Defences at Hel Peninsula

Hel Peninsula as seen from Landsat satellite in 2000.


The Poles had long realised the strategic importance of the Hel Peninsula, a 35-kilometre-long sand bar peninsula which extends out between the Bay of Puck and the Baltic Sea and had built a naval port there.

In 1936, the north section was officially designated a fortified area - Helski Rejon Umocniony - after several years of construction. Although not completed by the outbreak of the war, the increasing tensions between Poland and Germany had ensured that the fortifications had been reinforced.

Map showing battle on 25 September 1939.

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Polish forces

The fortified area consisted of anti-shipping and anti-aircraft batteries, including:

Coastal Artillery Division

  • Four 152mm (6 inch) guns.
  • Two 105mm (4.1 inch) guns.
  • Three batteries, each consisting of eight 75mm (3 inch) guns.
  • 162 soldiers

2nd Naval Anti-aircraft artillery division

  • Six 75mm guns
  • Eight 40mm (1.6 inch) guns
  • Seventeen machine guns
  • Two 120cm (47 inch) searchlights
  • 1000 soldiers

Border Defence Corps (KOP) unit, Hel KOP Battalion (Commander Major Jan Wiśniewski)

  • Four 75mm guns
  • Six 37mm guns
  • Sixty-Two machine guns
  • Two large mortars
  • Nine small mortars
  • 1197 soldiers

Rear Admiral Włodzimierz Steyer was in overall command of the fortified area and Rear Admiral Józef Unrug also had his headquarters there, reinforcing the defences with soldiers from Gdynia.

SMS Schleswig-Holstein fires on Hel Peninsula during the battle.

By September 1939, on the eve of hostilities breaking out, the Poles had – on paper at least – an impressive force stationed on the narrow Hel Peninsula – almost 3000 soldiers and the strongest artillery defences in Poland.

However, the coastal artillery – as impressive as they were - would prove no match for any German capital ships which appeared.

And the Polish air defences were simply not strong enough to deter any determined German air assaults.

The Polish Naval Air squadron planes stationed at the nearby town of Puck were too few in number and inferior in quality to the modern and numerous German Luftwaffe aircraft.  

The 19th century lighthouse on Hel Peninsula.

During the Battle of Hel  the lighthouse was blown up.


It was later rebuilt in 1942

German Assault

At 13:30 on 1st September 1939, the German Luftwaffe attacked the Polish Coastal batteries, attempting to knock them out. A second air raid that day at 18:00 focussed on the Polish ships in the port and managed to damage the ORP Mewa, a minesweeper.

Air raids continued throughout the following day as the Germans continued to maintain pressure on the Poles and attempt to smash their defences. On the 3rd, the Poles hit back with the destroyer ORP Wicher and the large minelayer ORP Gryf, along with supporting Polish coastal batteries, exchanging fire with two German destroyers 9 nautical miles away, the Z1 Leberecht Maass and Z9 Wolfgang Zenke.

This turned out to be the only naval engagement between Polish and German warships for the duration of the Invasion of Poland and proved inconclusive, with both the Z1 Leberecht Maass and ORP Gryf sustaining damage and casualties - four German dead and seven Polish dead, although the German destroyers were forced to withdraw under the cover of smoke.

Z1 Leberecht Maass

Z9 Wolfgang Zenke


Luftwaffe Successes

Although the German ships ultimately retreated, the Germans returned in the air and the Luftwaffe scored a dramatic success, sinking the Gryf, Wicher and Mewa, along with seriously damaging the Polish gunboat ORP General Haller which was abandoned and sunk on the 6th September, along with the gunboat ORP Komendant Piłsudski, though largely undamaged, suffered the same fate.

This shattered any pretence of Polish naval power in the region, with the sinking of their most powerful ships leaving them with just a few, smaller light vessels still active – no match for the powerful Kriegsmarine (German navy) which included Heavy Cruisers and the aging but still dangerous battleship Schweig-Holstein in the area.

A small positive in an otherwise disastrous day for the Poles, were the survivors of the sunken Polish vessels being able to join in with the defence of the Hel Peninsula. And due to the Gryf being sunk in the harbour, they managed to salvage two of its 120mm guns to add to the garrison’s shore batteries.

Wreck of the Gryf.

German Land Assault

Elsewhere in Poland during that first week, the Wehrmacht pushed the Polish Armia Pomorze back from the Danzig corridor, strengthen the German hold on this territory. Once the Germans had also secured the town of Puck, they then focussed their intentions of clearing out the Polish forces on the now isolated Hel Peninsula.

On 9th September, German troops – which included the 42 Border Guard Regiment and the 5th Cavalry Regiment – commenced their assault, forcing the Poles into a slow yet inexorable retreat towards the Port on Hel Peninsula.

By the 10th September, the Germans had captured the nearby village of Swarzewo and the town of Władysławowo which sat at the base of the peninsula on the 11th. The Germans were slowly starting to gain a foothold. In response, the Poles fortified the next village which would be targeted by the advancing Germans – Chałupy – which sat further up the peninsula.

However, with the Poles now bottled up and isolated, the Germans took their time and prepared for the next phase of the assaults.

A German soldier discovers Polish peasants hiding out in a deep crater caused by a bomb, during the Invasion.

End of the Polish Naval contingent

During the night of 12/13th September, the surviving Polish light minelayers laid a minefield close to the Hel Peninsula. The following day though saw a Luftwaffe raid which inflicted further losses on the Polish Navy – the ORP Jaskółka and ORP Czapla were sunk in the port of Jastarnia and the last surviving minelayers – the Czajka, Rybitwa, and Żuraw were damaged.

With these further blows the Polish Navy accepted the German naval superiority, docked their remaining ships in Hel and sent the crews ashore to join the defenders on land. Various guns and armaments were also stripped from these surviving vessels and added to the Peninsula defences on land.

ORP Mewa with her twins ORP Rybitwa, Czajka and Jaskółka

Enter the Deutschland class

With the Poles now seemingly penned in on the narrow strip of land, the Germans sent in the trusty Deutschland-class battleship, the Schleswig-Holstein, whose shots had started the Second World War at the Battle of Westerplatte, its massive guns continuing to be an asset during this phase of the fighting. Once more, the Schleswig-Holstein acted as a huge floating battery and once the Westerplatte garrison had surrendered, it was able to focus its guns on the Polish defenders at both Gdynia and Hel, shelling both. It was joined in its endeavours by another elderly Deutschland-class Battleship, the Schlesien. These bombardments lasted on and off until the 27 September, with the Schleswig-Holstein suffering slight damage at the hands of Polish coastal batteries.

During this period, there were numerous Luftwaffe air raids which targeted the Polish defence son Hel. However, unlike the Polish Navy, the Polish anti-aircraft batteries had more luck, shooting down around 50 German aircraft.

Back on land, the Germans found the going tough against determined Polish resistance. They brought up artillery batteries and even an armoured train to try and break the Polish resistance. Despite their efforts though, the Germans were still only able to make gradual progress, as the Poles fought back determinedly. At some point between 25 – 30 September (historical sources disagree on the exact date), when the Germans (374th Infantry Regiment and the 207th Light Artillery Regiment) took the village of Chalupy, the Poles responded by detonating torpedo warheads at the narrowest point of the peninsula, with the resulting destruction wrecking the railway line and temporarily transforming the Polish held end of the peninsula into an island.   

The Luftwaffe were effective throughout the Invasion of Poland. Here are the effects of a bombing run in September 1939.


By the 1st October, Polish supplies were running low, two mutinies had occurred, and no relief seemed likely. With this in mind, and to prevent any further unnecessary death and destruction, the Polish Navy’s commander, Rear Admiral Józef Unrug, ordered the Polish forces to surrender, with negotiations for s ceasefire taking place on 30Sept/1 Oct and the Polish personnel becoming prisoners-of-war on the 2nd October. A few Poles managed to escape across the Baltic Sea in the few remaining light naval craft or civilian vessels to neutral Sweden, but most were marched into captivity.

Polish prisoners at Hel Peninsular

T. Luzzutto - Pintrest


  • Despite the determination of both sides, casualties were relatively light. The Poles suffered 50 dead and 150 wounded. The Germans suffered a similar number of casualties.
  • 3,600 Poles were taken prisoner – a mixture of soldiers and naval personnel.
  • Any remaining Polish craft at Hel were either scuttled or captured by the Germans. And those that were scuttled were usually re-floated after a few weeks and pressed into German service.

This memorial commemorates the Polish defenders of the Hel peninsula who fell during heavy fightings in 1939. The inscription on the pedestal reads:
"Defenders of Hel - 01.IX.-02.X.1939 - Against Fascism - 40 years existence of defence."

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Remnants of war: Modern photo of a fire control bunker at Hel.

Old gun emplacement at Hel.