The Story of the Gdansk Shipyards

27 Mar 2017

The word shipyard is synonymous with Gdansk, due in the main to the social and political phenomenon that was Solidarity, the trade union movement which exploded out of the shipyard amid the strikes of 1980. Since then, the name Gdansk for many has conjured up images of masses of striking workers led by a small man with a bushy moustache, while in the background hulked the giant cranes of the shipyard – the Lenin Shipyard. Well it appears that this shipyard is about to change forever and in doing so reflect changes, more than anywhere else in Gdansk, that it helped bring about over 30 years earlier.

In the spring of 2013 plans were presented to the public showing the future of a large swath of the Gdansk Shipyard. These plans, as we will see later, propose to revitalise this historic area and to re-connect it to the main city of Gdansk a short distance away along the Motlawa river. The new development is to be called Mlode Miasto (Young City) and while this name might look like the result of months of work by a high-powered PR agency’s image team, it in fact in recognition of the first organised settlement of the area over 600 years ago.

Although work connected to ship building and maintenance continues in many parts of the shipyard area today, the bulk of what was once the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk has slowly been rotting away since the fall of communism. The collapse of the system which Solidarity helped to bring about, saw demand for ships that were built here to collapse as well. The yard today stands largely empty and as work begins on the initial projects relating to the creation of Young City Gdansk, there is an opportunity to take a look at what is left of this historic area. We’ll tell you how and what to look out for but first of all let’s look at the story of how this great place came about.

History – The Teutonic Young City

In the near 650-year history of activity and organised settlement on this site, shipbuilding is a relatively new industry here. The area first came to prominence in the times of the Teutonic Knights, who in 1380 developed an area to the north-east of the existing city of Gdansk to create competition for the powerful Main Town and Old Town. Located at the point where the Motlawa river joins the Martwa Wisla (Dead Vistula) river, the Knights’ new district couldn’t be called New Town as this was an area already incorporated in the Main Town. They therefore settled on Jungstadt or Young City and began to develop an area which seems to have been close to where the Hotel Gryf is found today. As they expanded their trade interests, the Knights expanded their settlement adding a market square, church, hospitals and a monastery. At the time in their history the Knights were probably at the height of their powers but things began to change when their enemies, the Poles and the Lithuanians formed an alliance in 1386 with the marriage of the Polish Queen Jadwiga and the Grand Duke Jogaila of Lithuania. Now as King Wladyslaw II Jagiello of Poland, Jogaila set about putting previous differences with his cousin Vytautas to one side and building the force needed to drive the Knights out of their lands which stretched from Slupsk in the west all the way up to Estonia.

This came to a head with the Battle of Grunwald (Battle of Tannenberg in German) in 1410. This defining battle in European history saw the joint Lithuanian-Polish force beat the Knights on the battlefield only to allow the remains of their army to fall back to their fortress city of Malbork. The Knights were broken however and over the following decades their influence and power deserted them. In 1455 King Kazimierz IV Jagiellonczyk ordered the liquidation of Jungstadt and the expulsion of the remaining Knights.

Napoleon to the Kaiser

Now outside the city walls of Gdansk, the area was used for growing timber and warehousing in the following centuries while also forming part of the city’s outer defensive ring with some fortifications built. Poland suffered partition by its powerful neighbours Hapsburg Austro-Hungary, Prussia and Russia in the last part of the 18th century and Gdansk (now Danzig) found itself under Prussian control until 1807 when Napoleon’s army, containing Polish troops, marched east and took it. Napoleon saw Gdansk as important in his overall strategy and in the same year created a free city state. The city’s fortifications were strengthened and this included new fortifications in Young City. The Free City was besieged by Prussians and Russians in 1813 and after the defeat of Napoleon, the city found itself back under Prussian control following the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

The Prussians set about improving their defences and in 1844 the Prussian government bought land around the site of Young City where they built a shipyard for their navy. This was named the Royal Shipyard Danzig (Königliche Werft Danzig) and though shipbuilding had a long tradition in the city this appears to be the point that shipbuilding on a large scale and on this land seems to have begun. Initially planned to be a place for the Prussian Navy to anchor and undergo repairs, very soon the Royal Shipyard was expanded to be able to produce vessels and the first was launched in 1853. Over the next two decades the Royal Shipyard produced a series of battleships and Danzig became a key player in the development of the Prussian Navy changing its name to the Imperial Shipyard (Kaiserliche Werft Danzig) following the creation of the German Empire in 1871. The years that followed saw investment in land, machinery and logistics to facilitate the building of more and bigger warships as Germany attempted to become a naval superpower. This was good news for the Imperial Shipyards which became the city’s largest employer and by the early part of the 20th century was estimated to be employing over 6,000 people.

The Boom Years

This boom in shipbuilding attracted a man called Ferdinand Schichau, a shipbuilder from the city of what is today Elblag (Elbing) just to the south east of Gdansk. Schichau had also been benefiting from the determination of new German Emperor Wilhelm II to create a navy to match that of the British and spotted an opportunity to expand his operation in Danzig. Schichau negotiated to buy a tract of land and shoreline further along the Dead Vistula (Martwa Wisla), adjacent to the north of the Imperial Shipyard and work started in April 1890. The Navy insisted on authorising much of Schichau’s development but that was just part of his problems. The land he had taken on was wet and required a lot of work to make it suitable for building. But this didn’t hold Ferdinand Schichau back and he went ahead and built six slipways, the longest of which stretched over 200m. The intention was clear. Now that he had access to the sea Schichau was going to build big ships – cruise liners, heavy cruisers and battleships.

The first ship’s keel was laid in 1891 while construction of the yard was still going on and the orders continued to come pouring in. Ferdinand died in 1896 but his heirs found themselves at the head of a very profitable organisation which continued to build not just warships but large passenger vessels. The firm were innovative developing specialist vessels like dredgers and tankers. World War I saw production switched entirely to warships and Schichau again demonstrated their versatility by building submarines and interestingly beginning construction of the first giant Graf Spee.

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