Westerplatte – where the War began
On 1 September 1939 the Germans attacked the Westerplatte peninsula in the port of Gdańsk. This assault marks the beginning of the Second World War. A small Polish garrison held out for seven days, bolstering the morale of the Polish people. After the war Westerplatte became a symbol of Polish resistance against the German invasion.
The Military Transit Depot on Westerplatte was constructed in 1924 to enable Poland, that regained independence as a result of the First World War, to trans-ship military supplies within the Free City of Gdańsk. When the Germans invaded Poland on the morning of 1 September 1939, the Depot was their first objective and the attack is therefore considered to be the beginning of the Second World War. The small Polish garrison fiercely defended the Depot against infantry assaults and heavy bombardments by the battleship Schleswig-Holstein, Stuka dive bombers and land-based artillery. For seven days the defenders held out against overwhelming odds. Then they ran out of ammunition and their commander, Major Sucharski, was forced to surrender.
After the War, surviving defenders of the Depot placed a cross on the peninsula and created a small cemetery. At first the Communist authorities disliked this spontaneous veneration of pre-communist heroism, but since the late fifties they embraced it as useful propaganda for the People’s Republic. A monument to the ‘Defenders of the Polish Coast’ was erected in 1966. Five years later, in an emotional ceremony, Major Sucharski’s ashes were buried at the Westerplatte cemetery.
Westerplatte thus became a national monument for the Poles. Visiting heads of state and official delegations were often invited to Westerplatte, and mass military swearing-in ceremonies were held on its grounds. During the peaceful ‘Solidarity’ revolution in 1980, the cross which had been removed by the Communists was brought back. In 1987 Pope John Paul II chose Westerplatte for a meeting with young people.
The obsolete German battleship Schleswig-Holstein played an important role at the outbreak of the Second World War. The ship moored in the port of Gdańsk under false pretences, and then, in the early morning of 1 September 1939, proceeded to bombard the Polish defensive positions on the Westerplatte Peninsula: the first shots of the Second World War.
After the Second World War the former deputy commander of the Military Transit Depot, captain Dąbrowski, initiated the building of a cemetery for the fallen during the German attack. At this cemetery the urn with the ashes of Major Sucharski was reburied in 1971.
On 7 September 1939 the Polish forces defending the Military Transit Depot came once again under heavy fire. It was clear that further resistance was futile. The commanding officer had been under orders to hold the depot for 12 hours. After 7 days of fighting he decided to surrender.
The exhibition is devoted to the history of the place that is commonly associated with the beginning of the 20th century’s greatest catastrophe, the Second World War. A place that, like Thermopylae before it, became the symbol of a heroic struggle against an overwhelming adversary. Yet the story of Westerplatte, as told by the Museum of the Second World War, is not limited to the defence of Poland’s Military Transit Depot in September 1939; rather, we travel back to the peninsula’s formation in the 17th century as a sandbar at the mouth of the Vistula and forward, all the way to the fall of Communism in Poland in 1989.
In 1939 Major Sucharski commanded the small garrison that heroically defended the Westerplatte peninsula during the first week of the German invasion of Poland. In 1971 his ashes were reburied at the Westerplatte cemetery. The huge turn-out and the emotional public response heralded the importance of the Second World War memories for thousands of Poles.
In 1966 a 25-metre high monument was erected on the Westerplatte peninsula. The Communists used it mainly as a propaganda instrument. Not until many years later the monument became an important place of remembrance for the Battle of Westerplatte and the beginning of the Second World War in Europe.
The Museum of the Second World War was launched in November 2008 and is located in Gdańsk. The museum is situated 200 metres from the historic Polish Post Office and 3 kilometres across the water from Westerplatte Peninsula. The German attack on these places marked the beginning of the Second World War in September 1939.
Major Henryk Sucharski, the commander of the small garrison at Westerplatte, was under orders to thwart the German advance for 12 hours. He managed to hold out an amazing seven days. After the war he became a national hero and was posthumously awarded an important military decoration.
The heavily reinforced barracks of the Westerplatte garrison were the backbone of the Polish defence. Here the armoury, dormitories and other important facilities were located. The complex was originally ‘T’ shaped, but after the war several parts of the building were destroyed, for example during the construction of the monument.
On 1 September 1939 German SS troops took possession of Polish buildings and institutions in the city of Gdańsk. Some 1.500 members of the Polish minority were arrested to be imprisoned, deported or executed. Many others were expelled from their homes and directed to central Poland. That same day the Nazis proclaimed the reunion of Gdańsk with the German Reich.