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The opening shots of World War II on the Westerplatte

World War II began with the invasion of Poland. Without warning at 0445 the German Battleship Schleswig-Holstein began shelling the Polish garrison at Westerplatte, while the German army swept across the border. The old battleship had sailed into the free city of Danzig earlier in August on a ‘courtesy visit’ and would have launched an assault on 26th August, only for Hitler to postpone the date of the invasion.

The German Battleship Schleswig-Holstein began shelling the Polish garrison at Westerplatte

The heavily wooded Westerplatte peninsula had been a popular park but now contained an ammunition depot. The Polish garrison of only 182, armed mainly with machine guns and mortars, was to make a heroic stand, fighting against overwhelming odds for over a week. The episode might well be seen as the Polish ‘Alamo’ except on this occasion most of the defenders survived, inflicting much greater losses on the German attackers. Ignacy Skowron, then a corporal in the Polish garrison, later remembered

The cruiser then sailed into the channel and started to fire shell after shell at us. I saw huge trees being snapped in two.

On the second day there were three attacks before midday. We fought back and then later we heard some noise and there were planes overhead. They started to dive-bomb us and guardhouse number five was completely destroyed. Five soldiers were killed.

The Germans saw that their attacks weren’t working so they used flame-throwers to try and overcome us with flames. By the sixth day we were barely managing to survive because we were cold, hungry, dirty, and we hadn’t slept. We were struggling.

There were hundreds of German dead but most of the Poles survived and they were allowed to make an honourable surrender, with the officer keeping his sword. See BBC 2009 news report

The devastated Westerplatte a week later as the Germans advance