In the run up to World War II the city of Gdansk was an independent city under the League of Nations called Danzig – the League of Nations was a predecessor of the United Nations which was founded after World War II. Just north of the city of Danzig was Poland’s only sea port – hence it was a strategic important location for Poland which could only trade with the outside world through this port or via Germany and the Soviet Union or countries controlled by Nazi Germany.
When the war broke out in September 1939 the first battle took place just north of Gdansk at a small polish border post at Westerplate which controlled the Polish harbor. The area was only lightly defended by a polish army so it should be an easy target for the powerful German army in case of war. Though the polish army had feared an attack so they had secretly brought in a bit of reinforcement and prepared some storage of ammunition in case of war.
The battle started when the battleship Schleswig Holstein opened fire at 04.48 on September first 1939. This was the very first shots fired during the war. This bombardment wasn’t very effective because the battleship was firing from to close range – therefore the heavier shells from the bombardment didn’t have enough time to arm themselves and didn’t explode at impact. The result of this initial bombardment was zero polish casualties.
The ship had also provided the attacking force for this battle – the marines had disembarked during the night and after the bombardment they crossed the border expecting an easy victory over the small polish force. This wasn’t to be – the marines only made it about 200 meters over the border before they were ambushed by the polish army. The defense prevented an easy German victory here.
The battle raged on for a week despite the polish preparations had been made for the defenders at Westerplate should be able to hold out for a maximum of 12 hours before they should be relieved by sea. The rescue never arrived so the defenders had to surrender. The exact number of defenders is unknown but it is estimated there was between 182 and 240. This small number of Polish troops was opposed by 3,000 German soldiers and marines and they inflicted pretty large German losses with about 50 dead’s and 150 wounded.
This battle was just one of the many small battles on September 1 1939 – but in Poland it has become an important symbol of the defense against the attack by Nazi Germany. The area has been made into a memorial you can go and have a look at. There is preparation of a new museum but it will be a while before it will be ready – it isn’t expected to open until 2026.