September 1, 1939, is forever etched in the history books as the day the world went to war. The world would never be the same again, and it started here, seventy-five years ago, with Danzig/Gdansk as the opening gambit in Hitler’s vile master plan.
PreludeEndlessly caught in a tug-of-war between Germany and Poland, the end of World War One saw the League of Nations come up with a hare-brained solution to the ceaseless bickering – it matched the city to neither suitor, instead assigning it the title of Free City of Danzig. Despite the large German speaking population, the country was in no condition to look after the population for one while giving it to the newly reformed Polish state was a gamble; would the Poles side with their Slavic brothers to the east and turn red? Anything was possible in this volatile post-war Europe, and the thought of Danzig/Gdansk – then a hugely important international trading route – falling into the hands of the communists was all too much. And so it was that Danzig/Gdansk became a semi-independent state, an answer that pleased neither Germans nor Poles.
Nonetheless the region thrived, and the two communities continued to live together as they had for centuries; now though the Germans controlled the State senate, the police and much of the business, while the Poles dominated the railways, port authority and had their own postal service. The rise of Hitler changed all that, and bitter rivalries soon came to the surface after his election in next door Germany. Anti-Polish sentiment spread rapidly, and by 1935 the local police force had started keeping tabs on any Pole seen as a threat to the German way.
The rise in tensions wasn’t met with surprise by the Poles. In 1925 the League of Nations had bowed to pressure and consented to the deployment of a token 88-man Polish force across the water from the Free City on the Polish controlled Westerplatte Peninsula. As the years went on, and Hitler’s posturing became ever more threatening, the Poles continued to covertly strengthen their foothold, smuggling in military hardware and secretly building fortifications in breach of League of Nations decrees. To all intents and purposes Westerplatte was guarded by a crack unit, whose unspoken remit was to be able to hold out for one day should the Germans attack, thereby giving other Polish units enough time to rescue Gdansk from Nazi claws.
OutbreakOn August 31, 1939, Nazi units dressed in Polish uniform infamously staged a mock attack on a radio tower in the German border town of Gleiwitz (now Gliwice). Pictures of the victims (actually corpses of concentration camp inmates dressed in German uniforms) were flashed across the world, with Hitler claiming a provocative attack by the Polish army. The following dawn, Germany launched a strike on Westerplatte, an attack that would ultimately kick off World War II.
Popular theory asserts the first shots were fired from the German warship the Schleiswig Holsten, supposedly visiting Gdansk on a goodwill mission. Wrong. Logbooks recovered by the Nowy Port Lighthouse prove beyond doubt that the German battleship was pre-empted by a matter of three minutes by a gun emplacement nestled halfway up the lighthouse. The Poles, taken aback, missed this target entirely. Second time round they scored a direct hit, credited to a Pole called Eugeniusz Grabowski, thereby in all likelihood making the lighthouse gunners the first casualties in a war that would go on to claim 55 million lives.
The German shelling of Westerplatte was simultaneously supported by infantry attacks on the Westerplatte gateway, with the Polish defenders repelling repeated attempts at advance by the navy storm troopers. At precisely the same time this assault had begun, another equally ferocious battle was being waged at the small post office in the city’s then-called Hevelius Square. Detachments of German police and SS laid siege to the 50 Polish post workers inside, who put up a brave struggle for over 17 hours until casualties became intolerable, part of the building collapsed and the Germans began to attack with flamethrowers.