German Battleship Opens War at Fort Westerplatte—Polish Troops Fought Hard for 28 Days

Westerplatte Monument in memory of the Polish defenders. Ruined barracks in Westerplatte Peninsula, Gdańsk, Poland.

Polish American Journal, September 2019

By Catherine A. Hamilton

On September 1, 1939—the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on Poland’s Fort Westerplatte at the port of Gdansk at 4:45 in the morning, trapping men inside the burning barracks. A garrison of 182 Polish soldiers returned fire immediately and held off the invasion at Gdansk. The ship had docked at the harbor feigning a friendship visit before opening fire on the sleeping men.

The port attack was the first move in a full scale invasion across the western borders of Poland, from the north at Prussia, the northwest at Pomerania and the southwest at Czechoslovakia and Silesia. Nazi tanks tore across border towns and villages, killing an unknown number of innocent civilians first thing that same morning in the unprovoked attack. Marshal Edward Smigly-Rydz decried the attack as barbarous.

The 370,000 regular Army and 2.8 million Polish reserves defended the borders with fierce counterattacks, causing the Germans to retreat in many locations, giving Hitler the message that Poland was not going to comply with Nazi demands and intimidation.

Air raids hit nine Polish air bases and destroyed 17 emergency landing fields before sunrise. By 7 a.m., on 1 September, 54 Polish planes from the Warsaw Fighter Brigade, Air Force, taking off from bombed runways, intercepted a fleet of 80 bombers and 20 Messerschmitt fighters. The Polish planes downed scores of bombers and fighter planes, breaking up the air raid.

Thousands of troops remained engaged in defensive actions up and down the western border, as many others were repositioning in the interior to stave off further incursion by Nazi troops.

Hitler’s Propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels, tried to justify the invasion of Poland by accusing Polish military of crossing the border, taking over a remote radio station in Gleiwitz, Germany by force. The Nazi controlled media in Germany claimed to have eye witnesses who saw the raid and purported to have photos of the bodies of twelve Polish soldiers who were shot dead by the Nazi police.

Polish army commander Marshal Smigly reportedly stated that not one of the 40 military divisions or any reserves would have been wasted time or ammunition on the hold-up of a civilian radio station. Not one Polish solider had stepped foot over the border.

According to Marshal Smigly the attack on the German radio station was set up and carried out by the Nazis themselves. The bodies were recovered at the radio station by Polish military and it has been confirmed by military intelligence that the dead men were dressed in Polish-style uniforms but were neither Polish citizens, nor members of the Polish military.

By September 3, 1939—The Polish army smashed its way across the Northern border into East Prussia, driving Nazi troops from towns along the way. “On the northern front,” according to General Anders documents of the Novogrodek Cavalry, “we stopped the Nazis from driving a barrier across the corridor.” Hitler’s troops fell back behind their borders after a brutal assault. “Hitler has met with resistance,” according to General Anders’ documents. “Poland was attacked and her men were ready to die to defend her freedom. We will not lay down our arms without a battle. But we do not battle without the hope that the West will keep their promise,” Anders was reported to have said.

On that third day of a devastating war launched on Poland, not one ally had moved into position against Hitler’s treacherous attack—despite the fact that France and the United Kingdom had declared war on Germany. Only five months earlier, British Prime Minister Chamberlain promised to do “everything possible” and to give “full support” in the event of Nazi aggression.

Now that the war against the National Socialist Workers Party was being fought on Polish soil, the silence of France and England was deafening. “One can only wonder if we will fight alone,” said Mikolaj Drobniewski of the Warsaw city council.

On September 14, the Polish Army Group of Pomerania launched its counterattack near Lowicz, causing the Germans to withdraw their forces from the battle of the Vistula River. And every 30 seconds the radio broadcast out of Warsaw played snippets of a Chopin polonaise—proving the city was still in Polish hands.

But on 17 September, the Russians, Hitler’s new ally, marched across the Poland’s eastern borders, encircling trapped Polish troops. Skirmishes broke out between Polish troops and the two super powers that met in mid-Poland. The Polish commander in charge of the defense of Warsaw, General Julius Rommel refused to surrender, and made an appeal for the world’s “promised” aid.

Neither the Polish people of Warsaw nor the troops were demoralized. They were ready to defend the nation. From 22-25 September, Warsaw was under fierce artillery and air bombardment.

The end came on 27 September. Rommel surrendered. The city had no water, no electricity, and no telephone. And the radio broadcast replaced the polonaise with Chopin’s funeral dirge.

On 28 September, before the Germans entered Warsaw, the Polish military held the first of its clandestine meetings in the Warsaw town hall.

To those who continued their fight in the battlefields, in the streets, and in the sewers, the lyrics to Poland’s national anthem, “Mazurek Dąbrowskiego,” were as true that day as they were when written in 1797: “Poland has not yet perished, so long as we still live.”

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