- Head, Michael
- History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 1993 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
In the fifty years since World War II, many commemorative celebrations have been held to remember great battles and long campaigns. This article narrates the shortest and the first naval campaign, the first Battle of the Baltic.
The new independent Republic of Poland came into being with the break up of the old empires of Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary in 1918-19. From the beginning its existence was threatened by the fledgling Soviet Union and it survived near extinction in a battle known as the “Miracle of the Vistula”. For the next decade and a half Poland’s military thinking faced east. The Navy, which was established by decree of the Head of State, Josef Pilsudski, on 28 November, 1918, was no different to the army in this respect and it felt somewhat relieved that Poland’s fraction of coastline was protected from a Russian march along the coast by the German enclave of East Prussia. The rise of Adolf Hitler changed all that.
By the late 1930s no one in Poland really believed that war with Germany would not come, and the Navy knew that it could not face the Kriegsmarine for any length of time. Its surface units were built to cover the Baltic States and the submarines could threaten protracted Soviet operations. There probably would not be any protracted German operations.
In 1939 the Polish Navy had at its disposal four destroyers, five submarines, one minelayer, two old torpedo boats, two gunboats and six small obsolete minesweepers. The largest vessels had been built in the U.K. to Polish specifications ((In 1939 the keels of two new destroyers, Huragan and Orkan were laid down in Gdynia. They were cut up in September and the plates used on the armoured train Smok Kaszubski, which was manned by seamen and fought effectively for seven days until destroyed by German aircraft)). The destroyers GROM and BLYSAWICA mounted seven 120mm Bofors guns. Formidable in the Baltic, but top heavy in the Atlantic ((They had their armament reduced in Britain and the number of boilers reduced to increase oil storage capacity.)). Only the Dutch built submarines ORZEL and SEP were true ocean-going warships. Arrangements had been made with Great Britain to send military supplies to Poland via Roumania and a squadron of Hurricanes was already on the way ((These planes were diverted to Aden where the local RAF station had the problem of assembling them and maintaining them with instruction manuals written in Polish)) when Poland collapsed.
The Germans had more than enough firepower to cope with the situation, even if most of their fleet was in the west. A light cruiser squadron of NURNBURG, LEIPZIG and KOLN with ten destroyers, four torpedo boats, six high speed launches, one escort vessel, 49 minesweepers of various types and five auxiliary vessels were available, and supported by the pre-dreadnought SCHLESWIG-HOLSTEIN.
In addition to the small navy and short coastline, Poland had few bases. The most critical base was on the narrow Hela peninsula, but there was Oxhoft, the naval base in Gdynia and the rather odd Westerplatte. This was a sandy peninsula only a mile and a quarter long and 1,800 feet wide, in the port of independent Danzig, which had been granted to Poland by the League of Nations (14 March, 1924) as a place to unload, store and transport military equipment. On this outpost Poland had built a harbour with warehouses, and cranes, together with barracks for a garrison, usually about company strength. In the event of war they had orders to resist the enemy for about 12 hours.
Oddly enough it was against this little base that the first German blow was directed. Two hours before midnight on August 23, naval assault troops under Lt. Hennigsen were put on alert. At 11.00 p.m. 225 men boarded six minesweepers in the harbour of Memel and put to sea. The next night south of Bornholm they rendezvoused with the SCHLESWIG-HOLSTEIN and the assault company and equipment were secreted aboard.
Shortly after 4.00 p.m. August 25, the SCHLESWIG-HOLSTEIN entered Danzig on a “friendly visit” to honour the memory of the crew of the cruiser MAGDEBURG, which had been sunk 25 years earlier and whose dead were buried in the city. Thousands of Danzigers waved a welcome to the ship and cadets lined the deck in salute. The order was to attack the Westerplatte at 4.45 a.m. on the morning of the 26th, but at 9.30 p.m. it was cancelled. Hitler was pondering the consequences of Britain’s support for Poland and Mussolini’s failure to support Germany.