’s navy to practise their gunnery. With her vertical ram-bow, the Schleswig-Holstein was a naval relic, a throwback to an earlier age, which had been pressed back into service as a training ship for German naval cadets. Moored in Danzig harbour on a ‘friendship visit’ to the city to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Tannenberg – that salient German victory in the opening months of the First World War – she would scarcely have been seen as a threat.

  Yet, though the manner of the attack may have been a surprise, the location certainly was not. Danzig had long been the focus of German–Polish tensions. Though ethnically predominantly German, it had been detached from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles and established as a free state under the League of Nations; while transport and trade concessions granted to the newly reconstituted Poland meant that it served in effect as Poland’s port. This naturally rankled, both in Germany and among the majority German population of the city. Strikes among dock workers in 1920 then led to Poland being granted the peninsula of the Westerplatte – effectively the eastern bank of the Vistula estuary – to serve as a military depot for the secure unloading of munitions and military hardware. As one of the few key Polish sites in and around Danzig, the Westerplatte would inevitably find itself in the firing line in the event of heightened tensions.

  And tensions were most certainly heightened in the summer of 1939. After his success in dismantling Czechoslovakia, Hitler had trained his sights on Poland, and the running sore of Danzig was an obvious target both for his rhetoric and for the subversive actions of his acolytes. With passions duly enflamed, it was perhaps unsurprising that large numbers of Danzigers turned out to welcome the Schleswig-Holstein upon its arrival in the port, on the morning of 25 August. They would not have suspected that the aged vessel, sailing into dock with flags flying and her crew immaculately turned out on her upper decks, was concealing a company of 225 marines.1 Her ‘friendship visit’ was, in truth, a mission of war.

  So it was that the Schleswig-Holstein’s main 28cm guns were brought to bear on the Westerplatte that morning. Actually, there was not much for them to aim for. A barracks, mess and storerooms had been built in the early 1930s, along with a ring of five guardhouses to provide a modicum of security. In accordance with the original treaty by which it had been established, the Westerplatte depot was permitted a garrison of some eighty-eight officers and men. However, as German–Polish relations had deteriorated from 1938, the site had been surreptitiously reinforced, its garrison raised to 210 through the simple method of smuggling in soldiers, and its defences augmented by the addition of anti-tank ramparts, barbed-wire entanglements, an alarm system and seven reinforced outposts, complete with slit trenches and earthworks. In total, the Polish troops on the Westerplatte possessed 160 rifles, 42 machine guns, 1,000 grenades, 4 mortars and 2 anti-tank guns.2 As one veteran recalled of that summer, every Westerplatte soldier slept with his boots on: ‘holding his gun, like a lover beneath the blanket, locked and loaded’.3

  So, at 4.48 a.m., as the Polish garrison slept, the Schleswig-Holstein’s guns began their broadside. Over the following seven minutes, they boomed and thundered, raining down over 5 tonnes of shells on the Polish positions, aiming to breach the depot’s eastern perimeter wall and soften up the defenders. In addition to the eight salvoes from the main guns, fifty-nine shells were fired from the Schleswig-Holstein’s medium battery, as well as 600 rounds from its 20mm flak guns.4 As one Polish survivor recalled with masterful understatement: ‘They dropped a lot of iron on Westerplatte.’5 The results were certainly impressive; trees were splintered to matchwood, and many of the barracks and guardhouses were damaged. Despite the point-blank range, however, the initial shelling was not as successful as one might have expected, with some of the shells failing to explode, others detonating in the trees, and a few sailing over the peninsula to drop harmlessly in the Bay of Danzig beyond.6 Nonetheless, as a veil of smoke and dust enveloped the peninsula, the first military death of the war was registered: 25-year old Rifleman Stefan Jezierski was killed instantly when a 20mm shell came through the observation window of his position in Guardhouse 3.7

  Given their dominance in firepower, it is perhaps understandable that the German attackers were confident of taking the depot ‘in ten minutes’.8 That optimism was not shared by all of those present, however. The Schleswig-Holstein’s captain, Gustav Kleikamp – a veteran of the Battle of Jutland and a former U-boat officer – had much to say in the ship’s log about the lack of adequate preparation and reconnaissance, writing a few days earlier that ‘informants had been given more credibility than the military planners, and no one had been told – even in August 1939 – what was intended for the Westerplatte’.9 He was especially concerned about the lack of adequate maps, given that a single example – ‘old, containing no details of buildings and munition stores’ – had been handed to the marine brigade’s commanders only the day before the attack.10 The marines would be advancing blind.

  Such concerns were dramatically realised at 4.55 a.m., when the Schleswig-Holstein’s guns fell silent, and the first landward assault began. Moving westward along the peninsula, the marines came under fire from all sides as soon as they passed what was left of the 2-metre wall that marked the boundary of the Westerplatte depot. If they were expecting a simple mopping-up operation, convinced that no one could have survived the bombardment, they were to be sorely disappointed. As they advanced, they soon found themselves under withering fire from the Polish positions, some of which were not visible to them and were not marked on their out-of-date maps.11 As their commander would later confess, at no time during that first assault did they even see the enemy.12

  The Poles, however, could see their attackers all too clearly. As one defender, stationed in a forward outpost, recalled:

  I saw how the Germans advanced. They had white canvas rucksacks, two long-handle hand grenades each and egg grenades in a bag, also of white canvas. They made very good targets, with their dark uniforms and white canvas bags, very easy to see from a distance. But we didn’t have to strain our eyes, because we let them come as close as 30–40 metres before we opened fire … Few of them came out alive.13

  Moving ahead in plain sight and unaware of their surroundings, the German marines were sitting ducks for the Polish defenders. Watching on from the Schleswig-Holstein, Captain Kleikamp noted with concern that despite the ‘continuing heavy fighting … the company seems to make only very slow progress’.14

  After an hour of fighting, the advance by the first wave of three marine platoons had ground to a halt, just inside the eastern perimeter of the Westerplatte depot. Taking heavy losses, with thirteen dead and fifty-eight wounded, the marines were forced to withdraw, the survivors convinced that Polish soldiers were even hiding in what remained of the treetops.15 Kleikamp noted glumly: ‘The Poles on the Westerplatte will not simply be overrun by a surprise attack.’16

that failure, the Schleswig-Holstein launched a second, more intensive bombardment of the Polish positions, this time lasting for almost an hour and using a further 46 tonnes of munitions.17 Again, the effect on the Westerplatte was devastating. As Lieutenant Leon Pająk recalled:

  The momentary calm is broken by the roar of cannons and explosions … The soldiers cling to the walls of the trench. A hail of shrapnel, splinters of tree branches and entire treetops rain down from the sky. Fountains of sand, a whirling cloud of smoke, the stench of sulphur and hot iron …

  Soon after, Pająk was hit in the stomach and groin, and lost consciousness.18

  When the bombardment was finished, shortly before 9 a.m., another ground assault was launched by the marine company, now reinforced by sixty men of the SS-Heimwehr Danzig, a Nazi militia raised from local volunteers. Initially the attack fared rather better than before, with forward units briefly reaching the ring of Polish guardhouses before being repelled. In the chaos that followed, however, the marines’ commanding officer, Second Lieutenant Wilhelm Henningsen, was mortally wounded, and the unit was again forced to withdraw.19 At 1 p.m. Henningsen’s deputy reported to the Schleswig-Holstein that ‘taking the Westerplatte with the storm company was impossible’.20

  Later that day, the marines’ acting commander reported to his superiors that success would only be achieved with the ‘complete destruction’ of the site, and requested that his unit – half of which had been ‘wiped out’ – be removed from the front line.21 The frustration he showed went all the way to the top. In his diary, the German army’s chief of staff, General Franz Halder, recorded the difficulty that the Polish defence of the Westerplatte was causing. ‘No heavy artillery,’ he wrote, ‘Schleswig maintains it cannot destroy [the bunkers], Stuka liaison maintains that they cannot hit them.’ With only a little exaggeration, he summed up the problem: ‘at least 20 modern concrete bunkers, with underground connection. Above ground, wire obstacles within thickly wooded area.’22

  Among the defenders, meanwhile, morale was good and losses were comparatively light, with only a few men wounded and four killed that day; as well as Stefan Jezierski, Sergeant Wojciech Najsarek was killed during the marines’ assault on the perimeter, and Corporal Andrzej Kowalczyk and Rifleman Bronisław Uss died of their wounds. ‘After the baptism of fire’, the garrison’s commander, Major Henryk Sucharski, recalled, ‘the crew maintains excellent combat spirit.’23 Clearly, the Westerplatte was not the easy target that the Germans had imagined.

  While the fighting raged on the Westerplatte that morning, another German assault was under way in the city itself, at the so-called Polish Post Office on Heveliusplatz. Poland had been granted an extraterritorial post office in Danzig under the Treaty of Versailles, to provide for the secure handling of postal traffic through the city. And as a prominent symbol of the Polish state, the post office inevitably became a target when the crisis peaked in the summer of 1939. In response, a combat engineer, Reserve Lieutenant Konrad Guderski, had been sent to bolster the building’s defences, while army reservists and militiamen had been transferred in to serve as the postal staff. By the morning of 1 September, the building contained fifty-eight people – including the manager’s wife and adopted daughter, eleven-year-old Erwina – along with rifles, machine guns and three crates of hand grenades. In the event of an attack, the defenders were ordered to hold out for six hours, by which time they would be relieved by the Polish army.24

  As at the Westerplatte, the German attackers at the post office – units of the SS-Heimwehr Danzig and the Danzig police – grievously underestimated their opponents. When the muffled boom of the Schleswig-Holstein’s guns sounded in the distance at 4.48 a.m., they began their assault, with a large-scale raid on the front of the building serving as a feint for an attempted breach of the rear. Both attacks failed, stymied by the preparedness and fierce resistance of the Polish defenders. Later that morning, two armoured cars were brought up, along with three artillery pieces, and the building was attacked again. Little was achieved, however. Polish machine-gun positions replied to each German assault with such venom that one attacker described the building as a ‘fire-spewing mountain’.25 Among the defenders, meanwhile, only Guderski had been killed, apparently by the blast of his own grenade while halting an attempted German incursion.26 ‘Even shelling with a heavy howitzer of the Wehrmacht could not bring the defenders to surrender,’ one SS veteran of the action recalled, adding that ‘the Poles defended their Post Office with extraordinary bravery’.27 Surprised by such determined resistance, the German commander, Police General Willi Bethke, ordered the evacuation of the surrounding buildings, fearful of collateral damage and doubtless wary of eye-witnesses to his actions. The Poles were then addressed by loudspeaker and informed that they had two hours to surrender. After that, they were told, the building would be destroyed.28

  In the late afternoon, after it had become clear that the Poles were not minded to submit – many of them assumed that they would be shot if they did so29 – the Germans resumed their attacks, with concentrated artillery fire finally forcing the defenders into the cellar. Then, Bethke delivered a bestial coup de grâce. Bringing up a tanker, he ordered that petrol was to be pumped into the building’s basement. A hand grenade would provide the ignition. As one survivor recalled: ‘Everything went up in flames [and] we in the cellar were suffocating with the gases. We decided, because of the overwhelming German advantage, to give ourselves up. When we cried out that we surrender, the Germans ignored us and continued the attack.’30 In desperation, the post office director, Dr Jan Michoń, who was already injured, staggered out waving a white cloth. To a shout of ‘Down with the Polish dogs!’ he was shot by the SS. Next, the postmaster, Józef Wąsik, attempted to surrender. He too was killed, engulfed according to some accounts by a blast from a flamethrower.31

  In the end, five of the defenders had been killed outright; a further six would die in the following days of their burns, including eleven-year-old Erwina.32 A few managed to escape via the rear of the building, but the remainder surrendered, emerging – with singed hair and blackened faces – to be delivered into the hands of the Danzig Gestapo. A month later, these survivors, along with four of those who had attempted to escape and been recaptured, would be tried before a military court as ‘irregulars’. Thirty-eight of them were subsequently executed by firing squad.33


  That morning, as the opening attacks of the war raged, Hitler took the stage in the Kroll Opera House in Berlin to deliver a speech to the assembled members of the Reichstag. The people of the German capital were in phlegmatic mood. Many of them would have listened to Hitler’s proclamation to his army, broadcast by radio from 5.40 a.m., in which he had raged about the ‘bloody terror’ of the Poles, and lauded Germany’s fight ‘for honour’.34 Consequently, when Hitler left the Reich Chancellery for the Kroll, all the usual precautions had been made for the demonstration of popular enthusiasm that was expected to result: barriers had been erected and SA and SS men were deployed to hold back the crowds. Except that there were no crowds. As Albert Speer noted, the streets of the capital were ‘strikingly quiet’ that morning, and the few Berliners who were present stared in silence as Hitler passed by. One of the regime’s regional party leaders, Gauleiter Karl Wahl, went further, claiming that there was ‘no enthusiasm’ for war, and that the entire German people ‘seemed seized by a paralysing horror’.35

  If Hitler shared such concerns that morning, he did not readily show them. Though he was outwardly calm and had slept well the night before, the nervous exhaustion of the previous few weeks was manifesting itself in other ways – stomach pains, headaches and toothache. As his valet recalled, Hitler’s breath at that time was ‘almost constantly foul’. Another member of his entourage remembered that his halitosis was so bad that those around him struggled not to step back in revulsion.36

  In the Kroll Opera, meanwhile, bedecked with swastika flags and with a vast golden eagle spanning the width of the s
tage, there was scarcely a seat to be had. Though many deputies were absent – Reichstag President Hermann Göring had only summoned members at 3.00 a.m. and some were serving in the Wehrmacht – the vacancies were taken by eager Nazi bigwigs and ambitious underlings, all keen to witness history. As German radio had been alive with accounts of the ‘Polish attacks’ at Gleiwitz and elsewhere the previous night, it was clear to all that the tensions of the summer were about to boil over. So Hitler, dressed in a smart field-grey tunic and dark trousers, took the podium in an atmosphere of hushed expectation.

  He began in rather halting, uncertain tones – as was his style – his rasping staccato delivery contrasting with Göring’s mellifluous words of introduction. As his voice rose, he revisited many of the themes that had fed his popularity and driven his rise to power: the iniquity of the Versailles Treaty, the perfidy of the Western Powers, Germany as the eternal victim. He also rounded on Poland: on Warsaw’s ‘unreasonable’ refusal to ‘settle the Corridor question’, its ‘slow strangling’ of the Free City of Danzig, and its ‘oppression of the Germans’. ‘No great power can long stand by passively and watch such events,’ he warned.37

  Increasingly interrupted by applause, Hitler grew more impassioned, elaborately rolling his r’s as he did so. Arriving at the meat of his speech, he revealed that ‘Polish atrocities’ had once again been committed the previous night: fourteen in total, three of which were ‘quite serious’, referring to Hochlinden, Pitschen and Gleiwitz. Posing as the innocent party, Hitler stated that his ‘patience had been mistaken for weakness’ and that he was now resolved ‘to speak to Poland in the same language that Poland for months past has used toward us’. After another short digression, he went on:

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