A Baltic outpost

Westerplatte is a peninsula located in the Bay of Gdańsk. Poland (formerly known as the Bay of Danzig) in the Baltic Sea.  After an independent Poland came into existence after the First World War, much of the area came under Polish control.

However, the historic and important port city of Danzig (now Gdańsk) located in this area, became a semi-autonomous independent city state – the ‘Free City of Danzig’. 

It was supposedly under the supervision of the League of Nations and locked into a customs union with Poland, but in reality – due to its high ethnic German population – became increasingly aligned with Hitler’s Germany.

1936 German Photo-reconnaissance photo of Westerplatte, showing the depot.

A new depot

In the aftermath of the 1921 Polish-Soviet War, the League of Nations granted Poland the right to post a small garrison in an ammunition depot in Westerplatte, despite the objections from the nearby city of Danzig. Despite the close proximity between the two locations, there was some attempt to maintain a degree of separation, via a barb wire topped, red brick wall and a harbour channel.

Officially titled he Depot for Polish Munitions (Wojskowa Składnica Tranzytowa), the 60-hectare area containing 22 warehouses, became officially operational in January 1926. Connected by a railway line to Poland (which ran through the territory of Danzig), the Polish garrison consisted of 88 men, including 2 officers and 20 NCO’s (Non-commissioned officers). It was the only military installation that Poland was permitted to build in the area.

1936 German photo-reconnaissance photograph showing the location of the Barracks (by the black arrow),  the old ammunition bunker on the lower far right of the photo and the Old Barracks and Officers Casino about the half way mark on the extreme right.

Tensions rising

Its very existence meant that any attempt by Hitler to ‘liberate’ ethnic Germans by annexing Danzig would inevitably bring his forces into conflict with the Polish garrison stationed close by. This led to a slow but steady building of tensions. By the early 1930’s, German politicians were pushing for ‘border adjustments’; the French government had started discussing a ‘preventative war’ while the Poles themselves showed their intent to defend their territory (and dissuade the Danzig authorities from trying to take full control of the local police and harbour) by briefly reinforcing their garrison to over double its original size.

Eventually a compromise of sorts was reached which resulted in Poland returning its Westerplatte garrison to its original size in return for the Danzig authorities relinquishing their claims on the police and harbour control. This proved to be only a temporary reprieve as secretly, the Poles started to increase the garrison defences with reinforced concrete, trenches, barricades, and barbed wire.

Another German aerial photo from 1936, showing the  
Harbour Canal and the Old Barracks in the extreme right of the picture.

Countdown to conflict

Although the situation remained relatively calm for a few years, in March 1939, Germany had annexed the nearby Lithuanian coastal area of Klaipėda, bringing the German border closer to Danzig and Westerplatte. Fearing a German attack of an uprising in Danzig, the Poles once again secretly reinforced their garrison (civilian workers would leave the depot dressed as Polish soldiers and actual Polish soldiers would replace them). Although the exact numbers are disputed, by August 1939, it was clear that the Poles had significantly reinforced their garrison with anything from 210 – 240 soldiers now present, including six officers:

    • Major Henryk Sucharski, (Commander)
    • Captain Franciszek Dąbrowski, (Second in command)
    • Captain Mieczysław Słaby,
    • Lieutenant Leon Pająk,
    • Lieutenant Stefan Ludwik Grodecki
    • Second Lieutenant Zdzisław Kręgielski


    Additionally, around twenty Polish civilians took up arms when fighting began, along with ten visiting Polish soldiers.

    The Polish commanders

    Major Henryk Sucharski, commander of the Polish garrison at Westerplatte.

    Captain Franciszek Dąbrowski, second-in command, Polish garrison.

    Captain Mieczyslaw Slaby, Polish garrison.

    Polish defences

    The Polish garrison was armed with the usual assortment of light arms: pistols, grenades, and about 160 rifles. They had supplemented their equipment with a 75mm field gun, two Bofors 37mm anti-tank guns, four 81 mm mortars and about 40 machine guns – 18 of which were classed as heavy variants.

    They further strengthened the defences, digging more trenches, constructing wooden barricades, and increasing the amount of barbed wire obstacles. They even stripped back trees and bushes in areas where they anticipated a German advance to reduce the amount of cover available to attackers.

    Expecting the Germans to attack across land, the Polish forces had constructed three lines of defence:

    • The outer line contained several fortified outposts – named Prom, Przystań, Łazienki and Wał - whose role was to simply delay and hamper the German advance in order to give the rest of the Polish forces chance to organise.
    • The second line of defence was situated around five guardhouses, numbers 1 through to 5.
    • The final line of defence was situated around the headquarters and barracks in the centre of the depot – also known as guardhouse 6.

    The Poles hinged their tactics on the expectation of having to hold out for twelve hours before reinforcements arrived from the Polish mainland.

    The SMS Schleswig-Holstein firing what is believed to be the first shot of the Second World War in the Westerplatte peninsula at dawn on 1 September 1939.

    Daily Mail Online

    Enter the Schleswig- Holstein

    However, on 25 August 1939, an elderly German warship – the pre-dreadnought battleship Schleswig-Holstein (built in 1904) - meandered its way into Danzig harbour. Officially, it was there on an official visit – which given the prominence of Danzig as a port, was not necessarily unexpected - and took anchor 150 metres from Westerplatte.

    The Schleswig-Holstein shelling Polish positions in Westerplatte, September 1939.

    However, onboard was a German Navy marine shock troop company (Marine Stosstrupp Kompanie) of 225 men commanded by a Lieutenant Wilhelm Henningsen, along with the overall commander of the operation, Captain Gustav Kleikamp. On land, the Germans had the 1500 men of the SS Heimwehr Danzig force under the command of Police General Friedrich-Georg Eberhardt. The attack was supposed to take place that morning, but Hitler delayed it, wanting to assess the ramifications of the Polish-British Common Defence Pact, signed the day before.

    Information on the Polish defences was vague, but the Danzig Police were confident that that "Westerplatte would be taken in 10 minutes." However, Eberhardt sensibly recognised that the Poles had probably anticipated some sort of attack and that overwhelming their defences may take a few hours.

    The German commanders

    Kapitan zur see Gustav Kleikamp, overall German Commander.

    Police General Friedrich-Georg Eberhardt, commander SS  Heimwehr 

    Oberleutnant  Wilhelm Henningsen,
    Commander  III Marine Stosstrupp Kompanie

    Map of the battle

    The first shots

    On 1st September 1939, what would generally be recognised as the first shots of the Second World War were fired. Interestingly, there was some confusion as to the exact time of these shots were actually fired though.

    Polish Historian Jarosław Tuliszka explains that 04:45 was the planned time, 04:47 was the time the order to fire was given and 04:48 was the actual time the Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on the Polish positions - smashing three holes in the WST perimeter wall and blowing up oil warehouses.

    Although no doubt the Poles found the experience of being suddenly shelled by a battleship alarming, the shells failed to do much damage – mainly due to the battleship firing at a much closer range than normal. The shells simply did not have time to arm and failed to explode properly on impact. Remarkably, the Poles suffered no casualties from this bombardment.

    Upon realising the Germans were attacking, Major Sucharski radioed the nearby Polish military base on the Hel Peninsula with the message "SOS: I'm under fire."

    When the railroad bridge was then destroyed, the over-confident German marines quickly attacked but blundered straight into an ambush. Barbed wire defences slowed them down and the Polish defenders had set up machine guns to catch attackers in a crossfire, inflicting casualties on the German attackers.

    Members of the German III Marine Stosstrupp Kompanie

    Eberhardt had ordered his Heimwehr soldiers to set up machine guns on top of warehouses situated across the canal in order to support the attack, but in a further blow to the Germans, these were knocked out by accurate Polish fire from their sole 75 mm field gun, commanded by Lieutenant Pająk.

    Not content with knocking out the machine guns, the Poles mortared the German infantry and turned their 37mm guns towards the Schleswig-Holstein itself and engaged it.


    The Poles also repulsed an attempt by the Danzig Police to land on the western side of the depot. Despite the German best efforts, the Poles suffered only two casualties, with a Polish soldier, Staff Sergeant Wojciech Najsarek, who was killed by machine-gun fire, being described as the first Polish combat casualty of the battle and perhaps of the Second World War.

    Destroyed Polish Guardhouse No.2 on Westerplatte.

    The German attack falters

    After over an hour of fighting, the Germans were still making no meaningful progress and at 06:22 started to withdraw and regroup.

    They had suffered around fifty casualties while the Poles were still relatively unscathed (by this point they had suffered just eight dead or wounded).  

    The Schleswig-Holstein launched another, longer bombardment of the Polish defences, lasting from 07:40 – 08:55, using 90 x 280mm shells, 407 x 150mm shells, and 366 x 88mm shells and managing to knock out the Polish 75mm field gun which had caused the Germans so many problems.

    The renewed shelling also forced the Poles to abandon some of their outposts.

    Smoke from burning oil and petrol tanks raising over the Polish Military Transit Depot (Wojskowa Składnica Transportowa) at Westerplatte..

    © IWM HU 106408   THE GERMAN-SOVIET INVASION OF POLAND, 1939 | Imperial War Museums (iwm.org.uk)

    At 08:35, the German assault troops attacked again but once more, found their progress hampered by the effective Polish defences, centred around their New Barracks in the centre of Westerplatte; fallen trees, barbed wire and accurate machine gun fire proved as effective as before. Eberhardt requested air support but bad weather over Westerplatte prevented any German aircraft intervening.

    At noon, the exhausted Germans retreated once more, having now suffered sixteen dead, including Lieutenant Henningsen, and one hundred and twenty wounded. A heavy cost for so little progress. In contrast, the well-prepared and tenacious Poles had suffered four dead and several wounded.

    Thus far the German attack was not going to plan. Clearly the rash estimate of it being taken “taken in 10 minutes” was well wide of the mark.

    The German Ju 87 Stuka dive bomber made a decisive contribution to the Battle of Westerplatte.

    The Stukas arrive

    After the failure of the first day, the German commanders reassessed the situation, re-examining reconnaissance photos and formulating a plan. They knew they had to reduce the effectiveness of the Polish defences before attempting a ground assault but over-estimated the strength and complexity of the Polish defences at Westerplatte, suspecting complex underground fortifications and well-built structures (they mistook six haystacks for camouflaged bunkers) and planned accordingly.

    On 2nd September, they once again bombarded Polish positions with both naval and land-based guns (including hefty 105mm and 210mm howitzers) and at 18:05 in the evening, the Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers appeared over the peninsula in two waves and embarked on intense and destructive bombing runs, dropping 26.5 tonnes (58,000 lb) of high explosive on the Polish defences.

    Scoring a direct hit on Guardhouse V with a 500-kilogram (1,100 lb) bomb, they obliterated the building, killing eight Polish soldiers in the progress.

    The air attacks also knocked out Polish mortars, their only radio and most of their food supply’s. Such was the destruction that Westerplatte was left shrouded in cloud of smoke and so many craters were left that it hampered the progress of ground forces.

    German soldiers at Westerplatte.

    Naval assault

    The Germans attacked from the sea on the 4th September, this time launching a surprise assault with a torpedo boat (T196) and an old minesweeper, the Von der Gronen. By this stage, the Poles only defence from an attack from the North was their positions in the fort outpost.

    Despite spirited resistance, the Poles were unable to damage the German naval units (although both the torpedo boat and Schleswig-Holstein suffered damage due to crew or equipment failure which further hampered their efforts.).

    By the 5th of September, the situation was looking grim for the Poles. Having anticipated only having to hold out for twelve hours, they had instead held out for four days, with there still being no sign of reinforcements arriving. Major Sucharski considered surrendering but his second-in-command, Captain Dąbrowski urged holding out longer so the Poles continued to resist.

    German troops withdraw with a wounded comrade.

    Attack of the fire trains

    On the 6th of September, the Germans launched a series of probing attacks, hoping to slowly wear the Poles down and avoid incurring heavy casualties like before. They even launched a burning train towards the Polish positions in the hope of setting fire to the oil supplies.

    However, this radical plan failed; when the petrified driver (no doubt aware of the perilous position he found himself in) decoupled the train prematurely. It missed the oil supplies and instead set fire to nearby woodland, the wood smoke providing the Poles with more cover and an effective field of fire in which they were able to inflict further heavy casualties on the advancing Germans. A second German attempt to launch a fire-train attack also failed.

    The badly damaged Guardhouse No5 after repeated German bombardments. 

    Close to the end

    Major Sucharski once again consulted with his officers and considered surrender. With the Invasion of Poland on 3rd September, German forces had made vast inroads into the country and were now outside the Polish capital, Warsaw. In Westerplatte, supplies were low, and the wounded were suffering – some with gangrene.

    (The previous month, medical supplies – including an operating table and set of surgical tools  - destined for the garrison, had been confiscated by customs inspectors at Danzig.)

    The Germans attacked again at 04:30 on 7th September, using flamethrowers and artillery to destroy the Polish positions are guardhouse I and IV. The trusty Schleswig-Holstein had once again added its immense firepower to the German bombardment.

    At 9:30 that morning, a white flag appeared over the Polish positions as the Poles finally surrendered. Their valiant efforts had not gone unnoticed by their enemy; the Germans allowed Major Sucharski to keep his ceremonial Szabla (Polish sabre) as he went into captivity (although it was later confiscated) and the German soldiers stood to attention as the Polish defenders marched out at 11:30. The German flag was finally raised on Westerplatte on 8th September 1939, about a week later than originally anticipated.

    Polish soldiers captured during the battle.

    © IWM


    What had initially been presumed would be a straightforward and brief operation for the Germans, turned into a week-long operation, involving 3000 soldiers, naval personnel, and members of the Danzig Police.

    They had suffered 50 killed and 150 wounded in contrast to the valiant Poles who had suffered 15 dead and 40 wounded. Four of the dead Poles had apparently been executed by the Poles themselves for attempted desertion, an incident the Germans became aware of when they stumbled upon their graves after the battle.

    Sadly, another Polish soldier, Sergeant Kazimierz Rasiński, a radio operator, lost his life after the battle when he was murdered by the Germans after he refused to reveal his radio codes.

    The German flag flies over Westerplatte on 8th September 1939

    © IWM

    Polish prisoners at the end of the battle.


    After the capitulation of Westerplatte, the Germans captured a sizeable amount of weapons from the Polish defenders.



    Although referred to as the opening battle of the Second World War, it was one of several engagements that happened around this period. By the time the battle started, the German air force, the Luftwaffe, had already bombed several Polish airfields and a nearby bridge in Tczew. The Gliewitz Incident – the Operation Himmler false flag operation, had already occurred a few hours earlier (although this was not a conventional battle). Additionally, the Second Sino-Japanese war had started in 1937 and is considered by some historians to be the actual start of the Second World War.

    However, the Battle of Westerplatte was (and continues to be) of symbolic importance to the Polish people, demonstrating heroic resolve on the part of the Poles in being able to defy the more powerful German forces for a week.

    Westerplatte plaque torn by bullets and shrapnel.


    The battle inspired the Polish Army with Polish radio continually broadcasting: "Westerplatte broni się jeszcze" ("Westerplatte fights on") during the early stages of the German invasion of Poland.

    The Polish actions as Westerplatte tied up significant German forces for a longer than anticipated period and prevented the aging but still formidable Schleswig-Holstein from assisting in the German actions at Hel and Gdynia.

    Even later in the war, the name continued to inspire the Poles. In 1943, the Polish 1st Armoured Brigade was named the Defenders of Westerplatte. That same year, the Polish Underground State named a street after Westerplatte; and in 1944, during the Warsaw Uprising, an insurgent stronghold was named Westerplatte.

    Westerplatte barracks, 2005