Friday, September 07, 2012

Fullbore Friday

Time to revisit the Battle of Westerplatte - as a final chapter has closed.

For a heroes obit, I hope they don't mind if I steal 90% - it is too good to chop up.
At the end of August 1939, trouble entered the harbour in the form of the 14,000-ton German battleship the Schleswig-Holstein (a ship predating the First World War). Although sailing under the pretext of a courtesy visit, she contained a company of marines. In the early hours of September 1, Skowron was looking through his telescope and saw a flash emanating from the ship. Within seconds, a shell had landed on a gate near the railway, and a whole wall collapsed. What Skowron had witnessed was, in all possibility, the first shot fired during the Second World War.

After the salvo had ended, the peninsula was stormed by the German marines. Taking one of only two machineguns, Skowron ran down to a guardhouse and helped to repulse the first German assault on the main gate. The attackers were expecting an easy victory, but the Poles fought back ferociously, and managed to catch the Germans in a murderous crossfire. In addition, well-placed mortar rounds also fell on the attackers, and by around 10 o’clock that morning they retreated, having suffered 50 casualties to the eight of the Poles. The German losses would have been far higher had the Polish commander not wished to conserve mortar rounds.

On the following day, the Germans stepped up their attack. “There were three attacks in the morning,” Skowron recalled, “which got worse and worse. Aircraft, reportedly 50 of them, dropped nearly 200 bombs.” The air raid not only destroyed a guardhouse, but also the Polish mortars. Supplemented by a naval barrage, those aboard theSchleswig-Holstein reckoned — with good reason — that nobody could have survived the bombardment. Despite the intensity, the Poles sat firm. “Our men were calm,” said Skowron, “nearly indifferent, because the cycle was so repetitive — aircraft, bombs, missiles, again and again.” The entire peninsula soon resembled a First World War battlefield, with huge craters, bombed-out buildings and raging fires.

Nevertheless, the Poles would not be moved. Their morale was boosted by an announcement made by the Polish Commander-in-Chief, Edward Rydz-Smigly, that all the defenders of Westerplatte would be promoted to officer rank, and would be awarded the Virtuti Militari, Poland’s highest military decoration.

With the battle for the peninsula now becoming more symbolic than tactical, the Germans threw everything they had at the defenders. Burning trains were rammed into fortifications, and a torpedo boat even launched an attack. Although the Poles stood firm, the attacks certainly took their toll. “The worst part was the lack of sleep,” said Skowron, “because we couldn’t change troops, and we had to keep watch non-stop. The Germans could change their attackers, we could not.”

Eventually, on the morning of September 7, the Poles knew that any further resistance was fruitless. With a lack of food and medical supplies, the Polish commander decided to surrender. Skowron and his fellow survivors, of whom there were some 180, were ordered to cross the canal and throw down their tunics and caps. A German motorboat appeared, and the Poles were taken prisoner. The Germans were impressed by the Polish defence, not least because it had cost them an estimated 200 to 300 casualties, and had tied up more than 3,000 troops.

Skowron was imprisoned at Stalag IA near Königsberg, after which he was made to work on a German estate. “The Germans treated us decently,” Skowron recalled, “because they knew we were from Westerplatte. They said with admiration, ‘Polish soldiers good’.” The working conditions were nonetheless tough, and Skowron ended up in hospital, and was then discharged back home in February 1941.

He soon found work as a labourer on the railways, but he continued his own war against the occupiers. He joined the underground ZWZ — the Union of Armed Struggle — for whom he reported on German troop movements and shipments.

After the war Skowron worked on the railways until his retirement in 1975.

A modest man, he did not speak much of his participation at Westerplatte, but he soon found himself being lionised by a country that was keen to show the world that Poland had not rolled over for its aggressors. Skowron took part in many anniversary celebrations of Westerplatte, and was the recipient of numerous orders, medals and decorations, as well as being promoted to major.

Skowron was married to Anna Lisek in 1937. The couple had six children. Anna died in 2000. Skowron is survived by his children.

Major Ignacy Skowron, soldier and railway worker, was born on July 24, 1915. He died on August 5, 2012, aged 97
Hat tip AB.


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