Friday, October 01, 2010

Fullbore Friday

Most of us know about the Battle of Westerplatte because it started WWII and involved one of the most storied ships of any navy, the Pre-Dreadnought Schleswig-Holstein.

Before we go further though, I want you to look over this map.

Now ponder the real story of the Battle of Westerplatte and ask yourself - what determines victory? What makes the difference? Do you make the most out of every post you have? Do you underestimate your enemy?
On September 1, 1939, at 0448 local time, Germany began its invasion of Poland, starting World War II; the Schleswig-Holstein suddenly opened broadside salvo fire on the Polish garrison held by 182 soldiers and 27 civilian reservists. Major Sucharski radioed Hel Peninsula "SOS: I'm under fire". Three holes were made in the perimeter wall and oil warehouses were blazing in the southeastern sector. Eight minutes later, Lieutenant Wilhelm Henningsen's crack marines storm unit from the Schleswig-Holstein advanced in three platoons while the Wehrmacht's Pioneers blew up the railroad gate going on the land-bridge, expecting an easy victory over the surprised Poles. Wojciech Najsarek, a Polish soldier, was killed by machine-gun fire, the first victim of both the battle and war. However, soon after crossing the artillery-breached brick wall, the attackers suddenly came into a well-prepared ambush. German soldiers found themselves caught in a kill zone of Polish crossfire from concealed firing points (the Germans believed they were also fired on by snipers hidden in the trees, but in reality that was not the case), while barbed wire entanglements effectively blocked quick movements. The Poles knocked out a machine gun nest at the German Schupo and Lt. Leon Pajak opened intense howitzer fire on the advancing Germans who faltered and stopped their attack. The Field gun knocked out sniper machine-gun nests on top of the warehouses across the canal and almost knocked out the Schleswig-Holstein's command post but was destroyed by the ship's guns.
At 0622, the Marines frantically radioed the ship they had heavy losses and were withdrawing, Danzig Police had tried to seize control of the harbor on the other side of Westerplatte but were defeated. Casualties were 50 Germans and 8 Poles. The Germans tried again at 0855 but met mines, fallen trees, barbed wire and intense fire. By noon the SS men fled and Henningsen was mortally wounded. The initial assault was crushed and a second attack that morning (after an artillery barrage of 90 280 mm shells, 407 170 mm shells and 366 88 mm shells) was repelled as well, the Germans suffering unexpectedly high losses. The Poles eventually retreated from the Wał and Prom outposts (and for a time also from Fort), tightening the ring of defence around the New Barracks in the centre of the peninsula. On the first day of combat, the Polish side lost one man killed and seven wounded (three died later, including two of them who were captured and died in a German hospital). On the other side, the German naval infantry lost 16 killed in action and some 120 wounded (injuries of various gravity), the majority out of the 225 men deployed. The German losses would have been even greater if not for the order by the Polish commander, Major Henryk Sucharski, for the mortar crews to cease fire in order to conserve ammunition, issued after firing just a few salvos (because of this order only 104 out of their 860 shells were spent when the mortars were destroyed on the next day).

On the following days, the Germans bombarded the peninsula with naval and heavy field artillery, including a 210 mm howitzer, turning it into World War I-style moonscape. Eberhardt convinced General Fedor von Bock a ground attack was not possible. A devastating two-wave air raid by 60 Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers on September 2 (the total of 26.5 tons of bombs) took out the Polish mortars, directly hit guardhouse 5 (destroying it completely with a 500 kg bomb) and killed at least eight Polish soldiers; the air raid covered the whole area of Westerplatte in enormous clouds of smoke and destroyed their only radio and all their food supplies; German observers believed that no one could possibly have survived such bombing. On the night of 3–4 September more German attacks were repelled. On September 4 a German torpedo boat (T-196) made a surprise attack from the seaside. The "Wal" post had been abandoned and now only "Fort" position prevented an attack from the north side. On September 5, a shell-shocked Sucharski held a war council who urged Westerplatte was to surrender; his deputy, Captain Franciszek Dąbrowski, briefly took over command. Several cautious probing attacks by the German naval infantry, Danzig SS and police and Wehrmacht were again repulsed by the Poles; at 0300, during one of these attacks, they sent a firetrain against the land bridge, but failed when the terrified driver decoupled too early. It failed to reach the oil cistern and set ablaze the forest, valuable for cover. The flaming wagons gave a perfect field of fire and the Germans suffered heavy losses. A second fire-train attack came in the afternoon but it failed too. Instead in the meantime, Polskie Radio continuously broadcast the message "Westerplatte still fights on" in each morning of the battle. A second war council was held and the Major was set to surrender. After all, the German Army was now outside Warsaw and gangrene had started to appear among the wounded. At 0430 September 7, Germans opened intense fire on Westerplatte which lasted to 0700. Flamethrowers destroyed Guardhouse 2 and damaged 1 and 4. The besieged garrison lacked sufficient water and medical supplies; Cpt. Mieczysław Słaby, the WST medical officer, was unable to maintain basic care of wounded soldiers.

At 0945 the white flag appeared; the Polish defense impressed the Germans so much that the German commander, General Friedrich-Georg Eberhardt (who later became the military governor of Kiev during the Soviet-German War), allowed Sucharski to retain his ceremonial szabla (Polish sabre) in captivity (it was apparently confiscated later). At the same time Polish wireless operator Kazimierz Rasiński was murdered by Germans after the capitulation; after brutal interrogation, he refused to hand over radio codes and was shot.

Sucharski surrendered the post to Kleikamp and the Germans paraded in full order when the Polish garrison marched out, still proud and erect. In all, approximately 3,400 Germans were tied up by being engaged in the week-long action against the small Polish garrison.
The exact figures of German losses remain unknown, but are now often estimated to be in range of 200 to 300 killed and wounded or sometimes more. Some of them might be actually hit by friendly fire, in particular from the battleship which was initially anchored too close to its target. About 30-50 German troops were reportedly killed. Polish casualties were much lower, including 15 to 20 killed and 53 wounded. There's a controversy regarding the burial site discovered in 1940, containing the bodies of five unidentified Polish soldiers who were possibly executed by their comrades for attempted desertion. Eight of the prisoners of war also said to have not survived German captivity.
Even the Germans saw it - Fullbore.


ewok40k said...

Nothing to add, our Phibian host presented it perfectly. Schleswig-Holstein went on to exchange salvos with Polish batteries on Hel peninsula that has been hodling out until early October, one of the last points of resistance in Poland. Most of the surface Polish fleet - (3 of 4 destroyers)was wisely sent away to the UK just before the war, and 2 of 5 submarines managed to slip thru too. 3 other subs  were interned in Sweden. One destroyer and a large minelayer were sunk by Stukas.

UltimaRatioRegis said...

Superb post, Phib.  Some of the great stories of Polish heroism have been all but forgotten.  Despite the relative lack of modern equipment in the Polish Army, morale and training were excellent.  Even without natural barriers, and with a Soviet Union betraying them and invading their eastern borders, Poland fought on for 28 days.   The times of bad weather, which kept the Luftwaffe grounded, were times when Polish infantry gave as good as it got, even against von Reichenau's Panzers at Bzura. 

Wehrmacht casualties, also, were horrendous.  Neary 60,000, with 17,000 killed, in a month, not terribly different from the rates of loss during World War I, and slightly higher than seven weeks' casualties in France.  Polish losses were much higher, mainly due to the inability to withstand the German advantage gained by close air support.

Whatever happens, we have got Sturzkampfflugzeug, and they have not. 

BTW, how would the LCS do against the defenses of the Westerplatte?

ewok40k said...

It would have to get first thru 6 inch 4 gun  battery at Hel mind you :P
Germans have avoided that with S-H by going in in the peacetime as a "courteous visit". Some tricks never die, mr Homer?

Byron said...

The definition of standing your ground and making the enemy pay a blood price for it.

Full Bore!

UltimaRatioRegis said...

Right, e40!  Of course, nobody today would use a "goodwill gesture" as a modern Trojan Horse...

The Poles would have needed to fire HE at LCS from those 15cm guns!  Otherwise there would be a 6" hole going in, and a 6" hole going out!

ewok40k said...

anyway the 4 81mmm mortars and single model 1897 75mm QF gun at Westerplatte should be enough to badly maul any LCS trying to sail up th Vistula :P
and Soviets were masquerading spetsnaz teams as military sports clubs football/hockey/basketball teams  as late as 80's... and can anyone rember the entering move on Iceland in Red Storm Rising?
some tricks never die, truly... I wonder if innocuous container ship under cheap banner can one day sail into say, Norfolk and fire away a load of conatinerised ASCMs? and dont get me started on nuke-tipped ones...

Aubrey said...

Went walking around the area about a year gives reading about the battle a whole new feeling. Seeing the fortifications that the Poles fought from, and reading the details while I was walking the battlefield was a lesson in respect and humility.

My only regret on that trip was that, while I was there, the Błyskawica was closed to visitors...

(On that note, if you want a great read try <span>A Question of Honor: The Kosciuszko Squadron: Forgotten Heroes of World War II)</span>

Grandpa Bluewater said...

Thanks for an excellent post.

Poland is a billiard table, with not much for defensible borders. Individually superb soldiers for the most point.  Their superb cavalry was their best asset, until made obsolete by Guderian.
Defeated invading Russians as late as the 1920's.

Their fighter aircraft were obsolete in 1939, high wing monoplanes rated very good in 1930, The Me109's slaughtered them; which allowed the Stukas a free hand until they ran into Britain's radar controlled Hurricanes and Spitfires, at least one squadron of which flown by escaped Polish pilots.  The Polish Army (escapees reorganized and reequipped) fought on in the west, very effectively, while Stalin let the Germans reduce the Polish resistance (who reduced the Germans right back) before invading, which guarenteed Soviet a walkover through Poland.

It took over a generation, but they deserve huge credit for the fall of the Soviet Union.  The Unions led, advised and aided by (literally) their American cousins in the Rust belt industrial unions, as well as the church and the Pope, a Pole.

The Poles in the 20th century, in victory, defeat, and victory again were fullbore indeed.

Please tell the story of the defense by the Polish Naval Cadets some time (Naval and Fullbore).

Moral:  Lost decades in R&D and weapon modernization can kill a country's independence before the first shot is fired, no matter how good the soldiers are.

Anonymous said...

A discussion a few days ago, indicated we owe much to the Polish King who sent troops to Vienna many centuries ago, and began the push back at Tours.  Haven't fact checked it yet, but I think he said King Joseph was the man who probably saved Western Civilization.

ewok40k said...

In that case it was literally few years of R-D work late, with new monoplane fighter prototype on par with about Wildcat/P-36 flown in spring 1939 and sent into production in the hectic summer when many knew war is coming. 30s were area of unprecedented air force tech explosion from biplanes to the first jet - and Germans were on the (literally...) bleeding edge due to Hitler's efforts.  Poland has been only recovering industrially from damage of the WW 1, and generally was lightweight compared to Germany. What really sealed our fate in 1939 was total inactivity of the French (UK had NO land power to speak of atm) vis-a-vis 20 or so reserve divisions in half-finished Siegfried line... And to be self-critical, our refusal to help Czechs in 1938, when balance of the forces was much better for the allies.

G-man said...

Glad the Poles were on our side.  They deserved much better from us than they received just 6 years later. 

anon said...

Don't forget the Battle ow Wisna otherwise know as the Polish Thermopylae.

720 Polish Army Corps (Samodzielna Grupa Operacyjna Narew) SGO Narew under the command of Captain Władysław Raginis held off Heinz Guiderian and the XIX Panzer Corps for three days from 7 September 1939 to 10 September 1939. They knew they would not receive any reinforcements, but were to hold their position to allow the Polish Army Corps defending Warsaw a path to retreat to the east.

The Polish forces held up 42,200 troops and 350 tanks, inflicting 900 casulties and 10 destroyed tanks. This with 18 light machine guns, 24 heavy machine gus, six 75mm artillery and 2 anti-tank carbines.

Prior to the start of the battle, Captain Raginis swore that he would not leave his post alive and that the defence would continue. By September 10th when the last two bunkers remained, Heinz Guderian threatened that all Polish POWs would be shot if the defence of the bunker did not cease. Captain Raginis, at the very end in the last bunker, committed honorable suicide by throwing himself on a grenade to save the POWs and to keep his word.

On May 13, 1970, Captain Raginis was posthumously awarded with the Virtuti Militari medal (equivalent to the US Medal of Honor).

That is another example of Fullbore.

Aubrey said...

You can add to that the Polish division at Monte Casino

Butch said...

Jan Sobieski, Vienna, 1688.

DeltaBravo said...

Poland is just a Fullbore country.  That's all there is to it.

They've shown they had heart and little else sometimes.  But heart carried them through unbeatable odds.

We could do better by them even today.