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A large protective peninsula shielding Gdańsk's Nowy Port to its south, Westerplatte achieved infamy as the military zone where the opening shots of WWII were exchanged and would begin the conflict that would claim an estimated 70 to 85 million lives and profoundly shaped the world as we see it today. Today, Westerplatte is one of the most popular tourist sites in Gdańsk and Poland and an essential visit for those with that eternal fascination with World War Two.
Prior to 1939, however, most people who knew the name Westerplatte had a very different association with the area. In 1830, much like neighbouring Sopot, the peninsula was developed as a health resort in the mid-19th century and was a popular spot for Danziger beachgoers.
The Polish troops on Westerplatte were in effect a crack unit, by now numbering around 200 troops, whose orders were to hold for 24 hours in the event of an attack to give air, ground and sea forces the opportunity to support them from mainland Poland. The speed and strength of the German attack put paid to that plan almost immediately with the Polish navy caught out in the Bay of Gdańsk and the bulk of the air support from Puck destroyed on the ground.
Yet the troops on Westerplatte continued to hold out despite coming under intense bombardment by air, sea and 3,500 troops on the ground. The hope was that France and Great Britain, who joined the war on September 3, would provide support but this never materialised.
Eventually, on September 7, lack of water, ammunition and medical supplies convinced the commanding officer, Major Henryk Sucharski, to surrender the Poles’ heavily damaged stronghold. He and his troops left Westerplatte to salutes from their captors in recognition of their bravery in a battle that had cost just 15 Polish lives.
The battle, while of little strategic importance to the outcome of the battle for the city, still represents a source of immense pride for many Poles who recognise the bravery of their countrymen in their resistance to one of the country's traditional foes.