Saturday 16 November 2013

The First Shots of the Second World War

A month ago I took a road trip through Poland and Kaliningrad with a group of friends. This post concerns our jumping off point in the fascinating city of Gdansk in Poland. Prior to the start of WWII Gdansk was known as Danzig. In the inter war period the city held the designation of 'Free' on the basis that it was nominally a demilitarised trading port situated in Poland (sandwiched between Germany to the West and Prussia to the East).
Flats built on the site of the old dockyard in Gdansk
In 1939 the Nazi propaganda machine had attempted to convince the German people that Danzig was a German city. It was a 'goodwill' visit by the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein on the 25th of August which heralded the opening of hostilities. At 4:47 the guns of the battleship opened up on the military installations located on the Westerplatte. The Westerplatte is a thin isthmus of land with striking views of the harbour area. In the 1930s the League of Nations sanctioned the deployment of 88 Polish soldiers on this strategically important ground.
Start of Seaward Westerplatte Defence Line
At the time of the attack on the 1st September 1939 the garrison had been secretly increased to 176 men and 6 officers. They were armed with one 75mm gun, two 37mm Bofors antitank gun, four mortars and a number of machine guns. Their brief was to hold on for 12 hours until the Polish Army arrived. The Westerplatte came under concentrated attack by marines from the Schhleswig-Holstein and Wehrmacht Pioneers. The garrison did not succumb for seven days.
Southern Wing of Polish Barrack Block on the Westerplatte
Nowadays the site has been turned into a commemorative site. There is a huge memorial at the highest point on the peninsular with a wide roadway cutting right through the site of the old barracks. The remaining military structures are now preserved with explanatory panels providing every detail of the events of that first week in September 1939. Sadly the T34 which used to sit on the foundations of the old Westerplatte Guardhouse has been removed. I don't know why.
Bomb Crater in Gdansk (Danzig)
The city itself has plenty of other sites associated with WWII. There are bomb craters still evident in most areas. One of the more interesting structures is a massive Naval command bunker. Photographs taken in 1945 show this bunker as the only remaining structure after repeated bombing raids. Now the bunker is a night club. Internal features such as pipework and signage have been incorporated into the internal design.
The Bunker Nightclub, Gdansk
Some readers will know that there is a new WWII museum being built in Gdansk. It is a massive undertaking which will draw many tourists into the city. Near the site of the museum is a particularly evocative spot where the first shots of the war were fired in the city itself. This is Danzig Post Office where 52 workers put up a stubborn defence until artillery was brought to bear on the building. 38 survivors surrendered and were subsequently sentenced to death as franc-tireurs. Four escaped and survived.
Then & Now - Gdansk (Danzig) Post Office
Memorial to the Defence of Danzig Post Office
The road in front of the Post Office has been redirected and the area is dominated by a very impressive steel monument. Inside thePost Office (which is still operational) there is a fascinating little museum which contains a detailed exposition covering the defence of the city. Behind the building there is a separate memorial marking the execution of the defenders albeit not in the spot where this atrocity happened.