Poland as a defined nation had existed in various shapes and sizes from the year 966, its composition being altered over the centuries by wars and alliances before the Prussians, Russians and Austrians succeeded in removing it entirely from the map in 1795 with the 3rd partition. The doughty Poles were not to be defeated, and continued to fight for their own colour on the globe, succeeding finally in regaining independence in 1918 at the end of World War I when the state was recreated at the Treaty of Versailles. The new nation required access to the sea and, having failed to convince the powers to place the important city and port of Gdansk/Danzig under Polish control, the final borders of this new nation instead included a narrow strip of land for Poland along the Baltic Sea coast.
Located between the newly created Free City of Danzig (Gdańsk) and the German province of East Prussia to the east, and West Prussia to the west, this strip of coastline was reached by what was infamously to become known as the “Polish Corridor”, an avenue of land connecting the bulk of the country with the sea. The biggest port in this part of the Baltic coast at the time was Danzig, a city with a 900 year history. However many citizens there, as well as the German government who continued to exercise huge influence over the decision making of the Free City rulers, were unsympathetic to the needs of the new Polish state. This was clearly demonstrated when the port of Danzig refused to unload French armaments for Polish forces engaged in the 1920 Polish-Soviet War.
The Polish Government were therefore determined to build a new seaport at the top of the ‘corridor’ and the place they settled on was the small fishing village of Gdynia. The development of Gdynia into a major port was seen as critical for the economic independence of the new country and the story of this development was to reflect, not just one of the most incredible building projects of all time, but also the determination of a nation and its people to survive and to flourish in a new era of European history.
The development of GdyniaAlthough Gdynia had first appeared in records in 1253 as a small Kashubian fishing village by 1789 it had only increased in size to a settlement of a mere 20 houses. About 80 years later, as the West Prussian village of Gdingen, it had developed slightly, with a recorded population of around 1200, some restaurants and accommodation for holidaymakers. But it was as part of the new Poland that a plan was put in train in 1920 to transform it utterly, a plan which was accelerated by the passing in the Polish parliament (Sejm) of the Gdynia Seaport Construction Act in 1923.
The new port to be carved out of the Baltic coast was to be located in this former fishing village: the Hel Peninsula provided protection from strong winds, the sea in the area was deep and usually free of ice in winter, and an existing railway was just 2 kilometres distant. Under chief port designer Tadeusz Wenda, building of the port began in 1921, but financial problems caused delays and, in 1922, the Polish Parliament decided to light a fire under proceedings. By 1923, Gdynia had a small harbour, a 550-metre long pier and a wooden breakwater, and the port was visited by its first major ocean-going vessel and its first foreign ship, the French Kentucky.
In late 1924, the Polish government engaged a French-Polish consortium to build a harbour with a depth of seven metres, and by the following year Gdynia had gained further piers, a railway and cargo-handling equipment. However, work continued at quite a slow pace until 1926 when Polish exports increased during a German-Polish trade war and as a result of a British miners’ strike. By late 1930, docks and industrial facilities had been built, and the port was finally connected to the Upper Silesian industrial and coal-producing centres by the newly constructed Polish Coal Trunk Line railway. Poland’s first passenger shipping line, from Gdynia to New York, also started up and over subsequent years famous ships like the MS Batory and MS Chrobry were to link Gdynia with transatlantic locations.